We are playing one-on-one at the scarred basketball court at Michael’s old elementary school. It’s in an area of Oakland I’m not supposed to be in, even in the middle of the afternoon. A neighborhood of booming bass that rattles the loose window panes. Michael’s neighborhood. Only a few freeway miles from my own territory with its carefully pruned landscape, refugee house cleaners, and tidy recyclables lining the wide curbs.
Mom asked where I was going when I left the house. “Out” I responded, slamming the heavy front door behind me before she could ask — out where, with whom? If I told her I was going out with Michael, the regulations that only apply to him would be enforced: stay in our neighborhood, be home by dinner. When she looks at him, her cold, blue eyes seem to hiss: “You are not good enough for my daughter.” Mom picked me up from Michael’s house on our first few dates. She remained on the doorstep, giving her fake smile to Michael’s mother while she cataloged the numerous children in hand-me-down clothes: so much like her own childhood, with too many bodies in too few beds. Michael was never invited to our house. By the time Mom found an empty condom wrapper in the little pink garbage can in my bathroom, he wasn’t even welcome in our neighborhood.
The sun is getting lower over the basketball court and the false spring of early March is giving way to winter again. I am wearing shorts, so happy that the sun is shining. I don’t care that it’s 50 degrees and the wind is whipping my dark brown ponytail. Michael is playing just seriously enough that I know he’s not going to throw the game. Smart. He’s learned. We get tired and start fouling each other, his long arms reaching around from behind me, his hands grazing my small breasts, as he tries to take the basketball away. I ram my butt back into his thigh, as he bats the ball away and pounds toward the basket.
A prickle on my skull, followed by a tinkling — wind chimes? I open my eyes and Michael is looming over me, shouting, angry. I don’t understand. Now the prickle is a thud, a relentless hammer. In my peripheral vision a snowdrift of shattered glass seems to shiver; no wind chimes, no more music. Just a shattered soda bottle randomly thrown over the ivy-covered chain link. Michael’s frantic questions begin to penetrate my sludgy ears. My voice sounds far away as I respond: you’re holding up 2 fingers…. is it Sunday? Michael sprints to the fence, and scales it, trying to see the anonymous hoodlum. I am shaking, so cold now. The asphalt is broken up like tectonic plates, jabbing my back, and pricking my winter pale legs.
Michael runs back from the fence and picks me up like a small bundle of laundry. He is swearing as he walks with me. “I was too late,” his breathing is labored, “they drove away before I could see the license plate.” I lay my head against his warm chest, wondering if the pounding I hear is his heart beating fast or the blood racing toward my wound. I jerk awake as he tries to open the car door and still hold on to me. I try to help, but I’m so clumsy. Once I’m in the warm, vinyl passenger seat, I can’t seem to make the seat belt click in; Michael fastens it for me. I notice that his hands are shaking.
I am flying. Swooping down suddenly, I cry out as the pavement races toward my face. I wake up with tears on my cheeks. Looking over at the driver’s seat, I’m relieved to see Michael. His jaw is set, and he’s driving so fast — down-shifting, zigzagging. “Don’t go to sleep,” he says over and over. He reminds me of our junior prom, how angry I was when I found out that he’d worn his tie and cummerbund on a dare. I laugh and wince at the pain, remembering the acid-trip paisley, and my eventual relief that his taste wasn’t as bad as I had feared.
At the hospital I have no insurance card, no ID. I try to call Mom, and tell her what happened, and where I am, but I keep dropping the coins. I can’t remember my phone number. My head gets very heavy and I lean against the wall. Michael takes the receiver out of my hand, sits me in a chair, and goes back to call my mother. It is one of the bravest things he will ever do. Mom will blame him for all of this. It will be added to the list of his transgressions: his poor parents and sloppy house, our furtive love making in my bedroom, my stolen virginity.
Mom arrives at the hospital quickly. Her blonde hair is smoothed into a low bun and her London Fog trench coat flaps around her legs. She strides over to Michael. “You can leave now.” She dismisses him, her voice deep. Michael stands up, taller than Mom, his brown eyes bright, and says, “It’s not your decision.” I look down and realize that I’m drooling on my pink t-shirt. Now Mom uses her “scarier than a spanking” voice: “I’m not asking, she is my daughter, you need to go home.” Michael looks over at me and I nod, forcing a weak smile. He is about to cry, but he won’t give Mom the satisfaction of seeing it. He steps around her, kisses my cheek, and whispers, “I love you.”
Mom, who is always telling me to sit up straight, slumps in to the chair next to mine. We are both quiet. She picks up my cold hand and holds it with trembling fingers. She closes her eyes and exhales slowly. A little sob almost escapes, but she swallows it down. In this moment I have a dim sense of the perpetual weight of motherhood. I try to apologize, but it’s very hard to form complete sentences. For once I am spun out of my little universe of Michael and me. I feel how scared she was when Michael called, too scared to be mad at me. We sit holding hands, like we did in a past life, before we went to war and drew battle lines all over the house. She takes out a tissue and wipes the drool from my chin. I lay my head down on her shoulder and drift toward sleep as she gingerly runs her hand over my head. I dream that she is singing my favorite lullaby about all the pretty little horses.
I have lost all sense of time when Mom wakes me gently. I have been drooling on her shoulder, but she hasn’t noticed. I shuffle to the exam room with Mom. Her arm is around my waist, and I lean in to her as my head feels heavy again. In the tiny white room, the doctor diagnoses me with a mild concussion, and tells Mom that I must be woken every hour tonight. It will be a long night for both of us. I will be cranky and will forget why she has to wake me, again and again, until morning.
The next evening I am on the phone, talking with Michael after a long, lonely day at home. He is passing along condolences from our school friends. “I drove by your house three times after school…” He’s quiet for a moment. “But I didn’t want to get you in trouble, so I went home.” As the conversation turns to what movie we will see next weekend, I finger the swollen knot on my head — such a hard head, as my mother has always told me. In a tiny place inside me, I miss the feeling of her hand holding fast to mine, and her deep voice singing about all the pretty little horses.
A few minutes later, Mom comes in my room without knocking and asks, “Who are you talking to?” Her eyes rove over the clothes hanging out of my bureau drawers and the desk confettied with papers. Her mouth turns down. “None of your business,” I snap. She sighs and in her warning voice says, “I want you off that phone in five minutes. Have you finished your homework yet?” I nod slowly and wince as the little egg of a bruise on my head pulses again. “I don’t want you to get behind in your classes,” Mom continues, hands on her hips. I turn my back on her and when I hear the door close, I roll my eyes and say to Michael, “Can’t she just back off?”