My daughter has taken to Pippi Longstockings. Astrid Lindgren's creation. As soon as I bring her home in the afternoon, she seeks out a CD with a theatrical production of the book, pops it into the CD player, and plays it. I am still OK with it, but a few hundred more performances might change that.
I used to know a Pippi. That wasn't her name, but she was an unadulterated Pippi all the same. The unapologetic joie de vivre. The fearless disposition. The freckles. The green eyes. Red pigtails. The patchy dress and long, striped socks. She even had this funny, unusual name. Everything except the super-strength. And the monkey.
She lived in a quaint old house on the edge of a botannical garden, sandwitched between a football field and a small farm. I lived on a street at the edge of a near-by suburbia. Consequently, she was magical to me. And her world. You would look out her window, and see cows grazing. If you lay down in the thick grass outside her house, you could hear hens clucking, dogs barking, sheeps bleating. Somehow, her parents did not seem to be there that much. All in all, a true Pippi Longstockings.
We were eight years old, and she just moved there one day. We were in the same class, but it wasn't there that we got to know each other. I think I just kind of ran into her while playing on the edge of the botannical garden. She would lead me on bold adventures, through the jungle, and over the oceans. In winter, her house would be completely sealed off by snow. For some reason, the city's snow ploughs never seemed to make it out there. Her house did not have a TV. It was made out of wood. They cooked over gas. All different from what I knew.
She hardly ever came to my house. Looking back, I think she found the place uninteresting. She did come to my birthday party, though. But she was out of her element. Instead of her bold, smiling self, she sat quietly in the living room while I led a hoard of howling, sugar-crazed kids through the house, blasting away with screeching ray-guns and other new-fangled toys I had just gotten for my birthday. It wasn't until years later that I realized how she must have felt.
And then she was gone. I vaguely remember a good-bye, or maybe that's just something that my memory has made up by itself over the years. I do know that I missed her. And a bit of Paradise was lost.
But then life moved on. I grew up. Some. Around age fourteen, it was me and the girls in my year that were a head taller than the rest of the boys. My voice was also the first to drop. I was also a geek. Shy and gangly. With thick glasses. And pimples. Predictably, the other boys turned on me. My old school was an odd mix of spoilt, whiny, privileged, yuppie kids, me included, and troublemakers from the cheaper houses on the other side of the hill. Only a handful of them ever made it to college. I had to get out of there, so at age sixteen I talked a couple of my best friends into applying to a high school across town. A school thought of as a good preparation for college.
It was not that common, back then at least, for kids to do something like this. They generally just went to the high school in their own neighborhood. So I hardly knew anyone when I started there. Adding to my shyness, and the armor I had built myself when being picked on at my old school. And then two of the three friends that went with me flunked out.
This has all been an elaborate way of excusing what happened next. Excusing the inexcusable. You see, one day in my second year, when I was finally becoming one of the group, a group that I actually respected, and respected me, I saw her again.
I think at first I just saw her in the school hallway. She looked oddly familiar. There was this air of fantasy about her. She had obviously just transferred to this school. But I couldn't place her. I would see her every now and then, but we did not talk. It wasn't until after this student ball, which was held at a disco waaay out in the suburbs, that I heard her speak. I was with a group of people that were gathering outside to decide what to do next. You never just went home after one of these balls. There had to be a party somewhere. So as we were standing there, laughing and drinking, preparing to catch a taxi, this girl shows up. She smiled bravely, despite her short skirt, the snow, her long, thin stockings, and the wind taking a pass at trying to knock us over. She was the only one who hadn't been drinking. She asked one of the girls in the group if we would like to share a taxi into town. If she could come with us to a party.
It was one of those defining moments. Do you Fit In, or do you become An Outcast. I don't think she ever had a chance. She was just too genuine. Too natural. Besides, she didn't drink. And nobody knew her. Except me. I suddenly realized who she was. This was the girl I used to know, half my life ago. Here she was again. Just as true, just as sparkling. The girl she had turned to answered her in some snippy way, and a few others added their own venom. I didn't say a word. Did not come to her aid. Did not try to intervene. I just stood there. Like an idiot. She was silent for a moment. Her smile faded, just a bit. Then she thanked us and turned away into the squall. I felt my stomach turn. And it wasn't from the drinking. Nobody else seemed to give her another thought. But I felt like shit. It hurt.
But somehow, it was done. It was irreversible. I was a part of the gang now. I had a place, a role. There were things I could do, and should do, and things that were unthinkable. Like reaching out to someone that was considered weird. Or just different. It was Conform or Die. And I desperately wanted to conform. It really wasn't until college that I finally broke free of that. I became me again. And never looked back. But by then it was to late. Pippi was gone. And I never saw her again.
I wonder where she is today?