Oct/Nov 2006  •   Fiction

Breaking Water

by Caroline Kepnes

Photo by Jim Gourley

Photo by Jim Gourley

Watching Mrs. Hippie walk around the art room fills Vince with all kinds of violence. One time he was doing his impression of her at recess and when he turned around she was standing there. He wanted detention. He wanted to get dragged to the principal's office. But all she did was clap and look him in the eye and say, "Good job, Vince."

So that's why when he's in art class, he kind of wants to kill her. But you would never do that. And more than he wants to kill her, he wants to know why she doesn't try to be normal. You're supposed to want to fit in, and she doesn't. Just look at her, for God's sake. There's never a bra helping out her big fallen boobs, which dance beneath her potato sack dresses, some of them tie-dyed, all of them smelling like the guy who works the night shift at 7-11. Supposedly her name is Mrs. Heddy End, but it's hard to imagine that she's married. Wouldn't she have an ironing board? Wouldn't she wear a diamond ring? A husband wouldn't let her wear all those jangly necklaces, would he? Wouldn't she own multiple bras and hang them to dry in the shower so they'd be ready in time for school? And does anyone name a baby girl Heddy? The thought of a husband Frenching her—let alone doing her—blows Vince's mind, even if it does give him hope for his own fat ass.

"Hey Indian giver, gimme the red."

"Hold on," says Vince. He doesn't want to tell Salzman he needs the red. He doesn't want to be a loser who cares about art.

"Okay, faggot."

So Vince passes the red to Salzman. "Here, dick for brains."

"Idiot," says Salzman, as he grabs the paint and upturns it so all of it is gone, splat onto a sheet of paper. "You got brains for dick."

Vince gulps. The red paint, gone. "That doesn't even make any sense."

"Fuck you."

Sometimes Vince doesn't understand he and Salzman are best friends. If they were, would Salzman waste the paint? Aren't best friends supposed to know each other and not steal from each other? Salzman rolls his eyes at Vince. "You're such a freakin' pansy." Then he reaches across the table and grabs another kid's red paint, slaps it in front of Vince, who is so moved by the gesture, he starts to shake. Full of hot dogs and what Dr. Reese calls excessive fat cells, he farts.

And Salzman cracks up.

"Sorry," says Salzman, before he elbows Vince. "Mrs. Hippie." Vince can hold in the laughter. It's fun enough just to be in on a joke, to be here in art class, in sixth grade, his best friend swiping paint for him, sharing the knowledge their art teacher is nothing but Mrs. Hippie. She is the kind of teacher who farts when you fart and then keeps on walking about the musty arts and crafts room as if it was a garden, as if it there were lilacs and bees all over. Vince is in love with art class, with Salzman, with cups of paint, with girls at dances, with today, a Tuesday, with the month of October, with the anticipation of Thanksgiving, with the memory of the cream cheese and jelly sandwich he ate for lunch.

"She's such a freakin' douche."

"I know, killa. I know."

She's always touching things, kids' heads, grazing her hairy hands on desktops, her glasses perched on the tip of her long bony nose, amazingly staying put, as if they were Krazy Glued on. Once in a while she takes a deep breath, and if Vince happens to look over at Salzman, his best buddy, they have a good muffled chuckle because when she inhales, her boobies go with her, rising like kids who think they're going for ice cream and sinking when they learn they're only going to drop off library books. Mrs. Hippie talks to all twenty-eight of these children about color, about Matisse and classic rock lyrics, as if any of them are listening, as if any of them care. Vince looks around the room. Even the smart kids, the Marley Kings and the Breck Wilders, they aren't listening to Mrs. Hippie. Marley reads To Kill a Mockingbird for English class and Breck scribbles in a notebook. Breck's dad is an ear, nose and throat doctor, yet last week, Breck was stuck in detention because he shoved dimes up his nose. Breck pitches on the baseball team. He's the captain of the Olympics of the Mind and, somehow, being smart doesn't make him a douche. He's also the boy who got to dance with Marley at the St. Patrick's Day dance. He got to touch the place where her soft pink shirt slithered away into the inner quarters of her pants.

He is God, that kid.

That's how he knew what shirt Vince would wear today. He knew and he wore the same shirt so Vince would realize his was too tight. When Vince saw Breck this morning, he learned the shirt could look the way it looked on the faceless mannequin on a real live person. Vince could die, and on Mrs. Hippie goes.

"The color blue. The shade of blue in Stevie Nicks' eyes when she sings about the inherent nature of men, which is to love you only when they are loving you. Desertion. We play with blue, beneath skies of mild clinical blue. We swim in blue. We cry blue tears, even if they are crystalline. The color of sadness. Blue. Here I go again, I see the crystal vision. I keep my vision to myself, yeah. Blue, the color of keeping something to yourself. I want everyone to pick their blues carefully, so carefully they seem to pick you, as if the palette is a ouiji board. Do you all still play with those?"

NO, everyone responds in unison, and she is a crack head, Mrs. Hippie, and Vince keeps it to himself, that he likes listening to her, that last week he forced his dad to drive him to Blueberry Hill Records to buy a Fleetwood Mac album. He liked himself when he was lying on his bed alone, letting the chaaaaaains....keep you together. He is always invited to perform in talent shows. His baseball card collection is freakin' huge, with a rookie Clemens card Salzman says he would kill for. Did you hear that? Salzman would kill for it, and Vince has it. Vince is also good at making fun of people. He mocks Mrs. Hippie on the playground and on Friday nights, when he dances for everyone at the teen center. Everyone clears away, makes a circle, and he does the moonwalk and the other kids laugh and hoot and when he spins fast, drops of sweat, his sweat, spiral out to his classmates, and he is their God. He has hope, and his sights are set on Marley King. She is named for Bob Marley, whom she says is the prophet of peace. But everyone's sights are set on Marley King. Her profile is perfect. Like the Barbie doll's, it dips and points in all the right places. Is it possible for someone's forehead to be this small? Is it possible for brown hair to be that silky? Doesn't it only happen that way on dolls?

"Setta, gimme that tittie rag."


"Just give it."

It's Salzman asking, so Vince gives it, and without asking Salzman tears out a page and tosses the magazine back.

"Dude, you tore."

Salzman shrugs, and Vince must think of something else, he must not get angry. He must think about listening to Fleetwood Mac over and over again in his bedroom and dreaming of Marley King, picturing delicious Marley King focused on him, listening to him and letting him push her along on the skating rink. In his fantasy, she needs him or else she would collapse and perhaps scrape her apple bound cheek. He craves winter just because it holds within its icy grasp the possibility of Marley in powder blue earmuffs, skating just ahead of him, led along by his arms. Vince is overweight and Brazilian, but Vince is loved and one has nothing to do with the other. It seems impossible to him that anyone or anything could ever destroy him, hurt him, because look at his mom. And while the psychologists and his dad would like to say his mother hurt him by leaving, well come on, Vince knows the truth. He knows also his mom knows he knows. That it's not the kind of truth you can talk about with other people. Love is a secret. Love is his mom stranded in the red Ford and Marley peering inside the paper walls of To Kill a Mockingbird, totally oblivious to the beauty of Fleetwood Mac.

"Blue is the color of secrets. It's the color of withholding. When we are old, our veins turn blue with secrets. It's what happens to all urges and feelings restrained."

She is such a crack head, Mrs. Hippie. The cool thing is to make fun of her at recess, during foursquare. Everyone is pumped up after her class. There is so much to say, so much to mock. And there is the big red ball and the knowledge that Marley King is mere feet from you, that she is presently on a swing, swirling so the chains twist and become one, little Marley's seat folding upwards, enveloping her like the petals of a lily pad. It is late autumn, and noses run wild on the playground. The kids are still young enough for a playground in sixth grade. Next year, they will all enter the middle school, where no one will be permitted to be on swings. It amazes Vince the way somehow what is appropriate now, on October 27, 1987, will be labeled dorky and inappropriate and childish in September of 1988. That is less than a year away. Is this perhaps why foursquare is so much fun now? Because in a year it will be prohibited? Vince has to go to the bathroom, number one, but cannot walk away from the scrap of tar. He cannot leave the last twelve minutes of recess when the Van Morrison air is blowing all around him and leaves are falling and in a year, none of this will be permitted. He wants to call everyone killa!, which is the cool word now. They're playing it the word game way, too, which Vince likes best of all, even though he is stuck as the jack, hasn't made it to the king spot since like the second day of school. Salzman is king, choosing categories, Teachers! Cute Girls! Fish! requiring the other players to respond accordingly, Mrs. Hippie! Marley King! Freshwater Bass! But the urgency in his bladder's cut into his brain and he's slow, he's screwing up.

"Vincey, I said ICE CREAM. You totally missed!"

"Hey Spencer," Vince says. "Go ask Marley King if she'll go out with me."

The boys gape. The big red ball rolls into the cove of a pine tree. The smell of half-eaten hot dogs rolls in, catered by the breeze.

"Are you fucking crazy, Vince?"

His right leg shakes, trying to keep up with his heart. The unspoken rule regarding Marley is you're supposed to look at her, stare even, and talk about her, but you're not supposed to go for it. Spencer has acne and the girls are grossed out by his face, so of course he's the one who shoves the ball back into play, "Hey killa, that was a giant!"

The ball bounces once and sails over Salzman's head. But he doesn't chase it. It's a game for sissies, stupid foursquare.

Salzman takes charge. "Dude, forget the freaking ball. Vincey, are you serious?"

The words come without his meaning them to, like a million leaks spouting at once.

"She checks me out all the time in art class and last Friday when I was doing my Milli Vanilli imitation she came right up close."

But maybe she just thinks he's stupid and she stares at Salzman too, he thinks, and maybe Vince should just wait till Friday and ask her to dance or something and No.

"Somebody go ask her NOW."

All knowledge of her is shared, garnered by Adam Banks, who lives six houses away from her and can tell you all, whispering over lumps of clay in art class: that her father mows the lawn weekly; that last year, their family flew to Sweden for a vacation; that they actually have living relatives in Sweden. So what? You're king and you can steal away into the basement and find Sweden on the globe and recount the other things you know about Marley King: that her father coaches her older brother's little league team, the Seafood Shanty Swingers; that you once saw her mother backing out of the parking lot at the airport, smiling, even though her floppy tan hat nearly blocked her face. You can hold that one to yourself, the sight of Marley King in the backseat laughing, the backseat of a Volvo that was beat up in the kind of way that was cool, different from the way your dad's Honda was beat up. You know Marley King brought wooden clogs with red tulips on them back from Sweden, even though these clogs, according to your dad, are Dutch. You can picture her ankles, which are smaller, you think, than her wrists, and the fact she crosses her legs this year, as opposed to last year, when she usually sat with her legs tucked under, her ankles crisscrossed at the back. A wall of urine is trying to distract you, to get the better of you, and perhaps if anyone found out about your stash of Marleyisms, you would be locked up and labeled a pervert.

"Okay, who's gonna go and do it?"

Stevie Nicks says she saw the crystal vision and kept it to herself, but he is braver than her and everyone else in the history of the world. Yes, he isn't keeping it to himself. Vince is the one with balls, and he gets so nervous that the need to pee is lost in a sea of other bodily on goings, sweaty palms and twitching eyelids and hairs on legs standing erect. Ha-ha to the other guys because he's the one with guts, he's the one who goes out and buys the Fleetwood Mac and learns things from it you can't get out of MC Hammer at the teen center. Ha-ha, guys, because Vince went first.

"I'll go, Vincey."

John Salzman flees his square, runs down the hill and across the yard that seems so huge. Vince is smart enough to know the playground will one day seem small, though he can't believe that, not really. Adults must be lying. The game resumes, with everyone screwing up as they can't stop watching Salzman kick stones and talk to her, to Marley King, as if she is a real person. Vince's ears fill up with the thunder that only happens when it's raining, and he can wait it out, the piss. In fact, once she is his, once Marley is his girlfriend, perhaps he'll never even need to wiz again. She is magic that way. The whole exchange lasts about thirty seconds, about three thousand years, and Vince's dick is about to explode and he's panting and he doesn't want to wet his pants and run, Salzman, run faster, faster, you dickwad!


Salzman returns, breathless, scrappy hairy legs and a skeleton's jaw. He shrugs his shoulders. "She says you're a nice guy but you're too Brazilian. And you know, fat. Yo Streeter, you're in my spot."

The guys laugh and go back to playing foursquare as if the world hasn't just ended.

Today they have won. They have learned by watching him. Is Vince that Brazilian? Is he that fat? No, he's not like Justin Quayley who needs a special desk and eats off two trays at lunch. He wishes he could cut his belly into a million little pieces, and he's too fat, too fat, too fat, so fat, so fat and his dick burns with achy pee and when he looks across the yard at her, at Marley, she actually waves, as if she has the right to be kind. As if he wants a wave. And when he waves back, when he throws all his energy into staving off tears, he forgets himself, his lower half and there is warmth and relief and laughter.

"Vincey wet his pants! Vincey wet his pants!"

Now there are bells and other kids like wolves flocking to the sound of mockery. A lunch lady with a hairnet disposes hot dogs in the distance and wipes her brow and they're all chanting Wetter! Wetter! Wetter! And it is the worst crime in the world, God's cruelest act ever, to have given Vince the last name of Setter. Because Setter rhymes with Wetter. And it is fun to say. Wetter Setter! And in that most biting tone of voice, in the Hyannis convenience store-bought ice cream accent, it comes out all crass, like a nurse giving you a shot without so much as having the decency to lie and say it won't hurt. Wetta Setta! Wetta Setta! Setta took a wetta! There are teachers waving their flabby arms for the kids to come back and there is Vince, sweating now, sure he is so fat his globules might start to seep right out of his eyeballs and plip-plop across the field, maybe attacking scrawny Salzman, whom Vince blames. He should have known not to go to Marley. Isn't that what friends are for? And his sense of smell returns and somehow there is the act of filing back into the brick building where he's told his dad once studied the same things, arithmetic and trombones and the nightmare of that horse requiring jumping over in the gymnasium.

Somehow, he is in the nurse's office, and she is wearing one white rubber glove and touching the soaked part of his tan pants, why of all days today did he have to wear tan pants? And she appears to be talking to him about Hurricane Matilda and bottles she dug up from her backyard and somehow, he is still alive. The glove smells like old people in the pharmaceutical aisle of the grocery store. Does he go to this school? Is his heart still beating?

"Take off your pants, son."

Isn't he so fat he might at any moment just cave into the ground and sink all the way to the hot globby center of the earth he'll learn more about in seventh grade?

"Yoo hoo! Vince, we've got to get you all set. Would you rather I go? Is this embarrassing for a young man?"

And she, Nurse Wheeler, of the hairy chin and the GO RED RAIDERS! sweatshirt appears to be waving two pair of slacks before Vincey.

"These ones are cuter, if you like plaid. But these other ones, the maroons, they might fit you better. You've got a broad build."

And what can he do but stare at her, because talking would imply this is all actually happening? He can hear a girl complaining about a sore throat. He would do anything for a sore throat, but they would never let him go home sick. When given the opportunity to destroy children, schools are obligated to embrace it and force them into lender pants and send them back to art class.

"Vince. Honey, we need you to pick out a pair of pants."

"But can't I just wear these?"

"No. That would be unsanitary."

"Do you have a hair dryer?"

She sighs and looks at him and blows an errant strand of old woman hair off her face. Does she really feel so strongly about the Red Raiders and their importance as a football team? How can she want them to GO! and yet also want him to go back to art class?

"Look Vince, this is a hard day for you. But kids forget everything. Don't sweat it, hey?"

He wishes she had a wart and bites his lower lip.

"I'll leave you alone, and you try on the maroon ones. They'll flatter you. You're a nice dark boy."

Before he can object, she has turned her butt around and pulled a vinyl white curtain with smiling rubber ducks around the bed, creating a dressing room for the shamed. Perhaps he could stay here throughout the rest of the school year. They could bring him his books and his lunch and he would never have to open his locker or see Marley King again. He fingers the maroon slacks. Thirty-inch waist. Is that fat? Thirty seems like a lot of inches, more than two feet, tall enough to go on the good rides at Disney World, he suspects, though he's never been. How did Vince not know he was fat? No, no. It was too fat. That's what she said. Before he'd been fat, whatever, he's a boy, he likes ice cream sandwiches and Atari and now suddenly he is too fat and how could she say that of him? What did he ever do to her?

"Vincey. How's it going? I'm going to need that bed soon!"

The slacks are tapered at the bottom, sewn up with black thread. A ceiling fan whirs above his head, circulating the smell of hot dogs and rubbing alcohol. The pants are made of nylon. They were fixed up by someone who didn't use love because she didn't know for whom they were destined. They aren't intended to be worn. The seam has a tag steamed into it reading GRADE SIX NURSES OFFICE. He gets the feeling he is to remember the tag, the color, the rubber ducks and the fan and the hot dogs forever and that they all somehow undo everything else, the way it took his mother six coats of paint to cover up the striped wallpaper in the bathroom. And who has worn these pants before? Knock knock. Vince jumps up and slips into the pants, nearly falling on the ground for worse than wearing them would be having Nurse Wheeler see him naked in all his too-fat glory. He stands up. They fit. Marley was right. He is too fat. Thirty is far too many inches.

"I'm all set."

He can see the nurse's silhouette pull back the curtain. She crosses her arms across her RED RAIDERS chest and in the light her feathery beard blazes. Her wedding ring glistens. God, October and its confusing shades of light can go fuck itself. This woman is married. Vince wonders, when people get older, do they just find everyone attractive, the too fat and the too hairy?

"Now that's a good fit, son."

But she waited too long to talk, and she avoids eye contact and bends over to make the bed, even though it's already made. "Okay, Vince. Tonight you ask your dad to wash these slacks good. Wash the soiled, too. And you bring the maroons back to me tomorrow. How's that?"

And what is he supposed to say? My mom is in Las Vegas with a white guy who's not my dad and my dad only does laundry once a week?

"How's that, hon?"

How does she think it is? A glob of drool escapes from the left corner of his mouth as if his body has gone off duty. Nurse Wheeler offers him a tissue and strokes his hair to the left as if he is supposed to style it to match the ugly 1970s maroon pants.

"You know, you do have to go back to art class."

Instead of crying Vince squeezes his outer thighs, which he can touch because the pockets in these anonymous pants are sewn together. His hands just hang there.

"Listen, hon. When I was sixteen, I went to a pool party. There was this boy. Adam Laderly. Isn't that a name? Oh, it was a name. And I liked him. I was coming out of that pool, feeling so good, and suddenly everyone started laughing. Do you know what happened to me? My little bikini top had fallen completely off. So there I was exposed! I didn't think I'd ever go back to school. I didn't think I'd ever go out in public again. But you know what? You do. And it just becomes something funny that happened. You know?"

Vince is trudging down the hall in his maroon slacks matching his skin, newly aware he did not swim at Mitzi Wyman's end-of-the-summer pool party because he had known he was fat, even though he hadn't known it enough. He had pretended to have an ear infection and sat with his T-shirt on, soaking the other kids with a water gun. Big fat wimp, as it turns out. He listens to the swish of his pants, these pants that aren't even his pants. And he worries he might be denting the tiles with his every step. He wishes he was special ed like that Foulke kid and didn't know from shame. He wishes he could go to the cafeteria and put on a hairnet and throw hot dogs into an incinerator. The door to art class is closed and he looks at the collage of classic rockers blocking a peek into the fracas, into the peers and the pottery and Mrs. Hippie's titties and his stool and the accents and the stiff paintbrushes and the splattered sinks and the aprons and the ovens and all the little pieces of shit art only a mother would love. He touches the doorknob and looks into Mick Jagger's wide open mouth and faintly, "He sees a red door, and he wants to paint it black. And why? Because red is the color of lust and all the things we want that threaten us because not getting them could hurt."

Did someone tell her about recess? He looks away from Jagger's mouth and into Stevie Nick's laminated watery eyes. And they're brown, Stevie's eyes, which fills him with rage against adults, for wasn't it just minutes ago when Mrs. Hippie spoke of their blue majesty?

"Just hear that—he sees the red door, and he wants to paint it black. Ask yourselves, what do you want to change?"

But obviously Vince can never trust Mrs. Hippie and her alleged tattoos ever again. What's he going to do at the teen center on Friday? Is he even going to go to the teen center? The doorknob is rickety and brass and held together by Scotch tape. No other teacher in school would let it go like that. A math teacher would call maintenance right away. Mrs. Hippie pulls the door inward, revealing all of them seated and him standing, and in unison, in joy, in church, in full on regalia, they shout, "Wetta Setta!" He is like the worst kind of bride, the center of all this unwanted deadly attention, and Mrs. Hippie smiles wide, her brown crooked teeth closer to him than ever before.

"Oooh! I like your bell bottoms, Vincey! Very sharp."

The laughter enters his bloodstream, and it's clear he'll have to go to private school next year. Or, maybe tomorrow. He searches the room for Salzman, but when he spots him, Salzman doesn't look away as if he's ashamed. He doesn't blush and kick at the torn tiles of the art room floor. He smiles, holding Vince's eyes, and Vince has no idea how many times Mrs. Hippie has asked him to take his seat by the time he finally does. But when she comes from behind and hugs him, making the other kids laugh, he wants her to hold on to him forever, and were it not for all the laughter and the hoots, everyone would have heard her say, "It'll get better, honey," and he wouldn't have been able to whisper, "I love you," which he'd never said to anyone who wasn't a mom or an auntie.

Her patchouli perfume stays with him for hours, smothering the urine he would have sworn he and everyone else could still smell. And at night, with the lights off, he can still smell it, the way he used to be able to smell Salzman when he slept over on the pull-out sofa. He gulps, realizes he's thinking of Salzman as a "used to," wonders if maybe Salzman will still be his friend anyway. Hope is like the smell of pee, of patchouli; it won't fade easily. Maybe that's why people get old and go away, to Las Vegas, to art rooms in sixth grade schools, to their bedrooms, where Stevie Nicks waits.