Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Maria Pa-pee-ya.

There was a girl living across the street from me when I was young, and I mean that quite literally. For the entirety of my youth--the first twenty-one years--my house faced hers. The houses face each other to this day, but, strangely, other people live there now.

Twenty-one years... even if the final 21 years of your life were to be spent in an iron lung, and a squeaky one at that, they still won't seem as long as the first twenty-one. That's where you learn the billion or so details that you'll spend the rest of your life deciphering, pretending to know them like you know your own name.

The girl's name was Maria, Maria Pa-pee-ya in the schoolyard vernacular, though I couldn't quite tell you why other than that she was Colombian and the nickname sounded absurdly Spanish. More accurately, it was her mom that was Colombian, and she spoke in broken english. I think Maria sometimes found this a little embarrassing, and so despised her tauntish playground moniker.

We played together every day as toddlers, and when school reared its awful Catholic head we entered the same first grade class. I have little recollection of interacting with her at school, undoubtedly preferring the company of men, as it were. Small, screechy men. (And I don't mean Father Louie.)

Once we were back at home, Maria probably having had enough of girls and I of boys, our friendship would be instantly rekindled. That unspoken resilience describes a great difference between childhood and adulthood. When you're a kid, it's only the most important bonds that are constantly broken and mended, but as an adult it's the opposite---a labor-intensive burden like that usually just needs to be left smoldering at the roadside.

We sang spontaneous songs and our dolls mingled socially and without reservation. Our marathon sessions of whatever game held our fancy on any given day were mind-boggling. (How many matches of tic-tac-toe could you endure today?) We were friends like the way everyone should have friends, like on The Brady Bunch and the countless other shows we watched. The shows that tried to teach us about stuff like the importance of being friends, as if we hadn't figured that out already.

We had a decidedly non-amorous relationship, but not one without tension. The fights we had were monumental, if largely internal. We'd disparage and sulk, isolate and eventually reconsider. The careful process of reconciliation was excruciating and necessary. Rarely would there be a genuine resolution, because there was usually little to resolve.

I once coldly shut her out because I found hateful, anti-me graffiti on a wall in her garage. It was an ancient artifact from a previous falling-out. I think it was after this discovery that the streetlamp at the corner became a bulletin board of not only nonsensical innuendo, but of hateful sentiment and vicious rumor. It may even have been crucial to our eventual parting of ways. Of course, almost all childhood friendships fade, but certainly it can't help to have a perpetual public record of all your silly grievances right there, just one house away (Ralphie DeMarco's) at the end of the block. This gossip central was a steel, light gray pole, and our slander was invariably written in pencil (not to suggest that it could yet be erased from the forum so much as that ink pens simply wouldn't write on it). Sometimes we'd furiously scribble our nasty notes on opposite sides of the pole at the very same time, taking care never to make eye contact.

Despite our lack of romance, we were partners in our own little practice one day, if my drift is caught. We were in her house, second floor playroom, her mom downstairs cooking. The house smells of broccoli and beans... I remember this well because it always smelled of broccoli and beans. We decide, somehow, to display our mysterious goods to one another. It is risky---no lock on the door, mother downstairs... hell, it's a split level so mom's not even a full floor away---but we do it anyway. I believe it was her idea. I don't think I was ever all that interested.

We stand close, peering only down as corduroys undo. I accuse her of cheating---she's manipulating her belly-button to make it look weird. Oh, wait. Okay, I see it, I think I get it now. Hmm.

No door-bursting, wide-eyed mother here, though it wouldn't have been much more embarrassing than the time we were locked out of her house one autumn day. I threw a rock at the outer door and, sissy-arm that I was, totally missed the metal bottom half and shattered the glass storm window above. I think my idea was to make noise to attract her mother, who was presumably inside. It made some noise alright, especially the blood thudding dully in my ears as I fled to my house, through the gate, across the backyard, into the back door and up two flights of stairs. Slamming my bedroom's door behind me, I wedged myself between the mattress and boxspring and made plans for an Easter re-emergence from my Star Wars-sheeted tomb.

When I at last met up with Maria again after this incident (well after I'd been properly scolded and the window replaced), she embarrassed me by asking, in front of both our moms, "Paul, why did you break our window?" I hated her immensely then, for bringing up what I was hoping was already water under the bridge, and because she asked this question with the matter-of-factness of an imbecile, and especially because there I was with no good answer. I resolved to make sure that every time our little Opal Drive/Ruby Lane gang played Scooby Doo, she would be relegated to the part of Velma, and Ralphie's kid sister, the stringy-haired, buck-toothed Anne, would play the coveted role of Daphne. That'd learn her.

Maria's mom got into a severe car accident when we were about eight or nine or so, and so Maria stayed with us over the many weeks of recuperation. I think it was toward the end of this period, when I'd long grown weary of her ever-present pug-nosed face, that I punched her in the stomach for refusing to show me a birthday invitation she'd received. It arrived in my mailbox, so I felt entitled. She clung to the couch, doubled over and unable to breathe as I picked up the card at her feet, read it, and nonchalantly tossed it aside. I may have said something like, "Ah, who cares" before walking away in a kind of idiot victory, the very kind some men strive for and never recover from. I don't think there were any other instances of punching, but this one was enough to constitute a turning point. She had once described to me the feeling of having the wind knocked out of her when her brother tackled her one time, how awful it was. As I stepped over the invitation and out the front door, I knew I had hurt her the same way. I don't recall apologizing.

I still recall, vividly, the landmark day that found my arrival at a new threshold, the fifth-grade afternoon when my newest friend Jeff and my oldest friend Maria joined me in my room for a game of Slime Monster. Jeff had never visited afterschool before, but this time we made the required arrangements for him to take my bus home with me. Maria didn't go to St. Pius anymore so we no longer had that in common, and she didn't seem to care for Slime all that much lately, either. When she went home after the game, Jeff commented unfavorably on her, and I was compelled to agree.

Maria and I saw each other now and then after that, unavoidably so. My buddies and I would play Kill the Guy with the Ball on the side yard, and Maria would be across the street, maybe with Anne, or whomever. I didn't know who her friends were anymore.

We'd look furtively across Opal Drive during our teen years, noting each other's changes. Shortly after my father died, at my mother's insistence, I hesitantly crossed the street to bring back some of Maria's family's dishes or Tupperware or whatever. I didn't know much at sixteen, but I knew enough after three numbing nights of dad's wake to realize that this distance Maria and I had installed was probably not so wide that we couldn't say hello and talk again.

I knocked, hoping she wouldn't answer. She did. I stood on the stoop we'd sat on so many evenings, she in the doorway. It was quickly graying into early December dark, but she didn't turn on the light above the steps, just as I wouldn't have. The conversation, initially full of condolences awkwardly given and received, soon came easily and was not at all uncomfortable. There was a sudden maturity, and an understanding that took me aback even as I reciprocated it. I recall none of the exchange, whether vague plans to get together were made or mentioned, but I'm sure it ended with goodnights, and me walking down her concrete path for the ten-thousandth time.

And we, Maria and I, never spoke again.

[Author's note: Until the miracle of Facebook...]

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Something I Wrote Once.

Don't feel so hot today. So I found something I wrote once and rewrote it. Sometimes that makes me feel better.

Up the Stairs, Left Right Right.

I had a center room once, no windows, just a door to an unlit hallway. I was never so happily terrified as when I lived in it, quietly, lightlessly.

Did you hear of that French cave diver woman? She lived underground for months and months, and when she came out she found she just couldn't live here under the sun anymore. She had changed. So she went back. Her last note told her husband she loved him horribly.

I’ve never seen the note, but I imagine the words as written in darkness, too large, skimming recklessly off the page, without direction but not lost.

Your rhythm changes without the sun. The goddamned sun tells you when to set your clock, when to sleep and eat. But in the dark, the soundless dark, you find your own rhythm, the rhythm of yourself, unconstrained by time and light. A new pattern, but not new. When you come out, you see what you once were, what you must again become.

The goddamned sun is out today, and I wanted the dark, and that made me think of that room. Also when I think of that room, I have a half-lost recollection of a secret panel. I put things behind it, things I have forgotten, things I never thought I could forget.

And oh yes, in another room, a lighted room, a wall of taped-up papers, words dripping across them sideways in a wild hand...
several wild hands...
wild and dark.