If time travel were possible, where would you go?
It’s not an uncommon question. At least it’s not for writers, like me, who like to write from prompts. Though it’s not really a question of where I would go, but when in time I would visit.
I’m not a lover of history. I don’t have any interest in watching a Civil War battle or witnessing the construction of the pyramids. I wouldn’t go back in time to try to change the face of wars, or elections, or end religious persecution. As admirable as doing so would be, my reasons for wanting to time travel would be more self-serving.
I was an enthusiastic child, always happy, always smiling. Every thought in my head flowed out through my mouth from the time I was old enough to speak. It didn’t matter that sometimes my mind worked faster than the words could come, communication was my tool. It was what I used to belong.
By third grade I was already an anomaly in a sea of my peers who had likely all shared a nursery at birth. My family moved several times throughout my childhood. Dad worked in customer service and we went where the work was, never fully settling in one location for very long. No matter which school I attended, it always seemed like most of my classmates had known each other for years. Nobody else’s dad had to work so much and, if he did, the family could at least stay in one place. They were lucky they weren’t different. They belonged.
It didn’t take me long to realize I had to adapt. Suddenly, making a new friend started to look a lot less like a forming a natural comradeship and a lot more like preparing for an undercover police investigation. I would stake out my potential friend, carefully observing her mannerisms and examining her motivations. I had to get close enough so that I could adopt her behaviors as my own, but not too close. Desperation was the enemy and I knew it would hurt my chances. I only had one shot.
Eventually, I had it down to a science. So, what if trying to fit in made me feel a little seasick, like I was adrift on a boat in the middle of the ocean? It was about survival, and I wasn’t going down without a fight.
I think it was this single-minded ambition that blocked my capacity to understand that my friendship with Beth was authentic and not forced, like so many of my other relationships. I had known her for almost two years. During a transition period from one house to another, my family moved in with my grandparents for a while and Beth lived around the corner.
I don’t recall exactly how we met, I just remember that we didn’t have that much in common. She was Jewish and lived in a sophisticated colonial style house that was nothing like my grandparents’ cozy ranch-style home. My Catholic grandmother’s warm kitchen was littered with religious plaques and crosses and the Italian trifecta of olive oil, onions and garlic permeated nearly every room. The tall ceilings at Beth’s house meant that it was usually always a little chilly. When I walked inside, I did so with my hands at my sides and my mother’s voice in my head warning me not to touch anything.
Beth was an only child and, even though she had pets – a dog and a hamster – horses were her first love, and her life. There were pictures everywhere of her on horseback, wearing the complete ensemble of riding gear. I even think she owned a horse that was kept at a stable nearby, a birthday gift one year from her parents. My only experience with horses up to that point had been what I learned from watching dad’s John Wayne westerns and the one time I rode a pony at a county fair in New Jersey. We spent endless afternoons in her room talking about horses, taking turns holding her hamster and playing with our dolls in her backyard.
My mom’s favorite word for Beth was, sweet. She was also immensely sensitive. Stubbing her toe against the doorframe was cause for tears no matter how minor the injury. I grew up with a rambunctious younger brother and had the cuts and bruises to show for it. Still, I wasn’t turned off by Beth’s emotional nature. She was good and had a generous heart. I may not have been as fragile as she was, but I understood about being different. And anyway, I could help her become more accepted by her peers. I would show her the way. After all, I had spent years perfecting the method and she was smart. She would figure it out.
As a kid, there was no worse place to be different than on the school playground. Though I’m an adult now and don’t have children of my own, I can’t imagine that has changed much. Recess was sink or swim time, your chance to prove you could hack it, that you had what it took to earn your spot in the masses.
I had been on dozens of playgrounds growing up, but that one seemed more formidable to me than all the others. The blacktop was home to throngs of giggling school girls, each belonging to their own secret club. Each club had its own secret language, its own secret location where meetings were held, and its own way of inducting new members. I’d spent weeks circling the playground, silently observing the girls, determining which group would be the best one to give my outsider status a face lift. My hours of intensive study paid off in a big way when I was finally allowed to join one of the groups. I was in. I’d made it, and though I can no longer remember how we all spent our time together, I do remember the sunny spring day when Beth approached me and said she wanted to join, too.
The only other thing I remember about Beth after all this time, was that she was terrified of heights. She wouldn’t go near the slide attached to the jungle gym because she had to climb up to go down. She stayed away from the tire swing because the boys would push it too high, and she never touched the monkey bars. That afternoon, we made Beth face her fear in the cruelest of ways.
We told Beth that if she wanted to join the club, she had to climb the tall metal dome on the blacktop. She had to reach the top. If she didn’t, she would never be a part of our club or any other, as her actions would likely be witnessed by almost the entire population of our elementary school. The feat must have seemed astronomical to shy, introverted Beth. Even so, I’d like to think that I let it happen because I believed in her. I truly had faith that, like me, she would succeed.
At first, she seemed confident. Her neat white Keds moved at a steady pace over the intricate metal pattern. Her body was hunched over slightly, giving her better access to each successive bar. I was laughing along with my new friends. We surrounded the structure, yelling to one another in our secret language, random words strung into nonsensical phrases that only we could understand.
About halfway to the top, Beth slowed and then stopped altogether. In my position beneath the dome, I stilled. Her lips were pursed in concentration and her long, mousy brown hair fell over her cheeks. I watched as she gripped the next rail with white knuckles, her breath leaving her in unsteady gasps.
When Beth finally broke, she didn’t look at me or any of the other girls. She stared down at the concrete, her fragile frame bent and shaking. Her tears fell to the blacktop and I stood silently by as one of the supervising teachers came over to help her down. When her feet hit the ground, she ran away, and I didn’t try to find her. Instead, I stood in that spot until the bell rang, signaling the end of recess and the beginning of the afternoon.
I don’t know if Beth ever did conquer her fear of heights or even if she would remember this incident if I told her about it now. Our friendship ended that day and my family moved north a few months later. I never saw her again.
If time travel were possible I’d go back to that day. I would tell my younger self that there are two types of people in this world: leaders and followers and deciding which to be is a defining moment. At the end of the day, life is all about understanding the difference between what only seems important and what really is important, and that the price you pay for betraying yourself far outweighs the benefits of trying to be someone you’re not. It’s about accepting responsibility and realizing that all actions have consequences. It’s about choices and, for better or worse, learning to live with the ones that you make.