Last weekend, five months almost to the day after I first took up residence here in the cozy Bear Lair, I hung some pictures on the wall.
There's no significance to the anniversary itself -- if not for the fact that I know I moved in over the Fourth of July weekend, I wouldn't have even known it was sort of an anniversary. It's the five months that resonates: five months of living in a place without particularly personalizing it. The first few weeks I lived here, there wasn't a single day when I climbed the stairs to my apartment after work and didn't have the faint inkling I'd find a note on the door telling me I couldn't live here anymore. This is what a prolonged stretch of living in the margins does to a person: you find yourself looking over your shoulder long after the danger has passed. I spent a year like that before I finally lost my house a couple years back. Walking down the one-way street that terminates directly across the street from my former driveway, I would look for signs that the bank had finally sent someone to lock the place down: no-trespassing signs on the lawn, maybe some yellow tape across the doors, or a small fleet of sheriff's cars parked around the perimeter. I remember one evening as I came within sight of the house, the first thing I noticed was that the outside light, which I left on perpetually, was out, and my first thought was that the electric company had finally cut the power (I wasn't paying for that, either). It turned out to be a blown bulb and, ironically enough, I had a whole drawer full of fresh bulbs, which felt like a win. When the end finally did come, it was relatively benign: my friend Snuggles drove by and, seeing the notices taped to the doors and windows, called to give me the news I'd been expecting for what felt like forever. By then I was occupying a friend's empty apartment while he wintered in Puerto Rico, so I was fortunate enough to have a roof over my head. Still, it stung. I felt the ambivalence of someone whose bandaid has finally been ripped off, but who also knows he left behind more than enough to lament. As it happens, that was also the day I found out the girl I'd been pining for, the one who'd sent me off the rails, was dating a gay German physicist baker. The bandaid ripping was rampant. It wasn't my best day ever.
The pictures line the left-hand wall of the long entry hallway of the apartment. The first one you come to when you walk through the door is a framed diptych from the year I coached Braden's rec-league soccer team when she was in the first grade. When we went to sign up Braden for soccer, I casually jotted my name under "assistant coach," foolishly expecting they already had all the coaches they could ever want (what the hell did I know about rec leagues?). A week later, Braden's mother called me at work to inform me that Braden had come home from school with the game and practice schedule, at the top of which was my name after the word "coach." I remember thinking, "Aw, what the fuck is this?" But I showed up and took my medicine for the girl's sake. And you know what? It was fantastic. Eight little girls in teal t-shirts and shinguards bumbling around the field in clusters wherever the ball happened to be -- well, except the goalie, who was usually crouched in the goal mouth drawing pictures in the sand -- and me, an out-of-shape thirty-something egging them pointlessly on. The most common occurrence in sporting events featuring kids that age is the incidental injury: the kick to the knee, ball to the stomach or face, or the unexpected rough tumble, and those were the moments I truly shined as a coach. I've always been of the opinion that the worst thing you can do when a kid takes a digger is act like it was a big deal, because, let's face it, more often than not it really isn't, and whether it is or it isn't, the kid's potential to get hysterical is directly proportional to the extent to which the adult in charge gets hysterical. This is where I perfected my pain diversion technique: get the kid's attention, and then get her to start smacking her elbow with her other hand, then nod and say, "Better, right?" I won't say it works every time, but it definitely works more often than not. In the two photos featuring my soccer team and me, the girls are draped all over me, smiles on every face. I'd say we did okay.
There's a smattering of Braden-as-a-toddler and Braden-as-a-little-lady photos: one of her crawling that is almost certainly the first record of her mugging for the camera; another one of her on her belly in our apartment in Portland, which is a little weird because she was walking by then (although I like the composition of that one, because it shows the bottom shelf of one of our bookcases: big art books of Muench and Klimt and Modigliani, all of which are now long gone); Braden wearing some sort of headband and a perfectly beatific smile; and one of the girl wearing a quilted robe and playing peekaboo one night when she stayed with my folks. There are also two pics from when she was even younger than that, maybe no more than six or eight weeks old. We were living in Portland then and frequently took the kids to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. In one pic I'm standing on the rocks above the ocean holding the newborn, a big smile on my face and a full head of hair on my head. In the other it's me and the baby, my head turned toward Braden's brother Julian, who appears to have just said something profound. The sun's getting ready to set. That was a fine evening for our little family.
There are satisfying moments of continuity: Braden in a fancy dress and me in a tie, mock-dipping her in preparation for our first father-daughter Valentine's dance; and the two of us six years later, both dressed to the nines (my tie even matching her dress, if you can believe that), dining at her step-father's short-lived restaurant the night of our final father-daughter Valentine's dance. We went to every one of them from kindergarten through sixth grade, and the one thing I'll never forget about the last one is that, unlike all the rest, she eschewed the allure of running around with her pals and, instead, stayed on the dance floor with her dad until the lights went up. Ladies and gentlemen, that right there is a girl with heart.
I could share with you the whole litany, give you some background on every one: the snowman photo from a late-winter freak storm in 1996; the belly laugh pic with missing teeth at her friend's birthday party the summer before second grade; the school photos in which she looks like a different person every single year. But I'll wrap it up now. At the very end of the line, encroaching upon the living room so that I can see them from where I now sit if I crane my neck, there's the matched set of Braden and her brother Julian from the year they turned two and five, respectively. I know this because in the photos they are each posing beside an oversized rendering of the number that corresponds to their ages. The photos are tacky in the way those wispy profile-over-the-shoulder senior photos from the 80s were tacky. But they also make me smile every time I look at them because, whoever that photographer was, he or she made magic that day: those kids are both wearing their best ever faces in those photos. And that's good stuff.
Just above those pics sits Braden's senior photo, which was shot by one of her friends. It's a close-up, head and shoulders, her body turned away, head turned back toward the camera. It's an artful photo, well shot by her friend but also well posed by Braden, who has always seemed to have a knack for showing the camera what she wants it to see. She is looking back, but her momentum is carrying her in the other direction.
Which almost certainly explains why that was the last picture I finally hung on the wall.