“You don’t have any proof!” I snap at our principal.
“Don’t lie to me, Julia. You’ll only make it worse.” His hands are big, with stubby fingers. He might be hearing, but he signs perfectly. He has to, or he never would have gotten the job.
“I’m not lying! You can’t say it was me.” I know there are no cameras on that side of Kingston. I know there won’t be any footage to review.
“I have all the proof I need. Look at your hands!”
I’m so stupid. I was being lazy. I’m going to need to buy gloves. Lots and lots of gloves.
“This was from art class.” I sign as fast as I can before dropping my hands out of view and into my lap.
“I’m going to give you one more chance to tell the truth, Miss Prasad.” Mr. Howard seems more agitated than angry. He keeps sighing, looking at me with droopy, tired eyes.
“I don’t know what to tell you. Sorry.” Let me go already, you’ve got nothing. He stares at me, waiting for a better answer. I’m not giving it to him. I’m not confessing to anything, as much as I want to take credit for it. He hangs his head and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Well, what can you tell me about this?”
My heart shakes up in my chest like a paint can as he produces a cell phone from his desk drawer, the case dotted with red cherries. It’s Jordyn’s. He slides it across the desk like some detective on Law & Order.
I don’t want to look. I don’t need to. I know what’s about to happen. And I know without looking that Jordyn, my best friend in the universe, sold me out. How could she?
“The paint on your hands, the picture on her phone. You can’t tell me you didn’t do it.”
“Fine. But I was covering up--”
“That’s not your job.”
“Well, whose job is it? Because that nasty graffiti was up there forever.”
“Not your job. We had someone scheduled to take care of it.”
“But mine is art!”
“That’s not art, it’s vandalism. I’m worried about you; you’re not exactly showing any remorse here,” he lectures. My face flushes hot with rage. He’s not worried about me, he’s relieved he has someone to pin it on. I wonder if the slut-shaming toy-tagger got the fifth degree, too. I doubt it.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is! I didn’t hurt anyone. I didn’t destroy anything. I’ve tagged the girls’ room dozens of times. No one cared then--”
“You what?!” His face is turning as red as mine.
“So now, when I try to make something worthwhile, art even, you’re up in arms, calling me a vandal?” Just tell me how much detention I have so we can all move on with our lives, and I can X-Acto–cut Jordyn out of mine. I wonder how long she had to sit here before stabbing me in the back. She’s spineless, so she’s always asked me to break the rules for her. Which I’ve done plenty of times, because I thought we were a team. I bet all Mr. Howard had to do was ask, and she rolled right over like a David Hockney dachshund. The light by Mr. Howard’s door flashes, indicating first period is about to begin. All my anger fizzles away and I just feel weak, depleted at the thought of Jordyn heading off to her first class, no worries, all smiles, while I get interrogated.
Mr. Howard stands up and walks to his office door without saying a word. He opens it and my stomach flips; all my bravado turns bashful as he ushers my mothers into the room. It’s one thing to piss off the principal. I can barely look at my parents as he tells them I’m expelled.
Who am I kidding? It’s always silent, but this--I can feel it. Like for the first time, I know what the word really means. It pounds in my head. Silence is the loudest sound. Ma doesn’t scowl in the rearview. Mee doesn’t sign a word.
I messed up. It was beautiful. Not a masterpiece but, I don’t know, close? Didn’t matter, got caught. Shouldn’t have done it on school property and definitely shouldn’t have texted anyone evidence; those were toy mistakes and I knew better. I stood up for Jordyn, tried to save her dignity. She cried and cried the day we discovered it. And when it looked like the school wasn’t going to help her, I did. I helped her, and she ratted me out--I just don’t understand. I get expelled and Jordyn gets what? Nothing.
The expulsion was an overreaction, if you ask me. But that was the “final straw” and “the school won’t be responsible” for whatever “mayhem” (really?) I cause next. My first real piece and I’m expelled. And now I need a new tag. Go ahead, call me a vandal, say I’m some sort of delinquent, it isn’t going to insult me. It’s not going to stop me. Please. This is what I live for.
Silence. I stare at the backs of my parents’ heads, waiting for one of them to start in on me. Waiting for Mee’s pointer finger to fly to her chin with that grimace she saves for special occasions.
It never comes, so I kick off my shoes and rush upstairs as soon as we’re home. If they’re not talking yet, I’m not going to be the first. I crash-land onto my bed face-first and grip the quilt in clenched fists. I pound the mattress. What’s! Wrong! With! Her?! Who would do something like that? She was the only real friend I had, the only one who knew me and my whole paint-splattered story. It eats at me, worming its way through my stomach and up to my brain. Neither organ can make any sense of it.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, and I’m hoping Jordyn has a damn good explanation for what she did to me. Because only one person I know would be texting me right now.
JORDYN: Srry :(
JORDYN: They were gonna call the cops. On meeee!
JULIA: No. They weren’t.
JULIA: They kicked *me* out!
JORDYN: I didnt think they would really do it.
JORDYN: Idk. I mean u did break the law and stuff.
JULIA: Standing up for you!
JORDYN: U didn’t have to. I didnt ask u.
JULIA: Are you kidding me?!?!
JORDYN: It’s not like u care abt getting in trouble.
JORDYN: I did u a favor. Ur gonna be famous now.
JORDYN: Don’t be so mad.
I stuff my phone under my pillow. I don’t care what else she has to say. Nothing can make up for what’s already been done. Nothing.
I love gray days. Every tree, building, telephone pole highlighted against the gesso-colored sky. This past week has been especially overcast and it’s a relief. I thought getting registered at a new school would take at least a month, that I would get to stay out of the educational system for a while. But with both of my moms at the helm, it only took four days. Now, three weeks in at Finley, the spotlight hasn’t grown any dimmer. I welcome the clouds. Bring on the fog.
It’s getting to be that time of year when it’s still dark in the morning and the roads are empty. The drive to Finley is one of the few things I don’t hate about the transfer. You would think the forty minutes it takes to commute from Queens Village would suck, but I love driving. Gives me time to think. I drive through the ’burbs of Greenlawn with the tree-lined sidewalks and traffic lights reflecting in the wet road. The leaves aren’t turning yet, but they’re about to. I spot a red leaf here and there, pilot lights to the season. Just me and my car, Lee.
Good ole Lee. I bought her off of Craigslist this summer for twelve hundred bucks, a 1994 Oldsmobile. She’s older than I am, but she’s got some moves left. When I got her, she was this horrible maroon color. Now she’s perfect: black and white, with flecks of color here and there. Krasner meets Basquiat. That’s Lee. She’s the only real friend I have left, the only one who’s never let me down.
I fish through my bag on the passenger seat, getting my morning ritual started en route. Pull out a can of Red Bull, hold it between my thighs (I’m an expert at driving one-handed), and crack it open. I hate coffee. It’s either bitter or sour or chalky, not to mention the bad breath. Red Bull isn’t the most delicious morning elixir, but a girl’s gotta get a jolt from something.
Pulling into the parking lot of my new hellscape, I look for a spot up front in case I need to make a quick getaway. I haven’t actually tried escaping from school yet, but you never know. Doesn’t matter that the overly accommodating administrators reserved a spot for me next to the front doors. I refuse to park there. I can walk. Don’t baby me.
I don’t get the best spot this morning, but it’s not a gym day, so I probably won’t feel the need to flee. I reach to put Lee into Park when--SLAM!--she lurches forward and my seat belt digs into my chest. I swivel around in my seat and look out the rear window.
Kyle Fucking Stokers.
He tried to park in my spot, not noticing that my car was already there. What a tool. He’s one of those people who’s unaware of anyone or anything else in his vicinity. Bow down to him, the only person on earth who truly matters. So of course this whole ordeal is about to be blamed on me. Doesn’t matter that I was already parked, minding my own business. I exist, therefore I am at fault.
I get out, not bothering to put on my shoes. My socks are getting damp as I walk around on the wet pavement. Lee’s bumper is okay, no real harm done. Tough bird. Some of my paint job has come away, but the maroon showing through isn’t a tragedy. I’m the only person who would even notice. Before I can get a closer look, there’s hands on my shoulders and Kyle spins me around to face him. He’s yelling.
There’s always a moment when one of these kids asks me a question and I have to figure out if speaking is worth the risk.
I cross my arms.
“You--aint--my bum--r!” he rages. It’s not easy to lip-read when people are yelling at you. Despite what the distorted-face yeller might actually think.
I stare back at Kyle. He probably spent more time on his dusty blond hair this morning than I ever spend on mine. He has great eyebrows, but that’s beside the point.
“Well?” He gestures to his car again and again, trying to drive his point home.
Walking over to his slick silver car, I spit on my sleeve. I should be yelling at him. I should scream and say, “You ran into ME, dipshit!” Honestly? He’s not worth it. I buff off the paint and gesture at the spot. All better. I raise my eyebrows and smile. He doesn’t catch the sarcasm.
“Bitches shouldn’t drive,” he says slowly, deliberately. I catch every word. He turns and walks toward the school. I imagine throwing my keys at him, chasing him down, kicking his shins until he’s on the ground. I slam my fists into his chest over and over and--
There’s a tap on my shoulder and I snap to. Kyle disappears into school through the double doors.
“Julia! Where are your shoes?” Casey signs. She’s looking at me like I’m crazy, not a hair out of place in her perfectly cut chin-length bob. Her eyes behind her black-framed glasses are magnified to a ridiculous size, like something out of a Margaret Keane painting. I point over to Lee.
“One minute,” I reply. “See you in history.” I shoo her away from me, because the last thing I need is Casey thinking she can solve all my problems outside of class, too.
I get back in the car and peel off my socks. Great. Now I’m going to end up with blisters. Mee bought me new Doc Martens before the transfer. She winked when she gave them to me--a signal she reserves for when something is to be kept just between us. Ma would kill her if she knew Mee was buying me gifts now. Rightfully so; I know I don’t deserve them. But they make me smile. They’re yellow, my favorite color. Problem is, they’re impossible to break in and twice as impossible to drive in, so I drive in my socks and put the boots on before school. I squeeze my size 10 feet in and lace them up loosely.
I reach into the backseat to grab my hoodie, but the one I pull out isn’t mine. It’s Jordyn’s, all purple and pilly. It even smells like her. How long has it been in here? Sand spills out of the folds, and I remember that day on Coney Island when we shared a spicy mango on a stick. Like we always did. Like we never will again. Not any time soon. I shove it under the passenger seat. I can’t stand to look at it right now.
I need my own hoodie, my trusty black-faded-gray-with-age armor. The sleeves and hem flecked with rainbows of spray paint. This is what I wear when I go out and tag stuff. I yank the zipper up to my chin, and I’m protected. The hood falls over my two loose black buns, down over my ears. I take my bag, open my second Red Bull, and drink it, heading toward the big blue building.
At first I thought transferring to Finley wouldn’t be a big deal. School is school; I hated it at Kingston, I’d hate it at Finley. I mean, Jordyn is always going out with hearies and they seem fine, but it’s not like I’m looking to make friends. I don’t have time for that shit anymore. Not after Jordyn showed me what she’s really made of. No one here would even notice me, right?
Casey took care of that right quick. Having an interpreter in every class is like having a giant neon sign hanging around your neck, blinking: Freak Freak Freak. I’ve been here three weeks and people are still confused about how it all works. It’s not hard: teacher talks, interpreter signs, I understand. They act like Casey’s conjuring black magic, waving her arms around, when really she’s only blathering on about tariffs or decimal places.
I toss the empty Red Bull into the recycling bin and head for my locker. Mine is stuck in the freshman hall, even though I’m a junior, because it’s one of the few left over from the start of the year. I open it up and all of a sudden I feel lighter. I take a certain pride in every tag, and I’ve done a good job claiming my space here. I know I shouldn’t have tagged the inside of the door, but I couldn’t help myself. A new color for every week, my tag, my sign: HERE.