Joyland

New York |

Waking Up in Gravesend

by Luisa Colón

edited by Amy Shearn

Sometimes through my veil of hair, I caught sight of my former best friend Nadia in the halls, wearing our school’s varsity jacket with Class of ’89 written on it. She must have ordered it on the very first day of school. She didn’t acknowledge me at all, it was like we’d been friends in another world.

Goodbye, life. I stopped lingering over my clothes in the morning and went with all black. Black jeans, black thermie, black hoodie. I wore them over and over until my father did laundry on the weekends. As I ate less and less, it all began to hang on me. My jeans drooped, my shirts sloped downward off my shoulders. My chest was almost completely flat. I thought of Tía Rosalina telling me how beautiful my hair was, and I let it fall in front of my face; I touched at the tips of it as though stroking a pet; I held fistfuls up so I could look at it up close. I see strands of auburn and gold in there, too.

School was agonizingly tedious, save for those forty five minutes when I’d get to sit in Historical Perspectives, listening to Mr. Wolk, watching him. I took note of the clothes he wore, I memorized his wardrobe. The blue jeans that bagged at the bottoms, over his sneakers. The long-sleeved sweater with the v-neck that revealed his creamy throat, the cotton shirts that looked worn and soft. Sometimes he wore a blazer, as if he was trying to look more like a teacher. I liked it when he took it off and draped it over the back of his chair, I liked seeing his broad chest, the shape of his long arms. I was curious every day to see what kind of mood he’d be in: energetic and pacing, or listless and rubbing at reddened eyes, glancing constantly at the clock. No matter what, he always gave me a special look or a smile. When he dragged a seat in front of the class and sat down, slouching over his guitar and stretching out his long legs, there was something belligerent about it, he was like a kid stuck in detention.

Valentine is done,” he sang softly one day, head down as he played, his dark hair hiding his face. “Here, but now they’re gone / Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity / We can be like they are…

Tears were in my eyes, and I lowered my head, too. It sounded so beautiful, Romeo and Juliet being together forever, even if it was only possible because they were dead.

“Redefine happiness, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Wolk said, putting the guitar down gently at his feet. On the blackboard behind him, faded letters still said Duncan Wolk. The points of the W were sharp and pointed, like two blades. The room was silent. “The bell’s about to ring. Get your stuff together and get out of my sight.”

Everyone obediently began the process of standing up, shoving books into bags, shuffling out. I didn’t get up right away. Instead, I sat for a moment, looking at him. He returned my gaze, and I could have sworn his dark eyes were filled with tears, too.

There was the walk home from school, the rumbling train overhead, the little cemetery, the mailbox with its scrawled graffiti. Often when I reached our building, my father was sitting on the stoop by himself, or with Camila and Lito. The people in our neighborhood were really big on sitting outside, but it had to be a certain kind of weather. If it was too hot, Camila would be in her apartment watching television in front of a fan, spraying herself with water from a spray bottle. During the winter, she’d wrap herself in a blanket and huddle dangerously close to an electric heater. Dad was more flexible when it came to being outside; he didn’t seem to mind extreme weather in either direction. Those days in fall, I would walk down the block and see him sitting on our steps, smoking a cigarette, chatting idly with whoever. Sometimes I even looked forward to having a little interaction, although usually as soon as it started I’d wish it was over already.

Ay, Elodia, muy delgado,” Camila would say, pulling at her face to demonstrate how gaunt I was. “She’s not eating. She’s like a stick.” And Dad would shake his head, looking at me with something that was like pity mixed with irritation.

The autumn weather began to nudge the remainder of summer away. I spent time in the garden, kneeling in the dirt and listening to the women bitch about purple deadnettle or other garden members. I weeded around the memorial that was positioned near the entrance, under a flagpole, and I cleared away leaves that were starting to fall from the trees. I thought of Mr. Wolk singing. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper / Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” I thought about his fingers pulling at the guitar strings, I summoned the sound of his voice. I considered the word reaper. I understood that the song was about death, but I also knew that to reap meant to gather, to harvest. The words of the song made it seem as though death were some sort of bounty, something to reach for.

That was what my days were like. My nights began as soon as I got home. Dinner with my father. Dishes. Reading. Lying on my bed, drifting.

That visit, every night.

Rewinding, reconsidering. If I had been nicer at dinner, if we hadn’t argued. If I had apologized to her before bed. Or even in that last moment. As she climbed over me, there had been one last opportunity to tell her I was sorry, instead of wasting it by saying Hi.

Would that have made a difference? I tried out every possibility and there was a little comfort there, even if it was just for a moment.

Towards the end of the first month of school, I’d spent so much time obsessing about Mr. Wolk that every day I worried about how the real-life version of him would measure up. When I walked into class, would his mysterious gaze would be gone? Would he greet me just like any other student? The idea filled me with dread, and my stomach would be churning by the time I got to Historical Perspectives. When I stepped through the door and his face lit up, relief would flood through me. He was happy to see me. For whatever reason, he was happy to see me. For a while I told myself that it was all I needed from him. If he smiles at me again in that special way, I’ll be happy, I told myself. Just let him smile at me like that again. But then it just wasn’t enough, those moments on Monday through Friday. It was such a small amount of time, even less when it was a schedule C day. During the weekends, I felt like I was dying.

One day when I shuffled into class I didn’t look up at him. It was raining that day. Outside the cage-like windows of the classroom, the sky was dark.

“Elodia,” he said casually, continuing in Spanish as I took my seat in the back. “Can you stay a moment after class?”

I looked up at him with a start, and nodded. I knew my eyes were wide. Kids were still filing into the classroom, but the Spanish and the offhand tone of his voice had been just right — no one noticed that Mr. Wolk had spoken to me.

“Good afternoon, teenage wasteland,” he said, as everyone finished shuffling in. He was holding his guitar, which he placed against the wall under the blackboard. “You’re all moving so slowly. Please, take your seats. I could waste ten minutes just standing here watching you, but I can’t bear it.” He shook his head contemptuously and leaned over his desk, flipping open the attendance book. There was a humble silence in the room. “Roll call. Say ‘present’ quickly and clearly so that we don’t have to spend the next forty minutes on this, please.” I squirmed as I did in every class when the teacher called out attendance, in anticipation of the moment they would call out my name and fumble, either waiting for a response and then realizing that I couldn’t answer, or blurting out something brilliant like, “Yes, yes, I see you” when I raised my hand, burning with embarrassment. Mr. Work neatly bypassed the awkwardness each day, calling my name and immediately saying “Present,” and never making a mistake, but I still worried that he, of all the teachers, would screw it up somehow.

He didn’t. He went efficiently through all the names, pronouncing the Hispanic ones perfectly. We all knew by then that he was fluent in Spanish. His accent bore no trace of anything other than American-born, but his Spanish was flawless and fast.

“The Maryland Toleration Act,” said Mr. Wolk. “God, I’d rather smoke a menthol than talk about this.” He sat on the edge of the desk, jiggling his foot and touching at his mouth briefly. “Can I free associate here? The 1600s. Christians. Religious freedom. We’re always fighting for something, aren’t we? Or getting people to fight for us? As good old Ecclesiastes said, ‘Everything is meaningless.’ That’s mankind, just constantly digging holes, filling them up with black water, falling in and flailing around, drowning… No wonder history repeats itself.” Mr. Wolk shook his head as if to wake himself up from a bad dream. “I encourage all of you to read the chapter in your textbook. I’m done.” He hopped off the desk and reached for his guitar before settling into his chair, propping his feet up. “Any questions?”

“Yeah,” said a guy with a shaved head named Jason. I knew him. He always wore a leather jacket and was a wiseass, but he’d been very quiet in this class.

“That was rhetorical,” said Mr. Wolk, lifting his eyes up from inspecting the guitar strings. “I didn’t expect to elicit a response. How can you possibly have a question?”

“How come you teach history, man? I mean, you seem to hate it so much.” Jason put his finger and thumb together and touched it to his mouth. “You need to chill.

There were gasps, and some giggling.

Mr. Wolk smiled.

“It’s Jason, right? Hablas español, Jason?”

“Uh, no,” said Jason. “Just, uh, inglés.” There was some more snickering.

“Ah, inglés,” said Mr. Wolk. “Well, as to your question… I can understand why you would want to know. What kind of loser would choose to be a history teacher? I didn’t. God willing, some day I’ll be able to fuck with that deck.”

Everyone gasped again. Still smiling, Mr. Wolk strummed at his guitar.

“And second, I love to chill,” he said, smirking and mimicking Jason’s gesture, touching his long fingers to his mouth. “You know what gets in my way? You guys. So when the bell rings in a few seconds, by all means, fuera de aqui, carajo. Oh, sorry. That’s ‘Get the fuck out of here’ en inglés.”

I stayed in my seat as the room emptied, easing my books into my backpack. Everyone was laughing and chattering as they filed out. But I was wondering if he grouped me in with the rest of the class, if I got in his way, too. Not like everyone else, please, I thought, watching him stand up, stretch, and then casually walk to his desk and flip through some papers as the last kids left.

I started to stand too, but he raised his hand. “No, no, stay there,” he said softly. He made his way through the chairs and desks to the back row, and grabbed the nearest chair, pulling it up so that he was close to me. Our knees touched and I flinched, and then I immediately regretted flinching, because I was worried he would move his leg away, but he didn’t. And he looked deliberately down at our knees, the way they were touching, so that I knew that he was aware of it, too. Relax, relax. My heart was pounding and I rubbed the back of my neck, trying to calm down. I looked at the EXIT sign over the door. TIE. EX.

Mr. Wolk lowered his head for a moment and I looked at his thick hair and his forehead, which was slightly lined. He wore jeans and a pale blue shirt with the sleeves pushed up. I could see hair on his arms and a whisper of it beneath his neck, where his shirt was unbuttoned. It made me feel embarrassed, those signs of maleness. Even the air around him — scented with with cigarettes, clean clothes, and coffee — seemed heavier. I felt dizzy. Mr. Wolk offered me a notepad and a pencil and I accepted, hoping he didn’t notice that I was trembling.

“What are you thinking about today, Elodia?”

His black eyes were sympathetic.

I hesitated over the legal pad for a moment, and then I thought, Fuck it.

I was holding the pad awkwardly, and my handwriting was a little messy.

There is no new thing under the sun, I wrote.

I added a question mark.

He took the notepad from me, lips curving in a smile.

“Are you worried that this might be it?”

I nodded. I took the pad again and scrawled, Do u believe that?

“Hmmm,” he said. “I mean, I do. You have to — the way the same things happen over and over again. It’s exhausting when you think about it, isn’t it?” He rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “But I think… maybe… if you can recognize the patterns, then maybe you can… change something. Find the opening, the possibility. Like every instance is a harbinger, right? So maybe there’s only something new under the sun if we make it so. In the present or… God, can you imagine if there was a way to go back, to change things that had already happened?”

He was asking me seriously, and it was so unexpected that I smiled. Of course. I’d give anything to go back.

Mr. Wolk refocused. He blinked and smiled back at me.

“You have a beautiful smile,” he said.

I ducked my head at that, and he laughed.

“I’m sorry, I embarrassed you,” he said, just as the second bell rang. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll write you a note. Entonces, Elodia. I was wondering if you would like to join me in my office during fourth period.” My heart started to pound again, as if he’d turned on a switch. “That’s when you have lunch, correct?”

I nodded, not sure how he knew.

“But I walked through the cafeteria today during fourth, and I didn’t see you,” he said. “Where did you eat?”

The library.

“Ah, I see,” he said. “Well, fourth period is free for me. I’ve been doing some work for the college office. Form letters, licking envelopes, that kind of thing. How would you feel about coming to my office and assisting me?”

For a moment, I imagined my father and what he would say. But what could he say? My teacher wanted me to help him in his office, at school. What was the big deal? I wasn’t going home with him. My pen hovered over the paper before I got flustered and wrote:

Cool.

Just to be a total nerd, I added a smiley face.

He laughed at this, and I loved seeing his smile close up. White teeth. Eyes scrunching up.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. “I’m so glad. We can start tomorrow, right?”

I nodded Yes. My face hurt from smiling.

My scars hurt.

I stopped smiling.

“Great,” he said. He looked at me curiously, and he slapped his knees with his hands. “Let me write you that note.”

He got up and walked to his desk, where he bent over a notepad and scrawled on it with a black pen. Meanwhile, I stuffed my things back into my backpack and rose, dropping my head so that I could face the world outside this little room. I planned on spending the rest of the period in the bathroom. No way was I walking into a classroom late, every head turning toward me as I pushed the door open.

Mr. Wolk handed me the note.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Elodia. You know where the teacher’s offices are? I’m in number 232.”

I nodded and held my hand up to say goodbye.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said again. It was like a promise.

Dad wasn’t around when I got home. I kicked off my sneakers and went into my room and threw myself on the bed, face down. I lay there, replaying the afternoon over and over. I thought about Mr. Wolk’s knee touching mine, about being alone with him. What would it be like to be so close to him again? Did he like being close to me? What did I look like to him?

I hadn’t seen myself since the accident, I didn’t know what I looked like to anyone. I pictured a drawing scribbled with crayon, a monster with bulging eyes and a stitched-up face, someone my classmates talked about using the word gross, the way we’d made fun of the aide with the skin graft. Someone no one wanted to see.

But not Mr. Wolk. He liked to look at me. He stared at me, he ate me up with his eyes.

What did he see?

I got up abruptly and lurched out of my room, propelling myself to the bathroom. I didn’t close the door behind me; I flicked on the light switch and stood in front of the mirror. It was, as always, duct-taped with a garbage bag. We’d never discussed it, my father and I. He’d just done it before I got home from the hospital. It had been comforting, but it had also frightened me, his commitment to making sure I wouldn’t see myself.

I pulled at the tape and then peeled the black plastic bag off the mirror, and there was my own reflection.

My face; a little older than I had last seen it.

Narrow. Too narrow. Bony. My skinniness made my nose look bigger.

Big hollows under my eyes.

Long dark hair, bangs grown out.

I had once approved of my reflection, I had thought I was pretty. Rounded cheeks. Full mouth that looked so dramatic when I coated it in brown lipstick. Now all the extra baby fat had melted off, and my lips were pale. But it wasn’t so bad. The stitches were neat and just starting to fade a little. No raw, oozing wounds.

“Pretty,” I said silently and reassuringly to my reflection, mouthing the words, putting my hand up against the mirror to comfort the weeping girl who stared at me from the other side of the glass.

The scars. Two winding, slightly depressed stripes of dark pink on either side of my face, reaching almost to my ears. She had slashed my face wide open, using my mouth as a starting point and pulling the knife across on either side. Camila was right; my hair did help. The shining black waves provided a kind of distraction, a contrast that made the scars seem lighter, more subdued.

And then my neck. I unwound the black scarf from around my throat, baring that decisive wound. Deep. Dark pink. Marked with those little stitch marks. It was all very carefully done, the doctors trying to put a torn-apart girl back together again. “They didn’t know if you’d make it,” my father said to me in the hospital. “But you’re stronger than anyone knows. You are strong and you are virtuous.”

I staggered back to my room, trailing my scarf behind me, leaving the bathroom light on and pieces of the garbage bag on the floor. I lay facedown on the bed again, feeling my tears pooling beneath me. “It’s not so bad,” I heard someone comfortingly say, and it was me, a little voice inside me saying that it really wasn’t so bad, I wasn’t a monster, there were people worse off than I was, it was okay, I wasn’t a monster. I gripped the bedcovers close so I could soak up my tears. Then I stuck my fingers in my mouth, and slept.

This is an excerpt from the novel Waking Up in Gravesend, represented by Laura Gross Literary Agency.