I desired so desperately to have a friend. Instead, on this mountain my only friends were the ones I created while swinging from a tree grasping a nylon rope while riding a circular plastic swing. My made up world was as creative as it was grandiose; I imagined myself on an island of children, all my age, and I was popular, a leader. I even had a girlfriend. Yes, I wanted a girlfriend since I was seven. Watching a movie showing on Kukla Fran and Ollie inspired that desire. A British film, titled Hand in Hand, about a Roman Catholic boy and a Jewish girl in England. They set off on an adventure, riding a raft on the River Thames before the dingy strikes a rock, throwing the girl off. I distinctly remember the boy wore a pith helmet, which falls off, and I remember a scene where the hat floats down the river through the rapids.
I was in love with this girl, her dark hair and eyes—my first crush, at seven—and so I wanted a girlfriend as a boy. However, though I was Roman Catholic, I was not British, and did not own a pith helmet. I did live relatively close to a river, but it was far too languid a stream, nor wide, or much of anything except stagnant in the summer. Also, girls did not talk to me.
Yet, I had a girlfriend on my island, and she had dark hair and eyes, and I had friends, many of them, so I was never alone. Thinking back, my childhood was alive while on this swing, I was on adventures both exciting and rather mundane, with my friends and my girl, she always leading the way with me, hand in hand, to the beach, or climbing a mountain, or traversing a native trail through dense forests, discovering treasure, or uncovering mysteries such as lost civilizations or signs of ancient astronauts from other galaxies. On one of our few weekend outings, my mother took me to see a documentary based on Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods at the downtown movie theater and so for weeks afterward my dark-haired girlfriend and I would lead expeditions searching the caves on our island for signs of the extraterrestrial beings. After watching part of one of the Flipper films, she and I would go to the beach and look for buried pirate treasure. Yes, on this swing, I lived.
I got off this swing to have dinner with my grandparents, do my homework, watch television on the only channel that we had good reception for, and wait up late for my mother to arrive home. As for going to school and other aspects of the real world I felt I was sleeping and anything memorable from those times I looked at as fragments of dreams.
My true existence predicated with my fingers wrapped tightly around white nylon and the rhythm of motion as I rose and fell under and close to the branch the rope was tied to the tree, the laces of my high-tops swaying above green grass in summer, and white snow in winter.
In the movie Hand in Hand, the female character’s name was Rachel, and so was the name of my dark-haired girlfriend. We were older, almost teenagers, and in sixth grade I had a classmate who dressed like her. Like her, Rachel favored white peasant blouses and black skirts, and white strappy sandals. Her dark hair was shoulder length, and parted on the side. She tended to pull her hair back from her eyes, to look at me, and when we got older, Rachel began wearing peppermint gloss. We also listened to music together. When we were 11, my grandmother won an avocado green transistor radio in a mail-in contest and gave it to me. So while on the swing Rachel and I listened to the AM station, and it was the only broadcast available on the island as we listened to Sweet, T-Rex, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Jethro Tull. Most other music we ignored or tried to listen through, waiting often with frustration for our favorite songs to be played. Usually what we wanted to hear would play several times a day for a week, then taper off to nearly once a week, eventually not to be heard again. However, I remember how ecstatic we would be when we heard our songs. We wanted to listen to Bell Bottom Blues, Little Willy, Go All the Way, Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress, Seasons in the Sun, Bang a Gong, and Teacher. On the island we could, and occasionally a new song would enter our playlist.
When called by my grandmother for dinner, I got off the swing, and turned off the transistor radio to begin my hours of slumber eating, working on my math and history homework and watching ABC television. When I got a little older, Rachel appeared at night while I listened to an old Crosley radio on a shelf above my bed, the volume low, the light from the radio dial lighting the girlish geography of her comforting face. Not often she would come, but I knew when I was asleep Rachel would always be there for me, whenever I asked.
During sixth grade reading class, I read a novel called Durango Street that I received as part of an order from the SBS, the Scholastic Book Service. The novel was about a Black kid just out of reform school joining a rival street gang after being rejected by his old group. Afterward, on the swing, Rachel and I left the island and our friends behind to move to the city. The hot sun beat down hard on our shoulders, and Rachel’s ivory skin turned tan and red as we wandered the dirty streets with Rufus and the Moors. Soon we ran into these cool white kids, Ponyboy, Dallas, and Cherry Valance and Sodapop, became true Outsiders in our torn blue jeans and tight white t-shirts. Rachel traded her skirt for a pair of hot pants and took to wearing sunglasses, with red lipstick, and wore a railway engineer’s hat. We were in the gang, and drove around in a big bad Lincoln, with spoke wheels and suicide doors and the music funky, Fred is Dead, I Will Testify, Rubber Band Man and every 45 single no one in the world heard but me, and my Rachel, sitting in the back of a tricked-out bomber, being tough, feeling good, with our gang black and white, it’s all right, we so tight. Brothers, sisters, hang fast lean hard on the wheel turn left down this away, because the entire world is Durango Street, baby.
Super sweet sugar sassafras badass, why we can be friends, and the revolution is televised with Russell Means Wounded Knee AK-47 and Panther Huey wicker chair Seize the Time Dock of the Bay, Otis King of Soul, with the New York Dolls accidentally caught on late night television and Rachel leaning closely ruby red lips shaded eyes whispers in a rasp “I’m looking for a kiss.” I called her more at night, and I found the FM station as our bed became a half-dressed mattress in a graffiti filled room with a neon sign Hot L Baltimore outside one window and a creaking, rusted fire escape on another. Chico has yet to meet the man, and Baretta remained a misspelled parabellum, but what was happening on Durango Street involved Rachel’s hand on mine, and her blood-red lips to kiss.
Hammer and sickle red tide Cuyahoga River and Motor City burning way back not too long ago revolution everywhere, no wait until your father gets home because mine went off before I even was born, and happy days was good times and nothing but a heartache was a single in a flea market by Carolina girls in 1968 and we played that over and over again no longer on the island, but in the center of our universal earth and turf smack on Durango Street.
Then, one month after I turned twelve, with the sun winning its battle against the night, after 6 p.m. in the latest of spring, the rope broke.
My great uncle said I was too old for that swing, and refused to replace the rope.
After that it was nothing but heartache, and no flirtations to sing about it to me. My life became sleeping until epiphany arrived with clarity and sleep became awake and Rachel became an imagination, along with the cool kids of Durango Street.
Decades later my daughter asked why I never spoke about my childhood. I answered I lived with my grandparents, and my mother, on the side of a mountain—and I had a swing. There was nothing to add beyond that.
I desired so desperately to have a friend. Instead, I had Rachel, and while one should not miss what you never had, I do, anyway, because I can.
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Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City and Managing Editor of Public Employee Press. Fiction and reviews publications include The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, Sensitive Skin, Chemical Imbalance, Visions Libres, Glossolalia, Violet Windows, A Gathering of the Tribes and The Potomac Journal. His stories are featured in several anthologies, including Forbidden Acts and Pawn of Chaos.
His photography is included in several group shows, most recently at Museo della Grafica di Pisa, in Pisa, Italy. Photographs are also in the museum collection. Read more here: http://www.mleephotoart.com
Photo credit: Matt Tran