By Noel Carver
No matter how good life may be it will never be a good transition, womb to world with pain and aging, open like a book. He did not need the slap upon the feet, his little face already gasping, flailing arms and grasping air. But the slap came anyway, a first lesson. It makes no sense to call it cruel.
In first grade, during bathroom break his friend had pushed him while he was going. A warm and darkening flow crossed his pants before his balance was corrected. Hilarious for all concerned. The shame like coals upon his heart. Though water might wash off the pee, it makes everything look worse. Emerging last into the long cold hall where all were waiting, he saw with terror that they could see him plainly. But now, not a peep from anyone, not a titter or a sneer. Pure quiet–a round silence in their mouths like candy. Back in class, the wetness chapped and stung him while it dried. For the next few hours he could have flung himself into black holes, volcanoes or a deep sea chasm’s crushing pit. For the next few weeks he was timid, locked the bathroom’s stall behind him, only spoke kind words. And then it was like it never happened, a stain one hundred generations old and far behind, chased off by circling days and nights of sun and moon. The casual cruelties of his age returned; he would as soon tease or push as run or laugh. His moments were so full he could not count them.
Days and years sped up as he got older, as if he built immunity to time, a tolerance for life’s strong drug. When he was in middle school, he kissed a girl for the first time–in a graveyard near the boy-girl party they had left–and bit her lip by accident. He did not care. They walked back and did not say a word, she with a splotch of red upon her mouth, he with the taste of iron on his tongue, flavor of wrought fences and their rust.
In high school he played football just to get the violence out. Crunch of pad and helmet. Ringing head and appetite. And then there was desire. What was he made for but these girls? All day he watched them, their hair and smiles. Distracted up and down, always jilted or afire.
His first time was in a dingy van parked in his parents’ driveway. Moldy carpet, cracked fake leather. The girl was as unimpressed as he was and he took comfort in this. She was just another soul like his, balled up and scrunched into its fitted skin beside him. The windows misted up with condensation, the wetness from their bodies flown to fog. That part was like movies. They left their handprints in the damp before they left, ten fingers his and hers upon the windows streaked with drops of rain that they had made, traces of their entrapped breath.
Outside, there was no one. He walked the girl home, a couple blocks of strolling without talking. The night was cool and empty, streetlamps blotting out the stars. At that very moment, her smooth hand and pulse inside his palm, he felt himself to be finishing his teenage years, cusping toward the fullness that would hold his name until decline. All of it was there, rolled up before him. He’d heard adults talk about their youth, memories softly blurred and tinged with brightness, glittered-up like ornaments or things for sale. The future would be no more difficult than what he’d lived already. The strongest thing we learn is our forgetting. He let her go and watched her take the steps up to her door. And then he turned around into the night.