First, let me tell you how little and skinny Kim was. In gym, she was the one waving at the top of the pyramid; I was the one with the pulsing red face down on all fours. And I could wrap my thumb and forefinger around her wrist, but I couldn’t do that to my own, which she said proved I was fat, like I didn’t own a mirror. The thing was, Kim had eight girls in her family and I had seven, which I thought bonded us, like war buddies—friends for life.
So me and my girlfriends decided we would write each other notes telling what we didn’t like about each other. After we had time to think about it, though, we realized it was a terrible idea and would only end up hurting people’s feelings and causing wars, which we were constantly in anyway.
Somehow word didn’t get back to Kim that we scrapped the idea, and one day when we got into school, we all had little folded notes in our desks from Kim telling us all kinds of untrue and toxic things about ourselves. Like she had stayed awake for a week straight thinking about how evil we all were and how it was high time we knew so we could be better people, thanks to her, God Almighty.
So I’m jamming my brownbag lunch that stinks of tuna even though Mom knows I hate it into my desk, and I see the white piece of paper folded up all pretty like origami, and I see my initials on it: A.R.W.—in all capitals in Kim’s perfect bubble handwriting. My first thought before even opening it was, “Kim’s DEAD,” because I knew my other friends were not nearly as understanding as I was. Maybe that’s why girls elbowed each other to sit next to me in assembly. Mainly because I wasn’t spoiled like Rita. I didn’t whine like Mary Kay. And Lynn lived too far from school so that kept her popularity down because who wants to walk that far?
The outside of the note said A.R.W., and already that annoyed me because I didn’t remember telling her my middle name because it’s “Ryan,” a weird family name. As I quickly and repeatedly read the note, her words echoed in my ears with a Chinese “GONG” and still do to this day.
“A.R.W.: You’re too proud.”
Honestly. I didn’t know what it meant. It was so vague. What was I proud of? Having fewer sisters than her? Being fatter? I thought maybe she accidentally put my initials on the wrong message. Maybe my message actually said something like, “You reek during gym,” which made sense, as I had planned on using it on any one of my friends. Just when I was about to ask her was this a mistake, the bell rang. We scrambled to our seats, I tried to catch her eye, and while everyone else was fixed on the flag, hands on their hearts, chanting the pledge in their most monotonous voices, Kim turned toward me and mouthed with her little tiny lips, “You’re too proud.”
I swallowed hard, slapping my hand over my heart to try to catch up with the pledge, but my rhythm was off.
From then on, I started to catch myself feeling proud. At Kim’s birthday party, for example. Kim had cast her net far and wide, extending “tough love” notes to kids beyond our little group. So the party was tense. We sat cross-legged on the cold, concrete, basement floor, circled around Kim, who was propped up on a plush, purple velvet pillow so her subjects could obediently watch her open her pyramid of presents. She had one of those faces that if you isolated each feature—small blue eyes, sharp little nose, pointless lips—everything was fine, but when assembled together something was off. She didn’t have enough hair on her head, or was it too much forehead, like a balding man’s or an old-fashioned doll’s?
“I am ready now. I am opening!” she proclaimed from on high. From Lynn, she got just a card, which could have been okay because money is always safe. Almost always. Kim opened the card and dangled an old, wrinkly, one-dollar bill. While everyone gulped and stared at the lonely bill, all I could think about was how superior my gift was—a spy kit with invisible ink and infrared goggles.
In my mind, a chorus of Kim’s voice sang, “A.R.W.: You’re too proud.”
Kim manipulated each gift carefully, then looked down from her throne, gracing the gift- giver with a fleeting moment of acknowledgement—be it a feigned grin, a restrained nod, or a long blink. I did not look her in the eyes. I never did because I knew she was just waiting to mouth those words again. When she got to my present I dashed to the bathroom so I wouldn’t be sucked into her gaze. I brought a piece of cake in with me to help me stall.
As I was about to leave the bathroom, I looked in the mirror to make sure I didn’t have wads of brown chocolate cake fermenting between my teeth, and I didn’t. In fact, my teeth looked almost straight and less yellow than I remembered, and my black bangs were the right length for a change, and my double chin was more like one-plus. I tried to shake her voice out of my head. I forced myself to note the things I saw that I was not proud of: an eye color that had no name, peach fuzz, the frizzies. That didn’t silence her. Nothing would.
Pretty soon after that all the kids got picked up, but not me. As I was the youngest in my family, my parents forgot I existed with regularity. There I was, left stranded in the Schmidt’s untouchable living room with Kim’s mother, Lavergne.
As I looked at Lavergne, I prayed to God that I never ended up with mom hair. Lavergne’s was blinding white, even when her kids were younger, so she always looked about twenty years older than it turned out she was. She styled it in a hairdo: short but bubbled out and strapped in place with an invisible hairnet. Although Kim was recently intimidating, Lavergne had always been. First of all, her name. It was exotic, having a “g” in it for no reason. Plus, she was as tall as a man. She also had her own column in the Lifestyles newspaper. The column was long and skinny with her picture next to her name, but chunks of her bubble hair got cropped out of the picture, leaving her with a buzz cut. It was called “Ask Lavergne,” and there she was sitting on a fancy, mint green, crushed velvet sofa right across from me, and I could have asked her anything, but I didn’t have the nerve. I wanted to ask her if she liked her husband, Mr. Schmidt, because she had a fancy job and he ran a gas station and dressed like someone she would never say hello to, with streaks of grease on his gray jumpsuit and even on his hands. I wanted to ask her if she ever heard of birth control because that’s what people always asked my mom—like were all these kids accidents, or were you just trying for a boy?
Lavergne looked at her solid gold watch as she gave me the twenty questions: “Who’s picking you up? Do they know the time? Did they think you were getting a ride with one of the other girls? Does this happen often?” I knew if I answered truthfully, I’d end up in her column. So once I lied about that, saying, “No. They’re never late. This has never happened before,” I just had to keep going with it. The lies were coming naturally to me and made her stop talking.
Then it was too quiet.
I smiled. She didn’t smile back. I fake coughed. She expressed no concern for my health. I made sure my knees weren’t spread eagle. She scowled at her watch and stood up perfectly still—a giant, unmeltable iceberg.
“My mom had a baby,” I said. “That’s why she’s late.”
Lavergne scrunched her eyebrows. Mom was in her late forties, but I think it was still possible. Lavergne said, “A baby! Well! I didn’t even know she was . . . when did—”
“Last night,” I said.
“Last night! What—”
Lavergne slapped her hand to her chest, and I thought for a second I gave her a heart attack. I wasn’t trying to, I was just passing time, so I said the most un-proud thing I could think of: having a brother.
She started pacing, saying, “A boy? A boy?” Then she marched to the front door, which was open, and stared. “So your father’s picking you up,” she said. “He must be thrilled.”
“No,” I said. “He wanted another girl, but it wasn’t God’s will.” Whenever anything bad happened, that’s what was said, like when my cousin Andy was born missing a piece of his brain, everyone said, “It was God’s will,” and I pictured God doing a jigsaw puzzle of each kid that was brought into the world, and I thought it seemed mean that the one piece of Andy’s brain he kept, maybe put it in his pocket. Did he have pockets full of tricks he played on kids? Or maybe the piece just fell on the floor and he didn’t see it because it was stuck under his big shoe—just an accident—but that didn’t make me feel much better about God.
“My mom’s picking me up,” I said, “not my dad.”
“Your mom!” she screamed, and it wasn’t until then that I realized I might be found out. Just in time to hear me spew lies, Kim appeared wearing the red goggles like she didn’t know they were for darkness or nighttime. Now she would have something to write about: “A.R.W.: You’re disrespectful to parents.” “A.R.W.: You lie like a rug.” “A.R.W.: You’ll burn for your sins.” But she didn’t join us. She just walked through the living room like a child zombie, like the glasses were leading her to a giant altar in the jungle.
I heard the car door slam, then Mom’s click-click, high-heel footsteps. The thing I didn’t hear was a baby crying. There was no mistaking that she was not carrying a newborn baby infant. Lavergne threw open the door. “Joan, sit down,” she said, and she sat down herself and patted the spot where she wanted Mom’s butt to go. She zoned in on Mom’s boobs and torso, looking for signs of recent baby. To my good fortune, Mom was well endowed so nothing could be ruled out.
Mom caught the weird vibe and said, “I don’t want to keep you,” but Lavergne said, “No, I insist,” so Mom sat down.
“May I be excused?” I asked in my most matter-of-fact voice. Lavergne and Mom looked at me in unison.
“Stay put,” Mom said. “How are the girls?” she asked, looking at her watch. I think she was secretly relieved she was short one daughter.
“How’s the boy? You had a boy!” Lavergne sounded borderline-hysterical but with a hint of sadness. I put my hands on my lap in prayer position, closed my eyes, and pretended to pray, waiting for Mom to say something. “Tommy! I heard all about little Tommy! He wasn’t so little, was he? Thirteen pounds! The proud papa must be ecstatic.”
Still, silence from Mom. To bide time she checked her recently sharpened fingernails. At this point in my life, she didn’t know how much I lied. I was just starting to know. She looked at Lavergne like she must be drunk, and her eyes roamed from the grandfather clock to the piano to the curio cabinet, looking for an open bottle of whiskey or gin or bourbon, and I had a feeling that when we left, Lavergne would drink.
Lavergne was patient with Mom, probably thinking she was still woozy from the birth of Tommy. Then she spelled it out for her: “Annie here was just telling me you had a boy, and I didn’t even know you were expecting. Me—the reporter. You’re looking well, under the circumstances.”
Except for the fact that she wears her hair in a bun, Mom is pretty cool. You can’t ruffle her feathers, especially in public. I recognized that look though, the one where she’s gritting her teeth and her nostrils are flared so she can breathe through them extra slow.
She couldn’t very well keep the lie going on my behalf because sooner or later she’d have to produce a Tommy. But if she said it was a big fat lie, that would be shameful to her—to have a kid who was pure evil, making up lies all day for no reason.
The wheels were spinning in Mom’s head when Kim wandered in again. This time she turned all her attention toward me after waving to Mom like a robot.
Lavergne said in a super-fake-happy voice, “Kimmie, did you know about Annie’s new brother?” The question cracked in her throat. “Why did you hide it from me?” I looked at Kim but couldn’t tell what she was thinking because of her sci-fi eyes.
Kim didn’t mouth anything. I was wrestling with worse problems anyway than being too proud. She said, “A brother?” and hugged her stomach like the idea of it was sickening to her, and she turned towards her mom. “Are we getting a brother?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Lavergne said, putting an end to my question about the nature of her parents’ relationship.
Kim looked at me foot to head with the goggles like she had X-Ray vision. I felt worse than nude. Then she scoped her eyes down to my belly like she had heard a beep confirming that was where my soul resided. We had just learned in religion about the devil and how he gets bonus points if he converts someone who is extra good. Like poor Adam and Eve. All they wanted was to eat an apple. The only way I would have said no to the apple is if he offered me something better. Still, I had believed I was a good one. Why would you want to live if you didn’t believe that about yourself?
“Actually, Lavergne,” Mom said, clearing her throat, “Annie was just playing with you. You know, kids and their imaginations? There’s no Tommy.” She stood up and nudged me to do the same.
Lavergne stood up and stared down at Mom. “So you don’t have a son.” Mom shook her head. “I thought it was unusual,” Lavergne said, “. . . and to be up and about after delivering last night—”
“Is that what she said?” Mom laughed. Lavergne didn’t think it was that funny. Not funny at all.
“Kim, thank Annie for coming,” Lavergne said, and after Kim did, I said, “You’re welcome,” even though I knew the proper answer was, “Thank you for having me.” Thank you for having me would have been a lie.
Mom made me apologize to Lavergne, but I wasn’t sure what to say so I stood there with my head down until the clock roared, “Gong, gong, gong, gong, gong!” “I’m sorry . . . for pretending like I had a newborn baby brother . . . and that he was really huge.”
When we got in the car, Mom didn’t seem mad. She just asked me about the party and did I tell Mrs. Schmidt anything else about our family. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t get in trouble right there and then for lying, but I did with Kim.
Lavergne forbid Kim from playing with me, and she convinced Rita’s and Lynn’s and Mary Kay’s moms I was a “bad seed.” Once rumors like that start flying around about you there’s no getting yourself back.
The girls continued to fight about who would sit next to me in assembly, but it was a punishment now, not a privilege.
At school I’d try to catch Kim’s eye, wave, but she never waved back. A bunch of times I put folded up notes into her desk, good notes, like, “K.S.: Cute coat!” “K.S.: You’re a good artist!” (She wasn’t.) She didn’t even open them. Whenever I’d put in a new note, the old one would still be there sealed. I don’t know if it was because I was “too proud” or a “bad seed.” Or maybe she was afraid I’d written something really bad about her that she would discover in her heart was true.
Mary Beth Hoerner is a Chicago playwright and fiction writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Hair Trigger and Hypertext, her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hypertext, and her memoir, “Night Games,” appears in the anthology Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year. Her education includes an M.A. in English from the University of Illinois, Champaign, and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago.
© 2017, Mary Beth Hoerner