Dell and Helen had been high school freshmen, first day freshmen, when they met Honey in gym class. They found themselves herded into the gymnasium with 48 other girls–some were freshmen, but several sophomores and juniors were there, too. The older girls seemed worldly, bored, and knowing; Helen and Dell felt raw and exposed in their painfully new gym suits.
The teacher, Ms. Dawson (the cheerleading coach, she never quite forgave Dell for choosing track and field, that spring, over tryouts for the cheering squad) called the role. Dell concentrated, trying to match some names to some faces–get a few each time, she figured. And when Dawson called out, “Honey Combs!”, Dell was startled into a laugh.
Honeycombs? she thought. Who names their child HONEYCOMBS? And then she realized the laugh was rude and she choked it down. Not, though, before a fierce little dark-haired girl, sturdy with thick legs and a sort of unibrow–one of the juniors–turned and gave her a long, measured look.
That day they played a freeform sort of soccer, full gym, four balls in play. It was chaotic and confusing, and many of the freshman girls hugged the walls demurely and stayed out of the way. Helen and Dell, though, leaped into the fray, wanting to experience, wanting to get to know what high school PE was like. They followed the closest ball. The faces around them ebbed and changed, and girls yelled, and some landed good square kicks; there were cheers and shouts and boos and hisses, and Dawson walked nonchalantly among them, big-hipped, lackadaisical. She didn’t seem to be paying too much attention to the game or its players, oblivious in its midst.
Dell suddenly found herself square in front of the ball, and she reared her foot back and connected, sent it flying–hopefully in the direction of some goal, somewhere. A couple of older girls clapped her shoulder, called encouragement, and then she felt God-awful pain in her right leg. Honey Combs had just kicked her, hard, four times, up and down her shin.
Dell stared wide-eyed into the shorter girl’s reddened face; her eyebrows were lowered over her snapping dark ayes and she leaned right into Dell.
“Bitch!” Honey spat. “Freshman BITCH!”
Dell froze, and Honey melted into the melee. Another junior, Patti, who would become a friend and champion, leaned over her. “That’s Honey,” she said. “She is most definitely NOT a honey, though. Good to stay away as much as you can.”
Twice more during the game, Honey materialized and kicked Dell again. The last time, Dell kicked back.
Thus began Honey’s vendetta. As Dell settled into her new school—she was coming into the public high school, one of 350 freshmen, from an eighth grade class of 18 at her much-loved parochial school; it was a big adjustment–rhythms established. She was disappointed in her English class–the teacher seemed old and tired and they did mostly grammar drills,–but she loved art and, surprisingly, physics. And history and French were fine. PE varied depending on the unit; Dell hated tumbling, but loved just about every other activity, as long as she could evade Honey. Helen was steadfast, and Dell made other friends, too, who rallied to her side. But Honey was insulted and determined.
Dell tried once to apologize for her startled laugh, to tell Honey she’d been surprised and amazed and not demeaning. Honey spurned the least attempt and hugged her anger close, and Dell did not persist.
But Honey persisted. After the kicking incident, there was a lull–time enough for the lumpy bruises laddered up and down Dell’s leg to fade; she told her mother she’d fallen clumsily into the open bleachers. Then there was a crude sign pasted on her locker door that said, “Lezzie” ; in the late 1970’s, that was considered a nasty insult. She stayed late with Helen to scrape that off; for the next three weeks, she would pass Honey or one of her henchpersons in the hallways and they would mouth the word at her and surreptitiously give her the finger.
Helen wanted Dell to go to the guidance counselor and report Honey, get some help; Dell refused. She needed, she thought, to handle this. Her father always told her brothers to work it out themselves when they had personal conflicts on their baseball team; Dell thought the same should be required of her. She decided her best defense was dignity, and so she would ignore the assaults and keep her head up, walking calmly through whatever Honey dealt out.
Dell would find threatening notes in her gym locker or her books, left on a cafeteria table while she bought lunch. They’d be unspecific–just something like, “Little bitches better watch there back” and a leering face. She would calmly set the note aside and just as calmly toss it into the wastebasket on her way out of lunch, aware she was probably being watched for a reaction. Once when she was walking home the back way, past the track and the tennis court, something hard (A stick? A rock?) hit the back of her head, but she didn’t turn around and it didn’t happen again.
There were occasional epithets stuck to her locker, sudden, anonymous shoves in the hallway, catcalls from behind her in all-school assemblies, but there would be periods, too, of relative peace. Patti said Honey had an on-again, off-again romance–it was hard for Dell to picture this–and when it was on-again, she was occupied. When her beau, who was older and working, was off, Honey was mean, and Dell was her target.
Dell had a good freshman year, for the most part, but she was glad when it was over–glad to go away to her counselor-in-training job at Camp Timberlake and have a whole summer away from Honey Combs. There was a boys’ camp across the lake; in true summer romance fashion, Dell fell madly in love with Trent Farmer, who was a year older and went to her school. Their romance transcended the summer; in the Fall, they would stroll hand-in-hand through the high school hallways, and Honey narrowed her eyes and pounced.
She expounded on the theme of “The Farmer in the Dell” in art and song, growing cruder and cruder. Trent, furious, wanted to talk to Honey’s brother, or lay a trap, or get Honey suspended; Dell talked him down, talked about the high road and not stooping to another’s level. Honey’s attacks were more annoyance than harm; they didn’t really hurt her, and she didn’t understand why Honey’s fury still burned so brightly.
Jealousy, her friends said, but that was too easy and too self-serving, Dell felt. Still, she had no reason or inclination to practice amateur psychology. She threw out the notes, ignored the chants, and pretty much enjoyed her sophomore year.
And then suddenly, after the Christmas break, the attacks started coming fast and furious. Every day. Outside the entrance. In the cafeteria. Dell had to watch her step in the hallways. Notes folded like nun-chucks hit her in the head and the face, and nasty graffitti was scrawled on her book covers and locker. She always took a friend, those days, when she needed to use the restroom.
Trent and Helen were imploring her to go to the office, threatening to go themselves with or without her approval, when, on a Friday, Dell opened her locker to a noxious mess. There was a sign, inside her locker, that said, “Heres the kind of shit Farmers like,” and piled on top of Dell’s brand new gym shoes, which were resting on the bottom of the locker, was a steaming heap of some sort of manure. Shocked, this time, Dell had to tell.
There was a custodial cleanout; there was an investigation; Dell’s parents had to be informed. But before anyone could trace the path back to figure out how the older girl had come to have access to Dell’s locker, Honey was just GONE.
There was a term they used for girls who left school to have babies: they were ‘being home-schooled for a while.’ Honey was ‘home-schooled’ for the remainder of her senior year. The attacks stopped abruptly: Honey’s old buddies were completely uninterested in continuing. The rest of high school was peaceful for Dell, although she and Trent had a heart-wrenching, back-and-forth break up that lasted for a whole month’s span. Then she agonized over college options, finally choosing a school about 200 miles away and settling on studying for an English bachelor’s, and then later, she earned her master’s in library science.
Her father was transferred and her parents moved, too, and she rarely went back to the old town, rarely thought of her old nemesis, Honey. One day, 15 years after graduation–Dell and Martin were married, of course–they went back to visit Helen and Patti and their spouses. They met at a family restaurant, got a big table in the corner to fit them all and squeeze in a couple more high school friends, too. Their reunion was talkative, happy, and raucous, and, laughing, Dell looked up and saw a fierce, thickset little waitress walk toward their table. The waitress met her gaze.
It was Honey, of course; their eyes locked for just a second. Dell opened her mouth to say something–what, exactly, she did not know, but Honey wheeled abruptly and disappeared. A different server materialized very shortly. Their service was wonderful, their food excellent (Dell inspected her meal carefully). Honey did not reappear.
And that was the last time Dell ever saw her. She had heard that Honey had married the father of her high school baby; then she heard, many years later, that that baby grew up into a wild boy who died in a graduation night car crash. Dell imagined her fiery little persecutor and felt real sadness for Honey.
And then, life being busy, all thoughts of Honey Combs just vaporized, until this email from Helen, this forwarded obituary.
Honey died of cancer, Dell read, and was survived by her husband, another son, and a daughter. She had four grandchildren. She worked in food service all her life, the obituary said, and, in her 50’s, had taken a degree in culinary arts at the local two year college. She ran a business decorating cakes; her work was very popular. She started an annual fund-raiser, a cake decorating contest; the proceeds went into a fund to educate young people about the dangers of drunken driving. She was a fixture in the local MADD organization. She had received several awards for artistry with her cakes and others for community service.
She died, the obituary said, surrounded by her loving family, who would ensure that her annual fund-raiser continued.
Dell clicked out of the link and sat for a minute with her hands on the keyboard. That fierce, unforgiving high school nemesis had become a caring, giving, grieving woman–one who kept growing, loved her family–probably, Dell thought wryly, with that same ferocity–and had a powerful impact on her little corner of the universe. Powerful and positive.
Honey had had a powerful impact on her, too, Dell thought, for a short period of time. The experience–started by a thoughtless, startled act of what Honey must have seen as cruelty, as meanness,– escalated into something puzzling for Dell– a disturbing but ultimately meaningful time. Dell had learned that derisive laughter can hurt and antagonize; she had learned the simmering power of a tightly held grudge. She discovered that a gracefully worded apology was not always enough. She had pushed herself to practice grace under pressure, and she had learned that there was a time when she really needed to ask for help. And she had learned something about compassion and fury and power, and something about letting go of the special pleasure of being a victim.