by Melanie Lee
Today was Day Three of what everybody in the whole world said was From Now On and my knees were going to buckle but I said they didn’t hurt. Kids were playing. I gave my mother a peck instead of a hug. I would see her again the next morning, probably — she told me again that she had to come home from work after I went to bed. Ophelia would pick me up and take me home. I pictured Ophelia and pushed all the fluttering down my arms as I walked past Miss Cecil into the noisy clouds of Kindergarten. Mommy waved her hand near her high cheekbone before she left. I walked around the groups until it was time to do whatever Miss Cecil said.
This was how the rest of the days the rest of the year went.
After lunch Denise would climb the monkey bars, jut out her jaw like a pirate, swing and jab all around with her air sword. A strip of her brown bangs always dropped over her eyebrow when she turned to face this way. Each time I started to climb higher, she scrambled over the bars to block me. When I told Miss Cecil that Denise wouldn’t let me go high, she told me to talk to her tomorrow.
I faced Denise. “Miss Cecil said.” I walked over to the edge of the bars and climbed up, then clambered sideways to the center. This was going well. But Denise closed in, locked and stuck out her jaw even more, squinted the points of her eyes even tighter and swung her sword wider. “I’ll push you off.”
I considered huffing bravery, but I checked and it was a lot of bars down. I hated seeing me all crumpled at the bottom so letting Denise win was nothing. Bar by bar, I climbed all the way down. I found something new: a soft path of square red tiles made of rectangles and triangles. I followed it until I found a bench between two painted wooden towers set up like a storybook. There wasn’t any door to the towers, but even so, the bench was where I went during lunch.
Late one afternoon, Miss Cecil and her assistant told us to form circles between the bench and the monkey bars and hold hands. They told a songstory I couldn’t hear most of but everyone else was walking around and I walked with them. They peeled us off into lines, saying we were getting our coats for a journey over mountains, through jungles, to animals in a faraway country.
I was ready for the trip. I bounced on my toes. My eyes got bright. I would leave Denise, Miss Cecil and Ophelia far behind, all alone forever. Maybe Mommy would come sometimes.
The lines stopped in front of the cubbies. I waited for Thomas to get his coat on before I walked to mine. When I was pulling my coat from its hook I froze in a flash of newest knowing: we were just going home. Not going on a journey or seeing animals. Not leaving anyone here. Ophelia would be downstairs with the mothers in a few minutes.
I was stuck in my throat. Stuck… I turned my head. The other kids were black figures between me and the sunlight coming over from outside through the windows.
I swung my eyes around again for anything that knew me. My book bag was rumpled on the floor of the cubby.
“I need to get my coat.” It was Cathy. I looked at her. Long blond hair, blue eyes. I looked at my bookbag.
“Move. I need my coat. Miss Cecil.”
Miss Cecil came up beside me. “People are waiting. Put your coat on. Let Cathy get her coat.” I did. The line moved. I crushed my ribs in, went wherever Miss Cecil led me. I kept everything in about that day, and many more, except for what wouldn’t stay in, like the vomit.
That came the next day at lunchtime and the next and the next. The teachers didn’t yell at me at school. Lucky me. But I found out they did tell Ophelia.
The train was rocking on the subway tracks home when she told me what they’d told her.
“No I didn’t.”
“Don’t lie or I’ll slap you.” I hadn’t heard about slaps before. The train rocked some more. “I want you to stop throwing up. I’ll slap you if you do and I’ll slap you if you lie to me about it.”
I stopped vomiting a few days later, slap free. Smart and safe, that was me. Then my lips started bleeding while I was asleep. Sleeping next to Mommy didn’t stop it. Sometimes I’d wake up feeling blood running out my lower lip down my chin. Fast flutters about the blood falling on the bottom sheet were rising, so I had to think faster than the blood falling. I picked up the top sheet and squeezed my lips into both sides. Brown spots all over my side of the sheet showed me what my lips were like. I showed Mommy. She said not to worry, got up and went to work without a stop.
Ophelia looked at the sheets. “These will be hard to wash. Stop using them.” I couldn’t see any of the spots from the hall. “Use a tissue.”
I forgot not to use the sheet the next day but a slap never came, even though Ophelia was around all day. By two days later, I’d learned the value of tissues. It was a lot of work to reach the box every day. I was surprised when my lips stopped bleeding soon.
I walked around our apartment slap-and-word free. Ophelia was in everything, then.