An Occurrence at Springmore Elementary

When I was in fourth grade, a fellow student named Scott Ule played a prank on me, standing behind me in the lunch line and unintentionally knocking my feet out from under me. This would have been harmless pre-adolescent hijinks, except that on the way to the floor, the back on my head was intercepted by the edge of a dark green steel trash can.

I felt a sharp shock, and then everything went blurry for a timeless moment. I realized I wasn’t breathing: “Wow, so this is what it’s like to be dead!” Faces crowded over me, puzzling me, and then horrific pain flooded my mind as my body drew breath.

I don’t remember going to the hospital, other than a dim moment in which the phrase “mild concussion” was used. In fact, I was a bit surprised that I was allowed to stay home from school the next morning, though. I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, attempting to draw with colored pencils. She tried to show me the right way to fill the color in large areas, keeping my strokes headed in the same direction, and smooth. I told her “But that isn’t the way things look to me, Mama.” She gave me some Hawaiian Punch and told me to keep practicing.

That afternoon my father took me back to school, right after lunch. The other kids were amazed to see me, and I was a momentary celebrity. My most appreciative fan, however, was Scott Ule, who told me he had heard I was dead. The story had it that I had died of a broken skull, or alternately, that I wasn’t dead, but I was a vegetable. Either way, the grapevine had it that Scott would soon be picked up by the police for his crime.

He was very happy to see me.

My parents were clear that I should forgive Scott for this, because “he’s from a bad home.” I’m not sure really what the situation was, only that he didn’t have a mother, and his dad worked for the railroads. “No one is setting a good example for him,” they said. So I decided I would be his friend.

A week later he told me I was a dork, and to leave him alone.

Later that year our class went on a field trip. In the late 1960s, few southern Illinois homes had a swimming pool, so we went to the YMCA, to go swimming. Needless to say, I had no idea how to swim. I didn’t even have a bathing suit.

That day I was late leaving the locker room. Without my glasses I couldn’t find my way around very well, and was really intimidated by the size of the pool. Scott saw me and decided to take pity on me. I was looking for the shallow end, and he helpfully told me it was all shallow, and to just jump right in over by the diving boards.

While I was trying to surface he helped me again, jumping in and standing on my back until I was reminded what it was like to be dead. It was eerie, feeling his feet on my back, and not feeling anything else at all. Everything was very blue, and very quiet.

And then I was throwing up my breakfast at the side of the pool, while other kids stood around me and squealed in delight and disgust. In the distance I heard teachers shouting at me for being stupid and jumping in the pool like that, and thanking Scott for diving in and trying to save me. They sent me into the locker room to get dressed, and told me to wait on the bus for everyone else to finish.

Sometimes late I night I close my eyes and I can see the faces of the kids in my class, all staring down at me with curiosity or contempt. Sometimes I look at the strangeness that has followed me though my life, and wonder if I ever got up again.

Sand

I like going to the beach. I like the sand, the sound of the waves, the inescapable tranquility there, even on a Saturday afternoon filled with boom boxes and hip-hop and traffic noise. The immensity of the ocean mutes all the trivial achievements of man and our petty little annoyances. It is calming.

Unfortunately, the sun doesn’t care much for me. It seems sometimes that my skin is so sensitive to ultraviolet that I get a burn from fluorescent lighting. Without a thick coat of SPF1000 I go up in flames, like a gen-x vampire. And while I have no problem with oiling up for the right person, it isn’t the same when it’s Coppertone Flat White Housepaint.

So I compromise. I go to the beach in the late afternoon, when most of the crowds have left, and walk until the sun sets. Some days I bring a notebook with me and write until the light is gone. Once twilight comes, I find an empty lifeguard station and sit, watching the violet waves fade to black. It helps me find my center. It did back then, too, before I met her.

The first time I saw her, she almost literally bowled me over. I had seen the sparkle of something in the sand, and knelt down to get it. When I stood up, I slipped a bit in the loose dry sand, and almost fell right into her path. I heard a sound and looked up just in time to see two strong, muscular legs leap over my almost-but-not-quite prone form. I instinctively ducked, and by the time I got to my feet she was already yards down the beach. For a moment I considered trying to follow her, but quickly realized that I could never catch her, probably not from an even start, certainly not with her lead. I smiled though, at the image of those legs, and of that terrific ass as it sped away from me.

Our paths crossed several more times over the next weeks, though not as clumsily as the first. Mostly I would be walking along, scribbling in the sand with a stick of driftwood, when I would hear the quick pad of her footsteps on the sand ahead of me. I would look up from my scrawl, and stop to watch her glide effortlessly across the sand, enjoying the movements of her taut muscles, then energy she put into the run. And I would just enjoy looking at her, although I tried to be at least slightly discreet. I would smile at her as she passed me, and she would smile back. And some days, after she passed, I would turn around to enjoy the view from the other side. I wondered if she knew I was looking, and was embarrassed once when she looked back over her shoulder a few yards further down. Fortunately she smiled in a good-natured way, and I assumed I didn’t have to be quite as circumspect in my enjoyment.

As the days passed, I tried to think of ways to introduce myself to her. Running alongside her was ridiculous; even if I was as young as her, I couldn’t hope to keep up with her, and would only humiliate myself. Just waving her to a stop would work for most people, but I tend to be shy. (I guess that’s why I write.) But I only had another weekend on the island, and hated the thought of leaving without even telling her directly how much I enjoyed these glancing meetings.

So one Friday twilight I was walking along, lost in thoughts, writing poems in the sand, when a haiku came to me. I stopped near the water’s edge and wrote, in large block letters in the sand:

the panther runs with
grace and speed, and does not stop
for introductions

I read what I had written, laughed at the silliness of it, and was about to wipe it out when I heard familiar strides.

She continued running, but slowed as she passed. She was maybe another ten yards down the shore when she stopped and turned around, returning to read it again in the fading light. I stood stock still, afraid to even look at her. Then she turned to me, smiled, said, “I’m Stephanie,” and continued her run. It  took quite a while for twilight to end.