The day after my family moved from Chicago to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in 1962, my mother walked me up and down our new block and introduced me to any girls playing outside who looked to be roughly my age. Out of that bunch, Regina and Ellen became my best friends. When it was the three of us, we usually got along and had fun, and when it was just Ellen and me, we did fine together. Less successful were those occasions when Ellen was unavailable to play and it was just me and Regina. I had nothing in common with Regina; she liked sports and physical activity a lot, and she was a very literal girl. Imaginary play wasn’t big on her list of fun things to do.
Regina liked to spend a great deal of time playing games with balls and racing bikes. To me, this sort of activity was about sweating for no good reason, and I hated doing things I was bad at, anyway. I was perfectly happy to ride our bikes down to the river and pretend that we were Jews hiding from Nazi killers, refugees who needed to subsist by eating the foliage around us (I was not averse to actually consuming the pulp inside twigs, for example, if it lent verisimilitude to the story we were weaving). Regina (who grew up to be a psychologist) didn’t understand why it would be fun to make up stories and pretend to be people we were not, especially if such pretense included long hours “hiding” under bridges and eating sticks; after all, we could instead be out racing our bikes in the sunshine, stopping now and then at her house for some Choo Choo Cherry or Goofy Grape Funny Face. (Funny Face was a Kool-Aid type drink that Regina’s mom always had in a pitcher in their refrigerator. We did not have Funny Face in a pitcher in our refrigerator, ever. My mother was opposed on principle to all powdered drinks on the grounds that the process of making those drinks would inevitably result in spilled sugar on the counter, which would then get sticky in the heat, which would upset my mother quite a lot. When the powdered drink industry came up with the idea of presweetened powdered drinks, my mother said that all that sugar wasn’t good for anybody anyway.)
Because we were friends, Regina tried to spend at least some time pretending to be a terrified Jew like Anne Frank and I tried to engage in wholesome bike races and games involving balls. On one particular day toward the end of our friendship (my friendship with Regina didn’t end badly or even dramatically; she was always a year behind me in school because I was the only child in my neighborhood who didn’t go to two years of kindergarten, my mother having decided that two years of kindergarten was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard) and we really did have little in common. During that last summer together, though, one particular day stands out, and not in a good way.
It was a gorgeous day, and Regina didn’t want to spend it dressing up in my grandmother’s old ball gowns and smoking pretend cigarettes made of colored pencils dipped in lipstick. She wanted to be outside, and she wanted to race bikes. I never won a bike race with Regina, not even once. As I said, I didn’t mind riding my bike to Mayfair Mall to walk around, or to Kohl’s to buy brownie mix to make brownies with, or even all the way to 31 Flavors in the Village to get a double scoop ice cream cone. Regina liked riding her bike as an end in itself, though, and she was my friend.
Despite her wholesome, clean-cut image, I imagined that surely Regina must harbor hidden, dark depths. Nobody could be that nice all the time. That summer, I started to suspect that the reason that Regina liked to race bikes was because she always won, and she knew she would win, and she liked to beat me, which she was sure to do. Again and again. On this particular day, we agreed to the usual racecourse: we would start at the corner in front of my house, race to the end of the (unusually long) block, turn the corner and continue to race down the hill for two blocks. The “finish line” was North Avenue, a busy street that we didn’t ever cross without getting off our bikes and walking them across.
The race began as it always did; one of us said “Go!” and off we went. By the time I was halfway down our block, Regina was already turning the corner and starting down the hill; she had the race won, again. I had had it. I was hot, sweaty, and about to lose, again, doing something I didn’t even enjoy doing. I was tired of losing. I jumped off my bike, let it skid sideways off the sidewalk and onto the McGuire Sisters’ front lawn, and without thinking I shouted out, “Regina! I fell!” I figured she would still win, as always, but at least I wouldn’t have lost. Regina would coast down the hill to the finish line, turn around and come back, and we could spend the rest of the day doing something I liked to do, something that didn’t involve physical activity of any sort. What I didn’t count on was Regina’s essential goodness.
When she heard me yelling, “Regina! Regina! I fell!,” rather than letting her momentum carry her to the bottom of the hill before turning her bike around to retrieve me, Regina attempted to stop her bike in its path and turn around immediately to come to my aid. Instead of stopping, however, her bike skidded sideways, throwing her off of it and onto the sidewalk. From where I was sitting with my faked injury, it didn’t sound good. The next minutes and hours are a complete blur to me. By the time I got back on my bike and pedaled to the corner to see what had happened, the woman who lived in the house next to the spot where Regina fell had already called for help. Regina had broken her jaw, rather severely. She was whisked away to the Emergency Room, and I didn’t see her for a couple of days. When she was finally able to receive visitors in her bedroom at home, I went to pay my respects, dreading the moment when Regina would ask me how I was, given that I had also “fallen” that day. To my horror, however, my worry was unfounded, because Regina’s jaw had been wired shut; she could not talk at all, could not eat solid food for weeks, and had to drink Carnation Instant Breakfast for days and days.
I stayed away after that first visit. My guilt was overpowering, and I couldn’t face the concrete evidence of my own calumny and small-mindedness. Years and years later, when I studied Immanuel Kant in graduate school, and our professor asked us to think back to our first vivid moment of pure unadulterated guilt—a moment when no one told us we had done wrong, a moment, ideally, when no one else even knew we had done wrong—what came to my mind was Regina in bed that summer, drinking Carnation Instant Breakfast from a straw. Did anyone ever find out the true story of Regina’s broken jaw? No. Not even Regina. Unless she is reading this now, she doesn’t know to this day that I didn’t really fall off my bike the day that she did. If you are reading this now, Regina: I’m so sorry.