The three of us decided to each write a bit of fiction inspired by our characters for our short film, Equal and Opposite! I chose the duo of Elise and Cathy, two ninth graders who are trying their best to get through a rough freshman year of high school.
Elise Larson pushed herself into the white-tiled corner, trying her best not to think about how long it had been since the janitor had cleaned the bathroom floor. She just needed a break, she told herself. She needed a few minutes to think, to breathe, to not concentrate on her English essay or finding a professional decorator for the underclassmen spring formal. The formal… just thinking about it made her feel sick. She eyed the toilet.
It was March of her freshman year, and high school already felt overwhelming.
She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and checked her watch; she’d been in here five minutes. She attempted to take a few deep breaths and calm herself. She had to get back to class before Mrs. Calden realized she’d been gone too long to just be using the bathroom. Elise pictured her English teacher glancing over at her empty desk as five, ten, fifteen minutes passed by—that thought made the ball of anxiety in her stomach suddenly spike to a new level. Mrs. Calden already thought she was a terrible student, she couldn’t be marked absent. Especially not when she hadn’t even finished the first draft of her paper that was supposed to be turned in today.
She tried to breathe, tried to focus on things that weren’t causing her stress, but Elise felt a fresh onset of tears fill her eyes despite her efforts to blink them back. She hated English. She hated student council. She hated high school…
Elise knew Cathy would see her empty desk and come to the bathroom to find her. She wasn’t upset that it had happened, but she was embarrassed that Cathy had to find her like this again. Cathy was a good friend, to stick around even when Elise knew she was becoming irrational. Elise knew she didn’t deserve to have someone like that.
The sound of a slight scuffle across the bathroom floor brought Cathy’s purple Converse to Elise’s attention, which now were waiting for her outside the stall door. She sat, perfectly silent and still, as if that would help anything. When faced with her own problems, she chose to flee or freeze. It wasn’t a perfect tactic.
“Elise, come on, I can see you sitting on the floor. Will you come out and talk to me?”
Elise sniffed a few times. “I’m not feeling well. Period.”
“Bullshit,” was Cathy’s response.
“You-you’re going to be late for English,” Elise said, doing her best to suppress her sobs, which only made them all that more evident. “Please, just go.”
“We don’t have to go back to English if you don’t want to,” came Cathy’s reply as the Converse edged closer. “Come on, girl. I’m not leaving until you come out.”
Cathy waited only a few seconds before knocking on the stall door. “What if I really have to pee?” Another knock. Don’t come in, don’t come in, please, just leave me alone. Alone.
“Elise, open the door or I’m coming under.” There was a brief pause before Cathy slid under the stall door, struggling a bit about halfway through but eventually making it to Elise’s side.
“Never done that before,” she said, laughing. When she saw Elise’s face, her voice softened. “Hey. What’s up?”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Elise said, sniffling. “The floor’s dirty.”
Cathy shrugged and scooted next to Elise. “Doesn’t matter to me.”
Elise refused to look up, eyes glued to her scuffed tennis shoes.
“Elise, what’s wrong?” Cathy asked.
Elise tried wiping her eyes on her sweater, but all that did for her was smear her makeup all over the sleeve.
“Why do you think they call it waterproof mascara anyway?” she said, louder than she wanted to, unable to control her voice through the tears..
“Water’s different than salt water. You should know that, scientist.”
Elise thought of the homework waiting for her in her backpack, papers and applications and responsibilities she hadn’t even dared to look at yet. She thought of how Mrs. Calden was probably calling not only her name, but now Cathy’s as well, and guilt filled her. “I can’t do it,” she managed after a brief pause.
“Can’t do what?”
Elise looked up at her then. “Any of it.”
Cathy sighed and leaned against the wall. “I know.”
“Have you gotten your student council stuff done yet?”
“I sent the emails out yesterday, yeah. I found this DJ on Facebook. He looked kinda sketchy, but at least there’ll be music. Hopefully as many remixed Top 40 hits as you can imagine.”
“What about your English paper?”
Cathy looked at Elise for a minute, then sighed and put her arm around her. “If you’re worried about getting everything done, I can help you, you know.”
For some reason, that small gesture made everything worse. Elise hid her face in Cathy’s shoulder, trying unsuccessfully to fight back sobs. “I don’t want to be a burden,” she said through Cathy’s purple sweater. “I just want to be able to do it by myself without falling apart like… like this.” She refused to think about the whole mess that had blown up last week, the reason that she found herself incapable of calling to set up decorations for the formal.
“You don’t have to do it all,” Cathy said. “I can handle student council.”
Elise put her head in her hands, pulling away from Cathy. “But I said I was in charge,” she moaned through her hands.
“Elise, look at me. Seriously. You’re taking on too much and it’s not a big deal for me to do it instead.”
Elise didn’t want Cathy to be mad at her, too, but she couldn’t blame her for being annoyed. Get yourself under control, she thought. You’re so embarrassing.
“We’re not going back to English with you feeling like this. Do you need to go home?” Cathy asked quietly.
“No. I’m fine.”
Cathy gave her a side glance.
“Or… I will be,” Elise finished. “You should just go. Back to class.”
“I’m not leaving,” Cathy said.
Elise knew from experience that she wouldn’t.
Cathy Anderson heard the exterior door to the bathroom open and close and wondered what that person must think of the two girls sitting on the floor of the handicap-accessible bathroom stall. It was weird, yeah, but it wasn’t like they were doing anything wrong. Well, besides skipping class, but teachers didn’t know how to handle students who cried in class. The bathroom really was the best place for Elise to be when she was upset.
Cathy didn’t know why Elise had these breakdowns, but they happened more often than they should. It had gotten to the point where Cathy had brought up medication last month. Elise freaked out, started crying even more when she’d said that. Cathy didn’t have experience with therapy or medication or anything like that, but she worried about Elise. She just let herself get stressed out so easily about the littlest things—that her teachers hated her, that her homework was done incorrectly, that she was stupid—none of which, of course, was true. Sometimes it seemed like Cathy was the only person Elise let console her. This was the third time this year that Cathy had found her crying in the bathroom.
The toilet next to them flushed, the stall unlocked, and the sink began running. Once the automatic dryer shut off and the outside door had closed firmly, Cathy addressed Elise again.
“You know I’d do anything for you, right?” she asked. “It might help you feel less stressed, if you let me help you out with this stuff.”
“Maybe you should write my essay for me,” Elise said.
Cathy didn’t respond. She would. English wasn’t hard for her like it was for Elise. She’d probably be able to write the essay in half an hour.
“I won’t let you do that. It was a joke,” came quickly from Elise. “You could get in a lot of trouble for that. You know, academic integrity and everything.”
It was just like Elise to bring up academic integrity when she was losing it in a bathroom.
“You think anyone in this dumpy town cares about academic integrity?” Cathy asked, an edge of anger in her voice. She probably could have entirely plagiarized her essay and gotten away with it (in fact, she knew people who had).
“Cathy. Stop, okay? Don’t do anything like that. Especially not for me.”
Cathy nudged Elise’s shoulder. “We could trade. You could do my science homework.”
Elise went quiet then. That was what happened: she cried for awhile and then she got quiet. She never really tried to hide the fact that she was upset, which was sometimes annoying. Cathy knew how to deal with it better than anyone at this point, though, so she wasn’t about to say anything.
“What’s stressing you out so much?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
Elise turned away sharply. “I already told you. Student council and English. It’s practically impossible. And now, the fact that we’re missing class is stressing me out.”
“Is it about Wes?”
“It can be, you know. It’s not stupid or childish or whatever else you think it is.”
“It’s not about Wes. I don’t care about Wes.” Elise began picking at the toes of her tennis shoes.
“He hurt you, okay? You’re allowed to be upset by that.”
Elise’s shoulders dropped again. “I’ll be the only one at the spring formal without a date. And I’m the one who organized it.”
“I’d be your date, if you wanted.”
“They’ll laugh at me even for going. I should just transfer schools.”
“I’d miss you,” Cathy said. “Maybe we could do something less desperate? I could take Jess out for you.”
“What, like a hitman or something?”
Cathy beamed. “Only for you, Lise.”
They were both quiet then. Cathy began counting the number of drips she could hear from the nearby faucet and staring at the words scrawled on the bathroom door. Call for a good time with a smudged-out number. KP + AS in a heart—someone had added an extra S to the second name. High-school hilarity at its finest. Jax sucks big fat—
“None of them are talking to me anymore,” Elise said. “Everyone thinks I did it.”
Cathy scoffed. “Anyone will believe anything in this high school, you know that. Besides, if you were going to send nudes, they’d be classy as hell.”
That got a laugh out of Elise. Finally, Cathy thought.
“They’re just jealous, you know,” Cathy said. “Especially Jess. And I heard Wes only wears deodorant, like, twenty percent of the time. That’s an eighty percent chance he’d stink like Mr. Camden’s classroom at the formal.”
“No one’s jealous of me,” Elise said, but she was smiling now. She leaned her head on Cathy’s shoulder and Cathy knew the worst of it had passed now. The crying and self-deprecating would be hidden away in a journal entry tonight and this version of Elise would be gone until the next high school horror hit Elise square in the head.
The bell rang, and the hallway outside of the bathroom door filled with the sound of students shuffling to their next class.
“The bathroom’s gonna fill up pretty soon,” Cathy said. “Someone might need this toilet. You good to go to class?”
“I’m good,” Elise said. “How’s my makeup?”
“Fine. No one will notice in history, trust me. We’re talking about the Civil War for only the seven hundredth time. Everyone will be asleep.”
“Thanks, Cathy,” Elise said, standing up and brushing the bathroom-floor dirt off of herself.
Cathy shrugged. “It’s what I’m here for,” she said as she followed Elise out of the lightly graffitied stall.