Retrieval 4

Sweaty summer nights as boys, plopped on our beds in our underwear listening to Brewers games; the little boombox I would play Sherlock Holmes radio plays on as I fell asleep, the clip-clop of horse hooves, the moody violin soundtrack; grade school Salisbury steaks and elephant ears speckled with sugar and the lunch lady with the mop of grey curly hair who smiled at you, called you hon, whereas the other lunch ladies were kept behind the scenes, the grumpy ones who probably escaped as soon as possible for a cigarette outside; the amazing flexibility and guileless heart of Mindy D.; the rangy, alcoholically-handsome eighth grade teacher, Mr. R, probably forty, who gave the girls in his classes rides on his shoulders, which seemed, then, somehow not weird; the seventh grade teacher, Mr. M, who would grab R by the collar, perp walk him to a wall, and shout at him to shut up, his mouth an inch from R’s mouth, his whole head beet red; the time I was reading a chapter about synchronicity in The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, my favorite book in 6th grade, and something very, very synchronic happened, I wish I could remember what, I think maybe a diagram Mrs M. had drawn on the board matched some doodle in my notebook, right as I’d been reading about synchronicity, whatever it was I remember feeling floored, the urge to tell someone, but it would be too hard to explain it; the  incredible, unbearable feeling of my first real crush that same year, a twist in my heart and a catch in my breathing whenever I saw her in class or when she smiled at me that I have felt, in a slightly more muted way, a few times as a grown up, we’re all susceptible to crushes now and again, they’re natural, a reminder we’re alive, and the feeling connects me instantly to my twelve-year-old self, my single eighteen-year-old and twenty-three-year old selves, my occasionally crush-susceptible married self of years past; for a little while it makes life feel electric and less constrained, less set in stone. And that reminder: it helps.

What about that very sweet, large couple in their forties, no kids, who were the landlords of a summer apartment in New Orleans, the man like a character in a children’s book—cheery, apples in his cheeks, gap-toothed—who would whip up endless batches of enchiladas, who had almost a mania for it, and kept a giant, industrial-size storage freezer full of them, hundreds, which he would share with me and my roommate weekly, a cooking habit that made me wonder if he was heartbroken about not having kids, if he had wanted a big lively family, but couldn’t, so did the cooking for a big family part, as some kind of compensation. There was the owner of the Korean place we liked in Cambridge, a gruff lady who would hack at the half-burned rice at the bottom of your little cauldron of Bi Bim Bap with chopsticks if you hadn’t finished it, and nod at you and bark, “Eat! The best part!;” the seventy-something lecturer at NU, not a professor, I’m embarrassed I’ve forgotten his name, who I would play ping pong with in the student center, because we both loved it (he’d been part of a club when he was younger) once a week for a semester, up until I got good enough to beat him, the peak of my ping pong career, spins and roundhouse swats and everything, at which point he didn’t want to play anymore, this circumspect man who wore a suit every day and who seemed to be estranged from his family, who spoke of a son, but did not want to speak of his life, or ask me much about mine, only to play ping pong, three games a session, where the rules were clear, and the action lively. My violin teacher my junior and senior years in high school, who flew to NYC every weekend from Milwaukee to be with his wife, who played in the New York Philharmonic, who had a Stradivarius on loan and let me play it once, who told me about how he travelled through Europe in his early twenties with a string quartet, they’d play for cash in the square of various cities and made enough to stay in hostels, eat well, how he shook his head at me when I hadn’t prepared nearly enough for some competitive symphony weekend thing he thought I should do, for which he thought I’d be first chair, how I furiously crammed the first violin part of what we would play that weekend (Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony) from the fifth or sixth chair and barely, barely got through it without wiping out during the performance, the experience both exhilarating and awful, like surviving a ski hill that’s two levels too hard for you. The distant cousin, a girl of about five, who took a liking to me and wanted to sit on my lap when we visited in Switzerland, me seventeen, and the feeling it gave me of what it might be like to be a father someday, of feeling like you’re someone else’s safe good place, not something I’d ever felt with the boys, only boys, I’d babysit sometimes in the neighborhood; the girl I had a crush on at fourteen at camp, Annika, the freedom of being whoever you wanted to be that summer, around strangers, the California boys who didn’t want to be there, who told me Richard Gere really had put a shaved gerbil up his ass, THEIR DAD KNEW RICHARD GERE, SO IT WAS TRUE, OK?, who nasally pronounced “gracias” “grassy ass” at lunch and snorted, who were probably were jerking off like monkeys at every opportunity, something I was still innocent of back then. The feeling of pushing off in a canoe into still, cold water, as happened at that camp, the slight wobble, the settling into position, the glide before you start pushing forward with your oars. The kayak rides like the ones I took by myself, sneaking time, the past few summers in Canada, how needed they were, how calming it was to row towards the little cul de sac of the lake where giant trees loomed over dark water full of yellow lily pads and flattened peagreen reeds striping the surface like calligraphy strokes, the tops of some of those looming trees nodding deeply like big, moppy puppets, a steady, deliberate kind of lurching, but also just underneath them the sequin-like twinkling of tiny birch leaves, their branches firm and stoic, only the leaves fluttering, and the squat brushy trees swaying like fat hippies at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert until the winds picked up and swirled at which point the hippies would move erratically, up and down, side to side, tripping too hard. There was also the calm flapping of the longer-branched trees to my right, like the ritualistic fanning of giant palm fronds, as if Jesus on a donkey would show up any minute. In the kayak, I moved closer to the end of the water, the wind’s hollow whistle, a dim seashell sound in the hollow of my ear, and with maybe twenty yards to go, I lifted up the oars and let the wind push me and drifted into the water growing more shallow: three feet, two, one, until I hit sand and stopped.

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