The cracked asphalt ground that should have been black was carpeted with sun-scorched leaves from the trees that shaded its grayness, in the way that only hot, mid-summer side streets can be. Two pairs of legs crunched across its uneven backbone, meandering in the direction of two cars. Both shone glossy black and searing hot in the sweltering late morning. The front car had Illinois license plates. The rear, Missouri.
The two walked, much in the reluctant way that people who don’t want to go somewhere but have to go somewhere walk, the slow, distracted, concrete padding that makes even the most ordinary of trees seem fascinating if it wastes time.
Side glances at each other. Glances back at the houses whose fences became bigger as the houses themselves did. The other side of the street, overshadowed by three-story brick walk-ups with nothing but a staircase barring the public from approaching. The type of buildings where one would probably run into a neighbor grabbing mail. I wonder if these two ever accidentally grabbed each other’s mail.
The July 5th air was heavy with residual “4th” celebration; humidity was as palpable as the gray clouds that insulated this part of the Midwest looked. Like walking into a bathroom where the person who just showered closed the door before the room aired out. There’s only one way to describe it: thick heat.
Impending departure hung in the air. When we think of something leaving, it is impossible to not think about the inevitable space and silence it (or she, or he) leaves behind. That’s what makes departure sad, right? Absence. Space. Vacancy. Silence.
Yet, if you’ve ever stood in a Chicago alley, under an elevated train on a quiet morning, or sat, hands on the steering wheel, as red and white safety gently drops to separate your space from that of an Amtrak, then you know how loud leaving can be.
The slick, sour fibers that tasted of watered earth were crushed into a damp, tangled mass between my teeth as I watched. Have you ever chewed on sourgrass before? The tang of its stalks made my mouth water and the insides of my cheeks spasm the way they do when the first layer of a Sour Patch Kid wears off right when your friend tells a really funny joke. That grass tasted like 10am, 10 year-old summer asphalt on my bare feet.
That taste also smelled like Southern California desert air: dry, concrete, and punctuated by the deep purple plum leaves and prune colored stains on the gray cement. It felt like a $10 bill from the neighbors next door for watering their garden. It was kind that they never mentioned the strawberries that seemed to go missing from their garden on the days we were responsible for its hose-fed lifeblood.
An embrace. Sharp inhale. Eyes skyward. Sharp exhale, eyes diverted.
I am resistant to the idea that what we encounter in our lives is beautiful because it is bound by time. Beauty is not that which lasts forever, but that which serves as a reminder of life’s brevity.
Beautiful are the things that force me to stop.
Beautiful is that which brings me face to face with my own mortality.
Beautiful is the departure. The impermanence.
The old neighbors have long since moved to a senior community. My parents sold the house. My plum tree has been reduced to a freshly sawed stump. And the California sourgrass that stickied my hands in the warm summer months was really the skin from an apple bought in a Chicago grocery store, savored as I found myself caught in the middle of public farewell.
It cannot be the temporal boundary that makes the things within our lives beautiful, but rather the things themselves inside our mortality that make those boundaries more beautiful than they will ever be scary.
Like Missouri plates, slow footsteps, and lingering fingertips that are not quite ready to go home.
Image courtesy of Sven Loach, Flickr Creative Commons