Under the Big Tree / In the Wings
Under the Big Tree
There is a Big Tree on my elementary school playground with a picnic table beneath it. My friends and I meet there every day at recess and conspire at the table—the rubber-covered metal seats leaving patterns indented in the backs of our thighs. The Big Tree is up the hill from the jungle gym where the fast kids play, running and falling into the hot gravel then back up again for more. A wide diameter of shade covers the gnarled roots twisting free from the earth like ancient, petrified tentacles reaching up toward the air. We gather sticks and leaves and acorns and dandelions and construct miniature houses for fairies in those contorted roots. Behind us, down the hill, the fast kids, the ones on the little league soccer team and whose knees are always bruised and hair always tangled, play “Boys Chase Girls.” Giggles turn to screams and waft their way up to our botanical pursuits, but the shade of the Big Tree dilutes the shrieks to background noise. We are peaceful beneath the Tree, as the game always stays within the boundaries of the shimmering mirage of the jungle gym down the hill. It is constructed of wooden posts and tires and hot, shining metal that becomes scorching to the touch on sunny days and burns the pink palms of my hands and the exposed skin on my legs when I go down the slide. There’s a tire swing that spins fast and sits below a hornet’s nest that looks too much like papier mâché to seem like a real threat.
The rules are simple: the Boys chase the Girls, and the Girls are dragged under the slide when captured. I look down to see the growing crowd of Girls beneath the slide, kicking gravel, as the gangs of Boys grasp at arms and ankles and the backs of LimitedToo t-shirts sprinting breathlessly away from them. I need another dandelion to complete the fairy bedroom. I spot a sunny patch just past the war zone surrounding the sweltering jungle gym.
I throw my hands in the air as I pass through.
“I’m not playing! I’m not playing!” Pleading for immunity. I feel a sharp tug at my shirt, regardless. I whip around to burning eyes and an animalistic grin attached to the grubby child’s hands hanging onto my hem. There is a blue butterfly on the front of my shirt; it is new.
“I said I’m not playing,” I tell him.
I tug my shirt free. It is stretched out. I pick a handful of dandelions and take the long way back to the Big Tree, circumventing the jungle gym. The dandelions are crushed in my small fists by the time I return to the shade, but they’ll have to do for now.
In the Wings
I’m pressing the ends of the feathery false eyelashes into the inner corners of my eyelids, careful not to crease the thick layer of makeup sitting on my face, hiding the two pimples I had discovered that afternoon in a panic. My costume is a corduroy dress with buttons down the back and a bunchy blouse with billowing sleeves beneath. I wish the bodice were tighter, like the showgirls dancing in the light. It’s not my entrance anytime soon, so I’m silently shooed away by the stage manager in black. I roll my eyes at him but obey. I sit in the back, hiding behind a large set piece, not yet needed until act two. My legs are weighted down comfortably by the layers of my heavy skirts. I peer between a broken chair and the edge of the curtain, watching from behind in the dark.
The song ends. A girl I know a little, but not a lot, rushes off the stage with the others in the roar of applause that echoes to my corner of the wings. Her blonde ringlets are just brushing the top of the corset that suddenly looks too tight, as her chest rises and falls too fast. Her feathered eyelashes are falling off in the corners like mine are, fluttering quickly and sticking to her cheeks with the salty wet she desperately blinks from her eyes. She’s swarmed by a small army of other corsets and feather headpieces. She waves them off, forcing a laugh. She’s shushed by the stage manager in black, and rushes past me toward the hallway. The open door floods my tiny corner with light in a flash; she runs, then it’s dark again. Months later, there’s a DVD of the performance—a watch party in a classmate’s basement. Corseted girls saunter across the stage in low-budget hooker costumes, singing in exaggerated cockney accents. The older boys stumble onto the scene as drunken sailors. The senior boy takes a theatrical swig from the prop bottle and in one fell swoop, he brushes past the blonde ringlets, swings his arm over her slight shoulders, and gives a brief but forceful squeeze of her breast. In the basement, I look to my left. In the dark, she’s making an effort to look away from the screen to laugh at something the senior boy said. Absolution, or survival?
On the screen: her face freezes, her stomach drops, the camera pans away. She plays along; the show goes on.