Where were you when I prayed on the way to school? That day. Every day after that day. Were you making copies for our first fifth grade lesson that morning? Were you feeding the machine, your manicured nails tapping at the buttons? Double-sided. Black ink. Fifteen copies. One for you—for the key of answers. The key you’d set before me on your desk, after you had me sit in your lap thirty minutes later at the start of class. After you beckoned me to come to you like a small dog, well trained. No words needed. Just a pat on the thigh. A wink of an eye. A glare when I didn’t respond right away: a warning. A flare of anger splashing heat into my chest, bleeding into my back—snapping my spine straight. Hairs on the back of the neck raised and I rose. Went to you and sat on your lap like Santa. Like my momma. Like I was playing my part. Like I was being a good student.
What were you trying to do when you asked me that question? Your breath hot on my neck from behind. I remember it now as a question—everything you said as a question, but that’s because everything that came out of your mouth rang like a lesson. The statements so shocking, so off, so foreign to my skull, I did not know the answers. So I waited in silence to learn how to respond. “You know Pip,” you said. “The answers to the test are right there.” It was not a question. It was a statement. But it was a testing. Would I answer correctly? Is that what you were doing? Testing me before the test? Is that something they taught you in school? Did you ever get the answer right?
Where did you get the money to buy the bracelets and rings and watches you wore? The golden adornments to the Ralph Lauren pant suits. I remember the clanking thuds, the scratching stones against the laminate wooden desk as you grazed your thirty-three-year-old hand around me to land on the page with the red letters. I remember you turning the white rectangle towards me like an offering. Like, Here you go. Here’s an easy road—a way to win. I remember the charmed bracelets sounding angry as they zipped back from the page and jingled on my back as your hand now pushed me away. I remember before the physical ejection, the wordless, appointmentless detention, that I thought I had answered you correctly. “But that would be cheating, Miss D!”
Where were you in your head—what were your thoughts doing—when you decided my right answer was wrong?
Where were you when you were ten? Were you on your teacher’s lap? Were you losing yourself into moments you’d never lose? Were you wondering where God was too?
Victoria Sottosanti holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire, where she won the 2017 Nonfiction Prize. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Whitefish Review, Litro Mag, Ruminate Magazine, The Waking, and the Atticus Review. She was the Final Judge for the 2020 UNH Writing Awards, and a writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center (August 2020). She has been awarded a fellowship for VSC’s Creative Imperative and scholarships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. She lives in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley, where she dances ballet, works as a freelance writer, and is currently revising a collection of essays on seeing grief.