Going back to my hometown is less about visiting a physical place as it is a journey through time. I never would have thought of these banal streets again. And they play tricks with my head triggering scenes I’ve long forgotten. But none of the scenes are real to anyone but me. And I sit behind the wheel like a phantom trying to put myself back in time, flickering in and out.
There is the street corner where they used to drop the newspapers when I was a carrier, a paperboy, in the 80s. It was my first real job, a place I needed to be every day. It meant no sleeping in on weekends and starting my daily route before dawn. I had a good hundred papers on my route and carried them in a sling I wore around my shoulder. Everything was covered in ink, my jeans and jackets, my hands, I looked like a boxcar hobo.
I was almost 14 and our neighborhood was OK but still city. We were an hour from Philadelphia in a place called Allentown and they’d just put in a large mall that was killing the downtown. If cities die from the inside out then we were in one of those inner rings, a series of thin interconnected houses they called row homes. As a paperboy, I could deliver a hundred papers in 20 minutes just by walking across the front porches of those homes since they were all attached. Everyone had screen doors so I just opened the door and slipped the paper inside. Or if I was feeling cocky I’d give it a toss and make it land on the door mat.
At Christmastime I’d go to everyone’s house with a form trying to get them to renew their subscription. And I’d give them a free calendar, which was really a prompt for my annual tip.
It was that girl by the field where we used to play Wiffle ball who made a mark on me though. Beyond the ink on my jeans and the getting up early on weekends, there wasn’t much else I remember. But that girl was older than me, a cheerleader for the varsity teams. She was always with the west end kids (whose parents had more money) so I was surprised to see she lived right around the corner from me. In our neighborhood we were all lower middle class (or standing outside the arena of middle class, waiting to get in).
I was surprised she lived in my neighborhood but more so that she recognized me. It wasn’t anything she said but an exchange we had in the eyes and the way she nodded and smiled, an acknowledgment. It was just her and her dad in the sitting area and it was cold out so I stood in the vestibule and then they waved me inside to close the door.
I had never met or seen the people who lived in the houses I delivered to, but here was this girl I’d had a crush on and now I knew where she lived. And it was odd she made eye contact with me and even smiled, she’d never looked at me at school.
Her dad said something to her in one tone and then another thing to me, something about the checkbook, and then she looked at me and flicked her head. She flicked it at an angle so fast I wasn’t sure it happened. It was that same gesture when you want to leave someplace quick, you signal without saying it, “let’s go.” And she’d started halfway up the narrow steps already and I was supposed to follow her.
It’s funny when you go back to relive a time in your past because every time you do the memory changes. It could be like the photos we took in the 80s that fade and turn peach-pink, they literally disappear over time. So it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened in that minute I was in her parents’ bedroom and she reached around me, she entered my personal space to close the door, and I could hear the two-part sound it made as it first met the frame and then clicked shut. And then she just smiled.
And that’s where I’d like this story to end to keep it nice, but that’s not all that happened. She didn’t touch me or say anything but she let a part of her chest come out of her robe when she bent across her parents’ bed and did it as a kind of show or pose I think, she meant to do that, and later I learned that’s called exhibitionism. And it was like she enjoyed watching my reaction and just tilted her head and flicked it like I was supposed to follow her back downstairs, so I did. And that’s all there was.
I thought about that scene often, being relatively new to girls and eager to understand everything. Was it a fantasy or real? I know I tried hard to figure out which window was hers from the street but her parents’ bedroom faced the front and hers must have been in the back and it was tricky finding the right window without looking too obvious. But I didn’t care about looking like a creep back then because no one seemed to notice me as a kid anyway.
And that’s how it felt sitting in my rental car at the traffic light now many years later, an anonymous observer to a deeply intimate scene. A voyeur, in a sense. I don’t even know the girl’s name to look her up or if she’s still alive. We never exchanged any words I remember. Yet I can see her face, her eyes, the color of her hair, I can remember her in her cheerleading outfit at school.
The place here isn’t the same anymore. The best we have is the time we put into it and that too is fleeting. We’re a part of it and then we’re removed. Real for a time, then less so.