In the morning, I get ready for school.
I brush my hair and do my Spanish homework and put on my makeup, but the whole time, I’m thinking about what happened to Gatsby. I want to understand the situation (the circumstances), but I can’t seem to get it figured out, so I stop trying.
This is actually easier than you’d think. I have a lot of practice at ignoring anything about school that I find upsetting. All year, I’ve been entertaining myself by pretending things, like the door to the math wing is really a portal to Hell, or time has stopped and if I can draw three perfectly round circles, it will start again.
Mostly though, I pretend to be someone else. Not like wittier or more confident or cooler, but someone else like Morticia Addams or Joan of Arc or Marilyn Monroe. I pretend to be Tinkerbell. I pretend to be Alice in Wonderland, because if this is Wonderland, then it doesn’t even matter that nothing makes sense.
I go to school as Queen Elizabeth I, because maybe her natural complexion is buried under an inch of foundation, but at least she knows how to run a country.
Later, things will sort-of/kind-of be okay. Gatsby will show up to US History—the scrapes on his face scabbing over, his bad arm strapped against his chest. He’ll smile around the room and joke about this being the only time he’s ever been arrested that resulted in him not being punished, either by the court system or his dad.
He’ll grin and say, “I guess that’s the big secret. I just have to stand there and get my ass beat.”
The morning is for worrying though, and wondering. It’s for impeccable deportment and Queen Elizabeth.
In art, I sit across from TS and Brody. The semester is almost over, and we’re working on our final sculpture assignment, chipping tiny pieces off blocks of plaster and sanding down the edges. Everything is dusty and the fact that my chisel is held together by duct tape is ruining my sense of monarchical dignity. I don’t like how the plaster dries out my hands.
I don’t like that something mysterious has taken place and I don’t have answers, but TS proves to be is an invaluable source of information. She was smoking in the back parking lot when it happened and saw the whole thing.
She said how Shark-Boy had come up and stood right in Gatsby’s face.
She said, “And that boy in blue, the one with black hair, he’s all, ‘Come on man, back off, cool it.’ And he kept saying, ‘Just talk to me, man. I’ll talk, but I don’t want to fight you,’ and shit like that.”
“P***y,” said Brody.
TS shrugged. “It really might’ve been okay, you know. Except, that blond guy was standing so close, like they do. They were all chest-to-chest, with their noses almost touching, and then some dick out in the crowd goes, ‘So, you f****ts gonna fight, or you gonna make out?’”
Brody laughed at that. You could tell it was the kind of thing he would have said if he’d been there.
“Well,” TS told us. “That’s when the blond guy hit the blue guy for the first time. He cracked him too, right in the face. But the blue guy didn’t do anything. He just kept trying to get out of the way. It was really sad to watch. The blond guy grabbed him by the shirt, started slamming him up against some of the cars in the parking lot, when all of a sudden, the blue guy goes, ‘$%&@, man, $%&@!’ And he kinda grabbed his arm.”
“Gatsby always was a p***y,” said Brody.
“Well anyways,” said TS, looking hard at Brody. “He started trying to back away, you know, holding onto his shoulder, and the other guy comes in and knocks him right in the mouth, so hard you could hear the noise it made, and you could just see him start to fall. I mean, you could see his head kinda snap back, and he was stumbling like he would go down, but he didn’t quite. He just stood there, holding his arm. Like he was waiting.”
Now TS was just talking to me, looking at me. “You know something funny? That blond guy could’ve beat the shit out of him right then. I thought he would, too. But he didn’t. When he saw that the blue guy wasn’t going to fight him, he just turned around and walked away.”
I felt suddenly transparent then, because it meant that Shark-Boy was still (at least kind of) Shark-like-a-person. It meant he still had some of that sense of fairness that I used to admire so much about him.
“They’re both $%&@ing p***ies,” said Brody.
I’m glad to have an eyewitness account, but I don’t really know what to do with it now that I have it. The story is upsetting. Also, this is the first time I’ve ever been truly mad at Brody, and it’s not even for the normal, obvious reasons, like his total callousness. I’m mad because he can never seem to see more than one facet of a person at any given time. But mostly, I’m mad because I want to be mad at someone, and even though the most obvious person is Shark-Boy, no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite do it.
I used to know Shark-Boy, a little.
We had sophomore PE together and before he got suspended and then sent to boot-camp, he would always pick me for his team or smile at me, or tell me I did a good job. He’d remember my name and never call me Hey, girl like the boys from the basketball team did. He would say hello to me in the halls, and once he did it in front of Elizabeth and she looked like she might pass out. Later, she scolded me for hanging around with bad guys.
“I don’t,” I said. “Hang around with him.”
Once, when Angela and Catherine were arguing over who was the best-looking boy in PE, I said Shark-Boy and then immediately wanted to take it back. I only meant it in a purely objective sense, but suddenly it seemed too significant. Catherine nodded and said that he definitely had the best body, but that Timmy-T was a better dresser and Dill had a better bone structure. Angela was appalled, though. She told me I needed to find a different boy to like.
“I don’t like him,” I said. But I meant it in a crush-way, because as a real, actual person, I kind of did like him.
His best sports were soccer and floor hockey and any other game involving contact. Everything was always full-speed, charging forward, blazing towards me, no way to stop now. Then, just as he was about to plow me over, he’d grab me around the waist instead and swing me in a circle, laughing.
A few weeks after we started dating, Dill asked me why I talked to Shark-Boy. His tone was disapproving. The implication was that I shouldn’t.
“I don’t,” I said.
“But he’s always, you know, touching you and picking you up.”
“He does that with other girls too, though. And he doesn’t ever really talk to me.”
“So him grabbing you is better?”
I shook my head. I didn’t tell him that it wasn’t an issue of better—that I thought it was pretty much the same thing, and Shark-Boy was just no good at talking to people. He mostly seemed to take place in the physical world, like a natural phenomenon. Or a disaster. He was always pushing and hugging and grabbing on, because it was the only way he ever really seemed to communicate.
In PE, he was in trouble all the time, but our teacher, Winnie, liked him anyway. She sent him to time-out almost every day, but he never complained. You got the sense that he’d spent a lot of his life in time-out.
Shark-Boy’s favorite station in the weight room was a declined bench press with a fixed bar. One day, he loaded up the press and then told me to stand on the bar. I just laughed and shook my head, but Sean, who was noisy and daring and also roughly the same size as Shark-Boy, said he’d do it.
When Winnie came in, Shark-Boy was red-faced, breathing in short, terrifying bursts, while Sean teetered on the bar, waving his arms for balance every time Shark-Boy sent the press up again.
“Oh my God,” Winnie said, standing in the middle of the weight room. Then, “Stop. Right now. Sean, get down. That’s—not—safe—get—down.”
She didn’t send either of them to the office, but Shark-Boy had to sit alone doing curls for the rest of the period. And I liked that Winnie at least seemed to understand him. How he needed to constantly be in motion, maybe just in order to keep breathing. That every bad thing he ever did started out as him not being able to sit still any longer.
So I spend the morning thinking about these things, because the idea of someone being beaten up by Shark-Boy is scarier than being beaten up by almost anyone else.
Mostly though, I’m thinking how one afternoon two weeks ago, I wrote him a break-up letter. Only (obviously), it wasn’t from me.
I’d been sitting in the cafeteria during my off-hour, working on yet another failed portrait of Jane, and a girl had leaned around one of the decorative columns and called out to me.
“Hey,” she said, waving. “Hey, how are you?”
And I just shrugged and nodded, thinking she would ask to use my hairbrush or borrow a dollar.
But she’d gathered up her books and come over. “Can you help me write something?”
When I asked what class, she shook her head. She told me that wanted to break up with Shark-Boy and needed help.
I’d been writing break-up letters for about a month at this point. I’d even developed a little set of preliminary questions. An evaluation. How long have you been together? Are you sure a letter is the best way? Is there a reason you absolutely can’t break up in person?
She smiled, looking rueful. “If I do it to his face, he’s going to get pissed and be a dick and then I’ll get really nasty and he’ll punch something and it’ll just be bad. It’s like, in real life, I can never think of how to say what I mean.”
And this—this honesty—was why I helped her. I was bemused, and kind of enchanted with the idea that even beautiful, confident girls who looked they were cast in bronze sometimes didn’t know how to say what they really meant.
It was a good letter. Kind, clear, straightforward, I mean. The best you can really hope for under the circumstances.
After TS tells me what happened in the parking lot though, I can’t stop thinking about it—what the fight was about and what it means, and if any of this had anything to do with my letter, and how I should probably stop helping people break up with each other.
I know I didn’t do this to Gatsby. Shark-Boy’s anger management problems are his own, and the whole thing probably had to do with drugs and not at all with a beautiful bronze icon of a girl and a letter copied down carefully in silver glitter gel pen. It doesn’t matter, though. I feel guilty anyway.
I think how maybe Gatsby won’t go to the detention center for fighting, but it will be for something else. I’m thinking about his shoulder and his father, how this is not the first time he’s come to school with his arm in a sling. Thinking of how strong Shark-Boy is, how easily he used to pick me up in PE last year, swinging me in a circle or dipping me to the floor like we were dancing.
And because I know these things about both of them, when TS tells the story of what happened, I can almost see it. Almost hear the hollow thud of Gatsby’s back against a tailgate, up against a passenger window. Shark-Boy, not shouting, never shouting. Just breathing, rapid, hoarse, resolute. The way he has always been moving forward, like he can never slow down, like there’s no way to stop now. Like his whole life, everything has always just been inevitable.
For discussion: Have you ever done something you thought was harmless and then felt bad about it? Not just writing other people’s break-up letters, but anything? (There are just all kinds of things that can seem totally isolated, until you realize that nothing happens in a vacuum.)
Do you ever pretend you’re Joan of Arc? Marilyn? Anyone else besides the you that gets out of bed in the mornings?
Do you totally suck at taking sides? (I do.)