I did a lot of back-and-forthing on what to call this blog post. I kept trying to come up with good alternatives to Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch, but in the end, there was no avoiding the obvious title. I admit, it makes me a little nervous. I’m not sure who reads this stuff. Could be anyone. It’s an ugly sentence, as well as an uncomfortable one, and though I enjoy cursing I don’t like the word “bitch” and really never use it. Still, I figured all the reasons for coming up with a different title boiled down to cowardice, so I typed it into the title line. Looking at it, half-wanting to laugh but also feeling uncomfortable and anxious about who will see it takes me right back to eighth grade. Plus ça change, etcetera. It’s not far from how I felt when I sat down at my desk in grade eight French class one morning and saw that somebodyhad penned this sentence across my desk in small, neat capital letters: CATHERINE EGAN IS A STUPID BITCH.
Horrified, I tried to rub it off with my thumb, but the ink barely smeared. Who would write such a thing? Who had seen it? It came to me, as I failed to rub it off, that surely it was no accident, me finding this on my desk. I was meant to see it, of course – it had been written for me. I looked around and caught a boy I’ll call M watching me. He looked away quickly, no expression on his face, but I remembered that he sat in this same desk in another class we shared. Clearly, he’d noticed that we shared the desk too, which surprised me a bit, because I didn’t think he noticed me at all. I’d known him since kindergarten but in all our years of school we’d barely spoken. He’d been a noisy little boy who hung out with other noisy little boys, and now all these little boys were much bigger but still just as noisy. We moved along parallel tracks, never intersecting.
If I’d been a different kind of girl in eighth grade, I might have confronted him. I was annoyed that he’d caught me trying to rub it off, but more surprised than upset that he apparently disliked me. As far as I knew, nobody had ever disliked me. People either liked me or they were indifferent. I was a very inoffensive personality. Soon enough, I would give all kinds of people plenty of reasons to think ill of me, but I had just turned thirteen and I still flew under the radar most of the time. I dressed boringly and inexpensively. I was on the plain side of pretty. I did not do anything particularly well or particularly badly. I got average grades. I was nice. I was practically invisible. I had no real interaction with M at all. And yet, here it was, on the desktop. Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch.
I was less concerned with M’s motives than I was worried about who else sat in this desk, who had seen it, what they would think. Written down, the sentence seemed to have power. Since I couldn’t rub it off with my thumb and didn’t want M to see me expending further effort on it, I added a question mark after the word BITCH, then put two little boxes underneath, next to the words YES and NO. I was tempted to check NO, but decided to leave it.
I thought my response was charming and light-hearted. I didn’t tell my friends about it, but I couldn’t put it out of my mind either. I was back in the same classroom after lunch, but at another desk. M was in my French class desk. I did not let myself so much as glance in his direction. I passed notes with a friend, braided the hair of the girl in front of me, and spent the fifty minutes acting like a girl who could not care less what some dumb boy might have written on her desk. But I felt like I’d eaten rocks for lunch.
After school, I ran straight back to the classroom to check the desk. He had checked the YES box, and added FUCK U. At least, I assumed it was him. Maybe it was somebody else. That was an unsettling thought, and I wished I’d never added the checkboxes. Feeling sick, I got wet paper towels from the bathroom and wiped the desk until there was just a smear left.
For weeks, I approached that desk with trepidation, wondering if he would write something else, if the incident might yet turn into all-out desktop warfare. I considered leaving a message for him on the desk. I wrote “why are you so mean?” once but rubbed it out immediately. It sounded weak, pathetic. I thought about penning our initials in a heart, but worried he wouldn’t get the sarcasm. He never wrote anything else on the desk, and eventually I stopped thinking about it. We kept on ignoring each other, as if nothing had happened, as if we hadn’t known each other forever.
Two years later, on a Friday night, I was down at the beach with a friend. Friday nights were epic back then. I could barely sit through classes on Friday. I often didn’t. The weekend felt like an oasis after our long journey through the desert of the school week. We came to Friday night parched and desperate for adventure. It was May, and still chilly after dark, but we went out as close to naked as was legal, our young faces unskillfully caked with make-up, because we figured this was sexy and we hadn’t learned yet that a) we looked ridiculous and b) looking the way we did was dangerous. For now, it felt like power, the way even grown men would look at us, stop to talk to us, call us beautiful. Give us a couple more years to figure out how this works: the game of attraction, the many ways of losing at it, what is at stake. We were not really innocent, or even all that inexperienced, but none of our experiences had added up to wisdom yet, and nothing so far had truly prepared us for the risks inherent in being a young woman in the world.
We were at the beach because we’d heard that if you dropped acid and let sand run between your fingers, it would look like your fingers were crumbling away. Turns out it’s true. My friend thought it was funny but it freaked me right out. The mountains across the bay had gone blue as a painting even though it was dark, and I thought I could hear every single grain of sand rasping up and down the beach as the waves came in and pulled back out, great curls of silver-black rolling forever towards us and forever away. I wanted to get away from the water and the sand and my disappearing fingers. I pulled my friend up the beach, towards the parking lot, and a boy called something to us from a parked jeep. They were high school kids, like us, which made them seem harmless. I don’t remember how many of them there were, but it seemed like too many for the jeep. They were passing around a bong made out of an empty coke bottle, and one of them said excitedly, “Hey, I know those girls!”
It was M, of course. I heard myself squealing hello like we were great buddies and I was happy to see him. He asked if we wanted to hang out with them, so we climbed into the jeep. I was squeezed between M and another boy. We talked loudly, without quite making eye contact. We told them we were tripping, and they flashed their lighters around to make us scream. I was seeing fire everywhere.
At some point, I said to M: “Remember what you wrote on my desk in grade eight?” He gave me a blurry look, like he really didn’t remember at all, and then he started laughing at something one of his buddies said. I wanted to ask him, Did you mean it? Did you really hate me? Or were you just curious to see what I would do, how I’d react? Was it an experiment in being a jerk? Did you want to know how it would feel? Were you sorry, or was it funny? But I didn’t ask those things. Some people really did hate me now, but not M, not tonight, and anyway, surely I was no longer the kind of girl to care.
We went downtown, crossing the bridge. The whole city seemed to be dripping with lights, every doorway spilling out the sound of revelry. The boys were going to an arcade. My friend and I got all cooler-than-thou on them, declared we were going clubbing. Suddenly we were all sneering at each other. You won’t get into a club! You guys look twelve years old! — Says the guy playing video games on a Friday night! We have fake IDs, loser! We left the boys at the arcade and cuddled together, shivering, on a bus stop bench. We didn’t really have fake IDs. We waited a long time, the city a cartoonish carnival whirling around us, before we realized the buses had stopped running. It was a long walk back to my house, but we were young, we were invincible, and there were warm beds and pajamas waiting for us back in that other life, where my mother would make us pancakes for breakfast and we would be children again, for a while.
On Monday, I passed M in the hall. Maybe there was a nod, a vague smile. Maybe he said “hey” while I waggled my fingers. No more than that. We went back to amicably ignoring each other, the way we’d done almost all our lives. I never saw him again after graduation. We were at school together for 13 years, and all I remember about him are a few hazy snippets of being high in the same jeep, and that nasty note on my desk, greeting me like a slap. He wasn’t habitually a jerk, I don’t think. But then, I never really knew him at all.