Twelve is a sea. It is a sea, and a cave too, a place you enter and where all vision becomes absent. Lost in twelve, and too far afield from even customary survival instincts, too inexperienced to know to put a hand out to feel your way. Instead, you stop. You come to a dead stop right where you stand, and the water rushes past, or the bats rush past. There is no sound, no way to go back from where you came. The world is a haunted place when you are twelve.
The land between the ebbing and relative freshness that is grammar school and the gleaming sophistication and promises of unimaginable experience, this land is known by the terms “middle school” or “junior high school,” but these terms are such poor and diminishing identifiers for the initiation into the categorizations and judgments and brutalizations that occur in those bleached halls, locker doors slamming. No, call it what it is: the sea, the cave. Where you will strip yourself or be stripped and where you will remake or be remade. That is what happens when your head is under the water, the salt on your tongue. And that is, very surely, what is happening, when at long last, somewhere around the second semester, you finally reach an unsure hand out into the dark and touch the moss and slime that coats the tunnel walls.
That slick wall. Mid-April, seventh grade. The mother-daughter luncheon. I dressed the way I always did, by staring first into my closet, then at the pulled out drawer of my dresser, finally reaching into my hamper and pulling out yesterday’s clothing. Holding the dark t-shirt to my face, searching for the fragrance of mold. A trace, maybe. But only a trace, and I pull the shirt over my face, pull my jeans up over my hips. I do not bother to smell the jeans. They are dirty. It is Thursday, my fourth day this week with them. I wish I had washed them last night, wish I had remembered to wash my clothes, but I had been reading, and later, practicing piano. I had remembered to take a bath. Now there are larger and sturdier conflicts; I go about finding socks, and saying goodbye for the day to Mr. Buttons and then, the most hateful chore of all, I try to brush short hair that stands in cowlicks. Such proud cowlicks, tenacious and bristled, shunning the half-hearted attempts of the girl who tries to tame them. I walk to the corner with my brother and and we wait for the bus.
Science first. Then English 1A, and then Art. A schedule of courses, shuffling from one session to the other. This is new, as you’ve spent the first several years in an American education looking at one teacher per year, seated in one desk. You develop a familiarity in grade school with that one teacher, you learn their ways, their mannerisms. A mouth pulled tight means a particular thing when you are in third grade and your teacher is Mrs. Manlow. Her quirked mouth is saying that the class is dangerously close to losing recess, and in fourth grade, Mr. Black’s firm mouth meant a story about his own young childhood was being prepared for delivery. And, most frightening and astounding, was Miss Samuels in fifth grade, when she said shhh, shhh, shhh, and the room would not quiet, and her lips formed a terse frozen line for a prolonged moment, and then she lifted her hands to her head and noiselessly began to cry.
I am not good at science, the table of elements laminated in plastic over the chalkboard makes no sense and I wonder at the scientists who name these things. I wonder why H20 means water, why it would not be abbreviated as WTR. I don’t ask, but copy the table into my notebook. I listen to the teacher talk about air and water, about how there are opaque objects that sunlight cannot penetrate. He talks of soil, of its structure. I turn the word “minerals” over in my mouth, liking it, and add it to my list I keep in a separate notebook. My list of favorite words.
English class, the teacher’s hand making arrows around a sentence written on the chalkboard, and I am at ease. Then Art, and I am tense again, as proportions are discussed and I look out a window. The bell rings and we parade out to the cafeteria, where half of the room has been marked off with pink crepe paper and there are white carnations on the tables for the luncheon.
What are you wearing? My mother exhales a stream of smoke and eyes me. My mother’s eyes are like an Italian starlet’s that glow. Her eyes are dark and large, I swear they are not brown but black, and she sets them upon my t-shirt and then upon my own eyes, and asks if my shirt is clean. It does not look as though it has been washed. No, it is clean, I say. We stand in the line, and I say that I don’t think she can smoke in here.
Is that right? My mother sighs and takes a long draw on the cigarette, sashays over to the trashcan where she tosses it and arches her eyebrows at me. Happy? she asks me. Sorry, I mumble, I just don’t want to get in trouble.
My mother laughs, murmurs to herself. She is looking at all the girls with their mothers, and I know she must know some of the other moms. This is a very small town and we have lived here a long time. But she seems to not recognize anyone. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other and looks at my hair. I look away but feel the weight of her gaze on my head, the assessment and the weariness, and I cannot bear to look back up.
I become lost in the tile floor, mesmerized in the pattern of the green and beige squares, a checkerboard. I look at the tiles and then my mother’s cream-colored pumps. I know without looking up that she is striking in her white jacquard suit, the white a contrast to her long dark hair, gold jewelry in her ears. I know without glancing up that she is the prettiest woman here. Somehow, I know that every mom here knows who she is, and that she is being studiously ignored. Her effect has been made. I know she has been noticed by those around us, and when I do look up, she has a small smile on her face, and I see again that she has prepared carefully for the luncheon, her makeup is beautifully applied and I see that she looks like she is from a movie. Suddenly, I feel a stab of pride and I swallow. My mother! She is mine! I meet my mother’s eyes, excited and feeling somehow bonded to her. If I am not like the others in my school, if I do not fit in or know how to make friends, neither does she. It is okay. Better than okay. It’s the way it should be, for people like us. We’re different, aren’t we, I want to ask. Even she doesn’t belong here, with her magazine good looks, her aerobicized calves and clear skin. I smile, suddenly triumphant and light, and my mom reaches forward and takes my hand, pulls me nearer, and I feel my face stretch and grin, eager to be close to her, this luminescent figure in white. I lean in and feel her smoky breath on my face. We are going to put you on a diet. Nobody else here looks like this. She touches my stomach. You don’t want to start high school like that.