A building in downtown Detroit with a staircase starting and stopping nowhere.

Remembering a childhood feeling, through a childhood friend

I forgot my new address after only a week of being out of state.

The transient life leaves little room for those details.

You need, instead, to know how much battery life you have left and your nearest options for charging.

You need to know where the next bathroom will be and when, approximately you will be at one private or public enough for a long one.

(Pro tip: Use the Planet Fitness bathrooms for the latter. There’s always enough body lotion and sweat going around to cover the smell and enough lockers banging and inconspicuous top 40 playing to cover the sound.)

You need to know where to eat like a normal human being.

(Starbucks, ie., sells fruits and veggies but your best economical road bet is a Subway. They dot the Midwest highways like the infinite number of rogue bobby pins I find in all my travel bags.)

You need to know how long leftovers can sit in the backs seat of a car before they sour.

You need to know how to apply eyeliner while driving over gravel.

You need to know how to tell the difference between a cop car and a metal berm glistening in the sun.

I know all this.

What I didn’t know you needed to know is how to grieve on the go.

***

As we barreled down Ohio country roads, so did a childhood friend, a girl I went to middle and high school with.

She buckled her children in the car and took off, forgetting or ignoring — who knows, it was the middle of the night and she was probably tired — to click herself into her own.

It would cost her everything.

She went off the right side of the road, overcorrected, and flipped.

When I heard the news the next morning I kept thinking about her ankles. You look at someone’s ankles a lot when they’re on your middle school basketball team, particularly if you’re two of the three team point guards who scrimmage each other every practice.

The best defense in middle school basketball involves watching your opponent’s feet. Not their eyes. Not the ball. If those feet and ankles got past me, I could kiss a lead goodbye. It meant she was gliding for a layup.

She was fast. So was I. A worthy competitor. Quick.

My heart tightens knowing her last act of momentum was so involuntary and destructive. Thrown from a car, gravity ripping her from her babies, powerless and dazed in the back.

I forgot what a contagious laugh she had until another old classmate posted about it on Facebook. If that stupid social platform is good for anything, it’s in times like this. It reminds us who we once were to one another. And why that matters.

Playing sports as a kid was a relief. I was allowed to be aggressive during basketball. Athletics are good for girls because of that, I think. We tell them they can do anything — anything but fight. I don’t know if I wanted to fight necessarily, but I had energy that could only be released through some kind of physical movement that looked like violence.

Luckily, that came to me in forms of a jump ball, a loose ball and a girl sprinting away with my ball. I was allowed, even encouraged, to skillfully tackle all of these things. It was perfect… a release for something unnamed and uneasy settling into my little body for a long stay.

My teammate, I remember as I think about her now, had the same kind of hunger. It’s what drew me to her and also what kept me away. But at basketball practice, we could use our aggression productively.

The game isn’t about points when you have something to prove.

She could take my blows and, even better, give them right back. There was an unspoken understanding between us I think. We would both hurt or be hurt, to a degree others were unwilling to go, in order to Get. That. Ball.

I haven’t talked to her since high school. I’m sad I couldn’t tell her myself how much her presence meant to me at those practices and games.

I wish I had had the words.

Instead we had body shoves and high fives, jammed fingers and skinned knees. Bodily injuries to come back from. Wounds that healed. Beasts that finally took a seat after years of letting them play point.

I wish l told her she was better at the game. She was years ahead of me in knowing what to do with the ball once she got it. I was more likely to accidentally throw it away somehow, like a gold miner who drunkenly loses his gold, too overwhelmed by the beauty of his fortune and his luck.

Not knowing what to do with a good thing because the good thing doesn’t fit what he’s always told himself about himself.

She was too genuine, too wise to do that. It’s cruel such a strong spirit was benched so early, and with decades of her own children’s games left to watch.

***

During our trip we drove through the Midwest’s major cities. Chicago to Columbus to Marion to Cleveland to Lake Geneva to Detroit to Michigan.

The Midwest is a study in opposites. It’s littered with contradictions, from the people to the landscapes. It’s no wonder places like Central Ohio are used as testing grounds for everything from fast food’s latest sandwich to a new cut of jeans.

While you can typically guess what a place’s people will be like based on whether they turn blue or red every four years in November, there’s always something to shake up your stereotype.

White supremacists in Columbus’s most liberal neighborhood.

A Pride flag waving from a porch in Amish country.

The cityscapes are even more obvious. Dumpy industrial decay crumbles like a stale muffin in the same block as a high-tech new high rise shoved to the front of the display case.

A bank of pink wild flowers wave from impossibly thin stalks along the edge of a Detroit highway that abuts neglected housing and people selectively ignored.

When I’m in the country, I miss the city. When I’m in the city, I miss the country. The grass is greener, as they say. In Cleveland it’s brown. In Flint it doesn’t matter because the water supposed to feed it is on fire.

I notice the outside world’s contradictions because I have so many in my own head. I also notice ways I’ve changed when we visit our Ohio homes. I’m more afraid of riding in a car than before. I’m used to getting around on speeding bullets that whistle down train tracks. And now my childhood home’s yard feels like a park because it’s the size of one in Chicago.

***

In Detroit I’m mesmerized by a building that has a staircase that starts and ends nowhere.

It clings to life of the side of its brick habitat, like those birds that ride on a slow moving hippo for the free bugs. Although, I’m not sure how this building benefitted from this atrophied appendage.

Why wouldn’t they just tear off the staircase?

Is the building a piece of this beat-up city’s history? A middle finger to the slow process of forgetting where you came from? A reminder to respect where you’ve been, how you’ve traveled, even if it leads nowhere now?

On the late night drive back to Chicago I watch the road fly under us. It’s all there’s left to look at as darkness has drawn the curtains on the sideshow I usually watch through the window. Steering at night is like basketball; you can drive better when you look down.

So I think of my niece. The night or two before my friend died I was watching these first and second graders learn how to play tee ball. After one of them got an out, they all wanted to get an out. They had tasted adrenaline, competition, camaraderie and there was no turning back. I hope she finds what she needs in that and a friend to share it with.

Like I did.

Like I won’t forget.

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