On the second day that Malea was absent from school, Mrs. Goldstein, my first period science teacher, started crying right there in class, right as she was drawing a diagram of photosynthesis. I usually spent my time looking out the window, creating stories for the people in the cars that came into view, or sneaking glances behind me where Malea sat in the last desk in my aisle, or thinking about what to write in my next note to Malea. But since Malea hadn’t been in school, I was actually paying attention to Mrs. Goldstein and saw the whole thing unfold from the front row.
The students’ voices behind me were like agitated insects, and Mrs. Goldstein, who had this brown hair that was every bit as crazy as Einstein’s, was standing in front of the green chalkboard with her back to us, gripping a thumb-size piece of chalk, drawing—not speaking out explanations as she normally would, but simply drawing, as if she were alone in the classroom. First a sun, and then a large sunflower, and then several bubbles for water. Though Mrs. Goldstein’s drawing skills always surprised our class as a whole, I was especially taken aback that she could draw something so clearly. How would she draw herself, I wondered? With her wild hair, the lack of color coordination of some of her outfits—I thought she lived in a house without a single mirror. So it was always startling to see how effortlessly she could bring an object to life. That’s why my eyebrows furrowed when I saw the motion in Mrs. Goldstein’s hand all of a sudden die. Her chalk stopped on the water bubbles, like her mind couldn’t decide how much water was needed. And then, she squawked. It was that sound—that squawk—that made the entire class look up, all the eyes moving in unison like window shutters, silent.
Mrs. Goldstein turned away from the board and faced us, her blue watery eyes sitting in her face like two earths.
We had never seen a teacher cry during a lesson, and we just sat there. That is, until something bumped against my elbow. A box of tissues from the other side of the classroom had voyaged from student to student until it landed on my desk. In a silent vote, I’d been unanimously selected to approach Mrs. Goldstein with the box. Just do it, Nathan, it seemed the class was saying. I stood with my arm extended for at least a minute before Mrs. Goldstein noticed me. Instead of taking the box, she only took a single tissue, which wasn’t even enough for one eye. So she took another and then another, and then she had to blow her nose, and then she had to wipe her nose, and then pat dry her eyes some more. When I finally got back to my seat, it seemed like I’d been standing in front of the class for half the period. As if ashamed of her display, Mrs. Goldstein, still sniffling, turned back toward the chalkboard.
By the end of that April day, the rumor that blazed through school was that Mrs. Goldstein’s husband had left her and she had nowhere to live. Calvin claimed to have sneaked out of the school to peek inside her car. “All her stuff is in there,” he whispered in class. “All in grocery bags. Even her poor cat is in the car.” It was the following day, at the school assembly, that Principal Watkins finally addressed us. He stood in the center of the gymnasium, our giddy voices carouseling around him until he cleared his throat sharply over the microphone. Our eyes rose immediately. Principal Watkins was a former NFL player, and so he towered over us like one of those monster trucks. With a siren-loud voice, he announced news about Jamal that blistered our ears.
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Jamal was the new kid at Rosa Parks Middle School. Though every school year brought its new faces, his presence in the hallways generated a number of whispers. His face seemed slightly older than ours—he had sideburns, a thin mustache, and even a few squiggles of hair on his chin. And then there was the spot on the back of his head. Near his left ear was a whitish-gray patch of hair the shape of an egg. So, for the first few weeks of school, everybody stayed away from him. We were in eighth grade, one year away from high school, but our imaginations still dictated our conversations. Some of the girls thought bugs were infested there. Among the boys, the rumor was he’d been shot, a graze wound, and his hair, because of the trauma, had aged permanently. Most of the boys at my lunch table claimed to be experts on guns, or to have a cousin who’d been shot. “My cousin was shot,” Tommy shouted out during lunch. “Last year”—pointing at his thigh—“right in the leg. Nearly died.” But when Isaiah snuck an issue of Gun World into school and slid it onto the lunch table for everybody to look at, we were funeral-silent as he flipped through the pages. Our whole table was marched down to the principal’s office once the magazine was spotted. Principal Watkins threatened to suspend each one of us if we didn’t answer his questions: Do you have a gun? No, we said. Do you want a gun? No. Do you know somebody that owns a gun? No. Then what do you know about guns? Nothing. Then tell me why this magazine is in my school? We don’t know.
Over those first weeks of September, the story that explained Jamal’s presence at our school mushroomed in our minds. First, Jamal was walking home from his school in Chicago, and a gang shootout erupted around him. That story changed to his father being a drug dealer who was selling out of his apartment in New York City. A deal had gone bad and, just as Jamal was entering the apartment, gunfire broke out. That storyline captivated our imaginations the most, and soon Jamal’s father, realizing his hospitalized son was going to survive, decided to cooperate with authorities and testify, which put him, his wife, and Jamal into a witness protection program. And that explained how he ended up in Maryland and at our middle school in Montgomery Village.
Other than that ash-gray patch of hair, there were other formidable physical traits about Jamal. He was seven inches taller than me, and those seven inches made all the difference—from being bullied to girls liking you. And unlike me, he excelled at sports. In gym class, he showed that he could nearly dunk a basketball, he could throw a football as far as the gym instructor, and he was probably the fastest boy in school. In fact, he raced so-pretty-so-skinny Tiffany, whose entire family—and we’re talking generations, here—was fast, and supposedly she was the fastest. That day, the students covertly coordinated the clearing of an entire hallway between classes. We lined the walls, blocking teachers like Mr. Gross and Ms. Wayne in their classrooms. Tommy was at the starting line and the inseparable Cindy and Isaiah were at the finish, and at the signal Jamal and Tiffany sprinted down the hallway like two cheetahs. I was hooting and hollering with everybody else because the race was a virtual dead heat. Only the students at the finish line could see the winner, and Cindy and Isaiah had their first argument over who won. Because Jamal nearly beat her—some saying Tiffany only won because of her finger-length fingernails—Tiffany refused to give him a rematch. And that made waves around the school, because she never refused anybody a rematch. She even elected not to tease him, which just wasn’t like her at all. She was famous for gloating all school year if she beat you, pointing in the hallway, “There goes another victim.”
After the race, everybody knew Jamal’s name. But he was still mysteriously quiet, which kept alive our imagining. Until Malea put a stop to that. It was a Friday afternoon. When Jamal heaved up a long three-pointer from half court to win the four-on-four basketball tournament, Jeremiah said, “I told you! He’s old.” As we waited to go back into the school, we excitedly hashed out all the details. Jamal had to be part of some undercover operation to bust one of the teachers. Overhearing us, Malea broke away from her friends ahead of us in line and strode toward us. We all straightened up. This was one of our dreams—to be singled out by Malea. She was beautiful: thin like a model, with a smile that snatched the breath right out of you, long black hair, and such a rich earthy complexion it seemed she was half Black, half Spanish, half Indian, and half Hawaiian. Malea looked at each of us before she quelled for good all the rumors about Jamal and his patch of hair. “Are you all really that stupid?” She stared at us, daring us to speak, and we quickly shook our heads.
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We learned there had been a fire at Jamal’s house during the school assembly. It was still too early to tell how things were going to turn out. All Principal Watkins was willing to tell us was that Jamal was in critical condition. I was scared for Jamal, having never been in a fire and not knowing what critical condition really meant, but I was hoping Principal Watkins had some news about Malea. I didn’t know Jamal well enough for his situation to overshadow Malea’s absence, but I knew the events had to be connected. I wanted to raise my hands and interrupt the assembly and ask, “What about Malea? Was she hurt too?” I’d never known Malea to miss three straight days of school. And this is coming from a person that has asked her out at least once a week since the sixth grade, so I’d have noticed. I tried those little yes/no check-box notes when we first met—will you be my girlfriend? will you marry me? can i take you to dinner?—and when those didn’t work, I asked her out directly. She was always polite. In the beginning, she’d smile, surprised, and say, “You’re so cute.” Then, later, she would just give me a look that said, You know what I’m going to say, Nathan. Or, if she was engaged in conversation and saw me approaching, she’d simply look my way, and say, “No,” and then continue on with her conversation with a slight smile on her face. Every time we crossed paths and our eyes met, she’d cover her mouth and shake her head, and my jaw would drop, and my arms would fly up in the air. It felt like a game, with her role to shoot me down and, no matter what, I had to win her over.
Partly because I took a creative writing workshop over the summer at my church, where I discovered how to shape my feelings on the page, and partly because of Jamal, whose sudden befriending by Malea inspired me, I decided to change my tactics that year and win her over by writing more elaborate notes. My first note declared, this is going to be our year.
The workshop responsible for my new plan was run by a man I’d never seen, a man who seemed reluctant to take off his hat when entering the church, like he was either trying to disguise himself or maybe he was ashamed of his bald head. He had a book of poems, and he read a few of them to us. Now, I had no idea what the poems were actually about. The longer I listened, the more I thought they sounded like the breathing of ocean waves. I approached the workshop with the utmost seriousness, hoping the instructor could unlock the door that would allow me to speak beautiful words that nobody understood.
The workshop met two times a week for eight weeks. Once it was over, the instructor told me he had a feeling that I should keep writing. Later I learned that not only did this poet say this to all of the kids, but he was actually a deacon at my church. Maybe he felt it was his churchly duty to share the nature of my writing with my father, and maybe my father felt it necessary to consult with other church members to gain perspective, because suddenly it seemed like all the men in church were either giving me advice on how to deal with girls my own age or telling me to stay clear of them. Only the women defended me. “Leave little Shakespeare alone,” they said. Some of them even started saying, when they saw me, “There goes boy Langston.”
The instructor also gave my father a book of poems. for when your son is ready, the note read. Both the note and the book were positioned in the center of my desk the week before school started, my father’s way of saying that this was important. When I read the note and looked at the book, Lyrics of a Lowly Life by Paul Laurence Dunbar, I didn’t know what to make of it. So I asked my father about the dark-skinned man on the cover.
Now, when my father wasn’t being explicit on the commandments of manhood, he usually had a cryptic way of talking. He wouldn’t give you the answer you were looking for; instead, he’d give you the answer he thought was best for you, which usually required you to think and then ask a follow-up question. He said, “Somebody worth reading.”
As a middle school student—even one who was beginning to write poetry—reading wasn’t something I assigned much worth to. So naturally I asked him, “Why?”
To which my austere father answered, “Because any voice that can conquer death must have said something unconquerable.”
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Though it was never announced by Principal Watkins, as soon as the assembly ended, word spread quickly that Jamal’s parents died in the fire. The next morning, I asked Mrs. Goldstein about it as she was sitting at her desk. Without looking up at me, she simply nodded her head, as though her body was a giant sheet of glass and she was afraid her voice would cause the glass to crack.
For the next few days, it seemed most of the teachers at Rosa Parks Middle School were wandering around with blank, groggy faces, and all the girls were crying, carrying little tissue packets with them, blowing their noses and patting dry their leaking eyes.
The boys at Rosa Parks seemed just as confused as me, as if they, too, had fathers like mine, who—other than poetry, which was surprisingly a weak spot—never addressed what to do with our emotions. They only made steely insistences on what manhood was and wasn’t, so often that I contemplated whether to find my own stone tablet and carve them in. Some seemed silly to me, like “Real men don’t eat broccoli.” Others seemed appropriate in most situations, like, “Men don’t hit women.” (He didn’t know RaSheeda, though. Her reputation was built on fighting boys, and it was always worst if she saw you weren’t going to fight her back and defend yourself. She’d corner you in front of everybody and pummel you with her fists like she was really Mike Tyson’s daughter, all the while shouting, “Man up!”) There were others—“Men work hard”; “Men sacrifice”; “Men protect their families”—but the one that was most relevant during that time at school was, “Men don’t cry.”
It seemed none of the boys had. Though there were grief counselors for us to talk to, the boys mainly sat silently in classrooms, or roamed morosely down the halls, wading through girls drowning in grief. But our faces remained locked in a puzzled silence, as if we were finally questioning our fathers, Now what do we do?
I had never imagined my own parents dead or dying. Even when I started checking all the wall sockets around the house on a regular basis to make sure there were no loose papers or wires that could catch fire—I was always smelling smoke now—I was merely trying to keep our house safe. But in the thirteen years I had been alive, I had never really thought about death. All I knew beyond funerals and cemeteries was that there was a poet that, through words, had conquered it. And whenever I thought about Dunbar, I was forced to judge my own writing—namely my notes to Malea—and nothing I had ever said in any of them seemed worth remembering.
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By October, I’d only started to add compliments to my notes. If I saw her wearing something nice, I’d write, you look pretty today or i like those colors on you. If she got her hair done, I’d write, i think your hair looks nice. But then I had a conversation with my mother a few weeks later about “this girl at school.” My mother looked at me curiously before suggesting that maybe I was still too young, that having a girlfriend would likely interfere with my honor roll status. She asked me, “Nathan, is there reciprocation? Does this girl look at you the way you look at her?” When I shrugged, my mother said, “I know boys don’t listen to their mothers, but I do question if you’re ready for something like this.” With my mother’s question lingering in mind, my desire to write notes to Malea waned to a complete stop.
After a week passed with me not writing Malea a single note, Jessica approached me at lunch. She had black hair with blond streaks, jeans ripped at the knees, and eye shadow and fingernail polish that matched her yellow cardigan. She’d been in a few of my classes but didn’t say much. Now she was beaming at me, but I didn’t know why. She passed me a note. She even waved when she left. The note read: just in case you were thinking it. no, i won’t be your girlfriend. My face froze in a half smile. I ripped out a piece of notebook paper and scribbled, asking Malea to provide me one reason why not. And then the cycle of inserting notes into her locker, and her not responding, continued for another two weeks, until I got discouraged again and stopped writing. Jessica tracked me down this time in the library. “Hi Nathan,” she said. She didn’t let go when she handed me the note, and it was a brief game of tug-of-war. Then she waved good-bye and looked over her shoulder, smiling. I read the note: i thought i should let you know that i have decided who i am going to marry. i wanted you to be the first to know…it’s not you.
Once I realized that Malea missed my notes—I couldn’t believe it! The plan was working!—I took more liberties; my notes became social commentary. I had an audience, so I wanted to say something interesting. can you imagine if mr. gross and his big feet had a baby with tiny ms. jackson? how would they get the baby out? Or: why does everybody have to talk badly about mary ann and her tight clothes? she’s like the nicest person. so what she doesn’t know how to dress. Or: does cindy always have to make out with isaiah in the hall? maybe they are just interested in becoming doctors and that explains their endless fascination with each other’s tongues. I became like a little reporter, eavesdropping on conversations, jotting down anything that I found interesting. During my last period, I’d ask for a pass to the bathroom (it got be such a ritual the teacher no longer required me to raise my hand, and only her eyebrows acknowledged my exit), and I would bustle through the empty hallways to Malea’s locker so she’d have something to read on her way home, something to make her laugh, or maybe, if I was lucky, something she’d show her mother. Read this, I imagined Malea saying to her mom, an eager smile on her face, her eyes following her mother’s eyes as they descended the page. He’s funny, I hoped her mother would say, kind of quirky, and Malea would nod her assent. He writes me these cute notes all the time and puts them in my locker. You like him, don’t you? her mother would say. Mom, I imagined Malea saying, blushing. I don’t know. Why did I even tell you?
So I was only thinking about Malea sharing my notes with her mother, and her mother being my big ally, and was stunned when Jamal accosted me at my locker. It was the middle of November, five months before the fire, and after I closed my locker, I found him standing directly behind me.
“Malea shows me your notes,” he said.
“She does?” I said hesitantly, shocked by the fact and that Jamal was speaking to me. But I realized this was probably how fights started, first with a statement of fact. Intent came next. I subtly braced myself against my locker, just in case he had the idea of shoving me in.
“We really like them,” he said. Then he continued on down the hallway.
After that moment in the hallway, I wondered what else I may have missed. Instead of zipping through the halls to be the first one seated in every class so I could finish my note to Malea, I took my time between classes. Instead of being one of the first ones to burst out the back door after school ended, I stayed behind and roamed the halls; I stood in the long line at the school store to buy candy; I hung out as the students boarded the school buses to go home.
There were two important things I discovered. One was that Jamal and Malea were really close friends. I’d see them chatting in the hallway between classes and waiting at each other’s lockers with their notebooks stapled to their chests. I wasn’t sure if they were boyfriend and girlfriend—the people I asked said that Malea’s parents wouldn’t allow her to have a boyfriend until high school—but she did smile an awful lot when she was around him. And maybe I should have been mad about that—written some angry poem or punched a locker, you know, acted like an average eighth grader. Or maybe I should have been a little jealous of Jamal, though what good would that have done when he was the one who was tall and athletic and popular? The fact that neither emotion registered was a sign that my ever-practical mother was rubbing off on me. It seemed if you really liked somebody, if you really cared about that person, what you should want the most is for that person to be happy. And it seemed Malea was happy.
The second thing that I discovered was that Malea wasn’t a bus rider. For all the time I’d been in middle school, I’d always assumed she rode the bus. I thought all the pretty girls did. I wasn’t involved in any extracurricular activities and never had detention, so I always dashed out the school as soon as the bell rang. I never had a reason to see the remaining walkers trickle out. But one day there was a long line at the school store, and by the time I got my candy, school had been over nearly half an hour. As I exited the back door, I spotted Malea walking with Jamal up ahead on the bike path that I took home. There were so many neighborhoods along Chadwick Road—the road ran like gigantic U around Rosa Parks Middle School—but I would have never thought a girl like Malea could live near me. There was something peculiar about being on the desolate path behind them, like I was violating their privacy in some way, like they had intentionally waited around school just so they could have this—a walk home with nobody around.
After I crossed the street to my development, I watched Malea and Jamal continue farther up Chadwick Road. Did they live in the same neighborhood? How far away was it from mine? Once home, I jumped on my bike, hoping I could pedal fast enough down the road to see which neighborhood they turned into. But they were gone.
A few days later, I timed it perfectly. I followed them on my bike down the other side of Chadwick Road, until they crossed the street and entered a development that was about fifteen minutes away from mine on foot. Malea and Jamal were both smiling like a couple in a toothpaste commercial. I ditched my bike into a grove of pine trees and hunkered down in a bed of pine needles, spying as they strolled down the shaded street. Maybe this was what my mother meant by reciprocation. Malea looked happier than I had ever seen her; both seemed oblivious to the world. That was the last day I sought them out.
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When Malea finally returned to school after the fire, she had been gone for five days, during which I had to stop writing her notes because there were no more slits available in her locker. The tiny white triangles from all my old notes were still visible.
When I saw her for the first time, she was sitting in the back of the classroom, her arms folded across the desk, her face on her arms. It was early, easily thirty minutes before school was to begin, a time where I was usually in the classroom by myself. Though I was relieved to see Malea, I could tell right away something was different. She didn’t register the sound of my feet shuffling across the tile floor. When I said, “Hi, Malea,” she didn’t respond. The classroom was so quiet it was as though she wasn’t there. I sat quietly at my desk and gently lowered my backpack to the floor. I didn’t want to disturb her. She looked so tired, like she hadn’t slept in days. It was only then that it occurred to me that Malea had been at the hospital with Jamal. That her teachers had been putting packets together of the work she missed, delivering them to the main office, where one of her parents would pick them up after work.
I don’t remember Malea saying a word to anybody that day, and nobody tried to force words from her.
For eight days, Malea simply drifted through the halls as though she was sleepwalking. She wasn’t going to her locker, but I started writing her notes again, folding them up in my backpack, until the time was right. bianca’s ignoring everybody’s advice and is going to sing whitney’s “i will always love you” again at the end-of-the-year showcase. it’s great that mr. oliver is trying to lose all that weight, but it’s just weird seeing such a big guy sipping from a bottle that looks like green vomit.
Then Principal Watkins entered our first period class, and asked Malea to come forward. We didn’t expect her to speak. We thought she’d just stand there. Though she was looking down at her feet the whole time, she did speak. With a soft voice, an octave above a whisper, she said, “I’m going to take a card to Jamal.”
Principal Watkins’s plan was for every first period of eighth grade to prepare a card. After the principal left, Mrs. Goldstein said, “Tonight—I want you to go home and imagine all the things that Jamal might have experienced and think of some kind words that will help him feel better.” Mrs. Goldstein wasn’t our English teacher, but she was always telling us about the power of words. When she overhead students talking negatively to one another—in her classroom or in the hallway—she reminded them that words could not only start wars or bring peace, but they had healing powers. We’d just stare at her, wondering if all the years of teaching about the universe had finally gotten to her head.
The next morning, Mrs. Goldstein walked up and down the aisles, reading what each student wrote to Jamal on a practice piece of paper. When she approved the message, she’d nod her head, and the student would jump up and speed-walk to the front of the room, joining the other students jostling around her desk. The custom-designed card was white with a narrow gold border, folded like a thin book, and when opened, it took up the length of Mrs. Goldstein’s desk. All the students wrote on the card in the marker color of their choice. I was one of the last ones. When Mrs. Goldstein saw my blank paper, she stooped down so those summer-pool-blue eyes were level with mine.
“Can’t think of what to say?”
Last night, I’d thought about the fire at Jamal’s house as I lay in bed with my notepad, the small lamp on next to my bed giving me a little bit of light in my dark room. When I thought about what words I could say to make him feel better, that could bring him peace, heal his wounds—words that could conquer the deaths he had experienced—my mind shut down as soon as I imagined the fire. The only thing that came to mind was, I don’t know why this had to happen to you. But how could that message encourage him or ease his pain? I balled up my paper and tossed it across my room.
“How about this?” She gently extracted the pen from my hand and wrote, I pray you have a speedy recovery, and I hope to see you soon. Your friend, Nathan.
“Is that okay?” she asked.
I sighed heavily, and she touched my shoulder as if she understood that the right words sometimes hid themselves.
Mrs. Goldstein stood up, and I approached the front of the classroom, where my classmates swarmed around her desk. I read what the other students had written: we all miss you, jamal. school hasn’t been the same without you here. the whole school is thinking about you. But I think most eyes were like mine: they stopped on Malea’s message. i love you jamal. That line packed such a force that my eyes began to flood, and I had no other choice but to use my eyelids as levees to hold back the waters. Malea was the only student still seated; everybody else was around the desk looking at the card, watching as Mrs. Goldstein—surprising us again with the range of her artistic skills—turned the messages into clouds, drawing birds all around them and flowers along the bottom border of the card.
In her seat in the back of the class, Malea stared straight ahead, not as if she could look right through us, but as if she was helpless.
As I thought about Jamal, I couldn’t get past him waking up to a house as bright as the inside of a Halloween pumpkin, a house raging with fire and smoke. I saw him running through all those layers of smoke, the smoke invading his nostrils, squeezing his throat, attacking his lungs. I saw him jumping through the fire with closed eyes, coughing, screaming for his parents, fighting the smoke trying to smother him with swinging arms, but still unable to see past the scorching walls of orange flames. Covering his face so he could breathe, he was running tripping falling, looking but seeing nothing but smoke and fire and not a path forward but still running. And then he was out of the house and rolling on the ground, coughing. I imagined Jamal getting out of the house only to realize he was alone, his parents were still inside, him shouting as several fire trucks pulled up, No, No, No, shouting at the flames bursting through the windows, No!, then racing back into the burning house, and a fireman chasing after him and carrying out his collapsed body.
Wiping back my tears, I squeezed through the crowd and wrote my message on the card. But I didn’t want him to just see my name. I wanted him to remember me. Finally, something came to me. Underneath my name I wrote, don’t worry. i’m saving all the notes.
When I returned to my seat, I glanced behind me. Malea was still staring ahead, tears dropping from her eyes with each blink. I thought about my mother. Was I ready? How could I reach her?
All I could think to do was write Malea a note. While Mrs. Goldstein was talking, I pulled a spiral notebook out of my backpack and carefully ripped out a single sheet of paper. I thought about what my father said about Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar, how he was long buried somewhere in the ground, but his words were still remembered. So I thought about something worth remembering—the day I remembered Malea looking the happiest, that day with Jamal.
I wrote, do you want me to walk you home?
I folded it and walked to the pencil sharpener at the back of the room. On my way back to my seat, I dropped the note on her desk. Just before the bell rang, I felt something poke me in the back. At first, I ignored the touch. Vivian always did things like that: plucked my ears, pushed my desk back and forth with her feet, slid her pencil underneath my armpits. But she hissed, “She wrote back.” My head swiveled around to find Vivian holding a note.
The bell rang, but I stayed behind and unfolded it.
To my disbelief, Malea had written, yes.
But when the school day ended, and I trudged recklessly through the hallways of rushing students to Malea’s locker and waited, she never showed up. I went to the front of the school, thinking that she might be looking for me. But she wasn’t there either. I walked back through the now-empty hallways to a side door. I waited at the bike rack. If she left using the front doors and started walking home, she would have to cross paths with me there. After fifteen minutes and no sign of Malea, I debated seriously whether to just go home. But maybe hope is like a shirt snagged on a nail, because part of me insisted on going back inside, telling me, Check one more time.
The school was eerily quiet now, aside from the occasional clicking of a woman’s heels echoing down a hallway. As I passed by each classroom, I looked in to find some teachers grading papers, some hosting detention and after school clubs, and some just repositioning desks. I finally found Malea in the most unlikely of places, Mrs. Goldstein’s classroom.
Malea and Mrs. Goldstein were playing a game of cards at Mrs. Goldstein’s desk. Neither saw me when I stopped in the doorway. I don’t know how long I waited there watching them, whether it was a minute or five or twenty, because the intensity of their silence told me that I could have stayed there an hour, that the current card game could have ended and the deck been reshuffled without either speaking to the other or noticing me.
When I finally knocked, Mrs. Goldstein arched her eyebrows. Her eyes were intense, more intense than I had ever seen them. Like she hoped that I knew better than to speak into this silence, like grief was a language that didn’t need a voice. But I wasn’t there for her. So I said, “Malea?” And Malea looked up slowly, as if she’d just awakened from a dream and her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the light.
I would have given anybody my allowance for two months to know what exactly she was thinking when she looked at me. Malea weakly picked up her denim backpack.
Outside, the sun was high in the sky, the wind rushing at our backs in occasional bursts. We were silent as we walked down the bike path. To the right was the small playground at the side of my old elementary school. The community center and pool were to the left just out of sight. The bike path cut underneath the wires of a row of electrical towers that looked like a line of people doing synchronized jumping jacks. I asked, “What card game were you playing?”
“Uno,” she mumbled. “I forgot…”
I smiled weakly, but said in my head, It’s okay.
I was silent because it dawned on me that I was actually walking with Malea. After all the notes, here I was. But other than when Malea addressed the class about the card, the only time I heard her speak since coming back to school was the few words she had just said to me.
I just said it. “How is he?”
She stopped walking, and her eyes studied me, as if questioning my sincerity. “He’s doing better.” Malea exhaled. “So much better.”
As we passed the elementary school, Malea started talking about Jamal, and it was clear that he was the only thing on her mind. But once we were off the bike path, Malea went mute. When we reached Chadwick Road, I wanted to point out my neighborhood, but I didn’t quite know how to react to her silence. There was a frightened expression on Malea’s face when we finally reached the road going into her development, as if she was scared to take another step.
“Malea?” I stopped walking. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head.
I looked around for a place to sit down. The long concrete sign for her neighborhood was fifteen steps away, but I didn’t think I could get her to take another step in any direction, so I sat down right there in the middle of the street. She sat down next to me.
“We can go back to school if you want,” I said.
But she shook her head.
“Then just stand up when you think you’re ready to walk.”
I watched the cars passing in both directions on the main street in front of us, the ladies walking their dogs, the shadows of the trees waving. If I wasn’t the one who stood up first, Malea and I probably would have stayed in the middle of the street until the sky darkened and one of her parents turned into the neighborhood and discovered us sitting there. I only jumped up because I heard the menacing sound of a wasp buzzing behind me. I would have run if I was by myself, but with Malea right next to me, her eyes staring forward but downward, as though she was trying to remember something, I was too self-conscious to show fear. But she barely even noticed.
We walked about fifty feet into her neighborhood before Malea stopped walking again, paralyzed, her eyes peering down the shadowy road. It was on me to find a spot for us to sit, and she would only sit after I had sat down. We did this over and over. When I felt we had been sitting long enough, I would stand. It never took her longer than five minutes to be ready to walk some more.
I’m not sure how long it took, but the match finally lit as to why Malea was so frightened: she hadn’t seen Jamal’s house since the fire. Maybe she agreed to let me walk her home so she wouldn’t have to see it alone. I imagined every time her mother or father drove her to and from school, and to and from the hospital, she’d clamp her eyes shut for the seconds it would take the car to drive past his house.
There weren’t any torched trees, or the pervading smell of burnt wood; neither was there damage to any of the other houses we walked past. I knew we were close to Jamal’s house because of Malea’s teeth—they were chattering. I was staring at her chattering teeth, and not focusing on the houses on the road, when Malea stopped walking. When I panned my head in the direction her eyes were facing, I stopped, too. We stared at the pile of ashes that used to be Jamal’s house. It was reduced to a few measly planks of wood leaning weakly in a large pit of ashes, and half of a scorched chimney. The houses on either side were still colorful, vibrant in their stature; their lawns still green, untouched by the fire. As the tears raced down her face, it was then that I heard my father’s voice, telling me what men were supposed to do, and I knew I could do it. Before Malea could give up, before any more tears could escape, I looked far down the road, picked a house—one protected by a white fence, one guarded by tall trees, one still being warmed by sunlight—and grabbed her hand.
But when we reached Malea’s house, she drifted up her driveway alone and inside without a word. I looked to the windows and waved, hoping to say good-bye, but I didn’t believe she even saw me.