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Growing Up

By Carmen Rizea (Romania)

Have you ever thought about death so hard it simply made you feel dizzy?

He looked at me with an amused sneer and his shirt was buttoned-up the wrong way as a statement of defiance. He talked a lot about death. It was his favourite subject. He had read all the literature there was to be read about it, from novels to scientific papers and research on emerging diseases, killing germs, nightmares. Yet, I had never seen someone fuller with life than him. It was as if he would ward off the Angel of Death by invoking him so much. A very awkward form of modern exorcism, a quirk as so many others before that. Whenever he would stumble upon some new obsession as he called it he could rattle about it endlessly but never boringly. It made you wonder how much of it was truly part of him and how much was Thespian conjuncture. Sometimes I admired him for his lack of awareness, his youth and his crazy way of crossing all those invisible lines no one ever crosses without paying a harrowing price, without losing something dear, without getting seriously hurt…no one but him…just crossing them, provokingly, over and over again and yet uncross them unscathed…Always teasing the unknown with a childish impertinence, slapping the face of danger to the very brim of the precipice and always hopscotching back with that “told-you-so” confident amused wrongly buttoned-up sneer….

I sometimes feared for him. His safety, his wellbeing. I was praying that he never take that one unforgiving step off the ledge and then hurry to the ground terribly broken-winged. He laughed at me. Stop being such a wet blanket he said. Look at you, all bent over with worry and affliction, imagining the worse turn for every road. Look how easy it can all be! Cheer up, kiddo!
Funny thing. He always called me “kiddo” even if I was older than him. I never really told him but it made me feel really good to be called that. Especially by him. He had this disarming habit of looking you deeply and intently into the eye and then roar with laughter when you started fidgeting or losing your balance. You invariably were the first to look away.

Was I in love? Hell yes! It was such a mixture of confused feelings going from maternal protection to royal feminine self-indulgence but most of all it was a puzzling feeling of failing to grasp someone, the same kind of feeling Wendy must have experienced when Peter Pan first flew by her window with his freckled pert nose and all that gibberish about the lost boys needing a mom (or was it an older sister? I can’t remember). Yes, I was mostly puzzled.

Yet every once in a while I was downright angry and frustrated. All of a sudden he would break into my house without as much as knock on the door, or rapping nervously until I opened up, waking me up  in the middle of the night, not caring if I was tired or not, just to loudly put me up to speed about some finished love affair or separation of sorts. Oh, he got a lot of those! He was infuriating… And selfish beyond mending. Nevertheless I stood there, shouting at him deep inside me but patting his shoulder in an understanding caring little gesture and letting out a faint sigh of disbelief when it turned out to be the same affair as last time and the time before and the time before that. And if it was the week-end, by Monday he was already chipper and had found new love. Again. For a while.

Such are the ways of youth. I wouldn’t know…I had never been like that…even in my youngest years I had already been that focused responsible serious person. I had been a person before I was a child. A spirited, somewhat nonchalant petulant someone but a real person who cannot afford to make the slightest mistake because grown-ups never make mistakes. And I remember feeling so trapped in that little body that comes with childhood and always be impatient about growing up. We once went to the swimming pool with my aunt, her husband and my two little cousins, I was about twelve and I stepped up to the clerk and asked very gravely “two children and three grown-ups, please!”. Of course, child tickets were cheaper and so my aunt started to laugh and took the lead to set things back to their own normal track again. Yeah, I could be like that….

Then one day he changed. He came to me as usual in the middle of the night, his long hair a mess but he was not noisy or laughing anymore. He was transformed. He only told me one sentence: kiddo, I am in love!

At first I wanted to joke about it or pat him on the shoulder and go back to sleep but there was something about him that gave me pause. Those hazel eyes told a story of bewilderment. They said to those who wanted to listen: I’m fragile now, exposed. I could be hurt and I’m hurting already. Why do I feel that way?? I could only reassure him and tell him it was a wonderful thing to be in love. It made all the universe take a blinding glow and it warmed your heart and your shivering body. There was nothing to be scared of, it was a precious thing.

I didn’t know at the time but I was wrong. How could I have known? Not about being in love but about not being scared of it. I didn’t see him much after that. He was always tight up into something and for several months, a year maybe we only had a few chats on the phone he often sounded busy or impatient and I was happy for him. Meanwhile I turned back to writing, to my own daily routine. I didn’t quite forget about him, he was still in a little corner of my mind but it was a spot I started to visit less and less until it sort of became a prehistoric butterfly trapped in amber, a luminous chrysalis which was to preserve eternally his beauty and his youth.

On an autumn evening, I think it was the end of September the phone rang once. I picked it up and said hello! Several times but there was no one there. After a while I hang up but it rang again. This time I picked up totally annoyed and uttered an angry hello!!! In the receiver, a word that sounded nothing like what it meant. It was him. He told me his name then turned silent. I didn’t know what was happening so I started pleading for an explanation, partly to fill the void the absence of his voice had left in such a sudden manner.

Kiddo, he said. I have something to tell you. She….left me. What do you mean she left you? You broke up?

No. I’m at the hospital. She’s gone.

I closed my eyes so tightly that I think he heard it over the phone. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?

No kiddo, it’s quiet now. Go back to sleep. I’ll call you in the morning.

But he never did. He never called back. I tried to reach him so desperately for months on end. I wrote to his parents, to his friends, I even went to his house. Nobody could tell me anything. All they knew is that a terrible accident had happened and he needed some time alone. It took me a while before I stopped trying. And then a year later, precisely the same late September, he sent a message. I’m sorry I hurt you, kiddo. I didn’t mean to. But I know I did and I carry it along with me, you know. I’ll always feel guilty about last year.
What happened back then?

Nothing. I fought the war. And the war won.

After that I went back to writing. I had stopped for a long time. I was painfully aware it didn’t help in any way. I couldn’t take those brown curls of his out of my mind and wondered what it was like to grow up…

I’ll never know. I guess.


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