Steak, Peas, Potatoes, Ritalin

From Urbanite Baltimore’s 2009 “Emerging Writers” issue:

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                  Brandi shoved herself through the rip tide of students in the corridor, extending a jazz hand toward me. I glanced away, pretending not to notice her sprawled fingers in my face. “Oh my God,” she said as she squeezed her large frame between me and a trophy case, “I just got my algebra test back from Mr. S. He’s so copious.

I didn’t know what “copious” meant so I shrugged, yanked on a strand of hair.

“What’s wrong, Abby? Didn’t you take your medicine today?” Brandi bowed to meet my hair-curtained eyes. Her breath reeked of Doritos. Her teeth were orange. She was a foul cheese-breathing dragon.

“It’s not even lunch time,” I replied, “but judging from the smell of your breath, I’m guessing you couldn’t wait to eat.”

The aftertaste of old watermelon gum lingered in my mouth. Brandi’s face two inches away made me nauseous. I gagged. The flat flavor of long-chewed gum and the Doritos smell was a gross concoction; it reminded me of the disgusting way my dad mixed potatoes with peas and gravy and steak onto one forkload. I couldn’t fathom that some people considered mixing food scrumptious. You’d never catch me forking a wad of gum and a Dorito chip into my watering mouth, “ooh”ing and “aah”ing at the flavor, exalting on behalf of my delighted taste buds.

I pleaded for her to back up.

Brandi ignored me and waved sheets of stapled paper in my face. “Can you believe I got a C minus on the algebra test?” Her jazz hands were in full effect. She was preaching to the ceiling tiles. “And, unlike you, I don’t even take medicine to concentrate!”

A few students turned around and giggled. I could’ve sworn one girl pointed in the general direction of my brain. I growled.

“I did worse,” I said, “because I hate math, Brandi. Medication has nothing to do with it.” I toyed with the padlock that hung heavily from my belt loop. I thought it looked cool — like I not only owned my locker, I wore my locker. A foot away, inside my locker, were papers chest-high with red Ds and D minuses scrawled urgently upon them. I hadn’t flunked anything yet. And I didn’t care if my fellow students rummaged through my accessible locker because the bad grades were all they’d find. And gum wrappers.

“It does matter, Abby. Math is one of your learning disabilities.”

Brandi knew this because we went to the same psychiatrist. Apparently, we had appointments back to back. More than twice I’d seen her waddling up Dr. Darr’s porch, talking to herself, rehearsing some soliloquy I imagined to be about algebra and potato chips as I hightailed my way to my mom’s car. One afternoon, she followed me into a bathroom at school. She asked why I was seeing Dr. Darr. Over my streaming urine, I’d shouted, “Because I have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder!” After exiting the bathroom stall, I asked her why she went to see Dr. Darr, thinking that, maybe, we were having a “moment”, a nice girl-to-girl chat about psychiatry. At the sink, she leaned over my shoulder, caught my frightened gaze in the mirror and whispered, “Why, that’s none of your business, Abby.”

Brandi and I didn’t get along, but we loved to disagree. For example, in English class I’d raise my hand to answer a question, saying something like: “Well, I think so-and-so should have done blah blah blah,” and, suddenly inspired, Brandi’s big ol’ jazz hand would shoot into the air like a missile, ready to fire off zinging retorts. She’d say, “Well, I think, so-and-so couldn’t have done blah blah blah.” Then we’d level glares, acknowledging the battle between us. What Brandi found particularly threatening about me, I don’t know. But I figured Brandi said tomato and I said to-mah-to. Brandi probably forked her tomatoes with steak and potatoes and Doritos.

In the corridor, I looked Brandi up and down. Her hands were sprawled at her hips; her big brown eyes bounced beneath her thick glasses. When she rummaged in her backpack for a candy bar, I felt sorry for her. But only for a moment.

“Brandi,” I said, calmly. “Please shut up about my medication.”

Before she could snap back at me, I jumped into the tidal wave of students, the din of slamming lockers, and, flicking my bangs back, I walked off.

Brandi’s fascination with my learning disabilities and my A.D.H.D. wasn’t an uncommon experience for me. Sunny Hill Middle School was an “academy” for the “gifted and talented”. I figured I met a quota. One mentally challenged student per thirty geniuses. It made perfect sense. And most of the students knew about my A.D.H.D. because word spread fast. After I’d told Brandi, the other students knew within a week. In order to be recognized as an actual school, Sunny Hill had to enroll a certain amount of students. There were about sixty of us in all. I was in the seventh grade. That meant there were, I think, about four or five other mentally challenged kids. Or three. Or nine.

My brother, Zach, was admitted to Sunny Hill before me. He was a year younger and had a knack for mechanical things, science and math. I’d attended the sixth grade in a public middle school where I stole Jolly Ranchers from a nearby gas station and called my English teacher, Mr. Woo, a bitch. My parents wanted me to get into Sunny Hill. At first, I was gung-ho for it. The idea of being in a school for gifted and talented kids appealed to me. I knew some of the other students; one was even my best friend, Meredith. So I sat down one night and, in six hours, made my entire application portfolio. It worked. I was admitted. But, once there, I felt awkward and frequently embarrassed. Everybody was so smart. One student traveled to Europe to play the violin with a touring orchestra. Another student, in the seventh grade, attended a high school geometry class each day. Meredith, whom I’d known since the age of five, surprised me the most. I knew she was super smart, but I’d never seen her in action. At Sunny Hill, she was the brainiest of all. She excelled in everything. She excelled in excelling.

Of course, I’d gotten another D minus on the algebra test. But I wasn’t about to reveal that to Brandi. She’d love the news too much. I took my marked-up exam from my back pocket and shoved it in my locker.

Algebra class was the worst for me because we were encouraged to learn at our own pace. I usually sat under my desk with earphones on, staring blankly at a textbook, sometimes scribbling down nonsensical symbols that eventually turned into little anarchy and peace signs. Mr. S. wasn’t keen on my seating preference but, hey, we were a bunch of quirky gifted kids. Why not? I day dreamed about throwing my calculator through a window and shouting, “Down with the regime!”

Math is what started all the trouble in the first place. I knew something strange was happening to me when I was younger, say, eight or nine, and the multiplication, the division, the page-long equations about trains and their destinations at so many miles an hour started to confuse me. I would concentrate on verbs. If a train departed at fifty miles an hour from Tucson and another train took off at thirty-six miles an hour from a station in Long Island, where will they meet? I would think funny thoughts like departed means starting slow and eventually working up to a steady pace. Taking off means putting your lead foot on the acceleration pedal making like a jet to wherever it is you’re headed. The verbs and the numbers together confused me. I would think funny thoughts like fifty miles minus thirty-six miles at nine o’clock equals a Boeing Jet defecting a train’s slow departure due to the conductor’s pestering athlete’s foot. Math never made any sense to me. And when I started to learn algebra, mixing math with English, the variables x and y not spelling a damned thing, made my least favorite subject unbearable. The only word I knew with x and y in it was “exactly”. Math didn’t mix with English just like potatoes didn’t mix with gravy and peas and steak onto one fork, or tomatoes and Doritos whenever Brandi was involved, because it was disgusting. Insane.

Dr. Darr had persistently reminded me having A.D.H.D. was nothing to be ashamed or frightened of. She told me to think of having the disorder like riding a bike downhill at a high speed with broken brakes. I thought Dr. Darr was nuts because that’s something to be frightened of. She had presented this example to my mother as well. My mom had jotted the words on a little notepad: attention, deficit, bike, hill, brakes, broken. Sometimes, just to be funny, I ran through the kitchen on an invisible bike screaming, “My brakes are busted, Mom!”

Brandi was always there when I took Ritalin at school. I never found out why – perhaps she was taking psychotropics or prescribed weight-loss pills – but when I was summoned into the nurse’s office before lunch, there she sat, her wide eyes fixating on me, following my every movement as I gently sat the little round tablet on my tongue, took a hearty drink of lukewarm water, gulped emphatically, crushed the Dixie cup and sent it flying in a practiced arc toward the trash can.

It never failed, Brandi would smile when I turned to her afterward, smacking my lips in satiation: “Aaah.”

I was supposed to take Ritalin three times a day: before breakfast, before lunch, and before dinner. Sometimes I’d go and spit a half-dissolved tablet in a toilet or into my hand, gagging it out like it was toxic Tylenol. Sometimes I swallowed the tablet. Once I fed a tablet to my dog, Sadie, but nothing cool happened; she didn’t start reciting the periodic table of elements. Only in school, before an audience of Brandi and the nurse, did I regularly take my medication.

I learned how to cope with my thought processes before I’d started taking Ritalin.  I learned that it might take me longer to figure out some formula than it did other students, but I’d get there eventually. Ritalin didn’t quicken my pace, it just made me focus on one distinct aspect of a problem. If a train departed at fifty miles an hour from Tucson and another train took off at thirty-six miles an hour from a station in Long Island, where will they meet? On Ritalin, I’d think Tucson, Long Island. Tucson. Long Island.  Train. Thirty-six miles. Train. Thirty-six miles. Train. Fifty miles. Train. Fifty miles.  Wait, class is over? But I was so close!

Taking Ritalin before dinnertime was the worst. Once the medicine kicked in I couldn’t help but focus on my dad’s eating habits. At dinnertime on Ritalin, it was peas, gravy. Peas. Gravy. Steak. Potatoes. Steak. Potatoes. Dad’s mouth open wide. Dad chewing, his squirrel cheeks bloated with peas, gravy, steak, potatoes. Dad swallowing, his Adam’s apple pushing the concoction further down his esophagus. Dad smiling as his fork scraped the plate in search of more peas, more gravy, more steak. Dr. Darr warned my mom that loss of appetite was a common side- effect of Ritalin. So when I didn’t eat much at dinnertime, she didn’t pester me about it. She had no idea it was all my dad’s fault.

I shut my locker and ran outside to my bus. I waved “hi” to the other kids as I walked on. A handful sat doing their homework, their textbooks propped on the back of the seat in front of them. Couples held hands and chatted quietly. I took my usual spot near the back and leaned against the window. A moment later, Brandi sat down next to me. I didn’t look at her. She didn’t look at me. We sat humming to ourselves until the bus revved its engine and took off.

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