Truth and Such

Shoulder length is perfect. That way if they get wet, I’ve got extra long, gorgeous locks. Curls worn short just look weird to me. I’m sorry if you have short curly hair and love it. Your curls probably look good, but my brown hair (with flecks of auburn) absolutely must be at least shoulder length. I had just had a trim yesterday, and Cathy the hairdresser lady had gotten it exactly right.

I twirled my aqua blue dress just a smidge side to side. The mirror smiled back at me, pleased with the gathered waist, the just-over-the-shoulder sleeves, the scalloped hems, the whole shebang. I pulled one curl down in front of my face and let it bounce up, playfully. Perfect.

“You ready, Punk?” my dad asked, peeking his head into my room. He always called me Punk.

I gave the mirror a little curtsy, turned to Papa, and said, “Yes, indeedy. Let’s go!”

“All right, then, get yer tukhus in gear. She’s already here.”

It was a bright weekend morning at the beginning of October. I knew I’d be a little chilly in my Sunday best, but I really, really, liked the aqua blue number, which fits both the inside me and the outside me.

This is kinda off the topic again, but doesn’t it seem like you always see redheads and curly haired people wearing orange and brown? I don’t get it. They never look good in orange and brown. Red hair and curly hair always look good next to aqua blue. Anyone who says differently just hasn’t put in enough work to come to the right conclusion. Since I have curly hair with some auburn flecks, I look great in aqua blue. I’m not normally all that self-impressed, by the way. But I do not apologize for my confidence when I’m wearing this dress because if there’s anything right in the world it’s how I feel when I wear that piece of woven awesomeness. And that’s what it is: the Dress of Awesomeness.

My dad waved through the window toward the street as I bounded down the stairs from my room. He gallantly opened the front door for me, gave me a hug, and shooed me out.

“Bye, Papa!” He smiled that smile that he smiles, the one that says everything I’ll ever need to know about how Papa feels about me. “Bye, Mom!” I yelled in the general direction of the kitchen where I knew she was groping around all clumsy-like, eyes half-closed, for the various implements required to make what she called Mama’s Go-Juice.

“Mmmf,” I heard in return.

“See ya, Pug,” I said to my little brother. As usual, he gave me no response and continued staring blankly at an incomprehensible episode of Ninjago.

Stepping into the brisk autumn air, I relished the way the gentle breeze caught the hems of the Dress of Awesomeness, making them tickle my knee caps. I trotted to the waiting car.

I know it’s weird, but Sundays were my favorite day because it was church day and that meant I got to hang out with Meemaw. Mom and Papa didn’t go to church. One time I asked Papa why, and he said he and Mom were already on the Safeway savings plan.

“We save fifty cents every time we buy milk with our Club Card,” he had said. “Any more would just be greedy on our part, and we’re happy to let others get all the saving they want. Gotta make sure there’s enough to go around. But you go and have fun.” One of the downsides of being old-but-young is that I get that something’s fishy here, but I don’t quite know what it is. Anyway, they didn’t go to church, which was fine by me because it meant Meemaw and I got to groove together (her words), just the two of us.

“Hi,” I said as I scooted into the front passenger seat of her unremarkably gray 1999 Nissan Maxima. It smelled like butterscotch and newspaper.

“Hey there, whippersnapper!” she said, reaching across and giving me a seatbelt-restrained hug.

“Whippersnapper?”

“Yeah, whippersnapper. It’s what old people call young-uns. Which I am and you are, respectively. You got a problem with that?” She smirked in the most mischievous and gracious way. Raised in the South, she had insisted that Pug and I call her Meemaw — a name almost never heard outside of Texas — and she retained that ability Southerners have to combine absolute politeness with subtle insult. She had sass, and I loved that about her.

“Here’s the funnies,” she said, handing me the newspaper. “Still no Calvin and Hobbes.”

“Really?!” I said in my best fake outrage voice. “You mean the strip that’s been gone for decades still hasn’t come back to the, the — what do you call this thing? I mean, it’s like an iPad, but it’s lighter and you can fold it and throw it away…”

“Ha, ha. You know, you got a lotta lip for a wee whippersnapper. The funnies are funnier in the paper and that’s that. And even though Opus is back it doesn’t mean that all’s right in the Universe. Ever since Calvin left us, everything’s a little too on-kilter, if you catch my meaning.” I didn’t, but I smiled anyway because that’s just what you wanted to do around her.

She drove while I studiously delved into the Sunday comics. A quarter hour later, we pulled into the crumbly once-paved parking lot at the Evangelical Free Church of the Timothies. It used to be a Catholic church until they ran out of money due to the dealings of a priest who had a fancy for whiskey and no knack for keeping records. Turned out that they had to sell to the Eevy-Frees, and that gave church a wonderfully misfit feel.

“Hello, there, Miss Street,” said a smiling Pastor Bob. He always stood by the front door and greeted people by name. A nice, jovial man with a generic middle-aged guy look about him, Pastor Bob seemed perfectly suited to his job. He was entertaining but not offensive, amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny, and wise in a churchy way.

“Hi, Mr. Bob,” I replied, shaking his hand like I meant it.

“You call him Pastor Bob, young-un,” Meemaw gently scolded. “He’s got a title that deserves some respect.”

“Oh, ease up on her, Georgia,” said Pastor Bob, “all God’s children are equally loved and equally undeserving.”

“That may be true, but they ain’t equally educated or equally qualified to lead a flock. And this sheep needs to know what’s what.”

“Yes, may-um!” I said in my most exaggerated fake Southern accent, standing at attention and saluting. “My apologies Pastor Bob!” I nearly shouted.

Meemaw slapped me gently on the back of the head, holding back a laugh.

“Sheep, eh?” said Pastor Bob. “Seems to me we may have more a wolf.”

As we headed into the Koinonia Room, I soaked in the ambiance of the place — cheesy purple and white Jesus is Love banners; dusty, worn out pews with sketchy-looking green cushions; and old New King James Version Bibles with blue covers and crunchy thin pages. I liked this place. It reeked of prayer and hope and off-key-but-heartfelt singing.

I never put much truck in the whole Jesus thing, though. (Sorry, whenever I think of Meemaw, I get more Southern.) He’s God and he’s man, he lived and he died and he lives, he’s the Son of the Father but they’re the same guy — I mean, there’s only so much nonsense a girl can take before it’s clear someone’s pulling someone’s leg.

But what I loved about church was the way it made all the churchy folks act. People put on their Sunday best. Two-year-old boys wore ties and teenagers tried to look dignified. Old ladies went to the salon the day before to have their hair done just right (blue and fuzzbally). Men who would be cussing at the Bears in two hours’ time made best efforts to seem wise and humble and wealthy all at once.

And Meemaw…well, she was in her element. She knew half the smallish congregation by first name and the rest by sight. She worked the room like a greedy politician but with more panache.

We always sat in front, in the second row and just to the left. An average Sunday, it could take her a full 15 minutes to make it the 40 feet or so from shaking Pastor Bob’s hand at the door to get to her seat.

How are you, Ginger?! Meemaw would bellow at an old friend, giving her a quick hug. Sam’s treating you right, isn’t he? Well, he better be after buying himself that new fishin’ boat. Turning to see a twenty-something woman, Well, I’ll be! Miss Rachel Davenport, you sure have grown! See that the boys mind themselves, you here? Then spotting an old friend, And how is Rick doing on his chemo? You give him my best, dear, and know that I’m working up a doozy fine prayer every morning.

On this autumn Sunday, we made good time, going door to pew in just under 11 minutes. I know. I timed it.

Just as Meemaw and I settled in, the choir director, Mrs. Kernshaw, banged out her standard intro tune on the aging upright piano in the corner. As one, all heads in the room lifted and turned toward the stage, anticipating the number prepared by the house band, TimTim, led by the smirkiest scrawny guy you’ve ever seen and whose name I always forgot.

Onward, Christian soldiers!

The hymn rose up with the kind of wonkiness you hear from eight sleepy girls the morning after a slumber party when Mom announces that the pancakes are ready. There’s some willingness there, but coordination hasn’t kicked in.

Eventually, the congregation found some sense of common rhythm and a couple of similar notes, trudged through the song, and sat back down. An announcement or two followed, mainly concerning the availability of doughnuts. Then:

“Praise be to God, this morning!” Pastor Bob opened with one of his go-to lines. A few worshippers mumbled some audible but not quite understandable tones of agreement. Then his whole face changed from welcoming and calming to scrunched and troubled.

“Do we mean that, though?” he asked. “Is it true that we worship God, that we give Him praise? Because it’s truth that I’m after this morning, men and women.

“Truth. Ah, what a little word, a simple concept. Just tell me what’s what and I’ll say it like it is. Reality. No fuss, no muss. Veritas.

“And I have a truth to tell you this morning, free of charge. It means the world to me, and I want to share it.” He looked intently at the faces in the congregation. “I. Love. Jesus!”

The room erupted in a chorus of Amen! and Hallelujah! and Yes!

Pastor Bob lifted his arms, asking for quiet. “And Jesus said that He was the way, and the truth, and the life. The truth. Jesus was, Jesus is, the truth.

“Now, what does that mean, men and women, that He is the ‘truth’? Let’s look it up.” He moved behind his podium and flipped open his notes. “The dictionary defines truth as ‘that which is in accordance with fact or reality.’ And I know for a fact that Jesus was a man, was God, and lives. Jesus is REALITY!”

The church people sitting in the audience with me near lost their minds, going on with hoots and hollers and clapping.

Me, I sat there wondering what all the ruckus was about. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it, seeing all those dignified, fancied-up folks holding their hands up and losing all sense of themselves. There’s nothing nearly so fun as watching the effect of a good preaching.

But I couldn’t quite figure why they were all worked up. Even Meemaw had dropped that wily, mischiefy look she usually wears and smiled like a puppy at a squirrel convention.

Pastor Bob went on for while, talking about Jesus this and Holy Spirit that. My mind drifted in and out of the current of sermonizing, sometimes counting bald heads (23 today, if you included that swirly comb over), and sometimes actually hearing the words he was saying. At the end, though, I was caught by surprise.

“…and if you don’t believe that truth matters,” said pastor Bob, “then you don’t believe nuthin’!”

My brain glazed over as we gave our hugs and handshakes and made our way out of the hustle-bustle of post-church gabbiness and got into Meemaw’s boring Maxima to head out to Fuddrucker’s for lunch.

Sitting at one of the cluttery restaurant’s indoor picnic tables, I picked at my home fries and greaseburger.

“You okay, there, Whippersnapper?” Meemaw asked. “You’ve been looking all thinky ever since we left the Timothies. What gives?”

“Huh? Oh, I don’t know,” I said lamely.

“Spill.” Meemaw stared me down in that way she has that makes you want to say what’s on your mind, just so she won’t look at you that way anymore.

“Well, it’s what Pastor Bob said at the end today.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“He said something about believing nothing,” I said, not quite getting where I was going.

“Ok. And?”

“It’s just…it’s just…I don’t think I believe anything. You know, god-wise.”

“An error I’ve been meaning to correct,” said Meemaw.

“I know. But it just made me wonder…”

“Wonder what, kid?”

“…wonder whether the opposite is true. If you don’t believe anything, does truth matter?”

Meemaw sat still for so long I thought she might have been frozen into place. After what felt like forever, she said, “Well, I guess that all depends on your perspective.”

“Huh?”

“Finish your burger, kid,” she said in that tone that means we’re done talking.

I spent the afternoon doing normal Sunday things: finishing homework, watching TV, ignoring Pug.

As I lay in bed that night, though, the first hymn from earlier in the day came back to me. Twirling a lock of my hair, still damp from my shower, I hummed along as I recited the words in my head.

Marching as to war…

A war. Why would anyone have to fight for truth? Isn’t it just there? Reality is reality, right? When would you ever need to fight about it?

Ohhhhhh…

Now I get it. Sometimes reality ain’t.

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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.