I am a collection of definitive moments.
There is a scrapbook in my mind of events stretching over the past 20 years, most of which on the early end of that spectrum are reduced to nothing more than inscrutable slivers of light in the sky. They are etched in permanent cobblestone, bearing the initials of loved ones encased in wooden hearts or crow’s feet dancing across sidewalks.
I’m told when you die, or when you’re about to, your life flashes before your eyes. But the amount of time that your last breath allows for this flash has to be quite brief, a few batted lashes' worth at most.
So you have to be selective with what your movie is going to show, your composition of definitive moments. I assume that weddings, first kisses, bar mitzvahs (werewolf or otherwise) and first days of school will occupy most of the flash.
But watershed moments, the sort that stick with you on such a visceral level that you can relive them at will on a day to day basis, show up randomly uninvited in the highlight reel.
When I was 6 or 7 I lived in an apartment complex in suburban Cincinnati called Montgomery Place. It was a boring brick enclave tucked away in a random patch of haphazard woods. Pleasant, but not garishly so. Retrospectively, I look at it as a twisted concrete landscape bereft of culture and consciousness. But I had a helluva time there when I was a kid.
On one particular summer’s day, I was across the street at my friend Jon’s apartment. I had grown fond of him and his sister either because we liked each other or they were conveniently there or some combination of the two. They were a set of large blonde kids, husky but not fat, wearing their hair in two sets of unkempt raggedness.
Jon, his sister and I were all loafing around in their backyard. My shirt clung to my back with a damp, silent persistence pleading with me to notice its presence. I did and the flies sure as hell did too. Growing accustomed to flies is an adjustment indicative of swampy, midwestern summers with strawberry baskets strewn around and apple cores at the edge of your feet. You don’t swat but wallow in it, or at least that’s what I did on this day.
We always had these plastic tubs of Cool Whip over at Jon’s. It was an accessible treat, a sweet dip for anything edible. One of these empty containers was nestled in the blades of grass that sprung up unevenly over the yard. It lay there dormant just like me in my lawn chair, lounging with no purpose other than to bask in the sun and flies.
Jon’s sister was in the chair next to me, sitting aimlessly. Jon had stationed himself a distance farther away on the grass, swinging a stick longer than my body back and forth with furious tenacity. He was far enough away that I couldn’t see his leg hairs bend in the hot breeze, but near enough that his pimples stood out; radishes in a wheat field.
I could have sat there for hours and I probably had done so before. We talked, about what I’m not sure but it wasn’t meant for parental ears. Jon’s sister was a year or two older than me and Jon himself a year older than her. So I learned a great deal from our talks, an absorption of details from gruff older siblings. It’s funny the people that help you grow up, people who teach you curse words, who tell you about websites you shouldn’t be on, who remind you about the differences between boys and girls.
I was an only child then and I’m an only child now. So this space, mucked up by the stench of sweat and plagued with hot flies darting in the summer sun, was special to me. It had people. It had friends. It had family.
The stick swung back and forth, cutting a dewy path in its wake. A beaded trail of humidity gently dripping from the air. Jon’s sister went into the apartment to grab a drink, releasing the captured fumes of Marlboros out as she opened the door.
I took her lawn chair, one of the ones with the multicolored bands of plastic wrapped around a metal frame; the type that makes you constantly shift position to feel more comfortable. When she returned, a lemonade in hand, the swinging stick still carving its path through the air and my mind, she wasn’t happy.
She wrenched the chair out from under me, causing my head to hit the metal bar where your neck is supposed to rest.
I rose from the ground, a hobbled mess of tears and anger, lumbering off towards home without a second thought. It was upsetting because it hurt my neck. It was upsetting because it was the end of a day. It was upsetting because this was my friend.
My eyes were bleary in the summer haze, tears welling and falling down my shirt where they met the friendly confines of sweat. I began to head towards my apartment, across the lawn, across the street, across the world.
Jon hit a homerun.
My face ignited, a phosphorescent scoreboard across the skyline. I clutched my eye, trudging along blind.
I didn’t know it had happened until about 15 seconds afterwards. The stick had met the right corner of my left eye. My hands were stained orange, the color of blood mixed with tears and shame.
My mother wasn’t pleased when she found me crying at the base of our stairs, refusing to move my hands away from my eyes despite her incessant plying. If I move them I will lose the eye, I thought. If I just hold them there for a while longer, I can keep it. I can keep it, Mom.
None of that came out of my mouth. Instead sobs that could be heard in the next county, as people were preparing steak dinners, poured out of me with my fear and my worries in tow.
I didn’t lose my eye that day. The stick happened to graze me on my eyelid, cutting it open. I put an icepack on it for a few days to ease the swelling until my eye wasn’t red anymore.
This is one of my definitive moments. A grungy summer day in a suburban town when I thought I lost my eye.
It’d get a whole lot of airtime if my life flashed before my eyes as we speak. Not my bar mitzvah or my first kiss or even getting booted out of countless classes at my Jewish day school.
A random stick on a random day, with the flies buzzing about.