The Mean Greens
April 8, 2022 / Kelly Wei
My spring allergies started getting really out of control at the end of the fifth grade.
My spring allergies started getting really out of control at the end of the fifth grade. I was at Sky Ranch with the rest of our class, rubbing my eyes so hard Mrs. Rindel had to excuse me from our activity—campsite, rope, cheap plastic badges—and walk me to the clinic a half-mile away. There, I laid on a cot with my head tipped back and an ice pack on either one of my eyes. Because I didn’t have a prescription and my grandma hadn’t signed the right permission slips, I wasn’t allowed to take any Benadryl.
Someone was supposed to get me, or maybe I was supposed to have rejoined everyone when I was feeling better. Instead, I pretended I was a dead princess for forty-five minutes, whose attendants had left cold drachmas on her eyes to pay the ferryman of the afterlife as I’d seen in a PBS documentary. When I got tired of that, I stood to check the hallway for people. Empty. I checked the cabinets for snacks, a book, anything to amuse me. Nothing. The best I did was a pamphlet on menstruation.
Puberty is a wondrous thing, it informed me in big, friendly letters. I followed along with my index finger, sounding each word out in my head the way my remedial English teacher had taught me. Maybe you’ve noticed some new, uncomfortable changes in your body.
My left eye, rubbed red and raw, twitched involuntarily.
At the sound of footsteps, I looked up. Bilal from 5-C stood braced against the clinic doorway. His eyes, dark and deep-set, were puffy with water, and for a second, I thought, with real terror, that he was crying. We stared at each other for what felt like forever, the way dogs do at public parks. Then he abruptly broke eye contact and sneezed loudly. It was practically a bark. Relief washed over me.
Wordlessly, he dragged his feet over to the cot next to mine and plunked down, surly and glum. At school, if you were caught willingly talking to Bilal, bad news for you. He was one of those kids we’d all unanimously decided to give crap to for whatever reason. Girls shunned him, boys sniggeringly called him fat in P.E. while he went to collect out-of-bound dodgeballs. It had always just been that way.
“Do you have medicine?” I came around to sit across from him on my cot.
He shook his head once, twice, harder than necessary. His cheeks shook with it, fuzzy and red. A wad of boogies poked out of his nose before he sucked it back up, making a squelchy, congested noise as he did it. Bilal wasn’t really fat. He’d just gotten tall over the summer, and big in the shoulders in a way I knew the other boys secretly envied. Puberty is a wondrous thing.
“I’ll get my dad,” he said suddenly. His voice was thick and low like a teenager’s. “He’s a chaperone.”
I knew that. We all did, because it was embarrassing. It wasn’t like Paige Culler’s mom, passing out pretzel snacks and flirting with the program director in her springy Texan twang, acrylic nails tucked into the rhinestoned back pockets of her jeans. Bilal’s dad was just an older, hairier version of Bilal himself, standing cross-armed off to the side in a polo and sandals, always a little separate from the other chaperones. I noticed that he wore an expensive gold watch, Rolex or something, that he checked to call us in for lunch and dinner. I’d heard the kids assigned to his cabin complain about his accent and the food he packed, how he never knew what was “going on.”
I’d fought with my own grandma about chaperoning, and dumped the food she’d packed me into the first trash bin I could find before it started to smell. These were just the things you had to do. Suddenly, I felt bad for Bilal, that he didn’t have anyone to tell him.
“Here.” I held out one of my ice packs, now lukewarm.
He sneezed again, and the boogie landed on my outstretched arm like a thin, pale slug. Before I could even do anything, it slid off and plopped onto the ground.
He’d sneezed on the bus getting here, too, and Min, this pimply Korean kid sitting next to him, had jumped up screaming “EWWWWW! YOUR SPIT’S ALL OVER ME!” Min moaned, pantomimed throwing up in the aisle, and these guys on the basketball team sitting nearby started to laugh. Then Min started wiping the back of his hand on any available surface, making the girls shriek and the guys howl even harder. He kept it up for fifteen minutes, really milked it, until a girl said, “Shut up, Min, you are so dumb,” and people got bored, the laughter tapered off, it was over.
Min stood there, glassy-eyed and a little out of breath, swaying as the bus turned off the road and into Sky Ranch. His hand was bright red and kind of bleeding from all that wiping. Then he sat back down next to Bilal, who’d been quiet the whole time. And that was that. Min was kind of a loser, too.
I knew — we all knew — it wasn’t really about the spittle. It was an invisible kind of thing, nothing we could ever point a finger at or lay blame on. If the adults ever noticed, they never spoke up about it. Even Bilal’s dad sitting up front had pretended he couldn’t hear a thing.
I shook the ice pack a little, to remind him I was still holding it out. He snatched it out of my hand.
“My dad says it’s Texas pollen,” Bilal said. “We’re not used to it.”
“Yet,” I said. I was aware that it was the two of us, specifically, sitting inside a clinic on a beautiful April day. Not Paige Culler. “Not used to it yet. We’ll get it, eventually.”
“Munity.” I flapped my hand. “Like, when something doesn’t bother you anymore.”
Bilal rolled his eyes, sighed loudly, scowled again. His brows were very thick. So were his eyelashes, rimmed dense and wet around his red eyes. He didn’t seem to understand what I was saying, so I just laid back down.
After that, I thought we could be friends, Bilal and I. I’d watched enough American coming-of-age movies to know where we ought to have stood with one another now. In fact, the more I got to thinking about it that afternoon, the more I believed it. I imagined we were like a pair of lovable on-screen allies, united against the perils of fifth-grade society.
That night, when we got back to the campsite with our classmates, Mrs. Rindel had us sit in a large circle and pass around a basket of Hershey’s for our smores. Each time she looked away, kids would grab handfuls and shove them in their pockets. Bilal sat on the other side of the circle, his big, nail-bitten fingers gripping two plain graham crackers. You could tell he had soft, moist hands. On either side of him, kids had scooted away.
For a moment, I considered doing something incredible. Change his life. Make a difference. My heart was pounding so hard, just as it had on the bus when I watched Min moan and shriek like a girl.
But in the end, I just sat there. I watched the Hershey’s basket make its way to Bilal, and when he saw that it was empty, he made a long and drawn-out sound, like a stitch pulled out a half-healed wound. His dad, who’d been standing off to the side, rushed over.
I shoved my palms into the sockets of my eyes to rub them some more. I knew I was going to regret doing that the instant I stopped, so I just kept at it, trying to scrub and scratch out something that wouldn’t come out, on and on, until my eyes swelled up so bad I couldn’t even open them, and stars exploded in the darkness behind my eyelids.
Bilal ended up going to the other middle school that fall, and I didn’t see him again until spring of sophomore year, some five years later.
He was standing by a bus stop on the other side of the street. He’d gotten even taller, lost the baby fat, and looked straight-up scary. I guess I did, too. His hair was slicked back with something that made it shiny, and he wore a suit. Like, a full-on suit. I watched him check the time on his watch — a big, gold Rolex — then look up, right at me. I don’t know what I was expecting. Suddenly, a gust of wind came barreling through the street, and I sneezed.
After a second, his gaze slid away toward something else. ■
by: Kelly Wei
photographer: Faye Raad
stylist: Vi Cao
hmua: Jordan Busarello
model: Genesis Pieri
photographer: Faye Raad
stylist: Vi Cao
hmua: Jordan Busarello
model: Genesis Pieri