To my daughter
After a week-long bacchanalia, we gather on a patch of graveled dirt. Exhausted from nights of sleeping on the floor, you realize this is the end of the road–the last gasp of high school. At your age, you’re not supposed to grasp the significance of present idling into past—but you do. Many before you, slouched and blurry, have stood at the bottom of these stairs—listening to the surf, wondering about the future as expectations crash against the shore like waves limned upon a canvas. Graduation entices the passage of time to slow, to stretch before bursting in a rush of energy. Images replay, and then, if God is good, replicate through the genes of posterity. This is my psalm to you.
Late in the morning—almost noon—you’re unsure who remains on the property. Like pieces placed upon a board, classmates have fallen one-by-one over the course of the week until only a handful are left to witness the final move. Dressed in suit and tie, the speaker at commencement had warned against the perils of nostalgia—don’t be held hostage, he told you in your sun-colored dress, me wearing my blue blazer and sitting with the other guests beneath the hot summer sky.
After packing four years of crap into boxes and saying farewell to teachers and friends, you gather in the yard of a day student who lives near campus. The first party will conclude without any trips to the emergency room or visits by the police. You then sojourn up and down the coast to various locales and finish at Hyannis Port for a final extravaganza. At dusk you watch Tanner scamper like a drunken squirrel over the gables of Joe and Rose’s fabled house at the center of a compound of Kennedys. The place is abuzz with the antics of cousins and privileged friends drinking and ponging and smoking, majestic in their virility, dancing ecstatically to the beat of the new century. The old guard would approve.
The previous night had been strange, but no less than other nights as the group pilgrimaged from an estate in Great Neck to Manhattan to a mansion in the forests of Concord leading to the farewell bash at the Cape and this parking lot at the bottom of a wooden staircase.
We squirm and turn and contemplate the imponderable—where are the decades? Tidbits festoon bygone years: an able marriage to your mother, births, promotions, friendships made . . . and lost, lovers scattered and unattained. A beautiful daughter. The memories accrete like rings within a tree; disease and death take their toll, shattered by lightning, if we’re lucky.
With the consent of a niece (and classmate) you do the unthinkable and penetrate the sanctum sanctorum of the main residence. You’re searching for a place to sleep removed from the commotion because it’s 2 a.m. and you’re tired and ready to close your eyes. You find your friend Olivia, the two of you enter the backdoor and in the moonlight explore the nooks and crannies of a building that is vacant. You snap pictures of pictures hanging on the wall bordering the stairway that leads upstairs. You walk into Ethel’s bedroom overlooking the surf and snap more photos of Kennedys as instructed by your mother over the phone before finding a room with double beds for you and your friend.
In the morning the father of the drunken squirrel blocks the doorway and says you don’t have the right to sleep in this house. You explain you have permission. He tells you to make the bed and remove any trash from the basket because mother is a bloodhound and must not discover the intrusion.
The author of this reminiscence is male, you are female so the heart is reversed, but the story is similar. The encounter is random, but as you grow and flourish into the woman you’ll become, you realize that chance is the dictate of destiny. Like a semaphore of secrets, meaning can be deciphered through cards or charts or outstretched palms, but the answer is always the same: tomorrow.
Standing beside the car, waiting for Olivia who dropped her phone but knows it fell between the sheets with a boy from freshman math whose years of longing erupted like a firecracker, you’re jealous and wish it had been you . . . when the him of dreams appears.
Tom will not be the first (or was it Tonya). A hockey player with short hair, curly, and a large chest cradled between shoulders that learned to crash against the boards, he grazed you from behind in chapel during junior year, his hands brushed your hair and while it seemed haphazard, you know it was not and are confident he knows you know, yet who can say what others know? At a rally senior year again from behind, hidden, when the crowd dispersed you bumped shoulders and turned to search for eyes: the eyes averted in shyness or embarrassment or futility. Like cancer in reverse the failing lingers, grows smaller, less lethal, still trapped inside the body: there is no cure for memory.
You and the boy spoke once or twice over the course of high school, in casual gatherings, on the perimeter of the woods before the others arrived. You’ve searched and seen him every day at the parties and in the residue of morning, always uncertain if he would appear later in the day at the next location on the never-ending tour. One day the adventure turns into a middle-age muddle: my voice intrudes upon your singularity, like noise from a distant event—an echo of what cannot be, except in hindsight. The story is yours, but the words belong to me.
You’re ready to retrace from this outpost at the end of the continent where the cod run sleek and cold across the shoals. Westward, back to Amherst for a day of rest before continuing toward Indianapolis and a summer of preparation before the travails of Yale. You’re prepared to enter the car and leave with things unsaid when things undone appear, shambling down the stairs, swaying from shoulder to shoulder, tight across the hips like a drunkard in the morning or lover in need—it’s strange to see him as the great unwinding winds.
The murmurous surf rolls softly. Waves shift on the ever-changing tide. We exist as a lineage of unbroken alleles: you through me and me through you. Understand? You can’t see the water because of a hillock on the other side of the mansion but recognize the incandescence of the people leaving, smell the midday salt drying on the rocky beach. The sky is like a painting or a tribute to the artistry of color (or words)—punch drunk, you wait for the moment to pass as it did back then and will today (and tomorrow as well). Nothing lasts forever.
And you want to hold the woman in your arms so badly it hurts across the span of time, to touch a shoulder, grasp an arm, brush a strand of hair across a puckish face. She is diminutive, you are diminutive, but not in feeling that runs so deep. Just come over, you whimper. Come and say goodbye after all the years of longing scorched into bone and ask what I’m doing over the summer or where I can be reached or something inane (or insane) before the center crumbles. The dispersion lingers in a place where Kennedys have stood and wept: this is your time to reach out and touch someone.
You see him at the bottom of the stairs, standing straight, and wait for him to notice. He looks (or she looks) and you lock eyes. You smile and hope he’ll walk toward you. He grins before confusion darkens the rhythm of the moment. The boy gestures a half moon across his body (a hillbilly wave) as a sign of intent and then, like a piece of fabric caught against a nail, eyes pull and stretch and the tension is broken, the connection lost.
They drive away, his friend holding the wheel at ten and two. That’s how it was–that’s how it is for people like you (and me) who will not pass this way again. You’ll spend the summer in Indianapolis with friends and family before traveling back east for college. Your “days of glory” remain in front of you while mine are gone. . . forever.
Charlie Sutphin has lived in Indianapolis for more than 60 years. His cobbled career includes editor, journalist, writer, attorney, professor, investment manager and venture capitalist. Married for 32 years with 2 children, he earned degrees from Yale University, Butler University and Indiana University and taught for 18 years at the University of Indianapolis. His fiction was published liberally in the 1990s. Recently, he has been working on creative nonfiction.