Danielle Schaffer’s Dream:
Hit the Switch
“Hey,” Brittney Lowes says as she sits in the seat next to me outside the principal’s office. I say hey back. We aren’t saying hey to each other because we’re friends but because we’re the only two kids in the waiting area. Nothing happens for ten minutes except that Jolene Fines waddles in and asks for a late pass. I say hi to her; she says hi back. Jolene glances at Brittney, but Brittney acts like the painting on the wall has just become the most fascinating thing in the world.
A couple minutes after Jolene leaves, the phone rings once on the secretary’s desk. She picks it up and says “all right” into it, then tells us we can go ahead in. “What’s this about, anyway?” Brittney asks me, as if it’s somehow my fault. I shrug. Principal Connelly has his door open and is telling us to come on in.
A feeling of doom hits me when I walk in the room and find my parents sitting there: my mother with her hair really needing a new dye job, one done by a professional this time, not her do-it-yourself method that gives her streaks in all the wrong places; my dad with his pot belly almost pushing the buttons off of his one dress shirt he wears for every special occasion from Christmas services to funerals. Come to think of it, why is he wearing it now? Dad pats an empty chair next to him, inviting me to come sit, but I just wave.
“Hello, Sweetie!” says Brittney’s mom. Her parents are here, too, looking fit and tanned and extremely rich. Why couldn’t my mother have gotten up and practically skipped across the room to give me a hug? I wonder, but what’s the use? Having Brittney’s parents in the same room with mine is like putting a brand-new yacht next to a thrown-out rubber duck. They both float; other than that, there’s just no comparison.
Mr. Connelly clears his throat and says, “Brittney, Danielle,” and even the way he says our two names reflects his attitude toward us. I hear, “Brittney, you good-looking, athletic showcase of the school, glad to have you” versus “Danielle, you drag on our community, wish you were in another state.”
“This is an unprecedented situation I find myself in,” Mr. Connelly goes on. “Frankly, I’m not 100% sure I’m the right person to be telling you all what I’m about to. Regardless, it has come to light that you two, Brittney and Danielle, have a fairly significant mistake in your past, and we need to rectify that today.”
“What kind of mistake?” asks Mr. Lowes, and you can tell from his voice that he’s got high-priced lawyers ready to get his daughter out of any trouble the principal might be crazy enough to accuse her of. My dad sits there with a bland, stupid look that says, pretty much, “Hit me if you want; I’m used to it.”
Mr. Connelly takes in a big breath through his nose, then clears his throat. He even makes that stereotypical gesture of pulling his collar away from his neck. I didn’t think anybody actually did that; you only did that to pretend you were feeling really stressed. He does it, though, and yanks on the knot of his tie a little as if he’s being strangled by everything south of his chin. Mrs. Lowes says, “Principal Connelly, I’m certain that any sort of mistake the school perceives my daughter has made…”
“Hold on just a second!” Mother, please--don’t get riled up. Didn’t you just hear how Mr. and Mrs. Lowes spoke? They had some class, some dignity. You don’t have either one. Stop speaking. Dad shrinks as Mom’s voice gets shrill. “I don’t know if anybody noticed, but our daughter is in here, too. So, what--are we just supposed to figure that this mistake, whatever it is, just has to be Danielle’s fault?”
“No, no, please, perhaps I didn’t present the concept well,” stutters Mr. Connelly. “The...event, the mistake, was not something either of these girls perpetrated, not at all. They are not at fault, either one of them, in the least. Blame is not the issue at this, uh, juncture. Simply, we need to reveal the mistake, let the truth come out, and then decide how to proceed. Again, I’m not entirely certain why the hospital called me…”
“Hospital?” Mom and Mrs. Lowes both say, and then Mrs. Lowes follows up with “which hospital” and Mr. Lowes swings in with “why?” Brittney looks over at me. Apparently she didn’t hear the principal’s sentence about not assigning blame, because she’s got “What did you do?” written all over her face. I just shrug and realize that I probably look just like Dad, who hasn’t said a word, who looks like a shocked bag of sand.
“Mercy General called. Both Brittney and Danielle were born there, on the same day, at virtually the same hour, I understand.” We were? Even though we’ve gone to the same schools since first grade, I never knew that Brittney and I had the same birthday. Of course, why would I? We might have been in the same building, but we’ve always moved in such different circles socially, academically and in every other way, all I’ve ever known about Brittney is that she has everything I don’t. This little meeting is just emphasizing the fact. God, Dad, would you please sit up! Get a new shirt before that yellowed old thing falls off of you.
“April 12th?” Mrs. Lowes says to Mom and Mom cleverly replies, “Yeah.”
“Brittney was born at 4:47 in the morning,” says Mr. Lowes.
Dad says, “Oh, that sounds about right,” as if he has any idea. If the hospital had old issues of Road and Track, Dad probably never left the waiting room until Mom dragged him out. “Let’s go, Bob,” she said, then handed me to him in the state-issued carseat. “There’s your kid.”
“Can we get to the point, here? I have to get back to work,” my mother says with her usual tact. “So my Danielle and their…”
“Brittney,” says Mrs. Lowes with a tight smile, as if she’d rather not have Mom form her daughter’s name with her yellowed-toothed mouth.
Principal Connelly senses the tension getting thick in the room, so he just blurts out his point: “The two girls were switched at birth.”
Silence. Astounded, open-mouthed, that’s-impossible silence. Finally, Brittney is the first to speak.
“You...you mean I’m…you mean, they’re not…” Her eyes fill with tears.
“Actually,” says Mr. Lowes, looking over at his wife, “that explains quite a lot.”
The next thing I know, Mrs. Lowes has me in her arms. “Oh, Sweetheart!” she says, and her perfume smells like a hundred bucks a bottle. “I knew it! I just knew something wasn’t right. She never really fit; I never quite made the connection I felt I should. And now, well, look at you!” Mrs. Lowes holds me out in front of her. She’s crying, too, but hers are tears of joy.
Mr. Lowes strides over to join our reunion and says to me, “I swear, the moment you walked into this room, there was something oddly familiar about you. I thought I was losing my mind. Turns out, I was just missing my daughter. Welcome home, Darling,” he says, and the three of us--my real dad, my real mom and I--come in close for a group hug. In the space between my parents’ shoulders, I see Brittney staring at my former mother and father; they stare back at her.
Brittney screams, “Wait a minute! Just hold on a goddamned second here!”
“Brittney, what have I told you about that sort of…” Mrs. Lowes says, then catches herself. She turns to my former mother. “Well, she’s your problem now. Best of luck.”
“You can’t do this to me! You can’t...this isn’t fair!” Brittney screams, and my real mom and dad tighten their hug around me.
“Now, Brittney,” says Mr. Connelly. “We all know that life just isn’t fair.”
Inside the hug, Mom whispers to me, “We have such big plans for you, Sweetheart,” and Dad says, “We’re whole. Our family, at last, is whole!”
After shaking Mr. Connelly’s hand, my parents escort me out of the room. They’ve asked the principal if we can take a few days off from school, just to “get acclimated to our new reality,” (Dad has a way with words, you know) and Mr. Connelly tells us to take all the time we want. As we leave the office, Brittney’s sniffling turns into wails: “What about me? What about me?” Why does that question sound so familiar? I wonder. And then I remember as I climb into the Mercedes with my long-last family. I used to ask it all the time.
Dream 3: Reality Check
ü Request to excuse Danielle Schaffer’s absence for missing one day prior to December break: denied. Request to excuse Brittney Lowes’s absences for missing three days after December break: denied. After call from Brittney’s father, granted.
Jolene Fines’s Dream:
Yeah, sure, you think I don’t see you looking at me getting out of my car? It’s a little small for me, huh? I mean, hey, I must weigh, what, 250 pounds and I’m driving around in a Honda Civic. Shouldn’t I have a Hummer? Or maybe a garbage truck? Is that what you’re saying to your skinny-ass friend, that I should be driving a garbage truck?
Deep breaths, girl, deep breaths. What’s the use of starting the day mad again? Heave on the old backpack, slam shut the old door on the rusty Civic, slap on the old smile. Fat girl goes to school--that’s me. 266 pounds of me, to be exact, at age 16, what a shame. The nurse didn’t have to say that at my last weigh-in. I could see it in her eyes, in the way she typed the stats into her laptop. I could hear it in her voice when she left the room and said, “The nutritionist will be in to see you a few minutes.” Pity. It’s the music of my day, and you know what? I’m fucking sick of that tune.
Oh, goodie. Wednesday. Guess how we start our Wednesdays? First period gym class. “Everybody hurry up and get changed!” Ms. Callahan is going to shout, clapping her hands like the wannabe dyke drill sergeant she is. Of course, when I come in, she’ll just nod and grimace in my general direction because we all know I don’t get changed. We all know I don’t play volleyball or do pushups or even jog around the track. I’m too calorically-challenged for all that horseshit. No, my activities in gym class narrow down to a list of three options: a. walking around the gym, b. walking around the track, or c. sitting on my fat ass. And since it’s threatening to rain outside, I think I’m down to a., which I’ll be told to do, which eventually morphs into c., which I end up doing once Calla-Bitch stops paying any attention to me or purposely ignores me.
Here I am, at the gates of Oz, and here she is, The Wicked Witch of the Gym. “All right, everybody, get changed! Let’s go, go, go! Floor hockey today!” And now she glances over at me. Her eyes narrow a bit, turning up the radio station playing the pity hits all day, every day. “Jolene. You’ve got your sneakers on, good.” Of course I have my sneakers on. They’re the only thing I wear. She knows that; I know that; the world knows that; but she’s got to have something to say. “Why don’t you...walk a few laps around the gym?” Surprise, surprise. Oh, look, an added treat: Dale Gosling’s here. He’s fat, too, but I don’t see much of him--not in gym class, anyway. Looks like he’s going to be doing the walking routine, too. We don’t make eye contact. He’s two years younger than I am and, apart from a certain body similarity, we don’t have much in common. Contrary to popular belief, the fatties aren’t all buddies.
“Oh, come on, you call that hustle--you guys look like slugs out there!” screams Ms. Callahan. “Get after that puck!” I have to agree with Callahan this time. I mean, generally, who am I to call anybody lazy? I watch my classmates jumping and running and squirming away all day like demented hamsters and I think never in a million years am I going to move like that. I lumber. I sway. Sometimes, I can just about ooze. At best, I chug along--that’s my energy level, my mode of transport. I’ll get there. Just don’t put a watch on me.
But as I’m making my way around the gym, watching the crazies do their thing with the sticks and the puck and the limbs that actually have some definition to them, I do notice that the hampsters look a little logy. (I’ve got a pretty strong set of vocab. words dealing with largeness, lack of energy, that sort of thing--self description gets to be a habit when you’re as fat as I am.) Instead of running to the puck, they’re letting it come to them. Dan Fraser just gave up entirely. He slid his stick in the puck’s general direction as if it could play on without him.
“Pick up your feet, Leeda! What’s the matter with you?” yells Callahan, but Leeda just waves a hand in her direction and leans over, panting, hands on her thighs.
“I can’t, I can’t catch my breath, Coach,” whines Brandon Hollis, and he’s supposed to be some ace tennis player. “Is there something wrong with the circulation system in here?”
“What are you talking about?” Callahan says, but she’s losing some of her spunk, too. The normal reaction to some lame-ass excuse about the circulation system would go about like this, at a decibel level the EPA would object to: “Circulation system? The only circulation system that’s having trouble this morning, Hollis, is the one providing you brain cells and gumption! Get out there and get after that puck! Move, move, move!” Instead, Callahan’s talking in a drone, and her words are getting stumbly. “You can’t...you need to...all you need is to get a little hibernated, I mean, hydroxide...get some hydration. Get some water, everybody. Water break,” she mumbles as she goes over to sit at the bleachers.
I’m feeling fine. Normally by this time, if the game got heated enough and Coach got into it enough, me and Dale would be sitting down, ignored for the rest of the period. Today, it’s the rest of the class that’s sitting or slumping or even lying flat out on the floor. Dale’s walking, swinging from side to side like the rump on an old horse, and I’m sure I look the same, but we’re still in motion while the rest of the gang reminds me of one of those paintings of the melted clocks. I’m liking it. As I cruise on past the skinnies, I even say, “Let’s go now, girls. A little exercise never hurt anybody!” They groan; I smile. Across the gym, Dale gives me thumbs up, and I shoot him one right back.
The school nurse comes in looking like shit, moving like mud. A clipboard dangles from her fingers. It drops to the floor when she gets near me; the nurse leans to pick it up and almost falls over with the effort. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “I got it.”
Now, I’m no speed demon when it comes to picking things up, so I have time to give her clipboard a quick once over as I am retrieving it. Something about an odd illness, extreme lethargy (one of my favorite words), no known cure. But this I see at the bottom of the page: the word UNAFFECTED. And guess whose names are listed under that heading? Justin Craig, Tom Dwyer, Gwenn Wadley and about a half dozen others. What do they all have in common? Hint: Dale Gosling and my names are about to get added to that little hall of fame. Props to the obese; we’re the only ones still moving. I give the nurse a big old smile after handing the clipboard back. She lifts the sides of her mouth for about a half of a half a second; it’s all she can muster. This day is getting better by the second.
I know it’s not kind. I know I shouldn’t do it. But damn, how long is this state of things going to last? And when you’re feeling as good as I am, with the tables turned in such a gorgeous way as this, maybe you’ll do what I’m about to.
“Fatties walk and we don’t care!” I sing out like one of those drill sargeants in the movies. The troops are supposed to provide the echo. I look across the gym at Dale. He looks at me. We’re still chugging like freight trains, like tug boats, like mighty old whales. He swings his hand around to signal me to start again. “Fatties walk and we don’t care!” I sing again.
“Fatties walk and we don’t care!” Dale echoes. His voice is high for a guy, but proud.
“Skinnies only slouch and stare!”
“Skinnies only slouch and stare!”
On the bleachers, against the walls, on the floor, they’re hating us. They’re giving us eyes full of resentment and even more envy than before. The best they can do to protest is shake their heads a little and half raise a middle finger. Big frigging deal.
“We stored up some energy!”
“We stored up some energy!”
“We’re the best as you can see!”
“We’re the best as you can see!” The rhymes suck. Pretty soon I’m going to run out of verses. I don’t give a care, though, and neither does Dale. “Sound off!” I sing. “Sound off!” he sings back. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re the lazy, the lackadaisical, the drains on society, you skinny-assed sons of bitches, but guess who’s moving, guess who’s singing, guess who’s sounding off today?
Reality Check: Dream 4
ü Question on Health class worksheet: Is there any one of your peers who you think “has it made” in his/her life? Jolene Fines’s answer: “Isa Johnson.”
ü Correspondence between Mrs. Shreve and Coach Callahan: “How about if we give Jolene gym credit for being an office aide?”
“So she doesn’t come to gym class at all?”