People, he’s come to realise, are made of the stories they’ve lived. In a certain timeline, from a certain perspective, it could be said that his story began with his father. Not in a pretty, poetic sort of way but in a way that left ugly marks on a young boy, left him with an arm that never healed right and a hesitancy towards goodness. Permanent damage.
If you asked him, he’d say that his story began when he moved out, the summer he turned seventeen. He moved into the flat his grandmother had left him, far away from cold eyes and raised fists and the faint whisper of family. A really great thing about stories is that they can start afresh. That’s what this summer was for, a shot at new beginnings and happier endings. A chance to reclaim his own life, to be part of something bigger after spending the last seventeen years engineering himself to be very, very small.
He got a job selling ice cream in the park next to his place, and it helped, feeling as though he had a sense of purpose- that and the money was pretty useful too. The large majority of his clientele were children, and it stung a little, to see them carefree and happy; glimpses of a childhood he never got to enjoy. They would come up to him with chocolate stained smiles and grass stained shoes and parents that look at them with warmth shining from their eyes. They come with notes clutched in grubby hands and dimpled smiles, and he does not quite know what to make of it.
They come with their friends, sometimes, squabbling over who has to pay what and who gets a turn on the swing next. He finds himself strangely endeared by their brashness, their sing-song friendships built on skinned knees and helping hands and shared laughter. He’d had friends too, sure, but his childhood had been heavy with cold days and colder nights, and this sort of laughter, the loud, weightless kind, was foreign to him. What these kids are faced with was the vast immensity of simply being a child, of getting dirt in their hair and ice cream on their socks and not doing a thing about it. Their stories have no consequences, days and days that tumbled into each other without having to worry about a tomorrow. He noticed that they don’t really talk- they rave, they enunciate, they sneer. Nothing they say is half-hearted, and he is almost overwhelmed by their constant effervescence. They are aggressively present in a way he has never seen, much less been.
He noticed that they ate slowly, not wanting to finish their ice cream too quick, enjoying every bite even as it melted and ran down to their elbows in sticky streams. He always ate fast, a skill honed at a young age. Sometimes it was because he knew any morsel left untouched would vanish if left alone for too long. Sometimes it was to assuage a bone-deep hunger that ached with the desperation of something that he knew could never be satisfied. Sometimes it was because he knew that the bullies in school loved taking their pickings of the smaller kids’ lunches, and he had no interest in being part of another victim’s demographic. Sometimes, it was just because. No one had ever taught him to appreciate the smaller things in life. In a metaphorical sense, he simply did not know how to stop and smell the roses.
It was over the course of that summer that he truly felt the haunting weight of the life that he had missed out on. Hands carelessly held and smiles lazily shared, little gestures passed around like nothing. He watched as they made flower crowns and sand castles and paper boats, doomed in their impermanence and no less beautiful for it. Their eyes sparkled with the naiveté of wonder, shimmered with dreams and suns and stars. Theirs was an ethereal sort of existence, devoid of repercussions and all the better for it.
It was cathartic, witnessing these remnants of a childhood that might have been his, the culmination of all the could-bes and maybes and should-bes that he’d spent so many nights dreaming about for so many years. If you asked him now, he would say that the summer he turned seventeen was when his life really began, when the crushing weight on his shoulders began to ease at last, bit by bit. He’d recount stories, of children held together by an unshakeable promise of togetherness, of girls with nervous smiles and crinkled eyes, of boys with ugly laughs and messy hair. He’d tell you about the boy he used to be, all bared teeth and bruised elbows, a little too jumpy, a little too grown up. He’d tell you that the stories you’ve lived are only as important as you allow them to be. He’d say that he still thought about his father sometimes, and all the things he would never understand: hearts as big as mountains, grins so wide they hurt your cheeks, and a boy who found hope in melting ice cream and sticky fingers.
Avaantika Vivek, 11 ISC – Staff Writer