I escaped like a caged bird, out the kitchen door, eager to make my solitary way to school, lightly holding my lunch bag, neatly folded twice at the top. Dried leaves scented the Southern California air that morning, two months into my 5th grade year.
Suddenly, the new girl from two doors down appeared on the sidewalk in front of my house, clutching her own paper lunch bag scrunched at the top like she was carrying a chicken by the neck. Our paths joined and we walked together in awkward silence, into her first day at my school and the beginning of our lifelong friendship.
Tami wore her father’s fair, freckled features, and a red corduroy jumper that day. I, in my black patent leather Mary Janes with white socks carefully cuffed, envied her sockless ankles tucked into well-worn white tennis shoes.
She was waiting at my classroom door when it was time for first recess.
“D’ya wanna play wallball?” Tami asked, taking my arm and pulling me toward where a group of boys bounced large playground balls against the back of the brick bathroom building, like one-sided doubles tennis without a racket.
“Um, I usually play on the swings… with the girls.” I protested weakly. Secretly terrified at the prospect of entering the boys’ territory, yet not wanting to disappoint my new friend, I went along, but just to watch.
When it was Tami’s turn, she didn’t just return the big bounced ball with one hand like the others had, she reared back and thumped down on that ball with both fists and all of her might. The force of her effort made her opponent miss, and that red jumper to fly up in the back, causing the boys to snicker and make comments about London and France.
I thought she’d cry and run away. I would have. But she just grinned, wiped her hands on the front of her skirt, and took on her next opponent.