Photo by Erik den Yngre at Wikimedia Commons.
This is a story of the urge most of us get when we reach "a certain age" to go over some back pages. Our kids find this quaint and amusing, can probably quote our favorite stories verbatim, but they haven't lived them and never will. They're creating their own archives as I created mine.
It's only 10:30, way too early to run out of steam on a Friday night. I'm in some kind of second adolescence, cruising with my teenage daughters and a few of their friends. We'd just seen the worst amateur rock and roll band in history at the Jones Beach band shell near Parking Lot Four. Let's put it this way: the biggest number of the last set was an original ballad called "Hey, Hey Oyster Bay," dedicated to all their Long Island Fans. Being from Queens, we just didn't get it. My oldest daughter waltzed me around the dance floor, twirling and zigzagging through couples that clung to each other in a plodding two-step and thought they were dancing. We laughed all the way through it, but none of the Long Island fans saw the humor.
Now we're in the parking lot trying to decide what to do that would be cheap or free. All the kids can come up with is renting a movie at Blockbuster. When I was their age no one had ever heard of a DVD or even a VCR; we spent our nights diving from a Tarzan swing in the forbidden local swimming hole or liberating highway signs or sitting in someone's smoky basement, strumming guitars and singing long, meaningful songs. A hush of indecision, or more like inhibition, falls over us. Something in the mother part of my brain won't let me broach the idea of stealing road signs, and no doubt the kids are itching to do things they won't let me in on, either. Someone says, "We could play with dump trucks." Dump trucks? "I have the keys," replies my daughters' friend with a grin. He works at a construction site. All that heavy equipment is just hibernating for the weekend, like hulking giants turned to stone in Astoria, silhouetted against the Manhattan skyline. I can picture it as if I'm already there.
Did you ever have one of those flashbacks where the present goes into suspended animation and you shoot back to a memory so vivid, so tangible that it supercedes reality? Something triggers a retreat into yourself; a smell, perhaps, or just an offhand comment, and in the next few seconds you relive a whole segment of your life while time in the real present, as we've come to think of it, stands still. Maybe time doesn't run in a straight line after all. Maybe for some of us it loops like a roller coaster and deposits us back where we started so fast that no one even knows we've been gone.
I am fifteen. It's late at night and the moon pours liquid silver into my window, dumps it on the floor in a puddle. Trees whisper secrets I can't quite hear, and beyond them the diamond stars dance their mysterious rounds in a pattern I wish I could follow. Who can sleep on a night like this? I hold my breath and inch down the stairs, careful not to step on the one that creaks. Opening the front door to a point just short of the place where the hinge will squeak, I ease out and head for the railroad tracks and my favorite spot of the month, a sandy expanse of dunes pushed high by caterpillar tractors spouting smoke and driven by old men with beer bellies protruding from under their T-shirts. By day we watched them in languid fascination, lying beyond the farthest mountain just out of their sight. By night the land was out playground. We slid down the sand dunes hilariously on ripped up cardboard boxes; we climbed over the steam shovels and cranes like a horde of lunatic ants. Tonight, though, I am alone under a moon so full it is going to burst, splattering quicksilver all over the sky. I climb into the driver's seat of the crane and finger the controls, but it is not high enough; I vault around to the front and scramble up to the roof of the cab, where there is nothing around me or above me but stars. I lie down with three tons of latent cold metallic power at my back and the entire universe spinning before me and I am lost in the grandeur of it all, of being part of the cosmic dance without even attempting to learn the steps. "People try too hard," I think. "We should stop trying and just be."
My back is warm. The world has been transformed while I slept. Stars have danced away to another heaven and the light of the fireball on the horizon is so bright I cannot look at it. I hear the easy banter of construction workers leaning on their station wagons, sipping coffee from metal thermoses. I'd never actually spoken to one of them. Sheepishly, I slide down the cab and land with a soft, barefoot thud on the sand. "Morning," I say to them. I dip my head and smile as I say it, like I've seen old folks do. They stare at me open-mouthed as I pass and I feel them gaping until I am out of sight, probably jolted out of complacent assumptions that their own daughters are dreaming sweetly in their beds as the triumphant sun clears the horizon and begins to roll toward the top of the sky.
And here I am in a
parking lot on a magical night, watching the stars spin faster and faster.
In my younger days I could have leaped up and joined them, but now I am
the age of those beer-bellied men in my memories, looking at a grinning
boy holding the keys to an old dream in his outstretched hand. "So? You
wanna do it?" I look at my daughters, hoping enough of my spirit lives
in them to understand what's being offered. "We're kinda tired," they say.
And it's over. But the vision of what I once was, and how I'd pushed the
walls around me almost to popping before shooting out to airy and limitless
possibilities, follows me home and creeps into my dreams. When the sun
bursts into flame the next morning, I am no longer discontent.
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Nancy's story list and biography