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Enter J.

By Cindy Day

CDayFSPicThird grade. Mrs. Hayes’ class. Brimming with confidence, I bring my completed project up to the teacher. We’ve done an exercise to demonstrate alliteration and my poster says “Sophisticated Cindy.” I’m feeling good about my work until my friend turns around and asks me what “sophisticated” means. We’re standing right in front of the teacher. I have no idea. The meaning is vaguely positive, possibly sort of grown-up, but beyond that I haven’t a clue. To save face, I whisper into my friends’s ear, “It means, um, I think…,” I stall.

Mrs. Hayes kindly interrupts and explains that it means mature, refined, well-established. I’m thrilled to hear it.

The friend who called my bluff was named J. She was my best friend and was just the slightest bit wild, which was exactly why I was drawn to her. When I went to her house, her parents let us walk to the candy store on the corner by ourselves. Candy was rarely allowed in my house, so the prospect of being in a candy store ranked up there with Christmas. J. introduced me to Fun Dip – basically a bag of sugar with a sugary stick to lick, coat with sugar, and lick again. It was glorious.

While J. lived on a standard suburban street in New Jersey, I lived in a wooded, century-old gated community where the closest neighbor was two acres away. No candy stores in sight. In order to make the place look more interesting on playdates, I made the most of the scarier parts of the property – boarded up, dark bathrooms in an old indoor tennis court, falling-down horse stalls in an ancient barn and a dark, mildewed gardener’s shed. I played up the possibility that someone had forgotten to cover an old well in the woods.

There were actual dangers, though. Up at the top of the ridge behind our property, a major highway had been blasted through the rock, creating a thirty-foot cliff. We could just hear the traffic from the driveway but the worst of the noise was muffled by a stand of trees up a rock-strewn hill. I had only been up to the cliff to look at the highway once or twice with my parents. I wasn’t allowed up there on my own.

Enter J. An expert at coaxing me to try new things, she suggested we climb up a few of the rocks one day. I countered with the argument that the rocks were crawling with snakes. Everyone knew that. Undeterred, she started climbing. I stepped gingerly on one rock and then hopped to another. Dark corners just large enough to harbor garden snakes were everywhere, but since no snakes appeared, I gained confidence. We climbed and climbed. I started feeling proud of our progress. We didn’t look down — just found footing and worked our way up through the rocks and trees. And then, we were past the last of the rocks.

I turned around and panicked. There was no way we could get back down safely. We were stuck.

J. suggested walking farther — something I never would have considered had I been alone. We walked up to the fence that lined the cliff above the highway and followed it for a while. I’m not sure what we had in mind, but we gradually came out of the woods and onto a street I had never seen before. A street lined with houses. Llewellyn Park, where I lived, didn’t have anything like that for miles. How had we gotten out of the Park and into suburbia? How far had we walked? More panic set in.

We held a conference. Should we knock on someone’s door? Should we ask someone to call the police for us? We were totally lost. The thought of turning around and going back seemed impossible. The rocky hill, which probably intimidated not a single child of previous generations in the Park — was terrifying to us. We were children of the eighties; wary of kidnappers, over-scheduled with after-school activities, and only marginally familiar with the natural landscape outside our doors.

I noticed that the mailbox nearest to us had an “M.D.” on it. A doctor seemed less likely to be a kidnapper. I lived up to my “sophisticated Cindy” title and made an executive decision. We would knock on the door, explain that we were lost, and have them call the police. J. agreed. We walked up the little pathway and knocked. A woman answered. “Can I help you?” she asked. I explained our situation. The woman gave us a look. Instead of calling the police, she suggested simply giving us a ride home. Never in a million years would I have thought of that. Our eight-year-old knowledge told us to avoid strangers and find a policeman – it didn’t extend to getting rides home from nice ladies in Twilight-Zone-style neighborhoods.

In the end, we got into a complete stranger’s car and drove back down the highway, through the Llewellyn Park gate, and back up through the park. I was thrilled to see our house through the trees.

As we approached the bottom of our driveway, J. suddenly said, “This is fine!” “Are you sure you don’t want a ride up to the house?” the woman asked. I started to say yes, but J. insisted we get out. I imagined she had done something similar before to less-than-stellar reviews by her parents. Maybe she knew my parents would flip out (which they did). The driver must have smiled to herself at our little disagreement, but she let us out. On the way up to the house, we put our heads together and talked quietly about what we’d say.

“You cannot tell your mom about this,” J. insisted, urgently.

“Okay.” I said. “We’ll say we were out for a walk.”

“You can’t tell her the truth,” she said. “We’ll get in trouble.”

“Okay.”

I still remember opening the front door and looking at my mother. I hadn’t planned on telling her anything, and I could see that she wasn’t worried. We could have gotten away with it. But then I looked her in the eye. I’ve always been the type of kid that told her mother everything.

“You wouldn’t believe what just happened!” I said, and I could feel J. poking me. But the whole story came out — and man, oh, man were we in trouble. The trusting look from my mom turned into a stern one, and then a furious one. I could feel J.’s “I told you so” look, but I was powerless against my mother’s psychology. We were probably grounded or something — I’m not sure what the punishment was.

J. moved away a few weeks after that. I was devastated — I loved having a best friend, and especially loved having a friend that broke the rules. When I accidentally stole someone’s pencil sharpener later that year and didn’t return it, I felt awful for weeks. If J. had been around, I probably would have felt a little less lost.

Cindy Day lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and five-year-old son, and works in digital product management. She lets her son eat far too much candy. You can find her on twitter and her blog.

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