As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring. I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on. No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either. The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts. A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming.
The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year. In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class; blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.
The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end. In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend. She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her. When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger. Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically. Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years. Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.
During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me. Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends? Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?
My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well. Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young. It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism. When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point. In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things. One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift.
Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country.
Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts. With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier. I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms. Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero.
As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek. Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether. By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it. My mother is very, very sensitive.
At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement. Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country. Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.
The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit. I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure. I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile. They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much. For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned. I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.
I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach. When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again. They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.
We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes. It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage. Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change. And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera. When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together. The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.
In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket. It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.