When it happens, you are sitting in the back seat of the school bus, the very last row near the emergency exit, that door they made you practice jumping out of during elementary-school bus drills.
You always hated the drills. Butterflies in your gut, the agony of that walk down the aisle. Pink velcro sneakers slow-toeing the ribbed black rubber of the aisle’s floor, clammy hands walking the top of each brown vinyl bus seat like a gauntlet—one row, another—closer to the back door where you’d have to stand on the ledge then leap out. One by one the kids leapt, little lemmings off a cliff in their cotton shorts and tee shirts. The boys ahead of you leaping like frogs, like skydivers, some of them whooping, and the teacher waiting there beyond the doorway to give you her arm if you needed it. Mrs. Loring, Ms. Halsted, Miss G.
You always managed—didn’t start crying or anything, like poor Ellie Schraft with her scraped knees and red eyes—to jump and to land, on the faded gray asphalt of the parking lot behind Jefferson Elementary.
Made yourself do it. Tried not to pause too long on the rim of that yellow bus, where the pavement looked so far down, so far to fall. Knew waiting would only make it worse, only make them tease you, Jason Horkey behind you with his blond bed-head and that porky little grin, you knew he’d reach out and pretend to push.
Or Tyrone Johnson, fidgeting already in the parking lot, arms twined behind him, calling out to the teacher, “Can I go again, Miss G? Get a running start? Come on, I wanna be like MJ, get like a crazy running start, and whoosh, slam dunk, you know? Can I go again?”
You knew Tyrone would whisper to you back at the desk if you hesitated, call you a fraidy cat, crybaby, sing waa-waa diaper songs and say, “What? What? I wasn’t saying nothing, Miss G!” if she noticed.
So you did it, you spread your hands and leaped—a quick rush of wind in your bangs and sun on your skin, that blue-sky sun of midwestern fall, and the smell of cut grass and gasoline and wet earth—and landed, felt a flexing in your knees, not so bad. Not so bad. But you walked away with legs like gummy worms.
Years later, when it happens, you are sitting in the back of that bus, could be the same exact bus for all you know, but now you are 14, a freshman, and the back of the bus means something different. Means you’re as far from the driver as possible, as far as you can get from Kelly, your grunge pixie bus driver with spiky red hair and a chirping voice when she yells at you all to Settle down, guys, come on, okay?
The back of the bus means you’re a bad kid now, you want to be a bad kid now, have to prove yourself. They are saying you’re too sweet, not the type to even swear, oh no, not you, and you open up your mouth and inhale deep and you say, Fuck, Shit, Damn, what do you mean I won’t say fuck-shit-damn. Whatever. I’ll say whatever. Motherfucker.
They’re laughing and saying Oh damn! Oh yeah! and your face is reddening and there’s a ringing in your ears, but this is when it happens. When you decide, when you change, when you decide to change. When it begins.
You will not stay sweet, see you next summer. You won’t primp your bangs, press your jeans, file your fingernails. No. You’ll paint them black, shred your jeans. Shed your past. When Todd Bartrams leans in to kiss you, when Angie Leoni starts swaying to the Velvet Underground in a dark kitchen, oh and I guess that I just don’t know, when Gary Bailey passes you your first bowl, late at night on the dewy grass beyond the railroad tracks, you will not hesitate. Fuck, fucking shit. Fuck shit damn, motherfucker. You will close your eyes, and open up your mouth, and you will inhale deep.
Sarah Kowalski’s work has appeared in a handful of print and online venues, including The Philadelphia Independent, Celebrities in Disgrace, and the forthcoming anthology South Philly Fiction, among others. She is also a fiction editor for literary review The New Guard and holds an MFA in fiction from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine.