Did you ever have the feeling that an independent person lived within you? Someone you once knew intimately, someone who has remained so vivid over all these years that you can’t even call him a memory. To me, he is tangible. I can almost touch him.
I see a small boy running with Freddy and Stevie along Grand Avenue in the Bronx. His lungs are bursting as he picks up speed toward the end of the race, breaking at the last minute so he doesn’t run into Burnside Avenue. There he is again, now at six, running across the lawn of our new Levittown home. I see him at 10 and 15 and 20. There’s a smile on his face. He’s running with such joyful abandon. I want to hold him to me.
Oh man. Now he’s with a group of friends from the track team and they are leaping over cars that stop for a light in Harvard Square. The drivers seem to be laughing with the jumpers. I am, too. I wish I could be jumping with them.
Once, when his father came to visit, the young man was running wind sprints with his friend, Chris O’Hiri, in the grand old Harvard Stadium. While he ran, the track coach confided to his Dad: “He runs beautifully, doesn’t he.” If you looked closely, you’d see the father’s eyes tear up. It was as though he were sprinting, too, his knees kicking high, then reaching and reaching until his feet touched the ground. All the while, the autumn wind brushed his face like a the hand of new friend. His father quickly wiped the tears away but the young man saw them, knew them, knew he was running for both of them. Chris swung an arm around the boy-man. He knew, too.
As you’ve surely guessed, the boy is me. Until relatively recently, he has lived comfortably within me. For a long time, I imagined that, at any moment, he could burst forth again. I walk along and see a fence and imagine myself leaping over it with a foot or two to spare. I walk across a street. A car is coming fast. No problem. If necessary I’ll spring to the sidewalk.
Now I notice a clutch of big guys on my side of the street, not far ahead, looking slightly menacing. I remember all the times as a boy I’d cross into dangerous territory, virtually daring the gang who ‘owned’ that part of town to come after me. No chance. I’d run away, leap over the stream that separated their part of town from mine, gain speed and make my way home without breaking a sweat.
To this day, I hate walking around without my sneakers, guarantors of my capacity to escape danger. Even though now I couldn’t sprint more than a few yards before tearing a hamstring muscle or spraining an ankle.
For years, I substituted hiking in the high mountains for those youthful runs. The walking was hard and slow, breathing labored, especially when we crested the passes at 11,000 feet. But the exhilaration was so much like the boy’s. The feeling of the air cooling the sweat on his face. The gratitude when exhaustion came.
This older fellow was different than the boy, though. He thought about the climbs and the peace that came from them. But in the midst of these ruminations, he was momentarily transformed into that boy, who seemed just as sweet as the one he had known many years ago. That boy remains a distinctive person, who I can almost touch, so different from a memory.
Sometimes I wonder if I should do something about them, those resident boys. Are they illusions that distract me from what’s going on right here, right now? Should I expel them? Should I push them into memory? Deny myself their joyful companionship?
No, I don’t think so. They don’t get in the way very much. Their demands haven’t stopped me from becoming an adult. They’re not so insistent on my attention that I miss more pertinent or immediate experiences in my life. The truth is that I’m inclined to let them be and simply to take pleasure in their company.