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Concord, California: 1988
words + visuals:
Sunlight beats down onto tiny blades of grass. Our eyes hurt as if we are looking at a million glinting emeralds. Behind the elementary school, this small green sea of uniform sod covers the small hills that ripple downwards at a gentle slope. I am ten. We are on the blacktop looking down. The asphalt surrounds us, beneath our size six feet, undulating haphazardly, hiccupping at each small bump, groaning at the cracks. The playground extends furthest towards the horizons, on our left as we face forward. Everything is illuminated by the sun.
We are wearing peach and cream striped cotton polo shirts or denim shorts or a tank top with a print of a cartoon lamb jumping over a small fence. We wear - loop-and-lock style - cherry-red-and-licorice-black or sea-foam-and-canary-yellow or bubble-gum-pink-and-tangerine-orange color combo jelly bracelets on our skinny wrists. We skip, run, dodge balls, and do little sprints in slip-on Keds, or PayLess leather sandals, or brand new Nikes mom and dad bought after lots of begging. Despite the sweaty feet, the swoosh logos lend a certain strut to the stride.
The sky above is a bright blue upside down cup of cocoa, complete with dollops of floating white clouds. When we look up, we watch the white melt away into swirling wisps, almost tasting the thick blue sweetness of the sky in summer. All the while, our skin turns slowly red or golden brown from kisses made of light.
One of us begins to walk towards the grass. I am mute. The air is filled with far away laughter, the faint bop-bop-bop of the tether ball being hit between two hands or two sets of hands, depending on the swing or arch of the ball forever connected to its metal pole. There is a barely audible bustle in the classrooms behind us. Teachers are getting ready to see us off for the next three languid months, their minds already on vacation, planning for what to bring to the desert, to the beach, to the woods next to the rolling river. The noonday heat has made our minds sticky and slow so we see nothing before us except the sky, the grass, and the asphalt. We blink heavily, sensing only different degrees of brightness. Sifting through the various shades of yellow, our eyes become kaleidoscopes. Our thoughts become nebulous, like the clouds.
Three girls begin to do cartwheels and round-offs down the moist green hills. I squint and watch them, wishing my outfit was as coordinated, my socks as bright and clean. All of a sudden, the halls reverberate with sound. The last bell of the year has gone off and soon, the playground will be empty. We will all be skip-stepping jubilantly on our way home, listening for the ice cream truck's distant jingle. Some of us hoping to slake an urgent thirst for a popsicle, while others simply want to join the herd, waving their quarters in the air.
There are a few friends I usually walk home with but in the excitement of the last day of school, they have all gone ahead or taken another route. There were plans to go sprinkler-hopping in someone's front yard after the last bell rang. Some lucky ducks talked excitedly about going to a friend's pool or were running home to get a ride to the mall to watch a movie, guzzle Slurpies, and play in the video arcade. I find myself just walking.
I walk slow, then fast, then slow, then fast. I walk down the gray gravel path towards the streets and the houses. On both sides of the path, grass is growing. Intermittent gray dandelion heads bob to and fro in tune with the zephyrs created by the coupling of cool shade from the trees and the heat from all around. At first I am trying not to sweat too much so I dawdle, buying time to save a trickle that will roll down my cheek starting at a sideburn. My socks feel heavy. My t-shirt is too thick. Finally, I walk fast in order to get to the trees at the end of the park, of which our playground is connected. The trees mark the beginning of the journey back to home. My dark hair will get some temporary relief from the relentless sun.
On the fence behind the broad shady trees are two boys sitting side by side. One boy has hair the color of oatmeal. The other has freckles sprinkled on his face like cinnamon on milk foam on coffee in fancy cafes. They are both swinging their legs energetically, gripping the top bar of the fence they are sitting on with white knuckle excitement.
"Ching chong chinaman! Ching chong chinaman!" rings out into the warm air, like cracked ice hitting the sides of a drinking glass. "Ching chong chinaman! Ching chong chinaman!" the boy with the freckles fairly sings out to the world as his eyes narrow watching me approach the fence where they are sitting. There is not a group of us to hide among. I am without the clean white and pink socks, or even the new Nikes to ward off bad feelings. I try to think about my favorite pencil sharpener and rainbow eraser tucked safely into the small pocket of my backpack.
The shivers begin. Their faces do not resemble those of the cartwheel girls or the teachers we listen to in class. Their faces are pinched and swollen and exploding into words that feel like hail stones on new skin after you've picked off a scab. My eyes do not see yellow sunshine shades or trees or even the gravel path I am walking on. Instead, all the cars and houses and the street go fuzzy, indistinct. In my ears, it echoes and follows me all the way home.
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