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.

Confession

Shut up and listen.

No, wait! I’m sorry. That’s how grown-ups talk, though, right? Well, whatever. I’m sorry. That’s not how I meant it. Let me start over.

There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Well, I sort of have been meaning to tell you. It’s just that I wasn’t totally sure that I did, but then I thought I did, but then I kinda didn’t.

Ok. Here goes…I’m much older than I am!

I mean, well, that I’m, like, ten years old on the outside. I still have the same dark brown curls with flecks of auburn and my toddler-chubby wrists and everything.

But really — I mean if you really want to know — I think I’m maybe twenty-five on the inside.

A Word About Emma

I’ve been writing episodes in the story of Emma Street, a girl who’s all grown up on the inside but hasn’t caught up on the outside.

The story is patchy, incoherent, and emerging. I’m sharing these fragments because…well, I don’t really know why. But I am. So there you go.

Oh, and after I post something, I’m liable to go back and change it. Just FYI.

-LK