Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dreamer

I walk through the halls of buildings filled with promise and youth. I drive through forgotten streets haunted with pictures of who I was. They're coming back in a bittersweet nightmare that makes me want to run. I realize how empty this vision is, how still, how decrepit, how plain. The gray square building sits there, silent and overgrown with trees that no one has bothered to cut down. A window on the second floor is still broken, boarded up with a piece of cardboard that probably leaks when it rains or snows. The two flagpoles by the left side doors are bare. Blue paint peels from the gym doors on the right, replaced by strips of rust and mold. Sunlight reflects back empty hallways and burned out fluorescent bulbs through the windows. The stone bench remains seated under two evergreens, engraved with the words that the sixty-four of us picked. A group of eighteen and seventeen year olds about to discover that we really didn't know anything at all. Even though we were labeled "snooty," "rich," "professors' kids," "gifted," "smart," "self-directed," "talented," "experiments," and "lab rats."

Our descendants moved to the other side of town, to a new building with the same name. They left the bench, the walls painted with murals of children, yellow, purple, blue and white paint. The gym floor where we ran laps at 6 am, ran up and down the bleachers and spiked balls back and forth across the net until we were too sore to even sit. I'm sure the balcony is still there, resting against the back ceiling, waiting to be filled with the warm flesh and screams of proud champions. The stage, with its long, heavy black curtain still hides the row of colored lights. Echoes of our voices and our lines heard by rows of invisible chairs. We're still in a circle, talking about our problems and our dreams, trying to be supportive, trying to realize that we're not alone. She still slams her locker shut next to mine, figuring out how to work the combination lock much faster than I ever could. Another girl still gives me that wistful stare as I brush my hair before darting to the bathroom to check my face. He glances in my direction as his buddies try to urge him to talk to me. He's wise enough to know he doesn't stand a chance, but not wise enough to realize I'm simply not interested.

I learn to escape to the library, where only a few friends know how to find me. I transform from clean-cut jock to a flannel covered, Doc Marten boot wearing artist with a pack of Marlboro Lights, purchased illegally from the gas station down the street. L shows me how. L still shows me how.

A, T and I stumble into Denny's after midnight and talk about our futures in-between puffs of smoke, bad coffee and a basket of seasoned fries dipped in Heinz. Sometimes we walk through the overgrown vines on the patio of Margie's, lit with tea lights and order grasshoppers and a slice of cheesecake. We feel like grown-ups. We feel limitless, free. We feel ready to touch our dreams. We're alive and it's all we need.

R tells me I remind her of make-believe I. B says our faces look the same. I'm flattered and mystified. I don't see the resemblance until I've forgotten how to pretend. Real I reveals the resemblance was always from within. The other L and I ditch prom in an early declaration of feminist independence. We never feel sorry. We still laugh about it when we see each other. We're still alone. By default or by choice, it doesn't seem to matter. Other L and I know we can always sit down to coffee, dinner or a movie. Best friends never desert each other. Even when one moves to Boston and the other finally starts getting ready to look out over the right ocean.

The parking lot sits empty. The grass is stripped. They say they're finally getting ready to tear the building down. Mr. T and Senor no longer smoke pot together on the sidewalk facing Candelaria Hall. Frau no longer greets me with "Wie hiesst du?" and Mrs. T doesn't pull me aside to discuss the astute political references in one of my papers. D no longer helps me start my mom's stalled Toyota or reminds me that I'm probably the most emotionally mature member of my family. I no longer read Shakespeare and Oedipus or sit in on meetings of the local Amnesty International chapter.

Mr. L's birthday present no longer holds my set of keys. His blue argyle sweater isn't sitting on top of his pressed white collared shirt or resting against his matching slacks. His head remains gray white, skin long wrinkled and sprinkled with brown spots. The philosopher, writer and artist takes us on walks down 14th avenue to see the ugliest building in town. He says there's a lot of them here, but this one takes the cake. His eyes never stop smiling. He gets especially excited when I challenge another student's assignment. I ask how can there be a heaven if there isn't a hell. He becomes my mentor for my senior project and never mentions my "quietness" on any of his written evaluations. Not like the other teachers. "Should participate in class discussions more." "Will gain more if she's not just an observer." "Thought-provoking when she speaks, but quiet." Like it's a bad thing. Like I'm supposed to change something they don't know I can't.

This place, this building. I walked its halls and its stairs. I sat in its rooms, gave speeches, read books, typed papers, wrote on notebooks, watched movies, ate lunches, giggled, cried, listened and spoke. I learned that in the midst of something bad, there's always something good. And what looks good and perfect isn't necessarily what it seems. It doesn't matter because there's always hope. There's always the chance you might get to fly.

I walked the stage in my white gown. Mr. T smiled up at me from his chair. I took the blue booklet containing my diploma. T, A, L and I left the ceremony in the white Toyota wearing our spring dresses and fancy heels, celebrating the end, the beginning and everything in-between.

The student had to be on a wait list for years, have good grades and write an essay to get in. The dreamer still hasn't learned how to get out.

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