monkey bars

Caroline lay in her bed and listened for any sounds of movement outside her room. She would do this before getting out of bed each day, as she preferred to not creep around on her own.

Today was Saturday, and that was Caroline’s favourite day. Her mother was not at work on the weekend, and Caroline got to spend time with her, but more importantly, she got to be alone with her mother on the bus on the way back and forth from Caroline’s ballet lesson.

Once Caroline heard the toilet flush and the water running in the bath, she knew her mother was awake and getting ready for the day. She lay in bed awhile longer, not having to go pee yet herself, and quietly talked to Teddy, the keeper of all Caroline’s secrets and wishes. She murmured to him about the usual things, like wishing her two brothers, who were still asleep in their bunk beds in the next room, were nicer to her. But they were older than Caroline, and best friends to each other, so their little sister was not important to them. Caroline sent her Daddy a special wish up in Heaven, then said something new to Teddy. “I wish I had a best friend.” She had never thought to wish for that before now, but as she said it, it gave her a feeling of contentment. Almost like knowing, by asking for it, but not expecting it, her wish would be granted when the time was right.

Caroline then felt able to get up and go find her mother, and hopefully get to make her own slices of toast by pushing the chair to the kitchen counter while her mother stood behind her and made sure she didn’t put the knife into the toaster while her bread was browning. Caroline knew not to do this, she was a big girl now, but her mother always made sure to be near when Caroline was doing these kinds of things.

Later, after having taken the bus downtown, Caroline and her mother arrived at the old municipal building where her dance class took place each Saturday. Twenty-five little girls and their mothers arrived in the space of about 10 minutes, and ballet slippers replaced lace ups and little girls girls giggled and the mothers chatted until Madame clapped her hands smartly for their attention. Pink legs stood in first position with hands still and pointing down towards upper thighs.  The piano began and 25 pairs of legs bent at the knee forming “fenetres”.  Bums and round bellies stuck out, but Madame ignored technique and repeated “Plie down…one, two, three, four” and “Rise…one, two, three, four” as all eyes were focused on reflections in the bank of mirrors on the opposite wall.  Caroline tried to keep her toes turned out and her heels together as she bent and rose, her thin legs wobbly and her knees not exactly over her toes.  Madame said “bra bas” and her hands realigned.  She isn’t sure what “bra bas” actually means, but she knew it makes Madame happy to point her fingertips towards the space that makes a triangle, where the tops of her legs don’t quite touch. Caroline can see her mother in the waiting room.  She isn’t watching.  Her mother is talking to Grace’s mother, and they have their heads bent together so their whispers won’t disturb Madame.  Madame is the only person Caroline knows that keeps her mother from talking loudly.

The other girls are moving about the floor, so Caroline joins them in a circle as they skip to the beats of Madame’s clapping hands.  “One, two, three, four” Madame repeats to each clap.  The piano is playing furiously as they skip and move in a faster rhythm.  Caroline doesn’t understand what skipping has to do with ballet, but her mother tells her that Madame knows what is best, and Caroline must always do what Madame says.  “Ballet lessons are expensive, Caroline.  You must always pay attention and do what Madame says so you can learn how to become a great dancer.”  Caroline likes the feel of her tights rubbing together as she skips in a circle.  Her ballet slippers make shushing sounds on the wooden floor and she starts to feel winded from all the movement.

The lady playing the piano is very fat, and wears an old-fashioned dress and very clunky lace up leather shoes.  Her hands dance across the keys faster than the Caroline can keep track.  She must have practiced a lot to be able to play so many songs.  Her flabby arms jiggle as she plays, but she doesn’t seem to care about that.  Her head moves side to side and up and down with the music, and she seems lost but in a happy way.

Now the girls are in the corner of the room, and Madame is saying “jete” which Caroline remembers means “jump”. She waits until it is her turn and then steps forward with her right leg and tries to leap at the same time.  It is very hard to “jete” but she manages to get at least 4 jumps in before she reaches the opposite corner.  Her favourite thing to do in ballet class is to rise up on her toes and twirl around making tiny steps with her feet with her arms raised high above her head.  But that part is done now until next week so she concentrates really hard on the cross-floor movements until it is time to cool down.

Once all the girls are back in the waiting room Caroline changes back into her lace ups and puts her slippers into her little case.  Her mother chats for a few minutes with Grace’s mom, and then they descend down the long staircase and come out onto the street. Caroline’s brothers do not come to dance class, as they are able to stay home on their own.  This is the only time Caroline spends alone with her mother, apart from bed time stories, and before they cross the street to catch the bus, Caroline reaches up and places her hand in her mother’s grasp.  Her mother has lovely soft hands, and Caroline hopes she will too when she is a grown up lady.  Her mother rubs Caroline’s thumb with her own as they cross the street to the bus stop. The bus ride takes only about 10 minutes, and soon they are home again. Another Saturday ritual ended.

When they arrive at their apartment, Caroline’s mother goes to check on the boys and Caroline has some time alone in her own bedroom until lunch.  She puts her ballet case in her closet, but keeps on her leotard and tights and sits cross-legged on the floor with her teddy to tell him all about her morning.  Teddy is very attentive and listens to everything Caroline has to say.  This is not true of Caroline’s brothers, who don’t listen to anything she says.  They have eachother to play with and seem to enjoy excluding Caroline in almost everything they do.  Caroline is not allowed to enter the room they share, nor is she even allowed to stand in the doorway to watch them play.  “You are breathing our AIR” they shout.  “Go AWAY!”  So Caroline plays quietly in her room, usually talking to Teddy or reading books.  She LOVES books.  She can’t always pronounce all the words, but she knows the stories well enough, and the pictures are wonderful to stare at.  Sometimes her brothers come barging in to her room, even though they aren’t supposed to, and start wrestling and throwing Teddy back and forth.  This makes Caroline very excited, but very upset too, and even though she laughs out loud she really feels more like crying.  “Stop it, give him back to me!”  She laughs and laughs but soon she is wailing and the tears come streaming down her face.  Her brothers think this is the best part, and always rejoice when she is reduced to tears.  Her mother yells from down the hall “Pack it in down there!” and her brothers scamper off to their room and leave Caroline snuffling and hiccuping as she wipes her runny nose and tries to calm herself.

Caroline must have fallen asleep talking to Teddy, because she is awoken to her mother calling her for lunch.  She gets up and places the bear on her pillow and then joins her brothers at the kitchen table where her mother has soup and sandwiches waiting.  Caroline loves her mother’s soup.  There is a pot on the back of the stove and her mother puts in all sorts of vegetables and whatever leftovers she has in the fridge, and it gently bubbles away all morning.  Today’s sandwich is tuna, which isn’t Caroline’s favourite, but she dunks her triangle into the soup and takes a bite, all dripping and juicy.  The soup is too hot to eat, so Caroline finishes dunking her sandwich until the broth is cooler.  She then picks up her spoon and carefully spoons each mouthful until it is all gone.  She realizes too late that she forgot about her glass of milk.  Caroline doesn’t like milk.  She usually tries to drink it while eating, so she can swallow each mouthful right after taking a bite of food, to avoid tasting the flavour of the milk.  But she was enjoying her soup so much that she forgot to alternate with sips of milk.  Now she has to drink the whole glass before she can leave the table.  This is the hardest thing for Caroline.  Her mother says she must drink her milk “It’s good for your bones, Caroline”. Her brothers love milk, and always tease Caroline when she makes faces and gags while trying to swallow hers.  But today she manages to drink it down, even if it is a little warm, and then she takes her bowl, balanced carefully on her plate, to the sink.  She then goes back to the table and drags her chair in front of the sink so she can do the dishes.  Caroline loves doing dishes.  In her Henny Penny book the chicken has on an apron while she does dishes, and Caroline thinks Henny Penny is a very sensible and wonderful character.  Caroline puts on the frilly white apron her mother made especially for her, and fills the sink with water and squirts in just enough soap to make bubbles.  She swishes the soapy cloth over each plate and bowl and glass and then rinses them in the second sink she has filled with warm, clean water.  Her mother takes the dishes one at a time from the dish rack and carefully wipes them with a clean towel and puts them all away in the cupboards.  Caroline wants nothing more than to be a mother when she grows up.  She wants to make yummy soup, and do the dishes, and sweep the floor and wash the clothes.  Caroline imagines her grown up self making creamy scrambled eggs as she stands at the stove, chatting with her own children who are sitting at the table.  Caroline’s children will be sweet and good to eachother, never yelling or making each other cry.

After lunch, Caroline’s mother makes a phone call and her brothers go outside to play in the playground at their apartment complex.  Caroline changes from her dance clothes into her play clothes, and then joins her brothers in the playground.  Caroline loves to go on the teeter totter, but her brothers always push too hard and they make it bump when she goes down, so she avoids that and instead chooses the monkey bars.  Caroline is a good climber and she can get to the very top.  She even has little calluses on her hands from gripping onto the metal. Once she’s at the top, she grabs the middle bar and swings her legs down so she is hanging about two feet off the ground.  If she swings hard enough she can bring her legs back up to the next bar and pull herself back up to the top.  Caroline keeps jumping down and climbing up again, until she hangs down once again but loses her grip and falls to the pebbly ground below.

Caroline stares up at the sky as she lays under the monkey bars, trying to catch her breath. She is staring at the puffy white clouds against the blue sky, and for some reason she doesn’t cry even though her back and legs are hurting from the fall. She hears the shouts and chatter of the other children all around her, but because she is still, no one comes to check on her. She prefers to sort things out for herself rather than have people fussing around her asking questions. So she lays there for a few more minutes, daydreaming and gazing at the slow-moving clouds, until she feels a bit better and is able to sit up and look around.

As her mind returns to the activity in the playground, she realizes there is a boy watching her from the swings. He is still, not pumping his legs, just sitting there with his hands around the chains. He is about her age, with light brown hair and a striped t-shirt and green shorts. There is a band-aid on his left knee, and although he is about twenty fee away, Caroline can see that he has very blue eyes.

She picks herself up off the ground and wanders over to the swings, not staring at the boy, but casually moving in a way that says “I think I will go on the swings now.” She sits down on the swing next to his and starts pumping her legs to get going. This seems to give the boy an idea, and he too starts pumping his legs, and soon they have managed to coordinate it so that they swing in unison, swings moving in rhythm so they soar high and return back together. Caroline starts to laugh. Not in the hysterical, emotional way she does when her brothers tease her, but from her belly, without restraint. The boy glances at her, and seems to make a decision. He smiles at Caroline, then a giggle escapes his lips, and soon he too is laughing. Together they laugh and pump their legs, the warm breeze blowing Caroline’s hair straight back. The other children in the playground pay them no mind, and for a few minutes, Caroline feels so free and happy that she knows this is a very special moment, though she couldn’t explain it in words if asked.

After awhile Caroline starts to pump her legs less vigorously, and together she and the boy slow their rhythm until they both come to a full stop by dragging the toes of their sneakers on the pebbles below them.

“I am Caroline” says Caroline. The boy gazes back at her through his clear blue eyes, and replies “I am Timothy”.

They hold their gaze for a moment, and without another word, they jump off the swings and run to the teeter totter. They are the same size more or less, and Caroline knows somehow that Timothy will not let her bump on the ground when she goes down, and together they move up, down, up, down until she hears her mother calling her to come in for her bath.

As they each scramble off the teeter totter, Caroline waits for him to walk over to her. She says “Thank you” and he says “You’re welcome”.

They smile at each other and before she turns to leave, she says “See you tomorrow!” and Timothy simply says “Yes.”

In that one word, Caroline knows that she had made a new friend. What she doesn’t realize is that, like Caroline, Timothy had also made a wish that very morning. Funny how things work out sometimes.

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