Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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We keep trying to find out. We look at the present and wonder about the past, about how we got here. It’s a question much asked; most people don’t think it’s possible to answer. But the answer is simple. It was Father.
Father was the first to fly, the first to fly unencumbered by wings or machinery, engines or fuel, the first simply to reach into the heavens and pull himself up to where people, to that point, had thought they didn’t belong. It was Father who did this, with only a little help.
Father, who had been to Woodstock, who had blessed his son, Jimmycliff, with a cool name, Father, who probably belonged more to the Sixties than the Eighties, who had spent his son’s life stuck in the frozen molasses river of automobiles that blocked the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, where, daily, commuters impeded each other from achieving their common goal of getting into New York City — Father flew because he had to.
Father drove a Volkswagen Beetle that Mother referred to as “part of his childhood,” and worked for a graphic arts firm in Tribeca. Mother worked somewhere on Long Island, doing something that Father referred to as “vaguely authoritarian.” She drove a reconditioned BMW 2002 and was fond of reminding Father that, while his salary might be the one they used to travel and buy themselves toys, her salary was the one that ran the house. While Jimmycliff could feel the love between his parents, he could also feel confusion — his Father’s — in the occasional glances he intercepted. There was, in these glances, an element of respect and bafflement, of affection and surprise, as if each time he were realizing anew that Mother had, somewhere along the line, become a rather brisk M.B.A., the first woman on her block to wear running shoes with her business suit.
It was a beautiful home that Mother’s salary supported, a split-level Scandinavian-design house with the exterior stained deep-red instead of painted, an acre and a half of land in the back, a cherry tree, and a grape arbor. From the roof of the house, from the peak, where a child wouldn’t normally stand, you could just make out the edge of the Hudson River, could just see over the trees that populated the Palisades and the shoreline. All this just north of the bridge that was the bane of Father’s existence.
They had only one child: Jimmycliff. In the recesses of his memory, he could hear his Mother’s voice asking him if he would like a little brother or sister, could see his Father standing just behind her, smiling, could hear himself forming the word “yes,” knowing that it wasn’t true, but knowing that it was what they wanted to hear. The subsequent events were unclear to him. He remembered only a troubled time, of tension and pain, of promise and anticipation, of some sort of tragedy and, most vividly of all, of his Mother’s crying, which he’d seen neither before nor since, which he shouldn’t have seen then. Neither of them should have been awake at 5 in the morning, not Jimmycliff, five years old and transfixed in the doorway of the living room, nor his mother, whom he glimpsed in half-light, sitting on the floor.
He was a strange child: from the beginning calm and precocious to an almost disturbing degree, a child seemingly so well-adjusted as to be abnormal. As an infant, he seemed unnaturally still, save his eyes, which were clear and quick, which darted from object to object, from person to person, with such rapidity that he frightened animals and strangers — and occasionally his parents.
What ’s wrong with his eyes? Mother asked the pediatrician.
He’s looking, she answered, tickling him under the chin. Neither Mother nor Jimmycliff smiled; he looked serene and she looked worried.
From an early age, he liked to cook. When he was eight, he started cooking Chinese food, his parents’ favorite. But he tired of this, of interminable piles of chopped things, of stirring and frying, of oiling and steaming. At ten, he became interested in Indian food. Mother bought him spices and a mortar and pestle. He ground his own curries; the smell of roasting spices filled the house, imbued first his hands, and eventually his whole body, with a smell of cinnamon and garlic, something sweet and something sharp, a smell that would never leave him. He gravitated to denser food, shaag dishes thick with spinach, kurma dishes heavy with yogurt and honey, vindaloo dishes that brought water to Mother’s eyes, that made Father sneeze.
You should be able to feel the food, he told them.
They nodded, their eyes darting around the table, to water or rice, something neutral, something to soothe.
He disdained recipes. When his parents took him to their favorite Indian restaurant in the East Village, he was allowed into the kitchen. The cooks shook his hand, buzzed around him in Bengali, lifted him up so he could see the insides of the pots, so he could inhale it all. And he did.
He has an aesthetic, said Father, who had one, too.
He cooks well, allowed Mother, whose aesthetic was a soft, sometimes nervous pragmatism.
If he didn’t like to read — or at any rate to follow — recipes, this was not indicative of broader prejudice. He read everything else. If Father couldn’t find Kahlil Gibran, he knew in whose room to look. When Mother went back to school and needed her copy of The Female Eunuch for her Feminist Literature course, she was surprised to find it in the same place.
It was difficult to find a pattern in the books he read, save that they all seemed to be theory books of some sort or another, as if he were trying out pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle, keeping some, discarding others, fitting the ones he kept into some sort of larger picture that he was not yet ready to show his parents.
There are interesting intersections, he said to his teacher, between Emerson and Lao-tse, don’t you think? Particularly in the conception of the child.
His teacher stared at him. Moving right along, he said.
Father liked his work. He enjoyed buying junk on Canal Street or spending his lunch hour in SoHo. As a spectator sport, he thought walking around either neighborhood far superior to television, and, although he never applied any of this information to his own modes of dress, he was very well-informed on what sort of clothing went best with blue hair and what sort of safety pins made the best jewelry. He had a tolerant air about him, smiled at people as they went by. For himself, he wasn’t as interested in how clothing looked as how it felt. It was an area he had in common with his son. Father went through clothing stores feeling things, running his hands over rack after rack, as Jimmycliff went through spice and produce stores, sniffing and caressing, both of them seeking physical feedback, both of them distressing and embarrassing Mother. Father’s clothing looked old and uncomfortable because it was. It lacked bulges because he had largely divested himself of wallet, keys, and watch. He kept most of his documents in the glove compartment of his car. He first moved his watch from wrist to vest pocket and then lost it altogether. He carried only house and car keys, reasoning that an office key would lead to working weekends. He left it to Mother to exchange keys with neighbors and relatives.
He was, therefore, an exceptionally calm and unencumbered man, a man with a good sense of time. A slight air of wistfulness might occasionally be detected around him, a feeling, a suspicion — his — that perhaps he should have been a little less successful and a little more free. But this was fleeting at most. Mother was particularly intolerant of this notion and put it down to adolescent utopianism.
I don’t feel any need to apologize for my success, she said.
He was a founding partner in the company with which he had spent his entire working life, nearly twenty years. He had watched the neighborhood change over that period, seen the World Trade Center go up to the south, seen Tribeca and SoHo change from almost exclusively industrial to residential, and from residential to unbearably chic and increasingly expensive.
Pretty soon we’ll be mainstream, someone in the office was always saying during the first half of Father’s tenure there, sometimes with glee, sometimes with trepidation. That became true at some point and now discussion centered around the word passé.
He contributed money, wrote the occasional letter to the editor, and still attended rallies in Washington, perhaps more out of habit than anything else. But he struggled to believe that this was consistency and had some essential value.
He hated commuting. Mother solved her commuting problem by getting up at 5 in the morning and shooting over the bridge, across Manhattan, to Long Island. She didn’t seem to miss the sleep. Father couldn’t do this. Nor, though it would have made more sense and saved him time, could he take the Jersey Turnpike south to the Lincoln or the Holland tunnel. It was a burden to take the Westside Highway, which was always either falling down — literally — or, worse, being built back up again. These things were bad; the idea of being trapped in one of the tunnels, for any period of time — for minutes — was worse, was intolerable.
Just breathe, Jimmycliff would say to either of his parents, when they came home tense. His Father would close his eyes and comply. His Mother would stick her nose into Jimmycliff’s fine, sandy hair and inhale.
Oatmeal, she’d say, though it was impossible to smell anything over the curry on the stove. Everyone I love has hair that smells like oatmeal. Then she would feign relaxation, arms still crossed over her breasts.
The year before Father first flew, Jimmycliff constructed, in one corner of his room, a cube. It was seven feet by seven feet by seven feet, made of wood and insulated. One of the walls acted as the door; he had installed it on sliding tracks in the floor and ceiling. He painted the outside the same color as the rest of his room and hung posters on it. He painted the inside with flat black paint — walls, ceiling, and floor; no light entered, and little sound.
Mother felt it would lower the resale value of the house. It was too strange. Father said they weren’t going to sell the house anyway. And, if they did, a large closet would be a selling point. Jimmycliff said he liked to sit inside it and think.
As long as I’m not bothering anybody, he said, right?
You’re bothering me, was Mother’s answer, an unusual one. You’re worrying me.
I’m sorry, Jimmycliff said, eyes momentarily as still as the rest of him. I don’t mean to.
He spent a lot of time in what came to be known as his thinking room. He was fourteen and had just started high school. He did well, was never in trouble. Teachers seemed to like him. Students seemed to like him. He was on good terms with everyone. But he didn’t seem to have any friends.
But everyone is my friend, he said.
Mother smiled at this. But no one ever comes over here.
I’m very busy.
She was drawn to his room one night, four months after he’d built the thinking room. She awoke at 3 and went to pace the kitchen at first. But she wasn’t hungry and wasn’t thirsty. And though she hadn’t checked his room, hadn’t looked in on him while he was asleep for several years, she felt a sudden urge to do so. He wasn’t in bed. As she stood surveying the room, her eyes fell upon the cubicle and she realized that he must be there. But she couldn’t disturb him. She checked his room several times that week: he was never in bed.
She asked him if he slept in there.
I don’t need to sleep, he told her. I need to think.
I think he’s becoming a Hindu or something, Mother told Father.
What he was thinking about wouldn’t become apparent until a week before Thanksgiving the following year. Neither of his parents noticed that he never left his thinking room that morning: not Mother, who was always up and gone before he was; not Father, whose morning interactions with his son were sporadic at best.
Jimmycliff had spent the summer in something a little more advanced than meditation. And he could pinpoint the exact moment when he had realized this. At first, it had been haphazard: dreaming, as Father might have called it; thinking, as Mother accepted it. But in the intersection between the utopianism of the one and the pragmatism of the other, he had found something else. He had found that he could see. What he saw first was Mother’s briefcase, which she’d forgotten in the kitchen. What he couldn’t tell was whether he had been the cause of her returning for it. He’d heard the garage door open, one of the few sounds he couldn’t screen out of the room; he’d heard the engine start; and then he’d seen the kitchen, in perfect detail, the briefcase on the floor near the table. He wasn’t sure whether or not it was his concern that sent her back for it.
By the end of the summer, he knew he could see anything; he’d spent most of his time testing this out, honing it, exploring it. It was a skill, discovered or acquired, that he accepted as the logical extension of the collection and collation of information that had filled the first fifteen years of his life; it was as much a surprise to him as the atom bomb was to Oppenheimer. His only remaining question was about what he could do.
So, the week before Thanksgiving, he watched Father’s dull, blue Beetle wend its way south and east through local streets, saw Father inside, humming. He felt the rattles and jolts down the entrance ramp to Route 4 East and scowled, with Father, at the last clot of gas stations on the Jersey side. He smiled, though he didn’t know why, at the Courtesy Motel, where, sometime in the late Seventies, a hurricane had blown off the roof, exposing seventeen Mr. and Mrs. John Smiths to the elements and the Bergen Record. And then, inevitably, the car came to a halt. Jimmycliff saw Father switch off the ignition and get out. Behind him stretched a line of cars; in front of him, another. Off to one side, the Holiday Inn advertised a Dixieland Brunch for $16.95. Father closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Just breathe, Jimmycliff whispered to himself, just breathe. And Father did. And Jimmycliff tasted the harsh, sweet exhaust in the back of his throat, felt his eyes water and his nostrils flare. To extricate Father, he thought. To lift him up and set him free. His heartbeat and his breathing remained calm, rhythmic, but he felt the power of the musculature of his heart and lungs increase. To float him, he thought. To float him is the answer. On the flat black walls of the inside of his thinking room, Jimmycliff saw Father leave the ground. He felt them breathe in unison, saw Father’s calm face, eyes still closed. Only two feet off the ground, he saw Father look down and open his eyes. Father smiled and, as he accepted that he had left the ground, rose more rapidly, until he was high above traffic. He began moving toward the bridge, glancing about like a man in a foreign country — a little lost, but enjoying himself. Jimmycliff followed this like an aerial camera.
Father wasn’t sure what was happening but he was enjoying it immensely. It was as if the combined weight of twenty years of fantasizing in traffic jams had suddenly wrought a miracle. If he was somewhat perplexed, he felt remarkably appropriate, too, felt that he belonged in the air, that in some way it was more rational to be flying. What was rational about being stuck in traffic?
As he moved out over the river, he began experimenting with what he could do. He had traveled the half-mile or so from the car to the river in an almost upright position, leaning a little forward into the wind. He tried moving around and found the air much like water. He flew on his stomach for a few minutes and found that he liked it. He tried to fly on his back and found that it made him dizzy. Jimmycliff experienced Father’s flipping onto his back as an earthquake or the heaving motion of a ship on a rough sea.
Flying on his stomach, arms extended, Father rapidly descended toward the water, moving over it like a gull. He felt as he had felt the previous summer, underwater, goggles on, holding his breath for longer than Mother would have approved of (had she not stayed on the beach), skimming the bottom of the warm Adriatic, buoyant, silent and safe, in perfect control, calm and at peace. What governed the flight was his desire, he realized. And Jimmycliff smiled.
Father flew downriver until he could see the ventilation shafts for the Holland Tunnel, then, climbing again, turned left and flew over the warehouses, meat-packing plants, and trucking terminals that still populated the area just east of the river. He flew lower as he approached Canal Street. A cab driver coming up Sixth Avenue, squinting into the crisp autumn sky, caught a glimpse of Father, spat a mouthful of warm rum onto the dashboard, and made an instinctive right turn into a lamp post. He sat crossing himself as the rest of the rum trickled out of the bottle and was absorbed by the upholstery. His fare leapt from the back seat, scalded and cursing, leaving the driver stunned and immobile in a disabled cab that smelled like Irish coffee. Father landed on the roof of the building that housed his office.
I don’t envy you, having to commute, one of his partners said, shaking his head as they sipped herbal tea and contemplated the swirls and eddies of cars around the cab and the lamp post. I don’t know how you do it.
Father shrugged modestly.
Jimmycliff spent the day in his thinking room, savoring the knowledge that if Father could fly he could too, wondering what to make for dinner, wondering what kind of world he had created. At 5, Father stepped out the seventh story window of his office and headed home.
Donald N. S. Unger