The Summer of Krista Mendez

*Names and parts of events have been changed and modified to protect the true identities of real people.

Her skin is creamy, sun-browned and sprinkled with distinctly shaped moles, one of which is right above her upper lip. She is dark-haired and dark-eyed, except for the wisps of baby hair at her temples. This summer is the summer of Krista Mendez doing cartwheels and back handsprings in the grass.

I'm 14 at my uncle's summer home, posing with my two cousins, Josh and Jason, crossing my eyes at the camera. "Don't do that," my Uncle Doug says, "or your face will stay that way." I cross my eyes harder. Josh and Jason, two and three years younger than me, lean in and do the same. Uncle Doug takes the picture. There's a soft snap and my eyes go back to normal.

So do Josh's.

But, Jason's...don't.

His right eye straightens; his left eye wedges against the bridge of his nose. A couple days pass and after watching my cousin try to straighten his eye in the mirror, my Aunt and Uncle decide to take him to an optometrist. Strabismus. It's an imbalance of the muscles in the eye. We wait for hours in a building of flesh-colored walls and freckled marble floors to hear from the guy in the lab coat that the eye will fix itself, that the muscles will grow straight, that the eye will strengthen, but by mid-summer, I watch Jason struggle to straighten his left eye enough to know it's probably stuck that way. 

The summers I spend in the neighborhood feel backward. You have to have an imagination. You have to make shit up.

We string a garden hose between two trees; it's a volleyball net. We find four or five flat miniature basketballs in the garage; we play dodge ball. 

Behind Uncle Doug and Aunt Carol's house is a patchy field of woods and vein-like creeks, that, if you traverse the stony bottom and white trickle of the creek bed, the other side opens to a round, wide hollow. The sun shines on the hollow, illuminates the open space between trees -- makes it feel like a platform you're standing on, like an island of sunshine in the midst of a forest of darkness. Jason spends a lot of time back there after the eye thing -- no one knows why. Really, no one is concerned. Kitty-corner to our house is Krista Mendez's house and Josh and I spend most of our time pretending to play one on one volleyball in the front yard so that we can watch her dark, satiny hair flip and flop around in a pony tail as she plants her hands in the fresh cut grass and gracefully lands handspring after handspring on uneven ground. Sometimes she catches us looking at her. And when she turns around, in that moment right before we lose sight of her face, her eyebrows raise and she smiles. 

In August everyone comes to Uncle Doug and Aunt Carol's end-of-the-summer neighborhood cookout. It's a big deal. The whole neighborhood is invited. Uncle Doug builds an arched bridge across the creek so people can enter the hollow without getting their shoes wet. He also sets up an archery target at the tree line of the hollow, one with a big black bullseye. Aunt Carol spends hours and hours in the kitchen, talking on the phone and organizing recipes for casseroles and finger sandwiches. People assemble in the yard. They sit on the porch and play guitar. They share stories in the buffet line, laugh and exchange smiles. 

Jason and Aunt Carol get in a fight that morning. Jason refuses to wear the glasses the optometrist prescribes for him; he insists on wearing an eye patch. 

The optometrist gives him eye patch, cover his good eye in order to force him to use the other. He has exercises he must perform every night: before bed he puts the patch on, takes a bar of soap and marks three Xs on the mirror, rolls his eye in the socket, goes from X to X. I walk by the bathroom one night and without thinking, I glance in. I see the eye rolling around, the white-yellow mapped by little rivered veins. His eye stops, like he's holding it there, but not of his own will. It's looking at me from the mirror. 

All day at the cookout Jason struggles with the smallest of tasks. At the buffet he holds his paper plate out, misses it, scoops chicken salad into the grass. After three scoops pile white and wet at his feet, Aunt Carol tries to help him, but he refuses her help. He drops the oversized spoon in the chicken salad and smacks her on the wrist. Aunt Carol goes inside. When she returns, Josh is with her. He has on an eye patch, too. She's dragging him by his elbow.

"Now, young man, you have nothing to be embarrassed of," Aunt Carol says. 

Almost everyone witnesses it, even Krista, and everyone turns to look at Jason. He must feel them looking at him because he turns around, tilts his head to the side and eyes them back; the one eye round and big as if to disapprove, if not with a penetrating stare, with something else, a look of contempt, perhaps, directed toward each person who had turned to look at him. It seems almost out of embarrassment, one by one, the adults walk away, migrate to the open hollow across the creek where Uncle Doug and his neighbor, Edward Seeber, are drinking Jack Daniels and shooting a bow and arrow.

The crowd winces and moans when Edward Seeber shoots an apple off the head of Uncle Doug. After this happens Jason's eye gets big and open and the there's a strange look on his face. Later, as the party moves inside, I hear Aunt Carol and Uncle Doug arguing about how the arrow could have killed him, or at least claimed an eye. The voices move through the wall. Jason sits at the kitchen table, stares into a bowl of apples. 

Meanwhile, Josh and I have our faces pressed to the window. It's Krista Mendez jumping on her trampoline. Josh takes his face from the window and a wet pattern appears then dries on the pane. He races into the backyard. I pause for a moment and look at Jason. Jason snatches an apple from the bowl, leaves the screen door clapping against the door facing. 

I follow wondering if Josh is actually going to talk to her, going to say something this time. 

The evening begins to change colors; it's not dark yet, but the sun is falling on the horizon. Everything is light blue, everything. Plastic wrappers and beer bottles and paper plates lay scattered in the yard. I feel something squoosh under my right foot and I look down at a hill of chicken salad, soft around my shoe. I remove my foot and drag it across the grass. At this point, Josh and Jason are two shadows circling Krista's trampoline. I hear Krista laugh, so I walk a little faster to hear what's happening. 

"You can't," Josh says. 

"Can so!" Jason says, running circles around the trampoline. Neither of them seems to be talking to each other, Krista is their audience. 

"Cannot!" Josh says again, "You have never even shot a bow and arrow!" He's still wearing the patch on his eye. He moves the patch to his forehead. 

"Yes, huh. Dad showed me." 

"Oh, yeah," Josh says, snatching the apple out of Jason's hand, "Well, shoot this apple off my head then." Jason's shorter arms reach and reach for the apple, but Josh won't let him have it. 

"OK, I will," Jason says. "I'll get Dad's bow out of the garage." 

"What makes you think I'm going to let you shoot an apple off my head?! You can't even shoot a bow and arrow!" Josh says. He looks at Krista as if he has outwitted his younger brother, with an expression of pain and bewilderment at Jason's proposal, like maybe he just bit into a lemon. 

"Because," Jason says, crossing his arms, "if you don't ... she'll think you're scared, and I'll be right!" Krista's white teeth put off a brilliant smile. She likes that they are arguing over her, well, at least Josh is. Josh takes the smile to mean something else, though; that Jason is right. 

"OK, whatever. Get the bow." 

When Jason leaves, Josh and I just stand there, silent. Krista looks bored. I guess Jason was the only one brave enough to talk, but Josh isn't going to let him do all the talking. After a full minute or so of silence, Krista gets up and starts jumping on the trampoline again. I look at Josh. I can't tell for sure, because it's dark, but he looks a little scared. 

"What are you doing?" I ask, my hand covering my mouth. For a moment, the jumping on the trampoline slows and I look off in the distance like I hadn't said anything. The jumping picks up again. Josh shrugs his shoulders, holding the apple. 

"He can't reach the bow. Dad puts it high on the top shelf. When he comes back, I'm going to take a big bite out of this apple right in front of him." 

It's about that time that Jason comes running around the corner of the house. He has a bow and a satchel of arrows looped over his shoulder -- a strange mix of pirate and Robin Hood. I look at Josh and say, "Man, that isn't even his good eye." 

Krista hops off the trampoline. She's smiling again and it's hard for Josh to say anything, to stop this before it goes too far. Jason signals us to follow him and Josh goes marching into the light blue. The clinking of arrows in Jason's satchel gets fainter and fainter as he moves ahead. Krista seems excited, sidesteps to walk in front of me. All I can think of is a sharp arrow moving clean through the socket of Josh's eye and dead-ending at the back of his skull, the apple wobbling off afterward. Krista asks him if he's scared and he says no. We walk the miniature arched bridge over the creek. We walk into the patched grass and into the hollow. It's getting darker, and everyone but Jason seems to be a bit apprehensive about where to step. Somehow we all end up in front of the target. 

"Take 20 paces," Josh says. 

"Just make sure you stay still," Jason replies, "while I shoot this apple right off the top of your big head." It's true, Josh's head is big, and Krista snickers a little. Jason takes 20 paces, the arrows clinking in the satchel, him counting aloud, heel to toe, to a spot in the grass. Josh turns, puts the apple on his head. 

Krista and I back up. 

"Ridiculous," I say to Krista, the word still in my head from stepping in the chicken salad. "Just ridiculous!" She doesn't respond. Jason picks the bow up from the grass. He locks his elbow against the limb of the bow, pulls violently back on the string, an arrow pinched in his knuckles, a patch covering his good eye. Jason pauses for a moment, holds everything for a couple of seconds to take aim, and the eye -- even in the blueness of the afternoon -- it's big and white and throbbing in the night like it has its own pulse, trembling, the center of it black and round and shivering like it wants to wander off, like it can't stay still. And there's a moment when the trembling stops, like the eye takes control and something holds it steady and Jason lets go. 


To this day I imagine closing my eyes, opening one to a world of straight lines, the other to its shadow twin, pulling two worlds together, or splitting them apart. I imagine the constant pressure, the weight between, when everything intersects, when your eyes cross and your vision blurs...waking up that way, day after day. I look at that picture of me, Josh and Jason -- think what might have happened if it were never taken, if that picture were never snapped. I think about this nearly 20 years later in the summer time, at Uncle Doug and Aunt Carol's summer home, eating chicken salad across from both of my cousins at the annual neighborhood cookout. The eye never completely straightens out but when Jason wears his glasses you can hardly tell the difference. I pass by the bathroom mirror as I walk the hallway, hesitant to look in. The party moves inside for the night and I stay in the backyard, watch the sun go down. When everything turns light blue, I start to walk. I walk up the trail and over the white arched bridge. I cross the creek, walk out into the blue hollow, all the way up to where the target was. I run my fingers over a hole, a notch in the wood -- I take 20 paces into the patchy grass. At 20, I turn around and cross my eyes and watch the world blur and split apart and then come together. I go through the motions with an invisible bow. This is what I see in my mind's eye: I shoot an arrow and watch it pierce through the white center of an apple without touching a hair on the head of a 12-year-old child. 

The apple splits into juicy white shards. The arrow sticks upright in the wood. The air smells of fresh cut grass.

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