Hop (back in time)
I knelt on our two-step concrete porch, readjusting my velcro sketchers as I did every morning. The velcro was never quite tight enough, and this morning I could not risk a sneaker flying off. I stood up, smoothing out the cotton flower dress that Mama had picked out for me to wear. As I was straightening it, I felt a worm of guilt squirm through my stomach. Mama never liked when I played with the Luna boys. Troublemakers, she called them. Fun, I called them.
“Hey, Maria, are you ready or what?” Max Luna jeered from the bus stop, his cat-like grin taunting me. He stood at the end of the lane by the bus stop with his older brother Josh. The pair stared at me down as I re-braided my hair and adjusted the straps on my ladybug backpack.
At that moment, Dad came out of our front door and whispered in my ear, “You got this, partner.” I grinned, revealing the gap from my missing front tooth.
“Thanks Dad,” I said, slapping his hand. Dad had a different approach to this little game then Mama did. He didn’t mind me playing with Josh and Max, a good dose of tough love, he called them. At the time I had no idea what this meant. The thought that love could ever be tough confused me. But I loved that Dad encouraged the game, the fun. I stepped forward and took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet traces of spring that our magnolia tree was offering to the world. With a stiff nod to the Luna brothers, I began the obstacle course.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” they chanted. My eyebrows furrowed in concentration as I leapt over the plethora of cracks on the cement, my light-up sketchers emitting bursts of pink and blue as I pounded to the ground, leaping from one corner of the sidewalk to the next. My scrawny legs quivered, threatening to give out and teeter onto the nearest crack, but I knew Dad was watching, so I persevered. When I made it through the course, my braids were slightly undone, my dress wrinkled, but my smile was perfectly intact.
Max and Josh both gave me high fives. It was clear that I had earned their approval, at least until tomorrow. As the yellow bus screeched to a stop I turned to look back to see Dad giving me two thumbs up. I gave two back, baring my toothless grin for the world to see. Even though I was a good three inches shorter than Max and at least five inches smaller than Josh, I stood tall next to the Luna brothers. I had won their game. I hopped on Bus 97, slid into my usual seat, and as I looked out the window, I was ready to take on the world.
Skip (ahead a decade)
“Now this; this might just be the best view in the entire world,” Arten stated, slightly out of breath from the paper thin air. I looked out from the Swiss Alp, and knew he was right. If there was a sight everyone should see, this was it.
“You do not have to continue the climb if you do not want to,” Arten said, the combination of his breathlessness and Greek accent making him almost impossible to comprehend. I turned and looked at my friends, our eyes all widening in shock. The train, or as I referred to it, the steel miracle, had taken us up to the mountain. I was not mentally prepared to climb, and neither was my footwear. I looked down at my battered Steve Madden combat boots, silently scolding myself. Why the fuck would I choose to wear these shoes to the Swiss Alps? I stared off at the mountain, suddenly transfixed in the bluish-grey rock that composed the landscape. Waves of adrenaline suddenly blazed through my bones and I knew in that moment that I would climb.
“We have to do it,” I said to my two friends, Lauren and Megan. Megan shook her head, her face going, if possible, even paler. But Lauren grinned, her eyes flashing with the challenge.
“Oh, hell yeah. Your shoes up for it Maria?” Lauren laughed — her cackle laugh — and I broke into a smile.
“Didn’t you hear? Old combat boots have the best traction.” My sarcasm got lost in the burst of wind. My hair whipped around my face, but the burn of adrenaline was still firing up my muscles. Arten had already begun climbing with a few other students, but I had stayed behind for a moment, calculating my next move. The only way I was going to be able to do this was to charge forward, get a running head start, and then cling to the rock. So that’s exactly what I did.
“Maria, are you part monkey?” Lauren said, from a few feet behind me, I giggled to myself as I continued to climb, wedging my feet into the landscape in attempt to secure my footing. About halfway up the slope my foot slipped on a crack of rock that was covered in ice, and I slid back. My scream echoed through the wind as my hands flew, grasping for earth to cling to.
I angled my foot sideways to stop myself from falling back any further. I took a deep breath, grateful to have stopped falling. Logically, I knew I wasn’t in too much danger; there was a barrier that would have prevented me from falling off the edge, and that’s why people were allowed to openly climb this part of the Alp. But in that moment…I exhaled, relieved it hadn’t gotten to that point.
I looked back at the crack that caused my downfall, thinking back to the days where I had so carefully avoided them on the cement. I glared at the broken rock and breathed in the mountain air, fueling my muscles. If I could teeter through the cracks once, I could do it again. With that mentality I climbed, and did not stop until I reached the top.
Jump (to the present)
I heard a pounding on a glass window before I saw her. I turned my head in the parking lot to see my sister hitting the window with her fists, her face cracking open into a smile so wide, her face threatened to split open. Tears tingled behind my eyelids as I mirrored her face. When I had seen her last the air was warm, flowers had been in full bloom, and I was a year younger.
Now the air was crisp, and clean, and I was bundled up in layers of thick wool socks and cable knit sweaters. But in that moment, the air no longer felt cold. I jumped up and down as car slowed to a stop. My Dad was honking the car horn to excess, making me laugh and cry all at once. My sister flew out of the door and ran at me, nearly knocking me over as she embraced me.
“Happy birthday, Maria,” Katie said, out of breath from the quick exit. Her smile was still too big, but the crack in her face made me feel complete.
“Hi,” I half laughed, half sobbed. It was then that I truly looked at her. Her laugh lines were more prominent, and her style had evolved. Foreign cottons draped over her body, her fingers were cluttered with rings, but I was most intrigued by her patterned elephant pants which flowed, then cinched at the bottom.
“They’re all the rage in Turkey right now,” Katie said with a shrug, as if it was no big deal that she had spent the last seven months exploring Europe.
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said with an eye roll, laughing. Katie squeezed my hand as I scooched into the back seat of the car. Immediately my family started singing happy birthday to me, and to their joy, my pale face transitioned into a deep scarlet.
Dad started driving again, and we were off to celebrate at a restaurant a few towns over. Katie began chatting away about her European adventures, the students she had worked with, the people she had met, the countries she had visited. I stared at her, soaking in her words, slightly distracted as I tried to pinpoint what exactly was bothering me.
It was her smile. I had mentally compared it to a crack in her face. Up until that moment, I had always registered cracks as an example of physical erosion that tied into games and challenges. Yet, when I saw the smile on her face, I realized that all of the tears, all of the cracks, had somehow made me whole.
Maria Smith is an English/Communication major at SUNY Geneseo. The inspiration for this piece came from walking around campus and tripping over a crack on the pavement.