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So this is what happened on my school trip.
First off, I have to say, what really did my head in was mom coming along for the ride. They wanted volunteers and seeing as she’s on the PTA she thinks that what I really need for my adolescent development is for her to be hanging around like a turd I can’t quite scrape off my shoe.
[private]Instead, she should be hanging around in sixth grade with Billy because he’s such a frigging know-it-all. When he puts up his hand and shouts, ‘Miss, miss!’ he wants the biggest audience possible, grandstanding asswipe that he is. But no—mom knows, instinctively, to concentrate all the strength of her golden-green eagle-eyed stare on me. I mean, it’s not that I rebel, no, to look at me you wouldn’t think—
All right. I can’t even do the voice. Oh, how I want to do the voice. That casual hand-on-hip voice. The chewing gum malaise. For one, I couldn’t even really get away with a body con skirt. I have little pads of fat either side of my hips that’d give it a horrible line. Cutesie! I should maybe get some Spanx but they’re expensive and if I asked for them as a present, mom would just tell me, “Gracie, you should learn to love your curves.”
Gracie! Tuesday’s child is full of grace. Of course.
Mom is full to the brim with the milk of human kindness. Overflowing. I have visions of her breast-feeding orphans, stray kittens, chimpanzees. She bakes a lot of muffins for charity.
So, anyway, we’d been to this farming museum and we were in the coach about an hour away from school. Donnie was eating these really stinky meat things, you know, those slices of salami where you pull open the plastic and it smells like a skunk farted and then in the next second died. And Rachel and Glenn were making out, because they always do, and it’s really clever of them. And some of the kids right at the back of the coach were amusing themselves by writing ‘Help—we’ve been kidnapped!’ on a piece of card and pushing it up against the back window. Like anyone out there would think we’d been kidnapped, because that’s what kidnappers do, isn’t it, hire a coach? Unless the coach was full of, I don’t know, pedophiles on a day trip, who stopped at a service station and bumped into us in the queue for the cannelloni, and said, ‘How delightful, may we have this dance?’ and each one partnered up with the next in a big band number, and before we knew it, with our feet still tapping to the rhythm and our eyes glittering with the glamour, we were swept up the steps into the coach and the door closed behind us in that sort of puff-puff final way it does.
So, to summarise: smelly meat, making out, kidnapped. And then this really terrible grinding noise started from somewhere and the coach slowed down. We crawled along at, I don’t know, two miles an hour, and Donnie flicked a piece of his pink, lolling tongue meat into the aisle and shouted, ‘Aaagh we’re gonna die!’ and started rocking the back of the chair in front of him until his knuckles turned white, and everyone laughed in a very knowing way, which made us all sound about twenty years older than we really are and terribly jaded. So we pulled into this motel driveway and the coach shuddered to a halt.
The driver got out and after a few minutes mom and Feldstein allowed us off the coach to ‘stretch our legs’ but really because, all cramped up and bored in such a small space, we were starting to become obnoxious. After all, when someone farts, you open a door to let the molecules hustle out like eager dogs.
I’m sorry to keep writing about farting. It just seems to be cropping up an awful lot.
Anyway. We all sat on the verge at the front of the motel enjoying the inspiring sight of the driver’s crack as he bent over to peer into the hood. Then a girl said she needed the restroom, and then so did another girl. So Feldstein looked to mom for reassurance, and mom nodded, because even though Feldstein’s our teacher, let’s be clear who’s really running the show here. So then Feldstein said, ‘OK, then, but I’m coming with you and you’d better be back out in five minutes—in five minutes! I’m counting!’
Then the girls who in all probability really did need the restroom disappeared into the motel, followed by the girls who probably didn’t, and then by the boys who didn’t want to be anywhere the girls weren’t. So then we were left with the sum total of the boys who still play with action figures, and me.
‘I hope you’re not thinking of going anywhere, Gracie,’ said mom, smiling in that way she has.
‘Of course not, mom.’
Her smile stiffened, like peaks of meringue. ‘Gracie, you know that in school you should refer to me as Mrs Reed.’
No one at all was within earshot. ‘Sorry, Mrs Reed.’
So yeah, in reality I don’t do smartass responses. I don’t need the humiliation. She has a mean slap on her (although not now, of course, she’d wait until we were home). As I skitter away I always think this time I’m out of reach, surely, and then suddenly I feel the thwack on the back of my ass, right near the tailbone, right on the hard spot of my evolutionary retrogression. And she calls me a ‘facetious little girl’ and the way she pronounces it is almost like ‘faeces’.
So I just sat on my own, looking down. I don’t write when I’m in plain sight anymore because of that time Kyle stole my notepad and started reading it out in a high-pitched voice that yes, actually, was a pretty good impression of me. It was at the end of term, math class, and Mr Woodman said we could spend the session ‘chilling out’ and so everyone got into their little groups except me so I started writing, and then about twenty minutes in, Kyle came past really fast and said ‘Nab!’ as he took it—he actually said ‘nab’! Thank Christ I’d only been writing down my impressions of the view through the window rather than anything about my feelings, although it was bad enough hearing my description of that squirrel. But that wasn’t the worst moment of humiliation. The worst moment was about a year ago, when, with a huge, sinking drop in my stomach, I realised that this wasn’t just a temporary situation; that no, in actual fact, it was going to be a long haul all the way through high school. That would be when the whole class, in unison, chanted, ‘Reject!’ at me during basketball practice. It’s quite hard to bounce back from that. No pun intended.
So I sat there on the grass, and then mom gazed up into the sky and said, ‘Well, you don’t often see them around anymore,’ and I looked up excepting to see pterodactyls but it was an old-style plane towing a long, fluttering advert made from plastic.
It was a moment frozen in aspic. Mom, with her right hand to her face, shielding the sun from her eyes like some sort of Russian propaganda poster: Woman, Look to the Skies and Worship your Communist Overlords! Then a breath of air, the first since we’d exited that overheating coach, and it gusted around my waist and up my skirt and all of a sudden—well, it was if someone else had put the thought in my head. Right, I’m off.
It was a miracle, a blessing, a revelation. I walked away from mom and she didn’t notice. I cannot stress how rare this is. Behind me the scene was preserved for all time: my mom, a pickle in a jar, floating gently in the yellowing miasma of the sweltering afternoon.
Quick and quiet in my boring, boring shoes, I walked round to the back of the motel. I knew better than to go in the front door. Fronts of buildings aren’t for the likes of me. Snooty people look up and say, ‘Can I help you?’ in self-satisfied voices. I cope better with back doors and service entrances, alleyways with fuzzed-up extractor fans. So in I snuck, walking briskly past the kitchen and the mess of food smells you always get in communal dining establishments, those that make you think you could never eat anything again, that remind you how all food is condemned to become either vomit or crap. Otherwise known as the school canteen smell.
I pushed through the double doors and turned left. The very first door I came to was open a crack and there was a mechanical buzzing sound coming from inside. I stood there for five seconds thinking, Oh my God, sex toy!
So then why did I look inside? Curiosity killed the young lady, as mom’s always saying. But this didn’t kill me. There was a bed and sideboard and everything you’d expect, but there was also a woman covered in tattoos leaning over another woman who was lying face down on a couch with her pants pulled down and her t-shirt pulled up.
The woman doing the tattooing must’ve felt my presence because the buzz stopped.
She looked up. ‘Oh lord, I thought I closed the door. Well, come in if you’re coming in.’
‘I don’t want a tattoo,’ I told her.
She laughed. ‘You don’t have to. Just don’t tell on us, right?’
The blonde on the couch raised her head slightly to look at me and then laid her head back down. I came and stood next to the couch and watched. The tattoo was half finished; I could see traces of the pen drawing and then the inked part with the red rawness around it. It was lots of sweeping lines and right at the bottom it spelled out the word F.E.E.L.I.N.G.
The woman doing the tattooing tossed back her black hair and then brought the gun down onto the skin and it welled with blood. She blotted it away with a tissue.
‘It’s really good,’ I said.
‘Thanks,’ she said.
I watched for about two minutes and then I said, ‘I’m going now,’ and the woman nodded and I left.
I didn’t really know what to do after that, so I just walked along the corridors. They were all the same: a swirling brown puke pattern on the carpets and ice-white wallpaper with highlights in a shiny pattern, like the Arctic with smooth patches of icebergs glinting through the snow, like those blouses that aunts used to wear in the ‘80s and are now fashionable amongst edgy teens with directional haircuts. I was getting properly lost and every time I thought, I’m properly lost, I felt a little excited tug on my heart. Sure, there were gold numbers on the doors, but they didn’t seem to make proper sense. I went up a flight of stairs and then down another to a sort of half-floor where there were only six rooms and the numbers doubled back on themselves and started going backwards.
And no one here! This was the thing that I loved the most. No guests, no staff. Not a peep coming from any of the rooms. The place seemed devoid of life, a swirly-carpeted Death Valley. By now, Feldstein would be well past counting out her five minutes and into Where’s Grace Reed? And mom would be… actually, it’s funny, I didn’t once think of mom. She was still out there gazing at the sky, frozen in formaldehyde.
Eventually I came out into an open space that didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than being the place where two corridors joined. At the other end there was a long empty table with a white tablecloth, like I’d just missed a party that had been cleared away. The whole of the right wall was made of glass, but with no way to open it, not that you’d want to, because it was all hemmed in with trees. If you stepped out into it you’d just get a load of pine needles right in your eye.
But the most notable thing in this room was the man sitting on the chair. How long was it since I’d seen another human being? Five minutes, five hours, five years? Thing was he was more an approximation of a human than a reality: an old-style photofit, nose grabbed from one page, mouth from another, even a cheap joke-shop moustache. He was dressed in a polo shirt that might once have been white, cut high over his paunch. It had a logo on it, marking him out as an employee, but backroom staff, a cleaner or something. Not front of house, not a snooty ‘Can I help you?’ person, but a man from behind the scenes: one of my own. He was younger than I’ve made him sound, but still old, about thirty. He was just sitting there, on a plastic chair, looking out at the pine trees, and I did actually laugh out loud. Not at him, but at the surprise of him being there, so sudden and so still.
‘I’ve been walking round for ages, how the hell do I get out of here?’ I said all in a rush, very bright and cheerful. I felt great.
He stood up and opened his mouth and said, ‘Um, now…’ in a really loveable dopey way like a cartoon bear, a cartoon bear with a fake moustache, and I started walking towards him and it was the funniest thing, in a rush I knew it—I was going to kiss him.
Of course he was surprised, he took a bit of a stumble but he didn’t back away, he certainly didn’t. His breath was a bit rank but I didn’t really mind. It was a bit like when you’ve drunk too many beers, like two Christmases ago when Uncle Gerry had just got divorced and we went and sat out on the old settee in the garage that dad put there before he left and Uncle Gerry kept calling me ‘kiddo’ and for every beer he had he let me have one too, and after five beers he said, ‘You’re a better nephew than Billy, and you’re a girl!’ and he laughed for ages, and I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted but either way I was wrecked and my mouth tasted like this guy’s mouth tasted now. But like I already said, I didn’t really mind.
The kiss lasted maybe thirty seconds and then I thought I really should bring it to an end, so I sort of took a step back and then I realised my eyes had been closed all of this time so I opened them. The man hadn’t put his arms round me or anything like that, they’d just been dangling down at his sides. And he looked at me with his mouth still open, like I was a wonder, and yes, I could see the little raised tent in the crotch of his pants and I thought, Oh my God, I did that to him! So I gave him a smile.
Then without a word I turned round and on little wobbly baby deer legs I went back the way I’d come, down one corridor and the next and the half-floor and down the next but I must have gone a different way because I came out into the sunshine of the lobby. I stood there for a few moments blinking and then the woman behind the desk said, ‘Can I help you?’ And I said, ‘No.’
So I pushed open the front door and set off down the drive and there was the class waiting as if they were about to throw streamers and confetti over me like in the movies when the nerdy girl gets felt up and all of a sudden she’s the cool kid.
Then mom darted out from the side like a pouncing leopard and her hand was tight on my arm.
She took me to one side and hissed at me, ‘You didn’t get a tattoo did you? Some of the girls were in that room, with the woman, that woman…’ Her eyes were wild, burning. ‘Tell me you didn’t get a tattoo!’ She was rolling up my sleeves to look at my arms. She was hurting me. ‘Where is it?’
‘I didn’t get a tattoo, mom!’
‘I know you’ll rebel against me, goddamn it Gracie, I’m just sitting here going mad waiting for it, by the time you’re sixteen you’ll be covered in tattoos and piercings and you’ll be addled by drugs and I won’t—I can’t—I will not identify my baby’s body at the morgue!’
Good lord, mother.
Firmly I said, ‘Mom, mom.’ I looked her straight in the eye and spoke very slowly and very sincerely. ‘Mom. I didn’t do anything in there that you should be worried about.’
She let go of my arm. She exhaled. ‘Well,’ she said, and then couldn’t think of anything else to say.
As we clambered back onto the bus, I kept looking at the back of her head. What does she see in me, with my pads of fat and smudged red nose, that is such a danger?
Anyway, turned out by some miracle the driver had managed to fix the engine, so now we’re about ten minutes away from school. Mom has not taken her golden-green eagle-eyed stare off me for the past hour, but this time I don’t really care.[/private]