Fingers clenched tightly around her literary sword, knees tucked beneath her as a collapsible bench, a wave of sun-bleached, wind-wrestled hair tossed over her left shoulder, she stares at the clean asphalt as if lost in a black darkness. Pressing down with her hand, muscle memory moments from leading the surge of letters about to be scripted across the landscape of nothingness, creating something, the chalk breaks. It crumbles into five chunks of uselessness, no longer able to be grasped by those tiny fingers or wore down by the image still waiting in the dreamed drafting stage. The chalk breaks.
Her name is Zoë and she is nine-going-on-nineteen years old. She watches reruns of The Brady Bunch, has a seriously brag-worthy rock collection—brag-worthy to whomever one would gloat about rocks—plays field hockey on any surface, and specializes in homemade, authentic guacamole. A natural fascination with all things living, Zoë “releases” an ant from the confines of her house. She is a creator of moveable trinkets, bracelets, key chains and pipe cleaner identification tags. Zoë walks the block and a half home after school each day to feast on a snack menu of Doritos and roasted seaweed. If you ever carelessly forget to put the dots above the letter e at the end of her name, don’t expect a Christmas gift; her dots at the end are just as important as capitalizing her z at the beginning. A few years ago, she instituted a weekly dinner standard uncommon for that of child: whereas kids opt for meals of Moose Tracks and Superman, Zoë declared Tuesday nights strictly vegetarian. She has the coolest bike tire mudguards in the neighborhood and can hit a tetherball like a semi-pro. Zoë is the smaller packaged, more compassionate and forgiving soul of me. Zoë is my best-self soul.
I first met her in the month of September, the month when bouquets of newly sharpened pencils and Trapper Keepers are so in. Zoë had just moved to Michigan from the Chicagoland suburbs that reek of Costco shoppers and P.F. Chang eaters. She put on a brave face when her parents told her they were leaving the only home she has ever known and moving to a state shaped like a winter garment. She was pulled out of a nucleus of friends and relocated to a town of strangers. Weeks away from her eighth birthday, Zoë stood in front of me with a facial expression only to be defined by supreme disappointment. This mitten state wasn’t as cool people made it out to be and she couldn’t get a decent piece of real pizza anywhere. I assured her that things would look up if she gave us a chance. With words scratched across a used envelope, I welcomed her and told her to trust us, that we would supply here with ample tetherballs and always remember her dots above the e. Her response:
OK, I will try really hard.
Months passed before I would see Zoë again, and even this interaction was a simple wave across the competition arena as she watched her dad and I worked for her dad. The lone child of two highly intellectual parents, Zoë is the sweet crème filling of their family. Her mom, lifetime sociology academic and newly minted PhD, and her dad, highly competitive and Division I college coach, are intensely passionate people who adore their kid. Her dad’s job brought their family into my life, visits sparing and brief at the start, frequent and hours of guac and Brady laughter as time has passed. Her handwriting has improved immensely, yet her words are just as simple, just as powerful as in her first note to me. Every word matters. Every word has a purpose. And after hundreds of cards, “sisters forever” drawings, and more scribbled envelope conversations, I believe that Zoë is happy. That she did try really hard. That she’s pushed me to try really hard.
Her chalk broke, but she found a way to draw anyway.