The Melting Point of Time

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a story about childhood, growing up, and friendship. About love and loss, and rising above that loss.

Submitted: March 29, 2008

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Submitted: March 29, 2008

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The Melting Point of Time

Prologue

“…without passion we are doomed to mediocrity.” --anonymous


"In principio Verbum erat..." Or was it "Verbus"? Benjamin had heard this sermon intro so many times ("ad nauseam," he mentally inserted) that he found himself involuntarily translating the RSV back into its Ecclesiastical Latin form; declensions, conjugations, and all. "Scary," he thought. "And here I was hoping to escape the realms of parochial school unscathed. Damn."
His mother's glare, implying that his inattention was methodically demolishing her carefully wrought image of the Ideal Devotional Family Unit (ought to be the title of a daVinci painting...the image flashed through his mind before he could shut it down, and his spontaneous grin did nothing to endear him to the proverbial MOM), forced him back to present reality (whatever that might be).
(Damn it, Benji, why do you have to think so much? What an intelligent line of reasoning to pursue with oneself. Deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of introspection, drowning in a stream of consciousness supposedly initiated in a futile attempt to dam up that same incessant flow of random thought...)

I'M LOSING MY MIND!

Okay, okay, back to the sermon.
Oh God, not another esoteric discussion of "how God can see all of our lives at a glance, at this very moment..." Predestination, omniscience, infinity...most of these shmucks can't even spell the words let alone begin to grasp the concepts. If he starts quoting analogies on God's versus humanity's perception of time, I'm leaving. Maybe I'll just raise my hand: "Excuse me, Reverend, just when did God illuminate you as to His personal perceptions?" Fold your hands, Benji. Smile pretty, Benny boy. If anyone else ever calls me that I'll have to kill them. I'm almost sixteen, for God's sake. Even 'Benji' needs to go away. Except for Alix, of course. She doesn't count.


[New section begun September 21, 1999]

“The most difficult of decisions are often not the ones in which we cannot determine the correct course, rather the ones in which we are certain of the path but fear the journey.”
--Richard Paul Evans



It has been six years since I last sat in this sanctuary with my family. I’ve been out roaming around the world, trying to figure out what I’m meant to be when I grow up. The Latin, much to my personal amazement, has come in handy—in the vineyards of Tuscany, I found myself able to read Italian at a third grade level without even trying. Speaking it—or understanding the endless flow of rapid conversation around me—was something else entirely, of course; four years of a dead language doesn’t really qualify you to speak, well, anything. But the foundations were there. Much like my faith. And my concept of love. You see, I have loved Alix all my life.

No one really expects you to know what you want at the age of twenty-two. But I’ve always known. So here I sit on Christmas Eve with what’s left of my family, saying the familiar, comforting words of the service—people don’t understand that it is their very sameness that frees me to think about what I’m really saying. Reading an unfamiliar prayer from a leaflet, or listening to strangers extemporaneously ramble on in God’s general direction, just doesn’t do it for me. Here in our family pew, surrounded by candlelight and holly branches, we all know our roles, remember our lines. It is once we step out into the cold and head for the car that the uncertainties, the awkward, strained silences, will seep in.




I didn’t exactly run away from home. But when everything started to change, and all I had in my childhood taken for granted began crumbling around my ears, I couldn’t bear to stand amidst the rubble and see what remained once the smoke cleared. Not my finest moment, but I thought that distance might bring perspective. It does, but at the expense of the ordinary. Someone once said that “the closer one looks at history, the less coherent it becomes.” Well, that’s true of life in general, I suppose. A lovely stage picture from far away, but it’s the messy jumble of daily trippings over one another that makes a life. So I’m back, certainly older, not necessarily wiser, determined to face down what I ran from all those years ago.

They say that you can never go home again, but what they mean is that home isn’t a static thing—it doesn’t sit still and wait breathlessly for your return, any more than you remain the same when you’re off adventuring away from it. And it was an adventure…but that’s a story for another time.

I remember the golden summers of my childhood, the endless, grass-smelling, tree-climbing days when your biggest problem was the instant headache you would get from drinking a cold glass of milk too fast, or the stains on your knees and pristine white tennis shoes from rolling screaming down the back hill, that you had to explain to an unsympathetic mother. And there was always Alix, in the thick of it all. Always scheming, inventing, taking us to new worlds in which our imaginations would stretch, pull, and at last reshape us into something magical, something we had never even had the courage to dream.

I need that courage now, more than I’ve ever needed it before. My family is a mess—but whose isn’t? “Dysfunctional” used to have a meaning, when such relationships were the exception and not the rule. Now it’s just a catchphrase for reality. So, yes, in part, I’m here to try and draw the tattered threads of my family back into some recognizable pattern. Benjamin the Intercessor. But it’s more than that. We have come so far since the Easter mornings when we would line up in our perfect Sunday best and smile—or not—for the camera, the quintessential family photo for the magic book. We’ve all gone our separate ways, some of us again and again, but we are all inextricably connected by the web of that one fateful summer.

From time to time we all strive to reinvent ourselves. But sometimes God, or the rushing torrent of events known as Life—or some convoluted combination of the two—takes the choices out of our hands and we find ourselves, blinking and confused, thrust into a whole new plot line, a character heretofore unrehearsed and without a current copy of the script. I never wanted to be the Protagonist. Much more comfortable on the sidelines, marginal speaking roles at best. But here I am, and the Story needs to be told.















Chapter 1


“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
--Henry David Thoreau



The sun was just starting to think about peeking its face above the horizon when Benjamin bounded out of bed for his morning run. How people started their day without this he would never understand. Ben had been running cross-country since he was in junior high, and now, as the summer before his senior year drew to a close, he was ready to take on the world. He hit his stride just as the sky was slowly illuminated with that otherworldly orange and pink glow, God’s daily airbrush exhibition that most of the world never bothers to see except from the other side. Five miles later, he was ready to tackle another magical day of summer adventure.

Benjamin’s family had lived here for his entire life, and although thoughts of college were already dragging a part of him away, he still loved the familiar and predictable landscape of home. He had climbed every tree, explored every forest path, and could play hide-and-seek with his three best friends on a black moonless night without stumbling. And often did. Benjamin had wanted to get a summer job this time around, start saving up spending money for his upcoming four years of poverty, but the group of friends had decided to revel in this their final spree of togetherness before the world inevitably tilted on its axis and everything they took for granted changed all at once and forever.

The truth was, the change had already begun. And the harder Ben tried to hold on to what he thought of as the perfect days of their friendship, the more the others seemed to be pulling away. They weren’t kids anymore; seventeen, while still viewed by parents as a late phase of childhood, seemed to require a whole new perspective on life in general for those actually living it. If only they had textbooks for this…

Ben couldn’t remember a time before there was Alix. Her house was right up the hill through the trees; once the leaves fell , you could see it from his bedroom window. And somewhere in the woods between the two houses they had created a magical place of tree forts and imagination where anything was possible, where they could escape from their sometimes boring and often unbalanced home lives to a world of their own invention. Narnia without the Wardrobe. Their own private Terabithia.

There used to be such a definitive line between worlds; you walked through the makeshift gate of branches painstakingly peeled with his first Swiss Army knife, and you entered a different universe. It seemed that lately each time he stepped across the threshold the line was fuzzier. It was harder and harder to leave reality outside; it kept creeping in between the vines, making their refuge smaller and less distinct than the palatial space they used to rule. Funny how when he was ten he never noticed that you could actually see both of their houses from the fort. Back then they had believed they were the only two in the world who knew of the its existence. Not even Philip and Samuel had been entrusted with the secret. The whole thing was beginning to seem a little foolish, and they could no longer fill entire days in the tiny clearing becoming kings and sorcerers and heroes, but still they came. Mostly when things were really getting to them and they needed a refuge. As he climbed through the gate he could see Alix sitting on a stump with her arms propped on her knees and that look on her face. Most girls cried when they were upset; Alix got angry, and used the force of that anger to keep the tears inside. Ben knew better than to get too close. He leaned back against the nearest tree and stared out into nothingness. She would tell him when she was ready—or not. Sometimes all you needed was that unspoken understanding, and he would be there for her until she opened up or pushed him solidly away.

Chapter 2

"Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality."
-- Jules de Gaultier



Ten minutes later, the tension seemed to ease from her shoulders, and the self-deprecating grin returned to her face. “I don’t know why you put up with me, Benji,” was all she said as she crossed to where I was standing, still in my sweaty running clothes, and punched me in the shoulder. “C’mon, we’re wasting the day. Phil and Sam will be beating your door down by now.”

She was right, as always. The two friends from down the street were wrestling in my front yard, and I never did find out what had been bothering her so badly just a short time before. The day had begun.

It never used to matter that Alix was a girl, the only girl in our tight-knit little group. Then I woke up one morning about a year and a half ago and discovered I was in love with her. It didn’t really change anything, and I would never admit it to the guys and subject myself to hours of mindless good-natured abuse. It was just something I knew, that changed the way I looked at myself and the world around me.




I grew up in a family I thought was pretty much normal—but how is one to know? In the words of Leo the Lop, drilled into me at bedtime readings from a young age, “Normal is whatever you are.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Made sense when the rabbit said it. One brother, one sister, respectively older and younger enough than me to render us all virtually oblivious to one another’s existence. I was the middle child without the middle child syndrome. Alix had one brother, a couple years older, but they didn’t have much to do with each other either, and both of her parents worked, so she was pretty much on her own.

We would lay in the grass and daydream about what we would be when we grew up. I was going to be a stunt man. And Alix, never recovering from seeing the movie Space Camp at the age of eight, was going to be an astronaut. These were foregone conclusions, and our dreams branched out from there.

Philip moved into the neighborhood when he was nine, a couple blocks away from us. He was the son of a marginally famous TV personality, who had walked out on them the year before, so it was just him and his mom, which was pretty unusual for our neighborhood. He got quite the generous allowance from his dad, so he was useful to keep around, if sometimes annoying. Samuel was adopted, and was part of the closest thing to a perfect family that I have ever seen. Like something out of a fifties sitcom or something. I think he felt obligated to complain about his parents just because the rest of us did, but he secretly knew how lucky he was and loved his parents as much as they loved him—which was saying a lot.

We were all misfits in one way or another. We just didn’t really know it yet.









Chapter 3

"Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we
have rushed through life trying to save."
-- Will Rogers


We each had our own ways, that summer, of trying to strike the delicate balance between childhood and that mysterious and oft-avoided phenomenon known as becoming an adult. I personally was of the kicking and screaming variety, pretending for all I was worth that nothing had changed since we were ten. That we could all still sit around a campfire in our matching hooded soccer sweats roasting English muffins at dusk, and talk about, well, everything. And nothing. All at the same time. I could feel the simplicity and candour slipping away, and was terrified of what would come to take its place.

Phil was determined to grow up in fast motion so he could go out and prove to his father that he was something. I just wasn’t sure (and I don’t think Philip was either) precisely what that ‘something’ was supposed to be. Sam had already aced his SAT’s, and being virtually assured of an Ivy League placement, could pretty much put the whole stressful process out of his mind and just enjoy his senior year. I had thought he might want to stay close to home, not want to stray too far from the reach of the perfect nuclear family. But I guess the paradox of growing up with the assurance of love is that it frees you to venture beyond the safety net.

Alix was, at the same time, both more sure of herself than any of us and completely officially freaked out by the whole thing. Or perhaps I was projecting my own neuroses in her general direction. At first I had hoped that maybe her fears of the imminent breakup of our group had something to do with her feelings for me, but to be honest I think it was just the idea of change in general that scared her. But she had always known that she was destined for greater heights than could be achieved in our little cul-de-sac, and was slowly getting used to the idea that she couldn’t take all of us with her. Her dreams were so much bigger than the microcosm in which she had been raised, and her restlessness was only a part of her realization that it was time to go fulfill her destiny. I know it sounds remarkably melodramatic, but isn’t that what adolescence is all about?


Chapter 4

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."
-- Anonymous


And so we started our final year of high school. Things changed, things stayed the same, the leaves turned golden and then brown and were blown to the ground, swirling around our legs as we walked home from yet another day of drudgery and inspiration and homework and college applications. The four of us drifted apart, fell together from time to time, exchanged goofy presents for Christmas (everyone scrupulously avoiding practical college-oriented gifts and leaning toward the Toys R Us motif), and watched the ball drop in Times Square from the comfort of Sam’s living room couch, curled up in our stocking feet in front of the gas fireplace. We survived semester exams, watched our respective mailboxes breathlessly for the letters that would determine the direction of the next four years of our lives, pelted one another with snowballs, ignored Valentines Day in our traditional fashion (oh, how I agonized over that one, but came to accept the fact that I am, at heart, a coward), and watched the pussy willows get fuzzy. Spring had come.

By this point we all knew where we were going, at least in a geographical sense. Our early dreams of fireman, policeman, truck driver had begun to metamorphosize into the more mundane yet realistic accountant, physical therapist, guidance counselor. Alix tenaciously hung onto her NASA aspirations, but had bent so far as to contemplate a degree in engineering to supplement her inevitable career exploring new worlds. The four of us were reasonably happy, reasonably well-adjusted, and just marginally too polite with one another to complete the illusion that all was well, that nothing fundamental was going to change. And still I kept my love of Alix a secret I barely admitted to myself, punching her on the shoulder just like one of the guys when all I wanted in the world was to hold on to her and never let go.







Chapter 5

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two
opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability
to function."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald


If only I could stop right here. Or at least hold onto this moment in time a little longer, a tableaux shimmering around the edges like that moment just after the sun has disappeared over the horizon before true darkness begins to fall, when the light and everything it touches takes on a magical glow. But the moment is just that, and time drags us mercilessly on. [A brief digression on the nature of Time: why do we feel the need to personify, struggle against, and even challenge, something that is an integral part of our reality? Only God is outside the line—shouldn’t we direct our rage at Him?]

Spring fever. Easter egg hunts, honeysuckle, wild strawberries, running through the sprinkler, washing dad’s car and each other and drying out in the sun afterward, eyes closed, soaking up the heat from the sidewalk like a cat with one paw over its face. This was the final springtime at home that I had envisioned. And it started out that way; it really did. So when did everything go so wrong? Looking back I feel like I should have seen it coming, should have been able to hold up my hand and freeze time at that one fateful moment when our lives diverged into what I am quite certain is some sort of alternate dimension. That somewhere in another timeline someone else with my name is living the life I worked so hard for, and which so nearly was mine. Somehow time melted down and betrayed us all.

But of course it wasn’t really like that. In real life, everything is fuzzier. Alix wasn’t around as much—but we were all busy. When she was there she was distracted, didn’t laugh as easily at my jokes or make as many of her own—but we were all preoccupied with the future, and she had heard all my jokes a zillion times before. I missed the signs. At the time I thought that made it my fault. It is only in looking back that I can allow some of the blame to slip from my shoulders, to realize that omniscience at the age of seventeen is asking a bit much even for my hyper-exacting self.

Graduation came and went, and instead of the ever-popular “Beach Week” that seniors crave and parents tolerate while looking the other way, Philip, Samuel, Alix, and I loaded up our backpacks and headed for the hills, for one last week of camaraderie and foolishness before society expected us to start earning our keep, or at least knowing how.






Chapter 6

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds;
and the pessimist fears this is true."
-- Irving Caesar

The four friends pitched their tents on a blanket of pine needles deep in the forest, and trekked down to the stream to dangle their toes in the water and get to know each other again, outside the confines and labels and ridiculous conventions of high school. It didn’t take long before they were engaged in a full-pitched water battle. Ben was the first to find himself up to his chest in water, and he obligingly dragged Sam in on top of him. Philip (already dressing like the attorney he intended to be) tried to edge a safe distance away, but Alix, although smaller than he, was still considerably quicker, and soon they were all taking turns dunking one another, the barriers of the school year and the specter of the future all but forgotten.

They lay that night stretched out on their sleeping bags, watching the stars come out, as the fire burned down to embers. The age-old “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question was forbidden territory; it was a night for reminiscing, for idealizing the past and consigning the future to oblivion. “Remember the time when you broke your arm trying to sled down that kamikaze sledding course we made?” “Remember when we all dressed up like The Chipmunks for Halloween--and no one wanted to be Dave so Alix and Sam were both Simon?” “How did we decide that Simon was the coolest? As if there was such a thing as the coolest chipmunk!” And on and on. Trying so hard to grab hold of those illusive moments and feeling them stubbornly slide through their fingers. One by one they drifted off to sleep, their heads on one another’s pillows, all tangled up together, no one wanting to take the initiative of dragging their stuff back into their own individual tents.

Benjamin woke the next morning at dawn and struggled to extricate himself from the cocoon of his sleeping bag. Picking the leaves out of his hair, he stumbled down toward the creek to wash the sleep out of his eyes. Only half awake, he didn’t register the fact that Philip was the only body still curled up with the tail of his sleeping bag dragging in the ashes. Wandering back up the hill, running his fingers through his now-wet but still unruly hair, he noticed the discrepancy. Excitedly shaking Philip awake, Ben knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up—one last chance to bounce Sam, the quintessential anti-morning person, out of his sleep-til-noon coma. They crept toward the ratty two-man Boy Scout issue tent, silently counted to three, and dove in head first.

It was a serious bounce. A complete success. Except that Sam wasn’t alone. And seventeen-year-olds not being known for their flexibility of perspective as pertains to matters of the heart, all Benjamin could see was betrayal. The expression on his face passed through about a thousand emotions in a millisecond, but settled on shocked disbelief as his world crashed around his ears. He couldn’t think of anything to do but run, fast and far. He ran with everything in his heart and soul, sweating the trust of childhood from his pores, leaving behind all he had ever believed in.

If he had paused for even a moment inside the tent, he would have seen beyond the obvious, seen that Alix’s face was furrowed with dried tears, her eyes swollen from crying. He would have noticed that, sound asleep as she was with her head on Samuel’s chest, they were each in their own sleeping bags. But he was already sprinting down the railroad tracks, pushing himself beyond endurance, trying to outrun the visions in his head.



Chapter 7

"Things are only impossible until they're not."
-- Jean-Luc Picard


I might have kept running forever, but about five miles into my self-imposed marathon, I tripped over an uneven rail and took a header into the gully below. I had chewed up my ankle pretty badly, which I took as a good enough excuse to let the tears flow. I hadn’t cried like that since I was four, before I knew you were supposed to hold it back, to suck it up and let the pain become a part of you. I blamed myself for what I was sure I had seen. If only I had declared my love, made my intentions known, not been such a total coward. Then I realized I was going to have to backtrack a good couple of miles on one leg. My amusement quotient was pretty low. The sun was barely up, and it was rapidly developing into the longest day of my life.

We never talked about it—that’s the worst part. I got myself cleaned and bandaged up, the guys dropped off the camping gear I had abandoned on my front porch, and everyone went home. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I had betrayed Sam’s trust, too, with my instantaneous judgment of his character in a situation about which I knew nothing. Less than nothing. The next week we all started our respective summer jobs, made new friends, and pretended as if nothing earth-shattering had happened. I continued to assume that I knew everything. I scrupulously avoided Alix, couldn’t bear the thought of looking into her eyes and finding all my dreams, my aspirations for the two of us together (which I had never shared with her, but such is the egocentrism of humanity) tossed back in my face. I was sure it was all about me. It would have made for a much simpler story.

Your first broken heart isn’t an easy thing to outlive. Dismissive phrases like “puppy love” and “crush,” the older-and-wiser adult world attempting to belittle the first experience of what fundamentally makes us human, are insulting and unproductive. There was nothing insignificant about the way my world had changed shape since our weekend in the woods.















Chapter 8


“I have wondered if I am trying to force a life. While the life I lead may not match the picture in my head, perhaps the one offered me is just as full of joy, its pigments just as bright, just not what I expected.”
--Richard Paul Evans


Our heretofore inseparable foursome was never together, just the four of us, after that—whether by design or just the inevitable onrush of events, it was hard to determine. My sulking went nearly unnoticed by my family. Mostly because what I had always thought to be my indestructible family unit was quietly and unassumingly self-destructing. My father had invested heavily in a number of risky ventures, which inconsiderately all failed at once. My older brother was diagnosed with clinical depression (perhaps why the little black raincloud over my head that summer failed to draw attention). Dad had let the medical insurance lapse in the wake of his financial complications, and so couldn’t afford to enroll him in the recommended treatment program. My parents fought constantly. You could feel the word “divorce” hovering in the air, like those invisible blocks just out of Luigi’s reach in Super Mario Brothers. My brother tried to kill himself. He didn’t do a very good job of it, but they still had to tap into my college fund to pay for the hospital bed where he lay staring at the wall figuring out how to do it better next time. My little sister communicated with no one but her Beanie Babies, and spent the whole summer locked in her room, alphabetizing their birth certificates. If I wanted to ask her how she was doing (once I managed to get past the barricaded door), I had to assume the identity of Blacky the Bear, or Stripe the Skunk, or any number of furry alter egos to which she would actually respond. No small wonder my own personal tragedy got lost in the shuffle.

It was about a week before most everyone was supposed to be heading off to the land of dorm life when I found myself alone with Alix for the first time in what seemed like forever. I had gone down to the park to watch the sunset and escape my tempestuous family, and was half-heartedly swaying back and forth on one of the swings with my feet dragging in the dirt, when she walked out of the shadows to join me. We sat in silence for quite a while, rocking back and forth in our adjacent swings. She was the first to break the silence.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” she began, and I almost couldn’t remember why she should feel the need to say the words. We were different people now—weren’t we? I certainly didn’t feel like the same kid whose innocence could have been shattered so easily. But she went on to explain. About how her mom had had a nervous breakdown earlier in the summer—not long after the camping trip from hell—one reason Alix hadn’t been around much. And a bunch of other stuff that had been going on in the past year, little things on their own, but when piled together quite the convoluted disaster. That was what she had been confiding to Sam, oh so long ago in the tent. She had wanted to come to me about the mess her family was becoming, but felt like her problems were petty and insignificant compared to what she could sense on the horizon for me. So she chose Sam, the only one of us who didn’t already have some sort of monstrous familial burden to lug around. And mostly lost her best friend as a result. Those were her words. Some best friend I turned out to be.

Just a note on the whole family scenario: no family problem is insignificant, not when you find yourself stuck living in the middle of it. Perspective is lost; interactions, relationships, events get warped out of all proportion, like grotesque expanding balloon animals, hefalumps and woozles gone demonic. Maybe it’s easier for atheists—they expect life to be indiscriminate, random, without force or direction other than what they themselves provide. But if God, this all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God whose existence has been drilled into me since I mastered the art of language, is supposed to be at the center of the universe, how can we reconcile ourselves to a world without rules or mercy?

So there we sat, this ridiculous yet stubbornly solid wall between us; surmountable, certainly, but awkward as hell. We talked for a while, nonsensical stuff mostly, random catching up. I wanted more than anything in the world to take her into my arms and tell her exactly how I felt, to kneel at her feet and pour out the depths of my soul. To this day I don’t know what held me back. Maybe I was afraid of jeopardizing our best friend status, afraid that the friendship and the love I felt could not truly coexist, and unwilling to compromise one for the other. Perhaps I wanted to wait until I had proven myself worthy before declaring my love, like some misguided knight on a quest for the grail. Or maybe I was just sure that she already knew, that it was written all over my face and shining out through my eyes and that words would only diminish the blazing truth of my self-evident devotion. For whatever reason (and I should add basic human cowardice to the list), I simply kissed her shyly on the nose, hugged her quickly, and walked away.




Chapter 9

"Truth is more of a stranger than fiction."
-- Mark Twain



I watched Phil and Sam and Alix, in varying stages, load up their parents’ station wagons and minivans with the detritus of adolescence and prepare to head off into the great beyond. I wasn’t going. The money was gone, and not being a natural genius like Samuel, or a trustfunder like Philip, and since there was a decided shortage of fairy godmothers in my part of the world, I was stuck. But it was too much, watching my friends venture off into the unknown, as I sat mired in my same old medley of problems. The house was heavy with them. So the day before my three friends went their separate ways, I made my announcement. I was taking my summer savings and my backpack and going overseas. I was going to have the adventure of a lifetime, trek around Europe, discover the world, and myself (I hoped) in the process. It sounded better, and braver, than the truth—that I was making the age-old Brer Rabbit mistake of trying to outrun my troubles. I didn’t even say goodbye. I just grabbed my Eurail pass and my shiny new passport and disappeared.

That was six years ago. I never intended to stay away so long. I almost caught a plane home more times than I can count, but something always stood in the way. There were jobs, and friends, and responsibilities—but most of all I was just not yet ready to admit having assumed the role of the Prodigal Son quite so thoroughly. Avoiding the whole fatted calf scenario. My family rarely knew what country I was in on any given day, but I wrote to Alix faithfully. Declaring my love in no uncertain terms. Rambling on and on about how she was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Of course those letters still sit, carefully banded together, in the bottom of my duffel bag. Instead from time to time I emailed her cheerful, newsy letters of my glamorous and unattached life, copied to Sam and Phil and half a dozen other acquaintances who wouldn’t have cared if I had fallen off the face of the earth.

I never provided a forwarding address, rarely used the same email account twice, so I’m not entirely certain how he managed to track me down. But I was sitting in my tiny upstairs room in the Bavarian village bierhaus where I was tending bar at the time, when the telegram from Sam arrived. It was very simple and straightforward. It read, “come home. we need you. sam.”

It took a week for me to find a flight I could afford. It never occurred to me to pick up the phone; I had been out of touch for so long that I figured another few days couldn’t possibly make any difference. In my defense I didn’t even have my parents’ current phone number (they had moved to a smaller place on the other side of town not long after dad’s financial cataclysm), nor was I entirely certain where my friends had ended up after college. So I just sent my flight information back to Sam at the address on his telegram, and went in blind.

Alix died the day before I got there.














Chapter 10

Remember that He who choreographs the stars in their courses is also in charge
of the tiniest details of our lives. --Elizabeth Elliot


It’s the worst thing in the world not to get a chance to say goodbye. You hear these tragic stories about people dying of cancer, wasting away by inches, and how hard it is for their children or parents or whoever to watch them suffer and fade away. But at least they knew it was coming. They could have their heart to hearts and voice their regrets and make their apologies and formulate their plans for how to continue living in the absence of the person who is the center of their universe. Sudden, unexpected death is like being cheated twice over, like driving into a brick wall at ninety miles an hour. Once the shock wears off, you have to decide whether it’s worth your time to extricate yourself from the wreckage and walk away.

I got the story through Philip and Sam in pieces over those next few surreal days. She had been sick off and on for a couple of years. “Since the baby…,” I remember hearing Phil say, and I’m pretty sure he continued the sentence, but that’s where my brain shut down, repeating the phrase over and over again in an endless loop. By the time I tuned in again Sam was explaining about the pneumonia, how it just snuck up on her and a week later, the vibrant force of our childhood was snuffed out forever. I couldn’t take it in. My parents showed up at the funeral, but I couldn’t let them touch me. I was reasonably certain that if I let myself feel any more I would shatter into a million pieces. Sam and Phil were living together in a two-bedroom apartment in the next town over, so I took up residence on their couch and bit by bit, in the mutual insomnia of our first nights back together, we caught up on one another’s lives.

Sam had graduated summa cum laude with a degree in architecture. Phil had passed the bar exam on his third time around and was agonizing over which six-figure contract to accept. Alix had never made it to NASA; she met a guy her junior year who told her, for the first time ever in her life, that she was the most incredible person he had ever met and worthy of his utter devotion. He didn’t mean it, of course, but his declaration had the desired effect. He dumped her after a couple of weeks and moved on to the next one. Thinking back, I couldn’t believe we had never told her that she was the force that held us all together, that we had each been in love with her in our own way, but I guess what was self-evident to the rest of us had never made it past her defenses and into her consciousness.

She kept the baby. Her son was born halfway through her senior year, and she abandoned her engineering degree to take care of him. But it was a rough birth, and she was never quite the same afterward. Nothing the doctors could put a name to, but some of her spark had gone out. She loved him with a singlemindedness only Alix could muster, but it wasn’t enough to keep her here once God decided He had other plans. Which is a subject I intend to take up with Him the moment I’m speaking to Him again.

It was the second day after the funeral when her parents showed up on our doorstep. We had never been close, and I was frankly quite surprised they were acknowledging my existence. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have, except that they had found her will (I guess parenthood had made her more responsible than the rest of us, who could not yet fathom the concept of our own mortality). And my name was in it—as the guardian of her child. William Benjamin Connor. Liam for short. I had barely read the lines when a redheaded two-year-old launched himself into my arms. He had her eyes—as full of life and hope and possibility as ever hers had been, ready to take the world by storm. He held on to me like he would never let go. And I never have.




Epilogue

The Lord said, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
-Isaiah 43:19


I said at the beginning of all this that our perception of Time and God’s are two entirely different critters, a mystery that we (at least while on this earth) are powerless to unravel. I no longer believe that to be entirely true. Watching Liam grow, from toddler to school kid and now almost to junior high, I have come to realize that God gives us only as much as we can handle at any given time. I read this quote recently in a book by Richard Paul Evans:

There are those who will read the last page of a book first. But it is not me. I believe that it is fortunate that we are allowed to turn just one page of our lives at a time.

As we have all experienced firsthand, time changes drastically even as we live our own lives. Think for just a moment how long a summer day once was. Endless possibilities. At the age of eight we could destroy the world and singlehandedly reconstruct it again in a single golden summer afternoon. Even the time between when the bus dropped us off at the top of our street and when the sun started to set on a fall day, each person listening for the cadence of their own mother’s dinner cries—which, looking back, couldn’t have been much more than two hours, yet somehow in that time we had played eighty-seven different games, fought, made up, created new languages, explored alternate universes, and sometimes even done our homework. Back when a family trip to our favorite campground took “all day” (when I now acknowledge that it was only fifty miles away).

What happens to that…awareness? I’m not sure that’s the right word. But something fundamental is altered in our consciousness as we grow up. On the adult treadmill of life, there are always more phone calls to be made, more conferences to attend, more faxes and memos and emails to respond to, and yet with all our expertise and the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime, we probably accomplish less now than on those late afternoons of imagination and wonder, sitting high in a tree with the bark still warm from the sun, swinging our legs and discussing life with friends.

People say that life would be so much easier if we knew what God had planned for us in advance, without having to struggle our way through every step of the path. I think we would all be better off if we spent less time second-guessing the Creator of the universe and more time experiencing each day as we did when we were seven years old. After all, “life is what happens while you’re making other plans;” or in other words, maybe that daily struggle is life. God may be outside the line, but He’s holding it in the palm of His hand.

I wouldn’t give up a moment of the time I spent with my best friend Alix, not for anything in the world. Nor would it have helped me to know what was coming. It took me a long time to make peace with that little piece of truth, but that is what I believe. Whether or not that advance knowledge would have given me the ability to change the events that occurred, is a debate for another time. For now it will have to be enough to go throw a Nerf football with my kid in the last light of the setting sun.


© Copyright 2017 Jenipixel. All rights reserved.

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