The Escape

© 2001

       I remember when Brittany called me and cancelled our movie plans. The relief I felt, even though I knew it was a bit inappropriate and definitely not something I would voice to her. I hadn’t wanted to go and see that movie with her, even though I was pleased that she’d been the one to invite me out this time. I wanted to spend time with her, and I even would have liked to go out and see a movie with her. Just not that movie. It couldn’t be that one. I was terrified, and had no one to talk to because it shouldn’t have terrified me. I would be told I was silly if I voiced these thoughts to anyone. Going to a movie that wasn’t a cartoon—a grown-up movie—was more than I could bear. And still I had said yes, I would go, because I liked Brittany, and she was always one of the “cool” ones and I felt honored that she wanted to hang out with me. Because I liked Brittany, I’d said yes, and immediately felt horrified at the prospect of going out with a friend to see a grown-up movie. So. It was wonderful that she’d cancelled. I didn’t have to grow up yet.

       I was tuning out the noises of the bowling games all around me, the crashing pins and the creaking machinery and the blipping video games and the shouting and cheering and encouraging and laughing. I was tuning them out and remembering the time Brittany and I hadn’t gone to the movies, how that had been an escape. Would there ever be a time I couldn’t escape? Would I have to grow up sometime? I was here with Brittany, and some of our friends that I knew less well, and we were doing something relatively grown-up, but still, comfortingly, most of us were acting like kids. Fifth-graders, though the boys sometimes acted much younger. Like now, as they tried to spit on each other. I opened my eyes.

       Brittany sat primly in her pink skirt, awaiting her turn and rolling her eyes at Mark and Tyler. Susan was at the lane, preparing to swing her ball. She used to be Susie. Now it was definitely Susan. Her hair in barrettes instead of the pigtails she’d sported in fourth grade. She still had shiny shoelaces and plastic rings like kids always did, but still . . . those barrettes, and those mature gold hoop earrings in her ears . . . it creeped me out. Susie. Susan.

       And Jerome too, the boy who stole cheese from me when I was in kindergarten and made me cry, and later stole a playground ball from me and also made me cry. He was really tall now, and I’d come to the conclusion that he was the one I was supposed to “like.” Because Brittany liked Tyler and Susie—Susan—definitely liked Mark. Jerome was suggested by the other girls as my partner in all our girly MASH games, accompanied with a giggle. I would pretend that was more than okay with me, but I didn’t really know why he was supposed to be the one I “liked.” There he was. Somehow I could never look at him without remembering his then-pudgy cheeks creased with a grin as he pushed my cheese between his lips and ran away as if he knew he’d done something wrong but was only running because he knew he’d get punished if I told. I’d never told. But I cried.

       A girlish stamp of a foot accompanied a sarcastic clapping over Susan’s gutterball. She pouted and marched back to her seat, leaving Tyler open for his shot. I daydreamed again.

       Only a couple weeks before the end of school, all us fifth-graders were divided up as to which middle school we’d end up at, according to the school districts and whatnot. I was given a slip saying I was to attend Gregory Middle next year, one of the two main schools. Most other kids would end up at Hawthorne, and there were a couple going to Inglewood or Savannah. But even though I was in the Gregory district, I wasn’t going to be going there. I would be moving during summer vacation, and I would start fresh in a totally new state, where no one knew me. So I asked my teacher what I should do, since I wasn’t going to be going to any of the schools and therefore didn’t need any orientation or welcome assembly. She said I should go to the Gregory assembly anyway.

       But I skipped. I took my ticket, filed out with the rest of the class, walked cooperatively into the auditorium, and squeezed back out, unnoticed. I wandered around the nearly empty school with determination, and wasn’t stopped by anyone because I looked like I knew where I was supposed to be. But I was lost. I didn’t belong anywhere, because next year was an unknown, a void. I ended up just wandering out of the school and prematurely walking home, since I only lived two houses away it wasn’t a big deal, but I found out later they’d been worried when I wasn’t back at the classroom for dismissal. I don’t remember crying but there were tears on my cheeks when I walked in the door.

       My turn. My ball was heavy for me, but it was the lightest thing they had there. I’d always been smaller than everyone else, so they didn’t think it was particularly wussy of me to bowl with a six-pound ball even though the other girls were using eights and the boys seemed to be having a contest as to who could wield the heaviest ball. I rolled the ball at the pins without really thinking about it. Most of them went down. I waited for my ball to return for my second shot. If I missed the remaining pins, maybe I would put on a show of being cool and yell “aww, shit!”

       I remembered the first time Brittany said a curse word in front of me. Curse words didn’t bother me; my mom said them all the time, and my sisters and I used to make up dirty songs to popular tunes and make believe our teachers were singing them on Sesame Street. But the way Brittany said it, she said it like my mom, or like her mom; so naturally, “Aww, shit,” like she didn’t even notice it was a bad word. I think I looked shocked when she said it because she asked if I was okay. Then I made it a point to say a curse word around her a couple days later to prove it didn’t shock me, and to see what she’d think. She didn’t do anything but I felt really uncomfortable. Like I just cussed out a kid, even though she was the same age as me. It just felt wrong. But among some of us older kids, curse words were kind of becoming more popular, more widely heard. It made my stomach hurt.

       I rolled my second ball at the pins, not really aiming well but hoping I scored. This would be a spare if I hit them. And if I didn’t, maybe I would yell “Aww, shit!” I wouldn’t decide until after I saw the outcome. I didn’t really want to yell it. But I wanted to do what was cool to do, sort of. I wanted their approval. I kind of wanted to yell “Aww, shit!” But they all went down.

       I gave my friends a grin like I wasn’t off in another world and tried to look excited. They all clapped and cheered and yelled “Woo, go Kelly!” I was happy I’d hit the pins. But I hadn’t really been trying. That was kind of how things had always gone for most of my life, I just kind of “aimed” and if I hit it was good and if I didn’t hit it was just a mistake worthy of “Aww, shit!” and it was all kind of a game. And anyway most of the time I did hit the pins, and it all came naturally. I sat down and Jerome took the stage.

       I remembered the first time I couldn’t do a worksheet in school. We weren’t allowed to work on the class assignment until we’d done the example problems right, which involved doing them, raising our hands, and getting a check mark from the teacher or the aide. I remember the one time I raised my hand and the aide shook her head, and told me to try again. Just like the dumb kids, just give it another whirl, with no direction and no clue as to where I’d gone wrong. I’d thought I understood it. I tried again. This time a shaken head from the teacher. Erase. Think. Experiment. No. And I realized for the first time that it wasn’t fair. And thought for the first time that I was sorry I’d ever called them “the dumb kids,” now that other smart kids were probably thinking I was stupid since I hadn’t picked this up on the first shot. I never did quite understand the concept presented that day, but I ended up coming to the right answer and getting a check mark. Sometimes passing involved fooling the adults. I didn’t like that. I wanted it to keep coming easy. But it might happen again, even though I was always a smart kid in every lesson after that. With one misunderstanding I could end up in the “dumb kid” pile again. In fifth grade, once. In sixth grade, maybe twice or more. And more and more, through the rest of life, until I became a real dumb kid. What if everyone eventually became a dumb kid? What if that was what growing up was?

       Jerome finished his turn and Brittany got up to go. I watched her from the back. Her ponytail was encircled by a pink scrunchy that matched her skirt. I remembered that I’d given her plastic star ponytail holders a long time ago for a birthday present, and that she hadn’t worn one in a long time. I wondered whatever happened to things when kids outgrew them. Where were my baby clothes, and my toddler clothes? What had happened to them? I just hadn’t noticed. What kinds of things had I treasured that I just didn’t even have anymore? Where were Brittany’s star ponytail holders? Maybe she’d outgrown them, like a phase. Where in the world were phases kept when they were outgrown? Where were those kids we used to be?

       Brittany was upset by her score and came to grab my arm.

       “C’mon, I gotta go,” she said, dragging me along.

       “Go where?”

       “Bathroom. Let’s go.”

       I followed her in silence.

       In front of the mirror Brittany straightened her hair and then started scrutinizing her sweater.

       “It’s not too obvious, is it?” she asked.

       “Is what obvious?”

       She pushed out her chest.

       “Um, what?” I asked.

       “I got tissues in my bra,” she whispered, like it was a national security secret. “I don’t wanna look like I’m stuffing, but ya know, I want the bra to have something in it after all. So, it doesn’t look too obvious, does it?”

       “You hardly notice it,” I said, but I was reeling. Brittany stuffed her bra? Brittany wore a bra? Why? To put tissues in? We had the rest of our lives to wear bras, didn’t we? Why did we have to start now? I thought maybe I was going to throw up, but I patted my pigtails and straightened my overall straps so I could look concerned about my appearance too. Neither of us used the toilets.

       Back at the alley, we sat in our circle of six again and took turns bowling, cheering each other on and making stupid comments, and those of us who were supposed to “like” each other exchanged awkward smiles when the others pretended not to be looking.

       We got nachos. We played video games and returned our bowling shoes after trying to wear each other’s with minimal success. We attempted to get free quarters from the quarter stacking machine until the manager kicked us out for messing with it. But that was all right; our moms were coming anyway, pretty soon.

       “We’re gonna miss you when you move, Kelly,” said Susie—Susan—in an almost-too-friendly way, with her arm around me as we sat on the curb. “You’ll give us your address as soon as you know it, right?”

       “’Course,” I said, not sure if it was true but ready to say so to the ends of the earth. “And I’ll write you guys and once a month maybe we can call.”

       “You’ll have to tell us about all the movie stars out in California,” Brittany added. “Maybe you’ll even get discovered and be in movies.”

       “Or at least get to be an extra,” said Jerome helpfully.

       “Yeah. Yeah, it all sounds cool,” I said. “Too bad you all can’t come with me.”

       This sparked a discussion of pretend plans to hide in my luggage and hitch to California to visit me and whatnot, and I listened like I really wished they would do some of those crazy things. But what I wanted more than anything was for us to move now, today, not next week but this minute, so I could get away from these people who were becoming grown-ups before my own familiar eyes.

       In California there would be sixth-graders, like Brittany and Susan and Jerome and Mark and Tyler were going to be soon. Like I would be soon. But they wouldn’t be these people, these childhood friends. I couldn’t watch them turn into adults right there in front of me, it was worse than losing them forever. I wanted to remember them as the kids I’d grown up with. Brittany with her Barbie sleeping bag at my house eating Fritos. Susie losing her marbles and then us making fun of her for saying she’d lost her marbles. Jerome burying his feet in the sand and then covering his sneakers to make them look like dinosaur feet. Tyler and his pin-popped soda cans all shaken up, with the tabs saved for meaningless tokens later. Mark beating up three boys for saying his candy necklace was “sissy.” These were all parts of them, things kids did, things they would probably forget, outgrow, and pack away like Brittany’s star ponytail holders I’d given her for her birthday. I didn’t want to watch them slowly lose all my birthday presents. But they were all doing it no matter what I did. So I wanted them to go away. Forever.

       I didn’t want to watch Brittany graduate from a tissue-lined training bra. I didn’t want to hear Jerome answer the phone in a deep voice. I didn’t want Tyler to give up his action figure collection. I didn’t want Mark to stop ordering from the children’s menu. I didn’t want Susie to be Susan. I didn’t want any of us to go to Gregory or Hawthorne. I just wanted to stay here in a frozen time-bubble, but since that wasn’t possible and I knew it, I was more than happy to just pretend it wasn’t happening and pack them away in my mind, just so I could remember them before they changed into something else.

       “We gotta get together again before your family moves, Kelly.”

       “Yeah,” I said. “One more time.”