The classroom was unusually quiet. A humming from the traffic on the street below drifted through the cracked window of the 3rd floor classroom at PS 104. Other than that, only the fidgeting and wiggling of 9 year olds could be heard. We waited for the substitute to arrive. The principal had assigned a student monitor to watch us until she got there. We didn't make a sound knowing the principal was near. Not even Tommy Mazzoni, who always pushed the limits.
That's when the office lady walked through the door. She asked if Linda H. was present. "What would the office want with me? I'm never in trouble," I thought. Confused, I did as asked. I was too well behaved to think it was bad and too young to imagine anything else. Not much had happened in my life yet - other than a sprained ankle while riding on the handlebars of Raymond's banana bike. The boy next door, a few years older than I, who I desperately wanted to impress. It didn't end well. Yes, that's him in the picture. I'm the one with the guitar and stylin' hat. I always did try too hard. And still can't play the guitar. I'm working on the banjolele though. My little brother is embarrassed to be seen with me. Small wonder.
I followed her down the hall for news I couldn't dream up.
My mom sat on the bench in the office, wringing a handkerchief. She always seemed so large, but now, she seemed so small and alone on that big wood bench against the looming white wall of the school office. She was wringing her pink handkerchief into a tight ball in her hand. It was the pretty pink one she always kept neatly folded in her purse. Her eyes were swollen and red, her hands shaking.
As I got closer, I could almost feel her body trembling.
"Oh Linda!," she cried in her thick Norwegian accent, jumping up and throwing her arms around me. I felt I should comfort her but not sure why.
"Kenneth is in the hospital and might die. He ate a bottle of aspirin," she said in her sing songy accent, sniveling between sobs. I felt queasy. My little brother was only six and as good as they come. Kind, not an ounce of trouble ever. How could this be? My little brother could die?
"I vil go to de hospital to be vit him." she sputtered. "He climbed up on the bathroom sink and ate the St. Joseph baby aspirin in the medicine cabinet. The whole bottle.
'Jeg tror he tought dey va kandy," she said, speaking both Norwegian and English. I hadn't yet coined it Norglish, but this qualified.
My brother and I were cut from the same cloth. It had been two years since I ate something I shouldn't in the medicine cabinet. Surely an indicator we were related. The difference was our preferences. I preferred chocolate. After three days on the toilet after my secret bathroom snack, I realized my parents were telling the truth. They hid the good Norwegian chocolate only in the cabinet above the kitchen sink, never the bathroom sink. This was a traumatic event I blame as the root cause of lifelong constipation. Ex-Lax is not my friend.
It did what the box said it did too. No false advertising there. It's unfortunate the shiny, individually wrapped candy and picture of a chocolate bar caught my eye before the writing on the box did.
When I returned to class, the substitute teacher had arrived. Every eye followed me to my seat. A goody-two-shoe rarely gets called to the office.
I felt lost without Mrs. Bersig. She'd been my 2nd grade teacher, and now my 4th grade teacher too. She was my favorite teacher so far. I felt scared and disconnected without her at school today. Everything seemed surreal. Mrs. Bersig would know exactly what to do right now.
The substitute teacher asked if everything was ok. Before I could say yes, the tears gave way, tumbling down my cheeks like a broken dam. Full-on blubbering came next. This is no surprise to those who know me, but not my norm at nine.
Snorting was soon behind.
"Oh my God, make it stop God. Please God. I look like a baby." I pleaded with whoever listened within or outside of me, hoping to God there was a God to hear my pleas. The possibility of my little brother dying was the worst thing that had happened in my short life, but now, my pathetic display made it the most embarrassing moment of my life, to date, too.
The next thing I knew, I was telling the class about Kenneth. Blubbering.
The teacher asked if the class could pray for him.
I didn't remember praying for someone in school before. It was weird, making it more scary. I mean, who prayed for family members in class? This must he is going to die, I thought. I heard myself squeak out a yes between snot filled sobs.
Every kid in the class folded their hands on their desk and bowed their heads. My entire class was thinking about my little brother. A profoundly moving experience that is still alive when I remember it. It was imprinted.
The teacher began to pray.
"Dear Lord", she began, "We are praying for Linda's little brother, Kenneth, right now. He ate a bottle of baby aspirin and might not live. We are asking, God, that he live and have no other damage from...."
Right then, a sound came from my left, last left row center to be exact. I'd know it anywhere. It was Eugenia Parnassa. She was giggling and laughing under her breath. I imagined she was trying to get others to join her too. I closed my eyes even harder, trying to shut her out.
I was horrified. I am certain I'd never felt this horrified in my life. "How dare her! How dare her laugh while we are praying to God to save my brother's life???? He is just a little boy, for God's sake! What is wrong with her? God, how I hate her. I hate her. I hate her. I hate her. Please make her stop. "
I tried with all my might to keep it together. I was sick to my stomach. Heat rushed to my face. I didn't know what to do. First, I felt crazy anger and protective towards my brother. Next, her audacity infuriated me because we were praying to God! And, last, I felt humiliated and ashamed, but didn't quite understand why.
The latter began consuming me. At first, it was just a whisper, but turned into waves that grew larger as each wave went through me. Eventually, hot shame covered me inside and out. Shame coupled with anger is not a good thing.
Eugenia Parnassa had everything. If her father wasn't a doctor, he should've been. But I think he actually was. She had fancy clothes. Her hair was always perfect - even in the second grade, she had that perfect little flip and bangs just the right length. When she walked down the hall, her elbow bent, and left hand hung down as if limp and dangling from her wrist. This disgusted me. She wasn't special. Her patent leather pocketbook matched her shoes perfectly every single day, and hung from her arm like a trophy she won. Her arm with the dangling hand always moved rhythmically to her swagger as she strutted down the hall like God's gift to creation. Who does that? The sure sign of a princess.
I often prayed I would never ever be like her.
Or maybe I did want to be like her. And knew it was impossible. I was as far from Eugenia Parnassa as Mars was from the Moon. I hadn't had a hair in place since birth and don't think my wrist could do that if I tried. Yet, maybe I was a twinge jealous because she managed to pull off "I am better than everyone else." She made me feel not good enough. If she believed it, I'll never know. But we thought she did, and at that, I guess we believed it too, even while hating her.
She did everything the way my mother desperately wanted me to do it - but I never could. God knows I tried, but I was a fail. Every hair in place, her pocketbook held just so, the little lady swagger, even polished shoes. I'd never be her kind of perfect. And now knew I'd never be a bitch like her either.
The teacher continued praying.
"Lord, please watch over the doctors who pump his stomach. Heal him. Lord, send him home with his parents well so Linda can grow up with her little brother, Kenneth. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen."
Thank God it was over. When the last bell rang, I went outside, not sure who would pick me up. Or how my brother was.
She stood waiting in a dark raincoat and horn rimmed glasses. It was my favorite person, next to my brother. Anytime Tante Tonny picked me up from school was the best day ever. I wasn't sure if today would be like other days, however. What I did know is I was safe because she understood and loved me. Not much else mattered now. Not even Eugenia Parnassa. All that mattered was that I was safe and that my little brother would be ok.