It is November of ’97. It’s an early release day, in preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday. I am in fourth grade.
I am standing in the concrete traffic circle in front of the gym at in suburban Massachusetts, watching a long line of luxury cars and SUV’s conga line through the little man-made-child-irrigation port the school has so kindly created for this exact purpose. My eyes are scanning past champagne colored Lexus sedans, and sea-foam green Land Rovers in search of the gunmetal Accura TL that my mother drives.
The first and second graders have almost completely vanished from the lot, their construction paper turkeys and pilgrim hats waving in the bitter cold breeze that could very well bring us a Turkey Day dusting of snow. I watch closely as one after another they pile into their nanny’s or mother’s car, their chime-like voices relaying the exciting events of their classroom celebration vaporize out of the fall air as each car door seals them into automotive cabin silence.
Ten minutes pass. To those still waiting for their parents, it seems like days.
My closest friend at school, Melissa, stands next to me. Her glasses slide down her nose and her knobby knees knock together in their flower patterned stockings as we trade plotlines from the science-fiction novels we’re reading at home.
Just as I’m explaining the climax of The Keeper of the Isis Light , Melissa’s mom pulls into the empty traffic circle and opens the automatic mini-van door.
Now I’m alone. I stand for a few moments in my school-regulation jumper, stockings, and patent leather Mary Janes. The toggles on my wool coat look like bear teeth–or at least that’s what I imagine them to be as I toy with pushing each one through its corresponding leather loop and back again. I lose myself a few minutes in this quiet adjustment until I realize that all of the teachers have left the lot.
On the far end of the lot is a small cement wall, about five or so feet high, which makes it not so small to those who average a height of about 4′-4’8″. Students are usually forbidden from sitting on or hanging out on “the Wall” during pick-up, but now that the teachers have come, waited their mandatory 30 minutes , and gone, a group of about seven or eight sixth-grade boys have gravitated to the Wall, not only to sit on it but to jump from wall to pavement in an ultimate test of bravery.
I watch a few minutes, secretly thrilled by these boys, jackets off, ties thrown carelessly by their backpacks on the ground, flying through the air for a few seconds before they land gracefully (or at least without injury) onto the pavement. I stare with my hands balled up just under the stitching of my coat sleeves, my long hair fluttering into the corners of my mouth and eyelashes for what feels like days in slow motion.
Then he jumps.
Ryan Clarke unbuttons his pale yellow oxford , balls it up, and shoots it like a three pointer over the edge before him. He stands at the precipice and spreads his arms out wide like an albatross in flight. He looks up to the cloud-covered sky, then down.
He looks right at me. I can’t look away, even though I’m embarrassed. I have to watch him jump.
So I do.
He is beautiful. He is fearless. All of the other boys had some sort of fear, no matter how much bravado they put on. You could see it. Josh, with his pretty blond hair and straight teeth, closed his eyes just before he jumped. Cullen closed his hands into fists before his flight. Dan had to get a running start so he couldn’t stop at the edge. Ryan just jumped–as if he might fly away–with his green eyes wide open.
As soon as he landed on the pavement I looked away. I heard the boys laughing-and the inevitable chorus of “Ooooh’s….”
Steve made no effort to keep his voice low as he barked audibly against the now howling gale : “Looks like that lower-schooler has a crush on you, man!”
The school was divided first through fifth grades into the “Lower School” and sixth through ninth into the “Upper School”. There wasn’t a huge age discrepancy, but it was very much a status divide within this bizarre world of elementary private education. I was a “lower-schooler,” a baby, invisible most of the time.
I turned around and looked at the big clock face embedded into the side of the school’s main building. It was quarter to one. Forty-five minutes had elapsed and my mother was still not here. And now, I was panicking: the sense of urgency surrounding my mother’s arrival began to build.
My hands move instinctively to my pockets. I scrape the bottom edges, searching for lint, a stray thread, a penny– anything to distract my nerves.
I hear the sound of dress-shoes on pavement. I know that they’re walking straight for me, but I can’t go anywhere.
Before I know it–four of them are standing around me. Steve, Cullen, Josh, Kevin — they’ve got me surrounded. Ryan and the others are still gathering their things , but these four, they’re standing around me, looking down into the part of my hair when Steve says.
“So you’re a 4R right?” Kevin asks, confirming which fourth grade section I’m in.
I say nothing, just nod and try to focus hard on the lint balls on my stockings by the edge of my shoe straps.
“You have a big crush on Clarke, don’t you?” Steve taunts, reaching forward to grab a strand of my hair and flip it in the air.
Part of me wants to cry because I’m scared, but the other part of me knows that they aren’t really going to do anything and I am exhilarated by this much attention from anyone.
“How old are you anyway. Have you even ever kissed anyone?” Cullen asks.
I feel my cheeks get hot. I’ve been hit by a few kiss-and-runs by boys on the playground, but never the “real thing”. I’m mortified, petrified, and still silent.
“Of course she hasn’t. She’s, like, eight,” Josh scoffs.
“She’s got to be at least 10 or 11.” Steve slaps him upside the head playfully.
I keep great eye contact with my scuffed shoes.
Kevin reaches forward and pulls on one of my toggles. I instinctively look up at him.
“Nice buttons,” he laughs. “Did you steal them from Sasquatch?”
They all laugh. Steve tosses another piece of my hair. They all laugh harder.
I cross my arms over my chest. I contemplate the likelihood of my being able to pull off the same move with my backpack that I saw in that Jackie Chan movie with my dad last week. I imagine for a split second that I might remove my backpack and swing it around my head with a triumphant whoop and knock each one of their butts onto the blacktop.
I decide I’m not far along enough in my training to execute this maneuver. I just stand there frozen instead, hoping that playing dead will save me.
And then something unexpected happens.
“Leave her alone, you, guys,” Ryan calls from just outside the circle.
The four boys stop laughing and step because, as if moved by some unseen force.
I don’t look up. I’m trying my absolute hardest not to cry.
Ryan walks past us, toward a group of benches. The group of boys falls silent and slowly follow after him.
Another 20 minutes pass. Every 10 minutes I muster up the courage to look up at the bench, the number of boys waning until only Ryan is left.
It is now 1:05 PM. My mother was supposed to be here at noon. I do not own a cellphone, there is no pay phone on the school grounds. Everyone has gone home for vacation except Ryan Clarke and myself.
Ryan gets up off the bench. I am shivering and my legs are sore. I have been standing in the same place for the better part of an hour paralyzed with fear and wonder.
Ryan doesn’t say anything at first. He just stops in front of me, a good head and a half taller, and reaches one hand into the bottom cuff of my jacket sleeve. His hand is the warmest, softest thing I have ever touched at this point in my life.
He pulls me like a tug boat, steadily and quietly to the bench. I sit down, my backpack flush with the bench back, my legs dangling off the edge of the seat, not quite reaching the ground.
“I’m really short for my grade,” I explain, as if to excuse my short legs dangling in the November air.
“So you do talk.”
I blush and can’t think of anything else to say.
“I knew you sang,” he nods. He hums a few bars of a song from Sleeping Beauty, which I sang in the art room closet while getting tempra paints for the art teacher.
I’m as still as a statue as he speaks. I feel like steam should be drifting off my ears they feel so hot.
“You have nice freckles,” he continues, his buzzed brown-blond hair catching the light.
“Thank you” is all I can manage.
He still hasn’t let go of my hand and now sweat begins to pool between our palms. I’m scared he’s going to let go but he doesn’t, so I begin to get scared that he won’t let go… or something…
And then I hear the sound of tires on sand and pebbles. Someone is turning into the lot.
“That’s my mom,” Ryan smiles. He squeezes my hand one last time and hops off the bench.
“Bye, Evey,” he calls before he starts running for the Porsche pulling around the bend.
I watch him close the door behind him. We keep eye contact through the window as he pulls away.
I relax once he’s gone. I slide off of the bench with a deflating hiss.
I bring my hand to my nose and smell it. It smells like clay slip and pen ink and barbeque chips.
It’s one-thirty and I don’t even care where my mother is anymore. I’m just so thankful that today she was late.