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Shortcut Home MAG
My family took a lot of road trips back to New York over the summer, usually in Dad's tiny ྐ Dodge. If you had seen that car – there were still a few around back then – you'd point and laugh. But in ྙ they weren't that old, and it ran well enough to get us past the state border.
It had been an especially long trip for a nine-year-old girl, even longer for her thirty-something parents. Our band of tired, angry family members were on the brink of homicide as we putted into a gas station, a welcome release from the perpetual boredom of the car ride. The smell of gasoline and cigarette smoke mixed with the various ills of my sisters' feet, and resulting in a faint feeling of nausea. I stuck my head out the window for air (not that it helped), and searched half-heartedly for something interesting. She was coming my way.
I waited for Dad to disappear into the store, then whispered to Mom excitedly. She looked up from her crocheting, fixating on the apparition I was pointing out. It was Jessica Sweat, a close friend of mine I hadn't seen since kindergarten. Then in the fourth grade, I measured our separation in decades.
Mom flagged Jessica down, with that high-pitched voice only a mother has. The tiny girl looked up warily, taking a step then stopped. I shouted and she, probably more out of confusion than recognition, came toward us.
It was a warm morning, but Jessica had her hands thrust deep in the pockets of a ratty jacket. As she came toward us she cast her head down. There was no bounce in her step. She didn't even smile, but ever so slightly simpered when our eyes met. Of course I didn’t notice any of this at the time; I was simply beaming to see her. Here was Jessica, the girt who cried when I cut my waist-length hair, the person who staunchly defended me in a game of "Who Stole the Cookie From the Cookie Jar," the friend who had disappeared the summer before first grade. Some part of this carefree Jessica was gone, obvious even to a naive young child such as myself.
"Jessica, hey!" I waved.
"Hi, Cynthia," she called back. She had recognized me. "Where've you been? I never see you anymore.”
“I moved to Connecticut." Didn't she know? I wondered. Wait, how could she have? She could have moved, for all I knew.
"Really?" She thought about this for a second. I don't know if she was accepting a difficult truth, or just trying to remember where Connecticut was. "I thought you just went to Mt. Carmel," she conceded. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was a private Catholic school a town away.
"I was there for only three months or something. I didn't like that school."
"Now we live in Danbury," Mom interjected.
"Oh," Jessica sighed. "I've never heard of Danbury."
"Neither did I," I admitted. Conversation was reaching its anticlimax, but what do two nine-year-olds have to catch up on? If a playground was nearby, it would have been like nothing had changed, but now only an eaves-dropping mother was in the vicinity. “We're back because my parents have stuff to do with our old condo. Where were you going?"
"This is my shortcut home."
Mom couldn't restrain herself. "You were walking home alone? Don't your parents think that's dangerous?"
"Not really," she said, sullenly. "I live pretty close, and my father's home - he doesn't work. He doesn't really want me around when his friends are over anyway." She was nine, remember. A child doesn't learn the art of covering up at nine
"Your father?" Mom asked.
Then a curious thing happened. Both Jessica and Mom clammed up. They turned their heads away, fiddled with their clothes and, overall, looked uncomfortable. But it was a nagging sort of uncomfortable, like a fly crawling on your arm that comes back no matter how many times you flick it away. In all my innocence I felt like they had shared something without me, and I mentally accused Mom of attempting to steal my friend.
"I missed you," I said.
Jessica smiled, genuinely. "I missed you, too. But I should get home now. I'm sorry."
"That's all right. I'll see you soon." More of that childhood innocence. I never saw Jessica again.
"Okay," she said. "Bye, Cynthia. Bye, Mrs. O."
And with that she turned and left, walking at the same defeated pace she had before. Mother and I watched. This hadn’t lasted more than two minutes, but the weight of the subtext under her every word seemed to drag the morning down. And I didn't understand any of it.
"Is she all right?" I asked Mom.
Mom said something about Jessica living in a bad environment, having a hard life ahead of her – that sort of thing. I just thought Jessica had had a bad day; I didn't grasp the concept of "hard life," and couldn't spell "environment" let alone know what it meant. All it did was make me worry about her, and make me feel frustrated on the car ride home trying to figure out how to help. But maybe that was the point.
Dad came back to the old car, glancing in the direction of my quickly vanishing friend. “Who was that?" he asked.
I sat back between my two sisters, who had slept through everything, and answered, “I don't know.”