Gail Moore’s Dream:
Don’t Make Me Laugh
Not good. I’m here. I don’t want to be here. Understatement of the year, the decade, the millenium. I have successfully avoided being here, or in situations similar to this one, for the past four years. Strategic sick days, extensions, visits to the nurse’s office, appointments, even near-tears pleadings have kept me free ever since that awful day back in 6th grade when I had to deliver a persuasive speech about the cafeteria’s menu--not my topic, mind you, just the random one assigned to me.
I couldn’t give one flying turd about the cafeteria’s menu. They could have served up deep-fried hyena with a side of rat guts for all I cared, but that was my assignment, and I had it done, and I went ahead and got up in front of the class when my name was called, and…
It’s been four years since that day in English class, four years of ducking and weaving every public-speaking-type assignment that’s come my way. I’ve become an evasion expert, the CIA agent of not speaking in front of the class. Until today. All avenues have been cut off. No sick day: Mom’s out of town on business and Dad’s reply to my fake cough was to not even pause as he raised his cup of coffee and kept his eyes on his computer screen: “Suck it up, Buttercup. We’re outta here in fifteen.” No nurse’s office: The new lady down there won’t keep you out of class unless you have an amputation of a major limb. No desperate pleas: If I try begging to Mr. Gunderman, the rest of my group will skin me alive (and the nurse will hand me a couple Band Aids and tell me to suck it up, Buttercup).
I have one hope and one hope only: Mr. Gunderman’s sadistic policy is to have just one of the four members of each group present the project, but he won’t tell you which one until the day it’s due. So. Either my luck holds and I one day go down in history as the greatest humiliation avoider in the history of the school, or…
I die. Mr. Gunderman just said my name. My other group members are looking at me. Michael hands me the poster. Still I sit. “Come on,” Dalene hisses at me. “We all need this grade.”
Mr. Gunderman says, “Gail, you’re up.”
I could puke. I’ve heard of people who can puke on command, but that would be just as bad as what happened to me four years ago when I got up to talk about why the cafeteria needed to buy more local lettuce or hyena or whatever the hell I was supposed to say. “Go!” Dalene practically spits.
I stand. I walk between the desks. I do know what to say. I do have the poster, most of which I made myself. I’m not stupid. I understand the process of osmosis. Theoretically, I could explain it. I have explained it to the rest of my group when they insisted we each practice. I did it, knowing full well that when the time came I’d find some way to make sure I didn’t have to do it in front of the whole class because that was just not something I did; that was just not on the menu for my life.
I tape the poster to the white board. I face the poster for several seconds, staring deeply into the second “o” of osmosis, thinking now would be a good time for it to magically transform into a tunnel leading me out of the school. That sort of thing happens in dire moments to CIA agents. But the second “o” of osmosis stubbornly stays nothing more than the second “o” of osmosis, and the eyes of Mr. Gunderman and the approximately 12 billion other people in the room are burning holes in my back, so I turn around and open my mouth and hope to God that what happened four years ago when I opened my mouth to give my speech on the healthful effects of rat guts does not happen again.
I giggle. Please, no. I swallow it. As I look at Mr. Gunderman and the 37 billion other people in the room all staring at me, I feel the pressure building in my throat, my jaw, behind the whole mask of my face and I know, one second before it happens again, that all my years of avoidance have done nothing to help me overcome the issue. I’m four years older but not four years wiser, not four years more in control. Either I run for the door right now or I just open my mouth and let the pain come rolling out...in uncontrollable laughter.
No matter that this is the least funny moment in my life, that I couldn’t make a joke out of osmosis if I were tortured by the razor-sharp claws of a hundred starving hyenas, laughter is what my body has chosen to do to me. I am full-out roaring, the whole nine yards, as my father likes to say, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I grab the side of the desk to keep from falling over, and at that moment, I catch a glimpse of Leisha Parenti. Leisha is about as far from my friend circle as Perth is from Saskatchewan, so I expect her to be giving me the look I remember oh-so-well from my 6th grade trauma when my reflexes turned against me in exactly the same way. I expect that look that says, approximately, “Get away from me, you totally revolting freak.”
Instead, she’s laughing, too.
Leisha is pointing at me and trying not to fall out of her chair, she’s laughing so hard. I get to one of those moments of slight relief when I’m half-hiccuping for a few seconds. I look around to see everyone losing it, all 22 of my classmates--even the other three in my group whose grades are crashing by the second--totally caught up in a complete laugh orgy. Tears run down their faces. Some of them are on all fours. Sylvia Blaisdell lies on her back between rows three and four, kicking her feet like a toddler having a tantrum, except she’s not screaming in anger; she’s screaming in laughter. Somehow, my sickness has gone instantly, wildly contagious; somehow I’ve transformed my science classroom into an asylum.
But where is Mr. Gunderson? Incredibly, I seem to be the most in-control person in the room. I’m only panting at the moment, trying to see where the teacher went. Maybe he’s stormed down to the office to demand that the principal call all our parents and have them haul us home and keep us there until we can learn that school is a place of learning, not a comedy club, damn it!
No. I see him. Not all of him, actually--just his hand emerging from behind his desk, reaching up and up, then suddenly slapping down on top of it, as if he’s crawling out of a hole. Did he have a heart attack? Nobody else seems to notice. They’re all caught up in their laugh party that has nothing to do with me anymore--it just keeps rolling along, fed by glances and snorts and sheer nothingness. Mr. Gunderman has made it into his chair. He’s leaning back, exhausted, trying to get a breath, and I see now that he--even he, Mr. Gunderman, the teacher!--caught the bug. He’s trying to get himself under control. I see it in his eyes: “I shouldn’t be doing this. This is completely inappropriate. I am the teacher, after all. I need to be…” But then he sees me looking at him, and I see him seeing me look at him, and the inevitable overcomes us for another five minutes.
When the bell rings and we all tumble out of Mr. Gunderman’s madhouse, our stomachs aching and our eyes streaming, I know, in an amazing way I never expected, I got through it. Our group will present its stunning poster and presentation on osmosis tomorrow, but I will certainly not be the spokesperson, not after that pandemonium. Mr. Gunderman won’t risk it. I won’t go down in the school’s history as the great evader, but I did somehow transform humiliation into an epic group therapy session.
Wow, my legs are wobbly. Wow, my presentation was funny. Just…wow.
Reality Check: Dream 11
ü Text from Dalene Konkle to Joy Estes: “That little bitch Gail just laughed through our whole science presentation. We all got a D. I’m gonna kill her!”
Leisha Parenti’s Dream:
In Spite of Herself
I’m here early because my dad’s truck is in the garage, so I had the option of either taking the bus (disgusting) or getting dropped off an hour early by Mom (just annoying). So I’m here, sitting in the cafeteria where the early people have to wait. No one else has arrived. I see Bill the janitor go by now and then. That’s it.
I could be reviewing for my Spanish test or reading the chapter we were assigned for history or studying my flashcards for English, but it’s too quiet to do anything like that. I wish I had my iPhone. I lost it two days ago and the replacement hasn’t come yet. The only sound is some clanging from over where the cafeteria workers are. I can’t see anyone, just hear the pots-and-pans sounds.
Zoe Chase comes in and sits at the far end of the cafeteria. She doesn’t look at me. I know she knows I’m here, though--no way she could have missed me as the only other person in this whole empty space. She takes a book out of her backpack, opens it up, starts to take notes. She has her headphones plugged into something inside her jacket. I wonder what she’s listening to nowadays.
Two months ago, I would’ve known. We’d both be listening to whatever was playing on her headphones, one bud in her ear, the other in mine. People called us sisters, but that was stupid. Me and Zoe got along a lot better than any sisters I’ve ever known. We shared clothes, food, homework, secrets. We marched into each other’s houses just as comfortably as if we lived there. Her parents never blinked an eye when I’d come down to breakfast, sometimes even without Zoe. Best friends? Total understatement. Zoe found this quote and she wrote it in on the inside of my locker: “Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” That’s how it was with us.
Now she sits there, with her frigging book and her frigging pen, pretending I’m not even here. She feels me looking at her. The note-taking, the foot-tapping, the little tucking of her hair behind her ear—all fake, all part of her little play called “Leisha Who?”
But then, Zoe’s always been an excellent actor. I never found out just how good until the whole thing with the pills. So yeah, I was stupid to steal them from my mother’s purse, even stupider to sell them to Matt Dorris. And yes, I should have told Zoe that I had put the empty prescription bottle in her locker. But she knew. She wasn’t as innocent as she claimed to be. All her tears and her “I didn’t know anything about it,” with me sitting right there in the office with Connelly and the cop. You mean to tell me she couldn’t have done a better job covering for me, her closest friend? Now she sits there, making like I’m invisible. She makes me sick.
I stand. How did I get to my feet? I never made the decision to get up. So why am I walking now? I think of those pilots who rely too much on the auto functions of their planes. By the time they hear the warning—Pull up! Pull up!—it’s too late. My body feels like that now, on auto pilot, even though some alarm in my brain is telling me that I’m headed into danger. I keep heading toward Zoe. Why?
Zoe finally looks up from her notes as I get close to her table.
Fine. I’m not going to say anything. That’s why I’ve come over. That must be what some part of my brain decided, the part that controlled my body and made me get up. It decided that I need to come over and just stare at Zoe, up close, so she’ll stop pretending not to know I’m here, so she’ll have to feel me close to her. I won’t say anything. I’ll just look at her, scowl, then walk away.
My mouth is opening. Against my will, my mouth is opening and sounds are about to come out. I want to stop it, stop this revolt against myself, but I can’t. All right. I’ll speak, then. I’ll say, “Zoe, rot in hell, bitch.” Then I’ll walk away.
“Zoe.” The word sounds strange. Choked. Humble. Even...no! No, I will not, I cannot. She knew, when Connelly found that bottle in her locker with my mother’s name on it, that her duty was to protect me, not to turn on me. She knew! My mouth, my throat, my tongue, whatever is involved in forming words must not betray me by saying to her…
“Zoe, I’m sorry.”
She stands. She looks at me for a long, long moment. I’m not fighting myself any more when I say, “I’m really, really sorry.”
Zoe opens her arms. She takes me in, takes me back, cries as I cry, “I’m sorry.” She whispers, “It’s okay. It’s over.”
Reality Check: Dream 12
ü Message on the back Zoe Chase’s school photo: “Leisha, thank God we got over our troubles and hung out again! I missed you sooo much, girl! One soul, remember? See you at Ben’s this weekend. Love Ya! Zoe.”
Bill Watson’s Dream:
The radio on my belt squawks, “Bill, need you in the office, asap.” Great. I’m only half finished spreading salt on the walk and Dee needs me. Sure, asap. Everything’s asap. Get the walk cleaned and salted before the kids arrive. Sweep the gym. Scrub off where some kid has written “Sarah Malleck is a ho” on the wall of the social studies wing. Wipe down the cafeteria tables. 7:30 in the morning, little brats here in 15 minutes, gotta get it done, now gotta go see Dee, all a-freaking-sap. On my way down to the custodian’s office, my cell vibrates in my pocket: a text from my ex-wife. “Child support, asshole!!” Nice. I don’t bother to text back. More asap. I’m doing the best I can.
In the office, Dee sits with her feet up on the desk, her hands hooked behind her head. “Hey, Bill,” she says, “how’s it going?”
“Good, I guess. I didn’t get the walk finished yet.”
“How come?” Dee asks with this weird grin. She’s about 60 years old, has been the head custodian since forever, and I don’t know what she’s up to this morning. Joking around? Like I’ve got time for that.
I say, “I was working on it when you called me down here. What’s up?” Dee takes her feet off the desk and leans toward me; she’s still got that crazy smile going, and I wonder if she’s back to drinking. I heard she had trouble with that before.
“How old are you, Bill?”
Oh hell, I hope she’s not trying to make a pass at me. I need this job, but not that bad. “30? Are you 30 yet?” Dee’s asking.
“Uh, what’s this about? I’ve still gotta finish the walk, then get to the caf….” I feel my cell vibrate in my pocket again. I know, I know! If this nut-case would let me get back to work, maybe I can keep this job and get you your child support!
“I’m about to give you the biggest break of your life, Bill,” Dee says. “Humor me. You 30 years old yet?”
Biggest break of my life? I sit in the chair across from Dee’s desk. “I just turned 31 a week ago.”
“31. You got your whole life in front of you, you know that?”
“If you say so.”
“No, really. You’re married, right?” Okay, biggest break of my life, how old am I, am I married--my ugly-ass boss has definitely got the hots for me, and she’s probably drunk to boot. How’re you going to get out of this one, Billy-boy?
“Was married. Divorced as of three months ago.”
“That’s a shame. Kids?”
“Two girls, five and 18 months.”
“And here you are working at this crap job.” So now where are we going? Crap job? Is this some kind of employee-satisfaction test? A morale check?
“It’s not that bad,” I lie, and Dee laughs.
“Oh, it is, Bill; it’s very bad. Not for me. My husband has a decent job working for the highway department. We’ll be retiring in a couple years, both with pensions.”
Is she bragging? Is she trying to make me feel like shit? She’s definitely messing with my head, but I have no idea why. “Listen, that’s great. I’m glad that your future is all set, Dee; that’s good for you. Like I said, though, I have to finish the walk and…”
“Screw the walk, Bill. You don’t have to worry about the walk or the cafeteria or making sure there’s enough toilet paper in the upstairs bathroom. You’re done with it.”
Oh, no, so I am fired. That’s just perfect.
“That is, if you want to be done with it,” Dee says.
I’ve had about enough of this. My temper has cost me a few jobs in the past, not to mention my marriage, so I’ve been working hard to control it. But I feel that familiar sensation coming back--the blood rushing to my face, that tilting behind my eyes, and I know I’m about to lose it. I can’t stand being jerked around! I get out of the chair, scraping it across the floor. “Goddamn it, Dee, am I fired? ‘Cause if I am…”
Dee laughs again. She stands, too, and comes around the desk to stand in front of me. “Bill, relax.” She puts her hand on my shoulder. I try to take a deep breath. “Do you remember me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I doubt you do. We’re invisible to the kids, right? I used to work here when you were a student.”
I try to think back to those days over 15 years ago, but high school is just a blur, a general memory of fights and lectures. My anger ruled me then; I got expelled in 10th grade and never went back. Dee’s right; I have no memory of her from those years.
“I remember you, though. I cleaned up after you more than once--blood and puke. Sometimes yours, usually somebody else’s.”
“For what? For being a pissed off kid? For being bounced around between foster homes?”
“How did you know that?”
“I asked. You know something, Billy? I never had kids of my own. Couldn’t. Now and then over the years I’ve worked here, I’ve noticed kids--usually the lost ones, the angry ones--and I’ve mentally adopted them, you know? Kind of a silly game I used to play out, just in my head. You were one of my kids.”
I sit back down so Dee won’t notice the tears coming to my eyes. It hits me hard, hearing that someone was actually watching me, noticing me back then.
“Bill, you’re better than this job, this life you’re leading right now. You know that, don’t you?”
I nod my head a little. I still can’t look up at her. Dee puts an envelope in my hand.
“What’s this?” I ask her.
“It’s a letter about your scholarship. You’re going back to high school. You’re going to get your diploma, and then you’re going to college.”
“Dee, I can’t afford to…”
“As long as you’re successful with your studies, this scholarship I’ve put together will pay for all your expenses, plus money to send to your kids.”
I look up finally. I don’t care if Dee sees the tears now. I have to look her in the face and see if she’s serious. When she says, “Billy, I don’t know why, but I’ve always believed in you,” I know I can trust her. I know the letter in my hand is real.
“Well...when do I start?” I ask.
Dee pulls out a backpack full of books and hands me a schedule. “No time like the present, Buddy-Boy,” she says with a smile.
“In my work clothes?”
“You’re planning to work, ain’t you?” Dee says. “Don’t worry; you don’t smell too bad.”
I pick up the backpack and go to the door of Dee’s office. The halls have filled with students on their way to first period. I look down at the schedule and see that I have Chemistry with Mr. Gunderman. I vaguely remember having him 15 years ago. I think he kicked me out of his class. Can I do this? On the other hand, how many times have I looked at these little brats running around and thought, You kids have no idea what you’re taking for granted. If I only had the chance…
I look over my shoulder at Dee. She’s standing there, arms crossed, proud smile, looking like the mother I never had. I take a deep breath, turn back around and head to class.
Reality Check: Dream 13
ü Comment on Bill Watson’s performance review: “Works hard, but lets personal life and hard feelings interfere too often. No raise recommended this cycle.”