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“It’s confidential, Ruth. You know that.”
I did know that, but it didn’t stop me from asking her anyway. “I’m just wondering what set him off.”
She lifted a glob of steaming spaghetti from the pot of boiling water in front of her and picked a noodle from the tangled mass to test it. “None of your business, that’s what.” My mother took the confidentiality of her students seriously and apart from the kids in the significant support and affective needs classrooms, I never even knew who the Temp—as in temporary problem—kids were.
She tilted her head back and let the noodle slide into her mouth. “Not quite,” she said to herself, and put the lid back on the pot.
When she turned around, she pointed her wooden spoon at me. “And I’m pretty sure I remember telling you to go back to the library.”
She gave me her look.
The conversation ended.
But I couldn’t stop wondering about what had happened.
I had seen kids from the AN class go off before. In third grade, Joey Harms, with his unfortunately apropos last name, stabbed Aaron Ryans in the arm with a pencil. In sixth grade, Rachel Martinez told Ms. Kelly to go fuck herself then punched her in the face. In seventh grade Barry Abbington brought a knife to school, barricaded himself in the boys’ bathroom, and threatened to kill himself and everyone in the school if they didn’t stop having fire drills every month—rumor had it that Barry transferred to the day treatment school the next day. Then there were the lesser incidents: chair throwing, desk flipping, running.
All of these I had watched unfold with the quiet fascination of a spectator. Amazed and surprised, just like every other student who never did anything more disruptive than use the electric pencil sharpener during a test—grateful for the thrill of something different that invariably knocked the whole school day off its ever-predictable course.
But something was different about this guy. Something about the way he struggled, the look on his face. He didn’t look crazed and out of control—he looked desperate.
Now, for some stupid reason, I needed to know if he was okay—and this needing to know bothered me. Normally, I couldn’t care less about anyone else’s drama.
Anyone except Eli, of course. Eli who had been playing the lead in his own real-life drama since the fifth grade—the year he figured out he was gay. Also it was the year everyone else in the fifth grade figured it out, because Eli tried to kiss Pete Reeves behind the mobiles during recess. Just about the whole class mass-exodused from Eli’s life after that.
At first the teachers had assumed that, because Eli was black, the entire fifth grade had become racists. Even the other black kids. And for weeks they handled it with daily lessons on bullying, inappropriate racists comments, and the reading of To Kill a Mockingbird.
So more white kids and black kids sat together at lunch—and they all kept excluding Eli.
There were lots of times I had wondered: if Eli hadn’t tried kissing Pete that day, and if he hadn’t single-handedly lost every friend he had that day—would he and I be friends now? Would he have ended up just like Bella, Ashley, and every other asshat at our school without two independent thoughts of their own to rub together?
Was he only my friend because of circumstances beyond his control?
“Don’t be so desperate. It’s unattractive,” he told me when I asked him that very question at lunch the next day.
“Believe me; so am I.”
“Look around us,” I said, not bothering to lower my voice. “We are surrounded by jerks. All I’m saying is what if that weren’t the case? What if we could wave a magic wand and make everyone in this school intelligent, thought-provoking, highly functioning individuals who were actually coming to school to train their brains to figure out how to cure cancer instead of chase down the next vacuous trend?”
“You mean what if everyone were more like you?” he asked before taking a bite of his limp chicken patty burger.
I closed my eyes and gave him a single shoulder shrug. “I’m not saying exactly like me.”
He laughed, and some of his partially chewed pressed chicken parts flew out of his mouth and onto the table in front of us. He covered his mouth, swallowed, then shook his head. “Do you ever listen to yourself?”
“All the time,” I said feigning boredom.
“Also, I don’t happen to think we are completely surrounded by jerks.”
At this, I put down the questionable carrot stick I’d been considering and stared at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m completely serious.”
“How can you even say that considering how half . . . no, probably more like a solid 65 percent of them treat you now? After how they have always treated you?” I could feel the look on my face, and it was the one that punctuated my thoughts with Are you kidding me?
But, after so many years together, Eli was mostly immune to my glares and stares. He only shrugged and took another halfhearted bite from his chicken burger before letting the rest of the whole disgusting “sandwich” fall from his hands back onto his tray. I could tell he wanted to say something and was taking his time chewing to formulate the thought. Seconds passed, and my impatience with him must have shown on my face because he raised his finger—just a second—took a drink from his Coke and, only after wiping his mouth with his napkin, opened his mouth to answer my question. “Jordan said something really interesting at youth group the other day.”
My shoulders sagged and I rolled my eyes, “You have got to be joking.”
“I’m serious. Hear me out. In high school, we are not even fully formed people. Including you,” he added. “We are a collection of behaviors and opinions that are not much more than reactions to the labels and circumstances that we’ve been handed throughout our lives. For example”—he pointed with his spork at Hilary Revcheck—“if Hilary had not been born into a family of overachieving Ivy League graduates, would she really feel so compelled to run around campus championing every cause, fundraiser, and student council election that pops up?” His spork veered right. “And consider Trey. Would he have played football his whole life and eventually gotten himself a full ride to Texas A&M if his father had not played pro football for fifteen years?”
“I fail to see how that has anything to do with people treating you like crap just because you’re gay.”
“It has everything to do with it because, contrary to what you believe, not everyone does treat me like crap just because I’m gay. Some people treat me like crap because I’m your best friend and they assume I’m as big a bitch as you are. Our friendship makes me guilty by association.”
“You are a big bitch.”
“Maybe, but most of these people are not yet the people they will be. They are only the people their lives have taught them to be.” He looked up. “I don’t know, but sometimes I think we’re all trapped by our circumstances. I mean, who would any of us be if we could pull off every label slapped on us since birth? Who would we be if we could shed all the bullshit?”
I shook my head. “We would be exactly the people we already are, because people get to choose. Most people just choose to be idiots, more concerned with the color of their hair than the substance of the gray matter contained inside their skulls.”
“Ever the cynic.”
“Maybe, but you’re giving people way too much credit.”
“I happen to give you a lot of credit, as well you know.”
I smiled and placed my hands on my head. “That’s because you’ve watched me solve calculus equations. You’ve seen firsthand the power pulsing between these lovely ears.”
“Your ears stick out.”
“Shut up.” I shoved him.
He swayed away from me and then back, bumping into my body and knocking me over on the bench a few inches.
“Don’t start,” I warned him, and pushed him back.
Eli laughed, gave his lunch a dirty look, and pushed his tray away. It had always been like this—well, always since fifth grade. Eli was more than my best friend.
He was my rock.
Thank you for reading chapter two of Affective Needs. A new chapter is posted every Wednesday. If you don't feel like waiting for updates, here is the link to my book page and all the vendors that carry my books. Happy reading!