We used to cut through, hop fences, slide sideways through hedges, making the distance between our houses a two minute steeplechase.
Ours was a 1960s suburban neighborhood with streets that swooped and swirled like strands of pearls, the houses plunk plunk plunk.
I am trying to lay the strands down in my mind now, sitting in a red room in a red chair making this story up. I know where the black path should go, the little forests, the bench where we learned to smoke—but it’s not coming together—I can’t quite get the back yards to line up correctly and dashing through these ones could be fatal.
But there’s a reason. A buckle. What seems to be a spare pearl—and this is where I plunk Paul—who I pulled from another story, the second in which he was unfulfilled. He at least has a good start this time. A friend to leap fences for.
He is Paul now but his previous names remain scrawled on pages torn and taped to the red wall in this room where I close the door at 5:30am any given day and try to scratch out some love tragedy joy grief anything to make it feel like this life matters.
There are names on the pages representing characters I have ignored to death, and although Paul may have been plunked into the wrong house in an era his previous incarnations (I’m talking to you Daniel and Rebecca) would have hated, there he was in 1968, walking along an invented black path when I rolled out of the pretend forest, twiggy from climbing, and said who are you?
As I said, he’d fallen from another story but really, how could he explain.
My mother said he’d been adopted, but our neighbor Millie said this was not the case.
He rolled his name into my ear on his way past me, jumped into the forest, headed straight up the big tree and hollered what’s yours? Next day I showed him other forests, the real ones they’d left around the edges when they carved out our neighborhood.
I called for him every morning all summer long and his pretend mother, I-Love-Lucy we called her because of her lipstick and polka-dots, made us toast from loaves of superior bread that nothing has ever come close to in my entire life—although I remain hopeful— and real orange juice in the days of Tang.
There was a hotel not far from us, a strange giant where the remains of artists’ cabins dangled in its fairy tale woods. The careful grounds were strewn with architectural artifacts like bones, limousines regularly swept up to the doors releasing glistening guests who dined and danced under the moonlight which itself danced on the surface of the lake that shone darkly far down below the cliffs.
There was a famous maze twisted between the hotel and the cliffs, a never-ending square which we toyed with at first until we realized it stole our time, and we were young, it was summertime, and freedom.
Instead, we climbed down the treacherous cliffs to the cold, wild and dangerous Lake Ontario.
I have limited words in this story because I am told most readers have an attention span that will not withstand more than 800 words, so let me just spit out how much I loved Paul from the start. He was my equal, my brother, the first of my peers I truly admired. He was shockingly intelligent, had different points of view and he waited and watched while I considered them, as he considered mine, and we cracked into ideas together, our takes fresh and various and passionate and gloriously temporary.
Paul was game for anything—we played hide-and-seek in front of everybody—on the ferry, subways, and in the forbidden downtown streets where we used fake names, Kate and Tommy, when we ordered coffee, the same names we squiggled into signatures from our pretend parents, allowing us to purchase cigarettes for 56 cents a pack, flip-top DuMaurier, please, we took turns saying with a practiced disdain.
We kissed once—and like I-Love-Lucy’s bread—it was incomparable.
We talked about September, if our timetables might intersect, but on the Labor Day weekend he left. He’d known all along of course that his stay was temporary, that he’d just get this one story, just that one kiss. I-Love-Lucy explained that his parents had been recovering from a car accident and he and his four brothers had been scattered into foster homes across southern Ontario.
I’ve missed him terribly, in bits and pieces, all my life.