Why Am I Such An Outcast? by Jon Epstein27 Jul 2018, Posted by Short Fiction in
Art: Guilherme Bergamini
WHY AM I SUCH AN OUTCAST
Dad, in his cornball sport coat, leads the way up the concrete auditorium stairs. Cigarette dangling from her fingers, Mom’s second in command, then comes Laura; I look away from my sister’s jiggling butt and keep plodding up. The steps are endless; so are the judgmental eyes staring down at me from the landing above.
“Jonnnn! Wait for me,” Greg whines from the rear.
I look over my shoulder at his jelly-belly flopping over his belt.
“Shut up!” I say without stopping.
Then it dawns on me: I’m surrounded by shiny, happy families. Some parents are carrying flowers. Some are holding balloons. Some have wrapped presents. Even though we live in a big Hollywood Hills house, I feel like we’re from the poor side of town. I keep plodding. The further I climb, the crappier I feel.
“Jon, we don’t have all day!” Mom yells, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
I hustle up the last steps two at a time.
“Wait!” Greg yells.
I play deaf; part of me wants to help, but another part wants to push him down the stairs. The whole thing feels hopeless.
“Let me fix your shirt.” Mom drops her lipstick-coated cigarette butt, stomps it out with the pointy toe of her high heel, and reaches for my collar.
“I’ll do it!” I try to back away.
“Hold still.” She fastens the small button I’d missed.
I wanna kill her for fussing with my shirt in public.
“There,” she says, “that’s better.”
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” Greg joins us, out of breath.
“I have to go find my seat,” I say. “I’ll meet you guys here when it’s over, sorry Greg.” I rush off.
“Okay, honey!” Mom says. “Stand up straight when you walk across the stage!” she shouts.
Please, nobody hear that.
* * *
I step inside the foyer and am bombarded with noise. My throat tightens and I feel dizzy. The entrance reverberates with talking, joke-telling, and laughter, none of which include me.
Then I spot Rachel Cohen holding Steve Bishart’s hand. She’s wearing a short, black leather skirt. I remember that skirt from the London Mod Night Dance. Bishart’s hand is resting on the small of her back, just below her waist. I rested my hand there once. My eyes are drawn to the thin, black lines on the back of her dark nylons. I duck behind a column to spy on them and I
drift back, thinking about the beginning of the ninth grade. For weeks Rachel and I walked together to the bus stop after school. One day I just grabbed her and we kissed. Man, that was ballsy! For two weeks we French-kissed good-bye every day. I hated her cigarette breath but loved her tongue.
Our afternoon romance came to an end after Bishart’s rock band played “Bang a Gong” at the school jam session. I was out and Steve was in. Just like with Valerie and the rest, I never could get past first base. There was always someone cooler on second ready to tag me out.
“Hey, Epstein!” someone yells. “Who you hiding from?”
Steve and Rachel look up.
“Mind your own business, butt-wipe,” I say under my breath and hightail it outta there into the auditorium.
Dodging autonomous clusters of grads talking, exchanging yearbooks, autographing, and acting like everything’s just hunky-dory, I make my way down the aisle toward the rows of marked chairs.
Looking back, I felt like a faceless stranger in a foreign town but that wasn’t reality. I knew all those kids by first and last name. I’d taken classes for three years with them. Eaten lunch and nutrition in the same cafeteria and quad. Gone to detention and dances together. Heck, most of the dudes I’d seen naked in the showers after gym class. But I was a nobody to them, and they were nobodies to me. In hindsight the only one who really hated me was myself.
I reach the long rows of chairs with name cards taped to the seats. Our graduating class is big and the seats are many. In front of the chairs is the orchestra pit. It’s not really a pit; I mean, it’s not dug into the floor or anything, but everything about that special section at the foot of the stage feels mysterious. I get closer and admire the black music stands holding sheet music and the various instruments. I look up at the ceiling in awe of the black lighting apparatus hanging from the dark-painted ceiling rigging. I take a deep breath and exhale. For a second I forget about my nerdy family, my nerdy clothes, my nerdy life, and the whole world that seems to ignore me, Mr. Nerd McSpazz. Then a light bulb comes on: If I played an instrument, maybe I could be cool!
I know that voice. I whip my head around and spot Kevin Connolly. Out of the entire ninth-grade class, Kev’s my only real friend. “B-52” is our code word for girls with big boobs.
“Kevin!” I yell.
We walk toward each other. Kevin brushes his long, blond hair away from his face and grins the biggest smile. He swings his arms; he’s easygoing, like he’s never out to prove anything, and like me, I’m pretty sure he’s never had a steady girlfriend either.
“Hey, man!” I think back to the time I got in the fight with Billy Timmons. Kevin was the only one who backed me up when Timmons fought dirty. And he didn’t make fun of me when I messed up in the eighth-grade student debate.
Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad…
Our class song starts playing.
“Can you believe this circus?” Kevin says.
“Yeah, man.” I shake my head. “Well, at least they got the song right,” I sigh.
“I could really go for some of that ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’!” Kevin says. “Know what I mean?”
Yeah…“Seven Minutes in Heaven”…the longest slow dance in the jukebox.
“Remember Susie Esposito?” I think back to the first time I slow-danced to the song.
“Yeah…Susie had some nice B-52’s!” Kevin socks my arm.
The minute you let her under your skin…
“Remember Bellbottom Night?” I loved that very first Friday-night dance until I acted like an idiot.
“Heck, yeah!” Kevin twirls his hair.
That first dance feels so far away.
“Man,” Kevin’s face turns serious, “when this whole thing is over, I’m gonna get high as a kite.”
“What?” I’m confused.
“I ain’t touchin’ down for days!” Kevin tucks his shirt in.
You were made to go out and get her…
“Uh? Yeah.” Kevin’s never mentioned anything about drugs. I guess he’s talking about marijuana. I shift my weight from one foot to the other. I don’t know what to say. Kevin tightens his belt.
And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain…
The awkward moment is interrupted by annoying, scratchy static crackling through the PA system, then a loud, thumping noise.
We turn our heads. Principal Steinberg pounds his fat hand on top of the podium the way he does at all the assemblies.
And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain…
“Our last dose of Cranky-Chrome-Dome,” I say to Kevin.
“After three years, you’d think he tortured us enough!” Kevin likes putting stuff down too.
“Please take your seats,” Steinberg’s voice booms.
“Where’s your seat?” I wish we were sitting together.
“Somewhere in that direction.” Kevin gestures his head. “It’s all in alphabetical order.”
“Well, the smarty-pants all know where they’re going.” I point at a group of kids with special purple tassels marching to the front row.
“Those Funk and Wagnalls…I wish they’d shove those special achievement caps up their you-know-what.” Kevin frowns.
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders…
“I better go,” Kevin says. “I’ll see you later.”
“Later, man.” I watch, what felt like in that moment, my only friend in the universe walk away. My throat’s sandy and my stomach hurts.
Nahhh-nah nah nah-nah-nah nahhh… The song’s reminding me of that first slow dance with Susie.
Steinberg starts up again with the fat-hand banging. The amplified thumping is like a hammer on my head.
* * *
I look down and read the seat tags. I spot the E’s. “Hum…Mitch Earl…Susan Ebbert…Daniel Ephraim, ugh, bummer,” I think, “and me. Oh no, Susie Esposito, man, why Susie?” I look around. I don’t see her. I sit.
Nahhh-nah nah nah-nah-nah nahhh…
Then I spot Mr. Jerk Ephraim; what a creep for telling on me when I tried cheating off his algebra test.
“Hey, Daniel.” I kiss up.
“Hey, Epstein.” Frowning, he takes his seat. “I’m surprised you’re even graduating,” he says.
“Uh.” I want to volley something smart…but my brain’s jumbled. “Drop dead, dufus.”
“Dufus? What are you? In the third grade?” He flips me the bird.
I turn away and pretend to ignore him.
Then somebody clunks the back of my chair. Christ. I turn around.
“Sorry,” Jane Feldman smiles. “Oh, hi, Jon.”
“Hi, Jane,” I say. “Happy graduation.”
“You too.” She giggles.
I turn back around. Let me get this right: Susie’s sitting on my right, and her best friend is behind me. There’s no escaping. I bet Susie told Jane about my erection.
The lights dim…the talking gets quieter.
Nahhh-nah nah nah-nah-nah nahhh…
The room fills with sitting noise. Huh…I wonder if Susie even remembers? I look around. I wonder where she is?
I close my eyes and think of Bellbottom Night, my slow dance with Susie. The girls’ gym decorated with balloons and streamers—the first time I held a girl against my body. The soft dance-floor lights, the late summer, September evening air, all the body heat.
Nah-nah nah… Nahhh-nah nah nah-nah-nah nahhh…
“We need to get started.” Steinberg thumps the microphone one last time.
The music stops.
I shut my eyes and go back into the slow-dance memory. I feel her arms hanging over my shoulders. “Come here,” I said, drawing her closer…my arms around her, just the two of us in that dark gym, on that wood floor, our bodies pressing together. Susie’s warm body, Susie’s perfume, Susie’s long, soft hair, Susie’s smooth skin touching mine. Then it happened. I started getting hard. I remember trying to shield my bulge behind my leg.
I open my eyes and look around. The auditorium’s dark. I space out. I keep my eyes open, but everything’s foggy and out of focus. What a spaz I was, running out of the gym with my sweater in front of my crotch all the way outside to the payphone. I felt so empty when Dad didn’t answer the phone. Where was he when I needed him? I had used my only dime to call home. I remember hanging up, feeling like the world was over, and I didn’t even get the dumb dime back. I was such a loser, waiting outside in the dark for the dance to end, looking at my glow-in-the-dark watch every five minutes…wishing Dad would somehow read my mind and come get me early. Why didn’t I just go back in gym? I want to erase that night from my head. What was my problem? Susie acted like nothing happened. She even said, “Thank you for the dance.” I wipe my forehead.
Then I spot her walking toward me, smiling. I try to act cool.
“Hi, Susie.” I pretend that dance ended differently.
“Hi, Jon,” she says, still smiling.
“If you haven’t already taken your seats—” Steinberg speaks in a lower voice, the air turns to India ink, and silence fills the room. A bright beam hits the podium. I like the way it shines on all the dust floating in the air. “—please do so now.”
“Welcome, graduates, parents, and family members, to the 1972 Joseph Le Conte Junior High commencement!” Steinberg’s bald head shines in the spotlight.
“WHO LOVES YOU, BABY?” some kid yells.
“Don’t piss him off!” someone else chimes in.
“He’s probably got the paddle in his car!” another says.
“Dude…it’s probably tucked in his belt!” George Fazzola says, a few seats away.
“Got any lollipops?” another kid yells.
Steinberg frowns at the comments.
“And now it’s my pleasure to introduce your student body president, Linda Wong,” he says.
The crowd goes crazy…cheering, clapping, whistling, and calling out.
Why’s everyone think Linda’s so IT?
“HELLO, CLASS OF ’72!” Enthusiastic Linda reminds me of a game-show host.
The auditorium erupts with cheering and clapping like Linda landed on the moon.
I hate her. Why’s she always get to be under the bright lights? Who’s she think she is? Johnny Carson?
Linda smiles and holds the podium with both hands, waiting for the applause to stop.
Then the crowd quiets.
“What a Barbie,” a girl says behind me.
“Yeah, little Ms. Linda’s everyone’s sweetheart,” another girl says.
Why can’t I be someone’s sweetheart? I slouch.
“WE ARE HEADED TO A FUTURE GRANDER THAN ALL OTHERS!” Linda declares.
What future is she talking about? All I’m headed to is the stupid tenth grade.
“COME FALL, EVERYONE SITTING IN THESE CHAIRS WILL HAVE UNLIMITED OPPORTUNITIES.”
I look down the row for some kind of opportunity. All I’ve got ahead of me is a girlfriendless summer-school-session.
“MY GREAT-GRANDPARENTS CAME TO THE U.S. ON A BOAT WITH EMPTY POCKETS!” Linda looks up from her speech and smiles. “THEY HAD A DREAM.” She pauses. “TO BUILD A NEW LIFE.”
Dreams? My only dream is to get a girlfriend.
“Aso….no ticky—no laundry,” someone mocks her.
“THEY LABORED HARD. THEY HELPED BUILD THIS NATION’S RAILROADS. THEIR CHILDREN, MY GRANDPARENTS, BECAME SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS!”
“Ohhhh, you wanna flied lice?” another person jokes.
“HOW FORTUNATE WE ARE TO BE CONTINUING OUR VALUABLE EDUCATION…HERE AT HOLLYWOOD HIGH!” Linda raises her head…she looks across the audience.
There’s more clapping and whistling. Linda does a stupid boob-jiggling cheerleader move.
Just who does she think she is? Raquel Welch?
“IN THREE YEARS MANY OF US WILL GO ON TO COLLEGES ACROSS THE COUNTRY AND THROUGHOUT THE WORLD!” Linda continues the speech her stuck-up attorney parents probably wrote.
“THANK YOU, GRADUATING CLASS OF 1972!” Linda steps aside.
The audience goes bonkers.
Steinberg re-adjusts the microphone. It makes an awful scrunching sound. “It is now my great privilege to present the academic and sports achievement awards.”
The orchestra starts playing that monotonous procession song they play at these kinds of things, and all I can think is: I wish I had a smoke bomb.
“Sai Abhishek, the Margaret M. Stack Memorial Award for Latin…”
There’s polite applause.
I can’t stand her.
“Jenny Cheng, Bridging the Gap Award.”
What’s up with these losers?
“Blah, blah, blah.” Steinberg’s “way-to-goes” feel endless.
“Isn’t it great?” Chris Carter says to Debbie Chavez, sitting in front of me.
“Yeah, they’re so neat,” Debbie says. “Hey, are you going to Paul’s afterward?”
Paul Westmorland, what a dumb jock.
“I’m going to Elaine’s first,” Chris says, “then Paul’s.”
Oh, aren’t we special?
I want to scream out a cuss word or fart really loud but instead just slump down even lower in my seat while the purple-tasseled butt-kissers promenade up and across the stage.
“AND WILLIE WILLIAMS…ATHLETE OF THE YEAR.” Steinberg dabs his forehead with a handkerchief.
The clapping explodes.
Willie swaggers up to Steinberg. He’s a big muscly dude with hair done up in cornrows; he already has a thick mustache.
Steinberg hands over the diploma and offers a soul shake. Willie ignores Steinberg’s hand.
“Right-on, brother,” some black dude yells, “screw whitey.”
The audience stirs.
Steinberg plays it off.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Joseph Le Conte Junior High graduating class of 1972,” Steinberg announces with his big, syrupy smile.
There’s a good amount of clapping. Kim’s family owns a Chinese restaurant on Melrose; her dad’s eggrolls are delicious.
What a stuck-up.
The orchestra plays the never-ending song.
The crowd goes crazy. James got thrown off the basketball team for pushing a referee. But he’s tall, blond, and was a big shot in the Student Council.
“Anita Allen,” Steinberg continues.
Man, she can sing.
Another egghead brainiac… God, we’re gonna be here all night.
The crowd noise turns into white static, like what happens right after the late-night TV test pattern with the Indian chief.
I look over all the way to the left for Chrissie David. Four-Eyes Phelps, the graduation coordinator, told us to watch Chrissie for our cue. Chrissie scooches up to the edge of her seat…she rests her hands on her knees, then stands.
What’s-her-face, next to Chrissie, gets up too, and then our whole row rises.
I see Kevin closing in on the stage; I want to get his attention.
God, she’s pretty.
What an Afro.
“B-52’s!” I yell. Everyone within earshot looks at me like I’m the Elephant Man.
Chrissie walks to the aisle. One by one our whole row does the same. Chrissie starts walking toward the stage…we all follow.
How can she see through those thick glasses?
Chrissie takes the first step up to the stage. She trips.
She catches herself.
Just in time.
“Go, Cindy,” I whisper. I always liked her.
We’re almost there. I stand up straight.
I look over Daniel’s shoulder. The stage lights shoot through Evelyn’s gown.
I can see right through the sheer material. She’s not wearing anything underneath! I stare. Yes! Her underwear I see the outline of her butt. Oh my God! I stare really hard. Her bra! The light’s shining right through her gown like magic. Awesome.
“Epstein, you idiot!” Daniel spins around. “Watch your feet!”
Uh-oh. I look down. I’m stepping on Daniel’s gown.
“Get off, jerk!” He’s loud.
Steinberg turns his head in our direction.
“Don’t have a cow,” I whisper, lifting my toe.
“Shusssh, Daniel,” Susie defends me.
Dim-wad. I want to push him.
All his buddies cheer.
My heart’s beating louder than the clapping. I’m worried nobody will clap and am afraid one of the girls I messed up with might say something mean, like the time Valerie blabbed: “He kisses like a tomato,” or back in the eighth grade at Marlene’s party, when we snuck away to the park, and Christine said: “It’s spin the bottle, you’re supposed to kiss with your tongue!” How was I supposed to know about kissing with your tongue? Nobody told me how to kiss.
The orchestra drones on.
I hear a couple of faraway claps.
“WAY TO GO, EPSTEIN!”
Kevin…what a lifesaver.
Steinberg hands me my rolled-up diploma. I want to get off the stage before I fall or knock something over.
Huge applause. Man, I shoulda never left the gym that night; we could have been boyfriend and girlfriend.
I make it back to my seat and pretend to be looking for something in particular, wondering if I should say something to her.
Susie settles into her chair. I face her. She smiles again. I smile back. What should I say? I turn my head. I forget, idiot Ephraim is right there.
“What’s your problem, Epstein?” Daniel sneers.
“Nothing!” I wanna kill him. “Except your face.”
“Yeah, Daniel!” Susie leans close to me and rests her hand on my knee. “Why do you always have to be such a jerk?”
I look at Susie’s hand. I feel the warmth. I want to hold it. Caress it. Kiss it.
Ephraim’s face turns red. “Why don’t you just go screw each other,” he says.
I want to sock him in the mouth.
Susie takes her hand from my knee and sits back in her seat.
No, leave it there! Say something to her!
“Blah…blah…blah, blah, blah…” Steinberg keeps calling out the names.
I glance around. All I see are happy-faced grads.
I didn’t know it then, but in the pit of my gut, I knew I would never be as good as them.
“I got a bottle of strawberry Boone’s Farm,” somebody whispers.
“Joey’s got a pint of Southern Comfort,” another says.
“Hey, Luke, you got any pot?” Freddy Felesette asks Luke Fried.
Just as I’m reminded I’m never included, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look to my right. It’s Susie.
“You look nice tonight,” she says.
Okay, don’t blow it again. Say something girls like.
“Thanks, you look good too, and I like your pretty turquoise necklace. Is it an eagle?”
“No,” she says, “it’s a dove.”
“Oh.” My tongue knots up. Come on…say something, dufus.
There’s awkward silence. You loser. I move my eyes away.
Jane leans forward and whispers something in Susie’s ear.
I try to listen to what Susie and Jane are saying.
“Congratulations, graduates!” Steinberg’s finally done.
The audience explodes like UCLA just won the Rose Bowl, and the house lights come back on. I look at my watch; the talking and laughing start up again.
I look over at Susie. She and Jane are still whispering.
Now’s your last chance, say something. If you don’t now, you’ll have to wait all summer long.
“See ya.” I stand.
“Bye.” She smiles and keeps talking to Jane.
I step toward the aisle.
“Would you move it?” I try to get by Fickes.
He looks at me like I’m retarded.
I can’t get out of the aisle. Nobody wants to leave. I never felt like such an outcast. I wish I was with Kevin. I picture Dad marching us across Highland Avenue again.
“Ugh.” What’s wrong with me?
Epstein is a contributor to The Judean and a member of The Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Forge, the Pierce College Voices Collective, Out On The Stoop, Poetic Diversity, Foliate Oak, Sanskrit, and Poetry Superhighway.