I used to eat lunch in the stairwell. It wasn’t technically allowed, but teachers walked by all the time and didn’t say a word. Some of them looked sorry for me, but others just didn’t care. I was a senior, I had leeway to break the rules a little. It was a good many weeks of quiet lunches spent sketching out sculpture ideas or pretending to study to make myself feel like a good student.
One day, none of particular monument, a teacher I didn’t recognize came in and launched into a lecture. She wasn’t one of the teachers who passed through the stairwell every day. I don’t know if I set my water bottle down too forcefully or bit into a fruit too loudly, but something summoned her to come find me. Or maybe she was just passing through. Regardless, she single-handedly put me on the path to develop into who I became, for better or worse. She probably had no idea.
All she did was stomp up and reprimand me for breaking the rules and soiling the integrity of the school. That was all I heard before I tuned her out, looking off into some corner with a cobweb strung across it. When the drone of her voice quieted, I mumbled an apology and left. I didn’t even look her in the eye.
I spent my lunch periods in the hallway for a while. The teacher from before seemed like the type to patrol the stairwell to make sure I wasn’t still there. Eating outside of teachers’ rooms or the cafeteria I think was frowned upon, but there wasn’t any set rule about being in the hallways. The teachers couldn’t touch me now.
Again, the course of my life came down to someone passing by out of chance. A classmate taking a different stairwell or going to the restroom at just the right time shaped me more than anything else in my life.
It was Connie. She worked at the same pizza place as me, but we didn’t talk much. We usually worked in different stations in the kitchen, and she was already close to the others by the time I started there. My coworkers weren’t exactly eager to open up their social circles to me, so I was content to put pepperoni on cheese for six hours and leave without saying a word.
I don’t know what moved Connie to come up to me while I stared blankly at a random textbook page, but she approached and gently kicked my foot. I didn’t look up at her until she did.
Her style was functional, and she wore it well. It wasn’t a shock to see her clothes outside of work. We had to wear t-shirts branded with company logos and stupid jokes aimed to create the illusion of casualness. I was surprised at making eye contact with her for what might have been the first time, though. She looked worried.
She asked me something, but it was distant as I sat thinking about what I could sculpt based on her. Maybe a stylized take on an oven? I blinked a few times and her eyebrows knit together.
I asked her to repeat herself, and she did. She was asking me if I usually ate alone, more impatiently this time. I said yes. She called me a loser and laughed. That stung. But then she asked me if I wanted to go eat with her and her friends. In retrospect, it could have been an ambush. I could have been jumped and gotten my lunch money stolen like a nerd in a bad 80’s movie. But at the time, something glazed over my judgement. Call it divine providence or desperation, but I blindly agreed. Connie pointed me toward a classroom at the end of the hall and said I could head in, she was running to the bathroom. I loitered outside of the door until she came back. She gave me an odd look when she saw me waiting, but motioned inside as she entered. I followed.
I didn’t know the teacher whose room the group ate in. That didn’t say much though, I only knew the handful of teachers I was taking classes with that year. The room was alright though. Lots of inspirational posters. And the teacher seemed nice. Her hair was blonde and it looked soft. Eventually she was a mild nuisance; she had a habit of eavesdropping and telling us to change the subject if we got too off-color. But at that point, her kind wave as I entered was a comfort.
There was a small group of underclassman sat against the wall beside the door, but Connie went over to meet a table of five others sitting in the opposite corner of the teacher’s desk. I pulled up a chair on the outside of the group. Connie didn’t spend time on introductions, but in time I came to know everyone at that table to what I hoped was a great degree. I didn’t have many examples to go off of. They were impactful, though, that much can be sure.
Jace was the most fashionable of us all, which to be fair wasn’t hard to do. He wouldn’t say a word about what he thought of you to your face, good or bad, but his eyes were clear and blue. His hair was dark and odd, and he paired it with clothes and jewelry of a similar vein. He had an affinity for chocolate and always looked like he needed some sun.
Most of the group, I would later find, loved art, but Payton let it shape their personality the most. They wore lots of yellow. Paint stained their hands, almost everything they wore, and the wire rims of their glasses. They would draw at tables with us when they weren’t picking pigment and graphite out from under their nails. At first I thought that they were looking for attention, but that idea faded quickly. They legitimately loved art. Payton was hopelessly in love with not just the creation of art, but anything they could do to attribute time to it. Reading, discussing, looking at photos. Their love was pure, though. They weren’t obsessive. That fever had its own aura that Payton never carried. They were like a ray of light in the grey burden of artistic genesis.
Addison was encumbered by every artistic outlet not loved by Payton and myself. She couldn’t draw or sculpt, she admitted, but she was a kindred spirit. She loved film and literature and music. She told me that she loved bending others’ emotions to her will through what she did. She was wild. I liked her.
Michelle liked me the least out of the six, I think. She seemed trustworthy at first, quietly observing in a more attentive and cunning way than I could ever hope to. I, being new, was a rare unbiased party, so she confided in me about disagreements she had experienced within the group that I had not been there to take sides for. I thought that these hushed whispers would make her an ally when I had my own problems, but she would defend any of the others no matter how fair my grievances were.
I wasn’t sure how Lily ended up with the others. She was bubbly and kind. The others seemed to speak cautiously around her. They always watched their words and discussion of anything bordering on a secret was immediately dropped in her presence. But she was nothing but trustworthy according to me. She had heat, though. She could go from stubbornly loyal to fiercely belligerent at just a few wrong words. I avoided the brunt of that, I think. Did that mean she liked me? I wasn’t sure.
It was odd seeing Connie interacting with others outside of a workplace. She was the blunt one, a girl who others would call rude, without a customer-service smile plastered across her face. Her attitude didn’t seem to bother the group. I don’t think they had much of a choice. From what I gathered, the six of them were outcasts who had rallied together after their sour lots in life had left them lost. I don’t have a timeline for their meetings, but that concept seemed true enough.
That was a fair deduction on my part given the fact that I first entered into a conversation comparing the harassment each person had experienced over the past week. I didn’t think that was a thing people discussed so openly. Jace had toilet paper thrown in his trees and Michelle had gum stuck to her shirt. I awkwardly added in that my car had been egged, undercutting the already muddy conversation. That seemed to earn me some sort of badge of honor. Michelle and Lily, who were sitting in front of me, seemed like they didn’t notice my presence until then. They moved their chairs to make room for me at the table.
Even though I was now fully integrated into the circle, those were the only words I spoke during that whole period. I tried to learn more about each of them as they spoke, but my mind quickly spiraled into my art. I saw the way the light played off of Jace’s jewelry. The way Lily’s hair curled around her glasses. Back to Jace, this time the way his jacket folded across the table. And how it curved along the contour of his chest. I made myself look to Connie. I revisited the ideas I had had earlier. What could I make out of a pizza oven? I wanted to sketch, but I didn’t know if anyone here was nosy enough to stare. I later knew that they weren’t, but I never had the most trusting disposition.
The bell rang and I rushed for the door. I would rather numb my brain in math class than pretend to be a part of this friendly conversation. I hated being the outsider. Being alone by choice was fine, but exclusion made me feel like I had been hit in the stomach. But on my way, someone called out my name. It was Connie, running up to me as she zipped up her backpack. She asked me where I was going, and I told her. She said she was heading the same way, and she fell into step beside me without another word. A few silent steps later she started talking about something, but my mind was too foggy to pick it up. The people in the halls turned inanimate as we went. I noticed the anatomy of a leg, and the creases of a laugh. The couple kissing against the lockers turned to clay, melting together. Or maybe wood, with the grain warping where the two touched.
Connie said they were gross.
About three-fourths of the way to my class Connie went into a classroom without saying goodbye. I started to yell goodbye after her, but cut myself off. She didn’t say it to me. Was I being weird? The anxiety was muted, stifled under the fog in my mind. I was surrounded by sculptures, too many for me to carve. I would just have to settle for the best ones.
The rest of the day passed by in a blink. I’m not entirely sure what my lessons were even covering. I was mindlessly copying notes the entire time, sketching in the margins of my notes when I could. I thought back to the couple from earlier. I think the girl was on her toes and cupped the boy’s face, but what I was focusing on was the way that his fingertips pressed softly against her back. I missed a few sections of the lesson sketching that touch over and over, in countless ways. The hand slowly changed shape. First it was flesh, then a claw, then sinister tendrils. I had an idea of plant life, but was interrupted by the bell. Everyone had apparently packed up before then, and rushed out almost immediately. I took a moment to gather my things and politely responded to my teacher’s feeble attempts at small talk. Teachers always tried to talk to the loners. I left.
On my way out, someone called my name again. It wasn’t Connie. I wasn’t sure who else at this school even knew my name. As I peered through the crowd over my shoulder, I saw a flash of familiar glasses weaving through the pack of students. All of a sudden Lily was in front of me with a satisfied smile scrunching her eyes nearly shut. She immediately launched into a recounting of her day as she followed the stream of the crowd, and I followed. She kept mentioning names that I didn’t know, but she didn’t seem to think anything of it. Over time, Lily and Michelle came to stand opposite each other in my eyes. For Michelle, all I ever was was the new kid who hung onto the fringes of the group, a blank slate with no history. For Lily, I was just another pair of ears. Michelle would carefully explain complex stories to me, but Lily would just say names as if I had known the people they belonged to for years. Eventually, I felt like I did. I learned more from her bubbly rambling than Michelle ever taught me.
But that first time, I was a little overwhelmed. I had never made any connections with anyone as outgoing as Lily. Her energy kept my attention for more time than I thought it would. I was invested. But inexorably, the muse in my mind possessed me. I heard Lily’s words, but the images in my head turned to wet clay slipping between my fingers. I sculpted in my mind as she spoke, unable to form any concrete thoughts of my own. The arguments she recounted turned to beasts, and bulky bodies and spindly arms clambered for space in my skull. As we got to the door, Lily said something and looked at me. After a blank moment, my mind was my own again and I could form words. I asked her what she had said. Apparently her mother was waiting by the other side of the school. We said goodbye, and I headed to my car. Moving late meant I was last in line for a parking spot, so it was a long trek to the beat-up old car that my grandpa had handed down to me. It was scraped from mistakes made while getting used to parking in a garage, and the paint was chipped in a few places. There was a large dent in the front that had shown up one day in a parking lot while I was inside buying bread. My parents blamed me. There were no cameras in the lot.
Bass thumped in cars around me as the kids inside began blaring their music. It slowly built into a chorus of tribal drum beats. I turned on my own radio, volume low, and slowly began making my way out of the crowded parking lot.
My eyes found Jace walking between cars as the man on the radio talked about his abnormal ears. I waved, but he didn’t see. I couldn’t tell which car he got into, but I wondered what his looked like. Maybe it was damaged, like mine. I doubted it, though. He seemed like the type to drive a worn, old car, but one that was cared for. I thought of his hands on a steering wheel and wondered how it would feel to shape them out of earth. To run my knuckles along theirs. Among his.
I turned into my neighborhood.
My dog was glad to see me. My parents were happier when they got him. I was the only one with enough love to spare for him now. I got him some water and gave some to my plants on the back porch as well. They would die soon. Fall was here. I went back inside and returned to my current sculpture.
I was inspired by the autumn. I had already carved rough hilllsides into a decent-sized oak block. Now I was turning the curves into a giant quilt draped over a landscape. That was what the crisp, cold air falling over the town felt like. I looked at it for a moment, then grabbed my sketchbook. I was going to give the people I had met today patches along the smallest hill.
My pencil hovered above the page. I didn’t know enough about them to make anything meaningful. And just their faces would be boring and poorly done. I made a small chart with a few bulleted ideas, but nothing came of it. I gave up and started carving out one of my completed designs. The quilt had seemed like a profound image at first, but it was tedious. It wasn’t too bad to make. The fog hanging between my neurons that kept me from focusing on the people around me did the opposite when I created. I felt like the essence of someone else flooded into my bones and took over my fingers. I had a goal I went into a daze. I resurfaced with a sculpture. My hands knew what they were doing. I trusted them.
I didn’t know if I could say the same for Connie and her friends.
I bit the sawdust out from under my nails. The taste spread dry across my tongue. I went up to bed.