Squatting behind a bookshelf with a stolen cup of coffee, I tilted my head like a dog at a shadow. Ear to shoulder, eyebrow raised, I mouthed the title of a book I’d never seen before.
Huh. Must be some Knights of the Round Table type-a-thing, I figured.
Typically, when I cut classes, I was stealing away for a smoke, not Shakespeare. At sixteen, I was already a pack-a-day smoker. My brand was Marlboro Menthol, as opposed to Newport, that likely being the subconscious way Queens white girls differentiated themselves from Queens black girls—a thought I had much later in life. But on this day my caffeine addiction must have trumped my nicotine addiction, because I skipped the smoke, took a cup of coffee from the teacher’s lounge, and hid in an empty classroom to drink it.
Straightaway I pulled the book from the shelf and split it in half, a gesture that tells me now I was not looking to read it, but to perform an autopsy. Maybe there would be pictures, or some chivalric bit of nonsense to help me pass the time. But there on the page was line after line of language as beautiful as it was bizarre, and I was mesmerized. I threw myself back, falling from my feet to my haunches, crossed my legs on the cold linoleum and turned to the beginning. Act 1. Scene 1. I had never read a book on my own. But I kept on, in a fury, cutting one class after the next after the next, until I was done.
Before there was Shakespeare, before there were cigarettes even, there was Alli. Bad behavior had cost her and me our first high school, and for sophomore year we were sent to an all-girls Catholic school, a beige brick Gothic building perched atop a steep hill and surrounded by black iron fencing. The Camelot of Queens?
Inside though, in lieu of King Arthurs, there were hardnosed nuns, and in lieu of Lancelots, hundreds of teenage Queens girls. We were a volatile mix from all corners of the borough—bad girls from good neighborhoods, good girls from bad ones, and the ultra-religious from both—most of us miraculously getting along and all of us the better for being sequestered.
We were the New Yorkers that never make it into the popular imaginings of our city: tough-ass Indian girls with thick Queens accents, loud-mouthed Koreans eating buttered rolls and drinking Tropical Fantasy soda, prudish Puerto Ricans hunched under enormous backpacks, Polish girls in doorknocker earrings. In our uniforms—plaid, pleated skirts and matching vests—we climbed off the Q43 bus or up the subway steps at 179th Street and Hillside Avenue and headed up the hill to a school our cop/construction-worker/car-mechanic dads could afford. For a tenth of the price of other private educational institutions, most New York Catholic schools offer an education slightly better than your average public school, though certainly not as good as the better ones. But what they may lack in academics they make up for by way of discipline, and by greatly reducing your kids’ chances of being shot.
By junior year Alli and I weren’t doing half bad as long as we were in school, but after school we still found trouble, smoking blunts in the park, sneaking out to clubs in the city. And getting pregnant—just a few months before I found King Lear, Alli became a teenage single mom. Alli was something like the love child of Barbie and Snoop Dogg, a thugged-out Irish girl with gel-curled blonde hair, brown lipstick, and freckles. Between her tough quiet stare, painted-on short shorts, baby tee, and crisp white Reebok Classics, in our 1990s New York hip-hop culture she was the epitome of the perfect pretty mean girl—by no means a true Goneril, but she could have played the part. I, on the other hand, was undoubtedly the Fool, a mischievous, frenetic ball of energy, hyped up on a daily breakfast of weed and Tropical Fruit Starburst. I wore my hair pixie short and my jeans loose, and I listened to classic rock—Alli’s opposite in every way.
In the waistband of her skirt, rolled up to shorten its length to all of four inches, Alli had a beeper that went off incessantly with the stream of guys she was sleeping with but hardly talked about. In my waistband, meanwhile, was a flask full of whiskey, which I’d made by washing out a travel-size shampoo bottle a thousand times, then painting it gold. Whenever I drank from it I thought I was Janis Joplin reincarnate.
Up until we became friends I loathed the popular girls and she dismissed people like me as crazy and weird. But we lived down the block from each other, we were both the daughters of Irish cops, and we lived for trouble. It surprised us both, but by high school we were best friends. I loved her brand of toughness, and she loved mine. I loved how smart she was, even if she didn’t want anyone to know it, and she let her guard down around me in a way I hadn’t seen her do before or since. Alli was not a person who smiled much, and seeing her crack up at my jokes felt as good to me as I hope it was for her.
While other teenage best friends expressed their mutual love by writing their names in their notebooks with BFF underneath, Alli’s way of showing me she cared was threatening to beat up a girl who tattled on me for smoking in the bathroom. She didn’t tell me she was going to do it either. I came out of class to find Alli waiting, dead silent, arms crossed, angrily eyeing the girl down. Then, without a word to me, she stepped up to her and said, “If you ever mess with my friend again, I will fuck you up.” The girl burst into tears and Alli hooked her arm under mine as we walked away. It was closest thing I ever got to an “I love you.”
As different as we were, for three solid years we had hardly spent more than a few hours apart. But then came the baby, and instead of the two of us watching the boys play handball in the park, she was pushing a stroller around it. The deal was that she would do her schoolwork from home immediately following her daughter’s birth in the middle of junior year. Then her mother would take over, watching the baby during the day so Alli could go to school for senior year. With so much of Alli’s future suddenly so indelibly written, it occurred to me I should start working out my own.
Up until she got pregnant neither Alli nor I thought much beyond the next blunt in the park. My parents wanted me to go to college, though my father often said he would have been fine with me going into the police academy or even the army. I wasn’t sure about any of it—until I read King Lear.
After the end-of-school bell that day I put the book back on the shelf, peeled my legs off the floor and rushed to catch the bus, excited to find my friends at the bus stop on Hillside Avenue and tell them about what I had read.
Hillside is a dirty, bustling, major Queens thoroughfare lined with check-cashing places, bodegas, and cheap Caribbean restaurants, in front of which windy rows of tired people wait to catch any of a dozen different bus lines. In the stretch near our school, Hillside Avenue is also the borderline between Jamaica proper, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Queens, and Jamaica Estates, one of the richest.
From my preferred center seat in the last row of the Q43, I started to recount the story of King Lear for my friends. Outside the right window scrolled tree-lined streets filled with English Tudor-style mansions; outside the left window garbage swirled up the stoops of dilapidated clapboard houses while I talked about “this crazy old motherfucker” and his “two grubby bitch-ass daughters.”
When madmen lead the blind …
No one gave a crap.
Still, I was beside myself. And when I got home I ran to my room, grabbing my mother’s stack of old magazines and a pair of scissors on the way, and set out to make a collage based on the themes of the book. I had done very few of my assignments for English class, and hoped this would count for something to my teacher. In the middle of a sheet of paper I glued a king of hearts playing card and surrounded it with phrases like “twisted sister.” For the first time I cared about something that could be called schoolwork.
The next day I stood at my teacher’s desk, too giddy to keep up my typical tough-girl act, and started to explain to her, “So I read this book yesterday, I don’t know if you heard of it, King Lear? And, uh—”
“Cut the crap, Clancy. No, you didn’t.”
“What? Um, yes, I did”—she rolled her eyes but I was undeterred—“anyway, so I made this—”
“Shakespeare. Yesterday, after not doing any work all year, you up and read Shakespeare, for the hell of it? And wait, the whole play, no less? C’mon, kid! I’m not an idiot.”
At that I slapped my collage onto her desk, and walked off. But the next day she slapped it back onto my desk, upside down so I could read her note right away: A++ This is fantastic! Then she said, “Let’s talk after class today, okay?” I gave a smug smile, followed by a real one, and nodded.
Alli came back to school for the start of senior year and I started AP English in a special class devoted to Shakespeare. We didn’t talk about the past several months, of the small thing that changed my life, or the big thing that changed hers. We both made the honor roll that semester and applied for college—flies to wanton boys, spared by a baby and the Bard.
Tara Clancy is a writer and performer. Her essays have appeared most recently in The New York Times Magazine and The Rumpus. She also tells stories at the Moth, and is forthcoming on their podcast this month. Tara lives in New York with her wife and two sons.