A long time ago. A house that I used to live in, being repainted by two house painters. One of them a young man with red-blonde hair, newly diabetic, still figuring out how to live with it. Sometimes he started to crash, so I kept the door unlocked and orange juice in the refrigerator for him.
His partner: a young man with dark hair that came down to his shoulders and brown eyes and a smooth, tan face. His handsomeness inseparable from the sense of calm and happiness that surrounded him.
It was fall. A stretch of crisp golden-leaved days. One afternoon I walked onto the porch as they were cleaning up to go home. The brown-eyed painter saw me standing there, looking out at the maple, turning itself to flame, and smiled.
“Sublime,” he said.
I hear the word sublime now and it is him I see in my mind, his face tilted to that blue, blue September sky.
* * *
Many years ago, when I first moved to Minneapolis. A big urban high school where I taught Chinese for four years. One of my students: tall and lean, a basketball player. Smart –not in a bookish way– and funny. He flirted with all the girls, including me.
One day he didn’t show up in class. Word filtered through school that his father had died the previous night from a heart attack.
When the last bell rang I sat at my desk in the empty classroom, the door ajar. Suddenly there he was, poking his face around the doorframe, his irrepressible grin on his face.
“Hey Mai Laoshi,” he said (Mai Laoshi was my Chinese teaching name).
There he stood, smiling at me, his voice normal. But it was as if the air was shaking around him. I could almost see it, vibrating. I pushed myself up from the desk and put my arms around him.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay, Mai Laoshi.”
It’s okay, Mao Laoshi.
That word okay, does it ever really mean “all right”? Most of the time it’s like a spoken punctuation mark. A sound meant to put a pause in something, an acknowledgment of something that’s not okay at all, a word meant to get you from someplace you don’t want to be to another, different place.
When I hear the phrase It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s that boy’s face that I see, peeking around the door of my empty classroom.
* * *
Spring. A two year old boy. A back yard garden overrun with ferns just beginning to unfurl themselves. A young mother hauling bag after bag of groceries from the car into the house.
“Come on, little guy, let’s get into the house now.”
But he was stopped by the overgrown patch of yard, bent over and laughing. Pointing.
“Dinosaurs!” he said. “Dinosaurs.”
I bent down so I was as short as him and followed his pointing finger. It took me a minute, but then I finally understood: the ferns uncurling, bent under the weight of their own fronds, looked just like the T-Rexes that he was currently obsessed with.
Dinosaurs. They’re everywhere.