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I was in the Rubber Room for my own protection. Meili got there by breaking Laura Fenton’s middle finger.
The story got retold and exaggerated, but I think it went like this: Laura’s boyfriend was seen talking to Meili. Laura confronted Meili outside our high school and grabbed her arm.
Meili famously said, “You ought to remove that hand.” Her British-y accent made it “thaht hahnd.” It became a saying around school, silly but threatening.
Laura started to say, “Well, you—” and she was on the ground, wailing, her middle finger flopping like a deflated balloon.
Meili—it’s May-LEE—was marched into the Rubber Room the next morning by the counselor. Except she wasn’t Meili Wen, she was Melissa Young.
“Melissa, you will sit at this table, and you will not converse or otherwise interact with Mr. Wilder. Is that understood?” Ms. Davies addressed Meili but looked at me.
“Perfectly,” Meili said, head tilted, condescending as always.
Ms. Davies gave the aide on duty some papers and hustled out. Meili dumped a stack of books on her table and opened one.
I tried to go back to reading but couldn’t. Maybe I never went back to reading.
Instead, I watched Meili.
Deep in her book, she played with the top button of her yellow sweater, twisting it and releasing. Twisting and releasing. The sweater had a faint background pattern, a swirl you didn’t notice at first; you had to stare. I stared. Like all her clothes, that sweater made it seem like everyone else in Unionville, everyone I’d ever met, shopped at the same boring store.
Kids who broke the rules got sent to the Rubber Room. Mike Kosnicki was banned from Spanish because he had said something obscene and possibly threatening to Señor Treadway at a school dance. His defense was that he said it in Spanish. Kids who got in fights or sent out of class for using their phones spent time in the Rubber Room. I was the only all-day resident until Meili.
We didn’t speak the first day, not a word.
Or the second day.
Officially, it was In-School Suspension, but kids called it the Rubber Room. It wasn’t covered in rubber, but it was delinquent-proof. It was a science lab before they built the addition on the school, so it had long tables with empty racks for lab gear. The windows were Plexiglas instead of glass, permanently scratched up and foggy. There was a list of things that were not allowed: mirrors (could be broken and used as a weapon or to slit your wrists), scissors (same), phones, and key chains, though keys were permitted. There was a box of stubby mini-golf pencils; you used one till it was dull, then threw it out and got another. Real pens and pencils were too dangerous. The Rubber Room was set up to prevent tragedies like school shootings, or at least to make it look like you could prevent them. It was actually an ordinary classroom, echoing with boredom. Excruciating, as Meili would say.
Rubber Room monitor was not a coveted job. Ms. Davies or an off-duty aide sat at the front to “supervise,” eating or staring at their phones. Occasionally no one was there, and we were reminded there was a camera above the door. When no adult was present, you could talk as long as you kept a book open and looked down at it. This was a major flaw in the tragedy-prevention system. A couple times a day, a Rubber Room maniac could slip into the hallway—can’t lock the door, fire hazard—and do whatever he wanted. Or whatever she wanted, since Meili was and always will be the dangerous one.
At the end of Meili’s third day in the Rubber Room, Ms. Davies excused herself. “Jason, I’m going to the office to make a call, but I will be watching,” she said, pointing at the camera.
“Melissa?” she said. No response. “No talking and no getting up.” Ms. Davies stopped halfway out the door. “Melissa?” Nothing. “Melissa, did you hear me?”
“Yes, of course,” she said, finally looking up.
Ms. Davies left the door open. The window in the door was papered over to keep curious students from gawking at us. But now, two kids, small and sneaky, probably freshmen, slowed down and peered in, eager for a glimpse they could recount to their friends. Sometimes I snarled at the tourists to give them something juicy to report. But I wasn’t sure what Meili would make of that—turns out, of course, she would have loved it—so I stared them down.
Meili chewed her lip.
“That’s not your name,” I said. I looked at the page of my biology textbook I’d been pretending to read for twenty minutes.
“Are you talking to me?” she said, not looking up.
“And what did you say?”
“I said that’s not your name.”
“What’s not my name?”
“Melissa. You don’t answer when people say ‘Melissa.’”
“Perhaps because I’m reading and not scratching my testicles all day.” The word sounded like “testicools.”
“People respond when their name gets said. You don’t respond to Melissa.”
She turned fully toward me, a move that could bring Ms. Davies back. “Shouldn’t you be burning something down?” She smiled.
She went for the lowest possible blow and connected.
“Fuck you.” I put my fantasy novel right on the table and tried to read.
“So you dish it out, but you can’t take it. Very attractive quality,” she said, and went back to her book.
* * *
First thing the next day, she dropped an envelope on my table.
I ignored it.
At ten, the aide left to go to the bathroom.
I still ignored it.
I read a novel hidden inside my history textbook. When I started in the Rubber Room in January, I had homework and check-ins. That quietly went away, like all the promises of getting you back in class so you graduate in June. Fine with me. Now it was May, my senior year, and I was killing time.
Meili, without looking up, said, “Really?” Pause. “Really?” Pause. “You’re not going to read it?”
I wanted to open it the moment she put it down. But I was terrified it would be some cruel thing, mocking me. I pictured the newspaper article about the fire.
But the way she asked, I had a feeling it wasn’t cruel. I opened it and took out a girly little card, a kitten blowing out candles on a cake. Inside, she had crossed out Happy Seventh Birthday to One Cool Cat and written:
Your cellmate,Esmerelda (aka Melissa)
I put the card back in the envelope and saw the money: ten dollars folded into a tight rectangle.
“Well?” she said.
“Are you still angry?”
“Why did you call me firefly?”
“I didn’t call you firefly, I called you firebug.”
“No, a firebug is someone who starts a lot of fires. What d’you call that here?”
I took a deep breath. “Pyromaniac.” That was a word I heard a lot.
“Ooh, much scarier. I prefer firebug. A bit sweeter, isn’t it?” She smiled. “So, still angry?”
Confusing. She mentioned the fire but didn’t judge me for it. “I guess not. Firebug forgives Esmerelda.”
“Cheers. But I didn’t ask to be forgiven, OK? Let’s be clear about that. And now that you aren’t mad, mind doing me a favor?”
I would have done pretty much anything for her, as evidenced by what happened later.
“You have a motorbike?”
“Yeah.” She had noticed.
“So you might could pick up a cable for me?” “Might could” was the kind of Meili phrase I immediately loved and never tired of. “It’s on the back.”
That explained the money. On the back of the card was ? inch to RCA cable, at least three foot please. Cheers! A cord which, I came to learn, connects a computer to a stereo. Her apology card was (a) not an apology and (b) actually to get me to do something for her. Very Meili.
“Why can’t you get it?” I said.
“No car, I’m ’fraid.”
“You could order it.”
“No credit card. And I’m a bit restricted. My aunt and uncle don’t want me going online so much. They think I might waste time communicating with my real friends overseas. They want me to focus on my brilliant life here, engage with the local floorenfawna.” I had to look that up later. It’s two words: “flora” and “fauna,” plants and animals.
“How’s that going?”
“Absolutely marvelous. I’m best friends with Laura Fenton. And I’ve met a firemaniac in the Rubber Room.”
“So you are a pyromaniac.”
I tried to put on a British accent and failed completely. “No, I just hate it when you rednecks use the wrong word.”
“Snob.” She tried to sound American—“Snaaab”—and failed completely.
I continued in my fake British voice. “I can’t help it if I’ve sailed the world and dined with heads of state. It’s not snobbery if I actually am better than everyone else.”
She spoke in her regular voice. “Heads of state. See, that’s nice, actually. That’s the type of phrase you don’t hear in Alabama very much.”
“We’re not in Alabama.”
“May as well be.”
She put on an even snootier British voice, lisping and over the top. “It’s not snobbery if I actually am better than everyone else.”
I was still laughing my ass off when Ms. Davies walked in. And that made Melissa, or Esmerelda, or Meili, quite pleased.
* * *
I have lots of time now to think about what happened. I’m straightening out how one thing led to the next, how I got drawn in, how things became inevitable.
Other people have their ideas, what should have happened, what I did and didn’t do. Meili has her version. This is my story, what it’s like inside my skin. If it doesn’t line up with what other people believe, I’m sorry, but I’m not surprised. Or as Meili would say, “Who cares what they think? They’re all half-asleep, trying to fit the rest of us into some twisted dream they’re having.” She’d back me up. But then she’d point at me, raise her eyebrows. “On the other hand, don’t believe a word this one says. Complete lunatic, such a pain in the arse. Even if he can make me laugh so hard I lit’rally piss my knickers.” And she’d stand up, pointing at her crotch. “D’you remember, Jason? When I had to go in the bathroom and, like, dry myself out?”
All that is to say: Meili swerves. And so do I now. And so does this story. If you want facts, read a newspaper. If you want truth, read this.
The next day, I came into the Rubber Room with an audio connector for Meili and a shiny cut over my lip. Ronny and Dmitri and a couple other guys had caught me getting a hot dog at Stewart’s. Again. And messed with me. Again.
Meili saw the cut before she saw the adaptor. We had three minutes till the bell.
“Shit, what happened?”
“Got in an argument.” I wanted to talk about the favor I’d done, not my face.
“Argument? Bout what?” Meili’s shimmery blue T-shirt showed off the dips behind her collarbones. Do those have a name? Hers should.
“About whether I’m allowed to eat at Stewart’s.”
“You’re not allowed to eat at Stewart’s? What does that mean?” She folded her arms, deepening those collarbone indentations. You have no idea.
“It means, when I go there, I get this.”
“Not from the workers.” A statement, but actually a question.
“No, from some guys who don’t want me there.”
“So they told you not to go to Stewart’s, but you go.” I nodded. “Bit stupid, isn’t it?” She noticed my stare and looked down to see if she was showing cleavage. She wasn’t. She didn’t really have cleavage.
“Why d’you do it then?”
It seemed so obvious, but it was tricky to find the words. “Because if I let them tell me what I can’t do, it never ends.” I didn’t mention the fighting, how I craved it, waited for it.
“Bit of a shame that it’s all for some crap hot dogs, though. Couldn’t you fight over something more important, like a girl or a horse or something?”
Ms. Davies came through the door, and the conversation ended.
She hadn’t thanked me. Driving to Winslow to get the cable had taken a silly amount of time, and it was all leading to a moment with her. Except it wasn’t. I had an experience I would have a lot: expect Meili to do something, she veers off and does something else.
Did she really need me to get that adaptor? She could have figured out a way, right? Looking back, so much seems flimsy, “unsupported by the evidence,” as my lawyer would say. But in the moment, I didn’t ask questions. The right questions, anyway.
Before lunch, we got a few minutes to ourselves. “Thanks, Firebug. If there’s ever anything you need, you go ahead and ask.” Pause. “I’ll say no, but you can certainly ask.”
“Come for a ride,” I said too quickly.
“What sort of ride?”
“On my bike. My motorcycle.” I’d been thinking about this for days. Me and Meili on the motorcycle.
A pause. She was writing in her notebook. “That sounds terribly uncomfortable and dirty and dangerous. And certainly my aunt and uncle wouldn’t allow it.”
Fuck. Of course she wouldn’t do a redneck-y thing with a pyromaniac.
We didn’t speak again before the last bell. I walked out without looking at her.
I’ll say no, but you can certainly ask. She told me up front, and I didn’t listen. Maybe that’s the whole story.
Text copyright © 2018 by Andrew Simonet