She was tall, fair and had striking blue eyes, if she had hair…it probably would have been almost white. In addition to having a collection of really awesome hats, she was always dressed in little cotton dresses. “My mom wants to make sure I look like a girl. I never get to wear pants anymore,” she whispered to me one day when I showed up to school in a pair of, what we determined, were the most bad-ass, acid washed jeans on the planet. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to wear pants. I offered to loan her my jeans for the day, on the condition that she didn’t get any pudding on them. We went into the bathroom and swapped clothes. My jeans were a bit too short for her, but my off the shoulder kitten t-shirt fit her just fine. I didn’t mind the frilly dress, and the jeans seemed to give her some kind of emotional super-charge. Her whole demeanor changed, it’s amazing what the right pair of button-flies can do for a broad.
In gym class that day, we skipped the hop-scotch the girls were playing and got into a game of full contact kickball with the boys. This was something I did a lot, but she rarely ever joined me. The boys were more fun, they didn’t seem to mind getting sweaty and grass-stained, and even though they talked trash, they were sincere about it. The summer heat was oppressive, as it often is in South Florida. I was watching from second base as she stood at home, waiting for the ball to be rolled to her. The heat made everything look all wiggly and far away.
As the ball left the pitcher’s hands, he called out “C’mon, Baldy. Let’s see what you can do.” This is my first memory of sharing someone else’s pain. I knew how much she hated being bald. I was paralyzed with anger. Yes, I had heard people refer to her as “Baldy” before, but they never said it to her face. I wanted to run up to the pitcher’s mound and kick him square between the legs. Before I could, I heard a terrible “thunk” noise, much like a sound a coconut makes when it falls from a palm tree and hits the hard ground below. In retrospect, it was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. The sound was a direct result of the pitcher getting smacked in the side of the head by a kickball traveling at a high rate of speed, off the foot of my friend. The blow spun him around and he seemed to fall in slow motion. I remember cheering and yelling “run!” as we cornered the bases. I kept looking over my shoulder to be sure she was keeping up. I was smiling from from ear to ear. I couldn’t see her expression, because her hat was obscuring her face…but I could hear her laughing.
When we reached home base the pitcher had recovered from his head injury, he was crouched down, waiting to tap me with the ball and keep me from scoring. I forgot, for a spit second, that I was wearing a dress and slid into home. Only, I wasn’t really trying to score. I knew that I was out. As her dress wound up somewhere around my waist and my day of the week underwear were exposed, telling the whole playground it was Wednesday, I stuck my knee out and forcefully nailed the little bastard right in the nuts. He dropped the ball and flopped around on the ground cursing at me, while grabbing his crotch. I laid in between him and the base to make sure she was safe. I realize now that I didn’t have to, no one was going to take the risk of being kicked in the junk to keep her from scoring.
At the end of the day, we changed back into our clothes. There was pudding on my jeans, but I didn’t care, it was victory pudding. A few weeks after that she stopped playing with me in gym class, not because she didn’t want to, but because she was feeling weak. Then she stopped coming to school, her mother would come to my classroom to pick up her assignments. We’d draw her pictures and send her notes, mine were mostly renderings of us playing kickball, and her wearing my jeans. Sometimes, if I was feeling particularly inspired, I’d draw us riding ponies or unicorns. After a while, her mother stopped coming in and her textbooks appeared on the corner of my teacher’s desk. There was a note, my teacher read it, but did not share it with the class. I was only a kid, but I knew sadness when I saw it. My friend never came back.
That Wednesday on the playground comes back to me in my dreams sometimes, like it did last night. It jars me awake and keeps me from going back to sleep, hours after it’s woken me. I guess what bothers me the most is that I can’t remember her name…or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t know if she got to live long enough to pick out her own clothes. I guess her name really isn’t important, it was her courage that was most impressive.