Whispers of the Sun
Sadness is the same in every language.
Those words are written on the bedroom wall of the house where I grew up, masked now by layers of peeling paint and faded in the bleaching wash of time. I can still conjure the image of my younger self, lighter in the shoulders and shallow in thought but deep with dreams, wobble-footed on a maple-wood footstool in tattered night shorts with threads dangling like spider webs from the legs, penning what I thought at the time was some profound, uniting message to the world.
A pile of dog-eared comics leaned next to my clothes in the corner (we were so poor my dresser was a stack of two apple boxes across from my mattress), and my window was probably cracked to soften the otherwise stifling air in the house.
That summer, however, those comics concealed a book of poetry I had taken from the library, hidden from my parents to avoid their puzzlement and likely derision. My father, though not an altogether cruel man, was laid up, out of work, and recovering from an injury obtained on a drunken ride home one night. His humor that summer was thin and delicate, and the distance between us was a long, abrasive patch of something rough and sharp. At the time, I had no intention of trying to cross that divide, and I doubt he did, either.
We lived in a small town ruled by a rubber factory and foul smell. The welcome sign on the road in (which it seemed sported a population estimate of 2000) now informs that the population is B00BS, no doubt courtesy of some mischievous teens or possibly drunken adults.
I still remember my own early nights of reckless tagging, the first of many spent discovering my talent and honing my skill, though never anything quite so visible, of course. Caught vandalizing property, public or private, would mean having to explain a fall down the stairs in a one-story house.
The nostalgia for the hard times is so weird. We tend to miss the days we barely survived. Easy days are like dreams. Gone too soon and quickly forgotten.
Like the year that changed everything for me. The year I'll wish I could experience again no matter what else happens to me in this life. The year I first crossed the Lee River bridge.
From upriver, you can still see where the old bridge slumps over the water. It's blocked off, not safe for passage now. No doubt, some hardheaded kid—maybe just as hardheaded as I was—still plays around there in the summer, risking his life for a bit of dumb fun.
Maybe, like me, he'll find something more.
We weren't supposed to go across the river. That area of town was the place left unspoken, a silent preface to mumbles or laughs over a poker table. At that age, I don't fully remember knowing much of immigration or status, but I knew about others. That's what many people across the river were to the rest of us. They weren't really with us. They weren't on the team. They were over there, on the outside.
I guess, in a weird way, a school is a little like a small town. It has its leaders and its crowds, little circles, families, scuffles, and hard lessons. And like any town, there are laws, both written and unwritten.
I didn't know anything about her when I first saw her on the road to school. A light breeze picked up as I rode by, as if on cue, blowing black-as-a-tire hair away from her face. I was too busy checking her out to mind the road and ended up pulling my front tire catawampus into a pothole. It wasn't a bad spill, but it left my face red with humiliation as I climbed back aboard and pedaled on with sore knees and palms.
Her name was Mony. I would learn that later, as I would learn that her parents were Cambodian refugees, fleeing a situation I didn't understand and (in all honesty) didn't much care about. I had cards to collect, books to read, shows to watch, and games to play. The rest of the world was a backdrop to my own epic stories.
That year was a hard one. My best friend had left months earlier, and I spent the summer in alarming isolation for a young boy. Connection did not come naturally for me, and I escaped into a land that grew richer and more attractive with each passing day.
There is a solace in solitude. A recharging energy from escaping into our inner world. The woes of life cannot follow us onto the plains of fantasy. The escape so easily becomes an addiction, and I fell hard, expecting to bounce eventually. But the world was deep and vivid. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in a pit of depression cut by a sharp trowel of loneliness, cut off from discovery and joy.
There was a certain group of kids at school, and they represented the worst of our town's character. Later on in life, I would remark about how difficult it is to find someone that represents the best of anything. I guess that's a pretty good indicator of the quality (or lack of quality) of people. If you browsed the department of local quality, you most certainly wouldn't find a picture of that group.
Their de facto leader was a red-haired meat-barrel of a jackanapes named Bryce. A walking neck with a bad attitude and worse breath. I can't remember a day when we didn't see him on the walk to the front office, and every time we made sure to stay out of his path, lest we end up in under the scornfully negligent gaze of nurse Crawford. He was one of those uncontrollable hurricanes of a kid that the teachers felt bad for hating because his home life was so bad. I guess they felt better for acting like compassionate human beings while he terrorized the rest of us.
To call him a human wrecking ball would be too kind. He didn't go after fortified targets. He sought weaker prey: the exposed, the fragile, and the different. That year, his taste for "nerds" and foreign students was exceptionally efficacious. For weeks, I watched the soft underbelly of the student body suffer under the withering force of his barrage. If he hadn't gone after Mony, I may have never discovered my testicles, in the figurative. I couldn't really tell anyone what came over me that day outside the school. Which is okay, because she was the only one that ever asked. I don't know where the teachers or my friends were as my classmates spilled back through the doors following a routine fire drill. I don't even remember what was said, if anything. I remember he laid his hands on her, and that was all it took. I've no idea if he even knew who I was before that day, but he didn't forget me after.
After one of the teachers pulled him away from me, hers was the hand held out to me while I bled on the hot blacktop. Hers was the hand I took.
It's funny how quickly you can come to care for someone, like a sudden drop on a rollercoaster. Kids fall fast and hard in the weirdest ways. Once I saw her, really saw her…I didn't care that we couldn't fully understand each other or what anyone thought when I greeted her. I wanted to be her friend and look out for her. We looked out for each other.
The good thing about small town living is you know everybody. The bad part is everybody knows you. It wasn't long before my mom "heard" that I had a new friend. She thought it was cute. My father, not so much. It was bad enough he had a son that was just a little too off (which was a big pimple right on your nose in that town) but now that son was hanging with one of those people that didn't even speak English, that didn't like barbecues and hotdogs and the Fourth of July, that weren't normal.
I learned there was a kindness in her the likes of which I had never known. Deeper than the mountain mineshafts, wider than any lake I ever saw. She would've given a slug a chance to prove it wasn't slimy. In the heart of Tough Love, USA, I'd never realized how powerful and precious a virtue that was. A few more years without her and I would've thought it weak, possibly despicable, but I realized the strength it must have taken to be so compassionate and forgiving.
Starting then, I saw her almost every day. Despite minor difficulties in communication, we got by with a kind of patient, gentle rapport from which sprang an almost miraculous understanding. If there were no occasion to meet, we would engineer one with sometimes simultaneous spontaneity. Though she was never to come to my house, nor was I to visit hers, we would—when we could—walk to school together along an obscured path, holding hands in the dim glow of morning. I was once able to take her to a treasured place downriver from the bridge, where we sat and watched the sun outrun the moon. Some evenings, it slowed down just for us, as if giving us time to grow closer, telling us that time was short and precious.
But we were always good. Despite the heat, the intimate silence, and the friction of two close bodies after a trying day…we were always good.
I loved her even before I was in love with her. Coming to care for someone like that is like feeling the fall before the jump. I don't even remember jumping, but that's young love. One minute you're on solid ground…the next you're airborne.
The schoolyear, all previous of which had slumped along like a crippled millipede across a puddle of glue, suddenly dashed the days away with dizzying speed. The company of a gentle heart creates a sort of time-slip, and I was constantly looking forward to something that was so quickly fleeting. Though the language barrier didn't fully vanish, she was much smarter than I and we became even better at communicating. What lukewarm, fair-weather friends I had gave me only the attention needed for a good ribbing, but otherwise seemed not to care for my absence of attention. The moments that my eyes weren't glancing at her, they were on the scan for trouble. Though Bryce had apparently been put into a special class with a different schedule, the possibility of his appearance remained an ever-present threat.
The beginning of the end happened on a very rare day when Mony didn't meet me on the road to school, and as I killed time stalking the front hallway in the hopes of seeing her arrive late, I overheard a harsh, invective laced tirade emanate from the principal's closed office. The booming voice demanded to know who was responsible. I feigned a stomachache to stay near, but no show of sickness was necessary when I saw Bryce's father exit the office after a time.
I can't explain what I felt then or how I knew that trouble was coming. I wondered if Mony was at home, experiencing that same sick dread that had invaded my gut. At lunch, I asked around like some gumshoe right out of a pulp. What I gathered was that Bryce and a handful of the local rejects had biked across the bridge with their knobs cranked to MISCHIEF. Something had gone cockeyed and they ended up hauling ass back in a hurry, but Bryce had gone off track and skidded into the river. He had limped home soaking, bruised and with two broken fingers, but what we all cringed at was the thought how much worse he probably was after his father was through.
In any case, the word was out that someone across the river was responsible, and that's when my heart dropped into the pit of my cold bowels. My head spun with terrible thoughts. I could only imagine with heavy dread the possible turmoil to follow. If mob justice was to follow, the fear of Mony somehow getting caught up in it made each swallow catch like barbed hooks in my throat.
I would have feigned sickness but I knew there was no way I would be allowed to leave on my own. I spent the rest of the afternoon dizzy with worry, until the wonderful screeching bell finally closed the day. It was to my horror to find that my mother had arrived to pick me up, obviously unsettled, as I'm sure many parents were.
Suddenly bereft of my plans for escape, I filled the following hours with excuses. Fatigue, nausea, and sadness retired me to my room, where I paced the floor from wall to wall, willing the sun to hasten its descent. I made a quick retreat from the dinner table with mumbled talk of homework and an early bedtime.
Upon the moment of opportunity, I climbed through my window, mounted my bike, and tore off for the land uncharted and unknown to me. If my parents knew of my destination, I wouldn't sit for a week and admonishment would be my daily bread. But I didn't care. If anything in my young life was worth it, it wasn't sneaking alcohol or breaking a window, it was finding Mony.
I stopped only once to look at the dark portal of the bridge before riding on, the hot evening air turning suddenly cold to the sweat on my brow. The hills on the other side were densely wooded, and the trail snaked like a loose shoelace through the falling dark. Here and there in my fevered haste I hunched lower at the sight of phantom tail lights glowing in the distance. I wasn't completely without index. I had heard enough to know where I was going, and shortly I came to the trailer park where I knew of the town's outsiders to reside. I can't say how long I pedaled between the rows of foreboding structures, only that my panic grew with each moment. I had no idea where she lived and no way to find her but lovely, terrible hope.
After a time I dropped my bike, lungs afire and heart screaming for respite. My every screaming thought, rat-a-tatting through my brain was that I had failed…failed…failed!
…until a hand took my own and yanked me from the road. I pulled Mony into my arms and hugged her tight, knowing it was no mere coincidence that she was outside just as I was passing by. The connection we shared had alerted her to my presence, a psychic clunk in her mind pond that rippled my name through her thoughts. At least, that was the romantic scenario painted in my pubescent imagination.
For all of my fear and anxiety, she greeted me with resplendent eyes and a miraculous smile. I sputtered some jumbled timeline of the day's events in what was (in my own head, at least) an explanation of what had happened and why I was there. After listening politely to my word-salad rant, she merely asked me to be quiet and wait. She disappeared shortly and I heard a door open. When she re-emerged, she came around the house with her fingers hooked in the basket on her bike, pulling it along behind her like a horse from the stables.
I asked for no explanation. I read and obeyed her signals, and then we were off.
She led me to a clearing in the woods on a hill overlooking the river. The trees opened, presenting a view of a prodigious sky just for us. Though we had ducked quickly into the woods twice to avoid the horror of oncoming headlights, the clearing was far enough into the woods that we didn't fear interruption. Though the evening had given us light to make it in, we would need the flashlight in her bicycle basket to make it back out.
"It's not far from the bridge," she said. "Don't want you to get in trouble."
After all I had done, she was concerned for me. I tried to explain my fears, to impress upon her how serious the situation could possibly become, but she remained calm and within a few moments with her soft eyes and comforting voice, all my torments became allayed. Though I had made a wild and treacherous journey (or so I had imagined) to find her, it felt so wrong to squander those moments with fearful talk.
We watched the final moments of the sunset, huddled close in the evening chill. She wore a large, tattered sweater that cloaked her body like an evening gown. I was anxious to see her back home, as I knew she would be in trouble for remaining out so late, but she seemed determined to be by my side as the blanket of night draped the sky.
"I don't want anything to happen to you," I said.
"I'll be okay."
Moonlight shimmering off the river played over her face.
"I wish we could go away from here," I murmured.
"Don't be scared," she said, and while my hands trembled, her voice was solid but soft.
"I'm sorry," I told her. She frowned and the very chambers of my heart shook with sadness. She didn't know why, and I tried to explain. "That we can't…really be together. That you can't visit me. That I can't even talk to you in your own language."
Taking my hand, she leaned in close, and whispered magic drifted from her lips as the falling strands of her dark hair tickled my cheek. Words I never forgot…words seared into my soul.
She held me without inducement but the love shared between two furious, lonely hearts.
Under the care of a glorious moon, she kissed my careworn brow, and all the world was at ease.
Once the night reminded us of our tardiness, I saw her back home. She wanted her father to give me a ride home in his pickup, but I made my exit before she returned, hoping that she wouldn't be too upset with me.
I promised with a quivering heart that I would confront any travelers that crossed my path on the way home, to make sure no one was out to cause trouble in that neck of the woods, but the ride home was like a ride through a ghost town. The streets were empty and silent, and only the whispering wind dared me to ride harder.
I snuck back in my window to the sad understanding that my absence had gone unrealized, and I fell against my mattress and slept and dreamed of riding through dark streets and running through black woods with Mony.
That was the last time I was able to be alone with her. The story of what happened with Bryce was revealed in private rooms unseen by us simple children, and any pernicious plans set afoot fell to the dust. After a few restive weeks, things settled down as though it had never happened.
Then another horror befell me. Mony told me that her parents had decided to move. That hellish week, a terrible dread struck me down and I became ill. I was bedridden for three days, laid out by something like the flu, but which I knew was the curse of a broken heart. She sent a letter through my friends wishing me well, but I heard she had been pulled out of school to aid with her family's preparations for departure. When I was finally able, after a few days of silence from Mony, I summoned the strength to ride back to her trailer only to find it empty. I knew then that she was gone and I had no way of ever finding her again.
That schoolyear ended with a terrifying whimper, and my dreams of summer crumbled into a fresh nightmare. I was despondent for weeks until another girl at school whom lived in Mony's neighborhood delivered an envelope to me containing a letter from Mony, which flipped a light switch in the dark, empty room my world had become.
The opening line was the thing she had whispered to me that night. We were able to carry out a correspondence, my parents believing I was sending off for art contests in the back of my comic books. She saved my days and nights. Her words held my sky aloft. That summer I enjoyed every breeze, reveled at the sight of every snake and toad at the river, and partook of every barbeque, potluck, and festival to gorge myself on experiences, which filled my letters to Mony. My artistic talents sprouted with renewed strength, and I regularly sent samples for her to appraise.
Unfortunately, the world had not become perfect and tensions in my small town still ran plenty high. Each week I heard gossip of some new stand-off or misunderstanding. The kids just a grade above me were in an age of eagerness to test their mettle and proclaim their strength. Tussles between kids I knew and the kids across the bridge became all too common. I, however, had made friends on both sides, and grew apprehensive of the anger hostility everywhere I looked.
One night, after gathering my materials, I left the house again. I began my work just after dusk, running my brushes through the midnight hours by dim lamplight. I had my original vision on a piece of sketch paper I had brought to guide me, but once I began there was no need of it. I painted as though possessed of a raging spirit. I was not myself that night.
Finishing just before dawn, I left my wagon of paints at the scene and raced home. Though I tried, I could not sleep, but instantly began a letter to tell Mony what I had done.
I would love nothing more than to assure an ending of breathtaking grandeur. To say that I brought a whole town together in peace and reminded us all of our shared loves, trials, and humanity. I'd love to say that I reunited with Mony and we were able to live a life together filled with generous love and adventures.
The reality is that Mony and I got older and her letters slowed, then finally stopped. I know her family moved often and she became busy with her own life, but I was inclined to believe that she had met someone that could make her feel in person the way she made me feel through letters alone. I don't know, and I never asked. Even though I did finally meet her again several years down the road, by that time she was happily married and it was purely a reunion of long-absent friends.
I told her on a cold, snowy evening outside a coffee shop that I planned to return home. She asked why, and I couldn't answer.
Why did I choose to go back to that small town, all but broken by weight of time? To drive around on a snowy night, allowing the ghosts of years long passed roll by my headlights? To visit the bridge and the river where we held each other on that unforgettable night. To look on the husk of my old stomping grounds?
I may never have an answer, but I thought hard as I stood looking at the side of the old schoolhouse where the mural I painted for Mony and for all of us—though chipped and faded—still remains. Where the words she whispered to me are visible to this day. I can say it was worth the trip.
And I can say as I leave that I'm glad I came back.
Love is the same in every language.
These are the words written on the mural and now on the welcome sign into town, just over the crossed out population line.
They may fade in time or fall to some fresh vandalism, but like that summer, they will live on in memories and in me.