<By Carolyn Ferrell
What actually happened that day was that one hour after Peter Sweeter dumped me, I got tired of crying and banging my head against the Eighth Grade Lockers in UTTER LOVE AGONY and came up with an idea. A great idea. Brilliant. I was, in other words, tired of the same-old, same-old: eighth grade boys telling you they love you, that your eyes are like chocolate moons and your face like a chocolate swimming pool and your neck like the long limb of a chocolate tree—only to walk into First Period the next morning and act like they’re seeing you for the first time. I told you I loved you? Girl, you must be mistaken. You ain’t my type. And so on and so forth—lies, all lies.
The boy dumps you, the on-lookers giggle, the teacher huffs and puffs till your house falls down, and then you turn red with embarrassment underneath all that chocolate. THE END. You creep down the hallway like a rejected vampire. As they say here at MS 133, there is no shame like First Period shame.
Standing in the doorway to Second Period, however, it suddenly hit me—a stroke of genius. Why not make up AN INTERVIEW? One that, if filled out correctly, could lead to something GENUINE. Questions could be hard-hitting:
1. DO YOU BELIEVE IN DESTINY?
2. ARE YOU INTERESTED IN BECOMING AN ETERNAL SLAVE OF LOVE?
I ran to find my best friend Myra. You know, Myra Boogie with the action-figure hair and the semi-gray teeth (she has been seeing a dentist, just so you know)? Everyone comes to Myra for advice. Even girls who hate her. I knew that once she heard my plan, she’d have to agree that this was the best idea I’d ever come up with since the Self-Serve-Lip-Kisser.
Only yesterday I was walking home from school with her, admiring the usual scenery of Longwood Avenue: Luis Brothers Bodega, El Nilo Restaurant, The Hub Auto Collision, Matty Patty’s Beauty World—and yesterday those ugly places actually looked beautiful because I was in love. We walked in pure fantasy, planning my wedding to Peter Sweeter, dreaming up the WEDDING GOWN WITH TRAIN AND VEIL, a reception with all the Kool-Aid you could drink, a HONEYMOON SUITE next to the Bronx City Bowl.
Honeymoon suite. Those words scared me, honestly.
But this morning, at the door to First Period, Peter Sweeter tells me it was over. ME, his one true love. Said he’d found greener pastures, that he was tired of just going bowling on Saturday afternoons, that life was too short for games. He was a man now, when would I get that through my little girl head?
At the last meeting of the MS 133 Bowling Club, just as I rolled in a spare, Peter Sweeter asked me if I wouldn’t mind sitting on his hand.
Are you crazy, I laughed, but when I looked again, I saw he was not crazy. I bowled three more gutter balls, and then the bus took us back to MS 133. And then a whole weekend went by, and then this morning happened. Peter Sweeter told me to go on back to my kiddie games and leave him be. Then he turned his head to face his hall locker. In magnificent profile he began to recite: When I was a kid, I thought of kiddie things. Now I am a man…
Reader, I was devastated.
Dante LeBrun, that weirdo boy from Haiti a few years back, he overheard the whole thing. After Peter Sweeter walked away, Dante put his hand on my shoulder (which, for some reason, smelled like witch hazel) and told me to forget Peter, that there were other fish in the sea, that no woman is an island, that good things come to those who wait. But who needs armchair comfort when devastating passion is at stake?
Reader, devastation can make a soul climb great heights.
First thing after Second Period, I got the paper. Fresh off the school secretary’s desk, without her even knowing a thing. A suitable pen was taken straight off Miss Dixon’s principal desk. I hate the word stolen. I saw Big Jeannette in the hallway, getting ready to beat up some poor Seventh Grader—Big Jeannette could be that way. Her teeth are like pearls, and she knows it. So I stepped in and asked her if she wouldn’t mind hand writing the LOVE INTERVIEW for me—computer printing can seem so impersonal. I did not think it bad to ask her to do all that work, especially since she is madly in love with my high school brother Dar and will do anything to make him see how lovely she is underneath all that…bigness.
She agreed to help me find my soul mate, even did so with tears of joy in her eyes. Tears of joy. That is not typical for Big Jeannette—you know how she can get. But if you put her evil powers to good use, many wonderful things can happen.
I found Myra in the gym locker room. Told her the situation, careful not to weep. She put her arms around me. Oh I’m so sorry, she said. Please don’t sniffle, Melissa. You are so much better than Peter Sweeter.
(But didn’t she say I was also better than Kenny Footinmouth? Roderick Coldhands? Malik French? How come eighth grade boys can be so heartless, starting all the way back in the FIRST GRADE?)
Myra said, Come to the first-round try-outs with me this afternoon, she said. You will forget ALL BOYS in no time.
But when she said that, I suddenly felt angry. Why forget boys? When was the last time she had a boyfriend? Myra had been trying out for the CHEERLEADING SQUAD ever since SIXTH; she wore the saddle shoes and short skirt and could sing COME ON WARRIORS FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT in the best cheerleading voice ever. But my best friend Myra Boogie was probably also the world’s youngest OLD MAID.
See you later, I told her, then went and met Big Jeannette in the Library.
We sat at a table near the Sixth Graders (who are busy pretending to read Ninth Grade books) and got to work. To complete the interview (and by complete I mean that Jeannette had to handwrite it ten times, for ten potential candidates, in at least fifth grade penmanship) we used all of our study hall and most of our lunch period. The few teachers in the library looked at Big Jeannette and me but of course remained completely ignorant of our mission. Most teachers at MS 133 have their hands full with other things. Two girls we know in the Tenth are preggers; two boys we know in the TENTH are fresh out of JUVIE. Then there’s a rumor that a girl in the ELEVENTH brought a samurai sword to school—show and tell, my foot; and one of the boys in the EIGHTH was seen carrying loads of toilet paper in his arms just this morning—weird, plain weird. Teachers have other things to worry about than me and Big Jeannette and my search for a soul mate.
I wanted to forget Peter Sweeter (resident slime ball) ever existed. Who in their right mind would sit on anybody’s HAND?
Big Jeannette was busy copying out the questions for LOVE INTERVIEW # 3 when who walked into the library but Lily Ramirez and her Crew.
Trouble never seems to leave me alone.
Now. I can tell that these girls are ready to start something. The rumble in their walk, the way their eyes flit around like hummingbirds. One of the girls takes a book from the shelves—The Magical Encyclopedia of Deep Sea Creatures—and studies the table of contents. Lily plops down at our library table and begins her usual disgusting habit of crunching pork rinds. Behind her is the sixth grade mural of Friends of all Nations; Roderick Coldhands had crossed out the “r” in friends and laughed until his brown face turned blue. Lily crunches louder, then louder. But isn’t there a rule: NO EATING OR DRINKING NEAR THE BOOKS?
She looks over what Big Jeannette has written so far. Then she smiles at me and says, Looking for love is okay in my book. But the problem I forsee is: who’d want to love you?
It’s what happens when you are the only girl in a Spanish family of about one hundred in an apartment on Brook Avenue and out of self-preservation you learn some big words and fancy sayings and distinguish yourself amongst the crowd as a PERSON OF CONSEQUENCE. Or so Lily Ramirez thinks. Some people have told Lily that she resembles singing sensation JENNIFER LOPEZ but clearly those people need glasses. I actually like the ways she speaks. And in reality I LOOK LIKE SINGING SENSATION JENNIFER LOPEZ. Only with darker skin, bigger eyes, braces and one foot bigger than the other. They say that happens in most girls. Also, the boobies.
Lily says, Peter Sweeter never loved you in the first place.
I shrug my shoulders.
Lily continues, He fell head over heels for my sister, the biggest angel on earth.
I cough. If you only saw her sister, you would know that Lily’s sister Orchid is definitely the biggest something on earth.
Big Jeannette glances up from her copying. She was not yet in Evil Mode. Why you trying to start something, Lily, she asks. Don’t you want Melissa here to find the man of her dreams?
Lily frowns and says, Who in their right mind INTERVIEWS a boy to be her soul mate? That’s downright idiotic, if you ask me.
No one asked you, Jeannette says, going back to her copying. Big block letters even a First Grader could do. She was already on INTERVIEW # 4. Just six more to go.
Lily stands up from the library table and puts her hands on her hips. Her boobies are as big as a teacher’s. plus, she has on a silky blouse, the kind a teacher would wear. Lily says, Do you know Peter Sweeter is the ETERNAL SLAVE OF LOVE to my sister Orchid?
Oh, really, I say. I had no idea. I haven’t thought about Peter Sweeter for ages now. Peter Sweeter is the last thing on my mind.
Good, because I would hate to fight you on that, Lily says.
Big Jeannette looks up. Girl, you lay a hand on her I will personally send you back to the graveyard you came from.
Lily Ramirez and I look at each other. It’s not always easy to understand Big Jeannette.
And surprisingly, Lily doesn’t say anything to that. She and Jeannette have had their differences, and last year it was one of the biggest fights MS 133 ever witnessed, Lily attempting to yank Jeannette by the hair—all the extensions flying in the wind like electric eels, like Medusa only here I would call her Electra—and Jeannette just pounding Lily’s face until it looked like LUNCHROOM SPAGHETTI. The teachers all said it was a shame, young girls not knowing how to act. In their day girls handled things like ladies. And so on and so forth.
White gloves at dawn, or some sort of related historical crapola.
Lily and her crew leave the library. They take The Magical Encyclopedia of Deep Sea Creatures with them.
Then, as if by magic, Myra comes takes a seat at the library table. She looks over the love interview, supposedly checking for spelling mistakes and such.
But then Myra Boogie says, It states here in your PREAMBLE that you are interested in MAKING A BOY YOUR ETERNAL SLAVE OF LOVE. Why use that word, slave? Don’t you know black people hate to use that word, Melissa? Didn’t you learn anything when we studied slavery last year?
(But who cares about Slavery-slavery when it is clear as day that I am interested in Love- slavery? Apples and oranges, you ask me.)
Read the questions, I tell her. That will clear things up. She reads the first three:
A) Do you see yourself in the near foreseeable future as being a candidate for true love?
B) Do you have a problem with a black girl having white-girl hair and too-skinny legs but looking like an exact replica of singing sensation Jennifer Lopez?
C) Would you at all be interested in a date with Destiny?
Don’t put that question C on your interview, Myra says. You’re kidding yourself if you think any of these paltry Eighth graders knows the meaning of destiny. And as far as a black girl having white-girl hair and too-skinny legs is concerned. Listen, Missy.
Big Jeannette suddenly turns read and shouts, But you don’t have white-girl hair, Melissa. You got Egyptian hair, like they did in the pyramid times!
Myra looks at me. Like many others, she too thinks the school made a mistake by passing Big Jeannette out of the first grade.
Why are you so interested in TRUE LOVE? Myra asks, turning to me the way she does when things get serious. Like the time her mother jumped in the car and tried to run over her father. Or the time her father poured all her mom’s secret bottles down the kitchen drain.
Myra can’t stop that look. What you need to be doing, Melissa, is going out for cheerleading with me. That is a sure-fire way of making a boyfriend. Plus, we could be together more often.
(Did I mention that my best friend hasn’t ever been kissed, not even by a cousin?)
I’m not interested in trying out for cheerleader, I say, looking around at the zillions and zillions of books on the shelves. Once I used to love to roam these shelves like a lion. The Yellow Book of Fairy Tales by Andrew Lange; Little House on the Prairie; The Egypt Game; D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. I make a mental decision in my heart to fix the missing letter in the sixth grade mural and make it go back to “Friends.” A promise, more like it.
Peter Sweeter was my heart and soul, I say. I saw us growing old together, a brick semi-detached house in Kingsbridge in the sort-of vicinity of the Hudson River, a two-car garage, all the food you can eat. Me learning how to make rice and beans and collard greens. Peter Sweeter eating Spaghetti-O’s until I was a kiddie no more.
Myra Boogie waves her hand in my face.
Peter was an idiot, she says. He never deserved you, Melissa. I know his type. They’re only after one thing.
That was the one thing I didn’t like to think about. It was like thinking about the honeymoon suite. Or sitting upon a pair of hands.
Myra continues, I will help you find love, Melissa. Don’t worry.
And I smile to myself. Myra has been there through thick and thin, the long and the short of it, in bad weather and good. I want to hug her, thank her for being the best friend a girl could have. Who cares if I hate cheerleading? Nothing can come between us.
But before I can blink my eyes, she is standing next to a boy we call Special Ed, a boy carrying books with horrible titles like Geometry is Fun and A Prairie Dog’s Diary. You know the type. Myra is asking him to please fill out this form and hand it back ASAP. Big Jeannette starts smiling, too. I bet you never thought of a two-car garage with Special Ed, she whispers in my ear, just as I sink my back into my chair at the library table. All those books on the shelves. I know that outside somewhere, the sun is smiling in the sky. It seems to say, Don’t you know we’re all fiends when you get down to it?
I look at Special Ed busy scribbling down his answers and wonder why this whole idea suddenly seems like a terrible awful horrible death mistake.
I sometimes carry band-aids to school. They help when the fight is between two small boys or two small girls. Sometimes I bring gauze strip and surgical tape in my backpack—supplies Maman brings home from the Hospital. She’s been an aide there for twenty years, ever since leaving Port-Au-Prince for New York City. Then the Bronx, Prospect Avenue. Sometimes, when I don’t have anything else, I take plain old scotch tape and tissues to the scene of the crime. I borrow those from Miss Dixon’s Principal’s desk. I hate the word stolen. My plan is to be there when they need help. I need to be ready.
No one likes the sight of blood. All those people starting fights and cursing their lungs out and saying You $%^^#$& this and You &^%$## that and I’m a kick your butt just cause I feel like it—-in reality, they really need me. They faint at the sight of blood. They need me to be there with my supplies.
Me? I’m hoping one day to be as good a nurse as Maman. Back in Port-Au-Prince, Papi was a nurse as well. But then he stayed, and Maman and me left, and I grew up the only person at MS 133 speaking French better than the teachers—but that’s another story.
I am ready today. There’s been word around the school—a fight featuring Lily Ramirez’s sister Orchid and a boy named Peter Sweeter. Kids’ve been talking. Mon Dieu—teachers as usual have no clue.
Miss Evangeline Dixon
Lord knows I’ve tried. I love them but there seems no where to go.
This year will make my twenty-fourth. I’ve seen more than a generation, in case you’re wondering. Things change, they go back to being the same—but now. These girls, this generation up here at my beloved MS 133 (formerly the Bronx Academy for Girls) just can’t wait to be grown. The boys are no better—one wrong glance and there’s a fight in the yard. Hands, feet, teeth, bottles, bullets. Do they want to destroy the last tree we own in our paltry schoolyard? And the girls just stand at the edge, cheering the fighting on—what are we teachers supposed to do? Call me old-fashioned, but there once was a time when games were played and songs were sung. Lift Every Voice and Sing. Till Earth and Heaven Ring. Nowadays you don’t see or hear any of that. It’s just fight fight fight.
I’m ashamed for them all. Twenty-four years can stretch you like a rubber band.
Yesterday in the Teacher’s Lounge there were talks about a fight brewing for this afternoon. The usual thing. A girl in love with a boy in love with another girl, etc. You know the types: she’s a young lady who throws herself at every male in the school and then gets into a fight about him. The kind of girl who thinks her whole life revolves around lipstick, mascara, and tight jeans. He’s a boy who doesn’t know if he’s on foot or horseback. They get together and think the world will end if they aren’t together. At least for that moment.
I wish I could teach them other things. Love is not the answer.
Our schoolyard landscape here at MS 133 is bland: a few dusty maples and sad oaks out front, nothing but asphalt and a dead sugar maple out back. I wish our setting were nicer—I have always wanted to take the kids out and teach them the names of the trees, as teachers did in the olden days. The used-to-be willows by the river. The elms on the sidewalk, the bold ash and oaks that used to thrive in the land that is now the Burger King parking lot. Long ago—before my time—it was said there used to be a lovely row of linden trees framing the school perimeter like an evening necklace.
Long ago, I went to this school. And my mother and grandmother before me. the Bronx Normal School, it was called back then. Manners, white gloves, sitting rooms, temperance, etiquette. Who knows what those things mean today? Who bothers to look another full in the face? Who bothers to look out the window at all Mother Nature’s grandeur?
When I was a child, I used to imagine those linden trees reaching all the way to God’s ankles.
I still do.
Everyone is talking about the big fight today. Will it involve a samurai sword like the last time? Will the police be involved? Some of my colleagues are saying they will leave early today, Martha Evans MATH, Julian Butterfield, SOCIAL STUDIES. The last fight we had, it took forever to get off school property—the police had wanted to interview every last soul.
What is MS 133 becoming? Where are all the trees?
Lord Knows I’ve tried.
Anyone can say that, though. Anyone. The truth is, trying is not enough.
The French teacher Madame Branca rushes into the teacher’s lounge. It’s started, she cries. They’re all out front. One of them has a gun.
And we’re all out the door of the teacher’s lounge, grown folks running down the hallways, wrapping our arms around any child we see. Move, come one, get out of here, RUN RUN RUN. Children, you got to use your legs for once!
Because that is what they are. Children.
Dexter Davis, EMT
REPORT: TUESDAY APRIL 17, 2006
PLACE: MS 133, BROOK AVENUE, BRONX, NY 10456,
SUMMARY: EMERGENCY CALL RECEIVED AT 2:50, FIGHT IN SCHOOLYARD. FEMALE 15 IN POSSESSION OF WEAPON, AT FIRST DENOTED AS TOY GUN BUT LATER PROVEN TO BE ACTUAL FIREARM. BELONGING TO HER FATHER WINSTON SWEETER, 56. RETIRED POLICE OFFICER OVER IN LEMON COUNTY.
MALE 16 AND FEMALE 15 INVOLVED IN WHAT APPEARS TO BE FIST FIGHT. WORDS CALLED OUT: LOVE. BETRAY. DIE. THEN GUN FIRES. TOP OF SCHOOL MASCOT STATUE ON FRONT STEP IS SHOT OFF. FEMALE AND MALE FAINT, RECEIVE MINOR INJURIES DUE TO BUMPING CONCRETE CURB AGAINST HEADS.
NAMES: ORCHID RAMIREZ (1200 Brook Avenue); PETER SWEETER (17 Holland Avenue). PRINCIPAL EVANGELINE DIXON ON HAND TO BRING CROWD BACK TO EARTH. APOLOGIZES TO EMT CREW, THOUGH WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY.
TREATMENT: YOUNG MALE 12 BRINGS TOILET PAPER ON SCENE, PROCEEDS TO WRAP FEMALE AND MALE VICTIMS. FUNNY ACCENT. NO NEED FOR EMT TO DO MUCH ELSE. WE THANK THE KID. DANTE LEBRUN.
WHEREABOUTS OF FIREARM: MISS EVANGELINE DIXON CALLS FOR POLICE TO RETRIEVE WEAPON AND ASKS THEM TO BE LENIENT. THESE ARE DECENT KIDS WHO DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING. ORCHID IS A GOOD GIRL. SO IS PETER, DEEP DOWN. GUN BELONGS TO FATHER OF ONE OF THESE KIDS, A RETIRED COP. NO REAL HARM DONE.
FINAL SUMMARY: POLICE ARRIVE. DANTE LEBRUN ASKS TO RIDE IN AMBULANCE WITH VICTIMS. WE ADMIRE HIS AMBITION. HIS COMPASSION. WE TELL HIM YES.
We were all outside, taking in the action. Why in heaven’s name did Orchid bring her daddy’s retired gun to school?
Why did she think Peter Sweeter loved her?
The questions were endless, at least to me.
After everything was over, and the sun had not abandoned us like it did the last time, with the Samurai Sword in the cafeteria—Miss Dixon bent down on the front steps of MS 133 and found a paper. It was drifting in the wind of the ambulance. What’s this? She asked. Upon closer investigation, she discovered it was one of the LOVE INTERVIEWS hand-copied by Big Jeannette. Drifting in the wind.
I never said Big Jeannette was a genius.
Melissa, would you please come to my office after school, she commanded. I don’t like the way your mind has been working lately.
And like that, in the broad, brilliant blue of this afternoon, she walked away. Love-interview in hand.
Myra Boogie comes up to me. Looks like you’re in a mess of trouble, she said, smiling. That’s what you get for trying to make DESTINY try and work for you. Don’t you know that DESTINY works all on its own?
Big Jeannette suddenly says, Melissa, I’m going to use my powers of convincing to get a boy in school to love you. We don’t need the interview. I will get them to come around…I have my ways.
The love interview was a dumb idea, snaps Myra.
Boys usually come around when they think you can beat them at arm-wrestling, Big Jeannette helpfully offers.
Myra rolls her eyes. And I’m thinking that she will have something smart to say to Big Jeannette, and then have some smart words for me, like why my mind is always in the gutter instead of where it should be, with her and the cheerleading try-outs coming up. Myra cares about me. We are better than best friends. There was a time when Myra and I stayed in the old treehouse in her building’s backyard (yes indeed—such things do exist in the Boogie-Down) and talked the whole day away. When we planned to be superstars. When we touched the leaves of the willow trees at the playground lake and made wishes. Where did those days go?
But Myra says nothing. She opens her mouth, then closes it, then walks away. Just like Miss Dixon! She fades into a dot on the horizon, slipping into infinity—but I feel that if I reach out my hand, hers will magically fall into it. Don’t ask me how I know that. I just do.
I get so tired of her and her cheerleading mess, Big Jeannette says. You got anything else you want me to do?
And I can tell that she is thinking of my brother Dar and how one day he will likely fill out all the right answers in an interview about her.
I think I’m done for now, I tell her. But thanks for helping out, Jeannette.
No problemo. Any time you need help, Missy, just call. And then Jeannette is off, probably back to the cafeteria to see if it’s not too late to have some of that vomitous hot lunch spaghetti.
A TV reporter is standing on the steps to MS 133, right in front of our Eagle. He is talking directly into the camera, using words like “Tragedy Averted” and “Gun Control,” over and over. He probably thinks he can understand us in a few words, and then it’s off to the next story. The News at Six.
But what he doesn’t know is that each one of us is a story, and that if he took the rest of his paltry life, he would still not get us.
Peter Sweeter. I kind of wish we could go back and just be friends. I kind of wish he could just be friends with everybody.
That still could be his destiny, couldn’t it?
Edward Harmon, Jr.
I don’t know how the name Special Ed took. One day I woke up, and it was just there. People here at this crazy school probably thought I was dumb or something, the way I can’t stop stuttering sometimes. Well, whatever. The name stuck. Sticks and stones, as they say. Sticks and stones.
When I got Melissa’s interview form in my hands, it was all I could do NOT to write SPECIAL ED on the place where you put your name. I was that nervous.
Instead I wrote EDDY HARMON. I’m nobody’s Special Ed.
This is the rest of what I wrote:
A) Do you see yourself as being a candidate for true love?
B) Do you have a problem with a black girl having white hair?
I LOVE ANY COLOR GIRL WITH ANY COLOR HAIR JUST AS LONG AS IT’S NO LICE THERE
C) Would you like a date with Destiny?
NAME THE PLACE AND TIME. ME AND DESTINY WILL BE BEST PALS IN NO TIME, YOU WAIT AND SEE.
Life is strange and perfect at the same time. As for the future: I’m picking up Melissa around noon on Saturday. A day of fun (and possible love, who knows) at the Bronx County Bowl over in Throggs Neck. She’ll bring money for hot dogs and Diet Cokes. I’ll get our bowling shoes and pay for as many games as her heart desires. If we get there on time, we’ll be able to catch most of KIDZ BOWL FREE ALL AFTERNOON. Totally undisturbed. I can’t wait to see Melissa roll that twelve pounder down the lane, her hair flying up like a tidal wave. I think she’s a dead ringer for Jennifer Lopez. Done over in Godiva chocolate.
She’s my type. My destiny. Anything more, we’ll have to wait and see.