August 28, 2009

The Girl Whose Heart Was Beating Fast

She stopped me outside the cafe, next to the newspaper vending machine. “Excuse me, could you feel my heartbeat?”

She was small and dark-haired and wore a white T-shirt with the name of a local Protestant high school in red. The thick makeup on her cheeks was criscrossed with fine cracks: she was first learning how to use it. Her height made her look even younger.

“It’s beating really fast,” she said. “I just smoked, and I’m scared I’m going to have a heart attack and die. Could you tell me what you think? Should I go to the hospital?”

“No, don’t go to the hospital,” I said. I lay my palm on a carefully selected spot above her breast. Her heartbeat was quite fast. I made sure to look in her eyes and smile seriously. “You’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know why I picked you.” (I was the only person around.) “You looked like you might understand. Have you ever done it?”

“Sure. This happens to people sometimes. It happened to me a few times. Don’t worry, you won’t get sick and die. I promise. Would you like to go inside and sit down, have some water or something?”

“No, my friend’s in there, he’ll be coming out soon…”

He was a tall, light-haired kid in a different style T-shirt from the same school.

“”She’s a little scared,” I told him.

“I know,” he said, and walked away with her. I didn’t hear whether they spoke.

I wished I’d had the chance to sit down and talk with her. To emphasize what a mistake it would be to go to the hospital, how they would call her parents and maybe give her a psychiatric diagnosis—God knows how that would end up.

Feeling her heartbeat, I’d felt the anxiety of being the father of a daughter, having to negotiate around sexuality, to worry about the survival of her innocence. Why did you approach a strange middle-aged man, I wanted to ask her? What if he’d been the wrong kind? Don’t put yourself at people’s mercy.

She was worried about the survival of her innocence too, and approaching me was her way of testing it.

I wished I could tell her all the things that would protect her and her boyfriend, like telling him how to care for a frightened girl, but there was something I wished more. I wished I could join them on their adventures, I wished I were sixteen and learning everything they were about to learn. What they knew least was: how they’d feel looking back.

Labels: ,