4:23 pm, final announcements before the dismissal:
“One day left before the Christmas break,” declares the teacher.
She doesn’t need to. The atmosphere is so dense with the eagerness it is as if you could choke breathing it. The students have been counting down the days since September. They sit restless on their chairs, itching to go home. No one had been listening in class since this week started. Those remaining days had been like some long, lugubrious purgatory, the students counting the hours left like souls counting indulgences. Ora pro nobis.
Meanwhile, he sits on the chair twiddling his thumbs. His palms start to sweat and he only looks down. He knows what’s coming.
“To celebrate, tomorrow we will have a Christmas party,” she continues.
The class fills with celebration and high-fives and fists balled in victory. “Yes”, “Hooray”, “Pizza”. Meanwhile he sinks into his seat in despair.
“Each person will have to contribute to the party,” she says. “To make things simple, this third of the classroom will bring the pizza, and this third of the classroom will bring the pasta, and this third of the classroom will bring soda. That seems fair enough to me.”
He fell in the pizza group.
“What kind of pizza do we bring ma’am?” someone asks.
“Greenwich?” says one.
“Hah,” says another. “That’s so cheap. I’ll bring Yellow Cab.”
Yet another: “I’ll bring Amici. That’s authentic Italian, you know.”
“Okay okay,” says the teacher. “Just make sure to bring pizza tomorrow.”
He has never heard any of those brands before. In fact, he can only recall one instance when he ate pizza and he didn’t pay attention to what brand it was. That was some months ago, on the fifteenth wedding anniversary of his parents. His dad had brought it home from work some months ago to celebrate. He remembers how his siblings stood around this curiosity in a hushed solemnity, as though firsthand witnesses to some Passover meal. There were eight slices and parents had halved one and the six siblings took one slice each. There was one slice left. His dad had taken it and then somehow divided it into six equal slices for all siblings. His dad is good at things like that.
“Why are you smiling?” the teacher asks him.
“Probably thinking about all the pizza he’s going to eat for the first time,” says one of his classmates. The class laughs.
“But hey now,” say another. “You have to bring your own pizza too you know”
“Probably gonna take advantage and sneak pizza home to his family.”
“Yikes. How many are you? Like twelve? There’s probably not gonna be any pizza left for us.” The class laughs again.
“Enough, class,” the teacher says. “Be nice now.”
“Six,” he says. “We are six.”
“Still,” one says. “Six poor hungry kids. Whew.” More laughter.
“I said enough, class,” she says.
“I’m not gonna sneak home any pizza,” he murmurs. No one seems to hear.
The teacher looks at her watch and announces that class is dismissed. In true Pavlovian fashion the students rush to their cubbyholes at the back of the classroom to pack their bags and leave.
As he packs his bag two of his classmates approach him.
“Hey,” one says.
“I was just thinking. I have a good idea for what you can ask Santa for Christmas this year.”
He waits for the answer. They look at him in expectation.
“So,” he says. “What is it?”
The two classmates look at each other.
“You can ask for a real school uniform.”
The two erupt in laughter and leave him. He looks down at what he is wearing. His uniform did look a shade different from that of his other classmates. His mom had had it made with her tailor friend in the village because it was cheaper than buying it from the school. When he had come in as the new student he that year he didn’t really pay attention to the subtle difference. Now he feels as if he might as well have forgotten to wear pants.
He waits at the school lobby by himself. The family van, a rickety old-fashioned Toyota, arrives driven by his mom. He climbs in. Though his house is only ten minutes and his sister does not finish until later because of her club activities, they make toward her school first. Gas isn’t cheap, as his father would say.
“You’re awfully quiet today,” says his mom.
“It’s almost the last day of the school. Aren’t you excited?”
He looks at his mom and gulps. His throat has become dry.
“Hey mom,” he says. “I got to ask you something.”
“I. We. We have a Christmas party tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Thing is. Thing is we have to bring pizza.”
“All of you?”
“Yeah. Well, some. I was assigned.”
“Listen I know you and dad have been having it hard and all and — ”
“I can buy it.”
“Oh. Thanks. So.”
“Can you bring it to school in the afternoon? So that the pizza will still be warm when it arrives for the party?”
He looks at his mother. If she is annoyed or upset by the request, she isn’t showing it. But that makes the asking even more painful, knowing that the added expense is an unnecessary burden yet she’s hiding it out of some sense of dignity or self-sacrifice.
Last day. The end of the class officially signals the start of the Christmas party. As if to somehow heighten the festivities, someone has drawn ‘Xmas party’ on the blackboard in big letters, along with a tree, a badly-proportioned and morose Santa Claus, and some supposed reindeers. The pizzas have started arriving and he sees boxes with brands he has never heard of before. The rich smell of melted cheese and tomatoes and salty and spicy pepperoni fills the classroom. It would have been a pleasant smell on other occasions, but this time it mixes with the acrid nervousness in his stomach and makes him sick and clammy. Everyone else fidgets with excitement and the teacher reprimands those who peek into the boxes of pizza. “Not yet time,” she says. No one notices him bowled over on his desk.
His pizza arrives. In the school lobby his mother brings it to him in a plastic bag.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “I hope you enjoy the party.”
After she hugs him and leaves he stands there with the plastic bag. He cannot look. It seemed too good to be true. He has, actually has, a pizza to bring in to class and show to the others. For once he could fit in and not be made fun of.
He walks back into the classroom and finally looks into the plastic bag. He feels as if a giant stone has fallen into the pit of his stomach and his mouth becomes dry. He was right: it was too good to be true.
Inside he finds a flimsy white tawdry box with two clowns drawn on it. Like a pair of unwanted jokers who had lain hidden and with perfect timing sprung out to ridicule him. April fool’s.
He stands outside the classroom and opens the box. It is something that’s meant to look like pizza, though it cannot be pizza, because real pizza is tempting and glorious and lovely whereas his, with the pale cheese and some menacingly red sauce (“Ketchup,” his mom would explain to him later. “I was hoping to make it more appetizing”), looks like the face of some infirm man.
He closes the box. “Oh God,” he whispers.
He walks into the classroom and puts his pizza on the table along with the other pizzas. Just to calm his conscience and be able to say, Yes I did bring pizza. Just to prove to others (and to himself?) that he isn’t poor, that he can afford pizza just like anyone else. In the middle of all the other boxes with bold, impressive lettering, his white box with two clowns looked inappropriate, almost obscene.
He goes back to his desk and slouches over.
“Okay class,” the teacher says. “Let’s begin.”
All the students rush to table of pizzas first. He stays seated.
“What is this,” someone shrieks. “Gross.”
He does not look and slouches even more. He hides that his blood has rushed to his face and that his hands and forehead have gone moist in a cold, nervous sweat.
He prays. It’s all he can do now.
The others make a face at his pizza (“Gross.”, “Who brought this?”) before moving on to the other pizzas. When they have taken their seats to eat, he musters the courage to stand up and move to the table of food.
Among the other half-eaten pizzas his pizza stands untouched and cold. Like some old maid aged unwanted by men. He looks around. When he is sure that nobody sees him, he takes his box of pizza and closes it and puts it in his cubbyhole. He goes back to his chair and no one notices that he hasn’t eaten, so immersed they are in their own merriments.
The Xmas party ends and everyone rushes home. His mom picks him up in the van. He climbs in and without saying a word he bursts into tears. His mom asks him what is wrong but he cannot speak. The water rushing to his face seems not to allow the exit of anything else. Besides, he did not want to hurt her. He knew it was not her fault that they were poor. It was no one’s fault.
When they get home he has more sense and he explains to her what happened. To his surprise, his mom does not seem hurt. She bends back her head and then laughs and then apologizes. She tells him that she, in her rush, had to buy the pizza in the supermarket while doing the groceries. It was only available in frozen, microwavable form, so before bringing it to him she had heated it and tried to make it look more appetizing.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She wipes his tears and then hugs him.
“It’s okay, mom. There was other pizza and pasta there anyway.”
“Hey. At least we can have our own celebration.”
When it is evening she heats the pizza. The smell of the warm dough and the cheese fills their home and all his siblings come to the kitchen smell it. The youngest jumps up and down to his mother.
“Is that pizza?”
“Wow. Will we eat it now?”
“Wait for dinner. When your father arrives.”
That dinner they, all eight, sat around the table to celebrate the start of the Christmas break with the pizza. They saw that the pizza, like before, came in eight slices and, like before, their parents shared one slice and the father cut the remaining slice into six tiny equal slices. The six children partook of it and to them, for whom the expectations were humble and the material pleasures few, that pizza was as good as any celebration they had ever had.
Tried experimenting with the present tense in this story. I was trying to imitate Chekhov.
This is based on a true story. One of my more painful memories. But also one of my most endearing. I like the last sentence most.