DIPTYCH WITH HUMILIATIONS
1. Kidding on the Square
None of them arrived on the same day, although they had arranged the trip together and the only object of the arrivals was to be on the trip together. The first friend arrived on the first day, the second on the second, and the third on the third, and when they were all together they decided that was the new first day.
"We've always been like this," they lamented. They had been friends for a very long time, more than half of their lives, and everything between them did tend toward hopeless convolution. The mere fact of their collaboration spun up a hectic and punishing static on every surface. They shook their heads and went down to the hotel bar to get a drink.
Yes: they had gotten a hotel room for the trip. It was embarrassing to them. It would have been better to have gotten a one-week rental, or better yet: a couchsurf, or better yet: a friend's place to crash at. They had come to this city to visit a friend, originally. That is, the plan had once involved her. But she had moved out of that city for her work, and the plan fairly free-bled out of the hole she left. "Let's go anyway," they had decided. "It's still a destination. We've never been. Let's just go and we'll have fun with each other."
Here was all they could do to mitigate the hotel room failure: they lied about how many they were. The fucked check-in helped with subterfuge. They said they were two and got a room with one full bed. "We will rough it," they consoled themselves. "One of us will sleep on the floor."
While they drank whiskey gingers and whiskey sours and whiskey they looked at maps of the city on their phones. "There we are." They pinched their fingers in and out, shrinking and expanding the screens. "This is the beach, and this too."
A man came over to them. They were seated at the bar in a line and he added himself to the end of the line, craning his neck to make eye contact with all three. He asked whether they were visiting from out of town.
One of the friends had a boyfriend, one dated, and one was celibate, but they all felt the same toward men: some, individually, could pleasantly surprise, but as a race they were not palatable. They felt sour toward this man for talking to them while they were alone, three, together. What did he think would happen? He would cast a net and drag in whichever one, indiscriminately? Or did he think he would get them all?
They tried to indicate with telepathy that they hated him while they explained about their trip. They laughed when they got to the part about arriving all separately, and about the room deceit. They laughed even more when they admitted that they had gotten no further than the bar of their own hotel on their first night out, when the whole city and its real culture waited for them.
"You need a vacation from this vacation," the man said.
They didn't laugh at this man as he tried to insinuate himself. They felt tired of this man and they felt tired altogether from looking at the maps. "We're going to bed now. We have three-hour jetlag." The man didn't laugh at them either. Who cared? They thought they were funny.
In their room they each took turns in the bathroom to change into their pajamas. Isn't that funny? They had known each other for more than half their lives but they had never seen each other naked. They retained a middle-school prudishness among themselves that they didn't have with other friends. They didn't decide on a beach for the next day; they had the spins from drinking. "That man was annoying," they agreed. "But we're going to have fun on vacation." One of them went onto the floor and they went to bed.
"Let's pick a beach," they said in the morning. They shoveled free coffee and continental breakfast into their mouths because their hangovers and their three consecutive morning showers made them feel hurried. "Let's just go!"
They picked a beach and they just went. It was eight dollars an hour to park at this beach. Cash only. They pooled their money and gave the attendant fifteen one-dollar bills and swore up and down that was all they had. They showed him the gaping insides of their wallets. He let it slide because they were women and they agreed afterwards that that was lucky. "I don't think we needed to pay, though," they said. "We shouldn't have parked here. I think there are places to park near here where you don't have to pay but there's no way we could've known where those are."
Who cared! It was time to tan. This was the cornerstone of their trip, other than seeing their friend who had moved away: tanning. They put down their towels and smeared sunscreen on themselves and each other. "Is it rubbed in?" they asked each other about their faces. "Yes," they told each other, though they had a certain amount of gluey white along the tops of their ears still.
It wasn't a good beach. No one said it at first and then they all admitted it. The quality of the sand was low: shells jutted cruelly into their backs where they lay. The smell wasn't good either. It was grease and cigarette smoke. There were a lot of children. There was frisbee happening too near to them, and they were in agony while they waited for the frisbee to hit their heads. When it came, actually, it sailed over them and landed neatly on the other side, but the boy who retrieved it kicked up sand as he ran past.
They forgot about the two hours. It was many hours before they got back to the car. The car wasn't towed but they owed the attendant sixteen more dollars—seventeen counting the dollar they hadn't had before. He wanted to call the police. They said, "We'll go to the ATM and come back." He wanted one of them to stay behind but they weren't from around there, they said, and they wanted to stick together. They promised they would be right back.
They laughed, a little, while they drove away. Who cared—they weren't going back to that shitty beach anyway.
The next morning the man at the front desk said "Excuse me" to them as they walked past him. He had a manicured beard and wore a class ring, and he told them that they had been monitored since they'd arrived and it would seem they had too many people in their party. "It's okay to have a guest for one night," he said. His eyes slid from each of them to the next. "But you can't book a room for two people and then be three. That's a form of stealing."
"We didn't know," they said.
"You said you needed a room for two people," the front desk man said. "You said it—" he gestured to one of them "—to me when you got here."
"We didn't know..." they tried again.
"You'll have to pay for another room for the rest of your stay."
They decided to check out instead. "Fuck this city," they said. "Let's just go camping."
In literature this is sometimes called the green world. But they didn't have any supplies for camping. They stuffed the sheets and the quilt from their hotel room into their duffel bags.
It didn't look far to the forest where they could camp. They decided to drive up the coast so they could go to the beach on their way there. They spent seventy dollars on groceries and firewood and figured out where to park at this beach for free. They got sunburnt when they forgot to reapply. They looked at the maps on their phones and found that the trip to the beach had not been convenient. It seemed obvious. The beach and the forest were not that near each other. It would be three hours more, and the quickest route took them back into the city.
"The combined IQ of this car is under 100," they agreed. They laughed a little but they were frustrated too.
It was dusk when they arrived at the top of the mountain where they were going to camp. There was only one other car in the loop—an old pickup truck with a single man sitting in it. They drove to the opposite end of the loop and built a fire in their fire pit and cooked beans on it. The Milky Way was out after the sun set—that was nice.
"What about the man?" they said. "I wish I hadn't just thought about the man. He's probably doing nothing."
Why didn't the man have a tent? He was just sitting in his truck. "I assumed he was watching the sun set. But now it's dark and he hasn't done anything."
"We have to stay calm," they said, but it was like staying upright in a five-legged race, and just as humiliating as they fell down slow. One of them kept making the others more scared. Of what? It was just a person. They couldn't remember if the pick-up truck had seemed beat-up or just old. Why was he there by himself? And he wasn't lighting a fire either.
"I think it's reasonable for three young women to be nervous about being alone in the woods with a weird man," they agreed. "He didn't say hi to us when we came in. He scowled at us."
They got into their car and giggled nervously.
"Who will help us," they said. "Who the fuck will help us?" Everyone they knew was where they'd come from: three hours ahead and asleep. It would be mortifying to call and wake them for this non-event. "Are we going crazy?" they said, and no one said anything. They slept in the car, two upright in their seats in the front, and one prone behind them.
Of course they were alone in the loop when they woke up in the morning. "We need a vacation from this vacation," one of them said. One of them laughed. One of them went into the woods and shit profusely.
Sometimes when something happens to a person they have to talk about it over and over again until everyone else wants to stop listening. That's what the three friends did all the way to the airport. They were very embarrassed and so they each took turns with the trip and wore its details out in their mouths. "Don't you think, though, that we got lucky with that parking?" And they weren't even listening to each other. "Don't you still think it was a little weird that he never lit a fire, though?" They all faced forward in the car and said these things to the approaching city.
Alexandra was the name of one of the friends from the last part. She was the one who didn't have sex and she didn't have any sex in this part of her life either. This part of her life was after the end of the trip, when she returned to work. She worked as the classroom assistant to a kindergarten teacher.
She wore thong underwear every day for this work. She wasn't used to that; she had had to make special purchases. She had asked her mother if she could buy a thong, once, when she was in high school. "What do you need that for?" her mother had asked, meaning was anyone going to look at her underwear, and she could only answer honestly, that no one would and so she didn't need it after all.
Here, in elementary school, she learned that it was much more sexual, in the grotesque and laughable way that adults appear to children, to wear normal underwear. It formed faint creases in the seat of her sexless slacks, a wide-bottomed V, which the students shrieked when they saw on her. That was on her first day there; it was practically the first thing the kindergarteners ever said to her. She wore nothing under her slacks for the rest of that week until she got a chance to stock up on garish little lacy items. Some of them cleaved her more than others, but she never forgot she was wearing one.
On this day, Mrs. Norqvist's kindergarten class was in rambunctious spirits because they were to have a birthday party in the afternoon, after recess. It was Claire's birthday: she was turning six, the first in the class to do so. It was easy to guess about her because she was also one of the tallest. Each month of life made an inch's difference to people that age.
People in kindergarten varied hugely in how close they were to babies. Some, in their five-and-a-half years, had begun to develop coping strategies for the world. They imitated adult turns of phrase like "such as" and frowned at questions to show they were concentrating. They knew already from TV or their parents the social lessons of kindergarten, and could sagely advise one another, "We're all different," or "Think how you would feel," out of gaping, gummy mouths that teeth had begun to fall out of and push back into.
Others, like Noah, had not come very far yet. They spoke in unintelligible garbles that other children had to translate for them. They stood up and wandered during seated activities. They cried, rapt, through naptime and went to sleep while buses were being called. Most of all: their bodies surprised them. They vomited if they got too excited or too shaken. They fell out of swings at recess and even stationary chairs in class. They hit everyone.
Noah was the very smallest person in the class and he seemed to understand almost nothing about the ordeal he was put through every day, being left at school and asked to do the tasks of the place until his parents were ready for him again. His teeth were hollow and perfect white.
Alexandra's jobs as classroom assistant to Mrs. Norqvist included making everyone quiet, taking people to the bathroom, and lunch and recess duty. She also escorted the class to their special activities: gym and music.
Music, today. Mr. Grossweiler was the music teacher, and she knew to expect him outside the classroom for their line when it rounded the corner. This was how he maintained order in his room: by gently monitoring and curbing their impulses to wildness as they passed through his door. When Alexandra brought them, they often needed some curbing, especially at the end of the line, which would fray over the course of the journey like an almost-snapped rope.
The beginning of the line was sound: it was Claire, six today, who led, and wore a happy birthday paper crown too.
At the end of the line were Alexandra and Noah. Noah was having a bad day. His birthday was not for nine months, during the next summer vacation, and he had gleaned that he would not only not be celebrated this day, but perhaps never on any school day for the rest of his life.
The class rounded the corner and Mr. Grossweiler appeared, waiting outside of his room. He held two peace-sign fingers in the air for quiet, and the best-behaved kindergarteners did the same.
"Happy birthday, Claire," Mr. Grossweiler said, and the class began to file into his room. Mr. Grossweiler had a wide face that spread all over his head; big features. He had a feature in particular that Alexandra admired, which was a gap between his two front teeth. Being the music teacher, he had a wonderful singing voice.
Mr. Grossweiler was recently married, in his second year of teaching. Alexandra was in her second year classroom assisting. They had begun at the same time, and they were actually the same age, but he was married and a real teacher. They almost never talked—Alexandra had no social life associated with her coworkers at the school. Most of them were married, or older.
Noah clung to the wall opposite Mr. Grossweiler's room, sagging onto it. "I want to go home," he wailed. "I want a birthday."
Alexandra pried him from the wall and steered him into the room past Mr. Grossweiler. "You're embarrassing yourself," she said, too loudly, and then felt very mean. She'd thought, when she started this job, that she wouldn't reach a point of being unmoved by tears. But actually it had happened quickly. In kindergarten there were tears every day. Some were from pain and most were from tantrums. They would always pass quickly. It astonished her, actually, how quickly the people of kindergarten could duck out from underneath their dark clouds. But still she wished she hadn't said that to Noah. She didn't look at Mr. Grossweiler as she left the music room and went to take her lunch break.
After her own lunch, Alexandra had lunch duty. She folded open the waxy squares of milk that were brought to her, and hoped the smell of the cafeteria didn't soak into her clothes. Every cafeteria in the universe smelled the same.
The kindergarteners ate on one side of the cafeteria, with the first graders, and on the other side sat the fifth graders, the next-oldest people at this school after Alexandra and Mr. Grossweiler, the youngest adults. She didn't like to talk to them. They were far along in their development of personalities and she recognized in them many adult cruelties. They had a vast capacity for boredom and wanted mainly to talk to each other or look at their phones. Sometimes at recess none of them would even play. They would sit in circles in the field and rip up tufts of grass instead.
Alexandra drifted around the edge of recess and sweated. She wore a camisole under her button down shirt to ensure nothing could be seen if she leaned forward. The two-inch chunk heels on her black professional shoes were matronly and uncomfortable. Even with the added height her black slacks, untailored, caught and dragged wood chips.
It was hard, sometimes, to tell whether the kindergarteners chased each other around in fun or distress, but a good indicator was when Noah was involved. A girl was screaming out of a contorted face while he ran after her, hand stretched out in a fist, like he was punching the air until he could punch her.
"NOAH," Alexandra said. He ignored her and so she went to him. "Noah." She stepped in his path and held his shoulders. "Noah."
He laughed. His fist was still closed, held out.
"You'd better not be throwing rocks, Noah," she said.
He opened his fist and there was a bee in it, sitting in the middle of his palm. Alexandra cried out and grabbed his wrist and shook it. The bee bounced once in his palm and fell to the grass. It was dead already. "You'll get stung," she said. "Go do something else."
Noah dropped into the grass to look for his bee. "A dead bee can't sting you," he said.
Alexandra hoisted him back up by his armpits. "Yes it can, if you touch the stinger."
"Dead bee doesn't have a stinger," Noah said. "It dies because it stung somebody already." Then he ran away. She would probably have to deal with him again before recess was over; he was having a bad day.
Alexandra bent down and sifted through the grass. The bee was on its back with its legs neat in their death-fold. She pinched it between two fingers, gently. It was a bumblebee. Its stinger was still there on the back of it; it had died of something else. Maybe old age, even. Alexandra dragged her index finger over its whole body. Bees had always seemed fuzzy, and she learned now that they were. She petted the bee like a small animal, which was what it was.
Mrs. Norqvist braced herself as the class came back in from recess; Alexandra had misjudged and mentioned the birthday party to incentivize them off of the playground, but it had made them run, giddy, back to the class. Claire's mother was there, and a stroller held Claire's sister, a baby. Most of the class flocked to Claire's mother, who had the cupcakes, while a few of them went to the stroller. "Don't touch her," Claire said with the authority of an older sister. "She's sleeping right now and she will probably sleep for the whole party."
They sang for Claire although they had already done so in music class, and then they ate cupcakes and drank juice. Everyone looked and felt great: exhausted from recess, breathing heavily through their noses with faces full of cake, they made tiny conversations and sat, legs kicking. It was very civilized, until a shriek went up around Noah.
Of course he had peed in his pants. Some of his tablemates laughed, for a moment, but he was crying which made it hard to laugh, and they were too interested in the party to be cruel for long. He rose from his seat and went to the adults.
"Miss Alex will take you to the nurse's office," Mrs. Norqvist said, and Noah pointed his crying self at Alexandra.
Alexandra took the small piss-hand of Noah in her own and led him out of the classroom. He cried for the first few meters and the crying made him walk slower. They walked so slowly with his gait half as short as hers, and his shoes snorted quietly as they became damp. But he stopped crying after a while.
"We're almost there," Alexandra said. "You'll get some new pants from Nurse Bruin. They might fit a little funny but they're clean."
Noah didn't say anything. He looked ahead while Alexandra looked at him and smiled and held his hand.
"You'll be back before the party's even over," she said.
She saw at the end of the corridor that Mr. Grossweiler was standing outside the music room, as he always did when a class was due to arrive. Alexandra hoped that they would pass through the corridor without intercepting the class that was coming to music. Noah had a dark stain on the crotch of his khaki pants that traveled all the way down his inseam and she considered then, with horror, that she was making a parade of him past the music room.
What else could she have done? He needed to clean himself up, and he couldn't walk to the nurse's office with no pants on. Mr. Grossweiler looked toward them as they approached at the pace of Noah's small, wet legs. He doesn't even notice, she wanted to say to Noah then. He can't tell. You don't have to say hello to him when we pass by. You don't even have to look at him. I won't look either, okay? Let's neither of us look.
I was obsessed with humiliation when I wrote this. I was reading the book Humiliation, by Wayne Koestenbaum.