Friday, January 13, 2012


She talks louder, words spilling as from something overflowing deep inside her, built up over the years. I just sit and smile. I make eye contact with my attending. God, he must think I’m stupid. With the sun at high noon, a question was posed and once again I find myself on the losing end of a draw. Because I was a half-second sluggish, because I stuttered reaching for my weapon, because I paused to contemplate the kill, I now graciously accept her onslaught. Her words—that fiery lead that pours forth from her pistol—pour through me, so I stand. And smile. They say thinking will kill a man. Ah yes, I guess I have always been enticed by the sweet smoke of Death.
So I counter with exacting nods. Appreciating her more well-aimed points—tearing through my spleen, my kidney, my shoulder. But always missing my heart. I counter with a smile and a precise yet subtle cock of my eyebrow whenever she misses. And maybe she misses often. But who cares how many shots were fired when one lays open your leg? So she talks louder. I nod. Faster. I raise an eyebrow. Ammunition rips through my insides. I smile. Then a brief moment of silence.
I seize the repose. I lurch to un-holster my bloodied wit. To fire a few words of my own, steady and true. And I hear the empty click of my barrel as our engagement comes to an end. My attending looks and nods. I force myself to sit a bit taller. My wounded pride clutched beneath the table is dripping crimson between my fingers. Everything is calm up above. There is placid triumph painted on her face. Bold resignation on mine. I smile. Very good, he says. God, he must think I’m stupid.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Ride

It was during this season fourteen years ago that my family first moved to the golden shores of California.  All the way from Tallahassee, Florida, my family ventured three thousand miles from sea to shining sea, stuffed snugly in a small yellow moving van together with our belongings.  I remember it fondly for being a great family adventure.  Truth be told, all road trips are exciting to an eleven-year-old, but this trip would take us through Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and even the Grand Canyon.  And we—meaning my brother and I—gorged ourselves on fast food every day, which was a rare treat that we both eventually grew tired of.  To this day, when I’m stuck in traffic on the I-10 freeway, I think of how my dad drove this pavement from its four-lane existence in small-town Florida to its infuriating twelve-lane girth in bustling Southern California.  If I’m in no special rush, this happy remembrance coupled with a tune on the radio will often do nicely when I find myself a single scale on the snake of brake lights slithering out from underneath the LA skyline.
Moving vans normally only seat two people.  This becomes a mathematical conundrum if you are relocating a family of four.  Of course, my dad circumvented the impossible by slyly renting a van that had a small sliding door allowing the driver access to contents in the rear hull.  We shoved our beloved forest-green faux leather sofa up to the front of the hull, facing forward, so that when we slid open the square access, we were greeted warmly by an opening above the middle cushion.  For my eleven-year-old self and six-year-old brother, it was practically faux first class.  And lucky for my parents, we didn’t move a year later, because my body was just small enough to fit through that cubby-hole of a door.  For the majority of our trip, this door remained open to allow both light and communication to flow freely into our makeshift rear seats.  But I do remember on two occasions experiencing the unruly thrill of deception when my dad slid shut the door, leaving us in dark silence as our van stopped at checkpoints along the southwestern stretch of Interstate 10.  In the windowless hull of our moving van, I could hear my heart beat quicken as I felt the truck squeak to an aching halt.  I would tuck my body against the familiar arm of our sofa and imagine the guard outside with hand raised, quickly inspecting our vehicle.  All the while, I sat in brave anticipation for the gentle jolt of acceleration to signify deception’s triumph.  In these moments I was an eleven-year-old on the lam—I pictured myself having freshly committed some unspeakable act, now sidestepping justice in my escape to the west.  Yes, defiance is never as sweet as when savored by a child’s probing palate.
Yet, as exciting as the actual journey turned out to be, I wasn’t always so keen about the move.  I still remember the tension that hovered over my family in the weeks after my dad first lost his job in Tallahassee.  He would be gone for days at a time, interviewing in new cities across the country.  I told my mom that I wanted Dad to find new work locally—that I didn’t want to leave.  She would reach over to hold my arm and tell me that he was trying.  But Tallahassee was where I learned to swim, to run, to ride a bike and read a book, to throw a spiral and a punch.  I’m not sure what kind of god I believed in at that time, if any, but I prayed to Not Sure What that my family would be able to stay.  I was a shy kid and friends didn’t come easy.  And this was the only city I knew.  I had memorized the sound of the streets, the smell of the public library, and the way the light reflected off the pond beside my home.  It was everything a boyhood should be and my mom knew this when she came to pick me up after swim practice on the day she told me that we would be moving to California.
We pulled out of the parking lot and the gravel crunched underneath our tires as I laid my seat back.  I always rode in the front passenger seat of our black sedan with the seat reclined all the way back.  It made me feel cool and hidden at the same time, and to me, this combination felt powerful and rare.  My mom seemed unusually quiet as she passed me my congee soup.  It had become my routine to indulge in sweet red bean congee soup after swim practice because it satiated that unnatural appetite that boys get after swimming just enough so that it wouldn’t resurface until dinnertime.  It was raining that day and even though I had but eleven years under my belt, I understood there was something poetic and peaceful about staring at the squiggly path of rain drops running across a car window.  My mom cleared her throat and broke the news that my Dad had found a new job in San Diego.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  I watched the rain weave across the clear pane above my nose in silence, and stared out at the grey skies, which were the same color as the pit in my stomach.  But I knew it wasn’t raining because the universe cared anything for an eleven-year-old’s sorrow.  It was just condensation and Florida gets a lot of that.  We were leaving the pool where I first learned to perform a dive and a flip-turn, and we were headed home.  And then we were going to leave that home and go to California where there was very little condensation.  I told my mom that I would try my best not to be too sad when we pulled into the driveway, and try to be happy for Dad.
We packed our belongings and moved a few weeks later, and by the time I was helping to push that green sofa into the back of our moving van, the initial cloud of sadness I carried with me had condensed into droplets of nervous excitement.  They wormed their way across my insides.  What would California be like?  Would I make new friends?  And what about school, and swimming, and would I survive all the earthquakes?  Now, fourteen years after I sat quietly in that black sedan watching the rain slide sideways; after our yellow van first crossed into the city limits of San Diego and we took in for the first time California’s freeway overpasses and mountainous desert terrain, I see only a landscape of fond memories where there once was so much uncertainty.  When it comes to new beginnings, often it’s the view backwards that provides the greatest scope.  So during a season where we turn our attention to family, friends, and fresh starts, I’m reminded that in life—despite all the anxiety we harbor over what direction we’re going and where we’ll end up—it’s often the ride we’ll remember the most.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter where you are going as long as you carry with you the right things and go with the right people.  Especially if you remember to stick the green sofa in the back.

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