Image: “Save the Bees” by Lori Menna, Digital Collage-1 x 1 meter
By Casey Lefante
You lift your scalpel, stare at the speck in front of you. You feel kind of bad for it. One minute, it’s living its life in a sweet little colony, making honey and shit, and the next minute, it’s dropped unceremoniously onto a tin plate for a fifteen-year-old to dissect. Damn, you think, staring at the wings, the way they splay prettily on either side of its little striped body. This really sucks for you.
“Jesus,” Sienna Walters says, not to you or the bee or anyone. “Why can’t we dissect cats or something?”
If you were capable of speaking to a girl like Sienna Walters, you’d ask her something like, “Why a cat,” or, “Why not a bee,” or, “What do you think happens to bees when they die?” You’d ask her if she thinks they go to Heaven despite what your Religion teacher says. You’d ask her if she thinks Religion teachers are wrong about that, and if they’re wrong about that, then what else could they be wrong about? And then you’d ask her about the bracelets she wears every day, wide and woven, wrapped tightly around her wrists as if they’re part of her skin. Today, those bracelets aren’t on her wrists, though. Today, they’re on top of the table next to her dissection tray because Mr. Sheppard said she couldn’t wear them during the dissection even though he didn’t say anything to Emma Smith, who wears the exact same bracelets, maybe even more. Today is the first day you noticed that this sort of thing seems to happen to Sienna a lot, only she never says anything about it. Today is also the first day you notice the five little scratches on the underside of her wrist. When she sees you looking at them, she pushes the sleeves down and glares at her bee, as if it somehow insulted her.
Maybe it doesn’t matter about the Heaven thing, you think. You pick up the narrow, shiny scalpel. Maybe I don’t believe in all that.
You’ve never really thought about it before this year. But it’s been creeping into your thoughts more and more, so much so that you already know what you believe. That you’ve already started believing in not believing.
On the wall above the door hangs a wooden crucifix, identical to all the other wooden crucifixes hanging in all the other classrooms. Sometimes before a test, you’ll look at the crucifix and say a little prayer. You start to look at it now, but your eyes stop instead at Sienna’s arm, at the frayed sweater sleeve that covers her secrets, and you wonder about your own ability to open yourself up, slice yourself open and peel back the skin, allowing everything inside of you to breathe.
Your family’s the kind of family that lives inside picture frames at Wal-Mart. Just some good, Christian people with an American flag in the background, hugging each other on swing sets, sun shining, all that shit. Your dad’s a cop, and your mom’s a preschool teacher, and your sister’s a cheerleader. How All-American is that? Your family isn’t the kind of family that has problems. It’s not the kind of family where a girl starts cutting herself.
Exhibit A: Your family goes to church every Sunday and sits in the same pew. You and your sister file behind your parents every Sunday and smooth your skirts, try to sit up straight so that you don’t fall asleep. Your brother went to church with you, too, before he left for college. He used to play a game during the Our Father, when everyone on the altar held hands. He’d imagine that everyone holding hands was playing tug of war, and he’d bet on who would win. Once he told you that, you couldn’t think of anything else.
One Sunday, a new family sits in front of you. You may not have noticed except that they are the only other family that look like your brother in this church. You think this is why your father stands and shakes their hands, every one of them, as they shuffle into the pew. A small gesture, one that seems like it’s about welcoming them when really you know it’s about his own absolution. The mother holds a baby the entire time, a baby who looks like just your brother in his baby pictures—light brown eyes, big round ears, a dimple on each cheek. He was the adopted miracle before the other two miracles arrived, before you grew old enough to stop believing in miracles.
This kid smiles at you during the entire homily, and every time his mother tries to turn him around, he forces his body around so he can lock eyes with you. The similarities are enough to make you believe in reincarnation.
If life were a 90’s teen movie, the kind your sister likes to watch on Netflix, then Sienna Walters would sit next to you at lunch. It would be the beginning of a new and weird and magical friendship. Sienna Walters is beautiful. Her skin reminds you of an iced mocha, and her hair is in a different style every week—sometimes braids, sometimes curls, sometimes a long, shiny ponytail that you’re not sure is real. Yet she isn’t one of the popular girls. You figure this must be because she doesn’t want to be; you can’t think of any other reason. If you and Sienna Walters were friends, you know she’d teach you how to be a real outcast, the kind who knows exactly where she falls in the high-school pecking order and doesn’t give one shit about it. She’d recognize something in you, know that you were on her side the way other kids aren’t. You would both stop standing for the Pledge of Allegiance in the mornings, sit with your arms crossed, and everyone would know you were in solidarity together. The space inside of you would fill like a honey jar, and you’d know you had a partner again, that you were finally part of a unit the way you used to be with your siblings.
Sienna Walters never shows up, though, and you don’t ever see her except for in Biology class when you’re forced to sit next to each other. Life isn’t a 90’s teen movie.
At lunch, everyone sits in neat groups, little clusters of friends. Lunch group politics, you’ve learned in your first year, are complicated. You haven’t yet figured out where you’re supposed to end up, where you belong. Your sister’s next to the library, sitting in a circle of some of the most basic girls you’ve ever seen, girls who look just like the two of you, and all of them are laughing the way girls laugh when something isn’t really all that funny. You simmer, a hot rage circling around one single point—so soon, so soon. So soon to make straight As, so soon to write perfect essays, so soon to have perfect hair like a stupid Disney princess. So soon for her to somehow become even more pristine, more focused, more exactly how she’s supposed to be.
Across the field, in the corner of the parking lot, Mr. Sheppard appears directly in your line of vision. It’s obvious he’s trying to remain unseen, but how could he know that you’re watching from beneath your tree? He takes a small box out of his back pocket, smacks it against his palm, and takes out a cigarette. He leans with his shoulder against the brick wall of the gymnasium, his back to you, and maybe it’s your imagination, but it looks like his shoulders have slipped down, his shirt less taut against his back. You guess that everyone needs something to keep them sane. You graze your fingers against your wrist, smoothing what is, for now, already smooth.
You pick up your phone. You press the Instagram icon and start searching hashtags—#cutting, #cutters, #cutculture. Before you could look at any of the photos, a warning pops up: “Can we help? Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you’re going through something, we’d like to help.” And there are three choices to press: “Get Support,” “See Posts Anyway,” and “Cancel.” See, all of this seems to say. You have control over whether or not you want to look. We’ve done our part. We’re not responsible. The same thing they said, right to your parents’ faces. We’re not responsible. We couldn’t control him. We tried. We couldn’t. We didn’t. We won’t.
Your family’s still the kind of family that lives inside picture frames at Wal-Mart, or at least that’s how things look on the surface. Your dad didn’t stop being a cop, and your mom didn’t stop being a preschool teacher, and your sister didn’t stop being a cheerleader. Your family isn’t the kind of family that has problems, except that it is. It’s not the kind of family where a son gets killed, except that it is.
You press your finger against the inside of your wrist, and a voice buzzes in your brain—open, open, open—and you know that no one would notice or care. If your sister could laugh three weeks after her own brother’s funeral, she could laugh if you told her what you wanted to do. She’d laugh and roll her eyes and say you were being dramatic. She’d go on with her life just like everyone else. Everyone else but you, because you must be broken.
So you do it. You just do it, and the first time you do it, you think you’re going to die. Like, literally die. You slice the fleshy part of your wrist, and your heart and blood and thoughts race, and it’s sort of like cutting into a tomato, which makes you think of that poem you read last year in eighth grade, and the teacher brought tomatoes, and you all had to cut them, and they smelled so gross, right? Because tomatoes are gross as—fuck, your wrist, fuck. This isn’t like a tomato at all, at all, because this is blood and it’s real, and it makes you think of your brother, and now you want to throw up. You start to scream, but then you remember your sister is right outside, watching Friends on Netflix, just like she does every afternoon at 4 o’clock. So you suppress the animal noises threatening to spill out of your mouth, and you grab the roll of toilet paper from on top of the toilet, tear a piece off, and press hard, hard, harder. When you catch your breath, you look at your skin. It’s not so gross. Now, even though you’re bleeding, it looks kind of cool. Something buzzes in your head. You’ve broken skin, but you somehow feel fixed.
“Nice bracelets,” Sienna says, slapping a copy of the science test on her desk before passing the rest of the stack to you. It makes you dizzy. You wonder if she’s noticed what no one else seems to have noticed. You want to walk up to her, grab her wrist, compare scars. You want to see what they look like on her skin, whether they’re puffier or pinker or exactly the same. Skin is skin, maybe.
You answer the objective questions carefully, keeping your wrist from touching the desk. It’s sore today. True or false: Bees are the only animals other than humans who kill for sport. False. Everyone knows those are polar bears. True or False: Every bee dies when it loses its stinger. Also false. That only happens to honey bees, which seems so wrong. They didn’t ask for that kind of evolutionary unfairness.
You take the test quickly, and you know you’re acing it. You get the little thrill you always get when you take a test and you know you’re doing well. You told your siblings about that feeling once, and your sister called you a nerd. Your brother, though, confessed that he sometimes felt that, too. “There should be an Olympics for test-taking,” he’d said after your sister left the room, and you’d agreed.
You flip the page and read the essay question: “Honey bees are rapidly growing extinct. What are some common misconceptions about honey bees, and what can we do to help maintain bee populations?” Honey bees, you write, are models of human society. The laborers work together for a common good, much like many societies that we see today. However, most humans grow up with a fear of bees. This fear, based on ignorance and an unrealistic knowledge of how bees function in a society, causes humans to react defensively towards them even when the bees aren’t doing anything but just living their lives. You brush your bangs off your forehead. When we are threatened by a bee, we freak out. So our scared reaction makes the bee nervous, so the bee starts the initial act of defense, which is body shaking. When the bee starts swaying its abdomen violently, this makes the human nervous, and we see the bee as a threat. The fact is, though, the bee isn’t a threat. The words are coming faster now, you’re on a roll, your handwriting scrawling across the page in increasingly illegible shapes. The bee just wants to peacefully coexist with us. In fact, the bee affects so many aspects of our lives, yet we don’t think about it. We just let the bee do all the work behind the scenes, and then we want to kill it because we see it as a threat that doesn’t actually exist. You’re out of room on the page, but you keep writing along the side, your words snaking around the paper’s edges. Humans are terrified of what they don’t understand. Unless we start educating people about not only the usefulness of bees but, more importantly, the humanity of bees, then we will continue discriminating against them, and the world will continue to destroy them and their habitats for no reason other than an unfounded, baseless, ignorant fear.
You know, of course, that you have stopped writing about bees. You know this the minute you finish writing and look at your page. Your face is hot, your eyes burn, you feel like the room is closing in on you. You feel like everyone is staring at you, but of course they aren’t. Your brain was moving a mile a minute, the words crowding your head, a thick hum, but now that you’ve stopped, everything is silent. All you hear is the ticking of the seconds hand on the clock and the scratch of pencils on paper. You sneak a peek at Sienna and see that she’s staring at the essay page, her forehead wrinkled in concentration as she tugs on a loose curl.
Then you see Mr. Sheppard staring at you, or not you, your arms, because in your heated writing, you pushed your sleeves up over your elbows, and your wrists are on full display. You place your hand on your lap and pull the sleeves back down. He moves to the other side of the classroom, and you realize he wasn’t looking at you at all. He was staring at Sienna—he still is—as if he thought she might grab your essay right from under your pencil and start blatantly cheating. You look back at your essay, but none of the words make sense anymore.
After class, in the hallway, you see Sienna standing at her locker, grabbing books for her next two classes. Two girls walk up and say something to her, and for a moment, Sienna looks like a different person. She’s smiling and even joking. Then one of the girls says something that makes Sienna’s smile more forced. The other girl touches Sienna’s hair—today it’s extra fluffy, a curly halo around her cheeks, and you think to yourself that you too want to touch it—and then both girls release high-pitched praises amid laughter, and Sienna laughs, too, only not really. It’s the way you sometimes saw your brother laugh when older relatives asked if he played basketball. Something else, some new expression, flickers across Sienna’s face as the girls walk away, and you realize that she really does give a shit. You walk right up to her, tap her on the shoulder, show her your wrists.
At first, she just stares at your arm. I’m like you, you want this gesture to say. We’re both outcasts. Both the same. And for a moment, her face is open, vulnerable. But in another, shorter moment, everything changes. She looks up at you and freezes her face, and you realize this was a mistake. A horrible, awful mistake.
“Excuse me?” She stares at you, and you know that if her brown eyes were lasers, you’d be melted right now. You’ve never seen someone look at you like this, so cold yet so hot at the same time. It’s like she’s daring you to stay but also daring you to walk away, and you have no clue what to do, so you just stand there, waiting for an answer, or maybe for a hole to appear and swallow you up.
“I noticed yours,” you stumble, “and, I don’t know, I just thought I’d show you.”
“Why?” With each word, a new challenge.
“Just to show you, I guess.”
“No,” she says, looking at you like you’re a moron, “I mean why.”
“Oh.” This question is easy. The answer is obvious. You feel hopeful. “I don’t know. I guess things are just hard.”
“Yeah?” She cocks an eyebrow and juts her chin. She’s not much taller than you, but suddenly she seems giant, as if she’s looming over you. “Things are hard? For you?”
It is, you think, and you almost say this, too, but thank God you don’t because she starts to laugh, a quick, hard laugh.
“For you.” You just stare at her, and she finally scoffs. “Please. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” She raises a hand in the air, the palm facing you as if she can dispel your presence just by blocking you from her vision. “You people are all the same. Jesus.”
Then she turns the other way, walking down the hall with her back straight, shoulders squared. The familiar loneliness, the familiar grief, fills you, but now with something new—guilt. The sounds of school surround you—lockers slamming, voices rising, feet shuffling—but all you hear is the deep hum in your brain, the persistent buzz of Open, open, open.
You practiced, once. The day of his funeral. You held your breath and waited to see how long it would take for you to get lightheaded, to see nothing but darkness before tipping over onto the earth. You tried to imagine a cop pinning your body down, yelling in your face for you to calm down as he steals breath from your body second by second, until you can’t speak or breathe or exist. Forty-five seconds into it, you gasped for air, and you felt like a failure.
Now, you break skin. You scratch the razor across your skin like you’re underlining words in a book, trying not to forget what is important.
On Saturday, your parents go to Wal-Mart, and you decide to swim. You forget, or pretend to, that your sister usually swims in the pool every morning at 10 am. You jump into the water at 9:45, and fifteen minutes later, she comes out, holding a bright yellow towel in one hand and sunscreen in the other. As she rubs sunscreen on her body, you notice that she is very, very skinny. Her ribs poke through her skin, and when she bends to run sunscreen on her knees, you think you can see her spine. She throws the sunscreen and the towel on a chair and pads her way to the pool. When she notices you staring at her, she crosses her arms over the top of her pink bikini.
“What’re you staring at,” she says, and you know then that she knows you know. It’s been so obvious, so right in front of you, but you didn’t notice until now. It makes you wonder what else you’ve missed. Last summer, your brother came home and surprised you and your sister by cannonballing into the pool. He came out of nowhere. You didn’t even know he was in town. He said he came in town just because he missed your family, but now you don’t know. What happened, on that day and so many other days, that you knew nothing about? Your body aches with all you don’t know.
Your sister eases slowly into the water, then ducks beneath the surface, barely causing a splash. When she pops back up and pushes her wet hair out of her face, she grins, and for an instant she looks like him. It’s crazy how the three of you could look so alike even though you were so obviously different. You push hair out of your face, too, and that’s when she stops smiling. She grabs your wrist.
“What’s this,” she asks, and you know that she knows, the same way you knew the minute she walked outside. The same way you both should have known that your brother’s life wasn’t really the same as yours, could never be the same, even though wishing and living as if it were was more comfortable for everyone. Everyone, you realize, except for him. You could count numerous moments, now that you think of it. Like when Uncle Tommy told you what his neighborhood was like when he was little, then said, “But that was until, you know,” and then rubbed his arm as if it would magically turn brown with his touch. Like when your Aunt Carol, wanting to excuse her husband’s racism, made things worse by telling your brother, “But sweetheart, we don’t mean like you. You’re not one of those.” Like when your brother’s white friends would sing the n-word in rap songs, as if they had the right to say it. Like when strangers would eye your brother warily until they saw your parents or your sister or even you, and then the lowering of the shoulders, the relaxing of the eye muscles, the unspoken relief that your brother got a “pass.” And like all those times and more, when you didn’t say anything. You ignored it even when you were too old to get away with the excuse that you didn’t notice. You noticed. You noticed all the time.
You hear the buzz—open, open, open—only this time your wrist doesn’t itch with want. Your sister spins abruptly and swims to the other side of the pool. She leans back, her elbows on the cement. She tilts her head up to the sky like she’s praying, and maybe she is, and maybe you should, and maybe everything seems confusing when it isn’t. Maybe, if you dare to, you can see it’s all really simple.
“Do you miss him?” As soon as you ask, you realize this is the question that’s been perched on the edge of your brain every day. You need her to say yes. You need her to feel what you feel, at least a little bit, so that you know you aren’t alone in this.
“Of course,” she says, looking at you accusingly. “Why would you ask that?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “I just can’t always tell.”
“I could say the same for you.”
“I guess.” You bend your knees, allowing your nose to just graze the pool’s surface. If you dipped any lower, you’d be breathing in water. You watch your sister’s face move from annoyed to indignant to something different, something softer.
“Of course I miss him.” She says it to the water, not to you. “I miss him like crazy. It’s like I can’t go a minute without his face popping up in my head, you know?”
You do know.
“I just don’t get why he couldn’t have just cooperated,” she says, her voice almost a whisper. “All he had to do was listen to them, and he’d be here. Just follow the rules. It’s not that hard.” You see the pain in your sister’s face, faint but present, and you know that she hates herself for what she can’t help thinking, just as you hate yourself for your own ignorance.
The only sound in the back yard is of the water and the breeze and your own breathing. You hear the buzz again—open, open, open—only this time it’s different. You look at the tree in the corner of the yard, the one the three of you used to climb when you were still small, still friends, still a unit. You look at the tree, and you think of the crucifix in your classroom, and you think about praying. But when you open your mouth, it isn’t a prayer that emerges but a confession. You tell your sister everything—about Sienna, about your wrist, about the science test. Your love, your hate, your guilt and fear and sorrow. The words fly out of your mouth, uncontrollable and stinging, until, like bees, they’ve covered both of you in thick, pulsing hives. And when you have finished, when everything locked inside of you has emptied, you stand in the water, breathless, wishing desperately that you knew how to heal.