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When you’re a knee-scabbed, scruffy looking kid, a tree-climbing ruffian hanging from the neighbor’s crab apple tree and running away from some irate neighbor after soaping up his car windshield, on Halloween, you don’t know it but you are the unacknowledged expert of what it means to be living in your pre-pubescent body. You own it, but you also know how to steer it through the mud, through poison-ivy patches, how to sneer at teachers and be mindlessly tongue-tied around girls. You’re sloppy with your homework, sarcastic to various elders, impatient with practically anything you don’t want to do, like cleaning your room, putting away your disassembled Lionel train set, fixing your bike chain so it will not pitch you into Sadie Goldstein’s privet hedge next time you are racing your buddy from up the block. You know all the knobs and dials inside you, the flutters of your heart, the limits imposed upon you by suddenly darting across an avenue full of oncoming cars and trucks. You’re the man to see when it comes to asking important questions like, “Are you hungry?” “Do you like Diane, or are you just winding her up with your bad jokes and false flattery?”
You have no idea that this encyclopedic knowledge you now possess is fragile and will slowly disappear as you take your first steps into puberty. You have no regrets about leaving behind your corduroys, sneakers, torn sweat shirts, broken toys, and of course your much-abused fifty-pound Schwinn bike. You’re tall, with a pronounced Adam’s apple, a scattering of pimples on your cheeks, signs of an emerging Casanova look, long arms that seem not to let your hands fit into front pockets like they used to. You’re not as fond of candy corn as you were at eight, nor do you drink tall tumblers of milk with your brother as you silently guffaw at the dinette table while your dad watches “The Life of ‘’Riley.” You’ve held hands already, and sneaked your fingers up under a cashmere sweater to feel the wiry cages of a girl’s bra. You’ve tasted wine and sips of beer, and dragged your shoe shine kit into a bar before the bartender kicks you out. You even shop-lifted a few candy bars from the corner store, and learned to snock up an oyster and shoot it as a car window as you sauntered by. You were now to be credited with a detailed map of puberty, and could talk about it, if you had a mind to, maybe even share the wonders of this pliable stage of mortality, if you cared to. Like as not, you don’t trust anybody older than you by a few years. You’re a taciturn, somewhat irascible half-man now, and anything you say might be held against you in a court of law. Mums the word when adults are around. When asked how was your day, you say, “Fine.” “Do you like your dinner?” “It’s okay.” You lie there in bed with the radio turned low, an Archie comic opened on your lap, a Tootsie Roll working its way through your molars as you ponder the spell JoAnne cast over you earlier that day.
But this vast auditorium of hormonal transformation will one day turn to thin air and drift away like some cloud that hovered over you. There was nothing permanent about it. Your year book picture looks ridiculous as you observe the weird hair you brushed up into a wave over your forehead. You study the various little scrawls of your friends as they wished you well in your next endeavors. You were voted “best dressed junior” in your class. You weren’t nominated for “most likely” in any of the usual categories. You were pretty average, or you were walking around with half your brain and talent locked away behind iron doors. No teacher could inspire you to challenge yourself. You just went along with your t-shirt rolled up, your jeans looking a bit worn out at the knees, your mouth curled into a sneer that you didn’t quite express in words. But this world was not made of Greek stones or Roman pillars, it was as soft as dandelion fluff, and with one blow you might disperse the cotton into the March wind and be done with it.
When you came out of college, you were not quite in command of your identity at this point. You were in a rush to plot your next move; you ended up taking a job in northern Virginia and learning how to work with a few oddballs running a racing magazine. It wasn’t a tough job, but it involved having to explain your words to the photographer, a thick-headed guy from Arkansas whose wife, the receptionist, was a devout Baptist from some hick town in the Ozarks. He might jump you if you said something he (or she) thought was coarse. A tall guy was the editor of our sister mag, and was very sharp, a good writer who would sometimes point out my mistakes, but carefully. He didn’t want to pick fights. An artist sat in his chair doodling in his leisure time, or take out his art school tablet and show me his drawings of models lounging around naked on folding chairs, oblivious of the stares they no doubt received. But even so, a dome had formed over you and you were becoming familiar with a more subtle, possibly hazardous new world. The women were more sophisticated, your dates were littered with false starts or abrupt endings. You had fewer friends now; it was harder to form friendships unless you wasted your evenings slumped on a bar stool chatting with someone who would forget everything you said the next moment.
But you knew you were different when you didn’t really understand little kids. You were impatient with them. They wanted you to play with them, but you forgot how to. They’re odd little creatures and they have ways of thinking and acting that are foreign to you. You may realize for the first time that the tall gates of infancy had shut against you. They no longer want you to enter; it’s a kingdom that is receding from your grasp. And when you are out of college, you look upon the frenzied lives of teenagers as alien. You can’t imagine why such people could lounge around in a family den talking about nothing, or going to some burger joint and sitting on a bench lit by harsh neon light and talk for hours, sipping on Cokes or some fruity concoction made with cream soda and peppermint. And picking at a huge cup of French fries as if it were nutritious food. And the night stretches out with all those frantic insects charging against the mercury vapor floodlights. Time means nothing to such kids; they are eyeing each other longing to touch the face of some girl and kiss her, and maybe even seduce her, but that might take hours or days or even weeks. You look at your watch and get back in the car to go to bed, or to read a book. Those gates have closed, too. You have been told to forget you were ever so young.
Of course, when you are married and have growing kids, and your interests have narrowed to buying a new lawn mower or installing an air conditioner in the den, you are fully aware of your new world, and can talk knowledgeably about mortgage rates and health insurance, and while away hours on the patio with a cocksure assurance that you know all the mysteries of middle age. You are there now, and your kids are growing up and either exiting or entering the vast domed expanses of infancy and puberty, of ripening youth and the beginnings of adulthood. But you are treated like someone who has never lived there and can’t share anything in common with them. It might pain you to realize your son will one day say, “Oh dad, you don’t know a thing about what I’m going through.” He’s right, of course. You did once, but you have forgotten all about it. It’s over. You reach for your antacid tablets at night before turning out the reading light, and wake with droopy eyes. You dread driving in the snow, and have a sinking feeling that you are not going to be promoted again.
In other words, that great edifice of middle age has its gates as well. And one day you will be escorted to the step that means you are leaving it behind. You might have a final, celebratory drink with your colleagues and drive off to some smaller house you just bought, move in and unpack all your belongings. The ones you didn’t throw away, I mean. What happens now is that a new world opens to you, a world of aging bodies and talk of ailments and discomforts, like arthritic knees, swollen knuckles, a sore back, a sore throat from snoring all night. Your doctor says you are growing older, and need to take better care of yourself. More exercise, lose some weight, drink less, and eat oatmeal in the morning. It might be advisable to have a light supper of say, cottage cheese and canned pineapple. Nothing too hard on the digestive system. You’ll finally sleep more deeply. You’ll wake up rested, and when you pull on your pants and button your shirt and look into the mirror at the sags and puffiness in your face, you will realize that some other tall, iron gates have slowly shut behind you, and that the way leads on in a fog of uncertainty that has stripped you of many mysteries and unexplained events. You can never quite plunge into the depths of love at the sight of pretty face, or be tempted into some crazy prank against your stodgy neighbors. You’re old. That’s the great rusty dome you have stepped into, and when you look up, you see the high windows marking how the world is not one thing and never was solid or permanent. But the journey was splendid, and full of magic. Maybe that’s enough.
Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.