Lightning in a Jar: A Perfect Childhood


When you think about it, there is no such thing as a perfect childhood.

So much can go wrong, so much can happen. You can be five and playing hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of your home, and suddenly you miss a beat and fall in a heap of scrapes and bruises. You can have a much older half-brother who doesn’t think much of you and doesn’t give a second thought to scooping you out of your bubble-bath bliss, and dropping you naked and wet on the hallway carpet, simply because he needs to use the bathroom to take a piss.Me, June 1972 2 1

Maybe you’re playing with a brother you adore, and he’s jauntily carrying you across the living room, making you giggle in ecstatic glee as you anticipate being tossed on the couch. He drops you too soon. A genuine accident, and you land on the edge of the coffee table, your head striking the sharp corner of the table, causing a small puncture. Blood splatters across the table and onto the rug, and you end up requiring six stitches. Enough to make you scream and your brother to get a beating.

Think about it. A president can get assassinated just like that, and the world forever changes. Seemingly overnight, you can be eight years old and sent away to live with relatives in a far off country, and when you return, a year later, everything’s changed. Your family has moved, and no longer live in your childhood brownstone, but by the corner of Main Street and harsh reality, in a modest apartment, so small that you now are relegated to sleeping on the living room couch, after everyone else has gone to bed, that is.

You move again, this time out of the city and out to the suburbs of Long Island. You become deathly ill and are bedridden for months. Meanwhile, everything keeps changing around you.

Nothing stays the same and you can keep coming around the bend as many times as you want, and still you can’t stop it. Change, that is. It’ll happen, it always does. You keep moving, and time keeps passing and before you know it, you’re 15, and you find yourself living alone, as a boarder in someone else’s house, all because your own family has dispersed—parts unknown.

There is no such thing as a perfect childhood, but finally, your family settles down and you’re in high school. You meet a boy and go steady for the first time. A boy who’s a senior, and you’ve fallen in love. Then, life smacks you in the face, and you’re tossed to the curb in a wrenching breakup.

But, there’s someone in math class and for a fleeting moment you think, he is a friend but he could me more. If only the age thing didn’t bother you so much. That’s how you feel. Terrified that you find yourself liking him. Drawn to him and looking forward to seeing him each day in class, but ignoring him. Mortified that he’s so young. A whole year younger. If only, you say. He’s caring and you aren’t used to such sincerity. Yet, he doesn’t care about appearances, and you do. But then you never asked for this, all the same.

So, therein lies the rub. And, what do you do? You start hanging out with George and Max. Jake’s best friends. Max is all right. Hefty and tall, with a moon-shaped face, deep set eyes and a crooked grin. And, most of the time, stoned out of his mind.

But, George is another matter. He likes you, he really likes you, but you find him boring and dull-witted. No personality and if you think about him for too long, you become repulsed, but mostly with yourself. You can’t even stand it when he touches you. Yet, you agree to go out. Not one time, but several. Over and over and each time you dread it. You do this because you are a girl on a mission with one goal in mind: To make Jake jealous. And, what better way than by dating his best friend?

Yet, Jake doesn’t care. Not one bit, and he’s shown you that by his indifference. Witness the other night. You were at the Ho-Jo’s, sitting across from George, sharing a dish of chocolate ice cream. George kept going on and on about how nervous he was because he still hadn’t heard from his first choice for college, Plattsburgh State, and all you kept thinking was, Plattsburgh? Why would anyone want to go to a school with a name like that? And the more you said it in your head, the more peculiar it sounded and soon you burst out laughing, and George, who didn’t see the flash of scorn in your eyes, couldn’t figure out what had you in stitches. And, there you were, glaring at him as if he was the crazy one. Plattsburgh, indeed.

But, then Jake walked in with Little Miss Pinched Face. That’s what you’d taken to calling his new girlfriend because she always appears to be in flinching in pain. And, all you could think of was making Jake jealous, which is why you started flirting with George, suddenly gushing at his every word. And, while you did, you felt sick inside while George was beaming, taking it all in. He fell for you, after all. Jake gave a polite nod and sat down with Pinched Face, in a booth near yours, his back toward you. Why? Because he didn’t care. And, the rest of the night you felt stuck. Stuck with George and talk of Plattsburgh, watching his mouth form words you couldn’t hear, because your mind wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere, but there.

You’re young and foolish and can’t see the forest for the trees. You should know better, but jealousy has you by the throat. Jealousy and your own insecurities and self doubt. And, why do you keep pushing away the only boy you really care about?

Tap, tap.

What is that? Then you remember. You’re in study period and someone is tapping you on the shoulder, pulling you out of your self-defeating thoughts. You look up. It’s James, curiously staring at you, willing you to smarten up and see what’s in front of you. Wake up, he ought to be saying. Wake up!

“Thought I’d find you here,” he softly whispers. He crooks his finger and adds, “Follow me.”

You look around apprehensively. It’s study hall after all, and you haven’t really given James the time of day, and you wonder if his patience with you is wearing thin. The teacher assigned to study hall, who is more like a warden, seems to have left the room, and the prisoners, ahem, students, are on their own. James isn’t even supposed to be there, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Before you can reply, he takes your hand and pulls you up, and you feel your hand tremble as it meets his. His palm is tender and hot against yours. You grab your things, as he gingerly guides you out of the room. And suddenly, you’re taking flight, and you feel like an escapee. Where are you going? You don’t know, but there’s no time to ask. All you know is that, for the first time in weeks, you feel a lift in your step.

There may be no such thing as a perfect childhood, but sometimes there are moments that come close.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the Lightning in a Jar: High School Years page.