Water Booger Bears WATER BOOGER BEARS
THIS STORY was going to begin like all the best stories. With a school bus falling from the sky.
But no one saw it happen. No one heard anything. So instead, this story will begin like all the… good ones.
“If you don’t get all them nasty, half-baked goblins out your nose, I promise I’m not walking home with you. I’m not playin’.” Jasmine Jordan said this like she said most things—with her whole body. Like the words weren’t just coming out of her mouth but were also rolling down her spine. She said it like she meant it. Said it with the same don’t play with me tone her mother used whenever she was trying to talk to Jasmine about something important for her “real life,” and Jasmine turned the music up in her ears real loud to drown her mother out, and scroll on, scroll on. If you don’t take them earbugs… earbuds… airphones, or whatever they called out of your coconut head it’s gon’ be me turning up the volume and the bass, and I ain’t talking about no music.
Jasmine’s booger-removal warning was aimed at her stuffy-nosed best friend, Terrence Jumper. TJ. Well, Jasmine called him her “best friend who’s a boy,” but she didn’t have best friends who were girls, so TJ was her best friend best friend. And she was his. Been like that for a long time. Since he moved onto Marston Street, three houses down from her. Since the only way their mothers would let them be walkers was if they walked together because they were the only kids who lived on their block. Since six years, so since forever.
The bell rang, and Jasmine and TJ had just left their last class for the day, the only class they had together. Life science with Mr. Fantana.
“You been back to school for two days and you already starting with me?” TJ spun the black lock dial confidently, like he could feel the difference in the grooves and would know when he landed on the right numbers.
“How could I not? Look at them things. Honestly, TJ, I’on’t even know how you breathing right now,” Jasmine continued. Their lockers were right next to each other, luckily, because Jasmine, unlike TJ, turned her lock with an intense concentration, glaring at it as if the combination could up and change at any second, or as if her fingers might stop working at any moment. And if for some strange reason either of those things happened, at least she knew TJ was right there to help.
TJ shrugged, tossing his science book onto the floor of the metal closet, the smell of feet wafting up from it like a cloud of dust, unsettled. And unsettling. The floor of his locker was littered with empty snack bags that Jasmine had slid through the door vent between classes over the last two days. Trash… yes. But Jasmine and TJ called them “friendship flags.” The litter of love. And because Jasmine had been gone for a while, they were basically notes that said I’ve missed you. In Cheeto dust. Then, finally, with the hardened snot like tiny stones rolled in front of the entrances of his nose, TJ turned the bottom of his shirt up and mopped it. A streak of slime smeared across his lip as he swiped and pinched and dug just enough for it to count as a dig, but not enough for it to count as diggin’.
TJ tilted his face upward so Jasmine could get a clear line of sight into his nostrils. “Better?” he asked, half sincere, half hoping there was one more booger left and that it was somehow making a mean face at Jasmine.
Jasmine stared into TJ’s nose like she was peering through a brown microscope of flesh, and she did this totally unfazed by the fact that TJ had just used his T-shirt—the one he was wearing—as a tissue. And why would she be bothered? Not that it wasn’t disgusting (it was), but she’d known him a long time. Had seen him do things that made boogers on the bottom of a T-shirt seem like nothing more than added decoration. Booger bedazzle. A little flavor for his fashion. Had seen him use his fingers to pick gum off the bottom of his sneakers (and hers), and of course nothing would ever beat the time he clapped a mosquito dead right when it had bitten him, then licked the fly slime off his arm. That one Jasmine had dared him to do. Paid him a dollar for it. Worth it, for both of them.
“Y’know, I can see straight through to your brain,” Jasmine said, pretending to still be examining. “And it turns out, there’s a whole lot of it missing.” She plucked TJ’s nose. “Sike, sike, sike, sike. Nah, you good. I guess I can be seen with you now.”
“Whatever.” Locker slam. “I mean, we all boogers anyway.”
“You might be a booger.” Locker slam. “But me, I ain’t no booger.”
“That’s what you think,” TJ went on as they swapped backpacks. His was light. Jasmine’s was packed with every class’s textbook and all the world’s notebooks. Makeup work. She could’ve carried it herself, but TJ was concerned about her back, about her muscles, because she was still recovering from the attack.
They headed down the crowded corridor, noisy with sneaker squeaks and thick with end-of-day funk. “See, I’ve been thinking about this. Boogers ain’t nothing but water mixed with, like, dust and particles in the air and stuff like that—”
“How you know?” Jasmine interrupted. Knowing TJ, he could’ve heard this anywhere, like from Cynthia Sower—everybody called her Say-So—who jokes 99.99999 percent of the time.
“Looked it up online once,” TJ explained. “Was trying to figure out why they so salty.”
“Wait.” Jasmine thrust a hand up, as if walling off the rest of TJ’s words. “You eat them?”
“Come on, Jasmine. It ain’t fair to hold my past against me. Dang.” TJ shook his head. “Now, if you done interrupting, let me continue with my hypothesis.” He broke “hypothesis” down into four fragmented words to put some spice on it. High-Poth-Uh-Sis. “So, boogers are basically water and dust.” He put a finger in the air. “And human beings are mostly water, right? Ain’t that what Fantana said at the beginning of the year?”
“Okay, follow me. Every Sunday when we be at church, they always be talking about how God made us out of dust, right?” TJ and Jasmine went to the same church, where they sang in the youth choir together. TJ always asked Mrs. Bronson, the choir director, to let him sing solos even though his voice was all over the place. A set of wind chimes in a hurricane. And Jasmine’s singing wasn’t much better. Only difference was she knew it and would never think to ask for a solo. She loved to wear the “graduation” robes and harmonize and sway and clap, snuggling her voice into the others like drawer into dresser. Her mother always told her, Holding a note is talent enough.
Even though TJ couldn’t hold a note—that definitely wasn’t his talent—he could hold a conversation. So he continued. “God making man from dust and blowing breath into his nostrils and all that, right?”
“You think God breath stank?”
“Never mind. Probably not.” TJ got himself back on track. “So, if God made man from dust, and now, for some reason, man—”
“And woman,” Jasmine tacked on.
“Yeah, and woman… consist of mostly water, then basically, we water and dust, right?” TJ was waving his hands around like he was drawing some grand equation on an invisible board. Jasmine didn’t say nothing, and she didn’t need to for TJ to bring his theory home. “Which means… ,” TJ concluded, and Jasmine could practically see the drumroll behind his eyes, “we all basically… boogers.”
TJ wore satisfaction on his face like good lotion, and Jasmine wore confusion on hers like she’d been slapped with a gluey palm.
“Wrong,” she clapped back.
“You ain’t gotta believe me,” TJ said, holding the door for Jasmine as they finally made it out of the building.
“Oh, I don’t.”
“You don’t have to,” TJ repeated. “But that don’t mean it ain’t true. See, no matter what you think I be doing in school, I really be learning. And seriously, I need to start teaching because while all these so-called scientists and teachers like Mr. Fantana be busy trying to figure out if aliens are real, I’ve already figured out that boogers are like… the babiest form of babies!”
This made Jasmine spit air. See, even though TJ was ridiculous and annoying and sometimes gross, she appreciated the fact that he always made her laugh whether she wanted to or not. Whether he was trying to or not. He was always there to chip some of the hard off. Tear at the toughness Jasmine had built up over the school year.
It had been a rough one for her.
It started with her parents separating and her father moving out. There was no drama around it. No fighting. Nothing ugly. Nothing like the movies. At least not that she knew of. Just a really uncomfortable conversation at the kitchen table with her folks looking at her like she was an exotic fish in a sandwich bag, darting back and forth, while she squirmed in her seat as if her skin were too tight for her body.
“We love you very much.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Sometimes relationships change.”
“Sometimes people are better apart.”
“None of this is your fault.”
“Your father and I love you very much.”
“Your mother and I love you very much.”
Actually, that part was just like the movies. Especially the ones about girls her age. The kitchen-table conference. The follow-up knock-knock on the bedroom door. The kid cussing at the dad. The mom saying, “Language!” The weekend visits. The awkwardness of both parents asking if everything is all right,
over and over and over and over and over and over again.
And that was just the first quarter. That was before she had her worst attack. And not an attack by someone else. She ain’t get jumped or nothing. Instead her body attacked itself. Jasmine had a blood disease since birth—sickle cell anemia—which can affect almost every part of the body. Organs, joints, even vision. But for the most part it hadn’t given Jasmine any real problems. A little pain sometimes, but nothing too bad until this year when she went into full-on crisis and her body became a blaze. At least that’s what it felt like. Her hands and feet swelled like plastic gloves full of water, heavy and tight, ready to burst. Her muscles felt like they’d become wood and she imagined her bones were splintering and growing bones of their own.
Jasmine was out sick for a month. Her locker unopened. The lock, unturned.
Her mom and dad, together and apart, weirdly hovering over her hospital bed like aliens from movies even cornier than teenage family dramas. Her parents’ coldness thawed by the one and only TJ, who would show up, crack some jokes, break some ice, and leave some empty potato chip bags next to Jasmine’s bed to add to the thirty he’d left in her locker. Friendship flags.
And when Jasmine finally returned to Latimer Middle School two days ago, after being jumped with questions from classmates who’d almost never spoken to her before she got sick—people who looked at her sideways for being so close to TJ because “boys and girls can’t just be friends”—Jasmine (and the guidance counselor, Ms. Lane) had to figure out how she was going to catch up on her work. Couldn’t do it while she was laid up because she could barely move. It hurt to hold a pen. Hurt to turn a page. Which was how she knew she wasn’t a booger. Couldn’t have been a booger. She wasn’t gooey enough.
Maybe all boys are boogers. Always acting like rocks when really y’all just blobs of dusty water,” Jasmine joked as she and TJ crossed at the light, the crosswalk like a bridge leading them over the tar-water, from school to neighborhood. They turned down Portal Avenue, a route they’d taken hundreds of times. A route TJ had been forced to take alone for the last month. And even though Jasmine had been at school yesterday, her mother had been too nervous to let her walk on her first day back. So this was their first day walking home together again. “But not me,” she continued. “I mean, come on, boogers get wiped away, get blown out.”
“Okay, so if you ain’t no booger, then what are you?” TJ asked.
Jasmine shrugged. “Um… a girl? I’m me.”
“Come on, Jasmine. Work with me here.” Now TJ was spreading his arms. Talked with his body like an old street hustler trying to convince people that stolen goods are a steal. “If you ain’t no booger, but you had to be something else, what would you be?”
Jasmine thought about it as they turned left down Marston, a street lined with houses that her mother always said had been around for a long time. An old neighborhood, she’d ramble whenever they drove through newer, seemingly nicer communities, where every house looked like the last house, like a choir of homes dressed in the same robes, turned the same way, singing the same melody in the same key, which makes for a boring, boring song. But Marston Street was lined with a little bit of everything, from small brick to fancy vinyl. From bay windows to Colonial style. From ramblers all on one level to three stories. A fence here and there, a gate there and here. Grass. Gravel. Blacktop. Pavement. Everything old enough to look lived in. To look tried on. Old enough to be warm and worn by a generation or two. Maybe even three.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “I mean, what was that thing Mr. Fantana was talking about in class today? The thing he pulled up the picture of? I mean, it kinda looked like a booger.”
“You talking about that ugly slug-looking thing? What he call it… a space bear?”
“Yeah,” she started, then stopped. “Hold up.… First of all, I ain’t no ugly thing. Just so we clear. But I’m that. A water bear.” Jasmine nodded.
“Yeah, water bear,” TJ said, chuckling. “That thing got like eight legs and it got them long nails like my old mother. And that weird mouth… like my old mother—” TJ poked his lips out, then pulled them in, then poked them out and pulled them in again as if he were chewing on a giant piece of bubble gum. “That thing would be super scary—like my old mother—if it wasn’t so teeny-tiny, which definitely ain’t like my old mother. At. All.”
“Ms. Macy not scary, boy.”
“Ms. Macy ain’t my old mother. She my new mother. And my mother mother I don’t really know like that.”
“Right… right.” Jasmine tried to keep all the mothers organized in her head. A different equation on a different invisible board.
“But my old mother…” TJ let the thought trail off, shuddering like something shot through his body. Just for a moment. A bad memory, maybe. “Anyway, why would you want to be that thing? The water bear or whatever. Can’t nobody even see it. At least we can see boogers.”
“Because of what Mr. Fantana was saying about how scientists tested that little water bear thingy, and they found out it might be the toughest living thing in the world. In the universe maybe. Said it could survive the hottest heat. And the coldest cold. And the pressurest pressure. I mean, they sent it into space—SPACE—and it came back just crawling around like ain’t nothing happen. Just crawling crawling. That’s me all day. With nails intact.” Jasmine huffed on her fingers and pretended to buff the purple-painted tips.
“Yeah, if you believe all that, I guess.”
“Well, if you can believe God made us out of dust—which I believe because you definitely the dustiest person I ever known—then I can believe Mr. Fantana about this water bear. Shoot, we probably be stepping on them every day and don’t even know it.”
TJ looked quick down at the ground, suddenly wondering what lived between the cracks in the concrete. Scratched his arms like maybe the water bears were crawling in the crevices of his dry skin and he didn’t know because he couldn’t see them. Jasmine watched him fidget. Huh. She’d never really witnessed him nervous. TJ wasn’t afraid of boogers, dog poop, eating bugs, or anything like that, but maybe that’s because he could see them. He could smash and smear and disappear them. But it dawned on her that he seemed freaked out dealing with the things that wouldn’t smash or smear. The things already invisible living all around him, and maybe even on him, and there was nothing he could do about it.
They got to TJ’s house. No gate, no fence. A patch of dry grass. The house was small and wooden like it had been built without machines. No bulldozers or anything like that. Just human hands and love and hammers and nails and more love. There was a hole in the screen door that had been there for years. TJ’s foot had done that. He said sometimes his feet get mad and do things like kick or stomp or run. Don’t blame him, he’d say. And Jasmine would laugh because his jokes were always funny even though she knew they were almost never jokes.
They sat on the steps out front, bumped shoulders, and talked more about water bears and boogers and decided that maybe they could be both.
“Water bear boogers?” Jasmine suggested while tying her shoes.
TJ offered a slight adjustment. “How about… water booger bears?”
“Ah, water booger bears.” Jasmine perked up, nodded. “I like that.”
The door opened behind them, the screen screeching a striking impression of TJ’s voice.
“I thought I heard something out here.” It was his (not-so) new mother. His mom of six years, Ms. Macy. She was dressed in her work uniform—navy pants, navy shirt with a name tag, offset by her fuzzy, dingy pink house slippers. She bent down and kissed both Jasmine and TJ on the tops of their heads, the remnants of her day now hovering around them like hard-work halos. “How was school?”
“Fine,” TJ said, smirking, sniffling, scratching.
“Pretty good,” Jasmine confirmed.
“That’s what I like to hear,” Ms. Macy said. They knew what was coming next. “So… what y’all learn today?” Even though Ms. Macy asked this question—the same question—every day, her voice was still so interested.
Jasmine looked at TJ. He looked back at her, a new booger resting in his left nostril. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, like boogers often do. He wiped it with the back of his hand and they both chimed in unison, like a Sunday choir.