by Thea Voutiritsas
It was my first day of high school in a new town. In the sweltering Midwestern heat, I chose my most proper 2009 outfit: jean cutoff shorts, and my favorite tee shirt. It was a navy blue Gildan tee with my old taekwondo academy’s plastisol logo on the back, and a tiny pocket logo on the front to match. Foolproof, I thought.
Sitting at my mother’s vanity, I straightened my dark hair on the highest heat setting available, waving away the smoke that wafted from my fried strands. My mother walked over and unplugged the straightener.
“Are you trying to be bald, or late?” she said.
I rolled my eyes and brushed through the rest of my hair. After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, rice, and spam, I threw on my backpack and headed for the door. My mother stopped me.
“Why don’t you roll it? I got you that one so you don’t have to hurt your back.”
“Mo-om,” I whined. “No one has wheely backpacks anymore. It’s embarrassing.”
“Whatever,” she responded. “It’s not my back.”
I asked her to drop me off about half a block from the school’s front door. I wanted to look independent. I approached the double-wide brick entryway and pushed open the tinted glass doors, and a gust of A/C raised goosebumps on my bare legs. Hordes of big kids yelled, played, chewed gum… They were all so tall. And loud.
I looked down at my schedule. First Period: Drama 1, Room 103. That must be on the third floor. I began searching for stairs. Then, the bell rang. The still, chatty hall became a river of students. Suddenly, my feet left the ground. Was I floating? No, I was fainting. No, I was dying. No, a man with a full beard wearing a football jersey has lifted me up by my wheely backpack and set me back down facing the other way. He walked away mumbling a quick “s’cuse me.” I looked down at my schedule as if a map would appear.
“Do you need help?” a voice boomed.
I looked up. Our tall, exceptionally bald vice principal, Mr. Smiley, was staring down at me. His baritone voice shrank my head into my shoulders.
“I’m looking for 103.”
“It’s by the orchestra room,” he points behind me.
I start to walk away and head up the nearby staircase.
“Hey!” he shouts. “Over there!” He motions to the row of classrooms below them.
Oh. It’s on the first floor. “Thanks!” I say.
A group of older girls shuffled by, giggling. They go into 103. Crap. That’s my room. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and headed in. Chairs were arranged in a half circle around a small stage in the corner of the room, with an antique couch in the center. The room smelled like old paper and armpits. I found a seat in the back corner. A pale boy with black curly hair turned around in his seat to face me, sitting on his knees. He used his index finger on each hand to pull his eyelids to either side. Not understanding the gesture, I did it back. He laughed.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Thea.” I said. “What’s yours?”
“Ryan.” He said. “Did you know you’re a fish head?”
“A fish head.” He repeated. “A zipper head. A slanty-eyed gook.”
Confused, I stared back. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Ryan shrugged. Turned around. Class began.
Two weeks later, I went to dinner at a new friend’s house. I told her about the confusing encounter with Ryan. She asks her grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, what a zipper head is.
“Well in the war,” he explained, looking at me, “when the Viet Cong got shot in the head, their heads would split – ZZZZZP!” he shot his hand over the top of his head, “like a zipper.”
“Oh,” she said.
Plates and cutlery clinked to punctuate the silence that followed. I wasn’t hungry, but I focused on cutting my steak into smaller and smaller pieces. “Well, that’s enough of that,” her father blurted out. “Thea, how’s your steak?”
“Really good. Thank you.”