I floated on my back in Biscayne Bay a few feet from the Annie Lee, trying to block out a lot of things I didn’t want to think about—the ten feet of water and blowfish beneath me; the Canfield kids, big-eyed in the front row of the Aristocats; the bundle of laundry on my bunk I was supposed to be folding, and Mom and Dad bumping each other like repelling magnets in the innards of our boat.
Thin ribbons of sun sliced through the boards of Pier 1. R.J. clattered his big wheel down the dock, and I skulled further under the pier.
It wasn’t like I never did anything fun. I bet the Canfields hadn’t scored a trip to the Virgin Islands like I had. My eyes traced the puffy clouds peeking through the pier and I let my mind float back backwards from 11.
I’d clutched Thumbelina’s smooshy body to my four-year-old chest, my eyes glued to the airplane window. It was the first time I saw clouds from the top side—kind of like when I hung upside down over the couch and the living room looked all wrong. Only the world looked right—a fairyland of pillowy animals and castles fanning out below.
Mom flipped a magazine page in the seat beside me. Dad’s pencil scratched across paper on the aisle. We sat separate in our seats like the three little pigs in their houses of straw, wood, and brick, not connected like Goldilocks’ three bears.
My chin rested on Thumbelina’s hard plastic head. Mom had scrubbed her arms, legs, and face. But the pink fabric rest of her—missing the long-ago dress—remembered my mud-pie fingers, bus rides to Grandma’s, slipping down the slide at the playground.
The plane elevator-dropped and I scooted to my knees. My nose smashed against the window.
Mom’s breath puffed against my neck.
Smudges of brown. Land!
On St. Thomas we drove up the highest hill I’d ever seen to a sunshiny house, bursting with the Boses, John and Barbara, Elizabeth—who had pony rides at her last birthday in Miami—and her brothers. Far below, water so blue it hurt my eyes, broke against beach.
I’d landed in a storybook.
Mom, under Barbara’s squinty eye, sewed us matching dresses. Straight lines and angles of ocean blue and green like the water near shore. When the dresses were done, we wore them to Mass. I felt so much bigger than nearly five—and beautiful like Mom.
The Annie Lee sloshed in her slip, disturbing my daydream and I flipped upright to tread water. I eyed the hull, calculating the size of the boat we’d ridden from St. Thomas to St. John, a neighboring island—at least twice the size of my namesake.
I breast-stroked lazily under my wooden awning toward the tee at the end of the dock, picturing my younger self in a tent on a St. John beach.
That first day the mosquitoes came, then rain, then night. I fell into a fitful sleep to Mom and Dad not talking—the kind of quiet that splattered my childhood louder than the rain beating against the canvas.
In the morning blinding sun knifed between my eyelids. White sand, pock-marked by the rain, stretched out from our tent flap into the blue I’d glimpsed from high on St. Thomas. I ran to the water—colorless up close, an ocean of rain.
Mom walked me into town to school and filled out papers while I swung my legs back and forth from a plastic chair.
Children’s voices peppered the air.
Equal parts fear and hope that I’d stay clamored in my head.
School at home had meant a huge house of weathered wood that huddled beneath an oversized Banyan. A leafy playground hid around back. Noise, toys, kids of every kind—boys, girls, black-skinned, Cuban-brown, and freckled like me—sang and played.
School on St. John meant a family of cinder block buildings that joined hands with covered walkways. I hadn’t seen a tree since we walked past the chain link fence skirting the sunbaked playground.
Mom set her pen down and looked me in the eye. “Do you want to go to school? We’ll be here for three weeks. I thought it would be more fun if you had children to play with.”
My stomach bunched in a knot under my shirt. I wished I’d brought Thumbelina.
I stared into Mom’s eyes, knowing she’d take me back to the campground if I wanted. Back to clams, hermit crabs, and mosquitoes for friends.
In Miami I’d begged to go a third day each week to nursery school, stay for the afternoon and nap on a carpet square.
Laughter drifted through the open window and tugged at me.
My teeth worried my bottom lip. I liked to peer at new people and places from behind the pleats of Mom’s skirt.
Something tickled the back of my neck, telling me Mom hoped I’d choose school.
I wanted to make Mom happy.
Five minutes later I climbed onto a chair behind a me-sized desk in a long, dim room. From the rows of desks white-sand eyes stared from tar-black faces. A breeze blew past the banana leaves shading the long bank of windows along one wall, wafting coolness and the smell of earth.
I felt like The Little Prince, plunked down in a strange world.
At lunch, the food came on a pale green tray—warm, soft, and strange.
On the smooth cement outside the cafeteria, chattering children circled me. Their dark bodies shrouded me in shadow, their words sounding familiar and foreign at the same time.
One girl, black plaits and ribbons cornrowing around her head, rubbed her thumb against my arm. “Your white doesn’t rub off!”
A boy palmed a handful of my hair, a curious expression on his face like he held a seashell he’d never seen.
I perfected princess-in-a-foreign-land for the rest of our stay, receiving pretty leaves and shiny stones and crumbled cookies from my subjects. Everywhere I walked on the playground at least six children skipped in my wake. I was never so glad I’d captured the courage to try something scary.
A speedboat raced by, its wake jostling my mind off St. John.
My fingers had pruned and my stomach begged for peanut butter and jelly.
I paddled toward the ladder at the end of the dock, ticking off things that had required courage. I’d attended five more schools, rode two city busses alone to ballet, braved four lanes of traffic on 27th Avenue to buy butterscotch at the corner store, bolted off the high dive, swam the channel from Pier 1 to the island.
I climbed up the ladder thanking my four-year-old self for gathering her guts. I couldn’t think of a time I’d been sorry for sucking it up and being brave.
I looked at the Annie Lee. Some days it took a cupful of courage just to face my family.
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