Monday, February 24, 2014

Meeting on the Way



     The last Monday of February, 1980. It’s a miserable day in intermediate school. A skinny, slouching kid in a green windbreaker drags his feet past the classroom doors. His backpack is hanging off one shoulder. He had hoped for no math homework. But he's got three pages of multiplication. He’s in the second lowest math class and can never seem to concentrate on the problems. He would like English more if he didn’t have to spell well. He likes science, but gets marked down because his work is so sloppy and hard for the teacher to read. He likes band, but can’t really take a snare drum home to practice and doesn’t have much passion for it. In fact, he doesn’t have a lot of passion for anything other than trying to be different than everyone else. If he’s learned anything in school, it’s that being an outcast is easier if it’s a choice.
     He has missed the bus because he had to stay after school to do extra math. It’s about a mile and a half walk home, all downhill. He doesn’t mind. Sometimes it’s better than riding the bus anyway. So he walks out of the school grounds and starts the quiet walk home down Lahainaluna Road. 
     There is little traffic until a gleaming silver car seems to burst out of nowhere. It skids to a stop, gull-wing doors open and a man bumps his head as he gets out. The man looks at the boy and smiles.
This is it, the boy thinks. The aliens that are from my true home are here to take me home.
Instead, the stranger walks to the boy and looks around. He's quiet and rocks on his toes. Finally he points to the vacant fields all around and speaks.
     “Someday this will all be houses. That sugar mill down there will be gone. It’s all going to go away. Nothing stays the same, kid. You had a lousy day at school today?”
     The kid nods. What, is this stranger a time traveler? No, that car looks like it ought to fly like the ones in the stories he’s made up. The stranger continues:
     “I’ve got news for you. You’re not an alien from another planet, okay? I know that’s an easy thing to imagine. And when you think that, it kind of exempts you from the responsibility of trying to get along. I mean, it’s okay to be an introvert. But you’re not as different as you think. Even those popular kids have anxieties.
The boy looks from the car to the stranger. The man wears glasses and a long black coat, jeans and boots. The man goes on:
I just wanted to come along and tell you, it gets better. You are a lot smarter than you think, just because you freeze up doing three-digit multiplication, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. You’ve got a great imagination. You know those stories you make up with your toy cars and spaceships? Yeah, I know, you’re not too old for toys, don’t worry. You keep doing that. It exercises your mind to create worlds like that. Don’t ever stop.
     The boy is shocked. This stranger knows about the worlds.
     You made up a story the other night too, as you were going to sleep. You do that also. The story was about two guys doing a rescue mission to a strange planet.
     The stranger sits on a low wall. He looks at the boy with the look that is sad, but proud.
     “I shouldn’t have come and done this. So I’ll just tell you the truth and then fix it. It’s true, David. I did travel back in time. I thought I would come back and see you on the week of your 13th birthday and then I couldn’t resist saying something. I mean, I remember what it was like. And I wanted to tell you that it will get better. You’ll make some new friends. In a few years, you won’t have such a miserable time every day at school. And when you grow up, oh man, your wife will be the prettiest, sweetest girl ever.
     At this the boy makes a face.
“Now calm down. I know you still don’t like girls now right? At least that’s what you like to think. But here, I’ll prove I’m you from the future, something you never told anyone. That girl who looked out the school bus window at you? I know her name, so do you. Yeah, I know how you feel, that little crush. No, you won’t marry her. At the end of this school year, you’ll never see her again.”
The boy’s knees feel weak. But more than the gelatinous fright he feels, there is a thrill of relief. This person really does understand everything. Questions start bubbling up in his mind. What other advice could his future self give?
“I’m not going to tell you anything else. Well there is a lot more I wish I could tell you. I would like to tell you that in your future, you should make better choices. If it’s something that feels good right away, but you regret it later, then you shouldn’t do it at all. I wish I could tell you so much. Buy stock in Apple, learn to drive a stick shift, don’t watch the movie Serenity until you’ve watched the Firefly series. But no, you’ll have to make your choices and live with them. Anything I tell you to do different, it might compromise you meeting and falling in love with her, the one.  
The stranger beckons the boy close, pulls off his eyeglasses and points to the blue of his eyes.
“Look here. You’re going to forget we met. But you’re going to feel better today. You’re birthday will be fun this week. Life will get better. Forget everything else I said.”
The stranger almost stands, but looks back at the boy.
“But remember this too. Write that story down. The story about the space rescue mission, it’s not publishable, but get a notebook and write it down anyway. You are going to find that you love to write. It’s a better escape from reality than what you do now. You were born on Earth, deal with it. Go on home now. Happy Birthday.
The kid in the green windbreaker turns and walks down the hill and the stranger watches him go. The kid is still slouching and dragging his feet. But he’s looking up.

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