September 11, 2013

The slope

I was a latchkey kid. We didn’t have grandmothers to look after us while our parents were at work. We knew how to heat up our lunch on an electric stove at the age of six. The parents would have let us use the gas, but we were afraid of matches back then. We left our parents clumsily penned paper notes before going off to spend endless hours at the unsupervised playground. We would go get our baby sister from kindergarten because there was no sense in our being apart when we could be home together. Back then, teachers didn’t think twice about letting a seven-year-old pick up a three-year-old and take her home.


Or maybe they just let me do it. Because when I say we, I mean I. More or less.


It doesn’t end here. I have a friend who took herself to kindergarten and back at the age of four. It does make one wonder about the raison d'être of the entire institution of kindergarten, but that is neither here nor there. We had more alone time than we would have wanted, and an unmistakable badabum-badabum way of thundering down five stories’ worth of stairs in thirty seconds. In school, you could always tell the kids who grew up in houses from those who lived in apartment blocks just by the way they used the stairs.


I started taking English lessons at the age of seven. Classes took place in an elementary school nearby, and my father would drive me there and back. As I got a little older, I started walking back myself.


There is a slope between the main road and the entrance to my apartment building. Human feet don’t like to follow paths of concrete, so they scuffed a shortcut through the patch of grass. The path would turn to mud when it rained, cake as it dried, and freeze over in December. It was the last part of my walk back home, so close to the door that I already had my keys in my hand as I approached it.


I don’t know what it was about that slope, but it always made my feet turn on the badabum-badabum and canter down it like a pony. It gave me momentum. It gave me joy. Those few seconds made me feel like anything could happen, and I could do anything I wanted. It was the end of my day and the sheer extraordinariness of walking home alone at night made the breeze smell differently. The world was different because a child skipped and hopped on a patch of dirt.


I would love to segue into something rainbowy and inspiring now, like I still feel like a little girl, or I skip down that slope whenever I return home, but that’s just not true. It stings more than a little to be living here again: it was not something I would have wanted for myself. These days, the pony canter is more of a thuggish saunter of the bride of Shrek munching on a pig-in-a-blanket from the bakery across the street. It’s more bathos instead of taking myself seriously. I do still take that path, though, and it does make me smile. Especially when I remember the time it iced over and I thought it might be a good idea to take the shortcut uphill. As an adult. When your center of gravity is not what it used to be.


When I was a latchkey kid, I didn’t use the elevator because I didn’t weigh enough for the electronics to register that there was a human inside the machine and get it moving. You could press the button and hold it until it started, but there was always a chance of the elevator just getting stuck with your little self in it. I don’t use the elevator now, either, but for different reasons: because it’s an awesome way of avoiding the neighbors, and because after sitting on my ass all day, climbing stairs is my only cardio.


I’ve gone round the block and spiraled back to wear the shoes of the latchkey kid again, laughing and biting my cuticles all the way home. Not that my coping mechanisms are stellar now, but I still don’t envy the weight of the world that that kid made herself carry. An artist of killing time, eternally alone, eternally waiting for that someone to finally come home.


  1. Chris, I love this piece. It carried me back to my childhood days of slopes, new sneakers, and jumping down six or more steps at a time.

    Of course it also brought me back to the very real loneliness a latchkey kid experiences, having been one myself—Making lunches for my brother and me…mustard on white, mayo on white, there was rarely anything else to put on the bread.

    The slopes of life continue. I thought I’d outgrow mine but I can see now that they never go away. Some are slippery. Some are fun. But somehow they all lead us back to a place where we are there…alone. It is enough.

    Your writing is palpable.

    We really need a skype session.

    1. Leah,

      Thank you so much for noticing - I have been craving palpable in the abstractions of work in the past few months. I never stopped writing, but somehow it has been two whole months since I published anything. What the what?

      The image of you making lunches for your brother and yourself made me tear up. And yes, there were competitions of who could jump the most steps in one go. I want to tell that little girl (both you and me) that the sadness won't last forever, and yet I can't. I would like to comfort her by saying that it will make her stronger, but I don't really buy that myself. I want to establish a rapport with her, and yet she is me and not-me... Have I internalized being alone, or was it always part of my being?

      I am here my friend, call whenever you wish.

  2. I love it beautifully written. I'd wager a guess that we can all identify with parts of this.

    1. Thank you so much, Phil. It is a bittersweet place that I don't like to go back to, but perhaps now is the perfect time to air it out, before I head off to my next adventure.

  3. Nice post, great blog, following :)

    Good Luck :)

  4. It's scary how much I can relate to this. Except I actually asked my mom right around 3rd grade if I could start walking to school because I wanted to, not because I had to. I'd take unbeaten paths through the woods, sometimes get lost and not make it to school, other times I'd find all sorts of treasure and awesome hiding places. I knew my Mom would still be at work after school was over, so I never bothered to go home right away. I'd walk until it was dark. Constantly searching. I don't know why. I haven't been back to the town where I grew up for at least 10 years. I cannot even imagine the possibility of ever living with my parents again. It's just surreal. It would not be the house I grew up in, so there would be no memories like yours. I think I'd feel trapped.

    1. What's scary is how overprotected kids are nowadays, but that is a different blog post altogether I think. I came home from school one day and went out with my best friend, leaving Mom a note "Hey, I'm out with D." My mother found us somewhere around his apartment building, "Where were you???" I was like, "Why the freak-out, I left you a note, didn't I?"

      It isn't trapped so much as faltered and helpless for me. The feeling that I somehow messed up so bad that I had to go back, and that for the next year or even two I am going to have to rely on other people to take care of me to a certain extent if this PhD and my relocation are going to happen. Coulda, woulda, shoulda done better, faster, more. But then again, I am choosing to saddle this gift horse instead of looking it in the mouth - there are millions of people out there without any kind of safety net whatsoever, and if my sense of independence is the only victim here, I am going to shut up, be grateful and get my shit done. And maybe after that give it at least ten years before visiting my home town again.


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