Flying and Falling
The first thing I learned in Kindergarten was that playground equipment was twice as fun when used improperly. Sliding poles were for those who could shimmy up them, as were slides, though the playground at St. John’s Catholic School, inexplicably, came without one. The monkey bars, too, were for balancing on top of until gravity delivered justice and the jungle gym was only ever used to hide beneath like a fort. My favorite, however, were the swings. If you swung high enough you could let go and sail high over the woodchips before crashing to the ground. The trick was do this while the nuns were busy scowling towards the other end of the playground, keeping the roughhousing, and all else leading to laughter, fun, and the fiery gates of hell, at bay. Mary swung beside me, tightly clutching the chains holding up the swing.
Mary was the first kid I met in my class and was therefore my best friend. She was a tomboy with perpetually scraped knees and her long, brown hair was always tangled into a ponytail. I was jealous. My mother was often made hysterical by the comb-rejecting snarls in my thick, straw-blonde hair and would therefore never let me grow it much longer than just past my chin. My petty jealousy, however, never stopped our friendship. I would go over to her house every Saturday, it seemed, and her mother, made alternately giddy and depressed by her recent divorce, would make us chocolate chip waffles. Mary also had a bunny that would growl and bite you if you weren’t careful to pet it from behind and the adventures surrounding this was enough to build a friendship that was inseparable.
“You ready?” I asked. Mary nodded a little hesitantly, always half afraid of this game, and we pumped our legs as hard as we could until our swings carried us up into the sunshine. The motion pushed and pulled and the wind rushed to meet me like a friend. I was, as I would learn later in a third grade vocabulary quiz, exhilarated.
“GO!” I yelled, forgetting caution in my excitement and leaping, free, from my swing. At the peak of my jump, I hovered for that fraction of a second before the fall. In that moment, I had, as always, the bound of my heart as I thought that maybe this time I had broken whatever held me to the ground. As I hit the woodchips, I staggered slightly, but regained my balance, lifting my arms to the sky in the pose I had learned from gymnastics as a shrill whistle suddenly split the sky.
Horror struck my soul as I turned to see Sister Josephina stomping toward me with all the wrath of the Old Testament. I turned to look at Mary in terror to find that she was nowhere behind me but had run in fear. I stood alone and gazed up at the dark robed figure, watching the flowing habit quiver with rage. St. John’s lacked air conditioning and computers and, one year, an entire fifth grade due to the inability to pay another teacher. What the small elementary didn’t lack, however, was a holy passion for obedience. This nun in particular was rumored to use her ruler to measure out justice, though no one was really sure. It seemed that I would be the one to find out.
I looked back and saw Mary hiding behind the oak tree, and wondered if she felt sorry. I was a naïve girl, and hadn’t expected to face St. Peter alone, but I was to realize later that expectation alone was a sin. Locked in Sister Josephina’s dry, wrinkled grasp, we walked from the site of the betrayal, and I suddenly knew that some people would just stand back and watch me fall.
© 2017 Elyse Maupin-Thomas