Luz had faked a pregnancy in order to get the attention of her ex-boyfriend Johnny Rivera and kept it going for six months. Not only had other students been whispering that she was full of shit, but now, in her second trimester, she was calling out of school on account of back pain and morning sickness. She walked around with an arched back, poking her belly out when the counseling staff decided it was time for an intervention. Truancy was a no go for this school. After all, kids ended up at this school because they were chronic cutters.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Luz asked, perching herself on the edge of the chair as if trying to square off.
I was sitting in my swivel chair, the one that lets the kids know that you are the counselor and they are the student.
“No…I think maybe you are not processing something more hurtful.” I look up at the bulletin board behind her, I look at her hairline, I look back at the bulletin board noticing that one of my posters was missing a thumbtack.
“What the fuck you tryna say, Vonnie. Yes or no? You calling me a liar?”
I sometimes hated my counselor speak. What the fuck was I trying to say? Luz was staring at me dead on. I felt compelled to turn away and begin absentmindedly typing notes. The students knew that I liked to log all of our meetings while they were in front of me. That way, I made sure to get them in on time. But I often said it was so they knew exactly what I was writing about them. I wanted to make sure that they knew I was on their side – I didn’t trust their teachers and the director of the program either. I was with them; helping them navigate through this crappy school system. Now, I did it to keep the plates moving, to not fall behind in my notes, to not have to look at them during difficult conversations.
“My own fuckin’ counselor calling me a liar.”
“Watch your language.” I chirped and turned around to log the time with her. It was instinctual but meant nothing. I was not really reprimanding, merely making note that foul words were uttered. Most of my students thought it was funny whenever we were in a group setting.
“Then what the fuck you calling me?” Luz pushed her seat back with so much force that the chair slammed into the wall.
What the fuck? My eyes darted to the fallen chair. Who was supposed to pick that up?
“I don’t care if people can hear me. I want everyone to hear this! Say it, Vonnie. Go ahead. Youse already thinkin’ it. Man the fuck up and say it to my face.”
I really didn’t like scenes and she was trying to make a scene. Luz was forcing me to look at her. She wasn’t the most attractive girl. She had a chipped front tooth that she covered up by pursing her lips in a grimace that read, “Sheeiiiit, it is what it is.” She never smiled. Instead, she would laugh at most things really dramatically, leaning her head back all the way. I doubted she knew the underside of that tooth was rotting. I doubted she knew how to smile. She definitely didn’t know how to lie.
Yes, I was calling Luz Ortega a liar and she was adamant about letting the whole school know it. She stormed out of my room. I instinctually fingered the dial on my hip as if it needed adjusting. Earlier that morning, Rich, my supervisor, told everyone I would be on radio silence. I didn’t even know we could do that. Our walkie-talkies were right near our clock-in stations, worn on our hips as soon as we entered. We did not remove them for a bathroom break, a lunch break, or a home visit, even if we were outside of the catchment area. They remained on our hip garbling static and early English, a constant reminder that your kids somewhere needed you.
Still in awe of the concept, I barely registered Rich’s marching orders toward the end of our daily team meeting. I was to stay with Luz for however long she decided to spin. If she walked out of the building, I was supposed to follow her. If she commandeered a stall in the bathroom, I was to stay near the sinks and wait it out with her. I made eyes at Jim, who was sitting across from me, and dramatically turned my radio on and off. I needed an accomplice.
Suddenly, as if struck with a genius idea, Jim blurted, “Let’s see her give birth…in class! You think she’ll make her water break in class?” We all laughed including Rich, who tried shaking his grin off his face before stating,
“No, gotta process before-.”
“Rich,” Jim interjected. “These kids are clearly yearning for a theatre program and she needs to be our STAR! That is, if she can pull off the in-class birth, of course.” I laughed so deep that it jostled the morning shakes out of my body, like when a chill courses through you and leaves as quickly as it came.
Standing in my office now, I realized that Rich had known for sure that Luz was going to flip her shit. This was going to be tiresome. I was on radio silence so that I could endure a beating, not to process an intervention. He set me up.
I turned on my radio and alerted security, “Yvonne to Officer Vixomar, student L.O. is coming down stairwell A, student may be attempting to leave the building.”
“Officer Vixomar, 10-4”
“Jim for Yvonne. Yvonne lives!” Jim always saw the silver lining. I mean a ten-year depression will do that to a man.
I was down the three flights of stairs before I knew it, and Officer Vixomar greeted me with her trademark head nod and said, “She went that way.” There was really only one exit and we both knew that this surveillance was ridiculous.
Luz hadn’t made it far, again cause her wobble was slowing her down. She turned back and said, “Leave me the fuck alone, Vonnie. I’m serious. Leave me alone!”
I wish I had grabbed my scarf. It was nippier than I anticipated. I would hate if this intervention ended with a sore throat. I caught up to her and resigned myself to my conditions.
“Ask me again, Luz. C’mon, ask me again.”
She gave me a side-eyed glance and sucked her teeth.
“Fuck outta here, Vonnie.”
“Go ahead. Ask me again. Because I don’t. I don’t think you’re a liar. Maybe you miscarried and it hurts too bad to admit it. Maybe…,” I trailed off, giving her a chance to save face.
Luz was lying, and I didn’t think it was because she was (as Rich had pointed out) hurting deep. It was because she was a manipulator and a bad liar. Shoot, if by month two Johnny didn’t come back to me, I would have moved on to an even more dramatic story, a miscarriage. Everyone would hate Johnny for leaving me during such a tough time. But nope, she chose the lie that was harder to keep up.
“You know what? Fuck you, Vonnie! I’m fucking pregnant. Look at my belly!” She lifted her shirt and revealed a pudgy but not pregnant stomach. “You see this!” She patted it and said, “I’m carrying low, so it’s gonna be a boy. You tryna deny that? My baby?”
I couldn’t believe how indignant she’d gotten. I wanted to threaten to call her mother. But knew that she might feel even more betrayed.
I just wanted a croissant. Why couldn’t I just go get one at the bakery across the way? I’d get her one too, and while licking our fingertips to catch the flakes that had fallen into our laps, we’d be honest. Like, “Damn this croissant is good. Hey, Luz, you know you not pregnant, right?” And she’d laugh with her head cocked back and I wouldn’t look at her rotting tooth.
Instead, I ended up calling Luz’s mom. Yes, I had every student’s contact information on my phone. It was much easier to do outreach this way. I called the more stubborn ones while I was on the bus into Red Hook and said, “Morning. Wake up call.” I was never able to translate humor in Spanish. “Buenos Dias, soy Vonnie. El wake-up call.”
I followed Luz well past the bakery and three blocks into the Red Hook projects. I lagged behind a bit because I didn’t want her to hear me talking to her mother at first. I brought her mother up to speed, telling her that Luz was very upset and was presently out of the building, but that I was with her.
“Don’t make her upset, you know. Cause of the baby.”
I resisted the urge to suck my teeth because her mother was caught up in this mockery as well. “That’s the thing; it’s about the baby.”
“Anh? Something is wrong with de baby?”
I heard her mother begin to panic, and I assured her that Luz and the baby were both fine. She just had something she needed to talk about. Luz was very angry but also very sad. “Ay, you know the pregnancy make Luzy very different. More sad she is now.”
Luz, started coming back towards me. We had walked ourselves into a dead end with three towers surrounding us, a New York City Housing Authority cul-de-sac.
“What kind of fucking counselor are you?” she asked as she was walking back toward me.
“I will call you back, she wants to talk now, Señora.”
“You called my mother?”
I shrugged my shoulders as if to say she left me with no choice.
“Oh my gawd. Ma, hang up! Hang up, Ma!” Her voice was bouncing off the buildings. “What the fuck? Bye, Ma!” She grabbed the phone from me and threw it on the ground. I could hear windows opening and closing. I immediately bent to pick it up, but she pushed my shoulders back, hard. I stumbled, and she did it again. I caught my footing and swung at her shoulder with one arm. It wasn’t my best attempt, but it was something.
“You not supposed to fuckin’ hit me, bitch.”
“Says, who?” I was feeling ready for whatever now. She wasn’t going to attack me out here. She wasn’t even really pregnant. I’ll say I had to do it. Her cell phone started ringing, and we knew it was her mom, probably nervously shuffling back and forth in her Sunset Park apartment. Something about the ringing phone and my ready stance made Luz give me one last weak shoulder push and cry into the same spot she had been trying to bruise.
Her sobbing body felt funny against mine. I draped my arms over her and hunched my shoulders. I wasn’t used to having my breasts be an altar for tears. We sat on a bench in the April chill for a while. It seemed I could hear the open windows closing.
After she was done crying and I had collected my battery pack and cell phone on the ground, we called her mom back. I revealed that Luz had suffered a miscarriage. “In the school?” Her mom sounded frantic and I quickly responded that it had been over the weekend. It was the closest Luz and I ever came to honesty.