Dark hair. Pretty. We got to know each other while swinging on the wood playground structure at Sunset Elementary School. It was first grade. We were six. I felt so foreign, socially. Everyone else had met each other in Kindergarten the year before. I had stayed home - and I would have been educated at home for the rest of my life, if I'd been given the choice. But I wasn't given the choice, so there I was...
I remember the shock and dismay the first - and only - time I wore a dress on Friday. Apparently Friday was not just Friday. It was Friday-flip-up-day. This I discovered after I ran from the playground in tears, pulling my skirt down tightly against my legs as the boys laughed.
I forget which day was kiss chase day. Whichever day of the week it was, I happened to be carrying my hand-me-down metal Star Wars lunch box. X-Wing fighter on the front.
Blue plastic Thermos inside. The thermos rattled and bumped as I left the cafeteria and ran outside for recess. I wasn't running to be chased, but I suppose those maintaining the days-of-the-week laws wouldn't have known that. I was caught - and kissed - by Rocky. Shocked, I bashed the side of his head with that Star Wars lunch box. It still has the dent.
So I learned to avoid the big field and would spend recess sitting on the swings, and there Nikki befriended me. She had three birthdays that year. None that anyone else seemed to be celebrating. On the first of the birthdays, my mother let me choose a gift from the box of miscellaneous toys stored in the top of her closet, saved for just such an occasion. I wrapped it carefully and made a card. On the next birthday, my mother didn't offer to let me choose a gift. So I wrapped one of my favorite Barbie dresses and presented that to Nikki. For her third birthday, that year, I didn't give her anything. Even though she described in great detail the party her mother was planning... ponies and cakes and 30 flavors of ice cream.
She was sitting in the swing beside me when Kent interrupted our conversation to tell me I was cute. I'd never been called cute by a boy before. I had never actually been cute. Ever. As far as I could tell. He blushed and stammered and pointed out to Nikki that he wasn't talking about her. She was ugly. And then he turned and walked away. It was oddly momentous then. More now. But now every memory I have of him seems a little more important.
Nikki didn't care. She liked Jeff. She said they were going together and they would grow up and get married and make babies. That seemed reasonable to me.
She filled me in on the rules of the playground and taught me the rhymes and taunts everyone else seemed to have known since birth.
I remember, during one instructional recess, she held out her hand and said that best friends hold hands during recess. So I took her hand. Immediately I wanted to pull away. Her hands were rough and ragged and calloused. Worse than my Dad's. Her cuticles were all jagged and rimmed the base of her nails with lines of brown dried blood. It didn't occur to me, then, to wonder why the hands of another six year old girl would be so different from my own. Now I wonder.
I wonder why, as the years went by, she moved from home to home, disappeared for a few years, returned, and then disappeared forever. I wonder why I never met her father and why her mother always seemed so... haggard. I wonder why she lied about the birthdays.