The growth of worry

In my memory there is a boy who does not worry. He is nearly fearless, the luxury of the invincible. He walks to class across the college quad without shoes, his three quarter length pants baggy and his wallet on a chain. He is at peace here, at least in memory. He has few books, little money, and no plan for the future. He is somewhere between 18 and 21, and his world is smaller than he would admit.

In two thousand three there is a boy who climbs buildings in Tokyo in the dark without fear. He does this casually, stepping off of balconies as though they were stairs, catching himself on the flat of floor above as his feet touch the top of the railing a level below. In this way he slides in and out of conversations at parties, skipping floors from one gathering to another without ever entering the apartments. He is almost a ghost, a part of many moments and somehow impossible to contain. One night in the rain he talks with a colleague on the open walkway in front of their apartment, looking out over Saitama. The dawn is not far off.

I’ve always wanted to climb that water tower,” he says, indicating one perched on a seven storey building three blocks away. It must have a great view.” This section of the suburban Saitama sprawl is short, most buildings four or fewer floors.

That might be tricky,” his colleague says, perhaps tired, perhaps older and aware of the risks. Without pause the boy is off, down the four floors to the ground and away. His colleague watches from the railing as he walks into the apartment building and up to the top floor on a similar exposed walkway, the construction a kind of standard Japanese topography. At the seventh floor he is stymied, for a moment. The stairs do not continue to the roof. After a quick look around this boy climbs onto the railing, balancing carefully. Hands extended for stability he rises to his feet, and reaches for the roof. It is a flat edge, no gutters, and after a moment he pulls himself up onto the roof, seven storeys up, now eight. Later he will confess that this moment scared him, palms flat on the wet concrete, pulling his body up over the edge of the roof with legs dangling below. Trusting to friction.

That morning, though, he makes it, and after a few seconds is up the ladder and onto the water tower’s roof. With a quick wave of triumph for his watching friend he turns to the sunrise, the sky just starting to lighten towards Tokyo.

The memories are clear, the actions easy to recall. The fear of palms on wet concrete that morning has never left me. Instead it is the lack of fear, the easy joy in dropping off my fourth floor balcony and swinging into my neighbor’s third floor card game that has gone, replaced by a concern for insurance, for physical therapy.

Like all changes this was a gradual one. Despite the obvious, it was not triggered by twenty fourteen. I wonder if this tale of aging is a common one, or if the joy of sitting on a lighting truss at 16, thirty feet up above concrete, tightening down a light to my side with both hands while the pipe that held us both swayed with no support that was the odd part. Were we all as free?

Specific moments of change do come back to me. I gave up climbing balconies on moving to China, where the iron balustrades could be shaken by hand free from the concrete. I gave up climbing buildings when the railings became untrustworthy. The sentence is filled with irony, and with half truths. On returning to our campus setting for our ten year anniversary I met some current students who were setting out for a building climbing adventure.

Did you climb buildings back in your day?” they asked me.

I’ve been on top of four buildings already this weekend,” I told them, truthfully, and we swapped common approach spots, both so glad to share. It should be their ten year reunion soon, I think. I wonder if they’ll similarly celebrate on top of Chicago, and if they too will one day wonder where that feeling of freedom has gone.

Unpacking ourselves

In the lukewarm dark of a Corte Madera evening we have a drink at a brewery down the street from his high school.  It is January, and where I am from the thermometer strains to reach twenty Fahrenheit.  It is January and where he lives pea coats are of necessity not fashion. In California we leave our jackets in the car.

We have but scant hours to cram years into. For some time our questions bounce back and forth at full speed, our minds most concerned with detail and the passage of time. Married now, he lives in a city close to my heart though not at all where we last met.

After a while we have enough to know that despite time and changes this is the same person sitting opposite. That we are the same friends who last spoke in a New York apartment, a Shanghai ferry boat, a Vassar auditorium. We are again comfortable and I remember lunches from years before. In a cafe in Hongqiao I would sit and write letters to far off friends, and open their letters after ordering, unfolding parts of their lives into my Chinese workday. His letters were meticulous, composed in those days at a grad school office or in an apartment overlooking Astoria Park. My responses often contained traces of my lunchtime location, coffee or soup, pastry crumbs or the tomato splatters of a Xinjiang restaurant I once favored.

In the bar now he tells me the kind of truth that only comes from good friends long absent.

We’ve lived together long enough that we’re not trying so hard to be together. We have relaxed a little, and feel comfortable enough to unpack parts of ourselves.”

I nod, the smile on my face growing large. I know exactly what he means. At the beginning of any relationship, nervous and eager, we are the best versions of ourselves we can be. Eventually, when this new experience has become daily life, we discover parts of ourselves put away in the eagerness and forgot. Tucked behind old jeans in the closet we now share, they are parts of ourselves we never meant to hide.

And slowly, miles from where we began, we unpack them. Gradually, because we are shy.

After our beers are done we head home, him to his folks for one more night in the house of his childhood, and me back up over the hill, across the bridge, and into the city.

It comes to me, on the bridge, the city laid out in front of me and full of light. Maybe this kind of meeting, stopping on the way home from work for a drink with a friend from long ago, maybe this is exactly what we meant, a part we never meant to put away.