Kae was on to smoking her 4th Al Capone sweet cigar, staring at the school from across the street. Tucked against a water tower on the opposite building, she noted the students milling in for the first day of classes. The sea of blonde and brunette trickling through the doors. There were bouts of laughter and a few squeals of excitement from the courtyard of the school. They were carried on the low wind current and warmed by the yawning sun on their way up to Kae’s ears. She took another drag, barely feeling the punch against her throat. Even as the first tones sounded, directing students to prepare for the official beginning of the semester, Kae sat and stared just past the school.
She tried to take in the sky, forget herself for a moment. The tone sounded for the late bell, and Kae fought a small urge to hop down and book it through the front doors, a flurry of apologies preceding her as she entered the front office to be marked tardy. But she held back as she saw the last students darting inside. She flared her nostrils and huffed out the last bit of her 4th cigar. “Nah, fuck this. I can’t—I won’t,”
Kae began as she stood and dusted the flecks of rust from her pants. She looked up at the old water tower, a Jackson Pollack of rust spots and dirt. “It’d be real convenient if you decided to collapse and broke my leg or something. I’ll even go further and let you slice my side for some a tetanus scare if you want. Whaddya say big guy? Anything to give me an excuse out of Pasteville High?”“I don’t think he’s feeling very talkative today,”
a voice said below her. Kae spun to find the source, feeling herself bristle from being snuck up on. But she overcorrected, the weight of her messenger bag throwing her weight off, and promptly proceeded to fall off the water tower, ready to make an abrupt introduction to the roof of the building it sat on. But she felt herself swooped and cradled in a pair of muscled arms. The throaty chuckle that emanated in response to her involuntary squeal as she fell told her everything she needed to know. “Dammit, Sensei! The fuck? Who the hell gives their pupil a near-death experience this early in the morning?”
She squirmed out of her dojo instructor’s arms only to fall to the ground anyway with a soft thud. “I meant to do that!”
she told him while glaring and dusting herself off as she stood.
Her sensei, jiujitsu instructor and mentor, Makarios Lilis, crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow at her. He didn’t say anything, simply stared at her with that smug and knowing smile she hated. She knew what this was, and she wasn’t playing the game this time around. She squared her shoulder, crossed her arms and looked away. She was ready to play the silent game as well.
But then, maybe she wasn’t. She could feel his eyes, and she knew the bastard had the patience of a turtle. “I’m not giving you what you want, Sensei.” “Yeah you are,”
Makarios told her. She kept her eyes trained on the skyline in the distance, but could hear him shuffle and sit down. “At least I can now tell your aunt you aren’t dead or kidnapped. You just aren’t woman of you word.”
With a grunt, she threw her hands to the air and gestured around. “Okay fine! I just didn’t want to do it, okay? I thought I could, but I can’t. When I left home this morning, I thought I was going to walk through those doors, give those white people my best smile and let them fade into the background of mundane necessity.”
She stopped and looked at him fully, feeling her nostrils sting briefly. “But I can’t.”
She expected to see him still looking at her with his arms crossed, waiting for a better answer—one that she wasn’t going to give fully, because fuck tears this early in the morning, her eyeliner was too on point—but he wasn’t even looking at her. Makarios was sitting on the ledge, patting a space right next to him.
Kae looked around, breathing the open air and hoping to fill her stomach with something other than the butterflies that currently resided in it. She finally sat next to him, feeling her shoulder unstiffen a bit as the first tear rolled down her cheek. “I’m sorry, Maki. I really am I just—maybe I’m not ready for this.”
Makarios put an arm around her. He told her he was only 28, just 11 years older than her. And everything about him correlated with that age. Hell, she even believed he looked around 25 in the face. But his eyes, as he looked out over the expanse beyond the school, always threw her off. Sometimes they aged in an instant when he was lost in thought. Their normal light green even came off a little more dark jade at times. In those moments, they looked like they belonged to someone who had walked this earth for a couple centuries. Sage-like, almost.
It was few moments before his voice interrupted the whispers of the soft wind that whirled around them on the roof. “There was a monk a couple hundred years ago who took years to truly get the knack for meditating. Others could see the pain he shouldered and carried like scavenged materials from trash—unable to let go, but it was all he knew,”
Makarios stood up at this point, and balanced himself on one foot, adopting one of his favorite meditative stances. “One of the elder monks sat with him one day, and the young monk revealed he didn’t know how to get around his pain to find the peace and ask questions of it.”
Maki spun on the foot to face the school without losing his composure, even balanced on the edge of the building. “Every time the monk sat to meditate, to explore within, he would try to understand and explain his pain to himself. But the elder monk shook his head, telling him that going around was not the route to go within himself.”
Makarios brought his hands together and took a deep breath, still looking out toward the school. “The young monk didn’t understand him until one day, he stopped asking questions of his pain. In the open air of the temple’s courtyard, faced with blue and dusted tips of mountains, that he simply tried to embrace it. He spoke to the wind, capturing his painful memories in raw emotion.” “It was poetry, if you will. The first words that came to his mind, before meditating, about any situation or problem, were words he held on to. Mentally repeating to himself.”
Makarios was now bending over in one fluid motion and balancing himself on his hand. His voice was still even and measured as he spoke in a handstand position. “It was his way of giving form to his emotion. In his mental repetition of the words, he would lose himself. Allow himself to be lost. And before he knew it, in the midst of the setting Sun he would feel his spirit rising.”
Makarios flipped himself and landed on his feet, arms outstretched and taking a deep breath. “You see, he didn’t try to understand or explain away his pain. He simply tried to capture it and delve into it. For him, it was about losing himself on the way to finding himself that he could find and accept peace. And from there, enlightenment of such stature, he went on to reach 135 years of age. It was at his behest, his students said, that he actually passed on. He spoke aloud ‘I’ve accepted you, Death my old my friend. You are the pain I’ve tried to explain from the beginning. I delve into you and find my true worth,’ before he passed on.”
Kae blinked herself back to the present, only just realizing she’d lost herself in the story. There was a moment of silence between them before she glanced at him again and asked: “Really Sensei? That makes it sound easy but…is that true?”
Maki shrugged and motioned for her to stand. “Mmmm, eh. I don’t know. I made a few parts of it up. But my point is this: you’re trying to explain your fear. To understand and justify it. In doing that, you’re tying it your pain, Mikaela.”
They were going down the fire escape on the side of the building now, the clang of metal on brick echoing off the building. “But much like your pain, the only way to get past your fear, is to go through your fear. To delve into it. When you do that, surrounding yourself in your fear, you’ll see that most of it is just wisp. There’s body, but little substance to it. It doesn’t hold power over you until you look away, skirt around and make it bigger, heavier than what it actually is.”
They were on the ground again and Maki lead her toward the street. “You can do this, Mikaela. This first day of school is nothing compared to what you have overcome. The pain you fear this place giving you is almost laughable compared to the trials you’ve endured already.”
Mikaela knew he was right, but there was something that was holding her up still. But even as she began to question it, she shook her head hoping to dislodge the thought. “Trust yourself,”
Maki told her. “And if you can’t do that, trust me. I won’t lead you astray, alright?”
Kae nodded her head, looking up at him again. “Alright fine, Sensei. I’ll give this a shot because I think at this point you might physically subdue me to get me to class.”
Makarios chuckled, but didn’t deny it and patted her on the shoulder. “Good thinking, Kae. Because we’re here.”
After dealing with the barely-concealed side-eye from the front desk secretary, Mikaela was able to get her schedule for the semester. Like she thought, “All this fucking advanced placement shit,” and as the urge in her rose to crumple the paper and stalk out the double doors again, she could almost feel Maki’s hug as he parted ways with her after checking her in. Her aunt would be pissed, for sure, but it was the disappointment, Kae was starting to realize, that would hurt her the most. Kae spent most of her life being disappointed by the people she trusted. Aunt Bea and Maki were the first people to start breaking that pattern. What kinda bum shit would she be on if she turned around and started fucking them over? Mikaela shook her head and rested it against the cool metal of the locker for a moment. “Don’t mix the pain with the fear. Delve in, delve in, delve in.”
At this point, she’d already missed the first day’s assembly, homeroom and first period. It occurred to her that if her intent was to not draw attention to herself, maybe this wasn’t the most apt way to go about doing so.
Looking at her schedule in the empty hallway, Kae saw it was time for that Social Conscience program she’d been chosen for. Kae outright rejected it when the notice first came. While she walked the hall toward the room, she couldn’t help but reminisce over first learning of it. Her aunt worked for 3 days to talk her into it, because Kae always bucked from any program that seemed masked as an opportunity to turn her out and parade her “well-spoken” and “surprisingly insightful” self for the sake of a post-Affirmative Action goal. These ‘special programs’ always had a knack for drawing more attention to her than letting her lose herself in academia.
It was a moment before Kae even realized she had simply been standing in front of the door, schedule clutched in her left hand and the right one poised over the door. She could hear a voice, one she assumed belong to the course instructor, orating to the rest of the class based on his measure, cadence and pauses:“You are in this class because each and every one of you has shown potential, potential to be able to make the world a better place and change the injustice surrounding us every day.”
Kae rolled her eyes, but stopped herself from groaning. Other teachers in her past have lamented about her resilience to “using her knowledge and talents to change the system.”
She hated that speech, because it always seemed a clever way of putting the impetus on her to try and change the world, when she was simply trying to survive a system set up against her. But something in the instructors voice…the way he said ‘showing potential’ kept her listening on. But she still wouldn’t fully grasp the door knob. She listened on:“…By discussing the difference between man and animal, we’ve begun to develop an understanding of how we’ve grown and developed as a species and our society is a huge part of that.”
Kae was certain someone had brought up man’s love of violence and our sense of morality. But had anyone mentioned?... She stopped her train of thought enough to gather the end of his speech to the class, and squared her jaw, flipped back her locks and opened the door the classroom just as he said:“Well, get moving."
She kept her eyes deadlocked on the space above his desk, trying not to look at anyone and make a beeline for his desk. She cleared her throat involuntarily as she approached him. “Mr. Jonas?”
she started, “Hi sir, I’m Mikaela Maven. I think you’ve been in contact with my Aunt Beatrice about this course. I’m…”
Mikaela found her eyes start to wander around the room. She wasn’t surprised but still disheartened. It was the same everywhere. The classroom was small, and being her first official day at this school, she didn’t have a hope of knowing anyone.
Her blouse suddenly felt as if it were trapping her body heat for thermal energy and she could feel the heat creeping up her neck and caressing her jaw. She realized she’d stopped speaking mid-sentence while glancing around the class. She brought her attention back to the teacher. “I’m sorry for coming in so late. I..fuck—I mean, I’m sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that I just—I’m, it’s. Umm. It’s—been a rough start to the day.”
But screw that, she didn't need to apologize so much. Like her mom said, 'Don't be sorry. Be better.'
Mikaela took a quick breath and locked gazes with him and gave her best smile. "But if I may, from what I heard of the tail-end of your speech. I'd like to give my own two-cents on the difference between man and animal. I don't know if anyone's brought this up, but there's something to be said about the way we lie. Our ability to mask emotions and deceive. It runs tangent to our language because, on some level, we break the rules of language we've established to deceive others."
She shouldered her bag and gave another glance to the group work that was starting up. "I know that's...kind of an odd way to look at it, I guess. But, is there any way I can still get in on a group?"