Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ships Passing in the Night

Throughout our lives, the random people we encounter mostly cross our paths for such a brief moment, but the impact or the memory of that person can last a lifetime, even if those memories flood your mind unannounced and for no apparent reason. If we look back on the road we have traveled, it is a web of intersections and junctions, crisscrossing with the lives of so many other people on our seemingly austere journey to an ultimate and inevitable end. Most of the people whom we meet we will never see again for the rest of our lives, and even those that we swore to remember forever have drifted into anonymity. Best friends one year, and 10 years later, you can hardly remember their names. The memories, good times, bad times… it all seems to disappear into the fuzziness of the past, and even those friendships you held so dear for so long will eventually fade away, never noticed, never missed…never again.

It’s rather sad, two ships passing in the night, each not knowing of the other nor realizing how close you were to each other or the unsettling feeling of rolling through each other’s wake without understanding from where it came. Nothing but blackness and a hole in the world where something had once been.

My memory is fickle most times and downright unreliable the rest. I sometimes couldn’t tell you what I did the day before last, who I spoke with on the phone an hour after I hung up them or what I ordered for lunch moments after I put down the menu, but I have a knack for remembering the strangest things and the oddest experiences in my past, things that left an impression, an impact, but mostly it is as though I have a random synapse firing off a completely arbitrary memory of something unrelated to anything in my current life.

There’s a quote from “Citizen Kane” when the much older Bernstein is speaking with the reporter after Kane’s death, and he’s sharing his thoughts on the very topic I’m addressing. He says:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”

Sometimes the most random of faces and names will flash into my mind for no discernable reason at all. What is stranger than that is the people I most often remember weren’t my close friends all those many years ago; in fact, the people I most often remember I hardly knew at all growing up.

Tony Romano was in the second grade, a year younger than us at the time, and I don’t remember anything about him besides his math skills. He had messy blonde hair, a narrow pale face with freckles and thick black rimmed glasses. He was very easily excited, probably what we’d call ADHD today, but there was no label to describe him then, just hyperactive, somewhat of a geek. I don’t remember him being especially smart, but they had to pull him out of classes during the day so he could get special attention for his math. Not that he was a poor math student, but instead just the opposite. He was doing sixth grade math in the second grade. Part of me thought that was fantastic, but the other part thought it was incredibly strange, considering how immature he seemed at the time. When he got really excited about something, or when something was especially funny, I remember that he used to stick his fist in his mouth like Squiggy on “LaVerne and Shirley,” which of course seemed odd to an eight-year-old.

When I remember Brenton King, for some reason, I always feel just a little sad. I only knew him for a short time, up until the second grade, but after that, he moved away or went to a different school because I never saw him again. He was slow, a soft gentle talker and very sensitive boy. I remember he had a funny smile and he always smiled, his teeth crooked and his hair was always cut really short, a buzz or a flat top. The only two memories I have of him are that I went to his birthday party at Burger King when we were five or six and the time when Sean (I forget his last name) pulled his chair out from under Brenton.

This happened in the second grade, Mrs. Bracken’s class, and Brenton sat on the south side of the room in the middle of a long row of desks. Even thought it was nearly 30 years ago, I remember it distinctly. Mary Kate Leos and I were desk mates and our desk was perpendicular to this long row (picture a multi-legged letter E). One day, when Brenton went to sit down in his chair, which was right next to ours, Sean yanked the chair out from under him, just as a joke. Not only did Brenton plop down on the floor, but he also whacked the back of his head on the chair, which made him cry. I can picture his tear-streaked face like it just happened this morning; Sean got sent to the office and Brenton’s mom had to come and take him home.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt bad for him, as that’s the only memory I have of him that still has any clarity left to it, or maybe it is because I knew then that he was a little different, a little slow, disadvantaged. My memories of him now are often coupled with a wish for his success in life. I’d be curious to know what he has become and where he might be today.

There are several other people that I often think about, random unlikely people that have probably never breathed my name after last seeing me… but for some reason, their faces—the faces that I remember most, third grade faces, playground faces, crying faces, are the only ones I can remember. The memories of them surround small snippets of scenes from my childhood, like snapshots in an old photo album, unrelated to each other, out of context and indescribable enough to make any sense out of them.

So why would I remember them, and why is it that those memories haunt me more frequently than do the memories of my close friends of the time? Memories involving my good friends at the time—Mark Lee, Andy Evans, Dom Covello, Scott Graf—hardly ever blink into my consciousness on some random Tuesday when I’m stuck in traffic or brushing my teeth. Maybe it is because of the mystery. I know what Mark, Andy, Dom and Scott have made of their lives. Where is Micah Knowle? What happened to Erin Landers or Brian Leech? Brandy McElliott was a realistic can of soup for Halloween in the fifth grade, while Eric Thornton pushed me down in Mr. Hanchett’s fourth grade class (I faked a knee injury so he’d get in more trouble, that bully!).

Most of the time I just try to picture what they are doing now, who they have become and what accomplishments they might have reached in the years since I had last seen them. I assumed they had all turned out like me: married, children, happy, doing things they enjoyed hopefully, at least content with what life had handed them and what the future has in store.

…at least that’s what I had hoped for another person I knew of in school.

I can’t really say that I knew her as in we were friends or that we even talked at all; I’m not sure if we ever had a class together all throughout school. I knew of her, but I doubt she even knew who I was. In high school, she was in special ed classes and I never saw her. She kept mostly to herself in grade school and middle school, but it wasn’t like she had much of a choice in the matter. Christy Lane was one of those girls in school that had no friends, at least not that I could tell. I don’t remember ever seeing her smile, and in the seven yearbooks I have, she is only smiling in her Senior picture. Behind her antique-looking wide round glasses, she had vacuous eyes that seemed to lack comprehension. The girls called her names behind her back and made ruthless fun of the way she dressed and the things that she said. Gargoyle was the most popular nickname, the one that stuck anyway, and I always hated to hear her be called that…as it was probably one of the cruelest things I had ever witnessed growing up. She didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t her fault that she had some problems.

Christy didn’t have anyone to help her with her appearance as she always looked as if she had just been playing in the dirt. Her hair was long and stringy—probably had never been cut—and it was always loose down her back. In high school, she was probably the only girl never to wear makeup, and her clothes looked as though her mom made them or they came second hand. However, again, her Senior picture contradicts everything I remember about her…

There is no reason why I should remember her at all. Like I said, I don’t remember ever even speaking to her, as our schooling was done in different parts of the campus and we rarely crossed paths, but I will always remember the time that Jason came home told me what had happened to her one day. I was either in the sixth grade or a freshman in high school, I don’t remember, but Jason said that some of the older girls had taken her aside in gym class and gave her kind of a makeover. They washed her hair and put some makeup on her, and every time I think of her, I think of that story and it sometimes restores my faith in society a little… at least it balances out the torment and ridicule I had seen her suffer through.

Last Saturday, I was standing in the bookstore on Glendora Avenue, waiting for the owner to return so we could iron out the details of my book signing engagement (see the last post), and in through the back door walks two women, obviously mother and daughter and more obviously members of the Lane family. To me, there was no mistaking that it was Christy and her mother, as she looked exactly the same as the last time I might have seen her 20 years ago, just perhaps a little chunkier.

Immediately, I approached her and said, “Christy, do you remember me?”

She looked at me with a confused twist in her eyes, amplified by the same style of thick glasses. But instead of an explanation, she only replied, “I’m Cindy.”

There was an awkward moment of silence while they both stared at me, all of us waiting to see what was going to happen next. I was thinking they would tell me how Christy was doing or where she was, but after a second or so, I gave in and asked.

Her mother looked at me somewhat stricken, a little surprised that I might be broaching the topic and even slightly hesitant to speak. She nodded her head a little with an amicable simper on her pursed lips, as if she was still trying to accept what she was about to say: “Christy has passed on.”

My heart sank. I felt terrible, dreadful. What could I say? How do you react to something like this? It was a shock on several levels. “I’m so sorry,” was all I could blurt out. “When did this happen?” I pressed, thinking that it must have been recent, especially considering the level of despondency in her voice and that gloomy pall that came over her as she told me.

Her mother couldn’t remember…and that’s when I knew something was wrong. Looking more closely at her now as she struggled with her thoughts and fumbled over a few odd words, she was overcome with twitches and ticks. Words wouldn’t form. She started to say something, then stopped, and all the while Cindy stood at her side, silent and motionless, arms hanging limp at her sides, just waiting and observing. The mother looked at me with apology in her eyes, shaking her head in frustration because she couldn’t come up with the date, even a rough estimate of when her daughter had died.

I stood there in astonishment, partly struck by the overwhelming grief of dredging up this tremendously uncomfortable scene and partly dumbfounded because her own mother couldn’t remember when her daughter died. I realized, however, that it wasn’t her fault. Whatever had affected the Lane girls throughout their lives had started with the mother, no doubt.

Finally she came up with the answer. Christy had died just before turning 25, but the details were few. “She was in San Francisco,” her mother was able to explain, “when she caught a bug and she died quickly.”

All I could say again was that I was sorry… sorry to hear it, sorry to make her remember it, sorry that the whole conversation had even happened. How was I to know, of course? One thing the mother said to me before they turned their attention to a couple of books that were set aside for them at the store was that Christy’s death “was horrible.” What expression her face now lacked—another trait of the Lane girls—was made up for in her eyes. They were volatile, like a madness trying to break free. Right then and there, the more glassy they got, the more I thought she would begin to scream out at the world for what had happened. “It was horrible.”

After they left, I was told that they have always experienced problems, and I didn’t share that I knew that to be true ever since I first saw Christy in grade school. Every Saturday, without fail, Cindy and her mom would come to the bookstore and pick out a book or two; if there was one they didn’t buy that week, they would ask that it be held for the following week.

For the rest of the day, I was troubled by it… actually, I still am, as Christy joins a short list of only three people I knew during school that have died. Aaron Leos accidentally shot himself while playing with a gun and Chris Williams died of a drug overdose just last year. I’m sure there’s more.

I think I am most upset, not because she died (which is troubling all by itself), but by how she lived. Maybe she eventually ended up being happy life and that she found some outlet that provided her some joy…but for the Christy that I knew and saw from time to time while growing up, that happiness must have been the brass ring, a childhood impossible dream, made even more difficult to obtain by her obstacles, both personal and social.

And what strikes me to be the most devastating is that she was finally at a time in her life when she was free from it all. No little high school bitches calling you names, no stigmas to overcome, no social skills to master, no special ed classes to suffer through…none of it but the rest of your life to make what you want of it. Go where nobody knows you and you can start fresh. I doubt she went to college, but maybe she did. Maybe she got the help that she needed and she was on her way up in life when she left Glendora. Why was she in San Francisco? College? Family? Medicinal reasons? Maybe to get away from Glendora and all the negative memories of a tortured childhood? Whatever it was that took her there, at least she was away from the people that caused her such misery.

I think that’s what hurts the most is knowing that she had gone through so much as a child only to have it taken away right at a time in her life when she might have been on the verge of becoming her own person. Maybe I’m all wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact that there were remorseless kids in school who ruthlessly called her Gargoyle and made fun of what she was just for the sake of being cruel… and now she’s dead.

My memories of her feel more poignant now than ever, and I guess I can be glad that I have them.

What a world this is…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing that story. I will never forget Christy. How horrible EVERYONE was to her. It wasn't until high school that I realize how awful it must have been for her. We kind of became friends. She was so shy. My heart breaks for her family. Almost 10 yrs ago, and how hurt they still are.


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