He was sitting under the round table in the lobby, mostly hidden behind the artfully draped yellow table cloth, eating crayons and smearing his teeth waxy blue in the process. Elasticized purple pants and a yellow turtleneck, and crowning it all, a red plastic fireman's helmet with a wide brim. He wore that helmet everywhere, I learned later. Without it, his head seemed small, his hair permanently flattened. I ducked under the tablecloth and took a red crayon from the pack at his side, biting into it slowly and ignoring the foul taste.
"Do you like Piglet?" My usual icebreaker, as well as a judge of his character. I couldn't be friends with someone who didn't like Piglet. I spent recesses under a slide with my best friend Molly, talking about Piglet and playing mommies. Some days we'd throw small logs over the fence at the end of the plaground and watch them roll down to the road, where disgruntled parents would have to stop their cars and roll them off the pavement before driving up to Acorn Hill Preschool to pick up their kids.
"I want to be a firefighter," he answered seriously. No response to the Piglet question, but I could take a hint. Maybe it was okay if we liked different things. "Someday I'm gonna marry my mom and my dad can be our kid and I'm gonna put out fires and be Paul Revere on weekends."
"Cool," I answered, keeping my dreams of being a mermaid and a prince and designing dresses on the side to myself. There would be time for that later, I realized. Because this boy, this strange boy in girly clothes and that damn fireman's helmet, would be my friend. I liked his curly hair and the mole next to his mouth and the blue wax on his lips and how the sun filtering through the tablecloth made his eyelashes cast long shadows on his cheeks. I had never seen such a beautiful boy; I hadn't even realized that boys could be beautiful. It occurred to me suddenly that maybe he could be my princess.
"I'm Cyndi," I said, returning the red crayon to its box and getting to my feet but ducking my shoulders slightly so that I could still fit under the table.
"Christopher," he said, and I smiled at him as Mrs. Brown called us to the tables for snack.
Acorn Hill, or Pegan Preschool as I now think of it, was a Waldorf kindergarten nestled in a rare patch of trees in the heart of Silver Spring. The teachers had names like "Mrs. Hill" and "Mrs. River" and wore long flowing dresses in earth tones. The walls of the classrooms were studded with large sparkling windows, and the space was relatively empty save for several baskets of sticks and brightly colored cloths and tufts of wool stacked in the corner. Everything was wood or iron or cloth; the only plastic that the building held was in the form of smoke detectors, which had been installed in the ceiling corners as though they had been sent there after some misdemeanor. Snacks consisted of wild rice and soy sauce, or bread that we kids would make ourselves, kneading the dough between our pudgy fingers after watching the yeast babies swarm up to the surface of the batter. The water, served in old Ball jars, was warm and tasted vaguely of vinegar and beeswax. The teachers bustled about with their knitting and conversed among themselves about Jupiter's cycles and the apocalypse and the gnomes that they had sighted in their herb gardens over the weekend.
Looking back on my preschool days now, I find that my memories of Christopher and kindergarten are impossible to separate; perhaps it's because after that first meeting we were, ourselves, veritably inseparable. We would play house together, swing together, share blankets during naptime. He would come over to my house after school let out and we would pretend; lie on our backs on the concrete and take turns being pirates, or tigers, or knights. We set up a hospital in his basement for wounded stuffed animals and wasted eight packs of band-aids attempting to repair unraveled ears and the tufts of stuffing that poked through. We were going to be married, I decided, and we drew the wedding on the concrete surface of my driveway, pulling the colors from a box of chalk: me in a purple dress and him resplendent in a blue one because "pink was a girl's color". A few days later, we danced naked in his closet. Those days it didn't matter who saw what; we looked out of curiosity, not lust. Maybe jealousy. I think we both would've been happy to swap, like we did with our crackers at snack-time or our favorite shoes.
We kissed one day, on the playground. It sounds cliché now, but then, it was all excitement, two little kids trying to grow up too fast. I remember everything: the blue dress wrinkled around my stomach, the pores of one of his sneakers clogged with sand, the Orioles hat that I had ripped from his head and held tauntingly above mine. I think I made him cry. He cried after the kiss, I remember that. Looking back, I don't think he wanted to, not really. Later, I learned that Mrs. Brown had been watching and told the other teachers. They whispered about me and mused about my future. I would be a slut, was the consensus, although they said "fast woman" instead. That's what Mrs. Brown said to my mother; "keep an eye on Cyndi, she's been acting inappropriately and there's been some concern that she'll grow up to be a fast woman." I didn't know any of this at the time, of course, but I did notice a shift in behavior from my parents and Christopher's. My mother told me to ease up, that I should keep being myself but that maybe I should stop spending so much time with Christopher. It wasn't healthy for either of us to be so close, she said. Christopher needed to make some friends like him. His mom was worried about how he'd been acting lately. He was having trouble fitting in with the other boys.
So I started driving home with Molly after school again, where we'd spend centuries fitting high heels onto Barbie's perpetually arched feet and playing princesses and mommies. I still got to see Christopher sometimes, but he had new friends too – boys, who played war at recess and flicked their rice at each other when our teacher's weren't looking. The last time I saw Christopher we were both seven and had graduated kindergarten, moved on to the big kid world of reading and subtraction. My parents had just ordered a new dishwasher and refrigerator, and the boxes were the perfect size for fort building. We lay together, enclosed by the cardboard sides, whispering about dragons. He looked different, older; he was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt and walked differently, shuffled. And even though we were lying only a few inches apart, touching at the elbows, I realized suddenly that we didn't belong in the same box anymore. There was no more room for me. My princess had been locked up in her tower and her hair had been chopped off, and suddenly things were different and even though we were only seven, we had grown up.