Bravery Is a Learned Thing

I have learned that I have yet to learn bravery. It will take unlearned cowardice.

Some moments are hard to think about. Some are hard to write about. Some are both, perhaps because we don’t like their implications. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about this.

On one of my last days in New York, I watched a man slump backwards down the stairs of the subway and go unconscious. I had been facing away from him, and my friend had seen it first. Our conversation was calm, so I didn’t know how to read the urgency suddenly in his voice. I turned, as slow as you turn in water, the air resisting me like a wave, and I watched a man slump backwards down the stairs, his grip loosening on the railing, his body bending in the middle as he moved soley with gravity’s force.

I stood still, caught outside my training. I realized even then, there in that moment, that it was social training. My training said “don’t interfere.” My training said, “you’ll get in trouble for messing up.” My training also said, “you’re a girl, you’re useless in these situations.” That last one stung as I recognized it.

My friend was quick to move, despite the cane which hindered him. He was too far away to catch the body on the stairs falling backward, but he was next to the man in an eyeblink. When I came unstuck I rushed over underwater, and a glance told me the man was breathing. “Sir?” repeated three times and got no response.

I was always a step behind my friend, who was already flagging down the subway workers. All I could do was clarify where my friend’s words seemed to me to be cluttered, echoing in different words what he said, attempting to make heard that the man on the stairs was unconscious. “He’s not responding.” I said it five times exactly, the record skipping and there it was again.

The subway staff seemed slower to act than me, even, perhaps because they were changing shifts. I could speculate now, though I couldn’t at the time. My friend was already back standing next to the man. Two or three people stopped out of the dozens who walked by, stepped over, and someone asked if the unconscious figure was diabetic. The context of this whole situation fell away from my feet and I felt really afraid then. What if? We had no way of asking him.

The man on the stairs stirred, sat up, obviously disoriented. His motions seemed further away than my own– the entire situation was sharp in degrees, what happened around this person was the clearest, especially the actions of my friend, my own body was far away from me, smudged and obscured, and this man, once awake, seemed the farthest and slowest and blurriest. He wouldn’t respond to questions posed to him, and his whole person seemed blurry from the outside looking in.

We walked away only after we were assured an ambulance was coming. My friend was shaken. The only one who seemed free to move and act in the situation, and he began blaming himself, for not catching the man, for not doing enough. He railed– who else had stopped, tried to help?

Guiltily I looked down at my hands, my sparse grip-callouses, the dirt under my nails, and thought to myself, I wouldn’t have. All those years of social training to stay back, out of the way, all the helplessness I’ve learned, I wouldn’t have. I couldn’t meet his blue-grey eyes, knowing about myself what I now knew. I can only put all that away if someone dear to me is in danger– it’s the only time I ever have. I can unlearn the fear and training for a loved one, but not a stranger. But then it’s not bravery, just instinct.

And that’s why I couldn’t understand his anger toward himself. He did everything right. I envied his ability to act.

Metal Is for Lovers

To think, all those years living in Charlotte County and I never knew what kids my age did for fun. Personally, I’d sneak out at night… and go to Waffle House. Once, I even snuck out to go the county fair’s night event. Pretty tame, no? But Charlotte is one of those places where there is often literally nothing to do. Unless you really like staying home and reading books. Even then, the libraries are so small, you can read them out of good books in a year. There are little kids, and older families, and lots of retirees… but there are no people in their twenties and thirties. Is it any wonder the high schoolers get restless there? But today I discovered the secret of the county’s youth.

A fight with a dear one sent me walking back to his house– when angry, I need time to cool my rage, and besides, as my grandfather always said, what’s the point in being Irish if you can’t be thick? So stubbornly walk home I did, even as the clouds thickened and the Florida sky shot off lightening in bursts brighter than fireworks.

My route home, after doubling back over some grass lots to shake off vehicular pursuit, took me past a supermarket. Behind the parking lot of the grocery, packs of teenagers were lurking… skulking, clumping, perhaps even straggling. You know that defiant posture, the one that screams “I’m doing something I’m not supposed to!” even when the person in question is well within their right to do whatever it was that they were doing? The one that tells the world this person is used to being given a hard time for no apparent reason? Every knot that came traipsing in my direction had that look about them, even the ones who were just looking for a lost pair of glasses.

I walked by three more groups, the sky sparking above me, before I heard the music. My grandmother would call it noise. I’d say she was wrong. It was coming from a building or perhaps a complex at the edge of a park that was at least in part taken up by a YMCA. A concert. A metal concert, at that. I wandered over, looked on at a mock fight in progress between two grinning combatants who knocked each other over, only to help each other up, passed a lot filled with broken brown glass, watched a girl on her cell phone assure someone on the other end that everything was fine and she’d be home later.

Why didn’t they have these things when I lived here? I smiled at the thought of all these kids joining in the fun instead of forced to make their own trouble. That smile carried me home, despite the rain that blew cold needles in the dark. Stubborn, thick, and Irish, I arrived in one piece, wondering if twenty-six was too old to start on my childhood dream of playing in a metal band.

Playing Black

It was a little over a year ago that my aunt died. A little under a year ago that I first wrote this, before editing it here. Today, I’m reordering and rethinking this. It’s true now, a year later, that I still want to sit on the huge chess board in the crease between the two dorm buildings at New College. I want to sit there when I write about my grandfather. He was the one who started to teach me to play this game. I had insisted on playing black. He died when I was twelve, and only now, fourteen years later, can I sit and write at least passingly well of his passing, even if I can’t play worth a damn. I am going to have to write for Aunt Linda too, now that she’s gone. She had a chess set– it was stone, pink and grey, the kind you can purchase in Mexico, and I think that’s where she found it. My mother called me and told me about it a week after my aunt died, when she was searching through her sister’s house, cleaning out the dead woman’s things. She gave me the chess set, because… because I had started to teach my aunt to play just a few years ago, when she still lived in Miami. With that very set. And because there was a note attached to the board when my mother found it. It said, “Play chess with Story.” Only that.

Flying, Fleeing

It used to be that those you loved could wait with you at the airport gate until it was time to board, and only then the tearful goodbyes would set in. Instead, my friend and I parted ways (tearfully) at the security line, just before I approached the x-ray device unshod, my wallet, keys, cell phone, and pocket unicorn placed in a thick plastic dish to be examined by a stranger with only an airport security badge to recommend them. I wish I could have sat next to my friend for that last hour before my plane arrived, cuddled up next to him with one final conversation by which to remember New York. Instead, I bawled blindly all the way through the terminal, until one kind woman walked up beside me, patted my back gently and smiled more consolingly than my mother ever could.

Atlanta marked the midpoint of my journey home. At no other point in my life have I had the urge to bolt and be free quite as I did standing there in that airport, hearing the names of faraway places being called out as passengers began their boarding. Half-garbled, the flight numbers slid through my ears– for all I could remember, they might have been calling out “Flight Pegasus Starshine Mako Shark to Las Vegas, now boarding, all zones.” It was “Las Vegas” that stuck, and the lights of the strip were all that mattered.

But I heard the four-digit international flights clearest of all. To Buenos Aires. To Paris. Why couldn’t these places be home? Why couldn’t I be going there? Home to sunny Sarasota, Florida– this pleased me not at all. But to be going to France or Argentina? That would have been something. Against my better judgment, I did not switch my ticket. I got on that flight to our little airport, so proud to bear the moniker of “international” with its single terminal and twelve gates. I arrived safe and sound on the sandy ground of my state, more or less whole. Less, I think.

You see, I think I may have left some important part of me back in New York. Or maybe it tried to follow me home, but in that key moment of indecision, sitting at the airport restaurant in Atlanta, it hopped that flight to Buenos Aires. Maybe it will write me a post card. I don’t count on it, though.

Forgetfulness Is a Luxury

Not being a Christian, it stands to reason that I don’t celebrate Christmas. The holiday in itself does not annoy me. The Christmas carols in themselves are kind of cool. It’s nice to have holidays that one celebrates with others of a like mind, with friends and family, doing traditional things whether they be religious or familial in origin. But Christmas is bigger than these things. Christmas, dear friends, is a machine. This is not a new observation. You’ve all see the garish red and green festooning the signs in stores advertising HUGE HOLIDAY SAVINGS!!!! BUY NOW!!!! You’ve heard the same songs on endless loop since November. You may or may not, depending on your own religious (or non-religious) leanings, have had that same argument with the cashier at the grocery: “Merry Christmas!”

“Happy Holidays!”

No, I said Merry Christmas!”

And then you inch carefully toward the door, fearing to upset the cashier or provoke more venom.

When I realized that I had finally gotten sick of my favorite holiday music, the Nutcracker Suite, I knew then that I had had enough. That is part of the reason I fled to New York. Don’t laugh. I avoided Manhattan like it was a horse plop in the road, and instead settled myself into a friend’s apartment (oh, glorious north eastern cast iron radiators!) in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood.

In an Orthodox neighborhood, I didn’t fit. There were many little rituals with which I was unfamiliar that I watched the people around me take for granted. It is a sweet luxury to be part of the norm. The fact that I didn’t observe them marked me an outsider right away. There is a pattern to life there, like a dance, and I didn’t know the steps. It was nice, though, to be watching a different dance.

I woke up Christmas morning and, for the first time in my life, did not remember it was Christmas. A call from my grandmother was the only thing to remind me of the date, and my family’s well-meaning choruses of “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.” But I forgot it was Christmas. I forgot. All the neighborhood shops were open, no mention of the day, no silly plastic decorations in red and green. I went to a party that night, and none of the attendees celebrated Christmas.

The nicest part of the whole day was spending the bulk of it in a small neighborhood café, lingering over good coffee and even better conversation. I almost escaped the long arm of Christmas. Sadly, even there, leaning over my breve, I was subjected to the piped-in horror of elevator versions of my least favorite Christmas music.