Queen of the World or Something
DAMON!" I shouted, my smaller-than-average-tiny, six-year-old hands cupped over my mouth. I pushed my giant plastic framed glasses back up on my nose, re-magnifying my eyeballs, restoring my resemblance to a cartoon character.
Damon's mom, Karen, opened the gate. She was tiny with an odd blond bowl cut, and she had a loud, gravelly voice I was obsessed with. My voice was completely average. I wanted a weird voice like hers; I wanted everyone to have a weird voice like hers. My mom, Gaye, was a total weirdo and yet she sounded completely normal, with a completely average voice. I like the idea that we can contain our weirdness, but I prefer it when we wear it all over ourselves.
"Honey! Come in. Damon is just in the house. You want some cookies? You want to watch Dukes of Hazzard?"
"I just wanted to know if Damon would come over and audition for my play."
"Kelly! You wrote a play? What's it called?"
"It's called Star Wars."
"Honey," she said, smiling the smile of the kindly patronizer, "You didn't write Star Wars, did you?"
"I've adapted it, for the stage. It's my best play ever. And I think Damon's a natural Darth Vader."
The front door opened, and there was Damon — working a brown velour jumpsuit, his cowlicks sticking straight up. He looked like a tiny Tony Soprano. With the back of his hand, he wiped a spray of peanut butter crumbs off his face. Even at the age of six, I knew Damon was a natural entertainment agent, or morning radio DJ.
"Kelly, I don't hang out with GIRLS anymore," he said. "I'm not playing with you."
Karen marched up the steps and slapped the back of Damon's head. "Damon! What did I tell you about manners? Damon?! Look at me."
Damon looked up at Karen, who wasn't that much taller than he was. "WHAAAT?" he shrugged, feigning confusion.
Karen looked at me and sighed, shaking her head. "My boy has ze-ro manners, Kelly. ZE-RO." She turned back to Damon. "What's wrong with you?"
"GIRLS SUCK! THEY THINK THEY'RE SO GREAT!"
Karen flung a single finger at her son, like a switchblade aimed at Damon's fat peanut-buttery face. "You keep saying things like that and one day you'll wake up and YOU WILL BE A GIRL, Damon! YOU WILL WAKE UP WITH A VAGINA!"
"Okay!" I said, hopping off my bike and running up the path to their house. I reached into my Aztec print knapsack, pulled out a flyer, and handed it to Damon. "If you change your mind about girls, come over at two o'clock."
"He'll be there." Karen smiled and put her arm around Damon's shoulder. "He'll be there."
He rolled his eyes on cue.
"Damon," I said, climbing back onto the banana seat of my bike. "You could be an awesome Darth Vader." I paused a minute, for effect, and looked past him, up toward some distant point in the sky. "Not sure how many other kids are going to be competing for the part, though. Maybe a lot. You might want to get there early."
I rode off, thinking about the morning of the play's opening. We'd have a penny carnival, maybe some sexy can-can girls. Around midday, the kids would perform Star Wars. After that we'd go back to the penny carnival and I'd rake in the cash. Cash, however, wasn't my main motive. That would just be a tangible demonstration, to any skeptical adults, that I was indeed a prodigy to behold and a burgeoning success within the entertainment industry.
For the moment, though, I had a problem: no cast.
I needed to get serious.
After my little visit with Damon and his mom, my second stop was Jordan's house. Jordan was a nice enough kid; he had a lot of toys and we never fought over them and that's pretty much the foundation for any successful friendship. Jordan's mom was Venezuelan, and everything that went on in his house was straight out of my personal fantasy world. His mom let her kids put chocolate milk in bottles and DRINK OUT OF THE BOTTLES. She gave them an EZ-Bake Oven, a hamster, a polar bear fur rug, and the "Chicken Dance" record. They even had a fish tank full of guppies. My mom wouldn't let me have any of these things; she thought they were fine for other people, but disgusting in her own home. "Hamsters are breathing balls of pee, fur and disease." Even though she grew up on a farm and we were a middle-class family in one of the least respected cities in Canada, my mother acted as though we were all Ladies and my father was the Duke of Wellington.
When I got there, the kids were all out on the front lawn: Jordan, Ian, and Troy. I pulled up on my bike and grabbed a handful of the pamphlets from my backpack.
"You guys want to be famous?"
"What's this for?" Jordan asked, taking a pamphlet.
"FAME, JORDAN! I wrote a play, and everyone's going to perform it in my yard. There's going to be a penny carnival. All we have to do is cast it first. Be at my house at two o'clock!"
Ian, the freckly buck-toothed kid, looked up from my handout. "Star Wars is the greatest movie of all time. It's not a play. How are you going to make a light saber?!"
I stood back and held my arms out in front of me. "Imagine a light saber made out of the most amazing cardboard you've ever laid your eyes on. Meeerrrrrr! Merrrrrrrr! Merrrrrrrrr!" I said, swinging my imaginary saber back and forth across Ian's and Jordan's throats, decapitating the boys.
"Is that the saber sound we're going to use?" Jordan said. "Amateur. How many plays have you done?" He didn't look impressed.
My light saber sound was epic, actually. But my playwriting skills were juvenile. I tried to sway Jordan. "I wrote one play. It was called the Kids of the Haunter Tree Hole. But it really wasn't as good as Star Wars. So I've written out the best parts of Star Wars, like Jabba and the Death Star stuff, and we can act that out. I can make a metal bikini out of tuna cans."
It wasn't just plays. I'd also attempted to write truthful stories of living with my actual family — my Pooh bear of a real estate mogul father, my annoyingly sweet younger sister, and my lovingly neurotic nurse mother, who would bring me into the doctor's office at least once a week, convinced that this was the week I'd inevitably developed leukemia, heart damage from undiagnosed strep throat, or some viral hemorrhagic fever from accidentally touching blood in a public bathroom.
But while I was watching Star Wars, I was moved. I wanted to see my friends as those characters. They were more exciting than my family. I didn't give a shit about Harrison Ford. But I cared a lot about my friends, and I wanted them to have the chance to be stars.
Ian started swinging his imaginary light saber. No sound. "Where are you going to put on your play? School? That's not gonna happen."
"I'm gonna get my dad and his friend to build me a stage, you know-it-all. Like Doozers. They're going to build it and then we'll have a penny carnival and make some money."
Jordan perked up. "How much money do I get?"
"Uh — NONE," I said. "It's my idea! IT'S MY YARD!"
Jordan looked at the sheet, then handed it back to me. "I don't want to be in a play."
"What the heck are you talking about? You'd rather chicken dance for no one?"
Jordan just stood there, running his fingers through his half-Venezuelan half-jewfro hair.
I looked him square in the eye. "It's STAR WARS, Jordan! Look at you — you're Han Solo if I ever saw him. Now, I'm not guaranteeing you're going to get the part, but I'm just saying . . . I see you as Han." I winked.
Troy, the kid who inhaled a piece of banana and almost died a few months prior, spoke up. "How many other kids are auditioning?"
I sighed dramatically and looked off into the distance again for effect. The kids all turned to see what I was looking at.
"Hmm. Dozens," I said, stalling for time. Then I had an idea. "Hey, can you guys take some of these down to the park and give them to any kids who are playing there?" I passed them the rest of the sheets. I wasn't allowed to go to the park without an adult, but they totally were. I got on my bike, rode to the end of the street, got off the bike, walked it across the street after looking both ways and behind me, got back on the bike, and headed home.
I spent the rest of the morning lining up chairs in our living room, my makeshift waiting room for the auditions. Then I went to see my dad.
"Dad. We need to go to the 7-Eleven to rent the camera again!"
Dad's large eyebrows went up, and he quickly stroked his life long Burt Reynolds mustache as he looked up from his desk in the tiny room my parents used for their computer. This was his "newspaper desk": he would stand at the desk and read through the paper while watching TV. He never sat down. He was always ready to run out the door and into the action, like a superhero. A superhero, that is, who once owned a pair of gravity boots and threw his back out for life while doing inverted sit-ups.
"What do you need the camera for this time?" he asked, his voice lifting with excitement. One of Dad's greatest memories was when he was sixteen: "Now, don't ever do this, but when I was sixteen my parents went away for a week and me and John Walt stole their car and drove to California. We surfed, we went to the studios, and they told me at MGM that I had a face for the screen. The screen. Of course, we had to come back to Canada. Don't ever do that." After this secret confirmation of potential fame, my dad drove his parents' car back to Canada and became a property manager. My desire to be a part of the entertainment world would always spark that lingering ache for famous-screen-face that my dad still fantasized about.
"I'm holding auditions for my play. I need to record them for review. Also? You're going to need to build me a stage."
We went down to the 7-Eleven to rent the camera. When we got home, I set it up on a table in the computer room, which I'd commandeered for our audition room. Then I sat down, wrote out all the lines I wanted the kids to read for their auditions, put them in a big black binder, and kicked back with a Capri Sun.
At around two o'clock, just as I'd planned, the kids started filing in.
Besides all the kids I'd visited earlier that morning, others showed up solely on the basis of my awesome posters. There were ten kids. With my sister and me, that was the dozen I'd been looking for.
I clutched my black binder to my chest and jovially rubbed Jordan's hair — mostly out of half-jewfro curiosity, but also because I was proud of him for coming.
"I'm glad you made it . . ." I said, then cocked my eyebrow and lowered my voice to a whisper: ". . . Han."
Then I turned to the crowd. "ALL RIGHT, EVERYONE! GRAB A CAPRI SUN AND FIND A CHAIR! BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU PIERCE THE JUICE POUCH — THIS CARPET IS AN HEIRLOOM!" Everyone obeyed. This was it: I was in my zone.
"I'M GOING TO BE HOLDING THE AUDITIONS IN THE AUDITION ROOM. I'LL CALL YOUR NUMBER WHEN IT'S YOUR TURN." And with that I passed out a number to each kid in the room. Of course I was making this all much more difficult than it had to be: These kids all lived in my neighborhood. I knew all their names. But I knew the formalities of this sort of thing, and I couldn't gloss over them — I needed to show them I was SERIOUS. If I respected the protocol, they would respect my production. That was certainly how Mister George Lucas conducted his auditions.
I looked over at Damon, and he was looking pretty serious, too. He was wearing a clean white button-up shirt and a pair of black dress pants. Even his face was clean. Karen must have put him up to it. Just for playing along, though, I decided right then and there to bestow upon him the honor of being my Darth Vader. It was the least I could do. When no one was looking, I opened my binder and found the name "Darth Vader." Beside it, I wrote "Damon, obviously." Then I stood up and gazed upon the room.
"EVERYONE!" I commanded. "I'm just going to go to the bathroom before we start. One short break, and then we'll get this afternoon rolling!"
As I left the room for a pee, I stopped for a moment, then shouted out: "Please don't open my binder!!"
It was the dumbest thing I could have said to a room full of children. Of course, I was a child and didn't understand how even I, myself, thought. When I got back, the kids were all huddled in a circle, staring into my open binder. My SISTER was staring into the binder! EVERYONE WAS LOOKING AT MY NOTES. Who were these animals?!? Carrie Fisher wouldn't have looked at Mr George Lucas's black binder. I really didn't have anything in there to hide. This was a simple matter of respect and order.
"OH MY GOD! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?" It's a good thing my bladder was empty or I would have peed myself right there in the audition room.
Troy looked up at me in fury, his fingers stretched and frozen in an air grip, his hands and arms shooting out. "I didn't even get to audition for Darth Vader!! I would have been amazing!!" He slapped his leg then made a serious face. "LUKE, I AM YOUR FATHER. See?"
I pushed my way through the crowd and grabbed my binder. My eyes took in the sight of all these horrible kids, one more horrible than the next, standing over my private notes — all but Jordan without a hint of shame.
"EVERYONE GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!!!!" I screamed, shredding my throat.
Everyone backed off except my little sister, Lauren. Idiot people always thought Lauren and I were twins because we both had dark hair and glasses. She was two inches shorter than I was and two years younger. People were idiots. Lauren whined and pleaded "But I live h — "
"YOU ARE A TRAITOR!" I squealed as the other, non-blood-related children filed quickly out the front door. "I AM NOT SHARING A BEDROOM WITH YOU ANYMORE!!!"
Lauren looked scared. "Why are you flipping out?" she asked. What an idiot.
"COME ON! Why am I flipping out?! I'm flipping out because you looked at the director's notes. You can get ARRESTED for stuff like this in Hollywood. You kids are animals! I can't work with animals!!" I stormed out of the living room and into my bedroom.
The dream was over. No neighborhood penny carnival. No giving Damon the Darth Vader role. No making my dad or mom or Karen proud of me.
A little while later, my mom came into my room. She was very good at these Mom moments. I think it's what she was best at — even though I always fought the support, because to me support always felt like 100 percent failure. And I knew I was not a failure.
My mom was naturally slender, despite her addiction to Coffee Crisp chocolate bars. Her hair was thick and black and her eyes were grey which always kind of freaked me out. When she sat down on the bed, it barely moved. "Lauren told me you flipped out."
"They ruined everything." I rolled over to face the wall so she couldn't see me crying. With all the screaming, I noticed, my voice was starting to sound a little gravelly, like Karen's. Silver lining.
"They went through MY NOTES!"
She started to rub my back. Oh God. That's a stage three support move. I was such a failure.
"Kids can be dumb," she said matter-of-factly. "I don't think they did it to disrespect you. I don't think they think that way."
Snot rolled down to my lip; it tasted salty. "But they DID disrespect me." I wiped my face. "Even if they didn't mean to, they did. I can't take it."
My mom sighed dramatically, playing up the drama for me. My mother was a good lady.
"I know!" she said. "Maybe you should try to do the play at school? Ask your teacher. You could do it during recess. There are so many more kids there. Ask your teacher tomorrow. It'll be way more fun! Just imagine . . ."
"Okay, Mom," I interrupted. If I didn't, she'd go on all afternoon. "I get it."
My school was a French immersion school. My teacher was Mme. Misbet, a French Canadian woman who looked like a cross between Celine Dion and Janet from Three's Company. In her classroom, near her desk, there was an aquarium, and in that aquarium was housed a school of tadpoles — a wormy, creepy cloud of inky fish babies. If I wanted to mount my production of Star Wars at school, I would have to walk past that aquarium, full of giant tadpoles with their disgusting leg buds, and ask her.
The day after the audition fiasco, I sat at my desk, biding my time after completing my work early (my thing), lining up wafer cookies on my desk. Then, suddenly, a wave of courage came over me. I took a deep breath, broke one of the cookies in half, and carried it past the tadpoles right up to her desk, holding my breath the whole way. I didn't want to give her a whole cookie because I was a greedy little six-year-old and sacrificing half of a wafer for my French commander was difficult enough, even if it was a bribe to get her to say Oui to my grassroots production of Star Wars.
By the time I got to the front of the room, my face was purple. Mme. Misbet looked at me like I was insane. I exhaled with a gasp.
"What do you want?" she snapped. "It's almost lunch. You're supposed to be reading."
I held up my sacrificial wafer-cookie half. "I wanted to give you this cookie. And ask if it would be okay to have auditions at lunch today, for this play I wrote? Well, I guess I should say adapted. It's Star Wars."
Madame stared at the half-cookie in my hand. "Why would I want that?" she sneered. "It's half-eaten already."
"Oh, no!!" I said, "I would NEVER do that! I broke it in half!" I was horrified. But how could I prove it? "Wait — I can show you. The other half matches! Just a minute — you'll see." I ran back to my desk, grabbed the other half-wafer, and flew past the tadpoles back to Madame. "SEE??" I shouted, pressing the halves together. "Just like Little Orphan Annie's locket!!" With that, I put her half-wafer back on her desk.
"So," I continued. "Can I hold auditions for my play at lunch today? I was going to do it at home and have a penny carnival, but the kids in my neighborhood are ANIMALS!!"
Madame reached out her hand, extended a long, contemptuous index finger, pressed her Lee Press-On nail onto the loathsome wafer, and slid it to the front edge of her desk. Then she looked at me and said "Whatever." (NOTE: Mme. Misbet, if you are reading this, please know that at the time I thought you were just acting like a French-Canadian, but now, as an adult with some time to reflect, I know you were also a raving bitch.)
It was midway through the lunch break, before recess, and I was standing in front of my classmates, who were all busy talking and stuffing their faces with ham sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches and Lunchables packed by parents who just didn't give a shit. I climbed up on a chair in front of the chalkboard and — in a move that would sacrifice everything I believed was good and true — dragged my nails across the chalkboard to get my classmates' attention.
"AHHH!!!" A wave of horror echoed through two dozen children as they all froze in place and looked at me. I'd won, but I'd also just cut two years off my life. "Thanks. I'm holding auditions today for my production of Star Wars. I'm pretty sure Principal Everly will be into this idea, so we should be able to perform it for the school during an assembly. Please sign this sheet and let me know what character from Star Wars you'll be trying out for."
A hand shot up.
It was Earl, the biggest kid in our class. He was so big that, on the first day of school, he sat down on his desk and broke it in half, sending him crashing onto the floor with a deafening thud. I'm not even kidding — and it should be entirely illegal that that incident isn't on video. Earl wasn't fat, just man-sized. I loved him because he was an instant character. He was just more than the other kids.
"Uh, I haven't seen Star Wars," said Earl the boyman-mountain. "I don't know who to audition for."
My mouth fell open. "What's wrong with your parents, Earl? You haven't seen Star Wars?!"
I sighed. "You can audition for Chewbacca," I decided. "His character is pretty much one-dimensional. You'll get it." I looked around the class. "Anyone else?"
From a far corner of the room came a sound. It was our fifth-grade lunch monitors, starting to giggle.
A bit of background: our school didn't have a cafeteria, so for lunch each class of kids had to stay in their classroom and eat. Throughout the lunch period, three "mom volunteers" went from class to class to keep an eye on everyone. And the fifth- and sixth-grade students were broken up and assigned to sit with the younger kids, monitoring them, presumably because they were more responsible than we were.
And now ours were laughing at me.
I put on my game face.
"Did you have a question about auditioning?" I asked. "You guys can audition if you want to, even though you're like a foot taller than us. You could be extra Wookies."
With that, the girls burst out laughing — and my tenuous hold over the rest of the class went up in flames.
As the other kids went back to talking and eating, the two older girls walked toward me. I hopped down from the chair, and they walked right up to me, so close I could see the pores on their little prepubescent faces.
"What's wrong with you?" said one of the girls — the one with the My Little Pony sweatshirt. God, I loved that sweatshirt. My mom wouldn't let me wear commercial products or logos.
Nothing came out of my mouth. She gave me the stinkeye.
"Are you looking at my boobs?" she said.
"NO!" I shouted,"I just like your shirt. My Little Ponies are great."
"Oh," she mock-toned me, but I wasn't really cluing in. "I like your shirt too."
"Thanks! It's not really a shirt, though. It's a fisherman's sweater. The tooth fairy left it for me."
Her friend laughed again. And I joined in and started laughing right along with them. We were all feeling pretty hilarious — until I realized they were getting mad.
I wasn't socialized enough to understand what was happening here. I was six years old. As far as I knew, everyone was my friend. Even Damon, the boy who hated girls, put on a clean white shirt to come to my house. I didn't know about schoolyard bullies. I hadn't seen those movies yet.
The girls stepped into me, and I had to back up because they kept stepping into me, and finally they had me back against the far left-hand corner of the front of my class, right beside the pencil sharpening station. I could smell the shavings because my sense of smell is very keen.
"Who do you think you are," My Little Pony girl spat in my face, "queen of the world or something?"
Queen of the world?
"No," I said, though I wasn't sure, because I had NO idea what she was talking about.
"You think you're queen of the world with your stupid play? Well, you aren't. Your glasses make your eyes look huge."
That was it. I walked out of my classroom, down the hall, and straight to the office.
When I got there, another fifth grader was manning the secretary's desk while the secretary was on lunch. (In retrospect: Either our school had NO MONEY for support staff, or my school was run by Wes Anderson.)
"I need to use the phone. Now!" I said.
"What for?" the boy asked, trying to look official and sitting up straight in the giant secretary chair, swiveling slightly back and forth.
"I need the phone, now!" I said, "Don't make me say it again."
The boy turned the phone around and pushed it toward me.
I picked up the receiver and dialed my home number.
"Mom? Remember how you thought I should try putting on Star Wars at school?"
"Oh my God!" she said. "Do you have a sore throat? Do you think it's strep? I'll come and get you and take you to Dr. Cotton right away."
"No. Mom. I'm fine, I'm calling about my play! You told me to do the auditions here, remember?"
"Well, that was a bad idea."
"Madame Misbet didn't help me at all and her Press On Nails are gross! I had to scrape my fingernails across the board to get attention! Some kids haven't seen Star Wars! Some older girls asked me if I thought I was queen of the world or something, and said I have huge eyes, and all just because I was holding auditions! I want to come home. Nothing is perfect."
"Kelly, you can't come home."
"But everything is terrible! All the kids are laughing at me, and the teacher thinks I'm gross, and I'm not going to be able to do my play!" It was bad enough having to downscale from a profitable penny carnival to a pro bono school production. But getting bullied by a pair of fifth graders? "It's just not worth it. This was a dumb idea, I'm just a kid. I hate being a little kid."
"Wait — what do you mean, your teacher thinks you're gross?"
"I broke a cookie in half and gave her half and she looked disgusted and said 'Why would I eat that? You ate half of it.' Like I was some kind of animal."
"That isn't nice at all! Is she always like this?"
"Yeah, I guess. She's pretty harsh. But she's French Canadian. She can't help but yell and wear ceinture flechée and talk about maple syrup."
"Kelly, I think this is why you got that stomach ulcer earlier this year! Your teacher is stressing you out. I'm going to come down there and talk to her. Do you want me to come down? I can. How can she call herself an educator?!"
"She doesn't. She calls herself Un Professeur. And I'm upset about the play, not her. And my ulcer is gone as far as I know."
"You were the only diagnosed ulcer case for a six-year-old in the entire country."
"I'm not sick, Mom."
She paused. "Kelly, I don't want you to get another ulcer. But you can't just come home because things aren't going your way. You just have to ignore these people who are getting you down. Don't let them get to you. You're sweet for offering your teacher the cookie, and you're innovative for trying to turn a movie into a play for your friends to star in. You aren't doing anything wrong. Hey, remember when you went to Montessori kindergarten when you were four?"
"Yeah, for half a day. And — I called Dad to pick me up!" I stomped my foot on the office floor. "I should have called him instead of you. He would have come here right now to pick me up."
"No. That's not my point. My point is this: When you were only four years old, on your first day of school away from home, you stood your ground. Do you remember what you did?"
I sighed. "Yeah. They wanted me to take a nap with the rest of the kids, and I told them I didn't nap, and then they said I couldn't be there if I wouldn't nap with the other kids, so I told them I needed a phone and I called Dad and he picked me up."
"Right. So you see?"
"No. You picked me up that time. Why not now?"
"We picked you up then because you were standing your ground. You weren't running away or buckling to pressure. If you had laid down and pretended to sleep, that wouldn't have been you. Telling your teachers you had to leave — that was you. Me coming to pick you up because of this queen-of-the-world thing is not you. You are queen of your world. Everyone is queen of their own world."
The second I walked back into my classroom, I heard the voice I dreaded.
"Kelly, come to my desk." Mme. Misbet was back. "Where were you? The lunch supervisors told me you ran out without asking for permission."
I positioned myself so that I didn't have to look at the tadpoles behind her desk. "The supervisors were being mean to me," I said, forcing myself to make direct eye contact.
"I think you're lying," she snapped. "I think you're making excuses for your behavior."
I took a deep breath — through my mouth, so I wouldn't smell the tadpoles. "My behavior? What did I do?"
"You left the classroom without asking. And apparently you tried to get the class to participate in some sort of a play? Without permission you did this."
"I asked you to help me with the play and you wouldn't. You didn't tell me I couldn't do the play." I looked down at the wafer cookie, still on her desk.
And then, suddenly, I realized what my mom was talking about: As long as I wasn't doing something wrong, I could just be myself. Some people just weren't going to listen, weren't going to understand, and that was fine, as long as I didn't take it personally.
"Don't you have anything to say for yourself?" she asked.
"No," I said. Then, in one giant adrenaline rush, I picked the half-wafer cookie off her desk, shoved it into my mouth, and said, "Your tadpoles are disgusting."
That's what the queen of the world would have done.
From Everything Is Perfect When You're A Liar by Kelly Oxford. Copyright 2013 by Kelly Oxford. Excerpted by permission of It Books.