During the summer between my Kindergarten year and First Grade, my mother moved my sister and me to a rural town called Half Moon Bay, an isolated hamlet which hugged the Pacific Coast and a bay the shape of a crescent moon. We were moving in with my step-father Ray, a man my Mom planned on marrying. He had found us a cottage near the beach, and rent was only $60 per month.
It was a house that is difficult to forget, as each room was painted a bright vivid jewel tone. Living there was like living inside of a Kaleidoscope, and I would roam from a purple room to an orange one, through a yellow one and into the green. It was the 60’s and the house only matched the hues of an era, where love and peace had taken on new meaning. But the coast side seemed far from the revolution that was happening in San Francisco only 30 miles away. Remote, inaccessible and secluded, the town felt more like an island, with a low moaning fog horn as our only reminder that we were a part of the world.
That summer I only had cypress trees and the succulent plants which lined the bluffs to keep me company. For the most part, my sister and I stayed indoors and played records; she was determined to teach me all of the latest dances before I started “real school.” I remember long afternoons where I struggled to learn The Twist, or The Jerk, watching my sister’s white go-go boots teach me the tempo. But that summer isn’t a joyful memory for me; I remember feeling scared. The world outside of those fluorescent walls seemed ominous to me. I was certain there would be death or dismemberment if I explored the town too thoroughly. The farmers in their tractors, the fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts, the hermit crabs in the tide pools all intrigued me. But I felt frozen with fear. I dreamed of the suburban street where we had just moved from, where lawns were all identical and there was a sense of order in a neighborhood. But Half Moon Bay felt more like chaos to me; I saw ghosts everywhere, from the haunted trees to the rusty boats in the harbor.
That summer seemed endless, the way that summers do when you’re very young. I was painfully lonely, and I began to look forward to the first day of school with excited anticipation. I wanted to make friends. While I enjoyed spending time with my sister, we were too far apart in age to be fit companions, and I needed someone who spoke my language. I chose a very proper dress for my first day, a red knit dress my grandmother had made which sported a big yellow school bell over the heart. I felt very grown up as I walked into a brand new school that morning. But my excitement turned into anxiety almost immediately.
I saw a huge girl in the corner. She was at least twice the size of any of us, maybe even more. She looked out of place, and it took me some time to realize that she was both retarded and older than the rest of us, even though she was in our class. She was pleasant enough in an awkward way, and I found her to be more of an oddity than anything else. But the other children teased her, calling her “Pickle Nose,” and taunting and bullying her. I thought it was horrible what they were doing to her, and it filled me with profound grief.
I was too afraid to try and befriend her. Not that I wanted to pal about with the big girl, I only wanted to say something nice, to soothe her somehow. She was often in the corner crying, but I didn’t dare approach her to pat her comfortingly on the arm. I couldn’t go against the crowd. It was a pack mentality, and I didn’t want them to know I didn’t agree with them.
It was then that I noticed a girl named Linda. Linda wasn’t afraid to go against the crowd at all; she walked right up to Pickle Nose and asked her to be her friend. I was startled by her bravery, and her maturity. I wished I could be so brave. But I knew the consequences of taking such a stand.
Within a matter of days, the children had turned on Linda for befriending the big retarded girl. And now it was this brave girl named Linda who was being called Pickle Nose. In fact, they hardly bothered the original Pickle Nose anymore. They’d found a new victim. And they were relentless in trying to make every day a living hell for her.
I admired Linda for the way she seemed to brush it off. Where I would have been terrified, she just went about her day as if the taunting children didn’t exist. She would spend her days with the original Pickle Nose, or would spend time by herself. I often noticed her. And it seemed that she noticed me as well. And one day, she had come up to me and introduced herself. “I’m Linda, do you want to be friends?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, if I were willing to link arms with the girl who had cooties. I looked around to make sure that the other kids weren’t watching. I wasn’t sure what might happen to me if they spotted me talking with her. But it was then that I noticed the red ball in her hands.
I learned almost the first day of school that in order to be cool, you had to have a Super Ball. A small red rubber ball with a dramatic bounce was all the rage that year, and I begged my parents to buy me one. I, like all of the kids, would take our super ball out at recess and play a variety of games. But I noticed the ball that Linda was holding didn’t look like all the rest. “That’s not a Super Ball, is it?” was how I responded to her request.
“My Mom told me she didn’t have any money to buy a Super Ball. But I found this, and it’s close enough.”
Well, it wasn’t nearly close enough, I thought. In a time when everyone had to be exactly the same or face being ostracized, her huge red rubber ball didn’t fit in. Just like the original Pickle Nose, it was at least twice the size of all the others. It seemed to me she was breaking all the rules.
She threw it on the ground to show me, and I watched it hit the pavement like a bag of rocks. She laughed, knowing how ridiculous it looked.
“But it doesn’t even bounce,” I said laughing.
It was then that the ball rolled over to reveal a face. I didn’t believe what I was seeing at first, and bent down to retrieve the ball so I could study it more closely. On one side of the ball, she had carefully glued two eyes, a nose and a mouth that she had drawn on paper and glued. And then she had glued real hair to form a mustache and a beard. She took the ball from my hand and started squeezing it, and making a funny voice. “It doesn’t bounce,” Linda said, “but it talks. Watch.” Soon the ball was talking a mile a minute, making me laugh as loud as I could.
I was mesmerized with Linda and this ball. “Yes,” I said. “I would like to be your friend.” And so it began.
But I wasn’t brave enough to befriend Linda in the open. I carefully explained to her that because she was so intensely disliked at the school, that our friendship would have to remain private. We couldn’t let the children know we were friends, or else I would have to face the same ridicule as she did. She said she understood, but I always remember the pain in her eyes. And while we played together every day after school, and began sleeping over at each other’s houses almost nightly, we pretended not to know each other during the school day.
Every day at lunch Linda and I would sneak into the girl’s bathroom. We would take turns standing on the toilet so that only one pair of legs was visible underneath the door, should someone peek beneath to check for occupancy. We would eat our lunches that way, whispering and giggling, until we heard the bathroom door swing open and we’d eat in silence until the intruder left. We maintained our relationship like this for a long while.
Each day as we drove the big yellow school bus home, Linda and I would sit separately. I would fight back tears watching Linda when it was her stop. She would always begin to get out of her seat before the bus came to a complete halt; she was intent on getting a head start. Because once the big door swung open and Linda sprinted down the street toward home, she’d be chased by a gaggle of twits who would scream pejoratives and hurl insults toward her. The bus driver never did a thing about it. I would watch her until she turned the corner and I couldn’t see her anymore, praying every day she wouldn’t be hurt. But more important, I was struggling with my conscience.
It took me a long time to have the strength to face my guilt and make some changes. I’ll never forget the day when lunchtime came, and I said to Linda, “Let’s eat at the picnic bench today.” I remember the look of surprise and relief in her eyes. I remember how wonderful it felt to sit in the sunshine, laughing and eating peanut butter sandwiches together, while the kids surrounded us with looks of shock on their face. And I’ll never forget returning to the classroom that day after lunch and being pelted with chalk board erasers by all of the children, and the vicious screams of “Pickle Nose” in my direction.
But that was the end of it. I was well-liked, and my boyfriend was a popular boy who told the kids to shut up. And no one tormented me, or Linda, or the Original Pickle Nose ever again.
Years later Linda admitted to me that she resented me during the period when I hid our friendship behind a bathroom door of shame. And I told her how sorry I was, and that I did the best I could at the time. I’m still sorry it wasn’t enough. But despite that, Linda’s and my friendship has endured for forty-five years.
She didn’t invite me to her last birthday, for the first time in our lives. And she has spoken with me in soft tones how our lives have taken different directions. While we’re not estranged, it feels as if we are, as if I’m losing another sister.
I can still hear our laughter echoing over the rocks near our favorite blow hole at the beach. I can still hear the whir of my bicycle wheels as I chased her bike through the hay fields and through the cypress trees. I can still feel the sting of the salt air on my throat as I tipped it back to let out a roar of joy.
I had thought I was being a hero. But I only added to her shame and humiliation. Linda was the real hero. She had strength in the face of adversity that I’ve never forgotten. And she taught me to never hide how I feel just because it’s different. And I never have again.
To this day, I cannot look at a pickle without hearing those vicious taunts. While I try and enjoy this crisp cold snack, pickles will forever remind me of hatred and prejudice, of injustice and small minds. But worse, and a pickle reminds me of my own failures. And I choke on it.
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