{ Tsunami }
Christopher Weber
illustration by Jen Lawton

tsunami - jen lawtonLet any man beware who, at thirty-five years, is called into the principal's office. I arrive at Shaker Heights Elementary School and step inside the glass doors warily. The hall is dim and ominous, and a wave of cafeteria-smell (an admixture of corn dogs and creamed corned) staggers me as I clump in the other direction, toward the school office. Mrs. Fuhrmann the school secretary sits encased behind a solid oak counter like a sniper in a pillbox. She raises an eyebrow at me. Feeling sheepish, I fumble: "I, um ... yes, well ... it's that—Caroline my daughter—you called."
   "Yes, Mr. Altenbach," she says severely. "Caroline is in the infirmary, awaiting you. Down the hall, right at the cafeteria, left at the library. Please wear a visitor badge."
   Abashed, I scuttle out. Caroline is sitting on a wooden bench, flushed and sweating in her buttoned-up coat, backpack strapped tight to her little shoulders. I drive her home, and the whole way I can see the waves of nausea rocking her. We turn into the drive and as we rush desperately through the front door, trying to win this little race, Caroline throws up all over the foyer, and standing over her there and the debris she has coughed up, I feel very poetic all of the sudden, fragile and strong at once. I stroke the back of her head, calm and comported, and savor a deep somatic memory.

I remember: I am twelve years old. I am twelve years old and am standing alone on the school lot, rocking and waiting for it to come. My classmates are ranged across the wide swath of field, playing kickball and chasing each other over the jungle gym. The sun glints bright—but eerie somehow, and false—off the monkey bars.
   For months it's been building, small at first, hundreds of miles off, but definite, a looming crisis. Now I know for certain its approach; I hear it crashing closer. None of them know it is coming, except me.
   I remember: I am twelve years old. Up to this point I had been homeschooled by my dad, which I adored. We did algebra at the kitchen table and biology in the backyard. Even now I can summon up a very clear image of him at the kitchen table, reading aloud from a purple textbook, his fading hairline mussed, his sleeves shoved above his elbows, a hand towel over his shoulder and a pencil behind his ear.
   Then my parents split up when I was between grades five and six. Their relationship was complicated, as all marriages are, but I chose to remember the divorce in terms that are simple: my mom went to work in a law firm in New York, and my dad got custody of me. This would have been in 1981.
   Dad had to find work right away, and he did, a position as a social worker. And so my life had to change too. Dad had a long-standing habit of rattling off the problems of the public schools—crappy food, crowded classrooms, overworked teachers—so we never even talked about my enrolling in one. In fact we didn't discuss my enrolling anywhere. Dad just made a few phone calls and then, one Monday in March, dropped me off at a swank Montessori academy.
   How does a boy go to school? Who do you talk to, and what do you say? On the very first day (and every day after that) I am stunned, catatonic, at the sheer size and geometry of the school buildings: the long tiled halls; the damp, cave-like bathrooms; the eerie florescent lighting; the classroom walls covered with vibrant placards of punctuation marks with arms and legs dancing around, humanoid semicolons, gleeful parentheses! Around me, my schoolmates and teachers swim in rigid formation, perfectly parallel, breaking left, then right, and I cannot catch their rhythm.
   I do not like school at all. I do not even like leaving school after the day is over; there are lots of Volvos in the carpool line, piloted by moms who arrive with unfailing punctuality at the final bell. I, on the contrary, am left to stand at least one long, solemn hour, clutching my book bag and lunch box, waiting for my father to arrive. I am terrified that I will be abandoned at school, that Dad will disappear and not ever pull up to the curb in the boxy white Datsun and open the door.
   How strange and wonderful it is that even tragedies—a school luncheon, for crying out loud!—have the power to renew life. Here I am, twelve years old, standing alone, a kid with no idea of what to do on a playground, beside myself with loneliness and grief—and into this ugly, sunny day, fate swoops bizarrely and opens enough room for me to survive.
   I am twelve years old. Today on the playground it is strident vernal March, the air so warm and suddenly free that it throws me dizzy. I am swishing through the tall, unmown grass beside the woods. On the jungle gym and in the kickball game my classmates are blithe; lunch comes next, and today it is a special one. Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, and the PTA has catered a special sushi luncheon for the whole school—staff, students, and all.
   The woods cast a clean cool shadow over the high grass, and as I wallow in it the air starts to stir all around. At the margin of the woods some sun-bleached Coke bottles lie embedded in the ground, and an old tire, harboring black rainwater. As if a ghost were herding me, I step forward into a copse of pine. The grass shakes, the bottles glint a warning, and as the bell sounds and my classmates file inside I lie down. I decide I better stay. I don't know why, but I do this deliberately. I lie in the shade and watch and wait.
   I would like to think that my teachers know I am lying there under the trees, and that they leave me there deliberately, as Signora Montessori herself might have done, so that I may pursue a course of self-directed learning among the pine needles. It is distinctly possible, though, that they simply forget me.
   So. Inside the cafeteria the school assembles in a great hungry congregation, a mass of appetites. I can almost see them through the windows, every person and decoration, red and white balloons, and blue bunting: some artsy moms have crafted a special centerpiece for each table of painted wooden teacher's apples and little chalkboards bearing Teacher Appreciation slogans—MY TEACHER CARES and A+ TEACHER—all garnished with packets of soy sauce and wasabi. The students bob and chatter in crayoned Teacher Appreciation hats, rubber band under their chins. A white-jacketed sushi chef has set up a portable bar and is swiftly, dexterously rolling four hundred California rolls.
   But somewhere there, in the rice, the hats, a grimy hand, an unwashed pot, somewhere loom the germs of their undoing, a waiting collective bellyache. Outside in the woods I sway with the trees to the strong presence of doom. I fast and gird myself against the rising wind.
   In the cafeteria mirth takes hold among my peers. They sing anthems for Mrs. Calachio and Mrs. Hess; they rollick and recite limericks for Mrs. Garfield and Mrs. Pylant and Mr. Ryan, our one male teacher. The tables and benches are coated with sticky rice.

It does not happen at once. In the woods, the pressure builds and builds till it finally belches me out. As the bell rings and the students shuffle to class, I slip through the hubbub of the hallway and into the classroom unmissed. I sit bolt upright in my desk, transfixed with anticipation.
   Then at 2:11 p.m., the first sign. Right in the middle of a class recitation of "The Road Less Taken," Robbie Ingle falls back in his chair and just lies there, looking up, and no one laughs nor moves toward him nor speaks out in concern. There's a moment of an unnatural calm in the classroom. I see drops of sweat massing on Mrs. Culbertson's lips and brow and on everyone else's, and in the silence I hear the tsunami coming on, cresting.
   It hits the schoolhouse walls and halls; it coats and covers the library shelves and listening-stations; it washes through the guidance office and tips Mrs. Cliver the counselor over her trash can; it soils composition books and sullies the gym floor. The whole school capsizes on stomach-roiling seas. A groaning arises in the hallway...
   ...and endures the whole afternoon. The entire school takes sick and lumbers to a gut-tearing stop. Without asking or giving permission, teachers and students both lie down on the hard tile floor beside each other, flat and wordless. In the main hall outside the bathrooms a somber crowd mills listlessly, shifting from foot to foot, mouths acrid and drawn, taking turns in the stalls. A few stand at the water fountain for several minutes at a time, sluggishly pushing their faces into the arc of water for relief. In the school office the phones ring without answer.
   During all this I swoop through the school like a lolling footloose hound. No one seems bothered by this; it's as if I was still forgotten, a shadow on the playground. I suddenly know what to do, how to act. All inhibition falls away. With perfect liberty I wheel into and out of classrooms full of prone bodies. No one calls after or bars me. I sprint onto the silent, booming, deserted playground, up the jungle gym, down the slide, and back inside. I become mighty, untouched and untouchable, like it's my birthday and I have elected to tell no one, to keep this vibrant health a secret for myself.

Now I am drawn back indoors to the bodies clumped together in pain and sympathy. I am not sorry for them—they ate willingly, after all—but I am curious, intrigued to come among these strangers and find them tame, like a herd of gentle food-poisoned buffalo.In the halls I make many professional consultations. I touch the foreheads of the first graders and float forward. I gleefully enter the faculty lounge and apply a wet paper towel to the cheeks and neck of a collapsed teacher's aide. It is glorious.
   After some time, tired with physicking, I walk out onto the steps of the school. I sit still, knees drawn together, and look up at the sky (soaring), down at the sidewalk (cracked, red ants scurrying), and out at the meager landscaping (dead grass and fading flowers). Nothing moves, neither air nor human. A first mother wheels a Volvo to the curb to start the car line. Soon the school lot will be transformed by ambulances, firemen, gurneys, IVs, the state patrol.
   In the lingering residue of calm I hear behind me the double glass doors of the school open. Unsteady footsteps. I look and see familiar sandals, beloved khakis—Mr. Ryan! The one single soul in the school whom I like. Mr. Ryan, all of twenty-three years, full beard issuing from his throat. Mr. Ryan who sits next to me on the ball field sometimes and just sits, gawks at the pines, pulls apart blades of grass and stares with me at the soaring sky.
   He lurches forward uneasily, lifts his head in greeting but does not open his mouth—then opens it, but not to speak. I stare. Step, step; he is trying to make it to his car, but trembles, falters, and then falls to anoint the pansies with thankful vomiting.
   I sit still, knees drawn together, and in that moment I feel the muscles all over his body go taut at the great burst, and as he tilts forward a muscle strains behind his left eye, and I feel it like it is mine. With each swell of his back, each violent shudder, the tendons pull tighter and tighter in his jaw and neck, back and side—and then in the very last straining moment they slacken and we are both left hovering there, embarrassed, weak and fragile. But now with his weakness mingles a rising strength, a rebound, and I feel it, too. Up to this moment, I'd felt close to Mr. Ryan, closer than I'd felt to anyone here. But now the feeling ripens. Today I positively become his brother, swept up in the same struggle to survive, to digest and be digested. It is my best day.

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