It was a cold, gray morning; Pablo’s eyes were bleary and his brain was foggy. He slumped against the passenger-side window of the family car as his dad drove him to school. A dull feeling of dread burned in the pit of his stomach.
Pablo’s dad glanced over at him.
“Why do you look so sad? You’re going to school. You should be happy!”
Pablo looked back at him with an empty stare.
“When I was your age, I didn’t get to go to school—but you’re luckier than I was. You can become anything you want! You can be a doctor, or a lawyer or an engineer!”
Pablo’s face remained blank. His dad drove up to the school’s front gate, where a group of sharply dressed girls stood. As the car squeaked and rattled to a stop, Pablo glanced at the girls and turned bright red.
“Why do you always look so embarrassed when we get here?”
Pablo muttered something about the car being a carcancha—a tired old car better suited to the scrapyard than the road. The enthusiasm over doctors and lawyers and engineers faded from his dad’s face.
“What’s wrong with the car? I keep telling you, there is nothing wrong with this car. It got you here, didn’t it? You didn’t have to walk, did you?”
Still beet red, Pablo shrugged at his dad as he reached for his backpack and opened the door.
“Have a good day at school, son. Comportate.”
Pablo flashed his dad an annoyed look as he stepped out and shut the door. As he walked past the girls and into the courtyard, dread gushed through his body. Pablo felt a pang of sadness as he looked around. Groups of friends loitered around lunch tables in the center of the yard, and couples stood around the edges holding hands. He had always liked school—been good at it, even—until he started the sixth grade earlier that year. New school, new people; it should have been exciting, but for some reason it wasn’t. He walked through the courtyard quickly, past the lunch tables and toward his first class of the day. Outside the classrooms, more groups of friends stood around, laughing and talking. A very pretty girl, blushing deep crimson red, walked between rooms carrying a teddy bear and bright red balloons.
Pablo had completely forgotten about Valentine’s day. The teachers hadn’t said anything or given them lists of people to bring candy for.
I guess that’s how it works in middle school, he thought to himself.
He walked into his classroom and made a beeline for his desk, staring at the floor the entire way. He sat in the far corner, where nobody noticed him and the teacher never called on him. It was better that way—he couldn’t say anything embarrassing about himself if he never spoke. As he sat and waited for the teacher to arrive, students trickled in. Two boys sat near Pablo, speaking in excited tones about a birthday party.
“It’s going to be at my house. My dad just got the pool set up, so it’ll be a pool party!”
They have houses, Pablo thought to himself. Real houses. He thought about his family’s cramped apartment and wondered what it would be like to have a backyard.
“My mom’s going to get pizza, and we’re going to have music outside!”
More students came in. Boys wearing new clothes, the type they sell at the mall; girls carrying candy and teddy bears, wearing smiles that bordered on smirks. Pablo looked down at the faded denim of his jeans and fraying edges of his shirt. He shrank into his seat as far as he could, wishing he were invisible, and wondered if anyone would sit in the empty seat next to him. Probably not, he guessed.
The teacher walked in and looked around the room. As she turned towards Pablo’s corner, he looked down at the floor.
“Good morning everyone. Today we’re going to finish our writing exercise.”
As Pablo dug into his backpack for a notebook, he began the daily countdown in his head. Six classes, and then he would be free.
* * *
At lunchtime, Pablo sat alone on a low concrete wall near the edge of the courtyard. He chewed on a soggy sandwich as he gazed at the swarming lunch tables. He’d never felt this alone in a crowd before.
A girl with silver-blonde hair, eye shadow and a backpack with “I ♥ My Chemical Romance” stenciled into it sat at a nearby table. Pablo wondered what a chemical romance was, or why anyone would want one. The girl giggled as she talked to her friend, a formidable tall brunette with crossed arms and a frown on her face. As Chemical Romance talked, Crossed Arms nodded and scanned the courtyard, systematically staring down one table after another. Pablo wondered if they had seen him looking. What would they say to each other about him?
He decided not to look in their direction anymore.
He finished his sandwich and pulled a notebook out of his backpack. He set it on his lap, tilted it so the pages couldn’t be seen from the lunch tables, and began to draw.
Drawing was a new interest of his. Earlier that year, he had started doodling in the margins of his notebooks during his classes. The doodles quickly grew large and spilled out of the margins—they filled entire notebooks and dripped out on scraps of paper, where they sloshed around the walls of his backpack in waves that grew thicker every day. Although he couldn’t explain why, the drawings helped him. They made life easier somehow.
Today, Pablo drew a small, puffy oval. It was a balloon, he decided. He added a fluttering ribbon—a balloon being carried away by the wind. Was it part of a bouquet?
No. He began outlining clouds; this was a lone balloon drifting across the sky. As he shaded the clouds in, he began to lose himself in the drawing. The clouds grew complex and detailed, and he drew without pausing until the lunch bell rang. He almost forgot he was at school, but then the lunch bell rang.
With a surreptitious glance at the nearby lunch tables, he shoved the drawing into his backpack and began walking toward his afternoon class. He caught stray fragments of conversations as he walked through the crowd around the lunch tables.
“Where’s Robert?” said a tall, lanky boy as Pablo walked past him.
“He’s still trying to get lunch, I think” said his friend.
“You mean he’s still in line for the free lunch?”
The two boys sniggered.
“What a Mexican,” said the tall one.
Pablo felt a burning, misty feeling in his eyes. He looked down at the floor and walked faster, leaving the boys behind him.
Three classes to go, he told himself.
He entered the next classroom and, as usual, sat in the far back corner. As soon as the teacher started lecturing, he began to draw again.
He drew a pair of eyes—eyes that looked back at him with a cold, piercing gaze. He smudged them with his thumb, giving them a murky look as though they were sinking into water. A loose, flowing clump of hair materialized above them, and a face began to form. A sharp, angular face that grew more and more panic-ridden with every pencil stroke. He added ears; a nose; lips with streams of bubbles escaping from their corners.
He’s drowning, Pablo realized.
He added a torso, legs, outstretched arms—the drowning man was reaching for him, shocked and confused as he sank into the water. Pablo tore the page out of his notebook and began shading the murky depths around the drowning man, turning the paper repeatedly as his pencil strokes picked up speed. He felt energy surging onto the page in a way he never had before, and—
“Mr. Ramirez, what are you doing?”
Pablo looked up from the drawing. The teacher had stopped lecturing and was standing over his desk. Pablo froze in his seat.
“I would appreciate it if you kept the drawings put away, Mr. Ramirez,” said the teacher. Horrified, Pablo looked around the room as thirty sets of eyes bored into him. The teacher reached down and pulled the drawing off Pablo’s desk. Pablo’s heart pounded against the walls of his chest and his breath stood still in his lungs—was the teacher going to show his drawing to the class?
He wished he could disappear.
To his relief, the teacher dropped the drawing in the trash can by his desk, and Pablo began to breathe again.
The rest of the day was a blur. Pablo couldn’t escape the feeling of thirty sets of eyes looking at him—he kept his head down for the rest of class, and when the bell rang he was the first to leave the classroom. When the final bell of the day rang, he walked away from school as quickly as he could.
As he walked home, anger began to bubble deep inside him. Who or what he was angry at, he couldn’t say—all he knew was that by the time he reached his family’s small apartment, he was fuming. He opened the front door to find his mom setting the kitchen table.
“Hola mijo,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
Pablo stared back at her unenthusiastically as he sat down. She set a large plate of freshly made sopes in front of him, topped with queso fresco and salsa verde. As their aroma wafted up from the plate, Pablo scrunched his nose.
“What’s wrong?” his mom asked.
Pablo stared at the plate. “I hate you,” he said without looking up.
His mom gaped at him.
“I said I hate you!” Pablo looked her in the eye this time. “I hate this apartment, and I hate this food. I wanted pizza!”
His chair scraped loudly against the linoleum floor as he stood up. His mom stared at him, her face equal parts shock and betrayal, as he walked toward the small room he shared with his younger brother and slammed the door behind him.
* * *
On the drive to school the next morning, Pablo’s dad didn’t talk about doctors or lawyers or engineers. Instead, he kept a straight face as he pulled the car over a block away from the front gate of the school.
“I’ll leave you here today,” he said with a grimace.
“What?” said Pablo.
“I’ll leave you here,” he said again. “You can walk the rest of the way. It seems like this is what you prefer.”
He reached across Pablo and pushed his door open for him.
“Have a nice day at school,” he said in a stiff voice as he handed Pablo his backpack.