This is not going to be a funny story.
I mean, yes—if I tried hard enough, I could probably think of a way to make it seem clever or ironic. But that would be a cheap thing to do, and while I’m shockingly up-in-my-head sometimes, and too glib (inappropriately sardonic), I am not in the business of cheapness.
I don’t have a written account of what happened, and in a way, I’m glad. When you write something down, it’s like that version becomes the official one. It starts to eat away your memory and whatever you left out will slowly disappear, until all you have left is what’s on the page.
So, I remember the little things because I didn’t write them down. And other things I’m almost sure of. I think it was a Friday. I think they were both wearing white T-shirts, but I couldn’t swear to it.
Here are the things I remember:
We were standing in the bus circle, waiting for route 38 to come and take us home. In two weeks, Irish would get expelled and I would not be devastated, or even very surprised. I remember that Irish was smoking, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing, so we were standing strategically, Little Sister Yovanoff and I positioned in front of him, arms linked, while Irish cupped the cigarette in the palm of his hand so the security guard wouldn’t see.
It seems important to point out that in this moment, I was really, really happy.
So happy that I was actually thinking about how happy I was, arm-in-arm with my sister, discussing John Steinbeck and watermelon gummi-O’s and whether or not I should grow out my bangs. (We decided yes. Which is good. Because they were really terrible).
Her hair was dyed a purple so purple it looked black. Mine was summer-bright, strawberry-and-caramel. We were like this perfectly mismatched set—her, and then me. Rose White and Rose Red. We were like this idealized version of us that only ever really existed in pictures.
In my head, I was making up a fairytale, how we went on an adventure. I was thinking how glad I was that we were related but didn’t look like it, how easy that made everything. How strange it was to be standing outside with your sister and a boy who used to tell you all the time that he was your made-up brother and now he only talked to you when none of his cool friends were around.
Little Sister Yovanoff and I leaned against each other, laughing at Irish’s jokes, at the plume of smoke drifting up from his hand. The sun was so bright and the grass was so green that for weeks afterward, I kept dreaming about it.
Here is what happened next:
They came across the parking lot together. The other boy, Rooster, was much bigger, and the way they were hanging onto each other, it was hard to tell who was holding up whom. Except Rooster had a hand against his face. He was putting most of his weight on #4’s shoulder, and every time he stumbled, I thought they would both fall.
And still, no one really noticed. No one looked at them, not really, not even me. (Before this happened, I’d always been so unshakably sure that I saw everything.)
We kept talking, quoting lines from Tommy Boy and debating the usefulness of the word “circumambulate.” Little Sister Yovanoff was teasing Irish about the cigarette, pretending she would slap it out of his hand.
Then #4 dropped Rooster on the grass in front of us and straightened up. His T-shirt was splattered red.*
At first it seemed like it had to be a joke, that there was just no way so much blood could come out of one person. Rooster was sitting slumped over with his hands pressed against his face while the blood ran down his arms and dripped from the points of his elbows. It landed in the grass, so shiny I thought it was glitter, the kind you buy in a canister at the craft store for two dollars. Then I thought it was paint. Then I don’t know what I thought.
We watched as Rooster fumbled out of his shirt, pulling it over his head and pressing it hard to his face, all one motion, very composed. With his free hand, he kept gesturing for #4 to just sit down. Blood was pouring off his elbows in rivers and #4 looked ready to pass out.
“Hey,” yelled Officer Jim, the security guard, pushing his way into the gathering crowd. “Hey, hey, you can’t take your shirt off on school property!”
Then Rooster raised his head and Officer Jim fell back mid-sentence, saying, “Don’t you know you can’t be—oh my God.” He gestured frantically with his hands, an up, up, up gesture.
Everyone was staring at Rooster, who sat bleeding on the ground.
I was watching #4, how he kept scrubbing at himself, trying to scrape his skin clean with his fingernails. His face was so white, and I had this weird, dreamy thought that it must be his blood welling up from the cuts in the Rooster’s forehead. That had to be the only explanation. It was simply that Rooster was bleeding out his blood. I knew it wasn’t the truth, and still it was the only thing that made sense.
Then Irish put his hand on my shoulder and it was like I woke up. The stupid, dreamy feeling went away, and the whole world got very clear. We stood there on the sidewalk, watching #4 hold his bloody hands away from himself. I knew, in a sudden wrenching twist of what might be considered my moral compass—I knew that I should go over to him, maybe offer him my hoodie. I should help him wipe the blood off his arms. Irish had me by the shoulder though, and I didn’t move.
By the time our bus showed up, the paramedics had come and were crouching on the grass. One of them was resting his knee in a puddle of blood and I could see it wicking up through the fabric of his slacks.
We filed onto the bus, talking in low voices.
“God, I think I’m going to puke,” Trip said in a slow, sleepy way, but no one paid attention because Trip was always saying things like that. His contributions were always running parallel to the conversation.
I was still thinking about #4—how he’d stood holding his bloody hands away from his body and I didn’t do anything, even though less than half an hour ago, I’d taken a zero just because of how tightly he was hanging on to the corners of his desk. Just because he’d looked like he wanted to be invisible more than I wanted a checkmark next to my name.
And now, I hadn’t even been brave enough to do something for him that he actually needed and I felt guilty in a way I’d never been guilty before. This fast, ugly rush, like I’d just failed at doing the decent thing because Irish had held me back without even knowing it, and because I was scared to touch a stranger. Like it should have been me—more than anyone—because earlier, when I’d been trying to hang up our poster in history class and I was too short, #4 had reached out and taken the tape. His fingers had brushed my wrist, just barely, and the shock of it made me freeze like a deer.
It should have been me because blood has never scared me. Thinking, For the rest of my life, I’ll remember this feeling.
“$%&@,” Irish said, dropping into the seat behind me. “That was pretty bad. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should always wear your seatbelt.”
Little Sister Yovanoff and I nodded in unison. The bus was less than half-full, but we were sitting together, even though we usually sat across from each other.
“Look,” Irish said, reaching over the back of our seat. “My hands are shaking.”
Across the aisle from me, Trip leaned forward and threw up Cherry Coke down the heater.
Irish sighed and let his head flop back, closing his eyes and looking long-suffering. “Trip, what the $%&@? Do you have any idea how bad that’s going to smell when it gets to be winter?”
But by then, Irish was expelled, and we had to open the windows whenever the heat came on.
Okay, now I’m feeling helpless and kind of guilty all over again, so for the discussion: Tell me about a time you wanted to do something important for someone else and for whatever reason, you just couldn’t.
Or, maybe you could and did—in which case, I want to hear that too.
Also, emergency situations: do you act? Do you freeze? Do you indulge in surrealist daydreams about bleeding someone else’s blood? Inquiring minds want to know. (And by minds, I mean . . . well, I really just mean me.)
*To this day, I don’t know the true story of what happened. Substantiated fact: it involved a car.
High school is easily the most aggressive rumor mill you will ever encounter, but the popular version is that Rooster tried to flick a lighted cigarette out the driver’s-side window and hit Homer in the face, which caused him to swerve violently and hit a very large tree. This may or may not be remotely close to true.
I found a more reliable source on information in my aunt, who is a nurse at the hospital. On Labor Day, during a barbecue at her house, she told us that Rooster had fractured his skull, requiring a lot stitches and a lot of blood, and for the love of God, I hope you girls always remember to wear your seat-belts!
#4 was in the back seat and sustained no damage.