Authors: D.J. Palmer
“I'll try,” Simon said. “But I love to hear your voice.”
Ben and I, along with everyone else in the eighth grade, were in the middle of the hallway, shuffling past glass displays of student artwork, trophies, and other school paraphernalia, on our way to the school gym for an anti-bullying lecture that some expert had been hired to give.
As we neared the gym, Laura, Justin, and a bunch of my former friends pushed past me with enough attitude to knock me over. I caught a few nasty glares as they strode on by, an extra-harsh one coming from Laura, but no words were exchanged. It's not exactly a smart move to bully someone on the way to a lecture about bullying.
I noticed how Ben stood a bit taller, and you'd have to know him to see that he puffed out his chest, which was really sweet. He wanted to protect me, but Laura Abel and her crew of meanies weren't my biggest concern. No, that particular person stood guard at the entrance to the gymnasium looking all teacher-like, with his navy polo shirt tucked into his dumb khaki pants. He had that leather bag Mom bought for his birthday at his feet. So many times I thought of hiding it from him because I knew that's where he kept his wallet and keys.
My fellow students greeted him with pleasant smiles and warm hellos all aroundâ
Hi, Mr. Fitch. Hey, Mr. Fitch! 'Sup, Mr. Fitch.”âand as I approached I had to think of what to say. Should I say anything at all? Should I call him Simon like I do at home? I decided it was best to try and slip past him unnoticed, using my fellow classmates as cam
ouflage, but no such luck. Simon reached out a long arm and tapped my shoulder, a knock hello, like he thought maybe I had missed seeing him. He smiled as though nothing was wrong and said, “Good morning, Maggie.”
I managed to grumble out a good morning in return. Ben and I found two seats together on the fifth row of the bleachers, next to Jaddy (Jackson and Addie), who were occupied not with each other, but with whatever was on their respective smartphones. In fact most kids were looking at, or sharing something, on their phones.
“Do you think it's funny we're having a lecture on bullying and everyone is on the smartphone they use to bully?” Ben always made some keen observation.
“You're just jealous because your parents won't let you have one,” I said, teasing him because we were friends now, and friends can tease.
“I think you just bullied me,” Ben said with a smirk.
I said, “Guess you'd better report me,” and we both enjoyed a little laugh.
A few minutes later, nobody was laughing, or talking, because Principal Fowler had come to the microphone and introduced the guest speaker, a guy named George something (admittedly, I wasn't paying close attention). When you live it, and know it the way I do, deep and personal, it's hard to get really excited about an hour-long chat on bullying. It's like going to a lecture about what it feels like to get mauled by a bear after a bear has mauled you. It was kind of a “been there, done that” moment for me.
Still, I joined everyone in applauding for George, who was young, maybe a few years out of college, and hip in a
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
kind of way, with short dark hair and thick black glasses that made him look like Ben's cool older brother. He had on a polo shirt similar to Simon's solid navy one, but his had alternating dark and light blue horizontal stripes. At the cuffs of his dark jeans were Converse sneakers, what the emos and goths in my school wore, making him even more the alternative type.
His lecture, inspired by his personal experience as a victim of bullying, highlighted choices he made that didn't stop the harassment, but rather helped immunize him to it, like a vaccine, so he could better cope with the meanness. His story wasn't exactly groundbreakingâhe wore glasses from a young age, some kid thought that was funny, then nobody wanted to be friends with him. The teasing escalated and everything spiraled from there, until by high school he was friendless, depressed, and contemplating suicide. Yeah, no joke.
He gave us a bunch of statistics (these I listened to: one out of seven Kâ12 students are bullied; 35 percent of students had been bullied online; etc.) and throughout it all I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. I was one of those stats, and everyone in the school knew it, so it felt like I had a spotlight shining on me the entire time George was talking.
At the end of his lecture, which included a few interactive skits about trusting your parents and teachers, George asked if anybody wanted to share a story about bullying with the assembly. He called it an empowerment moment, but nobody came forward. I wished I could have turtled inside my clothes to avoid any of the looks people sent my way, but instead, had to settle for the next best thing, which was looking at my feet.
I waited anxiously, my stomach in knots, for this assembly to be over so we could all get on with our lives. One second of silence became two, and I was sure nobody was going to volunteer to speak. I started gathering my stuff, thinking we were at the point when George was going to call it a day, thank everyone for our time, remind us to be kind to each other, something blah-blah like that, when someone came to the microphone. It was the worst person imaginable. No, not Laura, or even Justin.
It was Simon.
He appeared calm and composed, like he was about to do one of his Revolutionary War performances. As he leaned down to speak into the microphone, he looked right at me.
“I'd like to say something,” he began.
His booming voice, much deeper than George's, bounced off the concrete walls, which were decorated with felt banners of our division and state wins in different sports.
“That was an incredible lecture and I found it very moving. Thank you, George.”
There was a round of applause led by Simon, who glanced at George with a smile of appreciation, before turning his head to look at me again. I sank lower in my seat, trying to make myself disappear. I tried to guess why Simon was up there, what he might say next, and the possibilities terrified me.
“I have been teaching for many years and I have seen how damaging bullying can be,” he continued.
NoÂ â¦ noÂ â¦ noÂ â¦
I was thinking.
Please stop! Please stop right now!
“Each year students have come to me with their hurt and their pain. I have seen firsthand the heartache that comes from bullying.”
A murmur rose up from the bleachers, because everyone knew that “firsthand” referred to me.
The noise didn't die down, and next I heard a little laugh that was loud enough to get Principal Fowler to shush the offender angrily.
“Please take to heart what George said today,” Simon continued, “because your words and actions can cause people a lot of real pain, and can lead to lots of tears and heartbreak. It makes people contemplate things much worse than dropping out of school.”
Oh. My. God.
Did he just tell everyone that I've been crying all the time? Did he imply to the entire class that I'm suicidal? I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. I kept my head down.
“Your words and actions matter,” Simon went on. “Instead of ridiculing others, try being kind. Instead of excluding someone from your lunch table, invite him or her to eat with you. You can make a big difference in a person's life, but it all starts with a simple act of kindness.”
He didn't have to say “Maggie Garrity,” because everyone knew I'd been booted (or self-selected out of) my usual lunch table. When
I looked up, Simon's eyes were still locked on me. And that's when I knewâI knew for a fact this was payback for his precious musket. This was why he had winked at me. This was why he hadn't supported punishing me when Mom wanted to take my phone. He knew we were having this lecture, and knew he'd have the chance to humiliate me in front of the entire class.
Now everyone was looking at me. Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration, but for sure the whispered talk I heard was about me, and without a doubt the hard poke someone gave me from behind was no accident. I couldn't take it anymore. I thought I was going to pass out if I stayed a minute longer. My watery eyes made it look like everyone was swimming, but I was the only one drowning.
I got up while Simon was in mid-sentence. I couldn't hear what he was saying anymore. I couldn't hear anything over the ocean-like roar in my head. Maneuvering as gracefully as one could in a stupid protective boot, I worked my way down rows of bleachers, not bothering with apologies to the people I pushed and shoved on my way to the gym floor. Everyone, Principal Fowler included, watched my escape.
I didn't ask permission to leave the assembly, I simply left, dashing through the metal exit doors as fast as my hobbled leg could carry me.
I took refuge in the girls' bathroom, locked inside a stall, blubbering like I was eight again. Eventually I ran out of tears, but I was still shaking. What were people saying about me? How would I face them again?
Okay, don't panic,
I told myself. But I was panicking, my mind going a million miles an hour.
Should I run away? Could I make it to Nebraska with what I have in my savings account?
I don't know how long I was in that stall, but it was long enough for the assembly to end. The quiet erupted into chaos as kids filled the halls and more than a few ended up in the bathroom with me.
“OMG, did you see Maggie? Could she have gotten out of there any faster?”
I knew the voiceâPam Epstein. Band kid. Not one of the meanies.
But now even Sweet Pam was gossiping about me, thanks to Simon. I checked my phone to see what kids were saying on social media.
Sure enough, there were a few Snapchats about me, and even an Instagram post capturing my speedy departure (yes, they'd tagged me so I'd see it), but it was all pretty tame. I doubted
would last long. Kids would talk, and the story would grow from there. That's how legends were born.
I opened Talkie, the new social media thing. Talkie was a good place for me to go online, a safe space where I could track the happenings of celebrities and athletes who got tired of Twitter. Today I wanted to see what, if anything, was being said about me.
When I logged in, I saw that I had a new Talkie to Me, which is what Talkie called friend requests. It came from a person named Tracy Nuts. My heart stopped. I couldn't think straight. Everything was spinning super fast, and it felt like I was both falling and floating. I couldn't breathe. The bathroom began to spin. I was sure I was going to get sick. My whole body started to tingle.
I know only one person named Tracy Nuts, and she is me. It's my nickname, a little play on words about my deadly peanut allergy: Trace of Nuts. Get it? Tracy Nuts. The only person who ever called me that was the same person who'd given me the nickname in the first place.
It was kind of a jokey nickname for such a deadly serious condition, but my dad came up with it one day when I got sad because I couldn't eat any of my friend's birthday cake. He thought a little humor might make it sting a bit less, and wellâhe was right. There was a message accompanying the Talkie to Me request that I read a hundred times in the stall.
Sweetie, it's me. It's Dad. Accept this request and I'll be in touch soon. But promise me, promise, promise you won't tell a soul I've contacted you. Not your
brother, not even your mother. There are reasons, important reasons I can't get into right now. I'll try to explain later. But please, please, please, keep that promise for me, OK? If anybody finds out I've contacted you it will be very bad for me and I won't be able to reach out to you again. Try to understand. I love you to the moon and back and there and back again to infinity. xoxoâDad
Maybe somebody, somehow, had learned about my Tracy Nuts nickname. Connor could have told somebody, so I considered it a possibility. It was also possible that somebody was being extra mean and cruel, piling on the pain after today's humiliation, trying to hurt me more by sending a Talkie friend request using that nickname, maybe knowing my father had given it to me.
But some things were never shared, like the private conversations between a father and a daughter, which is why nobody, and I do mean nobody, not even Connor, knew that every night before I went to bed, my dad would kiss me on my forehead and whisper how his love for me went to the moon and back, and there and back to infinity.
Hours after the school assembly, Nina, Simon, Maggie, and Connor gathered in the living room for a family meeting. Family meetings were something Nina had tried out from time to time over the years. They seemed to always convene in moments of great crisisâproblems with attitude, chores, bedtime, homework, those breaking points where the parent (typically Nina, occasionally Glen) felt like they were being held hostage by miniature creations of their own making.
When things improved afterward, which they invariably did, Nina would promise herself to have these meetings regularly, but life had a way of derailing the best of intentions. And so the cycle would begin anewâcrisis, family meeting, resolution, crisis, family meeting, resolution, and so on, until one day Nina discovered her children had outgrown the small issues and graduated to bigger ones.
With or without today's incident, what Nina had seen six days into her new job convinced her these meetings were more important than ever, and she renewed her pledge to hold them weekly.
This was Simon's first family meeting, and he perched himself on the edge of the leather love seat that had come from his home. Nina and Maggie sat side by side on the couch, close in proximity but worlds apart from a solution. Connor was on the floor, playing tug-of-war with Daisy using her favorite rope toy.
“Please tell Maggie what you told me,” Nina said to Simon as she
rubbed her tired eyes. Once again she found herself dealing with lingering fatigue from another day spent reviewing case files on the Coopers and setting up home visits, all while planning the rest of her investigation.
She would have been home much sooner to deal with the crisis du jour, but Nina had several new cases on top of the Cooper case, two of them involving young people, each around Connor's age, who were addicted to pain medication.
Knocking around in the back of Nina's mind, erratic and cacophonous as a child banging a toy drum, were Simon's words of warning: how the job would eat away at her free time, to the detriment of her family. The seeds of doubt he'd planted had unfolded into a gnawing worry that she'd miss something important, some critical juncture, and this would send one or both of her kids careening off course, eventually landing them in the case file of a social worker like herself. Nina understood it was irrational, but at the same time her daughter was showing real signs of strain, and Simon was not helping the situation.
“I am so sorry, Maggie,” Simon said with an anguished voice. “I had no idea how that was going to be perceived. Honestly, I was extremely upset with your situation, and felt compelled to speak up, to say something. I wanted the other kids to know there were real consequences for their actions.”
If Maggie was moved in the slightest by his apology, she said nothing. She would not, or could not, make eye contact with him.
“Believe me, if I could take it back I would,” Simon added. “The last thing I want is to make you feel bad or put more distance between us. More than anything I want you to think we can be friends.”
“I don't even see how it was so
for you,” Connor chimed in mockingly. “Everyone knows you've been kicked out of your friend group, and news flash, they don't care.”
“They were laughing at me,” Maggie said defensively. “You weren't there. So shut up.”
“Connor, stop it,” Nina snapped. “You don't get to weigh in on how your sister feels. And Maggie, don't tell your brother to shut up.”
“Look, I apologize, profusely,” Simon said. “Did you get any mean text messages or see any posts about it?” He seemed worried that he had made a bad situation even worse.
To Nina's ears Maggie had responded too quickly, almost defensively, like she had seen or heard something upsetting but for whatever reason did not want to share it with the room.
“And Simon, I'm sure your intentions were noble, but nobody likes being singled out, and it's especially difficult for middle schoolers who are just coming into their own. You, of all people, should know better.”
Maggie seemed to perk up a bit at Nina's rebuke. She had used the same stern tone she took whenever Glen wouldn't help with bedtime, or clean up after dinner, or any number of occasions when he'd failed to live up to his end of the marriage bargain.
“I honestly didn't think anyone would connect it to Maggie,” Simon said. “But I can see now how they did and how counterproductive it was. Again, I'm really sorry.”
“Well, thank you for the apology,” Nina said. “But I'm not the one who counts. Maggie, do you accept?”
Maggie gave a shrug, which was good enough for Nina to continue.
“The reason I called a family meeting is because we're all going to have to do something to make things better around here. All of us.”
Nina directed her attention to Connor, who was notorious for not pulling his weight around the house. The multiple chore charts that had come and gone over the years would have made a stack as thick as a novel.
“I can't do this alone,” she continued, “so if you have any grievances, issues, or complaints, then let's get them out in the open right now. Because, like it or not, tomorrow I'm getting up in the morning and going back to my job, and after that I'm going to come home to you children, and to Daisy and Simon, and I could really use your support.”
“I come after the dog?” Simon said, mock-offended.
Nina was in no mood to banter. “We need to be a team,” she added. “So, starting tomorrow, what is everyone going to do to make things better around here? Hmmm? Who wants to go first?”
For a few tense moments, nobody spoke. Even Daisy clued in to the escalating tension and departed the living room for a less fraught location. It was Connor who broke the silence.
“I'll do the recycling,” he offered. “And I'll walk Daisy, every day after practice.”
Nina arched her eyebrows, impressed. “Okay,” she said. “That's helpful. Simon?”
“No more speeches at school assemblies for me,” he said.
Connor chuckled, while Nina did not look particularly amused, and Maggie sat stone-faced, her gaze elsewhere.
“Too soon?” Simon read the room correctly and quickly shifted gears to a more serious response. “It's one thing teaching kids, and it's another living with them. I have no experience in that regard. To make things easier I will from this moment and forever more keep home stuff and school stuff as separate as church and state. That's a promise.”
“Sound good to you, Maggie?” Nina asked.
“Whatever,” Maggie said, somehow upping her attitude a few degrees.
“Maggie, can you promise to try to get along with Simon?” Nina pleaded. “At least not be so hostile? We are all adjusting here, so I'm not coming down on you. I'm merely asking if you'd be willing to try harder.”
It was a better response than Nina expected.
“And you need to load the dishwasher every night after dinner,” Nina added, pushing her luck. Maggie's next “Sure” and “Whatever” were barely audible.
“What about you, Mom?” Connor asked.
“Me?” Nina sounded taken aback. “I do enough for you all that I'm exempt here. I've earned the right to be a diva. Meeting adjourned. I'd say we should hug it out, but I don't think we're quite ready for that. However, I'd like Maggie and Simon to shake hands. We need to move on from this.”
Nina was impressed with herself. Only a week on the job and already her conflict-resolution skills were sharp as ever. Even so, she worried; always worried. Damn Glen. Damn Teresa. Would she forever have to smooth over these conflicts at home? When could she stop worrying about blending her old life with her new one? Glen's behavior had made her suspicious, cost her that easy trust in people, had made her wonder if there was any truth to her daughter's accusations about Simonâthe dark look, the trip, and now this assembly business. Could it be that she had brought trouble into her home?
Nina scolded herself.
Just stop! Simon loves you, you love him, and this is Glen's fault, not Maggie's. This is Glen's betrayal lingering. Maggie will adjust or she won't, but you won't let fear, uncertainty, and doubt get in the way of your happiness.
These thoughts came and went as Simon once again extended an olive branch of sorts, which Maggie took and shook with perfunctory courtesy.
“Very well. We'll do this meeting thing again next week.”
But if experience had taught Nina anything, it was that this would be their last family meeting until the next crisis erupted.
Later on, after the dog had been walked and the dinner dishes were loaded in the dishwasher, after homework was done and the goodnight routine had come and gone, Simon crawled into bed more quiet than usual. He appeared to be brooding, and Nina naturally worried that Maggie's behavior had been more upsetting to him than he had let on.
“It's Emma's birthday today,” he said, as explanation for his uncharacteristic moodiness. If they had been together longer, Nina would have known this about him, but a newish relationship came with
constant discovery. Simon had always been a bit guarded when it came to his past, something Nina found entirely understandable given the pain many of those memories evoked. “I get sad every year around this time, for what we had, andÂ â¦ and how it was suddenly taken away,” he continued.
Nina understood perfectly well how milestones like birthdays could awaken those feelings of sadness and loss.
“It was deeply traumatic for you,” she said. “It's understandable.”
“It seems women are always leaving me suddenly and traumatically.”
Nina thought: not only Emma, but Allison, Simon's first wife, his first true love, who had walked away from the marriage without a word of good-bye.
“I'm sorry, babe,” Nina said, kissing him tenderly, finding his hand under the covers to give it a gentle squeeze. “I have no plans on deserting you, so you don't have to worry about that.”
“Maybe I had Emma on my mind and that's why I wasn't thinking clearly today,” Simon lamented. “God, could I make this adjustment any harder on myself?”
“You're doing great,” Nina said reassuringly. “We knew this wasn't going to be easy.”
“It's your fault,” Simon said, a sardonic smile coming to his face. “If you weren't so damn wonderful I wouldn't have cared one bit that you were going to move to Nebraska.”
“Thanks, I think.”
“Kidding aside, thank you for your support with Maggie. I know I'm blowing it, but I loved you from the minute I saw you and I'm not going to let anything come between us. Certainly not my own stupidity.”
Nina let Simon pull her into his arms even though she was still mad at him. She asked what she could do to help, and Simon said all he needed was Nina's love, that her love made him whole. It was like that “You complete me” line she had joked with him about, but this time
she shivered because Glen had once said something quite similar to her years ago.
“I still think you need to quit your job,” said Simon, after turning out the bedside light. “Today, what happened, the reaction, it's not all because of me. Maggie is struggling. I'm just not sure you can see it.”
But Nina wouldn't quit, and she said as much. Working again, supporting herself, it felt too good, and she was too invested in her cases to back out now.
“I understand your reasons,” Simon said, his voice taking on an edge that wasn't there a moment ago. “But I still think, for Maggie's sake especially, you should quit and let me take care of everyone.”
“Please, Simon, please stop using my children as part of your argument.”
Nina managed to tamp down her anger, feeling there'd been enough drama for one day, but she added that her employment status was not open for discussion. She had kept this conflict of theirs from Susanna and Ginny, not wanting to give them more reasons to question Simon and her choices, but doubted she could muster the restraint if he kept up the pressure.
“Well, if it goes the way I'm seeing it going, I promise I won't say I told you so.”
He leaned over in the dark, fumbling a bit before he planted a gentle kiss on her lips.
“Goodnight, darling,” he said. “Tomorrow will be a better day.”
Soon enough Simon was breathing heavy, fast asleep, while Nina's thoughts darted about like a jackrabbit. Why was he so insistent on her not working?
She understood his stated reasons, even shared his concern, but part of her wondered if he didn't like the idea of his wife (or future wife) having her own career. Emma hadn't been working when she took her life; she knew that much about the woman who had made Simon a widower. His mother didn't work either, from what she'd been told.
Perhaps he had some kind of set expectation for what a wife should be. But if anything, he was progressive, having a broad historical context to help shape his modern-day views on feminism. And surely he knew her well enough to understand her need for independence.
But how well did she understand Simon?