I didn’t appreciate our avocado tree while I was growing up, and now that I would, it’s gone. So is the way of the world. The baby-blue clapboard house near the seaside—I was hardly ever there.
My life existed two streets over with Cassie Trueben and her older sister, Ruby. I learned about Jesus from their family and their church. I fell in love with classical literature because of Mrs. Trueben, and became a long-distance runner because of Mr. Trueben.
I often asked God why I hadn’t been born into that clapboard house.
In the summer when I turned twelve, Mr. Trueben gave the three of us girls formal training regimens. Cassie had raw talent. I had determination. Ruby had exuberance—and Down syndrome. Five days a week, we’d push fourteen-year-old Ruby on an oversized three-wheeler, her feet up on the handlebars. It didn’t occur to me to think what we looked like to outside observers. Even at the track—two black girls—one whose legs propelled her like a panther, the other lumbering with a lopsided gait, and me a pale white girl red in the face, somewhere between.
But one morning my mom drove by to say she’d be gone for a while. She lifted her chin toward the track. “It’s a good thing you’re doing, Stella.”
“Running?” Sweat slid down my neck.
“No, befriending them.” Again she gestured to the track.
I let her kiss my forehead when I should’ve been protesting, screaming, “Are you freaking blind?”
And somewhere in her statement lurked another message I wasn’t quite getting. I’m sure that’s why I later asked Daniel what race he was.
Daniel was the fifteen-year-old boy who visited his grandmother during the summer. The girls and I would head to the shade of the cove near his house after working out. He’d meet us there for lunch.
That afternoon, Ruby told him how she’d run the quarter mile in under six minutes. Cassie and I sat opposite one another, toes digging into the sand.
“Daniel, what race are you?” I cut through Ruby’s rope of thick words. Cassie’s head shot up like I’d grown horns. Maybe I had. “Just curious. I mean your grandmother looks Asian, but you don’t...except at the eyes...maybe.” I closed my own. “Your skin’s the color of peanut butter. Your nose is kind of flat, and your hair’s wavy...and you’ve never said.”
“What does it matter?”
That’s what I’m trying to figure out, I thought. “If we blindfolded you, would you be able to tell the three of us apart?”
“I don’t know—” He looked at Cassie.
“It’s fine with me.” She stood up, brushed off her shorts.
Daniel took off his t-shirt and tied it around his head. “Wait outside and come in one at a time.”
“Come on, Ruby,” said Cassie. “We’re going to play a game.” She pulled Ruby up by her stubby hands. I followed behind. For the first time I could remember, Ruby’s limp made me want to cry, which in turn made me want to scream again.
“I’ll go first,” I said, when we reached sunshine.
“O-kay—you go fir—”
“Shhhhh,” Cassie and I shushed Ruby together.
I reentered the dankness of the cove, imagining Daniel’s fingertips skimming Ruby’s face—the expanse between cheekbones, the folds at her eyelids. Compared to mine. Or the texture of Cassie’s skin compared to mine. Or her lips. Compared to mine.
When I reached Daniel, I kneeled and took up his smooth hands. I allowed myself to marvel at how his frame had changed since the year before. “It’s me—Stella.”
“Nooo—please don’t say that,” I cried, emotions suddenly spent. “Don’t tell them that.”
He found my shoulders, moved up to my face, drew me to him. His lips felt cool and utterly soft.
The next morning I ran beyond what was prescribed on my chart. The walk to the track had been too quiet. I caught up to Cassie, matched her stride till we were about to lap Ruby; then we paced ourselves off her.
“He kissed me,” I said on an exhale. “Don’t want to keep secrets.”
Cassie nodded. “He kissed me, too.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Ohhh…his lips are ve-ry soft,” breathed Ruby. She touched her own.
“Very soft,” repeated Cassie.
What could I say? Ruby’s ohhh…was accurate. “Soft—and wonderful.”
We finished the loop together—some of what had been taken away, partially restored.
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