Ten years old, she was gangly, all long limbs and knobby knees, her mouth almost always open in half-shock half-laugh at my out of town antics. She was as country as they came in that area, which was the desert end of a valley in the south of nowhere, the bleak whitewash of salt and gypsum sand and white blue heat. Her family lived on a ranch on a bit of larger ranch owned by friends of my stepfather; her family sublet and raised horses, cattle, and goat. They did OK, weren't poor but also didn't have any city in them, and only had in the last ten years found things like television and more than one telephone to be useful. Her bedroom was tacked on to the original 1800s structure sometime in the 1930s, and had been her grandmother's room for a spell. It was old, wood, sealed well against the dust but only barely from the heat. She lived simply, worked hard at her chores, and had nothing to distract her fervid imagination.
She and I met when I was first placed in her 4th grade class. When they said "You have a new student" she literally jumped up to volunteer a chair next to her desk. She'd seen me in the office before class and just stared at me, making me feel immediately and loudly self-conscious. I was a very introspective youth, consumed by a need to appear normal in spite of my size, my geekly habits, and my complete lack of fashion sense. When the class was introduced to me, this tall skinny loudly awkward blond girl made the spotlight that much brighter as I burned bright red.
I introduced myself to the class and the teacher led me to the seat next to Penny, who scooted her chair to essentially be touching mine and started in with a series of whispered questions, an interrogation that I hardly responded to, trying to signal to her that I was not interested in getting in trouble for talking. Several times the teacher asked her to leave me be, and I would agree in a whisper, and she'd giggle, which would make the rest of the girls giggle.
We made our way out for recess (a fine American public school tradition) and someone threw a football at me...being a big kid, the assumption was that I was a football player. I became one that year to try and maintain some semblence of non-nerdliness, and keep whatever friends that I could make. In that first day, tossing the ball back and forth between a group of four boys, one pointed out that I was sitting on the girl's side of the room. The room had arbitrarily, entirely on it's own, decided to segregate well before I'd started there. The guys filled me in and I schemed to move across the room.
That first day was like first days are: traumatic and embarrassing and uncomfortable. It took about four weeks for that new guy smell to wear off, and another couple of weeks to really settle on a group of friends that weren't necessarily interested in football but definitely liked Lego. During that whole time I tried, both through official channels and schemes, to move from the girl's side of the room to the boy's side. Penny would mount stronger and stronger protests, and would inform the teacher of my every attempt. I finally relented to sitting with the girls. One, a girl named Tabitha (and what happened to girls named Tabitha? Did they turn into women named Tabitha? This one went by Tabby. Does she still?) was smart, had short red hair, and would talk back...she was always challenging me in academic things, and would try to out-do anything that I did. We vied for number 1 in grade point and always tried to be first to finish tests and in-class assignments. And we spoke a whole lot, and started to hang out after school (she and I both walked to and from school, and lived close to one another).
One day in late November with turkey sandwiches in our lunches and thoughts of Christmas on the edge of the cold wind, Penny called Tabitha out. It was after lunch, a bleak gray day that had been hard to start. I was with my friend Lonnie, who has been written about before here. We were standing as close to the bricks of the gym wall as we could, extracting warmth from the side of the building as a cold wind whipped the playground. In the center of the yard were a set of tether ball poles. Tether ball was my game, I'd dominated it for the school year, but it had been too cold and windy to play, and the balls weren't even attached to the poles. Penny stood in the center of the tether ball area with two of her friends. She'd been reclusive and annoyed all day, and hadn't said hi to me that morning. Lonnie and I stood and shivered, and Tabitha headed over to talk to us (she had a bit of a crush on Lonnie) when all of a sudden Penny yells, screams at the top of her lungs "Taaaaaaaabithaaaaaaaa you BITCH!"
The whole world fell silent. The yell echoed across the valley and up into Dog Canyon, scaring howls from the coyote packs. An eagle's piercing cry shattered the silence. Penny stood, arms at her side, tiny fists stiff, ready to fight. Tabitha turned to her, then back to me, eyes wide. "What did she say?" She was awestruck; no one cursed on school grounds. Already a teacher was revving up across the field, heading toward Penny with trepidation. Penny braced and screamed again:
"Tabitha! YOU GET AWAY FROM MY MAN!"
Ten years old.
Lonnie and Tabitha and myself, we just stared at each other, jaws dropped. Penny came run-walking toward us, determined. Lonnie looked at me with fear in his eyes. "I hope she means you. I don't think she knows me but man I hope she means you."
She'd almost made it to us when the teacher intervened, and quietly talked her down. Penny, embarrassed and starting to choke up and cry a bit, walked with the teacher to the office. When we went back to class she was already at her desk, visibly upset but calmer. I tried to talk to her but she kept looking away.
Months later I found out that my family was going to move to Las Cruces, and I'd be leaving Alamogordo and all of Yucca Elementary after less than a full year, leaving what friends I'd made, leaving at a time when letters were the only means of remaining in touch. On the last day of class, Penny handed me a wooden cigar box filled with little things she'd made for me, goofy little craft items with our names on them, notes from months of pining away, and a note with her mailing address asking me to please stay in touch. It was the first I'd really talked to her in a while...her desk had been moved away from mine after the outburst, and she'd been friendly but eyes-down quiet since. I'd been uninterested in girls, and girls had been uninterested in me, but Penny had not lost interest. That last day, she handed me that box as we stood on the edge of the park that bordered the school and my neighborhood, her hand catching mine and lingering for a bit as her glasses reflected the cool blue sky.
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