Despite my best passive aggression, my mother took a Wednesday afternoon off from her extremely demanding job as the E.D. (executive director) of an elite boutique investment bank, JRG Capital, to chaperone my sixth-grade class’s field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. JRG Capital specialized in the healthcare space and performed M&A (mergers and acquisitions) and restructurings, which were my mother’s specialty. She was one of four total restructuring E.D.’s, and, on each of the few times a year she’d try to explain restructuring to me in cabs or over Thai takeout (her favorite), she’d encourage me to imagine companies as Lego buildings. Lego companies became her clients when they filed Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy, sad, and it was her job to take apart the Lego companies, brick by brick, and rebuild smaller, stabler Lego companies. She didn’t update this analogy when I transitioned from Lego to Minecraft, and watching anime, and drawing cartoons. So, it was the case that still, at twelve, attending her semiannual firm dinners, to which I was strongly encouraged to wear a dress, I would shake dozens of identical, squishy hands and picture the hundreds of fleshy fingers handling brightly colored Lego blocks.
I threw out each of the three chaperone leaflets I got sent home in the bathroom trash like I’d done with the leaflets for the previous Museum of Natural History field trip. In fact, I think I would have succeeded in eluding my mother had it not been for Ms. Teplica’s desperately enthusiastic email calling for “fresh chaperone blood.” Ms. Teplica had sent this pushier email, I overheard, on account of Nina Roth’s divorcée mother and Derek Kowalchuck’s divorcé father being the only two parents who volunteered, again. Allegedly, Ms. Teplica simply did not have enough “un-fried nerves” left over for a repeat of the Roth-Kowalchuck Museum of Natural History affair, during which the two aforementioned chaperones disappeared together in African Mammals, completely MIA until Gwen Stein, trolling for her misplaced Epipen fanny-pack, found them canoodling in a water fountain alcove. I overheard this all from Sasha Feldman, my longtime Hebrew school acquaintance whom everyone knew had shoplifted two hippopotamus bottle openers from the Museum of Natural History gift shop, one for herself and the other for Mel Seitz, her accomplice.
I understood, at twelve, that my mother had a complex about being a semi-absent professional parent. For example, she got fidgety and terse when she couldn’t remember which friend from Brooklyn I was video chatting (Mikey Costello from Tae Kwon Do), or what instrument she was coming to see me play in the school band (trick question, orchestra and viola), or what kind of puppy I wanted for Hanukkah (tricked again, iguana). Needless to say, I’m sure she felt pressured to show up for me, to inject herself into my mysterious sixth-grade life, as if I’d been on the edge of my seat for the past decade, waiting for her to demonstrate interest.
That morning at the museum, my class first toured the Arms and Armour wing thanks to the input of the museum’s enthusiastic, enthusiastic enough to invoke pity, Youth Outreach curators. Whereas I would have otherwise stood alone, or maybe in the vicinity of Sasha Feldman, who sought me out on field trips like this (I was edgy? More vulnerable in “public” than in PE?), I had to stand next to my mother. Sasha tended to make weekly rounds, targeting the five class peripherals in rotation, but had developed a more consistent interest in me since an anonymous cartoon appeared in the girls’ bathroom of Sasha’s head, snarling, on the body of her yippy chihuahua Maxwell. When she asked me if I drew it, I confessed.
It followed, then, that I was standing next to my mother when Derek Kowalchuck and Sasha Feldman started to play The Penis Game, the objective of which, for those unfamiliar, was to take turns repeating the word “penis” louder and louder until it either became physiologically impossible to emit a louder “PENIS” or, in the case of Derek Kowalchuck, Ms. Teplica flared her nostrils at you and threatened an after-school detention, because no one had seen that coming.
Retrospectively, I really didn’t dislike my mother. The problem was that she made me uncomfortable in close proximity. The problem, more specifically, was that this looming, cycling-sculpted giant in a beige pantsuit, wearing lip-liner and thick gold jewelry, who loped between the glass display cases like a giraffe, was the source of half of my genetic material. This, and upon observing my mother up close, how she existed in the Real World, it was more obvious to me than usual that if I were to chop off my hair and make it red like Gerard Way’s, she would be confused and blame herself for my deviance, and I would feel guilty and sad.
After Arms and Armor, my class was shuffled into the stadium-sized Temple of Dendur room and was allotted 30 minutes of exploration time to walk in and out of the stone structure and fill a graphic organizer. I hid myself strategically on the far side of the room, where the Temple separated me from my mother. There, leaning on the moat, I started a drawing over the graphic organizer of my mother as a robot when, surprise surprise, Sasha Feldman materialized behind me.
“So, Dylan, this is a prop mom you found on, like, Craigslist?”
I nodded sincerely. “Stabbed my real one to death with safety scissors.”
Sasha’s eyes widened and she fixed her smirk to read unamused. Momentarily, comeback-less, she stuck an index finger on my clipboard and pushed down to peek at my doodle.
I flattened the clipboard to my chest. “The body is decomposing in my bathtub.”
“Anyway she’s obviously a banker. I can tell by her purse. And what’s funny is my dad says that the kids of bankers become bankers nine times out of ten. I think I would pay to see you in that silky suit.”
Then, I heard my mother’s Work Phone go off and saw her holding an apologetic “one sec” finger out at Ms. Teplica, who looked genuinely sad to see her excuse herself. Why Ms. Teplica seemed genuinely sad to see my mother evaporate into the hallway, as a matter of fact, was not only beyond me, but annoying. Mel Sietz, who had been lurking arm’s length behind Sasha and vigorously scratching a mosquito bite, took the beat to slide in next to me.
“Apologies for interrupting, Mrs. Popkin junior,” Mel’s voice dropped to a whisper, “ but, Sasha, I’m feeling like now is a good time to go do the,” she paused and glanced toward me, “thing in those bathrooms around the corner,” she finished, making a special effort to make “thing” three syllables.
Sasha narrowed her eyes, but Mel, missing the red light, took a peek at Ms. Teplica and went to straighten her blue sweatshirt with both hands. “When they took our backpacks this morning I had to stick both of the,” she trailed off again and restarted in a softer whisper, “items in my literal bra, no freaking pockets, but, I’m ready when you are,” she said, poking at something hard on her ribcage.
I’d started doodling again, and Sasha, reaching out with a knobby fist, knocked on the back of my clipboard until I dropped it to my side.
“Would you, Ms. Dylan Popkin, have any interest in venturing to the women’s lavatory with me and Mel, my colleague, to get high smelling Sharpie markers?”
“I thought you guys were on crack at Derek’s bar mitzvah,” I said. I hadn’t been invited, but heard from Gwen that Sasha had disappeared into a coat room with Liam Keely, an eighth-grader whom Derek knew from lacrosse and who was by all accounts a zitty ogre.
“Bankers do a lot of crack,” Sasha said.
I started off toward the bathroom first with Sasha and Mel skip-walking behind me to keep up.
The door to the women’s restroom was right next to a fire alarm, red in its clear plastic box like the exposed heart of a giant robot fossilized into the white wall. Inside, there were two very old ladies. One, washing her hands, wore a sparkly owl pin and the other, fixing her scarf in the mirror, had thin highlighter-yellow hair that was tufted up on her head like a troll doll’s. She was humming to herself, and the song sounded like a show tune my mother played on the rare occasion she cooked ziti.
All three of us then went into the larger handicapped stall together, and inside, Sasha Feldman put the toilet seat cover down and sat on it, and Mel Sietz and I positioned ourselves in front of her. Then Sasha Feldman opened her hands and on cue, Mel went fishing under her sweatshirt and delivered the two markers from her bra.
“I actually really like the Sharpie smell,” Mel said, “and also, like, the smell of gas.”
I noticed Sasha shooting me a salty smile.
“But I saw this thing once about this kid who stuck a pencil so far up his nose that he stabbed his brain, and his brain started bleeding, and he gave himself agrarianism.”
“An aneurysm,” I said, catching a whiff of Sharpie as Sasha pulled off one of the caps with a hiccup. Mel’s eyes widened, fixated on the wet felt tip like it was about to say something.
“You hold them right outside your nostrils and take a deep breath in,” Sasha twisted off the second cap, “I did research, apparently your speech should slur, and this guy in the video started saying all sorts of crazy shit, like stuff he would never normally say, and if either of you get snot on these, Mel,” she paused, “I’ll give you agrarianism.”
Then Sasha slowly brought both Sharpies up to her nose, flashed the two of us a jack-o’-lantern smile, took in a big, snorting breath and let her eyes roll back. She teared up while she exhaled, tensing her eyebrows upwards so her eyelid veins bulged blue raspberry. Slowly and then all at once, the bathroom started to feel cold and too quiet to me, like I was underground, or a very little kid lost in the supermarket. And I did not once ever get lost in the supermarket as a little kid, at least not by accident. Sasha giggled loose, disjointed giggles as she passed Mel the markers.
“Mel, go, and breathe in until you feel lightheaded,” Mel got into position and closed her eyes, “and then tell me if you really saw Teddy Moskowitz jacking off in the computer lab.”
Mel copied Sasha, rolling her eyes backward. “Holy fucking,” she exhaled, “fucking shit,” she laughed through her nose and a tear glittered in her eyelashes. “And a thousand times yes, and he was watching a Bruno Mars music video,” Sasha chuckled, “and the worst part is I’m in love with him.”
Sasha was bent over at the waist hissing when Mel presented me with the markers.
“I have to pee, ladies,” I said, “I’ll be back.”
Really, I only vaguely had to pee. The truth was that my stomach was churning, and dodging Sasha’s eye roll, I slipped out of the handicapped stall and into the stall next door. I could hear Sasha and Mel giggling while I got at the button on my jeans. Seconds after sitting down, I then heard heels, sickeningly familiar heels, clicking on the white bathroom tile.
Squinting below the door, I saw my mother’s snakeskin Work Pumps strutting into the stall to the exact left of me, heard her whistling to herself, and smelled her amber perfume wafting under the divider, amber perfume I smelled when I’d sit in her couch indentation accidentally, and when she’d lean over me in the early morning and tell me goodbye for the day, and I’d grunt, performatively half asleep, a muffled, “love you.” It was then, between the laughing and sniffing coming from Sasha and Mel on my right, and the jangle of jewelry and huff of slacks being slid off my mother to my left, that I realized I was having my period for the first time.
Stuck to the cold toilet seat, I inspected the inky blood blotch that had seeped from my underwear into the seat of my pants, when I heard Sasha Feldman bark “what the fuck is wrong with you Mel, out of your nose.” Then there was the rustle of mother reassembling her suit, the squeaking of her stall door, and the click of her shoes. I, for a single stupid second, focused very hard on willing my mother to either melt into the floor or evaporate into particles I could keep in an aerosol deodorant canister in my sock drawer, next to the pink blanket I slept with as a baby and other things I didn’t use anymore.
“Excuse me, but is that Mel Seitz and Sasha Feldman?”
Neither of them responded, only Sasha laughed weakly, and I saw my mother’s heels pull off the floor while she, I deduced, craned her neck over the door, provoking a long and expanding silence.
“Girls,” my mother’s voice echoed, almost too majestically, majestically to the point at which I was almost embarrassed for her. “I need the two of you to come with me and speak with Ms. Teplica. This,” she paused, remembering how to scold, “activity is very unsafe and irresponsible, and I’m disappointed in both of you.”
I still had my jeans around my knees and felt hot and cold in all the wrong places to feel cold, my armpits, the backs of my knees. “I’m here too, Mom,” I said.
“Dylan, is that you, honey?” said my mother.
“It’s me, Mom,” I said, “and I was also smelling the markers with Sasha and Mel.”
There was a second silence, broken only by the reverberating drip of a few faucet tears.
“I was also smelling the markers to get high,” I said, “I just had to pee.”
“Dylan, honey,” my mother said, “I’m not sure how you think this will help your friends.”
“I was, Mom,” I said, trying extremely hard not to yell.
“Sasha,” my mother exhaled slowly, angling her voice downward, “Did Dylan smell the markers with you?”
“No, Ms. Popkin,” said Sasha.
It was during moments like this one that I would sometimes, at twelve, mentally assemble myself a different life. This wasn’t because I hated my mother or Sasha Feldman, but because I wondered if I had instead been abandoned at a monastery in Tibet, or born to alpaca herders in the foothills of the Andes, or adopted by a single father, whom I would call by his first name, Zeke, and if Zeke were a retired semi-professional skateboarder who made his living screenwriting science fiction movies in L.A., I might have been happier with myself.
“Dylan, honey,” My mother said, “Would you like us to wait for you?”
I didn’t answer, mostly because my voice felt stuck inside my throat, like it had hardened there into some spiky crystal. I instead flushed and rolled up a tennis ball of gossamer museum toilet paper, which I stuffed into my underwear. Taking off my sweatshirt and tying it around my waist, I saw the toilet water swirl like fruit punch and left to face my mother, looking pale and smaller than I’d expected, with Sasha and Mel behind her, both coolly staring off into the mirror. Mel had a black stripe on her nostril looping up around its rim like a nose ring.
It was barely raining outside on the white museum steps while Ms. Teplica called Mel’s and Sasha’s parents, and they got picked up by their respective mother and babysitter. My class knew I was the only remaining witness to the restroom’s events, but no one crowded me, or, I had stopped all of them from swarming me by sitting three steps above my mother and Ms. Teplica and ignoring everyone. I noticed, sitting down, that I’d bled onto the gray sweatshirt around my waist, and I tightened the knot the arms made against my stomach. When the group clustered hungrily around Derek Kowalchuck, who seemed to have gotten texts from Sasha Feldman herself, I was freed, and asked my mother for a five-dollar bill and got myself a hot dog with mustard, which I ate standing off to the side, staring into space and feeling the rain collect in my hair and stream into my eyes.