My chest broke in two bits. Two distinct pieces that shifted away from one another like chunks of earth on a bed of magma. It was impossible to breathe like this. How does one breathe with their ribs drifting apart?
Her hair was the color of summer sun. Streaks of lemonade, shadows of honey. A moon shaped face dotted with the faintest, most endearing peppering of mocha colored freckles. A rose bud mouth on the constant edge of an unabridged smile. Nails the color of strawberries. And then I saw her eyes. Two thunderstorms trapped beneath fans of lashes so long they cast shadows on her cheeks.
I was seven. And I was in love.
Her name was Hatty Patricia Kline. I knew her middle name because she signed her school papers with her entire title spelled out in careful, pencil script. Bubble letters made graceful by meticulous practice. I’d hand my papers in too. My name scratched in letters suited for a barn door instead of the disapproving frown of my second grade teacher’s puckered lips. They’d go up. Our papers. The other kids’ papers. And I’d see the stack. Our pencil names so utterly close. Separated from one another by nothing more than twenty extra names. That’s how I felt. Lost in the shuffle. A name amongst so many others. The distance between us a conglomeration of fibers and pencil lines.
Hatty was a mystery within a mystery. To me. To my classmates. She painted her nails in flamboyant colors. Her wrists adorned with rainbow hued bracelets beaded with stones the size of grape seeds. Her knees were constant scabs, her dresses always white. She wore her hair down in limp straggles or tied off in an un-ceremonial knot that hung between two shoulder blades the exact shape of the most luminescent kites in a springtime sky. She didn’t adorn herself with bows. She befriended insects during recess. She consumed two trays of food at lunch and she opted for soccer with the boys instead of the swing set and chalked hopscotch with the other girls. She was impenetrable. Unapproachable. Divine.
Every day our papers would shuffle their way to the front of the class. The smell of chalk and the dusty light of the room a constant ode to reality. Every day our papers would mingle, our names so close to touching.
I was staying late one afternoon to help our teacher, Ms. Brunn, hang fall decorations. Taping orange and red paper leaves around the room, my ability to use a tape dispenser much neater than my writing, when I excused myself to use the bathroom. I was halfway to the boys’ room when I heard it. A sound. A whisper. It was coming from the cloakroom.
I peered inside, tempting only my head and neck through the doorway, my eyes scanning the dark, empty hooks. Looking to the cubbies where rain boots and backpacks were stowed, when I saw Hatty in the corner.
“Hi.” I managed, my sneakered feet somehow planted to the hall side of the entrance, my head hanging in the room like an afterthought. Like a set of parenthesis around a typo.
Two thunderstorms peered at me from a red, tear streaked face. Two thunderstorms suspended by a girl with rainbow bracelets and wild hair contained by a yellow tie.
“What are you doing here?” Her words were an accusation. Her mouth the hand of God. Her insistent, defiant fingers scratching tear trails on her freckled cheeks. At that moment, her tears were rivers and her freckles were tiny pebbles lodged in its watery path. I had an intense moment when I imagined she was so upset she actually tried to pluck the rocks from the streambed. When she was so hurt she actually peeled her freckles off.
“Um, I’m hanging fall.” I smiled. Somehow. Some way. Revealing the enormous gap at the front of my mouth. Quickly, I closed my lips to cover it. My sneakers stayed put. My shadow wasn’t even tempting the cloak room.
Hatty laughed. The sound of something startled. A high, somehow infectious sound that made me both fly out of my body and land on the ground at the same time. “Well, this room is for hanging coats. Backpacks.” She motioned to the hooks.
“See you tomorrow.” She said, moving. How she could move when I couldn’t breathe I’ll never, ever know. I’ve attributed this to one of her magical powers. She can always seem to breathe. If her chest ever breaks in two, it doesn’t seem to phase her. It was at that moment I realized Hatty was not human. Hatty was superhuman with superhuman powers. As she shrugged past me, I wondered if the powers were in her rainbow bracelets. Such tiny beads. Such time. Each bracelet must have taken so long, so many nights or afternoons with seed sized beads lodged between her gripping fingers, strung on thick threads, arranged in their crazed pattern.
I went back to class, my need for the bathroom a dream.
As if her speaking had been a magic chant, I found myself in a different place while all my classmates listened to Ms. Brunn. While we practiced our numbers, our arithmetic, our reading, my hands worked. But my mind was running laps. Hatty sat cattycorner to me. Towards the front. Her desk was a manila color with mint painted legs. Her books stowed in the mouth of it, her pencil resting neatly at the top. Big erasers. She always capped her pencils with big, animal shaped erasers. As if they were lonely or cold and this made them happy and warm.
During class I found myself watching. Others. Around us. Snickers between two girls. Whispered secrets behind clean hands. At recess I played soccer too, our proximity aligning. I was easily distracted though. Whether Hatty played for my team or opposite, I always managed to drag our score down. Eventually, the boys had me keep score. Their nicer way of saying they didn’t want me to play. But they weren’t mean about it. No one was mean to me. Not at school. Not the big kids in junior high, either. Because I was big for my age. I was tall. I was brute sized and brute shaped. So the kids were nice when they asked me to quit butchering their game.
It gave me a chance to observe. Between the two bells, a time suspended like lost transmission satellites, I’d sit on the grass, my fingers idly gliding over blades. I’d watch, keeping Hatty to the left or right of my field of vision. As if looking at her summer hair directly might blind or maim me permanently. And I’d observe. Girls whispering and pointing. Chattering by the swings. I noticed, as the frosts got longer and the wind sharper, birthday party invitations passed from hand to hand. Stories told from mouth to ear. Gossip shared like lip balm and pilfered candy. But not with Hatty Patricia Kline.
I puzzled, secretly, over the cloakroom tears. And as Hatty played soccer and befriended centipedes at recess, I slowly began to understand. She was beloved by the boys. No boy, seven or older ever swiped her chocolate milk at lunch. Or tugged her ponytail a little too hard. Or hid her books and watched her ransack her desk in a panicked hunt before class began. The girls hated Hatty. They hated her because the boys loved her.
My first instinct was to push a few of the more popular girls down the slide. Hard. To watch them tumble and roll, sneakers over pigtails, their faces nets of shocked rage. There was something satisfying about that. Something right. My second instinct was to tell Ms. Brunn. But thoughts of that were quickly vaporized when echoes of Hatty’s voice in the cloakroom replayed in my big, awkwardly sized ears. This Hatty Patricia Kline wasn’t one to be "handled." If I attempted to handle the divide her peers were concocting, she’d punch me. And it might not hurt but I would cry.
So, I kept a watch. I kept a watch at recess. At lunch. And every day our papers shuffled in the stack. Every day our pencil names danced their way to Ms. Brunn’s pale fingers. Her bracelets grew. Like her hair. They multiplied and gained color. Like she was painting a rainbow with each new addition.
Just before winter break, we were paired together. Me. And. Hatty. We sat cross legged on the carpet, her notebook resting on a denim knee. The color purple never made so brilliant until she wore it in sweater form. We were partnering for word games. The entire class divided into pairs. Ms. Brunn’s division. Our equation. Hatty and me the product at the end of the equal sign.
“I like your bracelets.” I said. Unfortunately, I said this in the middle of her sentence and in retrospect, I realized it was completely out of context. She was focusing on unscrambling the letters IBOTRAE and I was focusing on the way her brow knitted when she read. The slight motion of her lips. The confident way her seawater colored nails rested on the page.
She laughed. Ms. Brunn shot an arrow from her desk. With her dark eyes and her thick mascara. I didn’t know if I was still in my body. If my legs were still crossed. If my palms were still sweating. If I had ever been born. “They’re so bright.” I said.
She shook her head a little. Looked over the edge of her notebook to the catch of beads dangling from her wrist. “I make them.” She said, looking at them with an expression I didn’t know. An adult expression. One I hadn’t seen or understood. One I could later call a glimpse of the friendless.
“The beads are so small.” I was transfixed to them. Studying the way the light glinted off each round body. Like flashes of magic at the disposal of her hands.
She smiled a little, the edges of her teeth squares of ivory. “Do you make bracelets?” She asked. Maybe me. Maybe her bracelets. It was hard to tell.
I summoned my courage and pretended she asked me. “I read books.” I heard myself say. Although, at that moment, with the clock resting just past lunch, still years away from going home time, I could not recall a single word I’d ever read in my entire life.
“Do you write stories?” She went on, her voice a stream of light music. A sound I could have dreamt up. Or pretended to hear. A whisper below the decibel of our classmates. Ms. Brunn was in another universe and the world had stopped spinning where we sat. By the blackboard. An army of chalk lined up above us.
“My writing is terrible.” I said.
She looked at me. Her eyes were raging. Two thunderheads trapped in twin irises. “Can I read it?”
“Read what?” I heard someone say in my voice.
“Your books. What you write?”
She was magic. She was a magic spell wearing a purple sweater. She was a magic spell with pebbles in the shape of mocha freckles. With hair tied off in a wild tangle. With scabbed knees cloaked in denim. “I have one. I’ll bring it. Tomorrow.”
I can’t really recall giving Hatty my story. I can’t even say what time it was. I think- I think- it was in the morning the next day. I don’t know. I don’t even know how long she had it. I only know that she gave it back to me before class let out for Christmas. I only know that she slipped it to me. An envelope of cardboard. Pages inside like lightning caught in a bottle. I couldn’t open it until much later. My fingers wouldn’t work. The folder felt unreal. Like mist or smoke from one of my mom’s cigarettes. Not solid. Spent carbon.
It wasn’t solid as I opened the folder cover. Later. When the moon hung high and the first breath of snow began to exhale over my street. Out my window were streetlights like ghost eyes. My room a dark cave where only me and the monsters stayed up. I opened the folder and read a note from Hatty.
I love to read. This is a very good story. We can be friends too.
-Hatty Patricia Kline
Out slipped a black bracelet. Tiny beads like shining insects. A coil of snakeskin. A dark slick. A simple black bracelet. A gift from the heavens. I pressed it to my nose and inhaled, my eyes closing fiercely as I pictured seawater colored fingernails stringing tiny beads on tiny thread a hundred times over to make a loop. A loop to be tied around my wrist. Like a rope for a lost ship. A leash for a homeless dog. A bed for a weary traveller. And in my head, I smelled the scent of dual storms on the horizon. Two storms written down in the shape of Hatty Patricia Kline.
Now, I’m again alone with monsters at midnight. Midnight has come to stretch from sunrise to sunset. Midnight is a never-ending tick of a long handed clock. A stroke of an endless hour. Like Hatty’s endless pebble freckles. The freckles never aged. Wove deeper into full cheeks. Woven into the tapestry of loved skin. Woven into crows feet stamped at either edge of her obsidian eyes.
“I still love you, Hatty Patricia.” I said, sitting on my porch, looking at the yard. A tire swing hung like a forgotten smile from an old rope. A tree with leaves and branches so deep and dipping it appeared to reach for a hug. I had a glass of sweet tea and a curling cigarette. I could go inside and look at my "choir wall" as Hatty called it. She teased me about it but she was the one to make it. My accomplishments hung in frames and cases. Like tokens from a prize machine. Medals from war. Accomplishments from a career as a storyteller. But the best story still hangs from my wrist. I wear it more now. It reminds me all the time. But I wear it more now.
I sat on my porch in light the color of thick cream. Under an awning that would have been poetic if it was sagging. But it didn’t sag so it was proper. Our children have grown and moved. The tire swing has stopped swaying. They’ve encouraged more and more insistently that I buy a dog. Or a cat at least. They encouraged me to write.
The wind whispered something secret and I heard Hatty’s quiet tears in it as she sobbed in the cloakroom at school. Straggly weed flowers bloomed near the tree and in their petals weaved Hatty’s sweater. The newspapers wait for her to fill in the crosswords with her perfect bubble script. I sat on my porch and remembered her writing her name next to mine on our marriage certificate. I remembered thinking our names were almost close enough to touch. They were so, so close in ink this time. Close enough to actually dance together on the page.
I looked at the faded black beads strung by fingers that have lived and settled now. I studied the way it hung from my wrist. Like the darkest rainbow to ever arc. It hangs like I once hung fall.
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