November 4, 2011
It was summer, I think, when I met you. James had introduced me
to your brother and we were standing by your front steps when I
noticed these two little boys fighting down the street. The one
little boy with the cornrows beat down the other kid then pulled
his pants down and left him crying in the street. I looked over
at your brother and said, “That your little brother?” He kind of
shook his head in exasperation, “No, that’s my little sister.”
You were ten years old.
I remember you. Sarcastic. Acerbic. Funny. Mean as a snake. All of those things. Living down the street from my grandmother. Running wild with the other neighborhood kids. For reasons I’ll never understand, you adopted me, the way people take in strays. You fed me laughter and sunlight. You were my friend. You were my family. Batman and Robin, and, more often than not, you were Batman. Between the two of us, you were the brains of that operation. Full of questions. Bursting with answers. And I was a goner. I loved you.
“Who is this woman?!?” you wondered. “Why is she sitting in my seat?!” I’d gotten married and, all of a sudden, the kids were in the backseat, a place you’d never been. We’re driving to Baskin & Robbins and you’re looking around back there, playing with the light switches. You’d never been in the backseat before. She’d replaced you, usurped your fiefdom. How was it possible I could love someone else and still love you? The two of you never became real friends. You just sort of tolerated each other because neither could understand how much you both meant to me or that love exists in many dimensions all at once. I knew that spending time with you hurt her feelings. That I obviously looked forward to seeing you and that being around you made me happy.
If there’s one thing that explains why you became so special to me, it was that you just accepted me as I was. I didn’t have to be funny. Or clever. Or good-looking or rich. I didn’t have to be good at sports or, for that matter, good at anything. I didn’t have to impress you or put on some kind of show. You’d just kind of hang out and, well, be. And it was okay if I’d just hang out and be with you.
I think, at first, I thought you were the coolest kid I’d ever met. This is the part nobody seems to get. I could not, for the life of me, understand why your brother didn’t just take you everywhere. A lot of the time he seemed like he just couldn't be bothered, and, maybe, if I had a little sister instead of a big sister who tortured me, I might have been the same way. If he had any concern whatsoever about my being around you so much, he never expressed it to me. But I was angry at him a lot of the time because he was out in the street doing whatever and you were alone on that stoop. I used to think to myself, man, if she were my little sister I’d take her everywhere. I wanted to take you everywhere. I would have taken you everywhere.
You were my friend. Someone who cared for me without condition. And I adored you. I cherished you. You were this little bundle of contradictions, this kid who was smarter and certainly cooler than I ever was. You were this precious bit of light to my darkness. Lucy to my Charlie Brown. I loved you. It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t sexual. You were this little gift to me, and I loved you, just for who you were.
Genetics, of course, inevitably complicated things. You weren’t ten anymore, you were fourteen. And, while we hadn’t changed, you were changing and so the way people perceived us began to change. Your mom was only doing her job—protecting you—but I always felt accused of something, and I’d routinely go home angry. She was worrying about things that had nothing to do with us. It wasn’t who we were. And I stood on my head, in her kitchen, time and again, trying to explain us to her. Whatever she was thinking, she was wrong. I didn’t yet have language to explain these things.
On your sixteenth birthday, you turned up at my office, and you’ve gotten your hair done and you’re wearing this amazing dress and you’ve banished the tomboy and, suddenly, there’s this... this... girl... in my office. A girl?! You’re… a girl?! Did I miss a meeting? When did that happen? And lunch turned into dinner and the infamous limo ride home (I swear, I called a cab. A cab. They sent the stretch because they didn’t have any town cars).
You were this infuriating Chinese puzzle—accessible to a point, closed thereafter. Always smarter than me. I was eight years older and ten years dumber than you. You were the worldly wise part of our team, and there were parts of your life, things about you and things going on, that you did not or could not share with me.
Once my grandmother moved to Florida and I moved to Jersey I had increasingly fewer excuses for being on 200th Street. If I was there, I was there to see you. I’d sit in your kitchen with your mother, or watch your father tinker endlessly with his taxi for hours just to spend even a few minutes with you. Sammy’s Fish Fry on City Island, The World’s Fair park in Corona. Roosevelt Island on the tram. A million trips to Baskin & Robbins.
Talking about nothing. Sometimes not even talking, just listening to the radio in that ’83 Cougar (which is in my driveway right now). Remember that black Schwinn bike I used to ride over your house? I still ride it. If you felt safe with me, I certainly felt safe with you.
The Brains of The Operation:: I remember you.
Twenty Years Later
Moving to the last chapters of the book, I am endlessly curious
about who you were and what you were thinking back then: things
you did not or could not share with me, things I was simply too
big a coward to ask you. I wonder, all these years later, if the
woman, all grown up and with a child of her own, can or is willing to share what the young girl could or
would not. Its like a good movie where you skip ahead and the
title card reads, Twenty Years Later... and they bump into each
other at the mall and have a drink and she starts to clear up
mysteries and fill in blanks. You’ve already filled in quite a
few of them.
In every way that actually counts, you rescued me. You were this little, irritating patch of light in the midst of a great darkness. And I loved you, I really did. I really do.
If I had a meaningful or effective way to say “thanks,” I surely would. Instead, I’ll spend the rest of my days trying.