An Octopus a Day

Lauren Marie Schmidt

I got spoken to in class today by my Earth Science teacher this afternoon. I was at it again, drawing yet another octopus.

And yes, I’m a senior in Earth Science because I failed it in 9th grade and never bothered to take it in summer school. I had secretly hoped no one would notice because my grades have always been so good in my other classes, but here I am. And I’m barely getting by, even now.

Part of it is that I can’t stand this teacher. He’s this super corny middle-aged guy with bad hair who has a habit of handing out pamphlets to kids to show them the various places in the Bible it says not to drink or smoke or have sex, all the things kids our age are trying to do pretty much all the time.

But the other part is that I’m distracted by the news and everything that’s going on with the trial.

The reports say that there were three witnesses, three football players, called by the prosecution to testify against the two football players who have been charged. Like the girl, their names aren’t being shared in public, but, like the girl, everyone knows who they are, especially who they are on the field: Wide Receiver, Halfback, and Left Tackle.

There were so many kids at that party that night, I wonder how it is that only these three guys got pulled into this mess. I heard that they got some protection from the lawyers. They were clearly there when these boys were doing things to this girl—they’re either in the videos and pictures, or they took and shared the videos and pictures—so it makes me wonder why they’re not facing consequences too. I guess dealing with the lawyers and agreeing to tell what they know gets them a free pass out of trouble.

Out of legal trouble anyway. They’re in a mess of shit here at school. This whole thing has caused a lot of tension on the football team and in the school and our town. The boys on the team don’t want them playing and many people in town don’t want them playing either—for very different reasons of course. The boys on the team don’t want them playing because they’re rats, but people in town don’t want them playing because of their poor conduct. Some people in town think Coach should bench them, maybe even kick them off the team for good. But Coach likes to win and he won’t let a little rape case get in the way of his football season. Go Big Blue. 

Some of the kids in school think they’re doing the right thing and others just think they’re chicken for saving their own asses. But no one’s really talking about whether or not what they did was wrong. I wasn’t at the party, but I’d like to think that if I had seen what they’re saying in court they saw on that night, I would have done something. I would have said something.  I would have stepped in and stopped what they were doing. I think of myself as a good person, someone who does the right thing.

But the truth of the matter is that all I know is that I wouldn’t have celebrated the way those boys did, with their fists in the air, holding beers, and then sharing images of that girl later. That’s about the only thing I can say for sure and 9th grade Earth Science just isn’t enough to distract me from these uncomfortable thoughts.

So, I draw. Drawing helps keep me focused, and since I started my stupid Octopus-a-Day thing last year, I can’t stop. If I’m found drawing lately, it’s likely an octopus on my pad.

I caught wind of a story in the news, somewhere in New Zealand, about this octopus that escaped from an aquarium. The octopus’s name was Inky, and Inky set himself free by cramming himself through a small opening in his tank, tumbling down to the floor where he slithered to some drain. He wedged himself in and then slipped out of the drainpipe into the bay. Just gone. I was so obsessed with the story when it came out that I read every article I could find online and watched all kinds of YouTube videos of different octopuses doing similar things, squeezing themselves through openings no larger than a tube of Pringles. It was wild. Turns out that giant octopuses can fit through small holes. They just need an opening large enough to fit their beaks. I didn’t even know octopuses even had beaks!

I was so taken with the story that, at some point last spring, I decided to make a children’s book out of Inky the Octopus. Except that when I tried to draw an octopus, I really sucked at it. A lot of what interests me about them is their amorphous nature. My art teacher taught me that word—it just means that octopuses don’t have a shape, but I like the sound of the word amorphous. It’s their amorphous shape that allows them to squeeze into small spaces, to hide by taking on the shape of other things, like coral or ocean debris, and to move as beautifully and creepily as they do. It’s their shapelessness that makes the ways I can draw them limitless.

Sometimes, I feel like growing up in this town, you have to become amorphous to survive. You have to learn to squeeze yourself into small places and maneuver in ways that will go unnoticed long enough until you can break free, till your big-headed body plops into an ocean or something. The idea of being amorphous like an octopus only goes so far, though, because we’re landlocked in this state, not an ocean for hundreds of miles in any direction. Could be that’s another reason I’m thinking about Inky’s escape.

But there’s this one girl who doesn’t squeeze herself into any small spaces at all. I love that about her and I am intimidated by it at the same time. She kind of has a bad reputation around school for getting with a lot of guys. I don’t know if what people say about her being slutty is true, but I feel bad for her, even though I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because she might not get around or maybe it’s because she does. Or maybe it’s because whether she gets around or not, she was in my honors classes in 9th and 10th grade, so I know she’s pretty smart. And I can’t stand the thought that being smart isn’t enough to get you out of this place, that, instead, you have to be as small as you can here so that when you leave, no one even notices.

That girl and I were kind of friendly as sophomores—we might have become close if we’d had the chance—but in the middle of that year, she flunked out of all her honors classes and was placed in the regular ones. I never bothered asked her what happened because I already knew. Like everyone else in school, I had seen the pictures too: her large green eyes, the straight dark hair, the pouty lips, and her naked boobs.

I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her after that because I was too concerned that if I was friends with her, I would be seen as the kind of girl who got around too, and then the decision was made for me because she was put into different classes anyway. Looking back, it was a stupid reason not to reach out because I could tell that year was rough on her. There was no way she could hide, no way to squeeze herself into small spaces at our school. So, after a while, I think there was a part of her that was just like, “Screw it,” and she became, I don’t know, the opposite of amorphous. She was obvious. Fearless, even. And being so herself gave her a power to be seen and not care, a power I admire.

I remember one time last year, when we were juniors, wishing I could be her, even in spite of her reputation.

There is this girl, Little Lucy, everyone calls her because she has looked like she belongs in middle school for as long as anyone has known her. She zips around school like a crazy lizard, awkward and fast, never making eye contact with anyone. Last year, Lucy was a sophomore and she carried around one of those roller bags. Lucy is exactly the kind of kid manufacturers had in mind when they invented the roller bag, the kind of kid whose spine would crinkle into an ampersand under the crushing weight of an Algebra I textbook, the kind of kid who needed no other reason to be tormented by other kids. Lucy is pale and scrawny with large, dark circles under her eyes. She walks exclusively on her toes and doesn’t know how to talk without kind of yelling, except when she’s muttering to herself, which she does often. Lucy gets picked on pretty mercilessly at this school. You’d think her bullies—mostly on the football team—would be over such a tired pastime by now, but they’re not. And Lucy’s not stupid—she knows when they’re messing with her. Problem is that she can’t help but answer their questions when they’re taunting her in her half-yell-half- grunting way.

“Heeeeeeeey Lucy!” they’d say.

“Hey,” Lucy would say, kind of clipped.

“What class are you going to?” they’d say.

“I’m going to Spanish and then I have Math, and then I go to lunch…”

Some boys would be talking to her knowing she couldn’t not talk back and the others would be taking books and papers out of her roller bag, tossing them all over the floor. And there would be Little Lucy, answering their questions as she’s chasing down her things.

One day, Little Lucy comes to school with the entire right side of her head randomly shaved, so her wavy brown hair was horribly uneven.

“Heeeeeeeey Lucy!”

“Hey.”

“Nice haircut, Lucy!”

“Thanks.”

“Did you go to a fancy salon to get that done?”

Papers and books are now scattered around her feet. Noticing this, possibly thinking it’s her own clumsiness, Lucy begins to collect them. More and more papers trickle down every time she gathers them. A ring of snickering boys has formed. Other kids are rushing past the scene with their own books and papers clutched tightly to their chests. Still other kids are on their cell phones, pretending not to notice. Or maybe they don’t actually notice.

“Nope. I didn’t go to a salon. Got a hold of the dog clippers. That’s what mom said. Lucy got a hold of the dog clippers.”

“Well, it looks great, Lucy. We just looooooove your new look. Does your mom love it too?”

“Nope. Mom doesn’t love it. Mom is mad, said Lucy got a hold of the dog clippers.”

I feel sick to my stomach watching this happen, but I’m too busy trying to squeeze myself behind my locker door so I can both watch and not be seen. At some point the Earth Science teacher who loves Jesus comes out and makes a stink, but the boys carry on like they don’t even notice him. He ducks back into his classroom, threatening: “I’m calling the front office on you boys!” Meanwhile, Lucy’s papers are still dropping from the fingers of football players. Little Lucy is getting angry—she’s snorting, kind of crying, and turning red—but she can’t not respond and she can’t not pick up everything they drop in front of her.

And that’s when the girl with the green eyes comes.

“What the fuck are you guys doing?”

“What do you mean, we’re just having a little fun with our best friend, Lucy. Right, Lucy?”

“Right,” she says, sniveling, still trying to pick up her papers, “Just a little fun with Lucy.”

“You’re not having fun—you’re being fucking assholes. Leave her the fuck alone.”

“Oh, look who it is, Miss Naked Selfie! Why don’t you go home and take some more selfies? Yeah, why don’t you take some more pictures of your tits, you fucking whore?”

I cringe when they start in on her, but she seems unfazed. She snatches the last of Lucy’s papers—I swear, Lucy must have had every paper from ten years of schooling in that roller bag—and pushes the stomach of the guy who plays Halfback on the football team, the apparent ringleader of today’s morning circus. Their fun is over, so they walk away in their little pack to who-knows-where. Then she turns to Lucy and holds up her hand the way a crossing guard does when he’s stopping cars for kids to cross the street. She wants Lucy to stop picking up all her things. Lucy understands the gesture.

“Are you OK, Lucy?”

“Yeah, I’m OK,” she says, runny-nosed and looking down.

Then, knowing, too, that Lucy can’t not respond, the girl with the green eyes tries to have some fun.

“Are those guys assholes, or what, Lucy?” She flicks her index finger underneath Lucy’s chin to get Lucy to look at her. Lucy lifts her eyes, half-smiling.

“Yeah, those guys are assholes.” She knows cursing is bad, so she really emphasizes assholes.

“We’re not gonna let ’em fuck with you anymore, right Lucy? No more fucking with Lucy!”

“No more fucking with Lucy,” she yells, laughing through her own snot.

The girl with the green eyes bends down to collect the last of Lucy’s things: a few books, random papers, a handful of pencils. It’s at this point that I finally step up to help.

“Hey, thanks, hon. You’re super sweet,” she says to me and winks. I grin, but I’m so embarrassed that she, after what she did, is calling me “super sweet,” that I wish I could find a drainpipe to slide into and float away. Though I desperately want to, I can’t even bring myself to say anything to her about the kind thing she did, so I just hand her what I picked up and return to my locker.

She stuffs everything into Lucy’s roller bag, stands up, and grabs Lucy roughly by her scrawny little arm. Then she starts to hurry her tiny companion down the hallway, dragging that giant roller bag behind her. “C’mon, Lucy. We gotta go to the bathroom and wash that snot off your face. You can’t be walking around here with snot on your face, right, Lucy?”

“Right!”

The girl with the green eyes is walking so fast that Little Lucy, walking on her toes, can hardly keep up.

 

Lauren Marie SchmidtLauren Marie Schmidt is the author of four collections of poetry: Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing; The Voodoo Doll Parade, selected for the Main Street Rag Author’s Choice Chapbook Series; Psalms of The Dining Room and Filthy Labors, poems about her volunteer work experience at a soup kitchen and transitional housing program for homeless mothers, respectively. Schmidt teaches high school in Massachusetts and is currently at work at a YA Novel, The Players

 

Cover art by Julius Klinger, 1908