The grass was still wet from the morning dew so dad wouldn’t let me take off my shoes and made me run more at a funny trot than at an all-out sprint, although I was the fastest in the 4th grade and proving it was one of my favorite things to do. He told me I didn’t have to run my fastest to get the kite in the air, I just had to release the string at a nice, even pace and that should do it; though every time I tried the kite would rise a little but quickly flutter and heave and spiral violently into the grass.
It was embarrassing, strangers were watching from the shade of the birch trees that lined the edge of the park, and a girl I knew from class, who just happened to be there with her nanny, was trying not to let me notice she saw me also. It’s like the whole park was gathered just to witness me crash this dumb kite time after time and I didn’t like the feeling. It felt like when your ice cream falls off the cone onto a dirty patch of sidewalk, and the neighbor’s dog comes up and licks it off before you even realized what happened, and you kinda want to kick the dog but you can’t because that’s wrong and you’ll get in trouble…
We didn’t have a nanny, of course. None of my friends did. Dad worked long hours and mom stayed home with a bad back.
She was one of those girls that got perfect marks from the teacher and never wore a dirty dress to school. She was the only girl I felt wasn’t annoying, I even wanted her to play with us sometimes at recess. Although I couldn’t tell you exactly why, she made me nervous whenever she talked to me. Words played hide-and-go-seek in my throat. During dodge ball I even went through the trouble of missing the balls she threw at me, although I could easily catch them because I am the best dodge ball player in the class.
Dad was giving me a pep talk from a distance, his socks pooling around his dirty Reekbok sneakers. “Packer, you need to lift the kite higher in the air when you run. And hold it steady, watch.”
Dad took off with his arm behind him and the kite obeyed and took to the wind in a beautiful cursive-like swoop. It was a diamond-shaped kite with red, blue, and purple stripes. He let out more line until it was higher than the trees and I had to cover my eyes to watch it figure skate through the bright morning sky. Then he jogged over, his glasses impossibly clinging to the tip of this nose. He stopped next to me and watched the kite do its little wind-dance while I tried to see if she was watching him, but she was helping her nanny unpack the picnic basket and I don’t think she caught how uncool he was, lucky for me.
“Look how it’s done, easy. Now see if you can keep it in the air, just take the string and don’t make any quick movements. You can do it. Here…”
I didn’t really have interest in it anymore, but I didn’t want dad to get mad, so I took the spool and held it with two hands out from my body like I was water skiing. It pulled away from me with an unexpected force, harder to hold than I thought it’d be. It immediately went into a spastic dive, and although I held the handle to the spool as tightly as I could, it dive-bombed into the ground like those Japanese pilots in that World War.
She giggled. I heard it even though she must have been 200 feet away, at least. I was turned away from her but I could still tell she was watching me. I could feel it like you feel the wind without seeing it. It burned my ears like that time Johnny, who was in 5th grade when I was only in 3rd, and that’s the only reason I couldn’t take him, held me down and poured orange juice into them. I wanted to cry but that would have made things worse. I didn’t cry when Johnny poured orange juice down my ear and I wasn’t going to now just because a girl laughed at me. Who is she anyway? I’m the first one chosen every time we play kickball. She may have won best costume last Halloween but I’m the only boy who can ollie on his skateboard, and you can’t just buy that skill like your mom and dad can buy you a silly princess dress.
“It’s okay, we’ll give it another shot. Don’t give up” dad implored and I was so mad at him for making me come out and fly this stupid kite that I didn’t say anything back, just kicked at a dandelion until it exploded into a cloud of dandelion bits. “Don’t look like that. Pick your head up. Winners don’t always start out winners. They become winners from their failures.”
He had this annoying habit of saying things that didn’t really make sense. I handed him the spool. “You go! I don’t care.”
He gave me a serious look. I could tell he was upset but inhaled deeply instead, then let it out. His glasses fogged from his hot breath. I could tell he was losing his patience. What am I supposed to do? Pretend to love something I’m bad at? Who can love something they suck at?
But he was my dad, and although he was embarrassing, I longed to make him happy. I feared him too. I guess this is love.
I tried again, concentrating so hard it almost hurt my head. The kite fluttered and drifted up and flickered like a candle in an opened window. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Then I lost count. It stayed high in the air at the end of my string. There was something about being on the ground controlling something in the sky that made me feel much bigger and the world smaller somehow. I chanced a look over to the girl from my class, just a quick glance, and I saw her smiling, watching me with half a sandwich in her mouth, but the second I looked over I lost control and the kite fell quickly, traumatically into the trunk of a birch tree, its white bark peeling like old paint.
I screamed, “Stupid kite!” Kicked a hole in the ground.
“Packer, it’s not the kite’s fault. It’s just a matter of learning technique. Staying focused. You’re capable.”
“No, I’m not! This is dumb anyway,” I told him. “What’s the point? It’s boring.”
Dad didn’t look mad, but he didn’t look pleased either. It’s like when he shows me how to change the oil on his car. It’s just a chore he has to do. Putting up with me. He picked the kite off the ground and inspected it for damage. “Don’t worry. It’s fine,” he told me. “You can do it. Just watch me closely.”
He took a running start. His face was a study in tight determination. Twenty feet were covered when he started to stumble and then went headfirst into the grass, sliding forward with his arms behind him like a seal on ice. I laughed. What a funny sight! But also, I laughed because he’s always right, and he’s always making me feel like a little kid, which I guess I am, but not that little, because I’m one of the biggest boys in 4th grade and already can throw a baseball from center field all the way to home plate. But I also didn’t want her to see me ashamed, concerned, so I laughed harder so she could see how big I was.
It was exhilarating, seeing him fall like that. Like when you’re on the middle of the water slide and going full speed and know you still have a ways to go before you splash into the pool and you think you may fly out but you know you won’t.
He can mess up too.
I was still laughing when I got over to him as he was picking himself up. “That was so funny,” I told him just as he was turning around and removing his glasses from his face. The right lens was missing and the other one was cracked like a spiderweb. His nose was bleeding from where the glass cut into him, a steady red stream staining his right cheek.
A horrible, silent gasp, like a burp, rose inside me.
“Yeah, I guess I probably looked ridiculous,” he admitted, all calm and friendly. “That’s how you don’t fly a kite,” he joked, looking a little sad, dusting himself off. He took his hand and wiped the blood from his cheek and looked at it and then at me and smiled.
Right then I knew that I could never be as good of a dad as he was.