It was 1972, and Anita and I were in the fourth grade at Cambridge Friends School, an open structure Quaker elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I had applied to the school the year before, I had been asked to draw a picture of my family, and I had sketched a white house with a neat row of flowers out front and a mother, a father, two girl children and a cat. I did not tell the person who interviewed me that my family’s house was really gray, or that my sister, Joan, who was one year older than I, often punched and bit me, and that my mother, who was often exasperated, did not want to hear one single word about it.
When I was admitted, I overheard my parents describe Cambridge Friends as a school for gifted students, and I figured this meant that everyone would be smart, which quickly became problematic, especially considering Douglas. Almost every day during morning meeting, when our class sat in a circle on the rug and wasn’t allowed to talk, Douglas would start fidgeting or making clucking noises and Emily, our teacher, would tell her that she was being disruptive, and she would have to step outside. I did my best to stay away from Douglas and her friend, Anita, but this didn’t stop Douglas from chasing me down the hall and into the girls’ bathroom with a yardstick, thwacking the porcelain base of the toilet while I balanced on the seat calling for help until she ran away.
In spite of Douglas, I looked forward to school each day. When I walked up the front sidewalk I didn’t notice the weeds growing through the cracks, or that the flat roofed building was run down. Cambridge Friends was where Danny sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” out by the jungle gym, while I chased him across the dirt-packed playground trying to spray him with a bottle of Jean Nate cologne. It was where Emily helped me figure out how long it would take to get to Los Angeles on my go-cart, never once doubting that I’d get there. I never knew what each day would bring, but it was still less confusing than the world that seeped into our living room through our black and white Zenith television.
In the evenings after dinner, while my parents watched the news, I would pass by and catch snippets of information. I heard the newscaster announce that U.S. ground troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam, and I listened when a man named Bobby Seale, who looked nothing like a seal, talked about the Black Panther Party Platform, which, as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with panthers. Sometimes my parents would argue about Watergate, and when I asked what it was, I left without understanding how someone called Tricky Dick could be president of the United States and a criminal at the same time. The pictures I had seen of Nixon reminded me of the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
One morning I sat down to draw at the art table. I didn’t pay much attention to Anita, who was already there, and soon I was engrossed in my drawing of a house surrounded by flowers, with a fringe of green crayoned in along the bottom edge of the page. When I looked up, I saw that Anita’s paper was almost completely covered in color, Dandelion Yellow next to Asparagus Green butting up against Atomic Tangerine.
“What’s that supposed to be?” I blurted. “It doesn’t look like anything.”
“Edie,” Emily said as she passed by our table, “not every drawing has to be of something specific. Anita’s picture is abstract. Maybe you’d like to apologize for saying something that might have hurt her feelings?”
I stared at my drawing as if my gaze could bore a hole through the paper, and I continued to crayon in my Astro Turf strip of green.
The next morning, as I was stuffing my lunch box in my cubby, Emily appeared by my side.
“Hey,” she said. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” When she bent towards me I could see the soft peaks of her breasts through the neck of her peasant blouse. I was eager to get to work on my go-cart, which was constructed from milk crates nailed onto a piece of wood and steered with rope tied to the axle of the front wheels. My plan was to ride it cross-country to visit the cast of The Mod Squad, my favorite TV show. I remembered, though, how just last week Emily had helped me figure out a way to plot the distance from Cambridge to Los Angeles by rolling a small plastic disk with a paper clip stuck through the middle so I could maneuver the wheel over a road map of the United States. When she told me, then, that she would like me to spend the entire day with Anita, I knew I couldn’t say no.
Emily must have spoken to Anita as well, because as soon as morning meeting was over and the students disbanded their circle on the rug, Anita and I eyed each other warily.
“I have to do my training,” I said. “I’m taking my go-cart to LA and I need to get in shape.”
“How are you going to do that?” Anita asked.
“I do laps around the field,” I said, as if this was something I did on a regular basis, although I hadn’t actually thought of it until now. When I opened the sliding glass doors leading outside, Anita followed. We crossed the blacktop, where most afternoons she reigned as SPUD queen, a game in which players tried to eliminate each other by catching and throwing an inflated red rubber ball, and we continued down the embankment onto the field. As we trudged around the perimeter of the clearing, I surreptitiously glanced at Anita. We were about the same height and build, although Anita’s skin was a soft brown to my pale peach. It wasn’t only Anita’s skin color that made her seem different, though. My friend Jenny’s skin was so dark that it almost looked black, and she had an afro, also, but it was smaller than Anita’s, more contained. Jenny lived in Brookline, not far from where I lived in Cambridge, and our mothers would drive us back and forth for play dates. Even though her mother would serve us tomato soup and sandwiches with the crust cut off, neither of which I ate in my own home, Jenny and I wore the same cotton turtlenecks in the winter, and our mothers were friends.
I didn’t know where Anita lived, and as we trekked around the soggy field I realized that I had never seen her parents pick her up from school when I waited with Joan for my mother’s VW bus with the faded flower decals to appear around the corner. Today Anita was wearing a pair of purple elephant pants, the legs so flared that they flapped around her ankles like wings. When I had asked my mother for a pair she’d said I’d trip in them. Anita was also wearing a shirt made of a stretchy, crinkley fabric that clung to her torso and laced up the front, the kind of thing that Julie or Link might wear from The Mod Squad. I stared at it as I thought of my one peasant blouse with bells tied to the ends of the satin pulls.
“How long are we going to do this?” she asked, stopping halfway round the field and jutting out her hip.
“Maybe one more lap?” Anita nodded and pulled a turquoise afro pick out of her back pocket, the tines long and straight. She gave a few pokes into the back of her hair before sliding the pick back into her pocket. She then lifted her hands and delicately patted the perfect globe.
Across the field I could see that some kids had started to filter outside onto the blacktop, but Anita and I were alone, the dew not quite dry on the ground, the October sun rising through the sky. Anita stood against a backdrop of chain-link fence separating the rear of the field from the clapboard housing projects beyond, her expression mildly bored. As I watched her, an image of Atomic Tangerine pressed against Dandelion Yellow came to mind, no space in between.
“Can I touch it?” I asked, my voice a whisper.
Anita glanced at me, calm and appraising.
Reaching out my hand, I lay it gently on the halo of Anita’s hair. It was startlingly soft and springy, and I turned to her almost with alarm as the breeze carried fragments of voices across the field. Her face broke into a grin. She did not, however, ask to touch my own light brown hair that fell to my shoulders with an anemic wave.
“Do you want to play SPUD?” Anita nodded to the blacktop, where Danny and Douglas, Robin and Jessica were getting together a game. These were not kids I usually played with, and I hesitated.
Anita ran back across the field, and I followed.
Over the next few months Anita and I fell into a routine of sorts. I got better at SPUD, and she helped me water and measure the bean sprouts that I was growing in Petri dishes on the window sill of our classroom. We played The Game of Life together, and we would name our blue plastic peg children after the boys in our class. We spent parts of every day in school together, but I never asked my mother if Anita could come over on the weekend to play, and neither did Anita.
I also kept my distance when Douglas was around, which was often. Whenever Anita and I were drawing together, Douglas would jostle my elbow, or if we were outside playing SPUD she would slam the ball as hard as she could at my head. Just that weekend my sister had chased me through the house flailing a cheese slicer, so it was clear to me that I didn’t need another crazy in my life, but Douglas was getting hard to ignore. I didn’t understand what Anita saw in her, but Jenny said that they came from the same neighborhood.
Once when I was riding my bike near my house a group of kids had stopped me and grabbed my hat. They had thrown it high into a tree and then run off laughing. It might be nice, I thought, to have someone from school who lived nearby, but what if that someone was Douglas?
One afternoon I climbed up to the loft-like platform in our classroom where students could read quietly or write in their journals. I was engrossed in my book, The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, when Robin’s baseball cap appeared over the edge of the platform, followed by Anita’s afro. A second later Douglas’ blond frizzy head appeared. When they saw me they exchanged glances.
“What about her?” Douglas asked, nodding in my direction.
“You won’t tell, will you?” Robin asked.
I shook my head, no, even though I didn’t know what there was to tell. The ladder was just a few yards away, and all I needed to do was shimmy over and climb down, but something kept me glued to my patch of shag carpeting. I pretended to go back to my book as I watched Douglas drag a briefcase out from under a pile of cushions. Anita and Robin clustered around while Douglas pulled a magazine out of the case.
“Whoa!” Robin exclaimed as Douglas tittered.
When she turned to show Anita, I could see the cover of Playboy as Emily’s voice wafted up from below.
“Douglas? Are you up there? You need to come down and finish your math.”
“I’m coming!” Douglas yelled as she hastily stuffed the magazine back into the briefcase.
On her way down the ladder Anita and I locked eyes before she descended out of sight. I was tempted to follow her, to see what it would be like to be one of the cool kids who hid contraband up on the platform, but I was also relieved that they were gone so I could return to my book.
A few days later, I was once again up on the platform reading when a head of kinky-blond hair appeared over the edge of the loft. Before I could react, two arms snaked across the royal blue carpeting and snatched my sneakers. By the time I scrambled down the ladder after her, Douglas was out the door and down the hall. I reached her as she emerged from the boys’ bathroom, where I saw my sneakers stuffed into a urinal. Grabbing Douglas’ shirt, I shoved her against the wall.
“Get off me!” Douglas tried to push me away.
“Fuck you!” I cried.
Suddenly Anita was beside us, grabbing my arm.
“Stop it!” she hissed, glancing down the hallway towards the teacher’s lounge. “Do you want the teachers to come?”
I knew she was right, and I was going to get us all in trouble, but after months of being hassled by Douglas, I couldn’t pull away.
“Edie!” Anita said sharply. “You can settle this outside.”
Reluctantly, I took a step back. Outside?
For a long moment Douglas and I glared at each other. I took in her scraped knuckles, the bruise on her shin, and knew that I did not want to settle this outside. I turned to Anita, but she wouldn’t look at me, so I was left staring at the elegant curve of her profile.
I waited with trepidation until after lunch, when the teachers would be congregating in the lounge. Ducking around the side of the building, Anita, Douglas and I stepped into the alley where the custodian loaded the trash into the dumpster, a pile of lumber stacked beside the wall. Robin was already there, and Danny and Jessica. I heard yelling and laughing from out on the blacktop as I realized, with a sinking in my gut, that no one would notice that we were gone.
“No dirty fighting,” Anita said. “First one to pin the other down for three seconds wins.”
Douglas was standing beside the cinderblock wall, and the sight of her sent a scrabby, jittery tightness through my chest and arms, the same feeling I got when Joan stole my Wacky Pack cards. I felt coiled tight and frozen at the same time. But then Anita whistled through her fingers, and I jumped forward, arms flailing. Douglas and I locked limbs as her fist made contact with my shoulder. The pain shot through me, and it was like cracking open a glow-stick, lighting me up from inside. Voices egged us on, but they sounded far away as sweat ran into my eyes, my punches wild and grasping until suddenly Douglas was beneath me; I was sitting on her chest, pinning her down.
As the forsythia burst into bloom and jackets were left in piles beside the blacktop, Anita and I sat side by side on the rug writing in our journals. The scratches on my arm had faded to a row of tiny black scabs, and every time I looked at them it was as if I was seeing them for the first time. Douglas no longer bothered me, but when I saw her sitting on the rug for morning meeting, I would feel an uncomfortable, almost tugging feeling inside. Sometimes when she looked up I would smile. She’d stare at me and turn away.
As Anita and I scrawled in our journals I glanced over at her large, loopy handwriting. I had never asked to read her journal, and she had never read mine. We had also never spoken about the fight. When we were done writing, we slid our notebooks into our cubbies.
“Want to see something?” Anita asked.
I followed her down the hall to the girls’ bathroom, where she checked the stalls before appraising herself in the mirror. Then she started to chant.
“R-BB, walkin’ down the street
Ten times a week-
Punch him in the chest-
Do your very best.
I said it-
I meant it-
I’m here to represent it
I’m a cool cool niggah
From a cool cool town-
Gonna take another cool niggah-
To knock me down.
We stared at each other in the mirror.
“Now you say it.”
Phrase by phrase, I repeated the words after her until we could both rap them out, smooth and slick and cool. When she was satisfied, Anita gave a nod of approval, and we walked silently back to our classroom.
It never occurred to me that there was anything odd about rapping a Black Panther chant right alongside Anita. What I knew was that we were friends. Only later would I look back and realize that for this brief period, at a time when the outside world was accelerating towards an uncertain future, Anita brought me to a place where Atomic Tangerine, Dandelion Yellow and Asparagus Green exploded off the page, and I had to decide what was worth fighting for.
Tania Moore’s stories have appeared in Quiddity, Kestrel, The Other Journal, Sheepshead Review, The Westchester Review, Light Quarterly and Opium online, and she was a finalist for the 2012 bosque Fiction Prize. She received her BA from Yale and her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of the C. Woolrich Fellowship for Fiction. She teaches creative writing in New York area schools, and she runs workshops on topics including Protest Poetry and Voices for Social Justice. Tania lives and works along the mighty Hudson River, and she can be reached at www.taniamoore.me