Tuesday, January 16, 2007

short sleeps and shallow hearts

On Tuesday afternoon, I fell asleep in my Medical Reimbursement seminar. Who wouldn't, right? It was only for a second (like six times). It was that crashing cymbal kind of falling asleep, where your brain sort of floats down into the floor until it makes contact and then you pop up and look around, your ears full of sound.

It's been quite a week. I finally finished Rob Sheffield's "Love is a Mix Tape" yesterday. My outfit this morning is beautiful nostalgic mess because of it. I dug to the back, the very-very back of my over-crowded closet and found my plaid flannel skirt from high school. You know the one, with the largest safety pin in all the world stuck in the side to keep it together? Yeah.

As a testament to the rock'n'roll, this actual safety pin was once worn on the jacket of Jonathan McKnight, an art rock angel whom I met on the steps of the St. Louis Art Museum during a class field trip in 1993. He had cut class at his magnet school to come and sketch passers-by and listen to his walkman. I stumbled in my doc martens off the bright yellow country school bus, long blonde hair flailing around my black and plaid attire. The boys in their ball caps and car-harts lined up in front of me, the girls in their tight levi's and big hair behind me. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Jonathan sat on the stone steps a little bewildered by the sight. He helped me gather myself and my black leather satchel, and my journals and pens which had fallen all over the sidewalk. I smiled a foolish smile. He returned it and nodded. I ran away.

I was supposed to stay with the group. These boys who would most likely rather be bow hunting than gazing at a Degas were sticking close together, a pack of little wolves with darting comments and biting glares at anyone who seemed to be enjoying themselves. The girls giggled and cackled and clucked, fists resting on hips, fingers pointed at anything they thought was weird or unusual. I think for once I was relieved to find that the things they were pointing at had nothing to do with me. We walked slowly through the galleries. I, with every turn, pulled further and further away from the group until I finally found myself all alone, staring straight into the swirling, spilling greens of a Van Gogh landscape.


My eyes flickered to the side and stayed, held by a pair of big, doe eyes and a quiet smirking smile.

"Hey." I looked down at his boots, worn and ragged, the frayed laces dragging on the floor. I looked to his hands, clutching a book, covered in stickers and dark drawn faces, overflowing with bits of paper. I looked to his face, relief filled my shoulders and chest. It was something about his face. I knew it or wanted to know it and knew it was okay. He was okay. We walked to the next room together, sat down on a bench. He asked me where I was from and handed me his notebook. I told him about the bus ride in, about my tiny town in the flat plains of Illinois, about listening through the static to bits and pieces, those precious moments I could get of morning show on the Point everyday as I got ready for school. "You're lucky," I breathed, flipping through page after page of beautiful forms and lonely faces, "to have a station like that. I have nothing in my town. No way to find out about new music." He laughed a little, "It's nothing. It's not that cool. I'll tell you about GOOD music. Can I write to you?" "Sure."

He did. Long letters full of confusion and lonelness. Drawings full of distorted faces and shallow hearts. That day that we met. He hadn't just cut class. He walked out of school. He walked out and intended never to go back. His favorite art professor had killed himself the day before. Jonathan's music was twisted and broken. And every other song he sent to me over the next year, from Pavement to the Smiths, Skinny Puppy, the Pixies, was a testament to some deep drawn emotion he was winding through during his days. He was working at an IHOP. Somehow, whether by his parents wish or my urging he returned to Art School.

I met Jonathan only one other time. Months later, I went shopping with my parents at a mall in St. Louis. I slipped away from them while we wandered through a department store to call him from a pay phone. He took the bus and met me in the food court. He had changed in those few months. His eyes, though still brilliant, were older, harder. He'd gotten several piercings, his eyebrow, lip, and nose. It didn't make him seem anymore edgy or frightening. It was like he was wearing that pain that he felt in his young, mangled heart, he was wearing it for everyone to see. But no one seemed to get it. I got it.

Before I left to find my parents he handed me this large metal safety pin. It was the length of my hand and heavy. He pulled it off of his leather jacket with a jagged smile. It was my token. He said that besides the letters, the drawings, it was something real, something i could hold and wear and know it was his, that he was alive, that I had known him. I hugged him and told him that I'd write and ran away.

A month later I got a frantic call from his mother. He had disappeared. He had taken some clothes with him, his sketch books, a little money, not much else. A few weeks after that she called to say they had found him, living on the streets in Indianapolis. He had been picked up by the police for vagrancy. His parents put him in the hospital. They said that he'd be okay. I never heard from him again.

"Quiet, quiet, you go away,
to short sleep and shallow hearts.
They do not hear you,
they'll never say,
that everything will be okay."
-SLM, 1993


prof fury said...

Damn! This is really beautiful, SL.

Sara Leah said...

Thanks, Prof. Coming from you, that's a very great compliment.