I'm Different, I Promise
"I act like this because I'm different," said 14-year old Marina, as she brushed back her long dyed-black hair, revealing the intricate skull and roses design on her t-shirt. Marina was so different that she and her friends had shopped for matching Tripp pants. When she moved, the chains on her belt loops clacked together.
"You are a snowflake. You don't have to prove it to the world," her Uncle had said after swallowing four different pills. He promised they would watch their favorite movie, Forest Gump, the day before his big surgery but once they got to the Ping-Pong scene, he nodded off—said he was too tired to finish. Marina kissed him good-bye and put her hand on his scalp, which was smooth like a marble. I act like this because I'm scared.
After her Uncle passed away that summer, she sliced off her two braids, leaving only long bangs she wore over her eyes. On her first day of high school she took the bus and thought about how he would miss her chorus concerts, her prom, even her first day, which she had promised to tell him all about had the chemo kept him alive. Instead, she wore an XL Pearl Jam shirt in his honor, a blue clip-in extension and listened My Chemical Romance's Cancer. The long shirt covered her waist and hips, making them invisible.
"They say that some girls become sluts in high school, but I've never seen anyone become a boy," said Paul, who used to cheat off her in sixth grade math.
Marina ignored him and took pensive looking pictures by the bus window. Years later, she would laugh along with them.
"Look at that raccoon eyeliner. Haha! I obviously did not know how to put on make-up. Also, why am I never looking at the camera?"
As she grew older and embraced form fitting outfits and her curves, she would forget that her clothes made her feel different but most of all, they made her feel safe. However, she would never forget the torture that was French class and its main instrument that went by the name of Jason.
Marina remembered the first time she saw him. He had dark swooping hair and wore black jeans that still had the sticker on them. His Avenged Sevenfold shirt looked fresh off the Hot-Topic rack. In addition, he wore stripped arm gloves that she doubted covered any scars. When she sat in front of him in their class, he had glanced at her without saying anything.
"Dude, you should have come to Haley's party. Alexis was there. She took off her shirt off in front of me and her tits were huge. Like, I could have played with them all night but I was too fucked up and she was grinding on this other dude."
She tried to work on her classwork but every time she attempted translation, his voice pierced through her concentration. Sometimes it was best to put headphones on and pretend people like him didn't exist but unfortunately his copious use of the words tits and weed made his presence as noxious and as obvious as a pungent fart filling a room.
"I think you are pissing her off," his friend said in reference to her.
"Well she's welcome to join me and my buddies after school. Maybe if she tried it, hearing about it wouldn't be so annoying."
Marina remembered all the empty invitations she received in the 7th grade. How Holly invited her to her 13th birthday party and her Uncle took her clothes shopping so she could look presentable and how when she actually got there, Holly and her friends ignored her the whole time. "She just invited you to be nice," Georgia had told her, "She didn't expect you to actually come."
"Do I look like a stoner?"
"Well, fuck you."
Her friends agreed on one thing: high school wasn't much better than middle school. Together, they complained about annoying teachers, math class, and all the people they were forced to endure. Marina mentioned Jason and her friends agreed he was just a "poser." They also agreed they were outcasts—misfits, but they didn't talk about how it made them feel.
"This place sucks."
"I agree," her friends echoed in a chorus. As Joyce complained about her supposedly evil and obese Spanish teacher, Marina stared at the trees. Sun filtered through leaves. She wanted to stop time. Her Uncle taught her to notice the sun's height in the sky and how it lowered and enlarged during the evening. But soon, the bell would ring. Her teacher would cut the florescent lights and close the blinds. Light would never reach her. The darkness would never allow her to watch the rise and fall of her own star.
"They said it would be better," Marina told Jessie. "It seems the same. Worse even."
"Yeah, and the toilets are even nastier," replied Jessie.
"Also where are the hot teachers? I've seen like one guy under forty."
Marina sighed and threw away her food. She would watch the cars whiz by, until the bell rung and she could hop into the auditorium for her chorus class. Her classmates loitered the hallway. Since no one was in a hurry to end their lunch period, Marina was the first person to arrive at class, with the exception of Jason. She sat on the opposite end. He shot her a smile. Marina ignored him and pulled the blue out of her hair. It looked stupid anyways.
As she waited for her mom to pick her up, she thought about what it would be like if she didn't go to school for the rest of the year. Her new classmates wouldn't miss her, nor would her old. She could listen to classic rock and practice the piano chords her Uncle had taught her. She would never see her classmates but at the same time, she wouldn't see her uncle either—it would be like summer again, where she would count her few Myspace comments and picture his bald head and how he shrunk so much the only clothes that fit him were his pajama bottoms. If she could just disappear—not exist, she couldn't think and if she couldn't think, she couldn't destroy herself.
Her mother pulled into the parking lot.
"How was school?" she asked her.
"Okay," Marina replied.
"You shouldn't wear your hair in your face like that—it covers your pretty eyes."
They passed the infinite farmland that stretched between her home and her school. Grey clouds littered the sky. Rain filled the depressions within the land and Marina's mother would often drive over them, splashing water onto her car and the asphalt.
"Have you ever wanted to disappear? Like not exist?"
"What do you mean?"
"I guess what I'm not saying is I don't want to live anymore."
Pt. 2: Just like You
No one taught her how to not be sad. If there was any common advice people gave her it would be to "think positive" or "ignore things." In other words, just be happy. The pumpkins lining her teacher's desk reminded her of elementary school, where they would cover cement walls with motivational quotes and posters of animals—like placing a Band-Aid on a broken bone. Today her teacher Mrs. Ross smiled at her. Mom told her to watch Marina. The therapist had given her pills. And like her Uncle, she took them everyday, wondering if they were as useless as his medication.
Jason had his feet resting on the bottom her desk. He kept fidgeting, as Marina tried to concentrate on her classwork. He and his friends giggled when Miss Ross' pink thong stuck out as she bent over to pick up an eraser.
"You guys are such assholes," Marina hissed.
"Says the girl wearing fucking ugly pants," Jason retorted.
Marina turned around and ignored him. Today she wore a baggy hoodie that covered her arms, butt and most of her chest. She put her earbuds in so she wouldn't have to listen to the sound of his voice, until the teacher started asking the class questions. Marina did not put her hand up because it was harder to judge silence.
"We're going to grade the quizzes now."
Marina got Jason's. She considered sabotaging it, but when Miss Ross called out the solutions, she realized she didn't have to. Hardly any of his answers matched the teacher's.
"Nice job," she said as she handed Jason back his quiz. He put his paper face down so others couldn't see his grade. Jason passed up Marina's quiz, which had smiley faces drawn into the number 100.
"You don't have to rub it in my face, bitch."
"Kill yourself." It was barely above a whisper. Yet, he stared at her, his onyx eyes pouring into hers. She thought she'd gone far but then it didn't matter because for once he was actually quiet. Plus, she was nothing to him. Like always her words would dissolve into nothing.
She saw Jason later that day at her chorus concert. But he wasn't talking, which was unusual. He sat in the tenor section, alone. When she walked to her seat he looked at her and smiled. Marina smiled back shyly. She felt exposed in her form-fitting blouse and the short black skirt. Her mother had insisted on pinning Marina's hair back with spray, exposing her face, even though she had to work during the concert.
The class began to run through their set list. Seeing the people fill nearly half of the auditorium was enough to forget the lyrics to the first line. During the second song, she became so nervous about her solo that she forgot the words to the second verse. Fortunately, she remembered her solo, even though she went flat on the high note. The audience applauded her. As people socialized after the concert, Marina slipped into the parking lot and waited for her neighbors to pick her up. After sitting on the concrete a bit, Jason sat next to her.
"You were great, and I mean it."
Why was he being so nice? She didn't understand it.
"I think we got off on the wrong foot. We should start over and maybe hang out somewhere that isn't school. Wanna come to my place and study French?"
He wanted her help. Or worse. She wanted her to help him cheat.
"No thank you."
"I understand. I promise I'm not as bad as you think I am, and I don't think you're as weird or annoying as everyone says you are."
"Well I was trying to forget that everyone hated me. Thanks for reminding me, asshole."
"That's not what I meant. Look, people do say those things. But people say nice things about you all the time. After you sang the solo all people talked about was how good you were."
The pins came loose, letting the hair collapse onto her face. Why does he have to remind me that everyone hates me? As if I don't tell myself that everyday. Tears mixed with her eyeliner. Even though he typically didn't show emotion, Jason looked uncomfortable, even upset.
"If you want me to not bother you, I can."
"That would be nice."
Marina belonged in the shadows. By this point in the year, she could slip into class without anyone noticing. Not today. Today when she walked in late, Paul's eyes followed her to her seat. Even as she started her warm up, she could feel his eyes burning holes though her back. She waited for Jason to walk in and slam his backpack on the floor, in hopes it would distract Paul but he never arrived. When Mrs. Ross told the class to exchange warm-up answers, everyone remained silent. It was like two people had a lot to say to each other—too much—so much that the words collapsed on one another and created a vacuum of silence even an apocalypse couldn't fill.
"The answer is C. Did anyone else get C?"
Paul flung his French book onto the floor and crumpled up his papers. The pencils crashed and rolled under her and Jason's desk. His fists clenched. Tears dripped on his basketball jersey.
"Jason tried to kill himself last night."
Instead of pulling out the rubber balls and unwashed pennies, the coach gathered them into the auditorium, and played a video for them. The main actor wore mom jeans, while his bullies sported slicked black mullets, pleather coats and would call their victims slurs like 'faggot' and 'nerd'—things no one had ever called Marina. Their coach lectured them on the importance of talking to people. Tomorrow, they would likely watch another video from the 1990s.
"It's funny," Joyce bit into her sandwich, after coach dismissed them for lunch. "All the people that use to call Jason a dickwad keep saying nice things about him."
"Same! It's not like he's suddenly not a dick anymore," agreed Jessie. "He probably did for attention."
"I still hate him for calling Marina a dyke."
Marina picked the seeds off her hoagie. She took a micro-bite off her sandwich. Her stomach twisted.
"He was right about some things."
"You okay Marina?
She wrapped her hoagie in tinfoil and threw it in the trash.
"Just sick," she told them. "No big deal."
Jason sat in his old seat, with his feet resting on her seat. He had buzzed his head and wore a blue polo shirt similar to what his friends always wore. Most of all he was smiling, but not in the way the bride smiled to a groom-it was the type of smile a cocky basketball player displayed after he'd won a game.
"Hey Marina." He leaned back in his chair. She couldn't speak. She had imagined him in a guidance office, wearing a hospital gown and being lectured on the power of positive thinking. She imagined his muscle deflated and his skin white-washed, not unlike her Uncle's during his last days. Instead his arms appeared bronze and his body displayed no traces of being ravaged from the inside out.
Before she could respond, Paul filed into the classroom.
"Hey," Paul hugged him, even though he never hugged anyone, "How are you doing?"
Jason smiled. "Never better."
"Well it's good to have you back," he said as if Jason had gone a long vacation.
Midway through watching a video on the dangers of cutting, Marina excused herself to go to the bathroom, went outside and sat near her favorite tree where she watched the sun duck through the clouds. She didn't see Jason, until he started laughing at her. Cigarette in hand, he was breaking at least three school rules but no one stopped him.
"I didn't mean for you to follow my instructions literally."
He laughed, blew the smoke from his cigarette.
"It had nothing to do with you. You're nothing to me." He dropped the cigarette to the ground then killed the spark with the stomp of his shoe.
"Then why? Why did you do it?"
"Did you ever notice how hard it is to find friends? How easy it is to make enemies? How hard it is to build yourself up? How little it takes for you to break down? I get tired of it. Sometimes I just wish I could destroy everything. Instead I'm always telling myself to not fuck up, when I just want more than anything to fuck up for the pure sake of fucking up. Does that make sense?"
"No," Marina lied. It made a little bit of sense, but she didn't want it to. "I'm going to be honest, I can't understand what could possibly be wrong with your life."
It was true. She always passed his house on the bus. It was beautiful house, unlike hers and there were always cars parked in his driveway, meaning he had company.
"There's nothing wrong with my life and everything wrong with me."
"I can help fix you."
"We're so different."
"You know what people are saying out there about you? Terrible things. So I guess we're not that different after all."
Because of the heat, she had stripped off her hoodie, revealing a white tank top underneath. The wind blew her hair. Red mixed with the green of her eyes. She'd said they weren't different but she had no idea who she was, except like everything she hated.