That day was no different than any other. High school was as cruel as ever.
In biology the invisible boy in class, John, burst into tears and hid under the lab table again. He fell over on his back and cried like a baby, slapping his hands on the floor. This had happened before. John was known to have tantrums. He was way more sensitive than the average kid. Maybe seeing the anatomical diagram of a rabbit in the textbook had upset him. Maybe it was just that John was the most gentlehearted boy in the world.
High school really was a cruel place. Actually, it wasn’t school but the whole world, and like the world, class went on without pause, as if John didn’t exist.
He was bawling his lungs out, yet no one seemed to hear him. None of the students at the school were all that studious, but at that moment, their noses were buried in the textbooks, their necks contorted into impossible angles. It was a strange sight, since it was obvious they weren’t the least bit interested in reading what was written in those books. I must’ve slept funny and this is how I woke up
, said the expressions on their faces—on every face in the classroom.
Everyone in school knew John was like this, and yet some kids still sat at the same table as him. It was only when John burst out crying that they noticed. Oh, so there you are
They’d been sitting together before class started, but now they acted like he’d teleported out of nowhere or something.
The kids looked at John with disgust, as if he had a highly infectious disease. Their eyes—every one of them—seemed to say, Touch him, and your finger will swell up and itch and wreck your whole day
. None of the kids bothered to move to another table though. Whether they moved or not, it was all the same anyway. The classroom was already infected.
It was strange. Although there were, at most, twenty kids in the class, sometimes even I didn’t notice John was there until he started crying. When he wasn’t crying, John was the best in the world—no, in the universe—at making himself disappear. In a game of hide-and-seek, not only would he win every time, everyone would probably go home, forgetting that John was still hiding somewhere. It was hard to believe anyone would notice, even the next day.
In the year and a half since I transferred to the school, I’d never seen John anywhere except in the classroom, nor had I seen him enter a classroom. By the time I noticed, he was somehow already there, casting a faint shadow.
Only the teacher bothered a second glance. It would’ve been odd not to for all the racket he was making. Still, some students didn’t bother to look at John even once. The boys especially. Maybe they feared catching the disease by looking at him.
Anyway, the teacher shot several looks at John. I happened to catch a glimpse of her face and felt absolutely horrible. Her eyes squinted as if they’d found a pesky tick living in the sheets. Then, as if to say, I’m glad you’re not my son
, she turned her back and carried on as if John wasn’t there.
And so, class went on as usual. John cried louder. The world let out a hard laugh. John cried louder still. On the other side of the country, President Bush was sending troops into Iraq. On and on John went. At the same time, my idol, Michael Jackson, was arrested on child molestation charges. John let out a wail, smacking his hands on the floor as if to split it open. Still, the dung beetle went on rolling turds into balls. Yep, this world was too beautiful for words.
John thrashed and stamped, sending tremors across the floor like he was determined to put a crack in the earth. Ten minutes passed and, before he could achieve the epic feat, he stopped. Then, as if he’d wiped away the memory of being ignored, he began thumbing through the pages of the textbook. He stared at the diagram of the dissected rabbit. But he was done crying.
I felt sorry for him. Looking away, I stared at the clock and prayed for time to pass quickly. Shoes
I sat on the floor of the open-air hallway where the student lockers stood. Even at a slow pace, it took less than two minutes to walk the hall from one end to the other.
I slipped on my headphones—they were barely held together with duct tape—and put on Radiohead’s second album, The Bends
Then I went about my daily routine of watching shoes pass before me. Back and forth. Back and forth.
There was a strong smell of rain, perhaps because I was sitting near the courtyard. The damp, gloomy scent smelled like honey to me. The bottoms of people’s shoes were wet, and the floor had become slick. But that, too, was normal.
It was only between June and August that Oregon didn’t see rain. Apart from those summer months, it rained almost every day. I’d assumed the number of suicides in this state was especially high until I learned that it was even higher in Washington just up north.
I always planted myself on the floor anyway, paying no attention to how wet or grimy I got.
Although it wasn’t rural enough to call it that, the high school was surrounded by enough green woods that it could hardly be considered a city school. If you rode the bus twenty minutes from the stop down the road, you would end up downtown with buildings and some brand name stores. But judging by the squirrels living in the trees by the school parking lot, you could hardly call the place a city—at least, not compared to where I came from.
Shopping options in town were limited, then limited even more by your musical preferences: hip-hop heads went looking for Adidas and Sean John, the skate punks went to Hot Topic, and so on. The only stores teenagers living off their parents’ allowance could afford to go were the fast-fashion stores inside the mall or the indie shops always a heartbeat away from permanently shuttering their doors.
But you know what was weird? In a school of two hundred students, no two kids ever wore the same shoes. Believe me, I know. Everyone was always wearing different pairs. Which was why, even as I sat in front of my locker staring at shoes every morning, by the next day I forgot which shoes belonged to whom. Not surprising, considering I could count on one hand the number of kids who knew me by name and talked to me.
As I gazed at the shoes coming and going before me, a wood chip came flying at me from a distance. It skittered among the feet of students hurrying to their next class, trying to escape from being stomped on. Sadly, the struggle lasted only a few seconds, as the chip was crushed to smithereens by a black, studded boot. Seeing this made me terribly sad. My eyes chased after the boot bottom for a glimpse of a splintered corpse, but it disappeared from view.
Watching shoes go by day after day as I did, I learned that there was a certain style to the way they became dirty or worn. There was a difference between stylishly dirty and just plain dirty. If you examined the dirt on someone’s shoes and the wearer’s walk, you might get a sense of who that person was. The walk of someone wearing shoes that were just plain dirty, for instance, had no rhythm. He walked a bit adrift, his steps unsure, probably too conscious of his surroundings. The dirt on his shoes didn’t get there by some purposeful action, but simply found itself there over the course of the wearer trying not to get in the way of others, careful not to get into any trouble. Someone with a stylishly dirty pair of shoes, on the other hand, planted one foot firmly in front of the other, heel first, all rhythm and confidence. The dirt looked like it had gotten there purposefully, not from exercise or from mere strolling, hinting at a fascinating story hidden beneath. When you saw a pair of dirty shoes, you either said, “You got some dirt on your shoes,” or you asked, “How did you get them dirty?”—that was the simple difference.
I hardly knew anyone at the small school. And though I made a pastime of making fun of other people’s shoes, I thought I was making a statement by writing “No Fun”—the title of the last song the Sex Pistols ever performed—on one side of my Converse in black marker. On the other side was a drawing of a picture book character, making my shoes the most worthless pair in the entire school.
They weren’t so much dirty as discolored. No one wearing shoes like these was likely to have much of a story. However you looked at them, they were nothing more than a ratty old pair of sneakers past their best-by date.
Copyright © 2022 by Takami Nieda. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.