by Garnett Cohen
Even though we weren’t supposed to cut through the industrial corridor on our way home from church, we did. It was quicker and there was a big space between the foundry and the chicken-boxing factory to practice. Janelle and I were the second and third best jump-ropers in the fifth grade, right after Marcia Mims. We knew all the rhymes and most of the tricks.
It’s not easy for two girls to practice with one rope but I wasn’t allowed to take mine to church. Janelle took hers everywhere, like a sharp shooter who couldn’t be without her gun, the handle sticking out of her pocket, a pistol in its holster. With seven kids, her mother couldn’t keep track of what they all did. I envied her rope, twisted yellow and red twine with thin red handles. My mother didn’t care for Janelle, but what could she do? We were best friends, went to the same school and church, and only lived four houses away. I don’t think my mother would disapprove of her for being poorer—nine of them stuffed into the same-style small house as ours, which felt too crowed for us five. Maybe it was because their yard was a mess—old rusting junk and broken plastic toys, soaked fliers never collected. And Janelle usually did seem grimy. She was only allowed a bath every other night unless she and her oldest sister shared the tub, which her sister usually refused. We were both skinny with short hair but mine was neater. My mother used Scotch tape to keep my bangs even when she trimmed. Janelle’s older sister cut hers with what looked like hedge clippers, my mother said. And poor Janelle had to wear her sister’s wool tights, so large they draped on her legs like elephant skin.
That day, folding the long rope once over to shorten it, we took turns—closer to the foundry because the asphalt outside the chicken factory was slick with grease, unusual for a Sunday—doing solitary jumps. They must have been working overtime. Then we each took an end and practiced twirling the rope as fast as we could, preparing for Marcia at school. I am a pretty little Dutch Girl! I was so focused on the swish and slap—over and over—that the man with camera was almost upon us before I turned and spotted him, snapping photos. He startled me into a smile. He was younger than our parents but older than the high school boys. He kept circling us, clicking his black camera. I said, no, stop, but he kept going. I dropped my end of the rope. The man paused and—offering up his fancy camera—said, let me show you this contraption.
His black hair was combed to the far right side and his eyes were rimmed in such thick lashes that they reminded me of sunflowers.
We’re not allowed to talk to strangers, I said. Com’on, Janelle, let’s go.
Janelle stepped closer to him and brushed me away. Without forethought, I took off in a gallop, looking back only once to see Janelle’s thin white neck bent over the camera as he pointed to different gears and gadgets.
She didn’t come to school for days, and when she did, she stayed inside during recess to help Mrs. Cornell clean the boards. It must have been a month—but who knew time in those days?—before she sought me out. She carried an old and peeling patent leather purse.
Look what I got, she said and pulled out a 5 by 5 black and white of us twirling the rope. It looked crisper and more professional than any photo I had ever seen. In it, Janelle and I were separated by the spinning rope, going so fast that it was barely a visible blur, as if the two of us were no longer connected at all.
Garnett Cohen has published three collections of short fiction. Her prose has appeared in many places. Her essay, “My Life in Smoke,” appeared in The New Yorker online in 2019 and her nonfiction has twice been awarded Notable Essay citations from Best American Essays. Several of her stories have won awards, such as the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize and the Lawrence Foundation Prize. She is a professor at Columbia College Chicago.