Spring Break

The spring break of my junior year of college I spent entirely at home on Avenue R, while my mother and father were at work and my brother was at school.  I was thinking Big Thoughts over that spring break: I had brought a shoulder-bag full of books home, many of them hardcover, stuffed between two pairs of jeans and my baseball glove.  I wore my own jeans and my brother’s t-shirts, that week.  We had become the same size, nearly exactly, leveling off around maturity.  Our shoulders, in the mirror, were the same width. 

That week was the week after the tsunami wave and earthquake in Japan, when three nuclear reactors suffered a partial meltdown.  I had about fifteen books to read that I knew with only a small sinking feeling I wasn’t going to finish.  There was a price to be paid for every book gotten through, and that price was 60 minutes for every 60 pages read—at best—meaning that each paperback stacked in my blue bag was a collection of solitary hours that I had no choice but to attempt.  I had recently read an essay by Jonathan Franzen in which he said that he had come to the realization that he would read only a finite number of books in his life.  He’d calculated that finite number, and at his stage in life it was a three-digit one.  I hoped that mine was an order of magnitude more than that, but still, the tangibility was weighing. 

My brother was a senior in high school then and it was his last for-sure baseball season, surely the last that I would be able to watch with such ease, considering the difficulty of making a college baseball team and the by-no-means guaranteed proximity of our schools during the brief spring season.  That week he had a game every day, so my schedule revolved shadow-like around his actions.  I took the train or drove into the city to watch him warm-up.  I’d sit on the bench and talk to his coach, once my own coach, while he played.  I watched him lean forward too much on first pitches, anticipating fastballs.  He was hitting third that year.  Sometimes he struck out and sometimes he got hits through the hole between short and third.  He had become in my absence a quite remarkable fielder. 

Then at nighttime I would eat dinner with the family, go upstairs and help my brother with his calculus homework, try to concentrate on something like reading or internet television while my slowly-deafening father listened to too-loud television in the living room, wait until everyone but my mother was asleep, when we would watch “The West Wing” on my laptop at the kitchen counter, and then even she would drift off and the house would be mine, except for my father’s coughs, and every once in a while when my brother got up to go to the bathroom. 

I was thinking Big Thoughts over that spring break.  It felt then like one of those threshold moments, when the world asks of you what the rest of your life will look like: summer jobs, no summer jobs, graduate school applications.  My computer was slowly dying that spring break. The Genius Bar people said it was only a matter of time.  It was leaking power.  This turned my attention to the appalling emptiness of my bank account.  I conjured up and rejected various get-rich-quick schemes.  I considered application to Kings Highway Car Service before remembering my sense of direction. 

The Big Thoughts were centered around things like reading and writing, which I thought were things I had focal points of understanding for and wished that I could make everyone else see like I saw.  I just needed to translate.  Questions like, now what really is the experience of reading.  I looked at old bookshelves that my father had built incorrectly in the last millennium and tried to relive the experience of each and every paperback.  I looked at the fifteen unread ones in my blue bag and tried to absorb their knowledge and desire.  I chipped away at the longer ones among them, trading clumps of time for their middle pages, forgetting, afterwards, even the characters’ names.  

And all along I had nothing else to do on the dying computer but check the news from Japan.  Every time I opened my email or watched internet television the news sites began flashing with journalism and numbers from the East.  Headlines about the last fifty workers left in the nuclear reactors, battling fire and radiation, shuffling in and out, some to the hospital when they collapsed for no reason and others on the floor dry-heaving, their lungs frozen with hidden fire.  There was an invisible pollution seeping through the air, the reports said.  There was the regular destruction of ocean-front towns and the shaking of skyscrapers, but also this, fifty workers chosen to remain in gas masks and white radiation suits.  Who could say that the world was not at an end?

In Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s book, there are a couple of things that characters keep saying, but one of them that I remember is “so and so didn’t know how to live.”  It’s just the way things are.  “They haven’t figured out yet how to live.”  This stuck with me over that spring break.  The way I read books then (still do, it’s ridiculous to refer to this in the far past tense) was to trace little things through them.  Franzen was great for this kind of trace.  Over the course of the book something became apparent, which was that no one knew or learned how to live. 

My roommate had (still has) a whiteboard on his desk.  He always insisted on having his desk in the common room, so he could be at the center of everything.  The rest of us just wanted to escape.  I thought of this at home.  On his whiteboard, at the top, it had a little improvised chart for how many miles he’d run on the days of the week.   And, included, his goals and personal bests for various distances.  2 miles, it said, question mark?  13:30.  4 miles? 27 flat.  Below that it said, “Life goals.” 1. Graduate.  2. Teach back home in California.  3. Teach abroad in Spain.  4. Graduate school of education. 5.  Principal.  And then 6: Secretary of Education?  Next to “abroad in Spain,” he had a questioning squiggly line, off onto a separate column.  “Astrophysics?” it said, question mark?

I read a lot of journalism, a lot book chapters, sitting on the Q train into the city.  The baseball games started at 4.  The sun was at a good point then, baseball-wise, not so high it hurt pop-flies, not gone enough to make shadows.  And you could see it, when the train went over the Manhattan Bridge.  There’s a moment after the East River as Chinatown disappears above you and the tunnel consumes the first cars, when you wonder if the Q could take you into the future.  Canal Street opens to its usual stench.  Next stop, you tell yourself, putting the book away.

The final day I was home for spring break was the last chance I thought I’d get to see a baseball game of my brother’s.  It wasn’t.  I bussed home later that semester, because I didn’t know what else to do, and watched the first round of their playoffs.  They won.  He hit a double down the fast alley an out-of-place centerfielder and left-fielder make, on a hot day and with a quick Astroturf.  Even that wasn’t the last chance.  He played over the summer with a local team, the Hurricanes, with a friend of his from high school whose mother had just died, cancer.  The kid was going to City College next year.  He was going to make the team, god damn it. 

That last spring break game, that hadn’t happened yet.  The last play of the game, if I remember it right, was a roller to my brother at third.  The important thing about those is that you have to take the right step first.  I mean you can shuffle on the way, but it better be damn near perfect.  We practiced these on the softball fields in the park, better after it rained, so the dirt was wet and smooth, without the possibility of bad hops.  The kid who hit the chopper was quick, you could tell when he’d walked up to the plate.  The coach of my brother’s team from the bench had made that motion with his hands, a roll of two fingers: wheels.  So my brother had to move fast.  You have to catch a ball like that on the right bounce.  He got it on the long one, didn’t even glove it, just open-handed it, and that was all off his left foot, and then he landed on his right foot and used the torque from that landing to throw.

Now once the ball left my brother’s hands it needed to be moving at 75 miles per hour, or, because he was so close, and I’m being generous, let’s say 90 miles per hour, or 132 feet per second, to get the quick runner in time.  Let’s say 50 feet away, and the runner more than three-quarters of the way to first.  The throw, at that speed and distance, would hit the glove in less than .45 seconds.  This was all through my head while the ball kissed my brother’s fingers, before he leveled his other foot down.  Other numbers: 9.0 on the Richter scale, 72.0 sieverts of radiation doses, enough to kill a person in minutes.  One book a week, 50 a year, 3,000 left.  Quick quick quick, yelled the coach on the bench.

It was a smooth pick, smooth throw.  The first baseman stretched and caught it.  The ball got there in time, and we all went home.  My brother was flush with suspense.