In first grade at the new school in Virginia I am jumping rope outside. Two girls are turning the long rope and I am standing to the side, attuning my body to the rhythm of the rope slapping the ground so that I know the exact moment I can leap in and become one with that turning rope. It’s a small miracle to be able to run in at the right moment that doesn’t interrupt the rope’s smooth turning and now I am in the middle of its loop, jumping and shouting, “Paul John George Ringo! Paul John George Ringo!”
I know they are the Beatles, but I don’t know which is which. The name you are shouting when you mess up and the turning rope stops is the name of the one you are in love with, a thought that makes me and my friends squeal in disgust for a moment before it’s the next person’s turn.
I’ve only been at this school for a little while. I came in on my first day in the middle of things – the middle of the year, in the middle of the morning – I still had my coat on, the one my mother liked, navy blue, woolen, the kind of coat you could wear with dresses – and the teacher stood beside me as she introduced me to the class, the two of us side by side while everyone else sat at their desks and looked at us. The teacher introduced me, said my name and I said nothing, hating this part where I was not yet part of them, but someone separate and strange. I kept quiet always in the beginnings.
It was an old school and had a darkness to it as though it were always in shade. The floors were made of wood and there was a staircase like in a house that led up to floors I never went to. My classroom was at the bottom of the stairs.
We had come to Virginia in a truck – me, my father and another man – my mother driving in a car with my little sister. I sat in the cab of the big truck that had all our stuff in it. My father drove the truck. Of course he did. My father could do things like that, things we hadn’t done before, my father could always do these things.
There were a couple of crushed beer cans in the cab the men had drunk and then reflexively crushed before dropping them on the floor. I held a crushed can, one in each hand as we drove, me between the men, and I pretended the cans were people. First the one in my left hand talked, then the one in my right hand. I watched them. They talked silently.
And we lived in a big white house with a long driveway at the top of a hill, far away from the road and surrounded by fields with cows in them and sometimes when my father took me for walks through the fields on a weekend, the dog sometimes with us and sometimes wandering off on his own, we passed something called a silo and there was a sweet rich smell.
Walking with my father, long long walks, much further than I wanted to go, him always talking. About so many things – the story of the novel he was reading, or Budapest when the bombs were dropping, or Hungarian countryside when he was a teenager, or a story about taking a girlfriend some place fancy for the weekend not knowing how he was going to pay the bill, or how in Geneva after the war he went everywhere by bicycle.
My father was always the hero on those walks. In the stories. In my world.
Though he made me cry when we played Monopoly at night, him buying hotel after hotel while I had nothing and then buying more hotels and laughing as I could not keep up.
Under the trees my sister and I made a store selling small rocks, an acorn – for 5 cents, 10 cents – inviting my parents to come and buy by the sandbox. There was a sandbox there and a turquoise tent, a tent my mother put up for me to play in, but I didn’t go in there, the small turquoise tee-pee – a tent being something from my mother’s world, but not from mine. My mother came from a place of outdoor things – a farm, British Columbia, a garden, bicycles and tents. My father was different, from the city. I liked him better.