Saturday, May 19, 2012

"Dog Eyes" by Stephanie Gertsch

When I was twelve, I went through a phase where I hated having brown eyes. Ever since I was little, my family called me “Princess” because I had appropriately blond hair. Then, one day, I realized that I could never be a princess because all princesses have blue or green eyes.

Blue and green are poetic colors. The sky and the ocean. Even if characters in books pretend not to like having green eyes, you can still tell these characters are going to be the cool ones.

There’s nothing poetic about brown. Brown is the color of dirt.

Every morning, I coordinated my outfit in front of the mirror on my door and tried to imagine my face with green eyes. It was hard because the brown spread out to my eyebrows and even seemed to tinge my skin. Relatives told me my hair might turn dark too as I got older. It didn’t, but at the time, I hardly appreciated the warning. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.

One particular morning in seventh grade, I spent fifteen minutes twisting my hair into seven strands and pinning them with butterfly clips, which formed a perfect arch like a crown or halo. The rest of my hair hung loose (and before high school I wore it down to my hips).

But I still wasn’t satisfied because that year, everyone in my class was wearing special shirts that resembled tank tops with another half shirt on top of them. I was unable to buy said shirt because my dad was currently in between jobs (again) and mom had declared back-to-school shopping was “it” until Christmas.

I tried to duplicate the look with a tie-on top, but it didn’t work because the extra layer made my t-shirt bunch up. Frustrated, I discarded both shirts, and chose a pink t-shirt. Pink was good. We didn’t want to be like boys. But was it too girly? I didn’t want to look like some 4-year-old.

Then my mom yelled that if I didn’t get my sweet bottom in the car in under two minutes, they would leave without me. My brothers both found it hilarious. Me not so much.

That morning, my dad was doing yard work for someone we knew from church, so Mom had driving duty. She was on her way to work, so this was makeup Mom with a skirt and heels (instead of the jeans and ponytail she wore around the house).

We had to stop at the elementary school first, so during the car ride, I frantically tried to answer the last question on my homework sheet. I had already read the book — this month it was Number the Stars — and done the others, even the tricky ones about themes and symbols. I was good at reading, and the questions were like riddles. The one question I got stuck on, in fact the kind of question I always hated, was the “And how do you feel?” question.

With these, I always felt like the teachers and books were trying to trick me. Like they wanted me to feel one way, but wouldn’t give me the information beforehand. Usually, I just ended up “BS-ing” it. (In seventh grade, I didn’t know what BS stood for, but I liked how cynical it sounded.)

This time, the question consisted of, “Was there a time when you were singled out for something you said or did, even if it was the right thing?” and of course, “How did that make you feel?”

The problem was, this particular book was all about Nazis and Jews and persecution, and I just didn’t know much about persecution. I knew I had it pretty good. Sure, it sucked having to wear dorky clothes sometimes, but that wasn’t anybody’s fault. Not like my dad got laid off for refusing to sacrifice children to idols or something.

No, persecutors were people who went around making life miserable for nice people because they hated niceness. So far, the persecutors I knew about were the Romans, the slaveholders, and the Nazis. Once in a while, there could be a nice Nazi. But only if they were tricked into Naziness by another really evil Nazi and as soon as they found out Jews were actual people, they’d disobey orders and be a spy for the good guys. Then probably get caught and die to show they really meant it.

In real life, the closest I’d come to being singled out was by my brothers. But that wasn’t because of anything I did. It was just because (as my parents often reminded me) they were younger, and boys were naturally more rowdy. They didn’t know any better. I did. Back then, I thought the consolation for having to be the mature one was getting to feel superior about it.

For some reason, I considered writing down “having brown eyes” as the answer to my homework question, but I couldn’t think of a way to explain how that fit in.

I was still trying to come up with an answer when Mom gave a pained sigh. She had been watching me in the rearview mirror.

“Oh, honey,” she said over the noise of my brothers arguing about video games. “I thought you finished that ages ago.”

I rolled my eyes. She didn’t have to make it seem like the worst thing in the whole universe. I was already stressed out enough.

“I thought we talked about this. You know how much better you feel when you get your work done ahead of time. Then you don’t have to worry about it, see?”

This was not making it any easier to concentrate. “I did get it done. Just not this part.”

“Only trying to help. Usually, you’re the one I can count on to be on top of things.” Still using the mirror, Mom traced a finger around her lipstick before the light turned green.

After we dropped off my brothers (with parting shots of “Bye, Bottom”), Mom invited me to sit up in the front seat. It was a trap.

“So, I’ve been thinking,” (this was always an ominous opener) “about how you’re a bit frustrated with not having cool clothes to match your friends.” She laughed to show this was a friendly conversation. “I can see it’s been really bothering you.”

This sounded suspiciously like something from a book on parenting problem preteens. I scrunched down in my seat.

“But in a way, this is a great way for you to gain some maturity. When I was twelve, I was practically living on my own. Boarding school, you know.” She laughed again, ruefully. “I remember Lisa’s mom saying she was looking for a babysitter. Maybe I should talk to her.”

Lisa was a three-year-old at our church. Her mom had just started leaving her in the nursery during service. I could hear the screaming even from my classroom upstairs.

Receiving no acknowledgement, Mom continued more forcefully. She turned to me, smiling. “You’re the oldest, so you’ve got to set a good example. You know how your brothers look up to you, don’t you? Answer me.”

“I guess so,” I mumbled. By this time, we had reached the street outside my school.

“I’m just going to let you off here,” Mom said. “Parking’s such a mess, and I’m already late. You got all that reading done, right?”

“Mom!” I rolled my eyes as I grabbed my backpack. “I finished like a whole week ago.”

“Well, I worry about you. Kiss!”

I moved my head within kissing range, and then climbed out, slamming the door. Mom swerved out into the street, producing several honks.

It was a relief to be out of nagging range, but at school, I had another enemy. Every day, I dreaded being seen by a girl called Anna. Though I was constantly on the watch, she had a way of spotting me from across the room. Once she had you, she’d latch on and wouldn’t let go until you were separated by different classes or some other powerful force.

The trouble had started nearly a month before when I stupidly told Anna I liked her keychain. Back then, my brothers obsessed over this card game called Pokémon. And I secretly liked it too, even though it was mostly for boys. I learned pretty quick not to talk about it to girls, but only after I noticed Anna’s Pokémon keychain. It wasn’t Pikachu — the only one everybody knew about — but a more obscure one called a Clefairy. All I had to do was name it, and Anna was my friend for life.

That was the problem. It wasn’t that Anna wasn’t nice. As things were, nice was all Anna had going for her.

First, she was dumb. Boy, she was dumb! Looking back, I don’t think she could have been really retarded, or she never would have been going to a private Christian Junior High school, no matter how accommodating. She might have been borderline, but I’ve learned since that there are people who are normal intelligence but somehow manage to act a lot dumber than they really are. Back then, I knew you were supposed to be nice to people with “challenges” and even proud of them. But mostly I thought it was annoying talking to someone where you had to explain every other sentence three or four times.

Then she was fat. There’s no other way to put it. And it looked worse because her parents made her wear these long skirts and baggy t-shirts and athletic shoes. Her hair was long like mine (pretty sure her parents didn’t let her cut it either) but usually it was a tangled brown mess. The only thing cool about Anna was her name, which was really Anastacia, but of course, wasted on such a dweeb.

You had to be nice to Anna, because she couldn’t help being the way she was, but whenever she talked to me, I ended up digging my nails into my arm hard enough to leave bright red crescent marks.

That day, Anna caught me and followed me all the way to class.

“Hi, Athley.” (Anna didn’t have braces. But she needed them. She couldn’t even pronounce my name without lisping.)

“Hi,” I said flatly, hoping she’d shut up. She didn’t.

“So I was wond’ring. did you read that book we were s’posed to read? All the Stars in the Sky?”

“It’s Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Yeah.”

“Oh, goodie! I thought it was sorta hard, but my mom actually helped me make a list of characters and that helped. I like the part where she pretends to be Little Red Riding Hood. Heh. Heh.” Anna didn’t laugh. She huffed. Which made being seen with her even more awkward.

Luckily, I managed to sit several desks away from Anna in the only class we had together that morning, the lit class. I also noticed that Faith, a girl I looked up to, was wearing butterfly clips in her hair just like mine. But only three. And they weren’t very well spaced.

It may sound weird, but Faith’s lopsided clips were a major consolation in a trying morning. Faith was really nice, but I was sort of scared of her because she once teased me for wearing hiking sandals. Back in sixth grade, I had this pair of Speedo sandals I wore absolutely everywhere. And one day, in the playground, Faith (who barely ever talked to me) looked over and went, “Your shoes must be really comfortable.”

It was such a random comment that at first I only said, “What?”

She repeated what she said, adding, “You must do a lot of hiking,” with a sort of knowing smile. Or at least, to me, it seemed knowing.

I mumbled, “No, not really,” but she kept on about it, pretending I was super athletic or outdoorsy or something. And I looked around at all the other girls’ feet, and sure enough, no one who wore sandals had ones anything like mine. It was all thin straps and heels and rhinestones.

I never wore those sandals again.

Now that I look back on it, I wonder if Faith was just trying to tip me off that my shoes were sending the wrong message without being totally blunt about it. I certainly didn’t want to give the impression I was trying to be one of the boys. But at the time, it was a game I didn’t know how to play, so I felt exposed.

I remember calling up the sandal incident as I sat in class, looking at Faith’s butterfly clips. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe this memory was an example of being “singled out.” But I quickly dropped the idea. Wearing sporty sandals didn’t count as taking a stand or anything. Anyway, as soon as I realized I was doing something wrong, I changed to match everyone else.

Mostly, I felt relieved. Faith wearing butterfly clips proved they were cool. And even better, while we were wearing the same thing, I had done it slightly better.

But, of course, we were in class and were supposed to be talking about the book Number the Stars, which was supposed to be very moving and relevant for us kids. I didn’t actually like the book. I was just glad to have understood it and gotten the point and written a whole page and a half (including quotes) when we were only required to write a page about it.

But I liked the teacher. The writing teacher in seventh grade was a twenty-something grad student we all called by her first name, Verity. She didn’t actually get to choose what we read, but she always had some movie clip or slideshow to make it interesting.

In class, Verity showed us a PowerPoint of the Nazi occupation of Denmark and we had a class discussion about persecution. How even though choices between right and wrong might seem easy in our lives, there were parts of the world where people could actually be killed for their beliefs.

We read out loud paragraphs from the book and talked about them. Anna raised her hand to read even though she sucked at it and listening to her read was like having nails stabbed in your ears. She just read one word after another with no tone, and half the words she didn’t know so she made up something random. Like “present” for “prejudice.”

Usually, the teacher had to jump in and finish for her after about two sentences. But Verity always said, “Good job, Anna!” in this really fake voice. I would have hated it if an adult used that voice on me, but Anna never noticed so I guessed it didn’t matter.

Then Verity sat on top of her teaching table, with her Converse shoes dangling. This signaled she was talking to us like people, not mere students. We were on our best behavior.

“Evil is out there,” Verity said. “Sometimes…it’s hard to be reminded of that. But we need to. Because when you grow up, you’ll all encounter evil. Maybe some of you will be missionaries. But we all need to know that in this world, evil is real.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to feel about that. But it stuck in my head. I think it stuck in everyone’s, because we could tell this was something deep and serious to her. We wanted it to be deep and serious to us too.

At the end of class, Verity said with her head tilted on one side, “I think…I’ll just give you one question to leave with. How do you think we stay strong when doing the right thing gets hard? When we could even die for doing it?”

She looked around the room, but no one raised a hand. (Even Anna, who would sometimes blab out anything just because.) This was my chance to show I had understood, to say something deep and serious. I raised my hand.

Verity’s eyes acknowledged me. “Ashley?”

Now I just had to come up with something that sounded right. “I think if you practice every day and get really good at doing the right thing, then it will be easy later on.”

This sounded perfectly logical to me, so my heart sank when Verity answered, “Well…that might be one way.”

Gotcha. It had been a trick question all along, and I had fallen right for it. Even back then, I knew teachers sometimes ask a question when they already have the answer in reserve. What you answer doesn’t even matter. They just want to set up wrong answers so the real answer looks smarter.

“Actually,” Verity said to the room as I wilted in my seat, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular issue lately. And I don’t think you can make the right choice on your own. We can’t be good on our own power. And that’s really what separates Christians from the rest of the world. Because when it comes down to it, there is no benefit to doing good. But Christians do it anyway. Outsiders will never understand.”

I don’t think anyone really got that. It was too close to the end of class, and we were already beginning to rustle in our seats and think about lunch. But we knew Verity was right because she was the teacher.

I left class feeling stupid, especially with that blank space on my homework sheet.

As we were all on our way to the lunchroom, Faith waved to me in the hallway. She held one of her butterflies in her hand.

“It fell out,” she said. “Do you think you could help me put it back in?”

“Okat,” I said, looking over my shoulder at the migrating junior highers as if I was worried about not having time for lunch. In reality, of course, I was thrilled. Faith had actually asked for my expertise!

“You’re a lifesaver,” Faith said as we walked to the girls’ room. While I twisted her hair in front of the big mirror, she chattered on about how her friends were so obsessed with the show Lizzie McGuire, but she couldn’t see why because it just wasn’t that good. We were alone except for someone in the handicapped stall who was taking forever. Every once in a while, shoes squeaked on the floor. When I finished one side, I took out the other clip and re-twisted the hair to make sure it was even. Faith’s hair was straight and black, easy to work with. She also had brown eyes, but since she was Asian and cute, that was okay.

I had just removed the middle clip when the toilet finally flushed and Anna pushed open the door. I froze in inexplicable horror as she lumbered over to wash her hands. And even though there were lots of sinks free, she decided to stand right next to me.

“Hi, Athley. Your hair sure is pretty.”

Faith rolled her eyes, smirking a little at Anna’s lisp (which did sound pretty weird, I’ll admit).

In that moment, I couldn’t help comparing the two of them. It seemed almost like an act of God that two total opposites had appeared in such close proximity. Faith: possibly mean, but definitely cool. And Anna: always with a compliment, but representing everything I didn’t want to be.

The funny thing is, I don’t think Faith had anything against Anna. Anna was too insignificant to hurt her or drag her down on the social ladder, so she had no reason to care one way or the other. I cared.

Maybe something was required of me in that moment. I don’t know. While I was still just standing there, Faith said to me, “Maybe you can give her some of your extra clips,” in a tone that seemed to take in both me and Anna, and cement us together for eternity. Then she picked up her third clip and skipped out of the bathroom.

Suddenly, two clips seemed a lot cuter than seven. I turned away from Anna and began removing my butterfly clips one by one.

Still smiling stupidly, Anna bobbed her head back and forth trying to get my attention in the mirror.

“So, last week, I begged my mom to buy all these Pokémon movies at the bookstore. It was only fifty cents or somethin’.”

I shook out my hair, running my fingers through the tangles and began twisting on the right side.

“But I never actually got around to watching any. Heh.”

I wondered why she didn’t shut up when she didn’t get any answer. Now the sides were uneven, and I couldn’t make them straight. My fingers were shaking too much.

Anna started again, “An’ I was thinking…”

There was no one but us. I yanked the clips out of my hair and turned on Anna.

Leave me alone.”

The smile disappeared. “What?”

“Stop following me. Do you understand? You’re fat and stupid, and I don’t want to be your friend. Ever!”

I grabbed the clips and stomped out of the girls’ room. But not before I saw tears start to flow and Anna’s face scrunch up in a wail. I don’t know how long she stayed crying over the sinks, but it was probably a long time.

During lunch, I sat alone, staring at my sandwich and not even caring that I sat alone and usually this was a very bad thing because it meant you were either snobby or undesirable. I was doomed. Anna would tell her mom, and her mom would tell my mom, and there would be terrible retribution. My parents were very strict about the kind of language we used. Once I had to write a page-long apology for yelling “Get out,” at my first brother after he snuck into my room and read my poetry notebook. Now I had said “fat” and “stupid” to someone who hadn’t even done anything to me.

I wished a hundred times I could take it back. Why, oh why, had it seemed so important at that one moment that Anna know exactly how disgusting she really was?

I threw away my sandwich without eating anything. I just couldn’t bear to.

Anna showed up in class later, looking even uglier than usual because of her puffy red face. But she didn’t tell anyone what was wrong. I tried not to look at her, feeling sure shame was written on my face. But no one noticed me at all.

That day, Dad came to pick us up, and as usual when he had driving duty, he took us all out for ice cream at McDonalds. But by this time, I had worked myself up into such a fever of self-loathing, I said I didn’t want any. (“Can I have hers?” “No, Me!” My brothers chimed in.) This was especially tortuous because since the skipped lunch, my stomach had gone from empty to hurting.

As we sat on plastic stools, my dad put his arm around my shoulder.

“Did you have a bad day, Princess?”

I shook my head. Part of me hoped he would keep asking, even though I couldn’t’ summon up the courage to tell him how way off he truly was.

“Are you feeling sick?”

Head shake.

“Was somebody mean to you?”

Lots of head shaking.

“Are you sure you don’t want any ice cream? It would make you feel better.”

When I shook my head again, he patted my back and said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to.”

As the afternoon passed without any catastrophic telephone calls, I began to realize Anna might keep quiet. This threw off all my calculations. I knew what I should probably do was confess to my parents, as I had for many minor offenses in the past. I stole the cookies. It was me. I accept your punishment. It would be hard. I would cry. But I knew I would feel better afterward.

But somehow, I couldn’t do it. I kept imagining the concern on my parents’ faces being replaced by disappointment and disgust as they learned their oldest daughter, whom they had taught so much, was a bully. They would ask why I had been so angry at this girl who was always nice to me, and I couldn’t have given them a good answer, because I didn’t know myself. The words just came out. (Which, when I thought about it, made it that much worse.) This was no cookie. Stealing was wrong, but not this kind of wrong. Almost everybody stole something at some point, and you could always pay for it later.

After this, they might lecture me back into good behavior, but they would never forget what I did.

The bargain I made with my conscience was the next day I said sorry to Anna herself. I ran up to where she was sitting alone at lunch and mumbled, “I’m sorry I called…that I said mean stuff yesterday. I didn’t mean it.” She didn’t say anything, and I don’t think she believed me. I added, “I wasn’t really mad about you. I was mad about other stuff.” Then I waited for a response, but she just looked down until I walked away.

After that, we didn’t talk to each other until years later when we both pretended the incident never happened. (Anna’s parents soon started homeschooling her again, so I only saw her in church.) By that time, I was a lot closer to Faith, who was really a nice person and certainly would never have called anyone fat and stupid. Well, not up front.

The upshot in the short term was that I was so quiet for the rest of the day, I didn’t even yell when my little brothers used my Beany Babies for batting practice in the front yard and some of my stuffed animals ended up in the street. Mom complimented me on being so mature.

That night, I went up to my room and pulled the book Number the Stars out of my backpack. I sat on my bed, looking at the cute blond girl on the cover.

And slowly, I felt like I understood. Not how you were supposed to Do the Right Thing under pressure. I don’t think I’ll ever understand that. I didn’t feel like the Jews, being picked on for being the Good Guys. I didn’t feel like the other people standing by, trying to choose what side to be on, whether to help the victims or let the persecutors do their thing.

No, I felt like the Nazis. I understood how they could hate the Jewish people, with their funny clothes and holidays with weird names. How you’d resent being associated with them. How maybe you’d want to get rid of them no matter what.

I got up and walked to the door of my room. With my left hand, I pulled open the door, while my right felt over the smooth, pointed wood of the door jamb. I held the door right up to my nose, staring into the mirror and my brown, brown eyes. Then I stuck out my foot and firmly kicked the door shut on my three waiting fingers.

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Want to learn more about this author? Look Stephanie Gertsch up on the Contributors page, where you can see everything that each individual writer has contributed, visit their personal webpages, and more!

1 comment:

  1. Nice and awesome article! Thanks for sharing!