For six years, I woke up at 7:30 and violently smacked my alarm. The gray glove of morning would encompass my room, and I was always reluctant to crawl out of my cotton camaraderie. I would go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get dressed. I always skipped breakfast; I was never hungry, and getting a “healthy start to the day” would make no difference to my above-and-beyond academic record.
At 8:10, I would slip out the front door. First, I would pull the heavy wooden one shut, then let the storm door close behind me. It was a two-minute walk, or a five-minute walk, depending on how quickly or slowly I would pace myself, to the school. Teenagers, seniors, teachers—they would all zoom up the street, past my front door at 10, 15, 20 miles over the speed limit.
Woe to those who stole another’s parking space.
For five of those years, I walked to school with my best friend and neighbor, a girl whose outer appearance was quite the opposite of mine. Me: Brunette, lanky, grasshopper knees and crooked teeth. Her: Blonde, freckled, blessedly busty. I was the extrovert, she the recluse. We both read, wrote and played Rollercoaster Tycoon. My bedroom window was parallel to her computer room window, and at night—after we were confined to our own homes—we would open the screens and yell across her driveway at each other.
“My rating’s at 999 already!”
“Great! I don’t care! I’m charging people $10 to go to the bathroom.”
“You can’t do that. No one will use them.”
“Hey, if they’ve got the money, and they’ve got to go, they’ll crap in my bathroom.”
I loved fall for the fallen leaves and the smells in the air. She, perhaps, hated it for the same reason. Her allergies would always compound and confound, giving her sniffles and watery eyes. “I HATE being sick,” she would grumble as we stomped up my sidewalk and down the street.
Sometimes, to relieve her of the weight, I would carry her trombone home for her. She would burn me CDs. I would lend her books to read. She would let me use the Internet at her house.
I miss those days; the early mornings and the rising sun. We would squint or stare at the ground on our walks, the bright light casting long shadows behind us as we walked east. The only mornings we did not leave at 8:10 were the months of marching band. We would leave at 7:50 instead, parading past our street’s early risers.
Twenty minutes later, we would be blasted with sunshine on the practice field. Her trombone would glint and sparkle in the yellowish glow of morning while the flag I wielded would be damp from dew.
On Friday nights, all of us, all of my friends, would gather at the football field to play and practice and march. Unlike our practice field, the grass was fresh and lush. Those of us who donned flip-flops would kick them off and barefootedly heel-to-toe our way through the routine. The grass would be cool, and the setting sun would still blind us, again casting shadows. The yellow light would still be the same.
Yesterday, I decided to walk over to our football field. The grass had been painted and lined, ready for the first home football game. The blackness of the track divided the grass from the horizon, one flushed with terraces and ever-so-slightly yellow corn. The scoreboard, tested and tried, displayed one digit, which blinked and flashed like a buzzing neon light.
Like old times, I kicked off my flops. I strolled, camera-in-hand, to the middle. 50-yard-line. Hash mark. I stared at the grandstand, willing it to host my friends, neighbors, townspeople. Malagueña. Pirates of the Caribbean. Go To The Mirror Boy.
I couldn’t relive it. I couldn’t redo it. I didn’t want to be the remorseful, reminiscing alumna, and yet I stood there for several minutes, barefoot and wide-eyed, remembering the music, the crowd, the rush. My first movement was to the right. Eight steps to the right, to be exact.
And, yes, I made it to the hash mark on the 45.
The football field, for some reason, happens to be next to the elementary school, which has an open playground. The playground was the reason I had taken my walk in the first place; opening and sorting through all of my basement boxes had made me want to revisit another childhood place.
The playground hadn’t changed much, really. The equipment that had been brought in, brand new, when I was in fourth grade, was still there, as were the monkey bars. The swings were all in working order, and the asphalt play area was smooth and unscathed. I did notice that there were three new basketball hoops—nice ones with Plexiglas backboards and padded posts. One of the hoops was occupied by a girl, how old, I don’t know. She bounced, dribbled, shot. The echo of the ball was comforting, constant.
There was the uneven field in which my friends and I played football during the fall of sixth grade.
There was the large area in which my classmates and I would play soccer; the grass would be flattened, then yellowed, then disintegrated into dirt that would stir up with the wind and coat our eyes.
A classmate, a girl who is now both a wife and mother, was the first of our class to get contacts. She whined and cried and rubbed her eyes when the dust caught them and turned them gritty.
The monkey bars—off-limits to anyone below third-grade—were faded. The peeling paint was rough, but I still remembered when the entire class, boys and girls, would gather at the bars. The boys would attempt to cross the entire length without falling. Not difficult—save for us girls would pry at their fingers and tickle their sides.
I remembered playing tether-ball, and watching as the shortest girl in my class jokingly yell “BULLDOZE ME!” at a steamroller smoothing out a fresh layer of asphalt. I remember standing at the wall, a punishment inflicted upon me by teachers who thought it necessary to punish the entire class for whispering. I remember being yelled at by teachers for a variety of reasons—we were too far from the “designated playing area,” we weren’t playing in the “right piles of snow.”
Like we really cared. We just wanted to build snowmen and snow forts and ice castles and all sorts of things that hopefully-maybe-this-time-the-big-kids-won’t-ruin.
There was the maple tree in which another playmate insisted her grandmother lived.
“She’s a fairy. Well, she was a fairy. She died and now is reincarnated as a tree.” That tree.
I stood on those roots then, too. My toenails weren’t displayed a chipped red polish, however. Rather, they were bare and smooth, protected by lacy, yellow socks and tennis shoes.
It was melancholy, the playground. Peaceful, yes, but lonely. I sat on the swing and gently pumped myself up and down, thinking of how, hours before, I sat on my bed and moped. I had taken a shower, wrapping the pink towel around myself. Once in my room, I sat down on the edge of my bed. My elbows were on my knees, and my hands were holding my face.
I was sobbing.
It was an overwhelming heave of a cry; I choked, sputtered, sobbed. Hot tears poured down my cheeks, stinging my newly-exfoliated skin. No one wants me.
I was more than 50 applications in, with no leads or prospects or promises. Nobody wants me. I thought about how I was at home, just taking pictures, just editing, just reading. I felt lazy, unused. That all I had ever been good at was school. Friends and old professors alike had encouraged me to consider grad school, but cautioned me against making myself “unmarketable.” I had backed away from the grad school applications, instead pouring myself into dead-end entry-level positions. I’m just good at school. I can write a paper. I can give a presentation. I can take notes and think creatively.
I was heartbroken that, after eighteen years of schooling—after seven years of playground romps, six years of daily walks and five years of intense analysis and eager learning—that I was no longer part of the educational system.
Things change. Too quickly.
I had grown up. I was no longer the girl who played with Beanie Babies or Polly Pockets. I didn’t read Goosebumps, and I didn’t have a collection of Lisa Frank folders. My knowledge of igneous rocks had long since escaped me, and I could not remember why, for the life of me, I didn’t pass the “How to Write a Deposit Slip” competency test the first time.
When we’re children, we all want to be older. When we’re older, we all want to be children. Or, at the very least, as naïve and carefree as children. We all know that we want to be something we’re not because we’re not always equipped to handle change, especially if it comes with a hard realization.
I honestly don’t know where I will be the rest of this fall, or what my plans consist of. I know that, over the next few months, that the locusts will stop humming their nightly symphony.
I know that the grasses will yellow, the corn will stiffen. Foxtails and milkweed will age, brown and glow in the twilight.
The leaves will turn brown, fade, fall. Summer’s remnants will appear in the form of milkweed bugs and monarch caterpillars. They munch and crunch, plowing their way through stretches of the plant, draining it of juices.
It’s kind of harsh, really.
Harsh because, for eighteen years, fall has always been the beginning. And now, having no school year to begin, I don’t know.
I just don’t know.