In the summers of our little years, we had endless play dates while our mothers drank mimosas on the patio. Sometimes all the neighborhood kids from our mothers’ office would gather together. We would storm the backyards for afternoons of loud, Kool-Aid fueled fun. Sometimes it was just you and me, K.K. and Lindy, best friends forever.
I liked those days the most. We didn’t have to run in circles or fight the boys for a vantage point at the top of the play set. Together we climbed the branches of the leaning oak tree in your back yard, which provided a far better view, and we crawled under the shed, a place far more earthen and mysterious than the slide that the others preferred. We ranged through the creek bed behind your house, where we once dug a hole half way to China. We took frequent breaks in our hole-digging to lie on the piles of dirt we created. I delighted in the way your hair was the same color as the freshly turned dirt; I thought it made you look like a wood spirit. You called me a sap for saying that, and you made fun of the way my hair looked when it got leaves and twigs stuck in it. When digging to China didn’t work out, we took your Beanie Babies to the hole and staged an elaborate Old West rescue mission. My favorite game was when we traveled back in time to feed the dinosaurs ground beef and look for the Loch Ness Monster. I knew we would find him one day if we just worked hard enough. Your house was my favorite of any in the neighborhood. The end of your street dipped down into the piney woods nestling our town. Inside the dark green walls, you had a whole room full of toys.
We did not notice at first that we were aging out of our games. The restlessness of early adolescence settled over us one summer like an itchy blanket. The Beanie Babies became lifeless, fuzzy sacks. It wasn’t that we realized we couldn’t time travel or dig all the way to China; we just didn’t want to try anymore.
It was the last weekend of summer in September, fourth grade. We had a Saturday play date, just us, though by then we had stopped calling them play dates. We were older now; we were hanging out. Sunlight poured down onto our neighborhood, catching on the atmosphere and turning the air golden. Around three in the afternoon, a train of puffy white clouds began to roll in. We’d been digging through your sandbox, uncovering all relics of our old games of pirates—a whittle stick turned sword, your mother’s red scarf. You giggled at me and reminded me of the time that you made me walk the plank five times in a row for failing to keep your little brother from invading our ship. I blushed and looked out at the pine trees, too shy to remind you that I hadn’t walked the plank, but you had pushed me off the playset in anger. Above our heads, the clouds advanced like an enemy fleet. Though we’d battened down our hatches for the brewing tempest and sworn to drown with our ship if we had to, our mothers made us come inside at the first rumble of thunder. We grumbled the whole way in. My mother smoothed down my hair as I walked past her through the sliding glass door. Her eyes smiled at me, though she continued talking to your mom about how to request a raise at their office.
We trudged upstairs, but our grief at the weather was soon forgotten in the airy playroom at the top of the stairs. You had tubs full of Barbies and Polly Pockets and a wallpapered dollhouse with Lego furniture. We made straight for the dollhouse, but after ten minutes, the dolls were dull. You flung your favorite Barbie across the room where it landed with a thump that made me fidgety.
“This is boring,” you moaned as you threw yourself onto the floor. Your bangs fell into your eyes, and you blew them away with a huff.
“We could do something else?”
“I could teach you something from my gymnastics class.” I bounced to my feet, eager to show you the round off I’d been practicing every night.
“I quit gymnastics, Lindy.” You wrinkled your nose, and my arms dropped down to my sides. “Gymnastics is stupid.”
“You could teach me something from soccer?”
“It’s raining. We can’t play soccer insider. You’re so dumb.”
If I didn’t figure out something soon, I was sure you’d make me go home. I didn’t want to spend all day with my mother and stepdad.
“Whatever you wanna play, K.K. It’s your house.”
You paused for a moment, chewing on your pink bottom lip.
“We could make believe something.”
“What about Prince and Princess? I’ll let you be the princess today.”
I grinned big. I almost never got the roles I wanted in our games, and even as we were outgrowing it, Princess was highly coveted. Plus, when you were happy like right now, cheeks tinted and eyes shining above a splatter of freckles, I was happy, too.
“Okay,” I said, “You can start the story.”
And you did. The story we wove was trite but deeply important to us. We had enacted this story with our dolls time and time again, and once we even attempted to write the plot down. We knew it would make a wonderful book if we could just get past the first three pages. The notebook still waited somewhere in your nightstand.
My kingly stepfather, you said, had locked me away in a castle in the middle of the forest, because I had hidden magical powers that I had yet to learn to control, which caused a lot of problems for pedestrians in the kingdom. Locking me away was supposed to keep everyone safe from the danger that I had become. But I was desperate and sad, I interjected, because I was all alone in the tower. Only my kingly stepfather would come to visit me, and he was boring and wanted to talk about wars and train me as a weapon of mass destruction, when I longed only to be free. Which was especially bad, you continued, because I’d been in love. It had been a secret love, but it was true. I’d been in love with a prince from a distant land. We communicated via pigeons. When he stopped receiving my letters, he knew something was wrong.
With that, you became the prince. The plastic lid to one of your toy bins acted as a shield; a pile of boxes on a chair acted as my tower. I crouched behind the tower while you staged an elaborate battle between yourself and the Beanie Baby dragon guarding me. I wanted to look forlorn in my damsel position, but I couldn’t keep myself from snorting as you and the dragon growled each other down. There was something silly and free about watching you make believe, even though we were getting old. For a moment, we slipped into the mindset of unlimited play and imagination, a world where the make believe danced on the edges of reality. With a flourish, you kicked the boxes off the chair and rescued me from the pits of abandonment. You gave me a piggyback ride to a new kingdom, your room.
I was taller than you, so after a few more staggering steps, you collapsed on the floor in a fit of giggles.
“You’re crushing my ribs,” you said, wheezing as you struggled to push me off. We squirmed and rolled on the floor, alternatively squishing each other and pretending to be squished, until we settled, ruddy cheeked, side by side on the floor. It was hard to catch our breaths between the bubbling giggles.
“What now?” I asked.
You sat up and I faced you, sitting cross-legged on the carpet. “Prince and Princess get married,” you said.
Then you kissed me.
I was too shocked to close my eyes for a few seconds. That close, your face blended together and looked almost funny, but I couldn’t possibly laugh. You pulled away before I could process what you’d done, eyebrows knit together at my nonresponse. I mumbled out an excuse and moved in to kiss you again. Eyes closed this time, we kissed in our closest approximation of the movies—lips evenly matched, bodies two feet apart, completely still the whole time. My brain couldn’t form a single thought while we kissed, but I felt lights blinking on in my mind. So this was kissing.
We pulled apart at the sound of your mom coming upstairs. Your cheeks burned red, but you had a little smile. Something moved behind your big hazel eyes.
“Karen, are you girls okay up here? You’re so quiet.” Your mother glanced across the room, searching for something out of place.
“Yeah, we’re fine mom.” I was surprised by how cool your voice was. “Actually, Lindy was just saying she’s about ready to go home—the rain and all.”
“Alright, Lindy, come on down. Your mommy’s about ready to leave, too.”
As my mother and I ran through the rain to her car, I inhaled the scent of honeysuckles and jasmine mixed with the smell of wet pavement. The fragrance did little to clear my mind, which swam with thoughts of you. Though we didn’t say goodbye, I saw you looking out at my mom’s car from between the curtains of your bedroom window. When I caught your eyes, you let the curtain fall back into place. My lips burned the whole ride home. That night, I dreamt of a tower of boxes that never ended with you at the very top, waiting for another kiss.
Sunday passed slow and amber as syrup. I woke up feeling fresh and strange. The morning cartoons didn’t hold my attention; I didn’t want to eat cereal at the kitchen table. Instead, I spent the morning playing Prince and Princess with my small collection of dolls. Before, I had resented the fact that my parents made me choose between gymnastics lessons and new toys. I’d cut all the hair off my least favorite Barbie to make her into a substitute Ken doll, since I knew I couldn’t buy a real one. Now, it didn’t bother me. Everything felt better. I spent hours imagining how I would greet you in school the next morning, planning times when I might run into you in the hallway.
Monday, I saw you again. Your mom was right in front of mine in the car riders’ line. The car patrol opened the door for you, and you hopped out. Normally, you waited for me when you saw me in the line behind you. Today you skipped straight up the walkway into the building. My heart stuttered at the sight of you leaving—so close and just out of reach—but I knew I’d see you at recess.
Throughout the morning classes, I doodled hearts in the margins of my worksheets. When Ms. Ashraf called my name in class to answer a math problem, I had to stammer that I hadn’t been paying attention. She made a note on my report folder. All through lunch, I tried to catch your eye from across the cafeteria, but I couldn’t see you past my classmates. The assigned seating meant you sat at the farthest table in the cafeteria with the regular class. I sat with the gifted-and-talented class, a fact you made fun of constantly. GT was for geeks. As soon as we were at recess, I darted away from my GT friends so you wouldn’t think I was lame.
The playground outside our elementary school was enveloped by the pine trees, and in the middle stood brightly painted jungle gyms. There was a red swing set, a silver slide that burned in the afternoon sun, and a blacktop area with a tetherball pole and two spaces for Four Square. In the field behind the equipment where the grass tickled our shins, young boys poked at anthills and chased around a kickball. Just like in your yard, the scent of flowers wafted through the late summer air, still heavy from the weekend’s rain. I closed my eyes and breathed in for a moment, eyes closed to the Technicolor playground before me.
I found you at the top of the massive play set and jungle gym. You were waiting for your turn to slide down. Sneaking up behind you, I covered your eyes with my hands and shouted ‘guess who’ into your ear.
“Hi, Lindy.” You stepped out of my hands; it was your turn to slide.
“K.K.!” You turned to look at me, sulking out of line. “Do you wanna go play soccer together? You can show me how to be goalie.”
“Probably not. I think I’m busy today.”
“Do you wanna play something else? Four Square? Or we could make a hopscotch on the sidewalk. I think Ellen snuck some chalk out to recess.”
“I already told you I’m busy.”
I didn’t see it, then. How could I have? All I could think about was Saturday afternoon, and the tiny smile that had tilted your lips in your room. I felt new and bold. I didn’t see the look that’d been on your face the whole time.
“What about Prince and Princess?”
And I kissed you again, right there on the playground.
You did not kiss me back.
“Get off of me!” You pushed me into the railing on the top of the play set. The painted metal bars banged into my ribs, and for the first time, I understood what it meant to have the breath knocked out of you. I gaped and tried to blink back the shocked tears that had sprung into my eyes. “What are you, a lesbian?”
In an instant, I wanted to swallow the kiss back into my body. Desperately I wished for a rewind button, or for the jolt of waking up from a nightmare. But time pressed forward, and I was awake. This, my reality, was nothing but an aching back and your livid hazel eyes. A few kids heard you yelling and clambered down from the monkey bars. You watched them run off, with a splotchy red flush on your cheeks.
I pushed against the railing and got to my feet. You were still looking around at the other kids, something furtive in your eyes, though they didn’t notice us. A boy and girl were playing house in the space beneath the play set. A game of tag ran by the slide. Everyone else was swinging or chasing a kickball across the field or gathered on the sidewalks. I wanted to tell you that you didn’t have anything to worry about, but you were making for the slide again.
“K.K., wait!” I ran after you and grabbed your arm. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I searched for whatever had moved in you on Saturday in your room. There was nothing there. You jerked away from me and dug your sandals into my shin to keep me away. When I fell back against the bars this time, I stayed there.
“Don’t touch me!” You lowered your voice and looked me right in the eyes. “Freak.”
You kicked me one more time before you slid away. Within a minute, you were playing foursquare on the sidewalk past the field.
I sat on top of the play set, tucked into the corner. With my forehead pressing into my knees, I willed myself to slip through the slats of the platform and sink into the woodchips below. Fat tears and snot dripped onto my legs, but I believed that if I never left that hidden corner, no one would be able to see that I’d been crying. I would have to stay there forever.
The recess monitors blew their whistles, and my classmates’ din condensed and disappeared. Fourth grade had the last recess of the day. Soon it was quiet and still across the playground, but I kept my forehead on my knees just in case.
I can still remember that moment. I can remember the precise angle of your eyebrows when you kicked me. I can feel the plastic walls of the play set and the way that my spine curved into the space between the wall and the support beam. This memory, I am confident, will never fully dissolve into time as so many other moments have. Oh, how often I thought of you. With clammy palms behind the band hall seven years later, when I gathered the courage to kiss someone again; or in the arms of a stranger the first time I went to a gay bar. Yes, and at the queer women’s meetings in college, where we drank burnt coffee and fidgeted and over shared. And at my first Pride. And when 49 people died in Orlando. And every summer when the honeysuckles and jasmine bloomed, with their heady fragrance blanketing the city. All the time; I think of you, and this exact moment, all the time.
The teachers found me after a while. I heard them call for me over the P.A. system, and then the principal and Ms. Ashraf came looking for me. I didn’t answer when they shouted my name from across the playground, but they found me anyway. My mother took me home from school early that day, angry at me for skipping class but worried enough not to asking questions just yet. I watched cartoons in the darkening living room until it was late enough for me to pretend to go to sleep. I laid in bed for an hour, arms wrapped around my aching ribs.
Around 10:00 pm, I crawled out of bed and slipped into my parents’ office. I climbed onto the padded swivel chair while I waited for the computer to warm up. My bare feet swung to the sounds of the dial-up connection.
When I’d pulled up the Internet browser, I typed in the word ‘lesbian.’
My stomach growled; I’d skipped dinner that night. While I waited for the dialup to load, I tiptoed to the kitchen and grabbed a slice of bread. When I returned to the office, my mother was standing over the computer monitor. She hovered over the computer with both hands on the desk. A frown carved down the sides of her mouth. When she heard me reenter the room, her eyes shot up to mine.
I tried to bolt to my bed, but she called me back.
“Lindy, could I speak with you, please?”
I inched back and stared straight down at my toes, which were curling into the carpet. I traced the lines of my chipped purple nail polish with my eyes to avoid looking into her face.
“What are you looking at on the computer?”
“I don’t know.”
“What made you look this up, Lindy? Do you need to talk about something?”
“No!” Panic welled up in my ribs, and I felt a rapid anxiety bloom in my chest, stinging against my bruised ribs. “I heard some kids say that word about a girl on the bus home. It was about a girl you don’t know. I didn’t know what it meant.”
My mother crossed the room to where I stood. She placed one thin hand on my shoulder and knelt to my level. Her other hand fiddled with the delicate cross necklace on her chest. I searched her eyes, a mirror of my own, to see if she believed me.
“That’s okay, sweetie, but next time you don’t understand, ask your me first. Looking up something that like on the computer might pull up something… something not for kids to see, okay?”
“What do you mean? What kind of stuff can’t I look at?”
“This isn’t up for debate, Linda Grace.”
“Yes ma’am. Sorry, mom.”
She patted my arm a few times and sent me back to my room.
I didn’t go to school on Tuesday. It was my stepdad’s turn to get me ready in the morning. When he knocked on my door fifteen minutes before we were supposed to leave, I moaned about a stomachache. Rick was still timid around me, not inclined to get close enough to press a palm to my forehead. He didn’t know any better.
Back in Ms. Ashraf’s class on Wednesday, I looked at my desk as much as possible. My papers lied askew, unread; I focused on fitting the edge of my fingernail into the carved doodles of former students. I could only imagine what you had said about me when I’d been gone, though the my classmates treated me normally. Although no one teased me, I awaited the moment when I would make a mistake and someone would call me a lesbian in ridicule. For the whole week, I sat on my hands in class, so I couldn’t answer any of the Ms. Ashraf’s questions. From a place on the sidewalk barely outside the door to the playground, I read Harry Potter during every excruciating recess. Whenever I glanced up, I could see you leading the chase for the kickball or winning a game of foursquare. You never even looked at me.
Of course, our mothers didn’t notice the difference. Mine just thought I wasn’t feeling well; yours had no cause to worry. Our scheduled Saturday play date stayed penciled onto my mother’s calendar on the fridge. The rain could’ve canceled it, but a new episode of The Sopranos had just aired and our mothers couldn’t wait to talk. At eleven in the morning, we drove across the neighborhood to your house. The humidity pressed down on me as we exited the car. I brought Harry Potter with me, and three other books just in case, so I’d have plenty to stare at until we could leave.
When you didn’t meet me at the door like usual, my mother walked me up to your room. Half way up the stairs, I gripped her hand. I did not look at her but rather felt her surprise in the way she hesitated to clasp onto me, but soon she intertwined our fingers, giving me one last gesture of comfort before she knocked on the door to your bedroom. You gave her an extra big smile when you saw her, and she closed the door on her way out. I made my way directly to your tiny, child sized armchair. Curling myself into the seat, I opened my book and stared at the page where I had left off at recess on Friday. I read the same sentence over and over, unable to make the words carry meaning, unable to understand what I read, always unable to understand.
I didn’t see you turn around to watch me sit, but I heard you when you asked if I wanted to play Prince and Princess again.
Rachel Abbott lives in Austin, Texas with her partner and their two dogs. By day she works in a used book store; by night she writes fiction, essays, and poetry. Her work has previously appeared in Skylark Review and Prairie Margins. You can find her on Twitter at @atrachelabbott and WordPress at atrachelabbott.wordpress.com.