I am 6-2 and 200 something pounds. My name is James Buttermilk. I have been told by many at parties over the past two decades that I should “write that story” of my life. I must add that my favorite saying is “familiarity breeds contempt” and find “you are your own worst landlord” a close runner up. I find myself a boring average person with a few strange moments along the way. Some are humorous stories to tell at parties. Others are sad bits of past I only share with people very close and not over dinners with drinks in hand. I must also say a bit of warning. I am the unreliable narrator you may have heard about in some comp or lit class back in school.
You see, my memory is sloppy, haphazard, a decent storyteller but a horrible book keeper. I would be the witness on the stand saying “I think the car in question was definitely red,blue, green, black, violet, mauve or orange”. For whatever reasons I seem to recall in big sweeps but lose details at times like names, places and who said or did what.
15. Junior year. I skipped a grade as a kid. Some test said so. Let me jump into this stream of past in a random spot like the random rocks to cross. I go to third period and the bullies make fun of my nose, my eyes, my limp, my shyness, my everything it feels. I leave and walk the halls with head down; people thought it was bad posture but it was not so simple. I thought it polite and courteous to lower my gaze to not send a dark cloud in another’s day by having to look at my sure Nosferatu on a downward spiral face. It seems absurd and a bit over top now but it was every day then. I would spend many years learning cracks and where grass grew through. On this day in high school I have a sore neck and have no idea why already by third period.
An acquaintance comes up to me and says “look up!” and smiles. I am too caught off guard to say a word. I think I smiled back. I hope I did. She disappeared into the crowd, her high white boots folded above the knee, her heels clacking away. Her name was Eva. Long brown hair, lip gloss shining on a smile yearbooks were made to capture in photos. She was so nice, sweet. If I could have left my girlfriend who was three states away seeing other people , if I could have ended the toxic bond that once was cute and sincere, Eva would have been my choice to hold hands with, watch sunsets after school, talk about things late at night. She clacked away in her high heels still grinning sweetly as I headed off to my next class. Her perfume lingered for a bit, sweet, warm, so her, then it was gone and I was off to 4th period.
I walk the halls in this mostly recalled day of that year and almost hit a pole. The walk to 4th period. I wear clothes that are too wrinkled, my hair is a grown out flock of seagulls cut that hangs oddly down in my eyes as I walk. I want to disappear. I say hi to a few friends, quickly lifting gaze up to meet their voices and then eyes and faces. I have a girlfriend that nobody has met as she lives in Texas. She wrote poems on my skin in 9th grade. She wrote them backwards and I had to wait to get home to see them in the mirror. She also is now enjoying an “open” relationship I did not agree to and is seeing two other people. I will find out soon enough she even went to another prom in Texas and never once told me in a tape or letter or those precious, for a time almost magical seeming phone calls. I turn a corner and near 4th period class. It is my one AP class I will ever take. It will not go well. The room is mid hallway in the mustiest building of the high school, the scent a sort of dust on fire and old socks kind of constant. The teacher is pretty much Teddy Roosevelt if he let himself go and hated the world. He is a great bear of a man with wild eyes and a smile that just never feels honest, a vessel for test data at best and at worst a cruel twist on a harsh comment. His sweat circles are legendary. On the coldest day of the year he had veritable hot springs in the pits of his polo shirt like it was August and the A.C had failed. He was an AP class gatekeeper and knew it.
I sit in a clanking aging wooden chair and desk in the back and want to suck into the goofy motivational posters with bent corners, to swim slow and small in the white paint on the walls, anywhere to now, here. The Government teacher has a mustache that looks like a passed out caterpillar that kinda hates everyone. He smiles and jokes but there is some acidic, metallic in his tone, something of a deep portent in all he says as the test is all, our god here in this little room. College. But I have a secret just like in Jr high. I will soon enough win those writing awards, make city finals in that essay contest I have long forgotten the name of. I tutor classmates for their English courses. I also have a 2.0 GPA. Later in the year the kindly English teacher with the odd speech patterns and eyebrows like upside V letters dancing on his wrinkled forehead will show me a list of contestants for an award. He will smile a wry smile and show how a secretary by accident typed the gpa of each contestant by the syllables of their name. 4.3……4.2………..3.8..then me. Like sliding off a pre algebraic cliff.
I sit in the back of class and wonder about the bright futures of the other students. Some have perfect grade point averages while others also have multiple awards and are on sports teams. The gleam of their smiles at his dry as dust jokes is both false as can be and nearly blinding at times, a toothpaste commercial sure to break out in song and dance at any moment as the old man points at maps with a big wooden stick. Harvard awaits. MIT awaits. Stanford waits patiently. Great jobs and internships almost are shifting into being for these great futures, these impossible grins for now ridiculously held in some dumb old building in the San Fernando valley. The walls are dirty actually in spots, worn in others, but none of this matters. The air in the room smells like old photos opened up and belched out stink and old air, the walls have photos of politicians going back 80 years or so. The frames are dusty, but their stern eyes gaze down as I doodle a cartoon of a wise walrus who questions the world in my notes.
My mom is not well. She got injured in that car accident a few years before when the young man flew out of nowhere and into us on our way to Sears. Time actually clicked frame by frame for each of us as he flew out of a tiny side street at surely 50 or 60 miles an hour.
Click.Click . His face. Nostrils. Flaring.Click.Click. He realizes now. Panic.Click.Click. Mom hits the steering wheel now. Click.Click. My.Head.Seat.Impact.Glass bloom. Click.Click.Whoosh. Ambulence. Mom in traction. The discovery of her Multiple Sclerosis.
The progression from canes to never moving one side of her body brings it all back to sitting in that 4th period class lit by a future of strangers in the room. Mom is getting worse. Soon she will drop that cigarette that burns a pillow. Soon the balloons that float with glittery messages of hope for remission for her M.S will begin to sag and slide down the wall. The teacher knows none of this. The bright futured ones know none of this. My friends but one know none of this. A fly lands on the map and the teacher crushes its tiny body with that pointer, not missing a beat, the tiny body flailing then dropping limp to the floor. He is discussing early policies in the western states. I hear maybe every third word, my eyes drooping, that sadness and sense of not belonging anywhere rising up again. He is leaving the fly on the floor to make a point of it. That smile again. That fire flash in his eyes. He enjoys this.
The class moves slowly, time and experience bla bla bla. Lunch seemed to slip farther and farther away into future as class droned on. The desk had names cut into it, had gum so old underneath it had turned gray and black, There was a scratched in poem but it had worn near clean. I imagined the college name sweatshirts this crowd would soon buy, the joy and tears of their parents as they drove away and they began new lives at amazing universities. The one guy in front with hair like an aqua net held cloud was the teacher’s son, a golden boy of golden boys. He had that confidence that was a terror in high school, that self assuredness that seemed to cloud the air. He grinned at some internal thought, surely of world conquest or the splash from his limo tires in some future day. I take a few notes and doodle storms and cartoons of a hall of fame of underachievers, of how it would serve soggy beef sandwiches and sad flat sodas. The underachiever hall is never to be finished of course, why would it?
The doodle stops half done. I write a bit of notes for the next test. Lunch can not come soon enough.
The bell rings. I leave into a crowd of colors, shapes, haircuts, colognes and perfumes, an awkward storm of trying so hard to be grown; it stinks, is like that flower that opens and smells like corpses and rotten cabbage mixed in with the garden around it. Somehow this all makes sense. Lunch. Time to find a couple of friends and sit at some sad fiberglass table. The halls are posters, doors, numbers, scents, visages passing as I look down. I bump into a few people and fear fists or worse the seeds of future taunts but I am just as always it seems, in the way, a speed bump, an untied shoe when it is time to run. I head out into the quad area and the crowds thin some, the hot sun beats down, the smell of a few hundred greasy meals wafts down from the cafeteria up ahead. The chaos is beautifully scattering out the castes and hierarchies of school for a few minutes. This of course can not last.
The surely 90 year old principal is slowly wheeling out his hot dog cart ahead. He has already pinned those little American flags on his frail paper hat. Almost time to eat and escape just a little bit. He sells hot dogs in his tiny cart outside the cafeteria every lunch. Some laugh at him, the easy target of age and frailty. Others buy hot dogs even as vegetarians just go give them away, for a moment support a simple gesture by someone amongst it all. I have a wave of fear ride through me as I near some of the benches of the cool kids, the ones that appear confident, are best dressed, that soon will have the best cars like the ones never here, off with the gold ticket lunch passes having fast food off campus like kings and queens of this dump. I sit with my friends and we have our sack lunches slightly smashed out of our back packs. We ride the bus to school. Public transit, one tiny tick on the imaginary ladder above the yellow school bus. We are not quite social lepers and not quite lost in crowds. We are not invited to things, we are not admired by teachers, we are not shining promise. I hold the other secret of how I did so poorly in junior high/ middle school that a teacher cried , another took me once to Burger King to give a really good pep talk, that I almost failed it all.
We sit and eat sandwiches in fits of small talks and walls of silence amongst the cacophony smearing all around us. We for a time are islands together. We are lost in it all. There is something silently tethering us at this bench, almost like shared breath and support against the gravity of period 5 to come. My friend Stephan asks me about a book I am reading. Fred admires something in the sky far away. Jim sits a bit taller than he does in classes for a moment. We are here. Together.
The principal gives me a free hot dog. He has made too many again. His hand shakes a bit as he hands it to me smiling, the hat off his head now and in his other hand. He too soon will leave this. He will go back into it all. This is how I remember it anyway so this is how it remains.