Fire Escape Boy

November 5, 2012
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The Enigma___________________________________________________________________________________________

Drifting across the vast room, his voice speaks to me in a slow cursive way. I hear the letters loop and the syllables tug in the air. He reads. His voice will seep into my dreams like it always manages to. It's the kind of voice I know I'll remember when I'm old, still speaking to me. The voice that reads me poems and short novellas, even when I insist that he doesn't. Even when I insist that he gets up from the frothy green armchair my mom picked up at a flea market in West Village, and come closer. Anywhere closer. He could sit indian style on the carpet from the Indians. He could wrap himself in the silk sheets next to me. We could even just sit across from each other at the checkered kitchen table where the clock talks in the middle of sentences. Anywhere closer. Somewhere where I can look into his olive oil eyes and breathe in his leather scent. Close enough to hear the crack of spit in the corners of a new smile. I wanted to be able to reach out my arm to touch his shoulder or hold his waist close to me.

Instead, iridescent he chose to be; the shimmering hologram of a boy drifting off, like his own spoken words, down a familiar street where even city slickers caught in their peripheral vision a something of his enigma. So he chose to sit across the room and let himself fall with emotions into everything he read to me. He was strong enough to be weak. I couldn't find myself to look him in the eye when the olive oil poured down his cheeks as he read that one poem by Pablo Neruda he always seemed to favor. I'd hide under the winter fleeces and listen to his un-quivering voice. How did he not let it shake? Peeking up from behind my shield, I watched the feelings dance in his faraway eyes. I realized that even if he was close, I wouldn't be able to see into his eyes. Even if he was close, I wouldn't be able to touch him. He wouldn't feel my fingertips, my palm, or anything at all.

I laid under the blankets, absorbing his voice for it's every idiosyncratic detail.

"Sweet dreams," he finally said. I didn't respond; I usually don't. I just let him escape, like I usually do. He climbed down the fire escape and left me with this strange concept of echoes. His voice remains, ringing in my ears. Little did I know it then, but he wouldn't ever return again.

The Secret ____________________________________________________________________

His mother never knew how he used to skip school during his elementary years and come visit me. I suppose he could smell the meals I cooked, the rich stews and the fragrant greek dishes. He rattled his knuckles on the door, and when I answered, he would stare up at me with wide eyes. I sent him away the first few times he rattled his knuckles against the door. I didn’t know what changed after that. Maybe it was the time of season when the bells jingles on the tips of crimson hats. Maybe it was that his stare never settled. Maybe it was because no one was around. I couldn’t find his mother. My granddaughter was off at school. I took him in. We made nonsense conversation of airplanes or politics or the neighbors. He said things that I assumed he didn’t know anything about, even after he said them. He always left when I had to go to work, just as the clock rang at two. I don’t know where he went then, but he always came back the next day for more stories and more stew.

His mother never knew how he would skip school during his high school years. I suppose it was to bring me the recipes he tried to cook while his mother was out all night, layers of lasagna and omelets with abnormal ingredients. I would answer the door before he could knock, but that never changed the width of his iridescent eyes. Maybe it was because he never spoke that they shone with the words behind them, floating in his head. Maybe it was because he wasn’t the only visitor I had during the school day when my granddaughter was out. Maybe it was because I trusted him with things I assumed I could share with him that his eyes shone with the secrets that wove his lips shut. My son liked to bring board games over when he would visit. That is what I played with him when he was little and that is now what he plays with me when I am old. When he met my son, he did not know. They laughed together. The boy spoke to him. No one could keep their mouths closed when with my son because he was magnetic. I do not know where they would go within each other’s minds, but they let each other in when they wouldn’t answer the doors to their minds when I knocked. When I left at two, so did they together. I don’t know where they went then, but he always came back again whether or not my son would be there. He came back over and over, even when he knew my son wouldn’t come back for quite sometime. Now among my time here on Earth, is the moment to realize that the boy kept in the cabinets would eventually disappear like my boy into Rhode Island.

The Absence___________________________________________________________________

I do not know how long it took me to stop looking into all the faces inside hoods while walking down his common crossroads in his favorite parts of the city. After studying strangers faces to try to find his olive oil eyes again, I realized I wouldn't be able to comprehend anything about his short existence that was by no means small. I could only make of what I already knew. With my mittens shoved down in my pockets, I made my way through New York City trying not to make eye contact with anyone, for even if I saw a glimpse of green eyes, I had the horrid habit of stopping and seeing if it was him. Except I always knew it wouldn't be. He was an enigma. He always had been.

Every night since the day I realized he wasn't coming back, I felt his voice creep into my eardrums and throb them like disease. I would look into the empty green chair, waiting for him to sit down. I would look into the unlocked window, waiting for his ghostly jaw to appear through it. I didn't know how to stop waiting. There were things I still had to say to him and to ask him that I never knew how to articulate before when I took his presence for granted. I should have stopped him in the school hallway and asked him how he knew my Grandmother. I should have asked him how he knew about what happened to my mother and my father. I should have asked why he wore that same damn sweatshirt every single day. And now I should have asked him why he left it in the crevasse between the fire escape and my rickety window. I took it all for granted.

His cursive speak haunted me from the first day we cracked eggs on the businessmen from the fire escape. And now that I think of it, that was the very first day in general. I had always known he lived two stories above me in our skyscraper of apartments, but I first noticed his unpredictable ghostliness when he knocked at my window that day with a carton of eggs in his armpit.

I'll never know why he picked me out that day, and I should have asked him that too. Yet, we sat as strangers, letting yolk fall unto people's good suits and expensive briefcases. He asked me what I knew about poetry. I told him what I knew, of course. I could never deny the smirks of his. I always noticed how they cracked upon his face like the living coming through the dead; a strange possession of happiness. Those smiles cracked like eggs. He was persuasive without trying to be, so I shared with him my little knowledge of poetry. I told him of the cheesy nursery rhymes my Nana read to me sometimes when I was little, that was all I knew then. He didn't seem surprised. In fact, he didn't say anything at all. Being a boy of little speech was his specialty. With his silence, he climbed back up the rusty red fire escape to his own bedroom and came back with an anthology of Pablo Neruda poems. His eyes were close when he read. At nine years old, he expressed to me without his own words what love was. It was something that Mother Goose never showed me. It seemed like a fantasy when he let his voice weave in and out of my mind, knitting some sort of scarf of poetic notions. He always understood more of it than he lead on. He always understood everything. He never told me though. But that was because I never had asked.

The Youth _____________________________________________________________________

He had wanted to take an art class, but he had careless fingers. He had wanted to take karate, but the academy on 57th street told the entire class that this boy was too skinny, the kind of skinny that was bad. He wanted to learn to sew, but his fingers still hadn't learned the art of care. Plus, he was ridiculed enough for being the boy who didn't raise his hand in class, the boy who only spoke when he thought he had something to say. And the thing about his thoughts was he had an abundance of them, but he never thought enough of them to be of importance. Making him the boy would could make his own pajama pants would only set him back further. Instead of spending the money I didn't have on classes he couldn't flourish in, I set up my own. I didn't care if he was in kindergarten, I sat him down four nights out of the the seven and read him the only thing that kept me going when the times got rocky. He watched me read, his little hands the pedestal to his little head, wonder-struck. I read him things he surely didn't understand, but to him it was music. I would find him during Saturday afternoons looking at the pages of the poetry anthologies, just staring, because surely he couldn't read them. I gave him Shakespeare, Cummings, Neruda, Hughes, Frost, Dickinson, and all of the poets that everyone thinks of when they think of poetry. I would tuck him in his quilts and he would ask for a different poet to be read to him every night. One night after I had read to him, I went to kiss his cheek after I had turned off the lights. I felt his tears on my lips.

"What's wrong, sweetheart? Is everything alright?" I asked, pushing his hair behind his ear. His father's eyes stared up at me, unmoving. The tears fell like the diction of a silent film. He did not sniffle. He did not try to wipe the tears away. He smiled, the toothless grin of a first grader.

"I love you. Goodnight," he said, wrapping his arms around my neck before he laid back down, rolling over on his side, and drifting off in the world of dreams where I always wished I could visit. His voice was like silk when he spoke. Silk with a child's desire to discover the world. I wish I could sound like him, but my voice is like skipping stones during a drought. I think he knows at age six not to smoke cigarettes, but I don't know if he still knows that as a teenager. I wouldn't know if he does or not. He stays clean, his teeth are white. His voice still sounds like the honey in my green tea, but still I wish I could embark into his dreamland with him.

The day that he told me that he was climbing down to visit that old woman's granddaughter, I scolded him. I sat him down and pointed my finger, gave him the stern eye that usually made him backtrack to his tiny room in the far east side of the house and retract into a chapter book. His eyes glossed when I reacted. I knew he didn't understand, but I also knew he wouldn't listen because when told him I had left for the market, hid behind in the rarely used hallway closet, watching him from behind the slits of wood, I saw him take the eggs and hop out the window. He never looked back. But this seems like centuries ago, back in the days where a hug from me could fix his heart. It is like they said it would be; the tables had indeed turned as I stand with outstretched arms, soundless watching him climb back down the fire escape with a packed bag. I was always watching him. There was never anything I could do to stop what I knew he would always discover anyhow. What is a mother to do besides watch?
The Right Now_________________________________________________________________

I walked twenty blocks in the frost of February to my humble home fifteen floors off the ground. Nowadays, I like to let the chill seep into my bones and paralyze me from the inside out, so I walk through even heavy droplets of snow and ice water. I tell myself it is better than waiting. It couldn't get any darker by the time I carried myself into the nostalgia of home. The old hardwood floors, the creaky white kitchen cabinets, and Mom's old pickups from flea markets is what the entire place seemed to be filled with. I was used to the odd furniture she would buy, like the three foot tall owl statue or the array of Ray Charles posters or the unfixable stove from the 1930s. I don't even know how they carried that contraption of metal up fifteen stories. What I was not used to was Nana sitting in the green armchair. I had walked into my bedroom and there she was, her skinny legs curled up to her chest, her wiry hair sticking up above her thin arms. I heard muffled cries. How do you ask a crying grandmother questions? How do I kneel down besides her and take her hand? She is a small, wrinkled woman. If I had to, I could toss her over my shoulder. I let her sit their in the disrupted silence. I rolled into my bed sheets and closed my eyes, pretending that if he had ever made noises while crying, it would have sounded like that. A wounded animal. How does one not get angry at all of the crying and the lack of answers? How does a glare from behind a bed sheet puncture an old woman in her heart, so she would know to stop? How can I get the answers without asking? I shuffle in the sheets, but comfort doesn't come. I shift all the pillows and kick my feet, but everything feels like paper. I toss the pillow again to feel the cool side, except I notice a damp envelope, ripped ajar. I reach inside for its contents. Three papers. Oh, it's two poems and a letter. The smudged ink of his scribed letter looks like it drained down the paper. The script is esoteric like his cursive is crying, silent like he is. But the poems are ripped out of one of his many anthologies. These were two I clearly remember; they were some of the only requests I made for his reading. Poems by Amy Lowell, I asked of him because he told me once that she influenced e.e. cummings. I don't know how many times I read those poems under the fleeces with Nana still weeping in the background. I read until I slept, and still in my dreams the poems sang their tunes mixed together like a tape.
"I ask but one thing of you, only one,
when I go away from you
that always you will be my dream of you;
I call out for you against the jutted stars
that I never shall I wake to find untrue
streets coming fast,
one after the other,
all this I have believed and rested on,
wedge you away from me
Forever vanished, like a vision gone
Out into the night. Alas, how few
there are who strike in us a chord we knew
existed, but so seldom heard its tone
like a slackened drum
the world beats dead
we tremble at the half-forgotten sound
and the lamps of the city prick my eyes
so that I can no longer see your face
The world is full of rude awakenings
and heaven-born castles shattered to the ground,
yet still our human longing vanity clings
to a belief in beauty through all wrongs.
Why should I leave you,
to wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?
O stay your hand, and leave my heart its songs!"

He Writes______________________________________________________________________

Dear No One,

I don't know how to pass the time, so I thought I would scribble something here. I might as well. I hate taking the bus because it is like taking the subway and I hate taking the subway. I hate short-cuts, but I have to take them now because I don't have time for the scenic route. There had been too much to explain to all of them, especially her, and I hate speeches of spontaneity because I could never seen to plan anything. Which brings me to where I am now, on a smelly bus traveling up some crowded highway. Halted in traffic, the sun scorches every row of unclean seats, yet the chill of winter settles in the marrow of my bones.

I had one idea and I followed it, that was all. I put some clothes and toiletries in a bag and bought a bus ticket to Rhode Island. Maybe I should have packed a warmer jacket. It doesn't matter; I guess it's practically just as cold there as it is in the city. I just know that I have to find him and I can still see him when I close my eyes. Now I've never been a real good writer and I have always read books and poetry, but I can't describe him for you. I should call on a brilliant writer to do it for me. The best I can tell you is that he smiles like Thanksgiving and laughs like Christmas and when you befriend him, it is as if Christ has risen. You should know that I am doing this for her, well actually for the both of them, but mostly her. Like I said, I am not a good writer, so when it comes to her I don't know what to say. The best I can say is that she is everything. She always was. She never questioned why I did the things I did and do the things I do. Perhaps she knew this was coming all along then; perhaps she figured one day I would take off, which is why I left her that sweatshirt of mine that she hates. Who wouldn't hate that ratty old thing? I don't know how to tell her and I don't know why I am writing this down, but for the record: I am finding him for her because I have to. Not because I want to. He said so. I just have to hope now that she finds the note or talks to her Nana. And still somehow, she is everything and we aren't really friends, yet we are so much more and I am still trying to figure out how that can be if I am traveling half the east coast to find her the father she never knew.


The Memory__________________________________________________________________

My seventeenth year was the year he visited the most often, climbing through my window like he was entering a new dimension with me. He didn't notice if he tracked in puddles or snow prints or pigeon crap. He would greet me with a head nod or a "hey”, remove that stupid sweatshirt, and nuzzle into the chair like it was his home. The rainiest day of November, he decided to swing his dirty feet into my room and shake out his wet hair.

"Hey. The rain is falling like bullets." I stared at him as he tried to untie his sneakers and took a poetry anthology out of his jacket. I watched his jaw-line hardened when he realized I was staring.

"Did you remember to bring some Lowell stuff like I asked?" I quietly said to the floor.

"No, not today. I wanted to read more Pablo Neruda. This one is special."

"You think all of Neruda's work is special."

"True. But this one reminds me of you." Those were all the words that were spoken that night, and honestly after he spoke them, I had never once realized what he meant until now. Now, the ghost of his presence whispers in my ear at night in the loops and tugs of his familiar voice saying,

"Don't go far off, not even for a day, because --
because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

Don't leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don't leave me for a second, my dearest,

because in that moment you'll have gone so far
I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?"

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