How does she do it?
How does she manage to balance schoolwork, parents, siblings, friends, and career?
These are the questions that everyone thinks of when they think of Newbury Public School fourth grader, Lydia Baker-Bennerman.
She turns in her homework, all 100% correct and completed every Friday. Her mum bought her a brand new iPod touch for Christmas (so I would think that's going well). She goes to the canteen every lunchtime and orders the same – pressed pizza, fruit salad and a Play water, and get this – she pays everyday with a crisp fifty dollar bill. She also says the same thing to the lunchlady every day: "Keep 20 for yourself, love, just give me 20 dollars change."
She adds it up in her head every day, just like that!
She sits all by herself under the largest gumtree in the playground and eats her food. She eats quickly and finishes in the ten minutes (I stole a stopwatch from the maths cupboards and timed her a week ago) she has set aside for her meal break. She runs with her rubbish to the bins and carefully sorts her waste into recycling and regular. Then, she begins work.
She pulls out an envelope out of her school skirt pocket and checks for cash inside. She counts the 5 dollars and 50 cents (it's usually six dollars, but this was a preorder), puts the money back in the pocket and reads the note inside. The note gives her instructions on what the client wants her to do, and after's she read the note, she puts it back in her pocket and does what it says.
"Hello, Sarah-Grace, is it? Just thought I should let you know Jackson, see him over there, by the hedge? Look at 12 a clock, right behind me? Yeah, that's him. Well, he thinks you are beautiful and he loves how you wear your school hat. Have a lovely day."
She has successfully taken away all the awkwardness and pain that would come from Jackson having to tell Sarah Grace himself that he likes her. Plus, Lydia is way more cool and charming, and always makes the person with the crush look more awesome than they would have if they'd done it themselves. She's just like Einstein, or someone else who's thought of something really important.
I have been "writing an article" about Lydia for the "student school newsletter" for the past eight months. I like to sit with her in class when the teacher is too tired to make us write down times tables and write down little things she says, so I can keep them with me forever.
Last week, Lydia told me she has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on joke crush confessions. In the corner of my notebook it says:
I follow the procedure as if it were a real crush, no matter what. I do not want to be told when people are joking, and if it's fairly obvious they're having a laugh, I won't ask for confirmation.
As I said, she's just like Einstein
Suddenly, Oliver Yalland approaches our table. He's acting kinda strange – his group of loud and annoying boys aren't anywhere to be seen. He does not offer to tell either one of us what a blowjob is for $2. He does, however, quietly slip an envelope across to Lydia. The change within jingles, causing him to flinch and run to the back of the class. The front reads "FOR 12/09/2011 - $5.50 ENCLOSED" in thick black marker.
I come in late to lunch the next day – I had to stay in because I drew a giraffe over my cursive practice sheet.
I look for Lydia by the canteen – no, I must've been more than 5 minutes late. I look for her by the gumtree – crap, I must've been really late. I finally scan the playground for the sight of her brown ponytail. Shoot.
Out the corner of my eye, I see a silver, sparkling pencil case outside the girl's toilets. Hers, of course – her name is neatly labeled under the zipper. So I think she's inside.
She hates the school bathrooms. She told me once even washing her hands in there put her at risk for all sorts of bacterial infections. I remember, because when she said that I stopped using the school toilets too. Something must really be wrong.
I sit outside the toilet stall, ten minutes before the bell rings. We're both silent. She comes out almost two minutes after we were supposed to be in class, with her fists clenched around her food waste. She walks right by me to the bins, where she shoves it all under the red lid.
The next day I sit across from her in class and try to continue my "research."
She answers most questions "yes" "no" or "I'm not sure." The shyest girl from the front of our class comes over and puts an envelope down in front of Lydia. She simply smiles and pushes it back.
The end of class was coming soon and I still hadn't gotten a word out of her. Luckily, I had saved my best question for last.
"Lydia, which policy do you use the most?"
She suddenly begins to scribble over her cursive and then rips out the page. She crumples it into a ball and throws it at the bin.
"The policies have failed me."
Lydia hasn't come to school for a few days now, and I'm wondering what's happened to her. Perhaps she has sudden onset colorblindness, making her unable to tell the difference the red and yellow bins. Maybe she hasn't been sleeping, making her unable to focus. Maybe there's a boy she likes. I wait patiently for her return, under the gumtree every lunchtime.
When she does return I am really excited! I scramble through my tub for the pages of questions I prepared while she was away. She comes over to her seat, right beside mine, and places her plait over her shoulder.
"Where have you been, Lydia?" I smile.
"Huh? Oh, I've been sick" she responds. She sounds tired.
"Sick with what?"
"A flu-type illness."
"I've missed you. I've written some more questions for you if you don-"
"When is this issue actually going to be published?" She doesn't sound so tired anymore.
"Oh, there's been issues with the printing press, and....editor's approval."
"There's no newsletter! I've known that for so long and yet I've indulged you, you stalker, for god knows what reason!"
And I just get up and walk away.
I walk to the school office and ask to call my mum, tell her I'm not feeling well, that Lydia brought the flu into school. My mother arrives in her fancy waitressing uniform and drives me home. When we get there, I go into my room and open the second drawer in my bedside table, lined with little bits of Lydia (not pieces of her flesh, stuff that reminds me of her.)
I have three empty bottles of Play water that I fished out of the trash – the lid smells like the lip balm she wears. I have every note I've ever passed her in class that she wrote back on, and a ton of her pens. I have one bit of reddy-brown hair I snipped off the bottom of her braid, while she washed the paintbrushes after art class. I walked by her house once on the weekend and looked out the front for things she'd left for trash collection. I found a wooden desk with one leg snapped off, and in the drawer of that I found a tooth. I'm not sure if it was hers, but it makes me feel better to know that if Lydia Baker-Bennerman was to disappear, be killed or kidnapped or abducted by aliens, I have the stuff I need to clone her.
I hold the tooth in my hand and I think of how things were at the beginning – the gumtree and the interview questions, how lucky I was to be that close to her. But soon I start thinking about what could've been – the sleepovers, two mattresses on the floor and a Dominoes pizza box, the M-rated movies and the sunrise creeping through my curtains, shining on Lydia and I as we sit close together, whispering secrets and inside jokes, made lists of the cutest boys and our top three best friends. I always thought we'd get there. I really did.
I am not so good at faking sick, and when my mother eats a spoonful of the mashed potato and orange juice fake vomit I concoct 2 mornings on, I know I'm done for.
The school days are longer than ever without Lydia around. Well, I mean, she was around, just not around me. I realize I'm really behind in my school work when I get my spelling test back. Whatever, she was worth it.
She still doesn't appear to be taking any confession envelopes and people come up to me to ask what is up with her. I shrug and say she's still feeling sick. On Friday she tapes a short note on a pole in the playground
"We regret to inform you that Lydia Baker-Bennerman is no longer soliciting crush confessions. Please find other means of confession, or perhaps, do it yourself.
I watch kids crowd around the note and walk away with sad faces. We are all left wondering, why, why?
A few weeks after the Lydia went out of business, I arrive late to school, to an empty Year 4 locker room. One locker hangs open, and on the inside of the door, a note is taped, written in purple cursive. I would recognize the handwriting anywhere.
I am writing to apologise for the cruel joke played on you almost 6 weeks ago. Although I am not the one who instigated the joke, I had the role of the messenger. And I regret passing on the confession, the confession I knew was a joke on you, so so deeply.
See, I was blinded by my own ignorance and I thought you would not understand. I watched you float in your own little bubble in the playground, and I thought you didn't notice how people laughed at you. I thought I'd deliver the confession and you'd float away again, back into your own little world. I was wrong. Halfway through my conversation with you, I watched your face crinkle with pain. And I have since realized you understand more than anyone knows you do. I had an inkling it was the wrong thing before I said anything to you, but that made it sink in.
I want to let you know that the kids in this school are close-minded and shallow, that they are not worthy of your tears. The world is smaller for you than it is for me, I won't deny that, but it does not make you inferior to me. And so I apologise for the pain I caused and for how humiliated you must feel everyday here. I am so, deeply sorry for my contribution to that.
I wish you well, Bernadette.
Oh, Bernadette. One of the smarter kids from the special-ed class, who comes down to our playground sometimes. She walks around as if she were in a dream, picking up rocks and leaves, putting them in her pockets. Sometimes Oliver Yalland yells out comments on her actions, as if she were an animal in the wild. His friends think it's so funny.
I stare right at the letter for a few minutes more. I think, I want to remember how kind she was to Bernadette. I want to have some physical part of Lydia's good heart, forever and ever and ever. I may have a bit of her hair and a baby tooth of hers, but when I'm old, I will hold those and think of how beautiful she was on the outside. I want to remember how beautiful she was on the inside.
And so, I take the note down from Bernadette's locker and fold it up. While putting it away into my jacket pocket, I promise myself this is the last little bit of Lydia I will keep for myself.