Birdie lived across the street from me, and she was a year younger, so of course I couldn’t like her. Plus, her brother was in my grade and a boy. And our angry fathers did not like each other. So it was easy to decide not to like this girl with sleek black hair and bright black eyes.
One fall day many children were on our tree lawn, jumping into an enormous pile of leaves. I always expected the landing to be soft, but it was like jumping into messy air. Still, the euphoria of shrieking children, a crowd at our house, scattering and remaking the pile, made me giddy.
I was the youngest, as usual, and trying to keep up. I threw myself into the pile, trying to find the deepest part, then ran out, sweaty and panting, pushing my staticky hair out of my eyes, feeling the leaf shreds stuck there.
Suddenly things quieted down. An older child, or perhaps an adult, led Birdie across the street to have her turn in the pile. She looked so small, smaller than me. Her hair looked freshly washed and combed, shining black. She looked eager and shy at the same time. Everyone stopped hurling themselves into the pile so she could take a turn.
She stood, and considered. I got the feeling it was the first time she had ever jumped in leaves. She was four, not even in school yet. She wore a thick sweater, buttoned to her neck, and looked overdressed. Smiling, she approached the pile, stood at the edge, then knelt into it with a sense of purpose. A leaf swooped up into her neat straight hair. She felt everyone watching her, seemed to enjoy the moment, and stood up.
The chaos of leaf jumping did not resume. Birdie was walked back to her house, and the rest of the kids dispersed. The pile looked flat and uninviting.
But I had seen Birdie differently. I saw the small joy she took at kneeling carefully in the leaves, all eyes on her. I saw her outside the boxes I had put her in: sister of icky boy in my class, younger than me and therefore inferior, daughter of another angry man. I saw another little girl.
We teased and taunted each other over the years in front of others, slipping back into our expected rivalry, upper grade versus lower grade. We never acknowledged each other on our street. But then in high school, through a mutual friend, we became friends at last. I went into the house I had lived across from for over ten years for the first time. I admired her astonishing artwork, and we confided in each other about friends and boys. For one year, we had a connection, in the same orbit of friends and theatre people.
If I ever told her about what I saw in her as the little girl in the leaf pile, I’m sure she just scoffed. But that was a moment, outside of rivalry. Just two little girls, the youngest of the crowd, in a scatter of leaves.