Flora May's Sweater
Esther Kao | Art by Chloe Kim
The classroom fills with a breeze of air. Someone jabs me in the shoulder but I don’t respond.
“It’s time for recess, come on!”
“Shh, let’s just go. I think he’s sleeping.”
“He always sleeps during recess. He’s so weird.”
The door jangles again, and for a brief moment I hear the swelling sounds of the world outside, chirping birds, chattering classmates, the slap of balls against pavement. Then the door swings shut and I am left in the quiet of the classroom.
I peek an eye open. Everyone has left. Good. I don’t like playing ball with the other boys—the ball moves too fast and I’m too slow and the last time I played everyone yelled at me because I was so terrible. My mother says I’m too skinny for a boy, like a string bean, and so I’d rather just stay here in the classroom alone during recess.
A crack of sunlight filters through the window and I cringe in its glare, so I get up and move a few seats away. There’s a white sweater with pink roses on it hung neatly on the chair’s back.
It’s Flora May’s seat. Must be.
All the boys in the class are in love with her. She’s got perfect blonde ringlets and big blue eyes and she dresses like a doll. My mother refers to her as that “sweet little girl” and she’s always smiling and polite and the adults all love her. But she’s not prissy about it, not like Caroline Johnson, who turns up her nose and tattles on the boys for pulling her hair. Flora has this way of batting her eyes and smiling at you until you feel your knees wobbling and you can’t say no when she tells you to please stop whatever naughty business you’re up to.
She’s probably outside now, sitting with her friends, legs crossed into a neat stitch, hair neat and tidy, laced up properly. If it wasn’t for playing ball I’d go outside in that sunlight just to watch her laugh and talk to her friends.
I run my hand over her sweater. It’s the type of sweater I’d expect Flora May to wear. There are frills on the collar and sleeves and not a single button is missing. I can taste her scent from here, like flowers and sunlight and—I frown—a tinge of something pungent and foul. But it couldn’t be from Flora May’s sweater. It must be from another kid’s rotting lunch, because Flora May’s scent is soft and soothing, like her voice. So I press the sweater to my nose to try to blot out that smell and lose myself in the perfume of flowers and sunlight. I am glad no one else is in the classroom because I know I’m doing something weird when I slip my arms into the sleeves.
My hands get stuck at the frilled sleeves. I can’t fit them through at first. I have to wriggle and squirm and twist my fingers. But Flora May’s hands are the same size as mine. I know because we did a project in class where we inked our hands and pressed our handprints onto paper, and ours were almost the same. She smiled at me when I pointed that out, like we had a shared secret.
I wonder how she manages to slip those hands through these sleeves, because the frills dig into my wrist like cuffs. The sleeves hug my arms so tight I feel like a stick man, unable to bend my arms and elbows without fear of bursting at the seams.
Next are the buttons. I start at the bottom, struggling to pull them together, sucking in my breath as I go. I feel a tightening around my waist, like someone is pulling hard from behind, trying to fit all of me into this one sweater. I make it up halfway before I realize that I am sweating, reminded of the time I was locked into a closet by accident and forced to compress my body to fit. My fingers fumble over the buttons, trembling. My breaths are coming short and fast, droplets trickling down my neck, staining her perfect, perfect sweater, and my fingers continue to trip over themselves and struggle with the buttons, trying to fit them through slits too small, and my arms strain and strain at those tight sleeves and that pungent, foul odor fills up my nostrils again—
A button escapes through a slit. My fingers calm.
I feel my chest lighten, releasing a sigh with each button undone. I feel the relief of classroom air on my skin. I see Flora May’s handprint on the wall, in pink ink like all the other girls, and wonder why her fingers look so lonely, like five people chained to a perfectly chiseled stone. I wriggle my hands back through the cuffs of the sleeve, pull off the sweater, and hang it on the chair back, all neat and tidy like Flora May is.
It’s off. I’m not sure why, but I feel relieved.