“Is she going to be there?” I asked Chanel as I walked through the halls. She looked up at me and smiled.
“She will be. Jammy will be there. They will all be there, even the ones that haven’t met you before. Writers Club will be a full house.” She hugged me and walked away.
I met up with Walleye outside and gave him a nod. He fell in line behind me as we walked.
“I’m not a writer, but I’ll go if you want me there. I will listen,” he said.
I patted him on the back. “It’s gonna be great. You have to be there. Meet me outside Mrs. Bronte’s class after school. I want us to walk in together.” He walked on and so did I. It was all set. My coming out party had been planned to the second. I walked in after class, and Mrs. Bronte looked up and exploded. She ran to me and I wanted to hug her. I loved that woman so much. She smiled, patted me on the back, and thanked me for coming.
“This is a good friend of mine and she is part of this as well,” Mrs. Bronte said. “Mrs. Atwood, this is Jesse Teller. He is the one I was telling you about.”
Mrs. Atwood smiled and shook my hand. “I was hoping to see you here today. I’m excited to hear your work.”
These two women had given their time. They had given their room after a long day of struggle with moody, hormonal teenagers, so that a ratty group of kids could talk about writing and read their work. They were heroines in my eyes, and I paid them both the respect they had earned.
I thanked them and turned and looked at my crowd.
In the back corner on the floor behind a row of desks slumped a disheveled pile of bags and coats, amongst a disheveled collapse of a book bag, sat a disheveled mess of a kid. He wore black boots, black shirt, black trench coat. He looked as if he had given up on life and the living of it. He looked like he had given his last fuck years ago and had not the energy to go pick up any more of them. He looked up at me and stared with blank eyes as if he had never seen anything so boring, anything so drab.
Beside him in his misery sat Careful. She held his hand and whispered to Chanel as she looked at me and Walleye. She looked scared. Scared and excited.
Chanel looked up and I beckoned her closer. She came to me and I spoke loud, so that everyone could hear if they listened even a little bit, “Where is she?”
The entire room froze. Every girl in the room looked up terrified. Every eye turned to me, then to Chanel. Her eyes swung to a cute girl with a bad black dye job on her mop of hair. She looked at me and her eyes widened. She seemed about to scream. She seemed about to cry. I walked to her and stuck out my hand.
“I’m Jesse,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said awkwardly, shaking my hand. “I’m Jammy.”
“I’m excited to hear your piece today,” I said. “Heard it’s brilliant.”
She looked even more scared. “Who told you about my work?” She looked at Chanel with the eyes of the betrayed. Chanel smiled, and I looked at the clock.
Others were coming now, too many to keep track of. Cry and Shaman, Brett and Glare. They all swooped in and I found a seat. I was getting nervous now. It was almost show time.
They were all talking. All excited. I had sent out word, had brought Chanel in close and and sent her out before me. They knew I wanted to meet them.
Mrs. Bronte clapped her hands together to quiet everyone. She started telling everyone it was time to start, and everyone was ignoring her. She looked at me. I sat at my desk and propped my foot up on it. I tapped my class ring on the table a few times hard, to shut them all up, and when they looked at me, I smiled.
“Should we get to it then?” I asked. The entire room stared. This was a room full of the quiet and withdrawn. A room full of people who had spent their teenage years cowering. They were largely ignored, largely marginalized, and they did not respond to loud and direct. They looked at me as if I were an uncaged tiger, and I smiled.
“Who’s first?” I said.
“You might not know me. I’m Jesse, really excited to be here. Feel like I’m finally home.”
“Feel like I can get my feet under me in here. Like I can breathe. Been looking for a place like this for a while. If you don’t mind, I am going to get us started.”
I could barely breathe. Could barely keep my hands from trembling. I was so nervous I could feel my entire body vibrating and quaking. I felt as if I would cry if I didn’t get my page out faster, and I had to focus to stop myself from running.
Exposed and vulnerable, scared. Within a group of about ten other people, and completely alone.
“I’m going to cry,” I said, without looking up at the group. “This is a story that came to me all at once and it kicked my ass.” I turned to Mrs. Bronte, “Sorry.” She smiled and nodded. “This one gets me every time. But it’s okay to get emotional here, right? It’s okay to kinda lose it a little.” I looked up at them, an open wound, an exposed nerve trembling on the verge of losing control. Chanel saved me. She was our mother back then.
“Safe for everything. Let’s hear it,” she said with a wink.
I read “Bobby’s Song.”
To think about it now makes me cry. It was one of my greatest successes. One of my best back then. I had pulled it out and brushed it off from a long ago pile of things I had written. A page I had fought not to destroy. I had not burned it, but it had burned me.
It was sad the way a grieving mother is sad, the way an amputee is sad. It was sad to its very core, and when I was done, I was crying. I was broken. I had ripped myself open for them. Had exposed every emotion and handed over a part of myself to these strangers.
They fell silent.
Mrs. Bronte clapped. She was that way. She broke out in applause and the rest of the room did as well, all save the disheveled kid in the floor. He just stared at me. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from me.
“Who’s next?” I asked. But no one wanted to follow that. No one wanted to give of themselves after my raw telling and heartbroken reading. I looked across the room at Jammy who would not meet my eye.
“I will ask only this once,” I said. She was not looking at me. She was not looking at anyone. She could feel my eyes on her, could feel my question as I asked it. “Please, Jammy, read it to me.”
She looked up at me and shook her head. “Next time.”
I looked at Chanel. She shrugged. I was out of ideas. I had no way of dragging her out. No way of winning her story. In my desperation, I looked at Walleye. He grinned.
“Jam-my,” he said, soft and low. “Jam-my, Jam-my.”
I loved him in that moment. I realized then I needed him so desperately.
“Jam-my, Jam-my,” he said.
I joined, “Jam-my.” Others joined as well. “Jam-my, Jam-my.”
“Read the damn thing,” the disheveled boy said, and he kicked the back of Jammy’s chair. Everyone laughed, and she did as well.
She read “Azure.”
It was short. Visually stunning and bittersweet. It was the kind of thing you gasped at, a thing reserved for moments of pure beauty. When she finished, the whole room went silent. The whole room fell into a hush that I let play out over us all. I let it play out for so long that it became oppressive. When the tension was too thick to breathe, I jumped out of my seat and threw my arms in the air. I howled and I pointed at her.
“Breathtaking, girl. That was absolutely breathtaking. I am getting that tattooed to my body.”
The entire room howled. Walleye pulled out his lighter and lit it. He waved it back and forth, and the room laughed. Mrs. Bronte pretended not to notice.
When the group ended, they all fell in around me. They all talked at once. I told them I had to go. I needed to start walking home. They refused. The dirty, disheveled boy came up to me and hugged me. He picked me off the ground and I realized how big he was, how strong.
“I’m Harvard. You’re riding with us. I’ll take you home.” He patted me on the back.
I had them. I had sparked together my crew. They would be my life. They would be my survival. We understood what it was to be lost, to be broken. We understood what it was like to stare down despair. I would bind them together, and together we would stay by sheer force of will. We had a family.
I was the father.