Art by Gracie Gralike, 19
"Holding hands with my best friend, we twirled in circles around her backyard. We laughed and grinned and promised to never let go."
I don't know what provoked this sudden flashback. It was just another day, not that I have usual days—I don't like routines—but I found myself sitting in a dim lit coffee house, a cup of black coffee already in my hands, the steam hitting my face. I must have had a strange look on my face. I'm sure it was the one I get when I'm concentrating too hard and that annoying wrinkle between my eyes becomes visibly clear." I know this because while my trip down memory lane was panning itself out inside my head, a young overbearing waitress skidded to a halt beside my table.
"Everything alright?" she flashed a big toothy smile.
"Yes everything's fine;" I delivered one back.
"No, thanks," I said, and as she walked away I couldn't help but wonder maybe everything's not alright.
It was summer in North Carolina 1962. Funny how all the childhood memories that stick happened during summertime. I remember those times vividly despite my inability to remember even the simplest things now. Mornings my mother would always purposely walk into my bedroom and without a sound rip the curtains from my window apart, allowing the sun's evil rays to tear me from my sleep. I almost always hated mornings with my parents, waking up too early for breakfast together in the kitchen, during which polite conversation was forced and topics of no interest to me where painfully discussed. I was 13. It was summer, and my mother was a lousy cook; I could not wait to run out the screen door and ride my bike seven blocks down the street to my best friend's house.
Shelly lived in a mixed neighborhood. Her neighbors where Puerto Rican, and a Muslim family lived down the street; Shelly herself was mixed. We didn't go to the same school. I couldn't remember ever seeing her on my side of town." In fact, we never would have met if I hadn't been angry once after having another fight with my mother; she said I didn't have any friends. I disagreed.
I peddled my bike with all the force and furry my 10-year-old feet could handle, and they led me to the corner of Crest and Bradley St." A girl my age was sitting on the curb playing paddleball. Her hair was curly, the kind that forms tiny ringlets." She was wearing bright green converses and, besides being a few shades darker than me, she was covered with freckles; I noticed as she looked up at me she was also chewing gum." I found her immensely fascinating.
"Are you crying?" she asked, more of a statement then a question.
"No," I had been.
So there we were, awkwardly avoiding the obvious like many early teenage moments that occur, just the two of us. Me on my bike, tear streaks still fresh on my cheeks. Shelly who sat uncomfortably glancing around everywhere, anywhere, just not at me and my red face.
"So umm...do you want a piece of gum?"
Finally her voice startled me like shattering glass, but I was glad for the break in silence. Before I could even put together a response, she took out a stick of gum and put it in my hand.
"Th-Thanks," I said.
"No problem, do you know how to blow a bubble?" she asked, and then proceeded to blow the biggest bubble I had ever seen in my life. It lasted about two seconds.
"No," I smiled.
I didn't have to say much, it was if she understood. Shelly got up and started to teach me the art blowing bubbles. I didn't even learn her name until the second day. It didn't matter. I knew from the moment I heard her say:
"Hi, my name's Shelly," what she was really saying was, "My name's Shelly, your new best friend and savior from eternal boredom.
"Will that be all ma'am?"
I was back in the present and my coffee was cold.
"Can I get you anything else ma'am?"
I look up to see who's trying so hard to win the Waitress of the Year Award, and again I'm greeted by the same smiling face. Since when did some people become so eager to please?
"No, this is it," I say.
"Are you sure?" We have the best cherry pie in town! Matter of fact, one just came out of the oven."
I sigh." I hate pushy people.
"Okay, sure, I'll have a slice."
She walks away and again I'm left to sort out my thoughts.
Shelly and I were soon inseparable." Every day after the morning curtain ritual and the painstakingly agonizing table conversation, I would run upstairs and hurry to get changed. At first, my mother asked a lot of questions. She didn't like me riding my bike through "that" part of town. She didn't like that I changed into my outdoor clothes to get dirty. I had no "outdoor" clothes. Most of all, she disliked that I had more fun outside of the house than I ever had inside it. None of these things fazed me, and slowly, my mother's worries and concerns turned into voiced opinions and the occasional frown.
I couldn't help that I enjoyed being with Shelly so much; it was a different kind of life. Shelly's house was always noisy, the good kind of noise. She was an only child like me, and we relished each other's company, but I fully understood the differences between us. She lived in the part of town where the houses were old and looked like they had put up a fight to keep the ground from slowly pulling them under. The paint was peeling, revealing multiple layers of previous colors; it was hard to find a solid patch of paint that had remained intact. Shelly always wore the same shoes, the bright green Converses. She always had them on her feet; they were the shoes we went bike riding in, the shoes we splashed into the biggest puddles with, and the shoes that she used to help her jump into her father's arms. Shelly's father was darker than both Shelly and her mother. He reminded me of a hazelnut shell." The memories I have of him are all the same; he was a man that loved to sing, and he would make the most of every opportunity to include a song in everything he did. I couldn't remember how many afternoons were spent with Shelly and me sitting in her backyard, sharing a pitcher of lemonade and listening to her father sing about whatever came to mind, while her mother hung a string of laundry up to dry.
"Here you go, best in town."
I look down in front of me to find a mass of red ooze coming from outside a thick yellow crust. I suddenly feel the urge to tell her I'm a diabetic.
"Here's an extra fork, let me know if you need anything else, dear," she said, and she was off again.
I take the time to really take in my surroundings for a minute. This café was like most with its comfy couches, paintings on the wall, plenty of books to read, and stale music you wouldn't notice unless you were trying to listen. The place looked worn-out but homey, busy but still non-threatening, now if they would only hire better service. Still it is a Wednesday morning, and I having nothing else to do; I lean back into my seat and take a bite of that pie.
It was my fourteenth birthday when all my blissful ignorance was wiped clean like the fog from a window. My mother, being the early riser that she is, made sure I was up extra early for this special occasion. She had really outdone herself this year. Birthdays in the past were typically a small affair, homemade cakes, a present from mom and dad, usually something practical like that tacky clothing I never wore until I was forced to, and the always-pleasant call from grandma. Of course I couldn't wait to change into my outdoor clothes and go see Shelly. But this year, my mother decided I was ready to make a change of social scene.
I threw off the covers that morning, already used to the sting of bright light coming from the windows. When I adjusted, there was my mom standing in front of my bed with a red, rectangle box " and smiling, a rarity.
"Well, don't just stand there gawking, take it!"
I took red rectangle box; the top was decorated with some fancy design. I should have known what was coming, but it still took me by surprise.
"Oh, don't you love it?" my mother leaned over and pulled the white dress out of its box; she held it under my chin and made me walk over to the mirror to see.
"Wow, it's great mom, thanks." I was too stunned to say anything else, and before I could, my mother had taken off my shirt and pulled the dress over my head.
How strange it was to see myself in a dress. I had never really given much attention to how I looked, and now that I had the chance, I studied myself.
My hair wasn't blonde, but it wasn't brown. It was just in between. I was tall for my age; I knew that, but somehow I still looked like a child. I didn't feel any different, but I guess this dress was supposed to change that, or so were my mother's intentions. After ten more minutes of studying myself from head to toe, I decided I was against dresses, and the moment I could release myself from it and its lacey confinement, I would resume being a free and happy person.
To my disappointment, it was only the beginning to a very long day.
Mother had outdone herself; even my dad stood at the back door to our house with a gaping mouth, trying to take make sense of it all. Our back yard had been turned into a reception hall. To the left, a long table of finger food and deserts. In the center, decorated tables with neatly placed silver and flowering center pieces. There was already another table with presents of all sizes, and everywhere you turned, workers in white uniforms ran around adding the finishing touches; as I stepped outside, two men on a ladder were in the process of hanging lights from a tree. It was a too unreal and the imagery before me was not processing, and yet as if to forcefully convince me into accepting this reality, there was my mother in the middle of the chaos, tall and confident, tea cup in hand, overseeing everything.
"I hope you like it darling. We did it all for you."
"Mom, I don't know what to say. Thank you."
"Mmmhmm. Just finish getting ready darling, and be downstairs quickly, before your guests start to arrive."
The walk back up the stairs was surreal. I couldn't imagine my parents having done all this for me. I couldn't recall the last time we had even had a party. I walked into my bedroom and sat on top of my bed. Something wasn't right, and at that moment, the only person I wanted to see was Shelly. I just hoped that I would see her at my party this afternoon.
"How's the pie treating you?" Mrs. Congeniality was back.
"Oh, it's quite good, thank you."
"I'm so glad you love it!" she smiled.
I looked down at my plate; I had managed to at least taste the thing.
Suddenly I had a thought, "What am I still doing here?" I look around the room. Two tables ahead a student leans over his books, his hands feverishly scribbling notes only to be relived for a second when he takes a swig of coffee. In the far back, a couple huddles close and share a brownie. Besides the guy at the register and the waitress wiping down windows the place is empty.
"I should leave," I think.
What else did I have to do? Walk back home, organize my recycling bin? I was old and it was still hard to realize my life had become painfully dull.
"No, I should stay, figure out why I'm thinking about this, and sort it out."
Relived to have made up my mind, I turned around in my seat." My waitress was on her tippy toes trying to reach the farthest corners of the front store window. I waited for her to notice I was watching. It took her a while. Finally she straightened up, put on a smile and walked right over.
"Everything alright?" she asks
"Yes, everything's great. Could I have another cup of coffee?"
I was lost again in my thoughts before she even returned. I didn't notice as she set another steaming cup of coffee in front of me.
Mother had to come upstairs and knock on the door about four times before I opened it. Then she pled for an eternity before I grudgingly agreed to come downstairs. The backyard was already semi-crowded; mostly adults and little kids ran around wild. Near our tree was a table occupied by a group of older girls who sat closely together.
"Go make friends," my mother whispered to me. I felt her fingers dig into my shoulders, then catapult me in the direction of the girls' table.
I stood there in my white dress feeling like an outsider in my own backyard.
There were these girls, familiar faces, of course, but I could not place a single name. All these girls with their pleated pastel dresses, lovely table manners, and combed hair. All these girls' eyes smiling, sharing secrets behind their hands; they all looked so happy together. Where was Shelly? Why wasn't she here? I started to look down and stare at everyone's feet, hoping to catch a glimpse of bright green Converse, but all I ever found were my mother's grey heels.
"Stop staring at the ground." I looked up to find her frustrated face.
"Go back to that table and make friends." She pointed to the table behind me and I heard the whispers erupt.
Suddenly it became very clear; I didn't need it written or spelled out to understand anymore, this was hardly my birthday party if Shelly wasn't here, and Shelly was definitely not invited.
I sigh as the last of that memory fades. I look down at my watch. I've been sitting here reminiscing for more than an hour. Maybe I really should leave. The café looks just about the same as when I first got here except the couple is gone, and the students pulled out some headphones, but other than that remains the same.
I get up from my table and head for the bathroom; it's a tiny cramped space with only one stall and a sink that takes up half the room. I look in the mirror and think about my brownish blonde hair; I never really liked it and now all I see now is grey. I look at my face. Besides all the wrinkles I notice I'm too pale, I could use a bit of color, but the sun's no good for people my age. I turn on the faucet and splash some cold water on my face. Reaching out for the paper dispenser,it's just as I've feared, empty. I wait a few minutes for the water to evaporate off my face and make it back to my chair. It's still warm from when I last left it.
There aren't that many traumatic experiences that I can remember from my childhood. I grew up in an upper-middle-class home. I was never beaten and my parent's relationship was fairly solid. But the night after my party when I first heard my mother explain why I couldn't see Shelly anymore was the first time I encountered firsthand what racism was, and one never forgets.
"And I don't want to hear about you hanging around with that girl anymore! Do you know how many invitations I sent out for your birthday party? Plenty! And out of the bunch only five girls showed up. Thank God I have a few sympathetic friends whose daughters were lovely enough to attend."
"I know mom. I'm sorry."
"What, Katherine? Just what are you sorry about? Are you sorry you didn't bother to greet your guests? That you got grass stains on your brand new dress? Or are you sorry that after I spent your father's hard-earned money and a considerable amount of time planning this surprise for you, you spent the entire time sulking because I didn't invite the little Puerto Rican girl?
It was as if the tears themselves in my eyes had frozen. I really got the feeling that time stood still, while I stood there puzzled, wondering how the shocking words I had just heard could have come from the mouth of my mother.
"Well? Which one is it?" she stomped her foot; I could tell she was quickly losing her patience, but so was I.
"She's not Puerto Rican, mom."
"She's not; she's mixed. Her daddy's black and her mom's Italian."
"I don't care what she is. You're not going to see her again. God, Katherine, will you at least try and make some decent friends? How do you think I feel when I have to explain to my friends that my daughter would rather spend all day with a charity case, than talk to one of their daughters?
This was hell, not just my imagination anymore. I could feel the floorboards give way and the fiery pit beneath my feet rise up and swallow me whole. On and on my mother kept ranting, but I was too engulfed by a rage that drifted like smoke around me that I only caught bits and pieces of her prolific banter.
"I blame myself, partly, for letting you two spend so much time together."
"I should have forbidden you to go see her as soon as the neighbors started asking questions."
"That part of town is just not sanitary."
"With your father's new raise, you can be sure that we won't be staying in this town for long. We need a new start, you need"
I was possessed; it was not me that picked up that priceless family heirloom, the china vase my grandma had sent us all the way from England. It was pre-historic, ancient even. Probably dated back to when it adorned the guest room of some lord. I didn't care; it was the closest thing within range that I knew would make a loud sound.
Deafening noise really.
And after the smoke had cleared and the tension in the room had settled, just shards remained of what today could have probably been college tuition, a new house, and a life savings worth in value.
Between the noise and the silence, my mother's reaction turned out to be the scarier of the two.
She just stood there, eyes glazed, neck veins bulging but not saying a word, shoulders slumped with arms that just dangled at her side. She looked defeated. I had won, but why did my eyes burn? Was it all the force I had left channeled into suppressing tears?" Or was it remnants of the anger inside? She was wrong, so incredibly wrong, so why did I feel like I had just betrayed my mother?
I couldn't stand there and think about it any longer.
I ran for the door and did the one thing that was so automatic I didn't have to think. Jumped on my bike and let my heart take me to Shelly's.
My hands were shaking. They rattled against the table; this can't be good for me. I don't want to give myself a heart attack reliving all of this. I tucked my hands under the table and placed them on my lap. I don't want that noisy waitress to see. She's already been watching me like a hawk today. I know what she's thinking, "Oh it's always me that gets the crazy ones. When will the old lady just pack up and leave already? I bet she won't leave me a tip."
Well, she's wrong.
I only thought about not tipping her. That doesn't mean I won't. If only she would quit bothering me, I could make up my mind.
She probably does think I'm crazy though. Why else would I be sitting here for more than an hour by myself starring at nothing but a cold cup of coffee and a crude piece of pie? I sit there and frown about the very idea, but I catch myself. "You can't stop now," I say, "you're too close to how it ends." So I re-focus and take a sip of my coffee, a force of habit, but I immediately regret it. It is cold, bitter, just like my mother. Ha! I was never a comedian.
I remember throwing my bike down on the grass in front of Shelly's house, jumping up the front step and banging on the screen door with both my fists. This was an emergency. I was about to lose it.
First appeared Shelly's mom. She was a pretty woman with long dark brown hair, and she always wore a baby blue apron around her waist.
"Katherine honey? Is everything okay?"
I didn't need to answer. Shelly appeared from behind her mother and came out the doorway to meet me.
We didn't need words or apologies. We just looked in each other's eyes, and it was like the first time we met. Me teary eyes and a mess. Shelly not knowing what to do or say. Only this time she wasn't looking away." Shelly never asked why I had been gone for so long, or how come she never got an invitation to my birthday party. She knew, and everything she couldn't understand was explained in a simple hug.
We both spent that afternoon watching the sky, the clouds drift, and I felt like one of them pulled by the same invisible current. The sun was blazing and Shelly's mom brought out the ceremonial lemonade pitcher, and an extra six sugar cookies she had made herself, sensing I needed the boost. I started to thank her, but she just shook her head and held out her arms. I didn't hesitate to hug her.
Love was something Shelly had in abundance; she received it every day, and gave it to anyone. It's strange to realize you've been missing something for so long, something you never knew you lacked until finally the indescribable craving has been subdued. Standing there, hugging Shelly's mom, I felt my spirit grow calm, and the strength inside me grow. We talked together for a while, and then Shelly's mom went inside to start on dinner. I took another sugar cookie off the tray and concentrated fully on the tiny moment of bliss. I'd need that memory later to help me survive whatever tragedy awaited me at home.
"I know your mother doesn't like me," Shelly said. She pulled her knees up to her chin and stared at me.
"It's because my daddy's black. But you know what? I don't care. I love my daddy. He's the nicest man I've ever known and mama always said to never let people's racist comments steal the smile off your face. And anyway, I know you're not a racist Katherine. You're my best friend."
"You know what Shelly? I said as I wiped the crumbs from my hands "Have I ever told you I wish I had your hair? "“Really I wish I did, badly sometimes, I just want it."
She smiled, and I continued.
"And another thing, your freckles! How long do I have to stay out in the sun until I have as many as you?"
She was grinning ear to ear by now.
"Shelly don't you ever listen to anyone who doesn't like you because of what you look like." I looked down at my shoes, brand new, the laces hadn't even been dirtied yet, and then I looked over to Shelly's feet knowing I'd see the familiar old bright green converse.
"Because, because you're my best friend Shelly. I like you for who you are and I wouldn't change you for the world."
We both got up then, grinning like two girls who just had their first date, or more like two best friends who, besides the circumstances surrounding them, looked beyond the colors that made up the eyes, skin, hair of a person, and chose to focus on the shade of their hearts.
Holding hands with my best friend, we twirled in circles around her backyard. We laughed and grinned and promised to never let go.
That was it. I'm back in the present, and I'm back for good. We moved eventually. Of course my mother would have her way. I grieved, but eventually I moved on too. I entered my teenage years strong with a higher love and understanding for everyone, not just those who looked different than me. I'm sorry to say that I forgot about Shelly for awhile. That is, until I suddenly thought about it, all of it, today. It feels like there are no more memories constricting my lungs, and I can breathe again. I look at my hands and see that they've stopped shaking. I'm still studying them when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I look up, and it's the waitress.
"Hi, I don't mean to bother you, but I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
She startled me; I knew she thought I was crazy; I guess there'll be no tip.
"I'm fine, thank you."
"It's just that you remind me of someone very special, and I wanted to make sure you were having a good day."
For the first time, I take a good look at this woman's face, the woman who interrupted my thoughts numerous times today with her questions and pie.
She looked older than I remembered. She also looked tired in the worn-out sort of way that immediately told me she'd been waitressing for too long. Her uniform was surprisingly clean, but even makeup and a brown bouncy pony tail couldn't hide how tired she was. Maybe I'm just old, but her eyes revealed everything.
"Really, who?" I ask.
She smiles again and a nervous look flashes across her face for a second before she takes the seat across from me.
"You remind me of my mother."
I can't help but laugh out loud. Today's just one of those days I'll never understand.
She smiles again. "My mother used to laugh a lot; I really miss hearing it."
"At this age, you've got to find something to laugh about." And I really mean it. Life can beat you down.
"Oh, I know I'm very optimistic. I have to be. I've always had to work."
"You don't say?" and that was all it took. I watched her as she talked and talked, practically to herself, but still talking at me, a stranger. Not even just a stranger, but a little old lady who had absolutely nothing better to do on a Wednesday morning. Yet there we were, the waitress and I, engaging in animated conversation about life, baking, and everything we could possibly think of.
We had to stop as the afternoon lunch crowd poured in. Somehow we had managed to talk away the entire morning, and now it was coming to an end.
"Sorry, I have to get ready for the lunch hour," she said. I could see the disappointment on her face when she rose up from her chair.
"That's alright. Thank you for the lovely conversation."
"You're so welcome," she smiled again.
"How much do I owe you?"
"Oh, don't worry; I paid for your coffee and pie a while ago."
"Oh, well, thank you, really."
"Don't mention it."She smiled and then turned away.
I was almost too content sitting there, that I forgot to ask the single most important question. Funny how even all this age counts for nothing, I always seem to forget. I bolted upright and followed her.
She was already behind the counter when I caught up.
"I'm sorry, I never did ask you your name. My name's Katherine Moore."
She put her hand on her heart like she had been waiting all along for this moment to come.
"Nice to meet you, Katherine. My name's Shelly Larson."
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