The metal was hot, but I kept my hand wrapped around the pole, swinging around in broad circles. I tilted my head upwards towards the American flag that waved against the cloud-speckled sky. My palm burned from the heat of the sun and the friction between my skin and the metal, but I would not let go. Not until Dee Dee arrived.
Some parents, the same parents as usual, were already waiting in the parking lot by the flagpole in their Mercedes, Volvos and Saabs when school ended. They were ready to pick up their kids and whisk them away to ballet lessons, horseback riding, soccer practice. My mom used to do that before she started working at the hospital. Now things were different. Dee Dee, my dad’s new wife, was coming to pick me up for the first time.
My left hand was free to feel the swish of the air as I circled. The other kids watched as they waited there to be picked up. Brian Mcough eyed my spinning motions through narrowed slits, ready to pounce if I were to let go. Carrie Brodile stood with her hands on her hips and blatantly stared as her best friend Lori whispered in her ear. They wanted to be in my place.
The bell had rung only minutes before and I’d been the first at this coveted spot. I had gathered my books together early, watching the little hand on the clock nudge towards 12, willing Mrs. Callaway to dismiss the class. And then, as the other kids packed and dawdled and chatted, I had dashed to the flagpole.
I’d been the first one here only once before -- two years ago when I was in the first grade. As soon as I had made contact with the pole, the fourth-graders had tumbled out of the blue front doors in a pack, yelling as they ran towards the spot. I had almost surrendered my position before they hit the grass. But instead I’d clung to the metal desperately. When my mom had driven up I had spun around for her ten times in a row. She had cheered through her open window. We’d talked about how fast I was and how well I’d held on the entire car ride home.
Now I was in third grade. Finally here again.
I bent my head back and let my long hair swish against my butt. Dee Dee said my hair was too long, that my mother shouldn’t allow me to wear such a rat’s nest on my head. She thought the bangs my mother cut for me made me look cute, not beautiful. I’d been confused at that verdict. Happy that I was once considered beautiful, disappointed now that I was only cute. I pushed the long strands to the side with my left hand and kept revolving.
My arm began to tingle after awhile. Then it started to ache. I switched hands, careful to grip with my left before removing my right. Loss of contact with the pole meant the end of your turn.
I waved goodbye to Alexis Hamilton without breaking my swing. Alexis was my best friend. She had asked me to play after school that day but Dee Dee had said no, she didn’t want to drive across town to pick me up. She said Alexis could come to our house instead. One time when Alexis came over to our house, Dee Dee made her vacuum the living room with me. And another time she had laughed at Alexis for being so quiet. “Don’t you have a thing to say? I think this girl is a mute,” she said and then laughed the way that made me sink in my seat in the movie theater. We didn’t know what a mute was but it sounded bad. Alexis wouldn’t come over to that house after that. She said that Dee Dee was weird.
Alexis climbed into her mother’s BMW and they pulled out of the parking lot. The crowd was thinning. The kids left were not my friends. Their moms were always late because they worked. Natasha Wertz was sitting on her torn backpack looking at me. I heard that sometimes her mom didn’t show up to pick her up at all and Mrs. Gruber, the math teacher, had to drive her home. Natasha’s hair was different lengths and stuck to her head. I wondered what Dee Dee would say about that. Jerry Budner was kicking pebbles into the parking lot. He used hot lunch tickets that he got at the front office. Alexis told me that he got those for free because his family was too poor to make him lunch. He looked up and saw me looking at him. He kicked a pebble towards me. It flew in the air and whizzed past my head. I almost let go of the pole.
I picked up speed to show Jerry I wasn’t scared. As I swung around, my stomach rippled. I stopped spinning but the grass around the pole kept moving. I clung to the rod with both hands and put my head down towards the ground. I imagined throwing up right there at the flagpole. It would splash on my ankles and have pieces of bologna and fruit roll-up. When I felt sick at home my mom would hold my hair back and rub my neck. She would say, “It’s ok honey, let it out, you’ll feel better soon.” She was right. I always felt better after she tucked me in bed and brought me apple juice and Strawberry Popsicles.
I crouched down on the trampled brown grass with my hands intact with the pole. Pools of saliva drained into my mouth. I spit on the ground. And then I was heaving. Vomit burst forth from my stomach, burning my throat on the way. The power of the motion rocked me, but I would not let go of the pole. When I was done, the pale green liquid dripped from my hair and a line of drool hung from my chin. I wiped it away as best I could while glancing around. Natasha wasn’t looking at me. She was picking the grass in front of her. Jeremy was gone. His mom must have come to get him.
I stood up, careful not to get my white sneakers wet. Dee Dee would notice any marks on the new Nike’s she had bought for me. It was more difficult to swing now. I had to stand at a wider arc from the pole and go slowly to avoid the puddle and keep the waves of sickness down. I tried to swallow the acid still lining my throat but it only made me cough. For a second, I wanted to let go.
The blue Toyota pulled in quickly with the sounds of Paul Simon seeping out the windows. Dee Dee honked as she pulled up near the grass. I summoned my energy and executed a super fast swing with a jump around the pole, and then another right after. I looked up at her. She was looking at herself in the rear view mirror. She hadn’t seen. She wouldn’t see. She honked again without turning her head. I looked around. Natasha was watching me, knowing she’d be the last at the pole again.
My hand stuck a little as I pulled it off the pole. It was warm and had red ridges across the top. I picked up my backpack and climbed into the back seat.
“Hey”, she shouted over the sounds of African chants. She didn’t turn around. She didn’t mention the pole. Neither did I.
As we drove off, I looked back through the rearview window. The flag flapped on in the wind. Natasha had taken her pole position.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Wiltse lives in New York City where she works on the other side of the
publishing business -- magazine marketing. She is thrilled to be venturing
into fiction writing in whatever free time she can find. Her piece,
"Alice's Palace" will be published in upcoming months on BayForest.com.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.