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The gravel crunches under my flip flops. It’s a May afternoon, almost summer, and the sun has begun to peak out from the clouds, beating down on my bare shoulders. I glance at Em, who stays in my stride as we walk toward Ms. Mac’s classroom.
We pass over the four-square courts on our way. The paint is faded, the blue and yellow blending into the gray asphalt from years of friction against sneakers. It hasn’t changed since Em and I played here years ago. I’ve stood long in all but one of those squares—the upper left corner was for servers, and I was never good enough to make it that far into the game. It wasn’t about winning, anyway. That only mattered to the guys who always came into class after lunch smelling bad, with sweat on their upper lips.
If I pause in the middle of the court, I can see across the black-top to the big-kids’ playground, and further, to the three wooden red posts that were connected by metal poles and so high up from the sand the administration took them out a couple years after we left.
When we were in fifth grade, this school was our kingdom and this suspended triangle was our throne. The poles were just the right height off the ground—high enough to make your feet tingle with a sense of fear, far down enough to maintain a sense of safety.
My friends and I felt so grown up perched upon them, like middle schoolers, even. We learned to gossip up there, our breath hot in each other’s ears as we whispered about crushes and that weird girl and the dreaded sex ed. The red wooden columns always felt warm against our backs and differed well with the cold metal bars hanging between them.
We could see the whole school from up top the highest bar: the grimy gray of the roofs of the portables, the off-white of the tarps covering the picnic benches, and teachers walking on the blacktop, discussing course work with their heads bent together so others couldn’t hear. Things seemed more complete from up there, sharper.
The ramp makes its familiar clang as Em and I ascend to Ms. Mac’s classroom. The door is lighter than I remember, the room smaller. But other than that, it’s the same, the inspirational posters still hanging in their respective spots; only the student artwork around them has changed from tropical flowers to animals of the jungle. The desks are as shiny as they were before, too, and still smell like the spray we used to clean them every Friday.
I see my desk across the room and go to it, opening it slightly to see another student’s belongings clearly stuffed inside—a broken pencil box, crumpled papers.
When I sat in that desk, everything was organized. The pencil box was in the back left corner, and the binder sat in the right. My box of markers was in the middle, in the center, on top of any papers I didn’t need to take home.
I could pick that desk from a lineup. I learned the contours of its square edges, and my fingers knew where someone had inscribed “Andrew” underneath. I memorized just how much cleaner I needed to spray on the top to cover the entire thing.
I see the room in my memories from the perspective of that desk.
It’s always cold in portables. Even on the hottest day in the year, even if you’re wearing long sleeves, the goose bumps nudge you outside to get your sweatshirt. The desks are cold, too, but in a good way, in a way that makes you feel alert, grown-up. Cold is clear, sophisticated.
When we get back outside, the last of the kids have been picked up. No one else is around, and the school seems wrong, too empty. I wish we’d come earlier, maybe when the kids were just getting out. Without the chatter or the teachers, I feel less in place here.
We wander toward the younger kids’ bathrooms. I pause and lean against the wall as Em gets a drink of water. I can smell the cafeteria from here. The “cafeteria:” It was only a tiny room, so small it was almost steamy from the heat of the food stacked in cartons on tables lining the walls. The smell was the reason I hardly ever got hot lunch—it was always mixture of wet cardboard and processed milk, only made better by wafts of whatever it was they were serving.
The janitor walks by, taking a second to glance at us. “You guys looking for someone?” he asks. He doesn’t remember us, even though I remember him. He replaced the old janitor the year I graduated.
We shake our heads. “We’re just looking around,” I say, my eyes traveling to the “Lost and Found” across the hall. I’ll bet some of my jackets are still hanging there among the other damp, musty smelling sweatshirts and pairs of pants. I always wondered how someone could manage to lose a pair of pants at school, but there was constantly a pair or two sitting on the table next to the rack.
The janitor raises his eyebrows. “School gets out at 2:45, you know, right?” Of course I know. I feel almost angry now. It’s not like I’m some sort of guest here. I want to remind him who I am, that I’ve been here longer than he has. You spend enough time in a place, you start to feel protective.
“We know,” Em says.
He shrugs at us and walks away towards the younger kids’ area. I watch him pass the big eagle mosaic we used to sit against in line waiting to go into the library. I want to run over there and touch that mosaic again, trace it with my fingers like I used to. I want to drag my hand along the side of that building, feel the rough spots and the place where your hand drops off into air, to stare at my hand and see the film of dirt.
I turn back to the lost and found, squinting to see the details of the coats. Then it catches my eye, a small purple-plaid sweater, loosely knit. I can’t see it, but I know there’s a little white bird stitched into the right top of it.
Em’s brows furrow as I walk over to the rack of coats and reach for the sweater, moving the hood aside so I can see the tag. Printed in fading indelible ink, in my mother’s neat script, is J. Smith. It makes me wonder if they even check the tags every couple years to see if there are any names in them.
Extracting the sweater carefully from the overfull rack of hangers, I take a deep breath and let myself remember. I wore this sweater to my last day of school in first grade; there’s a picture of me in my baby book somewhere wearing it while clutching a brown paper bag. It reminds me of dodge ball played with the rest of my class under the sun on the younger kids’ black-top and learning to tell time with that big foam clock, sitting in the left corner of Mrs. Walch’s classroom.
The material is rough, worn, and there’s a stain on one of the sleeves. The sweater has aged since I left it sitting on a picnic bench or on the back of a chair in the library. I reunite the sweater to its grimy home, slipping it onto its hanger once more.
When I turn around, Em has walked further away, peering into a third grade classroom’s window.
“C’mon,” I say. “Let’s go.”