My father wakes at 5:00 AM, heads directly to the rink, and skates for two hours. He spends his days in the sun, painting the houses of upstate New York. His skin gets painfully red at first but soon a deeper brown settles in. Exhausted, he stops at the rink for another hour on the way home.
My mother is showing now. She works in a vast, empty warehouse. Amidst the open space there is a solitary desk with a typewriter and a stack of papers. Her job is to type the same one-page letter as many times as possible every day. She types slowly, deliberately, her mind elsewhere. Clack, clack, clack go the echoes.
At night they sit on the couch in the studio apartment. My father reaches over and feels for the kick he can never quite find.
“What is this letter you type every day?” he asks. “What is it about? You must have it memorized forwards and backwards.”
“I really don’t know,” my mother says. “I’ve written that letter hundreds or maybe thousands of times, and I haven’t actually read it once.”
“That was it!” My father jumps up. “I felt it!”
“It’s a boy, you know,” says my mother.
“You’re going to summer camp.”
“What?” I say, louder than even I expected.
“It’s called Camp Lawrence,” says my mother. “A camp for boys. You’ll be doing all sorts of fun things like swimming, archery, hiking, and sports, too. They have soccer and baseball. You’ll love it.”
“But I can’t go.”
I won’t say why. Her name is Melissa. What I really want to do is spend my summer hanging out at the middle school playground. My friends sit on the grass, smoke cigarettes, drink slushies, and do absolutely nothing.
And Melissa. She’ll be at the playground. I helped her with her science project and she touched my hand. She smiled at me. Her name is written all over the inside cover of my Trapper Keeper. She’ll be here all summer, and I’ll be at boys’ summer camp!
Now she’ll never know how I feel. Even if I could, I will never be able to tell her how… how I.
“Is your goal in life to be happy?” my father asks.
I think about this all the time. Happy? Who’s happy, anyway? The pursuit of happiness is some peculiar American delusion. Most people have other things to worry about, more important things. You have a wife, a mortgage, a job. Maybe someday you have children.
Happiness is for children. Forget about yourself and worry about making your children happy someday. I haven’t been happy in years, and I’m still here. Life isn’t just about you, it’s about something bigger. You find small moments of peace, but searching for “happiness” in life is just another way to fool yourself.
And then I reply: “Yes, I really do want to be happy.”
We lie together on top of the covers. Our arms are touching but it’s too hot for more. It’s past time to put the AC unit in the window.
“Here’s my question about life,” I say, out of the silence.
She starts to laugh, involuntarily.
“Nothing,” she smiles. “Nothing, go on.”
“OK, here’s my question. Is life a series of individual snapshots? Is it unconnected photographs that have only a resemblance to one another, moments that are actually separate entities? Am I a completely different and unique person at every moment of my life? When I think back, I can barely recognize the person I used to be. Even five or six years ago, I was so different. I thought so differently then. Who was that person?”
“Or?” she asks, knowing there’s more.
“Or is life like a movie, a moving and continuous flow of images that changes with the moments and the days and the years but remains one long connection from beginning to end? Because in many ways I know I’m still the same person. Am I fundamentally the same? Which is it?”
“It’s both,” she says. “Movies are a succession of single images shown so rapidly that we perceive movement. But it’s all in our minds. Film moves frame by frame, no matter how fast the frames go by. We know this, and yet the images on the screen move anyway. So it’s both. We are made up of individual moments that appear to flow through time. Life is both still and in motion.”
“I know,” I say. “I know.”
I find her hand and press our palms together. Our fingers interlock, forming a chain, squeezing tighter and tighter and tighter.
This will more than likely stand as my favorite piece you've ever written. Marvelous approach to a fundamental question. You're global and personal at the same moments. I love this.
I found this lovely. I felt immediately degrees sadder reading 'I hadn't been happy in years.'
you said happy ending, hahah. In all seriousness though: AWESOME!
"Ponder the album" — I like that! Thanks
Fabulous piece, as usual Owen. And I admire the approach. I think a complicated subject such as lover (…or summer?) often needs to be simplified as much as possible.
p.s. Are you familiar with the literary term synecdoche? (no, not the city in NY).
Let me try to define it without looking at Google!
Synechdoce is when a part of something refers to the whole, i.e., calling a car "my wheels." Very interesting that you bring that up in reference to this piece about parts and wholes. 🙂