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Growing Up, Up, and Away
You see them in the crowd at high school graduations. You see them sitting in the pews of a church at a wedding. And you see them perched on the edge of the benches at the playground, keeping an eye on a drooling snot-maker as it (sorry, he or she) swings on the monkey bars or flies down the slide.
You guessed it. Moms. They’re the ones who cradle you when you’re a baby, tie your shoes as you toddle off to Kindergarten, contemplate that V-neck on the first day of Jr. High, watch wistfully through the window as you ride off with your prom date, and sit there amongst wadded-up tissues as you vent about a certain him dumping you for your best friend.
Usually they’re the ones who hoard nostalgia and release it sporadically, such as bursting into tears over your size-12 Converse because they remember your tiny booties back in diaper-days.
I watch the streets of our cul-de-sac, waiting for the fateful headlights to illuminate Mrs. Peterson’s hedges. Down the hall, my parents are sound-asleep, Dad snoring softly and Mom murmuring quietly in her sleep. Like always.
I sink into the comforter carefully folded on my bed. My hands are shaking; I bounce my cheap Nokia ($20 at Target) palm to palm. I shut my eyes and count to ten before I open them.
My room, small as it is, is what you’d expect of a teenager. Teen Vogue and Seventeen mags crammed in a wicker box, walls covered in posters from my favorite bands, and a small portion of shelf devoted to orchestra, art, volleyball, and fencing awards. Yet I still remember what it looked like a few years ago, when I thought Hello Kitty and Jesse McCartney were ultra-cute.
Some things have survived the test of time. Bubba, the stuffed white cat I’ve had ever since I was one, sits solemnly next to Pooh Bear and another stuffed cat, Zip. The rest of my toys have long since been handed off to the Goodwill or are hidden in the basement.
God. I rub my temples. Now I’m nostalgic. Why?
It’s the best for all of us, I tell myself, strangling my cell in my left hand. I’ll come back eventually. When they understand.
I swallow back an abrupt surge of tears.
Lex says we can make it in California, hiding out in Los Angeles. Or he has contacts up in Vancouver for us. My folks loathe him. Maybe it’s the dirty-blond emo hair, or the snake tattoo that goes from his wrist around the base of his thumb. Or the fact his father walked out on him after choking him at a family BBQ and his mother is a pill-popper. Or that he’s sixteen and I’m fourteen.
They don’t see him the way I do. The way he admires my drawings, how my lines are never quite straight and I constantly use complementary colors. The way his watery-blue eyes look in the sun, or when he smiles and gets that little dimple in his cheek. Mom tells me I have a bright future; Dad tells me Lex will spend his life flipping burgers at McDonalds.
I press a hand against my chest. My heart hammers wildly against it. They don’t understand. I hope they will eventually, when I’ve gone out with Lex and done things my way.
My eyes wander over to the string stretching the length of the wall behind my bed. Attached by clothespins are pictures, pre-school to now. Eighth grade.
There’s a photo of me scowling at the camera while I stand in a knee-deep sandbox. I remember that, the pre-school teacher didn’t like me and smelled like peppermint.
First grade. I’m with a whole group of girls. There’s a cast on my ankle. They would eventually grow up to be the shallow, “popular” girls that want nothing to do with me, and hate me because I’m with Lex. Even then, they only wanted to be in the photo. And sign my cast.
Third grade. With my best friends to this day. Tanya, Pen, Ro, and Jeanie. All dressed up for Halloween.
Sixth grade. Last year of elementary school for our district. Me dressed in heels and a striped blue dress, grinning crookedly with my arms slung around two of my best guy friends.
Sevvy year. First year of Jr. High. I’m gazing wearily at the camera, gnawing on a pencil. There’s another one of me, where I actually look good. I’m bent over a painting, my hair almost on the canvas.
Eighth grade year. Several pictures of me with friends in orchestra or in the lunch room. A small picture of Lex cradling me in his arms with my head on his shoulder while both us make goofy faces, is tucked at the far edge of the string.
Even my best friends don’t understand me like he does.
I push myself off the bed and wander over to the window again. Feverishly check my wristwatch. He’ll be here in two minutes, he’s very punctual. I grab my duffel bag and heavy messenger bag. Packed inside are my toiletries and several bundles of clothes and underwear. A couple of energy bars, a water bottle, my student ID, a pair of rain boots, and all of the cash from my saving’s account. The money was meant for a new cello. I can’t drag my rental with me, it’s a stupid idea and the instrument’s too big. It’s not like I play a flute or something.
Besides, $1,373.22 is lighter.
I look around the room. I didn’t forget anything; I have all the solid necessities.
Necessities? My eyes flit back to the pictures. Before I can stop myself, I march over and grab every single one of them, shoving them into the messenger bag. On second thought, I kneel on the carpet and paw beneath my bed for my shoebox full of sentimental stuff. Lex won’t mind, but it’s one of the few things he won’t understand. He’s not very sentimental.
I shove the silver locket that belonged to my late grandmother into the messenger bag. I snatch up a card filled with my mother’s curly script and my father’s spiky scratches, inside is a pressed scrap of lavender. The scent is sweet, and it makes my heart ache.
I check my watch. A small tap on my window startles me. I look over just as another pebble bounces off the glass.
“Showtime,” I murmur to myself, the word sticking in my throat. I scramble to my feet and pad out of my room. I’m just about to bolt down the stairs when I freeze. I catch my breath.
One more thing, I promise myself. One last thing. I tiptoe down the hall and gingerly inch the door open, praying the hinges won’t creak. They don’t. I thank God silently.
They seem so peaceful, younger. My eyes trace the familiar shape of Daddy’s jaw, the curve of Ma’s lips. The moonlight peeking through the blinds illuminates the gray in their hair. When did that happen?
I still remember them the way they were when I was younger. I wonder if they remember me that way too. Suddenly a lump creeps into my throat and I have to stifle a small whimper.
I’ll miss them. But it’s best for me. For them. For everyone.
“I love you,” I whisper. Those three words used to leave my lips all the time when I was little. I guess I stopped saying it so much after I turned ten. But I do. As family we love each other three times more than anyone else…but we hate each other three times more than anyone else.
They won’t let me follow my own path. Okay, I guess I’ll just have to embark alone.
I leave the door ajar. Tiptoe down the stairs and almost run out the front door. Sure enough, Lex’s beat-up truck is stalling in front of the mailboxes. I can see his hair, bleached silver by the moon’s light. My heart beats even faster. I dump my stuff in the cargo bed and climb into the shotgun seat.
His fingers reach out for mine, and they mold together like matching puzzle pieces.
“You sure about this?” he asks. He knows I’m leaving behind a life.
“Of course,” I say. I know he’s running away from a personal Hell.
Both of us want to put distance between painful memories. “We’ll find a place. A studio for you. Enroll in a community college. I promise. I promise I won’t let you down—”
I cut him short by pressing my finger against his lips. “I promise I won’t let either of us down.” I let go of his hand and flop back in the peeling, leather seat. “Just go, okay?”
His foot slams down on the gas. With a deep rumble, we blast out of the cul-de-sac, and into the unknown. In the suburbs, I’m the overachieving champion with an amazingly bright future. Out there, I’m nobody, just another plain face in the crowd.
Out there, I am independent. Out there, I can grow up.