Saturday, September 16, 2006

Three Dollars

When I was five years old, we moved from the city to the suburbs. A few days after we unpacked, my mom dragged me down to the corner where the school bus would pick me up for kindergarten at the central K-1 school. It was the middle of the year already, and I hadn't wanted to move in the first place, and this whole waiting-for-the- bus-with-a-passel- of-other-kids thing was an entirely unknown quantity and not one I was thrilled about. But there on the corner was another 5-year-old girl who lived on the next block. Our parents introduced each other and us, we smiled shyly at each other, and that was it: A. and I were Best Friends, by virtue of our age, sex, and geographic location. It was sort of like being betrothed at birth, only by real-estate agents.

It turned out that we had a lot in common. We were both crazy about dolls and imaginative play, and could get completely caught up in games. Once I was at A's house playing doll hospital, and got so involved that I completely forgot I was supposed to go home to get ready for an important extended family gathering. Finally, my family drove over to A's house to pick me up and scold me. "But the dolls were hurt," I kept insisting. "It was an emergency."

The street between our blocks was a quiet one, and by the time we were six or seven we were allowed to walk to each other's houses on our own. At least once, and maybe regularly, the going-home part would happen like this: I'd be at A.'s house and would remember that I had to get home for supper. She'd volunteer to walk me as far as the corner, and we'd stand there under the street light, talking and talking, until she said, "Well, I'll just walk you to your house." Then we'd stand in front of my house until she said she had to go, at which point I'd walk her to the corner, and then maybe to her house. Talking, talking, talking. I have absolutely no memory of what we talked about.

I also have no memory of what we fought about, though we fought regularly. We both had tempers, and went in for screaming, yelling fights. Once A. told me to shut my cotton pickin' mouth, which was not something people said much in our part of the world, or something I ever heard her say again. We hardly ever formally made up or apologized; usually, we just avoided each other for a few days, ostentatiously walking to school separately, and then started back up as if nothing had happened.

We--and our families--were different in some ways. I had a little brother; she had a sister in the same grade as my brother. I was a bookworm; she had trouble reading (later diagnosed as dyslexia). My parents split up when I was 7; hers stayed together, though not without fights. Her family had what seemed to me a bizarre proclivity for outdoor activity; they owned kayaks and all went kayaking, regularly, as a family, in the local polluted rivers.

We had different religions, too, and often got to be part of each other's traditions. I went Christmas-tree shopping with her family (and irritated her by spotting the most likely tree), and she came to at least one of our seders. We both went through an intensely spiritual/religious stage at the same time, and for a while would get up early and meet before school in my back yard, where we had built a stone "tabernacle" (I think both the word and the idea for that one came from me, garnered from The Long Secret). We'd recite the Shema and the Lord's Prayer, read a psalm, and then walk to school. I think we tried to keep these meetings a holy secret, though in retrospect my mom must have noticed the stone cairn in the yard.

We were accepted and expected "extras" in each other's families. At least once, A. came with me on visits to my dad's place in the city. When her parents went to Yugoslavia, they brought me back a present along with the presents for their own daughters. Once, I got to go with A. on an overnight visit to her cousins' in Pennsylvania. I drove with her family in the green van (the one they took kyaking) and saw my first Amish horse-and-buggy setups. Of the trip I don't remember much, except the fall of light and shadow on the room where I slept, and whispers about her cousin Baby B sleeping in the room next door.

A few weeks or months later, I was over at A's house, playing, her mom talking on the phone, sounding serious. When her mom got off the phone she must've gone into another room, because all I remember is A. coming over to me and saying, "That was my aunt. Baby B. died." I didn't know what to do, or what to say, so I said goodbye--I hope I said I was sorry, too, but I don't remember--and went home. It didn't seem like it could be real, but it was.

In high school I hung out with nerds; A. did sports. But we were always friendly, right up until college. In our mid-twenties we got back in touch for a while; she was pregnant, marrying her boyfriend, and converting to Judaism. (He was Jewish, but she was also genuinely interested, and we had some fond conversations of our prayer sessions at the tabernacle.)

By the time I saw her again, I was visiting from Seattle, staying with my dad for a week, and A. was living way out in New Jersey, pregnant with her second baby. I followed the detailed directions she'd given to her house, only to get there just as she was going into labor. She apologized for missing the visit as her husband came home to drive her to the hospital. Her mom was there already, brisk and dry as I remembered her, getting ready to take A's older daughter over to Grandma's house. She gave me a ride there too, while she was at it. The house looked just the same, green and white, with maybe a new coat of paint. It was the strangest thing in the world, and also the most ordinary, to see it there in the middle of the block where it had always been, all those years I was gone.

The last time I saw her must have been about ten years ago. She and her family had had some hard times and had been living with her parents. They were just moving to an apartment on the other side of our childhood town. Their oldest daughter, who was five by then, was about to start kindergarten in the school system where A. and I had gone. I took her out to play in the courtyard to help keep her out of the way while A. and her husband unpacked. I kept blinking, blinking, looking at her as we hopped and jumped and went across the street to buy Slushies at the 7-11 where my friends and I had played Pac-Man in junior high: it was eerily like seeing A. again, the first time I'd met her, on the bus-stop corner.

They moved to a mountain state a little after that, and we lost touch again. I've been wondering about her again lately, for some reason. A few weeks ago I Googled her and there wasn't much, but enough for me to get the sense that she and her kids, at least, are still in the same mountain state, basically okay, still outdoorsy. Her sister M., I heard, is a lesbian and became a minister. In my mind, though, M is still the pretty, wispy little girl who played Carrie to my Laura and A.'s Mary in games of Little House on the Prairie.

****

This morning, Mermaid Girl and Renaissance Woman left for a week-long visit to RW's mom and grandma. Last night MG couldn't sleep because, she said, she was afraid of going on the plane. It emerged that she was also worried that about me being alone (partly because of an ill-advised mock-guilt-tripping comment I made a few days ago, about wandering around the house all by myself, no one to get dinner for...) and also that she would miss me.

After proferring the hugs and kisses and reassurances you'd expect after such an admission, I offered to let her take something special of mine with her, and she brightened right up. After a short rummage through my boxes of Special Things, we agreed that a small wooden owl pin with red plastic jewel eyes would be just the ticket.

"My friend A. gave me this owl, when I was a little older than you," I said.

"Tell me the story!" she demanded, so I did.

We must have been about seven or eight, maybe nine at the oldest. It might have been a belated birthday or Christmas/Chanukah present, or it might have been just a random present. I think A. had been on a trip and just come back. She came to my door and gave me the owl--I don't even remember if it was wrapped or not. I loved the smallness and woodenness of it right away. "I bought it myself," she said.

"Wow!" I said. "Thank you!" And then, because I was interested and because we were friends and told each other everything, I asked, "How much did it cost?"

A. looked abashed, and said, "Three dollars."

"Wow! Mom!" I called. "Look at this pin A. just gave me. And it cost three dollars!"

My mom looked pained and explained that it wasn't polite to ask someone how much a present cost. And I never have, since then.

I've also never forgotten that the owl pin cost three dollars. Not that it seemed, or seems, like a lot, or a little. It's just part of the owl, like its plastic-ruby eyes and the little wooden tufts it has for ears. When I look at it, I see A. standing in the open doorway, the sunny day outside, her smile half-proud, half-anxious; and I hear an echo, like a backbeat: Three dollars, three dollars, three dollars.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Phantom Scribbler said...

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous liz said...

I love this.

11:48 AM  

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