The school gates are supposed to open at 6:00 am. I usually arrive around 5:30, waiting on the sidewalk to be let in. From what I've seen, the vice principal gets in the earliest with the principal following immediately after. Then one of the math teachers comes in, and after that the PE teachers. They like to jog a few laps together before classes start. The band teacher opens his doors for students from every class to wait in his room before the bell rings, whether they want to practice or just hang out. This is inconvenient though, because he's one of the teachers who shows up five minutes before the late bell, half walking and half running in just as awkwardly through the halls as any other late student.
The custodians are the ones who have the key to the gates and open them either five minutes too early or five minutes too late; never on the dot. I'm here no matter what time they go with. This was a private school so they had no school buses, I lived too far off to ride my bike, and my mom had to drop me off early to get to work on time.
The custodians thought it was unreasonable of my mom to drop me off before they got there, and even though I didn't have a choice, I liked to think that I was meant for early mornings like this. I got to see the school completely empty for a good couple of minutes. I could wait outside for classes to start at the tables by the lockers, listening as groups of friends found each other and exchanged answers to last night's homework. Sometimes I liked to lie down in the school's grassy amphitheater just outside of the cafeteria. The trees grew tall around its edges and made almost a small tunnel going up into the sky. If you found the right spot and looked out it, it felt like that little part of the sky was in reach. Take a deep breath and you might feel like you're floating up and out the little tunnel away from everything else. And while I was napping on clouds, life was moving around me. I wasn't meant to be part of that world, but I was okay with that. I liked to observe from the outside. And the sky needed at least one person to take care of it.
While I waited for the custodians to show up I checked the time on my phone every five seconds and looked down the sidewalk one way and then the other to check for them. There were two things to look for: a pudgy figure with thin hair or a pear-shaped figure in sweat pants. These two were the balding lady and Mr. Schaffer. No one ever took the time to learn the lady's name. Today I was pretty sure it'd be her turn to open the gates. I always felt a little bad for her since she seemed to be going through a mid-life crisis. She looked for every possible way to "revive the dying passion in her life" yet failed to meet most of the requirements of her job. But that wasn't a problem at all for the students. We didn't think the principal cared much either as long as she got those complements about her bobbed haircut and pink eye shadow out of her every morning. I was hoping it'd be Mr. Schaffer today; he's one of those cool 40-year-olds always making jokes about old age that make people like the balding lady cringe and panic about being on the verge of death. He was also one of those rare people you find working at a school who genuinely enjoys being around kids. It seemed like he took the time to get to know each of us and made us all laugh and love him. Because of this, most people behaved around him. Disappointing Mr. Schaffer was one of the worst things you could do.
The first time Mr. Schaffer started talking to me was around the beginning of the school year when he found me consistently showing up 30 minutes before the gates were opened. He would ask me why I got dropped off so early and why I didn't take a quick nap before going in. I told him about my mom and how we lived kind of far away and that I took naps in the amphitheater. Sometimes he would open the gates early for me because he felt bad I had to sit on the sidewalk for a long time. He'd only go five minutes before 6:00 at the earliest, but it was a lot nicer than hanging out with Seth.
You would think at a private school bullying might be against the rules, more so than at a public school at least. You would think punching someone so hard in the face that their nose stays crooked after healing would not be allowed under any circumstances, that knocking the air out of someone or smacking their face against a brick wall or breaking their arm could at least be punished with a detention. But like everyone else, Seth knew when to act as if he were an angel around Mr. Schaffer. And if he had been caught by anybody his dad knew how to make them forget what they saw. Today Seth showed up earlier than usual; today of all days, when it was the balding lady's turn to open the gates, and she was the one who opened them late.
One smack to the face just as Seth and I both checked the time.
Seth's father was a lawyer. "Patrick Butler: He'll pull you out of the depths of debt," and whatever the little song is that goes with that awkward stare down of a commercial. It's like he thinks he can look into people's souls and control them through the camera's lens. Sometimes I saw Patrick Butler when he dropped Seth off. Most days they got to the school right around six, and other days, unfortunately, a few minutes before. His dad was as strict as my mom.
I was really weak today. I was already on the ground holding my cheek as he got ready again.
I don't think I'll ever know why Seth hates me, or why he prefers me over a punching bag. I didn't think it was because I looked like an ugly nerd to him. As far as I knew I looked pretty average: black hair in a ponytail, pretty normal glasses, they didn't make my eyes look too big or too small, school uniform that everyone had to wear, and about as much acne as him and the rest of the pubescent seventh graders.
Next was a fist to the chin, making my teeth close hard on themselves and shake with pain. I fell back on my shoulders and knew he was going to kick me to make me stand up.
In this day and age I think we're done with the whole stereotypical bully and nerdy characters. Most people are a lot more accepting of everyone's differences. I know in California a lot of people are kind to each other. It even seems like they prefer people who are weird and lean more toward that nerdy type. Bullying had or shouldn't have had any meaning anymore. It's just so 80s. We've gotten past that. At least most of us have.
"Get up," he said in a low voice. He never told me why he did this, but I usually got made fun of or he'd make some sort of smart remark. Today he was just going for the mysterious hardass.
It wasn't even like I had a better life that he could be jealous of. My mom and I were pretty close, but I didn't have both parents like he did, and he was never around to see how we acted with each other. I definitely wasn't wealthier than him, so that couldn't be the issue.
I was about to stand up, knowing if I didn't then he'd just stomp on my ribs until I couldn't breathe. One time he broke one but I kept it secret because I had no idea what he'd do if I told. Whenever he did something really bad I came up with an excuse for it, like tripping down the stairs or some bullshit like that. I knew my mom would be sad if she realized I hadn't told her about him before, and she'd probably make a huge scene at school. Imagine the conversation with him and his parents and the principal. I could never handle that much tension and awkwardness.
Something down the sidewalk caught his attention and took it away from me as I struggled to lift myself up. I turned for a second to see the balding lady make her way down the street while she looked at her phone. The relief was so amazing I had to stop myself from smiling.
I quickly turned back to Seth to see if he saw me smile. His glare pointed straight down at me. He put out his hand for mine to grab and pulled me up so hard I thought he might dislocate my shoulder, which actually wouldn't be the first time he's done that. Google is so handy for everything; you can even find out how to relocate your shoulder.
Seth pulled me to the corner of the sidewalk and hid behind an outer wall surrounding the school. He stood behind me with one hand covering my mouth shut and the other pinning my arm against my back. He glanced over the wall to see where the balding lady was and held me so tight I thought he might kill me if I moved a centimeter.
"If you let her see you or you tell her I hit you, I will snap your neck. I looked it up. I know how to," he whispered directly into my ear. Guess I was kind of right. Why couldn't she see me though? It'd be less suspicious then because she usually says hi to me in the morning. She'll notice I'm gone.
He took his hand off my mouth and continued watching. I felt the bruise swelling on my face now; probably what he meant by "if you let her see you." I remembered the first time he gave me bruises and my mom asked me what happened. On the spot, I came up with a story about running in PE over a hill and I was really tired so I fell asleep for a second and tripped down the hill. I went over some rocks and I got bruises. I got her to believe it and I got her to focus on a show about housewives while I stole some of her makeup to use next time. I used it in small amounts and tried my hardest to blend it so it would look natural. I was pretty low on it now though, so I'd have to be careful about how much I used this time.
"You wouldn't really kill me, would you," I asked as quietly as possible. I don't know why I thought it was a good idea to push it, but it bothered me that he thought he was capable of murdering someone. We were so young, and he's already hurt me so many times, and I had no idea what I had done to make him feel the need to do this.
"Of course I would," he answered.
I was almost about to cry I was getting so scared. But a part of me said he would never do anything that serious. Though I still wanted to know why he felt that way. What did I do?
"Why do you hate me," it barely came out as a sound.
"Because you're annoying."
He would kill me because I annoyed him? I bet he could, too. He was only fourteen, but he was pretty strong, especially compared to me. One time I thought I could get stronger so I could at least protect myself, but all my mom and I ever had to eat at home was yogurt and cereal. We needed eggs and meat for me to gain any muscle.
"Could you at least tell me how I could stop annoying you," the tears were right on the edge and I had to try to keep my voice from sounding shaky.
He sounded so honest and serious it felt like it was nothing for him to say those kinds of things. Why did he hate me so much? Sometimes I tried to think about everything I had ever done after I met him to figure out if I did anything mean to make him feel this way about me. I couldn't think of anything but that didn't mean there wasn't something. I just wished I could know why. The tears weren't going to stop and I truly thought he might kill me.
"Stop it," he knew I was crying. He put his hands around my neck and I started panicking fast. I grabbed at his arms and choked, mostly on my own sobs. But his grip only tightened.
I remembered one night when I couldn't fall asleep that I was thinking about death and what I would do in my last moments. I would think about my mom and my cat, Flea, and I would say over and over again, "I love my mom and I love Flea." And in my mind I would remember the time when all three of us went to the beach for a whole day and it felt like we were living different lives. We kept Flea in a cute picnic basket, mostly for hiding him rather than holding food, and we did whatever we wanted. We swung on a bench at a pier and made a mermaid in the sand. We threw ourselves at huge waves even though we didn't have surfboards. I remember the sand followed us all the way home, even after we rinsed off, and I was happy to see it still engrained in my clothes days after we had left. In my English class we talked about what peace meant to us and that day was the only thing I could think of that might be like it. That's what I wanted to think about before I died, in case there was nothing afterwards and my last thoughts were all I could hold onto.
"I-," I started. I didn't just want to think about those words, I wanted them to be my actual last words, rather than asking how I could stop being annoying. "I love-"
Seth took his hands off my neck and I coughed and choked for air. He pinned me against the wall and looked at me with his green eyes that I had always thought were scary but looked psychotic today. Thankfully, his hand was pushing against my shoulder and not my throat anymore. The tears kept coming though and I thought he might start choking me again, but this time while looking me in the eyes.
"What did you just say," he whisper-yelled.
"I-I..." I wanted to stop the tears but I was too overwhelmed to control them. Seth was staring at me with such harsh eyes I couldn't calm down. I still thought he would murder me if he decided what I was going to say was stupid.
"Yeah, I heard that part. What did you say? Or what were you going to say?"
"I-I...thought you were going to...I thought you would kill me."
"And?" He seemed to be getting angrier again.
"And, I...I wanted my last words to be, 'I l-love my mom, and I love Flea.'"
"I wanted them to be the last thing I thought about. Oh, and...Flea's my cat. I-I named him after Flea, the-the bassist."
"From Red Hot Chili Peppers?"
I nodded and he looked confused. He took his hand off my shoulder and ran his fingers through his shaggy blonde hair. Maybe he didn't like me because he thought my hair was gross, all black and greasy. It was, but I hoped there was more of a valid reason than that.
"What's your favorite song," he asked, unexpectedly.
"What," I immediately wanted to take that back. He gets so mad when I don't understand him or can't hear him the first time he says something.
"What's your favorite song by Red Hot Chili Peppers," he asked again, not as angry as I thought he would be.
"Um, This Velvet Glove..."
"Mines..." he hesitated. That was so unusual for him. "Suck My Kiss."
"That's a really good song," I tried to sound nice. He was actually talking to me. And like I was a person and he wasn't making fun of me. This was unbelievable. It didn't feel like anything that had ever happened before. He was talking to me without insulting me or punching me, and it was like an actual conversation almost. How did he change in just a few seconds? This made me love Red Hot Chili Peppers even more; bringing people together through their music. I'd have to thank them someday for this.
"Yeah, it is. All funky and stuff."
"Shoulda been, coulda been, woulda been dead, if I didn't get the message goin' to my head," I sang and shook my shoulders awkwardly to dance to the beat.
"I am what I am..." he said flatly.
"Most motherfuckers don't give a damn!" I tried to sing loud and get him to have fun but all he did was laugh hesitantly.
He looked over at the balding lady and started walking away. I peaked from the other side of the wall to see if she was still there. I didn't want Seth to get mad again if I let her see me. It looked like she had already gone somewhere else and I could head back, too.
I could return to my normal routine: staying in the bathroom for a while until I was sure Seth was occupied with his friends and didn't want to pay attention to me. I would use the makeup and make sure I looked perfectly normal. Then I might find an empty table in the corner of the cafeteria where I could stay hidden until the bell rang instead of go to the amphitheater. It was always best to lay low on days like this.
But today could be different. I did something that no 80s nerd could do with an 80s bully. Today I connected with Seth Butler over Red Hot Chili Peppers. Why couldn't we have talked like this before? We could have been friends if we had shared this love for funk/rock sooner! My violin teacher let me practice with Red Hot Chili Pepper songs all the time. I could have played a song for him!
Without thinking about the hundreds of other possibilities that could result from my next move, I ran towards Seth, still a little weak, and grabbed his shoulder. He turned back around with an almost disgusted look on his face, but his eyes looked nowhere near as terrifying as they did before. Normally, I would've thought he might rip my arm off my body right there but he just stepped away from me.
"Um," my voice was still shaky from crying, but I didn't feel that bad anymore. "I play the violin. A lot."
His eyes glanced from side to side and he seemed confused now. I couldn't wait to tell him about what I play and ask if he might want to hear. I think I was almost smiling.
"And," he said.
"My teacher lets me play Red Hot Chili Pepper songs," I thought I sounded too excited but I was so happy I didn't care. "I don't know Suck My Kiss but I could learn it. And I know how to play a lot of their other songs, and even a Metallica song!"
"You know how to play a Metallica song on the violin?"
"Yeah! And it's One so it's pretty complicated and it sounds cool."
"So, why are you telling me this?"
"I thought maybe you'd want to hear me play it since you like that kind of music."
Seth looked to the ground and turned away. Underneath all his hair it looked like he might be blushing. Oh no, did I embarrass him? Was I too forward? I thought. He ran his fingers through his hair again and sighed a little. He looked back up at me and this time his eyes looked heavy, and kind of sad.
"What's wrong," I tried to ask in the nicest way possible. I didn't want him to get angry and think I asked because I thought he looked weird.
"Do you even know what you look like right now," he asked, his voice was quiet and deep.
My heart dropped and I thought he would go back to telling me how annoying I was and how I should kill myself without any logical reasoning. He stayed quiet for a moment and I could already feel the punches to my face. Would they be worse this time since I annoyed him even more? I wanted to run but I knew he could catch up to me.
"I wish you had a mirror," he said. "Your face is swollen, and bruised. Your neck is even a little red." He stared at it for a long moment, confusing the hell out of me. What was this new act? Was he just pretending to be this way or-or what? What was he doing?
"I just threatened to kill you, and then actually tried to choke you so you'd pass out. And now what? You want me to hear you play a Red Hot Chili Peppers song on your violin? Do you know how sad that is?! That you would go and ask the person who beats you up to do something with you?"
"It's-it's not like a date or anything-"
"That's not the point! I'm a fucking asshole to you and you would-. Why would you do that?"
He paused and actually wanted me to answer him, but I had nothing I could say. I wasn't prepared for this. I thought as fast as I could to figure out how to respond. His eyes were psychotic again and I wasn't sure what I would say would be enough of an answer. But it was all I had.
"Seth, I want you to know I don't hate you," I started slow but shaky. I was going to tell him my true thoughts, something I had only ever kept to myself. "When you punch me or push me down or hurt me in any way, I don't think about what it'd be like to get back at you, or kill you. You're a person like me and you might be going through something terrible that I don't know about. It doesn't mean what you do is right, it just means I'm open to the possibility that underneath everything, you could be a good person."
"How you act towards me, the fronts you put up, under any shit life might have piled on you to make you this way. I believe that all people are good."
He looked away and thought for a moment. I hoped he wouldn't think I was stupid or annoying. I hoped he would understand what I thought and maybe listen to me play the violin.
"But after everything I've done to you? You can think this way after everything I've done to you," he asked.
"I'll always think this way."
"But you can't know for sure that everyone can be good."
"I don't have proof, no. But...I can feel it, you know?"
Seth looked down at his feet for a while and didn't say anything. He took a couple more seconds before finally speaking. "After school, in the band room-"
From behind, I could hear a car start to drive down the street, too early to be a student so it had to be the principle or vice principle. Seth stared in its direction and started to act nervous, shifting from one foot to the other and looking back and forth at me and the car.
"Start walking away," he whispered to me, barely moving his lips to make it look like he wasn't talking to me. I grabbed my bag and headed towards the gate, hoping to get to my spot on the amphitheater and think about anything else. It'd be too sad to think about how I had the chance to be friends with Seth but immediately lost it.
When the car passed, Seth grabbed my shoulder and turned me back to him a little. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see him lightly smiling. He sang quietly in my ear, "By the way, I'm trying to say, I'll be there, waiting for..."
In the bathroom of the cafeteria I was applying my mom's makeup to the bruise on my cheek. It actually wasn't as bad as it could have been. There was only one and it was medium sized. I also had a red spot from when he first smacked me but that would be gone by the end of the day. Once I finished my makeup I knew I was free to return to my spot in the amphitheater. I didn't have to hide or lay low today. Seth and I were going to hang out so it wouldn't matter if him and his friends saw me. I could nap and dream about which song I'd play. Maybe I could go with By the Way since he sang it to me before he left. Or should I go with the Metallica song? He seemed pretty surprised when I told him I could play it. I bet he'd be even more surprised if he heard me.
I walked out of the bathroom feeling like there hadn't been a bruise there at all and made my way to the amphitheater. I could just lie down, relax, let some bugs crawl over me and make a nest in my hair, and then get through the rest of the day feeling excited and hopeful. If I could be friends with Seth I could meet other people and become their friends, too. Everybody had decided with one look at me that I wasn't worth their time. But now I could show them that I was more than an awkward looking girl and they would learn to stop basing their opinions off of that. We could all get really close and hang out all the time until we felt like family. Seth would always be my closest friend since he was the first person to give me a chance. How crazy would that be for him to be my closest friend?
I hoped one day the memory of him bullying me would fade so distantly away that there was no way we could remember it. And I hoped he knew that every time he hurt me I forgave him. There are many people in the world who do terrible things and continue to do them whenever they can. But when you look at them or talk to them you can feel that they don't do those things just for the hell of it. Something inside them was hurt or broken. I still don't know why they feel the need to do it, but I know these people just need the chance to have someone who will forgive them and see them for their potential and their future rather than every mistake that haunts them. Their entire lives could change from one person's forgiveness and faith in them. I hope if Seth and I can't forget then he'll at least know I want to be that person for him.
My fingers dug into the grass and let the coolness of each blade make its way through me. I smiled at the thought of me and Seth hugging and being content. Peace was all I wanted. In the distance, I spotted Seth walking towards the main building. His friends weren't around yet so I thought this would be the safest time to talk to him out in the open. I called out, "Hey," which made him jump a little but then notice me. I smiled and gave him the peace sign, which he returned before going his separate way.
I laid back and looked through the trees, feeling my body float off the ground and into a dream. I wished I knew how to play Suck My Kiss; that'd be fun to play. I could play Soul to Squeeze for Seth or anything that might make him smile. It really didn't matter as long as he left without regretting he showed up.