I like the feeling of the engine forcing me into the back of the seat. The ridges of the asphalt as we hurtle down the runway, pure acceleration. The feeling of your insides pushing down as wheels leave the tarmac and the airfoil tames the oncoming breeze providing inexplicable lift.
Watching the world zoom out as we climb through the atmosphere. A hundred years ago, only a handful of people knew what the clouds looked like from the top.
I stare at the shorelines, Breezy Point, Jones Beach, Fire Island… I’ve never been to Fire Island… as we bank west and climb to thirty thousand feet, over Long Island Sound towards the Connecticut shoreline, I think of the years we spent on the beach… can I see as far as Milford from here?
Crepuscular rays break through the cloud cover. I remember once somebody called them “God rays”… is this where David and Elaine play? It’s a nice thought for those who are programmed to think that way. I try to identify the types of clouds as we break through the altitude barriers. Stratocumulus, altostratus, the features of the landscape now obscured by the most beautiful cirrostratus field rippling across the landscape for hundreds of miles. I am a vessel of mostly useless knowledge, useful only during trivial pursuit games and trivia nights at the bar. Green pie, science, and nature. Anything but yellow—I suck at sports knowledge.
God rays. Sitting in church, the hard wooden benches, the smell of incense in the air with a light jingle from the thurible at each flick of the priests wrist. “Father.” That’s what we’re supposed to call him. Ironic is the only word that comes to mind when I consider the bastard like the angst I carry, only wishing I had one. Monotone Russian words hang high in the echos of the domed ceiling. I stare at the window. The century-old lead-lined stained glass. There was one in particular I always liked: It had some guy—I’m guessing Jesus or Paul, they tend to get the most attention in these locations—with a massive two-handed sword. I imagine myself as a knight, a defender of some damsel in distress using that sword in the window. Was it really my favorite window in the church? Or had we just sat in the same well-worn pew all those years out of habit, standing more than kneeling, kneeling more than sitting? Never speaking, only repeating. The stern looks of very old ladies weather-worn by repetition if we squirmed too much or whispered to one another. The truly god-fearing. The benevolent.
The benevolent man… I think of my grandfather on his knees every night, elbows on the edge of his bed, eyes closed, as he selflessly dedicated a portion of his day, every day, without the expectation of reciprocation, as he prayed for somebody else. Please protect Mary, Bettie, Elaine, Mary Ann, Timothy, Jason, David, on and on. Never once had I ever heard him ask for a single thing for himself. Never “dear God help me, help Andy, help Andrew.” I am transported to Bridgeport hospital where I was born and where he would die later that day. His shockingly white hair lackluster. I brush it over his head. I wish I had a comb, Rebecca would understand. His skin tallowed. His dry lips whispering inaudible words. I know he’s praying, but I also know he’s not praying for himself. Even in his last breaths, I am certain not a moment was spent feeling sorry for himself. I feel like a selfish asshole because the only time “dear God” has passed my lips, it’s been for purely selfish reasons. I am not a benevolent man. I am a bastard once again.
The nasally voice of “Father” echoes through the halls. Is this a vesper or a panikhida? I never really understood the difference. I only remember them because one’s a drink and a Bond girl, the other is just fun to say and I associate it with a loaf of bread my grandmother used to make at Easter. That’s probably not even remotely accurate, but it’s how I remember it. I look toward the alter and up towards the white arch that reads “Bockpeace.” I say the words in my head. That’s not what it says. I don’t actually know what it says. It looks like “Bockpeace,” but it’s in Cyrillic so it could say anything. For me it’s just “Bockpeace.” I admire the font. The elegance. I look up. Bockpeace.
Saints stand atop them with their elegant features, a thin staff or rod in their hands, gilded halos about their head with more of the pretty font written around the periphery of their heads.
Is this where Gram, Gramp, Mom, and now David play? In the cumulus clouds?
I listen to the thurible’s bells jingle. There is significance to the number of times it rings, Gramp tried to explain it to me once. I didn’t care.
I wasn’t a benevolent boy either.
He faces us. “Father” faces us and swings the thurible towards the pew. One, two left. One throw, two throws. Center. One, two jingles right. My right, his left. We’re supposed to bow our head. I’m not going to bow my head today. Once upon a time I bowed my head, but I stopped doing that four funerals ago. Is this a vesper? This is a load of shit, I’m tired of being first pew. We’re fourth pew from the front right behind the D’s. We stand, we kneel, we sit, we go downstairs to the basement, shake hands with people I don’t know who know a lot more about me than I am comfortable because I have no idea what their name is, and we go home or to a diner for American cheese omelets and bacon before WE catch a train back to NYC. That’s what we do. But I don’t for the fourth time in five years.
First pew is for hard times, for the sympathy stares. I used to judge from the fourth row. This is not the mirror I choose to stand in front of. Poor boy. The bastard lost his whole family. I’ve been first pew four times in the last five years. It’s like the carnival mirror manufacturers decided to get into the microscope business. It’s vanity, perverted. I feel like a Petri dish that wants to grow up to be the antibody. Hope, inspiration, positive words and encouragement in light of despair. Mostly I just want to curl up and crawl into the box with them. But they would expect that. They wouldn’t be surprised by that. I like to surprise them, especially when they tell me I can’t.
For the fourth time, I stare at the wooden box. For the fifth time, I lie awake with regret on the third anniversary. It’s my own algebraic equation for “What is the value of T?” (4X5yrs/3 =T?)
The first pew, the cruel first pew. They open the lid and close it. Seven times by my count since the wake last night three years ago. We’ll close it for the final time today, three years ago. All eyes on me. I don’t want the sympathy—it provides little by way of comfort for me. I’m the autistic kid who doesn’t want hugs, who claps his ears when people try to get close.
Don’t feel sorry for me, just let me be while I figure out what to do next. I’m standing over an open hole. For the fourth time in five years. I’m staring down at a box while people stare at me. They want some words. They want some comfort. They need their words. Who’s here for whom?
I say the words, they all nod, they slowly shuffle back to their cars. I walk back to the third, second, and first holes from the last five years. I scan them from left to right: True Love, Love Maternal, the heinous crime escaped, and the bastard kid, the endangered species, and last of his kind. I close my eyes. It’s becoming hard to cry, and the thorns about my heart grow sharper. Fear any who attempt to hold it.
I like when I am asleep and am woken by the compression of the suspension on the landing gear. Not when it bottoms out like a pothole on the highway, but when it gently compresses and the same thrill of the throttle up applies in reverse as physics try to keep me in motion, but I press my back into the seat while the world returns to normal speed.
I rub the sleep out of my eyes and look down at my watch. I set it three hours back.
Three hours more to the day I buried my little brother three years ago: the fourth time I buried somebody in my family in the last five years.
I remember checking my journal before I left to get on the plane this morning. The October 20th three years ago – the wake, two years ago – a fight with people I care about, one year ago – a fight with people I care about, last night – another fight. The 21st a burial, two years ago – sorrow and regret, same as the year before, the cycle continues. The thorns around the heart grow sharper; there is a rose within, if I only knew how to prune back the stem.