Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.
She shoves everything aside. Goldenrod, green, purple study notes. Her chem binder clicks open and the sheets slide everywhere, across the Persian rug and the hardwood and into corners of the room and up against Rolph the snoring yellow lab. She steps on the notes, leaves her dirty shoeprints on them. She doesn’t care. I love Val because she doesn’t care about anything. The first time we met, in the changing room before gym, she looked me up and down and said, Those boobs are low. I could have hated her for that, I guess, but instead I was like, who says that? And I said, Thanks! And, from then on, we were friends, even when everyone else pushed her away. Even when they asked Her? Why? and made sour faces. Later, we snuck things from the pockets of the backpacks they looped onto the outside of their lockers when they went to gym: silver bracelets, digital watches, lip gloss.
And after that, we started taking things from other places. If we wore our uniforms they’d let us into the best. In one walk around Club Monaco, Val lifted a sweater and three necklaces. Next time we went there, shopping together for dresses for the formal, we wore the necklaces at the checkout. And at Holt Renfrew, where every saleslady knew Val from dressing her mom, I took the key chains off every Moschino bag while Val twirled in a Marc Jacobs dress, all the salesladies watching and cooing at her.
Later, I lined the key chains up on my bed. My mom came in right then, looking for her tennis shoes. My tongue tasted coppery.
Did you take them?
Why would I take your smelly runners?
I don’t know why you do what you do.
It was too late to cover the key chains up; I just sat there, frozen, in front of my loot. She went straight for my closet and tossed all my shoes around. She came over and lifted the skirt on my bed, stuck her whole head underneath. She tossed my pile of clothes off my desk chair. Then she left. A few minutes later, I heard the front door slam and the car back out of the driveway.
Val already has the tools all packed up to do it. She’s got this huge wrench. She slides it halfway out of her backpack, which is waiting in her front hall, under the coat hooks, beside a line of about a hundred shoes, all her mother’s. At the end of the row, her dad’s runners sit alone.
Where the hell did you get that? I ask. And Val just laughs.
And then we’re in front of school. The sun’s going down, and we’ve just got sweatshirts over our blouses and ties, and we’re still in our kilts and knee socks, and we’re shivering. There are only a few cars left in the lot. A couple office lights are on. The windows of the Performing Arts Centre are cranked open, and we can hear singing.
These are them, says Val. She pushes back some bushes against the wrought iron fence and there’s a bunch of pipes snaking out of the building and into the ground. Give me the wrench.
How did you find these? I ask. I mean, were you, like, looking for them?
She doesn’t say anything. She just puts out her hand, twiddles her fingers.
In her backpack there’s also clothes, a bag of chips, a makeup kit, a wallet, and a heavy Leatherman with a bunch of blades. The wrench is wrapped in a tie-dye T-shirt, worn out and holey in places. Camp Wapomeo, 1998. There are only the streetlamps and the neighborhood porch lights here, but when I unwrap it, I can see even in that dim light the handle’s labeled in permanent marker: HAWTHORNE HALL.
She calls her students idiots: this is her term of endearment. Some softer teachers call theirs kiddo or darling. Kiddo and darling taste wrong, like a bad after-dinner mint. Idiot has a nice crisp mouthfeel and clear trajectory when she fires it off from the front of the room. And the girls love it, have always loved being called idiot. No matter what a girl says, what she loves most is a good strict teacher.
Like today, a girl fumbled something under her desk, and she went around to where this student was fumbling and saw it was a pack of Camels. The girl was unwrapping the cellophane in the shelf beneath the desk. For a whole minute she stood behind this girl and watched her. There was quiet in the room and the girl concentrated only on the wrapper, picking at it with her nails. The lecture on Yeats had stopped, and now all the other girls watched her watching their classmate, arms crossed, and their laughter started up. Finally, she rolled up the sheaf of handouts she held and bopped the girl on the head.
Idiot! She said.
Ow! said the girl. She pantomimed hurt, but she was laughing along with all the others.
You think I’m joking, she said, but I’m not joking. You truly are an idiot. Give them to me.
And the girl handed over the pack.
Do you want to be old before your time, hacking pieces of lung into a soggy tissue? Do you want to wheel your own oxygen tank around?
The girl giggled.
Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh. You think I’m exaggerating? I’ve seen this with my own eyes. I lost someone very close to me this way. Very close to me.
The girl quieted but kept laughing under the quiet, shaking. All the other students laughed on, maybe now at the girl who wouldn’t stop laughing even at this, and she had the sudden urge to slap this girl right across her laughing mouth. She lifted her tube of handouts and the girl mock cowered.
After the bell rang, the girl came up to her desk. Her blouse was unbuttoned at the collar and her tie was loose. Her blazer looked like it had been stuffed into the bottom of a locker for weeks. But she wore Chloé sunglasses on top of her head, and they were scratchless.
Ms. Wilson, said the girl. Can I have my cigarettes back now? She smiled a little.
Are you kidding me?
The girl looked around. No. They’re my property.
Get out, she said. Get out.
Now she rests one hand on her pile of ungraded papers and one on the pack of Camels, like she’s weighing one against the other. The night windows are mirrors, and in every mirror she can see a reflection of herself. Her small self. Her hooded eyes and her downturned mouth. She has a sense that the girl with the cigarettes knew all along she was lying: that in fifty-five years she’s never lost any of the few who are close to her, not even her grandparents, who are older than she can count.
A couple weeks into the semester, Val and I stood in front of the wide mirror in the second floor bathroom and tested out the word cunts. We started quiet, facing the mirror, looking at ourselves shaping out the word with our mouths. The delicate C, the ear of a teacup. Then unts, like some character from Lord of the Rings.
Cunts, I said. All prim, like I was reciting it at a tea party. Like it was another way of saying thank you.
Val smiled. Her smile was silver. When she said it—Cunts!—it was a sharp little bullet.
Cuuunts, I said.
Cunts! She spewed. Cunts? I said. C-unts? Cunties! I laughed. Val didn’t laugh with me.
Cunts! She returned. She was looking at herself in the mirror, glaring now. Her eyes were glittery and far away. Cunts! Cunts! Cunts! Cunts! Motherfucking cunts!
Right then, Mrs. Wylie came in and went into a stall. Val looked at me, not just in a wild way but in this way that said, I’m going to fuck with you. These sort of slitty eyes.
Goddamn motherfucking piece of shit cunt.
There was a voice from the stall. Excuse me?
Val was laughing now. Cunt, she’d said. Not cunts. Mrs. Wylie came wheeling out of the stall and up behind us wearing the angriest face I’d ever seen, and Val was still laughing even when Mrs. Wylie clamped a hand on her shoulder and spun her away to the principal’s office. I saw her later that afternoon, after class, and she wouldn’t tell me anything about the meeting.
We are the chorus in The Mikado. Today we wear our kimonos for the first time, and Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum and the Mikado are all robed in shiny rented silk, and the sets are up and painted, and everything looks like an old candy box, and we’re about to do our first full dress rehearsal. Ms. Freund films us from where she sits in the audience, taking notes. Ellen, our choreographer, watches too and gestures along to the music. And Mr. Wimple, the orchestra conductor, lifts his thin arms for the first swell.
There’s a step and a note that’s impossible to reach. It’s a small pirouette and a screeching high C. Even before kimonos, this was a dizzying combination. We clattered against each other like bowling pins. Now we have to do it in kimonos. In wigs. In sandals. Holding and snapping fans. There are whispers in the wings. Some chorus girls pinch other chorus girls and some rest their anxious heads on others’ anxious shoulders. We’ll never make it.
There’s a nozzle on the end of one of the pipes, and Val cranks the wrench open all the way to try to fit its jaws around this nozzle. But before she opens it, she puts the wrench down and turns to look at me, and she’s smiling. The elastics on her braces are glow-in-the-dark. I’ve never noticed before. Her teeth glow green.
I’ve got this idea, she says. Let’s lock the doors.
I think about this for a minute. But they’re already locked.
No, she says. From the outside.
She rummages in her backpack and comes out with the Leatherman. Scans it until she finds the screwdriver. I can hear my own blood. Sometimes this happens, when I worry.
What’ll that do, though? I ask.
Are you retarded? It’ll unscrew things.
She’s already walking onto campus and I’m tripping along behind her. No, I mean, why would we want to do that?
Val doesn’t answer. We’re at the emergency exit beside the gym and she’s unscrewing the handles on the doors. The first one falls off and clanks against the asphalt.
Val. I tug her hood. She’s putting all her weight into unscrewing the other knob and her body’s humming with anger, and so tense, like she’s become hard metal. Val.
The second knob falls, and Val’s headed for the door to the Science Wing.
Val. She pulls her hood up over her head, tucks her hands into her sleeves, looks around like to make sure no one’s watching.
Val! I grab her arm but she snatches it away, and I think she’s going to hit me or wrestle me to the ground the way she comes at me, with such force. But she grabs me into the biggest hug. She strokes my hair and kisses my forehead. And her mouth’s a little slobbery because of her braces. She leaves a ring of spit I don’t wipe off. For a minute we’re just in a hug, really warm. I don’t know if I’ve been this close to someone for a long time, since I was little. To feel their breathing and breathe against it. I could stay for a while. Val takes my hand, and twists her fingers in mine. We walk hand-in-hand to every fire escape and do the work together.
She has also confiscated a lighter. She considers it now, in her hand. Cheap. Blue. Plastic. She flicks it into flame and imagines setting all her unfinished grading on fire, right now. Just throwing it in the waste bin.
Here are the other things she’s confiscated: a silver Tiffany bracelet. A mohair sweater. A gift certificate for Victoria’s Secret. A palm-sized leather Dachshund with beady black eyes. A tube of YSL lipstick. A laser pointer, which she used to make dots on her students’ foreheads until she accidentally caught a girl in the eye.
Most girls don’t ask for their things back. She wore the Tiffany bracelet once, on a trip to Montreal. No one noticed it was engraved with the wrong initials.
Sometimes she wonders what the girls care about. She’s seen them take one glance at their grades and stuff their essays down into the bottoms of their backpacks, not looking at the comments. Sometimes she finds them crumpled in the garbage. Sometimes soaked with pop or coffee.
She has never smoked a cigarette. She considers this too. Even in her youth, she always made the right decisions.
Val’s not strong enough to twist the nozzle by herself. We both grip the wrench and brace a leg against the pipe. The first twist is the hardest. When the nozzle budges, we fall and the wrench comes off and thumps against the dirt. From there, all it takes is some unscrewing.
I guess I knew it but I didn’t really know, or didn’t want to: that we weren’t hacking open some water main or steam pipe from the heating system.
Shit, I say. Did you know this was gas? Val?
Val’s sitting back on her hands. She looks straight ahead, not even at the pipe but at something in her head, and her breathing’s thick and even, and I’ve never been more alone. I pick up the nozzle and try to fit it back on, but it’s heavy and my hands are useless and I can’t get it straight. The smell of gas in my nostrils, in my lungs, everywhere.
Val grabs my hand and tugs me up to my feet. Look, she whispers.
Someone’s at the window, up on the second floor where the English rooms are. A silhouette and light behind it.
And now we’re running, running down the block, and I look back and think maybe I should yell something. Maybe I should yell, Gas leak! Do people do that? Would anyone even hear? But Val’s got me by the hand and there’s no time to yell, we’re too far away. We cut through Rosedale Park. And when we’re halfway across the park, this huge dog comes at us out of nowhere. Its leash trails behind it. I’m ready to keep running, to run away from this dog that looks like a Shepherd and seems to be headed straight for us, but Val stops and crosses her arms, and when the dog sees this he stops, too. He circles. He watches Val for what she’s going to do. He licks his long snout.
Val starts howling. Barking and howling, with her neck craned up and her face to the sky. And the dog starts howling, like it’s talking to her, and they exchange howls in some weird call and response. I’m standing there watching them howl at each other, and then Val stops, sudden.
Bad dog! She yells. Bad! You’re a bad dog!
The dog cocks its head and looks at Val like it needs an explanation. Its owner’s coming toward us now, from the other side of the park. I guess I’m cold, because I’m shivering like crazy. My teeth are clattering. I’m backing away with my arms across my chest.
Bad, bad dog!
There’s a whistle, and the dog’s ears perk up. It runs back the way it came, with the tags on its collar jingling as it goes, and leaves me alone with Val.
This is what happens during the pirouette: one of us kicks her sandal off, right into the empty seats. It flips off her rotating foot like the launch of a discus and just misses Ellen and Ms. Freund. Moments later, the clap of wood sandal against wall, somewhere we can’t see. Some of us burst into laughs, but soon there’s a sense of relief that melts through us all. That was it. A flying sandal. A sudden slap.
We follow behind. We bow and shuffle. When we twirl, we’re just colors. When we look up, the stage lights smudge in our eyes. When we lift our voices, they braid together and rise, and rise, and rise.
We’re alone in the park now. Val strips down and tosses her uniform onto the grass. For a second she stands there in her underwear, like a stopped animal just before it runs. Her ribs are so sharp you could climb them, and she’s sick pale, almost purple. Then she pulls layers from her bag: leggings and jeans and a tank top and T-shirt and sweatshirt and jacket. When she’s dressed, she’s just a person-shape. She pulls her hood up tight around her head. She hoists the backpack.
Go home, she says.
Where are you going? I ask.
Like you give a fuck.
What do you mean? I give a fuck.
Val’s scanning the grass like she’s lost something. She talks to the grass when she tells me this: You just use me. You come over and eat my parents’ food—her parents, who she actually calls Thing 1 and Thing 2 whenever she talks about them. Who she steals crunchy twenty dollar bills from all the time—and follow me around and, like, get your cheap thrills. You just want to see what it feels like to have everyone hate you. You don’t. Give. A. Fuck. She picks up the Leatherman, glinting like her smile where it dropped.
You’re wrong! It bursts out so hard, from some place in my gut. And everyone doesn’t hate you. After I say it, I’m not sure. Tell me where you’re going, I whisper. Are you running away?
Go get back on the honor roll, nerd. Val turns to leave. The soft shush of her feet on the grass. I pick up the pieces of her uniform and bundle them in my arms. She knows I’m there behind her, her shadow, but she doesn’t turn around. I follow her right to the end of the park, where it dumps out onto Highland Avenue and dead leaves skritch down the street. She steps into a splash of lamplight. And when I see her there, lit from the top and all skinny and mean, her long mean legs and her pinched-tight fists, something sick comes up from my stomach and punches its way out my mouth.
Why are you such a goddamn bitch?
It wasn’t what I was going to say. I was going to say something that would make her come back. She doesn’t even stop. She laughs, this tight bark. She walks off.
And I drop everything and sit on the cold grass. The cold climbs right up me, right through my guts and out the top of my head and on into space. I just want to see what it feels like to have everyone hate me. And I guess, in this moment, I know what it’s like to be all alone, completely alone in the universe, with no love and no friends and no home. Val was my last and only friend in the world. And her face, when she said get back on the honor roll, nerd: this emptiness, like she never even really knew who I was.
The pipe. I think of it now like the way you realize you’ve forgotten your history binder in your locker when you have a test tomorrow. It’s still there, vomiting gas into the atmosphere. Probably the whole school’s in a cloud of gas by this time. The memory comes speeding at me and brings this new sickness.
Before I hung with Val, I was friends with Stephanie Yip. We used to go to her dad’s electronics store after school and rake our fingers through the bins of chips and fuses and switches, braid friendship bracelets out of multicolored wire. It felt so good, swimming my fingers through the tiny pieces, like nothing in the world mattered, like raking a Zen garden.
I don’t know why I think of this now, when I should be thinking of how to fix what we’ve done, whether to tell someone and who to tell and how much trouble I’ll get in, but I’m there, raking my fingers through the pieces, and her dad is standing in the doorway cradling the phone against his cheek, speaking in Cantonese. If Stephanie ever hacked open a gas pipe, she’d just call her dad and he’d fix it. Once, she told me her dad kept twenty thousand dollars in bills somewhere in the house, just in case.
Comes a train of little ladies from scholastic trammels free, each a little bit afraid is, wondering what the world can be! Is it but a world of trouble—sadness set to song? Is its beauty but a bubble bound to break ere long? Are its palaces and pleasures fantasies that fade? And the glory of its treasures shadow of a shade? Schoolgirls we, eighteen and under, from scholastic trammels free, and we wonder—how we wonder!—What on earth the world can be!
When she opens the window there’s a whisper somewhere and there are running footsteps. Then there’s only the sound of the occasional car passing on the street and the voices of the drama girls, carrying through the vents and on the breeze.
There are still so many papers to grade. She hasn’t looked at any yet. And she can’t imagine finishing them tonight. She doesn’t want to imagine finishing them. The thought of doing anything for her students sometimes fills her with a sick dread, a feeling that she should run. The feeling dances inside her now. Scrabbles at her ribs.
She leans on the windowsill, on stiff locked arms. In one hand, the pack of cigarettes. In the other, the lighter. She can almost make out the lyrics of the song. She remembers it from when she was a freshman; she saw The Mikado at the Hart House Theatre with Jeff Becker. Where was he now? In the dark he’d held her hand and worked her ring around her finger like he was unscrewing it, that cheap silver ring she’d bought at a jewelry stand in Costa del Sol, run by a pair of hippies who’d also offered her hash. He’d twisted her ring. He’d brushed her thin hair behind her ear. He’d brushed his lips against it.
Let’s get out of here, he’d said.
She remembers this: her heartbeat, singing in her ears, mixing with the orchestra. Getting out of there: she’d never done that before, couldn’t imagine it. How did it feel to get out of there? Did it hurt? What happened afterwards? Would he still like her after they’d got out of there? And her strange mole, the one on her back—he couldn’t see that.
The voices of the chorus rise and fall. She thumbs open the pack of cigarettes.
No, let’s stay, she’d said. Her damp armpits: she’d noticed them then. She’d turned to him, his frown. I want to watch this.
She’d fumbled with something in her hand—her ring? Something else?—like she fumbled the lighter now. Anything to get her hand out of his. They really were beautiful, she’d thought. She’d willed herself to think it. She thought it now. The high, tinkling voices. The fluttering kimonos, modest and bright.