My Ex Man

“It may be noticed that decimals are very much like fractions. In fact — and this is exciting — they are fractions. You see, a fraction is any part of a whole — though you can express them as being bigger than an integer even though not all of them are — and a decimal is just a fraction expressed with a denominator of some multiple of ten. The notation for decimals entails putting your digits that would otherwise be thought of as integers when on the left-hand side of the decimal point and-”

BAM!

My forehead smacked my fake wood desk. Our teacher, Mr. Grayson, has all the charm of a cinder block, so I tend to fall asleep in class a lot.

“Dude! Are you ok?” Jordan loudly whispered. I looked around. Mr. Grayson, who never notices anything, also seemed to not notice one of his fifth graders nearly getting a concussion in the second row. All the kids in the class did, though, and I was getting some funny looks and a lot of snickering giggles.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, blushing. I rubbed my forehead to numb the pain.

“Hey, since you’re up,” said Jordan, under her breath, “why’d you dump Henry? I heard you guys made out.”

“I didn’t dump him,” I protested. “He-…we-…it just wasn’t quite right.”

“What, the kissing?”

“No!” I almost yelled. Mr. Grayson didn’t miss a monotone beat. I vaguely heard him say something about proper and improper as I stalled for time, trying to figure out what I was going to say. Why is it so uncomfortable to talk about boys and stuff like that?

Jordan let out a little squeal of excitement. I rolled my eyes.

“So you did kiss him! What was it like? Jenny Marcinko said that last year at theater camp she kissed a boy from Toronto, which I was like Toronto?, really?, and anyway she said it was weird and terrifying and wet and it was magical. Was it magical?” Sometimes she talks so fast it’s like someone throwing an extra big water balloon at you. It hits you and explodes and it takes you a second to realize that it’s all over and you’re soaked to the bone.

“He just…” I trailed off. Words failed me. Mr. Grayson droned something about Line up to add up. What was it about Henry anyway? And why did Jordan care? It seemed like a lot of people cared about other people’s relationships, come to think of it.

An incident from Labor Day a week or so prior popped into my mind. My mom was off work and I was off school, so she took me to Jumpstart!, one of those coffee shops where the employees don’t seem to shower very much. It was near our house, and Mom wanted some “mother-daughter” time. Oy. Anyway, we were sitting there sipping our drinks, my mother trying her best to get me to “share.” Gross.

Over Mom’s shoulder and behind the counter I could see a dreadlocked barista methodically swaying her hips to the funky beat of the in-house live band, which consisted entirely of a guy sitting in the corner in ratty clothes belting out an acoustic, slow-jam version of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off.

“How are you?” She made serious, sincere, earnest parental eye contact. It was unbearable.

“Fine,” I said, putting on my best fake smile. A group of mid-forties moms had just collected their drinks and crammed themselves around the tiny table next to us.

“No, how aaaare you?” She dragged out the are the way only moms can. She put her hand on mine and squeezed. “I want to know what’s going on with you.”

“I’m into drugs now.” Ugh. Forced touchy-feely talk with a parental unit. The neighboring mom-squad all chatted at once. They sounded like hyperactive geese…well…hyperactive geese wearing matching black spandex workout clothes. With make-up.

“Come on, Emma,” she pleaded. “I’m just trying to get to know you.”

And she was; I knew that. Whenever she gave me that Mom Look, though, my words would get all squished up in my throat like two fat guys trying to fit through a little door. Time to pull out something shiny.

“Well, I was just thinking about how I want to have an important job like you someday.” That did it. Mom looooved to talk about her job. Her eyes lit up like a puppy who has just spotted a squirrel, a duck, and two chickens sitting in his food bowl.

“Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re interested! Just the other day we got this new report about organic farming yields and….” She was in the zone and would be occupied for at least fifteen minutes.

The mom-squad was quieter now, focused on one storyteller. The fair-haired, sun-freckled speaker dished the latest gossip about another mom who apparently spent her mornings actually working out (which I’m guessing meant she ran a real risk getting some bit of genuine sweat on her black spandex workout clothes).

“I mean, you know why she’s killing herself in the gym, right?” Freckles said, faux-whispering and clearly audible. The group leaned in, totally focused. “Ever since George left her, she’s been, you know, looking around.” The other moms nodded, getting something that I didn’t. “Anyway, I hear she’s found one. He’s an orthopedic fellow at Sacred Heart, he’s just twenty-eight, and he looks like what’s-his-name in Thelma and Louise. Can you believe it?”

The other moms inhaled sharply and covered their mouths.

“Shaaaake…iiiiiitt…offff…” moaned the guitarist. Dreadlocks slow-motion pirouetted, not spilling a drop of the extra large macchiato she was preparing.

“And get this,” Freckles continued, “You know her oldest, Spencer, is pre-med, right? Well, I hear that Mr. Cowboy-hat Doctor is pulling strings to get him a spot in next Fall’s med school class. He’s only six years older than Spencer!” The moms variously shook their heads, clicked their tongues, and hmmm’ed.

I couldn’t hear much more of the conversation because Mom had gently smacked her palm on the table, apparently to make an important point about something to do with the hole size of swiss cheese. That brought me back to pretending to pay attention to her. The soloist in the corner shrieked, “MY…EX…MAN…AND…HIS…NEW…GIRLFRIEND….”

Despite that, I could tell that the mom-squad kept gabbing about their friend and the doctor for a while because over the next few minutes, I could make out a NO! and a They’re going where? and a Married!?.

Anyway, it stuck with me that these women seemed to be living their lives through the adventures of their divorcee friend. Why did they care? I mean, I like Jordan and Eva and my other friends, but it just doesn’t matter to me if they say they like this boy or that boy.

~

And now Jordan sounded just like the spandex-clad mom-squad. She looked at me, waiting. I hesitated.

“What?”

“OMG, I knew you weren’t listening.” Jordan rolled her eyes. “I swear I don’t know how your head doesn’t just wander away from your shoulders sometimes.”

“How could my head wander away?” The memories, Mr. Grayson’s droning, and my aching forehead all made me foggy. Jordan smiled and shrugged. She returned to drawing hearts all over her notebook cover. In the upper right corner she had drawn a really fancy one with curly cues and three different colors of pen. In the middle it read E+H 4ever. It was crossed out.

A Non-Meet-Cute

“You don’t talk normal.” We were sitting in the grass at the park, the Quickening park.

“Normal-ly,” I said. I hate it when people confuse adjectives and adverbs. I mean, we’ve studied this for two weeks straight in school.

“What?” he said.

“Normal-ly. You said I don’t talk normal. But it’s normally. The word describes the verb not the noun.”

“Ah. Well I beg your kind and gracious pardon, then, and dearly hope that you will continue to educate me in the finer points of grammar, syntax, and all things semantic. Or semantically, as you please.”

“What?” I said. “I don’t know what all those words mean.”

Brendan smiled. “I know. Here’s your first lesson in our little project: The better part of maturity is knowing when to let things slide.”

Brendan was my neighbor. He was twenty-seven, single, cute-ish, and he had a guitar and no girlfriend. Somehow, someway he had recently decided to buy a large house in our boring suburban neighborhood — the kind of house with big white garage doors that look like Mater’s buckteeth. My mom called him a tinker toy in a LEGO set, whatever that meant.

Three days ago, I had been skipping down the sidewalk trying to remember the words to a song. I had forgotten who sings it, but it had that catchy bit and it was just stuck in my head like a Tootsie Roll jams in your molars.

I was staring at my feet and singing that ring of fire for the thousandth time when I looked up and stopped, mid-skip.

I turned slowly to my right. A man was staring at me from a cheap plastic patio chair on his Twister-mat-sized front porch. Not creepy-staring. More confused-puppy staring. I stared back.

“You like Johnny Cash?”

“W-who?” My throat stumbled.

“Johnny Cash. He sings that song. Ring of Fire.” He switched to a low rumbly singing voice. “That riiiiiiiing…” I could feel my gut shake. “…of fiiiiiiirrrrrrrre.”

“Wow. You’re really good! I didn’t know it was called that. I mean, it makes sense ‘cause it’s said so much in the song but I never really thought that they called it what they say when they say it.” I paused. “Why were you staring?”

“You’re different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every day I watch kids walk to school and walk from school.” This made a little sense. The Oakcrest Low-Security Prison for Exceptionally Short People (or OLSPESP, as I had come to call it, though most everyone else called it the Oakcrest Middle School-Elementary School Combined Campus) sat at the end of his street. “Most kids have a walk about them that says something. For kids your age, their walk usually says they’re blank. Nothing cookin’ upstairs. But not you. Why not, I wonder.”

“Sometimes I ride my bike. It’s awesome.”

He screwed his face up just a little on the one side, like he was really thinking, but without really thinking, if you know what I mean.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Just spit it out, jerk!” I tried to conjure up a mean look and hold it.

The man stood up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I-”

I cracked. Couldn’t hold it. I felt afraid, the kind of afraid you feel when you’re called on in class and don’t know the answer.

He looked into my face, not hiding his curiosity in the least. A pause. Then a smile. “Yes!” he burst out. “You were faking, weren’t you?”

All I could do was nod. Barely. A slight dip of the chin was all.

“Ha! That’s what I was talking about! Your walk gives you away, but so does your expression.” He ambled toward me, looking a little too self-satisfied for my taste. I shifted and tried not to look too guilty or nervous or weird. He closed the distance between us, casually.

“Tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Why you yelled at me just now.” His eyes bored into my brain.

I looked away, down. “I was just…I was j-…”

“Out with it!” He didn’t yell. It was almost a whisper, actually. But it felt louder than a scream.

My words sprinted out of my mouth. “Sometimes I try to act like grown-ups do, to see if it works.” My eyes reached his. Something wild and serene came over him.

“How old are you?”

“Ten,” I said.

Another pause. “No. How old are you…on the inside?”

How could he know?! No one had ever paid enough attention to me to notice much of anything beyond my curly hair (with flecks of auburn). And now here was a total stranger, an old stranger, seeing me for who I was!

I hesitated. My mouth opened but nothing came out.

“It’s ok,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me. We don’t know each other, and people think it’s weird for a twenty-something guy to chat with a young-ish girl who isn’t in his family.” He looked away, annoyed maybe, but also…I don’t know…a little sad.

“I’m twenty-five!” I blurted. Something about his sadness connected to my soul in a way I can’t explain. Not in a boy-band, heartthrob kind of way, just so you know. I’ve never felt woozy about him. (You know what I mean by woozy, right?) It’s more like he’s an older, not-related, twin brother who hangs out with me because he doesn’t seem to have much else to do, if that makes any sense.

~~~

Back in Quickening park, I said, “Ok. Could you say that again?” I shifted my feet in the grass.

“You wanted me to teach you all the things that adults don’t teach kids your age but that everyone wishes they knew when they were in fact your age. Right?” Brendan was smirking. Not in a look-down-on-you kind of way like teachers do sometimes, but in a playful, mysterious kind of way.

“Yeah…”

“Well, then, the better part of maturity is knowing when to let things slide.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Like small grammar mistakes. Or little imperfections. Or those million tiny, incorrect things that people do everyday. Unless they ask you for help, or unless you know them really, really well, or unless you’re their parent, people don’t want to hear about what they’re doing wrong. Or wrongly, as you may say.”

“But weren’t you just telling me that I don’t talk normal…ly? Isn’t that what you were just doing to me?” I objected.

“You didn’t let me get to the point I was making, which was this: You don’t talk…normally,” he emphasized the word and gave me a significant look, “for someone who is ten years old. That can be off-putting for adults and kids alike.”

I waited to make sure he didn’t have any more to say. A couple of sparrows flitted around the branches of the leafy elm whose shade we were enjoying. This was the spot we had decided to come to every Friday afternoon at three to chat about life as an adult.

“So your point is that I’m weird and people don’t like me?”

Brendan laughed hard at that, a high-pitched giggle that sounded funny coming from a man as big as he was.

“You laugh like a girl but have the nerve to tell me that I’m weird?!” I said.

“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” he said, holding out his hands as if to calm me down. Laugh-tears had formed at the corners of his face, but he gathered himself up, swiping at each eye. “It’s just that when you talk, people won’t expect you to be all grown up. And that means that you have to let them see only a part of who you are, a little bit at a time, so that they can slowly come to that realization on their own. People do not like change. And they do not like to be surprised, especially by children. So let them figure it out themselves.”

Boogie

“How about we dance?” Eva said.

“What, like you and me?”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t that, like, a little silly?” I said.

“So?”

“I’m too old to dance,” I announced. We were having a weekend sleepover, so some silliness was to be expected. But dancing? Nah.

“Oh,” said Eva sadly.

“Who’s too old to dance?” my mom asked, walking into the room.

“I am,” I said.

“Why? I’m forty, and I like to dance. Does that mean I’m too old, too?”

“Um…” I stalled. “Well, I guess not. If you’re not too old then I’m definitely not either. But if you were, then maybe I would be, too, but not necessarily, because it could be that you are but I’m not or that you aren’t and I am, so it could go either way.”

“What?” Eva and Mom said together.

“So you wanna dance?” asked Eva.

“Ok.”

Eva pressed play, the room filled with the irresistible sound of the nasal wailing of a teeny-bopper and the beat that makes you want to throw your hands up and around.

And we danced, we cavorted, we jumped and giggled and wiggled and slid and dived. Then mom joined in and we sashayed, hopped, skipped, and boogied our hearts out. I didn’t know it was ok to dance like that when you’re a grown-up. But, god, it feels good. Do non-dancing grown-ups get that?

One or the Other

“Hey.”

“Hey,” I said.

“You wanna go with me?” It was Henry, the new kid. He was nice and cute, but kinda weird. He had caught up with me on our second Friday afternoon since the start of school, just as I was unlocking my bike to ride home.

This is off-topic, but have you ever noticed how kid bikes are way meatier than adult bikes? And awesomer? (Yeah, I know awesomer isn’t a word. It should be.) Mine was dark blue with hints of deep purple and pink and splattered with glittery sparkles. It was fast and sturdy, and it looked it. No kickstand (I mean, come on), no tassels, no goofy flag on the back. Just pure girl-power, take-over-the-world, pedaled transportation. With the right tires I could storm the beach heads of a Milan fashion show on this baby. On a sunny weekend morning, a leisurely whip around the block could turn heads and stop traffic. No adult bike could do that.

Back to Henry.

“Go where?” I asked, not quite out of It’s the weekend! mode and into Stop and talk to people mode.

“Um…well…you know, just…like, go with me.” He paused, expectantly.

“Oh.” I think my face looked like one of those old pictures I saw in a movie once where you’d snap the shot and the camera would spit out a little square and slowly, slowly an image would appear. “Do we have to kiss?” I asked.

“Huh? No, I don’t think so…unless, I guess, if you want to.” Henry was ten, much too young for me. But I felt sorry for him because his parents named him Henry. But he was cute.

“I dunno. If I feel like it I’ll let you know.”

We stood there uncomfortably for a moment. Then, “So…is that a yes?”

“Ok.”

Henry smiled. It was the awkward smile of an innocent boy. Our relationship lasted three days. I saw him exactly three times, all of them at recess on the Monday after he had asked me out. It was hard to break his heart. I mean, he’s a nice guy and, as I mentioned, pretty cute, but I just could not live with the…um…charade. It was like I was robbing the cradle and it was awfully awkward. Would you want to be going with somebody that seemed like he was still a child to you? (My mom said she’s married to just such a person, but I don’t know if she was serious.) It’s weird, right?

I learned something, though. It was our third recess as a couple (after the morning break and lunch period). We had avoided each other for most of it, but now it was time to go to the door and line up to go inside. Henry caught me just as I getting off the swing. He tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“So…um…how was recess?”

“Good,” I replied.

“I guess it’s time to go in,” he said in that goofy way that really means I don’t know what to say.

“Yeah.”

We both paused. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I figured it was probably a kiss.

“Are you hoping for a smooch?”

“What?!” he nearly yelled.

“You’re hanging around thinking that you can kiss me because I’m your girlfriend but you’re too inexperienced to know how to go about it so you’re just standing there looking like you’ve had a brain cloud and displaying the conversational wittiness of a tree stump. Am I right?”

“You are…so, like…”

“‘Right.’ The word you are looking for is ‘right.’”

“Ok.”

“So do you want to kiss me?” I demanded.

“Um…ok.”

“All right, then. Give it your best shot.”

“Ok, I will.”

“Whenever you’re ready.” He leaned in a little. “Closer. A little closer.”

“You’re distracting me,” he complained.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. Try not to think about how this is the first time either of us is going to get kissed and how we’ll always remember the awkwardness and sweetness and fleeting innocence of it. Just pucker up and-”

He kissed me. Well, “kiss” is a bit optimistic. He sort of head-butted me. Don’t get me wrong; I liked it. But it wasn’t the most comfortable thing I’ve ever felt.

“You call that a kiss?” I said.

“Well, what do you call it?” he demanded.

“I say that was pretty weak. Let me show you how it’s done.”

Then I kissed him. Well, again, “kissed” may not be the right word. You see, even though I am not a kid anymore, that doesn’t mean that I know everything that grown-ups know, and that includes kissing.

So I slobbered. I’ve seen movies, and I thought I knew how it was done.

“That wasn’t right” he said.

I nodded. “Maybe we should break up,” I suggested. “You know they say that if the chemistry isn’t right, it’s just not right.”

“Ok.”

“Thanks for trying. And for the kisses.”

“Sure.” He paused. “Emma?”

“Yeah?”

“What’s chemitsry?”

And so I learned: Don’t go with boys that have small vocabularies and don’t know how to kiss. One or the other is fine, but both is a deal-breaker.

First Day

The first day of school always gives me the heebie-jeebies. My stomach gets all clenched up like when you jump off the top two-by-four ledge of one of those wooden fences that infest the yards of suburbia and you’re in mid-air, and you know that you’re gonna hit the ground harder than you want to, and you’re not totally sure whether you should land only in the grass or if you should do one foot in the grass and one foot in the ugly decorative garden thing next to the fence, and you still haven’t decided whether you’re gonna put your hands down or roll sideways or both, and you all of a sudden realize that maybe you should have contemplated all this before even climbing up the fence let alone jumping off it, and the fact that you just don’t know what’s coming and what you’re gonna do about it boggles your eyes and your brain and your tummy. Yeah, that’s what Day One of the school year feels like to me.

I remember the first day of third grade we had to do a little cut-and-paste project. Mrs. Crumpwaner had us snipping pear shapes out of white paper then smearing them with that awful Elmer’s stuff and slapping them onto a big construction paper tree on the classroom wall. We were supposed to write “pairs” on the pears, as a fun way to learn a little and get to know each other. Like, we could write shoes or mittens or even salt and pepper shakers, that kind of thing, on the pears and then we could glue each of our pears next to another kid’s pear. Pairs of pears of pairs. Get it?

Well, I didn’t. With my tummy in a snarl, I got confused because of the pears/pairs thing and wrote tacked/tact and there/their and hour/our on three pears and tried to glue them to the tree. The Elmer’s globbed all over my hands. I tried to wipe them off but ended up with my fingers stuck to my shirt. In the struggle, I ripped two of my pears.

An average-looking boy wearing khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt walked over to the paper tree and stood right next to me.

“That’s not a pair,” he said.

He startled me out of my paste-induced bewilderment. I looked around. “What’s not a pair?”

The boy pointed at one of my pears. He reminded me of a middle-aged dad pointing out a piece of schmutz on his child’s shirt. “Tacked and tact? Those are homophones but they’re not pairs. It’s not like you can buy a set of tacts. That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Homo-whats?” That sounded like a word I wasn’t supposed to say.

“Homophones. Words that sound the same but mean different things. We learned about them last year at Rural Patch.” I must have looked totally bumfuzzled because then he said, “It’s a private school I went to last year. It’s way better than this place.” His eyes did a slow tour of the room and his nose wrinkled like he had just walked past a dumpster.

I snuck a peak at his pears and blurted, “Well you wrote pants and shorts and glasses. Those aren’t pairs of things. They’re single things.”

“Uh, yeah they are.”

“Nuh-uh!” It was the best my scrambled eight-year-old mind could do.

“Then why do you say that you wear a ‘pair of pants’? Are you telling me that you’ve ever worn just one pant?” He even had middle-aged guy facial expressions. I swear, without changing a thing except height, he could pass for Jordan’s dad who was a manager at Best Buy.

“Because…” I stalled, “because…how about this: Have you ever separated the two parts of a ‘pair’ of pants, put one part in one drawer and another part in another drawer? No, you haven’t. And do you know why? It’s because pants can’t really be a pair. Whoever came up with the words ‘pair of pants’ was wrong.”

Mr. Junior Manager rubbed his eyes with his hand. “You’re right,” he said, “there and their is a cool pair. Never mind what I said about pants. You are definitely smarter than me and whoever the guy was that invented language.” He lingered on that last word, looking at me with the dumpster nose wrinkle. He quickly smacked his pears onto the wall, turned, and went back to his seat. I glanced at the name tag on his desk. It read Brent.

That was two years ago, and this time around everything felt different. It used to be that I got all clenched up because I was nervous about the strangeness of the new classroom and the weirdness of being around new kids. Plus, there are always those rumors from other kids about how strict your new teacher is going to be and how hard the new year will be. The rumors are always wrong but they work a number on me anyway.

This time, though, I wasn’t just a kid going into the unknown. I owned myself. As Zero Hour approached — that time when you know you’ve gotta leave for school within the next three minutes or you will for sure be late — I told Mom that I had decided that I wanted to walk to school on my first day and I was going to do it by myself. It was a grown-up kind of thing to do. I grabbed my backpack and skedaddled for the door.

As soon as my shoe hit the white-washed sidewalk in front of my house, I knew I had made the right call. My stomach unclenched a little and the strumming stride of feet on hard ground lulled my whole body into a more relaxed and focused and carefree state.

This is how confident women walk.

I lifted my head and looked straight forward.

And I am a confident woman.

I got to the end of my street and reached the corner of the playground field for the combined campus of Oakcrest Elementary and Oakcrest Junior High School. Surrounded by an awful chainlink fence and sprawling over several acres of sad grass and dirt patches, the whole educational complex resembled a low-security prison for exceptionally short people.

I swallowed hard at the sight of the front door to the school, still a few hundred yards away.

It’s ok. You’re grown up now. Sure, you still need to learn Algebra — whatever that is — and sure, you still look ten, but you know what no one else in your grade does. You know what it’s like to be awake!

Smiling at myself, I picked up the pace, my arms swinging with strength. The morning sun peeked over the neighborhood trees, and I started to sweat just a little. The groove of my pounding feet and the sashay of my lightly filled purple-and-black plaid backpack gave me a sense of elation and excitement. I knew I was going to have a great day. I knew I was going to have a great year. I knew that fifth grade would be a year of transformation, a year when I would dedicate myself to embracing the new me, a year of learning what it meant to have an adult mind. I would stretch and learn and grow, and most of all-

“Whatchya runnin’ for?”

“Holy cow, Eva! Don’t sneak up on people like that!” I felt like I had stepped on a rattlesnake.

“What do you mean? I walked right up to you, but you were mumbling to yourself and looking up at that tree. Maybe you should-…oh, wait, is that a new backpack? That plaid is cool! It’s just, like, Hey, look at me, you know?”

I stood there, staring blankly, waiting for my heart to find its home back inside my chest.

“Hello?” said Eva, looking into my eyes with a tinge of suspicion and worry. She was one of my closest friends, in the sense that she lived around the corner from me. We also liked each other a lot, but she wasn’t the kind of person who could hold a real conversation. “Are you ok?” she asked. “Because you look weird.”

“Um…thanks. No, I’m fine. I was just zoning out a bit. You know, first day of school jitters,” I said.

“Ohhhh, yeah. I get it. You were thinking about that new kid, Henry, right? I heard he’s cute. Do you think he is?”

“Eva, I haven’t even-“

“Hey, there’s Ryan,” she blurted. “Ryan!” she ran off, flitting to her next target of random brain firings.

A confident, awake woman, huh? More like a stumbling goober with flibbertigibbet friends.

The Grove

So I had grown up, I had ditched the prince and my little girl imaginations, and I had ditched all things childish. I had gotten a little used to ditching, and that worried me.

“Life is not disposable,” I said, out loud, to myself.

I was lying in the Grove a day after the Quickening and the sun was peeking through the leaves of the old oak whose shadows performed a shimmery yellowish dance on the green grass. (I had once heard the word “quickening” in a documentary about pregos my mom watched. It sounded neat, so I started using it to describe that moment on the tornado slide when everything changed.)

I came to the Grove when I had to think. It was a smallish group of oak trees that were old — like, Civil War old — and that made me think of Southern women who would say things like We’re fixin’ to have a pi-yic-nic with some friiiied chikin and co’ slaw. Except I didn’t live in the South.

“Life is a one-time deal,” I said to no one in particular. “It’s a one-time deal, with no do-overs. I should remember that,” I said wisely to the old oak.

Until that life-changer on the playground, I was pretty much your standard American girl. My parents acted like, you know, regular parents. They loved me and fed me and everything. Mom was a little too into her job. Papa was quirky in a mostly delightful way. My little brother, Pug — well, I call him Pug, but his real name is Patrick August — acted like most little brothers do except that he’s just a teensie bit cooler. I’d never tell him that of course because it’d ruin him.

I lived in a middle-sized middle-American town just outside of a biggish city where it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter and there was an Applebee’s. We had two water towers of the big swoopy light blue bulb-in-the-sky variety that made it look like the town just had a sudden but somewhat depressing idea.

I had always been a good kid. Misbehaving, talking back, throwing rocks at cars — these are things I just had never done.

Maybe it was because of how my parents raised me. Or maybe it was because I never thought about being bad. I don’t know, but I think it was mostly because I didn’t see a reason to do those things. I never saw the point.

Ever since the instant I grew up, though, I felt this new desire to do stuff my way. It’s like instead of being a good-kid robot, mindlessly doing what adults told me to do, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. If I belonged to me, then I was going act like it.

The first thing on my list was to find out more. Unfortunately, summer was coming to an end and so was my free time.

“No do-overs,” I repeated, one last time.

On the Tornado Slide

I don’t know how it happened. It was the second to last day of the summer. I was playing princess with my friend, Jordan, and she was Snow White and I was Sleeping Beauty and we were dancing and singing about the prince and how he would come and give us a kiss and how we would live happily ever after. We had done this since we were four, but we never got very tired of it…not for long, anyway. I mean, the other girls our age didn’t really play princess anymore, but we got a kick out of it because we sorta were making fun of ourselves even though we both secretly still wanted our lives to be as simple as they were back when we were really little.

We played in the town park on the metal and plastic playground that probably looked awesome for about two months after they installed it but in the years since has worn out to the point that it looks like it lost a fight with my dad’s belt sander. Jordan climbed the metal ladder of the tornado slide and I followed right after.

We sang and swayed back and forth like they do in the cartoons, reaching for that high note of Someday My Prince Will Come. Jordan and I flitted our eyes with nearly sincere happiness at the thought of the prince peeking around the hedge at any moment, running through the gritty playground sand with his arms spread out, smooching us right there on the top of the slide, and taking us up on his horse and riding off into the sunset.

And then it hit me. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to live with this guy with the puffy sleeves (I mean, really, puffy sleeves?) and the singing all the time and the smooching total strangers. And then I thought, But I always liked the prince before. Why not now?

I took a sharp breath at the thought I had right there and then.

“I’m not a kid anymore,” I said.

Jordan looked at me. “What?”

“I said, I’m not a kid anymore.”

“What?”

“I SAID I’M NOT A KID ANYMORE, SILLY!”

Jordan looked at me like I had just told her that the sky was green. “Stop yelling at me. I heard the thing about the kid. How are you not a kid anymore? Did you get boobs? Jenny Marcinko got boobs when she was ten. She thought she was swelling up from a bee sting. I don’t know if she thought she was stung twice or what. Which doesn’t make sense anyway, if you think about it, because then she would have felt the bee stinging her, but I heard that it does hurt, but my mom said you only get boobs when you’re old and even then they’re not always gonna stay around and sometimes they sag. What if you get all saggy? Wouldn’t that be weird?”

“What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?” Jordan replied.

“I don’t wanna live with the prince.”

“So?”

“So, I thought that if I don’t want to live with the prince then I must not really like it when a total stranger shows up and sings a goofy song and smooches me. Then I thought that I never thought that the song was goofy before, so why now? And then I thought that the prince might have been walking through the woods by himself for a reason. Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s lonely. Whatever it is, I don’t want my future riding on a silly crazy guy in the woods.”

In that moment, I grew up. I suddenly got it that I belong to me.