Barbed Wire

Barbed Wire

Barbed Wire 1920 1533 Katie Karnehm-Esh

Do you remember those first days, when we’d walk from class to the cafeteria, chatting and laughing, but once inside, I’d veer off to get my food, and sit with strangers, or nobody? It wasn’t you. It was Stacey Magada and high school, twenty-three years ago. This is also why I always carry a book or a journal—if you’re busy, it doesn’t matter if you’re alone. And sometimes it’s important to be alone because no one likes a clinger, especially in a lunch room, where my pulse still leaps like a rabbit.

Go back in time twenty-three years. I was a freshman at a private Christian school where the favorite joke was to sell a fourth-floor (the roof) pool pass to a freshman. Our brick school building on the hill used to be the Catholic girl’s school in Dayton, before the Southern Baptists bought it. Because it was big for a Christian school, it attracted students who grew up in a church-based world, as well as students who had been expelled from all the area public schools. My classmates divided themselves into people who wore Simples and pretended to skate, people who wore khakis and pretended to play earnest praise songs on their guitars, and the African-American kids, who mostly side-eyed our nonsense. It was 1994. Combat boots and wide-leg pants and long brown skirts were going to be in for a while. We could tell who was a prep and who was “alternative” by how a person wore a backpack. Beck and Salt N’ Peppa were big. Skirts and ties on chapel day, as well as tucked-in shirts, were mandatory.

I waded into this primordial soup from my homeschooled-on-a-farm-life. My father was famous amongst Christians in Dayton, and my brother had his arm nearly ripped off in a farm conveyor belt accident the week before school started, thus causing him to be lifted up in prayer during all those church services that Sunday. On my first day of classes I was identified as Steve’s daughter or the sister of “that boy we’ve been praying for.” While my parents shuttled back and forth to the hospital, I lived with an aunt in Dayton who took me to school and picked me up from cross country practice. She smelled like patchouli and decorated her apartment in black. I felt like cracked porcelain. One morning, the day of school pictures, I cried in the car on the way to the bus stop, the way I would ten years later when my parents were divorcing and remarrying during my visit home from England. My pictures that day were awful. I did retakes a month later; they still were.

The kindness of these first few weeks of hell were that somehow, my classmates decided I was cool and they should be nice to me. Most of them had been to counseling with my father, and several of them, including Stacey Magada, were on the cross country team. Jessica and Lauren let me eat lunch with them, where I silently ate Cheezits and learned about their eighth-grade sex lives. And during the second week of school, Stacey told me I was cool.

Stacey was a junior. She got suspended for huffing glue during study hall, but because of cross-country and because she was one of my dad’s clients, she was also one of my first friends. I liked the kind of music she listened to, liked her sloppy cool taste—skater shoes, dark brown hair in her eyes, baggy khakis—and liked her sense of humor. She laughed at the chapel speakers and the uptight kids and always herself. At some point, I met Stacey’s friend Melissa, who had a red Ford Escort that we sat in some mornings before school, listening to the radio and staring out the window. Sometimes Lauren joined us. We’d listen to the Violent Femmes as we stared into the spindly woods littered with cigarette butts and chip bags. Sometimes we watched kids walk down the path in the woods to smoke behind the Dairy Mart. Down the street were notorious crackhouses, a block away from our teachers’ brightly painted and landscaped Victorian houses.

Late in November, I started to feel the signs of being unwanted even as I was still walking to Melissa’s car in the morning. I’d open the fogged-up back door of her car and regret it. Sometimes instead I walked straight to from the bus to the school entry way to finish my homework before the big metal gate opened. Sometimes I told myself it had to be in my head.

In January we took two classes a day instead of our usual seven. I took Composition, the class that made me want to be a writer, and Intro to Russian, the class that burned the farewell, “Dasvadaniya, Anna” into my memory. Stacey Magada came up to me after Composition class one unusually warm day and asked, “Hey Katie, do you want to come outside with me?”

The elementary school connected to the high school by a breezeway, and from the breezeway stairs, we could look down the hill, toward half-burned out buildings and broken parking lots. My biology teacher told us once that when the school was a convent, sheep used to graze on the hill below us, that those steps led to somewhere beyond burned out houses. Stacey and I sat on the stairs. Maybe I was thinking of the sheep while Stacey was telling me not to hang around her and Melissa and Lauren so much, and also not to cry. She was nice about it, in her slightly stoned way. She left. I waited five minutes, still staring out towards the long-dead sheep, waiting for my eyes and face to turn less red. Then I walked to Russian class. I was ten minutes late, which was grounds for counting me absent, but my teacher just looked at me, then asked if I was OK. I nodded. I was always going to be OK in high school now.

A swathe of my drug-using friends, including Stacey, were expelled or suspended that spring. Stacey returned after a few weeks, but that summer her parents were moving to Youngstown, so she wouldn’t be coming back. By the end of my freshman year, I’d run a season of cross country and track, had made friends just as awkward as me, and had figured out how to talk during lunch. Stacey hadn’t been part of most of that transition. The night before she moved, she called me. I hadn’t gone to her going-away party, had barely talked to her since the school year ended, but she wanted to say goodbye. That Christmas, I got a card from her on January 1. Fashionably late! she wrote. I laughed, feeling a little grateful, and a little confused.

When I drive in Dayton now, I can never find the road to the school. It’s gone anyway.  Several years after I graduated, the school moved to a new building south of Dayton. Most of the white students went with it, and the school shrank to a holier, more manageable size. The old Catholic building yawned open in through broken windows and the roof might have started to collect water, like the pool it always wanted to be. Several years ago, it was demolished. Somewhere off State Route 48, the empty hill is still there, but I don’t know how to find it.

This story makes it sound like I learned my lesson, once and for all. This isn’t true. Once I stood on the roof, right by the trap door to the ladder, on a November night my senior year, looking out over the city. In front of me, two friends temporarily in love with each other were standing, not touching. I gave them space because too late, up the ladder to the roof, I remembered my lesson: don’t be a tagalong.

This also makes it sound like I am blameless: I am not. While I was standing on the roof, third-wheeling my friend’s date, a boy who had been smitten with me in summer school was watching the fall play by himself. He had come to visit, and I was walking back my low-risk summertime flirtation. I didn’t tell him to quit hanging out with me, but I did sell tickets and concessions during the show instead of sitting with him, and joked about a guy I thought was hot. He left my house furious, came back and gave me a hug, then left again, driving 80 miles an hour the 45 miles back to his university. Later he told me I could have gotten him killed because he was so angry. A little bit of me admired his ability to get that angry with me; I would have just slunk off, or never shown up in the first place.

Maybe I’ve always sized people up as risky or not, and let myself banter with the non-risky ones, worship the risky ones. I don’t know. For a long time, I made friends as if we were talking over a strand of rusted barbed wire, and I was behind on tetanus shots. When I met my housemate and life-long friend Sarai in Oxford during our study abroad semester, I told her I was going to a local pub after the meet and greet. “You can come if you want,” I said. I thought I was being casual; she later said she thought I was a little bit of a bitch. We liked that about each other.

Maybe my barbed wire was obvious when I showed up at the new job, new church, new writing workshop. People say introverts are stuck up, but what I know is that nobody tells the standoffish person to quit tagging along. Sometimes, though, I still forget. Once, when I was attending a conference in Seville, I misjudged the walk to the conference hotel. Three miles later and much bad Spanish on my part later, I finally arrived, homesick and disoriented. So stood around a palm tree in the lobby talking to another American. Finally she said, “well, I have to go meet some other people.” Idiot, I told myself.

Maybe you noticed this at lunch when I’d wander off; this was me, refusing to get tangled in the barbed wire.

But one day we were talking so much all the way to the salad bar that I finally said, “Um, are you guys eating with anyone else?”

“You guys,” one of you said. “I’m just tagging along because I like all of you.” I exhaled as I filled my plate with spinach. Somewhere in the air, the sound of a strand of barbed wire snapped.

Header photograph © K Weber.

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