My room isn’t exactly traditional.
Traditional bedrooms for a teenager are much, much more cluttered than mine. Traditional bedrooms have strips of wallpaper that people for some reason think makes the area look better. It doesn’t. Wallpaper is much too jarring, much too sense-assaulting, much too unpredictable to have a proper room. I prefer a white backdrop. It’s simple, and I like simple things. Almost everything in my room is white. The walls are white. The ceiling is white. My jacket, lying in the corner of the room, is white. I don’t much like the unpredictable, intrusive colors.
The other main difference between my room and a ‘normal room’ is the fairly extensive bookcase that forms the literary arch around half of my room. I’m pretty into reading—in particular, about Iraq. Many people don’t understand why this could be possibly be so interesting, but inside those books, there’s an entire world in there. The barren landscape, the gunshots echoing across an otherwise silent night, the musical flourishes of the wind blowing against tall grass that sound like orchestras to the starved, deprived ears of soldiers is fascinating to me. The best of the stories I’ve read have conveyed this element, and besides, even if the war stories weren’t good enough sources, Daddy himself tells me those sounds are real.
My dad is in Iraq right now. And he’s a good soldier. One of the best. My friends say it’s perfectly okay to be worried about him, but that’s ridiculous. First of all, because I’m smarter than most people I know. And secondly, because Dad is too good for me to worry. It’s not insecurity, like my friends think it is—it’s a fact. Dad doesn’t worry about himself out there, and neither should I. In fact, he just left me a voicemail at 9:27 AM today saying that he would be home soon and not to worry, roughly 9 hours ago. Actually, his voicemail was 9.53 hours ago, which is 571.8 minutes ago, which is 34,308 seconds ago. I like math. I like the linearity of it, the predictability. It’s friendly. The people down the hall spend their time playing video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops, but I don’t like those games because they’re too unpredictable. Puzzle games easier for me—no outcome ever varies, which is much easier for me than loose ends. I’m pretty easygoing if I have linear results. Ms. Erica, the one who makes me talk about how I feel, has told me that’s why my bookcase is so organized, but I don’t see why there’s anything wrong with being as organized as I am.
Ms. Erica is an atheist, and for that I don’t like her. I don’t like the books that talk about how there is no God, how everything can be explained by science. Dad talks about how God has helped his squad, and of course for that there’s a God. But I don’t think God likes me. If he liked me, Dad would be home. Ms. Susanne tells me to write my wishes in sheets of her printer paper, fold it up, and put it on my bookshelf, and that way it makes little letters for God to read someday. But I guess He hasn’t read them yet.
I don’t like Ms. Susanne much either, though. She always says, “It’s not your fault.” Me organizing my bookshelf is ‘not my fault,’ Mom’s overdose is ‘not my fault,’ why I’m here is ‘not my fault.’ I don’t understand this. Of course it isn’t my fault; what’s wrong with me? Nothing is wrong with me. When Dad comes home, he’ll take me out of here, and I’ll go back to school. Nothing is my fault— I know that. The constant reassurances make me feel annoyed.
But once Dad comes home, I’ll be done with all of this. I don’t think Ms. Erica has told him that I live here now, after Mom had to go away, but once he comes back I won’t ever have to be live here again. My dad is the best in his squad by far. He’s told me his stories, about the late-night ambushes, about how he’s had to carry one of his teammates through the twilight to a medical outpost, and how he barely dodged an RPG-armed group. Once he comes home, I won’t ever have to be live here again.
And now he’s coming home!
Behind me, I hear the door open. Normally, I really don’t like people coming into my room unannounced. They should know better than that. But right now, I’m much too happy to be mad. Dad is coming home, and so, with that in mind, I spring up and give an unsuspecting Ms. Erica a giant hug, the ones Dad used to call my ‘bear hugs.’
“Hey sweetie,” she says, using one of the pet names for me that I would normally despise, but can’t, of course, because Dad is coming home. “What’s with all the affection? Something happen?” She takes my hand. It’s dining time. Usually, I put up some sort of resistance, because I don’t really like eating with the other kids here, but Dad is coming home so who cares? Ms. Erica smiles at this. “What happened, darling?”
We leave my room, entering the white-tiled, shiny hallway. I try to work up some sort of suspense, but with such news I can’t manage to do it. “My Dad is coming home, Ms. Erica! He’s coming back!”
As Ms. Erica takes this in, I study her face closely. She always has had some kind of dubious feeling towards my dad, appearing in the shadows and creases of her face, and I don’t understand it. And sure enough, even though her heavily lip-glossed smile stretches across her face, some sort of light in her eyes fades, some sort of beauty in her face falls a little. Normally, I don’t believe in these similes—the eyes are just optic nerves, after all—but some sort of slight disappointment is registered in them. I don’t understand what it is, but it’s definitely there, hiding in those infinite crinkles surrounding her smile. “That’s wonderful, sweetie. Tell you what, why don’t you sit at my table at dinner, and we’ll talk about it?”
We walk across the white-tiled hall, and into the cafeteria, packed with other people dressed in white that are just walking in to get fed. This I don’t like. There are too many people, too many variables for any linear, planned course. That’s why I’m not at ease here. Even the room’s colors are wrong. The tiles that form the ceiling, the floor, and the walls are all cream-colored, not white, and they’re flecked with little dots of black. The tiles are too hard, and once you step on them, they echo, creating reverberations of the past that fill the air and just turn into noise. Undesirable noise. I start counting doubles out loud to make the noise go away until I reach Ms. Erica.
What does she want? What class is she going to try to talk me into taking this time? The last encounter we had like this, she tried to talk to me about moving into a better room, with less of a bookshelf and more of a complete, acoustically sound room, but that turned into an argument and I don’t like arguments, so I haven’t mentioned it again. I swallow, gulping down the stale feel of sick anticipation. I wait for the inevitable suggestion.
What comes next, then, I’m not very prepared for: “Let’s talk about your dad,” she says in her honeyed, lilting voice, and suddenly the encounter doesn’t seem so sinister after all. Whatever her own objections with my father are that she has closeted away in the recesses of her rather hard-to-predict mind, She seems to be genuinely concerned. “Well,” I breathe softly, and plunge in. “I just got the voicemail while I was at lunch. He said not to worry about him, like I’ve been saying, and he’s coming home soon, and…what?”
There it is again; that voice of vanilla but edged with something darker, wearier that comes to interrupt me. Her eyes are suddenly plagued with a wistful, pitiful look, an ice-cold nostalgia that seems to haunt the hazel flecks. Ms. Erica stares at me, but not in a piercing way, in a duller, more tired fashion, as if the time for precision is over. My hands start to drum against the table, one-two, one-two, and I feel just a little calmer with that anchor to a linear world.
Ms. Erica sighs. Those firefly, amber eyes still gaze into mine. Her voice is tired, “Sweetie, we’ve been through this before. Remember what I said about not lying to yourself anymore?”
Just briefly, the table lurches, shakes, and for a moment I regret not bringing my jacket, just so I don’t make a scene like last time or anything. I’m suddenly very afraid. “What do you mean?”
Out of the ornate pouch of crocodile skin she calls a purse she produces a file. A file of a man, cleanly shaven, decked out in army gear. He looks like my father, just a little. The words DECEASED are stamped in red just above his crew cut. I swallow—perhaps this was one of Ms. Erica’s friends, associates in war that had been killed, perhaps the blame of his death has backwashed on other soldiers like my dad. I’m about to form the words, “I’m sorry” when they melt, cloudlike, on my tongue, as I read the words under it. The man was from my father’s squad.
The situation gets tenser. She must blame my father for not being able to save him, not being there to help him, even though, of course, it couldn’t be his fault. She must blame the entire squad for his death. “Did you love him?” I whisper across the table, the atmosphere suddenly frozen, like time around us as stopped. “Was he my father’s friend?”
For the first time, those fireflies flit away from mine. “Sweetie,” she says, and I know what’s coming but I don’t like it so I say to God please make it stop but I don’t know if He hears me this time or not and I’m scaredscaredscaredscaredscared…
“Sweetie, this is your father.”
The atmosphere in the room gets hotter, and suddenly it’s too hot, and there’s too much sound, everywhere, everywhere, and so I cover my hears and start to scream, but it’s still there, and now Ms. Erica is mad, and she’s yelling me to control it, and people are rushing in and putting my jacket on me, and I don’t like it but there’s nothing I can do, and now I’m in my white jacket again and I can’t move my arms and my ears are exposed and I don’t like it and I try to fight it because I don’t want it to be true, and it’s not true, they’re lying, but finally I let them lead me back and we walk through the hall and pass the plaque on the door to my room that says DETROIT ASYLUM FOR THE MENTALLY TROUBLED and I get thrown into the white, padded floor of my room, and I don’t like it so I scream and the door locks and I scream and scream and get tired and get tired and the voicemail plays and it’s been playing for two months now and that’s 61 days and that’s 1464 hours 5,270,400 seconds and Mom isn’t coming home, she’s gone and she’s never coming home and Dad is dead and I’m alone, alone, alone and it’s cold and Ms. Erica’s right and I have been lying to myself but it’s too hard too hard too hard and my head hurts and Dad is dead and I feel sick so I breath slowly and I count doubles and search for math and linearity, and start to feel comfortable, little by little, once again.
After all, I’m not alone. I’m secure. I’m safe here, in my room. I have math. I have books. And I have my white, linear, straightforward room. Safe. Secure. The outside doesn’t have to come in here, not in this room, because that would make the walls a different color, and the floor a different shade, and I don’t like that. I like a straightforward room. It makes me feel better. It makes me forget.
And, as Ms. Erica has told me many times, that’s what makes my room a special place to me. And whatever the unpredictable variables the world might throw at me, I know that my room isn’t like those other rooms, where anything can happen. My room is straightforward. My room is undeceptive. My room isn’t like the other rooms out there, like my old room. That’s the one thing I know.
My room isn’t exactly traditional.
Age 13, Grade 7
MS 255 Salk School of Science