FLATTEN, POKE AND BLOW
Judith’s parents’ barn is full of wooden spools. There are dozens of them wound with rope as thick as tree branches. Being in the barn is like being inside a giant sewing kit.
Our moms told us to play out here because it is Judith’s birthday and they’re setting up for the party. I know Judith from Sunday school. Every week after church, our parents take us to brunch at Adele’s diner, where they put paper umbrellas in our Cokes. Judith and Julie, our parents always say. Judith and Julie.
“My boyfriend is this one,” Judith says.
She is talking about one of the spools of rope. It is so tall that Judith stands under its wooden top like she is standing under a mushroom. I understand that by saying this, she is creating a game where we pretend the spools are our boyfriends. I look at the nearest spool. It is squat and wound with ordinary yellow rope. Clearly, Judith’s boyfriend is better than mine. He is taller and can be embraced, whereas mine is short and possibly pudgy.
“This is my boyfriend,” I say, sitting down on the spool.
“You can’t sit on your boyfriend,” Judith says.
“I’m not,” I say, and then think of a possible interpretation of my body language. “I’m sitting on his lap.”
“No you’re not,” Judith says. “You’re sitting on his head.”
“No, I’m sitting on his lap. You just can’t see him, but his head is up here.”
I hold my hand in the air to indicate the height of my invisible boyfriend, implying that he is a titan of a man who uses the likes of Judith’s boyfriend as a footstool.
“My boyfriend and I are getting married,” Judith says.
She has one-upped me once again. I have just adjusted to the idea of spools as boyfriends, and now they are going to marry us.
“We’re already married,” I say. I hold out my finger. “See my ring?”
“There’s no ring there. You’re lying.”
“No I’m not. It’s just invisible like my boyfriend.”
Judith snaps her mouth shut. “Oh.”
She skips away and begins climbing on the spools of rope. Soon she is standing at the top, high enough to reach the rafters.
In addition to the spools, there are rolls of carpets in the barn. Judith told me once that her cat peed on the carpets and that’s why they are out here instead of in the house. Every time I visit Judith, poop or pee comes up. One time, her dog ate its own poop and then gagged it up right in front of me.
“This isn’t my real birthday, you know,” she says. “My real birthday is on Tuesday.”
“My birthday is in December,” I say.
“I know,” Judith says. “I’m older than you. And I get two birthdays.”
“No you don’t. No one has two.”
“I do. I get the party today and then one when my dad comes back on his boat next week.”
She stretches so that her finger grazes the top of barn.
“I can touch the ceiling,” she adds.
“Eww!” I say. “Your cat peed there.”
“You’re just scared to come up here.”
This is true. To climb up there, I would have to make fairly big jumps between the spools, which seems dangerous. I prefer the game with the boyfriends, which I am winning.
“No I’m not,” I say. “It’s just gross.”
Judith grabs the rafter and hangs on it. “No, you’re scared. You can’t climb up here because you’re a scaredy.”
As she says the last word, Judith swings out a bit, her legs flying out beneath her. I don’t reply. Instead I look out the open door of the barn. Fog is drifting by in small gusts. I hop off the spool and glide to the door. Simply by the dreamy way I waft toward it—as though something has cast a spell over me—I am suggesting that I have other, more enticing things to do than to climb about childishly inside a barn.
Right outside the door is a ravine that I have never paid attention to before. Usually we play in the front of the house where Judith has a tire swing, but that’s where our mothers are setting up for the party, so we came back here instead.
I hear Judith scrambling down and running toward me. By the time I reach the edge of the ravine, she is by my side. For a moment we stare at the drop, about 10 feet. A tangle of blackberry briars, huckleberry bushes, and ferns opens into a bendy thicket, the kind of place you could crawl into and make a fort.
“I’m not allowed to go down there,” Judith says.
“My dad says I can’t.”
I move closer, implying that I might go without her anyway. In truth, I don’t really want to go into the ravine. It looks like I would go through a lot of briars.
“You can’t go down there either,” Judith says.
“You’re not allowed. My dad will spank you if you do.”
“No he wouldn’t.”
“Yes he would. He says he will spank whoever goes down there.”
Judith is always saying that her father will spank people, but I have never seen her parents spank anyone other than Judith herself.
“He will not,” I say. “He doesn’t care what we do. He’s not even here on your birthday.”
Judith narrows her eyes. For a moment, I suspect I have gone too far, and I wait, a little frightened, to see what she will do. Then I hear my mother calling to tell us that it is time for the party.
“Oh well,” I say, turning with a careless flourish. “I guess I don’t have time to go down there today.”
“You’re not allowed to anyway,” Judith says irritably.
I skip ahead to the house and stop in front of my mother. Judith follows more slowly. The lawn by the tire swing is strung with streamers and other party guests have begun to arrive. Cars pull up on the gravel and kids get out with presents wrapped in pink paper. Soon, they are crowding around Judith in the yard.
I don’t know anyone at the party except Judith. I have always assumed that I am Judith’s best friend and that she is mine, but now, seeing her in a huddle with two other girls, I’m not so sure.
We play Duck Duck Goose, Musical Chairs, and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Each game seems like a test, and I approach it with apprehension, afraid of looking silly. The only part of the party I like is the goody bag. It has candy, finger traps, and a ball in a maze in it. There is also gum in the bag and one of the parents teaches us to blow a bubble. She says to flatten the gum with your tongue, poke it so that it stretches thin, and then blow.
“That’s all there is to it,” the mom says. “Flatten, poke, and blow.”
I can’t seem to get it to work. The gum flops in my mouth like a piece of clay. Judith blows a bubble as big as a peach.
Before cake, we have free playtime. Some of the kids start kicking around a ball, but Judith stands in a group of four girls and one boy. She is comparing jelly bracelets with another girl, and I look on enviously.
“Hi,” I say.
As if I have not spoken, Judith says, “Let’s go behind the barn!”
“Yeah!” says the girl with the jelly bracelet.
Judith runs off and everyone follows her. I take up the rear, running slower than the rest. They stop on the lawn between the barn and the ravine.
The barn door is open. The spools of rope gleam in the sunlight: red, blue, and yellow. I think about how the cat peed on the carpet in the rafters.
“Let’s go in the barn,” the girl with the jelly bracelets says.
“No!” I say.
The word bursts out of my mouth before I can stop it. Suddenly, the other kids are looking at me.
“Why?” another girl says.
I look from one face to the other. It’s hard to explain why I had shouted no. I don’t want to be left out while they all climb on the spools. I don’t want to see them play the games I had played with Judith, only without me. I don’t want to step on pee.
Judith scowls. “It’s because you want to go in the ravine, isn’t it?”
We all look at the ravine. I remember the argument I had with Judith.
“No,” I say.
“Yes you do. You said so. Everyone heard you.” Judith is pointing at me, the jelly bracelets dangling on her wrist. “That’s a stupid idea.”
This astounds me. I didn’t say any such thing, and Judith knows it.
“I don’t—” I say.
“Hey everyone!” Judith says. “Julie wants to go into the ravine when we aren’t allowed to. Isn’t that dumb?”
I feel my face get hot. It is the first time I am aware of blushing. The boy who came with us to the barn says, “You’re stupid.”
“I didn’t say we should go down there,” I say.
“Let’s leave Julie here alone,” Judith says. “She can play by herself.”
They follow her, leaving me standing between the ravine and the barn. I watch their backs. No one looks at me.
I don’t cry, but I feel worse than if I had cried. Judith made me seem one way when I am another, and she has gotten the other kids to believe her. I know that she knows this, but it is too late to defend myself.
For the rest of the party, the kids ignore me. Finally my dad comes to take us home. In the backseat of the car, I chew on a piece of gum and try to blow a bubble.
Flatten, poke, and blow, I think.
“Did you girls have a good time?” my dad says. He smiles in the rearview mirror at me.
“Yes,” I say, through a mouthful of gum.
“What about you?” he asks my mom.
“Oh, it was fine,” she sighs. “You know how Aloma is. Everything has to be her way. Sometimes I wonder why I try to have women friends.”
I think of how Judith was able to blow a bubble on the second try. I look out the window, through the maze of suburban streets and twist the gum in my mouth.
Flatten, poke, and blow. Flatten, poke, and blow.
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