Girl in the Wind
Cassie ran as fast as her long, skinny legs would carry her. The screen door banged shut behind her. A sound guaranteed to piss off her mother but she didn’t care. She had to get away from her. She had to escape the cutting words that sliced into her as sharply as any knife, carving away at her heart until the only way she could stop the bleeding was to run to the big oak tree across the yard and climb high into its enveloping branches. Past the long abandoned robin’s nest. Past the broken limb that snapped off in the thunder storm last year. Higher and higher she went until the branches thinned and she doubted the next one would hold even her slight weight.
She inhaled deeply, saying her personal version of a prayer, “Please God, don’t let me blow away in the wind before I show her a thing or two!” and stretched her arms as high as she could, wrapped them around the tree trunk, and stepped out on a limb so thin it seemed barely strong enough to hold the trio of leaves dangling from its tip.
She raised her gaze to the sky and felt the sun on her face calming her. White clouds of summer drifted overhead in a sky so blue it made her want to cry. A gust of wind rocked her as the tree swayed. Cassie welcomed the feeling of vertigo that came with the thrill of fear that she might fall. That was why she was there after all. To face the fear. To prove she was more than what her mother claimed. Although she would never admit it, she was terrified of heights. Even more terrified her mother was right. She was clumsy. She was school smart and life stupid. She would never be very pretty. Not like her mother. Not like her sister. How many times did she have to listen to the same story? She got the message the first time she heard it.
They lived in the apartment house then. The one with two families and one bathroom on each floor. More than once she’d peed her pants waiting for someone to finally clear out of there. It was bad enough if they were just whizzing or pooping, but if someone was taking a bath it could take a very long time and it wasn’t fair to get spanked or have your nose rubbed in wet pants if you tried and couldn’t get in.
That’s the place where they all got sick and the doctor had to come and give everyone but her father a shot of penicillin every day for a week. Cassie, who was four at the time, and her big sister, Sue, six-years old,were with Mom in the big bed. Their little brother, Billy, was in his crib pushed up against the wall. All of them were sweaty and coughing. No one was getting any sleep and Daddy had to bring them soup and pass out pills and change Billy’s diapers. Every day the doctor would ask Cassie and Sue who they wanted to get a shot first. Neither little girl would answer. Cassie always wanted to tell him to give the shot to their mother first. She was the only one who didn’t cry and maybe, just once, he’d get confused and forget about her. But she never got up the nerve to say anything. Some days she was first, some days Sue or Mom. Billy was always last everyone always got the shot
Finally they were all better. Her father was at work and her mother was brushing Sue’s hair, getting her ready for school. Sue thought she was big because she was going to first grade and Cassie was still too little for Kindergarten. Every now and then, as her mother talked and brushed her hair, Sue would turn to Cassie and give her a look that seemed to be a mix of superiority and embarrassed pity.
“You have the most beautiful hair,” Mom said. She brushed the long, naturally curly, locks at least five-hundred strokes every morning. “Strawberry blonde is such an unusual color. When you grow up you will be beautiful and have lots of boyfriends. You will go on lots of dates and break a lot of hearts.”
“What about me? What color is mine?” Cassie asked. She had hair too, but Mom rarely brushed it. After all, she wasn’t going anywhere but outside to play and she always came in a mess so why bother.
“You? Your hair is dirty blonde. Some people call it dishwater blonde because it reminds of them of the dingy water they pour down the sink after doing the supper dishes. It’s not unusual at all. And your hair is super fine. It won’t hold a curl like Sue’s. You’ll have to spend hours curling it or get a permanent. You won’t be pretty like Sue but, if you spend a lot of time doing your hair and putting on the right makeup, you could turn out to be cute. ”
“Will I have lots of dates?” Cassie asked.
“Not a lot,” her mother answered, turning to scan her younger daughter from head to foot. “Some of the boys that Sue isn’t interested in or has dated for a while and then jilted will probably ask you out. Maybe one of them will really like you.”
“I hope not”, Cassie said. “I don’t want to go on dates anyway!”
But she did. Not then of course, but someday she would want someone to think she was pretty and take her for a ride in his car. Somebody who wouldn’t care about the color of her hair. She secretly wondered if boys cared as much about hair as her mother seemed to. The ones she knew certainly didn’t do anything with theirs.
“Oh look, the sun is coming out,” Cassie’s mother said. She stopped primping Sue’s hair and crossed the kitchen to open the curtains over the sink. All morning it had been raining hard with occasional crashes of thunder and bursts of lightning. “It reminds me of the day Sue was born.”
“Tell us,” Sue said.
“April is a wonderful month to have a baby. Everything is so fresh and pretty in the Spring. However, it stormed all day and all night when I went to the hospital to have you. When I was in the delivery room the lights flickered out a few times and I was getting scared. Even the doctor said he hoped you would get here before the electricity failed for good.”
“Did I?” Did I come before the lights went out?”
“Yes, you did,” her mother assured her. “And just as the nurse was bringing you to me, the storm ended and the sun came out, filling the hospital room with light. It turned out to be a perfect Spring day after all. I had never known what it felt like to be so happy.”
“Tell me about when I was born,” Cassie said. “I’ll be you were very happy that day too.”
“No, I wasn’t,” her mother answered abruptly. “You weren’t due for another three weeks and your Dad and I had planned to go out. Aunt Celia was coming to stay the night and watch Sue. It was the last time your father and I would have a chance to go have dinner in a restaurant and go dancing before you were born. “
“What happened?” Cassie asked. A chill ran up her spine as she waited for the answer. She knew that something had gone wrong and it was her fault.
“What happened is you!” her mother snapped. Instead of having a night out I was in pain in the hospital. No, I wasn’t happy. I was mad. My last night out was spoiled. ”
“I’m sorry,” Cassie whispered, tears glistening in her big blue eyes.
If her mother heard, she didn’t respond. She simply finished brushing Sue’s hair, helped her put on her prettiest dress, and with Cassie following a few feet behind, walked her daughter to school. Later that afternoon, when her mother shooed her out of the house so she could have some peace and quiet, Cassie pushed a rickety ladder up against a tree, climbed up on one of the branches and faced the sting of her mother’s rejection for first time.
Why did feel so much like falling?