18 September 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 3
Into Her Mess
"You look like shit," Toni hissed at Theo from behind her textbook. It was propped on her desk and she was drawing something, hunched over so Theo couldn't see.
"You're not such a beauty queen yourself," he said. The substitute teacher for fifth-hour Spanish was letting them do homework during class. Theo was almost finished, but all Toni had accomplished was ten minutes' worth of her latest cartoon sketch.
"Let's see if we can both get a hall pass," she whispered. "I'll let you see my surprise."
"Another installment of your sadistic comic strip?"
"No, my tattoo, dork." She set her book flat and walked toward the teacher's desk. The substitute couldn't find any hall passes, so she wrote a note, and Toni winked to Theo on her way out, shoving the paper in her pocket. Theo counted to sixty and got up to ask if he could go to the bathroom.
Toni wasn't in the hallway. He figured she was probably smoking a cigarette in one of her hiding spots. Theo didn't get why she liked him so much. She'd sat next to him the first day of Spanish, making him laugh with demented comic strip characters scribbled onto torn sketch paper and being very nonchalant when he told her he was gay. They were unlikely friends. Toni didn't settle for rough around the edges. She went for jagged. She was a junior and had friends that would never waste their time with someone like Theo, a sophomore, nondescript loner-jock type who always did his homework on time and ate Sunday dinner with Mom and Dad. Toni's friends wore black clothes and eyeliner and chains. Like them, Toni's take on life was dark, and he wasn't sure why she liked him enough to put up with his middle-class, white-washed way of seeing the world. Except that he was gay. Maybe that qualified him weird enough to be her friend.
He stood in the bathroom before a urinal, reading the magic marker messages that hadn't yet been covered with flat, gray paint. Does yer girl spit or swallow? Three tally marks to fifteen. Those straight guys loved to brag.
Theo ignored the sound and zipped his jeans. After he turned the water off and dried his hands, he heard it again.
The stall door to the far right opened slightly. There weren't any feet showing beneath it.
"Who is it?" he said, thinking it would be smarter to just leave.
"It's Toni." She pulled the door all the way inward, and he saw her squatting on the toilet, a sly grin lighting her face.
"What the hell are you doing in here?"
"Get in here and I'll show you."
He looked around, although he knew he and Toni were the only people in the bathroom. The guys' bathroom.
"Lock it," Toni said, so he did.
She was standing upright on the toilet, facing away from him. She unzipped her canvas khaki pants and slid them down to her skinny hips. "Voilà."
"What? You want me to see a bandage on your ass?"
"No, shitface. Lift it… gently, from the bottom."
Theo moved toward her and put his fingers on the gauze, trying not to touch her skin, but he couldn't help grazing the place just above her hipbone. A brilliant yellow sun smiled at him from the base of her spine, encircled with flames. "Nice," he said, leaning closer to see the details of the eyes and lips. Ointment was smeared across the orb, making it glisten in the fluorescent light blinking above Toni's head. She twisted at the waist and watched Theo.
"You can touch it," she said.
"Doesn't it hurt?"
He let his finger rest on the tips of the flames, and felt the swelling beneath her skin and the slick substance protecting the wound. "What is this stuff?"
"Some kind of jelly shit," she said as Theo put the bandage back in place. She pulled up her pants and buttoned them, rearranging her feet on the toilet.
Theo took her hand and helped her down. The top of her head reached just above his shoulder.
She pulled a cigarette from her jacket pocket. "Wanna smoke?"
"No," he said. "Unlike you, I need my lungs." He turned the knob, unlatching the door, but then the outer door to the hallway opened, and after a long pneumatic hiss, closed. Toni's finger was raised to her lips, though Theo didn't need a reminder to be quiet. She took his hand again and stepped up onto the toilet.
Whoever had come in was at one of the urinals. Theo pushed the door the rest of the way closed, locked it, and then leaned his shoulder against the metal partition. Toni rested her hand on his shoulder, shaking. He looked up and she had her other hand across her mouth, trying to keep from laughing.
This time, Theo put his finger up to his lips, and she snorted. He put his hand over her mouth and the guy at the urinal coughed. Theo wrapped his other arm around Toni's waist to steady her, and she let out a muffled yelp behind his hand and bit the loose skin between his index finger and thumb.
"Sorry," he whispered and shifted his hand to her hip.
A voice from the other side of the door spoke. "Grade principals are making bathroom checks…"
"Thanks." Theo stifled a snort of his own. He looked down at his feet, at Toni's feet perched on the black rim, trying to stop laughing. The top of his head brushed Toni's stomach, and she rested her hands on his shoulders.
When the hand dryer shut off, the bathroom was silent. "Wanna see something else?" Toni said.
"Definitely not." He reached to take her hands from his shoulders.
She held him and bent forward, her cheek near his ear. "I like you, Theo." She bit his earlobe and then pushed him backward as she jumped from the toilet. "See ya," she said and unlatched the door and was gone.
He stood there a minute, running his hand through his hair.
Even though Toni—unlike almost everyone else at his school—knew he was gay, she wouldn't let up with the flirting. For the rest of Spanish, Theo managed to avoid looking at her. Which is probably why he didn't find the note she'd slid into his backpack until he was undressing in the locker room for track.
Two cartoon characters were trapped in a bathroom stall: one with spiky hair and a nose ring (Toni) standing on a toilet, the other with wavy hair and a hoodie (Theo) standing before her. Two bubble thoughts floated above their heads, one for each of them. But they both said the same thing: If only…
She wasn't at school the next day, so Theo called her that evening. He was with Jonathan, his best friend slash boyfriend. His parents had just recently found out about the boyfriend part, and it was causing major problems in the Williamson household. Being gay hadn't been such a big deal when they thought he wasn't having sex with anyone.
Toni answered on the first ring, her voice quiet.
"I figured. Where've you been?" she said.
"I was at school. How 'bout you?"
"I left a message last night. You were supposed to call me."
"Yeah, well I didn't get the message because my mom's trying to ground me."
"Trying?" she asked.
"I didn't go home today."
"Where are you?"
"I'm at Jonathan's," he said. Jonathan and Toni had a mutual dislike for each other, which made Theo feel like shit. He waited for Toni to give her usual he's-such-a-jerk monologue. But she didn't. "Is something wrong?"
"No… Yes. Eat lunch with me tomorrow," she said.
"And have fun with your lover boy."
"I gotta go. Bye." She hung up before he said goodbye. But at least she didn't call Jonathan any names this time. Theo waited for Jonathan to finish in the shower, resting on the plaid flannel sheets Jonathan had stretched over the mattress earlier. They were Theo's favorite. He traced the pattern with his fingertips, listening to the water in the shower and to Jonathan humming one of Theo's favorite songs. He didn't ever want to go back home.
The next day at lunch Theo ate in the cafeteria. There was no sign of Toni, and Jonathan was at some club meeting, so Theo sat with guys from the track team. He wasn't interested in tits and ass talk, though, or who was the easy lay of the week. Theo always listened quietly to their stories of conquest.
Ten minutes before lunch was over, Toni walked up and stood behind him. He turned around when he realized the guys across the table were staring over his head.
"Where were you?"
"Where were you?" she said. "I thought you were going to meet me at my car."
"I must have missed that part." He took his tray and dumped it in a trashcan.
"Let's skip fourth hour and I'll get us back in time for Spanish."
He didn't think to ask where they were going until she was guiding him through the parking lot to her car. It was a rusted-out, foreign model with papers and cans strewn across the back seat. She opened the door for him and then moved the pile of crap from the passenger seat before she climbed through to the driver's side.
"Damn, that hurts."
"I thought you got that stupid door fixed."
"Thank you. I'm not in too much pain, but your concern is appreciated."
"If you're idiot enough to get a tattoo on your ass…" Theo slammed his door and locked it. His seatbelt didn't work, and he'd almost fallen out last time she gave him a ride home. Not really, but she drove way too fast.
"Where are we going?"
"I need some ice cream," she said, and that's all she would say until they got to the drive-thru, where she ordered a single scoop of vanilla on a sugar cone.
"What do you want?"
"Um…" he looked at the menu over her shoulder. She leaned forward and then back again so he couldn't read it, laughing loud enough that he had to yell his order out the open window.
"Give me a double vanilla dipped in chocolate with sprinkles on a sugar cone." Theo squished Toni against the doorframe until a voice crackled their order through the speaker and asked for four dollars and twenty-three cents.
"Shit, I don't think I have enough," Toni said. A truck honked from behind "Give me a minute!" she yelled, adjusting the rearview mirror so she could stare at the driver. "I need two bucks."
"I thought you were taking me out to ice cream."
"Yeah, well I didn't know you were gonna order a double-decker chocolate deluxe. Toni lifted her hips toward the steering wheel, digging in her front pocket.
Theo gave her the money, feeling a little stupid for ordering so much ice cream. He didn't have a lot of money, and he was sure his parents wouldn't be giving him allowance anytime soon.
They ate in the car, parked on a residential street. Theo squared his back between his seat and the door, looking at Toni. "So what the hell is so important that I had to skip class?"
She told him she wanted to know what he thought about the cartoon, the one that had the "If only" thought bubble. Theo told her it was weird, after he caught a piece of falling chocolate with his teeth, and ate it as she watched.
She took a break from her ice cream and wiped the corners of her mouth. "Theo, would you like me more if I was a boy?"
"I heard you," he said. "What kind of question is that?"
"Just go with me for a minute. Okay?" Toni finished the last of her cone and wiped her hands on her pants. "Look at me and tell me if you think I could pass for a boy." She put on a baseball cap and turned, modeling her profile.
Theo looked at her and swallowed once, twice. "Yeah, Toni. You could pass for a boy."
"If only I was a boy," she said. She explained how if she was a boy, she could be his girlfriend, and Theo told her that was stupid.
"There's a lot you don't know about me, Theo." Toni looked down to her lap. "I know Jonathan doesn't like me… he thinks I'm a fag hag. But I'm not." When Theo didn't say anything, she leaned back and held her hands on the steering wheel, her arms stiff. "I think I'm a boy in a girl's body."
He hesitated, wanting to be serious. Theo studied her face, the nose ring and the piercings across her eyebrows. He knew she had other pieces of metal affixed to places hidden by her clothing, places he would never see. He thought of the curve of her hips when she'd pulled down her pants in the bathroom.
"You're not going to say anything?"
"Toni… you're a girl to me. You could pass for a boy, but to me you're a girl."
She told him about how she'd been seeing a psychiatrist—she'd been hurting herself, slicing her skin in hidden places—and she'd finally told her shrink she felt like a boy on the inside.
Before he could stop himself, Theo said, "Why are you telling me this?"
She started the car. "Because I thought you were my friend. I thought you might understand."
"That you think you're a boy?"
She wouldn't answer. He asked her again, but she wouldn't look at him and her face was all red, like she might cry. He hated when girls cried. They rode in silence. Theo stared at the Buddha and Mother Mary statues stuck to her dash. He felt trapped.
She stopped the car in front of their school and sat in the driver's seat looking away from him.
"Aren't you coming to Spanish?"
"No, Theo. I'm gonna go home and play with my dolls." She wiped her hands across her cheeks. She was crying and Theo knew he should hug her, but he couldn't. She drove away and he went to class, alternately trying to imagine Toni as a boy and wondering if he would ever go home again. She had been wearing khaki pants, a loose t-shirt and low-cut canvas sneakers… exactly what she'd worn almost every day since he met her last August. Why hadn't he noticed? He considered telling her that if she really wanted to be a guy, she wouldn't have tattooed a sun at the base of her spine. That was a girl thing to do. If she were really a guy on the inside, she'd know.
It was late and Theo was holding Jonathan's phone, waiting for someone to pick up at Toni's house. Jonathan was asleep. He'd told Theo to stay even though they'd argued earlier. Which was good, because Theo felt like he had nowhere to go now that his parents were freaking out about him having a boyfriend.
The argument with Jonathan was stupid—he'd kept saying Theo should stand up to his parents, not wanting to admit that his own father was such an asshole that he'd have the shit beat out of him (again) if he knew Jonathan were gay. No, they couldn't talk about Jonathan's dad, so it had become a wrestling match that ended with Theo's fist making solid contact with Jonathan's eye, with Theo finally raging about his parents, about Jonathan's parents, and most of all, about Jonathan, who was ready to have sex, to go all the way. But Theo wasn't.
He felt like shit, and he couldn't sleep, so he'd called Toni.
He lifted the mostly melted icepack from Jonathan's face as Toni's recorded voice began to speak into the phone. Theo waited for the beep, and told the answering machine he wanted to tell Toni he was sorry.
After a loud click, Toni came on the line. "So say it."
"No, say it again."
He did, and then he told her about his fight with Jonathan.
"Ooh. Wish I could have been there."
Theo didn't answer. He hated when she said shit like that. He needed her to be normal.
"Well, I gotta go," Toni said, all of the emotion gone from her voice.
He didn't want her to hang up yet, so he asked her to draw him a new cartoon.
"Why would I do that?"
"Just forget it," Theo said.
"Fine," he said, but she'd already hung up.
But the next day, Toni came through. She slipped a folded piece of paper into Theo's hand on the way to Spanish, and they passed it back and forth during class. She'd drawn the comic as if looking from the hood of her car, into the windshield.
Inside the car sat Toni with her pierced nose and Theo with his hoodie, both licking cones with ice cream dripping down their chins. That was the first frame.
The second was a close-up of Toni with a thought bubble that said, "I wonder what he'll think when I tell him I'm a boy."
The third frame was a close-up of Theo. His thought bubble said, "Maybe I should have gotten a triple scoop."
The fourth frame showed a plastic model-thin doll on the seat between them. She had a thought bubble too: "Now who's gonna play with me?"
In the fifth frame, a head had popped into view from the back seat. It was Jonathan with his hair hanging over one eye. His thought bubble said, "I will, if I can dress you in leather and cut off all your hair."
The last frame showed Theo and Toni smiling, and Jonathan smiling despite a whopper of a black eye. Clutched in Jonathan's hand was a butched-out Barbie doll smiling from a face turned oddly sideways.
My parents figured out where I was last night. I'm grounded for life. You'll have to go to Spain for me.
As you? I guess you think I'll pass for a boy? So… what are you grounded for?
Suspicion of unspeakable sexual acts.
Don't be. I'm so fucked up I don't know my head from my ass.
Want me to show you? Question of the day: did Jonathan talk you into using a little force or did you come up with that on your own?
Leave Jonathan out of this...
Is he gonna be jealous? You know, you don't have to go back home. We could be a happy family: you, me, Jonathan, and Butch Babe Barbie. Why don't you give me his phone number?
I'll get back to you.
You two seem to know how to mix your pain with pleasure. I'd fit right in after they slice me up a bit.
The bell rang, so Theo put the note in his pocket before Toni could grab it.
"How can you joke about it?"
She pushed past him through the doorway. "What am I gonna do? Keep crying over it like some girl?"
"It's a big deal, Toni."
She stopped in the middle of the hallway and stared at him. Students streamed on both sides. "It's my body, remember Theo? I was the one trying to tell you." She pulled down the neck of her T-shirt, revealing a circle attached to an arrow nestled just below her left collarbone. And then another on the right. "I didn't get a chance to show you these," Toni said. "They're my wings."
"They're tattoos," Theo said. He didn't want to see any damn symbols for masculinity under her shirt.
She turned and he followed after her. "I don't get it," he said. "You're joking about permanently altering your body."
"Maybe I need the jokes, okay?" She stopped at her locker.
Theo was going to be late for his next class, but he kept standing there, watching her stuff books on top of wadded paper on top of more books.
"This is worse than your car."
"Life is a mess, Theo." She slammed the locker door and finally looked into his eyes. "A few jokes. A few friends. Sometimes that has to be enough." She blew him a kiss and then disappeared into the crowded hallway.
Theo turned to see if anyone was watching, but not before he noticed how his hand had closed into a tight fist over the folded note in his pocket, the skin on his knuckles grazing the rough fabric. He winced. And tore a corner of the note and wrote Jonathan's phone number across the back and the words Call me. Theo slid it through the horizontal openings along the top of Toni's locker door, imagining it falling into the tangle of papers inside. Into her mess. Then he walked to class, shoving his hand back inside his pocket, trying his best this time not to wince.
About the author:
Lania Knight teaches writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she is a PhD student. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and plays and is currently at work on her first novel.