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Through the Eyes of Lions
“So do you like him?” she asks curiously.
“Maybe, I don’t know! It was just a dance! Jeez, chill will you?” I answer, gazing up at the cloudy sky. The sun is hiding in the dark gray masses.
I shiver in my thin sweatshirt. The wind blows my face, playing with the loose fly-aways from my pony tail. I angrily tuck them back behind my ears. They are always getting in the way.
“Well, I think he definitely likes you. No question!” she answers, as though there is no doubt as to the accuracy of her statement.
“That’s great,” I respond, not really listening.
Our wandering feet have led us to the hill. Standing there at the top, I reflect that four years ago this hill seemed like Mount Everest. My eyes turn to the house with the lion statues out front, standing fiercely with severe eyes and harsh stares. Some things never change. But some things do.
Pedaling slowly down the street with the hot sun searing the back of my neck, I determine that it must get hotter as you get older because I can’t remember it ever being this hot last year. I watch the ground as I roll along, examining each tire mark left on the road and predicting whom the owner might be. The long black one down the middle of the road must be from the high school boy down the street, who Dad says goes too fast. I can’t wait to go to high school so that I can drive a car. I think I would drive to Nevada in it. Mom says there isn’t anything in Nevada except Las Vegas, and I’d-better-not-go-there-or-I’ll-be-grounded. I don’t want to go to Las Vegas though; I just want to go to Nevada because I like the name and how it sounds when you say it.
The fat one on the side of the road is from the mom who lives across from us. It’s from her big purple mini van that has all the stickers in the back windows. My mom would never let me put stickers on the window of our van. She has to have everything neat and orderly. I wisely told her that she had “messaphobia”, but she just told me to shush and clean up my room.
I pull into the driveway of Akshaya’s house. I like her house. It’s just like my house, only it has a front porch which has a lot of plants on it. Her house is orange; ours is a boring brick red, just like our old house in Amelia. I think it would be cool to have an orange house, a least cooler than having a red one like everybody else on our street.
There are a bunch of dandelions growing in her front garden, and a flock of birds have gathered on her front sidewalk around the pile of bird seed left there every weekend. Scattered across the driveway are newspapers from weeks past, flung here and there the way jacks are thrown across a table. Her grass needs cut. It’s springing out of the ground like bunnies popping out of their burrows.
A weird banner hangs above her door, which reminds me of the smile of a clown, and it is just as colorful as one. The bright reds, blues, yellows and greens are like a clown’s painted snowy white face. There are bells that are attached to the banner, and they jingle like Santa’s snow bells when the door opens. I ring the doorbell, and immediately I can hear her mom start to yell in Hindi. I tell my mom that when I get to high school, I’m going to sign up for Indian class because I have no idea what Akshaya and her parents are talking about half the time. Eventually, Akshaya answers the door. It always takes her awhile.
“Hey pallie,” she whispers, breathless from her dash down the stairs. Then she yells gibberish at her mom and closes the door behind her. Akshaya is wearing one of those pairs of shorts I told her never to wear again. They are too small because they are from when she was in, like, the fourth grade, and they are pink. I hate the color pink. Akshaya doesn’t. Her shirt has a Mickey Mouse on it even though Akshaya has never been to Disney World. Her black hair is pulled back in a pony tail that looks much better than mine. Mom has just cut me loose in the world of hair-styling and I have yet to gain any real experience. I’ll be lucky if my own pony tail lasts to the end of the street.
I’m jealous of Akshaya because she never has to wear any sunscreen since her skin is so dark, it doesn’t matter. Mom says that it’s unhealthy; I think that we should all have dark skin so that I wouldn’t have to lather up every morning. But then, I wonder, what would the sun screen company do? Her eyes are darker than the chocolate on the birthday cake we shared last week. (Our birthdays are only six days apart.) Akshaya hates it when I say her eyes are black, so I do it all the time.
“What do you want to do?” I ask, thinking about the prospect of the muggy August day ahead of us.
“I don’t know; what do you want to do?”
Deciding that I don’t want to play this game, I say, “Let’s have a bike race.” The total extent of our summertime expeditions is limited. We are allowed to go only to the top of the hill of the road that connects to ours.
Agreeing with the eagerness that she always seems to contain, no matter the hour, she opens her garage door which makes a weird screechy noise and pedals out on her bike. Personally, I’m amazed that this piece of junk keeps up with us. The bike periodically gets stuck in first gear, or sometimes it just won’t go at all. Then we have to spend an hour or so trying to fix it with our clumsy hands. The whole time Akshaya is freaking out that her parents will kill her if the bike is broken. Also, the seat is as hard as the breadsticks we get with the Italian Pasta Bar on Fridays. Luckily, today the bike decides to cooperate and work.
I despise going up the hill with Akshaya. Before we even move two feet, Akshaya begins to complain that it’s too hot, we’ll never get there, and it must be 105 degrees out here, because I’m already sweating! I feel like a camel traveling across the Sahara desert all the way over in Egypt. After what feels like an eternity, we are at the top of the hill. The bottom seems like an awfully long way down, and I gulp, because what if I run into a fire hydrant and get stuck again? Last time Akshaya didn’t help at all. She just sat there and laughed.
“Who’s goin’ first?” she asks, eyeing the road apprehensively.
Secretly, I want to go second so that I can pedal all the way down, even though we are supposed to stop pedaling at the house with the stone lions on the front stoop. She won’t see, or suspect, a thing. But you don’t tell people that you want to cheat. It wouldn’t really be cheating then. Akshaya stares at me reflectively, obviously waiting for me to make a decision. I wish she wouldn’t do this because she always gets mad at me and says that I never let her decide what we are going to do. The stupid thing is that she never makes an attempt at any decision! It always comes back to bite me in the butt.
Wearily giving in to her hierarchy, I agree to go first, knowing very well that she is planning on cheating on the way down. I stand at the top of the hill and look up at the sky. I love watching the sky while I swing back and forth on the play set in my backyard. I used to want to be an astronaut, but then the Columbia space ship exploded. A farmer found some astronaut’s arm in his field, and I decided that flying to the moon wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I take a big breath, filling my lungs up like I’m getting ready for the Tour de France, and start pedaling.
We have spent the past several weeks planning the work of art we now call “The Bike Race”. You start pedaling at the top of the hill, stop when you get to the house with the lion fetish, and then you sail down the rest of the hill until you get to our street. At the corner you take a sharp veer left onto Red Fox Court and zoom down the cul-de-sac until your bike stops all on its own. Whoever goes the farthest wins.
I pedal like my life is on the line and stop right where I’m supposed to. My cheeks are burning with anger knowing that Akshaya is past the Lion House now too and is still pedaling. I turn left, sneak in a desperate pedal to inch me along, but it’s too late. I’m already slowing down and I’m not even past the first mail box yet! My eyes fill with angry tears as Akshaya brushes past me. I wipe my sleeve hastily. I’m 12, and 12-year-olds don’t cry. Only my baby sister Felicity cries, and she is two.
At the distant end of the road, where Akshaya’s stupid bike finally putters to a stop, Akshaya raises her hand in some weird kind of dance. She is clearly rubbing her victory in my face.
“Not fair!” my mind immediately screams “She cheated! I know it!” I stalk down the road and yell exactly what I am thinking, “Not fair! Rematch! You cheated!”
Akshaya lowers her hands and narrows her eyes. She detests being called a cheater. “I did not, so you’d better stop saying that. You just can’t stand to lose for once.”
I walk back to my bike, deliberately facing away from her to hide my face. I hastily wipe at my running nose. I feel like one of those robbers the police chase on America’s Most Wanted. I’m not supposed to watch that show, but I do when Mom isn’t around because I like the music. Still mad, I pull my bike up my driveway. I carefully put it down next to our old green lawn chairs, which are filled with spider webs, and our old red wagon my mom bought at a garage sale last summer.
“Fine!” she yells as I walk up to our door and slam it, “Go home and pout!”
Walking in the door, I do not answer the quizzical looks my dad sends me from his position on the couch. He’s pretending to fold laundry, but he is really just watching the football game. I go up to my room. It’s lavender and filled with flowers, my mom’s idea. Felicity toddles out of her room, looking cute in two pig tails that have little sprouts of hair sticking out of them and a binkey jammed in her mouth. But she could be Justin Timberlake, and I would not care right now. I slam the door in her face. She begins pawing at it and whining just like our dog does, so I turn on the radio. I sit on my bed and look out the window, at the neighbor’s house. They have a pool. Maybe I should be a fish. They don’t have stupid bike races in Fish World. Or maybe they do, and we just do not know about it. I’m not anxious to find out.
I think about the meaning of Akshaya’s words. I think as hard as that one Einstein guy, only my hair doesn’t look that bad. She was obviously mad, but how mad? Will she be okay in an hour, or is it one of those fights that is going to last until tomorrow? Akshaya never stays mad long. I realize how serious being called a sore loser is. Was she right?
Naw, I answer myself, I’m not a sore loser. I just don’t like it when people cheat. But was she cheating? I could not hear her pedaling. And trust me, on her bike, you can hear pedaling. You can hear anything that bike does. Grudgingly, hating what I am doing, I pick up the phone and dial her number, which is known all too well to me.
“Hey,” she picks up on the second ring. She was waiting for me to call.
“Hi,” I say uneasily. “Akshaya, I’m, uh . . . I’m sorry. You didn’t cheat, I . . . you’re right, I hate to lose.”
“I know I’m right,” she answers. She isn’t going to make this easy.
“I . . . well . . . um . . .” I begin to falter.
“It’s okay, Laura Beth,” she replies in a tone that means that she has forgiven me.
“Good!” I exclaim, glad that is settled “What do you say to some ice cream on me?” I ask, genuinely happy that the uneasy conversation is done between us.
“Sure,” she answers. I notice that she doesn’t seem as happy as me. Something is missing. Oh yeah.
“Congratulations. On winning, I mean.”
“Akshaya?” I wonder suddenly.
“What?” she asks. She had been fixing her hair while I was lost in my nostalgia.
“Do you remember when we were younger, and we had those bike races?”
“Yeah, that was so stupid.”
“Well, uh, do you want to have one now?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Well, uh, yeah . . . just kidding.”
“Come on, I’m getting cold. Let’s go inside. If we get back soon enough we can watch Next. I love that show!”
It’s hard for me to tear my eyes away from the Lion House. I do anyway, following Akshaya down the hill, the bright pink of her sweatshirt clashing with our dank surroundings. I glance back at the hill as we trudge our way home. Some things never change. But some things do.