By JP Lor
It was our first and last time hugging. The newspaper photographer said it was one of his best candid shots. I had no idea what that meant, only that he’d taken a photo of Sandy, my school secretary, squeezing me, a sixth-grader, for winning a local art competition. We were front-page news. I was proud of my painting—I painted her in space behind the Earth, star freckles shimmering on her cheeks, and dancing stars in her brown hair. Below, next to Mars, Saturn, a giant No. 2 pencil, a Trapper Keeper, and the words World’s Greatest Secretary burning on a comet. It took an entire night and skipping my math homework to finish it.
So when Mr. Rose, my teacher, escorted me to the office during lunch—for the first time in my life—for saying the “F” word after a kid pointed to my pink socks, laughing and saying, “He’s wearing his sister’s socks,” while I was trying to recite a poem, I thought Sandy was going to hug me again, ask me to sit next to her, so I can tell her what was wrong while she munched on animal crackers.
Instead, she gave me a glare only kids who were always being sent to the office got. I knew because I was their “biggest office helper.” Plus, it was my hang-out spot. My safe space. She shook her head as if I had just unzipped my fake skin, revealing what was underneath all along—a clown, but not the funny kind. The kind that made them hate their jobs. The kind I never thought I’d be. Just send all the clowns to the office, I once overheard outside the teacher’s lounge, after school.
I imagined the comet and stars in my painting that was hanging above all the trophies and a banner saying We Can Make a Difference, burning the Earth and her alive. My legs got wobbly. I couldn’t tell if I was sad, mad, embarrassed, or all. Not wanting to cry, I did what any clown would do—smiled. My lips curved, nothing else. My new costume cinched itself, tighter and tighter, until I couldn’t move. She stabbed her apple and went into Principal Lendell’s office.
He came out, hands on his waist, chewing, shaking his balding head before tilting it sideways. I managed to shuffle in. He trapped me in a thick blanket of mustard and raw onion breath. There was a lecture about the “F” word. Then a couple of whys and can’t believes. The room spiraled. Stubborn mayo in the corner of his mouth locked me in a trance. So did the pic on his desk of him, with his lip-swallowing mustache, straddling a pool chair behind his wife, both with the same permy curls, like two clownstars about to have sex in one of my dad’s pornos he likes to watch when my mom is at work, or in the shower. I chuckled. He flopped his sandwich down and picked up the phone. I knew somehow she was going to be home, even though it wasn’t her day off.
Any source of comfort the front office ever gave me suddenly disappeared—an ugly magic trick. Where was I supposed to hang out now during recess and lunch?
I sat and waited in a chair for clowns, hoping she’d get lost and never find the school. My mom had never made it to any back-to-school nights or parent conferences. Still, like being home when he called, I knew she’d find it.
The principal, secretary, and my teacher all stood behind the counter, whispering, staring at me.
The door slamming open was a familiar noise. My mom walked in sobbing like one of my sisters had just died. Her perm was messy. Lips bright red. On her feet, white socks and blue flip-flops.
She apologized to them, over and over, pacing back and forth, flip-flops slapping her heels. There was a lot of stuttering, tripping over words she normally uttered with ease about how I was the only child, out of five, who gave her any problems. Funnily, in class, I was the only one who mostly got As. My chuckle, once again, made things worse: she flumped into a chair next to me, twisted my ear, and bounced my head against a plaque, three times, on the wall of distinguished students. My golden name now smeared with blood.
I froze, ears ringing, as she let me bleed and continued to cry and stutter. Her giant bag fell, random things clanking everywhere. She juggled them off the floor like she was blindfolded, shouting, “Why does he always do this to me!” I never wanted a private, in-home beating so badly.
When I finally had the courage to look up, I expected bulging eyes and gaping mouths but instead saw looks of satisfaction as if they’d just witnessed a one-of-a-kind freak show: bozo the unbreakable bobblehead.
The entire act, of course, wouldn’t have been complete without the help of a vital spectator who had a front-row seat: Amanda, my classmate. She sat two chairs down from me, a pink zinnia nestled in her hair. The popular girl who everyone wanted to hang, or go out, with. The type who could, with a flick of her pencil, turn anyone invisible. She was in the office waiting to get picked up because she was sick. I think my mom’s bag smacked her face when she sat down in between us. Of all the things, that was the most humiliating.
When she finally stopped blaming me for ruining her life, they made her sign a release form.
It was then Amanda handed me a small piece of paper. It was only slightly folded, so I didn’t have to use my numb, trembling hands to open it, to see the words, in bubbly writing, my mom hits me too.