The Scared One

From Susan Parker
Friday April 11, 2003

“I’m scared,” she said as she stood on the sharp edge of the shallow end of Willard Pool in Berkeley. 

“Don’t be scared,” I answered. “It’s easy. Just jump into my arms.”  

“I’m scared,” she repeated. Her thin body was shaking like a leaf. 

“Stop saying you’re scared and jump,” I demanded.  

I was standing in three feet of water and was close enough to touch her. If she jumped and by some freak miscalculation missed my outspread arms, she’d wind up standing herself, her head at least six inches above water.  

“Come on. I haven’t got all day. You can do it.” 

“Okay,” she said. “But move closer and don’t drop me. I’m almost ready.” 

She was holding her nose with her right hand and swinging her left arm as if she were going to fly. She wore a tiny blue flowered bikini and a pair of enormous snorkeling goggles that magnified her already big brown eyes. She looked like a preying mantis with her long legs and spindly arms.  

“I’m gonna do it, I swear,” she said. “I’m almost ready. Are you ready?” 

“Yes,” I said, barely hiding my irritation. “Hurry up.” 

“Here I come,” she yelled, and she jumped. She landed with her hands wrapped around my neck and her knees tucked under my armpits. She was holding on so tight I could barely breathe, and the force of her momentum knocked me back. She hadn’t made a splash and only her toes were wet. The rest of her frail body was high above the water. 

“I did it!” she screamed in my ear. “I did it. I did it. I did it. Let’s do it again!”  

“Let go,” I said. “You’re strangling me!”  

“Put me on the side of the pool,” she demanded. “I want to do it again and again and again.” 

Several months later I held her hand as we entered Head Over Heels, located in a cavernous building in Emeryville.  

“I’m scared,” she whispered as she watched little girls in black leotards do somersaults, cartwheels and flips. 

“Don’t be scared,” I said. “It’s easy. You can do this stuff.” 

“I’m scared,” she said again as an instructor led her to the trampoline. She tentatively stepped on the springy surface and began to jump. First little jumps and then bigger and bigger and bigger until she was practically flying. 

“This is fun,” she yelled, looking at me and waving. She turned around and around as she sprung higher and higher and then she pretended that she was running in the air, like a clown in a circus.  

Now it is spring and we are outside on the sidewalk. She is balanced on a small pink two-wheeled bicycle with glittery plastic streamers sprouting from the handlebars. I stand beside her, keeping the bicycle and her body upright by holding the seat and her thin shoulder. 

“I’m scared,” she says, looking at me.  

“Don’t be afraid,” I whisper. “You can do this. I’ll hold on to you the whole time. All you have to do is pedal.” 

“Don’t let go of me. You promise?” 

“Yes, I promise. Now pedal, please.” 

“Okay,” she says. “I’m gonna do it. I really am.” She looks forward and squints her eyes in concentration. “I can do this,” she repeats and she is no longer talking to me. 

She starts to pedal and wobbles forward, going faster and faster until I can’t keep up. 

I let go of her shoulder and then the back of the seat and she is pedaling in a straight line down the sidewalk, as if she has been bicycling for a hundred years. She comes to the corner of 53rd Street and makes a smooth, professional turn, pedaling out of my sight, out of my reach. 

And now it is my turn to be scared, because I am going to have to let her go. “I can do this,” I say to myself, without much conviction. “I really can.” 


Susan Parker lives in Oakland near the Berkeley border. She is the author of the book “Tumbling After,” a memoir published last year by Crown Publishing.