Cracks in the Pavement

It was my third time sitting there on the middle school auditorium stage. The upper
chain of braces was caught in my lip again, and my palms were sweating, and my glasses were
sliding down my nose. The pencil quivered in my hands. All I had to do was answer whatever
question Mrs. Crisafulli, the history teacher, was going to say into that microphone. I had
answered 26 before that, and 25 of those correctly. And I was sitting in my chair, and I was
tapping my foot, and the old polo shirt I was wearing was starting to constrict and choke me. I
pulled pointlessly at the collar, but the air was still on the outside, only looking at the inside of
my throat. I was going to die.


I could taste my tongue in my mouth shriveling up. I could feel each hard-pumping
heartbeat of blood travel out of my chest, up through my neck and down my arms and legs,
warming my already-perspiring forehead but leaving my ghost-white fingers cold and blue. My
breathing was quick. My eyes were glassy. I hadn’t even heard the question yet.


Late-night readings of my parents’ anatomy textbooks had told me that a sense of
impending doom was the hallmark of pulmonary embolism, a fact that often bubbled to the
surface of my mind in times like these. Almost by instinct, I bent my ring and little fingers down,
holding them with my thumb as the two remaining digits whipped to my right wrist and tried to
take my pulse. Mr. Mendoza had taught us this last year in gym class. But I wasn’t in gym class
that third period. I was just sitting on the metal folding chair, waiting for Mrs. Crisafulli to flip to
the right page in her packet for the question.


Arabella had quizzed me in second-period French on the lakes of Latin America.
Nicaragua. Atitlán. Yojoa. Lake Titicaca, that had made Raj, who sat in front of me, start
giggling, and Shannon, who sat three desks up and one to the left, whip her head around and
raise one fist to her lips, jab up her index finger, and silence us. Lakes were fed by rivers, the
same rivers that lined the globe on my desk like the cracks in the pavement I liked to trace with
my shoe on the walk home. Lake Nicaragua drains into the San Juan River, which snakes its way
around the port of Granada to empty into the Caribbean Sea. I knew that.


At that moment I was only sure of those two things: the location of Lake Nicaragua and
my own impending doom. And I was so busy counting my pulse and envisioning my demise that
I missed Mrs. Crisafulli’s utterance of the awaited question into her microphone, as I had each
year in the past as one of the two people left onstage.


“…Coldest…on earth,” was all I heard. My pencil etched shaggy marks as my shaking
hands attempted to write something in the 20 seconds remaining.


“Asia,” I scrawled.


So, for the third time in three years, I got it wrong, and for the third time, I didn’t die. I
walked home that day, tracing the faults in the pavement and wondering what inside me was
so cracked and broken. Something had to be fissured inside, like the ridges and rivers on my
desk globe that I would throw out later that evening, but fish from the trash can when the sun
rose the next day.