catos-bridgeI peered over the side of Cato’s Bridge where Aida Gale and had jumped off seconds ago. Fear fluttered in my chest. My toes gripped the edge of the concrete girder, my hand super-glued to the guardrail.

Kelly Gaston hopped over the rail and glanced at me. “You’re such a weenie!” She dove, narrowly missing Aida who surfaced gasping for breath. Kelly bobbed up.

I glanced behind me at Brett Schaming and Susan Roberts.

My turn to jump.

I’d lived on a sailboat, practically grown gills. I could do this.

Sun sparkled on the fresh water from the Loxahatchee River mingling with the salt water flowing through the Jupiter Inlet from the Atlantic Ocean.

My heart thumped to the cadence of Mom’s voice in my head. If fill-in-the-blank leapt off a building, would you?

I’d sprung from the Shenandoah Pool high dive dozens of times when Dad was a lifeguard.

I didn’t know the high dive—that froze me on the ladder more than once—rose a paltry 9.8 feet over the swimming pool to the bridge’s twenty-seven foot drop. But I knew the water was long way down.

Aida treaded water, still looking a little shell-shocked.

“If you’re not going to jump, I’ll go,” Brett said.

“Just jump already!” Kelly yelled from the sandy shore.

I sucked in a breath and pushed off the cement girder into sky.

I rocketed toward the water.

The impact stung my feet and the under sides of my arms, knocked the breath from my lungs.

5986756960_7c9c6ecbb2_oMy body drilled through the sun-shot, tepid water into the cool, dark depths.

I looked frantically through the wall of bubbles, not knowing how many feet I’d gone under. If I touched bottom fifteen feet below, I could give myself a good push toward the surface. My feet flailed, finding no purchase.

Panic and the pittance of air left in my lungs fueled my kicking and clawing upward.

Every cell of my body craved oxygen.

I strained for daylight, spread like glass far above, not knowing if I’d make it in time.

My face burst through the surface. I sucked in heaping gulp-fulls of air.

As my heart rate notched down, I realized my suit no longer covered the essentials. I righted my suit, and swore I’d never jump off another bridge.

But I did.

Fifteen minutes later.

Today, I blame Cato’s Bridge for curing me of the Grand Canyon and every edifice taller than two stories.

I don’t know how close I skirted drowning or becoming lunch to the nurse sharks I later discovered sleep in the concrete blocks beneath Cato’s Bridge. But this wasn’t the end of choices I’d regret. And bridge jumping wasn’t the end of Kelly’s influence.

The next weekend, I stood on the street in front of Kelly’s house planning the day’s adventures with Kelly and two of her friends.

Kelly took a hit off a Marlboro and handed it to me in case her mother came out. “We’re going to break into the snack bar at the ballpark,” Kelly announced.

A boulder landed in my stomach. “I don’t want to.”

“You’re such a pansy. I’m surprised you ever learned to cross the street.”

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I hated the angry edge to Kelly’s voice. I took a drag off the cigarette in an attempt to up my cool with Kelly.

I glanced at the other two girls.

They looked away and I could see they weren’t going to fight Kelly. Maybe they were fine with knocking off the snack bar. Or maybe they’d learned the hard way to do what Kelly said.

Stealing was wrong. I folded my arms across my chest.

Kelly’s eyes flashed with fire. “If you don’t want to do what we’re doing, you can just go home—and never come back.” She grabbed the cigarette from my fingers and spun on her heel. “Come on, girls.”

The other two followed her.

I was twenty-three miles from home and spending the night at Kelly’s. All the really cool kids lived in Jupiter, Kelly the coolest of all.

109974710_40687fbade_oMy feet weighed fifty pounds each as I trudged across the pine dappled lot toward the ball diamond.

Kelly looked over her shoulder at me. “You’re lookout.”  She said it as though she were doing me a favor.

I stopped ten feet from the shack, trying to think of a way to get out of committing a crime.

Kelly jimmied the lock, and they were inside before I’d come up with an idea.

A bolt of terror shot through me. Acid sloshed against the boulder in my stomach. I scanned the underside of the bleachers, empty parking lot, pines we’d just walked through for a police car. In two seconds lawmen, whom I’d always labeled friend, catapulted into foe.

The sound of Kelly’s harsh whisper came from the shack.

The girls scrambled out, shut the door, and scurried through the pines, me on their heels.

We landed, winded in one of the girls’ garages.

They divvied the candy into four piles.

I pushed mine into the center with the side of my sneaker. “I don’t want any.” The green slime of guilt already filled my gullet.

Kelly shot me a look that said she didn’t think much of me.

If I’d had any backbone at all, I would have un-friended Kelly and given up Jupiter’s cool.

But I hung on.

Kelly borrowed my Carly Simon and Carole King albums. The third time I asked her to return them, she yelled bitch loud enough that everyone in the Murray Ninth hallway turned and stared.

I got the message. I’d never see those albums again.

Or her friendship.

If we meet again, I want to believe she’s learned from her misdeeds like I’ve learned from mine. And just in case she really can kick my butt, as I believed when we were fourteen, I gave her a pseudonym in my story.

46897589_3f4ea548cc_oI’d like to say Kelly colored my Catholic soul a little blacker, blame her for the Marlboro soot in my lungs. But I walked to that baseball field on my own two feet. I sucked on cigarettes with my own lips.

I wanted cool a little too much.

The ball field caper will probably always lie atop my junk pile of regrets. But thank God, He doesn’t see me standing in the half light of a Jupiter garage, Sweet Tarts, Double Bubble, and Tootsie Rolls splayed at my feet. He only sees a girl with clean hands and a pure heart. A long time ago, Jesus hauled away the junk.