North Oaks

(short fiction originally published in Lake Affect, June 2005)

Arcing past the dark, wide, dense lawns, you follow the undulating, curving road that falls and climbs the lush, gabled neighborhood, houses spread an acre apart from one another, hidden seams of leafy, gracefully sweeping oaks, leaning willow, a neighborhood that seems to sway in the belly of the whale – that far removed from the rest of the world, a neighborhood of laced, curving fencelines, backyard pools and tennis courts framed by woods, solitary cars stopping at the mailboxes before following the long, curving drives toward the shelter of four car garages, a neighborhood silenced beneath the stars, the moon spreading blue across dewy, endless lawns.

You grew up here.  Your parents moved you and your brothers here when you were in the ninth grade.  And the tight-knit community you once danced across patched lawns with, your street hockey gangs, doorbell ditchers and milk carton bike jumpers, the wandering conversations pouring from one house to the next, the block long run through sprinklers and the sweet, soft smell of laundry drying on backyard lines, all these things seem a thousand miles away in this new neighborhood.  You stand at the end of the driveway, watching the solitary sweep of headlights comb through the trees at the top of the hill and wonder how you came to this beautiful place, your own private woods, a bike ride away from tennis courts, a stretching, oak framed golf course, an endlessly cold, blue lake which bans motorized boats, the serrated line of buoys and sailboats, unchained canoes along the shoreline.  You wander the dark streets at night, smoking filterless Camel cigarettes, watching lightning bugs flicker in warm pulls of air over marsh, between houses.  You watch the still, warm house lights through limbs and leaves and listen to your own breathing and tennis shoe steps over pavement, wondering if this is how it feels to creep over the cold curve of the moon.

 It felt that way to me, anyway.  As though I could feel the shuck of gravity from every pore in my skin, as though my bones turned to straw and I began a cold, blue arcing spiral through stars.  I felt a million miles from earth.

Truth is, I’m not sure I ever understood why my parents chose to move us to such an upscale neighborhood, (and I’m certain most would fail to find sympathy for the situation described as a plight.)  My father’s sudden promotion to vice president of marketing of one of the largest design firms in Minneapolis secured us a better place, I suppose.  But it was in North Oaks where our family began its slow, silent separation from one another, my two brothers and I each silently gravitating to our own soft departures, my parents engaged in the strange, poolside gatherings at neighbor’s houses, framing social attachments to a group of socialites, doctors and stockbrokers and stockbroker’s wives, a desperate clutch of individuals, half of whom were falling out of their marriages like a toddler falls out of its clothes, the serrated line of empty liquor bottles and melted candles along the pool rim, the waft of chlorine, the soft bodies sprawled like starfish along the shore as dawn lifted through trees. 

I was witness to a few of these gatherings and wondered what on earth had happened to my family:  it was like watching my parents merge into a cult.

If it hadn’t been for Amelia, I don’t know what I would have done.  She became my soft landing on the moon.  The youngest daughter of a couple of my parents’ new friends, a family who lived around the corner – the other side of our backyard woods, a soft blond haired girl with lips twisted, it seemed, in a permanent pout, and cold, blue eyes, a girl who acted as though she understood things at least twenty years beyond our age.  I first saw her at the Fourth of July gathering at the soccer fields, amid the weave of an overwrought display of patriotism with red, white and blue swaying flags followed by relay races, watermelon slices and fireworks, if you could stand to bear the chattering company until dusk.

I saw Amelia standing near her parents, her arms folded across her chest, the scour of boredom marking her face.  She was wearing a black Che Guevara t-shirt with the sleeves double rolled, full-length army fatigues and black military boots.  I knew nothing about her, only that, from a distance, she stood out from the crowd like an anarchist in church.  I stared at the way the wind pulled her hair across her face and how her expression never changed.  She was the kind of a girl who wouldn’t take crap from anyone.  You could tell that just by looking at her.  You could tell she pooled a vortex of emotions and opinions, a twisting spiral of questions and answers, this girl.  She stared at the wandering parade, children’s bikes and trikes decorated with streamers and crepe paper breaking away in the wind, tumbling across the long field, and her expression was taut and unwavering; she bit her lip until it turned white.

The first child to file past twirling a baton, and Amelia was crossing the line of witnesses, slipping past the sprawled mass; her parents never even noticed.  I watched her retrieve her bike from the woods framing the field.  She never looked over her shoulder before riding away.

It would be several more weeks before I spoke to her.  At a pizza restaurant nearby, I was supping with my family after my brother’s soccer game.  I saw Amelia wander in and head toward the cigarette machine tucked by the restrooms.  She was plucking quarters into the slot and pulling levers when I approached.  Amelia was a Winston Salem girl.  Pretty green and white plastic wrapped packages fell into the machine tray.   Amelia scooped them up and turned.  “Hey,” she said, seemingly untouched by my appearance.

“Hey,” I answered.  “We’re new neighbors.  I’m a new neighbor.  Around the corner or through the woods.”

Her expression didn’t change.  “Piedmont, right?  One of Bryce and Anne’s trio of sons?”

“Yep,” I said.  I felt myself blush.  Her blue eyes were soft pools with muted traces of green.  Her light bangs held across her forehead in a slight trace of moisture.  She pulled the cellophane from one of her cigarette packages, and I pretty much knew the extension of our conversation was on my shoulders.  “I just wanted to say hi.”

“Smoke?” she asked, glancing up, expressionless.

“Yep, but…I’m with my folks…around the corner.”

“My best to Bryce and Anne,” she said as she turned. “Easy on the pepperoni.”

“About the Che Guevara shirt,” I said, more quickly than I anticipated.  “I saw you wearing it at the Fourth of July gathering, and I wanted to know…was that merely a cute fashion statement or is there something behind it?”

Amelia paused.  She tucked a cigarette between her lips.  Her eyes were locked into mine when she pumped her Bic lighter and a burst of flame ignited the end.  I noticed a few of the pizza eating revelers crane their heads in notice, but Amelia clearly couldn’t care any less.  “What kind of question is that?” she asked, her words cupping smoke.

“Just me trying to capture you in some kind of conversation…since we’ve moved here…I’ve been having trouble meeting anyone who fits in as poorly as I seem to.”

“That’s no wonder,” she said and turned to the door.  I hesitated but followed. 

Outside of Carbones, I found her with her back against the brick wall.  She inhaled huge gasps of smoke and sighed them from her lungs.  For a brief moment, she closed her eyes and appeared relaxed.

“A bunch of us meet by the rec center on Friday nights,” she said, finally. “Come by Friday, if you want.”

“What time?”

“Whenever dark is,” she said.  She jabbed her cigarette against the building and rode away, her tires hissing over the pavement and fading.

That’s how it started.  I was hesitant to approach the rec center when the first Friday night came by.  I’ve never been the most social of my brothers – more intimated by larger groups of people, but I wanted, more than anything, for the opportunity to get to know Amelia.  Already I was daydreaming of her, wondering about her life on my midnight walks through the neighborhood, sometimes banking my path down past her house, through the woods that connected hers to mine, wondering which window opened to her room.  I pictured her pouring over the pages of worn books about Cuban liberation, Sartre existentialism and The Anarchist’s Cookbook while the music of the Sex Pistols reverberated from her stereo speakers.  In my imagination, Amelia stabbed dying cigarettes against the pages of her books, the smoke snaking ghosts through her jarred window.

 

I rode my bike to the rec center slowly and walked it through the trees, slowing near the tennis courts while I listened for the hushed voices of others.  I glimpsed the soft outline of movement by the coke machine, saw the intermittent orange glow of cigarettes, like lightning bugs through cat-tails.  I set my bike against the tennis court fence and walked through a sprawl of others, mostly my age, some older, many nodding their heads as I walked by, most just staring, silencing their conversations a bit as I approached.  Amelia was sitting atop the rec center building, her legs dangling over the door.  She wore a white t-shirt, pooling moonlight, army fatigues and silently puffed on a Winston Salem.  I couldn’t tell if she had noticed me.

I responded to a series of “heys,” people attempting to place me, the whole “friend or foe” thing, I guess.  I pretty much couldn’t care less about who any of these people were.  And by no means did I want to alter their mindless midnight parade, the kicking of empty beer cans, fondling under sweaty shirts, chugging of malt ducks, whatever the hell they were up to.  I just wanted to see Amelia.

She slowly lowered herself from the roof, one foot against the wall, the other dangling, searching for the pavement.  For a moment, her t-shirt was caught between her elbow and I peered through darkness at the outline of her exposed waist.

“The cigarette machine guy,” she said, approaching.

“What?”

“I’m glad you showed.  Surprised, actually.” 

She moved closer, and I could see the faint freckles across her nose, even in moonlight.  “You know any of these others?” she asked, offering me her half consumed can of beer with a blue bull wrapped around the label.

“Probably some of the children of my parents’ friends, maybe,” I answered.  I took a long sip of beer and looked around.  All I could see were shapes in darkness, leaning bodies and murmuring conversations.  There must have been twenty or so others there.

“So what goes on here?” I asked.

“Mostly just vain attempts to kill time.”

“The whole sex, drugs and rock and roll thing?”

“That’d be our parents’ parties,” she said.

“If you call the Bee Gees rock and roll,” I answered.

 “Right,” she said.  “Except that.”

Amelia introduced me to a few people, names I quickly forgot because I’ve never been good at that.  Most of us sat alongside the tennis court fence.  It was a quiet gathering, more like a sit-in than a party, a more stoic gathering of young people than I was used to, but the temperament suited me fine.  Someone in our group passed a joint down our row.  A plastic baggie of little colorful pills came by.  We smoked.  We swallowed pills.  We drank beer.  The cold sweep of headlights combed past the edges of leaning oak leaves and limbs above us as cars banked the boulevard.  Their taillights were speeding red dots flickering through the cloak of distant trees.  The stars above us were thick and swelling; I ran my hand down Amelia’s forearm, noticing every light hair, and our hands pressed together, fingers laced, the two of us silent, just there, just breathing, just staring out into the soft, still world beyond us.

 

My parents joined an odd neighborhood theater ritual.  Every month, someone in the neighborhood would host a party at their house under the guise of putting on a play.  They divvied up parts and read whole plays aloud, cavorting around living rooms and pretending they were off-Broadway stages.  Serving more as affirmation of their chosen professions, on a monthly basis, doctors, executives, lawyers, bankers and their wives proved they may have had little talent otherwise by taking on lead roles in the latest Neil Simon tripe.

The group seemed to revel in the opportunity to become someone else for two hours – many played their parts to the hilt and often failed to break character long after the last line was read.  My brother and I observed one of these productions when my parents hosted, Plaza Suite.  We glimpsed the staging from the far corner of the dining room, slipping into the darkness when all heads were turned.  A handful of guests acted out their parts in a rotating cast.  Some looked embarrassed, red faced at the prospect of standing before their peers and reading lines.  But most reveled in the opportunity, squeezing the juice out of every line, each staged gesture.  The audience, sprawled on the living room floor, some slumped haphazardly over one another, was rapt and joyous.  When one of the actors lost their place or muffed a line, they would hoot and holler, occasionally tossing soft sofa pillows or wadded napkins.  A series of desk lamps were clamped on surrounding tables, turned toward the actors’ faces.  Their cheeks were rouged and eyes lined.  You seriously felt as though you were watching the last production hosted on the Titanic.

My brother and I were good at making ourselves invisible.  We knew how to merge into stretching shadows, how to avert eye contact when passing guests, how to slip into the dark corners and observe.

When the play ended, we watched.  We watched those who had acted parts, giddy still from their dive into performance, gesturing wide with their gin and tonics, falling over themselves in laughter over the latest Billy Carter joke or welcomed sexual innuendo.  With the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever blasting the stereo, we observed the odd dance of adult conversation, the huddled grouping of political observers, their brows knit as they pealed back the layers of the world and all its problems, members getting more firm in their pronouncements as the evening and drinking wore on, one occasionally jabbing another in the chest.  There were the clowns who pranced from corner to corner like monkeys on a television stage.  There were the lingering conversations between men and women, the occasional slide of hand across another’s knee, often while their spouses were turned away.

Always there was tension.  It’s what I remember most – a lift and fall of gravity, the attraction between men and women married to others, liberal political beliefs weighed against conservative.  I remember the tension, punctured with bursts of laughter, and the pallor of shifting clouds of cigarette smoke, lipstick stained cocktail glasses tingling with ice, the mix of exotic perfume and sporty cologne.

The night of the play was also a night of a partial lunar eclipse.  My brother and I followed the partygoers as they lumbered their way, a long serrated train, out into our dark yard and craned their heads up at the moon, partially blotted in shadow.  Never completely quiet, many of the revelers chortled and joked as they stood under the night sky.  Some ooed and awed.  A few were silenced, their heads turned toward the swelling shadow across moon.

My brother and I moved to the farthest perimeter of the yard, the line of balsam.  Mostly we watched the sky.  But toward the end, as the throng of my parents’ guests turned collectively toward the warmth of the house, we watched the few that lingered and observed the leaning bodies and hushed whispers of those in less of a hurry to return to their identities in the larger crowd when the stars were burning so bright above them. 

 

At the second Friday night rec center gathering I attended, we poured a huge circled “A” in gasoline in the center of the soccer field and ignited it.  Flames rose and licked and, circled around it, we glimpsed each other through the haze.  The scorched earth smell lingered in the air as the flames subsided.

Amelia failed to look amused by this gesture.  She sat in her favorite spot, atop the rec center roof, legs dangling as she smoked menthols.

“They haven’t a clue about anarchy,” she said.  “They only know that an ignited pour of gasoline at night is more interesting than not.”

I stood on the bicycle rack and lifted myself to the roof to join her.  She was wearing her Che Guevara outfit, again – black boots and army pants, a black t-shirt.  Her arms were long and white.  The breeze tufted her bangs.

“When did you move here?” I asked.  “This neighborhood.”

 “From the beginning,” she said.  “It’s where I grew up, all the way since babyhood.”

 “You like it?”

 “I don’t have anything to compare it to,” she said.  “But, no, I don’t like it.”  She pulled a cloud of menthol into her lungs.  “Why did your parents decide to move here?”

 “No idea,” I said.  “The rising urge of the proletariat, I guess, like salmon up river.  Maybe they liked all the trees.”

“Probably it was the parties.  We really know how to throw parties here.  There was a post funeral reception for one of my parents’ friends a few months ago, a dentist whose heart pitched into severe cardiac arrest after his morning jog and poached eggs.  Hours after burying him, we were all gathered around his family’s living room and kitchen carrying on with drinks and loud music.  His widow was mournfully turning cartwheels across the floor.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“I know.  I watched the sad, awkwardly silent gathering snake its way into frivolous hilarity with my eyes and mouth wide open.  Everything is a party here.  Even death.”

The smell of scorched earth lingered.  Stars glimmered through haze.  From atop the roof, we were the first to see the sheriff’s car pull alongside the soccer field.  A bright beam of light pooled across the field as the clustered groups of kids separated and ran.  We saw the sheriff’s car door open, and we scrunched down low on the roof, peering over the eaves.

Amelia knitted her forehead when she sucked smoke from her cigarette.  She cupped her hand over the cigarette to keep the orange flame from giving up our hiding spot.  We were like Lee Harvey Oswald atop the book depository all of a sudden, fugitives from the long arm of the law.  We listened to the chatter of police radio as the sheriff walked the field, his flashlight aimed along the scorched symbol of anarchy puckering the sod, painting its outline in a slow sweep of flashlight.

Amelia and I remained as still as we could a mere inch or two from one another.  I could hear the sigh of her breathing, could smell her warm skin. My heart pressed hard against the bones of my chest, and the rooftop gravel ate into my knees a bit at a time.

Like landing on the moon, the slow months accumulated in our new house equaled a set portion of new, stretching gravity pulling my family members toward new individual coordinates away from one another.  Our world was a silent movie, and we shuffled past each other and shifted our presence in various shades of gray.  I don’t know how much our new neighborhood impacted our soft fracture.  We had more space to roam now, a larger house, a steep, tangled black woods stretching from our back door and twisting into darkness, and there were languid parties, tennis courts and golf bunkers, syncopated layers encouraging falls from earth.  We weren’t in fucking Kansas, anymore, and the new pool of avarice and charm fell across our family in shadow.

Meals were fleeting.  We hardly ever collected as a family anymore.  My oldest brother, Nate, almost always sped away at dusk, dressed in some tie-dyed t-shirt, disappearing in the folds of soft light, gathering with friends and diving head-first into his new passion – the silent fall into controlled substances.  My other brother, Drew, latched himself onto perhaps the healthiest of new social circles any of us chose – the sports geeks.  He befriended a group of roving soccer thugs.  They kicked black and white checkered balls across fields, dressed in high white socks, colorful shorts and thick jerseys.  They spent days burning muscles and tendons, bracing physical exertion, and fell into long nights of beer drinking and revelry, the occasional baseball bat wielded into mailboxes, the hot wired cars, but mostly harmless camaraderie.

My escape became Amelia.  I became steadfastly drawn to the new world she led me toward – her white, taut skin, her breathy whispers at night against the crickets and soft breezes, her darkly lined eyes, the thin blue lines of cigarette smoke streaming from her lips, her poetic paring of the world in terse conversation, her anger and her quiet dismay, eyes as blue as cerulean and the wince she made in disappointment, the breeze in her bangs, freckles dusting her nose, her soft, soft lips and the opening of possibility like a sweet fall into an endless arc through stars.  At sixteen years old, my sole distraction, my stitched quilt of prayer, my single mission into denial, all belonged to Amelia Morton.  She was my wending through darkened woods as the moon nested in crossing limbs and fluttering leaves and cast milky light across the worn trail.

 

The night I followed Amelia over the white, sand beach, blue in the moon, and onto the dock was the night I knew I had fallen with every cell within me.  I followed her as she walked slowly from the huddled cars parked in the lot, an impromptu gathering with the same group that normally met at the rec center – this time deciding to meet at Pleasant Lake now that the authorities had traversed our former location.

Through the haze of smoke and chatter, Amelia moved to the shoreline, and I followed.  She stood at the end of the dock, the waves lightly undulating snaking patterns of moon and stars.  The wind was light and sweet.  Amelia removed her shoes and seared her white legs into the water, leaning back, staring at sky.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” she said, sensing my presence.  “All those burning stars with no place to go.”

The sky was wide open, the twisted spine of Milky Way seemingly pulsing.  I moved closer to Amelia, sat next to her and crossed my legs on the dock.

“Suddenly makes you wish you paid more attention, eh chief?” she said.  She took her time removing the cellophane from a fresh pack of cigarettes and jabbed a menthol between her lips.  I was close enough to hear the breath expand in her chest as she lit up.

 “Makes me think of all the things surrounding us, keeping us in place,” she said, exhaling smoke.  “Touch.  Sensations.  Our families.  Ideas of what comes next.  Ideas of God.  Ideas of Hell.  The lack or overabundance of both or neither.  Friendships.  Numbing borne from chemicals.  Infatuation. Our parents…we all become stars netted in the webbing surrounding us.”

“I’ve noticed, though,” I said.  “Some do tear their places from the rest and shoot across the sky.”

Amelia smiled.  She held my gaze a while and I remember wishing I knew what thoughts she warmed about me, about us, whether there was an us or if we were simply like disparate stellar bodies merely crossing past one another without pause.

“We should swim,” she said, holding my gaze a mere moment more.  Amelia unbuttoned her shorts.  She carefully removed each leg, a small pool of water blooming across the dock slats.  She folded her shorts and set them.  I stared at her soft, white hips, the white cotton underwear.  She stripped off her t-shirt and sat.  My heart lunged.  I wanted desperately to run my fingers under her white bra and pull her toward me.  Her shoulders glistened; a faint, oval birthmark rested against her waist.

She slowly lowered herself into the water, and in a moment she had disappeared, her body a blur beneath the surface, the ripples from her submergence softly licking against the posts, moving silently toward shore.

For a moment, she was altogether out of view, leaving just the fragmented shape of the moon regaining circumference in the dark stretch of water Amelia Morton chose to disappear.  My whole body ached, a blue ache that seemed to stretch from my small place in the world all the way past stars.       

Maybe we follow the burning things that gather our hearts with a level of determination and might equal to the level of their ache; I would have followed Amelia all the way to the deepest pocket of the sea.  The night she scratched her nails against my window screen, jarring my slow falling against sleep, was the first night she sought my company outside the neighborhood gatherings.  That night things were different, as though our relationship intoned something greater than haphazard circumstance.

 Amelia smiled through the window screen, her body huddled between yews, doused in moonlight,  “Come with me,” she whispered, and they were the only words she needed.  I threw on a sweatshirt and jeans and slipped out the backdoor and found Amelia in the heart of the dewy lawn.  Crickets murmured softly around us.

 “Get your bike,” she directed softly, and the two of us rode our bikes through the dark neighborhood, the headbeams of passing cars banking through the dense understory of trees now and again, but mostly just the spiral clicking of spokes as we rode silently past soft-lit windows of tree-enclaved houses, under stars.

We rode past the gate of North Oaks, up a frontage road to a 24 hour convenience store, Zeck’s Market.  I set an armload of Hershey bars on the counter and paid for them with quarters and nickels as Amelia leaned over the counter and pulled packages of cigarettes from cartons and slipped them into the waist of her jeans, hidden by her t-shirt.  We were like a pubescent Bonnie and Clyde.

After we rode back through the gate, we walked our bikes across the golf course, blue and dewy, talking, sharing stories, mostly about our families.  I was beginning to feel closer to her, moved that she was opening up, letting me see who she was and not just the cute, smart girl with a twinkle in her eye for ultra-progressive politics and mischief.  The automatic sprinklers erupted sporadically across the greens and sounded like mechanical cicada behind us.

We walked our bikes to the lake and leaned them next to the boathouse.  Amelia lunged into her waist and removed the cigarette packages – Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls – the two brands she could easily reach behind the counter.  She tore the cellophane off a package and withdrew two cigarettes, handing me one.  When she ignited her lighter and cupped her hands around the flame, I remember taking notice at how sweet her face was in the orange light, her clenched eyes and soft lips.

We sat on the beach and stared out at the dark stretch of water.

“When I turn eighteen, my senior year, that’s it; I’m outta here,” she told me.  “Maybe I’ll finish off the year, maybe I’ll just take the equivalency tests.  I don’t know.  But I’m getting the hell out of Dodge, packing a backpack, heading to Europe, not looking back until I feel about a million miles away…college and North Oaks – they can kiss my ass.”

“That seems like a hundred years away,” I said.

“You gotta think ahead, ace,” she said.  “Captain of your ship, master of your fate and all that.”

“Didn’t you grow up here?” I asked, momentarily distracted by a star pealing from the dark sky in one long, stretching fall.

 “Forever ago.”

 “Then what’s your excuse for hating it so much?”

  Amelia smiled and bowed her head a moment.  I could smell her past the push of cigarette smoke, a sweet, summery smell, and I wanted to lean in closer.

 “Here’s the thing about hypocrisy,” she said.  “It’s too easy to complain about corrupt values.  Everyone becomes corrupt.  Everyone’s attention span goes to hell.  And paring down who’s more corrupt than another is a fucking waste of time.  But for me, the hard part to digest is hypocrisy that follows crossing lawn after lawn of postcard perfect houses, each with their own miserable tragedy behind the etched glass door, hidden secrets that can never be shared.  Imagine living in that world since day one.  You might as well be growing up in the dust of the goddamned moon.”

 I wondered, a moment, if the woman I would end up sharing my life with would be nearly as cool, pretty, smart, intense, and enigmatic as Amelia Morton.   I wanted to ask her about the tragic secret that hid behind her family’s door, but I already partially knew the story, the older sister, a toddler, then, pinned beneath the Volvo backing out of their drive, a drunken driver, a friend leaving their own party, the vain rush to a hospital to save a young girl’s life, the hope to refill her bloody lungs with clean oxygen, the endless prayer to turn time backwards and reclaim such a precious, tender life, and the deep pull of silence that followed the answer.

Thinking of it made me wonder how many stories like Amelia’s sister lay hidden behind each address and why it was difficult for this community to open up and embrace loss head on.  This was the only neighborhood, the only pool of my parents’ friends where I witnessed the acute failure to engage in conversations of sincerity and depth.  At sixteen, the path toward enlightenment and healing seemed so less complicated than the adults surrounding us had made it.

Amelia wandered toward the edge of water, the moon rippling in stretching shards, and facing it she unbuttoned her cut-off jeans and extracted each leg.  With her arms crossed over her chest, she stripped off her t-shirt, unclasped her bra with a single twist of her fingers and set them on the beach.  Leaning down, her soft, white breasts were beautiful and pale in the moon.  With slow but sure steps into the water, she softly disappeared, and this time I followed, my body shivering slightly from the cold water and the resounding and achingly beautiful unknown spaced between us.

 

Our first real kiss, soft and lasting, came in the heart of the woods between our two houses, a mini boreal forest of mossy oaks, unfurled ferns and scattered buckthorn and birch, several stretching acres between our two serrated lot lines.  And if we hadn’t come upon my brother’s blue body in the vines and shadows, perhaps we would have consummated our young infatuation and fallen all the way into one another beneath those same leaning trees and crossing limbs.

I’m not sure how I missed him on my approach to Amelia as I must have walked right by him, and I wonder, still, if he was still conscious then.  Perhaps he observed me through his liquid, hallucinogenic haze, his younger brother bolting through the meandering wooded trail, the soft blur of my white t-shirt through dark cleaving trunks.  If I hadn’t been so anxious to meet Amelia, perhaps I would have sensed his presence.  But the woods were thick and tangled, tall leaning oaks and dense understory carving shapes in slices of splattered sun and stretching shadow.

Amelia and I met on the ridge beneath her house, overlooking the Morton’s backyard pond.  She wore a black tank top and cut-off army pants, a silver cross necklace around her throat and dark red lip blush, green, luminous powder across her soft eyelids, the first time I remember seeing her in jewelry and make-up.  She was soft and gorgeous and when we met, our breathing was heavy, still, from our plunge into the woods and we were silent in the moment we approached one another.

“What do you think?” she had said, smirking.

“About what?”

“About what we’re ready for.”

And I leaned into her with all the faith inside me, a hope that burns like stars.  I closed my eyes, fingertips lighting against her warm cheeks and neck and soft through her hair, and we pressed our lips together and held for the longest, sweetest moment in our young friendship.

When we parted, Amelia looked at me a moment, her lips slightly parted, her eyes into mine and wet, and I wanted nothing in the world to shift.  She glanced over her shoulder slowly, pressed her hand into mine and spoke softly:  “We should move deeper into the woods,” and then we walked hand in hand, merging into the safety of the trees and ferns, my heart beating pulsing currents of blood as I contemplated what would be.  Her hand was soft and warm and smaller than any hand I’d held.  As we walked, I brushed each finger with my thumb.

“How far?” I asked.

She glanced over her shoulder once more and we moved a tree or two farther and then I saw my brother’s Converse high-tops through the leaves and branches, the twist of his legs, his face hidden behind an oak trunk.  His body was still and the skin of his hands bluish white, as though lit by the moon.

Amelia gasped.  I remember the rush of her alarm, her hands lunging, suddenly, toward her mouth.  And I just froze.  I remember leaning forward and grasping at something invisible to lean against, and I remember falling to one knee.  It was Amelia who responded; she ran forward and pulled him, straightening his body.  I remember seeing his purple lips, the foam dabbed across his chin, the spill of red and gold and blue pills and tablets in a pitch against earth.  I had risen, at that point, and came closer.  But still I was mostly frozen, lost with what to do.  I felt as though I was suddenly in a world where I knew none of the rules.  I kept staring at his shoelaces, long and untied, tangled in a pull into the fronds of ferns.  I stared at the laces, wondering if it were right to tie them, let them be, or pull his shoes off completely.  To this day, I can see the image of my brother’s untied shoelaces more clearly than I can see the rest.

Later we would find out we hadn’t stumbled across an attempt at suicide, just an experiment in chemical curiosity gone horribly awry.

Amelia turned him so that he was facing sky.  She inserted her two fingers into his mouth, plucked them forward and repeated.  Without pausing, she leaned into him, his head beneath her, pressed her lips against his and exhaled.  I remember watching her body fall slowly toward earth as she released her breath into him.

Amelia turned between breaths.  Her voice was calm but clear.  She motioned me toward the house and told me to call for help.

I ran through the woods as though they were on fire.  But each step pulled my balance in different directions.  I felt a pounding in my chest fall like a hammer and my vision spit stars at each full beat. The lawn seemed to stretch farther as I ran, and I pushed through the doorway and fell into the hallway, lunging toward the phone.  My mother turned the corner, and I yelled: “Nate’s in the woods!  He’s down, he’s down,” which made little sense but startled her enough she understood something was badly wrong.

“Oh, my god,” she said.

“Amelia is saving him,” I said, at once taken by the words themselves, as though Amelia, my Amelia, the young, smart girl I had softly leaned into only moments before had suddenly learned the secret of miracles.

I remember punching numbers into the phone keypad, becoming connected to Emergency Services, giving our address and pleading for an ambulance.  And then I froze again as my mother streaked out into the lawn and toward the trail.

Approaching, I realized Nate was breathing again.  Amelia held him as he shivered and convulsed, but he was breathing on his own and his color had warmed from blue to white.  My mother and Amelia held onto him as if the life that had returned to him had to be held in place.  His facial expression was panic and incoherence.  My mother leaned over him and softly smoothed the matted bangs of his hair across his forehead.

For a moment, I imagined my brother a weary angel, my mother and Amelia gently coaxing him back to earth, one at each wing.  They held him softly at each shoulder, Amelia’s soft, white legs folded beneath her, her smeared lipstick and mussed hair and my mother with her calm voice hushing his shivering and the soft caresses she placed across his forehead; for a moment I was taken back by the beauty of this temporal scene – the two women who mattered to me most in the world joined in unity, willing my brother’s body softly back to life.  I remember getting lost in merely watching.

I wiped back tears before kneeling into the cold, wet soil, my hands clasped against my chest as I felt for the push of blood in my chest, a simple gesture to will myself into the present in hopes of making sense as I shivered more uncontrollably than I ever had in my life and ever would since.

When it first happened, I was astonished at how Amelia, at sixteen years old, had the presence of mind to act as swiftly and calmly as she had to save my brother’s life without ever once leaning into panic.  But then I remembered how she grew up in a family where a daughter was lost and how the loss ever draped a shadow across them.  Having not yet been born when her sister was killed, perhaps she had waited all her life for a moment to turn time back over the crest of tragedy.  When she pressed her lips against my brother’s and pushed her warm, moist breath into his lungs, she did just that – each push of breath an open prayer against the loss she had known since the day she was born.

I’ll always remember her standing in the woods, the wind fluttering leaves above her, the paramedics placing a plastic mask over Nate’s face, it fogging with his rushed breathing, as they lifted him into the ambulance.  The rest of us were clustered around the ambulance, a few neighbors pooled at the end of the drive, but Amelia still stood at the edge of the yard near the woods, backing herself into their dark fold.  I wonder, still, what she could have been thinking at that moment.

It would be a few days before I would see Amelia again, and when I did, she acted as though nothing had happened.  When I tried praising her for her actions, telling her how grateful my family was she had saved Nate’s life, she received the praise with noticed discomfort.

“I only acted on reflex,” she said.  “It wasn’t that hard.”

 I don’t know why Amelia and I drifted from one another from that point onward, but we did.  Sometimes I wonder if saving my brother’s life wasn’t too intimate an act for either of us to brace.  Or maybe it was too difficult for us to acknowledge that my family had slipped past the soft tragedy that hers had not.  I don’t know.  But the action had formed a chasm between us, and our young infatuation wandered from us like clouds past stars.

Amelia graduated a year early from high school. She practiced for and passed the equivalency tests and studied abroad in London after a semester at a private college in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Years later, I had heard news of her engagement to a Chilean sculptor.  And then news followed that the engagement had been broken.  I had heard she had moved to Trinidad; she was studying art.  I had heard she was a single parent and had a little, roving daughter with her same blond hair and blue eyes.  But I never met Amelia again and never really had the chance to truly thank her for saving my brother’s life or for the place she held ever within mine.

We sold our house in North Oaks after I left for college.  My parents divorced the same year.  Drew was studying engineering at Penn State; Nate, fully recuperated from his near death experience, became a political activist in San Francisco.  With the house empty of children, my parents came to a place where they realized they no longer mattered to each other as much as they needed to matter to someone else.  They parted, sold the house, repaired themselves and slowly moved on in the same serrated line we all move past loss.  In the end, they became better friends divorced than they perhaps had been as marriage partners.

I don’t know if our final neighborhood setting, North Oaks, had anything to do with the dissolve of my little family.  For a while, I believed it had.  The resounding silence and artifice laced through that particular community always seemed jarring.  We all, even the youth, seemed lost and unattached, as if the distraction our slight wealth had brought us spiraled us each into independent journeys sans gravity, spreading us farther from one another.  Nate, perhaps, had tested gravity further than any of us and nearly lost his way back.  And the rest of us found our own way away from a center, too.  But I don’t think our move to North Oaks solely separated the gravity between my parents.  I think, perhaps, it simply didn’t make it easy to mend the tear that had already been there.

Amelia and I were good at seeing the deep holes torn through gravity – the invisible force that brought people together or tore them apart.  It was a perception that drew us toward one another from the start – our mutual distaste for the surrounding adult lives adrift, meandering like windswept leaves, bodies asleep in the pool.  We criticized the adults in our world for their inability to light against each other, align in a shared cadence of meaning and connection.  In the end, Amelia and I drifted apart due to the same failure, unable to confront, embrace and bridge the significance of what we had both been part of. 

The moment of my brother’s saved life, the miracle Amelia harnessed by shifting her soft breath past his cold lips, could have been one that brought us closer – even inseparable, tied us inexplicably to one another.  But it didn’t.  It overwhelmed the sweet place we had just begun and pulled us about a million miles from one another.  It was the first real place we each discovered how falling and the distance of our fall is beyond our soft control, the gravity between people so much different from the laws of stars.

Maybe the one true thing Amelia and I learned was how the larger things – forces and events greater than ourselves:  disappointments, heartbreaks, even miracles – a boy’s life saved, can send souls independently, silently, despite their better hopes otherwise, across the shoulder of the moon.

When I was touring Spain with my wife and two friends of ours, years ago, I thought I spotted Amelia.  It could very well have been her.  She was serving coffee in an outdoor café, across the street from the hotel we had stayed at.  We were loading our luggage into a taxi van, and I spotted the young blond woman across the street, leaning over a table with a tray of short espresso cups, a pencil tucked behind her ear and wind tousling her bangs.  I froze and watched, hoping, wanting more than anything in the world for the woman to look up and wishing that woman to be Amelia Morton.  I imagined myself sifting across the traffic, her head slowly lifting as I approached, how we’d both warm our smirks into smiles as I got closer, and how I’d press my face into the warmth of her soft neck, smell the sweet sun against her skin, close my eyes and listen to the wind through leaves, both of us remembering a time when we were very young and the trees cast the longest shadows we believed we ever would know.

© Kipp Wessel, 2011.

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