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How We All Fall
Her name tag, resting crookedly on her penciled smudged desk, read Margarine Liptonberg. To any other place but Mrs. Pier’s sixth grade class, this would not have been significant. The students would have come in, completely overlooking the strangely adultish name, and would have gone on with their young plights of passion, sneaking yes-or-no love letters into their crushes’ folders. Perhaps they would have even smiled at Margarine, taken pity on her slight figure and too-long, dishwater blond hair. They would invite her to a sleep-over or let her look off one of their books when she forgot her own.
This was not so.
It was Chris Bane who first saw Margarine, well, after me. He was a boy with a perfectly normal name and was looked at as a god among the juvenile middle school students for his perfectly crisp white shirts and ability to throw a spiral with such precise supremacy that even the eighth graders were in envy. Santa Clara, a sea-side name for a landlocked town smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest, was in no way a big place. SC Junior High had enough students for everyone to recognize a new face, and that was Margarine.
“Mah-gar-ine?” Chris twisted each sound, drawing it out with a loud and clear voice that made all of his little followers laugh in suit. Margarine, who was resting her head on barely-there noodle arms, quickly looked up, her bug-eyes widening.
I watched from the back of the room with a perfect view, practically all I needed was a bowl of salted popcorn and I was set to watch the beginning of the end. No one saw me, huddled by the window, my teeth biting down on my bottom lip to stop myself from yelling out a sound.
“Yes?” the girl cautiously asked, clutching a pink-sparkled notebook to her chest. The innocence in her eyes, that godforsaken hopefulness, was so clear that it was pathetic. All she wanted was a friend. An urge so deep in me told me to get up, to cross the room full of gathering students and stop this before it turned sour. To push them aside and put my arm around her shoulder and tell her that if she needed a friend, I was there.
Chris would determine Margarine’s fate. It was obvious in the way that his friends were gathered around the two of them. The way their eyes, supposed to be full of life, were boring lifelessly into the space between friendship and hate. He had two choices, thinking back on it, I am sure that Margarine knew what he would choose even before he did.
Her shoulders tensed, her knuckles tightening with a white-knuckle grip, as his slightly chapped lips settled into a sneer. With a half-hearted turn, he settled into a seat across the room, as far he could get from her. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. He was Chris Bane. It was settled anyway; the entire class knew it. Mrs. Tier came into the classroom, balancing a laptop and a cup of still smoking coffee into her hands, only slightly aware of how every student in her class now held the new student under their thumb.
Chris and his friends snickered. Other students paired up, giggling, into their little familiar cliques that would keep them together. Margarine, though, she was alone. The kids around her, although not visibly unfriendly, were craftily turned away from her in an unknown barrier. All but me, that is, but no one saw me.
There was no longer recess. That was too immature for the eleven- going on twelve- year-olds. Instead, after lunch they would go out behind the school where there was a slab of broken concrete with blades of crabgrass and other weeds shooting between the cracks. There were four basketball hoops, the baskets frayed to stray strands, that would be used if the balls weren’t terrible that day and everyone was out-of-their minds bored. Mostly, though, lunch break was people talking. Complaining about teachers, about other kids, about the gruel that was lunch.
It had been two weeks since that first day of school.
Margarine was sitting on the ground, her back against the red-brown brick of the school and her eyes squinting as they fought against the sunlight as she wrote in that notebook of hers. It seemed to be the only friend she had.
“Hey,” a girl, one that was also in Mrs. Tier’s room, skipped up to her. Margarine’s eyes slightly narrowed, fixated on the way that the girl’s blond hair swung with each step. Back and forth, her perfectly pink lips in an upturn, “What cha’ doin’?”
“Writing,” she muttered back, her own hair halfway hiding her face from view.
“Huh?” the girl, Cassie, practically yelled back.
“I’m writing,” Margarine’s shoulders stiffened, her words only slightly more audible. Cassie’s pretty face, though, was still blank. “I said, I’m writing,”
The bell rang and Cassie gave her a shadow of a smile, as if it were an apology, and ran back to her friends that were on the outskirts of the crowd of kids piled in by the door, waiting to go back to their classrooms. Margarine wasn’t so eager to go inside. She sat on the ground for a few moments, her head still resting on that brick wall.
No one noticed her fingers, wrapped so tight around her bare wrist that when she let go, there were faint pink marks.
Slowly, she peeled herself off the ground in a struggle against gravity. The crowd was almost all but gone and she hesitantly went on the outskirt of it.
“Yeah, I know, right?” she could make out the blonde head of Cassie, almost radiating in the sunlight, not five feet from her, “She is such a freak. I mean, have you heard her talk?” One of her friends muttered something too low to hear, “God, she probably didn’t learn to speak in that trailer park of hers,”
Margarine rushed passed them to get through the door, hitting Cassie on the way out. She ran down the hallway, towards where she thought the nearest bathroom was. She couldn’t be too sure, she was squeezing her eyes shut too tightly.
“Watch where you going, Mouse!” a sing-song voice echoed, loud enough for all to hear, but even louder to me.
It is Halloween and even the school isn’t able to shake off the holiday vibes. Each student came in through the doors in a range of costumes: the boys dressed as pirates and axe murderers, Freddy Krueger and the occasional baseball player; most of the girls either wore something pink or the tightest thing that their parents would let them get. Some wore jeweled tiaras, others cat ears and matching tails. They dressed up as famous singers, actresses, and movie characters.
I was nothing. So was Margarine.
Mrs. Tier’s room was on the second floor of the school, right above the high, high-ceiling cafeteria. That day, her legs felt particularly heavy as they went up that flight of stairs. Each step seemed to resonate a thud that match the faint beat of her heart.
“Okay, everyone,” Mrs. Tier started speaking right before Margarine got to her seat, her eyes drifting right over her. “Get into groups, two or three, or so, and get to work.”
For a little over a week, we had been in our creative writing unit. When Mrs. Tier first said that, I could see how excited Margarine got. Her back, which always seemed to be in a perpetual hunch, straightened, and there was a gleam in her eyes that made her seem like she was alive.
That glow was still there, much to my surprise.
The groups were already decided. They were since that very first day that she walked up those stairs. For once, Margarine didn’t mind.
“Time’s up,” Mrs. Tier announced, looking at her class over her cat-eye glasses. The sun, it streamed in from the big windows that were lined up on the the far wall. It shone on Margarine, too, but all anyone could see was the shadow that she cast. “Margarine, how about you share?”
Her reaction would have been comical if it weren’t so sad. A thousand emotions seem to stream across her face at once: pride, excitement, eagerness. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the rest of the class snickering. Margarine’s cheeks reddened and she shook her head so avidly that it was a miracle she didn’t get whiplash.
“Come on, Margarine,” Mrs. Tier blew out a breath of air, “Just stand up here and read your poem to the class.”
Margarine’s dark eyes widened as she got out of her desk. She tripped twice on her way to the front of the room. Once on her own feet, just barely a teeter of balance. The second on the outstretched foot of some future football star. That time, her notebook fell out of her hand, landing right next to Margarine’s slack body. The class burst out in laughter and the teacher bit her lip, not knowing what to do, so not doing anything.
Why are you doing this? Why are you so mean?
I watched from the dark part of the room, a place that even the autumn sunlight could not reach, as the girl stood at the front of the classroom, looking lost and broken. They were still laughing, each and every one. Mrs. Tier coughed and they all settled into a silence that seemed to be even worse.
Margarine’s hand was shaking as she gripped onto her notebook, and I imagined that the pages were fluttering in preflight. She coughed to clear her throat, and with all the attention of the classroom, began:
“Where were you?
Where was I?
When we lost all of our innocence
divided by time-
stolen, stripped down
the barest promise we live by.
Where were you?
Where was I?
When I began to cry
and the world just stood on by,
a smile on their faces
not even a sigh.
Where were you?
Where was I?
When was I left alone?
When did you leave me,
lost and forgotten,
without even a goodbye?
I think I know.
You were lost to the masses
while I was left to die.”
The class was silent, taking cue from Mrs. Tier. Margarine didn’t need to be told to go back to her seat. She managed to get there all on her own, resisting the visible urge to draw her knees up to her chest. To try and hold herself together.
“Okay, Hannah, do you want to go next?”
Hannah was Cassie’s best friend and the prettiest girl in class. She was everything that the world didn’t see in Margarine. Long, dark hair. Perfect, symmetrical features on a clear face. She wore a barely there ballerina costume, with little flowers framing her face and entwined in her braid. Chris teasingly hit her on the arm as she walked by and she smiled at him from under her lashes, swinging her hips as she went.
Hannah didn’t need to clear her throat, no, she stared out at the classroom with a sureness in her eyes. Her hands did not tremor and she didn’t feel like she was going to cry. She snapped her paper upright, “This is called Mouse, a shared effort,” she did not need to elaborate.
a little ugly thing,
she has no house
and will never marry a king.
the last one chosen,
she ain’t no pearl.
She’s a little frozen,
smells a little like hurl.”
She ended with a bow and everyone clapped. All but me and Margarine.
The bell rang and everyone rushed out of the classroom. It took a moment for Margarine to realize that it rang, though, she was too focused on something she was scribbling in her notebook. Mrs. Tier was too focused on everything but her to tell her.
“Hey,” I stood at her shoulder, “Everything is going to be okay. You have me, you know? The others don’t matter,”
Margarine looked up from her notebook, her pencil quivering in her hand as she realized that everyone else was out of class. She bit her lip and left the classroom without a word, as if she didn’t hear me.
Margarine is sad, no one else can bother to see it. No one else cares, but me. No one notices how thin she is actually getting, or the little red lines traced over her arms that sometimes peek out from under the long sleeves of her shirt.
It has been a month since winter break, almost Valentine’s day. Margarine misses a week of school and comes back with a faded black eye.
It is quiet as she walks to her seat. No one asks her what happened.
As Mrs. Tier begins her lesson, Margarine writes something in her notebook before putting her head down on the desktop. No one stops her. Why does no one help? Why does no one care?
I hover near her, trying to her attention. My voice is hoarse, but I don’t stop screaming. She never lifts her head from her notebook or opens her eyes. She can’t hear me and I can’t help but cry.
It’s spring, the weather not cold but not yet warm. The world is healing, grass sprouting up and trees beginning to grow tiny, little green buds. There is an occasional gust of wind that flies by and seems to bite at the skin, reminding that the cold hasn’t just left, yet.
Margarine gets to Mrs. Tier’s classroom early and no one is there. She doesn’t have any school books, only that pink glitter notebook, now creased with pages hanging loose. Her hair is longer than it was before and her eyes slightly more sunken in. That is the only visible thing that is different from her eleventh and twelfth birthday.
She feels like a different person.
I yell at her. I scream. I cry. I whisper. I beg her to just turn away. To try.
She opens her notebook slowly and yanks out a sheet of paper addressed to Chris Bane, setting it on his seat. The next one she rips out is for Cassie, and then Hannah. She tears out a page for Mrs. Tier. Margarine does this till almost every single desks has a piece of paper on it, the tear stains hidden between the words.
Finally, she stood in front of the only empty desk in the room, setting it open to the last remaining pages.
I expect people to make mistakes. Let them judge me. Let them laugh. They don’t know who I really am.
I can forgive these people, even if the words they say I will never forget.
But you, I can’t forgive you.
You just sat there. You didn’t do a thing. You didn’t stand up. You left me to drown in my own waking tears.
Never in my life have I ever felt special, important, or beautiful. I have never felt so utterly invisible, useless, or ugly before stepping into this classroom, though.
It is you I blame. It is all of your fault.
Then she turns and opens the window, pops out the screen, and jumps. Taking me with her.
You left me all alone, so forever shall I be.