The day Abelard and I broke the wall, we had a four-hour English test. Seriously. Every tenth grade student in the State of Texas had to take a four-hour English test, which is too long to sit still even if you are a normal person. And I’m not a normal person.
After the test, I told my feet to take me to geography. If I didn’t tell myself where to go, if I let my mind drift, I’d find myself in the quiet calm of the art wing, where the fluorescent lights flickered an appealingly low cycle of semipermanent gloom. Or I’d stand in the empty girls’ room just to be alone. Sometimes I think I’m not attention deficient but attention abundant. Too much everything.
When I got to geography, Coach Neuwirth handed out a boring article about the importance of corn as a primary crop in the early Americas. Then he left the room. He did this a lot. Ever since basketball season had ended, Coach Neuwirth seemed like someone who was counting the minutes until the school year was over. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one running out the clock.
Thirty seconds after Coach Neuwirth left, the low murmur of voices turned into a conversational deluge. I sat in the back of the room because that’s where the two left-handed desks were—in the row reserved for stoner boys who do not like to make eye contact with teachers. Two seats in front sat Rogelio, turned sideways in his chair, talking fast and casting glances in my direction.
“Cosababa, pelicular camisa,” Rogelio said, and the boys around him all laughed.
Okay, this is probably not what Rogelio said. I’m not a great listener. Also, my Spanish is terrible.
“Camisa,” he repeated.
At the word camisa, Emma K. turned to look at me, and whispered something to the blond girl next to her. I instantly wondered if I’d been talking to myself, which is a thing I do. It attracts attention.
Then it sank in. Camisa. Spanish for “shirt.”
Maybe there was something wrong with my shirt. Maybe the snap-button cowboy shirt I got at a thrift store was not charming and ironic as I’d imagined, but seriously ugly. Emma K. had whispered about my shirt. Even Rogelio and his friends, who often wore snap-button cowboy shirts, had laughed at my shirt. Or maybe not, because my Spanish isn’t good, and anyway, Rogelio could have been talking about someone else. Not Emma K., though. She looked straight at me.
What if I’d popped open a button at bra level and I’d been walking around all day with my bra exposed, and was I even wearing a nice bra, a sexy black bra? Or was it just one of those tragic old bras with a ribbon or a rose that might have been cute once but, over repeated washings, had turned slightly gray and balled up like a dirty piece of dryer lint stuck to the center of my chest?
I clutched the front of my shirt, and Emma K. and the blond girl giggled. My shirt was properly buttoned, but I couldn’t sit in my chair for another minute. School was a molasses eternity, a nightmare ravel of bubble sheets and unkind whispers unfurled in slow motion. I had to leave, even though I’d promised my mother that I would under no circumstances skip school again.
I stood. My feet made a decision in favor of the door, but a squeaking metallic noise stopped me.
Directly behind me was an accordion-folded, putty-colored vinyl wall, along with a gunmetal gray box with a handle sticking out of one end. The squeaking noise came from the metal box. The handle moved.
When our school was built in the sixties, someone decided that walls impede the free flow of educational ideas, because some of the third-floor rooms are all double-long, cut in half by retractable vinyl walls. Apparently, the architect of this plan had never been to a high school cafeteria to experience the noise associated with the unimpeded flow of ideas. The wall doesn’t get opened much.
Last time anyone opened the wall was during Geography Fair. One of the custodians came with a strange circular key he inserted into a lock on the side of the box. He’d pushed the handle down and the wall had wheezed open, stuttering and complaining.
Now the handle jiggled up and down as if a bored ghost was trying to menace our class, but no one else was paying attention. I wondered if the custodian was trying to open the wall from the other side. It didn’t make sense.
I left my desk and walked to the box. I leaned over and grabbed it, surprised by the cool feel of solid metal. And suddenly, I felt much better. The world of noise and chaos faded away from me. The touch of real things can do this.
The movement stopped. I shook the bar up and down. It didn’t range very far before hitting the edge of what felt like teeth in a gear.
I pushed down hard on the handle. After a momentary lull, it sprang up in my hands, knocking with surprising force against my palms. I put both hands on the bar, planted the soles of my Converse sneakers, and pulled against it with all my might.
There was a loud pop, followed by the whipping sound of a wire cable unraveling. The bar went slack in my hands. The opposite end of the vinyl wall slid back three feet.
Everyone stopped talking. Students near the door craned their heads to see into the other classroom. Dakota Marquardt (male) said, “Shiiit!” and half the class giggled.
A rush of talking ensued, some of it in English, some in Spanish.
I dropped the handle and slid back into my chair, too late. Everyone had seen me.
Coach Neuwirth ran back into the room and tried to pull the accordion curtain closed. When he let go of the edge, it slid away, leaving a two-foot gap.
He turned and faced the room. “What the hell happened here?”
It’s never good when a teacher like Coach Neuwirth swears.
I waited for someone to tell on me. Pretty much inevitable.
Dakota Smith (female) stood and straightened her skirt. She pulled her long brown hair over her shoulder and leaned forward as though reaching across a podium for an invisible microphone.
“After you left, the handle on the wall began to move,” she began. “Lily put her hands on the handle and pushed down and the cable broke and—”
“Thank you, Dakota.” Coach Neuwirth strode to his desk. “Lily Michaels-Ryan, please accompany me to my desk.”
I followed him to the front of the class, keenly aware that every set of eyes in the room was fixed on me. Coach Neuwirth filled out a form for me to take to the office, not the usual pink half-page referral form, b...