Jesse and Diana

“Jesse and Diana,” Friend, June 1985, 36

Jesse and Diana

Slanting patterns of sunlight fell across the green bedspread and across Jesse’s face. She opened her eyes and lay quietly for a moment in the unfamiliar room. She closed them again and pictured the pleasant home where she used to live in Long Beach, California: the greenness everywhere, the long white beaches, the sea air, and the small swimming pool in their own yard. I’ll miss the swimming pool most of all, she thought, and the chance it gave me to swim every day. This town at the foot of the mountains feels very different, but it must have a good pool somewhere.

And today she would find it. Her mother had promised her they would. Jesse threw back the covers. Placing her hands under her knees, she swung her limp legs off the bed and sat up. She pulled her wheelchair close to the bed and shifted herself into it. Banging the chair impatiently against the door frame, she maneuvered into the bathroom.

“Need any help?” her mother called from the kitchen.

“No thanks,” Jesse said, finally working the chair into the narrow room.

At breakfast in the large, sunny kitchen, she reminded her mother about going swimming.

“There’s a lot of unpacking still to do, and you haven’t started on your language arts lessons.”

“I hate English, and you did say that we could go today.”

“I know, and we will. Anyway, doing the work at home is better than going to summer school, don’t you think?”

Jesse sighed. “Yes, it’s better than that. I just wish I’d worked harder last year and didn’t have to do it now.”

“Why don’t you work on your studies this morning while I put things away. I’ll find out where there’s a good swimming pool, then drive you there this afternoon.”

“Sounds pretty good,” Jesse said. “I’ll try to get something done.” She wheeled out onto the wide, pleasant front porch and set her books on a table. She looked up and down the tree-lined street at the neat frame houses with small front lawns. There were no fences, no hedges; everything was in plain view. Jesse missed the privacy of her yard in California with its redwood fence and tall shrubs.

A girl about Jesse’s age emerged from a white house directly across the street. She hopped lightly down the front steps, picked up an old bicycle from the front lawn, and languidly swung her leg over the tattered seat. As she coasted down her driveway and into the street, she gave Jesse a casual wave. Jesse waved back and watched the girl disappear around the corner, then managed to do one work sheet before the girl reappeared with a loaf of bread under one arm.

At that moment Jesse’s mother came out onto the porch. She put a gentle hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “How about inviting that girl to go swimming with us this afternoon?” she asked.

“I don’t know her.”

“You’d get to know her.”

“Maybe so.” Jesse shrugged. “She looks like she’d be a good swimmer.”

The girl’s name was Diana. She and Jesse found very little to talk about as they rode to the pool. Jesse avoided dressing rooms because they usually were impossible to maneuver in, so the girls wore their suits and removed their street clothes in the car outside the pool.

Jesse’s mother left the two girls at the gate, and Jesse wheeled her wheelchair through the entrance, where they paid, and over to the pool. Jesse was used to curious stares, but she would have preferred being home in her own pool. The pool was not crowded, however, and only a few people watched as she shifted out of the chair, grasped the railing, and lowered herself onto the steps leading down into the water.

Once in the water, Jesse became like anyone else. If anyone stared, it was with admiration as her smooth, powerful strokes took her quickly to the other end of the pool and back before Diana had stowed the chair over by the fence. She did four more laps, relishing the cool water and her feeling of freedom and mobility. In the water her useless legs, trailing obediently behind her, were no problem as her strong arms took her smoothly through the water. At the deep end she stopped and looked around for Diana. Jesse finally spotted her splashing around in the shallow end. “Come on down here!” Jesse called.

Diana struck out, splashing and thrashing. As she reached the center of the pool, the splashing increased, and Jesse could see that Diana was no longer making any real progress. Her wild strokes became more frantic. Jesse swam quickly to her, caught one hand in hers, and pulled her to the edge. Diana sputtered and coughed and rubbed her face with her hands.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you couldn’t swim very well?”

“Was I supposed to shout across the pool, ‘I’m a lousy swimmer’?” She coughed again.

“Let’s get out a minute,” Jesse suggested. She shifted herself up the steps and onto the edge of the pool and sat with her legs dangling in the water. Diana climbed out and sat silently beside her.

“I’m not very good at lifesaving because I can only use my arms, so don’t do that again,” Jesse said, smiling.

“There’s a lifeguard here,” Diana said coolly.

Rebuffed, Jesse didn’t say anything.

“I don’t really like the water much,” Diana said, breaking the silence.

“Maybe we could just sunbathe for a while,” Jesse offered. Diana nodded, and Jesse shifted herself away from the pool’s edge while Diana spread out their beach towels. The two girls stretched out on their stomachs under the hot summer sun.

“I’m hungry,” Diana said, rolling over onto her back. “It must be all that exercise.” She laughed lightly, her easy good humor restored. She stood and got some money from her beach bag. Jesse watched her stride easily to the candy machine against the fence. She returned with two chocolate bars and put one under Jesse’s nose. Jesse raised her head and looked first at the candy bar and then at Diana.

“Thanks anyway, but I don’t eat much of this kind of stuff,” she said, handing the candy back to Diana.

“Why not?” Diana asked through a mouthful of chocolate.

“I try to keep in condition.”

“Condition for what?”

“Well, I want to be on the swim team at school, and I do wheelchair racing and stuff. Also, it’s easy for me to put on weight because I sit so much.”

“You’re really an athlete, huh?”

“I have a lot of respect for my body, such as it is,” Jesse said quietly, “and I try not to put junk into it.” Trying to sound casual, she added, “What do you like to do for exercise? I’ve seen you ride your bike. …”

Diana thoughtfully licked the chocolate from her fingertips. “I ride my bike to get places because it’s easier than walking. They make us exercise at school, but, other than that, I don’t do much. I’d rather read.”

Jesse stared at her.

“What’s the matter?” Diana asked.

Jesse shook her head. “It’s just that your body is so perfect, and you don’t care much about it.”

Diana shrugged her shoulders. “We don’t all have to be athletes.”

“No.” Jesse put her head down, and they soaked up the sun in silence for a while. Later they swam again, Jesse doing vigorous laps up and down the pool while Diana floated on her back or splashed around in the shallow end.

Jesse’s mother came to get them, and they rode home in silence. While Jesse transferred from the car into her chair, Diana climbed out quickly and called her thanks as she crossed the street to her own house.

“I don’t think I’ll be seeing much of her,” Jesse said as her mother pulled her up the few stairs onto the porch. “We don’t seem to have much in common.”

“Having something in common helps, but it’s not absolutely necessary for friendship,” her mother commented.

The next morning Jesse again sat on the front porch with her English book, two apples, and a teenage romance she had been reading. She opened her grammar book and stared for a few minutes at the page without reading it. She picked up an apple, studied its pattern of white specks on red for a while, took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully.

The mountains loomed above the houses across the street, and the morning light touched the rock outcropping and made them golden. Light filtered greenly through the maple leaves, making dappled patterns on the sidewalks and lawns. Jesse itched to be doing something or going somewhere. Reluctantly she looked at the page again. Pronouns. What could be more boring than pronouns? She could hear quiet morning sounds up and down the street—dishes clinking softly as they were washed, a hoe scratching, a ball hitting against a house. She looked longingly at the novel, but she wouldn’t read more of it until she’d done some work on her English. She sighed, and as she picked up the textbook again, she saw Diana come out her front door.

Diana waved to Jesse, hesitated for a moment, then crossed the street with her long, easy stride.

Grateful for any distraction from the grammar, Jesse smiled and waved and then pulled the lawn chair out, motioning for Diana to sit down.

“What are you doing?” Diana asked, looking at the books.

“I did so poorly in language arts last year that they said I had to go to summer school. But since we were moving, they let me take the course at home and send the work sheets in.”

“Why did you do so badly?”

“I guess I was more interested in swimming and racing. The teacher gave us a lot of homework, and I never did it.”

Diana took the apple that Jesse offered her and bit into it. “It’s terrible to have to do homework in the summer.” She chewed thoughtfully. “But at least it’s not a hard subject.”

“I think it’s pretty hard. Pronouns are hard—and very boring.”

“They’re a little boring, but they’re not hard and there aren’t too many of them. I’ll help you.”

Jesse smiled up at her. “Will you?” she said. “That would be great. I have to read some stories and poetry too.”

“That’s the fun part,” Diana said. She picked up the romance novel from the table. “You don’t read books like this, do you?”

“Well, yes,” Jesse said. “They’re kind of interesting. Don’t you read them?”

Diana didn’t answer for a minute. She turned the book over, put it back down on the table, then smiled at Jesse. “I have a lot of respect for my brain, such as it is. I try not to put junk in it.”

Jesse looked at her for a minute, then laughed. “Suppose you help me learn pronouns, and I’ll help you with your swimming.”

“Sounds like a good summer,” Diana answered. She pulled her chair up to the table and opened the grammar book between them.

Photos by Dick Brown