CHAPTER 14

HELL IS HIGH SCHOOL

Monday morning. School would happen, regardless of anything, like a monster eating Time. I sat in my bedroom with the sun fresh in a pale autumn sky. In my left hand I held James’ dirty gym sock, the one I had lifted from his car on that fateful Friday. In my right hand I held a “Ken” doll, the visage of James. I was remembering something before the loss. It was odd to me, like a memory of a previous life, a version of myself from long ago, but I persisted, for the moment, seeking some lost identity. The Vodou ritual. It was something I had read. I remembered reading it as something I had done, something that had brought me solace and joy, something that made me different and me. Now the words themselves were blurry but the memory of them remained. I was to take a personal belonging of the object of my desire, in this case, a sock of James’. I was to marry this belonging with a representation of the object, something approaching a reasonable approximation, not too abstract, but not too literal either. A doll was a classic, even if a bit cliché. I dropped the Ken doll into James’ soiled sock without ceremony. Was I expecting anything to happen? I think not. My thoughts overwhelmingly revolved around my own stupidity. Everything had failed me up to this point, why not books? Why not everything that had ever given me hope? Why not even Ms. Dickinson or My Emily or whatever the fuck I was calling her today? Why did I deserve anything but pain? And now even my own self pity was sucking me down. I was slipping into an inescapable vortex where each succeeding thought preyed upon the next sucking me closer and closer into a perfect state of nothingness where I had no value and no cares and no desires and no reason to ever be. Try to laugh at yourself, I remember thinking, do something stupid. So I grabbed the top of the sock with the doll inside and whipped it around and around over my head like an absurd improvised slingshot, then let it fly, whereupon it hit the wall of my bedroom with a surprising force. Then I panicked, and ran to it, and inspected the doll inside, and was relieved to find it undamaged. I realized that I needed to still believe in something, anything, even if it had no meaning, no connection to anything but what was left of my feeble philosophies. I sat the doll and the sock neatly on my bed, and proceeded to get dressed for school.


Of course I didn’t have to go to school. But then I didn’t care. Life had begun to resemble a shitty movie with me watching myself walk through it. Maybe it could offer me some entertainment, a sad tragicomedy ending with my dissolution into the forgotten Universe. Or something like that. What the fuck else was I supposed to do.


Doris was downstairs, sitting at the kitchen banquette, a figure of so much sudden weight. I sat down next to her. I remember thinking that there was perfect space between us, that if each of us held our outstretched arms to the other, our fingertips would be mere millimeters apart. We spoke as if involuntarily.


“The burial is this afternoon,” she said. “After school.”

 

“I know.”
We paused here, then words were spoken.


“I’ve said my goodbyes,” she said.

 

“Me too.”


“Then there’s no point in it.”

 

“No.”


This was as close as me and my mother would ever be. I got up and left for school.

School bus, check, nothing to interrupt my catatonia. I could wedge myself within the confines of the seats, drawing imaginary borders that were quite effective, and nobody ever sat next to me anyway.


Things changed once I was dropped at the front of the school. I attained my usual demeanor, eyes down, books held firmly across my chest, uniform stretched to cover as much skin as possible, the cheap polyester stockings forever shrinking down my leg only to be hoisted back up every half minute or so. I had enough hair to hide behind, I always did. But it would be a challenge to hide that day.


For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to feel other people’s emotions as a tactile sensation, let me inform you that the proverbial slings and arrows are exactly that, they sting and poison and erode in equal measures, exposing the skeletal core of yourself which you have yet learned to feign, so that marrow drips from your pores, searing your flesh with the worst intentions for all the world to breathe. My fellow students stared at me like never before, and the brief glimpses of faces that I did catch revealed something wholly remarkable to me. They hated themselves for staring, but they couldn’t help themselves. I was their Medusa turning their souls to stone, and they were not pleased with the situation, and their looks shot their blame back at me, where I had no choice but to absorb. Soon I was heavy with it, like I was growing in mass, trying to hide further behind the bushiness of my matted locks, pushing them in front of my eyes with my free hand — but all the students seemed a clan more foreign to me than ever, speaking in tongues as they did, engaging in sacraments, exchanging faux-lofty verses amongst their own. I navigated the halls with all the delicacy of a swamp rat in a minefield, feeling myself ricochet off glances and the occasional locker. And the murmurings! My ears were clearly not quite ready to hear again, but a variety of words pelted me and threatened to form invectives and sometimes even aggressive noun-verb combinations.


“Look…”

 

“That’s her…”

 

“…killed…”

 

“…sister…”

 

“…kicked…”

 

“…bitch…”

 

“…murder…”

 

“…that…”

 

“…cunt…”


To my horror I turned one corner to find James himself, up on a ladder, plastering a large poster to an especially visible wall (he seemed undamaged from my earlier Vodou attempt, the morning bedroom sock throw). The poster was in fact a photographic portrait of Chloe, blown right up, larger than life, with words emblazoned below, “Remember Her” (we’d only been at the fucking school for two fucking weeks, after all). I retreated from this scene quickly before James could detect my presence. I wasn’t ready for that.


In fact, it was at that moment when I felt perhaps this school attendance thing was something I couldn’t handle at all, that maybe I should take advantage of any administrative sympathy for my position. I immediately walked with the most resolve of the day to Principal Nodder’s office. It occurred to me more than once during my brief hallway sojourn that this was the lowest point of my high school career to date. I would of course be gravely mistaken, as you shall discover soon enough.


Nodder saw me right away. He couldn’t be known to make me wait, no matter how damning the buzz regarding my dubious moral character. I hoped his assistant would stay with me in his office, given Nodder’s bizarrely perverted inclinations during my previous visit to his enclave, but no, I would again have to fend for myself. I hoped he didn’t think me completely vulnerable and in need of some greasy old-man-love comfort. Christ, I nearly puked in my mouth thinking about this, but better to be prepared for the guy. Sadly, this minor distraction had provided me with my very best moment of respite since Chloe’s demise. It took my fear of a middle-aged sex offender to wrest me from my despair, if only for a fleeting moment. The low keeps getting lower.


Nodder was uncharacteristically quiet at first, and I realized that this wasn’t some sick flirtation ritual, but that he was instead genuinely awkward about the whole death-of-a-student thing. Or at least I hoped so, because the alternatives were worse, including the version where he too suspected me of felonious wrongdoing on that rock face. So instead of waiting for him to lead the dialogue, I spoke up.


“Mr. Nodder?” I asked, gently.

“Anna.” He said my name, and stopped. What the hell was that supposed to mean? It meant a really awkward situation just got even more awkward. Thanks, douche.


“Mr. Nodder,” I said, “I can’t go to class.”


“Take the pamphlet,” he said, pointing to his desk. On it was one of those small, three- fold self-help pamphlets of the generic kind. It was titled, “Dealing with Grief.” As I picked it up, Nodder then said all he was going to say to me.


“We all have to be strong. Now go to class.”

I don’t think Nodder ever looked at me through the entire meeting. I threw the pamphlet with some force back down on his desk, but he didn’t bat an eyelid. He wouldn’t even let me storm out in a huff, the bastard. I had to just walk.


I couldn’t run from James the entire day. I had biology third period. I made sure to get there early so I could offer James the favorable option of ignoring me should he please. And please he did, sitting at his usual lab desk. Since it was one row over and one seat up, he could keep his back to me for the entire class without it seeming on purpose. Of course I wasn’t unused to James ignoring me, despite the brief dalliance I had with him on that fateful day before everything turned to shit. And as well, his posture afforded me the luxury of my usual fixation of my gaze, which despite all that had occurred in the past few days, all the monumental oppressive gravity and blackness, the mere beholdence of James to my eyes still granted me a haven, if only to bathe in his physical specimen, Greek as it was. He was still my own personal art gallery, a new James with every subtle twist and turn, every little shift for comfort he made on an especially bony and difficult steel school chair. As an art object to me he could be my anything, no matter what he truly was unto himself. Was this inappropriate? Maintaining my lust for James after all that had happened?

Maybe it was just my instinct, something I needed to hold onto, so I could heal, so I could live. Survival was still my predisposition, after all. I was young, at least in body, literally. So my ritual staring persisted, for then, like Time.


This was all roses until James gave me the slightest backward glance. I panicked of course, and dove headlong into one of my books, I don’t know which, in the most unnatural display of movement on human record. I dared not read what was on his face then, much better of course to think he was looking toward someone else — why would he confront me, given all that had happened? It was about this time that Mr. Spellman intervened. He had been ready to pounce on me from the start of class. He positioned himself strategically between myself and James.


“Anna,” he whispered gently, “you don’t really need to be here. Go home. Take whatever time you need.”


“But Mr. Nodder said I had to be strong.” Mr. Spellman laughed, albeit quietly.

“That old chrome dome? He’s never been strong in his life! It’s up to you and you alone, Anna. Do you really want to be here?” I couldn’t help but look at James, since Mr. Spellman had shifted, or James had shifted, or, I don’t know, but James somehow came into my line of sight, and Mr. Spellman noticed.


“Best you put him out of your mind, dear,” he said, “he’s too upset, and frankly, I think seeing you bothers him. But it’s not your fault.”


What?

How is this “my fault?”

Did he know? Did Spellman know what happened on the rock face? Did the whole world know? I had to find out. I asked him.


“What do you mean, ‘my fault’?”

Mr. Spellman’s answer was gentle, but matter-of-fact.


“Because you remind him of Chloe. Because you’re an identical twin.”

 

I looked at Mr. Spellman blankly. “Oh dear,” he said, “you don’t see it.”

 

“I’m me.”


“Of course you are. But this is a sensitive time for all of us, for you most of all.”

Even the nicest person can be guilty of patronizing, I thought. Mr. Spellman hadn’t finished giving his approval.


“Go home, Anna,” he said, before walking away. I don’t know if he assumed I would take his advice or not, but I wasn’t budging from my stool. I had surrendered to the inertia of my own presence. It would take a mountain to move me.


The next James period was English with Ms. Bowles. God only knows what she would go on about, Chloe this, Death that. No wonder I had my barriers up, with this gallery of kooks. I wish I could say I felt something when Bowles finally did address the class, after a sufficiently pregnant eternal pause.


“I know this is a hard time for all of us,” she began ominously, “and though we only knew her a short time, we all looked up to Chloe. She had such life. We need to cherish her memory. Remember her radiance. It’s okay to grieve, to get help. Does anyone want to offer a few words?”


I wanted to sink into the darkest place. With all the world’s great literature broaching the topic of eternal sleep, this was all Bowles could say? Didn’t she know that my eyes couldn’t work, that I needed something more, some Emily, I mean, wasn’t she our current curriculum?


Leave it to James to tie it all together, as he was the first to offer a memorial.

 

“She wasn’t a nobody.”


And then he looked at me.


It was only at that moment that I realized the full permutations of the day, this day, the first day of school following the loss of my beloved and my hated, my self and my other, the bitch and the Queen, the Chloe, my Chloe. Mr. Spellman was right. Chloe was gone, but not gone, she lived on, in me. It was an affront to nature, and a shock to close and casual acquaintances alike. They had seen her, her lifeless body, her corpse, the whole fucking school had dutifully passed by that sickeningly open casket, and then avoided me, turned away their collective gaze, shunned me until my inevitable return, a chance meeting in a hallway or a classroom or quad or cafeteria, when little pieces of the dead walked amongst them, the pieces of dead Chloe in me. These facts hadn’t been obvious to me at all, and this worried me. Wasn’t Chloe my self/other? Yes, but while we were identical in looks, add makeup, clothes, style, personality, demeanor, walk, speech pattern, tics, shrugs, any of a thousand identifiable mannerisms that make a person to another person, and you have opposites, the Chloe who is Queen, and the Anna who is not. Wherein one dwells in the other, and vice versa, reversed — this is the story yet to be told and indeed I am in the process of telling it — but the vital point for me at this juncture was that I had actually taken a step, and a rather unconscious step at that, into assuming some ungainly form of my very own identity. I could scarcely believe it, and it caused me no small degree of alarm, and, most importantly, guilt, for here it was, thrice the day after Chloe’s “accidental” death, and I had attended school, my most hated of places — and even in a stupidly numb state as my own, I had endured, and even then surrounded by the daggers of suspicion running on to blame. If I didn’t feel so Goddamn ashamed of myself, I might have felt proud. But there was no time for that. A million thoughts passed me by in that moment James looked at me in Bowles’ class, but I had a new plan for the day, one that would win me James for my very own.