It was one of those majestic moments deep enough into summer when the months and weeks all flew together as one, so that you never knew or even cared what day it was. Not a minute concern in the world more tedious as keeping time should ever enter the brain of an eleven-year-old child during the perfect summer vacation. Even better is attempting to go weeks on end without learning the date or the day of the week so that you're interminably uncertain about everything except that each new day will be the same. Not monotonous but magical. The best is being lost beneath the surface of the season so submerged amid the sweet intoxications of summer that you're swimming under a current so wonderful and strong that you're not even sure what month it is.
It was here when I discovered the sudden courage of taking Holly's hand, gently tucking her long brown hair behind her ear, kissing softly into her warm cheek for the first time. (Almost afraid of making any sound at all, as if something other than the nervous pathetic pucker might disturb the thunderous percussion of my own heart.) She tasted like chlorine and smelled like strawberries. The kiss was brief but auspicious, and the day was destined to be wonderful from start to finish -- or so it seemed.
I was king of the New Jersey sidewalk, riding my crimson and black twenty-one speed Trek to the clubhouse with some neighborhood friends, just as I had done every morning, when I felt something electric pierce through the wind without warning. I was struck with an ineffable sensation of majesty and mystery, as if the August humidity was trying to channel something cavernous and hidden within me. I didn't stop to fathom what was happening because the energy felt freshly invigorating. It actually inspired my Reebok running kicks to peddle faster and grip the rubber handlebars tighter and with a passion I had never previously imagined possible.
I was guided by an enormous -- yet gentle -- invisible hand that covered me in its palm and safely pushed me faster, like the words of a pastor erupting during the climax of a wonderful and vociferous sermon. My buddies were in this lovely palm too. But they never entered the congregation. They weren't riding on the yellow line in the center of the street. They didn't seem to listen to the silent revelations of the preaching. I did. They wanted me to stop, but I kept on peddling like hell to get further into the distance. I did it to get away from their words. To escape from the concern in their voices, the screeching of tires; but I heard it all.
The horns were honking and the holy fingers were pointing toward the heavens. The drivers looked demented, but I only smiled while locking eyes with the devils inside.
"Dude, watch out -- traffic!"
The hand was pushing onward.
Tempers were fuming. Ageless windblown sands and salty sweat was blurring my vision -- burning my eyes as my friends were struggling to hold on to the curly hairs of the invisible hand, while I peeked my head out from between the humongous knuckles like an ancient turtle trapped in a vast asphalt shell.
I was riding standing up hunched over the handlebars like an ogre. There was no reason I needed a mountain bike -- even though I lived on Mountain Road, which was steep but smooth, paved with fresh black concrete every few years. My tires were freshly inflated, hugging the pavement so tight that after a couple minutes of maniacal peddling I arrived in record time. I tossed the magic monster into the bicycle rack, metal lock and chain spun like a spider around the silver web of aluminum spokes shimmering in the sun, never bothering to lock it of course, since there was nothing safer than summer.
There's never been a freedom more visceral and treasured than that of an adolescent boy on a bicycle with not a care in the world. You feel leisured and liberated, like a dangerous cowboy riding the greatest stallion of the southwest, slowly cultivating the untamed beast only to feel the unmitigated power growing, blossoming like a magic flower between your legs.
Holly pulled me closer, yet it was never close enough. I wanted to feel her from the inside. Not in a sexual way. Nor even the way that society teaches girls and boys to behave. But in a spiritual and secular sense of two young souls coming together and discussing all the deepest unspoken matters of their innermost hearts and dreams. I wanted to dive beneath her skin and swim through her veins and feel for the first time those curious wonderful things that young spirits have never been able to put into words. I happily wanted to enter the unspoken center of her being. Of her mind, not her body, and actually find the riddles to the mysteries that lie beneath the surface. I was certain that two hearts could beat with one rhythm if they could only meet in the middle and get beyond those lonely pathetic greetings and rituals civilization has instilled in us through generations of awkward adolescent courtship.
I was lost in my own mind, driving nails through brief moments of boredom, when I saw them approaching. They were holding hammers and spray paint cans. These were the older kids, the boys a few years taller and dumber: the ones who smoke cigarettes in the summer and light dumpsters on fire in the fall. These boys are much more dangerous than the ones you ride bikes and eat ice-cream and barbecued chicken wings with. These are bona fide degenerates and delinquents. Only a fool would aspire to be like them. Only an idiot would want to hang out with them. But they were cool. And nobody wanted it more than me.
They usually accepted me, often with trepidation and always for the purpose of doing their favors. Straightforward errands like biking into town and buying Camel cigarettes or spraying flammable Right Guard deodorant all over my pants and then lighting it on fire. Agghhh, the good life.
I followed after them and forgot about Holly, who was afraid of the boys yet oddly admired me more when I hung out with them. She waved and laughed as I danced away after my heroes, juggling five spray cans against my stomach like a deranged puppy running after its master's laughter, the way I've done all my life, struggling to keep up with the madness of my imagination.
We crossed the brook where it was most shallow, but not before I took a nasty spill in the water while trying to cross a fallen tree trunk in an awkward attempt to get to the other side. The accident smothered my hands and face with wet sand, slamming my kneecaps into rotten tree trunk mushrooms and rocks beneath the surface.
Like most mothers, my mom was constantly forbidding me from being in the brook at any time under any circumstances, which obviously only made it even more elusive and treasured. I never told her about the afternoon I inadvertently stirred up an enormous hornets' nest (just days after a similar yellow jacket incident), getting stung dozens of times before finally ripping the black t-shirt off my back and running like hell.
This water accident wasn't nearly as serious, but the embarrassment stung worse than a hundred angry insects. The cretins laughed. I smiled while following the idiots through a sharp and jagged secret hole cut into the fence. It was clear that our destination was the school.
We climbed rusty railings, scaling creaky aluminum pillars, pulling ourselves up to the rooftop. Terrified of heights, I was the last one to make it up. They had already begun spray painting their initials on the roof so that helicopters could see them if they wanted to land. All four of the brave imbeciles were busy. Either using hammers to pound enormous nails into the ceilings of the classrooms below or using transparent neon lighters (always with the flame as high as possible) to ignite spray paint into a stream of fire.
Elijah was taller and more immortal than the rest. He stood above them and peered through my eyes, into my soul. He was channeling something with a wicked expression, grinning and summoning me with his twitching middle finger, his head swaying slowly back and forth. I could feel a noose loosening around my waist, rising and growing tighter around my neck.
The next thing I know I'm hanging off the rooftop, dangling face first fifteen feet above the earth. Elijah is holding my ankles, shaking me and laughing into the heavens like a demented preacher. I can hear my pulse pounding in my ears, feel it in my temples. My legs are going numb. My soul is creeping into the top of my head with the rushing stream of blood and I'm wondering when this creature is going to drop me onto the colorful concrete hopscotch course below. I can see tiny sticks of pink chalk. I'm screaming for help, begging for my life, pleading with the power of the hand that holds my being within.
"Pleaseeeee -- don't let me fall!"
Reaching into my spirit I can hear it. His cavernous voice is deeper than normal and his hands are connecting me with something higher than us all.
"You think I'm gonna drop you?" Elijah asks.
"I can bench two hundred and fifty pounds ... why would I drop you?"
After the first few minutes my vision grows dizzy. I feel my body lifting beyond the hopscotch playground, away from the graffiti rooftop, past the distant street where vehicles whiz by every few seconds, above the leaves of the sycamore trees. I scream. I scream and I plead and I pray until there is nothing left in my voice and the wind in my lungs becomes the breath of the breeze.
I plead with the six-foot bully for my life, and he finally pulls me back up. I'm lying on my back staring up at the sun and the whites of the clouds are burning into my eyes, and I'm thinking about Holly and how Elijah is the strongest person on the planet. My hero tested me and I passed. But eleven years later Elijah dies in a car crash, and I stop believing in heroes and coffins and begin driving with caution and watching the sky as often as I can.
-- Matthew B. Dexter