The Paris Review

I Was a Public Schooler

OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

The application to Waverley Glen Academy required that I spend a day sitting in on freshman classes and mixing with the student body to see how well I’d fit in. I was twelve. Picture the gleaming wooden corridors, the Persian rugs, the monogrammed silverware, the primrose and daffodil in the window boxes. Hear the clattering of shoes on the terra-cotta tile in the courtyard, the gentle chimes signaling the hour, and so on. I remember a warm, gentle breeze and the view of Amesbury Park’s weeping willows through the open French doors of the garret art studio where I sketched a wooden bowl of fruit, or was it an old leather satchel? It could have been a naked man. I don’t remember what was taught in the classes I visited.

My mind was elsewhere that day at Waverley Glen because by nine in the morning, as soon as I was seated in Mrs. Rosenbaum’s chemistry laboratory, I saw someone I thought I recognized. I heard his name in roll call: Jon Bullis. He sat two aisles away in front of a glass test tube pluming with sulfuric gas. He barely spoke to his partner, some rat-faced boy I cursed silently for blocking my line of sight as the experiment went on. The rest of the class exclaimed with delight and repulsion at the stink of the gas. I had the idea that this Jon Bullis resembled the man my mother described as the one who hit her on the head with a beer bottle and stole her purse one day when she was walking home from the bus stop. Jon Bullis could have been that man’s son. His eyes, behind the protective goggles, were the exact shade of green my mother described: ferny.

Idling by Jon Bullis at teatime, I watched as his friends surrounded him—young men dressed in identical shirts and ties, pressed slacks, and oxblood loafers. Girls in skirts and blazers twirled their hair and asked me questions. I answered politely, mindlessly parroted their inquiries back to them, tried to keep Jon Bullis in my periphery. He stood staid, silent, picking crumbs from his palm, licking his lips. He looked bored and sorrowful. “You’re so young,” one of the girls said. “Why are you here?”

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