It was a gentle spring day as we gathered in the school courtyard for lunch, a gang of fresh-faced girls with ponytails bound by bulky yarns of pink and green. While the regulation green tunic each of us wore draped my scrawny body like a pleated sack, other girls were already curvaceous. My hemline ended, as required, just above knobby knees; other girls were daring, cheating on inches, their skirts brushing mid-thigh. The braces on my teeth had not yet completed their work; other girls smiled widely with straight, white teeth.
We were in eighth grade, old enough to know better.
Metal lunchboxes opened with a grinding squeak; brown bags rustled in unfolding. After I checked between the slices of Wonder Bread in their wax paper nest, I traded my bologna sandwich for Gay Smith’s tuna. I loved the way her mother made the salad, adding a dollop of ketchup to the mixture of fish and mayonnaise.
We chatted companionably and ate.
Sarah, a petite blond - curvaceous, short-skirted and wide-smiling - held out a small wax bag and offered a cookie. “Help yourself,” she said, leaning closer. In remembering, I imagine a glint in her eyes, a malevolent twist to that grin, but I returned her smile gratefully and reached into the bag, pulling back in revulsion when my fingers touched soft, yielding feathers.
Who would’ve thought a dead sparrow so frightening?
Borne by one friend or another, that poor bird with its lolling head and frozen claws pursued me throughout the afternoon. I put on a gratifying show, shrieking when the floppy carcass stared bleakly from my desk at study hall, and screaming when it was dropped on my head as I sought refuge behind a door.
I shudder to think of it even now.
As if my response to the bird wasn’t entertaining enough, the next day I heard rumors that my best friend was hunting me, harboring a dead squirrel in her bookbag. When we sat, side by side, in her mother’s car on the way home from school, she laughed when I asked about the squirrel. She set the bag on her lap and stuck her head inside. “Would I do this if there was a dead squirrel in here?”
Of course, I believed her.
Before turning into my driveway, she asked If I’d fetch her math book from the bag that now rested on the floor between us. Thinking nothing of it, I bent to comply. Again, my hand brushed the bristly fur of something dead.
What was I, some kind of idiot?
Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned that in addition to the squirrel and the bird, no one but my best friend was speaking to me. This was a war, randomly declared. One of the popular girls, those with straight teeth and short skirts, would select some unfortunate from the lower ranks and a war would commence, for three to four days. Needless to say, once the ceasefire-on-Lea was called, I never wanted to be on the receiving end again. You would like to think – I would like to think - that having felt those barbs, I would have spared others that pain.
But it didn’t work that way.
Mid-way through the year, a new girl joined our class. Ruth had shoulder-length, mousey brown hair. She smiled a lot and was eager to please. No official war declarations had gone out as yet, but she was new, so it was a given.
A few weeks after Ruth joined our class, we bounced along in the bus on our way to “The Farm,” home to the school’s athletic fields. Every girl wore a white blouse and green tunic. Every girl was armed with a hockey stick. I was flush with relief at release from pariah-hood. I, too, was eager to please.
Over the engine’s rumble, over the clack of wooden sticks, came a chant from the front of the bus. “We hate her! We hate her!” Bubbling chatter quieted as it grew, the chorus swelling louder as it rolled toward the back, gaining strength with each row of seats. Gleefully, (It was not about me!) I sang along. Spiteful. Exuberant. “We hate her! We hate her!” I knew the war-on-Ruth had begun.
She was sitting next to me, her tremulous voice parroting the wretched refrain. I turned to her and touched her arm. She was startled, pleased at being acknowledged. “Do you know who we’re talking about?” I said.
As I remember the moment, a hush descends at my question, though I imagine our exchange went unnoticed. She hesitated, her shoulders caving as she whispered, “Me.”
I wish I could tell her I’m sorry.