The next memories I can place with any certainty are in the last month of sixth grade. I am with my best friends, Heidi and Christine, girls whose lives hold their own traumas. We have completed our end-of-year projects—my purple rocket with a Lego monkey inside the capsule, books we have written and will present to the class, and a glorious hot air balloon that was our group project, quilted together with squares of teal and purple tissue paper. For years, I have watched sixth-graders fire off their rockets. Their hot air balloons floated over the soccer field, and I had felt that when it was my turn, my heart would shoot up into the air, riding the work of my own hands, and I would fly.
But when our hot air balloon lifts off, Heidi and Christine ooh and ah. I stare at it, the pattern of brilliant colors rising and rising against the infinite blue. I feel nothing. Nothing at all.
When it touches down on the damp grass, I look at it, so helpless and flimsy, and for a split-second, I want to dig my heel into it and rip a hole in its heart. The satisfaction of ripping it to shreds, of seeing something destroyed–something other than myself. But Heidi and Christine would never forgive me. So I don’t.
Heidi and I are old friends, and I love her. A giggly white girl who lives with her brother in a brown house across the street from school, she is high-spirited and generous and fun. Richly deserving of her name, the brave and compassionate title character of a children’s classic. Christine just moved to Bothell this year, she is Filipina and witty and something of a daredevil, and I am so curious about her, so drawn to her.
But now their giggles grate on my nerves. They are always talking, talking. I’m tired of it.
* * *
My first memory of feeling alive again, I am standing on a soccer field in June. The day we launch our sixth-grade rockets. The sky is flat and the color of steel, and it has been pouring rain for days. The teachers have set up a blue plastic tarp for the students to wait under, and out in the field, they fire up our rockets, one by one, in alphabetical order.
When they call my name, I carry my rocket to the launchpad and stand under the umbrella with the teacher who holds a clipboard. The teacher asks me to hold the umbrella while she makes notes. They light my rocket. It flies. It falls. It lands in the mud. The teacher makes a note on the clipboard. She offers to hold the umbrella again.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I can keep holding it.”
This is what I say for the next two hours, while the sixth-grade classes launch their rockets on the field at Inglemoor High School. It’s okay. I got it.
The teachers acquiesce.
The wind whips up, and the rain slants sideways. I cock the umbrella, so it shelters the teacher’s clipboard. But the rain pelts my shoes, my jeans, eventually the hem of my shirt. When the wind grows so fierce that no amount of umbrella-swiveling can protect us, droplets gather on my arms, my shoulders, my clothes darken with wet. It is like my whole body is weeping, and because it is raining, I don’t have to explain to anyone. I feel relief, and for the first time in a long time, my body softens.
“Aren’t you cold?” A teacher asks. “Don’t you want to go inside?”
It’s okay. I got it.
I finally feel something. I feel strong. Holding up that umbrella as classmate after classmate marches beneath it, as the teacher makes her marks, as the teacher hands off the clipboard to another teacher. The rain soaks me. But I don’t move. A classmate takes my rocket to safety, but I remain. I am indomitable. Outside time. Separate and unafraid.
I hold the umbrella until the last student files underneath, the last rocket flies and falls to earth, and the teachers pack the launchpad.
A few months later, my parents move us to the other side of Bothell. I never see Christine or my teachers or most of my classmates again.