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INEZ, A TENNIS BALL, AND CHALK

Write about a toy or game you played with as a child, revealing something important about your experience. (The New York Times Book Review, June 16, 2013 “Visible Men” p.34)

The above, an exercise that author and M.I.T. professor, Helen Elaine Lee, gives to the Massachusetts prison inmates she meets with every few months, got me thinking about what I played with Inez, my first best friend.

I met Inez the first hour of the first day of first grade. Her father, my family’s dentist, had a picture of her in his office. When I told him Mrs. Miller was going to be my teacher, he said that Inez would be in my class. Walking into the classroom later than I did, she was more adorable and more smiley than her picture. When she sat down across the aisle from me, I whispered that I “went” to her father. At recess forty five minutes later, I asked if she wanted to be my partner. She did.

I reached for her hand. “Well then, let’s go.”

We went. To recess and everywhere else together for many years. We walked to and from school, inventing games, going backwards even in the snow. After school and on weekends, we played at each other’s houses, talked on the phone in between, and became known by our classmates as “the twins” because we were inseparable and dressed alike. Even though we had the same sailor blouses, several of the same sweaters, and in fourth grade, the same white fake leather—actually plastic—jackets, I knew we weren’t exactly alike. Inez was so cute. Grown-ups, then boys were constantly saying so. Until boys entered the picture(Inez’s picture), we had a hoot together, finding the same things–everything–from making monkey faces when we stuffed orange quarters in our mouths, to putting one over on her grandmother when she babysat, to her brother’s seriousness when he bullied us, and to all the adults we mimicked–funny. Oh how we laughed!

Outside we amused ourselves with a tennis ball, playing 7-up against Inez’s house–it was brick, ours was not–and “A my name is Alice.” Or hopscotch and another sidewalk game that required hopping from square to square. We made the squares with chalk. I preferred playing at her house. Ice cream sandwiches were always in the freezer and fresh fruit was in the fridge. At my house, we played school at a long, pine table in the attic and dress ups with the scarves, hats, blouses, shawls, and skirts we pulled out of boxes in the walk-in closet. We became all sorts of characters, inventing situations, even little plays.

“You were the one with the ideas,” Inez said recently.

I had to be. She was the one with the looks.

Whatever. We fit. We were game for anything.

My Portland book signing 1995

At nine, after going to a huge charity carnival at Crystal Beach, I suggested we have our own charity carnival. At her house. We got all the older neighborhood kids to be in charge of food and game booths. Inez’s grandmother—Noni Colman—was a gypsy fortune-teller, wearing a colorful scarf around her head, a long skirt, dangling earrings, and tons of rouge on her cheeks, which Inez and I applied and reapplied throughout the day. We sat her at a table in the screened-in, back porch. For a dime a fortune, the adults and children on North Drive and Starin Avenue lined up to have Noni Colman see into their futures with palm readings and cards. She took in almost as much as the entertainment: Inez and me.

In Inez’s driveway, in our black toreador pants and identical white plastic jackets, we sang “Side by Side.” We had rehearsed with steps and hand movements for weeks. Everyone at the carnival gathered, paying the dime admission. We attracted quite a crowd. Singing as “the twins,” counting our many dollars in dimes afterwards, and donating all the money we made at our carnival made us giddy for weeks.

Grandmothers now, we live on different coasts, remain very much in touch, and plan to see each other in October.

Inez came to New York for the 50th birthday party of another friend. We stayed up all night, talking and laughing. The party was at an uptown restaurant. It was December and it had just snowed. For several blocks along Park Avenue, we walked backwards in the snow.

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