It was in Washington, DC at American University for a summer camp. I was there learning about film. She was there for journalism. We first talked on a bus ride to some day trip to a team-building exercise or radio studio or something enriching. The event doesn’t matter now, but that bus ride did.
I carried my iPod with me wherever I went. Having little to define myself, I used my favorite music to fill in the blanks. “Probably stuff you’d never heard of.” Arcade Fire. The Strokes. Interpol. It was 2007. Lots of people knew who the Strokes are.
“What are you listening to?” said a voice from behind my seat on the bus.
“Probably stuff you’ve never heard of.”
She sat up and pushed her head between the shoulders of the seat cushions. She had an iPod of her own in her hand. “Try me.” She smiled.
We switched iPods on the bus ride home. That night, I laid in my cot, listening to bands I’d never heard of, wondering about the men who created the playlists saved to her mp3 player and if I had a shot.
I go over to my grandmother’s house now and her legs are wrapped in gauze. She puts her arms around me to greet me and she still says, “Oh, Robert, it’s so good to see you.” Her words are still warm and passionate, but her arms sag after the embrace. When we sit down, she rests her elbows on the table, and I can see the outline of her bone, wrapped by a thin veil of wrinkled skin. She takes a few breaths before continuing. She still talks about British murder mysteries, articles in the Christian Science Monitor, that interesting piece she heard on NPR. She sees me look at the corner of a large bandage taped to her leg. “The doctor cut out the worst of it out last Monday,” she says.
I remember far away, on vacation in Maine, a river half a mile wide. “We’ll swim across,” I said then, and she responded, “I don’t know if I can do it, Robert.” “Of course you can. ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to,’ is what you’ve always said to me.” The current ran strong that day, but I was thirteen then, and a thing like that current is stronger when you are a kid. I didn’t think I could do much in life, but I knew then that we could swim it together. I swam out first, plunging my head down into the water. I fought the current the whole way, stopping at the other side to look back. She was swimming, her arms rising up and down as a steady white froth of water pulsed from behind her kicking feet. We stopped for a breath at that other side, holding onto the river’s grassy edge so the current wouldn’t take us, breathing and looking back at the shore where we’d been and where we’d be going.
He pressed a knob, and the motor clicked and whirred. At the flip of a switch, lights about the miniature village started to glow. “It’s kept me busy in retirement,” he said. He pushed a lever, and the model train began to pull its trolleys around the circular track. It glided past the toy village and up a hill. It disappeared into the paint-spackled tunnel, its headlight guiding the train to the other end.
The boy ran wide-eyed circles around the track, following the clicking train. He trailed it as it rounded the plastic farm and started the loop again. He reached out to join the machine in its joyous cycle, but the model was derailed. “For God’s sake,” the grandfather said as the motor whirred motionless on its side. The boy cried and ran up the stairs, leaving his grandfather to fix his model.