It's been a while since I've been in detention, but it's exactly as I remember. Black marker smudges clutter the whiteboard. The clock on the wall is running two minutes behind, even though it's digital. There is still the empty hamster cage by the sink. Mr. Wheeler, my warden, sits behind his desk and adjusts his posture to accommodate his big belly. Some things never change.
"Come take these," he tells me when I enter, pointing to the edge of the desk. He's been staring out the window this whole time, probably wishing he didn't have to spend a nice May afternoon stuck with me. "Then have a seat."
When I get to the desk the only things I see are a blank sheet of paper and a number two pencil. "What is this for?"
Mr. Wheeler finally looks at me. His face reminds me of a bulldog, all cheeks and sunken eyes and no smile. "Your apology note," he says. "For the next hour, you will sit here and write how sorry you are for what you did to Richard."
This is a new punishment. I have been made to do a number of things in this room: Clean the whiteboard, scoop the poop from the hamster cage, scrape the gum from under the desks, sit down and shut up. I have not been asked to apologize.
"Do I make myself clear?" He is a human fishing rod, baiting me to say something.
And it's true: My first instinct is to talk back, to try to defend myself, but I hold my tongue. I've done this enough times to know that Mr. Wheeler has no qualms about extending the amount of time we're trapped in here. Fifteen minutes for each infraction. So I say nothing, just grab the pencil and paper and head to the desk farthest from him, the one by the window.
What have I done to Richard? The question hovers over me like a chaperone.
I write Dear Richard at the top of the page in my worst handwriting, and erase it just as quickly. For one thing, I don't call him that. To me, Richard Wright is Dick. He insists on any other nickname—Rich, Ricky—pleads with me in a voice as reedy as a clarinet. He hates being called Dick, which is why I keep doing it. That's one thing I've done to him.
The name has caught fire, too. You can imagine how it is, the jokes our eighth-grade minds can conjure at Dick's expense. Go ahead, say "Hey, you like Dick Wright?" to anyone in our class and see their reaction. You won't be disappointed.
But that's not why I'm here. That's not what Mr. Wheeler wants me to apologize for.
What have I done to Dick?
I write Dick at the top of the page, this time with my left hand so it looks even worse, but I erase that too. I don't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing the name, even if he hates it.
Dick's problem is that he's an easy target. Zit-stained, doughy, with glasses and hair too long for a boy. Loves to raise his hand, is quick to volunteer to read out loud in class, a natural-born punching bag. We need someone to make us feel better, more secure about our places in the world. He makes things easy for us.
Example: The last time I was in detention was back in February. I was sitting at this same desk. It was almost 4:30 (I'd been talking back a lot) and the sun was going down already. It felt like Mr. Wheeler and I were the only two people still left on the campus, but I swear when I looked out the window Dick was right there, staring at us from the school parking lot. I flipped him off but he didn't budge. He studied me like he was a bird-watcher who'd just found the last living dodo. When the bell rang and Mr. Wheeler excused me, I sprinted to the parking lot, but he was gone.
When I confronted him the next day, he played dumb, said he didn't know what I was talking about. His voice cracked every few words like it always does. So later, after our gym teacher, Ms. Mendoza, sent us to the locker room, a few of us cornered Dick by the showers and decided to play a game of Keep Away with his glasses. He reached with his grubby hands but puberty was not his friend either, hadn't blessed him with a growth spurt as it had the rest of us. When it was my turn to toss them, I aimed high and knocked them against the wall. The lenses splintered and the glasses fell to the floor, sat there collecting water droplets from the shower. Dick dropped to his hands and knees, hopelessly combing the floor with his fingers.
That's another thing I've done to him.
But that's not why I'm here. That's not what Mr. Wheeler wants me to apologize for.
I know what I've done to Dick.
Two days ago Ms. Mendoza made us run the mile. The boys went first. We stood at the starting line while the sun blistered our skin, and Dick was sweating before we even began. Now, I'm not a slow runner by any means, but I'd been up all night with stomach pains, which put me roughly at the same speed as Dick, who outweighs me by at least forty pounds, for most of the run. We were both on the last lap, barreling toward the finish line. My legs ached and my heart pounded faster than it ever has and I felt the gravel sneaking its way into my shoes.
And suddenly there was Dick Wright, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. And he was ahead of me. Not by much, but it was enough.
We were about ten seconds from the end when I did it. I pushed my body forward, willed myself to be even one second faster than him, and extended my foot in his direction. He never saw it coming, ran right into my leg and toppled over like a Jenga structure. Behind me I heard a sound like a brick hitting concrete. He was still laying face-first in the gravel when I crossed the finish line, his left arm bent back at an impossible angle.
Then one of the girls on the sidelines screamed at the teacher and pointed from me to Dick. I flopped down on the grass as Ms. Mendoza and the others rushed over to him. My head was spinning and my legs were shaking and I started laughing. I couldn't help it, seeing all those people around Dick, like they actually cared about him. I laughed even though I didn't think it was very funny, still don't. While the remaining students finished the mile, Dick was taken to the school nurse and I to the principal's office.
He returned to school today, walked right into first period with his left arm confined in a cast like nothing had happened. By lunchtime he ran out of space for everyone to sign it. Dick, of all people, who up until this week was a loner by default, not by choice. Like he's some kind of hero all of a sudden.
Everyone knows what really happened on the track by now. We trade gossip like we trade sack lunches. Dick is the talk of the school. They ask him for details, wish to relive the event through his eyes. I see the change in them already, feel the classroom die down when I enter, notice how they look at me in the hallways now. My name is not as easy to flip into a joke as Dick's, but they'll find a way. I'm sure of it.
And yet, despite everything, Dick has not said a word about me, never once mentioned my name or accused me of trying to kill him. If that girl hadn't told on me, I truly believe he would've told people he tripped over his own two left feet and did that to himself.
So that is why I'm here. That is what Mr. Wheeler and the rest of my classmates want me to apologize for.
But my paper is still blank, haunted by the ghosts of failed beginnings. Mr. Wheeler clears his throat, looks briefly from the window to me like he's checking that I'm still there. I make a show of it, grab my pencil and tap the eraser on my chin, go "Hmm" and look off in the direction of the hamster cage, pretend I'm sorry for something I'm not.
"Ten minutes left," he says, as though I haven't been watching the clock this whole time.
Still, I try again, put pencil to paper, press the lead against the empty space. I'm thinking I might just litter the page with doodles when I look outside and there he is. Dick is walking toward the parking lot, flanked by a classmate on each side. They are talking; he is smiling like I've never seen him smile. And when he stops for a moment and turns around, I don't budge. He's squinting, scanning the school like he's searching for something, someone. He looks like he did on that February afternoon in the fading light. But then one of the guys taps his shoulder and Dick turns his back on me and they're off again and my stomach feels a little funny.
In the principal's office, "bully" was the word Ms. Mendoza used to describe me. "Nothing but a bully," she kept saying, which is probably how I ended up getting detention for the rest of the school year. But that's not fair, the bully comment, I mean. No one would've signed Dick's cast at the beginning of the week. No one would've hung out with him or walked with him or invited him to their house. Does that sound like bullying to you?
In fact, I have a theory. You wanna know what I think?
I think Dick likes it, my giving him a tough time. I really do. I think he enjoys the recognition. He's grateful that someone is paying attention him, that he's being included in things, even if it's for the worse. Maybe he even needs it, anticipates it gleefully when he gets ready for school in the morning. Because wasn't he laughing at first when we took his glasses from him in the locker room? Didn't he use those same Dick name jokes we had at the beginning of things? Wasn't he the only one who didn't blame me for what I did? Maybe it makes him feel more secure about his place in the world too, having someone like me there.
After all, Batman has The Joker. Light has darkness. Dick needs me just as much as I need him. It's a thankless job, but I'm stuck with him and he's stuck with me, whether we like it or not. And some things never change.
I am thinking this when, at 3:58, the bell rings and Mr. Wheeler tells me that I'm free to go now, that I can leave my apology on his desk and he'll give it to Richard tomorrow. My paper is still bare, scuffed with halfhearted eraser marks, but I've finally decided on what I want to say. It takes me only a few seconds.
When I approach the desk, Mr. Wheeler stares at me with his bulldog eyes. "I hope you've learned something from all this," he says, trying to guilt me into an admission that we've both wasted an hour of our lives here.
"I have," I say, and drop the paper on his desk. It is a simple note—I didn't even sign my name. He'll know it's from me. He'll know when he reads the two words—one for him, one for me—in the middle of the page, stranded together like shipwreck victims.