Everyone knew about Max’s obsession with Justin Bieber, so they didn’t want to hang out with him. They felt they were given no choice. When a boy you’ve gone to school with for most of your short lives turns from normal into something—else, it’s hard to know how to treat him.
They could have handled the T-shirt be wore every single day (Justin with a bowl cut, crooning into a microphone, his name plastered in neon lights)—it was ugly, but it wasn’t necessarily crazy.
But then he began speaking only in lyrics from Justin’s songs: I don’t know about me but I know about you. Say there’s another and look right in my eyes. They’d say, “Hey Max,” and his nose would twitch, the energy around him would stir, and he’d say “you should go and love yourself” or “I’m missin’ more than just your body.”
Naturally, the girls felt violated—an early, immature form of it—and then, realizing he had no intention of actually doing anything, that he was actually too nervous, like a timid kitten batting at yarn, they grew defiant. They laughed at him. And the boys, eager to align with the girls (though they couldn’t explain why), made fun of him, parading by him, clutching their hair and their crotches, gagging on pretend microphones. They didn’t want to be mean to him, but they wanted the girls to laugh, and didn’t quite understand the difference.
The teacher, Ms. Jennifer, was distraught. She called her boyfriend every night on the way home from school. He lived two towns over and was often too busy to spend time with her. She told him about Max and the other children. “What should I do?” she said, adjusting the blue tooth piece in her ear, smoothing out her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “It’s getting bad. They’re so mean. And he’s so sad.”
“He sounds crazy to me,” the boyfriend said. There was coughing in the background.
“Are you sick?” Ms. Jennifer said. “Can I bring you some soup?”
“No, babe. I don’t want you to get it.”
Ms. Jennifer began to cry. Small tears welled up like troughs in her eyelids. She squeezed them out, careful to keep her eyes on the road. She lived not far from the school in a basement she rented for $812 a month, and occasionally the school children darted in and out of yards and trees like they were everywhere, all the time.
“I don’t mind,” she said, sucking in a deep breath. And then she said, “I’m going to have to send notes home to each of those kids’ mothers.”
Ms. Jennifer pulled up in front of the house. She was not allowed to park in the driveway because the owner kept his truck there, which he had not driven in 6 years. It had blue paneling on the sides and brown leaves, built up from autumn, were glazed over with ice.
“The ones who are making fun of him. They’re grabbing their crotches and making sexual noises and they don’t even know what they’re doing. It could maybe be harassment.”
“What do the noises sound like?” the boyfriend said.
“You know…” Ms. Jennifer’s voice tapered off. She did not get out of the car. She was thinking of Max. She was trying to remember what it was like to be eleven years old. What clothes she wore, the dreams she had.
“Try me,” the boyfriend said. His voice had gotten low, like velvet. She thought of one of their first dates, when he took her into the city to a jazz club that was under ground. It was dark, with low lights of purple and red, and she liked the smooth feel of the worn, velour seats. She’d never been to a place like that before. Her boyfriend ran his hands from the back of her neck down to the waistband of her skirt, and pressed inside, and she felt like her body was no longer hers, and the deep notes from the saxophone and strums of the piano thrummed her chest. She was scared, but she told herself that it was thrilling.
“Uhn, uhn, ai!” she said, softly at first, then growing in momentum. Her breath began to fog the window in a growing, perfect circle on the window. But then she remembered the boys, the mean ones, and Max, and the girls, and their stringy hair and already questioning eyes. And she stopped, but she did not want to.
Lisa Gordon’s fiction or essays have been published in Paper Darts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Rumpus, Eleven Eleven, Hypertext, Storychord, Sidereal, and others.