John takes his time walking down the stairs, in no rush to get back to class. John hates every subject, but Drama is especially shitty to him. He'd always been interested in acting -- nearly all of his patented daydreams consisted of playing villains in superhero films or fighting John Travolta in a helicopter.
Ms. Cunningham's drama class is anything but inspired. She'd been wise enough to double major in drama and education in college, though the safety net of a stable income and summers off made her lazy in her pursuit of a career in theater. "I'll audition in the summer," she'd say. "The day ends at 3," she'd rationalize. 30 years later, after two failed marriages and an acting career that never materialized, she lacked any motivation to pass on her craft to any of her students.
Not that they gave a fuck anyway.
John never saw drama class as an opportunity to explore his ever-growing curiosity for being in movies. Ms. Cunningham essentially let the loud, popular students fuck around in front of the classroom, giving them lazy improv scenarios and allowing them to mug to their friends. Whenever a student like Harper Paul, a knot of angst with a deep appreciation for the craft of acting, would attempt to do anything remotely artistic, she was greeting with jeers and mock standing ovations. Ms. Cunningham would occasionally offer a half-hearted, "knock it off", then put her feet up on the desk.
Harper at least tried. John saw standing up and performing in front of the class as asking to be “Herbed” by the other kids. It's this line of thinking that held John back in every aspect of his life. He'd get it in his head that he wanted to be something -- a baseball player, a movie star and, for a brief period after 9/11, a firefighter -- and imagine how great it would be. He would imagine the perks, the admiration, the girls it would bring… and that's about it. He would imagine. He would never do. John never felt like he deserved anything he daydreamed about.
John quietly walks into the classroom. Rocco Esposito and Brianna Scarpelli are wrapping up an improv. Rocco calls Brianna a "bitch", which provokes a thunderous explosion of students screaming "OH" while pounding on their desks. Rocco smirks at his buddies.
Ms. Cunningham screams, "No swearing!"
Brianna, not to be outdone, indicates to her right pinky, "Well you got a small dick anyway!"
The classroom goes apeshit. Brianna covers her mouth with both hands and bends down, red in the face and laughing at her own burn.
Ms. Cunningham screams again, "Brianna! That's enough!"
Brianna and Rocco return to their seats to a rousing ovation. He'd get her pregnant a year later.
Ms. Cunningham offers up no advice or feedback on the scene the class had just witnessed.
Rocco and John arrive at their seats at the same time. Rocco doesn't take joy in bullying people the way Neil Raffie does, but discovered early on that occasionally preying on the weaker students kept his stock high. Though, unlike Neil, Rocco lacks the wit to cut deep with his insults.
"Welcome back, Thompson!" Rocco yells, for the classroom to hear. "Nice Old Navy shirt, dick!"
Scattered snickers from the students pepper the room. Rocco's made this burn at least several dozen times, yet behaves as though he'd written "Who's on First?" every time he does. He raises his arms and gestures to the room in an, "Am I right, or what?" fashion.
John likes his shirt. His wardrobe, which consisted of mostly modest Old Navy apparel and a black Robin Ventura Mets jersey he wears once a week, drew routine jeers from his velour jumpsuit and Armani Exchange t-shirt-wearing peers. While his white Nike Uptowns gave him a boost of confidence when he first bought them, months of delivering the Staten Island Advance and stepping in dog shit chewed them up a bit. Having white Nike Uptowns wasn’t enough, keeping them in pristine condition was a fashion key. Some of the well-off kids were able to keep cranking them out for $89.99 at Foot Action once a month. When John asked his old man to buy him new sneakers three months into the school year, he was greeted with a, "yeah, because that's why I work in a fuckin' manhole all day… to keep white sneakers on your feet. Asshole."
Rocco is the epitome of an unoriginal Staten Island kid in the year 2000. If an orange crayon knocked up a bottle of hairspray, out would come Rocco, all his friends and the girls they chased.
Ms. Cunningham, having fully heard Rocco's attempt to embarrass John, does nothing to reprimand him. This is common practice for her.
John knows the repercussions of what attempting a comeback will bring. He knows he can cut Rocco deep. When you go to a small school, you learn things about everyone. John knows Rocco's father is in a wheelchair from a motorcycle accident, which deems him unable to work and afford new clothes.
"Yeah, but at least my Dad can walk into Old Navy and buy it for me", John could say. This would undoubtedly send Rocco diving across the desk and at John's throat. John could fight him off for a bit, long enough for other students to come and break it up. Once it's over, other kids would gossip about it, saying what a fucked up thing John Thompson said to Rocco Esposito. While he may lose moral points for making a dig at someone's parents being in a wheelchair, it would wholly mean that no one would dare try and zing John in public again.
But John Thompson doesn't stoop that low. He takes the high road. At least that's what he tells himself.
The lunch room at this high school is a converted basement. With only ninety students per grade, it never gets too crowded, which doesn't make it any less bleak. It takes the sunniest of days for any sort of shine to sneak through the gated, half-windows at the top of the walls.
It's chicken teriyaki day at school. This was the lunch lady masterpiece, the only fucking edible item they serve. Served on a flaky white bread bun with a side of vegetable slop, the students flock in droves to get their hands on the golden-dipped poultry goodness that is the chicken teriyaki sandwich.
John loves chicken teriyaki day for two reasons -- the sandwich, and the length of time it took to wait on line for it. The longer the wait, the less time he has to spend at his lunch table.
The alignment of tables is divided into two columns, with the popular kids taking up the first two, closest to the lunch stations. As if renowned respect by the whole school wasn't enough, these fuckers had the shortest walk to nourishment. Kids like Rocco Esposito, Neil Raffie and their cliques occupy these tables. The deeper you sat towards the back of the room was a representation of where you stood in the school's social food chain.
The last doomed table in the back, where personal status goes to die, lies "The Herb Table".
John's only invite to any table since arriving at the school was at The Herb Table. John lived there in middle school and had his face punched many times. As a result, he resisted the urge to fully commit to a permanent residence with them. The Herbs sensed this -- no one wants to hang out with a kid who feels like he's trading down by being seen with you. John would usually get his food, sit with one leg half-hanging out of the bench, eat quickly, then get the fuck out and roam the hallways for the rest of the period. If he hadn't gotten a spank in during 4th, he'd find an empty bathroom to, ahem, take care of that.
At the Herb Table, you have Andy Lipowtiz, a nice Jewish boy. His mouthful of braces and propensity for eating tuna fish sandwiches with extra mayo every day made him an undesirable kid to break bread with.
You have Raizul Joseph, a portly Indian kid who has a habit of asking out all the pretty girls at school. Boasting a 0% success rate, all the other boys mock him for it but secretly admire his balls.
And, finally, you have Tommy Green. He's the smallest kid in the grade, mainstreamed from a Special Ed school earlier that year. He fought the good fight academically, putting up the same grades as John while working four times harder to achieve them. His ADHD makes him a little ball of energy, and the popular kids enjoy getting him fired up in the hallways and enjoying the show. Tommy's naive ability to laugh along with the popular kids goading has kept him from being bullied. This is something John can't get through his head. He always wondered how a kid like Tommy Green can have such an easy time getting by. This made John resent and ignore him, despite Tommy's frequent invites to hang out and watch Met games at his house after school.
While John toiled at the Herb Table, he was spending his freshman year waiting for an invite to Neil's table that would never come.
John takes a voracious bite of his sandwich. Flakes of the cheap bun slowly fall like leaves onto the Styrofoam tray. Had Neil not slapped the orgasm into remission the period before, this would be the second-best sensation of his day. He pops open his ice-cold chocolate milk and washes down his first bite.
"Did you see what Chipper Jones did?" Tommy shouts over the rest of the table at John.
John focuses on his sandwich, "No, Tommy. What did he do?" he flatly responds, followed by another greedy bite.
"He named his son 'Shea'!" Tommy reveals, holding his sandwich with one hand, chicken patty half-hanging out.
John had read the news this morning. Chipper Jones is the best player on Mets division rival, the Atlanta Braves. He routinely smacks the Mets around and taunts them in the playoffs. Hated by all New York fans, he twisted the knife the previous morning by naming his son "Shea", after the Mets' stadium. Fucking douchebag.
"Oh yeah?” John humors him, without looking up, "What a jerk-off."
Tommy, having waited all morning to break the news to his fellow die-hard Mets fan, deflates a bit and goes back to his sandwich.
He notices a reddish spot in the middle of his sandwich. He contemplates for a beat, wondering if it's something he should continue eating. It tastes fine and chicken teriyaki day only comes once every two weeks.
Fuck it. He takes another chomp, front teeth sinking into the slightly-raw processed chicken.
John jumps off the S66 bus and slowly walks down the last cobblestone block in his neighborhood. When John's old man bought their house ten years prior, he took pride in it being the last street of its kind. When the city motioned to have it paved two months prior, the old man said, "fuck these guys", and pulled down every "No Parking" sign on the day it was to be done. The pavers came, saw forty cars parked on the street, didn't think towing all of them was worth the effort, left and never came back. It was a major victory in this suburban everyman's life.
The Thompsons live in a one-story home. John slinks his key in the door, creaking it open every-so-quietly. His old man takes a nap from 4-5pm after work every day. John sneaks by his bedroom door, hoping he'll sleep through the night and into the morning, forgetting the chat he's had with Mr. Murphy. Or, better yet, maybe Mr. Murphy forgot to call altogether.
John ninja walks to his room, though the wooden floors in their old house throw him a big "fuck you".
"JOHN", the old man screams from the other room.
"Get in here."
John puts his game face on, pretending not to know what all this could be about as he opens the door. The old man lies in his normal position -- head propped on two pillows, eyes half-shut, hands folded on his chest.
"What's up?” John forces.”Need anything?"
"Don't play dumb", the old man barks. "You're smoking cigarettes now?"
"No-" John retorts.
"You know I quit for YOU, right?"
"Yes, you've made that clear, but-"
"Because that's why I work in a fuckin' manhole all day, so you can spend all your paper route money on cigarettes-"
"Don't tell me to listen!"
John stares at him, unsure if it's time to speak: "Ok-"
"Okay, then what?” the old man asks.
"Can I talk?" John asks, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
"Watch it.", he warns.
"Sorry. But I wasn't smoking. I swear to God."
"Don't swear to God."
"Ok, but I wasn't. I was holding it for another kid."
Every kid on the planet who's ever been caught smoking has used that excuse. John is the only unfortunate sap who's actually telling the truth.
The old man knows in his heart that his son wasn't smoking. Mr. Murphy described the incident in such a way where John's story holds up. The old man and Mr. Murphy were both brought up in tough Irish neighborhoods and shared similar values. He knows his son was being bullied and not sticking up for himself. The concept of not fighting back is a foreign impulse to him, having spent his childhood playing street basketball and getting into routine brawls with kids from other neighborhoods.
John’s brother Pauly, now 11, is much more similar to their father. Pauly's an athlete, a competitor. He doesn't take shit on the football field. He curses. He gets into trouble. He's got balls. The old man can handle a few phone calls from neighbors, or a broken window here and there, so long as his sons show some life. His eldest boy, whom he raised the same as the other, showed him nothing of the sort. He just fucking daydreamed. It killed him.
"You were holding it for another kid," the old man presses. "Neil Raffie?"
John doesn't answer.
"Are you hanging around with that kid again?"
"No!" John snaps. "Definitely not."
The old man would rather hear his son was hanging out with a bad kid than being bullied by him. John's demeanor proved the latter. He sits up.
"Pop, I'm not hanging out with him!" John pleads, trying to convey that he actually has a choice in the matter.
"Alright", the old man calmly rebuts. "I believe you. But you gotta start sticking up for yourself."
No kid, or adult, ever wants to hear those words. Ever.
To John, facing his father is the most difficult aspect of being bullied. He knows he's been a disappointment, even though it's something that would never be said.
"I am", John lies. "I'm going to get some homework done", he lies again as he exits, leaving his father sitting up, at a loss.
John wakes up the next morning to a fiery menace breakdancing in his stomach. His first thought as his eyes bulge open:
If I'm not sitting on a toilet in ten seconds, something horrific is going to happen.
Getting food poisoning from his favorite lunch item is devastating for John. He replays the moment of doom in his brain, where he tested his own fate by eating pink chicken. Now every sensation of what made the chicken teriyaki great will be repulsive to him in the future.
This day has ginger ale and The Price is Right written all over it. Though unfortunately for John, his years of crying wolf had hardened his parent’s instincts. John was doomed to a day of FOSY (Fear of Shitting Yourself) at school. A true nightmare.
Before John can reach his first class, he darts to the boy's bathroom.
Halfway through first period, he excuses himself and goes again. Mr. Murphy spots John whisking by his office.
At the top of second period, the bubble-guts return. John excuses himself.
Twenty-two minutes into third period, another gastric explosion. As he briskly walks closed-cheeked into the first floor bathroom, Mr. Murphy spots him again.
"This fucking kid", Mr. Murphy mutters to himself.
Fourth period: Ms. Cunningham's drama class. John needs no excuse to leave, but the five-alarm fire happening in his bowels permits him to do so. He jets.
Upon exiting the bathroom, John realizes he can't remember the last time he got through 4th period without jerking off.
"THOMPSON!" Mr. Murphy's booming voice echoes down the hallway.
John gulps as the dean comes stomping towards him, on a mission.
"Sir, I don't feel well-" John attempts.
"Every day, I see you during this period", Mr. Murphy shouts.
"And the period before this one, and the period before that-"
"I know, but I have-"
"No more 'buts'", Mr. Murphy inches closer to him. "That's all you do, is make excuses! You know you're failing most of your classes, right?"
John doesn't answer. Because what the fuck are you supposed to say in response to that question that doesn't make you sound lazy or stupid?
"John!", Mr. Murphy presses. "Are you going to say anything?"
Something comes over John. While he believes Mr. Murphy is well-intended, the tactic of screaming and scaring kids into respecting him has grown tiresome.
"Well, what do you want me to say?" John snaps back. "'Thanks for noticing?!?'"
John gulps a grapefruit down his throat. He's never talked back to a teacher before, let alone the school's alpha male gym teacher and dean. Mr. Murphy's nostrils flare like a bull, blowing the mustache hairs underneath into straight lines.
The kids in Ms. Cunningham's class hear screaming from the other end of the hallway. Mr. Murphy's thunderous screams at John quickly get louder, right up until the two burst through the door. Mr. Murphy has John by the hand, like a bad child.
"NO MORE BATHROOM BREAKS FOR HIM", he bellows at Ms. Cunningham.
John returns to his seat, looking at the floor as the eyes of every student in the classroom burn through him. Giggles and snickers snap through the room.
He plops down at his seat. Ms. Cunningham continues to talk about Beowolf or whatever-the-fuck. He turns to the window.
Rocco Esposito leans over to him.
"Why did Mr. Murphy bring you back to class?” he quizzes.
"I don't know", John answers.
"Did he catch you trying to kill yourself?” Rocco jokes.
"What?” John keeps his focus on the birds outside the window.
"Did catch you jerking off?” Rocco asks, desperate to keep his tired line of questioning going.
This sends a jolt through John's body. He turns to Rocco. Everything slows down for him. He should know that, even if the dean did in fact catch him in the act, Rocco would never know about it. But something in John's reaction and demeanor portrays one thing:
Rocco's eyes light up. John has just served him a hanging curveball.
"He caught you jerking-off!" Rocco exclaims, loud enough for Brianna Scarpelli to hear him.
Brianna looks up from her notebook: "What?"
"John Thompson got caught jerking off in the bathroom!" Rocco blurts, much louder this time. Ms. Cunningham hears this and does nothing.
"Shut the fuck up!” John pleads. "I did not!"
"Gross", Brianna mutters, going back to her notebook.
Rocco bounces around like a child in a stroller, seeing Times Square for the first time. He turns to the kid on his right:
"John Thompson got caught jerking off in the bathroom!"
He turns to the kid behind the kid on his right:
"John Thompson got caught jerking off in the bathroom!"
The bell rings. The kids shuffle out, Rocco turns back to John with an ear-to-ear grin. John fantasizes about taking him from behind and smashing his teeth into the floor.
The cafeteria fills up quickly. The various crews and tables form and the lunch lines begin. It's hot dog day.
John slowly enters, white in the face from all the shitting and the lingering doom he knows is coming.
Maybe no one will care. Maybe no one will believe Rocco. After all, the kid is a fucking nimrod. Just play it cool and maybe it won't catch on.
"What's the matter, buddy?" a familiar voice in a foreign tone asks from behind him.
John turns to find Neil Raffie, packet of Linden's chocolate chip cookies in hand. The look in his eyes is kind, unlike anything he's witnessed since they were kids in John's basement.
"Nothing, it's nothing", John mumbles, again staring at his beat-up Nike Uptowns.
"Johnny…" Neil hasn't called him Johnny since the 5th grade. "Talk to me buddy, you look like you're about to puke."
Well, he's not wrong about the puke part. John looks up at Neil. For a moment, he feels the comfort of his old pal. This is something he wished he had on his first day of school here, not knowing a soul and in desperate need of a friend. Maybe this is the moment. Maybe if he confides in his old buddy, it'll build trust and they can reignite their friendship. Maybe he'll invite John to sit at the front tables. Neil nods, welcoming John to spill it, that's he's here to help.
John Thompson is a gullible asshole.
"Rocco Esposito is telling people that Mr. Murphy caught me jerking off in the bathroom."
That doesn't hang there for a second. Neil wastes no time in bending over, practically touching his toes. He holds there for a beat, then rises up, blood rushed to his face, licking his chops. This is Thompson's second hanging curveball of the afternoon.
The look on Neil's face can only be described as a nano-step away from wanting to lean in, kiss John on the mouth, and softly say, "Thank you. Thank you for this gift you have brought."
He skips to his lunch table, leaving John behind.
John's point of view is of the entire cafeteria. He watches the spread of the virus. Neil tells his people, who look back and laugh. Rocco works his side of the lunch room. The news travels to the table behind them, and behind them. We climb the social latter all the way down, ending at the Herb Table, with each student marveling and snickering at the greatest rumor they'll hear all year:
Mr. Murphy caught John Thompson jerking off in the bathroom.