On turning 48

The light bends through the prisms of dangling yesterdays, stacked-up on floors, spilling off shelves, hiding underneath the papers in the bottom of my briefcase until I accidentally excavate them, following me wherever I go. Sometimes like circus mirrors, sometimes like vignetted dreams, they never knock or phone ahead; they act like that family member who always pretends not to notice that she has a habit of dropping in just before dinner is about to be served. Long ago they stopped insisting that they wouldn’t dream of intruding. Now they just pull up a seat as if it’s a given that I’ll set out a plate and silverware.

My memories—all four dozen years of them (at least they’re not baker’s dozens!) act presumptuously familiar. They treat me like that tattooed guy who smokes cigarettes on the curb with a pack rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve and thinks he’s on a first-name basis with me. He just happens to be sitting right where I’m walking by, and he gets up and follows me around, making sometimes unwelcome conversation, pulling out his wallet and showing me the pictures. Why can’t he go annoy somebody else?

He flashes my first day in first grade before my eyes (my first day of kindergarten fell out of his wallet a long time ago). The morning I walked through the front door and found Grandpa wailing because dad had just left this world, and virtually every minute of the long hours between then and the funeral. A blur of weeks here. A jumble of months there. (Either the camera was poorly-focused or the pictures faded.) The girl I dumped. The girl who dumped me. Wasted opportunities. Bad habits that are harder to shake than bad memories. Talking to my great-grandmother about her father playing the violin in a rented hall as she was readying to leave County Mayo, and how she never saw him again, and how she cried herself to sleep for weeks after she got here. (When she was the age I am now she had one son heading off to fight the Japanese in the Pacific and another son not far behind.)

None of them are still shots. It’s as if he found them all on YouTube and embedded each one in the web page of my brain. I want them all to be just a few days ago; I am glad that so many of them are not tomorrow. And just when I think the wallet couldn’t possibly hold any more, I say, “That doesn’t look like forty-eight years’ worth! It can’t be more than thirty-seven!” and he laughs with street-wise derision, saying, “Oh yeah?” and I then know I have a long afternoon ahead of me.

But if I’m totally truthful with myself, I have to admit I need him. It had to be just the other day that I clambered up the stairs of a State Street subway station, rubbed my eyes, and found myself nowhere near Chicago. I turned to him, showed him my transfer slip, and said, “Isn’t there a bus that can take me back to 1987? I was supposed to do some really important things before I turned thirty.” He sent a long column of smoke in my direction, flicked the spent butt in the general direction of a twenty-first century palm tree, pulled out the wallet, and said, “This is the only way you’re going back.”

Sometimes I want to punch his lights out, but he’s right.


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