I collected shiny stickers, fuzzy stickers, stickers that smelled like cherries. Sheets of unicorns and teddy bears. Circles of hearts and rainbows. I revered Lisa Frank and her psychedelic penguins and tigers frolicking together. Always frolicking.
Dad hurled a lamp at the wall, cockroaches skittered, and my mother cowered under her own melancholy-bent antennae. I flipped from one page to another of my sticker book – one of many in my collection. They were photo albums – obsolete now – with transparent coverings over sticky backed pages. My books were filled with shiny nods to pop culture: Pound Puppies, Smurfs, Muppet Babies. These friends of mine were always smiling. Need a home? Running from Gargamel? A mother who’s barely present? My friends understood me.
This sticker collection was the reason for coming back at the end of every school day, into a home thick with noxious anger. I spent hours under a black Parsons table looking. Just looking at page after page of smiling bears and food-themed puns or encouraging platitudes. Berry Good! Ham it Up! You’re Top Dog!
It was almost summer and the days yawned ahead of me, but instead of a lazy sitting-on-a-beach yawn, it was a shark’s wide mouth – all jagged teeth and hunger. I pushed my fingertip into an oily iridescent whale. Slam. Bam. Scream. My baby sister cried out. The iridescent blues and purples of the viscous substance moved around like an oil-slick on an ocean.
The red fire fury from my parents’ bedroom flared. I knew it would only be a matter of minutes before some god-fearing neighbor called the police. And then the cops would buzz up to our apartment and demand to be let up. Again.
I shoved my sticker books into a nylon backpack and snuck out, into the orange and brown carpeted hallway, into the mirrored elevator, through the lobby with its fake plants and disinfectant perfume, and into the street. I looked up at my apartment’s windows and saw only the blue sky reflected, puffy clouds looking like dragons and panda bears.
I walked the few blocks to the park. A Little League game was on – the salty summer smell of hot dogs, children’s faces dyed Popsicle blue. I settled atop an old oak’s knobby roots, kicked off my flip flops. There, among the cheers, I caressed the stickers – soft, shimmery, with inanimate objects telling me to Get Real!
Crack – homerun! Cheers from the bleachers: friends, mothers, fathers, siblings.
I used to adhere stickers to anything: windows, the refrigerator, ourselves. Then they were stuck in books. Later I kept them on glossy paper behind sheets of plastic. Keep them pristine. Protect. Trade them. Deal. Admire.
I noticed a police officer had entered the park. It was a small town and the officer might have a kid in the game, or was doing a walk-through of the premises. But I scrambled up to run, leaving my shoes and the pack at the foot of the tree. Too many decisions and the cop was getting closer.
“Knotty Hair!” Someone called my name – the name the kids at school christened me. I kept running, turning back only to see if the cop was gaining. In my soles, I felt the tiny shards of sand that spilled from the sandbox onto the asphalt.
I ran past the jungle gym and the basketball court with the small weeds sprouting in the cracks, beyond the outfield, into the knee-high weeds where we counted ladybugs for fun.
My breath was heavy with heat and asthma and fear. I waited, crouched behind a wood covered chain-link fence meant to keep balls in the field. The warmth from my face lowered to my neck and into my gut. A Metro-North commuter train from the city screeched metallic only feet behind me, whipping my knotted hair, cooling me – if briefly, until it rumbled further and further away. My exposed legs began to itch. The late day sun slipped behind the buildings. It got a little cooler. Goosebumps erupted where sweat beaded only moments before. Maybe the cop wasn’t looking for me after all.
When I returned to the tree; my bag and flip flops were gone. My sticker collection, years in the making, pulled from me; they may as well have taken one of my organs. Families were milling around, parents led their children home, congratulating them on a great game or encouraging them for the next one, making promises of pizza or roasted chicken.
As I trudged out of the park, I discovered one of my pink flop flops in a wire mesh trash can; a sad bleak tongue sticking out from under an empty bag of chips. I pulled at it. Something brown and sticky had been poured on it and one of the straps had been cut. I dropped it back in the can. The game was over. I walked home barefoot.
I collected stickers, but I lost them all. Did you too?