One by one we process into The Bowl—the glacier-made grassy crater in front of the high school. We walk through the parking lot, past the crumbling wooden fence that separates grass from asphalt, down the hill to the bleachers and makeshift stage. Eighty-seven pairs of shoes traipse across the damp landscape, marching past the bleachers where tearfully proud parents sit, cameras flashing. One-hundred and seventy-four feet walk in a line, every person’s future imprinted on their soles.
I squint through the first few speeches. My eyes, more accustomed to the dark in my computer room at 3 o’clock in the morning, do not welcome the late afternoon sunlight. Lucy, my best and only friend among the antsy would-be graduates, sits one row above me on the bleachers. There we are in our white gowns—the gowns mirror the school colors, with boys in purple and girls in white—waiting for that moment when we’ll hear our names called, waiting to feel that rolled up piece of paper in our hands, setting us free.
The cold metal penetrates my clothing with ease, sending a chill through my thighs. I shift uncomfortably as I try to warm my body. Janie Richmond is our class valedictorian. I watch as she walks to the podium to make her speech, her long, flaxen hair shimmering against the white of her graduation gown. I can hear cameras anxiously clicking as she begins to speak.
Distinguished guests, faculty, friends, blah blah blah. Move on already. “To my fellow graduates: Wow. Can you believe we’re actually here?” Why yes, Janie, I can. I can also believe that it’s not butter. What I can’t believe is that she’s dating Chester Morales. How the hell did that happen?
“We’ve been together now for four years. Four years of happiness and good times.”
My mental brakes screech to a grinding halt. Oh, she had better follow that with ‘and four years of sadness, pain, and gut-wrenching misery.’
“I mean, who could forget those parties at Sam’s house, or the parties after homecoming?”
Okay, did I even go to the same high school at this chick? I turn my neck to look up at Lucy, though I already know she’s thinking the same thing I am. Oh, Janie. Janie, Janie, banana fanna fo feinie. Me my mo meinie. Janie.
“We’ll always remember going to parties on Saturday nights, or out on dates, or celebrating after a big game. We’ll remember hanging out in the Senior Lounge, eating lunch in the cafeteria, driving to and from school with our friends.”
By now, I can hear the theme music from The Twilight Zone playing in the background. I’m convinced the principal is going to turn into Rod Serling and start narrating the entire scene. I want to turn to Lucy again and vent my paranoia-slash-outrage to her, but Janie’s voice is the only one that can be heard.
“We’ll always remember walking through the halls with friends, hanging out at our lockers between classes and laughing. We will treasure these and countless other moments as we are going off to college, as we are moving on and growing up, but never forgetting the best four years of our lives.”
At this point, I’m starting to wonder whether I will be able to keep from covering my gown with bread- and Coca Cola-filled vomit. Even if I did have a giant brown stain spreading from my negative A-cup chest down to my knees, I don’t think anyone would notice. No one is noticing the myopia of Janie’s words, so why would they notice me? Me. My pain. No one noticed it for four, five, six, seven years; why should I expect it to be any different today?
My mouth runs dry as I continue to listen. Janie is standing up there generalizing the last four years of my life, turning high school into a one-size-fits-all experience. She’s taking this day, my bittersweet—heavy on the bitter—graduation day, and wrapping it in a summary that doesn’t include nearly half of the students to whom she is speaking. She’s either incredibly ignorant or the stupidest valedictorian I’ve ever seen. I mean, she thinks she can just waltz onstage and say all of these ridiculous lies about my life--
A loud clanking interrupts my internal ranting. My eyes dart quickly to locate the source of the noise. It’s only when I look down that I realize my leg is vibrating rapidly, which is causing my shoes to repeatedly thump against the metal. I try to stop, but it’s an old habit, as old as my propensity for smelling the ends of freshly-sharpened pencils for comfort. If I had a pencil sharpener in my hand right then, I probably would have thrown it at Janie’s head.
Do you know what your valedictorian speech and this pencil sharpener have in common, Janie? They’re both full of holes. Some are small, very little; others are enormous and gaping; but no matter the size, they’re still holes. And I am lost in both of them.
The senior prom takes place a week later. For two whole days, our parents have worked tirelessly to transform the gym into the Royal Crystal Ball, complete with moat and drawbridge. A long red carpet is draped over the two sets of steps leading up to the gym. As soon as each teenager-filled limousine arrives, the couples are announced one by one as they emerge, before processing up the red carpet and into the gym. I have let my date—David Bailey, who is a year younger than I and friends with more seniors than I am—make all the arrangements. After dinner is over, he dances with my classmates, while I sit at our table alone, writing poetry on small scraps of paper.
Halfway through the festivities, there is an announcement stating that a video is going to be shown. It’s a montage of photographs set to late-‘90s pop music and several emotionally manipulative teary “graduation/goodbye” power ballads. I watch as pictures of my classmates from over the years come up onscreen. Only two of the pictures are of me: one is me alone; the other, with Lucy.
She didn’t come tonight. Why the hell did I? I shouldn’t have even considered coming after I found out that she wasn’t. My best friend. Of all the people I graduated with, she was the only one who could’ve made prom night worthwhile. Instead, I am alone.
My chest begins to tighten. I’m starting to get overwhelmed, a feeling that grows as I watch David laughing with his friends and gyrating his pelvis against girls on the dance floor. I’d had a crush on him for months before then. I remember how excited I was when he agreed to go to the prom with me. Sitting at the table, watching him, I realize the truth: he used me to gain access to the prom, to spend time with his senior buddies.
I run out of the gym before anyone can stop me. The unbearably loud and repetitive rap music fades behind me as I rush down the steps into the parking lot, past the wooden fence, down into The Bowl. I can feel the wet grass brushing against my toes. I’m wearing white shoes, and they’ll probably get stained, but God, I don’t care. I just had to get out of there.
It’s peaceful and quiet where I am now, near the batting cage, behind the area where the stage was for graduation. Without thinking at all of my prom dress (an overly quick purchase anyway), I lie down on my back on the metal bench. As I stare up at the night sky, the tension begins to leave my body. It’s a particularly clear night, and because I’m far away from the lights of the school, the stars are visible.
Is this supposed to be one of those memories Jenna was talking about last week? It’s the night of my senior prom; by all accounts, I should be dancing the night away with my friends, and then get liquored up and pressured into sex at a hotel somewhere afterwards. I suppose I can live without the last two, but the first one? My failure to do even that is humiliating. I know what I’m doing right now isn’t normal. The rest of the senior class isn’t out here lying on a metal bench staring at the sky.
I remember the video again. There were so many pictures—but only two of me. Only one was of Lucy. Two or three were of Emma Jansen, the girl with cerebral palsy. The same for Jason Matousek, the fat kid everyone cruelly refers to as “Little Jay.” Even Jay and Emma are at the prom, and Emma has a date. I think of how happy she looked on the dance floor, how, even for just one night, she got a chance to be like everyone else.
I think of the yearbook, and wonder what it would’ve been like if we’d had quotes under our senior pictures. My arm stretches up to the sky and, with my fingers clasped around an invisible pen, I start to write:
No one sees the world like I do.
Underneath, in smaller letters:
One day I will decide it’s not worth it. I’d rather be dead than have asperger’s. I can’t understand anything or anyone. A few crossed wires in my head have made me a non-person.
Just as I start to imagine my mother finding my lifeless body in the computer room, slumped over the keyboard, she comes walking down into The Bowl, along with several other adults who are looking for me. I tell my mom why I went down there; though, out of them all, she’s the only one who doesn’t need an explanation.