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Summer in the Park
In the town I live in there’s a large playground in a wide green field behind the library. One late August day last summer, when I was fourteen, my friend hosted a small birthday party, which eventually brought us to that playground. I’d probably been there at least ten times already since I moved to the district at age twelve, but it felt different that day. The five of us were content, with bellies full of pizza and birthday cake. We took in our surroundings, where the evening air was hushed, silently mourning the fast approaching end of summer.
Being at the playground over ten times was a strange number for me, an awkward teenage girl who’d rather spend hours with a laptop and some loud music. The playground was somewhat old, but it stubbornly retained a new appearance. Plastic resisted scratches and metal refused to rust.
I spotted an unassuming tire swing, suspended by three metal chains. The black rubber was worn, but it still looked adamantly spry and youthful.
That’s what I chose. There were better places to sit, but I chose the tire swing.
Like many of the random decisions of my everyday life, this small choice had no reason behind it. I really couldn’t adapt a serious expression and give a quietly somber explanation, nodding with arms folded.
In a society where reasons are in constant demand by haughty skeptics, I suppose it’s satisfying to grin and quip, “I don’t know”, with a childlike cheekiness.
When I was around seven years old I went through a particularly annoying “privacy invasion” phase. I staged ploys for my playmates and I to break into my sister's bedroom, who was ten full years older than me. There were complicated gizmos built for the high school girl, like textbooks, hairbrushes and AP Biology homework. Despite that, we still made use of it. The ladder to her loft bed was a mountain peak, and the closet door was a boulder pushed aside to reveal a mysterious cave of riches.
My sister demanded why I was so obsessed with invading her room. I grimaced and looked down, my cheeks flushed. I didn’t know, and I still don’t remember why. Addressing the carpet, I responded, “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
My friends and I stormed into the playground, whooping and laughing. I dashed over to the tire swing, kicked off my flip flops, and awkwardly swung my body onto the tire. Atop the rough rubber, I asked my friend if she wanted to join me on the swing. Smiling, she declined; the both of us were too heavy. Of course. I wasn’t thinking again. She walked up behind me and pushed me instead.
The winter of my fifth grade year was one of the greatest in years. Snow just fell and fell, piling into mini mountains of white powder. It was a nightmare for my parents but a dream for me, and the huge empty hill near the neighborhood pool became a perfect location for sledding. I’d never been sledding before and couldn’t wait to try. One Saturday afternoon I was invited to go, and I dug out my old toboggan in the garage.
During our heroic trek to the hill, my friends and I encountered a ditch with slush and ice water. It stretched horizontally across the bottom of the hill and was too wide for our stout little legs to leap over.
“Let’s just go through it. I have waterproof boots,” I boasted, nodding towards the jagged ice chunks in the black water. My friend stared, shivering at the mere sight of them.
“I don’t know; it looks cold. Can’t we go around it?” She asked. My other friends agreed, nodding. I scowled and gave an exasperated wave at the ditch, which stretched onward for about fifty feet.
“But this thing goes on forever!” I complained, and faced the ditch. “I’m going in, you guys can follow me.”
Without another thought, I waded in. Immediately, both of my supposedly “waterproof” shoes filled with an inch of freezing water. I sucked in a breath of air and leaped out of the tiny stream. Face red and toes stinging, I called for my friends to follow, hoping we wouldn’t tragically die of hypothermia. When I turned around though, I instead saw that my friends had walked on without me. I squinted and saw them standing far off into the distance, waving and yelling, “It’s solid here!” With my feet slowly freezing in the ditchwater, I stared as they nonchalantly walked around the inch-wide ditch and started up the hill, boots perfectly dry.
Back at the park, ice and snow was a blurry concept in August. My hair whipped about my face as I swung back and forth, my eyes closed blissfully. The sensation was soothing. There was a sense of comfort with the monotony of it, the back and forth, and the wind in my face.
My parents are Chinese immigrants, and most of my extended family lives in China. That leaves only two younger cousins as relatives who live here in America. Naturally, the older of the two, a year younger than me, was my partner in crime and good friend. He was the little brother I never had, and it amused and annoyed me to no end. I got to boss him around, he pestered me constantly, and we always got in trouble together. The two of us went to the same Chinese school every Sunday to learn the language for several years.
One Sunday evening on the car ride home, when I was ten and he was nine, my cousin asked me what I had been up to that week. Confused by his abrupt question, I told him I aced a quiz on fractions, continued an art project, and was reading a fascinating novel. He just grinned at me, crooked teeth glinting in the passing light of streetlamps.
“You sure have a boring life!” He scoffed.
How could I respond to that? Suddenly I was grateful for the darkness of the car.
I had to think about it. I went to school. I did my homework. I was fairly skilled at video games. I knew how to draw and I liked to write stories. That was pretty interesting. I looked back at my cousin and taunted, “I bet my life is way cooler than your life!” He scowled and turned away. I smiled to myself and decided that my daily life’s tedium didn’t bother me.
It still doesn’t.
The tire’s movement was slower, and I contemplated its silver chains. I was glad there was no sentimentality that stubbornly lingered on it. This was not the playground I grew up with.
At first I was glad my mind could hold on to some things, but now I saw it as desperate clinging. I didn’t want to see my past through nostalgia-blind, rose tinted glasses.
The thrumming beat of helicopter blades, the sharp tang of freshly cut grass, and the bite of a stinging winter wind are all nostalgic. These I couldn’t ignore.
When I was about twelve years old, before I moved away, I found myself trapped at home with my older sister while my parents were out. Bored out of my skull, I stormed over to my sister on the couch, who was smiling at something on her laptop. I craned my neck, demanding her what in the world was so interesting. It was her Facebook wall with some photos of me as a toddler. Short black hair framed my round face as I grinned for the camera, and my checkered pink dress bobbed to the staccato beat of my tiny heart, never tired nor satisfied.
“My friends think you’re cute.” My sister told me. “I posted loads of pictures. They still think you’re like, four.” I heard a tired sigh in her voice. She never lingered on the past, but I knew others had. They knew my age now, but maybe a miniscule chunk of their brain seemed fixed on that one picture. There, time was frozen, and I was forever a smiling little girl who was excited for another day at preschool. I leaned away from the laptop and fell silent.
How many people had I hurt just from growing older?
The swing was barely moving, its momentum running out.
Growing up until now, the flow of time never ceased to baffle me. It wasn’t tangible and I could never predict its speed, even though it ticked on constantly at the same rate. Entering adolescence felt like after spending an afternoon engaged in some fascinating activity, you look up and realize the room became so dark you need to turn on a light. I just looked up shortly after my thirteenth birthday and suddenly it hit me how much time had passed. This was my life now, and I couldn’t comprehend how my childhood was over, just like that. I longed for the lazy afternoons with friends and pillow forts, for the days where stress was just a word, for the time where I didn’t care what others thought of me, and I could feel my heart ache. There was no light switch in my room, and I struggled to work as the shadows lengthened on the walls.
It took a long time to realize that instead of searching for a light, I had to let my eyes adjust to the dark. The only medicine to soothe the wounds of time was time itself.
That summer in the park, I slid off the motionless tire swing and looked over the playground. I spotted a group of kids running around giggling, clambering up and down playground equipment, without a care in the world. They have no idea what’s coming, do they? That’s okay, I thought. They’ll figure it out.
Wind danced in the sky, now swathed with watery streaks of pink and baby blue. Fleecy gold clouds hung above, smeared with purple shadows. I could hear my friends chattering away, and I smiled.
The flow of time can continue. There are still so many hours to throw away, as carelessly as a child. At least, time didn’t matter for this one moment, where the breeze blew gently and the children’s laughter lingered in the evening air.
My pupils have fully dilated. I can see through this darkness.
When I was a kid, I loved exploring my sister’s bedroom. I was too impulsive to sidestep a ditch, I was fine with a lack of excitement, and I knew about nostalgia. I was amazed by the passage of time. I think I still am.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe there is no reason.