I can see it now – a little bit better anyway. I look back to 1995, ’96, and ’97 and some of the times after that too. A lot of it is explicable. I mean, I was just wrong. It wasn’t about needing to be luckier or making different decisions. I just had it wrong from the beginning. That was the reason for the bouts of paralysis and the snarled self-loathings in bathroom mirrors, and then how I’d try to soothe myself that I still had time, that there was still some time. And then around 28 maybe 29 the failure became this great presentiment of doom that moved in like a ground fog, and I just felt like the whole thing should be over, all of it well past over by now, but it wasn’t over even though I’d failed.
I started losing my hair right around then – that was kind of a stark signpost for me because it was so tangible, so physical and final, the slow inevitability that comes with your hair follicles deciding it’s autumn followed by eternal winter. I think that was the actual turning point when I realized the game was truly up and none of it – not my vagabonding around Central America, not being Division 1, not blasting my motorcycle up Park Avenue at midnight – none of it was ever close to measuring up. All my compulsion and restlessness, the flurry of filled notebooks and the 19-year-old avowals that flared into adventurous half-exploits – none of it materialized, and then one night I just found myself an unimpressive grown man sitting on a rickety fire-escape in South Bethlehem.
I tried to walk it off like a charley horse for a while – just walking and walking up and down dark night streets to try to escape the private desolation that dragged an open-ended question of what to do with more time, with the average life-span – 75, 80 years. Damn, all those years.
I think it was on those long night walks that I started looking back on the life we lived, just looking at it all as if it was an old tapestry hanging on a wall. I went back there in my mind and watched it burn down again. I breathed in the smoky senselessness, hugged that cold unfairness into the bones of my chest, acknowledged that there was almost nothing to show for any of it now.
It seemed like such a shame, you know, just sad to look back and see that today there’s nothing behind Shafer Schoolhouse Road but a cracked cement slab where black snakes sun themselves between overgrowths of jewelweed. And Kirkwood is a rundown shamble, and all that’s left from when my parents flashed around the world in one daring, glorious sweep is a few burned photographs lost somewhere in a dusty attic.
I talk to Jenna about it sometimes because she knows. She came through the same wonderful and trying and bewildering tunnel with me, so she can see it too. “It’s okay,” Jenna tells me. No it’s not okay! my mind snaps back. This isn’t how it should have gone. It’s not storybook at all – how Mom and Dad are just sort of struggling along these days, how there was never any recognition for their 30 year mission, and how there’s barely a trace left of Dad’s yellow pine log castle, how we had one too many tough breaks.
It makes me sad. But then I started to realize something in the middle of it – that it’s beautiful somehow – the fire and smoke, the ashes, how almost everything that they built and did is gone now. It’s fitting. Poetic. They didn’t do any of it for plaques or impressiveness, or even all the newspaper articles that were once written. It was never about them being in cool pictures or leaving a grand legacy. The loss fits the way they did things, the way that they lived. And me? I never understood, and even today I’m only barely starting to understand. But I finally realized that it’s good that I failed to live up to everything because I would have just deluded myself longer, lost even more decades missing the whole point, trying to be a damn hero in a tight leather jacket.
Jenna’s right – it’s ok. The emptiness is ok. It’s a beautiful blank space after their arcing crescendo that doesn’t need any one to clap or understand or care.
It’s strange though – how much I still care about it, how much it still affects me even though I can see it better now. All our family lore still gets to me. Mom and Dad, sometimes still like two blue-jeaned supernaturals in my mind. The stories, the pictures, the places – they can still derail my real life with their flashes of an old, impossible glamour. Always in my head is a blue motorcycle screaming up the cold Andes’ switchbacks and an 8-pound broad-axe thock thock thock-ing away in the Pennsylvania woods. Kirkwood’s green childhood spell has never quite let me go, and that dilapidated sports stadium in Guayaquil is always flashing with a far-off, black and white splendor. But even as I get all caught up in it again for the hundreth time and try to pin it down in words, I do see that it was never about the story being told. It was never about recognition for any of this. And all of a sudden, a flicker of that self-forgetfulness underneath it all is almost more captivating than all the adventures and unlikely exploits that the two of them ever put down.
Man, for three decades all I wanted was to be as cool as them. But now – I just want to be as free.
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