The sky’s a warm blue, the type where the sun is about to slip back behind the curtain of midsummer–but not yet. It won’t set for several hours, but a twinkle of anticipation is there, like a firecracker about to go off.
“Any one of them could be her, or not be her, Carly,” Jeff says. He’s one of the other camp counselors. “I know, I know,” I say back. It’s true. I have no way of knowing. Part of me feels bad, dragging him out here for what’s symbolic at best, creepy and slightly unhinged, at worst. But it’s a beautiful day. The little ripples on the water look like dimes tossed to the bottom of the Trevi fountain, glimmering all at once.
I’m sitting on the right-side of the boat, my feet dangle over the edge as mist tickles my feet. Jeff’s standing behind me, leaning against the halyard rope.
Even out here, the air is still a bit sticky. I put my long box braids into a tight bun behind my head, roll the cuffs of my green tie-dye work t-shirt, and slather some SPF on my arms. “Black girls still need to wear sunscreen!” my older sister lectures me every morning. She’s right. I’m getting older and I need to take better care of myself. I just turned 17 last month.
I grab my phone and pull up the email from Emily’s mom: “She’s landing at 6:10pm. Are you free? She’d love to see you! If not, please swing by the house when you can!” I would love to be at the airport with a big “Welcome Home!” sign and balloons. I miss her. But I haven’t talked to her, not really, in years. Even still, I have so much to tell her, so much to say. But I’m scared that if I do see her, the reality of all that time and distance between us would feel like a big empty hole. Anyway, I couldn’t get off work today if I tried. But I know she’d be proud that I’m out here on the water, that I finally asked and that I finally did it.
“We should head back,” Jeff says, nervously. He’s scared we’re gonna get in trouble. Jeff’s a bit eager to please, likes to follow the rules to a T, and does not, under any circumstances, like to draw attention to himself.
I’ll admit, I still struggle with this, at times. I have a fair amount of what my therapist calls social anxiety. To me, it feels like I’m shrinking when I’m around people, unless I know them well. But I’ve gotten a lot better, even if I’m not where I want to be just yet.
I take off my glasses and wipe the lenses with my t-shirt.
“You should use one of these,” Jeff says, pulling out one of those nice, soft cloths with the stitched edges. I smile at him and take the cloth, wiping my round glasses with it.
“We should head back,” I sigh. Maybe this is ridiculous.
“No, no. We’re already out here.” Jeff says, sitting down next to me as the boat bobs up and down. The water’s calm today. Makes for a good day for waiting.
I sit at a desk in the back, on the right-hand side. I always feel more comfortable in corners of rooms, instead of in the center, and definitely instead of in the front. Mom tells me it’s better to sit up front, so I don’t have to strain my eyes. But isn’t that what glasses are for? Mine have round, bright pink frames that I got to pick out myself.
“Middle school. My baby’s getting so big!” Mom said as she paid for my new pair at LensCrafters, a few days before the first day of school. “It’s just 5th grade,” I said back. None of the other kids in the neighborhood are going to middle school yet. In the county, Mom says, that’s still elementary.
“It’s a great school,” Dad said, trying to cheer me up the night before my first day. “And it’s a chance to try so many new things!” I don’t want to try anything new. I’m happy with the way things are right now. I have my family, our dog Max, my books, and my drawings.
“You don’t have any friends to miss, so it should be easy for you!” my brother said. Dad gave him one of those looks to cut it out. I do have friends. They just don’t seem to last very long.
“It will open up a whole new world,” Mom said, wrapping her arm around me on the porch after dinner. “This will be a better environment for you, like Dr. Riley said. It’s okay to be different. There’s nothing wrong with you,” she reassured me.
I didn’t know what to say because I don’t know if that’s true. I just looked at Max wiggle around in the grass, scratching his back. He doesn’t have to worry about doctors or taking long tests in an empty room or talking to people he doesn’t know.
“Just focus on what’s in front of you,” Dad said, before we went back inside.
After the morning assembly, I take out my schedule and walk up the stairs to find my classroom. This place is nothing like my old school. I’m used to big white cinder blocks and thin blue carpet. Here, there’s wood panels on the walls with fancy squares carved into them, and a stained glass window of the Virgin Mary in the hallway. She’s wearing blue, looking down at the ground, and has white flower in her hand, with a halo of small gold stars around her head.
All the other girls look so much better in the uniform skirts—no, kilts (my sister said men wear kilts in Scotland). Dark blue and green. Mine is so long, halfway to my ankles. I feel like a nun wearing it.
But, kinda like at my old school, there aren’t too many kids who look like me. Me, my brother and sister used to be one of six Black kids in the whole school. So at least that’s familiar.
The bell rings and I finally make it to my classroom. A “Welcome to 5-2!” banner hangs in the front in chunky, rainbow letters. 5-2, that’s the name of my section. Mrs. Lawrence, my new English teacher, is the leader and she says a section is like homeroom in public school.
I sit in the back, right-hand corner and take out my binder and lime green pencil case. More girls come into the classroom. It seems like they all already know each other.
“Hi! What’s your name?” says a girl with long, black hair. Not curly and thick like mine, but wavy. But her skin is like mine, just a little bit different.
“I’m Carly. What’s yours?” I ask.
“Emily.” She points to her name tag. It’s got little black music notes all over it.
She asks me a few more questions, like which school I used to go to and about my family. She has a big sister and brother, like me, and has gone to this school since Kindergarten. As we’re talking, I can see the other girls looking at us. It seems like they all want to talk to her, and I start to feel bad, like I’m hogging her or something.
The bell rings again. Mrs. Lawrence should come any second now. I take out my workbook from the bottom of my backpack and one of my drawings falls to the ground by mistake. Emily picks it up.
“What’s this?” she asks.
My face gets hot. This one still isn’t done. “I like to doodle sometimes when I’m bored,” I say back. My sister would call that “an understatement”.
“It looks like…” She holds it close to her face, turning it left and right a few times. “Aha! Like the inside of our social studies textbooks! You even have a—,”
“A legend,” I say back. I just started adding those. “Some people call it a key. It helps people understand what a map is saying, so they can figure out where to go.”
Emily doesn’t look up, but keeps looking at it for a while.
“I haven’t finished this one yet,” I say, taking the paper back, quickly.
“That’s is really cool,” she says, before turning around.
Mrs. Lawrence walks in, puts her stuff down, and stands in front of her dark wooden desk. “Welcome, everyone!” she says, with a big smile and outstretched arms.
“Really cool,” I repeated back in my head. No one, except for my family, has ever said that about my maps. No one, except for my family, has ever seen them.
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The bell rings at 12:30, and we all head downstairs and form a big line for lunch.
The smell of baked tomato and cheese wafts through the hallway and a cafeteria worker rushes past me, pushing a black cart with garlic bread in one wooden basket, and chocolate chip cookies in another. Already, it seems like the food here is way better than at my last school. We didn’t have mystery meat, like kids do on TV, but something close to it.
I want to talk to the other girls, but it’s hard to hear myself think. Everyone around me chatters and laughs and screams at each other as we wait. I don’t know who to talk to first, where to look, or what to say.
I turn toward a group of girls behind me. I inch a little closer and see one of them is holding up a small pink handbag with the name “Kate Spade” stitched on a little black rectangle in the middle. I have a purple L.L. Bean backpack that I got for my birthday over summer, with all three of my initials stitched in the center. Maybe hers is something like that.
“I didn’t know they put initials on handbags. That’s really pretty, Kate!” I say, smiling at her. She looks up at me, confused. No one says anything. “I’m Carly. I’m new here,” I say, trying to cut the silence. My hands get a little sweaty, but I try to smile anyway. I don’t know why she won’t say anything.
“I’m Alison,” she finally says. “People didn’t have these at your old school?,” she asks. The other girls in the circle giggle, hands over their mouths. All except for one, a short blonde girl who interjects and says, “I’m Anna. I think we’re in the same section! Mrs. Lawrence?” She does look familiar. “Yeah! 5-2. Nice to meet you,” I say back, relieved.
I still don’t know who Kate Spade is and why a girl named Alison has her bag, but at least the line’s now moving.
Once we enter the lunchroom, the line splits in two, one line to the right of the food table, and another on the left. A cafeteria worker puts a large square of lasagna on my black styrofoam plate. There’s green beans and steamed carrots, too. But I want to save room for the cheddar and broccoli soup.
I scan the room to try to find Emily, but I don’t see her. Maybe she’s further back in line.
As I’m looking, Anna hands me a bowl and says, “I like your initials. I wish mine spelled something, too.”
She introduces me to a few other girls as I pour my soup, who are all pretty friendly. I think I have art class with one of them tomorrow, and science at the end of the day with another.
Alison’s now across from me, putting cucumbers on her salad. Just the sight of her makes me feel nervous, and I get distracted. As I’m talking to Anna and her friends, I count “1-2-3-4” in my head. Dr. Riley told me that when I get overwhelmed and can’t focus, I should breathe and count. “1-2-3-4”. In. “1-2-3-4”. Out.
But the breathing isn’t working, and my heart is beating faster and faster.
There’s a cafeteria worker next to me holding his own bowl of soup. He has dark, rich Black skin and is wearing a white collared shirt with a green apron over it. I lift up the handle of the bread basket, glancing back and forth between Alison and Anna. I’m having trouble with the handle, I think it’s stuck. I tug at it and tug at it, pulling it upward as hard as I can. And when it finally comes loose, I accidentally knock over his bowl with my elbow, pouring soup all over him.
“I am so sorry!” I practically yell at him. I feel so terrible. “It’s okay, darling. It’s alright,” he says, a little laugh in his voice. He has the same accent as my father, sweet, slow and flowy like the ocean, and that makes me feel a bit more calm.
As I grab napkins to clean up my mess, Alison looks at me and says, “Is that how you treat the staff at your old school, too?” The two girls beside her don’t even try to hide it this time, and burst out laughing. Everyone else around them stares at me, at her, then back at me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Emily sitting at a table with a bunch of people. She says something to the girl who’s sitting to her right, and she nods her head up and down in reply.
My stomach sinks. My face feels incredibly hot and my glasses fog up. And although I can only see what’s directly ahead of me, I manage to walk to an empty table and sit down.
When things got bad at my old school, sometimes I’d eat lunch in my English teacher’s classroom, just the two of us. I don’t know Mrs. Lawrence too well yet. I don’t think she’ll say no, but I don’t want to ask.
I take a few bites of my food and open my cranberry juice. The cup’s mostly tiny, crushed pieces of ice, but I hold it to my lips anyway, trying to suck out any remaining drops that I can.
Then, I put my cup down and see Emily and Anna standing right by me.
“Do you want to sit with us?” Emily asks. Her eyes are warm and wide. It seems like she understands something, something I haven’t figured out yet but she’s seen before.
“There’s an extra seat at our table,” Anna says. I look over and see an empty seat that wasn’t there before.
I look at Anna and Emily, and then back at their table. And then I look at the table right next to them, where Alison and her friends are sitting.
“I think I’m okay,” I say, trying to sound as polite as I can.
“Are you sure?” Emily asks.
“I’m alright,” I reply, and look back down at my food.
“Okay! I’ll see you in last period,” Emily says.
I tell my parents about my day when I get home. “It’s just the first day. It will get better!” Mom says, chopping garlic, tomatoes, and onions in the kitchen. Curry goat stew is simmering on the stove. I wonder if the man from the cafeteria eats this, too.
“Did you make any friends?” Mom asks.
“Two girls, Emily and Anna, are really nice. And a few others,” I reply, looking down.
Dr. Riley talks to me about “finding my tribe”. I don’t know why that sounds so funny to me, but I keep listening. “When you open up and let others see who you really are, you attract the right kind of people.”
I didn’t want to tell them mom about Kate Spade or what happened at lunch. But she has a way of knowing when something’s wrong.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Mom asks.
I shake my head.
Mom stops chopping, takes a sip of water, and looks straight at me.
“If you don’t look up, honey, I’m scared you’ll miss it.”
I don’t have homework, so I go straight to my room after dinner. I like when this happens, cause that means that I can turn on my twinkle lights, take out my notebook and colored pencils, and read my diary books. Not my diary (though I do write in one), but made-up diaries of real princes and princesses who lived long ago, and of ordinary kids, like me, talking about their daily lives in America and around the world.
As I read, I write down names of different continents, countries, and kingdoms as if I was making the world for the first time, just for me.
What if Pharaoh Tutankhamun, the great boy-king, ruled a new Atlantis that bubbled up from the bottom of the sea? Or if a warrior princess from Songhai and a prince from Mali teamed up to spread a new kingdom across all of Africa, Europe, and Asia? They’d plot their conquest in an ancient library plated with gold, with colorful mosaics covering the domed ceilings.
This map’s almost done, but not yet. With green and brown colored pencils, I add hills and mountains to each country. In black, I outline the rivers and mountains. And in blue, I color in the oceans, with little white squiggles for waves.
As I draw, I imagine what it’d be like to have that much freedom to explore. To sail all around the world, not fully knowing what you’re going to find. What if you pull into shore and it’s not at all what you expected? Or you went to the wrong place completely? Or your ship sinks in the middle of a storm? To do something like that, something you really, really want to do, even if you’re scared. I don’t know how to do that yet.
I read a book about Greek mythology last year, about Zeus, his son Hercules, Athena, Persephone, and a lady named Pandora. She opened a box when she wasn’t supposed to, and unleashed all these curses and really bad things. It’s kind of like that. If people see too much of me, maybe they’ll see something really bad. And then it will be too late.
But, also, can you imagine? Months and months on the water, on a big empty boat, all by yourself? I don’t think that’s what I want.
When I unpacked my backpack after school today, I found a note in my pencil case from Emily that said, “You can talk to me anytime,” with a smiley face.
When Dr. Riley talks about tribes, it makes me feel weird. But, maybe a tribe is like a crew on a ship. You can’t get anywhere without one.
Quiet time in the library is my favorite. I sink into a green plushy bean bag chair and take out my books, notebook and colored pencils.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see some girls in my grade at a table, glancing up at me as they read. I’m almost positive that they’re looking in my direction, and my stomach sinks again. My palms get sweaty and my glasses fog up. I take them off for a second to clean the lenses with my shirt.
1-2-3-4. In. 1-2-3-4. Out.
I can always try again.
This time, I close my eyes and focus on the sound of my heart beating, drowning out everything else. 1-2-3-4. In. 1-2-3-4. Out.
I put my glasses back on, turn around, and see Emily and Anna sitting at their own table, reading and doing homework. I grab my stuff and walk towards them.
“Would it be okay if I sat here?” I ask.
“Yeah, of course!” Anna says.
“How are you feeling?” Emily asks me.
“I’m okay now. Thank you so much for your note,” I say back. She puts her arm around me and gives me a little squeeze.
I bring my supplies back out and continue drawing my map. Then Emily looks at my notebook and says, “I think it’s missing something.” She takes out a red colored pencil and draws two arrows, one up and down, and the other left to right with N, S, E, and W at each corner.
Anna takes a look,grabs another pencil and draws m-shaped birds and asks, “What else do you need?”
I pause for a second and look at it.
“Do you know how to draw boats?” I ask.
“Sail boats or those old big ones for long voyages?” Anna replies.
“Probably the big ones, right?” Emily says, turning to me.
“That’s what I had in mind,” I say back.
We keep drawing for a little while, and then I stop and say, “One day, I want to learn how to sail a real boat. Just a small one.”
“There are lessons at the camp I go to, you should try it,” Emily says.
I already knew that, but I never thought to ask.
The second half of that year was a lot better than the first. Me, Emily and Anna formed a little crew that got bigger and bigger by the year. But the three of us stayed the closest. Even when Anna got sick for a while and had to miss a lot of school. Or when Emily’s parents got divorced, and her dad moved to a new state.
We always pushed each other to try new things. Emily joined the choir and really loved it. Anna tried out for soccer and made the A team. And I signed up for the drama club, with their encouragement. “You could bring all of your stories to life!” they urged me.
Emily talked to us about the divorce when she wanted to, and when she didn’t, we knew not to pry, but I think it was our presence that meant the most to her. With us, she didn’t get lost in the shuffle at chaos, unlike at home.
In the 9th grade, she moved away to live with her dad.
Mom dropped Anna and I off at the airport to send her off. It was summertime, early July. We could only go so far without a ticket, but we made the most of it, tearfully hugging goodbye until the very last second.
The next day, a Monday, I started camp. I learned all sorts of things: archery, navigation, water polo. And I went on my very first sailing trip with a group of other kids and counselors. We were only on the water for an hour. But I thought about Emily and Anna the whole time.
At first we’d all write to each other and talk on the phone. Then, we’d email, every now and then.
I don’t know why we all lost touch, even with Anna and I in the same state. “Sometimes that just happens,” Dr. Riley said. That might be true, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. Sometimes a gradual slipping away is worse than a clean break.
“Hey! I know it’s been a while, but I’m moving back home for senior year! I want to apply to some schools in-state for college. Would love to see you!” Emily texted about two weeks ago. Later, her mom sent me an email with her flight information.
I’m nervous to see her again. “You might pick up where you left off, you never know!” my mom said. If I’ve learned anything, you never know where things will go.
I couldn’t get off work today, but from here, we can see planes making a slow, steady descent toward the airport. It’s the best I can do, for now. I think she’d be happy to know that right now, I’m sitting on the edge of a sailboat, feet dangling over the water. Maybe I’m not going to Atlantis, or Mali or Songhai, but I am going somewhere. And partially, I have her to thank.
The boat hits a rough patch, jostling us up and down, and now I’m soaking wet from the waist up. I wipe my face with my t-shirt and accidentally knock my glasses off.
I reach down to pick them up.
“Hey!” Jeff says, pointing up. At first, I can only see what’s in front of me, but I know there’s something long and hazy in the sky.
So I put my glasses on, before it’s too late.
Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read this story. One of my favorite authors, Ted Chiang, put author’s notes at the end of his book of short stories called “Exhalation” (highly, highly recommend) and I said that if I ever start publishing my own stories, I’d do the same.
Weeks before writing this, I’d been reflecting on friendships and relationships with teachers I had in elementary school that really left an impact on me, even though I am not in touch with these individuals right now. I think we can all think about people who made us feel particularly welcome during a difficult time in life, and how that kindness leaves a mark. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about kindness, its impact can be so disproportionately large compared to the act or deed itself. This story is also a celebration of the beautiful ways we bloom and evolve overtime, and the people who help us come out of our shell. So this story is my thank you to those people. Lastly, this story is a short study on vulnerability, which, I think, can apply to our child and adult selves as we garner the courage to share who we really are with the world. This is a journey I am on, along with so many of you.
This story is a call of action to myself and to all of us to, when we can, extend that hand of friendship and inclusion to those who need it most.
Carly is a fictional character who came from my imagination and has a world of her own, with some influences from my lived experience. Either way, I hope she can bring reflection and joy to all who read her story.
Shout out to one friend from middle/high school who I have reconnected with lately, Aryana, who invited me on a sailing trip back in October and helped welcome me to a new city. The photographs featured in this story were taken on that sailing trip, and I used them as an initial brainstorming tool to create a new short story.
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— Cynthia Betubiza. January 11, 2022.