It all started with that invitation. It littered the hallways, covered the walls, was passed around hundreds of hands and took over people's conversations in a matter of minutes. A classmate handed me a spare copy, and the last-minute invitation had read in scrawled letters, "Party at Mike's place! Tonight at around eight o' clock. Bring friends, your wild side, and lots of booze!" I had never gone to a single party since freshman year because of all the typical rumors I always heard the next day: it went perfectly fine until people got drunk, the volume was turned up, lamps were broken, neighbors complained, the police showed up, and the parents left the opera an hour early because they got bored. And although it was already confirmed by Mike himself that his parents were at a conference in Maui for the entire week, I questioned whether removing that one factor from the entire list of possible problems was worth going to a party where it was almost confirmed that I would do something I would regret. Then again, almost everyone in the entire high school was going to show up; why should I be the odd one who randomly decides not to go to what could possibly be the biggest party of the year?
For the entire day, the only thought that passed through my mind was Mike's last minute party. I couldn't officially make up my mind until late that afternoon, while taking a quick walk through my neighborhood. I eventually crumpled the paper up and tossed it onto the street; I was not going to be spending my Friday evening with a bunch of rowdy, intoxicated teenagers, and instead decided to walk the five blocks to the neighborhood playground, where I had not been for a few weeks or so.
It was only around seven o' clock when I got there, but it was already completely empty. It must not have been for very long, because a few of the swings were still gently swaying. I was incredibly excited to have the entire playground to myself for the very first time; I could hang upside down on the monkey bars, or swing as high as I possibly could, or push my way down the slides as many times and as long as I wanted to without small eight and nine year olds and their parents staring at me strangely, wondering why in the world a sixteen year old girl would decide to spend her free time acting silly in a playground, rather than going to the mall or a party with friends. Of course, my friends would find me, as usual, a very awkward and introverted person for deciding not to go to Mike's party, and even more so if they found out about my occasional visits to the park, but I just wasn't like my friends; I felt like a warm, quiet evening would be better spent just by being a kid again for a few hours, just like all those other eight and nine year olds.
Though I did plan on running immediately to the empty swings first, I walked instead to the large, looming tree in the very center of the park, its branches outstretched and welcoming, and climbed up its tall trunk, eventually settling myself down on one of the higher branches. Its pink flowers were still in full bloom, slowly drifting down around me and gently landing on the soil below. The warm breeze tickled my nose, and the sound of a bird's cheerful song brought an air of happiness, of peace.
As I sat in the tree, catching a few of the soft petals that fell, I suddenly pictured my best friend sitting on the branch next to me, picking the biggest flower from its branch and adjusting it in her hair. I braided my hair into two long pigtails and delicately placed a flower on both ends. She complimented me, and we laughed as we began to litter our hair with hundreds of flower petals. Nearby, as the old swings swayed back and forth with the wind, I pictured Mike, his friend Bryan, and a few other boys yelling and laughing as they each tried to swing higher than the others, and when they got bored, tried to see how high they could go before they jumped off. The tinkling, inviting sound of an ice cream truck a few blocks away reminded me of summer days past when my friend Josh and I used to sprint from the bicycle path to the ice cream truck, just so we could be the first people to buy chocolate ice cream cones, and when I didn't have any money, and even when I had plenty to spare, he would always pull out an extra three dollars and fifty cents from his pocket just for me and smile, as if asking, "Do you like me now?"
It was while I saw all of my memories throughout the vast playground, as the beautiful colors of the sunset slowly disappeared, when two violent, black-tipped hands shoved me out of the tree and discovered my secret. "Kyra! What the heck are you doing here?" a familiar voice rudely asked as I slowly picked myself up off the ground and dusted myself off. Standing a few feet away from me was my best friend, Sarah. I didn't realize until that very moment how much Sarah had changed over the past year; while I remembered her with her old attire of baggy jeans and a t-shirt, she had replaced it with an incredibly short skirt and a tight crop top. Her hair, which used to be blonde and very long, was cut short and dyed a sickening bright red with streaks of purple. A cigarette hung loosely from her fingertips, and the other hand carried a half empty bottle of vodka. She glared at me through green eyes surrounded by blue eyeliner and bright green eye shadow, but soon turned her gaze to a small group of boys walking past the park, staring and whistling at her. She smiled, satisfied with the attention she was getting, and after a few seconds, turned back to me. "What are you doing here?" she spat again.
I shrugged my shoulders and stared down at my sneakers, which looked completely grubby next to Sarah's stilettos. "I don't know," I replied. "I just wanted to relax for a few hours, that's all."
Sarah laughed and lightly shoved me again. "It's a Friday night and you decide to relax by going to the park? The playground, of all places! What are you, five?" Her smile suddenly disappeared as she realized why my being at the park was such a problem; she glanced down at my clothes—a simple t-shirt and sweatpants—and asked, "You didn't forget about Mike's party, did you?" I remembered how much I had thought about going to the party, about how people would think of me, yet I proudly threw the destroyed invitation onto the street. As I felt myself crumbling under Sarah's glaring eyes, I realized that my decision might not have been the best idea.
Before I could reply, Sarah grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the playground. "I don't understand how you can be so stupid sometimes!" she cried as her nails ferociously dug into my skin. "This is the biggest party of the year, and you decide to go to some stupid playground instead? But, whatever. You're going now, got it? I've got an extra outfit in the back of the car that you can change into."
I tore my hand away from her, staring in disbelief. "Sarah, this isn't just some random park; we used to come here all the time until high school started. Don't you remember? We used to have so much fun…" Tears began to form in my eyes, and I tried my best to blink them away.
Sarah, however, didn't even notice. She took a puff of her cigarette and replied, "Sure, yeah. I remember this place." She glanced around the playground for a few seconds before pointing at the swings and saying, "I got my first smoke over there, at the fence behind the swings. And my first beer underneath that pink tree." Sarah smiled. "Yeah, those were some pretty good times." She turned back towards me and asked, "Are you coming or what?"
I felt completely betrayed as I allowed Sarah to drag me back to the smoke-filled car, as I allowed her to fit me in the shortest, most revealing dress I had ever seen, as I allowed my tears to fall as I looked at myself in the car mirror. I told her I didn't want to be seen this way, but she waved me off as she took a large gulp of her vodka and grabbed the wheel, even though she was not old enough to drive legally, or even to drink legally. Mike's friend Bryan was sitting in the back seat and complimented me on the dress with a groggy voice, as if he were on drugs, and my friend Josh said not to worry about guys trying to look at me, because he would take care of them for me; as he said this, he pulled out a gun from his pocket and grinned.
Nowadays, I don't go to the playground as often as I used to, but when I do decide to go, I just can't look at it the same way. When I do go, I see Sarah laughing maniacally as she dangles from the branches of our tree, holding a bottle of liquor; I see Mike, Bryan, and their friends throwing themselves from the highest point of the swing and falling flat on their faces because they're high; I see Josh testing out his new gun on the ice cream man because he ran out of chocolate ice cream that day and throwing me an evil grin as if to say, "Do you like me now?" The large tree still stands in the very middle of the playground, but its bright pink flowers seem to wither and die earlier each year, becoming nothing but bits and pieces of flower petals scattered on the brown, muddy soil.
But at least I've moved on, at least I'm not a little kid anymore; at least it's all for the better…