It’s the little things that break your heart.
I remember this one time as a kid going downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. I poured myself a bowl of cereal, opened the fridge, and found no milk inside. Being lazy, I didn’t bother to pour the cereal back in the box, or even to dump it in the trashcan (you know you’re lazy when you can’t even be bothered to waste something).
A couple hours later I went back downstairs and saw my mom getting ready to go to the grocery store. She turned and said, “I saw where you poured yourself some cereal but couldn’t find any milk. It broke my heart.” She was exaggerating, of course, but there was still enough feeling in her words for them to contain a bit of genuine pain.
Mothers are like that, cursed to feel too much, especially toward their most unfeeling children.
But apparently sons can be like that, too.
I had one of these moments of minor heartbreak the other night, that low threnody that plays through one’s bones and soul, and which once can’t seem to shake despite how silly it all seems. You’re overreacting, you tell yourself. But yourself tells you to go fuck yourself and to let it feel what it wants.
It was Halloween and I was driving to the drugstore to pick up some candy for the trick-or-treaters. I always put it off til the last moment, mostly because I don’t get many kids knocking on my door. I joked with my neighbors that there must be a rumor out there that I’m the guy in the neighborhood hiding razor blades inside apples. Except I don’t ever hand out apples, and for the young and processed sugar-obsessed kids, an apple is a horrific enough prospect sans razorblade. Might as well be the one curmudgeonly puritan who passes out tubes of toothpaste.
In order to get to the drugstore I have to drive through my old neighborhood. The section where I live now is solidly lower-middle and middle-class, two story brick and vinyl-sided houses inhabited by people who drive exterminator vans and cop cars to work, have their kids in little league and soccer. I could leave a bike in the driveway and not worry too much about it being stolen in the night.
My old neighborhood is what people in real estate and those given to a euphemism call “transitional.” There are laundromats and gas stations with a desperate air, as if they’ve just been hit by armed robbers or will be getting stuck up soon. Fumes from the city bus mingle with the scent of fried food, rap music from tricked-out hoopties rattles the window panes in the apartments where kids try to do their homework. It’s a neighborhood where the humble and law-abiding live quietly in the shadow of their louder and more violent neighbors.
En route to the store I hit a red light and was forced to stop. To my right was a cemetery that locks its gates early to deter vandalism. To the left was a liquor store, which apparently also sells candy. I saw a group of kids walking into the store dressed in their costumes, boys in their superhero silks and girls in their black witch finery. They were trudging inside to buy themselves some pregame sweets before the big door-to-door push to fill their pillowcases.
My heart dropped in my stomach at the bravery of these kids. Despite the cynicism (and frankly danger) all around them were still trying to be kids. They’re not naïve enough to overlook how wrong everything is in the world, and how that wrongness is magnified where they live, but they are still innocent.
Their braveness broke my heart. My cowardice, and the cowardice of all of us who are leaving them this world, disgusted me. But then the light turned green, and I drove on and didn’t think about it anymore. At least not consciously.
Not until now.