Scenes of the Sixth Grade by Rae Kim
Try to remember that you’re happy. Running track brings a mental hum, in which you can talk to yourself. And you’re making good grades, a fact that is a flowing spring of confidence. Closed in with yourself, you are your only concern. In high school, clogged with belated, syrupy guilt, you will float, detached from the present.
One day, staying home from school, watch a sci-fi television show, and it will freak you out. Nothing will mean anything besides the fear. Darkness, your parents, a fitful haze. Unable to sleep you move like a fog. At a sleepover, the night-light sends wild smears across the ceiling, and you weep at the sound of the garbage truck, because all the world’s asleep except you and the garbage man. You are completely alone—more shame. Watch something else and shiver violently through the night, leek soup and toast untouched. You know this is something your friends hold above you. It is something they loathe. You are weak, a zebra with a broken hind leg, unfit for the herd. But in some unwritten code of law, you’re tolerated with a simmering smugness.
In the bathroom mirror, study your feet. Press your toes together so they look like that of an amphibian creature who leaves webbed footprints on the beach of a summer camp lake. Wrinkle your nose at your paleness, the greenish tinge of decay, especially in this light. Your hair, a thin and matted mass, is your pride and joy, obstructing your eyes and giving you, you think, something of a glamorous mystique. Leer into your father’s camera lens with huge, crooked teeth: the pictures from this period will stand as a testament to your girlish loveliness. But nothing worries you on a cleared path into which no other runners veer.
Go on a road trip, up the long leg of the California coast and into Oregon, alone with your parents. Humboldt State Park will be the epicenter of your dreams for years. As the perfect memory becomes less and less intact, the trees become more tangled in fog, the horizon melts more gently into the gray sky, the path to the river can be seen end to end, the path guiding you to it. Watch waves crashing into a cave, the promised sea lions hidden by a consuming mist—but smell their fermented smell, of things growing in salted soil. And ah, drink in the rivers and the craning trees, the clean and pressed air, that beauty you cannot bring back into the city.
At the end of a tunnel of bending, flowering boughs, yesterday’s tide culls a little sharp ledge out of the sand. Holding your shoes, step into the sand, which erodes under your feet. The mosquitoes, charged by summer, are swollen and ruthless. And you don’t know what it all means, only that after that trip you feel happier and sadder, as though the great gravity of the forest and sea has instilled its rhythm in you.
In the school spelling bee, lose to Soo Jung and then Alex, misspelling the word “mellifluous.” For God’s sake, forget this. “Mellifluous” will never be relevant to you again except in dark doorways of shameful remembering where you’ll often loiter, especially at the piano, while wrestling Johann Ludwig Krebs latest and greatest from the Baroque period.
Keep playing your piano. You will never make yourself believe it is more than a yoke, but it makes your grandparents happy and generous.
At track, the coach will give a demonstration on how one is to slow dance at a middle school dance. The runners titter like a tree full of sad and lonely birds. Watch closely—this will eventually be important to you. Purchase a black skirt like Emma’s, months late of the fad, the thin and cat-hairy cotton exciting between your fingers. Wear your striped shirt and some mascara. Try on some shorts—decide you like them better. Change in and out of them in the girl’s bathroom. Roam the halls, pretending you have somewhere to be and that someone needs you, your white legs spiking the dim auditorium.
At the dance, sell baked goods and wildly mop up spilled Kool-Aid made from garden hose water with wads of paper towels. Smile helplessly at your friends. Tell them,“It’s insane over here!”
When the slow songs arrive with jangly, acoustic guitar, lean nonchalantly against a “No Nuts Table” poster until someone, hands in pockets, asks you to dance in the middle of the song. It will be someone you find sallow and juvenile, someone you’ve only spoken with to apologize for being a poor tennis partner. His hands will be sweaty and stiff, and the song you usually hear cut off by the car radio will stretch into eternity.
At the end of the dance, sweep up ripped streamers and brownie crumbs with a long-handled broom. Exchange mutual gladness that track practice was cancelled, and all kinds of unimportant talk. Between stripes of dusty sunlight leaking in around the black paper taped over the windows, waltz over the floor with your broom. The fluorescent lights buzz to life overhead, and you appear, blinking, as if the long boughs of a forest canopy have folded back into the sky.
Rae Kim, New Flash Fiction Review’s youngest contributor to date, is a sophomore at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco. She has been published in Umlaüt as well as several small online literary journals. Rae Kim is sixteen years old.