Working Title (Defective. Remove Label Here) or (D is for Defective)
Toweling off my frizzy, red hair, my gaze locks onto my cloudy reflection from the bathroom mirror. I wipe away the fog and stare; the greens of my eyes are brighter than the blues today. Fixing a smile onto my fat, round face, I hope for something different. The smile struggles to remain in place. For a moment, I see something . . . I could be pretty if I wanted to be . . . maybe? I look away. The hollow space in my chest opens to the size of a bowling ball and yet I feel as small as a seed of grass.
Letting out a breath, I saunter across my room as the thick, purple towel falls to the floor. I kick a path through dirty—or maybe they’re clean—clothes to my coffin-sized closet. Bare white walls give my room a disinfected feel. I heave open the closet door and tug on a long-sleeve black t-shirt and a pair of faded jeans.
Muffled voices sound outside my bedroom door. Carrie and Ross are up and getting ready for work. I haven’t been talking to my parents, so I finish getting ready for school without a sound.
With my black war paint—as my grandpa likes to call my makeup—smeared nicely around my eyes and two French braids running down the sides of my head, I sneak down the stairs. Ross is already off to work with the slam of the security door. I relax a bit and feed myself Cinnamon Toast Crunch before Carrie emerges. Guilt curls in my gut like a snake ready to strike as I chew my cereal. I want to talk to my parents, to connect with them, but there’s an invisible distance that stretches for miles that I can’t quite figure out how to cross.
When I hear the stairs creak I place my bowl in the sink and sprint from the house to the Cover Girl concealer tan battered 1976 Mustang sitting in the driveway. How do you talk to adults about the real shit that’s happening in your life? Most parents don’t want to hear about the emptiness that’s trying to swallow their daughter like a black hole. They want to live in a world where everything is “fine,” where the undesirable is swept into a dark crevasse. Hey, I should start a band called The Undesirables. I’m sure we would be forgettable.
Driving the ten minutes it takes me to get there, I park in the upper parking lot of Monte Vista High School. There’s fifteen minutes before the bell rings so I watch as other kids arrive, waiting for something more than this place, something more than me; it never arrives. A stirring of disappointment tightens my skin. Am I growing or is my skin shrinking?
The bell sounds louder than the most annoying alarm clock that I want to hurl across the room and I pull in a breath, count to ten, and climb out of my car to release it. I walk onto campus and my gaze hits the ground. Time to hide.
As the sun streams into Junior English I shrink in my seat, holding my first assignment. The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary’s definition of defective pops into my head. Imperfect in form or function, faulty, falling below the norm in structure or in mental or physical function. A person who is subnormal physically or mentally. Yep, that was me, 100 percent DEFECTIVE.
I want to be invisible. I want to be so small no one can find me, but the D+ screaming “Defective!” at me makes it impossible. I shove the paper under my binder as fast as I can so no one else can see the grade and then I hand the pile of papers behind me to Frank, a nobody like me. My stomach turns, my hands begin to sweat, and my mouth becomes full of ashes. I hear my grandmother’s words echo off the walls in my head. “Are you stupid or just dumb?” I really didn’t know. How the hell do you answer that? Sadness cuts across my chest and I feel a wound in my heart reopen. Grandma did know what to do with me when things got hard and I didn’t blame her. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My nerves are vibrating me out of my seat. I turn, leaning against the arm of my desk, praying it keeps me in place.
I sit in the front row corner of class not because I’m smart or a teacher’s pet, it’s because it’s the only safe place in the room. No one can walk past and see my work, ever. I would fight for this safe place if I had to.
Twenty-three sets of eyes are locked onto their own papers. My friend Sammy is beaming from the back row. How her round face can get much bigger, I don’t know, but it does whenever she smiles. Sensing my stare, she holds up her paper for me to see, A++. Her deep-brown eyes sparkle. I let out a sound of what I think is a cockroach dying and give her a half-smile. There’s no way I’m going to get a 3.5 GPA this year, or get into college and escape myself somehow. Why did I even try? Oh, I know; because you don’t want to go back to Special Ed classes, that’s why.
The bell signals the end of second period. I wait for the squawking of voices to dissolve behind me. I glance at the white board with tomorrow’s agenda and my heart drops to my feet like a glass bottle. We start reading The Pearl. What feels like a linebacker hits me in the chest and I fold in on myself. Please, God, help me survive.
Mrs. Harper stands at the door toward the back of the room. She tells everyone goodbye in her stern, “You’d better be good” voice. I cringe as I hear the door close and her heels clack against the floor.
I rise from my chair as Mrs. Harper reaches the front of the room and sits behind her desk. She doesn’t look at me. I know she’s already made up her mind about me. I’m a lost cause; and to think, I’m only two weeks into the school year! I watch her; her dark hair is the perfect contrast for her ivory skin. A real Snow White type . . . or should I say Evil Queen. She’s just like every other adult, casting her judgments about as if somehow she’s better than me because . . . what? She’s older and smarter? I think it’s shit, and I almost feel sorry for her and all that ego. Who wants to live like that?
I want to tell her, I want to explain what happens in my head when I read words, that the words do a dance, swing around and around until they grab an unknown partner and fall out of my head in a heap; or sometimes they don’t even come out at all. It exhausts me, feeling this yarn ball mass in my chest all the time. I feel like a bug that needs to be squashed because I’m defective. Even when I know the words going in, know what they should say, they still come out wrong. I walk to the door. I thrust the paper into the trash beside it as if just burned by it. Why am I defective? Why can’t learning be easy, like spreading butter on a piece of toast?
I hurry outside under the covered walkway. Sammy’s waiting for me on our dirt patch in the senior quad across from the ASB room. It’s our fifteen-minute break, and there’s not enough time for the seniors to be assholes to the lower classmen so we invade and enjoy a brief window to claim the quad.
“What did you get on your paper in Mrs. Harper’s class?” asks Sammy, talking around a ginormous bite of a donut, eyes rolling back in her head for a moment. Man, she and sugar have a very tight relationship. Not a worry floating through her mind as to where all that sugar is going to land on her body. She fits in her skin so well, always happy to be in the world. I want to know what that’s like. My skin never seems to fit. I’m always stretching and pulling at myself; I don’t know how to be.
I shrug. Not saying.
“Why don’t you ever talk about classwork?”
“Why do you ask about it, when you know I don’t talk about it?”
It’s her turn to shrug. “Because it’s the nice thing to do, and I’m trying to wear you down.”
I don’t want Sammy to know how dumb, or maybe it’s stupid, I am, so we talk about other things.
The day passes in a drifting of colors and scorching heat. Something’s alive under my skin and I want to claw it out, but I know I can’t. You can’t rip out a defect. It exists with or without the wanting of it. The hollow space in my chest opens and something dark slithers out. I’m ten, sitting at my desk. The other kids are outside playing on the playground, but not me. I’m stuck staring at my workbook. My teacher ignores my cry, “I can’t read the words!” I plead with my eyes for her to understand the struggle that’s happening inside my head. She continues to ignore me, much the same way my other teachers did until sixth grade, when my parents pulled me and my sister out because they couldn’t afford private school anymore. So much for a private school education. I sigh and shake off the memory like sticky mud. Not every private school can be a winner, I guess. I hate this place. I hate me. Why can’t I like myself? I want to so badly. Why is the bad shit so much easier to believe than the good? I hate it all.
When I get home, Ross is snoring on the sofa, sprawled out, a bag of M&M’s on his chest. Probably in a sugar coma. Carrie won’t be home for hours, working overtime again. Too many emotions hit me all at once, screaming from deep inside myself. I run up the stairs to my room and hide from the world. I wait for my self-hate to evaporate, but today is too much for me.
I undress and then yank open the bottom drawer of my dresser and pull out my knife. I shove myself into the corner of my closet. Without looking at it, the cold metal of the blade touches my skin; I shiver. It’s my best friend. We have no secrets. When we’re together, we’re one.
I press the blade against my skin; there’s no resistance. The stinging fills me with warmth. My skin opens. Blood springs to the surface, marking the blade’s path. I can finally breathe. This body that chokes the light inside me loosens its hold. The pain of being me is freed. I push the blade deeper and drag it further across my skin. I hiss and float on a wave of emptiness for a brief time, then crash into darkness. I cannot escape. I lift the blade and begin again.