It’s strange coming back to the town you grew up in. You see people you would rather not. Transitory people. People who were in your life for just a moment, then, thankfully, they were gone, though what you experienced with them still registered powerfully in your psyche. You see who these people mated with. What their DNA looks like combined with the DNA of another person. You wonder what that other person might think if they knew about your experience.
One of the people I keep seeing around town, wife and small child in tow, is Keith Squires. Keith Squires was a year ahead of me in high school. My older sister got to know him first, and told him all about me– that I was into punk rock, just like him; that he and I shared other interests, like skateboarding; that we both ordered things through the mail from Burning Airlines. She sort of hyped me up a bit, and my freshman year of high school, Keith and I were in the same art class. I guess because of what my sister had said, he assumed that he and I would fall into some kind of numinous relationship. And maybe we would have, had he not been such a liar.
My sister hadn’t known he was a liar because she didn’t know the little details, like how Gorilla Biscuits had broken up, making it impossible for Keith to always go see them play live in New York, as he claimed, and she didn’t know anything about skateboarding, so she believed him when he said he was being vetted by Vision for his skateboarding, and Burton for his snowboarding. But I knew the little details, and it was apparent to me that Keith Squires was full of shit. In art class, he and I sat at the same table, where he would regale me all period long with stories of impossible shows and phony feats and I would sit there and nod along, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. I wasn’t interested in calling him out or humiliating him. Besides the lies (for me, a deal-breaking “besides”), he seemed alright. He could be funny, and was good-looking, though he had a greasy bulb of a nose. If only he’d deep- clean with Noxzema and tell the truth, I’d say to my friend Meggie, who was also in our art class. He could be cool.
One day during art, Keith took Meggie aside and told her he planned on asking me to the school dance. Meggie, of course, told me right away, and we immediately went about planning how I could avoid Keith Squires for the rest of the week. It seemed easier to just avoid him rather than deal with the discomfort and potential for hurt feelings that might come from just saying no.
At the end of the day, Keith showed up at my locker. I had two friends with me in anticipation of this, and they swarmed around me like bodyguards.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
“Oops! Gotta go!” I answered, dashing off. “Talk to me in art on Monday!”
Monday, being after the dance.
I would have preferred to have given Keith some kind of excuse, like I was going to be out of town, or had other plans for that night, but my friends and I were planning on going to the dance. We didn’t normally attend school functions, but we’d gotten some acid, and planned on taking it, and dressing up. I was looking forward to going to the dance, just not as the date of Keith Squires.
That night, Keith looked handsome enough in a linen Jimmy Z’s suit, but tripping on acid made the oil on his nose appear amplified. That area of his face looked illuminated and slippery, as if it had been lacquered with the insides of one of those oil-slick stickers that you can move around with your fingers. Vulnerable to the profundity of thought that LSD use can inspire, it occurred to me that the oil on Keith’s nose might be a mark of his mendacity, like the way Pinocchio’s grew whenever he told a lie in the fairy tale. The dance was held inside the high school’s cafeteria, and as had now become my practice, I steered clear of Keith Squires.
My friend Amanda had a fight with her boyfriend, and because she was tripping, started to act erratically. She’d stuffed her bra with tissues from the refreshment table and kept pulling them out from her cleavage to wipe the tears from her eyes. The dance chaperones were getting suspicious of her behavior, so we decided to leave. As I was going out the door, someone grabbed my arm.
“You could have just said no,” Keith Squires said.
I wasn’t sure if it was just the effects of the LSD, but his words sounded ominous. That his nose seemed to be alive and pulsating didn’t help.
The next week, Keith moved to a different table in art class. When we ran into each other during class or in the hallways, he would laugh to himself, or mutter indecipherably. It was clear he held some sort of resentment against me, but because he was a year ahead of me, we had no other classes together for almost three years.
By the end of his senior year and my junior one, Keith Squires had blossomed into quite a good looking fellow. So good looking, that, although he had few male friends because of his continued affinity for tall tales, he’d acquired quite a few female ones. His nose was less greasy, and he had grown dreadlocks, a good look for him. But while things had gotten better for Keith on the girl-front, they weren’t so good on the academic-front; he was moved into my junior year English class. The muttering around me had stopped, but we hadn’t spoken since my freshman year. During class, he would make jokes out loud, trying too hard to be funny. Sometimes our classmates laughed, but most of the time his attempts at humor were met with an awkward silence. We already had a class clown, one from our own grade. No one really knew what to make of Keith Squires.
One day, the teacher broke the class up into small groups to work on an assignment. Keith and I were put into the same group, in what was our closest physical proximity to each other in years. The teacher gave out heavy duty, hardcover Webster’s dictionaries for each group to use. The dictionaries were piled high on a table near her desk, and she handed them out to each group one at a time, because they were so heavy. She put our group’s dictionary on Keith’s desk, then left the room for a moment to make more photocopies. As our group began to go over the assignment, I bent down to pick up my notebook from the floor, and something heavy and hard slammed into the back of my head.
The two other members of our group, quiet, mousey kids who I had no real rapport with, clearly had no idea how to respond. I had a reputation for being a loud, brash girl, so maybe they thought I could handle what had happened all by myself. My eyes flooded with tears, from the violence of the act, from the profound shock of it. Keith Squires had hit me in the back of my skull with our group’s dictionary. After ricocheting off the back of my head, the book fell to the floor with a thud and the rest of the class looked over in our direction. Keith Squires did not look up from his desk; he kept his eyes focused on the paperwork in front of him, but the upturned corners of his mouth were clearly visible. Keith Squires was smiling.
Staring at the dictionary on the ground, there was one thought in my mind, one very powerful and oppressive thought, and it was that I would not let Keith Squires see me cry. Since I refused to give him the satisfaction, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. Because if I did, I would not just cry. I would quake. Keith Squires could have fractured my skull. It was just dumb luck that he hadn’t.
There was silence at our table, except for the two mousey kids, nervously trying to discuss the assignment. A few minutes later, the teacher returned to the room.
I never said a thing.
Three times in the last two months, I have seen Keith Squires and his wife and small child in the supermarket. The last time, I found myself all alone with his wife in the cereal aisle as Keith and his small child shopped somewhere else in the store. I fantasized about approaching her, asking her to pass me a box of Frosted Flakes, then introducing myself and explaining my tenuous, violent connection to her husband.
Could you pass me that box of cereal, and did you know that nineteen years ago, your husband brained me with a dictionary during English class because I didn’t want to go to a school dance with him, almost three years before that?
I think she would probably look at me blankly, the same way my classmates and I used to look at Keith whenever he tried to be funny during English.
Then, while I still had her attention, I’d continue:
You know why I think he did it, Mrs. Squires? I think that as a result of the rejection he felt, I became less than human to him. Like he righted the slight in his mind by viewing me as a lesser life-form, like a bug or something. I think every breath I took after that was like a buzzing in his ear– but it was tolerable buzzing, because we were never around each other. We didn’t have any classes together, so he didn’t have to see me, or hear me buzz. Then, when we were put together in the same group during English, my buzzing was back, so he tried to squash me once and for all with that dictionary.
At this point, I’m sure Mrs. Squires would be wheeling her cart, trying to get away from me. She would have decided I was some crazy person, even if there were parts of my story she could relate to. I’d probably have to trail after her, my voice getting louder:
You know what I think about sometimes, Mrs. Squires? I think about the three years your husband waited and the implement that he used in terms of escalating presents for wedding anniversaries. You know, on a one- year anniversary, the gift is paper, on a second- year anniversary, the gift is cotton, on a third -year anniversary…the gift is a dictionary to the back of the head.
And in those same terms, I think about what my implement might look like, nineteen years later. It was opportunism that led your husband to use that dictionary during English class. And here in the supermarket, Mrs. Squires, I have aisles and aisles of opportunity.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and Air in the Paragraph Line and online at websites like Jezebel, Junk Lit, The Fix, Thought Catalog and The Rumpus. Her book of essays, stories, and poems, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers is forthcoming in 2015.