The Pity Kiss

Jon came to school cloaked in black—black sweatpants and a black hoodie with strings that he pulled tight before laying his head down. Mrs. Clark walked slowly around the room, collecting and sliding our worksheets into a manila folder. When she reached Jon, she cracked him on the back of the head with a textbook—its bright orange cover from the eighties with a shining blue globe on the front, the word “geology” encircling it in bold, capital letters.

“Where’s your homework?” she shrieked, looking over a downturned, pelican nose at the indiscernible glob of black fabric puddled on the desk below her.

“I didn’t do it,” he said, his mouth muffled. This scene was cyclic. On a bad day, she would drag him by the ear into the book closet beside our classroom, blonde curls bouncing and dangling seashell earrings swaying. A string of youwontpassthisclassyouslum and you’reasbadasyourbrother and whydoyoubothertoshowyourfacehere shot through the walls. The book closet was less of a concealment and more of a formality.

I wasn’t friends with Jon. I was silent, large-limbed and clumsy, with oval glasses and oddly layered clothing—tank tops over t-shirts and skirts over jeans. I hit a growth spurt in sixth grade, one of two rapid evolutions my body would go through before I stopped growing altogether and let everyone else pass me by. I wore a silver chain with a lock on the front. I sucked on the lock while I took notes in class until the shining, silver coating chipped to reveal dull bronze.

Mrs. Clark marched back into the room. She sat at her desk, licked miniature envelopes individually, and placed them into a large bowl while Bill Nye appeared on the boxy television set to give a lesson on sea level. I thought that Bill Nye was cool. I liked the way he dressed, in crisp bow ties and suit coats, much unlike the grey, concrete-covered hoodies that my grandfather wore. Large red letters on the back read the slogan for his concrete business, “Do it in concrete; it stays harder longer.” He would walk into the living room without removing his work boots, grinding mud into the creamcolored carpet with each step of his dragging,end-of-work-day shuffle. “This is what hard work looks like,” he would say through a mouthful of cookies, a glass of milk sloshing in one hand and the five o’clock news on the television.

We each pulled an envelope from the bowl. Inside it on a piece of paper was a state we were to write an essay on and build a model of. I unenveloped Iowa. Jon wasn’t allowed to pick until last.

“Screw this,” he muttered under his breath, leading to another trip to the book closet. When he returned, I ripped a strip of notebook paper and passed it to him.

“Why don’t you just do your homework?” it read. He looked at me, paused, and shrugged.

We passed notes like this from then on. In study hall, in homeroom, in between the slits in each other’s lockers, and down the long lunch tables to one another as “Free Bird” blasted on our cafeteria jukebox.

Jon’s house hunkered in the corner of two streets, a block away from school. It was a squat, dark brown building with a large, slanting back porch held up by two-by-fours. Sometimes, on afterschool walks to the horse stable or trips on allowance day to buy twodollar slices of pizza, we could hear his dad’s slurred shouts leaking through the thin walls out onto the cobblestone street.

Jon’s father was an alcoholic. He didn’t buy groceries that Jon or his older brother needed and didn’t buy any school supplies either. Jon’s brother had a job, but he spent the money on weed and Sheetz food to share with high school girls with tongue piercings and hair dip-dyed with Kool Aid.

“They make out in our bedroom, so I have to sit on the porch,” Jon explained one day while I walked home from school alone and found him there.

“What’s making out?” I asked.

“It’s like kissing, but more adult.”

I blushed at the thought and shifted uncomfortably.

“There’s nothing cool about Iowa,” I complained.

“They have cow-patty throwing competitions,” he said, prompting me to stick out my tongue and fake a gag.

“Do you want to trade states?” he asked.

“No. Mrs. Clark would know.” Jon laughed, uncomfortable, maybe, with the thought of what trading states might get him, and in a rush of pity and appreciation, I kissed him—a quick, childlike peck on his smiling mouth that sent me running, embarrassed, past Italian Village Pizza and Everyday Gourmet Café.

My essay on Iowa was four pages long. My grandmother took me to Michael’s to pick out stickers and paint; glossy cartoon farm animals and paints in deep reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and blues to mark the sea levels of my sculpted mountains. I made my Iowa with my grandfather in the backyard. We used the state maps in my textbook as a reference and crafted land out of concrete on a thick slab of drywall, molding it like animal fat or new spring mud pulled from slick roots. I pushed the cement down hard with my bare thumb, making lakes, and traced rivers with my pinky finger. I watched the cement dry over my skin, and slapped off the flaking bits against the house’s brick side.

“Stop that. Wash ya hands off, now,” my grandfather said sternly, unraveling the garden hose.

That Friday night, there was a dance in the cafeteria. My grandfather took my grandmother and me to The Cottage first, our once-monthly dining out for Friday night all-you-can-eat shrimp. The Cottage was a run-down bar connecting to a bed and breakfast filled with shag carpet rooms of every shade. The windows were stained glass and had missing pieces, and large, tarp-like beer advertisements covered the walls and ceiling. My grandfather ate shrimp at a rapid rate, pinching tails and sucking the pink meat through his buttery lips.

“Eat more shrimp. We get what we pay for,” he would say.

The dance was held in the school cafeteria, the jukebox pushed aside to make room for the DJ, a high schooler who happened to own a lot of mp3s and a good set of speakers. I put on glitter eyeshadow – stolen by a classmate from her big sister’s purse – in the bathroom with the other girls. The cafeteria line was still open, selling bottles of Sprite, nachos, and non-alcoholic Jell-O shots. On the first slow dance, a classmate of ours from homeroom, Kyle, came up to us. He looked confidently at me and asked me to slow dance, to the astonishment of the other sixth graders behind me who gasped and giggled. I said yes, and we moved onto the floor, elbow muscles taut as we held our arms as outstretched as possible and placed them on shoulders and hips.

By the first chorus, Kyle was ripped away from me by his right shoulder. Jon grabbed his neck and sent a punch straight into his diaphragm. It reverberated through his gut like an echo, making Kyle’s eyes bulge. I stood in shock, my arms still outstretched, as Mrs. Clark shouted at the boys and a male, eighth-grade teacher ripped them apart. I opened my mouth to speak, but the music changed to a fast-paced beat that blared over everything else. Mrs. Clark gave me a look of disappointment. A look that said, “You could do better.”

The Iowa was heavy. I lugged it to school, balancing my flute case on my pinky as I struggled with both arms to hold my cement masterpiece. Jon wasn’t at school that day, but I imagine he didn’t have a model or an essay to turn in regardless. He was suspended for two weeks, and when he returned he ignored me in person. Notes built up in my locker, but I was scared of the version of Jon I saw filled with anger. I felt as though he’d betrayed me by punching Kyle, let loose a secret and unspoken pact we’d made that day on the uneven curbside, so I let the notes pile up until the end of the school year when I shoved them deep into a trash bag held out at arm’s length by the student council president.

Mrs. Clark went easier on Jon when he came back. Maybe she knew that his two weeks at home must have been worse than any trip to the book closet. Or maybe she thought that I’d still be there for him—a good influence, full of pity, or guilt, with another secret kiss, and with outstretched arms.

“the pity kiss” is a piece of creative nonfiction I wrote in 2018. It was published in the dandelion review, which you can read online.