Sometimes I’d go out to Freedom Lake and sit below the weeping willow tree that stretches its hunched body almost to the edge of the water. I’d stand with my back against its trunk and let its droopy leaves hang all around me. My mother always warned me not to go into the water. She said there were leaches and snakes and crawly things I couldn’t see that would get hold of me if I went in. So the willow tree was my safe place.
It was the summer after 4th grade and a time when kids could go out to play unsupervised. Usually no one got hurt, but when they did it could be fixed with Neosporin and a Band-Aid. I had just finished my lunch, a ham and cheese sandwich with chips of course, and went running outside. I heard the screen door slam as I ran toward my neighbor’s house. “Can Obi come out and play?”
Obi, whose real name was Obadiah, was a nine year old skinny white kid with a bowl cut and thin rimmed eye glasses. He wore polo T-shirts and khaki shorts, a stark contrast to my faded jean shorts, Hanes white tees, long brown braids and brown skin that was sure to get browner before the summer ended. I didn’t care about our differences, he was my best friend and to me we were the same.
Countless times we’d sit below the weeping willow tree reading comic books, playing cards, and fantasizing about what 5th grade would be like. On this particular hot summer day, we fantasized about what it would be like to jump into Freedom Lake. I talked about how cool it would be to dive in and swim from end to end, but on the inside my heart was pounding with fear. My mom’s words echoed in my head and I felt guilty for even thinking about it.
Obi, however, was guilt free and ambitious. He really wanted to jump in. He took of his shirt and shoes and ran to the edge of the lake. A mad rush came over me and I thought for sure my heart would thump right out of my chest. In what felt to be an outer body experience, I took off my shoes and went running and stood at the edge with Obi. We looked at each other with pride and dove into Freedom.
When our heads bobbed up out of the water, I looked around and waited anxiously for the leaches and snakes and crawly things. They never came. All I felt was a sudden stream of water hit my skin as Obi splashed me. As we laughed at our own fears and felt the surprising security of the water, Timothy Johnson from down the street emerged like an ominous creature. You know that sinking feeling you get in your belly when your dad drives down a short hill? He used his worn boots to kick dirt off the dock. The grainy bits and pieces rained down on me like shrapnel and Obi got caught in the crossfire. The soft brown blended shamefully into my dark brown braids and contrasted harshly with Obi’s pale white skin.
I didn’t care about our differences, he was my best friend, but today under the assault of Timothy Johnson I realized we were not the same. That night we walked home side by side in silence. As we got close to my house, Obi sliced through the awkward, “I guess our parents were right.”
“About what?” I asked.
“There was a snake at the lake,” Obi said eyes glued to his unlaced shoes. Then he looked up as though he’d had an epiphany. “I bet when we grow up we’ll become snake slayers. Then no one will ever have dirt kicked in their hair ever again.”
“Yeah,” I said, suddenly energized. “Then they’ll write comic books about us.”