About the Author
Mishna Wolff, a comedian and former model who grew up in Seattle, Washington, was one of the 2009 Sundance Screenwriting Lab fellows.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I'm in a cappin' mood
I know divorce is supposed to be hard on kids, but when my parents finally did it, it wasn’t really that hard on me. They were so mismatched that the year before they got divorced, I often wondered if Dad met Mom by mistakenly wandering into a poetry reading thinking it was a Parliament concert. Dad was cool. Mom was Mom. They were both attractive, but other than that, they didn’t really make much sense. Their differences became louder every day. So when my mom didn’t come home one night, my first thought was, "I hope Dad’s new apartment has an elevator!" I was only seven, but I already knew how divorce worked. Dad moved out and got a cool apartment with a pool. We lived with Mom, of course—it was the mid-eighties and moms always got the kids. But we’d visit Dad on weekends, swim in his pool, and he’d buy us lots of stuff to make sure we still loved him. He would be there just to make sure that we were growing up to be cool, going to enough parties and dressing right. There would be two birthdays and two Christmases. And maybe Mom would move to a new neighborhood, and I would have new neighbors who liked me. Plus, if I was lucky, one of them might have a telescope.
But things didn’t quite work out that way. Dad really wanted us with him. And Mom apparently had some "work" to do on herself—which meant she needed to cut her hair and cry a lot. She started dating a Jewish guy in Mensa, who also drove a bus and had "depression." And, since she worked full-time, and Dad had always taken care of us during the day, they decided Mom should be the weekend dad with the apartment.
The process happened so quickly that I didn’t even get a vote on where I was gonna live. There was supposed to be a judge, like in the movies, who would take me and my sister into his chambers. Then he would clear all of the adults out of the room so no one’s feelings would get hurt, offer us a Werther’s Original, lean back in his chair, and say, "Okay, now level with me. . . . Who do you like better?" At which point I would say, "Mom." Not because I liked her better, but because I knew I was cool enough for Mom. And I felt that not being quite good enough for Dad might cause problems down the road— like I’d cramp his style and maybe he’d decide to leave me at a party. Of course, I assumed everyone wanted my little sister Anora—she was adorable. But when I asked Mom and Dad about the judge and the missing courtroom battle I was told that that sort of thing was for rich people and that normal people didn’t ask their kids what they wanted.
The terms of the divorce finalized, Dad announced he was giving me an allowance. I had to take care of my sister, meaning quieting her when she got hysterical and keeping her from wandering off in public places. And for that I got a dollar a week, which was totally a fortune because I measured it in Now and Laters. Then my dad promptly got a summer job doing construction to "show that bitch," which left my sister and me without daily supervision. "Not to worry," Dad said. "You guys are going to Government Subsidized Charity Club." Which sounded really awesome—like the Mickey Mouse Club or the Nancy Drew Fan Club.
Okay, the place wasn’t actually called "Government Subsidized Charity Club," but for now let’s call it that, or GSCC for short. Our first day at GSCC, we all climbed into Dad’s truck and drove down M. L. King, arriving at the side entrance of a building that was clearly used for something else. We walked up a rickety stairway to a side door and entered a dingy vestibule, where a counselor sat at a table picking lead paint off it. She had a clipboard and two jump ropes—which, combined with the two kick balls—brought the total number of toys in the facility up to four. In addition to the lack of toys, the entire place smelled like pee and cigarettes. I would not have been surprised to find out it was used as a low-bottom halfway house the rest of the year, and that every summer they kicked out people named Gimpy Carl and Staph-man McGee to make room for day camp. I peered from the entryway into a main playroom full of kids, and surprise! My sister and I were the only white kids there. I was also, from what I could see, the skinniest kid—in boxing, that’s what they refer to as "shit odds." It was then I decided that either Dad was cheap or we were just stopping by on the way to the real day camp.
"Well," Dad said, signing a clipboard and cementing that we were, in fact, in the right place. "Looks like you guys are good to go." I guess by "good to go," he meant that we weren’t standing on broken glass. But I smiled weakly, and I think he sensed my apprehension, because he got down on one knee, straightened my overalls, looked me right in the eye, and said, "Just, don’t take any shit," before walking out the door.
We were then led into the playroom, and other than the counselor who had checked us in, there was not an adult in sight. I quickly got out of the way as two bigger kids threw the red rubber balls at a younger kid’s head—some sort of two-on-one dodgeball. In the far corner there was a group of girls who were probably around nine, but looked like they were about sixteen. They laughed as they looked at a boy four feet away who was sitting on the ground crying. I decided to avoid eye contact and found a pole near the far side of the room to lean against. That’s when I realized—everyone was staring at me.
I heard a wail from across the room that was directed at me, but loud enough to grab everyone’s attention: "W’sup, marshmallow turd!"
I turned and saw it was coming from Caprice, a girl whose mother had braided half her head and then, I guess, moved on to something else.
"Nothing," I said, and went to grab my little sister’s hand and lead her out of harm’s way—thinking of my allowance. That’s when I realized Anora was gone. Probably looking for something dirty or poisonous to put in her mouth. I was all alone and being surrounded. The boys with the kick balls, the girls from the corner—everyone closed in on me as Caprice walked over and got in my face.
"Nothing? Is that what you said, Wonder Bread?" Caprice put a hand on her hip. "You look like your mama’s on welfare!" I desperately wanted to point out that that was like the pot calling the kettle white, but my lips had sealed themselves together with some sort of pussy glue.
Then a nine-year-old boy with an earring chimed in, "She’s so white, we got to wear shades inside." And the group of kids that had been gathering started laughing like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. That’s when I found my sister. She was next to another girl her age, laughing herself to death. It was around this time I began to seriously question my father’s wisdom in sending us to this particular child-care facility.
At around noon, lunch arrived, which brought the promise of some order to the day. I took my government- issued sack lunch out of the cardboard box and took stock. The brown bag contained: a bologna-and-American-cheese sandwich that was smushed into a weird shape in transport, a fruit that was mutantly small—but big enough to smush a bologna-and-American-cheese sandwich—a bag of chips, and a milk—condiments on the side. It didn’t seem so bad, but I didn’t realize at the time that I would be eating it almost every summer for the rest of my life.
My sister sat with a girl her age, and as much as I wanted the company, I wasn’t up for begging my little sister to let me hang with her. So I sat down in a corner behind a pole and began to eat my sandwich. I had just started on my sandwich when I got hit with what can only be described as an "arcing rope" of mayonnaise. I looked up and the boy with the earring was doubled over—pointing to my goo-covered face and shirt. And as I wiped mayonnaise off my cheek with a napkin, the boy with the earring threw the empty packet at me and said, "There you go, mayonnaise!" Then he proceeded to bend over and take my chips—the only part of the lunch that didn’t taste like refrigerator.
Over the course of our first day at GSCC, my sister made two friends, and I managed to crawl into my skin, the way one does when experiencing third-degree burns. And when my father came to pick us up, I could no longer use words. I grunted hello to him, and got in his pickup. It didn’t help that he was an hour and a half late, which meant that we were stuck waiting with the impatient counselor—and Darnell, the kid who smelled like pee.
On the ride home, my sister and I shared the passenger-side safety belt, which meant that I couldn’t ignore her as she excitedly recapped the day’s events to our dad.
"I have two new friends, Dad!" Anora said proudly. "Gitana and Rene. Rene and I made Chinese jacks and Gitana wants to do my hair."
"That’s great, baby," Dad said. "What about you, Mishna? You meet some folks?" But before I could say, "No, Dad. People hate me. Why would you send me to that evil lair of cruelty and injustice?" my sister was chiming in.
"Mishna met some people." Then she laughed. "She got roasted." Dad looked at me disappointed, and he could see it in my face—I did get roasted.
"Mishna," Dad said. "You can’t let people disrespect you. Get in people’s face. Be like, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Remember, you’re my daughter. Throw an elbow if you have to."
"Okay, Dad," I said. But what I was thinking was, I know what he’s telling me to do, but how come it’s so hard for me to do it?
I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t the most articulate kid. In fact, if I needed to express myself, I had learned that my best bet was to break something and hurt myself to get my point across. Hurting myself was like my sign language. For example: Breaking glass and getting cut meant, "I strongly disagree." And hitting the wall until I broke a knuckle meant, "You have a point, but you aren’t seeing the whole picture." And curling up into a ball in the fetal position and crying meant, "This isn’t over."
But none of these devices seemed to work at GSCC. When I hit the wall with my fist because someone said my mother was so bucktoothed that she could eat corn on the cob through a fence—everyone just laughed at me more. Plus, the counselors got pissed at me for making them find the first-aid kit. So, I was defenseless and mute the rest of the week at Government Subsidized Charity Club.
And that week was hell. My whiteness was the butt of every joke. And with every public humiliation I became more sensitive, not less. So, as a last resort, I tried to avoid everyone. If someone looked at me, I moved out of their field of vision as quickly as possible. If someone looked like they were about to talk to me, I walked away. And at every opportunity, I found nooks to crawl into and places to hide. After a day or so of avoiding all human contact, I started to think of myself as stealth-ness itself, like a phantom lurking through the shadows—or better yet, like a ninja.
I had just settled into a broom closet with, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when one of the counselors flung the closet door open and stood angrily above me, tapping her foot.
"What’s wrong? What are you doing reading in here all by yourself ?" "I’m really comfortable in here, if you just want to close the door."
But instead she said, "No! What you need to do, is you need to go join the rest of the kids!" I popped my head out of the closet and looked across the room. Rodney, an obese child, was setting his friend’s jeans on fire. While Jamal, the boy with the earring, pointed out that a younger boy had a crooked dick.
"Please can I stay here?" I asked.
The counselor said without hesitation, "I can’t watch you in no closet!"
But I just sat there unable to move, hoping she would change her mind and let me stay. I put on my most imploring face, but she just started looking at her nails. I tried opening my book again, and she cleared her throat and rolled her eyes. And while she looked at me impatiently, I slinked out of the closet and joined the rest of the kids.
Jamal welcomed me with a "skitch" to the back of the head. That’s basically like hitting someone in the back of the head, but you graze it. So to the untrained adult eye, it looks playful.
Then Caprice belted out, "Her ass is so flat, it looks like two saltine crackers that done lost they box!" Kids cackled and pointed and grabbed their chins and said, "Cap" and "Roast."
"What are they doing?" I asked Darnell, because his pee smell made him accessible to me.
"Well," Darnell said. "You just got capped on. That roast is ’cause you’re roasted."
"Capped on?" I asked. But I was too low on the totem pole for even the pee-kid to talk to me for very long.
He just said, "Yeah," as he walked away.
And so, I found out that day that what was happening to me was called, "getting capped on." And it wasn’t about the intelligence of the insult. Caprice and Jamal were not particularly clever, but they had confidence and could work a crowd like Marc Antony. The one who needed to borrow some ears.
I became immediately fascinated with Caprice and Jamal’s fearlessness. When I looked at capping as a skill, it was completely foreign and exciting to me. In fact, half the time, the caps didn’t even make sense. Caprice came up to me on the side porch that day and said, "You look like a broke-down Teddy Ruxpin." And even though I didn’t get it, people laughed. I wanted that kind of confidence. And later that day when Jamal said I was "a powdered dooky doughnut," a voice rang out clear as a bell in my head: Hey, I’m funnier than this guy!
I had no idea where the voice had come from, since I had never even told a joke. But the voice was uncanny, and for whatever reason, I believed it.
So for that next week at GSCC, I got taken down over and over again by their caps. But at night, I practiced capping like an upstart fighter training for a championship. I had seen that movie Rocky and I fancied myself kind of like Rocky, if he could talk. I practiced in the mirror, trying to place my hand on my hip just so, while rolling my neck for emphasis. I tried snapping in a Z. I tried closing my eyes and waving my hand in the air. And I tried every possible ending for a sentence that starts out: "Your mama."
The next Monday morning, as my sister joined her friends Gitana and Rene jumping rope. I walked into the playroom with my usual apprehension and took a seat on the floor with my copy of Highlights, Jamal, the earring-wearing terror, saw me from across the room and headed toward me with a self-satisfied look on his face. Caprice and posse followed closely behind him, as Jamal swaggered up to me and said wi...
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