Sample text for Like the red panda / Andrea Seigel.
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FRIDAY, JUNE 13
This afternoon in drama (I'm taking it because Mrs. Amis said I needed to show interest in the arts on my transcript, and I can't draw) I was supposed to be throwing a fake beach ball up and down, but I just couldn't do it anymore. Last semester I was ready to drop out the day Mr. Nichols made us have fake arguments with our scene partners and Danielle Reinhardt theater-slapped me for "stealing her boyfriend" when everybody knows she's a lesbian. I was there onstage, realizing the complete pointlessness of debating about things that don't exist as she slammed me across the side of my face and forgot to cup her hand the right way. My eye was throbbing so I turned to Mr. Nichols midscene and said, "Can I please go to the nurse?" because I honestly thought I might have a broken blood vessel. But he just said, "Tell it to Danielle! Tell her how you feel!" I wanted to give him the evil eye, but couldn't, and thought to myself, "Tomorrow I'm getting a drop slip."
But then Mrs. Amis, my counselor, said that Princeton probably wouldn't look favorably upon my dropping a class three months into the semester, especially since I had written my personal statement about "my love of performance" (the topic being in no way my idea, sorry). So I went back to drama the next day and played fake tennis and did depressing monologues about the circus and generally dealt with it. But then today, when Mr. Nichols told me that my beach ball wasn't going high enough (and considering that it's invisible, how did he know?), I knew I was done. That's it. There comes a point when you're just too exhausted to pretend to have fun at a beach that doesn't exist.
So, essentially, I let the ball drop. Ha. Ha. Ha. And when I did, the smell of the room hit me. That smell that seems to come straight from the hard orange carpet that they like to put in all the classrooms. It's the smell of countless sweaty high school bodies and the nervous energy that emanates from their armpits whenever they're put on the spot. And I looked over at John Steiner's acne, which is the kind that's so deep under the skin that you want to rush the kid to the emergency room before his face dies. His forehead and nose were so shiny under those hot lights and he was smiling up at his fake ball, beaming, and I just couldn't take his naive optimism. John looked like he was having the most fantastic, perfect, idyllic fake day at the beach I ever saw. I don't want to be too mean, and I hope he never reads this, but the guy exhausted me.
So as Mr. Nichols stood next to John asking what color his ball was, I started to back toward the corner where the piano sits. Somewhere in my mind I heard John happily yelling, "It's rainbow colored!" but mostly the blood was rushing to my brain as the extreme stress of being somewhat bad hit me. I ducked down behind the piano, my heart beating ridiculously fast. I've never even gotten a U (unsatisfactory) in P.E. and I never talk when a teacher is talking. Not because I think it's wrong, but just because I know I shouldn't. So sitting behind that piano was huge for me. Huge. I can't even say exactly why I did it, except for the smell and John's acne, and maybe also because of the lights. Just imagine thirty people throwing their arms up and down like they're crazy, and every time they do this warm air hits you in the cheek. It's awful. I told myself to breathe out and I tipped my head back against the wall. I opened my eyes and saw Mr. Nichols was standing over me.
"Did your ball roll over into the marshlands?"
"What?" I asked.
"I'm wondering why you're ducking behind this sand dune."
If Mr. Nichols had gotten me on any other second besides this one, then I would have said, "I lost control of my ball in these high winds. They're blowing mighty fierce today." But like I said before, I was just exhausted and wanting to put my index fingers on my nostrils and close them off forever. So I just said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
He kind of laughed a little. You don't expect these kinds of things from the students who've done everything you've asked for nine and a half months straight.
"Stella, just pick up your ball and get it going again." His mustache twitched.
The twitch made me nauseous, and all I could think to say was, "No."
"No. I'm sorry. No." I got light-headed. Mr. Nichols looked so disappointed I almost couldn't take it. I was almost about to do what he wanted, but his disappointment wasn't strong enough to change how tired I felt.
"Stella, you won't throw the ball?" He asked this like he was hopeful, like I still had time left to save everything. But I was surprised to find out that for the first time at school, I didn't care about fixing things, so I told him, "No. I'm sorry. I'm done."
Mr. Nichols had no choice but to make an example out of me. Because by then everyone had stopped playing on the "shore" and they were all watching us. He told me to go to the principal and he trilled the l at the end. His face turned red and then white.
The only other time I've been in the principal's office was when I went to pick up my Warrior award sophomore year. You get a Warrior award if a teacher nominates you for being exceptional, and there's this whole awards ceremony, but I couldn't go that particular year because of the flu. Anyway, you have to pick up your certificate from the principal because he shakes your hand and tells you how proud he is. The real irony is that the students that get the Warrior awards are the ones who are completely anonymous to the principal because he only sees the bad kids on a regular basis. So really, the kids he's got a deep relationship with are the ones who steal keys from teachers' desks and throw freshmen against walls. Normally I don't cause problems, so I don't think he knew my name before today, but maybe he knew my face.
When I walked across campus to go see Mr. Frankel, I tried not to look at the kids in the quad who never seem to go to class at all. I know one of them, Larome Nolans, has at least one period of ceramics because I've seen him carrying around ugly vases and what I think are ashtrays, but every time I go past the lunch tables, he's there sitting on top of one of them. Last year he was suspended for offering to sell a gun to an undercover policeman, but I guess he was just loosely offering and didn't have an actual gun to hand over. He spent some time in juvy and then came back. I'm a little bit fascinated with him partly because he laughs all the time and partly because he's one of maybe twenty black kids that go to my school.
When you think of the bad kids, you think they're the ones who are bitter and hating school. But today I realized that they're actually happy. The narcs come by and threaten yellow slips and detention, but then the narcs just end up laughing with the kids and making up inside jokes. And then, like I said before, the principal watches out for them, and the teachers want to make a difference in their lives, so the bad kids are probably the most beloved people in the entire school. If Princeton stopped caring about grades and extracurricular activities and started admitting some of these people from the quad, it just might end up with a more likable student body.
As I was passing the cafeteria, Larome (in the middle of laughing) yelled out, "You've been a good girl, girl?"
I knew what he was talking about because I have this habit of dressing like a Catholic schoolgirl. Over the years I've built up this collection of pleated skirts until they're pretty much all I have in my closet. I must like them. I mean, that's what you've got to figure when you end up with thirty of them. Today I was wearing a yellow-and-black plaid skirt and even a tie, so I knew what he was talking about. Still, I said, "What?"
That made him laugh, obviously. Then he stopped long enough to say, "Yeah, yeah, you're good. I can tell. That skirt's pretty damn short though, girl."
In that moment I wished I could find everything as funny as he did. He must see things on some kind of higher plane, where the essence of everything ridiculous comes to him in these sharp, pleasurable spasms. I think that today I ended up on the plane where I see the same essence, except it makes me sick to my stomach.
I only had a half hour until school let out and everything Larome was doing made my head hurt. The sun was shining from under his chin, bringing every single hair out of his face. I could see hundreds of them. His hairs were so obvious that they made him look fake, but then when I changed my focus to his actual head, it was so sharply defined that everything in back of him started to look fake. That right there shows just how useless perspective is, since it can always change.
I said, "Yeah, I'm good, I guess." I gave him a weak smile because I didn't want him to think I was an uptight white girl, and then I walked quickly to the office because I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Mrs. Green, the secretary, had me sit on the hard blue couch outside of Mr. Frankel's office, and it was right under the air-conditioning vent. I was wearing one of my thin bras and when I looked down, my nipples were poking out of my shirt. I crossed my arms and thought about how Mr. Frankel would probably read my body language as a sign of difficulty. I started to make up scenarios in my head where I would be so difficult that he'd end up calling me a bitch and I'd kick over his desk. He came out of his office five minutes later, but I chickened out and uncrossed my arms.
He raised his eyebrows and asked, "Stella?" And I wanted to say, "I've shaken your hand so many times. You've handed me so many awards. Yes, my name is Stella." I almost did because the exhaustion had crept into my mind and was just about at my bottom lip.
But instead I said, "Yeah. Hi." We went into his office and both sat down. Mr. Frankel always has bags under his eyes, but today he looked like he was going to put a gun to his head at three. I sympathized. I really did. He was wearing one of those polo shirts with the pony on them, and I imagined it running off his shirt, up his nose, and into some major artery in his brain. (Brains have arteries, yeah?) It would neigh and start digging its hooves in until Mr. Frankel had become completely and peacefully catatonic.
He smiled and sighed simultaneously while picking up the papers Mrs. Green had laid out for him.
"It's Friday the thirteenth."
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Not only is it Friday the thirteenth, but you're also graduating in two weeks. Right?" He talked slow.
"I'm getting the feeling here that this ball throwing incident is nothing more than a typical case of senioritis."
I stopped him right there and said, "I don't want to be argumentative, but there was no ball to throw."
He squinted. "In Mr. Nichols's mind there was." And what can you say to that but, "Hmm?" He took a look at my transcript.
"You're a smart girl. You're probably a little impatient with your classes, and you're all set to go to..." His eyes got wide. "Oh, Princeton. Very good. You must be very excited."
But, exactly then, hearing that I must be very excited, I was instantly hit by how unexcited I actually was. It's just like when you lie in bed at night thinking about a word and you say it over and over again out loud until it makes no sense anymore and you're not even sure if you have the right word for the idea? Or, and here's a drama class example to warm Mr. Nichols's heart, it's like the time when I was Lizzie Borden in this class play called Blood Relations and all my movements were completely choreographed, but then I got up there and wasn't even sure which way I should face. You'd think that, logically, I could figure out that the audience was one way and the scenery was another, but I looked around and there were people in the wings and people on the stage with me and people in the pit. And they all looked exactly the same. I was standing reciting someone else's words and decisions that had been preset before I even got to sixth period, and suddenly the room was a globe and there wasn't any particular direction that seemed to stand out. So it's like I've heard Princeton, Princeton, Princeton since my big envelope came in the mail, and maybe four months ago when I heard the name I thought about the gargoyles in the brochure. There was something to picture then. Princeton was an actual concept because it was the end of a very rational equation, as far as good grades plus drama class plus glowing teacher recommendations equals going there. But then I'm thinking that my brain kept repeating the idea over and over again, even when I wasn't associating that idea with the word, and the two got worn out when I wasn't even paying attention.
You need to be happy to be sad, yeah?
Anyway, now I know what it's like to surprise yourself with apathy in the afternoon when you woke up in the morning believing you cared.
I looked down at my watch and it said 2:41 and I memorized the number by thinking two times the two dots in the colon is four, times the one to the right is still four. I still had to give an answer to Mr. Frankel, so for lack of any desire to communicate, I told him, "Yeah, I'm real excited."
He blinked four times and I only know this because I was watching his eyelashes. Like repeated words stuck on his lids, the hairs also stopped making sense the longer I studied them. I wondered, Hey, why not pubic hairs stuck onto the top of his eyes instead? Curly lashes. Just another option. Four times, not five times, and definitely not three. He had lashes to keep out the dust and the dirt, but we (and by we, I mean all us human beings) could also throw in bugs and countless other dangers until so many were listed that we couldn't consider ourselves having ever made a list. If I listed everything in the world, then that would just be everything in the world, and not any sort of organized statement.
"You don't say that like you're very excited," he said.
Copyright © 2004 by Andrea Seigel
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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: High school students Fiction, Orange County (Calif, ) Fiction, Grandparent and child Fiction, Foster parents Fiction, Teenage girls Fiction, Orphans Fiction