I walked out of school that day because it was sunny outside, and because the harsh fluorescent lights of my classrooms were making me grind my teeth like whetstones. I had asked Elise and Roy if they wanted to ditch, too, but Elise had a quiz in AP Econ that she couldn’t miss and Roy was trying to put effort into his schoolwork for once. It was in this, his fourth and final year of high school, that he finally realized that the classes and the homework and the quizzes added up to something, to an escape from his mother’s house in the suburbs of Albuquerque, and he now worked fervently to make up for the time that he’d lost.
Refused by my friends, I set out alone after a draining dose of first period Calculus. As I left the school, the straps of my backpack dug into my shoulders and the whole of the world unfolded in front of me like a cardboard diorama. I had noticed a strange phenomenon over the course of those first months of my senior year; everything had taken on a nostalgic glow, almost like an aura, that made even the most banal scenes look kind of romantic. Even the discarded joints left in the intersection in front of my school made my heart swell two sizes too large, so it felt like it might burst in my chest like an overfilled water balloon.
I waited for the light to change from red to green, then crossed the street. I took a long look back over my shoulder, feeling, inexplicably, that this was my last day on Earth and that I would never see that ugly, hulking orange building ever again. I thought of a story my grandmother told me once, about Lot’s wife and how she looked over her shoulder at the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned to a pillar of salt, and for a second I imagined I could feel my fingers and toes crystallizing into sodium.
I wandered aimlessly along suburban sidewalks until I found myself at the playground a few blocks from my house. When we were little, six or seven years old, Elise and I used to stack water balloons precariously in my little red wagon and drag them to that park to have water fights. We’d scream and splash each other on hot summer days until our sopping shirts stuck to our chests and our eyelashes stuck together in dark, wet clumps, and then we’d sit atop the monkey bars and plan how our lives would go. We would be chefs, we liked to say, and we would live together above a restaurant in Paris and we would only eat candy and mac n’ cheese and sourdough bread. We would sleep in hammocks instead of beds. We would fall in love a thousand and one times but we would never love anyone more than we loved each other. We would die on the same day, at 96 years old, and even though she was Catholic and I was Jewish, we would be allowed to live in the same section of heaven.
I think I knew, even then, that we were only kidding ourselves. I knew this in the same way I knew that the tooth fairy wasn’t real, and pretended not to know in the same way I pretended to believe that there was magic in the letters my mom left under my pillow in exchange for my baby teeth.
I climbed feet first into a baby swing, stood up straight, and let it rock me back and forth over wood chips. My body felt so solid, had been feeling solid for months in a way it never used to. I wondered if I was now one of those balanced people who let themselves believe only in what they could see. That thought made me feel like I sometimes felt when I looked at old pictures of myself eating ice cream with a plastic spoon and realized that I would never again have as much potential contained inside me as I did when I was four and five and six.
Elise and I would be graduating in May, and we knew that we’d be going our separate ways since we were not applying to any of the same colleges. I had been trying my best not to think about it. I did not want to imagine the person I would be without a best friend, the grown-up I would become without her to call me a baby when I was too scared to try something new or hold my hand under the table when she knew I was upset. I was scared to grow without her, but more than that, I was scared to grow. Elise and I had been the same little girls with the same silly stories and half-concocted schemes for as long as I could remember, and as I gripped the metal chains on the swing set we used to push each other on and off of, I did not want to be anything but a little girl and I did not want to believe in anything but silly stories.
I did not see the woman coming up behind me until she was already sitting in the cradle of the swing to my left. She smiled at me, and I saw the gaps in her teeth like little black holes and the crows feet at the corners of her eyes as curses. I glanced quickly away and squatted down on my swing. There was little crime in the precarious outskirt of Albuquerque that I grew up in, but what crime we had was almost always drug related, so I knew better than to spark a conversation. Sometimes I wondered if my five early years in snaggletoothed, acid-tripping San Francisco had worked some magic on my subconscious to make me more frightened of or more friendly with junkies. I knew it had be one of the two.
I wasn’t scared of this woman. She seemed harmless enough, though dirty-haired and a little aggressive in the way her body inclined towards me.
“Do you want to hear a story?” she asked. Her voice was cricket croaks and poison apples and frogs caught in jars, lovely, scratchy, skirting the edge of something dangerous. I did not answer.
“Do you want to hear a story?” she asked again, louder. She seemed earnest enough, her sparse, white eyebrows raised and her cheeks round and doughy.
I must have moved my head enough for her to take it as a nod, because she rested her forehead against one of the chains, closed her eyes, and began to speak:
“I was not ever beautiful, not even when I was young. I was a beak-nosed girl, see, a phantom of girl with a body soft as half-baked bread. There were moments though, when I was your age, when I felt like one of those girls doing the lindy hop in a black and white film, wet hair stuck to my cheeks as if by static electricity and arms spread wide to the world. I’m talking about chasing a bus in the rain, you know, and about fairy lights strung through trees. I’m talking about moments when I was completely alone and completely in love. You know what I’m talking about, right? About being in love?”
I shook my head despite myself, adult warnings of “stranger danger” dissolving in the off-kilter warmth of this woman.
“No,” I said, or whispered, or thought. “I have never been in love with anyone.”
She clucked her tongue.
“Even you must get dizzy for funny little images, like rose-colored curtains in an open window or city lights reflected on a black and shifting bay.”
“That’s love?” I asked. Even as I asked it, I felt myself leaning into her eventual answer, felt myself believing her even before she had spoken.
“Yes. That’s love.”
“Then I love half-smoked joints left in intersections!”
“Yes! You do! But I am not here to tell you what you love. I am here to tell you a story, and that story begins with an ugly girl with a calloused heart who sometimes felt pretty and sometimes swelled up with love despite herself. This girl lived in the middle of the sea. She let salt soak into her skin and she befriended the seagulls in the sky and the dolphins when they came up for air. This girl pretended that she was a fishing boat, hollow enough to be carried by the sea; she pretended and pretended until she believed that she was made of wood and nails, until she believed in her own emptiness, and when she believed, she was, and she survived. Do you understand?”
Her eyes remained closed for the entire monologue and her head stayed in its position against the swing’s chain. Her body moved back and forth like a pendulum, slowly, deliberately. The way she pushed off the ground with the tips of her toes made her look like a child.
“Am I the little girl?” I asked.
I wanted to be a character in a whimsical story, painted in oils and pastels, so I could see myself from the outside and understand my motivations, my intentions, my flaws, my habits. I wanted someone to tell me what had made me who I was. Was it my mom? My father and brother, reaching through absence to pull my puppet strings? Was it Elise?
The woman chuckled and opened her eyes.
“You are young. The world still sprouts from you, doesn’t it? You do not see yourself as a person like other people are people, so you believe that you are the only one who feels what you feel, who moves like you move. The answer is no, you are not the little girl. At least not alone. She is me and she is your mother and your best friend and the girl you pushed down the stairs when you were eleven and yes, she is you, too, but she is not only you.”
I was crying, now, like I hadn’t cried since before my brother left. My whole body collapsed in on itself in the act of crying. The woman watched me cry. She did not reach out to lay a hand on my shoulder or to pat my knee. I was grateful for this.
She was right, I knew, about everything. I saw that I could be friends with the gulls and the dolphins even as I made myself hollow, because I needed to do both to survive. I saw, too, that I had made the lines around myself too rigid; I needed to let my ink bleed and mix with the ink of the scenery, with Elise’s yellows and Roy’s blues and my mom’s bruised purples and greens.
I rocked myself in the swing, gently, as if I were my own mother trying to soothe myself to sleep. My face felt numb from crying, my eyes and lips swollen. I hiccuped and dried my eyes with the back of my jacket sleeve, and then I glanced back at the woman, who watched me intently. When she was sure I was looking at her, she swung down onto her feet and strode away from me, checking back over her shoulder once to make sure that I was following her. I stumbled out of the baby swing, my thoughts abstract and distant as cumulus clouds. I felt an itch of warning like a bungee cord trying to pull me back to Earth, but I shrugged it off and jogged to keep pace with her long strides; she moved quicker than I expected for a woman her age.
We walked fast together down winding Cherry Street, which was lined with the huge houses where the owners of McDonald's franchises and construction companies lived. I walked a step behind her. Questions webbed themselves in the back of my throat like mucus but I swallowed hard and kept on walking until my feet were no longer glued to the Earth but instead glided over it as if on skis. We turned onto Church, with its slightly smaller homes of lawyers and accountants, and she turned to look back at me and smiled as if to say, “you’re doing alright, little one.” I believed her.
I knew, by now, where we were going––a right turn off of Church onto Lake, down Lake until we hit Washington, a left on Washington and we would be back where I started, at the intersection in front of the high school. I wanted to call out to her, to tell her that I understood, that I had opened myself like a door and that my legs moved freely for the first time in my life, but I found myself unable to speak. Onto Lake we went, and then onto Washington, and then we were standing face to face in the long, dark shadow of the school. A bell went off somewhere inside, signaling sixth period.
“You have to go back,” she said.
“But I believe in everything, now. I believe like a child.”
“That’s good, Naomi, but you are still a human being in this world and your life still marches forward. Climb out of the saltwater and shake yourself dry. Go to class. Eat breakfast. Braid your own hair.”
Her use of my name, so tender, so familiar, struck me hard in the chest, nearly bowling me backwards.
“But the lights are too bright in there. They make everything ugly.”
“Sometimes, everything is going to be ugly. And then the lights will dim and douse the world in blue, and your life will be as beautiful and glamorous as neon distorted in rain.”
I grabbed her hand. It felt like papier-mâché.
“Please don’t leave me,” I begged. She smiled sadly and recoiled her hand.
“I am not just yours, little one. I belong to everyone, to the sea and the sky and this whole desert state.”
With that, she took a step back and began peeling off layers of her wrinkled skin. I watched as she shed clothes and hair and teeth and, finally, nose and eyes and mouth. I could not believe that I hadn’t noticed it earlier, how baggy her skin had fit her, like a dress a few sizes too large. Finally, she stood in front of me as a seagull, her feathers pure white and still smelling of salt. I wondered if she’d followed me all the way from the Pacific Ocean. I wondered if that was where she was going next.
I stood for a while on the sidewalk after she had flown away. It was almost Halloween, and a few of the school’s windows were decorated with paper cutouts of pumpkins and ghosts. Nimbus clouds gathered slowly in the sky, threatening rain.
I crossed the street and walked up the steps of the school. The whole episode was already receding in my brain to the place of half-remembered dreams and my body felt heavy and strange. I crossed the threshold of the front door and felt myself shrinking under the too-bright lights that illuminated the empty hallway. I closed my eyes, tucked hair behind my ears, and took a step forward.