Eric Trudd did not mean to humiliate me. He also did not mean for his breath to smell like boiled egg. And yet.
Eric and I were in kindergarten together. He lived in the apartment above his father’s upholstery shop.
In first grade he wore white jeans every day and begged people to write on them in chalk to show how invisible it would be. No one did.
In second grade, he brought a ukulele to school. Each time someone asked if he could play he said, “I guess you’ll have to find out.” He never played. No one found out.
In third grade, his mother died. He was out for a week. The day he came back, Alison Derby in her pressed khaki skirt told him we’d named the trash can “Eric.” She told him he’d have to go by another name.
“No one else was using the name,” she told him. “You understand, don’t you?”
The next day, Alison in her gold Add-a-Bead necklace told Eric that since he still hadn’t picked, the class had picked for him.
“I’m sorry, Butt,” she said, “but we just can’t have the confusion. You understand, Butt, don’t you?”
Twice my mother brought me with her to Eric’s father’s shop. I didn’t like it. It made me sad to think Eric and his father might be embarrassed to have people know they lived in the small apartment upstairs. It made me ashamed to think I was the one assuming they would be embarrassed for people to know. Plus I imagined Eric’s socks on the floor above my head.
I should be clear about something. There was a reason I was so attuned to Eric’s circumstance. I had been classmates with both Eric and Alison for three-and-a-half years. For three-and-a-half years, when Alison wasn’t making fun of Eric, she was making fun of me. There was nothing about me [End Page 20] that begged to be made fun of. At least I don’t think there was, looking back, although self-assessment is a tricky thing. I was quiet, maybe, and compared to most of the other girls I dressed rather plainly, but not so much that I stood out. On the other hand, there was nothing especially enchanting about me, I suppose. And my main interests—sewing, baking, listening to Billy Joel while sewing or baking—were homebody pursuits that my school peers weren’t in a position to appreciate.
In any event, my interest in Eric was, in fact, the abiding interest of a fellow prisoner listening at the torturer’s door. And after Eric’s mother passed, and the novelty of his christening waned, it was soon clear—even to Alison and her mineral heart—that Eric was so comprehensively pitiful there could be no further relish in abusing him.
I became her sole project.
There was the time Alison brought cupcakes to class for her birthday and handed them out and, as she put one on my desk, shoved her thumb in the frosting, disregarding me entirely and staring instead at this thumb, as if fascinated, leaving it there for a good seven, eight seconds.
There was the time Alison and I faced off in gym class during Steal the Bacon, and cagily circled the ball and one another, braced and scrutinizing for the slightest advantage, whereupon Alison suddenly straightened and gave her face a ruined expression and declared in so flat and unsensational a tone the truth of it could not be questioned, “No fair, Mr. Salvetti, Wendy farted,” and held her hand to her throat as she walked the hunched, precious, incremental walk of the freshly injured to the sideline.
There was the time Alison took out a classified in the school newsletter asking for the return of a misplaced Jordache wallet and directing those with information to my name and number—and this a good while after that fashion label’s peak, when association with it had become socially catastrophic, [End Page 21] and just before (in fact, kind of...