There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
Halfway through recess, I noticed Henry. He stood, stiffly, on the fringe of a circle of boys who were kicking a ball between them, back and forth. Henry watched the ball. A soccer ball, I think. Or one of those standard-issue red kickballs that were never inflated well enough and gave when you kicked them, making a sound that was oddly high-pitched, almost metallic, as they left your foot.
Henry was a genius. Though I wouldn’t fully understand this until years later, I knew his time at home was spent differently than mine. I never met his parents, but my impression was that they were supportive but pushed him hard. Henry was being groomed – for academic success, for piano recitals and chess tournaments, for National Honors Society, perfect SAT scores, Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, Penn Medical School, neurosurgery. He would accomplish all of these things.
But as a fifth grader, on the playground at least, Henry could be mistaken for an average kid. He was lean and friendly, with glasses too big for his face and a mushroom of black hair. He often wore sweatpants with elastic bottoms, his white socks bunched above sneakers that, to me, were exotic and fascinating: they had Velcro flaps instead of laces and Chinese characters on the sides and tongues.
If Henry was geeky and awkward, so were most of us. We ran from members of the opposite sex and wiped our noses on our sleeves. Our mothers tucked encouraging notes (You’ll Do Great! I Love You!) into our Mario Bros. lunchboxes and brown paper bags. Still, we were old enough to have begun developing a sense of hierarchy. The cool kids had started to distance themselves from the rest. Differences between us were no longer taken for granted, but seized upon as evidence of our place in the social order.
I was not ranked very high in this hierarchy. Neither was Henry.
The playground at our grade school was a vast asphalt square bordered on two sides by the long walls of the school building. On another side: a small field where kids played touch football or tag, a jungle gym, and deep woods. Running along the far side was a steep, grassy hill where our parents congregated on blankets around Memorial Day to watch us perform patriotic skits and sing in unison to “God Bless the U.S.A.” I can’t remember what was beyond the hill. More grass? A parking lot? Basketball courts? Even now it seems like a magic boundary we could never cross, one that made the playground feel specially contained and insular.
I had no urge to escape the playground. I enjoyed being stranded there for thirty minutes each day, with no responsibilities other than keeping out of trouble and staying within the area’s charmed perimeters. Of course, aides armed with whistles, pens and pink slips (all the tools necessary for a dreaded “write up”) were around to make sure we kept in line. And of course, rules were often broken. Kids wandered off. Kids got hurt. Kids hurt other kids.
On that day, my friend Craig and I orbited the playground, talking comic books or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever else.
“I like Krang,” I might have said. “He’s smart and he makes the best weapons.”
“But he’s evil,” Craig would counter. “His voice is annoying.”
“Yeah it is. But if you were a brain with no body you’d be annoying too.”
The two of us had become friends in that mysterious, unselfconscious way of grade school bonding. One day you hardly notice each other, and the next day you’re inseparable pals, pretending to be heroes and asking your respective mothers when the other can come over to play and eat spaghetti. Craig was small, even for a fifth grader. He had very soft-looking, spiky brown hair and in my mind will always be clad in a green windbreaker. I was mostly well behaved, but Craig was effortlessly good; his kindness seemed to require no struggle whatsoever. I never saw him do anything cruel to anyone.
It wasn’t long before I spotted Henry, on the edge of the circle. I had a feeling he’d been there since the start of recess. His arms hung at his sides, and every time a foot made contact with the ball he’d flinch and lean toward it with his upper body, then lean back, so he appeared to wobble slightly. I could tell from his posture, how tense and rigid he was, and from the way he watched the ball – he seemed both to desire and fear it – that no one had kicked the ball his way.
But just as I walked by with Craig, someone did. The ball broke free and veered toward Henry. I can’t say whether this pass was accidental or intentional. Henry’s exclusion up to that point had been purposeful, but I don’t think it was beyond the others to offer him a turn, a chance to connect. The social lines that would later become indelible to us were still being sketched then, still fresh. The circles hadn’t yet closed.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about these things. I was running fast along the pavement, past where Henry was standing, and within seconds my shoe struck the ball.
Looking back, circumstance seems to guide my actions as much as any mischievous impulse I might have had. I saw the ball skidding along, and I ran forward to return it. In my memory this feels automatic, a Pavlovian response conditioned by countless hours of soccer and kickball and similar games. I’m running over asphalt half asleep, a trained dog heeding a familiar stimulus. I snap awake when the ball caves to my foot.
But I had seen Henry standing there. I understood what he wanted.
The ball’s silvery tone was still in my ears when Henry charged. He came at me like a frantic animal, swinging his arms wildly and emitting a strange whine. I see his face: he is flushed, nose and mouth twisted up, smooth skin under the frames of his glasses wet with tears. His anger seems to spill from disbelief more than anything else.
“Why did you do that?” he keeps saying, in his high voice as he comes at me. “Why did you do it?”
I’m not convinced Henry actually said those words, but in my memory he always does.
It took a few seconds for me to realize what was happening, why the game had stopped. By then Henry was nearly on top of me. He landed a few open-palmed hits on my chest and arms before I felt a sharp panic, a defensive indignation, bloom like a dark flower inside me.
Then I was on his back. I jumped up there, getting behind him and springing forward with hands on his shoulders, a leapfrog maneuver. I came down hard, my sternum pressing on the bridge of his shoulders, and I felt him hunch beneath me, his knees threatening to buckle.
I remember looking out from that vantage: seeing boys from the ruptured circle and other kids standing around, gray pavement, the red brick of the school walls in the near distance, all spinning in a blur.
Part of me wanted to hurt Henry, if only in response to his appearing to want to hurt me. Mostly, I wanted to avoid his hands, the furious windmill of sweatshirt and fingers and nails that seemed as though it would tear me to shreds if I let it. But even amid the commotion I felt ashamed of the mess I’d caused: this teary boy with me on his back, bearing my weight.
Once I climbed down, any desire for confrontation was gone in us. We slunk away in opposite directions, quiet and humiliated. Neither of us was disciplined for the incident. The aides who patrolled the playground with their pads of pink slips must not have seen us, or maybe from where they were standing, what we did hadn’t looked especially alarming. Two mop-haired boys horsing around. In my memory, even the kids standing close to us don’t react in any significant way. There is no egging on, no yelling. No one shouts the word “fight.” It starts and ends very quickly.
When students were caught misbehaving at recess, the aides made us stand against a section of chain-link fence that ran along the school building, opposite the grass hill. I remember kids standing with their hands behind them, fingers wrapped around the steel links, leaning forward, eager to get back in the action. Our time on the fence depended on the severity of our crime, and we were supposed to keep touching the links until the aides said we could go. Overall it was torture, but for some reason it felt good to grasp the links; they gave a satisfying resistance and were warm or cool or freezing, depending on the season.
Although I wasn’t ordered to the fence that day, I was standing very near it toward the end of recess. I had run away from Henry but I was still aware of him: walking by himself at the base of the hill, where grass blended into a band of fine gravel.
He watched the ground as he walked. Before the whistle blew to signal the end of recess my friend Craig found me again.
Craig looked upset. He had talked to Henry; he was maybe the only person during recess that day who had. He told me Henry’s feelings were hurt, that his glasses were broken. I hadn’t noticed the large gilt frames drop as Henry pitched forward under my body.
“You really need to say sorry.”
“I am sorry. Doesn’t he know that?”
“Saying it is different.”
“Can’t you tell him for me?”
“If you don’t do it…” Craig looked away. I could hear in his voice that his impression of me was threatening to shift.
I felt badly about everything, but especially the glasses; unlike the internal muddle of our emotions, they were a material consequence of what had transpired that afternoon, something physically damaged and in need of repair, something Henry would have to explain. He wasn’t the type of kid to lie to his parents. They would get all the details, just as my parents would be none the wiser. I could leave any difficult feelings behind; lose them in the humdrum instruction of class, the coolness of mint-green stairwells or the ordered chaos of the bus lineup at the end of the day. Henry’s guilt would follow him home. I think I understood this as I made my way across the asphalt toward the hill.
Standing there, Henry looked older but somewhat more helpless without his glasses. We scratched the gravel with our shoes, trying to meet each other’s eyes.
“I’m sorry I took your turn,” I said.
“My glasses broke.”
“I know. I didn’t mean to jump on you. It was an accident, kind of.” His face was still pinched with embarrassment, but he looked up at me.
Even at the time, I remember our exchange feeling empty and trite, anticlimactic after such an agonized lead-up. But it seemed like enough. I felt the weight lift. When the whistle blew we ran together toward the double doors.
Regrets have their own life and logic. Hurting Henry and breaking his glasses shouldn’t warrant the twinges of guilt I feel about the incident now. Still, when I consider that it might have been me, standing on the circle’s edge – that in another year or two, it would be me, though the games would be different – I can imagine what I took from him. I robbed him of a chance to throw off the demands of prodigy and genius. A chance to kick a ball, be a kid. Recess may have been his only real opportunity during a weekly itinerary of homework, extracurricular study, chess and piano practice to do this. To push back. To be a kid and nothing else.
But there must be more to the story. I wonder now if my feelings about Henry encompass other events, other memories – if perhaps my subconscious mind has flagged our scuffle as an entry point: a door cracked, ready to swing open on other harm I would soon cause.
I think, for instance, of the years after grade school, my tumble into the carelessness of adolescence, that realm beyond apology. I remember sprinting through empty suburban streets in the dark, hearing the eggs thunk against a neighbor’s aluminum siding on Devil’s Night, on the eve of Halloween. I can still feel my knuckles pound the spine of a sixth grader – a boy who was too smart, who didn’t talk or dress the right way – when he fell face down in the aisle of the school bus after being deliberately tripped by my friends.
And I remember myself at thirteen, three years after the incident with Henry, fleeing through the woods from an old man whose sliding glass door I had just shattered with a rock for no reason. White-headed, he staggered in the distance as I ran alongside a neighborhood friend, my accomplice, a boy my parents had deemed a bad influence but who couldn’t believe what I’d just done. We darted past trees at the edge of our suburban development and into a valley cleared for power lines, outpacing the man, outpacing remorse in a way I never had before.
Just as, before fifth grade was over, my friend Craig moved to another city and I never saw him again, my conscience drifted away from me in those years before high school. In middle school I sought new friends who let me indulge in violence and risk, who pushed me further into defiance instead of holding me back. Knowing – as I do now – that this was normal, hormone-driven preteen behavior is useful, but does not make my actions less mine. I seized permission to do the things I secretly wanted to do, and my childhood ended.
An hour after I ruined the old man’s door, a police car rolled past my friend’s yard, where the two of us were pretending to play catch. I had already run home and changed out of my incriminating clothes. So had my friend.
We didn’t look at the car. I didn’t think of the pile of glass in the old man’s house, the rock lying among his furniture, or what it might cost to replace a double-paned sliding door. I didn’t think of his lungs working hard as he chased us through the woods, down over the long hill, or how he looked in the yellow grass when he finally gave up, bent and heaving, palms on his knees. I didn’t think of his wife, who might have been in the house also. Or his shock when he heard the crash, like a gun going off in his home. Or his sore legs. Or his heart.
I thought, instead, about how to look innocent when you are not innocent. We tossed the ball back and forth. The police car didn’t stop.
Now, watching across the decades, I see myself after the cruiser drove off, laughing on the lawn with relief and fear, baseball mitt dropping from my hand. And I can’t decide what to make of that selfishness, that freedom. There I am, at last, on the other side of the magic boundary, where children are not permitted to go. The lines blur and fade. I release my grip on the chain-link fence. The world is new and unfamiliar and blank.
Dorian Fox is a writer and freelance editor in Boston, where he teaches courses at GrubStreet, a non-profit creative writing center. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Gay Magazine, Atticus Review, december, Under the Gum Tree, Gastronomica, and elsewhere. Visit his website, Dorian Fox.