I was thinking about you the other day, Maria. Not sure how that happened. People briefly flit across each other’s life paths all the time and leave no residue. Especially at “the commune”, the scruffy Chicago apartment I shared with a few other teenaged males. We named it after the Paris Commune, the workers rebellion in 1871. Nathan’s father was of old Socialist stock so he knew that we were moving into it on the hundredth anniversary.
Sometimes there were runaways from the crisis hotline. The hotline was required to call the kid’s parents – without identifying where they were calling from – to ask permission to help them. If the parents said no – which happened pretty often – they were supposed to cut them loose. Instead, they’d call us. There was one guy, Wheeler, who had joined the Marines to get himself off heroin. Can you imagine doing withdrawal and boot camp at the same time? He did it. Then went AWOL. He worked his way across the country ‘till he found our couch. There was even an underground railroad for mental patients. It was all the rage among academics in those days to commit their children to psych wards if they “acted up.” Must be crazy. Sometimes they’d give them shock treatments. When Tasha got hers she wouldn’t remember our names for days. Ras was always bringing home strays – people he met on the street who needed a place to rest their heads and unload their stories. If they had some hustle going we made clear they couldn’t practice it while under our roof.
One way or another, Maria, you found a way back into my head. I’m thinking maybe it was a quantum thing. Maybe time doubles back on itself sometimes and the folds rub up against each other. So I’m walking down Lake Street in 2013 and an arm brushes against my sleeve and it’s you walking past in 1971. And then I’m thinking about you. Stranger things happen.
A few months before you came to the commune, you turned up at my folks’ house. They were out of town and it was one of those times my sister and I (and a random set of friends) were camped out there. You were fifteen – most of us were – and you moved right in. You liked being with us. You’d run away from home somewhere on the west side. We made room for you like we’d been waiting for you to show. You got to re-define yourself. None of knew your parents, or your friends, or your teachers or your life. You liked that we looked at you like you were real. That Aurora and I were also Puerto Rican mattered. You also liked that we laughed a lot. You were running from some harsh shit and you needed to laugh. We loved your curiosity about everything.
So then it’s later – after we’d all scattered back to our streets – and you turned up one day at the commune. I got home and my roomies and Karl’s father Bill from next door were helping you out of a car. You could hardly speak or even stand up without help but somehow you’d followed the scent trails and found us. How you did that is one of life’s mysteries. They’d been trying to get you to a hospital but at the last minute you put up a fight. You’d OD’d on heroin, you said, and couldn’t go to the hospital. You couldn’t get in trouble with the police. So they brought you inside. I don’t know if you had an overdose. It’s not like there’s a proper amount. In any case you had taken more than you were used to and you were scared.
You’d been demanding my presence. For whatever reason, you wanted me there. Maybe it was a ‘Rican thing and you wanted to be with your kind. You were in trouble and you came. We lay you down on the rug in the front room and put your head on my lap. The tracks on your arm corroborated your story.
It was a long night. For most of it you groaned and rocked and mumbled. I held you in my lap, two fifteen-year-olds in the half-dark. I must have had some intelligence working. John Holt defines intelligence as “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” I knew enough to stroke your head and speak in soft tones; to let you know I was here when you startled and called my name out; to hum quietly when you tossed and turned. I knew not to move my leg and disturb you when you were resting. Man, did I want to move that leg! Finally you slept.
You must have made a call from Karl’s place across the hall in the morning. They had a phone. Later on your boyfriend came to get you. That’s how you introduced him. He was from your old neighborhood. Someone said he reeked of dealer. People always say more than they know. We tried to bring up what was going on. You both insisted that last night never happened. He did most of the talking. Drugs? Heroin? No way! Maybe she was a little drunk, that’s all. He ushered you way. You looked back.
Out of the blue I find myself hoping – against a sudden tightness in my chest – that you made it OK. Hoping you were able to pick out your own personal rhythm amid the cacophony of bad beats. I know. Everyone makes it until they don’t. What I mean is that I hope you beat your demon. The one that stands in the gateway between the life you are given and the one you choose. The one that doesn’t let you pass without a fight. The demon without which there’s no story. The one that burns so hot it’ll reduce you to ash if you don’t remember your talisman.
In the old folk tales there’s an old woman who sits at the side of the road and places an object in your hand. She whispers that you can, that you must rely upon it in your moment of need. It might be a polished stone; or five round seeds; or a simple feather. It might be knowing that someone once looked at you like you were real; or the tune abuelita used to sing while chopping garlic; or a promise you made to yourself once when you were small and serious. Maybe it’s the sense of wonder that went nova in your heart the time they brought you out into the country and the dazzling night sky took your breath away.
The only way past the gate is by realizing that some small part of yourself, something you’ve carried for years in your back pocket, is a thing of great power. It’s called growing up. If it’s strong enough, or if you know what to do when you don’t know what to do, you’ll get past the demon. Not everyone does. It’s nothing personal. Those who don’t make it also have that light burning inside, they also hear music in their heads. It’s just that some demons are bigger than others. Some talismans are weaker. That’s life.
I don’t get to know how your story turns out. I just know that somehow it has. I never did know your last name. I can only wish for you what you need. An anonymous wish, redeemable anywhere. I think the odds are you did OK. You found the courage once, after all, to leave home for your own protection. And when you left the commune you looked back. More than that, though, it’s a feeling I got the other day while I was walking down Lake Street and your arm brushed against my sleeve.