Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Piece #2 - Denver Writing Project

Note: The Denver Writing Project challenges participants to complete three pieces during the course of the project - two creative (any genre) and one "professional."  This is my second "creative" piece - a series of three autobiographical vignettes from the perspective of my 8 to 12 year old self.  The concrete object connecting them is shoes, and the abstract themes swirl around coming of age, competition and fitting in...in some ways, (unlike shoes) these are things we never seem to completely outgrow.  Enjoy...

Scuff Marks
By: Jessica Cuthbertson
Patent Leather Blues
            It was after recovering from the inevitable crushing childhood rite of passage – when Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy tumbled from reality to fantasy in one fell swoop, that I readied myself for more grown-up affairs.  The next biggest event in the life of an Irish-Slovenian Catholic second grade girl would arrive on Sunday – First Holy Communion.  A sacramental milestone that involved not only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but friends, family, gifts, bread, wine, and above all, a beautiful white dress, unlike any a pasty, skinny eight-year-old girl would wear until her wedding day, assuming someday that day comes.
            As a first grader I had watched the second grade girls parade down the central aisle of the church, dressed in white from head to toe, adorned with lace and sequins, hair curled in long, black ringlets behind veils, glistening rosaries peeking out from delicate gloved hands.  I sat in awe as they approached the altar – the Sonias, Juanitas, Yolandas, Lupes, and Marias – each girl gracefully opening her mouth to receive the host, and sipping wine slowly from the chalice before gliding back to her respective pew where la familia gathered together in pride, flashbulbs bouncing off of gleaming gowns. 
            Finally, it would be my turn.  Too excited to sleep the night before the event, I pull out the brand new, white, buffed patent leather flats my mom picked up for the occasion the day before, and slide them on my feet.  Walking slowly back and forth the length of my small bedroom, hands folded piously, I role play the moment when bread and wine will meet my own gloved hands.   Lifting and planting each foot carefully and decisively in a stately march, making sure the shoes don’t rub together and cause an unseemly scuff before they make their official debut.  Tomorrow, I will shine – from head to toe. 
            In the morning, a white garment trail stretches across my bottom bunk bed that begins with the shiny new flats, safely placed back in their box, followed by a pair of new tights, and ending with “the dress,” cocooned in layers of plastic, protected from wrinkles and dirty fingerprints.  Scrambling down the ladder from the top bunk, I race to the mummified garment, lifting the heap of plastic off the bed and running through the house, pleading with my mother to unwrap the dress and allow me to begin getting ready.  I know better than to dismantle the plastic sarcophagus myself and spoil the ritual of pressing, starching, and smoothing.  With a weary sigh, my mother acquiesces, slowly shifting and lifting the layers of plastic casing from the garment and onto the floor. 
            My jaw drops. 
            “Where’s the rest of it?” I ask, voice tentative, chest tight.
            “The rest of what?”
            “The dress?  That can’t be my First Communion dress – it’s so, so…short.”
            “Knee-length dresses are appropriate for girls your age,” she reasons.
            “But…but where’s the veil?  The sparkle?  The lace?  It’s not even white,” I sputter, cheeks flushing, tears shining in the corners of my eyes.
            “You’re eight.  This is the dress you’re going to wear.  And you’re going to look precious,” she adds, her words prickling my skin.  
            Unable to contain my horror, I spit, “Well, I hate that dress!” and storm out of the kitchen.  I bite back the second remark, knowing full well the Holy Trinity would frown upon it, but get some satisfaction from saying in the privacy of my bedroom, under my breath, “…and I hate you!”
            It was a simple, pleated, ivory gunnysack.  No sequins, no lace, no sparkle of any kind.  Plain.  Plainer than the host that would rest on my tongue before disappearing down my throat.  Sitting in the pew that day, amidst friends and family members, proud grandmothers and envious cousins who knew the promise of a party waited on the other side of the service, I longed to disappear.  To sink down by the kneeler and hide until the following Sunday, maybe until Advent.  I had never felt so self-conscious, so misplaced, and so white.  My skin pale and sallow against my off-white, dingy dress.  The outcast in a group of bedecked brown-skinned girls, who appeared to me as immaculate and perfect as the Virgin Mary herself. 
            That morning, somewhere between the Preparation of the Gifts and the Lord’s Prayer, I looked down, in bitter disillusionment, at my feet.  The new, white patent leather flats, the only part of me that began the day with any sort of shine, were already scuffed, small black marks stretched across both toes.  Marred and wounded, the shoes matched my broken second-grade spirit. 
            The rest of the service was a blur.  A dry, chalky host I choked down, a bitter sip of wine.   
            Dear God, why can’t I look like the other girls?
*     *     *

Flip Flop…Thud
The morning is warm, a faint crispness in the air, the way the days are in Colorado in late May, when the sun is demanding the consistent heat of summer, but the breeze is clinging to the cool cloak of early spring.  Pulling on shorts and flip flops, I hastily brush my teeth, wanting to escape the stagnant house and breathe in the fresh air of the Southeastern plains.  The Oswald trio, three disheveled, stair-stepped boys from next door, sit on the porch, waiting impatiently to launch the morning’s adventure.
“Ready to race?” Chris asks, confident that he’ll be first, a position he’d grown both accustomed and entitled to as the oldest in our group.  He’d been pushing my buttons ever since he’d turned twelve last winter. 
Nodding abruptly, I slip into the garage and push my hot pink Charm Huffy two-wheeler across the lawn and into the circular driveway.  As I prepare to hop on and take off, I see it – a rusty, metal tack planted in my front tire, flattening it beyond recognition.  “Shoot,” I mutter under my breath, the only word aside from a choice four-letter one that I can use within earshot of my own address.  My father wouldn’t be home for lunch for two more hours, and my mom, while expert at laundry, lunch, and dusting, was no help when it came to matters like flat tires. 
“We have an extra bike you can borrow,” Benji chirps, the middle Oswald boy closest to my age and therefore most trustworthy in my eyes.
“Okay,” I concede reluctantly, hating the idea of having to cast my trusty pink friend aside for a boy’s bike.
Benji wheels out the loaner, with little brother, Tony, trailing behind with his own bike.  I look with growing disdain at the replacement bike.  It must have once been red, but the finish has long since rubbed off, leaving a dull silver and small remnants of crimson on its frame.  The tires are plump with air, but as I take hold of the handlebars I notice another problem…the height of the bike seems a better fit for someone at least six inches taller than me, someone even bigger than Chris, and the bar that stretches across the bike from handlebars to just beneath the seat requires my best can-can kick to clear. 
“It rides fine,” Benji adds, noting the skeptical look etched across my face.
            “Are you sure you want to ride in those?” Chris questions haughtily, pointing to my polka-dotted flip flops, sizing up the clear advantage he thinks he’ll have with his tree-trunk legs encased in sturdy lace-ups.  When he puffs his chest out, it makes him taller and even more irritating. 
Suppressing an eye roll, I survey the boys’ bikes – Tony’s small-framed two-wheeler, Benji and Chris’s sleek black framed matching bikes.  No sweat, I think.  I’m not going to let a little thing like riding a lame loaner bike bug me.   With a committed grip, I grab the handlebars and launch my ten-year-old frame over the top of the bike, landing gracefully on the seat.  Fumbling for the pedals, I turn sharply in the driveway, yelling over my shoulder, “Last one to the cemetery gates is a rotten egg!”
Pedaling furiously down Washington Street, wind blowing in my hair, like cotton balls tickling my forehead, I feel three bikes gaining on me, trying to recover the ground from my driveway head-start.  “No fair!” Tony whines, “I wasn’t ready…you never wait for me!”  Unlike the confidence and comfort Chris feels in being the oldest, Tony never submits to his position as the youngest.  He hates being last, forever in the shadow of his two older brothers. 
Smiling smugly I glance over my shoulder to gauge my lead.  I can see the black wrought iron gates of the cemetery looming just ahead, within reach.  I begin to taste victory, a sweet nectarine just beyond my reach, and feel my body connecting with the loaner as if I’d owned it all my life. 
With less than 50 yards to the gates, our designated finish line, I stand up on the bike, legs perfectly balanced on both pedals, coasting down the gradual hill that will lead me straight to bragging rights.  How is Chris going to explain losing a bike race to a girl who is using a loaner?  I wonder, preemptive satisfaction filling my lungs. 
Losing myself in the moment, I crouch down to pick up my pedaling speed for an impressive finish.  Suddenly, the heel of my flip flop catches on the pedal and slides swiftly off my left foot, sending the colossal loaner out of balance.  Thud.  Tears spring to my eyes as my crotch connects with the bar in a moment so abrupt and forceful it sends me gasping to a stop.  A bright burning between my legs leaves me speechless. 
“What happened?” It is Benji’s voice that I hear approaching, along with three sets of tires that gather around my collapsed bike that rests, wheels still in motion, next to my collapsed body. 
“Nothing,” I wince, willing myself to stand and upright the bike.  Head held high, biting back tears, I turn on my heels and begin the walk back to my house, not daring to look back. 

*     *     *

Turning “Pointe”
I remember the car ride and the butterflies gathering in my stomach on the drive from small, rural Arkansas Valley to the Mile High City.  The seemingly sophisticated teenage girls stuffed into my mom's Chrysler mini-van, their Walkmans turned up to hear White Snake and Sinead O'Connor, their shiny Lipsmackered mouths humming softly to the music.  I stare out the window, a singular thought on my mind, and begin a silent prayer...Please God, let my legs be strong enough for the shoes.  For as long as I could remember I had wanted to dance on Pointe, to feel the height and grace that only those shoes, could give me.
After the 3 hour road trip, the girls burst out of the van, chatting and gum popping their way into “Motions” a retail paradise for dancers.  This trip was like so many others to everyone else.  The other girls, all one or two years older than me, had their shoes.  While they casually flip through catalog order books and finger racks of leotards, skirts, sweaters and leg warmers, I wait patiently, willing the knots in my stomach to loosen and relax.  Stretching gently and raising my heels to stand on the balls of my feet, I glance sideways in the full-length mirror, imagining what my legs and feet will look and feel like when they are wearing the shoes.  
At long last, the slender, tall saleswoman, looking very much the part of a weary, retired ballerina with dark and silver-streaked hair gathered in a low bun, calls my name.  She tenderly unwraps a pair of soft, peach satin Pointe shoes and holds one firmly in her palm.  She cocks her head, motioning me to insert my foot into the opening.  With a nervous gulp, I hastily spread a clump of lamb's wool over my toes and try to slide my foot to the top of the shoe gracefully.  Pulling the back of the shoe onto my heel, I gingerly grasp the two perfect satin ribbons at arm's length and catch my breath before wrapping the ribbons around my ankle and lower leg in a criss-cross pattern, tying the ends together into a workable knot.  In a seated position I place my foot upright and pivot it to the side, so that I can see what my foot and stringy adolescent leg look like in the shoe.  With a slight blush, I hastily put on the other shoe, inhale sharply and slowly stand up, rolling onto the tops of my feet in both shoes while keeping my legs turned out.  
A blunt pain begins on the tips of my toes and travels up my legs, a gradual path of numbness that floods my entire body.  But in that moment I know, I can stand like this forever.

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