Dancing on a Slippery Bridge

The story behind Bridge to Terabithia goes like this: Somebody, either Katherine Paterson or someone near her found a lump, and seconds later death was front and center, and so Paterson took that overwhelming, probably paralyzing fear and created Jess and Leslie and Terabithia — a world that was Hogwarts for those of us who grew up in the 80s.

Paterson created a story to explore what is real, to walk around the world of “what if,” to see what happens in a storm when a child walks across a slippery log to be in a world she loves.

I was reminded of Paterson’s motivation for writing Bridge to Terabithia on a day I picked Hadley up from school, and, before she clicked her seatbelt, told me that sometimes it’s hard to be friends with girls. She went on to explain what she meant and basically, what is happening is my daughter is entering the world that I have been terrified of since I heard, “It’s a girl,” at 3:02 p.m. on October 23, 2006. A world I was happy to get out of, but I don’t think has ever left me.

This world that’s looming is dark and confusing. It is filled with, “I hate yous,” pretend throwing up noises when I walk down the school hallway, and nonverbals so palpable they feel like a punch to the gut. For me, it is an overwhelming and paralyzing world, and I admire Paterson’s ability to take her own fear and sadness and create a story, so I believe I ought to do the same, but I don’t know what to create from this. I don’t want to create from this.

I was in 7th grade and it was the first day of junior high — a brand new school — when I searched the crowd for a friend I once knew in 3rd grade. We shared a middle name. I can’t remember why I liked her, but I liked her and I was excited to reunite after she switched schools a few years earlier. I ran up to her and greeted her enthusiastically, and that was my first received look-over: the quick toe to eye a girl gives to assess someone. It only happens when the girl is questioning whether the other girl is worth her time. I don’t even think she said hello to me. Just an eyebrow raise and a smile that was really a smirk and that was it.

Another memory: I am in the car with my mom. It’s the sort of spring day you’re not sure you trust, but my mom has Motown on the radio — probably Smoky Robinson or The Temptations. The windows were open.

She’s picked me up from the Academy of Movement and Music. Almost every day, I go there or Tri-Star gymnastics, and I dance, play the flute, or practice my round-off flip flops. I couldn’t say this at 10, 11, 12, or 13, because it was too big to understand and digest, but I was lonely, and I was sad, and something about figuring out how to hold a handstand, practicing Pad de Bourees, or finding a spot on the wall to hold on to while I twirled and twirled and twirled filled that vacancy I felt.

My flute teacher, she was so mean, and we practiced in a closet of a room, with a little light shining through a window. I couldn’t stand the metronome she insisted on using, or, if she was feeling particularly ornery, she’d bang a conductor’s wand on the music stand, so the pages of “Sheep May Safely Graze” twitched.

Every once in a while though, she’d get out her flute — the whole thing sparkled and I think the mouthpiece was gold – and she’d play with me. Our duets were like battles — she’d never slow down for me, and she played with her entire body so that I was afraid I’d get a black eye from the end of her flute. I didn’t, and I could keep up, and I felt strong. And I felt good.

So my mom and I are in the car after one of those lessons, and we’re driving down East Avenue toward home, and I don’t know if it’s the Motown, or the spring air I don’t trust but feels good, or the dancing or the music playing but I tell my mom the same things Hadley said to me: that girls are hard to be friends with. I bring up the girl I share a name with. We were buddies, I tell her, and I don’t understand what happened.

We are at a four-way stop on East and Randolph, next to a house my brother and I called, “the sparkly house,” because the owners painted it with a paint that seemed to have glitter in it. The entire house glimmered day and night.

“You’re different,” my mom tells me, and she doesn’t say it like one of us is good and the other is bad. She says it with love and I guess hope; like it’s OK. I’m OK. “For one thing,” she says, flipping over the cassette tape and popping it back into the stereo, “you two spell your names differently. Your name means something else than hers.”

My mom glances over to the sparkly house before driving on. “It’s particularly sparkly today. I think the owners put a fresh can of glitter on it.”

I laughed, and we drove on, and even though I didn’t trust that spring air, even though I felt such fragility in these weak, tiresome days, something in the air and my mom’s words felt like a promise.

It wouldn’t be long before a family of four moved into the sparkly house. They moved in on my fourteenth birthday to be exact, and the girl, Celena, walked into her bedroom, turned on the radio, and heard R.E.M.’s “Stand.” I would learn this story later — on Oak Street Beach, out shopping at Water Tower, before a movie began at Lake Street Theatre. I don’t remember, probably because I heard the story a lot. Celena was a storyteller, like me.

But this isn’t a story about finding a best friend and everything getting better again. This is a story about what we do on that slippery bridge when the water below us is furious, and the water above us is relentless.

It is a Friday afternoon when Hadley tells me, “people are mean here;” that a girl in her class is calling her Dumbo. It is at a stoplight on Packard and Eisenhower when I remember Paterson’s Terabithia.

I want to create a world where girls aren’t mean. I want to create a world where Hadley and Harper grow up confident, never for one second considering whether something is wrong with them. I want to ring the doorbells of all the houses on this corner and ask if there are any 10 year old girls who would like to play with my daughter.  At 41, I still feel that moment on the first day of Junior High like it was yesterday, and I still wonder: what is wrong with me? Why am I not good enough? What were the rules that I broke? I shouldn’t walk around with a moment that lasted less than three seconds, but I do and today it is as though a bandage I’d held in place for decades was ripped off, a gashing, open wound revealed. As painful as it is, I would rather feel this for the rest of my life than have one of my girls feel it for a second. But I can’t, and Paterson couldn’t either. Leslie died on that bridge between the world she created and the world she had to live in, and we are not at the part of the story where a best friend arrives.

This is the part of the story when Hadley learns how to dance when she’s sad, how to fix her eyes on the wall and keep her head high as she twirls and twirls. This is the part of the story where Hadley learns how to sit in the dark and hear the music, to know the notes so well she can play her part alongside someone else’s, and it is different, and she is heard, and she is beautiful. This is the part of the story where Hadley will see the world upside down, and she will spread her fingers, flatten her palms on the ground, and she will look, and she will understand how strong she is. I cannot do any of this for her, she must learn this herself, and that’s what I think I heard in my mom’s voice all those years ago: her confidence and faith that I would learn it. She never told me what my middle name means. I think she wanted me to figure it out for myself.

Hadley and I get to the house and without taking off her jacket, she goes to the piano and begins to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I think I will die from sadness listening to it, but I know what’s happening. I know that practicing this melody is soothing, the notes are providing company, that the song is giving her mind and heart something else to settle on.

I lace up my running shoes and pull my hair back. I need music, too. A few minutes later, I am in aerobics dancing to Megan Trainor songs. She is one of Hadley’s favorite singers, and I am crying while I dance. I’m crying for Hadley, I’m crying for myself, I’m crying because I am remembering that belief I have that something is wrong with me and I will never figure it out so I can change it, and I have passed it on to Hadley.

But I keep dancing. I keep dancing because I cannot create a world where girls aren’t mean, but I think I can show her how to dance and walk and twirl and play and grow in the world where we are all of us fragile and broken, treading ever so carefully on a slippery bridge hoping to make it to who we will become.