RUST: A Short Story
I first noticed her by the blocks. She placed the red square over the square hole in the wooden box, and it plopped down like a raindrop into a puddle. A smile lit up her face, wide and narrow, crooked teeth pointing towards the walls. Smitten, is what someone might have called me. Maybe infatuated, perhaps enamored. Most of all, I was intrigued – not once in my three weeks of prekindergarten had I seen her, this girl with hair like fresh rust and translucent skin like skim milk. Was she a transfer student? New to the neighborhood? Why hadn’t she stood up at the beginning of the year and announced her name, birthday, and favorite animal like the rest of us?
I stood by the picture books, planning my entrance into her life. I will approach her slowly, sit by the Legos, then ask her name. Simple, yet effective. Not too pushy. I took a deep breath and stepped one sneaker forward. My leg shook under my weight. Why am I nervous? I learned how to walk two years ago.
The blocks were only a few feet away from the picture books, but it might as well have been miles and miles of space and time, an abyss of rugs and mats and napping children lying between me and this girl. I had to maneuver wisely. I stepped over Ralph, sprawled out and snoring on the train tracks, but just as I made it past the Map of the World, I slipped on an untied shoelace. Right in front of her. How could I be so clumsy? Ms. Conrad always tells us to tie our shoes before we walk anywhere. I scrambled to my feet in hopes of getting up before she saw me, only to turn to her facing me with eyes wide and her smile gone.
I stood in front of her, frozen in horror.
“Are you okay?” She approached me with caution.
“No you’re not. You’re crying.”
“Am not.” Am I? I wiped a finger across my eye and moisture found its way to my skin. I rubbed both eyes hurriedly. “I am fine.”
She stared me down. I stared back. We glared at each other like two cowboys in those Old Western cartoons, as if one of us had walked into the local saloon, both itching for a fight. The standoff lasted a few seconds. I could feel the air streaming from her nose, that’s how close I was to her. I couldn’t find the air in me to breathe.
Suddenly, as if jerked awake, she moved back towards the Legos and dropped onto the floor. Her hand tapped at the empty space near her. I went to it, sat, and took a handful of Legos from the bin.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
There was so much I wanted to know! So much I want to say! She was laden with mysteries, protected by a blanket of secrecy, and I wanted to rip it off. Our silence continued, our hands still busy pressing the tiny blocks together. My mind was racing, unable to rest upon a conversation starter. Where do I start? What do I do?
“Why is your hair that color?”
Her smile twisted into a confused frown. Oh no. I messed up. She pushed her hair back and looked at me, filled with pride.
“I was born like this. My mother says I am unique and beautiful and nothing you say could make me any different.”
I stared at her. “Oh no,” I replied. “I like it a lot.”
“Oh.” She smiled weakly. It was her turn to be ashamed. “Thanks.”
Our eyes finally met. Hers were gray and kind, like a soft winter’s day. I wondered how mine, green and dark, looked to her. I hope she thinks of something beautiful, not something gross like spinach. I still wonder what she saw when she looked at mine – if she saw a forest, or a deep sea, or the soft green of new ferns.
“I like your name,” she remarked as she dove into the Legos again
“I like your name too,” I said back to her. “They both start with ‘R’s.”
“I learned how to write an uppercase ‘R’ yesterday.”
This, to me, was incredible. She was incredible. I had barely mastered the lowercase “R”, and she’d already written the capital letter!
“Can you teach me?”
Her smile returned, stretching towards her ears. “Yeah.”
I rushed to the nearby desk and snagged two pencils and a piece of paper. I brought them to her – almost too eager, but by that point I wasn’t worried about impressions.
She took one pencil and the sheet of paper. “So, do you know how to make an uppercase ‘B’?”
“Duh.” Not really.
“So you make a ‘B’, but instead of the second one you make a straight line.” As she spoke, she followed her own steps and made a beautiful, curvy “R”, round and soft like a party streamer.
“Huh.” I tried it on the paper. It was messy, but close.
She peered at it, her eyes thin. “That is okay.”
“Thank you. I can write the rest of my name.” I wrote it below our letters. “Can you write yours?”
“No. I don’t know how to write a ‘Y’ yet.”
I smiled at her. “It’s very easy. Make a ‘V’, and then a line.” I put the pencil in her hand and guided it across the paper. Our hands danced in harmony, like figure skaters gliding on the ice-white paper. My hand, holding hers, wrote out her whole name. Rosemary.
She looked at it. It was a beautiful name; it is a beautiful name, a garden of possibility. A whole field of rosemary and wildflowers, blooming in the sun and the rain, reflecting upon her pale face with growth, light, fresh youth.
“It’s pretty,” she told me simply. “Thank you.”
Only pretty? “You’re welcome.”
My mother came a little late that day. Everyone else had left. Ms. Conrad and I played Connect Four. I’d won every time, though probably not because of the talent I had at the time. Even Dane, the class clown, consistently beat Ms. Conrad at Connect Four, and he couldn’t even add numbers properly.
“Hello, darling.” Mom bent down and kissed my head. She took my hand and we walked out of the classroom. “How was your day today?”
“Good,” I replied. “I learned how to write my name.”
“How wonderful! Did Ms. Conrad teach you that?”
“No. My friend Rosemary taught me.”
“Rosemary. I don’t know her. Who is she?”
I was stunned at the question. Who is Rosemary? Where could I begin? How could I even sum her up? Even now, I fall short of an answer. Rosemary, the smartest girl in the class, who could learn to befriend a fool like me who forgot to tie his own shoes. Rosemary, this blessing on my soul, this Aphrodite of kindergarten. Rosemary, the girl who not only taught me my own name but my purpose, the girl who I am sure I will marry, if not during recess on the prekindergarten playground, then maybe one day when I am all grown up.
I looked up at my mother. “She’s new and has red hair.”