BY EMMA SMITH-STEVENS
In fourth grade, I became friends with a girl named Rhonda Price, who had a special aide with her in our classroom. While changing for gym class, I saw that a long white scar ran down Rhonda’s sternum. Every day after lunch, she went to the school nurse’s office to take medicine. Most of the kids at school were unkind to Rhonda. Some ignored her. Others called her “stupid” or “retard.” Once, in English class, each student had to stand and recite a poem from memory. When it was Rhonda’s turn, she spoke very slowly. “Come see your life in my crystal ball,” she said. “Twenty-five cents is all you’ll pay.” But she stopped there. I started whispering lines to her from where I sat, at the desk behind hers. Rhonda’s aide, Ms. Turner, whipped her head around and said, “No helping, Sarah.” Rhonda shrugged one shoulder and sat down.
Afterwards, she didn’t thank me. I realized I had failed to save her from embarrassment, not because Ms. Turner prevented me from helping, but because Rhonda hadn’t been embarrassed at all. Over time, I observed that she seemed to lack a capacity for almost any negative emotion: nervousness, shame, anger, sorrow. Once, as she and I walked to the cafeteria, a boy muttered “mongoloid” as he passed us, and she giggled. I was the one who felt upset, but less for her than for myself—my inexperience, my unscarred flesh. I had never overcome adversity because I hadn’t faced any. Unlike Rhonda, whose parents were divorced, mine were happily married. I had always fit in at school with ease—not exactly popular, but well-liked. I decided to stand beside Rhonda always, to absorb the malice that other kids shot her way. I hoped she would remain so perfectly impervious, and the cruelty that ricocheted off her smiling face would wound me instead.
“I’ve got a heart condition,” she told me during a sleepover at her house. It was the week after Thanksgiving. We were in our pajamas, and she was wearing orthodontic headgear. “I had to get an operation a week after I was born.”
“I’ve got a heart condition, too.” My lie shocked me. “And I think I’m getting headgear soon.”
A few weeks later my mom told me that Rhonda’s intellect would never mature beyond that of a six or seven-year-old, and that next year she would need to transfer to a special school. “You can see that her fingers are shaped differently,” my mom said. “And her eyes, they’re small and squinty, and she has to wear those big, thick glasses. It’s a very sad thing, Sarah. She has a syndrome.”
I nodded knowingly.
“But sweetheart,” said my mother, “don’t mention anything to Rhonda about her—her challenges. It’s not nice to point it out.”
I knew Rhonda’s mother, Ms. Price, must have discussed those things with my mom. The two of them had become friendly ever since Rhonda first came to our house in the third week of the school year. After that, we’d had sleepovers once or twice a month, and frequent play-dates after school. One time Ms. Price held my face in her hands and thanked me for being such a good friend to her daughter. I hadn’t known how to respond, so I had said what seemed most polite: “You’re welcome.”
At the end of the school year, I was sad that Rhonda would be switching to the special school for fifth grade. But we promised to continue our friendship regardless.
One July afternoon, I was standing in my bedroom of my family’s summer house, looking out the window. My parents and I spent every vacation there—out in the country, away from the suburbs where we lived. A caretaker named William tended to our property throughout the winter, and during the spring and summer he kept two cows on part of the field, sectioned off by an electric fence.
The cows were chewing cud. Suddenly, I felt very sorry for them. When autumn came William would slaughter them, put them in a big freezer in his garage, and he and his girlfriend would eat the meat all winter long. When I’d asked my dad why William did that, he’d said, “Honey, that’s what cows are for.”
“Mom,” I said. She was standing in the kitchen, right outside my bedroom. “The cows are blurry.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” I relaxed my eyes until the cows grew fuzzy. I could make the blurring stop. Still, I suspected that its existence indicated a problem that needed to be addressed.
“Have they always been blurry, or did this come on just now?” She had come into my bedroom, and was standing beside me. She scrutinized the cows in the distance, then looked at my eyes.
“I don’t know. They’re just blurry. The trees, too. Everything.”
A week later I sat in an exam chair at an ophthalmologist’s office. I identified letters printed on a chart while the doctor tried different lenses over my eyes. In the time leading up to the appointment, I had come to believe that I had spent all my life straining my eyes to see clearly. During the examination, I relaxed my vision. No matter the lens, I reported that I could make out only the two largest rows of letters. This went on for quite a while.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, kiddo,” the doctor said, finally. “But your vision is perfectly fine.”
“Were you making this up, Sarah?” asked my mom.
“Everything’s so blurry,” I said. “And my teeth hurt, too.”
“Were you hoping for glasses?” the doctor asked.
“No.” I thought of Rhonda’s thick lenses, which made her small eyes look even smaller. “I don’t want glasses. I just think I need them.”
I stared at my lap. My mother sighed.
“One can buy frames without prescription lenses,” the doctor said. He took off his own glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “If that would be of any interest.”
When I returned to school, the beginning of fifth grade, I wore my new glasses—bright purple frames with plastic lenses. I had saved up three weeks’ allowance and bought them at the mall. My sadness that Rhonda had gone to the special school deepened. It wasn’t just that I wanted her to see me wearing the glasses. I missed her. I had other friends, of course, girls I liked just fine. But Rhonda was different. She was so brave, I thought, even though she had a syndrome.
During September, Rhonda and I went to each other’s houses a few times. I’d been longing for Rhonda to witness me wearing my glasses ever since I got them, but when it came time to see her I was scared that she would know the lenses were fake—and that, somehow, my phony glasses would tip her off to the big lie I had told about the heart condition. I never wore them in front of her. After a few play-dates, we stopped making plans. It hurt that she quit calling, but I didn’t call her either. I figured she had new friends and probably didn’t think about me much. I spent more time with my regular school friends.
Ever since the eye doctor appointment, I’d been talking a lot about my teeth. “They hurt,” I said. “Like they’re all crammed together or something. Like they’re too crooked and they don’t fit.”
“They look fine to me,” said my dad, shrugging. “Maybe a little buckteeth, up in the front. Nothing to write home about.”
Several weeks later, when I went to the dentist for my annual checkup, I complained to her about the pain. “My teeth have been killing me for months.”
I knew I wasn’t telling the truth, but the possibility that I was on the brink of agony felt very real. In fact, when I really thought about it, I could feel a mounting, dull ache.
“When do your teeth hurt?” the dentist asked.
“All the time,” I said.
“Which tooth is hurting?”
“It’s all of them.”
“When is it the worst? Is there anything that triggers it?”
“Just all day, and during the night, too.” I thought of Rhonda, the pain she must have felt before getting proper treatment for her misaligned teeth—and the relief of being fitted for the headgear she wore each night. I wondered what she was doing right then. I wondered if she ever missed me.
After an x-ray and an exam, the dentist told me she saw no reason for my pain. “Do you have any ideas about why your teeth might be hurting you?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “I think—”
My mother sat in a chair in the corner with her arms crossed, head tilted in the way that meant she was irritated. I was afraid to say what I was about to say, but I felt it needed to be said.
“There just isn’t enough room in my mouth for my teeth, and they’re so crooked that they hurt. They’re all jammed up against each other, and I should probably get headgear, I think, because if my teeth were straight they would quit hurting.”
“Sweetheart,” said the dentist. “You don’t need headgear. And trust me—you don’t want headgear.”
During Christmas break, Ms. Price called my mom to see if I would come over to their house to see Rhonda. When my mother told me, her voice was soft and shaky. “Rhonda is in bed right now, and she has to stay there,” she said. “Ms. Price says she keeps asking for you, Sarah. But it could be upsetting to see her the way she is right now. She’s having serious problems with her heart.”
“Of course I want to go,” I said. Though I thought about Rhonda less, I still missed her.
“Honey, she’s a very sick little girl.”
“I know that.”
When my mom dropped me off, she hugged Ms. Price, and said, “I’ll just run a couple errands and be back in about 45 minutes. Does that work?” Ms. Price nodded. She looked very tired, especially around the eyes. As I walked with her toward Rhonda’s bedroom, I heard the tires of my mom’s car crunching down the gravel driveway. I felt loneliness well up my chest, like I was homesick. For the first time, I really considered what my mom had meant when she had said Rhonda was so ill. The thought that she might look or act different than before was frightening. Most of all, I was scared that she might not be happy anymore, and I wouldn’t know how to make her feel better—or how to talk to her at all.
“I like your glasses,” said Ms. Price as she walked me up the stairs.
I had grown so accustomed to wearing them that I had forgotten to take them off before I came over. Rhonda had never seen me in them, nor did she know about my quest for headgear. I wanted to turn around and run down the stairs, and out the front door.
“Are they new?” asked Ms. Price.
“Yeah.” I looked at the ground.
“You’ll get used to them,” she said. “I think they’re very stylish.”
Outside Rhonda’s closed bedroom door, Ms. Price bent down so we were eye-to-eye. “Rhonda is very weak today, but she’s so excited to see you. I need you two to have a nice relaxing time together, and she has to stay in bed. A quiet visit. Ok?”
“Great. Thank you so much, Sarah.” She smiled and opened the bedroom door. As I entered, Ms. Price walked away.
Rhonda lay in bed with her head propped up on two pillows. There was a TV on her dresser that hadn’t been there before, and she was watching cartoons. A metal tank stood beside her nightstand, with a plastic tube coming from it. It ran all the way up to Rhonda’s face and wrapped around it, with mini tubes sticking up each nostril. I couldn’t breathe right. My ears were ringing.
“Sarah!” Rhonda was grinning, but she looked sleepy at the same time. She patted the bed next to her, and moved over to make room. As I neared, I could see that her skin was grayish, and her lips looked like she was wearing lipstick—pale purple lipstick. She muted the TV. Sitting down on the edge of the mattress was the hardest thing I had ever done.
“Your glasses are really nice,” said Rhonda.
“I think they’re too big, maybe.”
“Well, I think they look neat.”
The metal tank made a hissing noise every so often, like it was releasing pressure in order to shove air into Rhonda’s head.
“Are you feeling really sick?” I asked, forcing myself to look at her eyes.
“Well, I have a heart condition.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I know you know,” she said. “Don’t heart conditions stink?”
Ever since I’d told that lie, I’d prayed that Rhonda had forgotten it. We had never spoken of it again. With horror, I wondered whether Rhonda had told her mother, and whether Ms. Price would eventually bring up the subject with my mom, who would be angry and extremely disappointed and might wish I wasn’t her daughter.
“What’s the name of your heart condition?” Rhonda asked. I was about to say that I couldn’t remember when she said, “Mine’s pulmonary… Something with pulmonary.”
I worried that her lips were getting less purple and more bluish. I told myself that I was probably just imagining it because I was so scared. “Do you like your new school?” I asked.
“It’s Ok,” said Rhonda. “My teacher is funny and really pretty. But I was absent for a bunch of weeks. I’m way behind now.”
“You’ll catch up,” I said. I noticed a vein pulsating in Rhonda’s temple. I wondered if that was normal, or if I should run and tell her mom right away. What if Rhonda died right in front of me, and I hadn’t said anything about the vein?
“Actually, I probably won’t be back in school for a while. I need an operation for my heart, but my heart is too sick for the operation. So I just have to get better enough for it, except I’m getting worse and worse and worse.” She laughed, as though she had just told a hilarious joke.
“You’ll get better,” I said.
“No—I said I’m getting worse.”
“Stop saying that. You’ll be Ok.”
“And worse and worse, times infinity!” She was laughing even harder now. The vein in her temple pulsated more strongly. Or was I just seeing things?
“Come on, Rhonda,” I said. “You won’t keep getting worse. You’ll get better.”
“Did you ever have an operation for your heart condition?”
“Yeah.” I glanced at the silent TV. A cereal commercial was on.
“Was it an open-heart surgery?”
I imagined that Ms. Price would never allow me over again, once Rhonda told her about my big lie. But the strange thing was that I didn’t care. Somehow, I already knew that it wouldn’t make any difference if I got banned from Rhonda’s house. And even though my mom would be angry and disgusted, eventually she’d forgive me. She would have to. I was her daughter.
“Yeah, I had open-heart surgery,” I said. “But it actually wasn’t so bad.”
“You really think I’ll have the operation?” Rhonda asked. “And afterwards I’ll be back to normal?”
“I know it for a fact,” I said. I took Rhonda’s hand, cool and moist, and squeezed it gently. Then I placed it on her lap and let go. “You’ll be totally healthy again, I promise—just like me.”