It was the time of the great annual romantic reshuffling.
Mr. Anderson, Peter, found Alex Z. in the bathroom kicking the plastic garbage can, wads of brown paper towel, crumpled and wet or crumpled and dry or crumpled and semi-damp, lying all over the polished concrete floor of the bathroom.
Mr. Anderson had been walking by. It was the sound that alerted him.
A caretaker, Mr. Martinelli, Guy, was passing by, too, running his dust mop along the curving base of the wall and losing himself in John Bonham’s massive drums.
Mr. Anderson asked him, “Did you hear that?”
Mr. Martinelli sensed that someone was looking at him, expecting something of him, so he looked up to figure out who it was and what they wanted. “Hunh?”
Mr. Martinelli took out his ear buds in time to catch the “—hear that?” end of Mr. Anderson repeating himself. Mr. Anderson smiled. “Hey. Is that Led Zep—” Mr. Anderson was interrupted by another dull thud paired with a grunt, then three plastic thumps and the clang of stall door metal. Mr. Anderson tipped his head towards the boys’ bathroom.
Mr. Anderson went in as far as the second door, which he held open. Mr. Martinelli stopped at the first door, which he also held open. Antoine P., the nice black boy from Mr. Anderson’s period one Economics class, stepped over a pile of waste—a wadded piece of white toilet paper adhering to the heel of his Champion basketball shoes—then past Anderson and Martinelli and out into the hall.
Alex was trying to shout the tears off his cheeks. “These girls are just bitches, yo. FUCK!”
“Okay, Alex,” Mr. Anderson said.
“Oh,” Alex was shaking his head, “OH!” He lined the garbage can up for another kick. “It’s definitely not okay! What that bitch did is not okay!”
“Let’s find a less misogynist word to use, please,” Mr. Anderson asked.
He would ask that, Alex thought. So fucking typical. “What, bitch? Bitch?” Alex asked. “She is a bitch.”
Alex kicked the garbage can; its plastic compressed to absorb the majority of Alex’s force before it hopped and rolled pathetically towards the large, communal sink.
Alex and Melanie N. were a sort of famous couple around the school.
Mr. Anderson remembered a staffroom conversation about them. “They share eye makeup,” Ms. Petrov joked.
“And nail polish,” Mr. Richler added.
Yesterday Mr. Anderson had seen Melanie in the parking lot laughing with Stephen H., a blond gym-class jock who wouldn’t be caught dead in eye make up.
“Let’s continue this conversation elsewhere,” Mr. Anderson said.
Eventually Alex followed Mr. Anderson from the bathroom to the office.
Tracey W. cried in Ms. Kilmer, Valerie’s, period 2 Art class because she’d been dumped by Allison H., who was nearly finished her first year at University. “Hi. Tracey?” Ms. Kilmer said. Tracey threw her phone at her teacher, hitting Ms. Kilmer in the thigh. Then Tracey stood up, put her hand on Ms. Kilmer’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry,” which she repeated like it was a mantra while she cried and cried. Eventually Ms. Kilmer embraced the girl. The other students kept quietly working on their pastel still life drawings, in fact worked with greater focus than ever—even Jas K., who couldn’t stay focused on anything and loved sharing her problems with anybody in earshot, but hated like hell when she was confronted by someone else’s issues.
By the time Ms. Kilmer’s bruise emerged—looking like a drawing of a jellybean done in black marker then submerged in water so the ink bled out in a halo of yellow and green—she was regretting not reporting the incident to Mr. Manchester, the school’s vice-principle in charge of students with last names starting with N through Z. It was four days later, however, and Tracey was “Totally over” Allison and speaking in a not-adequately hushed voice about eating out Shannon A., who was in Ms. Kilmer’s period 4 Media Arts class and who, apparently, had refused to remove her socks.
Shannon had been dating Trevor S. since before Christmas. On the afternoon that Shannon told him she didn’t want to see him anymore, that “It isn’t you, it’s me,” Trevor went around the parking lot punching the bodies of people’s cars. His hand was a swollen mess, but he would have kept going if it hadn’t been for Mr. McNaughton, Phil’s, Phys. Ed. class jogging by right as Trevor walked up to, wound up and punched Mr. McNaughton’s yellow Corvette.
“The fuck’s that guy doing?” McNaughton asked nobody in particular.
“That’s your car, sir,” Matthew M. said.
“I’ve never heard you swear, sir,” Jeremy K. said.
Mr. McNaughton blew his whistle and everyone stopped running, confused.
Trevor punched the side of Stanley V.’s rusting K-Car with all of McNaughton’s Grade 12 Phys. Ed. class standing there, suffering from the 4.6 km they’d already run and the knowledge that they had 0.4 km to go. A dull thump drifted across the parking lot.
Almost involuntarily McNaughton ran towards his car. Matthew and Jeremy followed, hoping McNaughton was going to fight Trevor. Then the whole class ran towards the parked cars. When Trevor saw them coming he sprinted from the parking lot and ran the five blocks to the townhouse he shared with his mother. He tried to play his guitar, but he couldn’t hold his pick. He iced his hand and watched YouTube videos of, first, Tori Amos, whom Shannon had introduced him to, then of Fall Out Boy, whom he’d been listening to since— Well, since before all those posers started listening to them too.
Later that night, he got a terrible dehydration headache because he’d cried so much without any consideration for the water he was losing.
A week later, Ms. Sylvester, Janet, and her wife Latetia James, saw Trevor at the Red Lobster by the highway, the knuckles on his punching hand bloody, the rest of the still-swollen mess of it wrapped in a tensor bandage that had never stopped smelling like his foot even though it was back in grade nine that he’d sprained his ankle jumping rope in Mr. Peltier’s class.
Trevor was at a table across from Delphina C., who went by Dawn now, which Ms. Sylvester thought was a serious shame, though she was also good enough to know that you don’t tell anyone under any circumstances (really) what they should want to be called or who they should want to be.
“Missus Sylvester!” Dawn said, getting up from her untouched plate of popcorn shrimp.
Latetia glanced at Janet for clues about how to react to this student whose hipbones were clearly visible in the gap between her tight white top and the waist of her black swaying skirt.
“Dawn,” Ms. Sylvester said.
“How are you Missus Sylvester?” Dawn asked, staring without shame, or maybe without self-awareness, at Latetia. “What are you doing here?”
“Dawn,” Ms. Sylvester said, “this is my good friend, Latetia.”
“What’s up, Dawn?” Latetia said, offering her hand to the girl.
Dawn giggled and put her hand up to cover her mouth.
Ms. Sylvester looked away because What the fuck was happening? and she noticed Trevor sneaking a shrimp off Dawn’s untouched plate.
“What’s so funny?” Latetia asked, pulling her proffered hand back a bit.
“I’m sorry,” Dawn said, reaching with both hands and grabbing Latetia’s retreating right.
Dawn’s hands were boney and an eerie kind of cold that still retained a hint of healthy warmth.
“I’m so sorry,” Dawn said.
Oh my God, Ms. Sylvester thought, I’m never coming to Red Lobster again. Like, maybe thirty people, all members of clearly straight families were staring at them; the hostess, waiting to take them to their seats was ignoring the conversation in that looking away way where you know—you just know—that she is so desperate to get back to the front podium where she can go back to doing whatever the fuck thing she was doing and just be done with seating the old, interracial dykes. No! Worse! She can’t wait to text her boyfriend about it. ‘You wouldn’t believe who I just seated,’ et cetera, et cetera.
“It’s only that, ‘What’s up, Dawn’—” Dawn started laughing her shrill, tight-throated laugh again, put the back of her hand in front of her mouth, again. Latetia wondered if it warmed Dawn up any. “I’m sorry. Okay. It’s only that, ‘What’s up, Dawn?’ sounds like Bugs Bunny.”
Latetia smiled with her mouth closed.
“I don’t mean you sound like Bugs Bunny, but ‘What’s up, Dawn?’” Dawn laughed and laughed.
“Well,” Ms. Sylvester said, “it’s good to see you, Dawn.”
“Oh my God, I know, right? It’s so nice to see you too, Missus Sylvester. And nice to meet you, Latetia. Enjoy your dinner.”
It was amazing that girl had the energy to bounce back to her seat like she did, Latetia thought.
This is my worst nightmare, Ms. Sylvester, Janet, thought.
It had been such an awkward, such an indescribably awkward and painful experience for her, that the next morning before first bell, when Mr. Muhlstock, Aaron, was explaining that he’d seen Erica P. and Rajesh P.—both favourite students of (most) teachers in the Social Studies Department—on a date at Zara’s, Ms. Sylvester didn’t even participate, couldn’t even participate in the enthusiastic, near celebratory conversation that followed because she was worried the tension she still felt from the night before might come spilling out, that she might even start trying to retell her experience with all the erasures such a retelling would require, and that it would just end up making her sound stupid again, and one of the Three Moustaches—her departmental nemeses—would crack the other two up with an, “Is that all, Dawn?” She assumed no one had noticed her troubled silence, but on his way to his first period Society, Challenge and Change, class, Aaron asked, “Is everything okay, Janet?”
To which Janet answered, “Yeah. Fine. Sure. Why? Why do you ask?”
“You seem quiet.”
Ever since Aaron’s divorce almost exactly a year earlier, he had really started to notice Janet, how she was always speaking up for social justice for whoever (the working class, immigrants, blacks, trans folk, the rest of those initials people [i.e. LGBTQ last he checked; LGBTQ whenever the poster that Janet had hung on the ‘Soc. Sciences Dept.’ door was made], etc.) and didn’t seem to be stuck in the Cold War era or even World Wars era (politics-wise), unlike the rest of the Social Studies department (whom Janet called The Three Mustachios or something else hilarious), with their airplane pictures (some Lancasters, some Spitfires, a Consolidated Catalina and an Avro Arrow) and their anti-German jokes. (Aaron knew they saved the retelling of the anti-Semitic jokes [remembered fondly from their youths] for their third or fourth Friday beers at The King’s Arms, always a pint or two after Aaron had gone home.) When Janet got going on some justice tangent, she reminded Aaron of his Aunty Grace, union lawyer and feminist warrior. When Janet was like she was this morning she reminded Aaron of his ex, Jenn, who had decided that she didn’t want to have kids with Aaron after all, especially if he was going to insist that she keep her job even after she became a mother, or if he was going to keep meeting Angela and Laura for beer at The Communist’s Daughter, right around the corner from the apartment he’d once shared with them. Of course, it wasn’t these objections of Jenn’s that Janet reminded him of (Janet didn’t know Aaron well enough to object to him,) but the punishing silences that Jenn lapsed into, sometimes for days, after they’d had a disagreement.
LeVar S. was outside the classroom when Mr. Muhlstock, Aaron, arrived. “How are you, LeVar?”
“It’s a terrible day to be gay,” he said.
“Terrible?” Mr. Muhlstock asked. It was a noteworthy variation on LeVar’s (nearly) unvarying greeting ‘It’s a great day to be gay,’ and it seemed to demand the question, “What’s terrible?”
“Oh, I can’t talk about it because, you know, so many fags like me, like actual queers, are straight—that’s with heavy air quotes, sir—and that’s unlike me, sir, because even, though my daddy won’t talk to me anymore because of it and Mother dearest won’t talk about me anymore with her church bitches because of it, I am gay, sir, at great personal cost.”
“You’re a brave guy, LeVar.”
“You don’t have to convince me.” LeVar sat down heavily in the combination desk and chair unit at the front of the room, the spot he always sat. “When are we going to get new desks, sir? You know, Eric and Sarah are both too big for these things. I mean, shoot, we had these bitches back in grade 7 and even then they had to bring in a special table and chair for Eric.”
Eddie McM. walked in and LeVar looked over, then looked back at Mr. Muhlstock and rolled his eyes like he wished that Mr. Muhlstock could have warned him, please, that it was Eddie.
Eddie, who normally sat near the back of the class, said, “Hi Mr. Muhlstock,” then sat down beside LeVar.
“Bitch, if you are planning on sitting here, I’m moving.”
Mr. Muhlstock opened his binder and pretended to get lost in his notes.
Eddie whispered something that included, ‘talk about it,’ or at least what sounded like it.
“Careful, you might blow your secret, sister. Might be the only thing you are any good at blowing.”
Eddie whispered angrily now, something that included ‘please.’
“Bitch, you know Muhlstock is cool.”
A few more students walked in and both Eddie and LeVar changed their postures. LeVar started talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Eddie pulled out his notes.
A few days earlier, one of the guys on the midget rugby team, while they were running laps around the field, yelled “Fag!” at Eddie while Eddie and William T., the senior team’s captains, led the warm up. When Eddie didn’t reply, this kid yelled again, adding a second syllable: “Faggot!” When Eddie and half of the team turned from their jumping jacks, the kid—Jackson H., a budding skinhead—made a fist in the air and jabbed his index finger into it. Then he pointed at Eddie. For a long time. He only stopped when he nearly tripped over his own feet. “I think—SIXTEEN,” William said. “that kid—SEVENTEEN—wants to—EIGHTEEN—fuck you—NINETEEN—Eddie.” The whole practice, the guys made jokes about the fact that the kid—“Isn’t his name Jackson?”—had made a fist and what it possibly could mean. Like, why didn’t he just do the typical—“Would you call it traditional?”—circle with his pointer finger and thumb? It was Kendrick W. who first said that, “Maybe the little punk Nazi shit meant it to mean an asshole. Like he wants somebody to fuck his butt. I mean, that’s cool, right, but why couldn’t he just ask nice?”
That night after dinner, Eddie put on his jogging things, put his cell phone in his pocket and his ear buds in his ears, kissed his mother and ran to the end of the block before calling LeVar. LeVar cried, loud. Eddie cried too, but quietly. They talked about when Eddie might be able to afford to move out, when they would finally graduate (only a few months, now) and when Eddie was going to Come Out (they both agreed that it might be never.)
Surprisingly, to Eddie anyway, he was the one who, a few weeks later, started seeing Sal S. secretly. Eddie missed everything about LeVar, even his outspokenness, but Eddie didn’t miss the fear he felt when he was seen with the school’s self-identified, “loudest, best-known, best-beloved and best-looking faggot, Sweetheart, and don’t fucking forget it.”
Some of the other people who were part of the great reshuffle?
Ali F. and Ally E., known for their elaborate hickey art. Ally’s final piece, going from Ali’s collarbone, over his Adam’s apple to his chin, was either a hand flipping the middle finger or an erect penis with large scrotum. As soon as it healed, Ali was found in the back of his father’s hand-me-down Mercedes giving hickeys to Steph E., Ally’s cousin.
Wilma X. and Sean O’R, who had met at a special assessment session for students considered exceptional—gifted—which stressed Wilma out so much that Sean, who sold weed for his much older brother, Sandy O’R (class of 2001), shared a joint with her just out of compassion. They both got moved into a special enrichment class on Wednesdays. They had laughed a lot together, watched a lot of TV together and did both moderately well in their new class. Wilma had never done better in tests. Sean had hated how Wilma laughed at anything Liam W. said, had hated it since at least before Thanks Giving. No one really noticed that they’d gotten together, though, so no one noticed when they drifted apart. Sean didn’t even notice until Wilma told him one day that, “Well, Sean, you probably already know it, but,” she was in love with Liam and he loved her too, and, well, she was sorry.
Marigold S. and Alan B.-C., who’d been sort of seeing each other for two weeks and fucking like total fiends, broke up one afternoon when Alan, who thought maybe he was getting herpes—it turned out to be just chafing—went at lunch to the STI clinic instead of to Marigold’s. When he called her that afternoon, she was at the mall with Daniel who actually said, No, when he walked her home and she offered to give him a blowjob if he wanted to come in for a bit. “He wants to wait,” she told Melanie N. the next morning when they met in the bathroom for their daily chat ten minutes into first period. “Isn’t that romantic?”
“What about Alan?”
“That was just for fun.”
“Fun, eh? Sounds nice,” Melanie said. Melanie thought about the pictures Alex Z. had been sending her—first of his dick, then of his dick with his new girlfriend, Sara P, all of the photos interspersed with long texts declaring Alex’s undying love for Melanie. At the same time, things had been going weirdly with Stephen H.: she’d been to meet his parents, Mr. and Mrs. H. who were very nice, too nice, really; and Stephen had twice demanded that Melanie have sex with him—once under the bleachers by the football field, once in the back of his car. “Sounds nice,” she told Marigold before she started crying.
Ms. Goretti, Maria, was walking by the girls’ washroom and she heard Melanie wailing. She found her in Marigold’s arms. Marigold looked shell shocked, completely lost. “She just started crying.”
“It’s okay,” Ms. Goretti said.
Melanie shrieked, “It’s not okay!”
“You’re right, Love.” Ms. Goretti surprised herself; she never called anyone Love, had maybe never called anyone Love.
“Shh,” Marigold said.
“Stop it!” Melanie shouted.
“Let it out,” Ms. Goretti said. “Let it all out.”
“It’s okay,” Marigold said.
“It is not okay!” Melanie shrieked.
“We hear you,” Ms. Goretti said.
“Do you?” Melanie asked. “Do you?”
“Let’s find a quiet place,” Ms. Goretti said.
Eventually she coaxed Melanie out of the washroom and into Ms. St. Peter, Martha’s, office. But Ms. St. Peter couldn’t coax the story out of Melanie and then she—Ms. St. Peter—was late to meet with Martin H. (who wanted to talk about college and, actually, about his recent break up with Erica T.) so that’s where the conversation died and, for Melanie at least, nothing changed.
Toronto, ON-St. Pete Beach, FL, March 2016
Emoji sequence: Frances Luongo, screenwriter and author of the delightful “Cramps”
Story: Lee Sheppard