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Bleachers

High places had scared me since I was a kid. Innumerable were the memories of being trapped at the top of anaconda-like playground slides, towering rock walls and diving boards, not to mention wobbling pyramids made of middle school cheerleaders. Each memory was joined by the same feeling of pure terror as we climbed higher and higher up the home team bleachers. I could feel the familiar sensation spreading through my body. Unwelcome as the rash of a terrifying health book STD, there was no denying the steady quickening of my heartbeat, the sticky sweat between my fingers.
I have to admit, I found myself surprised at the familiar reaction. There was something about being in high school that had convinced me I no longer had anything to fear. I was in the big building now, the mysterious place that, at the start of every fall, seemed to hunt down and swallow every youth over the age of fourteen as if it were the Minotaur or a black hole. It was where some girls got pregnant and slow dancing wasn’t awkward anymore. There were new things called pep rallies and skip days, new words like prom, AP and varsity. Three weeks was all it had taken to convince me that I, no longer an eighth grader, had finally arrived, though at what I couldn’t be sure. The Red-Bull-gives-you-wings feeling that I could go anywhere and do anything with nothing to fear, except of course seniors, had intoxicated me on the first day and hadn’t wavered until this very moment.
My steps made hollow sounds as we ascended an ominous thunk of my shoes on the aluminum as we climbed higher. We fought our way through the mass of body that was the students’ section, careful not to shove any uppers too hard. We were freshmen, and that meant, to my secret horror, climbing to the top of the stands.
The top row of the bleachers had a length of chain link fence stretching along behind it. I could already see a few more of my friends leaning against it, sharing a box of popcorn trying not to get face paint on the kernels. Their comfort in the top row seemed as foreign to me as mountain goats in the Himalayas. The inevitable thought had come to mind of, by some act of an evil scientist on the opposing team, the chain link rail dematerializing sending them all plummeting to the concrete below, their screams mixing with the chaos of the crowd.
Not by my body, but by the constant current of freshmen trekking to the bleachers’ summit I found myself joining my friends at the top. A smile and nod were all I could manage as I squeezed in, compacted side by side in a way only girls can feel comfortable. To scared to raise my head, I admired the row of denim-covered thighs, stretching on into the distance. Gossip and rumors flitted around like feathers or bits of dust in the air. Seniors led the Ohhh-oh-oh-ohhh cheer as the band coughed out the fight song. Referees jogged about below like upright zebras preparing the field. I found the courage to raise my head and wave to the football team’s water boy, heading to the announcer’s booth to film the game.
Perhaps it was my newborn-freshmen status or aging adrenaline still slightly quaking my knees that carried the distinctive sound of child’s chatter out of the bleachers’ din to my ears. I took a cautious glance behind me and peered through the chain link. There was a large yard lined with storage sheds and the bomb-shelter-like restrooms. It was mostly covered with patchy grass, on it lounged countless middle school students. Some stood in groups talking, others punted footballs back and forth. The chaos of the game muted most of their sound, but it still comforted me as I reminisced.
I remembered how we used to play in the bleachers’ shadow, sheltered from the bright stadium lights and protected from the teenage bedlam. We had been close enough to the high school kids to experience that crave-worthy feeling of maturity without getting too dangerously close. We showed off our cheap cell phones and whispered about the latest developments on late night TV shows we weren’t supposed to watch yet. There was trading of lip gloss and poor attempts at flirting. Relationships beneath the bleachers were often outlived by the moths that flew around overhead. And occasionally, when the line of skinny jean butts visible in top row were all facing away, transfixed by the battle before them, we’d raise our eyes and gaze up at the creatures who were so much like us but also so irrevocably different. As we watched them, listened to them we all wondered to ourselves when it was that our time would come; when we ourselves would take on the hallowed task of cheering on the football team each autumn Friday night. We wondered when, as if pulled by the adolescent gods, we would rise from below and stand in the shiny place that was the bleachers.
I tugged my eyes away from the half-lit darkness of the yard, back to glare of the lights and drumming of the band. What was this feeling? Was it how young starlets felt when they finally made their break in Hollywood? How the class dweeb feels when she moves into her Ivy League dorm? I watched the two teams take the field, colorful pawns in a game played under million watt lights. As they brawled, forcing away the number on the scoreboard for an ever-higher one, I felt like a goddess perched on Olympus, an angel resting on a cumulus, all the power in the world for me and endless time to use it all.
Midway through the second quarter, there was a hush over the crowd. Our what’s-dat-spell-? chant was abruptly cut short as the cheerleaders hit the ground, each identically folding their legs and resting on their sides. The players on the sideline came to one knee a little less elegantly, as if they had all simultaneously decided to pop the question. The hundred-one sounds once braided together were replaced by a large collective thump as countless spectators lowered themselves to the cold benches of the bleachers. An indiscernible murmur filled the stands, casting my eyes to the end zone, I saw the trigger. A referee lying on his back, arms splayed out, eyes shut. Faraway, sirens began to wail.
The two-man paramedic team meant for concussions sprinted one hundred yards across the field pushing a stretcher. There was nothing but silence as we sat, waiting to know if we had witnessed the impossible thing called death. Someone left the clock running and I began to wonder if the man’s life was diminishing just as rapidly.
Minutes lazily floated by, impossibly slow. We listened to the sounds then only heard on TV, the urgent beep, beep, beeeeep of a heart monitor as it flat lined; the weak pop of a defibrillator, like the last firecracker on the fourth of July. Then there was another sound, this one not from television but familiar in our memories; the sound that had been silent all this time but now that the unthinkable had happened, was heard by all: the laughter and chatter of children.
Many turned to stare at the back row, as if the freshmen were the source. All that were close enough to the top peered through the chain link at the tiny silhouettes below. They were still playing, still chattering, buffered from the bad news and the silence by the bleachers. The sound was unsettling and there were whispers of “Shut them up,” and “Someone tell them to be quiet.” But it was all ushered out by the rhythmic echo of “Nah, let them play, its best they don’t know.”
Its best they don’t know. The other refs stood solemnly as the man’s chest heaved unnaturally. There was pop after pop, some players close to the action lowered their heads. Its best they don’t know. Someone in the booth finally stopped the clock. Towel boy lowered his camera and gawked wide eyed. The silence in the bleachers was an itchy sweater, so uncomfortable, so grown-up. Its best they don’t know. New questions came to mind. When the starlet sees that rumor on that drug-store tabloid, how does she feel? When the competiveness of Harvard proves suffocating for the dweeb, what does she do? What does an angel feel when she finds that her wings can’t carry her from the bad? Its best they don’t know.
I rested my head on the chain link and let their laughter fill my ears. They wanted so much to know the secrets of high school, the habits of teenagers, the ways of their world. These things were like diamonds and they were eager miners. But there were catches. Stipulations, as there always as are. I wondered what good a diamond was when you had to sell your home to get it. I suddenly felt the need to descend to their level, and tell them the true price of growing up. But something stopped me, all their laughter perhaps. It was best they didn’t know.



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