“So remember: when you have sex, you are dipping your french fry into a pot of ketchup that a lot of people have spit in.” Donna pursed her lips, nodded, and took her seat.
I glanced towards the back of the room at my health teacher, whose pregnant belly stretched the fabric of her cross-country t-shirt. “Umm. Yes. Thank you, Donna, for that. Well, yes,” she said with one eyebrow raised. “We still have twenty minutes of class. Could you start on the STDs?”
“Of course!” Donna chirped, whipping out her laptop.
My health teacher cleared her throat. “Class, can we give one more round of applause for Ms. Donna? We are very lucky to have a certified nurse in class today!”
My classmates mustered a somewhat scattered applause, but my focus remained intently on my notebook. No, I was not writing about ketchup sex. I was drawing cupcakes. Some had candles, while others had sprinkles, and, well, that was pretty much the extent of my cupcake-drawing skills. Don’t panic. Only 20 minutes left. Think of sunshine and rainbows and cotton candy. Despite the ridiculousness of “Ms. Donna’s” speech, I could feel it happening. I looked up at the slideshow that had just appeared on the screen. There was no title, no author -- only a massive picture of a vast mountain range in front of a bright blue sky.
“I thought I’d start with something pleasant,” Donna said. “Genital warts are my favorite thing to talk about because…”
Holy crap lalala don’t listen, don’t listen, don’t listen. I added balloons and confetti to my cupcake scene, but tiny black dots began to block my sight. New method: I pulled at a string on my khaki pants. No, you need to breathe. Untuck your shirt. My hand ineffectively tugged at the green polo. Oh god, these ugly uniforms are not helping… I slowly raised my hand. “Ms. Donna? May I use the restroom?” I whispered. I was out of my chair before I even saw her nod. Walking carefully across the back of the classroom, I traced my fingertips across the handle and closed the door.
The next moment, I was sprawled onto the floor, unconscious.
That was not the first time I had fainted, and it wouldn’t be the last. By the time I was sixteen, I had become an expert fainter. Not an expert as in “I can induce fainting so that it will get me out of anything!” Rather, I learned to recognize the symptoms and make my exit so that I could quietly pass out in the sanctuary of the high school bathroom.
Of course, I went to the doctor and asked for a cure. It was extraordinarily important to me to eradicate what I considered my biggest weakness. But my fainting was only “nerve-related” and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.
Meanwhile, my parents ran rampant at the news of my “nerve-related” fainting spells. It was as though they were excited that they finally had some parenting to do. “Take some mints with you!” my mother would shout as I left to get the newspaper. “Oh, and drink plenty of fluids! Bring these pills, too. Don’t forget your cell phone. And call us if anything goes wrong. Here, have some lemonade!” I eventually stopped telling them each time I fainted just to avoid their furrowed eyebrows and their muttering about how I don’t know how to take care of myself.
By the time I was seventeen, I was consistently fainting once every two weeks. Miraculously, this did not interfere with my summer job. I had snagged a position as a daycamp counselor to twenty-one hyperactive second graders, and the 10-hour days never induced a fainting spell. Although I felt weak on my days off, I was always in control at work; I wondered if the mere knowledge that I was the caretaker was preventing me from fainting. But just because I didn’t faint didn’t mean I was the perfect employee.
I would tell myself that if my boss, Julia, could read minds, she would have about forty-three reasons to fire me. I often found it difficult to get through the day without some rude thoughts. For instance, I had given all of my kids rather tasteless nicknames. There was Claire, the girl with narrow eyes whose wispy blonde hair always stuck out behind her ears. She rarely spoke, but when she did, it was in a sort of squeaky warble. I called her Yoda. Then there was James, who had tiny ears and no hair. What kind of third grader is bald? In my mind, he was Caillou, though to his credit, he was much less whiny than the cartoon kid.
Sarah was in another category completely. To be honest, she was one of the creepiest kids I had ever met. On our trip to the petting zoo, she grabbed my hand, looked up at me with pleading eyes, and asked if she could hit the animals. Hell no, you cannot hit the animals! What the fuck? I liked to call her the silent killer because I was certain that she would grow up to be a convicted felon.
Yet, future murderer or not, I loved each and every child that was under my care. They were still too young to wear a fake smile or to feign interest during the hour-long Bible sessions. I saw them cry, scream, puke, and fight. They picked their boogers and wiped them on their sleeve. They pulled their pants down in the middle of the gym because they wanted to show everyone a bug bite on their butt. In layman’s terms, they didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of them. This unconscious philosophy was enough to drive me crazy, but I also admired it. In my worst moods, I saw my kids as shameless. But when I was cheerful, I saw them as… spunky.
The most dreaded day of the summer was the field trip to Ivory Park. Out of every weekly trip, this one was on the bottom of our fun list. For one thing, it meant an entire afternoon outside in the 90-degree heat. It also meant that every kid would go home with bee stings, sunburn, and vicious scratches from the ducks that had “attacked them out of nowhere.”
Sarah tugged on my hand until I looked at her. “Will we get to play with the ducks?”
“You will get to feed them if you are good, hon.” I won’t let you within three football fields of those poor creatures. “We’re about to get in line; you can be leader.”
I pursed my lips and let out a sharp whistle. “Miss Liz’s group, line up in THREE, two . . .” the kids darted across the gym, nearly knocking each other over. I skimmed the “line” in front of me. There was a small cluster of people in the middle and one of them was picking his nose . However, they all had their eyes on me; this was as close to perfection as I could ever hope for. For the hundredth time, it had been proven: counting down was magical. I had no clue what I would do if I ever got to “one.”
“Alright, let’s go! If you brought a lunch, hand it to me as you get on the bus!”
As I stationed myself beside the bus doors, I was tempted to slip the driver a twenty and ask her to take us to Chuck E. Cheese’s instead. Counselors always got to take the tokens of the kids who misbehaved to use them for their own gaming pleasure. Last year, I had won enough tickets to get 43 mystery flavor Airheads.
“Miss Liz, will you sit with me?” Dani pulled at my wrist.
“We’ll see when everybody is on the bus.”
While counselors are not supposed to pick favorites, Dani had snatched that title the day we ran out of bologna and she offered to share her lunch with Sarah. Unfortunately, it was not my job to sit with Miss Generosity on the bus. I had to focus on “makin’ sure those damn kids don’t say a word,” as the driver phrased it. As I climbed up the stairs, the doors closed behind me with a shudder-inducing squeak. This was enough to stop every giggle, squeal, and “I told you so!” on the bus. “Alright guys!” I yelled, propping my clipboard on against the front seat. “There are a few things you need to know about this trip. First: we are eating lunch before we go on the playground. Everything you need – yes, including ketchup – will be in your lunchbag. Cheese sandwiches are in the blue cooler and bologna sandwiches are in the red . . .”