Wayland, MA – 1992
This is about a time when every sunset was golden and deserved and stood for freedom and meant dinner time, and bright green grass carpeted my world, and school was a recent victory, and a distant worry, but for the time being, none of that mattered. This is about the eternal summer that I know never existed, but that my memories have created through years of neglect, combining and colliding in the recesses of my mind, leaving me to now sort through the fragments and rebuild my childhood, piece by piece. I fixate on still pictures at the back of my mind, forgotten in all but the quietest of moments, that recall those precious and happy times, flashing behind my eyes in short bursts of memory like fireworks lighting up the night sky. First, me, six years old, scruffy brown hair hidden under a white helmet, riding my bike on blisteringly hot pavement, picturing myself from a bird’s eye view, and, in my mind, in a voice not my own, narrating my own adventures through this brave new world. Sometimes, in my youthful exuberance, I would forget to keep my mind voice inside, and would accidentally blurt out a line of my own internal narration; I faintly picture my lips moving slightly, ever so slightly, my voice no more than a whisper, warbling with the faux enthusiasm of a television sports announcer. And yes, folks, he’s done it, he’s ridden his bike all the way up… the hill. The crowd goes wild, screaming and chanting, Victor! Victor! Victor! Victor!
I remember spending lifetimes in the back yard, which, at the time, was endless; Through no fault of its own, my back yard has considerably shrank as I have gotten older, in the same way that my bathroom sink has gotten shorter. There was, then, a tremendous sense of security at all times; any monsters would be beaten back by my powerful father, and any cuts or bruises tended to by my wonderful mother. I suppose that that feeling is shared by anyone who was once a child, who once watched their father loop-de-loop a tie around his neck in the mirror, or their mother antisepticise their splinter-stuck thumb while hunting for the tweezers. Somewhere in the back yard of my mind is that same sense of security, having taken up shop there in the years since it slowly, ever so slowly, removed itself from my day-to-day life. There, in the back yard that exists in my conscious memory, it starts with the staccato spurts of a sprinkler peeking its automatically timed head out from a dark plastic shell tucked into the grass at dusk, clicking three quarters of the way around, pausing for a brief moment’s reflection, and reversing direction with a ks ks ks ks ruhksksksksks, over and over again. Chipmunks and squirrels dip and dive as they chase each other up, down, and along the trees that line the yard.
Up, up on the deck, up the three wooden stairs to the porch, and up the rusted white spiral staircase, are my parents. My mother sits, calm, collected, quiet, stretched out on a cushioned recliner; if she were any more in balance, she’d be a scale. Years later, I’d question her sanity when she confessed to me an obsessive interest in ancient Eastern homeopathic healing methods. My father, impressive and daunting, having changed out of his work suit in favor of sweatpants, a t-shirt and slippers, hovers over the barbecue in the shady far corner of the deck, surrounded by billowing smoke and the smell of burnt flesh, a smell I’d associate with him until accidentally shocking a travel companion with a faulty disposable camera on an over night train through Italy and watching the red skin on his hand painfully bubble and eventually burst as our train crossed the beautiful country side. I climb up, up the three wooden stairs to the porch, up the rusted white spiral staircase, first to my father, who picks me up and spins me, and looking down at him, he smiles, and I am so full of joy I’m afraid I’m going to float off into the blue sky right then and there, but he’s holding on to me, and spinning me still, and I just want to shout, Hold tighter, Daddy, I’m slipping away! But he knows, he’s aware, he’s careful, and before I can break free and float off on my own, he sets me down, and, dizzily, I waddle to my mother. She smells like mint and rosemary, fresh picked off the small herbal garden she keeps in the back yard. She picks me up and sits me down on the recliner in front of her.
A calm, warm breeze carelessly blows a few strands of her dark black hair. They tickle my face, and I smile, and laugh, and when she reaches over to brush them away, her fingers caress my cheek, and I feel the warmth of her hand against my skin, feel her soft fingers, feel the care that is so intrinsically a part of her, and the sun’s so bright, I have to squint when I crane my head and look up at her, into her dark eyes, to see her smile. My father is done barbecuing now, and tilts his head up and back, shouting my brother’s name, shouting up, over the house and to the front yard, where he lies on a towel in the sun, trying to ignore us. He is two years older than me, a fact he will never let me forget; I will remember when I am in second grade, and for reasons I wouldn’t then understand we move to Johannesburg, South Africa, where my father and mother were both born and raised; I will remember my brother’s age again when he becomes a man surrounded by our entire extended family, all seemingly total strangers, in our bizarrely foreign motherland; I will remember watching my brother run away from home once we return to America three years later, to Wayland, MA, to that very back porch where years earlier I had shared a deck chair with my mother one summer afternoon barbecue; I will remember, when I am fourteen, and my brother can drive, and he makes me sit in the back seat when we leave the school for fear his friends, seemingly so hard for him to come by and so dangerously easy to lose, will be reminded of my existence; I will remember, when I am a junior in high school and he moves back home, his year long flirtation with college having ended in disaster. I remember it still now, as I sit here, in my freshman year of college, writing this story for a class and pretending it all means something.
Eventually, though, my eight year old brother wises up, and in the front yard he stands up, picks up his towel, and runs around the house. Up he goes, up the three wooden steps to the porch, up the rusted white spiral staircase, to the deck where the four of us, my mother, my father, my brother and I, sit around our white plastic deck table and eat. I am picky, and my parents scold me, but never seriously, not to me, and when they are done, we, all four of us, we, my family, smile. In a few days, my parents will call my brother and I into their room at night, sit us down on their beige floral print couch, and try to explain to us for the first time why we have to move to South Africa. Later, my brother will cry, and that will make my mother cry, and I won’t understand. Soon I too will cry, and the three of us will sit together at the dinner table watching our tears puddle, waiting for my father to come home so that he can pick us up, spin us around, make everything all better. I will wish that I could float off into the sky, up and over my house, up past the trees, up so high that everything turns into rolling green hills, and there, off in the distance, an endless horizon of possibility.
When we are done eating, I help my mother wash the plates, and hand them to my brother, who dries them, and puts them away. I wash my last plate, and run to the garage, scrambling in a large red bin for a thin yellow wiffle ball bat. My brother and I stand barefoot on dark green grass in the front yard, taking turns swatting at the air, trying our damnedest to knock the flimsy white ball up and over the trees, out into the road. We know not to play in the road, but at the same time, we know that this is the only way to play our game, and some rules were made to be broken. My brother holds the bat like a caveman holding his club, and when I slowly send the ball sailing to him, he clobbers it. In my mind’s eye, I’m Marv Albert; Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he’s done it, that ball is out of here, and the crowd goes wiiiiiiild! The ball cuts through the air, whistling as it flies up, up past the trees, pausing for a brief moment’s reflection before plummeting down to Earth, coming to a rest on the crisscrossing storm drain at the foot of our neighbor’s drive way. Our neighbor is an inventor, and a quite famous one at that; his doorbell rings with the same catchy jingle that plays at the end of his commercials, just when his name flashes across the screen. His driveway is the steepest hill I have ever seen, his house being the highest point in town. When I am twelve, I will ride my bike to the top, look out over the world, and zoom down the hill, and I will find small cuts and bruises all over my body after I flip over the handle bars and skid out on the side of the road. For now, though, my brother and I cross the street to fetch our ball, and decide to climb to the top of our neighbor’s driveway to watch the sunset.
It’s a steep climb, but well worth it, and at the top we sit in familiar silence. From here, we can see up and over our house, to where our parents still sit on the deck, down in the valley of our back yard. The sun slowly sinks into the endless horizon, bathing the valley in warm orange joy. A light wind plays with the trees, and I am cool, comfortable, secure. My brother, satisfied with the glorious transition, runs down the hill, around the house, up, up the three wooden steps to the porch, up the rusted white spiral staircase to the deck. I watch him sit down in the last remnants of daylight, watch my mother stand and walk to him, watch her caress his head, watch them smile. I sit in my crow’s nest until the sun is gone completely, the sky now a ruddy puddle left over from a rainstorm in the heavens. My father stands, and goes inside; my mother follows him, my brother walking in tow. Soon, I will grow tired of my lookout, and I will leave my sunset and go down, down to the house where I grew up, down to my mother, my father and my brother. Later, I will remember this moment with tears in my eyes.