29 January 2011

How to Save a Life

First, find a girl. Not just any girl—no, this girl is the nerdiest urchin you’ll ever meet, and her home life is, well, frayed. (Pause to relish unintentional title-pun.)

This girl is keenly pining for something, anything. She thinks it’s a boyfriend she needs—because, cue Brothers Grimm, he will rescue her from the rapunzeltower of her sixth-floor bedroom window. She’s always attracted to young men’s arms: their enfolding, swooping-up, holding and protecting powers draw her magnetically. (She wonders if these boys notice her noticing them, but probably they don’t, because she is nondescript, a veritable vacuole of brown-haired plainness.)

You don’t actually know this, but she sits in that sixth-floor window every chance she gets—its square frame supporting her entire body, scrunched into a C sitting shape. She leans her head against the screen, headphones clamped over her ears, craving escape from the stepfatherly rage occurring behind her, in the smoky living room of the apartment. Music swirls into her mind and becomes woven there, as a protective garment. She breathes street air and watches the transition from daylight to dusk like a sworn witness, night after night. She feels as if everything beyond the tiny gray screen squares is potentially magical, as sooty and city-streety as it is. See? isn’t that a vivid green tree down there amidst the blocks of sidewalk, just burst into spring bloom and jazz-handing the sky? Don’t the airplanes landing over at LaGuardia, just beyond her neighborhood, glimmer in the darkening sky like moving stars? She watches, all the time wordless, but pleading. Someone, anyone.

But wait: there are two of you. Two princes, and not rivals—no, you’re staunchest allies. You’ve already saved each other’s lives myriad ways, through a friendship that started in the doggiest days of grammar school…greasy hair, glasses with tape, braces, zits, and brutal teasing from classmates. Now you are high school sophomores who have crested awkwardness and are full-steaming towards awesomeness, exuding confidence that was forged in shared battles and common experiences. Not only does Nerdy Urchin Girl need you…she is a lot like you in temperament and intellect. But she doesn’t believe it. Yet.

Prince #1 will meet the Girl in the deepest recesses of a cave. Well, all right, it’s the New York City subway system, 59th Street station. As though a fairy’s wand has blinged this dingy place, the sheer fact of your meeting will cause the Girl to feel an upswell of hope and anticipation in this subterranean waystation for years to come. What are the odds, that—after years of attending the same grammar school as she, and never crossing paths—you appear on the (grimy gray) steed of the Number 6 uptown local, are introduced to the Girl by a mutual friend, and instantly become a gallant and constant companion on the arduous (truly, yes, arduous) weekday journey to high school? You, Prince, are indeed gallant, and never in the snide James Joycean sense. Your demeanor is ever respectful (well, of the Girl—everything else is fair game for the constant joking wordplay between you both). You stay positive in almost every situation. Do you know that, before she met you, the Girl found her freshman-year subway journeys terrifying in their unknown randomness? Any given day, who knew what horrors could happen on the screeching, graffiti-ridden trains—or even standing in the station, waiting for the next tube to barrel in and fearing someone could push her onto the tracks in its path? (She read the New York Post, y’know. That happened uncomfortably often back then.) Yet now she gains a faithful fellow traveler. He banishes boredom with crisp sarcastic commentary, he shares poetry without irony (and encourages sharing of hers, releasing the catch on a cage), he adores all the music that fills her headphones, and his very presence makes her sigh with safety.

Prince #1, you probably knew within minutes that the Girl was smitten. Or perhaps you still nursed some uncertainties deep within, which obscure her looks of adoration. However long it takes, this Prince will finally recognize the Girl’s ardor, and here he shall make life-saving gesture the firsteth: he understands that she needs him as a friend more than as a quick-burning early teen boyfriend. He rejects her without in any way rejecting her, with calm and sincere words. The Girl will take years to grasp these wisdoms; she is, as stated above, needy and immature. Yet as a grown woman, she will finally grasp the profound good sense that Prince #1 showed to her. Could not their hearts be connected, their destinies joined, without the iffiness and tanglings of a romance? You prove it so, Prince #1.

But see, even her hopefulness, that deep-seated infatuation the Girl bears all throughout that school year…even those months of wanting are a potent gift. Something to strive for. A reason to try new hairstyles, and dress herself with newfound attention. A reason to want to attend school dances. And seriously, a reason to get up in the mornings. Because Prince #1 meets her on the corner of 30th Street and Broadway like 7:50 am clockwork, and together they climb the long dual stairwells of the RR station and head for the Upper East Side, where their respective brownstone schools open for them “a whole new world” a la Aladdin. One block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the verdant wonders of Central Park…avenues of bookstores, movie houses, and old-timey Yorkville neighborhood fixtures like Schubert Hall. (Schubert Hall? the reader asks. A musical conservatory? a society devoted to the works of Franz Schubert? Ummm, no. An old-man bar that serves the high-school masses and has the best jukebox ever, anywhere. A welcoming harbor; a teenage Cheers.)

The Girl’s adult self pauses to assure you that, as culturally wrong as it’s now deemed to be, in that era she benefitted from the occasional alcohol escape valve. Her homelife was indeed that painful, her self-esteem that fragile. She was by no means an afterschool special in the making; she was just trying desperately to grow wings. Prince #1 contributed untold amounts of wisdom and daring to her wing-growth: gleeful decadence combined with savvy self-preservation. Fun first, responsibility constant, boredom never. She learned, emulated, and survived. Prince #1’s tools for living become clanging, practical old mainstays in her toolbelt. (He also was a fantastic kisser, which he kindly proved to the Girl on a starry March night. A few heady times, and no more. Just enough to know and move along to a new adventure. The Girl is eternally grateful.)

We promised two princes, and it is thus. Prince #2 will enter the Girl’s life in an equally dramatic manner: they will approach each other in the orange-streetlight mist, as though crossing a moor or a mystical bridge. Rain had fallen all day, and was evaporating all around them. The Girl had boldly contacted Prince #2 by telephone, never having met him, because another friend had explained to her that Prince #2 might hold keys that could help decipher and release Prince #1’s ardor. At this stage, she will take whatever she can get. But also, on subway mornings she’s been told tales of Prince #2’s wry sense of humor, his undying friendship, and his wondrous garage replete with pool table, stained-glass hanging light fixture, and bar. He sounds like a hoot. The Girl arranged the meeting, and Prince #2—undoubtedly having heard things about her himself—readily agreed.

And so they approach each other on 37th Street. The Girl is tasked with procuring her parents’ Friday-night Chinese takeout, and Prince #2 says he will walk her there and home. She notes immediately upon his coming into focus that he has very cool permed hair and awesomely chunky Frye boots, and he walks purposefully. This Prince decides that the Girl is not as nondescript and mousy as he had been given to believe, and for a short while—a few months, maybe—he pines for her. But now it is the Girl who will comprehend that romance is not their shared destiny: bonded, total friendship is. (Appreciation accrues to Prince #1 for that knowledge, clearly.) Some details play out the same: they share poetry, mercilessly joke and banter, protect each other’s interests fiercely. But this Prince is actually acquainted with the stepfather who terrorizes the Girl’s homelife, a fact she does not realize until they meet. Thenceforth, Prince #2 double-bolsters her sense of safety by demystifying this domestic dragon gradually and completely. The Princely garage, the supreme hangout that is just as cool as described, becomes a safe haven. In fact, his entire demeanor—the way Prince #2 is game to talk about anything, anytime, and the way he empathizes with the Girl at every turn…his universe of friendship is another life-saver. Also, Prince and Girl watch and savor the same soap operas. Do not underestimate the unifying power of The Stories.

To this day, if the Girl cradles her hand into a telephone grip, she imagines his sweet, sassified voice awaiting her ear. Over years and years, in talks that range over hours of long-distance time, there is nothing she will not tell him, and he the same. O, the rocks that their tentative boats could have crashed upon in tempests past! the surging, unpredictable waves of fate and post-adolescent choices! yet their support of one another guides them like beacons. And the mishaps that did happen…the Prince and the Girl knew all and helped each other fervently.

It’s a long fairytale, this. The Princes and the Girl all depart their homeland kingdom of Queens. They become teacher, hairdresser, and (eventually) shopowner in three different corners of the United States. Marriages, parenthood, losses, misadventures and actual adventures abound. Prince #2 dies, and his survivors’ hearts suffer ever in his absence. But the Girl knows, and will never forget, that but for her meeting these pivotal men, she might not have escaped the window and the kingdom. Would she have found her writerly voice? perhaps, but never as surely as she did with their eager reading and encouragement. She also ditched the mousy urchin persona and embraced honest bravery, in appearance as well as the spoken word. In short, the Girl cannot imagine her self as it exists without the Princes who rescued her. You are worthy, they showed her (instead of telling). And you are valiant, she herewith proclaims in response. 

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