Even now, old man that I am, I can almost remember the very first time I didn't see you. I was six years old, or maybe seven; up to that point I had had no knowledge of your existence, or your nonexistence. There hadn't been the need: I'd already figured out that I was basically a windup toy, occasionally brought out for the amusement of someone older, someone visiting, but always someone else; and then I was put back on the shelf in the darkest possible corner until the next time. And I accepted this, because I didn't know anything else at the time; it never occurred to me that things could ever be any different. It's a damnable word, "occurred"; not only is it passive in the extreme — people who can actually make things happen never say that those things occurred — but in my capacity as a windup toy, supposedly able to spell anything on command, this is the one word in my first few years that always threw me for a loop. I resented it for being in the language; but mostly, I resented it because it interfered with smooth operation, and if my operation failed the smoothness test, it was back to the shelf in the corner.
So failing to find you that first time bothered me a great deal, not because I'd expected to find you, but because I could not understand why I was even looking. This wasn't part of my programming. Occasionally a friend, or someone who might have been a friend had I worked harder at such things, would report finding someone like you out there; once or twice I was even introduced to her. Invariably, she was very nice in that grade-school sort of way, with a well-scrubbed look that in later days I would confuse with actual goodness. And then they would move on, and I hoped they would move quickly enough that I would not have time to notice the empty space at my side.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that the reason we never encountered each other was that I was always in the wrong place at the right time, or possibly the right place at the wrong time. I was still too young to deal with the concept of the wrong place at the wrong time. And whatever place I was in, I was probably too young for anyway; at the time I started seventh grade, I had been attending school for a total of twenty-six months. The windup mechanism had served me admirably well over those months, enabling me to persuade people that I was some sort of prodigy. I was, of course, nothing of the kind, but I was sufficiently self-aware to realize that it would do me no good to say so. Fortunately for me, the tasks assigned me were more difficult, which meant that I had to spend more time on my studies, and less time wondering if you actually existed or not.
Heart and mind thus distracted, I was able to stretch the next six years of schooling into more than five years, which did not quite give me a peer group, but did keep me from feeling even farther out of place — until that last year, when various unanticipated forms of friction were somehow transformed into the sparks of rebellion. My grades sank, though not horribly so; still, it was enough of a drop to spare me the frightening prospect of having to address the class, and was therefore, in my mind, eminently justified. And almost simultaneously, I thought I saw you. I was wrong, of course, though the resemblance, even today, seems amazing.
I suspect you know what happened next, how I gambled everything on the possibility that I'd actually found you, and how the debt thus incurred haunted me for many years. I was still able to perform on command, after a fashion, the same way I had as a child; but this failure, this inability to deal with the reality of the situation, drove me to the brink, to the point where I would behave terribly to people who might possibly have resembled you in one form or another. This could not be allowed to stand, and of course it was not.
Which brings us, or brings me anyway, to today, half a lifetime later, surely bruised but perhaps not actually broken. Once in a great while, I hear a voice which might have been yours but most likely was not. It doesn't matter so much anymore. There remains no reason for me to think you're out there, and no reason for you to look my way if you are. Still, even in your presumed state of nonexistence, you are a part of my life, and there are times when I must acknowledge that fact. This day, the fourteenth of February, is one of those times.
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Copyright © 2016 by Charles G. Hill