Oasis

{This week’s focus was memoir and the assignment was to capture a memory from childhood, one that holds a strange fascination even today. This is what I wrote.}

Oasis

The sun bounces joyfully off the still surface, imposing flashes onto my vision that follow my gaze and dance before the curtain of my eyelids.

How is it here? How have I never been here before? The entirety of my childhood is rewritten, gaping holes where this place could have been–a palpable absence in every memory. No amount of coming here can make up for all the times I could have come before. The regret sits like a weight on my chest, already burdened by the oppressive heat of the day and the considerably exertion of the climb.

The air is thick and hot, a wet blanket draped over my shoulders and face, threatening to suffocate me. Beads of sweat defeat my body’s natural (and inadequate defenses), expertly invading my eyes.

My tennis shoes, dingy and worn, toe the smooth boulder below my feet. In front of me sits a perfect swimming hole, sparkling in the crevice of red and orange rocks. This oasis sits in a path of widely strewn rubble, scooped hands cupping perfectly clear, exquisitely cool water. I’m not sure if these rocks are the remnants of some long forgotten excavation or the product of natural erosion of some kind. I hardly care.

I stand there, mouth agape, pondering its beauty.

To find something like this, to just happen upon it, is unheard of. On this rock island of almost six million people nature exists almost exclusively in small, manicured, installments. There are no fields and very little grass. The opportunities to explore places overrun by nature are few and far between.

And yet here one exists, on the mountainside directly behind my apartment complex–a daunting vertical presence jutting dramatically beside my bedroom window. I’d never wondered what treasures it might hold. Its rocky expanse, swallowing my field of vision in all directions, suggested nothing but shrubs and crumbling earth.

I had only touched the side of the mountain a few times before, in the strange forbidden space at the back of my building, tucked at the end of a labyrinthine stretch of outdoor hallways between the middle towers of the complex.

If you managed to arrive there, at the room that wasn’t a room, you could trespass by pressing your body between the thick concrete slab of the building’s foundation and the sharp rocks of the mountain’s jagged façade. Why the management did not extend the building the mere inches required to wall off the space completely I would never know. I guess they underestimated the curiosity, determination and stupidity of their younger residents. Perhaps they didn’t care.

The room that wasn’t a room held a cavernous space, at least two stories tall, with ceilings that sent your voice ricocheting back to you. The floor was littered with towering mounds of concrete debris, the odd plastic bucket or cracked beer bottle thrown in to break the gray monotony. The space was simply a room that wasn’t, an emptiness carved by structures on three sides and the mountain towering along the fourth.

These dark, forbidden spaces, forged at the intersection of human achievement and the earth supporting it, were not difficult for us children to find. On the far side of the complex, if one were so inclined, it was possible to jump over the railing of the parking garage stairs and scamper along the gutter between the building’s outer foundation and the mountainside. Turning the corner there was a slim opening between two buttresses, just wide enough for narrow hipped children to slip through. The opening was so tight and so long that it inevitably engendered panic, but if you could push forward (despite the overwhelming urge to turn back) you would end up in the shallow crawl space between the parking garage and the ground below it. The ceiling was so low that crawling along on forearms and stomach was required. To the left, the ground sloped steeply and the smooth concrete of the foundation quickly gave way to dirt and gravel. The only light came through thick and tightly woven screens at the far side and it was impossible to see much, even after your eyes adjusted to the lack of light.

I hated that space, under the parking lot, even more than I hated the room that wasn’t a room. The juxtaposition of the true mountain and our man-made imposter inspired a haunting mixture of fear and dread.

Standing at the edge of the swimming hole I am struck by the beauty the mountain is now offering me. Every thing about this space sharply contrasts with my previous encounters: the bright sun, the spaciousness, the leaves rustling gently in the breeze. There are even birds here, singing sweetly as the flitter in and out of the shade.

I sit down on the sun-baked rock and the heat immediately penetrates the flimsy protection my shorts fail to provide. I jerk up, swearing under my breath, and brush at my backside as if to provide some relief. I bend down to unlace my tennis shoes, but something stops me.

 

Do I jump into the water? I want to say yes. I can’t imagine that the answer is no, and yet this memory is tinged with regret. I reach into the past and can’t determine what happens next. I see the water so clearly, but I don’t feel it kissing my skin. It’s more a promise, an idyllic vision bleached by the sun, tinged with anticipation, and strangely marked by remorse.

I will be back here again. I am sure of it. Standing at the edge of the water I want nothing more than to jump in, but something is stopping me. Surely not the lack of a swimming suit, maybe it’s someone who is with me. Maybe plunging in has been forbidden.

But I will be back again. I promise it to myself.

Except now, looking back, I know that I won’t. I never go back.

I can’t remember why.

1 Comment

  1. This is a chapter in a book that I want to read… And a place I want to go (though surely I couldn’t get there with my wide-adult hips!).

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