Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Five minutes left.
At the bell’s flat-noted tone students begin pouring out of their classrooms. I leave too, casual and dangle-armed, beginning this hourly ritual of transporting myself from one class to the next. The walk is only two flights of stairs down.
But I enter the staircase behind a dozen other students pooled at its entrance, flushing themselves one by one through the door, and now there’s a distinct trail of bodies forming a compact line on the narrow steps. Squeezed together like this, the line moves mechanically, uninterrupted.
A girl is directly in front of me, and thinking her friend had called her amidst the stairwell chatter, she turns her head, only for her eyes to find their way to mine.
“Oh, sorry,” she says, “I thought you were someone else.”
And I want to ask how you could possibly think I was someone else when there’s only one me in this place. Look at you. Your cheeks are pudgy in a way that could fit only your face. Your upper lip has a distinct stubble. And your hair is frizzed and spidery, unique to look at. I want to say, there’s no way anyone could possibly think you were someone else. I want to say, there’s only one you in this place. And I want to ask how I could be anyone else but me.
I say, “It’s no problem.”
Her eyes linger on me a moment longer. Maybe there are different you’s, they seemed to say. And I start wondering about your different you’s, if there’s a you who resembles you the most. Maybe if we had more time you could see the me that makes me and I could see the you that makes you. But there’s only five minutes, her twinkling eyes seemed to say. That isn’t enough time. If only we had more time, but we don’t. So for a quarter of a second longer we try to walk down together before reality pulls us awake.
In her eyes it’s as if we had already walked along the beach hundreds of times. Arm in arm, we’d tell each other stories of how our day went, of how much we’d like to know more about each other. Across the sand we’d see everyone else walking too, sharing their individual stories to the rest of the world. We’d walk up to them, about to say something, but before one of us can utter a word, our time is up.
She turns her head away and exits the stairwell after one flight.
Three minutes left.
The trail from before has dispersed, and the mass of bodies moves faster down the stairs. Students from the lower floors begin climbing up. It’s a strange thing to have stairs for going up or down and having only one or two teachers out of dozens enforcing that rule, because now a student is coming towards me, and there is a hesitant pause.
“Excuse me,” I say, and he turns towards the side and passes me.
But then something tickles his nerves. He would turn around and ask, hey, are you are a senior? And I would ask, what does it matter? And then he’d say, I was only curious. And then he’d persist, so does that mean you’re a senior? And again I would ask, what does it matter? And after a brief pause he’d say, it matters to me. And I would look at him and wonder why anything about me would matter to him. And then he’d ask, what’s the big deal?
With our eyes locked, I would say, the big deal is I’m leaving this place, and I’m going out into some unknown world so unlike the one I’ve lived in for so long. I won’t see my teachers everyday as I did before. And I’ll never hear the bell that doesn’t even sound like a real bell anymore. And I won’t be able to greet everyone good morning or hello. And I won’t be able to complain about the cafeteria food. And I won’t be able to see my friends like before. And I won’t be able to laugh with others about nerdy calculator jokes. And I’ll never have another scheduled fire drill to get out of class. And I won’t have to wake up at six o’clock in the morning everyday as I’ve done these past four years to go to the place that’s become a heaven to me in its own way. And I don’t even know how to begin saying good-bye, with so little time left.
But he doesn’t know what to say. He looks at me, something about him reminding me of myself, that maybe I was like him four years ago, also impatient to leave this place. But with so little time left before the bell rings, before high school ends, all he can do is look. With nothing to say, he walks on.
One minute left.
I exit the stairwell and begin walking to the opposite end of the hallway towards my next class. Inside, one can see the teacher trying to finish all the grades before they’re due, but the bell’s about to ring.
There’s no more time.