Red String – Part 2

Part 1

A week later you roll out of bed rubbing your eyes. You’re feeling your way down the dark hallway towards the bathroom when you see a bright red string tied around the door knob of your sister’s bedroom. You pause and rub your eyes again, but it’s still there, so you feel your way past the bathroom and down to the red string instead. When you reach the door you slide it off, slowly push the door open, and poke your head in. Your sister is lying in her bed facing he wall, her phone illuminating the room with a dim white light. You push the door open all the way and tip toe over. When you get to the bed you peek over her. She’s already asleep. You get into the bed with her anyways and lie on top of her. She smiles in her sleep and rolls over so you’re lying on her stomach instead of her side. After a while the phone screen dims, then the light goes out. You’re already asleep.

The next morning you wake up squished between your sister and the wall. Your left arm is freezing but the rest of you is warm tucked underneath your sister’s huge blanket and wrapped in her arms. You try to twist around so you can see her. “Amy?” She hugs you tighter and buries her face deeper in your messy hair. She makes a noncommittal noise to let you know she’s awake, but doesn’t open her eyes. After a little squirming you turn so your facing her. Her eyebrows furrow and she shakes her head a little to get your hair out of her nose. Then she relaxes. You still think she looks a little what your mom likes to call distressed, though. But right now you’re a little more ‘distressed’. “Amy?”

She makes an irritated groan.

“Amy can I go to the bathroom now?”

 

A red string for hugs. As you get older the hugs also come with questions and suggestions for distractions. When two months after you turn six she give you a red string, too, and says that she’ll always take care of you, okay? You grin and run to your room where you put the string right next to the blue train your mom bought you for your birthday, and when you put the string on your door your sister comes with too long hugs and a comforting lack for words.

One day when you’re eight and she’s thirteen you leave for the school bus together and she has the string tied around her wrist. So right before the bus stops you hesitantly wrap your arms around her waist and hug. She doesn’t hug back, though. Instead she rubs your head then pushes you away. “Gross,” she laughs. “You’re so sticky.”

The string stays on her wrist for a longs time. It stays there for almost a year. You make sure to talk to her every day, but the hugs lessen. Then, one day when you’re nine you roll out of bed rubbing your eyes and feel your way down the hall to the bathroom. When you go to wash your hands you see the string cut near the knot she’d tied to turn it into a bracelet. It’s just sitting there next to the sink, getting splashed with water and soap. When you brush your teeth in the morning it’s still there. It’s still there that night and the next day and the day after that. You try to go into your sister’s room to ask her about it one night but she just tells you to get out because she’s busy. A month later on another nighttime trip to the toilet it’s still there, so you pick it up. Something doesn’t feel right. On the way back to your room you can’t think quite right. You bump into a table and the corner digs into your hip and you almost knock over your mom’s favorite vase. Your stomach feels like it’s folding in on itself. There must be more shadows tonight, you think. Too many shadows and so many shapes. You stub you finger on your door frame. Your eyes get hot and it feel like you want to cry, so you drape your sister’s string over your door knob and run into your room and curl up in the corner when you’ve long since abandoned your blue train and you wait. The bright blue train looks like it’s glowing in the dark and glaring at you and your stomach folds more. When you wake up the next morning you fix the red string so it’s tied onto the door knob. As soon as you get home you head straight to your room. You leave for meals and to get ready for bed and the next morning to go to school. Your sister never comes.

You forget to remove the string the next day. The day after that you figure you may as well leave it on. The next year you almost forget why it’s there. The year after that you really do.

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Red String

When you were five your older sister screamed a lot. She was – is – five years older than you, and at exactly twice your age her door slammed and her hands pushed your forehead and her voice screeched down the hallway calling for your mom because you just wouldn’t leave her alone. One day, playing with tiny metal cars the size of your fist, you hear mommy say that she’s just upset. I don’t know what to do, she says. She won’t talk to me. Your cars pause for a moment and the quiet vroom vroom stops. You lift your head. At this age your eyes are always wide and your little mouth likes to hang just barely open. They told you at school that upset people like hugs. So you push yourself up, a car in each hand, and clamber up the stairs and down the hall to your sister’s room.

When you get to the door it’s already cracked open, so you just let yourself in. Your sister’s room has more clothes in it than you remember. Her favorite shirt is hanging on the back of her chair and there’s jeans and skirts all around the doorway. Your sister is curled in the middle of her bed with her knees to her chest and her phone clutched in both hands. There’s tears gathering in the corners of her eyes and her mouth is set in a wide line and her forehead has gone all wrinkly. You plod over then climb up on the bed and drop the cars in her lap. Cars are good. She wipes her eyes and tells you to go away. Just leave her alone. She doesn’t want to play right now. But you don’t leave her alone. Because she’s upset. And upset people need hugs.

When you wrap your arms around her she just starts to cry more, so you squeeze tighter. Her tears land on your head and roll down your hair onto your shirt sleeves. She keeps wailing so you squeeze tighter and tighter and tighter; you hug her as much as your chubby five year old arm allow. Then, eventually, she stops. The wails become sniffles and she lifts her face out of your hair. You look up. Her eyes are red and she has wet streaks on the sides of her face, but at least her forehead isn’t wrinkly anymore. You still hold onto her, though. Her body’s gotten all warm, and you don’t know if she’s done being upset or not. She leans forward and extracts and arm from your hug. You squirm when she digs through your hair. Her fingers grab onto a few strand by accident, gently tugging on them. She pulls out a long piece of bright red string. It dangles in front of your face. “Isn’t this part of my friendship bracelet kit?” she asks, then she laughs. You giggle, then let go and take back your cars. Laughing means the upset is gone.

You’re about to hop of the bed and leave before she can yell at you to get out when she pushes the string at your chest telling you you can have it. You take it by the middle with three fingers and stare at it for a while. Then you hold it out. “For you,” you say with your five year old wide eyes. “For hugs. When you need them.” She gives you a smile and rubs your head and says thanks. It reminds you of something she used to do before being ten. This time, though, her eyes maybe looked a little sad. You almost give her another hug, but instead you bounce yourself off the edge of the bed and plod out the door.

The bed was really squishy.

Part 2

Long Plaid Coat – Part 3

Read Part 1 here

You hear your first rumor in second grade as well. It’s about a boy named Ian who moves in near the end of the year. He’s a little shorter than you, long eyelashes and lanky frame, and has a feathery dark brown mess of hair sitting on top of his head. He also has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. So of course he becomes you’re almost friend. Almost.

In second grade recess comes before lunch. Second only to independent writing time, it’s one of your favorite times of the day. Before recess the whole grade crowds into the second grade hall, filling the building with sounds of opening and slamming short blue lockers. The hallways overflows with the chatter of young high pitched voices. The windows at the end of the hall spill in bright noon day light and in your wide second grade mind there’s no room in that hallway for anything but smiles.

One particular day, sometime soon after deciding that rather than slamming your locker door you would carefully lift the latch and close it, Ian doesn’t come out with the rest of the crowd. But you don’t look for him. You’re not friends, just almost friends. Just people who are very ver nice to each other. So you hear it from another almost friend. The girl with frizzy brown hair asks where he is and the very blond girl says he was talking to the teacher. Then that they were arguing. And the teacher had thrown a table. And he had thrown a chair. And for half a moment, while you watch their backs walk away, you believe it. Then you don’t. Then, for the rest of recess and most of lunch and every time in the future that you thought of the event your throat tightens and you gets a bitter oily taste in your mouth because you’re not sure if it’s true.

You put more thought into it than you should. You think about how Ian’s face always twisted a little bit every time he talked about your teacher and you think about how your teacher can have a short temper sometimes. You think about how your teacher is a universal least favorite even though you never figured out why and you think about how no one’s really friends with Ian because he’s eccentric and passionate and acts in a way that, to anyone older, places him as obviously rich. And you like to trust people so much. And you don’t like to ask. So you never find out if the rumor was true. All you know is that in third grade Ian makes a lot of friends then loses them all in eighth and your second grade teacher’s name is said with distaste right up until the day of your middle school graduation.

Long Plaid Coat – Part 1

Imagine you’re five years old. You live in Gladwyne Pennsylvania. You go to Gladwyne Montessori School for kindergarten where you’re in Mrs. Golden’s class with five other kindergarteners and a crowd of preschool kids. At home you munch on pretzels and play doctor and your mom puts your hair in pigtails.

You have an older brother in third grade. He goes to Gladwyne Montessori, too, but his school isn’t the same one as yours because it’s across the road on the other side of the playground. You still walk to school together, though. You chase your brother while your dad chases you and you run behind someone’s house through the wood to get there faster. Once you get to school you hop up the steps of the big brick building and wave them goodbye. Then you grip the straps of you butterfly backpack and go inside. Your cubby is the second one on the right. It has your name and a picture of you on halloween last year when you dressed up as Mulan with a pink and purple helmet and scowled at the camera. At your cubby you shrug off your jacket and backpack all at once and stuff them in. Off goes the jacket. Into the cubby. Out comes the folder. And inside that folder are important papers that your mommy signed.

Your best friend Zach is one of the five. When you go into the classroom he’s already there sitting at the round table next to the sink. Today your teacher is out sick so the assistant teacher is in charge. You don’t remember her name. But that’s okay. The whole school day you sit across from Zach drawing on printer paper with precise squiggly black borders. You draw lines and fighters so that it looks like the video game your brother likes to play and narrate as you go. Your voices are high pitched and loud, but to your five year old self it’s like they’re weaving epics and shakespearian soliloquies. Zach draws a fire mage who helps the little swordsman with a flat head. You draw Midna with long black hair, so long it goes off the page. When the assistant teacher comes around with her white binder and asks what you’re doing today Zach looks up innocently and replies, “We’re drawing. Obviously.” And inside you laugh and outside you smile. End everything is good.

And if you have a crush on Zach, well that nobody else’s business.

After you go home your babysitter stuffs you with snacks and teaches you how to mold clay. She creates fairy worlds and you make a blobby red being and when they come out of the oven hard you decide to keep them forever. When your parent get home the lights come on and your brother appears for dinner. You pray for tater tots. If you’re lucky she’ll make you cookies. And then, since it’s a Friday, you get to watch a movie.

When you’re five years old you watch movies, see characters, and decide to be just them. First Nausicaa, then Mulan, then Maria from The Sound of Music. Late you’ll move on to Kim Possible and Amy Pond and River Song. You’ll even spend a time with Kenma, Akame, and Sherlock Holmes. But that’s later. At five you’re young and can be anything you want and right now you want Mulan and Nausicaa and Maria. The characters you choose teach you to be kind and confident and free. They teach you to care for the ones you love and protect them as well and that selflessness is always best. But it goes farther than that, because they didn’t teach you that instead of being bad you should be good. At five bad isn’t even something you know. You’ve seen your share of villains. Sitting in the dark it’s impossible to forget the dark cars and raging fires, but somehow for you “bad” doesn’t even exist. So really, you’re not being kind. You’re being natural, normal, real.

You also watch your share of Disney movies. You read more than your share of books. Sitting on the floor with your paper and crayons you draw your brother’s video games and fire mages and Midna. Then, on another paper you draw a boy and girl in love. These Disney movies and children’s books that you’ve read never made you feel the need to be beautiful. They never made you feel the need to be delicate or feminine. They only made you want to love. So you hum to yourself and draw. You draw the allure and fantasy of the freedom fighters your brother likes to control. You draw scenes with long arcs of grass and wide expanses of white sky and yellow corner suns. You draw two tall figures with skin colored octopus arms to fall in love.

After your mom waves you off to bed you call to be tucked in. Your hair is wet and just goes past your shoulders. Your pajamas are hot pink; the pants have stripes. Leaning over you, your daddy tells you stories about a milk princess who, armed with her bottle of milk because milk was her favorite, went out into the world to learn. Then, after ten minutes of story, he pulls you blanket up to your chin, says goodnight, and turns off the lights.

At five years old, these are the stories you grow up with.