Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kevin and Emily

The world has connectors. People who introduce people to other people, who build ever-expanding social networks. People who play matchmaker.

I’m usually not one of those people.

I appreciate my social pockets--different people for different settings and occasions, and none of the messiness of having to play the middleman and explain inside jokes and make sure everyone’s having a good time.

But sometimes, even for humble, insular souls like myself, the universe has other plans.

It was sophomore year at Geneseo, and I sat in Steuben Hall, across a walkway from my own dorm in Livingston. As Saturday nights went, this was a pretty tame one. I spent the October evening chatting, sipping from a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew in the room of two friends from freshman year, Cathy and Emily. We had the door propped open and, if memory serves, we watched Saturday Night Live.

Then I heard voices in the hallway. DJ and Kevin.

I had my dorm friends. I had my newspaper friends. The two most substantial and well-defined cohorts of my college life. The extent of the overlap between them was that sometimes my dorm friends would read the newspaper.

But that all changed.

I called out to DJ and Kevin and they found their way into Emily and Cathy’s room. Rather than saying hello and moving along they lingered through the end of SNL and later still. I recall marveling at the sight of DJ and Cathy interacting--DJ with his larger than life personality, all but incapable of holding a conversation that didn’t include talk of sex, drugs, or both. Cathy, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, but reserved, bookish, introverted. Yet the two of them chatted easily, like old friends.

The five of us ended up upstairs in Kevin’s single, with a rotating cast of his neighbors visiting briefly in the hours to follow. Before too long, Cathy returned downstairs to turn in for the night. Then DJ was on his way. Finally, I sat alone on Kevin’s old-fashioned leather love seat while Kevin and Emily sat across the way, side by side on his bed, an over-sized hardcover book splayed between them, the front cover on his right thigh, the back cover on her left. And for all of my reservations about being a connector, about having to bridge the gap between new acquaintances--I all at once realized that I was the third wheel.

And I left.

I’m not sure how you can determine when such things officially begin, but within days, Kevin and Emily were a couple, and it became altogether routine for some permutation of the five of us who hung out that night to grab dinner or coffee together, joined by other newspaper and dorm folk, further blurring the lines between my social circles. In the weeks to follow, Emily and Cathy joined the newspaper staff. I particularly recall Springfest--the annual end-of-spring-semester outdoors festival. A group of us visited booths, listened to music, played games, and had a picture taken of the five of us at a western-themed photo booth. I’m still not sure why I gravitated to that dress when it came time to make wardrobe selections. Putting that aside, the photo remains a marker of one of the best days at one of the best times of my life.

Kevin graduated that spring and in the coming fall Emily studied abroad in Spain. The dynamics of my social life were pretty different with two of my best friends absent, and given their own distance from one another, there was every reason to think the relationship might not last.

But it did.

One of the things that has most impressed me about Kevin and Emily’s story is how little drama it has entailed. Maybe they’re just good at keeping drama from the public eye, or I’m not as observant as I should be, but they handled international long distance with aplomb and when Emily came back to Geneseo that spring, Kevin returned, too, as a fairly regular weekend fixture. Senior year, Emily and I shared a two-bedroom apartment, and one of the happiest returns was the fact that I could count on seeing Kevin, too, at least a couple times each month for overnight visits. When I look back at photos from my college years, I’m always a tad wistful, a tad amused to look at all of the couples that have come and gone (not the least of which include my series girlfriends that never quite worked out). It’s comforting to know that, all these years later, Kevin and Emily have remained a matched pair.

In the years after college, I didn’t see a lot of Kevin or Emily. Particularly after I had moved to Maryland, and after Kevin and Emily had moved to Indiana, contact became all the less regular.

Then, last spring, I decided I was due for a long road trip. I charted a course from Baltimore to St. Louis for a major a cappella competition, and reasoned that I had no alternative but to stop in Indianapolis along the way.

I’d be lying if I claimed that, alongside my excitement for the reunion, I didn’t feel a twinge of the trepidation that comes with seeing folks you haven’t associated with for a period of years. Would they have changed? Would I have changed? How transferrable would our college friendship be to life seven years later?

I’m pleased to say it was one of the most effortless reunions and visits I can recall having. Good friends can work their way into conversation after they haven’t been in contact for a long time. For great friendships, the end results are the same, but none of the work is necessary. We hugged. We drank craft beer and plum wine. We referenced old inside jokes and built new ones as we wandered downtown Indianapolis and played video games on Kevin’s new 8-bit Nintendo emulator. By the end of the visit, my only regret was not planning to stay longer.

Which brings us to now--or next weekend, to be more specific. Eleven years after my worlds collided when my dorm friends met the newspaper crew, Kevin and Emily are getting married. I’m not sure which among our old friends made the guest list or were able to work the date into their calendars, but I do know that I feel positively honored to be an usher for the event.

When I look ahead to next weekend, I selfishly can’t escape the sensation that this wedding is a celebration of a beautiful life I used to know. More importantly, it’s a celebration of a love that survived it, and kept at least a piece of that life alive and thriving.

I can’t wait.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Spread My Wings

I first heard Kelly Clarkson’s ”Breakaway” at an interesting time in my life.

I won’t deny it: I have a soft spot for teeny bopper ballads and songs about big dreams. “Breakway” started getting radio play during my senior year of college, when I’d wouldn't have been so bold as to admitted I liked a song as cheesy, soft and cliché as this one. Just the same, I was in the early stages of what would become a multi-year relationship with an unabashed Kelly Clarkson fan, who was all too ready to connect with this song, herself a girl who had grown up in a small town and dreamed of breaking away. So, listening to the song as a way of connecting with her seemed reasonable enough.

To underscore how cheesetastic this song is, a bit of background about the song itself: It was written by Avril Lavigne, whose people wouldn’t let her record it because it was deemed too soft and girly for her image.

I grew to like the song. It’s optimism. It’s call back to a simpler, softer pop music that predated my musical coming of age around middle school, taking me back to the sort of earlier pop selections that permeated supermarkets, mall shops, and top 40 radio as a kid.

My shining moment came when that girlfriend of the time and I barreled down back roads between Ithaca and Syracuse with a car full of friends. I sat behind the wheel. And as this song played out, the girl and I belted it back to the speakers. By the last chorus, I think everyone in the car was singing along.

If I were to liken a song like this to a particular food on the culinary spectrum, I’d call it dessert. Saccharine. Disposable. Not particularly good for you, but it tastes so good in the moment.

And like so many sundaes and pies, you tend not to remember songs like this after their fifteen minutes in the mainstream. I don’t think I had heard the song since 2005 when it came over speakers at an Applebee’s in Wooster, Ohio.

I had traveled to Wooster alone to judge an a cappella competition in a cattle barn as part of an offbeat music festival. The day started at five in the morning to get to the airport in time for the cheapest flight possible. When I was off the plane and in my rental car I headed straight to the Wayne County Fairgrounds where I partook in the festivities for the six hours to follow. Afterward, I checked into my hotel and crashed. I probably could have slept the night through, but I’d brought work to do, and I was trying to avoid letting my sleeping and eating schedules grow too wonky. So, after a 45-minute nap I got up and decided to take advantage of the Applebee’s gift card that had gone unused in my wallet for well over a year.

I sat alone at the bar, reading a book by John Updike, exchanging scraps of conversation with the bartender/waitress as my meal progressed. Between my salad and my burger, “Breakaway” cued up. And the bartender, a woman with a sleeve of tattoos, ironic pigtails, and dark eye shadow began to sing along with the first verse.

And it occurred to me that there’s a little “Breakaway” in all of us. At least all of us who grew up in small communities, all of us who aspired to bigger things, all of us who have lost ourselves at one time or another to the romance of the American Dream or the sureness of our own specialness. Perhaps even more simply, the lure of catchy, sugary bubblegum pop.

I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly
I’ll do what it takes, ‘til I touch the sky
Gotta make a wish, take a chance, make a change
And breakaway

With five bucks left on my gift card after dinner, I ordered a chocolate chip sundae-the biggest, sweetest, least necessary dietary indulgence I’d allowed myself in quite some time. I ate every bite. And I remembered.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Shadow Love Story

A few days ago, a buddy and I made a creative pact to each craft art about a character who embodies our most shadowy, ugly side and a second character who loves the first all the same.

Game on.

After they scattered his mother’s ashes at the top of the tallest hill in town, he walked through a cemetery and saw that people left flowers at graves.

Deeply entrenched in a series of one-sided conversations with God, in which he made every attempt to plead, barter, and bargain his mother back to life, he reasoned flowers must have been the answer. Not these single roses, though, nor these bouquets.

By moonlight, he plundered the gardens of neighbors, the parks. Unsatisfied with his yield, he shattered the front window of the florist’s shop and left with shard-freckled roses and daisies.

He loaded all of these flowers in the red wagon his mother bought him that past Christmas and wheeled them up the hill behind him. He tipped over the wagon at the peak, littering a mosaic of flowers to intermix with the dirt and the grass and his mother’s remains. Satisfied with his handiwork, he descended the hill to await his mother’s return.

She never came.

He played hopscotch with the boys on the street and remembered it was his mother who taught him the game. One of the boys tossed the stone and all at once he realized that the flowers were all wrong. He needed something more specific to his mother if he hoped to bring her back to him.

He loaded the wagon with stones. Too many it turned out, so that as he climbed the hill, he could no longer pull the wagon with him. He unloaded half and made the climb. Doubled back, reloaded, and did it again.

But his mother never came.

He tried again with sand from the beach where they had collected seashells, with leaves from the trees they walked under in autumns past, with wrappers from the sorts of chocolate bars she would have bought him at the corner store.

So dedicated was he that he stopped playing with the other boys. He stopped going to school. Didn’t make it home half the nights, sleeping instead on park benches, in tall grass, on tree branches midway through his searches for whatever he thought might return his mother fastest.

And so the girl found him one winter morning, shivering malformed snow angels in his sleep. She nudged him awake.

He thanked her for rousing him, coughed in his mitten, and said he had work to do. A wagon full of snow and ice to bring his mother.

She accompanied him up the hill. Pushed the wagon while he pulled it. Helped scoop clumps of snow over the peak until the wagon was empty. Then she asked what he was doing.

And he was too embarrassed to explain the rationale he’d long since stopped believing himself--that he’d ever thought he could bring his mother back. He was too shy, even, to explain that he was embarrassed.

It took him a matter of minutes to realize that she held his hand--before the numbness in his digits thawed and he could feel her against him.

They held hands walking down the hill and she kissed him on the cheek when they went their separate ways.

What a peculiar girl, he thought, and assumed he’d never see her again.

But the next day, she found him collecting purple twelve-ounce cans of the grape soda his mother loved and she joined him. And the day after that when he gathered newspapers. The day after that when stockpiled wheat pennies.

He always thought it strange that he couldn’t recall when he stopped collecting. When he stopped dragging his wagon behind him. When he stopped climbing that hill.

He and the girl held hands many more times. Sat together to watch the northern lights from the roof of the abandoned cannery at the edge of town, his arm over her shoulders, her legs stretched long across his lap. They kissed. Made love. Raised children. Grew old.

And after the children had moved out, and their dog had died, and he’d started paying neighborhood kids to mow the lawn not out of laziness or generosity, but because his back couldn’t abide walking back and forth along such long rows of grass--after all of that, the girl, now an old woman, was wheelchair bound and ill and ready to die.

She asked him to take her to the top of the hill.

He pushed her wheelchair up the incline, hitting all the same divots and crannies where the wheels of his wagon used to catch. The top of the hill, when they reached it, was littered with debris--vegetation and stones torn wrappers and the remains of soda cans and copper coins.

“All those days you came here, you buried your mother’s ashes deeper,” the old woman said, “You made the hill taller.”

He fell to his knees. Exhausted, yes, but all too keenly reminded of when he last frequented the hill and how he would soon have to say goodbye again. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

“You can always make the hill higher, even now,” she said. “You can always carry and drag and displace more things.”

A cold wind blew. The old woman’s white hair swirled around her and her chair rocked, threatening to tip or to roll.

He stared eastward. He and the old woman cast shadows that stretched over the remains of his youth, curving down the far side of the hill. Charcoal clouds approached and obscured what stars might have shined in the blackening sky. “It’s getting dark,” he said.

“Let’s turn around,” the old woman said.

He thought she meant for them to go. But when he spun her chair and looked ahead again, he saw a lighter sky. All magenta and periwinkle, the sun itself the littlest yellow oval on the horizon, ready to burn out to ash at any second.

He looked on in wonder.

“This happens every day,” the old woman said. “Whatever you might choose to do with your day, you can’t stop it.”

“I never would.”

They held brittle, veiny, shaking hands.

He watched the sunset and he loved the rest of his life.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Legend of Zelda

A couple years ago, I read a nostalgia-based article, written by someone about ten years my junior, recounting the halcyon days of his youth playing Nintendo 64.

Prior to reading this article, I’d only ever owned two gaming systems--the Nintendo and the Super Nintendo. I had a brief love affair with video games--a period when I drew paper-and-pencil sketches of my own top-down point-of-view games; a period when I wrote my first short stories with folks like Link and Simon Belmont as protagonists; a period when I subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine; and a period, when, yes, I more often than not spent multiple hours a day actually playing video games.

Those days faded by degrees as I got older, and stopped altogether around the time I entered high school. The combination of homework, extracurriculars, writing, and some semblance of a social life left time for nothing more than the occasional game of Tetris. Thus, I missed the craze of Nintendo 64 (initially released in 1996), all of its contemporaries, and all of the systems and games to follow.

But then I read this article. The piece culminated in a list of the top ten greatest games for Nintendo 64 and the columnist awarded his highest marks to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and WWF No Mercy.

It’s been established: I’m a wrestling fan.

Moreover, the original Legend of Zelda was my bread and butter as an up and coming video game enthusiast—a puzzle-infused role-playing game that I’ve probably played start to finish more than any other title. I recall dusting off the game and playing it with a girlfriend over a winter break during college. She marveled at the fact that her directionally challenged boyfriend who struggled to navigate his own hometown could effortlessly recall the exact locations of the Master Sword, Death Mountain, and more in the 8-bit land of Hyrule.

I read this column. I read this list. And I went on eBay.

Two weeks and seventy-five dollars later, I had my very own Nintendo 64 and a dozen or so games that had come bundled together, including Zelda and No Mercy. A month or so later, I had a free Saturday afternoon and I set to playing.

I didn’t get it.

Within my first minute with Ocarina of Time I was having flashes from late in my high school career, when my friends tried to introduce me to Duke Nukem. The sex and gun violence were a turn off, but more so, the first-person-shooter style of play was so disorienting that I simply could not master the game. Each attempt to do so ended with a mild case of motion sickness from trying to follow the herky-jerky motion of the graphics.

While my experience with Nintendo 64 didn’t give me motion sickness, the extra buttons and joystick proved too much for me to manipulate. Thinking further back than Duke Nukem, I recalled trying to teach my grandmother how to play Super Mario Bros. when I was six years old and how the entire experience was so alien that she simply couldn’t comprehend it.

Had I grown so out of touch? So ancient?

I told myself that one day I’d play Nintendo 64 again. That my schedule would settle and I would dedicate the time to acclimating myself to these new controls.

I told myself these things, but I didn’t believe them.

Six months after I procured my Nintendo 64, I had my wisdom teeth out. What better time for some video game indulgence?

But I did not play Nintendo 64.

Rather, in addition to reading Philip Roth and watching a ridiculous amount of Friday Night Lights I ultimately broke out the original Nintendo and revisited games like Trog, The Guardian Legend, and, of course, the good old original Zelda. Games that still played the way they were supposed to. Not as burdens. As fun.

I stabbed Ganon--the final, ultimate villain of Zelda--for what might have been thousandth time. I watched him turn from green to red. I fired a silver arrow into the heart of the beast and watched him shatter.

As I did so, I recalled my very first run through with this game.

I recalled that my father killed Ganon first. That I cried because I didn’t think I’d ever beat the game.

In a rare moment of compassion, rather than yelling at me to stop crying, my old man sat me down and said I could and should beat the game right then.

I wiped my eyes clean and I played.

Though it was hard, though my adrenaline raced, and though, until the last, I wasn’t sure I could do it, I played. And in that very first battle with Ganon, I slew the beast. I rescued the princess and the screen brightened in a polychromic explosion--just the same as it had when my dad beat the game a half hour earlier, and yet fundamentally different.

This time, the screen shone for me.

I recalled the first time I beat The Legend of Zelda. I felt like I could do anything.