He didn’t realize she was in the back room. The door was closed. He probably should have noticed the small bar of light shining through the space between the door’s bottom and the gray linoleum floor. But he did not.
Probably he was too engrossed in the hazing.
Right now they were engaged in what he thought of as the “slurs of consciousness” and he was the object of the game. One of the group would call him “jungle bunny,” the next “spear chucker,” followed by someone else saying “porch monkey.” Each would be punctuated by a brief burst of their laughter. Sometimes, someone would come up with a truly unique one: “M.C. Zombie” was one that Sue contributed one day, after noticing his cracked, ash-y hand next to hers on the table. Occasionally, one would make no sense–“broken toy” was one memorable one. He assumed it was a letter reversal of an attempted offering: “token boy,” perhaps? But the mistake (assuming it was one) still generated much laughter, and was soon a second or third favorite.
Their first favorite was definitely “Brillo head.” This one would usually stop the stream of consciousness word play and the group would then riff off of it for several moments. Hey there’s a dirty spot here on the table mind if I use your hair to get it off…. Joe if the ceiling were covered in velcro and you jumped up high enough do you suppose your hair would stick you up there….
Usually, he would just listen. Protesting occasionally, swatting their hands from his hair. Even rarer still, hurl an insult in return. Mostly, he just listened. This was all part of the hazing process here on the high school Lit Mag staff. Soon it would be someone else’s turn–the fat kid on the magazine, or the girl who was in charge of poetry with the large breasts, or the thin kid with a face bubbling with pimples. Better to just let the slurs run their course so that the group could move on to some other target, someone he could then be on the other side of.
He’s not sure he would have tried to put a stop to it, acted braver…more boldly, had he known she was in the next room. He liked to think he would have. At any rate, he didn’t know and didn’t act. And so this day–bored in the wake of their deadline for next month’s magazine having already been met–they were still on him.
They all were, he supposed, his friends. They invited him over to their homes. They went with him to the movies. They praised his writing. It was not, anyway, as if the other, higher status groups in the school were itching to have him as one of them. Whatever they of the group were or whatever they did or said, he was One of Them. That mattered.
Mick Jagger lips…spade…Buckwheat…
They were running out of steam now. The laughter was losing its enthusiasm. Both the heavy set boy and large busted girl were beginning to look worried.
Sure enough, following Lauren’s desperate contribution–cocoa pebble–the spotlight shifted. Hey speaking of cereal we’re thirsty Lauren I bet you could give all of us a drink out of your huge titties. Laughter.
And from him, relief. He came up with something about needing a new pillow for his bed that maybe Lauren’s breasts could provide that seemed particularly well received.
Sometime into the 5th or 6th large breast contribution, however, the door to the back room opened. He was one of the first to notice, as his chair was facing that direction. He first saw a towering stack of back issues of the Lit Mag, then next saw her arms carrying them, followed finally by her dark brown eyes over the topmost magazine. The comments and laughter grew incrementally softer as they all noticed her, until the whole group was silent. They waited. All of them worried and wondered how much she had heard, but having all been back in the back room at one time or another, they all knew the answer. She had heard every word, every laugh.
She did not speak, but walked over to the corner to replace the back issues in their proper locations on the shelf. She then picked up her denim jacket from the nearby chair (another clue he had missed) and draped the garment like a cape around her shoulders, it’s many pinned buttons glinting in the overhead fluorescent lights: “Black Student Union,” “Say it LOUD: I’m BLACK and I’m PROUD,” “End apartheid–NOW”…
His face burned hot fever and a vein in his temple pulsed. He ached to look away from her, but for some reason he did not. On her way out of the door their eyes met. A look he could not decode passed between them. She left without words. Soon after that, each of the group packed up his or her own belongings and exited the room.
For the remaining two years of high school he lived in intermittent fear of seeing that look again from her, or from the dozen or so other Black kids who tolerated him. Yet he never did.
Years later they would meet again, after college and after first jobs and apartments. They shared some drinks and some laughs. After the third beer, his words testing her mood like feet on an icy sidewalk, he brought up that day in the Lit Mag offices. Did she remember it, he wondered?
She took a sip of her white zin and placed the glass in the center of her cocktail napkin. Yes, she replied simply. He wants to ask a question, but decides to deflect instead. You must have been so disgusted with me.
Another sip. Another glass placement in the center of the napkin. No, I figured you had a lot more to worry about at the time. I think…I understood.
They looked up from their drinks and the look passed between them–that same look from ten years ago. He felt awash in relief, and began to tell her of his new love, Adam. And she told him of her new love, Lance. At some point they exchange pictures showing them with their new loves. Adam is night-dark with a perfectly symmetrical fro. Lance has a head of random red ringlets drooping onto his pale freckled face.
They look at each other and laugh. They laugh, clutching sides and clasping hands, until beer and wine squirts from their noses and dribbles from their chins. And they laugh some more.