Everything New is Old Again

Everything New is Old Again

By Alison B. Hart

WO Everything Old is New Again ArtWhen my daughter was 9 months old, my old friend came to town to meet her. Like me, he was nearing 40. I had bought an apartment, married, and had a baby in quick succession. He was single and ambitious and wondering when he might start a family of his own. To a certain extent we were both late bloomers, but that was hard to tell in New York, a city custom-built for extended adolescence.

On the last day of his trip, we had some time before he needed to leave for the airport, so we walked through Brooklyn while the baby slept. It was a sunny day in winter and I was enjoying being out and social, just strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon, listening to my old friend talk in unhurried, uninterrupted sentences.

“Babies are nice,” he sighed.

I agreed.

“You make it look so fulfilling. I’m tempted to get one of my own.”

“You should. You’d be a great dad.”

But I knew he wasn’t seeing the whole truth of my life, that this was a picture-postcard moment due in large part to our reunion and the baby’s slumber.

We passed a bar on Smith Street and the sweet stink of beer enveloped us.

“What on earth?” I stammered. “It’s 2:00!”

I’d been up for what seemed like days already, but I was aware that most people had just finished breakfast. So many responsibilities loomed ahead that would require my active concentration: dinner, bath, bedtime stories, extracting myself from the baby’s room before Mad Men came on. Surely, other people also had things they wanted to accomplish? It was much too early in the day to jettison all my plans by getting tipsy.

My friend just smiled. “Oh, honey,” he said. He might as well have patted me on the head.

And suddenly I was transported back to my twenties, when he and I first arrived in New York. At 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon back then, I was either at a bar, on my way to a bar, or sweating through a soccer game after which I would lug my sweaty gear to a bar with my teammates. Bars were what weekends were made for.

What I would have given right then, all those years later with my daughter’s nap almost over, for a cold one and some hot wings and no particular place to be.

Then it hit me: this was another case of good old-fashioned nostalgia.

I had a lot of hit-and-runs with nostalgia in the days and weeks after my daughter was born. Whenever I encountered people doing things that seemed virtually impossible for me to do with a child, I remembered the freedom I once had to do whatever I pleased. I could sleep until 10:00 on a Saturday. Hell, I could sleep all day. Before I had a baby to get home to, I could make last-minute plans after work: to see a show or play a game of pick-up or get dinner with a friend who needed to talk. I could get that third drink at the bar without a thought to the cascade of events it might touch off—more drinking, possible loss of wallet in bar or cab, killer hangover the next day. Before I was a mom, I was free to make an ass of myself or waste time or both.

But it didn’t feel like freedom back then. Mostly the options that were available to me when I was younger felt like the wrong options. In my twenties, I wanted stability. It was hard to enjoy myself properly when I was running up credit card balances I couldn’t pay off. In my thirties, still single and living alone, I wanted a life. I could go out for tacos 3 nights in a row (and often did), but only because I didn’t have anyone else’s tastes to consult. I would far rather have been in a relationship and stayed in for the night, preferably with someone who could teach me the difference between red wine vinaigrette and red wine vinegar. When my friends started having babies, I felt left behind. Freedom was lonely.

And what was so great about it anyway? I didn’t want to sow my oats; I’d had plenty of time for that already. When I met my husband in our mid-thirties, the fact that he was Marriage Material (genuinely kind, in possession of and familiar with the deployment of household cleaning products) was a development that thrilled, not spooked, me. Still, we took things slowly at first. We kept separate apartments for 3 years, resisting the pressures of the market to move in together and save money. I took a solo vacation to Barcelona, because I’d never traveled abroad alone and wanted to prove to myself that I could. He built a flotilla of rafts to ride down the Mississippi River with his friends, and gave serious consideration to joining the circus.

Maybe freedom was as simple as wanting to leave room in life for the unexpected. It was easy, even logical, to defer certain responsibilities and take our time pursuing our interests. It may not be like this in every city, but in Brooklyn, New York, waiting until you are 37 to start a family is as natural as riding a bike, growing a beard, and keeping bees on your rooftop.

I was ready to become a mom when I did. But sometimes I missed my old life. I felt so blessed, but also overwhelmed. In fleeting moments that first year, the awesome responsibility of being my daughter’s entire world knocked the wind out of me. When my friend left for the airport, I missed him, and I missed the me that used to be.

Not long after his visit, while my daughter played peekaboo with her grandparents on Skype, I told them that I was thinking about nostalgia.

“What are you nostalgic about?” my parents asked.

“The time before she was born,” I said.

They both let out deep belly laughs, as only people of their generation can laugh at people of mine, even across technology they understand only minimally.

“But you just got started! You’ve got 35 years to go!”

They were right, of course. Intellectually I knew this.

Then a funny thing happened. Spring approached and, with it, my daughter’s first birthday. I don’t know if it was the seasons changing or the days getting longer, but now all I could remember about that chaotic, upside-down year was the week she was born. I remembered how tiny she was—on my chest, nursing for the first time; in the hospital bassinet, staring back at us with giant blue pools for eyes; asleep in my husband’s arms. I remembered how crazy it felt to have a baby in the car seat next to me on the ride home. The car seat itself seemed ludicrous, perhaps even stolen. It used to blow my mind when she fell asleep: to think that there were three, not two, of us in the apartment. Three heartbeats.

Even the hard times were transmuted by memory into something magical. Sure, those first few weeks were a riot of panic and exhaustion. And, yes, my body felt like it had been through a war. I barely left the house except for pediatrician appointments. But every single second was a complete surprise! I couldn’t appreciate it at the time. Not since my own childhood had so much been so new.

Looking back one year later, my vantage point lifted and tossed around by a rogue wave of nostalgia, I was awestruck by the adventure. All the mundane things—changing a diaper, shopping for rice cakes, commuting home from midtown—now felt incredibly special.

For days I felt tingly and alive just crossing the road. It was like that line in Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems”: Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty / my limbs streaming with purer joy?

I did not.

But why not? Why hadn’t I enjoyed what I had when I had it?

I don’t know. I wish I had, but it’s an impossible wish in any case.

The older I get, the more I suspect that wholeness isn’t a feeling that hits us all at once but something more like a long meal whose courses are spread out over years. You start with the hunger of youth. Savor the confusion of the lost years that follow. Pore over the delicacies that you can’t afford. Accept a bite off a rich friend’s plate. Drink a little, maybe too much. Expand in all directions. After some conversation and digestion, order more, this time maybe something to share.

For some of us, at least, maybe nostalgia isn’t a distraction from the present but a necessary experience of it. We get a second chance to appreciate now what we couldn’t the first time. Even when tinged darkly with regret or envy, nostalgia offers a path back to the pleasures hiding beneath. And when it’s connected to life’s purer joys—a long walk with an old friend, a sleeping infant, or a first birthday—we can be reborn.

We had a small party at home on the day my daughter turned 1. Her grandparents came, as well as a few friends and their children. It was still too cold to go outside, so after we stuffed ourselves with cake, we broke apart into predictable groupings. The men talked politics with the grandparents, the kids built towers around the baby, and the women snuck seconds (okay, thirds) in the kitchen. I told my girlfriends about the excitement I’d experienced over the last few days, reliving the birth of my daughter.

“Did it happen to you, too?” I asked.

Yes, they said, they were pretty sure it did.

“Will it happen every year?” I asked.

That part they weren’t so sure about. They couldn’t exactly remember. What parent can remember, years later, which solid food came second or which month the third tooth came in? Eventually rhythms establish themselves, and experiences come to us and flutter away, like the pages of a calendar, turning quickly.

The next year, I waited for it to happen again. There’d been many new developments in my daughter’s second year: walking, talking, talking a lot and in great detail. You could say she was bossing us around by that point, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the newness of her was not something I registered anymore. The fact of our family was a given I’d long since accepted. I sat at the window in her bedroom, where I’d nursed so many days and nights but no longer did, and I looked out at the trees just beginning to bud and the quality of the sunlight altering. I waited for that tingly, just-fell-in-love feeling to take me. But it didn’t happen. I was in love already, had been for years. And I had been here before, on this block of Brooklyn, in this week of March, a mother remembering.

Alison B. Hart’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review and online for USA Today, HBO, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and holds an MFA from The New School. She is currently at work on a novel-in-stories.

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Skate Park

Skate Park

By Carrie Mesrobian

winter07_mesrobianI go to the skate park to relax. I bring my nephews and their friends, and while they drop off the ramps and grind the rails and furiously attempt to ollie, nose-manual frontside pop-shove-it casper slide, impossible-out on their sticker-plastered skateboards, I crochet, sip soda, listen to public radio on my headphones. I leave my daughter Matilda at home with my husband and let my mind wander, with the sun on my face, free of housework, yard work, phone calls, clutter. As far as kid duties go, it’s a good gig.

Today we’re going to the skate park over by St. Anthony Park, a few neighborhoods away from ours. In the car I’ve got my nephew Sid and his friend Joey. They’re both nine years old, fourth graders, and both sport shaggy blond hair and narrow, thin bodies. As usual, Sid carries his glossy eight-ball helmet. His mother—my sister—insists that he wear it. Both boys are wearing long t-shirts and pants that drag over their skate shoes, which also drag and scrape against the asphalt.

Both boys endlessly catalogue and compare the skate shoes everyone else wears. They bicker back and forth like an old couple: Do they sell Etnies at the Hot Spot? Or Zumiez? Do they sell stickers there? Geoff Rowley decks? Would Rodney Mullen go to Zumiez or the Hot Spot? Definitely the Hot Spot. Zumiez is a chain store in the mall.

Rodney Mullen is Sid’s hero. He can do a 540 shove-it, double kickflip, a nose manual impossible-out, a nose manual darkslide, double caspers and varial heelflips. He is known as the king of freestyle skating and his favorite place to skate is atop picnic tables. Rodney Mullen can flip a skateboard under his feet and land on it, teetering on the deck’s edge. In 1980, when I was in first grade, Rodney Mullen turned pro and skated for legendary skateboard maker Powell Peralta. In 1980, Sid’s parents were in fourth grade.

“St. Anthony’s is better than New Brighton,” Joey tells me with the sharp-eyed certainty about everything skate-related he and Sid share.

Whatever. Here we are. The boys burst out of the car and run ahead of me.

Since I’m not Sid’s parent, I don’t feel obliged to watch every skateboard trick. Besides, Sid is now too cool to ever ask me; he is quite conscious of the older boys who are sometimes hanging around, the ones who aren’t made to wear helmets, the ones with tattoos and pierced ears and heavy hooded black sweatshirts.

The Black Hooders. That’s what I privately call them. Last week at the New Brighton skate park, I saw one of them tamping a pack of cigarettes against his palm, which should have outraged me. The signs at all the skate parks we visit clearly state, “No smoking, drinking, drug use, profanity”—your basic list of swimming pool rules. But I can remember being fourteen years old and slapping a new pack of cigarettes against my own palm, an act filled with pleasure and anticipation. I remember having watched a girl named Kalli do the very same ritual before opening a pack and I imitated her because she was sharp and savvy in other deviant ways. Still, I wish those Black Hooder boys would not smoke in front of younger kids.

I lean back on the park bench and sigh. I listen to a cooking show on public radio while keeping a lazy eye out for my charges. The St. Anthony skate park is right behind a police station. I take comfort in that, figuring if the Black Hooders show obvious signs of delinquency or if someone hurts himself, I’ve got backup.

Today, I see no Black Hooders. Which is good, in a way, because watching my nephew navigate around this kind of kid fills me with an uneasy nostalgia. When I was just a few years older than Sid, I was a boy-crazy fiend for the Black Hooder type. Their quiet, unimpressed manner was such a challenge. I was desperate to make them notice me, to get the attention of boys who barely looked up even to dismiss me. Not all of them were skaters, but they were all on the fringe of acceptable behavior. They smoked Camels and drank Jack Daniels and bought and sold pot and swiped their moms’ cars and played in bands with stolen amps and guitars. They wore their hair shaggy over their faces, and long in the back. The kids today would call that style a mullet. I’ve always loved boys with long, shaggy hair.

Shaggy hair like Sid’s and Joey’s.

Who are now scrounging up change for the soda machine. I step to attention and hand over some dimes from my coin purse. I ask them how it’s going.

“Didn’t you see that manual I did?” Sid asks. “From off the piano?”

“Uh, no, I missed it,” I say, feeling like a fraud. “Could you do it again?”

I take off my headphones and pay attention now. I watch both boys drop in from the biggest ramp and perform various kinds of twists and flips into the middle, shorter ramp, which I guess is the “piano.” As they wipe out and their boards fly from under their feet, I start surveying the rest of the group.

There is one older boy who is shirtless and covered with tattoos. He’s lanky but with whips of muscle everywhere. He smiles at Sid and Joey and asks them if they are all right when they fall down. Okay, Tattooed Shirtless is nice. Then there’s a taller kid with a strange body shape who waved to me when I made eye contact. I’m not sure if the taller kid is a boy or a girl—the body shape is unrecognizable under the baggy clothing. The face is clean and smooth, but the hair is short. But then again … are those boobs under that shirt? Or is it just a slightly chubby boy? From the standpoint of pity, Gender Confused earns my approval immediately, because he/she has obvious vulnerabilities. Plus, Gender Confused is alone; Tattooed Shirtless has a buddy talking to him from the sidelines.

Thus begins my rally for Gender Confused. I think of how scary and painful it is to be teased and ostracized. As a female, I can relate to being embarrassed and ashamed of my body. I imagine skateboarding as the savior of Gender Confused, a rebel activity in which he/she seeks solace from a cruel, conformist world.

I locate Sid and Joey in the middle of a clutch of boys their age, none of whom look the skateboarder part. These younger boys have short haircuts and jock clothes and look like they’ll be frequenting sports bars in another fifteen years. One of them is yelling snottily and the rest are giggling like fiends, showing a lot of pink gums, hollering. Sid and Joey stand by them, grinning and talking. Instantly, I am annoyed.

This is the boy who was The Enemy for me as a young girl. He’s the Anti-Black Hooder, the Class Clown Boy who tormented other kids by heckling, by seeking too much attention, by noticing too much detail. Class Clown Boy yelled mean jokes and snapped bra straps. The Class Clown boy ran with a pack of human laugh tracks, stalking those with unusual plumage. Thanks to my adult status, though, I’m no longer fearful of the Class Clown. Conventional, respectful of authority and status quo, the Clown is only as powerful as his cackling cohort. If they mouth off to me, I can stand up, hands on hips, and deliver a shrill smackdown. Instant Adult! (A move that could send Sid into orbit with embarrassment.)

So now I am sure the hateful Class Clown and his friends are mocking Gender Confused and this worries me. I am concerned for Gender Confused and wondering if there’s anything I could do or say that might let him/her know I am not an asshole like the Class Clowns. When s/he skates past me, I wave. I get a nod and a hello back. Okay, good.

Still, I am bothered by Sid and Joey’s apparent alliance with the Class Clowns. I resolve to underscore to them the evils that beset the paths of the Cackling Cohort. Perhaps Tattooed Shirtless will set a better example for everyone at the skate park before my pent-up indignation makes me do something dramatic.

I am puffed up with self-righteous annoyance by the time Sid and Joey, sweaty and ruddy-faced, come to tell me they want to go.

As I pull out of the parking lot, Sid and Joey tell me that another kid offered them some pot.

“WHAT?!!” I hit the brakes. “Pot? Who?”

They give me a pitch-perfect description of Gender Confused.

“You mean the one that you couldn’t tell was a boy or a girl?” I say.

“Uh huh,” Sid says. Then he and Joey giggle.

I am shocked at Gender Confused’s betrayal. I waved at that kid! I felt bad for him! Or her! Goddammit!

“How do you know it was pot?” I ask.

“Because he…” Joey stammers, “…I mean, she…”

“It!” Sid tosses in helpfully, which makes Joey collapse in laughter.

“‘It’ asked us if we wanted a hit,” Joey says.

A hit? While they snicker about pronouns in the backseat, I frantically review all my cumulative marijuana knowledge. Yeah, sometimes we called it taking a hit. Then I wonder if it wasn’t some new other drug. I want to ask the boys more detailed questions—Was it a pipe or was it like a cigarette? What did it smell like?—but I don’t know if that is an appropriate Drug-Free America line of questioning.

The car is stifling. The seat upholstery is scratchy and I can feel sweat dripping down my back into my butt crack. I am a thirty-one-year-old mom driving around two fourth grade boys who have just been offered marijuana by a gender-confused teenager and I’m not sure what to say.

I rush through my thin knowledge of child development, a semester of educational psychology. Um, are fourth graders still using either/or thinking? Are they in an authority-testing phase? Should I bolster their self-esteem in an effort to keep them immune from drug abuse? Do I attempt to foster empathy by explaining Gender Confused’s possible rationale for getting high, his unfortunate situation in an oppressive, binary-gendered world? Where are they on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Uh, maybe not.

Do I tell them the reality, that skateboarders don’t tend to grow up to be Sunday school teachers? I sigh. I know which route I’m going to take. I’m not sure it’s right.

“So, what did you do?” I ask, trying to seem cool.

They tell me how they and some other kids—the Class Clown brats—said no to the offer. The Class Clowns, in turns out, were actually making fun of Gender Confused because of the pot-smoking, not the indiscernible gender.

Great. The fucking Class Clowns are the heroes.

I tell the boys the next time we go to the skate park to let me know if someone offers them drugs.

“Why?” Sid asks. “Are you going to say something?”

“I won’t embarrass you,” I say. “I’ll just tell them that if they have any brains, they won’t smoke pot right behind the cop shop.”

It’s the light-hearted route, my usual schtick. This is my role in Sid’s life: Wisecracking Aunt Who Occasionally Swears.

I know that no matter my approach, at age nine, Sid and Joey are independent souls. At age fourteen, they will be independent souls who might experiment with cigarettes, drugs, or booze. I realize, against the evidence supplied by Frontline documentaries and lurid news reports, that I honestly believe that this experimentation is natural, even desirable. I recall cracking beers behind the grocery store before high school football games. I see myself illegally buying cigarettes from Dirty Ed’s Superette. I remember coughing and choking on pot smoke in my friend Becky’s car one winter night before a school dance. I see those events as plot points in the story of my life. Some people I know who smoked pot turned out to be losers. Some of them are now in middle management at big corporations. I am unable to manufacture an alarmist, mother-hen reaction.

As I cruise past at thirty miles per hour, I see people in their driveways washing cars, in their yards mowing grass, standing on the sidewalk chatting with neighbors. It’s a beautiful day, and I am one of those neighbor-people, going to home to wash, mow, chat. But I also want to stick my head out the car window and holler.

I feel sorry for Gender-Confused!

I would probably smoke pot, too, if I were him or her!

I think Tattooed Shirtless has a hot body!

Furthermore, those little giggling fuckers who probably are A students and star athletes? If my daughter brings one home, I might be slightly disappointed! Hoo Rah for the outcasts and for flirting with disaster!

And, yes, as a matter of fact, I am somebody’s mother!

Sid, Joey—and my own baby, Matilda: You might be extremely good and law-abiding or you might be much cleverer than your parents and I were. The former will keep you safer, and the latter is the only way you won’t get caught. Chances are that you won’t be either/or.

Though I am in charge of you, I remember what it feels like to be young. I still haven’t figured out how to mix those two together.

Did you know that sometimes I still dream about that first cigarette I had every morning before school, the last few puffs I had before the last few stoplights and then the school parking lot, where I had to stealthily crush it out on my heel, then toss it out the window?

Damn. I remember. And even then I knew better. We all know better.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Carrie Mesrobian is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. Her writing has been featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Calyx and other publications.

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