Did I ever tell you about that girl from the old neighborhood?
It’s just this girl that I still think about sometimes, you know? The thing is, it’s been so long I don’t even know if she really ever existed. I mean, I don’t even remember what her name was. Maybe it’s like one of those dreams you get mixed up with a memory. But I know…I am just full of shit. It did happen. It wasn’t a dream; I just really want it to be.
I remember she had dark, brown hair and really fair skin–for a California girl anyway. Somehow we always seemed to end up at the park at the same time. We raced up and down the slides, tried to see who could swing the highest, or jump the farthest. Our favorite thing was climbing the pines that grew all around the edge of the park. But we had one in particular, the furthest tree on the left if you were looking directly east, that was ours. The trunk was wide and forgiving of young legs, and it had this branch that went over the backyard fence of an adjacent house. We used to caw like crows and make faces at the people who lived there but, to our eventual dismay, they never seemed to notice.
We spent hours up in those boughs. Day after day reaching as far as we could till there was nothing else within our tiny reach to grasp. God, she was good too. She kept up. Climbed just as high as I could, if not higher. Never complained or showed any fear, not once. Even the bugs didn’t scare her. I remember that much about her, she was brave. And she was lucky, so lucky, because no one in her life was telling her she shouldn’t be.
One day we are sitting up there in our pine and she just starts picking at the bark till it was flat and smooth, then she breaks off a small twig and starts carving into the tree. I look over at what she is doing, but she won’t let me see. She starts fidgeting, all bashful like she’s got some awful secret in her that just won’t stay down. Doing that “I-Know-Something-You-Don’t-Know” jig girls do when they think they know something you don’t know.
In between shy, nervous glances she gets coy, “It’s the name of a boy I like.”
“Who do you like?” I asked, trying to act indifferently.
In spite of her theatrical meekness, she very matter-of-factly says, “It’s you.”
I told you, she was brave.
“Oh…” I paused as looked at what she had done. There in the side of the tree was our names carved inside a misshapen heart. “You spelled my name wrong.”
That poor girl had probably been rehearsing this scene for days; inspired, no doubt, by a steady diet of Disney films. I can picture her, laying on her stomach with her feet up swinging side to side, writing my name incorrectly over and over on so many sheets of construction paper with small, broken crayons.
She quickly receded back to her embarrassment and her ears turned pink like two tiny tulips. I didn’t know what to feel or what to do. I just sat there on that branch while the crows laughed. Part of me had wanted her to say it was me, but there was something else there, something then that was much bigger than that desire that was nameless and unseen.
We didn’t speak again until it was time to go and we had climbed down from the tree. Down on the grass, she pushes down whatever blood had rushed to her face and all but skips towards me smiling, “So see you tomorrow?”
She stopped dead in her tracks. Her face went blank, expressionless save for a slight furrow in her brow contorting in childlike confusion as she raced to make sense of what just occurred. She was too young, too innocent to know what those words meant. She only knew they were ugly, ugly, words. But me, I knew them. I had heard those words spoken many times by grown people who were supposed to be in love.
Looking right at me, she finally resigned herself to the truth. Her small lips trembled, uncertain of which words to choose, “You can’t say that….th-those are ba–”
That unseen something bubbled to the surface. “Fuck. You.”
There was no venom in that tiny voice of mine. There was nothing in it at all. It was as if I was reading lines from a script that belonged to someone else. This was me, rehearsing the lead in a violent play I had seen dozens and dozens of times from the front row seat of a dirty car window, or peering out from a crack of an assumably closed door.
Her body seemed to be gripped by an intense and sudden cold. She tries to stop the tears from coming up, slightly choking as her failure overcomes her. She doesn’t know much, but she knows this hurts. This little creature who had just moments ago carved the name of her crush into a tree, now recoiling from him like he was the goddamn Boogeyman. And she curses that very same name. Her instincts take over, and she angrily wipes those disobedient tears from off her face. She exits stage right. The curtain falls. I get the part on the spot.
I was five years old.
The bark has healed over that crooked heart, but I still think about her sometimes. Especially on days like this, I think about her, and the rest of them too. All those brave girls who carved my name somewhere close.
I am sorry.