The freeway runs right by the main entrance of Southridge School. Out back, three sets of train tracks stretch off toward the horizon. When freight lines roll past at midnight, the windows rattle in the freshmen block.
It used to be government housing in the 70s, and before that, it was a floor mill. Now it’s a designer stalag for the wealthy and the gifted, original floors historically preserved, grain elevators intact. None of the locks have changed. They’ve just gotten rustier.
I have five classes in the empty dance studio on the top floor. Dance is not a subject taught at Southridge. Every day, I climb six flights to sit in the vacant studio with my box and my easel, filling the hours with figure drawing, apparel design, painting, calligraphy. I have one teacher. Mr. Markham. I suspect he’s not a teacher, but more like a disillusioned guard.
Three years, five roommates, nineteen detentions and not a single recorded demerit. My mother is on the board of trustees, and since they can’t get rid of me, they make every effort to ensure I’m not an embarrassment. Students don’t build their own curriculums, but I am a special case, too unorthodox to be allowed.
Once, I ordered two thousand lady bugs from the local garden center and set them loose in the atrium. I sprinkled marigold seeds in the ficus planters and put gold fish in the lobby fountain. These are things I did with no consequences, no repercussions. My nineteen detentions were for smart answers and missed homework. There is no equivalent punishment for making the world a stranger place.
Down on the lower floors, everyone goes about their business, laughing and gossiping, doing battle with French and precalculus. I could be on the inside, warm and cozy and numb. I could put on a cheerleading uniform, become a modern-day shield maiden, but instead I’m no one. The mystery creature, transparent princess, cypher. Ghost girl.
I’ve drawn myself so many times that when I look in the mirror, my features lose meaning. I can only see myself in pieces—an eye here, mouth there. It would be deluded to say that I don’t have a pretty face, but it would be more deluded to say that it matters.
Leo Purcell is the only boy at Southridge worth looking at, and he cannot actually see me. This is disappointing, but I don’t hold it against him.
I drew him once, on the inside cover of my notebook—his pale, heavy-lidded eyes, soft lower lip, his blue-black hair. The way his belt is too big and his slacks are always slipping down off his hips. Because the drawing was in pencil, I couldn’t quite capture his skin, so white that his veins show.
I drew him staring longingly after Genevieve Gardner, who has been the most popular girl in Southridge since we were fourteen. She was my first roommate. She cried to me once, saying how she missed her sisters and her dog. We sat on her bed with our arms around each other, trading memories of home and sharing a Heath bar, and now she doesn’t even know my name.
Leo stares after her, dutiful, admiring. I watch him watching her, and when I slip between shoulders and elbows on my way to invisibility lessons, no one sees me. I sit at my easel in the empty studio, with my sheaf of newsprint and my mirror and stare at my face until it stops looking like mine.
From the window, I watch the city and the freeway. In the distance, the sky-rises look like mystic spires, unbearably close and far. I want to pick them up and eat them. I want to scream out loud sometimes, but I never do.
“You have to let yourself go,” Mr Markham says in a monotone, checking off my calligraphy sheet. “Art is about passion, self-expression. It’s not about going through the motions.”
When the last bell rings, I trudge down seven floors, past normal classrooms full of desks, and out into the lobby.
Under the, skylight, Leo Purcell is holding hands with Genevieve, which should be the highlight of his life, but today he looks bored and annoyed. He doesn’t see me, which is not unusual.
No one sees me.
Because no one sees me, I get out my calligraphy brush and write my name on the side of the plastic trash can. I write it on the lobby wall, and the stairwell door and on the floor by the auditorium. I write it in India ink, with long flourishes and little looping curlicues. The shape of the letters is like a tiny circus that no one watches.
They’re clustered around some senior, who is sitting on commemorative bench and playing guitar with his eyes closed, like it’s just that intense.
The song is one I know from oldies radio, which is all Mr. Markham ever listens to. I sing along under my breath as I sign my name in spirals around the base of the fountain, and then take off my shoes. The water is cold and shallow. I sign the plinth in the middle, kneeling under the spray, which soaks through my skirt and smells like pennies. Stretched on my back, I look up at skylight, then shut my eyes against the glare, pretending I’m drowned at sea. When my hair is damp, it goes from titian to blood-red.
“What are you doing?”
I open my eyes and Leo Purcell is standing over me, backlit by the autumn sun.
“You’re wet,” he says, looking maddeningly superior because he is dry.
I don’t answer.
“I can see through your shirt,” he says, in a voice like he is clarifying something.
That makes me shrug and roll my eyes. “Oh, God, I know. What were they thinking, making us wear white? It’s so impractical.”
“Why are you so weird?” he says, but he says it like he really wants to know. I can respect the question.
I fold my hands, holding the calligraphy brush so that ink blooms in huge black peonies on my front. “Because when nobody sees you, you can be anything you want and it doesn’t make a difference.”
Across the lobby, the senior boy is still abusing his guitar like he isn’t the most pedestrian thing in the the history of high school.
Leo shakes his head. “I think you try so hard to be different because you think no one will notice you otherwise. ”
“Yeah, right. You think all girls look the same in the dark.”
“That’s not fair,” he says, glancing over his shoulder. Genevieve is watching the boy play guitar with a rapt expression, like he doesn’t suck.
Leo reaches down and dips his hand in the fountain. He isn’t touching me, but I can tell that he wants to. “You should really do something about your shirt.”
“I can take it off,” I say, not because I would, but just to be shocking. Just to see the muscles in his throat flutter when he swallows.
He crouches at the edge of the fountain and presses his fingers against his eyelids. “You are so freaking weird, but you do it on purpose. I mean, you could be something else so easy. You could be anything you wanted.”
I dip my brush in the water, which turns a cloudy purple. “Then maybe this is what I want. Lean over and hold still.”
On his chest, I write my name. It feathers out in blotches, seeping through the cotton, making him shiver. The color is deep and impermeable. Vital. Me.
When he opens his eyes, I look right at him and do it again.
Photo by ishrona