I often pulled stunts to stay home from school: Picked my nose until it bled, rubbed soap in my eyes, and placed a hot water bottle over my face to fake a fever. Once, I swallowed salt to make me vomit.
I also took to ramming my hands into the school walls. St. Brigid’s was located next to the Main Hospital and students were regularly carted up to the emergency room with a sprain or similar injury. The in-take receptionists knew us well, especially me.
Sister James, our room teacher, was short, neckless and ancient. Her large grey eyes peered out over smudged glasses and saw straight through my antics and me. Once, she eyed my swollen wrist with such disgust, like she wanted to crush it underneath her black, laced-up shoe.
At home, I held up my bandaged wrist to my mother. “Look.”
She turned back to peeling potatoes, hanging out the wet clothes, or whatever else was killing her slowly.
“What’s that,” she said.
It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t anything.
It would take my severed arm on a plate for her to react. Some days I thought I could, just to show her.
One afternoon, I drove my hand too hard into the girls’ bathroom wall and felt something give. When I returned to class, tearful, my hand useless, Sister James refused to allow me to go to the hospital.
“The girl who cried wrist,” she said.
My classmates laughed hard.
After school ended, I took myself up to the ER. I repeated “fracture” after the doctor. Even the word sounded broken and felt smashed in my mouth. I couldn’t stop smiling.
The doctor, his black hair dotted with dandruff, looked at me funny.
I returned to school two days later, my white cast now black and blue with autographs and love hearts. Sister James turned as pale as her habit.
“I didn’t think,” she started. “I couldn’t have known.”
Guilt tugged at the bottom of my stomach and I saw a flash of God wagging his bony finger.
At the end of the school day Sister James handed me a note of apology for my parents. The card trembled in her blue-veined hand and her face looked feverish. I accepted the note and felt a sharp pain in my palm, as if snapped with an elastic band.
Her words stopped me in the doorway. “You kids, you’ll learn, school are the best years of your life.”
I ran all the way home, as though chased.
Months earlier, I’d run away from home. A friend and I took off together, to her family’s holiday caravan in the country. The previous night, her dad had slapped her around for drinking coca cola. He didn’t tolerate coca cola. At about the same time, my dad hit me on the leg with his walking crutch for shouting back at my mother. He’d never hit me before, not hard, not so it hurt.
My friend and I made it to the caravan and stayed away a full day and night before we turned scared and guilty and homesick, and brought ourselves back. We didn’t have a key for the caravan and didn’t want to damage the doors or windows. I’d had to strip down to my underwear to squeeze through the tiny skylight and still the square plastic mouth skinned me in places. I didn’t know exactly why, but more than anything else from that time, it stayed with me how something so small as a layer of clothes was the difference between getting inside to safety and staying locked out.
The next morning I hugged my cast to my chest and couldn’t stop thinking about that skylight. I refused to go to school. I really did feel sick, I just couldn’t say exactly where. I complained about the return of pain in my arm. It wasn’t like I had to fight to stay at home. My mother didn’t like to be alone in the house.
Late morning, at last, I smelled the bread turn to toast below in the kitchen, and minutes later my mother’s familiar climb sounded on the stairs. She appeared in my bedroom with a cup of steaming tea and toast slathered with melting butter. It was hard to hide my delight, but I knew not to mess up. She sat on my bed and gestured with her dark head to my arm, asked about the pain.
“Okay,” I said, hoping I sounded like I hurt a lot, like I was trying to be brave.
She fixed the pillow tallways behind my back and managed to simultaneously smile and bring her eyebrows together. I followed her gaze to my cast and its jumble of names and black and blue hearts. She turned thoughtful.
I sipped the hot tea. “Thanks.”
Her smile returned and she stroked my hair, seemed about to speak. Her hand dropped to her lap and she looked down at the floor. Long moments passed.
She returned. “Don’t get crumbs in the bed, and no spills.”
She added, “And whatever you do, don’t scald yourself.”
“I won’t,” I said. “Thanks.”
As she left, as the door closed behind her, I filled with that flying feeling I got right after I jumped from the school diving board and just before I hit the water. I swelled bigger and bigger, convinced all over again. She did care. She did. I relaxed back into my pillow and started into the toast, its edges black. Finished, I licked the warm butter from my fingers and ignored the burnt aftertaste.