I AM 9.
When it rains, I walk slantwise between the drops, and get to Arcadia. It’s not really called Arcadia, I don’t think, but there is a main thoroughfare that goes through the town called Arcadia, and so I reckon it is as good as name as any. Because if I had a town and I had a main road through it, I might name it after the town. I might name it after my chameleon, too, just because I like her, but Squish is a terrible name for a street.
It doesn’t seem to rain in Arcadia, though the sky to the north always looks a bit like it might rain, one day. The rest of the sky is deep blue and clear like a watercolor wash across fresh paper, eternally sunny. It makes sense to me, because why would you go between the drops just to get to someplace that is raining?
tell my grandmother that I go slantwise between the drops and she tells me to be quiet and mind the folding or the towels won’t stack straight in the cupboard. I tell my mother I went between the drops and she says that she’s sure I did and that it means that I’m a quiet, nice girl that still believes in God and Santa Claus.
“Why wouldn’t I believe in Santa Claus?” I ask her.
My mother, who is big and fluffy, tugs her slacks on over her hips and says, “Never mind I said that. Shouldn’t you be dressed for school?”
“I am dressed,” I say, which is always true, for I am seldom naked, “Why did NaNa say that you can’t walk between the raindrops?”
My mother says grimly, “Because NaNa was never a child.” She looks at me. “You can’t go dressed in that. Take the jeans off. Leave the skirt on. Are those leg warmers on your arms?”
“They’ve become arm warmers,” I say. “Now that they’re on my arms.” She makes me take them off and find matching shoes.
“Try and look normal for school,” she tells me.
I nod, but I don’t try.
I AM 10.
The man from the power company knocks on the door and smiles at me and less at my mother. She says “I’ll go find the checkbook” and I notice it’s sprinkling dark spots on the power company man’s gray uniform shirt, so I slip out past him into the rain. He says, “you’re a fast one, aren’t you,” but I just smile, turn slantwise, and go to Arcadia.
It is sunny, the streets glistening with a rain I’m never here to see, and there are people walking dogs everywhere. The pair closest to me are Scotty-dogs, which I love, because they are very brisk and efficient without seeming unfriendly. And they are wearing little plaid jackets because that is just what you do with Scotty-dogs. If I had one, I’d certainly put a plaid jacket on it. Probably with the Stewart tartan, because my father once said that our Stewart tartan sofa was “the closest damn thing to Scottish in our family.”
I’m on the main road, which straddles a big, iron-fenced green park, going one way on the right side, and the other direction on the left. Inside the fence, they are flying kites and racing Jack Russell Terriers today — there are a lot of dogs in Arcadia, which is good, because dogs like you no matter what, and also because dogs smile a lot. As I walk down the sidewalk, I watch the terriers bicker and the kites strive above the bright green of the maples. In the dappled shadows of the trees, a woman and her husband are drawing a huge mural on the sidewalk, but they stop long enough to let me walk by them. I’m careful not to smudge their chalks.
At the corner of Arcadia and Bank, a man has set up a keyboard, and he’s playing and singing along. The bright, ringing chords are syncopated with my footsteps as I walk up to him to listen. Up close, I see he’s a scraggly man, with a pimple on his chin among some stubble, and bags beneath his eyes, but I can tell from the shape of the wrinkles around his eyes that he’s used to smiling even if he’s not used to shaving.
I don’t want to shout over his singing or make him stop, so I just give him a thumbs up so he knows I like it. His mouth makes a smile while he sings, and you can hear it in his voice. There’s a boy sitting on the concrete in front of the keyboard, his legs all folded up like an origami animal, chin tilted up toward the music. His light brown hair’s wet, and his shoulders are speckled with rain. I sit next to him.
“Hi,” I say, to be friendly.
“Hi back,” he says. His face is very plain when he turns it to me, but his eyes are very — alive. I think that is the best way to say it. They are like Squish’s black eyes when the light hits them, very wet and bright and open.
“Is this your first time here?” I ask.
“Oh, no,” he says. Then we realize we’re being rude, talking over the man’s singing, especially since there are now other people listening, so we get up and nod at the man and start walking back toward where I saw the Scotty-dogs. The boy tells me that he was born on a rainy day, and he almost died in the hospital, but his mother ran from the doctors and took him outside and passed him sideways through the rain to Arcadia. He said he landed on his butt in the park and that a woman with a million braids patted his hand and told him it was time to start breathing and go back into the rain, but to come back real soon.
“You can’t remember that, you were a baby,” I say.
“You’ve only known me two minutes and you’re calling me a liar?” he asked me. “I still have the flat part on my butt where I landed.”
I consider. “I suppose babies can be more clever than we know, since they can’t talk.”
He grins then, assuaged, and hands me a stick so that I can run it along the iron bars of the fence surrounding the park.
I hear my mother calling me. “I have to go,” I say.
“What do you call this place again?” he asks.
His smile is slow and spreading, like rain wicking on fabric. “Of course that’s what it is. I’ll see you later.”
I AM 13.
My mother is always annoyed with me now, and so is Nana. They are always complaining about me dancing in my room, eating brownies for breakfast, and going slantwise to Arcadia.
“You’re thirteen,” my mother says. “That is too old to be painting on your wall. I cannot believe I’m having this conversation with you.”
I don’t believe her, so I just keep adding things to her soup while she looks under the kitchen sink for cleaner.
“Are you listening to me, Beth?”
“I’m Fetch at the moment,” I tell her.
“You are Beth, and Fetch is a terrible nick name. It sounds like a dog.” My mother hands me the cleaner and points to the paper towels on the counter. “Clean your wall, please. What did you just put in that pot!”
“Justine says that the entire world is our canvas and it would do people some good to create more art in static places.”
“Who is Justine?”
“She’s from Arcadia. She says graffiti is our moral obligation.”
My mother purses her lips, which makes them very, very small. “I will be happy when you grow out of that place.”
“Some people,” I say, thinking of the boy’s mother, “Don’t.”
“Yes,” my mother says, “And those people are called ‘crazy.’ “
I AM 15.
It’s never been night when I went to Arcadia, but then, I’ve never tried to go slantwise after dark. But I am so tired of the sound of my parents’ voices smashing up against each other that I slam the front door and go slantwise through the chill October rain.
It is blue-black in Arcadia, and I see now that the maples along the main thoroughfare are all strung through with Christmas lights, so that spots of brilliant prick through the leaves, twinkling and sparkling like light on raindrops as the breeze moves the branches. There are not as many people walking, but there is a man driving two white horses down the lane. They pull a deep red carriage and have gold feathers and bells hanging all over their harnesses. There is a couple in the back, both of them laying their heads back to look at the sky. They’re laughing, and I look up too. The sky, to my amazement, looks like the trees — a dark face freckled with stars. I feel, suddenly, like if I had a spaceship, I could go slantwise between some distant planets and end up someplace yet again different. But I have no spaceship.
I stand and look at the stars until I feel a little weird and dizzy from having my head tipped back that long, and then I realize that someone is standing beside me.
“Hi,” I say to the boy.
“Hi back,” he says. He is taller than before, and now I notice that his light brown hair grows down his neck to where it is trimmed in a neat, straight line, and I realize to my surprise that I would like very much to touch that place where his hair almost touches his collar. I do not.
“You’re out late,” I say.
“My mother says I am being too serious. She told me to come,” he says.
“We can’t have you being serious,” I say, though I was just feeling very serious. “Let’s go look for elephants.”
“I don’t think there are elephants here,” he says, but he takes my hand, and we walk down the sidewalk to look. And lo and behold, there are elephants, because there is a carnival down Rourke Avenue, when you get past the teetering blue townhouses. And there is a very plump girl in a pink leotard doing handstands on a pair of elephants. She jumps from one to the other as if falling never occurred to her, and the elephants look at the crowd with those upturned smiley eyes that elephants always seem to have.
The boy sighs deeply as he watches them, and I think he’s glad he came.
“We should meet, when it’s not raining,” he says to me. “Don’t you think that would be a good idea?”
“Is that possible?” I ask.
“Of course it is. You’re real, aren’t you? And I’m real,” he says.
I laugh. “Everything here’s real.”
He looks at me gravely. “Do you think so?”
I don’t like the question. It reminds me of my mother and Nana. I look back at him. Then I think of something, and I ask him with a grin, “Is your butt flat?”
The boy slaps one of his butt cheeks with his free hand and says, “It is indeed. One side.”
“Where you landed. So there you go,” I say.
“You are much better at this than I am,” the boy replies.
“I get into trouble for it.”
The elephants are now standing on their back legs, looking peculiar with their four knees bent in supplication, and they are passing the pink lady between them with their trunks. She must be heavy, but they don’t seem to mind.
The boy leans forward and kisses me. Fast, his mouth not lingering on mine, so that the memory of the kiss lasts longer than the kiss itself. Then he swallows and looks at his feet. His shoes are neatly tied, which I notice because I am looking at his feet too.
“You are much tidier than last time I saw you,” I say. My cheeks are very warm and I think my hand is a little gross and sweaty in his. I feel like there is a shiver inside me big enough to spook the elephants if I let it out.
He asks, “Does that bother you?”
“A little. I think it’s better to be tidy on the outside than on the inside, if I had to choose though.”
“You sound like my mom.”
For some reason I’m very happy to be compared to his mother, who ran out into the rain to slip her new baby between the drops. I say, “I hope you don’t kiss your mom like that!”
The boy smiles at me and we wave at the elephants to head back to the park. There is an old couple walking their Beagles along the sidewalk. They’re not holding hands, but they’re close enough to, and they don’t talk, though they’re close enough to do that too. They just stroll along, walking their dogs under the twinkling trees, and their faces are very pleasant. The man is whistling, I realize as we pass them, and the woman is listening. The boy lets go of my hand to reposition mine in his, our fingers laced as tightly as his shoes.
I sigh. It is darker and more confusing here at night, but it it’s like listening to the Italian family that runs the restaurant near our house. I can’t ever understand what they’re saying, but it sounds pretty.
I AM 19.
Some days, I’m quite fond of college, and other days, I’m not. It’s quite different from home in that I can do whatever I like and no one shouts at me for it. It is harder to draw on my walls, because the dorm is very small, but at night I go out onto the main campus walk and do giant murals on the bricks, scenes from Arcadia. I am a little disappointed with the collegiate experience because I thought there would be more people like me, people who went between the drops, but it seems like more people slip slantways into a red plastic cup than Arcadia.
Somedays I think about joining them. They seem happy enough. But then I think about a woman who took her newborn out into the rain, and I keep going to Arcadia. Before my Italian classes, I do my moral obligation of drawing murals on the whiteboards. And I look at ads for Scotty-dogs in the paper. And I hum the songs of the piano playing man in Arcadia as I run between my classes. It doesn’t seem to rain as much as it did when I was younger, but I’m doing a better job at bringing Arcadia into the sun.
I AM 20.
It is sunny as the day God made the world and I am singing to myself when I run into the boy. Hard, shoulder to shoulder, bone cracking bone, our bodies propelling each other in opposite directions.
He spins, his backpack slapping his back as he does, and his expression is irritated when he turns to face me. His eyes slide down my plaid leggings and black skirt and back up, not quite interested enough to meet my gaze.
“Watch it!” he says. His eyes are not as bright as I remember and it is clear from his expression that he doesn’t recognize me. The boy shakes his head and begins to turn away, rubbing his shoulder.
“Hi back,” I say.
He pauses, half-turn.
“What?” the boy asks, not looking at me.
“I said, hi back.”
“I didn’t say hi,” he says.
I don’t reply, because this is obvious. He turns back around to me. His face has gotten very serious; his mother must be very unhappy.
“You must be in one of my classes,” he says.
“No,” I say. “I think you know better than that.”
His voice is plaintive. “That wasn’t real.”
The big clock above campus begins to chime; we’re both going to be late to our classes. I say, “Is your butt flat?”
He looks at me, his head cocked, and I see there is a small curl of hair above his ear that is a little longer than the rest. It’s all very tidy except for that curl. It would be lovely to touch it, but he is as far away as the stars above the trees in Arcadia.
The boy says, ”Tell me your name.”
I want, want, want to tell him, but it would be like giving him a map for the moon. He doesn’t need my name. What he needs is a spaceship. Instead, I say, “Find me in the park next time it rains, and I’ll tell you then.”
I leave him there on the walk, and I hope for rain.
Author’s Note: kissing. A story I wrote in Philly last year when it was never going to stop raining.
image courtesy: michi003