I like it up here. It’s dark and windy, and I can see the lights rolling across the hills tucked away in little neighborhoods like mine.
And just over their, SFO. I watch the jets angling up from runway two eight. I breathe in the sensation deep as they tuck their wheels up into their metal belly and scream into an adventurous sky. I especially like the 747s with their regal shrieking roar that lets you know something important is happening.
Where are you going tonight? What threshold did you cross that your life whisks you away on a jet plane with all its flashing lights and cosmopolitan prowess? How did you get there?
It’s all a different universe behind glass, as if the world were a great aquarium and all I can do is imagine what it means to swim there.
I like it up here. It takes my mind off the torment of my crush on Heather. No, not that one, the other one.
There is a certain torture of being fourteen that everybody seems to forget as they get older. It’s like a disease to which they’ve become immune. “Oh yes, I remember when I had the chicken pox.” No you don’t. And being fourteen is like having the chicken pox forever.
I came stumbling out of the front door last night about 1:00 A.M. or so. I was having one of my headaches. They claw at me so hard that I can’t help but cry. And sometimes, like last night, I pound my head with my fists. “Get out of there,” I hiss. I grit my teeth and stare at the ground, wishing my pain would erupt into the world as some demon that I could at least try to kill. I get angry. And I beat on my own head even harder. “Get… Out! Damn you!”
I always do this quietly, of course. It’s just a harsh whisper, maybe a gurgling in my throat. I don’t actually yell.
But she came out last night. Right out of her front door and into the night. I heard her from across the street. “Are you alright?”
I look up, aghast. My hand is clutching my own hair, trying to pull the demon out. Even in the dark I can see the gleam of her haunting green eyes. Eyes that will inspire me to words of outright worship over the years. But she isn’t just looking at me. She sees me. Her long sensuous brown hair that slopes down in that tantalizing Marlo Thomas swoop. Her face is divine. Beyond description. I read about a man who launched a thousand ships over a woman’s face. I understand that man. And I can’t say it any better than he.
She sees me! Heather sees me standing on the front lawn in boxer briefs, tugging at my own hair, my face contorted with pain as tears stream down my face. I can feel my lip quivering, my brow set hard against the night as it does when I lash out at an enemy I can’t touch. An enemy I can only feel.
This scrawny, whimpering, crazy fourteen-year-old boy who must portray some nauseating freak that would make a sane girl run back inside and never come out again.
But she walks down the concrete steps from her front porch to stand in the grass just in front of her house.
She asks me again. “Are you alright?” I can almost see my own pain reflected in her eyes. I’m not smart enough to know the difference between pity and love. What I’ll never know, not ever, is that it was neither. It was something more important.
“Just a migraine,” I say. I try to sound calm, but my voice is quivering from the pain and my nose is clogged from crying.
She nods somberly. “That must really hurt. Do you want some ice? Maybe some aspirin?” She takes a step forward, as if she’s looking for something.
“Is there anything I can do?”
I can feel my face scrunched up in pain and my mouth twitches. Try as I might, I can’t control these things. But I do manage to let go of my hair. She’s blurry in the dim light of a street lamp as fresh tears pool in my eyes. It’s not that I’m a girl or something. It’s the pain.
The two worst symptoms of chicken pox are shame and cowardice. Of course, not all fourteen-year-old boys get chicken pox. Some of them get sophomore girlfriends and some of them even score in the backseat of a car or in an empty living room when their parents are gone.
I’ve imagined those things with Heather, of course. But I see past all of it, too. There is a deft glory in the subtle things. The gleam of her eye, which I could bathe in for an eternity. The dream of her hand caressing my wet cheek, mixing the elixir of her touch with the pain so that I’m filled with a blinding unbearableness. And when the pain has gone, the tender brush of her lips against mine.
All the world and ten thousand ships more for that kiss. That’s all I need.
She’s still looking at me and I wonder if she can see past the scrunched up face and the quivering mouth and know what lies in the heart of the scrawny boy across the street who can’t stop crying.
I want to tell her so much. But some of you remember what it’s like to be fourteen. You’re so scared because she just might turn and walk away, smashing your world into oblivion. You don’t come back from that.
So you don’t risk it.
“I have to go,” I say. And I run back inside. Leaning against the front door, I quietly pound my head. Get out of there! Damn you!
I like it up here. I don’t have a headache right now. There will be another one later. But right now, I can bask in the dreams of a different life. Of being one of those people hurrying off into the world in a big fancy jet. I can see them in suits and ties and long dresses in a swank nightclub on the 85th floor of somewhere, drinking champagne and laughing. The kind of place Heather will be someday.
I can pretend to be somebody else.
I start when I hear the footsteps behind me. It never happens. For whatever reason, I am always alone. Nobody else comes up here, as if I’m the only person who knows about this place where I look into the aquarium of a world that I can never touch.
I turn around to see an old man. He’s balding, gray sideburns still left. His face is hollow and his mouth is grim. I should be scared. But there’s something familiar about him.
He stops just in front of me. “I need to tell you something,” he says. I don’t know why, but I feel as if I need to hear it.
He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Don’t be afraid. Go to her. Bear your soul to her. You won’t die if she turns you away. But if you don’t, you won’t live. Don’t leave me to grow old alone.”
Then he turns and walks away. A bit of wind whirls through the trees. A silver hush against a black sky.
I turn back to watch the jets and dream of champagne glasses that promise a better life for those who know the secret. Whatever it is.
I remember that night. I remember everything I said. And now it’s time for me to go back and say it all over again.
Maybe I’ll listen this time.
©2023 Michael J Lawrence
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