Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Lasting Impression

The little biracial child curled against the door in the back seat of the japanese sedan, which sat at idle in an illegal spot, an indifferent woman in the passenger seat staring diffidently at a distant point undiscernible. Half-obscured by the mournful rainy-day reflections in the glass between us, the child watched me intently, hunched into myself under the parsimonious shelter of a shallow awning, pressed against the wall, smoking. Each time our eyes met, I turned away; each time I looked back at her, she coolly returned my gaze. Her hair was a curly black tempest reaching toward the roof liner, her light brown skin cafe au lait in a bohemian cafe, rain spilling down the front window.

The fourth or fifth time I looked at her, she smiled. Shy, I looked away. The stilted interaction recalled a handful of fleeting impressions I still carry with me from early childhood.

I remember, most notably, playing alone on the staircase of our East Orange apartment building, on Prospect Street, when I couldn't have been more than five or six. As I sat on the stoop, at the end of a sixty feet walk from the street, a woman walked by. She was white, blonde, to my mind pretty, and as tall as an old-growth tree. She looked at me. She smiled. I blushed, and turned away. It's my first concrete memory of the skittishness that dominantly would characterize my interactions with strange women for decades to come, and even now occasionally obtrudes (though mercifully less frequently than it used to).

I remember tobogganing on an upstate New York farm that belonged to my parents hippy friends, Gary and Andrea. I remember the snow being unthinkably deep, and the curl at the front of the sled providing insufficient protection from the billowing spray our transit incurred, searingly cold vortices of crystalline pain in my eyes, against my cheeks, down the collar of my coat. I remember my exasperation that my trauma seemed funny to the adults surrounding me when the ride ended in a snowbank. I remember also seeing Gary another time when his arm had been injured by a router: the wound looked massive, the scab yellowing and crenellated, though in hindsight I imagine that it was visible precisely because it wasn't all that severe, severe injuries of that sort usually requiring stitches and dressing.

I remember Jenny, a young girl who looks more and more like Little Orphan Annie every time I call her portrait to mind. In first grade we had a torrid affair, involving much hand-holding and traipsing about the school yard together. In second grade I attended a different school, leaving her behind. In third grade, however, she showed up at my school, and we resumed our courtship for a day or a week. Something went wrong, however; some indignity was suffered, and I was to blame. My last memory of her involves her descending a staircase in flight from me between classes, shouting "Faggot" at the top of her lungs as she left. I didn't know what a "faggot" was then -- I suspect she didn't either -- but I was pretty sure she didn't mean it as a compliment.

I remember her little red dresses, her curly blonde tresses.

I remember going to Brookdale Park with my Aunt Shawn, followed by grilled cheeses at a local luncheonette. I remember touring a wrecked storefront with my contractor father spec'ing out a repair of damage caused when a drunk driver exiting a nearby bar plowed inexplicably into the store in the early morning hours.

And I remember so many faces, often of adults, men and women of all ages who passed through my life in a flash but whose residues remain. How many are dead? How many are still where I found them? How many remember me?

Sometimes I wonder just how powerful an influence non-verbal communication might have on another person, children especially.

Here I was, cold in my sweater, feigning indifference to the pretty young girl's steady attention, smoking, trying not to get caught looking at the child by the woman in the front seat for fear of creeping her out. Trying to keep it simple -- just a cigarette break, think about the case, put the butt in a trash can, and so on.

But when finally I could take it no longer, I looked back at the little girl, who was a picture of barely restrained activity behind her impassive traveling companion who stat impossibly still unaware of the increasingly elaborate charade between the child and a strange man on the street. She was beaming, now, the girl, and through the pale reflection I realized why: her tongue was stuck out impossible far.

I smiled. Looked away. Looked back. She was grinning at me again, happy to have retained my attention, impish -- her tongue shot out, even further this time. I continued to grin. Warily eyeing the woman in the front seat to ensure I wasn't observed, I could no longer resist: I scowled playfully at the little girl and stuck my own tongue out. Her smile spread so wide it looked like her head my fall over backwards; in what might have been audible laughter, though the older woman made no sign, she collapsed into the door in a heap, hands lifting to protect her face, eyes aglow with charm, finally only the top of her chaotic shock of hair visible against the glass.

I moved to reenter the building, and she looked up again. This time my smile was more subdued; hiding my left hand from the older woman with my body, I looked down at the little girl over my bottom eyelids and surreptitiously raised my left hand, fingers curled over like cornleaves, in farewell.

And I wonder: will she remember me? Will I remember her? To what end?

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning. Hallelujah.


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