I’m not wearing shoes, and the soles of my feet burn on the macadam, so I skip and hop up to the pale cement of the sidewalk, where it’s cooler. This causes me to fall behind my father, and I have to jog to catch up. I check his face; he hasn’t noticed. He’s looking straight ahead, his dark eyes flash like flint in the June sunlight, and he’s still talking about the girls. “Look at them; they’re just like you. I’ll bet they go to your school, and they probably live right here on the block and..and..and.” I stop listening as we close in on the little grouping; my stomach flips over, and I worry I might throw up. I don’t want to do this, and I feel that he knows I don’t want to do this and doesn’t care. Or maybe he does care, but he doesn’t know what else to do.
The girls, there are three of them, seated cross-legged in the middle of the sidewalk, are nothing like me. One of them, I decided immediately she was the leader, has hair the color of a vanilla wafer, and it flows down her back in a solid plane like spilled paint. She is wearing a purple crochet top and white shorts, and on her wrist, she wears a watch. Not just any watch, a bubble gum pink malibu barbie watch. This watch is the absolute Rolex of seven-year-old girl watches, and I decide this girl is not just the leader. She is the queen. The other two are smaller, one with long dark braids and the other with short reddish hair and about a million freckles, not just on her face but all over her neck and exposed shoulders as well. They are, I think, generally less impressive than the first girl but still remarkable both for their close association with the Barbie blonde goddess and, of course, for not being the new girl like me. The girl with braids looks up as we approach, offering me a wide, dimpled smile that make me like her. Her ears stick out like signposts on either side of her head, making me like her even more. They appear to be playing some game involving moving bits of rock and leaves around on the concrete and calling out the names of boys, and then gigging hilariously. “And you are with Christian,” says the big-eared girl moving a sycamore leaf a few inches toward a pebble. “And I’m Sally,” says the queen, “and that makes Carrie, uh, well, she’s Bobby!” Then they all laugh so hard they have to hold onto their stomachs and roll around for a few moments.
I look up at my father, who makes a funny face, sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes, and giggle. The freckled girl who is called Carrie protests, “I’m not Bobby! I’m Robert!” Her voice is whining through her giggles like my little brother, and I notice she has trouble with her “r,” pronouncing it “w” so that “Robert” becomes “Wobet.” I feel only slightly less nervous.
“And this,” says my father, waving a hand over me as if I am someone very important, sending me another wave of humiliation. “Is…” And he says my name with a flourish, making it sound as if he has just announced the arrival of an actual princess. All the girls stop laughing and sit up and wave at me, suddenly shy. I think about turning around and running back down the block toward our house, which we only moved into yesterday. Maybe I can ask my mother if it’s too late to move back to our apartment so I never have to see these girls again. I’m not sure why we left the apartment; it was only five minutes from this neighborhood, and I’d grown to love it. The building was teeming with children, and we had a play area out back near the electric meters. We spent hours pretending the meters were an enormous oven, “cooking” sticks and dirt and bits of plastic.
I can feel how hot my face is getting. “We just moved in down the street,” Daddy turns and points in the direction of our house. “And my daughter
is looking for some friends.” The soles of my feet are hot again, but I don’t dare move for fear of drawing more attention to myself. Perhaps if I am still I will disappear, or at least they will forget about me. But all six eyes are on me. They see every detail of me. Even my father is looking at me. Eight eyes. Everyone is waiting for me to do something, but I don’t know what to do. All I can think of is escape. I am seven years old, and I feel like the world’s weight is on me. Now looking back as a grown-up I realize at that moment nobody knew what to do. Not even my father. And so what he does is push his hands into his corduroy jean pockets and give a shrug and say, “OK girls, well I’ll leave you to it.” Then, he smiles down at me, his young eyes a little bit crinkly around the corners, as if we both know something important, only I want to scream out that I don’t know anything and if I’m supposed to know some secret then how can he possibly leave without telling it to me? Then he bends down and kisses the top of my head he smells like cotton and ivory soap and so badly do I want him to pick me up and hug me that I almost start to cry. But he does not pick me up. Instead, he turns on his heel and walks away. I watch how his sandals make a funny slapping motion on the pavement and how his stubby shadow follows behind him like one of those miniature dogs and I think he will turn back. Certainly, he will come back, and he will get me. But he doesn’t. I watch him until he gets to our tiny house, turns up the walk, and disappears inside. He never looks back. Not once.
I stand there staring at my toes, then sink into a sitting position, copying the other girls. I play with them for a long time on that day and many other days after that. They become my friends the way children do. Making friends quickly based on proximity.
Later, when I am twelve, my father would take me to an amusement park and put me on a rollercoaster, insisting I try it, which I will hate him for but which I will also survive. A few years after that, he will teach me to drive by handing me the keys after a brief introductory lesson I will learn to drive freeways, drive a stickshift, parallel park, and make left turns in busy Los Angeles intersections by “doing it.” He will tell me to go for it when I ask him about becoming a doctor, and he will never ever discourage my dreams.
Here’s the thing. I wasn’t a shy child, and my father knew that. Anxious for sure but not shy. He knew I could handle those girls when I was seven, even when I did not. This is what I believe now. It’s that we come to know ourselves by way of the people who love us, and if we are fortunate, we are surrounded by people who teach us well. They teach us who we are when we are small, sometimes with words but mostly with actions, with looks with the way they reflect back at us what they feel and what they believe about us. If they have faith, then we have faith. If they tell us to jump in, then we jump in.
I learned to swim, dance, drive, ride rollercoasters, write and go to medical school the same way I learned to walk down that block and make friends with those unfamiliar girls. I learned the way my father taught me. By jumping in.