10 min read. A true, short story from my childhood on play and pain. As a nine year old, I had already begun to understand the concept of someone not wanting you around and feeling like an "other." Names have been changed, but the events were real.
Children’s toys in the early 1990’s were wonderfully dangerous. I remember the toxic egg yolk-yellow swirl that indicated my doll had finished her duty on her personal “potty,” or scratching my ankle raw with a Skip It, as I would revolve the plastic ball and chain in a sharp circle, hopping over the rigid pole just in time. The Skip It theme song was also catchy as hell:
Hey now kids come gather 'round, see what just skipped into town; so skip it, skipppppp it, you want to jump to the top, skip it, skipppppppp it, skippin' and a screamin' and a bop shoo bop.
Haunting theme song aside, my favorite toy from that time was my neighbor’s backyard trampoline.
The recreational trampoline of the early ‘90s was the Miss America of all defective toys. Brisk winds tipped its light aluminum legs with ease. Digging your heels deep into its bouncy center meant being catapulted to heights that could land you straight onto a broken ass bone, 15 yards away. If one too many of the big boned children on the block huddled on one of its sides, it flipped over in retaliation.
Camielle was the most adventurous of us three Blacken kids and loved a challenge like the trampoline posed. Once while playing “adult kitchen” together, she stepped onto a wine opener, puncturing a large hole into the bottom of her soft, three year old sole. Instead of collapsing in shock, she shot through the entire house screaming her pain at the top of her lungs, leaving a trail of cherry colored blood all over the carpets during her mad dash.
When we moved three doors down from the Eames into my mom’s childhood home, Camielle caught a glimpse of the prized trampoline machine, sitting lonely in their backyard. Its presence signaled status and leisure we didn’t have ourselves. Trampolines were for rich people, or at least for people who pretended to be.
“We should go next door and ask if we can jump on their tramp,” she harped one lazy afternoon. That’s what you called trampolines back then. Camielle knew how to get what she wanted. Always. Be. Closing.
My lackluster “I guess, so. Doesn’t hurt to try,” was enough approval to get Camielle’s plan into motion.
The stretch of sidewalk between three suburban homes feels like a football field when you’re nine. Blame it on the Pillsbury legs and a limited view of the world.
We stumbled up the Eames’ porch, five concrete steps with functional, black iron railing. Definitely not the type of entrance you’d expect for maybe rich, but definitely trampoline owning folks.
Camielle pressed her six-year-old pointer finger, still covered in cute baby fat, into the buzzer. We arranged ourselves into our most polite and non-threatening stances we could, staring up into the small, half moon shaped window at the top of the doorframe.
The home was bricked and brown, with a square plot of green out front, an open driveway with only an overhead tin roof to protect anything parked under its helm from the elements. I saw bushes of greens, dwarf shrubs, to the right of this narrow concrete porch, covering the underside of the long ceiling to floor windows that traced the front of the cookie cutter abode.
Still no answer.
There was a car in the driveway...
The Eames dog had stirred. I didn’t know much about dogs but did know their sense of hearing means you could fart from a half a mile away and they would know you did it. It began yelping its warning bark in their backyard, a hoarse sound that signaled the dog needed water, or children’s flesh. Just a wild guess.
Camielle mashed the doorbell button again.
The only hint of life in the home was a timid flicker of the dull white curtains masking the floor to ceiling window that faced their front yard. I glanced fast enough to catch one gleaming eyeball, attached to a profile of a ivory toned, middle-aged woman. Curly dark brown helmet hair, thick black glasses.
The eye quickly disappeared, but still, no answer.
As a nine year old, I had already begun to understand the concept of someone not wanting you around. “Think we should go Camielle, don’t think they’re gonna answer.”
“I know they’re home. I saw the curtain move. They’re ignoring us, huh?”
When you’re raised as the only black family for miles, you’re used to being ignored. Invisible Man should have had a sequel titled, “Invisible Children: the training guide for colored kids who are confused by white avoidance.”
We made our way off the steps, our elementary school a few short strides across the street in the distance; it’s circular, rotund shape taunting us with the knowledge that we’d be waddling our way back down this same street for class in the morning.
Our elementary school, Lincoln Elementary School, was a hop, skip, and a jump away from my Grandmother’s house, my mom’s childhood home. The same school where she had rocks thrown at her by her schoolmates because of her appearance. The same school whose teachers tried to put her into slower learning classes, even though she was in the top 10% of her classmates in reading comprehension and any other measure of a child’s cognitive abilities.
I spent the early years of my life, half of kindergarten and first grade, on the East Coast at a school called Franklin Elementary. Its most memorable feature was a black, tar-top asphalt, our hard and unwelcoming playground. I’d run along its black wrinkles with my two other friends, also named Christina, tracing the spongy lines resulting from overzealous construction workers plugging its holes with an abundance of tar.
My ties with Bloomfield, New Jersey were severed in the same swipe as my parents seven year, tumultuous marriage. My mom and us children picked up and moved back to Utah, a long, four day train ride that left my two younger sisters sick with the flu and almost killed my love of hot dogs being the only food served on the never ending ride. Utah was the state that raised my grandmother, and my mother, and then me. I was home.
I met Katherine while playing solo on the sand dunes of the playground in front of the circular building of Lincoln Elementary school. She was passively nice, by omission. She didn’t have much to say but her eyes would light up in wonder or approval of the things I did or said. I vacillated between being a boisterous social nut, and a quiet introspective explorer, cerebral enough to create worlds of wonder and question my surroundings. I would lead games of Power Ranger, or Hot Lava with the other kids and my two sisters, pretending the sand was a sinking moor of doom we had to navigate for survival. I was also the only other kid in my grade, and really school, that was black.
“Want to come over and jump on my trampoline?”
I didn’t realize Katherine was an Eames, a tenant of the mysterious brick house with the rabid dog and the shiny trap of a trampoline.
“Yes! That would be fun, me and my sister Camielle came over the other day to ask!” I took a beat, “Will your dog be back there?”
“Oh he’s harmless but we’ll take him in the house. He gets too worked up when people jump back there.”
I imagined anything riled him up, including half a mile away farts.
“I’ll ask my mom when I get home today from school, but it should be fine for us to come by!”
My mom’s distrust of people started early in her life. Having rocks hurled at you by your peers definitely doesn’t help build a trusting picture of people, and seeing her family come apart when her dad died when she was 17 in a boating accident, only fueled a fire of survival that kept her at a measured distance with people, especially people born and raised in Utah. We heard many stories about Mormons, how racist they all are, and how badly they treated her and our family over the years.
“Hey mom, I met this girl named Katherine at school today. She lives on the corner and invited us to play on her trampoline. Can Camielle and I go over there?”
“Oh, you mean the Eames? That’s the Mormon family that lives right on the corner with the loud dog?”
“I’ll walk over with you and Camielle, and introduce myself.”
I didn't ask if my youngest sister Raquel could come. Even for a small child, she was particularly prone to getting hurt. She was the perfect height to roll her forehead into doorknobs while waddling between rooms, which she’d signaled she’d done on more than one occasion with piercing howls. She cried so much at this stage of her childhood my grandmother once remarked, “If she keeps crying like that I may start lactating, and you know I’m well past menopause.”
The football distance closed even quicker with an adult around. Maybe adult strides are long because they can’t wait to sit down. Adults are always tired.
After a ring, the door cracked open just wide enough to see helmet hair woman, which I assumed was Mrs. Eames.
“Can I help you?”
My mom put on her cheery voice, “Hi there, my name is Cherie, these are my daughters Christina and Camielle. Christina met your daughter Katherine at school today, and Katherine invited them over to play on the trampoline. We live right down the block a few doors, figured I’d come say hi.” This was my mom’s way of assessing the scene, and letting her presence be known. She missed the chapter in Invisible Children about giving a fuck about whether “others” wanted your presence there or not.
“Ah...you live with Mrs. Hill?”
“Yes, that’s my mother.”
“Um...great. Well, yes. They are welcome to play with Katherine. I’ll bring her out.”
Mrs. Eames gently shut the door.
I wasn’t one for many adult rules, but was it standard to leave your guests standing on a porch wide enough for just two small children, but not really wide enough for two small children AND their mother?
We waited what seemed like ages. Katherine finally reopened the door with a shy grin on her face.
“I’m glad you guys were able to come!”
Mrs. Eames saddled up behind her and quickly interjected, “It’d be best if you guys went through the driveway entrance to the backyard. It’s the easiest way back there.”
Most individuals typically go to their backyard through the house but I wasn't one to put up a fight, it wasn't my house. My eye was on the shiny trampoline prize.
“Ok. Christina and Camielle you can stay and play for a few hours but be home before it gets dark. Have fun you guys.” My mom made her way down the concrete steps to leave us to our new adventure.
Katherine, myself, and Camielle quickly hopped down the porch, scooted around the grey Camry in the driveway, tip toed around the rust colored junk all garages seem to accumulate like vintage lingerie, and bolted through the chain link fence that was between us and the trampoline.
The dog was put inside the house, so we felt free to finally cut loose.
“Have you ever jumped on a trampoline before?” Katherine inquired as she bounded up onto the trampoline in one quick movement. She was seasoned.
“No, but we’re going to try!”
Camielle and I tentatively touched the edge of the trampoline. It came up to my neck and the edge was almost over Camielle’s head. The metal coils that gave it its bounce ran the perimeter in spirals as tight as Shirley Temple’s iconic hairstyle.
Katherine began her routine, pounding lean legs into the center of the trampoline with better and faster results, shooting straight as a pin towards the sky with the confidence of a kid who had done this many times before.
I crawled onto the black canvas, rolling onto my back as I absorbed the shock of Katherine’s jumps. Body lifting like a plank to the sky and falling with the grace rock. Camielle pulled herself onto the trampoline, quickly emulating Katherine with less success. Not enough bend in her knees to absorb the down portion of each jump, she bounded around like a tan light pole with no joints.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and worked my way into a standing position, catching the thump of their jumps. We faced each other in a circle near the center, each bouncing the other higher. We started a rhythm, pounding six tan and cream-colored legs hard into the elastic surface. We beat the differences and spaces between us into the tops of that toy, bounding towards the sky, shirts lifting high enough to show bellies, laughter escaping us at the peak, hair flying erect as if the top of the earth causes static shock. No matter how hard we tried to fight it, gravity oppressed our bodies back to the surface to try and fight it all over again. This was finally what it felt like to live free.
We hadn’t noticed the fence open and shut in our repetitive trance, and a small girl with blonde hair, pale skin, and peach colored creamsicle freckles, trotted up to our bouncing drum circle.
“Hey Katherine! Can I join?”
Katherine abruptly stopped her pouncing to hoist the small child up onto the trampoline.
“This is my friend Jayden. She lives on the block behind us.”
Camielle and I both stopped to greet her.
“Did Mrs. Eames let you guys back here?” Even at her young age, Jayden had already begun to master signaling the quiet distrust shown to outsiders intruding on comfortable and familiar spaces.
“Katherine invited us.”
That seemed like answer enough to satisfy Jayden, who went into a bounce that we quickly all followed, returning to the trance of jumping.
After a while Jayden stopped mid jump, giving me a curious look, “Your hair is funny. Why does it look like that when you jump?” She was commenting on my braids. My hair was thick as rope and soft as cotton, bounded up in intricate braids to keep it contained. My hair was always a talking point, a central feature of otherness that was pointed out in a range of pure curiosity to complete disdain.
“They’re braids. My hair isn’t straight like yours so it won’t look like that when I jump.” I strived for easy comprehension with my hooked-on-phonics style listing of the facts.
Jayden still looked confused. I didn’t want to get into describing to yet another child why I looked different from them, so I got back to bouncing. Camielle on the other hand, wasn’t as easy to pass over the remark.
“Well, why does your hair not look like mine when YOU jump?”
Jayden stopped, completely baffled as to why anyone would ever ask her a question like that. After pausing for what seemed like a minute she answered, “Because my hair is normal.”
I felt that familiar pang in my gut when I knew we were getting into uncomfortable territory. A drop in the stomach like the hill of a roller coaster, crashing at the end instead of safely ending where you started.
I was adept at navigating these kinds of talks, expected to both educate people about difference while not coming off as “angry” in fairly exasperating situations, “Well, what’s normal to you isn’t normal for everyone. Not everyone looks the same, even if you haven’t seen it before.”
That answer stumped her enough to quell the conversation.
In that moment I noticed a flash in the back window. Mrs. Eames had been quietly observing us the whole time, with a look of expectation, as if something that could go wrong would go wrong. Her expression was blank on surface but I felt that pang again, being watched intently and already feeling guilty for being in a space that was starting to morph into unwelcome territory.
“I’m thirsty.” Jayden quickly shimmied off the trampoline making her way to the back porch. She reminded me of how parched I had become. Jumping at full force for an hour would give the Ocean a dry mouth.
Camielle must have had the same thought, “I’m thirsty too.”
We all began to climb off the trampoline, to make our way into the house for glasses of water.
Jayden opened the storm door with no hesitation, familiarity of passage, with Katherine behind her. As Jayden disappeared inside Katherine suddenly stopped and turned around to face Camielle and myself.
“You can’t come inside.”
I stopped, “Oh...why?”
“My mom doesn’t like my friends coming inside the house. She wants us to stay outside.”
Camielle, mighty truthsayer, struck to the center of the lie, “Why did Jayden just go in then?”
A flash of panic passed over Katherine’s already trampoline exerted and flushed face. She mumbled something, and pointed to the hose behind the concrete porch. It was the same color green as the slime from Nickelodeon, dirt crusted to its sides from neglect, left to settle into the soil until it was needed again. It ran the length of the brick wall to a small iron spout, attached to a water source that was likely only useful for outdoors water activities.
We got the hint. We get to drink from the hose. Katherine and Jayden get to drink glasses of water inside.
Camielle vocalized her distaste, “Seriously, they’re going to make us drink from a water hose like we’re animals?”
“Well, we drink outside sometimes.”
“Yeah, but not when we have a choice to drink water from inside.” Couldn’t argue with Camielle’s straight shooting logic. I was thirsty though and arguing with Katherine wasn’t going to fix that. I turned the hose on a slow drizzle, with both of us taking turns sipping from the top of the hose.
When Katherine and Jayden returned, hydrated and refreshed, we went back to the trampoline as if the split didn’t happen, warming up our legs with renewed energy and comfort, almost pro- athlete status at this point as jumpers.
Camielle approached any sport with the spirit of an Olympian. A year prior, when she had a bike that had no gears, she pedaled so fast and put so much wear on it that she literally rode it until the wheels fell off, in the middle of our neighborhood street, the front wheel popping off first, the back wheel jutting off second, and the bike chain dropping off last for full effect. She sat with the bike in pieces crying, while I laughed in wonder at how she could even pull that off.
Camielle brought this same vigor to the trampoline, jumping to a scary height that spun her a bit out of control at the top of each jump.
“Whoa Camielle you may need to pull it back a bit!” The older sister in me had to say something, it’s required from the contract you make as the oldest child to step in as a surrogate parent from time to time, especially in a single parent home.
Camielle kept going with a bit of abandon, until she finally hit the trampoline at a bad angle, landing with a sharp thump on her side, 20 feet away into the grass.
I quickly jumped off the trampoline and ran after her, to see what damage had been done.
“Uggghh.” Her small groans were muffled by the crab grass of the yard.
Mrs. Eames appeared on the back porch with pure panic on her face.
“Oh my gosh!!!” She ran over.
“Camielle are you ok!?” I dropped down by her side touching her legs as if she was paralyzed.
“Ugggggggghh I’m ok...that hurt.” She had to voice it just in case we weren’t clear.
Mrs. Eames asked in panic, “What happened?!”
“She lost her balance and accidentally bounced off.”
Without stopping to see if Camielle was ok, Mrs. Eames sprinted back inside.
I helped Camielle up. We were kids and used to falling at least once a day. If God or whoever else created humans didn’t want kids toppling over so much they shouldn’t have designed kids to have heads three sizes bigger than their little bodies, terrible for your center of gravity.
Camielle sat on the grass for a minute to recoup, then jumped up, ready to walk back over to the trampoline for round two.
Mrs. Eames appeared again with a pad of paper.
“You need to sign this before you get back on there.”
I took the pad from her hands, wondering what it could be. A get better note seemed a bit odd, Camielle wasn’t dying, but nice on Mrs. Eames’ part.
I glanced down at the paper and saw a few lines of text, with a space for a signature.
“What is this?”
“This is so it’s clear that jumping on this trampoline is at your own risk.”
“Why would we need that?”
“She just flew off of the trampoline. That isn’t my responsibility. You people are quick to blame others for things.”
I was baffled by her response. A small child had done what most kids do -- have an accident. Her biggest concern was if “us people” would drag her into court and not if Camielle would have a bruise the dark color of the top of the trampoline down her side.
I defaulted into channeling rage into measured niceties, a practice I was building up too fast and too well, “I think we should go home now. It’s getting late and we’re gonna be eating dinner soon. Thanks Mrs. Eames and Katherine for having us over.”
Camielle and I slowly made our way back through the chain link fence across the football field of space between our home and theirs.
“They made you drink from the fucking hose?” My mom had tried to stop cursing, even creating a “money jar” that required a $1 bill inserted every time she said a curse word. I delighted in reminding her to fill it when every fuck, shit, motherfucker, or damn that passed her lips. It got too full to even keep it up.
She was braiding Raquel’s hair, trying to tug her soft puffs into tamed plaits.
I responded, “Yeah, and let her little neighbor Jayden drink inside.”
“This is why I can’t stand those people. They try to act nice to your face, but do shit like that. How rude and disrespectful.”
“Owww mom you’re pulling the braids too tight!” Raquel piped up in protest. She was what we called “tender headed”, someone requiring a gentler touch when her coils were grappled with. My mom eased back, holding the base of the braid to release any tension as she quickly combed through each section.
“Camielle also flew off the trampoline, on accident, and Mrs. Eames wanted us to sign some waiver so we wouldn’t sue her.”
“Seriously?! Like we’re gonna sue her is she out of her mind?”
“Mom I know a brand new scalp would look lovely but I’d prefer to keep my own.” Even though she was small and young, Raquel’s one liners could take the tension out of any situation. She understood humor’s tendency to disarm and deflect even the most tense situations. My mom gave a chuckle.
“Yeah, she didn’t even really check to see if Camielle was alright.” I retorted.
“I don’t know if I want ya’ll going over there again.”
“The trampoline was fun though mom. Her mom is terrible, but Katherine is nice.”
She gave me a look of pity, as if my optimism in Katherine’s perceived innocence was similar to letting a child know that Santa Claus isn’t real.
In the following weeks, Katherine and I hung out enough at school that we began a friendship. Playing in the sand at recess, sitting near each other in class. And eventually, I worked up the nerve to invite her over to my grandma’s home where we lived, three houses down from theirs, to hang out.
The first time Katherine came over, she told us she could only stay thirty minutes as her mom demanded it.
“Ok, we can play a board game!” I didn’t hesitate to let her inside. We were taught that guests should be shown inside and treated as guests. I asked her to take her shoes off, “My grandma is really serious about the carpet.”
We settled, shoeless and socks out, into the retro colored carpet of the living room.
My family loves a good board game, or any game. This is probably due to our southern roots, which is steeped with games like dominoes, big whiz, and spades. When you play these games they are your marker of coming into adulthood. You didn’t step to any of the adults and play these games unless you were serious. Scrabble is my family’s favorite game of choice. I was still trying to figure out how to beat my Grandma at it. She took no prisoners, pushing us to expand our vocabularies every time we sat down to duel with the engraved square shaped wooden letters.
Katherine settled into our living room, which was daintily decorated with a few pieces of art, a piano bought by my grandfather and underplayed, and finishes from the ‘80s that signaled the house probably needed another upgrade soon.
“I’m going to grab a drink from the kitchen.” I mentioned in passing after our first round of Scrabble. I tried to take it easy on Katherine but already was up 10 points on her.
“Can I come?”
Camielle piped up, “I don’t know why we even let you into our house, you wouldn’t even let us get a drink inside yours.” Her truth sailed through the hurt. Inflicting wounds when you’re inflicted yourself feels good until it doesn’t.
Katherine looked sheepish, “I...my mom told me that I couldn’t let you guys inside. I didn’t know how to say that and I don’t know why she didn’t want you guys inside the house.”
“Well, parents sometimes judge other people based on bad experiences or no experiences at all, but parents aren’t always right.”
Katherine looked up from the floor at me, with a small sigh of relief.
I walked through the kitchen and opened the backdoor to our backyard, “but there’s the hose if you want a drink.”
Katherine looked like I had slapped her, mouth agape.
I started to chuckle. I had to give her even just a small taste of her own medicine, “Just kidding, let me get you a glass.”