I stood on Main Street’s sidewalk, the toes of my sneakers balanced on the edge of the curb. Having squeezed my way there through the crowd, I still had to raise up tippy-toe to clearly see Old Saybrook’s Independence Day parade.
The floats floated past, each one more elaborate than the one before. American flags waved from every one, as well as from every storefront, and nearly every hand there, those not already occupied by candy apples or hot dogs.
I leaned out to see how far back this holiday caravan trailed, anxious for more time, knowing it would be over far too soon. This grand spectacle, precursor to the night’s annual fireworks show, was as short-lived as the sparkler sputtering its life away in my small hand.
Lost in this temporal anomaly, I experienced another within it, the first “In the Zone” moment of my life, the perceptual distortion experienced by some athletes performing at such a high level it seems their opponents move in slow motion.
While craning my neck to see the next float floating into view, I saw atop it, framed by an arch of flowers, a Princess waving a white-gloved right hand, her bright smile otherworldly to my mesmer-eyes. In the slowest of slow motion, she shifted on her throne from side to side, blowing kisses to her subjects with her left hand, casting her magic Main Street wide.
Without any realization, or any intention of doing so, I returned those kisses with all the earnestness, and in all the innocence, that only a second grader could without letting any self-consciousness show. The world became a vignette when her eyes met mine. We were alone amidst a spotlight in my heart, for the moment, she was all mine. The outside world melted away in Connecticut’s July heat.
There was no sound; the sparkler’s sparks spitting before my face seemed born of her light. My head swiveled on my scrawny neck of its own accord, tracking her passing as I drank in her liquid sunshine.
A tap on my shoulder broke the spell, and laughter fell over me from behind, as I looked straight back over my head arching so I didn’t have to turn around.
“You don’t have to blow kisses back, Dear,” said the smiling blond woman above me, her arm tucked in the crook of her husband’s, her small clutch pinned to her waist with her elbow. Both faces were full of mirth seemingly tickled by my antics.
“But I want to,” was all I replied, my eyes returning to scan ahead searching for the vision who had captured my soul.
In that time out of time, the last floated had floated past me, I noticed as it slowly came to a halt pulling to the curb. My shoulders sagged. Was it really over already? One of the few great events of this sleepy New England town was at an end. I had to wait a whole year for its return.
Then my eyebrows shot up. Wait a minute, I thought, if this last float had floated to a stop, then … my eyes tracked back up the street to find my Princess on her throne. Sure enough, her float had parked obliquely at the opposite curb. I bolted.
I was winded and panting after my Olympic record setting one hundred yard dash, but I didn’t double over, didn’t grab the stitch in my side. I stood at the foot of the float that floated on air. Its bunting billowing like a red, white, and blue cloud that pillowed the sun herself.
I said hello to her and she said something back, but all I could hear was music. There was one of those twinkles to her smiling eyes that reflected her inner brightness, and it sang to me.
“You must be warm, can I get you an ice cream, or a soda pop, I asked her, trying to feign confidence. “I can run to the store,” I gestured with a sweep of my arm like Robin Hood welcoming her to Sherwood Forest.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she said with her mellifluous musical mouth. White diamond teeth made more brilliant in the setting of her ruby red lips. The lace ruffle of her white dress adorned with a row of small yellow flowers above it. Her shoes shined beneath matching socks, with coordinating small yellow flowers, turned down at her ankles.
I dug into the pocket of my dungarees and pulled out a pack of Juicy Fruit, holding it up to her. My thumb was poised on one stick of it, ready to slide it up all James Dean like if she were to accept the offer.
She smiled and leaned forward, reaching to take the proffered piece that slid up to her delicate fingers.
“Thank you. What’s your name?”
“It’s Khosan, but people just call me Cousin,” I replied. I caught myself before I bowed to her, but just barely. Okay, so I may have bowed, and perhaps a, “Milady” had slipped out, but it was so worth it to hear her giggle. It sounded like birdsong to me, clear as a running spring rill and full of her happiness.
“Dawn. You know, like in the morning.”
Perfect, I thought, of course it is.
We chatted for what seemed like hours as the sun climbed to its noon station directly overhead. It completed the image of her crown as it highlighted the Shirley Temple tresses of her chestnut colored hair that fell about her shoulders like a mantle of femininity.
The driver of the float returned. Her parents came to collect her and her father, the King, took her hand and helped her down. Her mother, the Queen, smiled proudly at her and politely at me as she waved goodbye. Then, both she and the float floated away.
The remainder of the summer passed as all summers do, with pick up baseball games and barbecues. The highlight of it was my dunking at the beach that I relayed as a near drowning to my friends.
One of the kids from my street, Knollwood Drive, rowed a boat up to the pier on Knollwood beach at the end of our street. I begged him for a ride and when he relented, I climbed down the ladder on the side of the pier.
“Just jump,” he yelled, in that “double dare ya” voice, when I hesitated. So, I did. The Long Island Sound saw fit to lift the boat away on a wave at that precise moment, and down I went into Davy Jone’s locker. All I remember seeing were bubbles and jellyfish before being fished out with an outstretched oar.
I disembarked, unceremoniously dumped, on the beach to drip dry as the sand caked on the soles of my feet and clung to my ankles as if the beach was reclaiming its Prodigal son. Guys were slapping me on the back as I coughed as if I was choking up the entire Long Island Sound. I cast dirty looks at the assembled that were laughing and taking this much too lightly for my taste.
“It isn’t funny,” I yelled, “I almost drowned, ya know?”
“Shut up, you were under for like two seconds,” one of the older boys, Riley, said wryly.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” said someone else, I was too traumatized to identify, as I went shivering up the beach toward home.
The school year began right after Labor Day as it always did. The letdown of the last cookouts of the summer was shoved aside by the excitement of the first day of school. I was in my new outfit, purple crushed velvet bell-bottoms and gold polyester shirt just standing around the playground during recess.
No one from my neighborhood was in my class and I swept the three-ring circus for recognizable faces, or at least a Ringmaster. Where were the teachers? It was a zoo out there. I was too cool for the monkey bars, too small for football, and no way was I going anywhere near the Merry-Go-Round where the sixth graders were delighting in spinning smaller kids off into space.
My peripheral vision picked up movement to my left. I turned in time to see a girl just inches away on a collision course. There was no time to react before she slammed into me. I reflexively tried to grab her around her waist to keep the two of us upright, but she had wrapped me in a bear hug pinning my arms to my sides. Nose to nose for a split second I could not focus my eyes on her features before she began to smother me with kisses.
My seven-year-old mind in shock, all I could think was … you guessed it, COOTIES! A girl was kissing me, EW! And on the playground where everyone could see. My brown cheeks became crimson as I froze looking frantically around. Fortunately, the zoo carried on its grade school recess chaos, and no one was looking. Finally, she stopped and took a step back. She was beaming up at my scowling red face with such joy I was astonished.
“What do you think you’re, doing,” I asked.
“Cousin, she drawled, “it’s me, Dawn,” she said smiling as if I should know that already and waiting expectantly for me to catch up with the realization.
“Dawn who,” I said, affecting my father’s tone of annoyance.
Despite my haughty tones she was nonplussed, merely smiling that slowly becoming familiar smile, waiting. She took another step back and bent forward arm extended toward the ground as if she were picking a flower. Her chestnut curls fell forward to drape her face and she looked up at me through butterfly wing eyelashes batting.
“You know, Milady,” her smile growing wider as she straightened up. And then, it hit me. I swear may have swooned a bit. It was my Princess! Here. She stepped out of my forgotten daydream and into this playground like magic.
It was the beginning of many womanly woes to befall me in my life.
Dawn had asked me if I could come over to play after school and naturally, I said yes. When Mrs. Finlay told us to get our things and line up for the bus home I did my best Pee-pee dance performance. Told to hurry, I dashed down the hallway, and once around the corner slipped into a line of kids who lived close by and were walking home.
“Yes, Mrs. Roycee, my mother said it’s okay to come over to play,” I lied. Dawn and I scarfed down Tunafish on Wonderbread sandwiches, and she introduced me to the unconventional concept of peeling an apple and sprinkling it with salt. It was delicious, the salt bringing out the sweetness on my tongue.
I humored her Highness, played with her dollhouse for a while. We watched the Captain Kangaroo show and then I was told it was suppertime and I would have to leave.
“You mean, Dinner time,” I said.
“No, we had dinner at school before recess, remember,” she asked.
I walked the two miles home along the shore having memorized both turns, and proud of my keen sense of direction. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased. She might have been frantic, but her relief spared me the belt that night.
The teacher was made aware of my escape artist nature the next day and it took me a week to devise a repeat offense. It took another week before Mrs. Roycee was brought into the fold of those now immune to my conman ways. But it was all so worth it.
M. Zane McClellan
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