She came up behind Maria one early morning at school after gym class, and she shoved her hard. The last passing bell had just rung, so no one was in sight aside from several girls standing off to the side, laughing at Maria, their teeth pearly in the sunlight.
Maria’s breath left her as she turned around and stared at the girl, pretty with her chocolate skin and doe eyes. She’d never once spoken to her, not because of rudeness, but simply because there’d never been a reason to. She tried to remember her name, thought back to times the gym teacher had called attendance in class. Jasmine, that was it. Jasmine like the delicate scent Maria loved, like the tea she’d had a few times at Japanese restaurants.
“You think you’re so tough, huh?” Jasmine asked, shoving her again, coming up so close that their faces were just inches apart.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maria said, her knees weak. It was a cool spring day, the sky that pale blue it often is in Reno, and in the distance, the mountains were striking with their snowy caps. Maria looked around, wondering how she’d get out of this, and that’s when she saw Simone, her best friend, walking toward the English building. Before Simone closed the door behind her, she glanced back at them, her eyes pitying and scared all at once. The following week, Simone would bring Maria gifts, bottles of flowery-scented lotions and novels wrapped in delicate tissue paper, and she would let her know that she’d asked the teacher to call security; Maria would smile and say thank you, and she’d try to trust her again, but things would never be the same.
“You with all your karate and shit, showing us in class like we care,” Jasmine said.
“She asked me to show you, the teacher.”
“You want to show me right now?” Jasmine mocked.
Maria’s throat constricted. Her mother had liked to taunt her too, often slapped her if she so much as said something she didn’t like; later, she’d cry and beg Maria for forgiveness, tell her stories of how she’d been hurt as a little girl. Each time Maria forgave and consoled her, until the day her mother, high on something, almost choked her to death. That’s when Maria left and moved in with her boyfriend and his parents. Assholes like Jasmine still lingered in the shadows though.
Usually, Maria would have said no and walked away. But this time — and maybe it was because her friend had walked away, or maybe because she’d been taking karate lessons, or maybe even because she’d been thinking about her mother recently — she told herself she couldn’t back down, not when she’d been learning how to stand up for herself.
“Yeah, I want to show you,” she said, taking a half-step forward.
“Oh, you little bitch,” Jasmine said, and then she went in for her.
Maria had been called bitch before by other girls who’d told her she wasn’t white or black — she was nothing, they’d said, just the brown muddy water they liked to stomp through. Even that’s something, she thought as she blocked Jasmine’s punch and then knocked her clean in the jaw, surprised when her knuckles made contact with bone. She pulled her arm back to punch again, but that’s when they came in and held her down by the shoulders and arms, the pack of them. Their eyes lit up with excitement when Jasmine climbed on top of her and grabbed her hair. Maria writhed beneath her and used her feet to kick her off. Jasmine yowled with surprise, and the other girls rushed to pin Maria’s legs down. Then Jasmine was back on top of her, punching her in the face this time, again and again. “Oh,” Maria whispered when the world began to turn starry and black, just like the sky at night, and she felt her head drop back onto the cement.
Then, just like that, Jasmine was being dragged off of her, and after a moment, the light started to come back, the school still in the foreground, the mountains in the background. When she lifted her face, she saw the girls grimacing before the security guard like they were ashamed. Jasmine, though, she mouthed the word “bitch” at her.
The security guard didn’t see; he was mumbling something about stupid high school girls as he helped Maria get to her feet, and then he led them to the principal’s office.
On the way there, Maria touched her face with her fingers, gentle. Her eyes were already swollen, her brow tender. How easy we hurt, she thought. She glanced at Jasmine walking beside her, her chest subtly collapsed, like she’d been hurt too.
Maria reached out to touch the sleeve on Jasmine’s shirt, and then she let her hand fall back to her side. It wasn’t worth it, she thought. Not with her new job next week, and college in several months, full scholarship ride. No, Maria couldn’t fix Jasmine’s hurt no matter what, just like she’d never been able to fix her mother’s hurt. Some things were just better left alone.
Juliana Crespo has an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and an M.A. in fiction from University of Nevada, Reno. She is a an English teacher at a high school in Bloomington, Indiana, where she also lives with her family.
–Art by Piotr Kaczmarek