Shelley was your best friend in second and third grade and even part of fourth grade. But it's fifth grade now.
Had she forgotten those times we stayed up all night playing Super Mario Brothers, eating Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls? Remember? Don't you remember, Shelley? We took turns sliding down your massive staircase in a sleeping bag, a sled on a carpeted slope. There is no snow in Florida. But once you stood on your front lawn and watched your parents wrap sheets and lanterns around the orange tree to save it from the freeze. They saved it and tiny, minuscule specks came down from the sky, and you thought you'd seen snow. And it wasn't until years later, wandering the streets of London at midnight when heavy sheets of blinding white covered your coat, that you understood what it meant to really see snow. They lied to me. You will think this because how could anyone ever confuse one kind of snowfall for another?
It is a dream. It is a trap. You exist in a land of make-believe until you can really see the world through your own eyes. But you will have to wait a long time before those kaleidoscope glasses are discarded.
You are a puzzle piece, the one lost in the bottom of the bin, searching for your place. And because of this, the moments of happiness are so vivid, so sparkling with metallic light, that you always remember them.
In the middle of fourth grade, you win a young author award and meet Clifford. There is a picture in an album of you hugging a Big Red Dog. You return to class and feel liked. You feel loved. You and Shelley perform gymnastics as part of a school show. You have another best friend now. Cora. Cora lives in your neighborhood, and you sell cookies and lemonade together. She has an older sister who does your makeup and curls your hair. You and Cora go to the circus together, and you will never forget the way the women swing on the trapeze in their silver sequins or the flying girls on the seesaws who flip through the air. Cora takes you roller-skating, and Jason asks you to slow-skate while you wear a pink-and-gold bow in your hair. The song is "One More Try" by Timmy T, and every time you think of the way a boy can hold your hand, you'll hear this song.
Meet me at the gate, Shelley would call every day at the bike racks, past the Patrols who wore orange sashes and silver badges. Bonnie is a Patrol. She has straight bangs and a perfect perm. Your hair is still wavy then -- long and blonde like honey and sand. Bonnie yells at you for "scooting" when you coast down the hill toward the crosswalk with one foot on the pedal. Get off the pedal, Sabrina Snyder. But you ignored the warnings. You did not see the signs. Because you were nine and on your own, and in the two miles home with Shelley, you were free to soar through the warm air before it all came crashing down.
One day Shelley stops meeting you at the gate, and they move from their big house to a bigger house. And Cora goes to live with her dad in Georgia because something has happened, but you're too young to understand. She's just gone one day. Now you ride your bike home alone, past Cora's old house on the corner that now sits empty. You drink cold orange juice in your cold house while the air-conditioning turns your lips and fingernails blue. The phone and doorbell stop ringing. You curl up on one very soft pillow under a gold lamp and read The Babysitters Club, dreaming of Claudia Kishi's lavender overalls, always dreaming.
But now Shelley only wants to hang out with Bonnie. They wear a best friend necklace, a heart split down the middle. They don't want you to be part of the group, except the one time Bonnie asks you to sleep over at her house. It's so fun because her dad gets donuts for breakfast. You've never had donuts for breakfast. But she never invites you back and you never know why.
There is a memory of hot, yellow spring sun on your face and neck, and you ride the E.T. ride, phoning home, an alien finding a place in a world that doesn't want you. You buy a hat covered in pendants, and you remember the bright-pink, plastic lips on the brim. Lips like the phones they sell at Spencer's that your parents won't buy you. Instead you steal a ring that's silver and heavy and cold in the palm of your hand. A cross that you keep hidden away because your father is angry, because you can't wear jewelry for a God you don't believe in. It doesn't mean anything, you think, but everything always means something.
You still like yourself, though -- you are the only one who can do ten pull-ups on the pull-up bar. Not even the boys can do it. You run across the field, the air thick like soup, and your hair sticks to the back of your neck, slick and knotted. You win all the races, you win all the awards, you win the part in the play, and for a moment you think this is how life will be, you will just go on winning. And this is what you think until you stop winning and you start losing, and these years are like a faded photograph in a box, somewhere in a house you don't live in anymore.
No one has told you yet. No one has mentioned that your arms are too hairy or your nose is too big or your teeth aren't white enough. You're too ugly. You're too fat. You're too loud. You're not loud enough. You're too quiet. You're too weird. You're too boring. Your eyebrows are too bushy. Your boobs are too small. You're too much and not enough all at the same time. You're a woman.
You haven't ripped out your follicles with hot, sticky wax, dyed your hair and teeth with chemicals. Change, change, change, the voices chant. No one has told you to go now, go look in the mirror and find every single flaw and mistake and fix it. Just please fix it already.
You don't think everything is your fault yet. You don't realize every move you make will eventually be studied under a microscope, and your mistakes will be scrutinized or smeared across a billboard for the world to see while all you see is toxic paint running down the movie screen that is your life.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Cynthia Singerman. All rights reserved.