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The Way Things Were
I was born on September 17th, 1995. At that time, hair was still big, the Twin Towers were still standing tall, and Bill Clinton was still President. There is a photo of me a little later than that. Not a very accurate picture, though. If you looked at that family in the picture, you would see an average American family. A handsome man with his arm draped around a beautiful woman's waist, they are obviously in love. And a little girl with head of read curls and rosy red cheeks to match her mop of hair. Most people look back on photos, and they mean a lot to them, because even though the family has aged, they are most likely the same. But I have a different case. When I look at that picture, there is no reflection. I wish I could look at that picture and laugh at the picture of my tongue sticking out, when I was trying to catch a snowflake on the tip of my tongue, or reflect on how much our family has grown. Our family hasn't grown, if anything, it has shrunk. Sometimes, I like to think that that smiling green eyed child was still Me., the one whose biggest fear was riding the bus on the first day of school. Well, even then, I wasn't entirely normal. No normal baby would be given a name like Tessalyn Sage Woodley. My father's mother had been name Jessalyn, and my Mom always wanted to name her daughter Tess. As always, I preferred Mom's better judgment over my father's. Sometimes, I think they just could have given me some hemp and a pair of Birkenstocks and send me off to a commune instead of giving me a name that made me sound like a flower child. I did have a nice childhood, though, I still do. Like most people, if I were given a chance to back and change something, I would only want to change a few parts... Then everything would be perfect. I recall those family events like when we went on hikes with our 8 year old lab, Elliot. Game nights were the best. We would settle down by the fire and play board games while the rain poured so hard that we couldn't hear ourselves think. I loved the laughing the way these moments could change someone's view of life completely.
But my favorite thing to do was play with my friend Alex Rosewood. Alex had been my best friend since I was born. Our moms were good friends in high school, in fact, they were best friends. If you looked at them together, you probably wouldn't be able to tell because of their physical appearances. Mrs. Rosewood was beautiful and according to mom, has been for the past 30 years, but my mom was just plain looking but that didn't mean a lot to her, which was one of the many reasons I admired her so much. I lived for the moment when I heard their expensive car pull up in our driveway and the sound of the car door slam and Alex running up to our front porch in his muddy wellies while his mom shouted for him to slow down. We'd play all day, Princesses and Knights and Survivor games, anything. It wasn't like we were even that similar. He was gentle and kind, and I was destructive and feisty. But besides that, something just clicked. So it would be close nighttime and Mrs. Rosewood would call up for Alex. That was our cue. We find a hiding spot and giggle silently as his mom got closer to finding us.
In exasperation, she would call out some terrible threat like
"Alexander Rosewood, you come out this instant or I will take away your Power Rangers." Because Power Rangers were something that Alex couldn't bear to lose, he would come out of his hiding spot in surrender. Our moms would smile at each other and both roll their eyes.
"Kids..." My mom smiled.
I miss my mom. When I say that I sound like a little kid who was just dropped off at day care, even though I'm a teenager now, I don't care. I loved how her presence would fill up in a room and how she made everyone smile, no matter the circumstances. That was before she was taken from me. Gastric Cancer or Stomach cancer. I came home from school one day to find my Dad sitting with his face in his palms at our kitchen table. I could hear those tiny sniffles. Being about 7, I didn't have the best judgment about when to leave things alone.
"Daddy. What's wrong?" I had never seen him cry before.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see my mom smiling a melancholy smile.
"Come ,Tessy, I have to talk to you, why don't you get in the car." I was starting to get nervous.
I hesitantly got in the car and we pulled out of the driveway. We circled around the neighborhood about 2 times. We were both to nervous to speak. Finally my mom said
"Tess, I went to the doctor today."
Being a kid, naturally I said "Did you have to get a shot?"
"No, honey, I went to get a check up. I'm very sick, Tess."
"Like with the flu?" I asked I knew where this was going
For the next hour my mom filled me in on about how to next few months would go with her chemo and other treatments. By this time I was crying. My mom turned around in the front seat and said
"Shhhhhh... Tessy, it's ok, I won't leave you without a fight."
And she did put up a good fight, but not good enough.
On a warm August day, we went to the doctor's office. I was expecting them to say everything was ok. I waited by her with by the couch and while she looked at magazines, I played with those blocks that they give the little kids to play with. Finally a peppy nurse came in and called my mom's name. We both went in the office. After waiting a little bit longer, a doctor came in. He had a solemn face, the kind that teenagers wear when they tell their parents that they crashed their car. He had tried to get me to go out in the waiting room, but I wouldn't budge. He looked at his papers before finally speaking. It turns out that mom didn't get any better. In fact, the cancer had spread to her liver and was only going to live for about a month longer. That was when the nurse escorted me out into the waiting room. I cried and cried and cried and cried. The nurse tried to console me, and it worked sometimes. But it felt like the longer I held the tears in, the harder they came out.
That September 8th, 2002, my Mom left me as quickly as the summer had. About one week before my birthday. But never mind that, My mother whom I had loved dearly was gone. I felt empty. I felt like I kept waiting for something to happen but nothing did. I kept waiting for her car to pull in the driveway, but it didn't. The worst part was the sympathizers. People would constantly bring us. I hated how everywhere I went I received sympathetic smiles.
Even Alison Taylor, a girl, who weeks before, had teased me about my pale Irish skin and fiery red hair, let me skip her in the lunch line.
'Oh lets just smile at this poor girl and hope that receiving a smile from me will make her day.' That's how I felt. This was what I like to call my "Bitter Stage" Every person, thing, and place was unpleasant. Except one person...
Alex Rosewood was my only salvation. He walked up to me in recess. I hadn't seen him in a while. His Mom was too sad to visit, but occasionally, she dropped off some meals for us. And Alex had recently went through "The Cootie Stage" We didn't actually believe in cooties... oh no no no, that was children stuff. But there was one unwritten rule "Girls do not play with boys and boys do not play with girls" I was proud of Alex to breaking the invisible barrier. "Hey Tess..." He ran his fingers through his dark hair and asked quietly so none of the other boys could hear.
"Do you want to come over after school?"
I said yes, and for the first time in months, I smiled.
I remembered where Alex lived. It was right across from the Whyndam Woods. It was a colossal French revival home. The only problem was transportation. I would have to ask my dad which was the ultimatum. We barely even talk anymore. I opened his door. He was in a better state. He went from napping 24-7 to actually sitting up. Wait to pull your weight for this family, Dad.
"Hey Dad," I said.
"Yeah..." he mumbled
"Can I go over to Alex's?" I crossed my fingers hoping for a yes.
"Uh, sure but I'm not giving you a ride."
"It's right down the street," I protested.
"Well alright, then."
I was overjoyed. I hopped on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could. His house grew bigger and bigger until I reached the long driveway. Even the door was grand and actually had a knocker. I didn't know those still existed. A blonde woman had appeared at the door. Mrs. Rosewood. Her face broke into a grin.
"While hello, Tess, I haven't seen you in a while"
"Nice to see you" I squeaked. I literally shrunk,
"Well, you can just come right in, you know the drill."
If you haven't noticed, at that time, I wasn't one to put myself out there.
Alex appeared behind her.
"C'mon , Tess" I followed him inside and walked into the kitchen.
"Let's go outside" Alex said.
"Uh uh uh, not without introducing Tess to our guests;" She waved her hand at another blonde woman and her mini-me daughter about my age. I recognized her from class. Alex groaned and Mrs. Rosewood rolled her eyes.
"This is Mrs. Whyndham," He said pointing to the lipstick wearing- heel sporting- plastic pretty Barbie mom. The thing about these kinds of women is that they don't even have to look pretty. All they have to do is spend loads of money and people will instantly show their respect.
"And this is Layla Grace" he said, motioning to the child with the pretty blonde ringlets. She smiled shyly and waved."Layla, Posture" her mother snapped without losing her collected composure. I sure didn't know at the time that Layla would also be my best friend.
So we went up to Alex's room and apparently, his parents went on a trip to Africa and South America. They brought back a bunch of dead bugs in cases. He has been collecting them ever since. Layla thought they were gross, but I found them interesting. I wondered how they got their exotic hues. Alex waved a cased spider in Layla's face to make her squeal. I pulled the case away from him.
"Let's catch some more!" I said
"Yeah!" Alex agreed excitedly.
We ran out of his room and slid down the spiral staircase as Layla followed behind with ladylike steps. We opened the screen door.
"Slow down guys!" Layla screeched after us.
We ran to the pond where the most bugs were.
I looked up to see Layla at the top of the hill, her sundress blowing in the wind.
"C'mon, Layla!" I shouted
"Yeah, don't be a baby!' Alex said.
"I don't want to get my shoes muddy!" she said calmly, this girl was as ornery as a mule.
"Just take them off" I said.
She sighed and kicked off her strappy sandals and made her way down the hill. We laughed. It looked like she was stepping on hot coals when she was avoiding the dirt. When we were all together, we sat down on the dock. Layla apologized.
"It's ok," I said "Hey, lets play a game..."
Alex raised an eyebrow "Like what? " I grinned, bent down scooped up some mud, and in one swift motion, I smeared it all over Alex's face. "Mud Monster!" I shouted then sprinted a safe distance away. It is time like these I thank my father for my long, gangly legs. Layla squealed in excitement, then sauntered after me. Alex stood there for a moment, and then his mud covered mouth slowly turned into a sly grin.
"I'll get you guys!" He called after us. He sprinted after us. Soon when he caught up with us, things got pretty messy.
I wiped the mud away from my cheek, and then ran to another side of the pond. I loved the feeling of the wet mud between my feet, but hated the feeling of when it dried.
"Let's take a break guys" Layla panted. We all met back at the dock and I took this opportunity to wash the mud off of my feet. Sitting on the edge of the dock, I dangled my feet into the cool water. Soon Alex and Layla were by my side cleaning their feet, too.
"You know," I mumbled. "We never caught any bugs,"
Alex shrugged. "We still had fun, though." He murmured. Suddenly, I spotted something whizzing in the air. "Whoa, Look at that dragonfly, Guys!" I pointed out. Everyone oohed and aahed at the dragonfly, whose filmy wings were moving so fast, all you can see was a blur.
"I see another bug," Alex said with a grin "It was a huge spider, where is it? I don't see anymore" he continued. "Oh no, Layla, it's in your hair!" Layla screamed many unnecessary high pitched screams that probably irritated every dog in our area.
"Where is it?!?" "Oh no!" Layla was in hysterics.
"Calm down," Alex insured "I was just kidding." Layla's face quickly turned as red as her mom's lipstick, and her look of fear turned into a scowl that would make little kittens quake.
I don't know how to explain what happened next. I remember Layla giving Alex a huge shove. One that, usually would have made him fall into the water, that is, if he hadn't grabbed hold of my shirt. He had enough strength to regain his balance, but I didn't. I tumbled into the water. Have you ever fallen and your adrenaline starts pumping while your brain is trying to figure out what the heck just happened. That's how you feel, until you hit the water. I resurfaced with a gasp and bug eyes to find Alex laughing to tears. Layla was puffing up, her chest rising. She tried to cover her laughter with a serious face, but even old Miss Katherine, who's as blind as a bat, would have been able to detect the playfulness in her eyes. Seeing my hair covered in seaweed was too much for her. She laughed until laughing turned into coughing and coughing turned into wheezing, then laughing again. "Real funny," I muttered. Then, an idea sparked in my 7 year old mind.
"Hey Alex, come over here, I have to show you something cool!" I walked on my tippy toes up to the wooden dock. "Yeah?" Alex asked with a concerned look traced with a slight grin. Without warning, I pulled his foot, but his balance did not hold up. My feet squished into the sand as I waded out far enough to avoid the impact. For a while, I was scared. I didn't see Alex rise to the surface. Then, I felt a hand grasp hold of my skinny ankle. I yelped then gurgled as I was pulled under water. Alex and I both popped up laughing. I choked on some water, and then splashed eachother. He splashed back. You'd have thought you were watching a major hurricane.
Then I remembered something important. Layla! I looked over on the dock to see Layla looking down into the water, skimming the surface of the water with a twig. I waded over to Layla. My clothes felt flowy underneath the surface. "Jump in!" I shouted.
"Not thanks," she murmured. "I'll be right back, I'll ask my mom to bring my swimsuit."
I stared at Layla before saying "Please?" She looked around to see if there were any people watching before doing a sloppy cannonball. Alex and I clapped.
Next thing I know, I hear a door slide off in the distance. We froze for a few seconds to figure out what was going on. Then, when I heard heels hitting the pavement, I took a plunge. The others followed. The heel clicks got closer. "Alex? Where are you?" Alex couldn't hold his breath any longer and his head broke the surface. Mrs. Rosewood gasped. "What are you three doing!?"
After being pulled out of the water and given a lecture about the dangers of water by Mrs. Rosewood, I wrung out my shirt. We all sat back down on the dock again and Mrs. Rosewood came back out to drape towels around our shoulders. I laid back and gazed up at the sky. Most people's favorite time to look at the sky is at night, but I prefer around sunset, like now. The sky is a shade of indigo no artist could duplicate traced with a delicate shade of orange. If you looked close, you could see the stars slightly as if the sky were a sheer, tattered curtain. I have tried so many times to try to imitate what I see. So I'll have my piece of paper and my colored pencils, my artistic vision clear in my mind. The finished product has the craftsmanship of a toddler and the creativity of one, too. The clouds turn out looking like cartoon sheep and the grass looks like tiny spikes, hopefully made to destroy the dreadful sheep-cloud hybrid altogether. Needless to say, I'm not the best artist. But at that point, I didn't care. Even if I was soaking wet, muddy, and covered in seaweed, everything was perfect.