Tarnished
By Alex Joy

My hand scribbles furiously across the paper, drawing Claire in her blue shirt and purple shorts. Everything blends together, a mess of colors thrown on the page. I hate it immediately, and rip in ferociously out of my notebook, throwing a glare at my usually beloved teacher, Ms. Hime. She doesn't notice me. All my friends are across the room, in what is officially "Mrs. Moore's classroom", and I am never more aware of it than at moments like these.

"If you could just calm down a little, it'd be easier for me to draw, too," he says from across the table, staring at me. His general appearance is untidy, his lunch splattered down his green shirt, and his hands covered in cracking mud, like a desert blessed by rain that is slowly leaving it dry again. The dried mud is lighted than his skin, but darker than mine. His dark eyes are glinting at me condescendingly, and suddenly I'm mad at him, too. Not just at Ms. Hime for making me sit with him, but at him for looking at me like I'm a little, stupid, brat. I straighten, tossing my hair over my shoulder and crossing one leg over the other, my white tights and shiny black Mary Janes only slightly dirty, because I didn't fall in the mud, I just walked in it. I am superior to him, I know it. With my anger there was now determination. I picked up the blue colored pencil and drew Claire's t-shirt. Her blonde hair. Her skin, pale, like mine. It was pretty, too. I had channeled all my anger into something good. I sneaked a glance at him to see if he was jealous. To see if he knew that I was better than him.

He glances up briefly, then back down. He doesn't care that my picture is better than his scribbled mess. He wouldn't care if I asked him "What is that?" in my most superior voice. All he cares is that I shut up and work so that he can, too. And he succeeded in making me. He made me want to prove myself. He manipulated me into working. He thinks he has power over me.

Technically, though, he does. He's huge, one of the biggest kids in our class. He was nearly twice my size, and two grades. no, one grade ahead of me. He would argue that he was still two grades ahead. A little squirt could go to California as a kindergartener, come back a first grader, not really be a first grader. He was there, taunting me, with Adam, by the sink, saying that I was just a silly little kindergartener, like Claire, like Maggie, like most of my friends. He thinks he is better than me. Even though my picture is better than his. He is a boy. I hate him. I stiffen. He looks up.

"Do you need something?" he asks me.

"The colored pencil box," I say, "you can't hog it all the time." I expect him to deny it to say he wasn't hogging it, but he isn't going to appease me. He rolls his eyes and hands me the box, as if I were a small fly he desired nothing more than to swat.

I turn my attention to the box, sifting through it for the purple pencil I need for Claire's shorts. Nothing. I shift through the pencils again, and again, my anger resurfacing with every jerky movement. I look at him. He's watching me, silently laughing, and twirling the purple pencil, tiny against his massive hand. I sit straighter.

"Can I have that?" I ask primly. I am the perfect princess, and he is the dragon, brute and tall and ugly, but still powerful.

"Have what?" he asks. He knows.

"The pencil," I reply.

"Which one?" he asks.

"That one. The purple one," I say.

"Oh, the purple one," he says. He starts scribbling with it. "I'm using the purple one." Nothing else. No 'I'll be done in a minute' or 'you can have it when I'm finished.' Just that. He's trying to teach me a lesson. He will fail, because I won't be taught. I let him color for a minute. Thoughtlessly darts his hand, this way and that. He purples every corner of his page, and its still not enough for him.

"You don't need that much purple," I tell him.

He doesn't even look up.

"It's a whole lot, you know," I say.

"No it's not," he says, still coloring.

"It is for someone who doesn't like purple," I say.

"How do you know I don't like purple?" he asks.

"You're a boy." He looks up suddenly. "Purple is a girl color," I explain.

"What's your favorite color?" he asks me.

It's such a weird, out of place question that I revert to the way I said it when I was three, "Red, blue, pink, purple." They're still my favorite colors, but now I say the 'and' because that's the way everybody talks. He raises his eyebrows at me.

"Blue is a boy color," he pronounces, turning back to his page of mess.

I blink for a few seconds, taking in his words, before announcing, "That's just stupid."

He looks at me, then down at his paper, before telling me "My cousin's favorite color is purple." He doesn't say it, but somehow, I know that his cousin is not a girl. His cousin is a boy. He knows I know it. Shock and astonishment must register on my face, because he tells me, "Boys can like purple too. Boys can like pink, red, and yellow. And girls can like green, orange and black if they want. It's per-son-all-it-tee. not boys and girls."

I stare at him as he scribbles some more. His speech is so different from what I am used to hearing, and only the last stumbling sentence reminded me that it's just a second grader talking. I look across the room at Claire. And its true, now that I think about it, Claire does like to wear green, black, and orange, even though her favorite color is blue. I feel silly, suddenly, me, in my black patent leather shoes, white tights, my pretty pink dress that my grandmother made me, the top of my hair pulled back in a large pink bow sitting on top of my head. And I know that I was always silly, thinking of boys as if they were a different species than girls. If I wanted, green could be my favorite color. And his cousin liked purple. This isn't someone trying to convince me by showing me themselves. This isn't pretend. This wasn't a game to try to teach me something. This is real. This is life.

He looks up at me, still looking at him.

"I'm done with this," he tells me, handing me the purple pencil, "you can have it." Some of the mud from his hands is on the pencil, and a little of it gets on my immaculate hand. I know I need to say thank you, but I can't speak. He understands, I know, even though no words have been exchanged. He reaches across the table for the red. I finish my story of Claire catching Billy on the playground in our normal little game of girl- chase-boy. It somehow seemed different to me, even though it was like so many other stories in my notebook. Claire always seemed to catch the boys, and the rest of us never did.

But I did, the next day. And all it took was falling down in the dirt.