I remember a time when I was little, seven or eight maybe, I got distracted during recess and didn’t go back in when the bell rang. I missed a test so my teacher made me stay late to retake it and sent me home with a note. I was so worried- I just knew I was gonna be in a world of trouble. I remember daddy sat me down in one of the big armchairs in our living room by the fireplace and took the one across from it for himself…
He leaned forward and met my gaze, his brown eyes so like my own quiet and serious.
“I hear you got into some trouble today at school.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, eyes darting back and forth between him and the window. If I made a run for it I could probably reach the tree house before he had time to ground me.
“Ellie, you’re not in trouble, stop trying to figure out how to get out of here,” he chuckled. “Besides, we both know neither of us can outrun your mother,” he added, rolling his eyes toward where momma made dinner in the kitchen. Momma loved running, and more than that, she’d been a champion sprinter in high school.
“Anyway, you’re not in trouble because I know this isn’t going to happen again. Do you know why?”
“Uh uh.” I shook my head, but I was curious, leaning forward to meet his gaze head on.
“Now listen babygirl, I hate that the world is like this, but you need to know that some people are gonna judge you for the color of you skin, or because you’re tall, or because you’re going to be a bright, intelligent woman, or any number of things.” He paused, making sure I was still paying attention, and I couldn’t help the question that burst out of me.
“But why? That’s so dumb!”
“It’s not right, but it is real. Some people are prejudiced. Do you know what that means?”
I nodded. We had covered it in my vocabulary class a few months prior.
“Well that’s prejudice. It’s not right, and it’s not logical, but it’s there. Not everyone is like that, but some people are. And because some people think that way, you have to prove them wrong,” he finished with a heavy sigh. “You have to be better than just good. Some people will be able to get by on good enough. You have to do better, because good enough won’t be enough for some people.”
He took a moment to look out the window, a faint smile on his face. “Maybe it won’t always be that way, but for now it is. You can’t give people anything to use against you. So is that gonna happen again?”
“No daddy, I promise.”
And I’ve kept that promise for a lot of years. Remembering it made me ashamed that I drank at the winery. A lot. All that trying to forget and I just woke up with a headache and a bad taste in my mouth. Not to mention the dreams.
I dreamt my parents were ghosts. They were thinking about me and waving at me, but I couldn’t talk to them. Daddy was pink and kept mouthing that everything was okay. Momma was blue- I think she was sad. She was trying to talk to me and I couldn’t hear the words, but I could read them on her lips. We go high, she said, and then vanished.
I woke up in tears as the sun was starting to rise, imagining momma’s voice wrapping around the familiar words- one of her favorite quotes: “When they go low, we go high.”
I felt like such a failure- I know they would hate the idea of me getting drunk like I had the previous night, and skipping classes like I wanted to that morning.
It was the first morning of summer classes – I don’t have to take them, but they’re AP classes that will give me a leg up on college. I still didn’t want to get out of the sleeping bag I’d found in the dumpster behind the sporting goods store but the memory of that conversation made me.
Momma and daddy were big on education- they always wanted more for me, and anyway, it’s something to do. And I keep thinking of momma’s words- they’re becoming my mantra.
Getting back to school actually made me feel better than anything had so far. Learning is familiar, and if I’m being totally honest, something I’m good at.
After school, Dirk Dreamer invited me over to work on our homework together.
“Hey,” he grinned. “Wanna see my muscles?”
I gaped for an awkward half second and blushed. He was cute and all, but I haven’t felt much like my usual flirty self in a long time.
“Maybe later. How about applying some muscle power to figuring out this equation?”
“Huh? Oh, seriously? Brain muscle?” He rolled his eyes and smiled. “Nerd.”
For a moment, things felt normal again, like I was just hanging out with a friend after school and mom would be waiting with dinner on the table when I got home.
But then Dirk’s father Darren came home, and seeing anybody’s dad, let alone one wearing a silly hat with his uniform just because he knew it would crack his son up- it was too much. I ran to the park where I’d left my tent, and even seeing some of mom’s favorite flowers growing nearby didn’t help.
So I crawled into my tent. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry myself to sleep, but for the first time I let myself feel it. I didn’t tell myself to stop being a crybaby, and I didn’t tell myself this much grief was abnormal.
Sometime late that night, I fell asleep, and for the first time since momma and daddy died, it was peaceful.