Moving Forward

Among hundreds of proud parents and grandparents and brooding siblings and whispering aunts and uncles and hungover friends, I steady myself on a folding chair in a college courtyard. My above average size presses the chair’s rear legs through a manicured lawn. As a gentle breeze rustles leaves above, my chair teeters. The right leg pierces soft earth. Shifting my weight, I seek a position of stability. Deeper still slips the right leg. And wondering if the passing breeze might take note of my agitation, I hiss toward eager soil, “Goddamned chair.”

Sitting one row before me, a slender woman 10 to 15 years my senior turns and wiggles a miniature ear. Consuming the lower portion of her ear, a large diamond flickers under a beam of light. The earring is so large it casts a shadow upon the woman’s neck, appearing as a dagger. She turns slowly. Her rotation ends as a squinting eye and pointed nose tilt toward me. Her cheeks are chiseled, her skin taut. Her appearance of well-being is complemented by a tailored suit; devoid of puckers and dangling threads. Salt and pepper hair is gathered in a tight bun. It balances on the back of her melon-sized head. Peeking past her well-tailored shoulder I spy fingers with shimmering stones and wrists adorned with sparkling bracelets. A tangle of blue veins meander across the backs of athletic hands. With her right hand she taps a graduation program against her knee. Upon catching my eye a crease drifts across her brow.

I consider her station. ‘Perhaps a proud grandparent? Probably a legacy family.’

As if responding to my unspoken words, she cocks a penciled eyebrow.

Returning the cocked eyebrow I continue to consider a woman whom I have clearly annoyed. I imagine her in her element; pacing a boardroom with crisp, purposeful steps as she summarizes record breaking quarterly earnings to open mouthed charges. Behind her, PowerPoint slides might display the results to those in the room too slow to understand her spoken word.

My chair sinks further into eager earth. And returning my attention to the present, I seek to rebalance myself upon a chair designed for people like her.

She watches as I stand. Curious eyes drift up to monitor my efforts.

Placing my own graduation program on the vacant chair to my right, I turn away from my audience of one and lift the chair 6 to 12 inches above the lawn. I jam all four legs into the earth. I repeat the attack, each time hoping to find stable footing. Innocent blades of grass fall victim to the pounding. Finally, the fourth generation finds solid ground. I nod, satisfied at a job well done. “There we go.”

Readying myself to sit, I turn to face forward. The woman before me places an arm across the back of her chair and stares. I gather her attention. And she gathers mine. I watch as she stiffens an already stiff spine to signal annoyance with the commotion to her rear. She looks me up and down. She feigns a smile before sighing, satisfied with her conclusion.

Apparently, I am just what she expected.

I take a baby step toward her. My right leg nearly touches the arm draped across the back of her chair.

Bending at the knees I lean forward. I approach her as if in conspiracy. Blue eyes widen as my face fills her horizon. Within the protective bubble of her personal space I smell hotel soap and a bit too much perfume. And though her eyes continue to widen, generations of boardroom battle have taught her not to yield. Our heads nearly touch as I approach a wiggling ear. Her shoulders rise and fall with bated breath.

Softly, I whisper, “In prison all the floors are concrete.”

Before pulling away I rest my hand on the back of her folding chair, just behind her elbow. Fulfilling my assigned role of underclassling, I give her a lazy shrug. Eyebrows drift upward toward rustling leaves. A meaty beam of light rushes across her face as I move away. She squints before returning her attention forward. With her left hand she smooths salt and pepper hair. She sits ramrod straight and jerks her chin toward the canopy above, perhaps wondering how the likes of me crashed the party. Thereafter she whispers in a neighbor’s ear. A handsome man pulls away. Discretely, he turns in wonder.

Catching my gaze he does not look away. I consider his station. ‘Perhaps like me?’ Mimicking the recent gesture of his companion I raise eyebrows high before sharing a friendly wink. He chuckles before turning forward. Softly, he pats his neighbor’s knee.

From a well-secured chair, I scan a sea of coiffed hair and dandruff-less shoulders. Members of the crowd face a multi-level stage adorned with podiums and banners displaying Latin words I am unable to read and Harry Potteresque men and women cloaked in robes and sashes. The sea of well-groomed heads ebbs and flows, shimmering under morning sunlight. This is a world of handsome people. Those handsome heads turn from side to side or tilt to and fro as hushed words are passed from peer to peer.

Three seats to my left, Liz stands tall to take photos she’ll soon text to family on islands far away. Like me, she’s a new arrival to these shores. I pause to admire her profile, her big eyes, her high cheeks.

I pause to admire the fight she’s won, earning the right to stand upon this shore as first generation college graduate; as physician, as surgeon.

I pause to admire the light she casts upon the path of our children.

Lips pursed in concentration, my wife of nearly 25 years cranes her neck in search of just the right shot. Then, as if feeling the weight of my gaze, she turns to share a smile. I return the smile just before she looks away, in search of a frozen moment.

To my immediate left, DJ and Jose tilt heads to speak in soft tones, recovering from a weekend long graduation party. Considering the ancient days of hangovers, I shiver. Adding insult to injury, Maine’s pollen lays siege to my son, his LA-tuned system unaccustomed to New England’s allergens. I offer DJ a napkin but am rebuffed. I shrug as he sneezes into his sleeve.

Then, the crowd grows quiet as a woman with the gravitas of Potter’s Professor McGonagall approaches the podium. Under tumbling sunlight, she speaks of a bright future.

My attention wanes.

And with Liz, DJ and Jose otherwise occupied, and the seat to my right still vacant, I sit by myself and dream.

McGonagall’s voice rises and falls. Many in the crowd laugh at jokes shared for the benefit of wiggling ears sporting large diamonds.

All about, handsome heads nod as the ceremony begins in earnest. The woman perched in the row before me nods her head approvingly. Her earring sparkles.

McGonagall’s speech is rewarded with hearty cheers. The courtyard bristles with a sense of a job well done. As she leaves the podium, music rises from behind the stage to echo off storied brick buildings. Each building pays homage to a gift from a wiggling ear.

Within the perimeter of gifted buildings, trees decades older than my 55 years rush toward a blue sky. Their broad arms and leafy hands protect the well-groomed crowd from beams of light seeking to crash the party. And though many of the sun’s beams are barred from entry, smatterings find their way into the celebration. They land on bracelets and earrings and slicked hair. I drift within a sea of sparkles. Flecks of bright white and shimmering yellow dart through swarms of gnats, dust and pollen to strike my face and shoulders.

Despite tumbling sunlight, morning air is crisp. Almost chilly. Some about me shiver before being offered a jacket by a well-mannered friend. The woman before me shoulders her neighbor’s sports jacket.

An early morning run along the banks of the Androscoggin River warned of a cold day in the courtyard. As a result, I am well prepared for the weather. Still, goosebumps rush across exposed flesh to peek past cuffs of rolled white sleeves.

At the perimeter of the courtyard, past storied buildings and unshielded by protective trees, town locals stop to witness a world unknown. Some of the locals sell flowers to handsome men and women as they enter the courtyard. Some walk dogs tugging at long leashes. Some simply stare, dreaming of what life might be like for those sitting in folding chairs a neighbor may have unfolded under promise of overtime pay.

Within the courtyard’s perimeter the class of 2018 marches forward.

The crowd cheers. Many stand in search of their graduate.

As students file toward the stage I cannot help but notice they are universally attractive, each one polished for career trajectories capable of piercing the ceiling above. Each one someday capable of pacing a boardroom to share quarterly earnings with open mouthed charges.

From just beyond the stage, a choir begins to sing. The sound is forlorn; a warning of pending liftoff and the concomitant separation from those left behind.

As the last note of the singers’ song bounces off brick buildings, a hush consumes the crowd.

It is time.

Somehow, the handsome people know when it’s time.

Well-groomed professionals rush to secure available seats in a game of musical chairs.

Unlike those staring from the perimeter, many in this crowd are unfamiliar with the concept of being left without a seat.

With polite nods and hands on shoulders, the well-groomed crawl over each other in search of an empty seat.

Diverting my attention, I stare at the grass. Tiny ants move to and fro.

Despite the game of musical chairs, the seat to my right remains empty.

A clock chimes. The sound is rich and meaningful. The tone is felt more than heard.

Now I know as well. The time has come.

The sea of handsome people let out a collective cheer. Thereafter, McGonagall returns to the podium to address young men and women groomed to make the world a better place.

She trumpets their accomplishments.

The crowd cheers.

She trumpets their futures.

She’s rewarded with more cheers.

Thereafter, a student approaches the podium. She speaks thoughtful words.

Again, the crowd cheers.

Then a man steps before the podium. He speaks of changing the world.

And though initially skeptical, I come to believe in his cause.

Like me, he is new to this land of milk and honey. His words bathe me with a blanket of hope. As his words wash over me I tilt my head high and submit to light piercing the protective ceiling above. I do not wish to be protected. I wish to be struck about the head and shoulders with lancing sunlight. Meaty beams of light trace a flickering path across my face. Back and forth warm light rolls, painting my cheeks with a sheen of comfort. A pink glow squeezes past closed eyes to fill the inside of my skull.

Then a roar, as McGonagall steps forward to introduce graduates one by one.

Alphabetically, the names of polished men and women arc through the air, each one an arrow aimed at a cluster within the crowd. Cheers and howls of delight mark the landing of each flawlessly aimed arrow.

The repeating cycle of name and cheer, name and cheer takes on a soothing rhythm. With all eyes forward, I slip from this place. Alone in a sea of handsome people, I sit by myself and dream. And buoyed by meaty beams of light, I float toward the comfort of the courtyard’s perimeter.

A modest hush of whispers and the sound of shuffling feet intrude upon my dream. With eyes closed tight, I do not witness an interloper make his or her way down the row to occupy the chair to my right.

The previously unoccupied chair groans with newfound purpose. Joining tumbling sunlight, waves of warmth pulse from the vicinity of my new neighbor. Goosebumps retreat from whence they came.

A familiar scent washes over me; the scent of a senior citizen; the smell of Dry Look hair spray.

My heart quickens.

The arriving scent and the shimmering sense of warmth are joined by a guttural effort to clear a throat of phlegm. I startle at the familiar sound. The effort is followed by the unusual, yet clearly recognizable, sound of hands being rubbed together; as if releasing years of unspent energy.

Then, I am startled by a hand upon my right knee.

And a chapped-lip kiss upon my cheek.

The scent of the Dry Look overwhelms me as I turn right and open eyes wide.

“Dad…”

Awkward in his efforts, my father pulls away and smiles.

I stare, mouth agape.

I cannot remember him ever kissing me.

Raising eyebrows, he looks from me to the stage and back toward me. Knowingly, he nods toward the stage.

He says not a word as I wipe my eyes. First the right, then the left.

Composing myself, I lean to the right and whisper so only he may hear, “But how? How are you here? I mean, after all these years, I see you … here?” Without answering, he looks away. I follow his gaze to the stage.

“That’s your first grandchild up there. But you know that, don’t you?”

Without words he nods. He works to contain the broadening of his smile, his blotchy red skin flushed with a grandfather’s pride.

I continue with words meant just for him, “Oh Dad, I wish you coulda seen her growing up.” Intently, he watches me. I pause before releasing a long sigh, “I’ll tell ya, she put us through the ringer. But, man did she figure it out. And man, is she smart.” I rock my head slowly. “If only you coulda seen how she discovered who she is today. My god Dad, it was wonderful.”

He sits still, weighing the years he’s missed. Perhaps weighing the small ‘g’ in god. His face remains frozen as his eyes move from the stage to me and back to the stage.

Then, as if in prayer, he closes eyes tight. His lips move but words are unheard. Long lost dreams and years gone by return in a torrent of images, flickering behind spotted lids.

His eyes remain closed as I tilt my head toward the stage and whisper. “Your granddaughter. She’s an artist and a scholar. In fact, both our children – your first grandchildren – are artists. Gee’s a painter.” I jut my chin toward a sneezing DJ, “And tough-guy over there’s a musician.” My father nods slowly. He breaks into smile, as if amazed at the thought of artists budding from the branches of our family tree.

Moments linger, tossed about by the morning breeze.

We sit in silence.

He, with his eyes closed tight.

Me, staring in disbelief.

I clear my throat. The woman in the row before me wiggles a miniature ear as I continue, “Hey, do you remember what you told me when I got accepted into grad school?”

Though eyes remain closed, he smirks. He nods knowingly as I remind him. “You told me about your granddad the cooper, and then your dad; how he was the first in your family to work in an office. And how you had to work three jobs to afford college and your MBA.”

“You said (I lower my voice to mimic his words) ‘now it’s your responsibility to move our family forward.’ You told me, ‘each generation must build on the accomplishments of the last.’ Remember that?”

He nods.

“Even after all these years – maybe 30 or so – I think of what you told me that day. And now your granddaughter graduated with honors. I mean she’s the first of our line to earn Phi Beta Kappa. Jeeze, I mean they even taught her some frigg’n secret handshake! And look around at this place.” I cast my gaze over the handsome crowd, awash in a sea of sparkles. I chuckle to myself. “She kicked butt in this place. I mean, she’s doing it, Dad. She’s moving us forward.”

Opening eyes wide he looks about. Again he nods. Slowly, he huddles toward me. I feel the warmth of a broad shoulder against mine. Absentmindedly, he plucks at his lower lip. He tilts his chin, prompting me to continue.

“She’s got your drive. And, for better or worse, she got that can’t-stop-working work ethic of yours. You know, she worked all through school.” I tilt my head toward the sprinkling of locals manning the courtyard’s perimeter. “She worked in town, among folks like you and me. And she volunteered too; helping kids in the city high school do their homework. That’s your sense of community coursing through her veins, Dad. Yours.”

He rocks his head slightly, as if working to form a question. I wait but still, after all these years, he’s not forthcoming with words.

Sighing I look away, speaking more toward G, up there on stage, than to my father. My shoulders slump. “Dad, she really loved you. Still does. And when you and Mom left, it hit her like a ton of bricks.” My head drops. I spy the trampled grass below, the earth pierced by my earlier efforts. The ants rushing to and fro. “I mean, she was little. But she was crazy about you guys. She knew what happened to you and what was happening to Mom.”

He nods slowly, purposefully. This time with an air of melancholy.

Silently, he sighs.

Mild eyes glisten.

I’ve never seen my father cry but I wonder if he might do so right here, in a courtyard under the broad branches of protective trees. I wonder if his first cry in decades will occur under meaty beams of light and the soothing rhythm of graduates’ names, among them, that of his first grandchild.

With a sense of urgency my father leans forward. He hesitates before cupping my cheek in a rough hand. I close my eyes as the moment swells to consume me.

Though I don’t hear his words, I feel them; ‘Each generation must build on the accomplishments of the last.’

The moment reaches from then to now.

So warm.

So very warm.

All the words he never said.

All the hopes for his family course through me.

I feel his breath in my ear as he works to share dreams unspoken.

I lean forward, waiting.

My heart pounds.

I close eyes tight, not wishing to see him cry.

A modest hush of whispers and the sound of shuffling feet, intrude upon my dream. With eyes closed tight, I do not witness an interloper make his or her way down the row to occupy the chair to my right.

And startled by a tap upon my arm, I open eyes wide to spy a handsome man with coiffed hair and dandruff-less shoulders as he settles into the chair next to me. “It looked unoccupied. May I sit here?”

“All yours,” I shrug.

The air grows cold as goosebumps return from whence they came.

Far, far away, at the perimeter of the courtyard, locals stare. Some dream of what life might be like for those sitting in folding chairs.

From the perimeter, dreams take flight and, carried by the passing breeze, they reach for the sky like wayward balloons.

The repeating cycle of name and cheer, name and cheer takes on a soothing rhythm. With all eyes forward, I slip from this place.

And alone in a sea of handsome people, I sit by myself and dream.

 

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