Nonfiction

July 5th and the Beautiful Perfection of a Memory Unrealized

It was ’93 or ’94 and her name had the type of alliteration you usually hear in the names of superhero girlfriends. But I was no hero and she wasn’t my girlfriend. Not really.

I had met her at my old college campus student center. She was working in the office and was the one I had to see to get into the swimming pool. I somehow managed to use the facilities there for a few years after graduation. Blond and always wearing a cross necklace, she was borderline stoic with just enough warmth radiating that I was able to find the nerve to chat her up a bit, eventually even ask her out.

Our first real date was July 4th. I joined her and a friend at the top of a hill named Love Circle. There we had, along with about a hundred other people, a perfect view of the city fireworks show. We sat on the grass and watched giant luminous flowers bloom in the summer sky. Around us, children laughed and pointed up. Adults and teenagers held hands and leaned on each other, smiling at the flashes overhead. All of our eyes had taken on that absent stare that comes with being mesmerized by shiny, pretty things.

After the fireworks, her friend left us to ourselves and we drove out to Opryland Hotel. We walked through the conservatory, among the plants, fountains and benches assembled like the space-bound dome forest in Silent Running. But the ecological fate of humankind was the last thing on my mind as I walked next to quite possibly the strongest crush I had in a long time, maybe ever. I can’t remember if I held her hand, but I know I wanted to.

When we grew tired of the air conditioned woodland with sidewalks, we found a large median rock in front of the hotel where we could sit and talk.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Her request was random and unexpected. I looked down; I looked up at the parking lot. I let out a couple of “hmms” and “uhs.” The warm night air blew against our cheeks as she waited for my answer. I could think of absolutely nothing.

As we sat cross-legged on that boulder and I struggled to come up with some special, secret knowledge that might change her world, midnight passed and the day became July 5th. Our Independence Date would soon end with no epiphanies or revelations, no lyrical tapestry or poetic words.

Then there was the kiss. It happened in the parking lot of my alma mater, after I had been swimming. For some reason she went out to my car with me. There was no romantic setting, no movie moment. I had towel hair and was leaning on my open car door. I don’t know why, but the moment felt right and it just happened.

My crush had become something more. At some point, it occurred to me that this one was different. I didn’t even think about sex when I thought of her. While that might seem like a strange thing to declare, it’s a pretty significant flag to a young man in his twenties. There was definitely something there that was more, that was different than I had felt before.

July unfolded with the slow, deliberate rhythm of a tropical Tennessee summer. Even the soundtrack of the season seemed to mirror the steamy asphalt and wet, thick air with songs like Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” in heavy rotation on the radio. It had become a huge hit a couple years earlier because of its placement in the David Lynch film, Wild at Heart. Since then, I heard it at least once a day, usually two or three times. I would come to associate the song with that time, with her.

I didn’t see her much the next few weeks. We talked on the phone. She was at the student center when I went swimming. But we didn’t really go out again.

Then I invited her to come see a band I played with at the time. She showed up with a girlfriend. After our set, while I was packing up my gear, she and her friend came to the stage to give their regards. My spirits were high from the post-show adrenaline and I leaned down to kiss her. She responded by offering a cheek.

That night, I knew it was over. It had never really started. I would find out that she had an ex-boyfriend who was a racecar driver. They were in a custody battle over a dog. I think she went back to him. I was hurt; my crush had been strong.

But our time together was a series of perfect moments, as fleeting as it might have been. One memorable night of disarming and bonding honesty. The first “yes” when I took the leap and asked her out. The car door kiss. All scenes in a short story framed by my anticipation of what could have been, but never at risk of being tarnished by a reality that is often cold and without passion or empathy. The memory is finite and pristine.

I still think of her every July 5th. Sometimes “Wicked Game” evokes the memories, but not as much these days. When I do become nostalgic, it’s for more than the specific scenes and emotions. It’s also for a brief moment in a young man’s life, when he’s at the verge of full throttle adulthood, that he’s able to once again – at least one last time – feel that a summer kiss is enough.

“Wicked Game” written by Chris Isaak; arranged and performed by Viktoriya Yermolyeva.

As Long As There Are Fireflies and Children

In My Lai, Vietnam, grandchildren of Ha Thi Quy, a survivor of the 1968 My Lai Massacre, hunt for snails at the ditch where civilians were rounded up and killed.

At times I’m certain that all true innocence has died with one last wince and a single tear as we stood around with our heads down and our hands together in helpless repose, watching the final breath that I can trace back to no less than a half dozen killing moments.

Then the sky breaks out in pink, the firefly shift begins and I remember the little boy who was so happy to wave at me from the backseat of a jeep at a traffic light. His cheeks must have hurt from grinning so much.

I remember the little girl from a village on the other side of the world who only wanted to throw a ball, back and forth, back and forth. We didn’t speak; we just played catch and that was our moment that nobody could steal.

I can hear my name shouted over and over by a friend’s three year old daughter who was very excited about the restaurant fish, especially the orange one.

And I think about the young but scarred heart who thanked me for a gift of blank pages, telling me how she had already written a story in them. I hope those pages end up covered with mostly firefly sunset words, leaving almost no space for the dark room, locked door passages.

Here’s hoping the dark room, locked door passages remain short and seldom for us all.

No Fortunate Son Part II – The Mailing

A friend suggested that I actually mail the open letter to the Dah Sing Noodle Company from my No Fortunate Son post. I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I did.

It’ll be interesting to see if I hear back and, if I do, in what manner. Even if I don’t, all I’ve lost in the effort is the price of postage, which ended up being very inexpensive since the center of Eastern wisdom is apparently Stone Mountain, Georgia.

I’ll give my letter some time to circulate through all the appropriate misplaced fortune channels at the Dah Sing Noodle company. Then I’ll post an update as to how the cookie crumbled.

No Fortunate Son

May 17, 2010

Director, Quality Control
Dah Sing Noodle Company
5430 E Ponce De Leon Ave
Stone Mountain, GA 30083

Dear Sir or Madam,

I wish to lodge a complaint in regards to a recent encounter with one of your products.

Outwardly, I could ask no more of an after dinner snack. The sugary shell, with its hint of lemon, possessed the perfect mix of crunch and compromise. The inevitable crumble moment was delayed until the cookie had made its way to my taste buds, rather than shattering when snapped to liberate the ribbon of wisdom inside.

Which brings me to my grievance: My fortune cookie was empty.

When I glimpsed no white paper corner through the crevice, I told myself that the fortune must have shifted and was lodged inside one of the hemispheres. I slowly cracked the cookie down the middle, only to find emptiness where there had once been promise.

I am certain I felt a hiccup in time and space when I realized the gravity of the moment. In all my years of dining at various establishments that offer such post meal meditations, I have never encountered a fortune cookie with no fortune. So reliable are these crisp capsules of insight that I’ve come to think of them as pieces of a fragmented life map.

“You will travel to faraway places.”

I went to Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia.

“Now is a good time to make a new friend.”

I asked my waitress out for drinks. And she went!

So, you can imagine my distress at finding no words of guidance. What did it mean? Had someone meticulously shimmied the fortune out of the cookie before it got to me? No, that didn’t make sense; it was sealed in plastic. Was the supply of fortunes being depleted? Could the world be on a fast track to delicious dessert wafers with no higher purpose? Was the lack of a message actually the message?

As you can see, this experience has been a great source of anxiety. While I hold out little hope for true resolve, I would ask that you do me the flavor, eh… favor of looking around your building for a rogue slip of paper. Perhaps it blew from whatever spot fortune meets cookie to a corner or beneath a table. It could be lodged in a printer or some other piece of equipment. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find it lost somewhere with its silent words waiting to be spoken under the nervous breath of a diner whose cookie came up empty.

Unfortunately,

Chance Chambers

Goodbye, Rollergirl

“The story was whatever was the song, what it was.”
– “Skateaway” by the Dire Straits

“Do you know how to skate?” The girl, no older than nine, had just rolled up to the wall where I wobbled my way out onto the skating rink floor. I looked down and said, “No.” There would be no dancing around this truth as I clearly struggled to keep my legs under me. At my helpless honesty, the girl made a face – nose wrinkled, mouth agape – that made an audible “Oh my god!” unnecessary. She then rolled away as naturally and swiftly as she had arrived.

I worked my way very slowly along the carpeted wall that lined less than a quarter of the circumference of the floor. Children zipped past me like little James Caans warming up for a Rollerball tourney. Teenagers leaning against the wall considerately pushed back to allow me passage as I struggled to get back to the birthday gathering of friends on the other side of the room.

It had been at least twenty-five years since the last and only time I had tried to skate. That was back in high school when my girlfriend and a friend of hers talked me into joining them at Magic Wheels Skating Center in Paris, Tennessee. My moves that weekend afternoon were anything but magic as they propped me up and tried to roll me around the rink. I fell again and again. I had fun, but I never even started to get the hang of it and my roller disco dreams faded like a glitter ball at closing time.

While perhaps a little disappointing, my inability to personally know the gliding exhilaration and sense of freedom that comes from moving with wheels on one’s feet has kept the idea of skating steeped in romance and mystique for me. There is something almost otherworldly about a floor full of people moving without a pedestrian gait. Between Frankenstein-walking among children and leaning on anything around, I watched my friends at the skating party that afternoon. It was like they were floating a few inches off the floor. Their seemingly natural grace and motion were almost dreamlike.

Not too long before that first high school roller rink misadventure, the romantic aspect of skating manifested itself in song for me with the Dire Straits’ “Skateaway.” Mark Knopfler’s guitar and voice backed by a beat that matched the rhythm of a skater’s stride told the story of a lone, mysterious Rollergirl who took on city traffic daily, owning the streets like an “urban toreador.” It was clear from the lyrics that Rollergirl had some skating skills – she let a big truck graze her hip, after all – but the video for the song let us see those moves for ourselves. And it let us see Rollergirl – black dreads, mocha skin, blush and glossed lips. Wearing blue shorts, a pink and blue top and a yellow, fringed hip scarf, she navigated an assortment of vehicles and cranky drivers on a mostly off-white video set with cubist moments. At her waist hung a bulky portable radio tethered to blue and yellow headphones, gigantic by today’s standards. Rollergirl was oh, so eighties, but she was beautiful and free, gliding through the videoscape effortlessly and moving her hips to her own soundtrack.

Usually, every good crush has a song, but with “Skateaway” the song was my crush. With this mirror truth the fourth wall of my MTV world soon cracked a little.

I was still too young to have a driver’s license, so I was my mother’s passenger on nearly a daily basis. One day we were on our way home, probably from the Avalon – a local restaurant where we spent much of my youth. As we turned onto a street near the restaurant, a girl with blond, Farrah Fawcett hair skated up behind our green Chevy Nova. She grabbed the back bumper for a few seconds, just long enough to accelerate. I can’t help but think my mother wasn’t too happy about this, but I don’t remember her saying much. Maybe she sensed my immediate infatuation, which would soon align with my “Skateaway” Rollergirl crush. This was a regular route for us, mostly as we left the Avalon, so I would see my Rollergirl quite a bit after that. I always looked for her as we turned onto that street. If she wasn’t around, I tried to hide my disappointment from my mother. If she was there, I tried to play it cool when she hitched a ride on our bumper.

After some time, the Avalon closed and I stopped seeing the local Rollergirl on the way home. We went to the same high school, so I spotted her in the hallway sometimes. She was pretty and she still had the Farrah Fawcett hair, but she wasn’t floating.

Eventually I got my driver’s license, but in all the years I’ve driven a skater has never hitched a ride on my bumper. “Skateaway” comes around from time to time. I’ll hear it on a retro eighties radio show or in random places like grocery stores. But I hadn’t really thought about the video until the day I tried to skate a second time.

I found it on YouTube and, when I watched it, realized that I probably hadn’t seen it since the song was new. I was struck by how blatantly eighties it was, but I still found it to possess a certain artistic integrity that held up across the decades. Rollergirl was just as beautiful and free as she was in 1981. I was smitten again.

After the long fade-out, I glanced down at the comments under the video. “RIP Rollergirl.” I read more. Then I did some digging online. It turns out Rollergirl, whose real name is Jayzik Azikiwe, died in 2008. I also learned that her father was a former president of Nigeria. Sometime after the Dire Straits video, Jayzik moved to the Gambia where she lived the rest of her life as a successful performance poet, songwriter and artist.

As for my local Rollergirl, I haven’t seen or heard news of her since high school. I wonder if she still skates. If she has children, I’ll bet they do. And I have no doubt they would look up with shock at a forty-two year old man who clearly can’t skate but still somehow ended up out on the rink.

I finally made it to the other end of the wall and back up onto the carpet of the concessions area. Now I felt a little more confident there than I had when I first stood up on my skates that afternoon. I never did make it all the way around the rink. I never even pushed myself out onto the skating floor. But I think I’ll be back. And I think I’ll wear skates again. I may never glide like Rollergirl, but maybe, just maybe, one Saturday afternoon I’ll let go of the wall.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1sfha_dire-straits-skateaway_music

Flying Machines and Goodbye Sake

The night of my grandmother’s funeral, I dreamed I saw something I couldn’t name fly overhead in the night sky. I was with a friend, a beautiful friend, and we both looked up at the flying machine, long and dotted with lights along some of its edges. It looked like fireflies moving in formation. My friend and I were on my old college campus, climbing steps in a building with a roof that somehow opened up to a hilltop. Nothing like that exists on that campus, but you know how dreams are. There at the top of the steps, we watched the craft, almost as dark as the sky, float over us. The only sound I remember were our quiet comments. I was so awestruck by the sight I had to sit down, right there on the concrete.

My grandmother had died two days before, early in the morning on Christmas Eve. At eighty-seven, she had been frail and in declining health for some time. That accelerated after a fall during Thanksgiving which first sent her to the hospital, then to a rehabilitation center, or in her condition, a nursing home. There she wrestled with the visions, notions and pain that come when the body and spirit are preparing for their respective journeys to the hereafter. Sisters that had gone before her visited. White lights danced outside her window. Family and staff conspired against her.

She was in the last, spiraling moments of a goodbye journey that had started two years earlier, when my mother died a few days before Christmas. There’s an oft-cited observation that a parent should never have to bury a child. That’s exactly what my grandmother did that holiday, and it took every bit of the toll implied by those words.

There were good days during those two years, times when she laughed with us. There were warm conversations and quiet moments together. She even cooked pork chops with me on a couple of occasions. Those two years deserve every bit of the cherished remembrance as earlier years spent with her. Still, I believe my grandmother grieved as much on her own last day as the day of my mother’s funeral.

In the end, it was impossible to reconcile the gaunt, fragile person she had become with my memories of the lady that my cousins and I once called “Athletic Granny.” We had come up with the nickname as a tribute to her enthusiasm in joining us for spirited dead-end street kickball games.

She was always right there with the grandchildren when it came to hobbies, interests, obsessions. There was almost something magical in the way she encouraged our childhood passions. More than once, a jar of caterpillars waited for me when I showed up for a summer weekend visit. During my praying mantis phase, her keen eye spotted a hatching brood of baby mantises on her porch. Very little was discouraged. I remember some cryogenics experiments involving her freezer, aluminum foil, a 6 volt battery and grasshoppers – further details of which I would rather not discuss.

But in the rehabilitation center, those summers had long been morning coffee memories. Now my grandmother couldn’t even leave the bed, much less kick a ball. She was exhausted, body and spirit.

One day, my aunt and I were watching her rest when we heard a loud voice somewhere outside the room. Someone was singing. At first, I thought it was from the room across the hall. We walked to the door to investigate. In front of a nurses’ station at the intersection of four hallways, an elderly gentleman stood with his eyes closed, belting with every bit of his heart and gut Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” His voice was strong and clear; he was a very good singer. A passing nurse told us that he sings for extra soda money. At the chorus, his “So” and “Lonesome” met to share an “o,” so the line came out “I’m so’nsome I could cry.” My aunt and I watched and listened until he finished. Then I applauded as if that would buy anyone a soda or make the song less true.

Less than two weeks later, my grandmother was gone. That morning, Christmas Eve, the family went to the funeral home to make arrangements and pick out a casket. Outside, the wind blew like March. It was gray and rained on Christmas and by the funeral on the 26th, clear skies added a chill to the wind that had an extra bite at the top of the cemetery hill.

After my cousins and I carried the casket from the hearse to the grave, I stood wedged between someone else’s tombstone and the heavy, plastic side of the funeral home tent which beat against my back with every defiant gust. The service was short and I managed to withstand the flapping tarp. It was far less than my grandmother had withstood.

That night, the flying machine came to me in my sleep. I might suggest that it was some manifestation of the means by which my grandmother was leaving this world. But if that’s the case, it was only circling, waiting for more passengers.

There was still cemetery mud on my shoes when I got the call on New Year’s Eve. A young friend had died in a car accident early that morning. She had hydroplaned on the rain-soaked interstate and lost control of her car. She was twenty-five years old.

I met Seyde at Ken’s Sushi in Nashville. Close to my home, the restaurant has become a regular haunt of mine. The staff there treats me like family. When I was going home regularly to visit my grandmother, they always asked about her. The manager and her brother – a sushi chef there – shared stories about their grandmother with me.

Seyde was close friends with the staff at Ken’s, especially the manager, her brother and his wife. The first time I saw her was at a send off party for a waitress returning to Thailand. Seyde’s father was Thai; her mother is American. She spent the early part of her life in Thailand. When she was thirteen, her father died in a car accident in Bangkok. After that, she moved to America with her mother and brothers.

Whenever I saw Seyde at Ken’s, she treated me like an old friend, always offering a smile and a hug, insisting I go out dancing or for drinks with everyone. If it hadn’t been for Seyde and the Ken’s crowd, I might have never danced again. While I’m grateful for the lack of video cameras on those nights, it sure was nice to move to music with friends again. And now I have a cache of cherished memories I wouldn’t otherwise.

Three days after the accident, a blessing ceremony was held for Seyde at a local Buddhist temple. The temperature outside had continued to drop over the week and the pavement was cold through my socks when I pushed off my shoes outside by the door. I had arrived just as the monks were finishing the food the family had prepared for them.

The large room was already nearly wall to wall with family and people whose lives had been touched by Seyde. Still, guests continued to arrive after I found a spot on one of the many rugs covering the floor. Near the statues of Buddha, some of Seyde’s favorite things had been gathered around a large self-portrait sketch. For some reason, I noticed the bottles of Diet Mountain Dew.

After the monks finished eating and the tables were moved away, the family gathered around in front of the Buddha statues where a string was draped around them and back to Buddha and the monks. Holy water was sprinkled on the family and guests. The monks chanted as guests knelt with their palms pressed together and eyes closed. For twenty minutes or so, the room was filled with the drone of the holy voices that only occasionally rose in pitch. With my eyes closed and consciousness focused on the sound, I started to feel, even if just for the moment, worry and pain fall away.

After the blessing ceremony, there were remembrances and a slide show. So many beautiful, captured moments of Seyde with family and friends. People she had known since school; friends she had grown up with. In every photograph there was that unforgettable smile.

I watched for a while, and then talked to other guests before getting in line to speak to Seyde’s mother. This would be the first time I met her. When I got to her, she hugged me a long time and said through a mother’s tears, “I’ve lost my only girl.” A parent should never have to bury a child.

After a few more goodbyes, I stepped back out onto the cold pavement and found my shoes. The temple rooster crowed goodbye as I walked to my car and squinted to try and make out a figure walking back from the far end of the lot. It was a monk in a heavy winter coat. We both had left the entire world’s warmth inside where the rugs were stained with tears and holy water.

Less than a week later, on a Friday night, I’m sitting in Ken’s at the sushi bar. It’s been two weeks and a day since my grandmother died, less than a week since Seyde’s ceremony at the temple. On the placemat next to mine, there’s a picture of Seyde that the manager’s little boy has been carrying with him, even to bed. It’s a little wrinkled, but not enough to obscure her natural beauty, the luminous smile and the eyes that looked upon no one as a stranger or unworthy of friendship.

It’s still cold as hell outside; there’s even been snow the last few days. The skin on the back of my hands has started to crack from the chill, but the sake’s warm and the conversation abundant with reminiscence of our lost friend. From now on, every carafe of sake begins with a toast to her.

It feels like home in here. This is where I met that friend. This is the place I shared grandmother stories. This is the place I’ll be again in a few days, sitting too far from the window to check the sky for lights.