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Remember That Time...
The bleak sky expanded around us, grey and strangely comforting like old kitchen-floor linoleum. The clouds insulated the quiet skyline stage where we skipped around the breeze and industrial pipes. The dingy, once-tan roof colored the surrounding sky beautifully by comparison.
“I could just stay up here all the time, you know,” Anna mused as the skirt of her dress danced along the wind to a beat only it was aware of.
“Where to?” I wondered aloud, peeking at the many stairs and ladders leading to unknown parts of the roof.
We shared a look and a rather anticlimactic laugh. The elaborate plan we had concocted moments before reaching our destination did not appear to extend further than where it began. “You know what we should do? We should sneak onto the roof.” We had to improvise the actual execution of our plan, but checking the hallway for potential tattle-tales and scrambling up the maintenance ladder at the top of the back staircase seemed to have worked just fine.
“Up?” Anna suggested, pointing to a ladder climbing through the clouds.
“Umm,” I giggled nervously. The rule was already broken, goal accomplished, teenage rebellion achieved. I’d made it up to this point, but still, the top of the ladder lay too far out of reach. Clearly the rule prohibiting our access to the roof intended to protect our safety so dying at the hands of whatever fate awaited us on the uppermost rungs seemed a good way to prove someone else’s point.
Anna jumped on my hesitance, lunging for a set of stairs and climbing them two at a time. I watched as she reached the top and carelessly jumped down, landing a foot below the ledge she had been standing on.
“Anna, I don’t wanna die,” I drawled in that whiny voice that makes Anna laugh, buying myself time before venturing from the known. Eventually, I found myself clinging to the handrails, ascending the stairs like a member of a high-altitude wedding party going up the aisle. Step. Together. Step. Together. Until finally, Anna’s feet came into view and I toed my way onto the roof, the scared kid apprehensive about her first day of swimming lessons. Anna cart-wheeled past the line of vision I had firmly focused on the office windows reflecting my image from across the street.
A knee-high wall circumscribed the platform I stood on, bracing me with the knowledge that I would not spontaneously fall off the side of the building, never to be seen or heard from again. I walked more freely around the confined space. My feet comfortably erased the distance between myself and the edge of the building while every other part of my body kept me far enough away in case the freak gust of wind waiting to carry me off to my doom chose that moment to strike.
Anna carefully chose her seat in the middle of the level expanse. “So. You wanted to talk,” she stated plainly, gazing up at me with open, expectant eyes.
Sinking to sit on the ledge, I nestled myself between the rails at the top of the stairs mere feet above the equally empty and ripe for quiet conversation school cafeteria. However, we relished the calm brought by looking at other rooftop oases and listening to the faint sound of buses whining under the weight of their load at each stop. I detailed the quarrels with my sister and the paperweight of stress that anchored my never-ending to-do list in my consciousness while Anna nodded and cooed on cue. It was one of our regular therapy appointments and it was my turn to be the patient. Then, when I felt thoroughly agreed with and justified in my concerns, the roles switched and I listened to Anna’s frets and unease. Halfway through my obligatory refrain of “I totally get where you’re coming from,” a door jangled open and close.
“Girls,” called a voice.
Anna and I shared another look, but this time neither one of us laughed.
Adrenaline coursed through my body and a wave of nausea rose up in the sea of anxiety engulfing my brain. It was clear to me that I had fallen into some alternate-reality dream-world; every possible cliché method I could use to wake myself up flashed through my mind but, just short of asking someone to pinch me, I followed Anna down the stairs and past the round, aging maintenance worker.
“You girls do know you’re not supposed to be up on the roof?” he asked slowly as though broaching a difficult concept.
“Yes,” we said in unison, eyes focused decidedly downward.
“Why are you even up here?” He feigned our best interest at heart while attempting to hide a bemused smile.
“I don’t know,” we chorused tersely as we reentered the building, not stopping to speak until we arrived at an empty hallway on the first floor.
“Well, at least the maintenance guy was cool about it,” Anna offered.
We laughed again. This time it was a soft relieved laugh; nothing was particularly funny, but nothing was particularly serious either.
The bell rang to signal the end of lunch and the two of us heaved sighs at the culmination of the past forty minutes of our lives. We dragged ourselves up the stairs again, making our way to the third-floor commons for a class meeting that failed to hold my focus. We were supposed to be voting on something important about the next school year, but Anna and I sat in a corner of the room, continuing to bask in the pools of our mixed relief and apprehension.
Listening to the choices, Anna suddenly bristled in the chair to my right and nudged me, bringing to my attention the sudden appearance of Sister Linda, vice principal, token nun, and head disciplinarian. Stopping first to discuss matters with our homeroom teachers, Sr. Linda spoke in a hushed voice, too quiet for us to make out anything but the grim tone from where we were sitting. It was clear why she was here. There was no mistaking what she was after. It was us.
She turned her attention to us and from thirty feet away, we guiltily obliged to her unspoken command. While our class continued, undaunted by our absence, Anna and I silently followed on Sr. Linda’s heels until she stopped abruptly after turning a second corner. She wheeled around to face us as we stopped in our tracks, by now several inches closer to our impending punishment and its commissioner than either of us cared to be. But there was no backing up; our only choice was to hold our ground, but when I looked to Anna for reassurance, her hands covered her face, tears and squeaks leaking from between her fingers. My hands worked of their own accord, one reaching for Anna’s free hand, the other for my own face, but surprisingly, I found no tears in need of wiping away.
My brain quickly took control of the operation, keeping my hands as they were, presenting a united front with Anna. Looking penitent was probably my best bet even though I couldn’t identify my actual emotions at the time.
“What were you doing up there?”
“We don’t know,” I answered, my eyes beginning to fill with tears I felt no need for.
“You don’t know,” responded Sr. Linda slowly with a venomous incredulity in her voice, “What gave you the idea to go on the roof in the first place?”
“It was just something to do,” I suggested timidly.
“Just something to do,” she repeated the same feigned wonderment lacing her words. There was nothing I wanted more in that very moment than to skip ahead. I could take whatever punishment was to come, but I didn’t need to be made to feel stupid. I already did. My lesson had already been learned and there was no need for it to be taught again so slowly and carefully as though it was hard to understand.
My mind started backing away from her words until I couldn’t hear them except for snatches of “collect your belongings” and “suspended.” I followed a panicked Anna downstairs, still strangely serene as I worked over damage control. It seemed strange to me that not ten minutes later sitting in Sr. Linda’s office, I would be shuddering with each ragged gulp of air as I told my mom what happened over the phone, and stranger still that I wouldn’t be able to recall any reason I'd had to be serene in the slightest.
My parents joked that I always had to be the best, even when it was getting in trouble. The first time I ran up against the rules, I jumped straight over baby steps and landed on suspension. When asked about how they felt about the situation, my parents relied on their go-to response: “We’re just so proud of our little bad***,” and a laugh for good measure. And, indeed, that label stuck with me from birthday greetings on my suspended sweet sixteen to the friendly greeting from our English teacher the day Anna and I returned to class.
The incident or, as it’s more commonly referred to, that time I got suspended for going on the roof, is something I will probably never live down – an eternal joke between me and everyone else who knows about it, including Sr. Linda. While the initial shock of me, the 4.0 science nerd with near perfect attendance, getting suspended may never fully wear off, the ordeal showed me that I’m not defined by what I’ve done in the past, good or bad. I learned that I'm far more than what the black spot of suspension can tell the college admissions officers reading my transcripts. Well, that and if you plan on going somewhere designated for authorized personnel only, make sure people in neighboring buildings who might call your school can’t see.