Somewhere I Belong

As I work on my writing skills, one of the exercises that I’m undertaking is writing a memoir. This is not something I ever plan to publish, but it helps workout my writing muscles, so to speak. Here’s an excerpt from Odd Man Out, my memoir.

My earliest memories date back to the summer of 1975 when I was just four and a half years old and my parents took me on a rare vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. These memories are not necessarily coherent but more like a series of sights, smells, and feelings that have lingered in the fog of long ago as if they have some purpose to serve in defining who I am. Nothing dramatic happened, and I was too young to have any sense of a seminal moment in my life, but for some reason, these lingering memories float into my consciousness regularly when I look back on my life.

I do remember this: my parents were young and vibrant and enjoying a rare moment of happiness. My dad stood tall and lean with a shock of thick, wavy hair that would define him until his death 40 years later. I remember sitting near the pool at the motel where we stayed and watching my dad jump into the deep end and swim around. He’d emerge from the edge of the pool, water streaming off his lean frame, and ask if I wanted to join him. I shook my head no because my mom had impressed upon me her fear of water, a fear she’s never overcome.

Instead, mom took me to the kiddie pool nearby, a shallow concrete oval overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine. I splashed around and sat in the water while my mom, always a worrier, watched diligently, too preoccupied about my safety to enjoy the moment. I remember my mom’s big hair – tall, thick, and long, framing her face much like it had in pictures of  her from the 1960s. That’s the only moment where I remember my mom having a haircut other than the mom-cut she adopted in the late 1970s and has worn since. She kept her eyes on me for the most part, too shy to speak to any of the other people around her other than my dad, a relic of her upbringing.

After a while, a little girl about my age joined me in the kiddie pool, and my dad sensed an opportunity to tease me. He asked me if she was my girlfriend. I gave him my best puffed-lip “No.” He kept going until I became frustrated and embarrassed and stomped out of the pool to sit on the lounge chair next to my mom. My mom admonished my dad for his behavior, but he just laughed before he dove back into the water. I sat there, my arms folded and face burning with indignation, inhaling the mildewed scent of one of the old, cushioned chairs that ringed the dilapidated motel pool.

After a while, dad grew tired of swimming and teasing me and pulled himself out of the pool to join us. He brushed off my insolence and we reconciled in the way only fathers and sons can – he tussled my hair and told me to stop being a baby. He dried off and fumbled through his shirt to find his cigarettes. He went through the motions that I eventually grew to know so well: tapping the cigarette out of the pack, cupping his hand to light it, and then exhaling a big plume of white smoke as he held the cigarette between his yellowed fingers. Dad smoked my entire life only giving it up reluctantly in the final 18 months of his life when it became medically necessary. I never took up the habit myself, but to this day, I think of him when I smell smoke.

Later that evening, or maybe it was the next day, the three of us walked down the main drag in Gatlinburg in waning summer daylight. I don’t remember much about that night, but I remember walking between my parents. I remember the faint smells of rot that drifted up from the alleys where the trashcans sat. I remember the bright lights of the store fronts and the crowds of people coming at us and overtaking us on the street. My short legs could only move so fast, and my parents were not in a hurry.

The most vivid memory of that evening came when we walked by a store selling candy and other high-sugar sweets. My eyes fixated on a rotating plate of caramel apples. I could practically smell them through the glass. I wanted one in a bad way. My mom demurred casting aspersions against the effects of the sugar on my teeth. Dad overruled her, and before I knew it, I was sinking my teeth into the warm caramel as it dripped onto my hands and shirt. My mom fretted at the mess; my dad laughed.

We resumed our walk down the vibrant street stopping occasionally so that my mom could look in the storefront windows. I stood between my parents as we walked and held their hands, almost suspended between them as my tiny feet glided across the sidewalk. I remember looking up to dad and thinking that he was so tall and strong. I remember the smell of the smoke as he inhaled one cigarette after another. I remember the warmth of my mom’s hand and the soft tones of her voice, but mostly I remember feeling a sense of belonging, a deep-seated satisfaction that I didn’t understand at the time but that I now recognize with the benefit of many years.

Looking back, I realize that moment in time was one of the few times in my life where I felt like I was somewhere I belonged. The months and years that followed brought great change, some good but mostly not. That moment of happiness faded into our collective memory, a rare jewel in a box of dull gems.

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