Swings and Short Memories
Lila watched as he tasted the word. They were sitting on the same swings they always did: king and queen of their court. Joe rolled it around on his tongue, feeling its newness. She asked what it meant. He paused in his exploration long enough to tell her that it was a daddy word and when she asked what that was, he sighed.
“It’s a word that only daddies can say.”
Lila nodded her approval, looking puzzled. Watching him form it in his mouth, she parroted his movements, but without any noise. Her brows were furrowed with concentration.
He repeated it for her and after a few more silent tries; she said it aloud and giggled. It felt funny in her mouth. She said it again and giggled some more. Then with her giggles subsiding, Lila cocked her head and asked how he knew the word if only daddies were allowed to use it. He scowled at her, and told her to shut up. Blushing, she made as if to hop off her swing, and he lurched forward, almost falling off of his swing.
“Where are you going?” he said, his eyes wide.
“You’re stupid. I’m leaving.” she said, her eyes narrowed.
“Please don’t leave. I won’t forget again, I’ll be nice, promise!” He hung his head and looked at his dangling feet, shoes scuffed and worn.
“If you’re not, I’m leaving for real. I’ll just go play with them.” Motioning towards the other children on the playground, Lila settled herself back into the swing and smoothed her starched dress. It was new; her mother had given it to her for the good grades on her last report card. It was uncomfortable and made playing with Joe on the playground difficult. He picked his head back up and watched her confident movements. Kicking his feet back and forth to gain momentum, he began to swing. She watched the other kids on the playground go about their games for a minute before glancing over at him, momentarily seeing only his back as he soared higher and higher. As she swung higher and higher herself her mouth was still moving, mouthing her newfound word.
They focused on the easy gliding motion of the swing. Everything a blur around them; their world became each other and the swings, if only for just a second.
Startling them out of their peace, the school bell rang, signaling an end to their recess. Simultaneously leaping out of their swings, they landed with even thuds onto the caked and dry ground. They had practiced this every day and wore matching expansive proud grins as they hit the earth.
“Race you back!” he said, taking off at a sprint, his short legs churning. Lila threw her head back and laughed: a tinkling and sparkly thing, before pursuing; a gazelle after a hyena. Mouth still moving in the shape of her newfound word, she passed him, grace evident in her every motion. As she ran in front of him, Joe stuck out a foot and ran past as she tumbled, pretty dress all a-flurry, into the dirt.
When she finally tip-toed into the classroom she had brushed the dirt off her dress and angry tears off her face. Hoping to avoid notice by the teacher, she saw only Joe’s smirk and laughing eyes. Settling herself in her seat, thinking only of her embarrassment and new word, she began to breathe a sigh of relief when the teacher asked her sweetly if she’d like to explain to the class why she was special enough to warrant a longer recess than the rest of them.
Her eyes widened in embarrassment, and before she could think, the word that had been floating around in her head tumbled out. “Fuck!” she said.
The teacher halted, mid-step, and quietly asked where she had heard a word like that.
“He told me to say it!” she said, turning in her seat to point at him. The flash of shock and then anger settling heavy on his young features sprouted far reaching tendrils of regret in her chest. She tried to mouth an apology, but he had turned away from her. She looked back at the teacher, timid in her movements. She shrunk from the teacher’s hard gaze, and shrank farther still when that gaze shifted from her over to him.
“Is that true?” the teacher asked.
He just squirmed in his seat, the anger replaced with a sort of shameful pride that answered her question more clearly than he ever could. The teacher sighed.
“You know the drill: straight to the office.” She said and handed him a note with her signature and some words scrawled loosely across it.
He kicked his feet a bit, sent unruly faces at her as she sat still in her seat, and then plodded slowly out of the room. As the door swung closed, he stuck a hand in the gap to ensure it didn’t slam behind him.
Silence hung over the room, rank and crude, remnants of the previous scene. Telling the class to read quietly for a few minutes, the teacher called Lila up front. Bending at the knee, the teacher faced Lila with a stern expression.
“Why do you play with him?” The teacher asked, “You’re so much better than that. He’s just trouble.”
Lila hung her head in silence. The teacher sighed again. “Fine, we don’t need to talk about it again. But you do know better than to say words like that.”
Lila looked up at that, and said “I know” to which the teacher asked, rather exasperatedly, what had prompted her to say it.
Lila shrugged, “I don’t know?”
The teacher closed her eyes for a moment and then stood, looking down at her. “I’m disappointed in you Lila, I expect better from you.”
Lila had resorted to her silence again, and so surveying the classroom, the teacher shook her head, looked once more at her, and then went to the front of the room and resumed teaching.
As she walked into school the next day, she scanned the halls for him but not until she entered their classroom did she find him. He sat slumped in his chair, none of the other children in the class residing in the seats that ringed around him. He wore the same worn clothing as the day before. She unconsciously smoothed her dress, feeling it stiff and smooth, uncomfortable, under her hands. She stopped in front of his chair, and gave a tender smile, the sort given when a response is unexpected. Her smile broadened when he smiled back at her, though his remained tentative.
As Lila walked to her seat, she gave small waves to the other girls, all of whom wore similar starched and ruffled dresses. A few of the boys wore tentative smiles, which she returned with an amicable beam. Sitting in her seat, she glanced over at him again, and then focused her attention onto the teacher.
Antsy in class, they both sent covert looks at the other, feigning nonchalance when the other noticed the glances. At the monotone signaling of the bell, with competitive warrior expressions plastering their young faces, they both sprinted out the door and onto the playground. Arriving at their usual court with no tumbles or spills having interrupted their journey over; they both took their respective swing, and with the hop and skip necessary to raise themselves onto the seat, settled in and began to sway their feet.
After a rhythm had been established, he turned his face to hers and announced he hated her. Looking only a little chagrined, she told him rather amicably that she hated him too. He protested, asserting that she wasn’t allowed to hate him: that she had told on him. She looked sheepish but quickly straightened up and responded “Because you tripped me.” She smoothed her hands across her dress in anticipation of leaping down from the swing. “Jerk”
He hung his head a moment before looking up at her, sincerity etched into his eyes and said simply, “I’m sorry.” She paused and looked back at him, and then smiled.
She started to apologize as well, and then, sensing the looming end of recess, changed her mind, and challenged him to swing higher than she could. She looked over at him and saw a peace lightening his features. It was a beautiful day; the low hanging clouds overhead did nothing to dampen their joy.