This isn't what I'd intended. Certainly not what I'd planned, in the grand and delusional way that we spin our hands through the air and then arrange the whirling motes of dust and wonder into the dream of who we'll become, what we'll do and where we'll experience it all. What's the phrase? Man plans; God laughs?
Laughter may be appropriate. Despite all efforts to the contrary, I have found myself living in the same town where I grew up. Raising children on the same streets - beneath the same sliver of night sky and broad sunshine - where I myself was once a child. These thick green grasses, and thick canopies of broad maple and spindly pine, rising and falling and bursting into color and fading into the slow, glorious descent of warmth into winter. I remember them all: the smell of a hot summer morning, the humidity rising from the grass to fill your lungs with the strange weight of saturated air. The aroma - arresting, angular and almost exotic - of pine needles mounting atop of one another, tangled by rakestroke and the geometry of collision into a golden range of gently arcing peaks, pure and perfect in the autumn sun, awaiting only a small body to launch heavenward and then collapse, giggling, screaming, howling with victory, into its cushioned arms.
It has changed, of course. The town, as towns do over the years. Or maybe it is as it always was, and it's only a perception of change that reflects the eyes that see it. Astigmatic. Weary. Color fading around the edges. Maybe, someday, my children will return here, and with eyes I hesitate to imagine they will see what they see, and remember what they do not. They will see these roads and look back on the lives that coursed through them. Their own. And others.
• • •
It is an early summer morning. A Thursday.
He is riding his bike. It's a 10-speed, and as he works his way up the hills he drops the gears down smoothly. Listens to the chain as it leaps from sprocket to sprocket, catching and taking hold with effortless certainty of purpose like a young child's hand as it grasps one rung of a jungle gym, then swings with precision and perfect kinetic grace to the next. His thin legs peddling, spinning in perfect concentric arcs, propelling him forward with steady intent and purpose. They have grown stronger, this past year. Running track. Running laps for football. Exploring his range of motion, and potential. Still slender, but finding new form.
The morning is warm, the air heavy with the memory of dew already evaporating beneath the steady rise of an early July sun. Tomorrow is Independence Day, and as he slices his way along the sidewalk - his bike a blade, cutting through the shadow and sunshine, the steady thrum of rubber tire on hot stone lending a humming undertone to the morning ritual of traffic burr and crowsong - he thinks: tomorrow, at this time, I will be sleeping.
It is 1986. His name is Adam. In another half a mile, he will arrive at work.
• • •
The Big Roar. It's an appropriate title, given the frenetic, soaring guitar chords and frenzied drumming and loud, angry, jubiliant vocals bursting from my speakers and spilling from my windows. It's mid-April, but in New England spring is just arriving — and on this beautiful Friday afternoon, I am welcoming it with open arms: windows down, sunroof back, sunglasses on and stereo in action. Today, it goes to 11. I am not singing along, both because I don't know most of the words and because the singer is a Welsh woman hitting notes my own throat is not capable of generating, but my heart beats in time with the music and the sun pours down through the glass and open windows and the sky is a thrilling blue and for that moment I'm doing nothing but living in the moment, and it is glorious.
The work week? Is over. Early. My wife is on her way home on an early train, and then she will pick up our son. I am on my way to pick up our girls, and then spirit them away to the neighboring town and the small storefront that is home to the finest pizza we have ever known. And then our open windows will greet the swirling air with aromas of rich garlic and tomatoes, molten cheese and crisp eggplant, and we will all meet together at home and begin the weekend with good food and a good beer, sitting in front of a movie and lost to a deep and fleeting contentment.
The hill crests, and I begin my descent down the highway.
• • •
It's funny, almost. How well he knows these streets. It's been only two years since he moved north from Connecticut, from the only home he'd ever known. But he's found his place, here. Found people who accept him, despite his Yankees t-shirts — a dangerous proposition in the heart of Red Sox Nation, but one he addresses so guilelessly, without ego and with humor, that it doesn't matter, those years elsewhere don't matter, and he fits in. He's found classmates and friends who share his intelligence and curiosity, and who laugh when he insists on calling himself "Ax." At first, we think it's because he's trying to sound tough, but then he explains: it's after Pete Axthelm, a New York sportswriter and NFL commentator. It's a New York thing. We don't understand, but it doesn't matter. We watch, with some surprise, in his second year in town as he joins team after team, a new one for each season, and begins high school by inventing and reinventing himself as an athlete. We listen, as he tells us about the work he does for his Temple, and all that he'd done for his Temple back in Connecticut.
He is 15, and in the process of becoming. Feeling his way through it, best as he can. Better than most, really. He's got a sense of purpose that few of us can match. Ideas, and goals. Drive.
He knows that 15 means that next summer is 16. And he will take driver's ed, and then go for his license. And then... Adam has plans.
It's a little before 7am on a hot July morning, but he is biking through town. On his way to work, at the DPW. He is spending the summer doing landscaping, trimming bushes and cutting down branches and mowing lawns and repainting the football bleachers. Out in the hot sun, every day, sweating through the hours. Because next summer, he will be 16. He will get his driver's license. And then. Then. He will buy a car. And it will feel like man taking his first steps on the surface of the moon.
• • •
The road crests, and as the descent begins and I pull my foot off the gas I see the curve of the highway and the Y-intersection at the light ahead. To the left, the highway pulls forward in front of the Fire Station and the Department of Public Works, dipping beneath a bridge before rising again toward the east, toward Boston. To the right, a cut-through of a few hundred yards to another light, and a merge onto the other numbered route. My daughters, another 10 minutes down that road.
It's a terrible merge. A failure of civic engineering, really. The other route is an artery, old, overused, thick with the slurry of early rush hour traffic, each vehicle a drifting corpuscle, twisting slowly through bottleneck after bottleneck. Eastbound traffic backs up blocks to the west. Westbound traffic backs up blocks to the east. And traffic inbound from the highway backs up and up and up, along the full length of the cut-through before spilling back onto the highway like a tide reversing against itself.
I am in the right-hand lane, turn signal on, as I pull to a stop behind a large green SUV. A Chevy. I'm six or eight cars back from the intersection, six or eight cars removed from my turn. The song on my stereo comes to an end, and for a moment there's only the sound of my engine, and the steady clicking of my turn signal, and the noise in my head as I weigh my options. I count them off in time. One, two. One, two.
• • •
He leans left and leaves the sidewalk for grass, carving a thin arc through the edge of a small park to the cut-through road. He's almost there. With three or four more pedals, he will traverse the length of the cut-through and pull to a stop at the edge of the highway. And then: one more day under the sun, before a taste of freedom. A three-day weekend. Celebrating interdependence, with family. Finding a few hours of independence, with his girlfriend.
A girl. A friend. Who is kind of his girlfriend. Who is becoming his girlfriend. Thick, red curls and freckles and a deep, throaty laugh and a smile that... man, that smile.
Maybe they can go for a walk or something. Get some ice cream, and see the fireworks behind the town hall. Just the two of them.
One more day. He's almost there.
• • •
The traffic is not moving, so I consider option #2. Pulling around, staying on the highway for another mile or so, and then taking a later exit and cutting back toward the girls. Easy enough.
I glance over to the side mirror, and see a handful of vehicles hurtling down the hill in the left lane. Maybe three or four cars, and then a long break. I've got a couple of feet in front of me - enough space to move - so I put on my turn signal and twist my neck, back and to the left. Watching the traffic, waiting for my opening. Making sure there isn't someone flying out of nowhere to fill the lane.
As the last car buzzes past, I shift my gaze back in front of me — and just as I begin to move, I see that the Chevy in front also has his signal on, so I hit the brakes and wait a second for him to pull out, and as he does that I glance behind again and make sure there's no one coming and then look back ahead and pull out behind him and he accelerates into the lane and I hit the gas and my eyes flicker up for a second and I see that the light ahead is green.
* * *
He looks up and sees that the light is green, allowing traffic to move from the cut-through and across and up onto the highway, heading west. But there are no cars, and so he can see a clear pathway across the four lanes to the fire station and the DPW beyond.
It is so warm, already, and he is almost there, and the light is green so he picks up speed - and with that speed, the air feels a little cooler against his face, through his thick black hair and against the skin on his legs - and drops his body down low against the handlebars and heads into a sprint for the finish line and he is so close, so very close, and he knows the day will be long and hot and he is almost there and he blinks and the light turns yellow.
He's almost there.
• • •
And in that eyeblink heartbeat pause between the clicks of my turn signal a car - three, four cars ahead in the right lane - cuts left, without a signal. And the Chevy, in front of me, sees him pull out and stands on his brakes and stops just short of where the car is pulling out and
I am behind him and I am accelerating and then suddenly he is stopped and my eyes fly wide and I stomp on the brake and he is close so very close and all I can see is the chrome of his bumper and it seems so big and I am waiting for the brakes to stop me and the seatbelt to seize me across the chest and shoulder and
this is not what I'd intended.
• • •
The light shifts red half a heartbeat before he leaves the curb but he is flying, he is flying, and even as he soars out he registers that the light has changed and he sees the westbound traffic starting to pull forward and before he can even reach the median he knows: he cannot make it
and he sees traffic moving quickly down the hill, in the passing lane, windshields brilliant with reflected sunlight and
there is no time
and he swings himself, the bike, back around - an abrupt U-turn - and prepares to cut back across the right lane to the safety of the curb and
there is a truck.
• • •
The sound is incredible, metal on metal and terrible and humiliating and this can't be happening and then I
I can't see the bumper beyond this explosion of smoke and motion and my field of vision swarms with something pale and the sensation of tremendous heat and I'm standing on the brake but I'm being propelled backward and there is smoke
why is there so much smoke I just
I just wanted to get my girls.
• • •
A truck, a flatbed, that had waited for him to pass and then started accelerating forward when he suddenly turned back around and there was no time no warning no chance to do anything but try to swerve right but
there was no space.
There was no time.
• • •
Smoke and powder and heat and sound and I am confused, so very confused, not because I don't know what's just happened but because I can't believe it, I just can't believe it, because this can't be right but
I just, I don't, I don't
and the smoke and the powder begins to clear out the side windows and jesus it's
it's my airbag. My fucking airbag deployed.
And I look out my windshield and my windshield is intact but beyond the glass there is a terrible new landscape of crumpled metal and
my heart is beating at a thousand beats per minute
oh, god, I hope the guy in front of me is okay
and the airbag deflates, a sad and pale balloon, and the air is thick with the stench of smoke and I'm okay, I think I'm okay, I'm not
my hand is sore, like it can still feel the heat of something exploding (I will discover soon: there is a burn across the heel of my hand and along the base of my fingernails. Even the sleeve of my shirt has melted, slightly. Sudden, violent friction is an incredible thing.) and my heart feels like it's going to burst out of my chest and my
my girls, I'm supposed to pick up my girls and
the car that had pulled in front of the Chevy accelerates and smoothly pulls away, and the light turns red and for a moment, we - me, the Chevy, the other cars around us - all of us, sit stunned and quiet. Absorbing what just happened. What might have happened.
• • •
15. He was 15 years old on that morning, that early July. His name was Adam.
He will always be 15 years old.
• • •