The Door Is Unlocked

I went through this phase for a while where I broke into cars. But I was real picky about it. I never busted out a window on anything that belonged to a single mother or someone who could’ve been friends with my Nana at the rec center. So, technically, I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t even some punk kid on a dare.

I was jut getting by; just looking for a little rush. You can justify everything as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

Like when it was just me and a coat hanger and that sly pop of the lock. Sometimes I even got lucky and the door would already be unlocked for me. I wouldn’t have to use the coat hanger or bust out the glass or anything. As much of a rush as breaking into cars gave me I was always so relieved when the door would click open without effort. I wouldn’t need repentance then, you know? It’s not my fault the door was unlocked. It made the vision of the owner finding fault with themselves much more realistic. “How could I have forgotten to lock the damn door,” they’d think on their way to the store to replace their missing aux cord and the Nike FlyKnits from their gym bag.

When push came to shove I’d poke around the smaller apartment complexes. The one’s that weren’t gated and usually not as well-lit as some of the bigger communities. And, if you’re really smart, like I was, you target the parking lots in back. That way, if anybody sees you, they just assume you’re some weird neighbor they haven’t met yet.

I’d be telling a lie if I said I made a lot of money doing this. I didn’t. But that didn’t hold me back. I’m not someone who gives up easily. My aunt always said I have true grit. Spare change adds up and I have somewhere else I want to be.

The last night I went window shopping as I so cleverly dubbed my hoodrat hobby, I picked out a complex that had 12 spots in the back of building 16. I liked this lot because the buildings in the complex were numbered out of order so they read 17, 18, 16 as you wound your way to the back. Anyway, I’m in the lot right, and there’s this nice Jeep Renegade with one of those monogram things on the back windshield out there (the initials were REH) and the door’s unlocked like some kind of gift from the Great I Am himself.

I get in there and start looking around and the stereo system isn’t really worth prying out so I leave it alone, and there’s not a watch or anything in the cup holder, so I just swipe the change from the backseat and get out. When I slide out of the backseat there’s REH and she’s got these big brown eyes and she’s just staring at me.

She’s got a duffle bag strapped across her right shoulder and her keys are in her left hand and I’m like Oh shit and somehow, before I know what’s happening I say the words “Oh, shit,” and it suddenly dawns on me that my legs aren’t moving. Most people would’ve been hauling ass by this point, right? So I’m standing there like my toes are made of lead and I’m thinking to myself, Do you want to get arrested, dumbass, and after what seems like an eternity, I utter the brilliant phrase, “Is this your car?” and she just kind of looks at me and then I say, “It looks exactly like mine. I guess those drinks were a little stronger than I thought.”

I haven’t had a drop of liquor in 2 years but her eyes soften a little and I think for a second maybe she believes me. She sees right through me but she says it’s okay and it’s also not okay and then asks if I’m okay. She looks at me like I’m some prodigal friend who’s just walked back into her life after a decade or so and asks if there’s anybody she can call and I’m so surprised at her words and my own stupidity I’ve gone dumb again and I’m just kind of standing there with my hands in my hoodie pocket like I’ve got something worth holding onto in there. I don’t.

And then I notice that she’s noticed my hands in my hoodie pocket and her breath catches in her throat so I take my hands out real slow because I didn’t come here to terrorize anybody or anything like that. I’m not a monster. I had no idea that it was possible for someone to perceive me as an actual threat.

The cloud cover breaks and the moment is suddenly caught in a moonbeam and it’s just like heaven is recognizing her for her goodness in this world. I felt pretty crappy right about then. But I couldn’t help thinking in the same moment how I could just take her keys and her wallet and her cell phone and the cross around her neck and the ring on her finger and her sense of safety.

There’s also this alternate scenario where I just tell her I’m sorry. I tell her I’m sorry that I coveted the spare change in her back seat. Tell her that I’m sorry I ran 2,000 miles away from home and missed my uncle’s funeral. Tell her I’m sorry that the world’s the way it is and there are people like me in it. Tell her that I’m scared of the same things she is. Everything.

What did I do?

I told her all the things I’d been dying to say to a best friend if I ever found one: That this just happened and it’s still happening and I don’t have a good explanation why it keeps happening. I told her that I just want something to love for the fact that I can dedicate my entire life to it and never know a damn thing about it and it all be okay. I tell her that if she could just forget this happened, just wrap an arm around my shoulder, even if the city went on burning, I’d be okay.

I tell her I don’t deserve for her to be looking at me like that. Like she knows me or something. Like we knew each other in some alternate universe. And I know she believes me. But it doesn’t stop her from looking at me like that anyway.

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The One With the Ferris Wheel

The fair smells like hot grease, sugar, and gasoline. The combination makes me feel high, like the time we went through all that spray paint working on the homecoming float junior year. I breathe in deeply.

With a lurch, the Octopus starts to spin while the car we’re in moves up and down at random. It’s not long before we blend into the blurry mess of other shrieking kids on this ride. All I can think while we turn, dip, and bob is I hope I don’t throw up on Greg’s jeans.

The cheap, purple elephant I don’t want, but really do, is suspended beneath what I can only imagine are a thousand fat, glowing bulbs. Greg fires baseballs at milk bottle pyramids. The guys in suspenders sell him rings to toss and seats at water gun booths, and I poke fun and hold the corndogs while he tries much harder than he should. He wins the panda bear in the end; we probably could’ve bought one at Walmart for a lot less money but I know this panda didn’t find its way to me on nickles and dimes.

There’s a kid at the dunk tank who looks like Greg, but younger. He’s tall and thin with rectangular glasses and dark brown hair. Everything you’d imagine Clark Kent would look like if he was just Clark Kent and not really Superman (no offense, Greg). His dad agrees to sit on the collapsible seat and we move in with the crowd to watch. I have to stand on my tiptoes to see the boy grab his first baseball and butter up the crowd. Inevitably, some teenager starts chanting Dunk Him! Dunk Him! Dunk Him! and it’s not long before we’ve all joined in. Full of confidence, the boy winds up and launches a fastball that hits the target with an impressive thwap. His father plunges into the water and the scent on the air is soon mixed with chlorine and grass.

I ask Greg what his favorite scent is. He pauses to think for a minute, a bit of magic caught in his eyes as they gleam under the carnival lights. Fresh strawberries, he answers softly. I like the scent of fresh strawberries and rain on a warm June night.

We pick our favorite seat on the Ferris Wheel. The one that’s had our initials carved into it for ages. The white cart climbs through the night air slowly, while we’re serenaded by the song on the carousel that’s just a stone’s throw away. The wind whispers in my ears and Greg’s fingers twist around mine.

I look at him and smile but to my surprise, we aren’t 15. We’re 50 and a little dizzy — high on sugar and gasoline. Greg leans closer to tell me to take in the view and I smell his skin. It blends well with the scent of the fair and I inhale slowly.

We’re at the top of the Ferris Wheel about to make our slow, rounded descent but I am still rising gently into the night sky. Almost like a balloon, caught on the breath of a child’s summertime wish.

The Same Deep Water as You

Google said it would be 19 hours and 38 minutes to Camden, Maine. I had to take an extra stop in Philly for a sandwich to make it come out right. I took off after my uncle died. He was always so happy, full of good advice too. He’d say stuff like, “You really should ditch the Cokes babygirl, water’s better,” and “Life’s too short not to eat pie.”

I remember the moment I found out. It was on Facebook of all places. Nobody had called me yet. And I remember seeing the posts popping up on my feed. There were so many can’t believe your gone’s that I couldn’t believe it was true. In fact, I was certain all of those people had made a mistake. You couldn’t be gone. We were supposed to have lunch next week.

Then my phone rang at the end of the day and I could feel in the pit of my stomach what was coming. My mother said you died and the emotion I had refused to acknowledge all day rushed to the surface like one of those Coke’s you were always telling me to ditch had been shaken to the point of explosion. Time froze and there was a crow in the tree outside the kitchen window staring at me as if he were God, waiting for me to make a mistake.

That’s the thing about breaking hearts I guess. Nobody ever sees it coming. I asked my uncle if he could take a picture with me the last time we were all together. He hugged me and stuck his tongue out. He was hardly ever serious. Do you see what I mean about breaking hearts?

Anyway, a week after he died I got this letter in the mail. A real handwritten letter. It was so old school, man, I couldn’t not open it. There was a key inside the envelope with the paper. What’s it go to?

I don’t have a frickin’ clue. But that’s the beauty of it.

*****

Camden is this little bitty town in the mid-coast region of Maine. A lot of wealthy people like to vacation here in the summer. They go out on the schooners – like the Grace Daily – to cruise the spruce-clad islands of Maine. It doesn’t take much for old Captain Ray to convince you to take a trip on the Grace Daily. I have to admit, he sweet-talked me into it pretty easily. Said I reminded him of someone he used to know.

There’s no power on the boat. You get around with wind and canvas. You wake up to the cold mist of salt blowing in your face, the song of water parting at the bow.

Captain Ray told me if I listened close enough the music would heal whatever ailed me. He never said what the message was; only that it was worth hearing.

*****

A hollow wind sang in me that summer. At an old lighthouse, I left my car, a forest green Jeep Wrangler, 192,017 miles on it, next month’s insurance due. From there onward there was no road, only the current. My boat glides through the crests of waves. Sometimes I can’t help but glance back over my shoulder, listen for the notes I’ve missed.

I am chasing the place where the sky meets the sea. I am guided by the shallow tremor of my heart.

There comes a time when you don’t know how to let go.

And I had these lungs that I just let burn.

*****

It was stupid. The way he died. It was a cut on his ankle. It turned to blood poisoning before anyone knew it was even there. I still haven’t forgiven him.

I couldn’t stand to be around the people or places that made me think of him so I left. I never thought much about it honestly. I figured I’d tell everybody where I wound up through Facebook one day.

*****

This rocky coast. This smell of sea brine and sweat. This grey sky.

This Spotted Sandpiper foraging on the shore, speaking in its secret language.

This heavy rope dragging me down into the weight of the water.

Why didn’t God warn me to wear a lifejacket?

I sleep in a room with four books and a candle I only light on Thursdays.

I tell myself to suck it up, stop crying. Nobody else knows what they’re doing here. Why should you?

*****

I wanted to ask my uncle on so many different occasions why he only wore black tank tops and jeans. I wanted to know what kind of chin, if any, he was hiding behind that big bushy beard. But of course, I never asked. It would’ve ruined the mystery of him. And that’s why I loved him so much.

*****

I found out what lock the key fit three months ago. Nobody else knew about my uncle’s secret love affair with boats except me. It was a secret we kept together. Everybody knew how much he loved to fish but the joy sailing brought him was something he kept quiet. Kind of like a liquor addiction, but not as sinful. Her name was Ursa Minor and she was a message he left for me.

*****

For a while there I saw myself as a castaway too insignificant to save. The days were short, the wind was cold, and the message in a bottle never came.

It’s ugly how far grief can set us adrift. It’s even uglier to endure the things it makes you do. You never forget the taste of saltwater off the coast of Maine.

*****

The sheriff has taken up residence by my hospital bed the next time I come to. His eyes refuse to meet mine. I take it as a sign he knows what the ocean off the coast of Maine tastes like too.

*****

When I land in Atlanta I am a child again.

*****

I am 80 miles south on an old fishing boat on a Georgia lake at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.

*****

The moon shines through the window and I can hear my uncle laugh. Not his normal laugh, but his Donald Duck laugh.

The moon shines through the window and I do not know if it was all just a dream or not.

*****

If you haven’t been here you don’t know what love requires until it takes it from you.

*****

I’m not writing for your sympathy. I’m just writing because it’s over.