Purple Pen

You started it. Last Thursday.

Under the stairway next to the cafeteria door, there was a spot where the cameras don’t reach. The security guard was probably staring at a freshmen girl’s butt. You must have slipped right past him.

I noticed it on my way to the bathroom. When I walked by, the security guard sneered. His nose twitched like he caught a whiff of dog poo. That’s what the guards do instead of ogling me. I wear the same uniform as all the girls, but on me a white polo and khakis look like guy’s clothing. I tried to sway my hips and take small steps. Sometimes girling it up helps me blend in. Then you made me forget everything. Behind the security guard, on the wall under the staircase, I saw what you did. In purple ink, you wrote “R.I.P. Prince.”

In fourth period English, I spotted the purple Sharpie in the back pocket of your pants. You slouched behind the desk in front of me, like you have every day all semester. I’ve never said anything, but I see you. You wore the same boring uniform as the rest of us, but your nails were painted purple and gold. It must have been you.

My right leg bounced up and down. You made me nervous.

You’re so beautiful that they don’t notice you’re pretty weird, with those big books that you carry around in your sparkly magenta backpack.

Ms. Damon-Moore was saying something about giving back our final papers tomorrow, reminding us that the assignment was worth half our grade. She frowned at us, but no one paid much attention.  Her mouth was stuck like that. I think she teaches here on the west side of Chicago because she enjoys bossing around black kids. When the bell rang, she kept going, yelling about how she wasn’t afraid to give out Fs. You stood and grabbed your backpack. The marker slipped out of your pocket.

I picked it up from the floor. I could have touched your elbow, handed you that pen, and smiled. No words necessary.

I didn’t do it.

I couldn’t pay attention in the rest of my classes. I pictured myself talking to you, making you laugh. I have been thinking about your laugh for months now. When I close my eyes, I imagine your belly wobble while you giggle, but I can’t decide what to say to you. You’re that girl that everyone likes. The teachers, too, even the white ones. You’re so beautiful that they don’t notice that you’re pretty weird, with those big books you lug around in your sparkly magenta backpack. They think they know you because you chat with them and nod, but to me you always seem separate. On your own. Like you have secrets. At lunch, you sit by yourself, listening to music, keeping an eye out so that the security guards won’t confiscate your headphones. I want to know what you think about when you’re alone, but if I ever tried to talk to you, I probably couldn’t make my mouth move. No problem. If you liked Prince, then I had a plan.

When the final bell clanged, I didn’t head outside with everyone else. I walked into the bathroom by the cafeteria, clutching your pen. I waited, my ear smooshed against the door, until the hallways were quiet. Most of the security guards would be in front of the school, watching students leave. If I was lucky, I would have a minute or two alone in the hall.

I pushed through the girl’s room door, looking to the left and right. Empty. I strode to the spot under the staircase. Beneath your words, I drew a circle. I sketched a line down from it, ending in an arrow, and crossed it with a dash. I drew a spiral to the left of the circle and kept going, crossing the original line and then ending in a vertical slash. The symbol. Prince’s symbol. It looked pretty good. I imagined your lips curling up when you saw it. I wanted you to know I was the one who made you feel that way. I would wait until I was sure you had seen it and then give you your pen back. Then you would know how I much I liked you, without me saying a word.

I thrust your pen in my pocket and I hurried toward the front of the school. A security guard was eyeing a senior as he walked out the door. Good. I wasn’t so late that I’d seem suspicious. Sometimes, if I leave school after everyone else, the guards insist on checking my backpack. I walked past the metal detector, avoiding eye contact with the guard. He stared past me. Still good.

In the afternoon, the metal detector is turned off, but I still hate passing by it.

Do you remember the morning that the detector went off on Keisha Conner? I was next in line, so I had to watch the whole thing. The guard made her empty her pockets and take off her earrings, but the beeping didn’t stop. He kept ordering her back to try again.

“Do a pat down,” she pleaded.

The guard shook his head. That was the week that Vice Principal Howard found out that one of the guards had been groping girls.

After the tenth time Keisha tripped the detector, she lost it.

“I don’t have anything!” she yelled. The guard stepped in front of her.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said. He held his hands in front of his chest and backed away slowly. He acted like Keisha needed to be tamed.

I wondered, if the world could love a tiny dude who sang falsetto, could you like a girl who looks like a boy?

“You know I don’t have anything,” Keisha screamed. She reached out toward the guard. Her hand was like a bird, fluttering toward that big white guy with the metal wand. I could see in her face, tight-lipped, tear-stained but with eyes still expectant, that she was offering peace. With her outstretched palm, she was extending to him a chance to be human. All of the guys and girls behind me in line saw it too. We knew she didn’t touch him.

The guard jumped back like she had hit him.

They called the cops. I mean, the guard growled into his radio and the cop who’s always at school came over. He popped handcuffs on her wrists. I winced at the sound of them snapping together. Did you hear that she had to go to court? Did you see how she tried not to look at anybody when she came back to school?

We shouldn’t be writing on the walls. They’ll call it graffiti. They’ll call the cops.

*     *     *

When I got home, I headed straight to my mom’s turntable. Mom has Prince records. Vinyl. A stack four inches high. I’ve been listening to her play them since I was little. I’ve never paid too much attention, but she plays them so often that I know every song anyway. Mom gets a faraway look in her eye while she listens. I’ve always thought her thing for Prince was a little weird, but if you liked Prince, then I wanted to know everything about him. Maybe he could teach me how to tell you my feelings. I needed Prince lessons and I didn’t have much time before Mom got home. I wasn’t ready to tell her about you, or about me liking girls.

If I had known which album was your favorite, I would have started there. Instead I put on the record from the top of the stack.

“Dearly beloved,” Prince’s voice soared up from the speakers. “We are gathered here to get through this thing called life…”

Prince, get me through this.

I stood in front of the mirror and looked at my body. I’m a foot taller than Prince and built solid. My skin is darker than his and I’ve never worn heels or eyeliner. In middle school, when the girls were getting boobs, my chest stayed as flat as my ass. Mom was cool with me dressing in button-downs and loose jeans, but I doubted that many girls would swoon over me.

From the album cover in my hand, Prince smoldered up at me. He straddled an oversized motorcycle, gripping the handle bars with his white lace gloves. The frills of his blouse stood out against his purple trench coat. He balanced the bike with one foot in an exquisite black heel. Poised. Powerful.

I wondered, if the world could love a tiny dude who sang falsetto, could you like a girl who looks like a boy?

I tried to sway my hips to the music like Prince did. I did my best strut back and forth in front of the mirror. I pouted my lips and squinted one eye.

Not sexy.

“The world lost a legend.” Mom looked me up and down. I must not have heard her come in over the electric guitar riffs.

“You know why everyone loves Prince?”

I shook my head.

“He was brave.” She smoothed my collar. “Like you are.”

My heart soared, pounding like a drum solo. Mom must have already known that I’m different. If I could just open my mouth and tell her how much I liked you, then she would say that she still loves me.

Mom sighed. “To find a man like that, right? Maybe one of us will be that lucky.” She kicked off her lavender pumps and hung up her leather jacket.

My breath skipped like a scratched record. See, I couldn’t tell her. You know the way that Prince smiles but looks like he’s about to cry? I gave my mom that look.

*     *     *

The next day at school, when the lunch bell finally rang, I hurried toward the cafeteria.

“Walk,” barked Vice Principal Howard. Standing beside the main office, his tall, white body stood out like a lighthouse. “We walk in the hallways.” Who’s this “we” teachers are always talking about?

On the wall under the stairs, there was a small black heart next to my drawing. Was it you? It must have been you. That black heart was a stage dive. It was a hip thrust against a mic stand. I understood that look Mom gets.

When I saw you in fourth period, I thought nothing could make me sad ever again. You changed your hair. You must have set it in big rollers and pinned back half of it. A cascade of curls spilled over the right side of your face.

Girl.

You glanced up at me. Your eyes were lined in black. Purple Rain glamour.

Damn.

Ms. Damon-Moore stalked the rows of desks, handing back papers. My good feeling vanished when I saw mine. She had written in big red letters “SPELLING. GRAMMAR.” She circled and crossed out my words with abandon. It was like my paper was a desk and she wanted to mark it up to make it hers. Grading was her form of tagging. I felt her writing on my skin.

“DID YOU PROOFREAD YOUR WORK?” she scrawled between my last paragraph and the bibliography. Her words were huge. At the end of my essay, she wrote a single letter in a circle. D. To her, it must have stood for dumb.

I thought I could handle it. I was used to teachers giving me bad grades without giving me any reason or trying to teach me to do better. I thought I could suck it up, until I looked up from my paper and saw you staring down at yours. I watched you shrink. Your shoulders slumped forward. You folded your paper in half, like you were trying to make it disappear. You wiped your cheek with the back of your hand.

My hands clenched. I pictured myself smashing everything in that classroom.

My paper was clean. Why’d she have to mess it up like that? Why’d she have to mess you up, too?

I wanted to make Ms. Damon-Moore feel as small as you looked, to tell her the things that Mr. Howard says to me in the hallway in the same condensing tone he uses. “Respect our school. Have pride of place.” My paper was clean. Why’d she have to mess it up like that? Why’d she have to mess you up, too?

I fingered your purple marker and raised my other hand. “Bathroom pass?”

Ms. Damon-Moore frowned. “You can’t wait?”

I shook my head. She sighed.

I gripped the pass and dashed down the stairs toward the cafeteria. The hallway was empty.

I drew a dove. I added a tear below its eye. I wanted to keep going. I would have drawn a purple rain cloud. I would have written every word to “Take Me with You,” but I heard footsteps. I jumped away from the wall like it was going to explode. I ducked into the bathroom. The dove would be enough. You would know what I meant.

I put my ear to the door. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped. I closed my eyes.

While I listened, I pictured what I was going to do as soon as school ended. I’d go home and finally tell Mom that I like girls. I’d feel her arms wrapped around my shoulders, her mouth pressed against my cheek. I’d watch the needle of her turntable drop. We would listen to all her Prince albums until we found the perfect lyric to tell you how I feel. Then on Monday, I would write that magic spell next to the dove. The full purple power of his Royal Badness would come down on us and you would know exactly how much I like you. I could never say anything, but I would write my heart on the walls. By Monday, I would be ready.

I heard the click and static of a walkie-talkie. “Graffiti,” barked Mr. Howard. “Cafeteria hallway.” His footfall echoed and then faded. Silence fell, like the pause before a record starts to play.

When the final bell rang, the hallways filled up with relieved students, guys talking loud, girls laughing. Nothing was left in the spot on the wall where the cameras don’t reach, except a purple cloud. By Monday, the wall was extra white. The custodian hung a sign that said, “Wet Paint.”

I never figured out the right lyrics to tell you how I feel. Mom said that’s okay. Yeah, I told her anyway. She said I’ve got my own words.

Here’s your pen back.

J.M. EllisonJ.M. Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, Chicago Literati, Racialicious, and other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net