I am walking home today, the first real day of fall. (Like the first real day of spring in Maine, this has nothing to do with the calendar, everything to do with the switch being flipped--you know it is fall the way you know it's raining. Last's week's humidity has been traded in for a definite chill in the air, and every tree suddenly bearing tiny swaths of gold and red in its sunniest reaches.) The sun splays out across the harbor and shafts through the eight-foot high trunks of reeds to my right, and there, only a few feet past the public sidewalk, is a defined nook, a hidey-hole big enough for maybe three people to sit on snapped trunks and dry leaves. I smile but don't slow down in my walk. This is someone else's place--a place to sit alone, to cry or stare up at the clouds waiting for time to move, and, on very rare occasions, to bring very selected others. It is not my place, and I make no move to claim it.
Because I had a place like this once--a place that wasn't, by any stretched laws of property, mine, though I would have argued the point until I was hoarse. It wasn't used by anyone else--of this I was certain in the way that children are certain of improvable things. The parking lot at my church was far bigger than it needed to be by then, and the whole back half had long gone unpaved and unpainted, delicate flowering weeds smashing concrete to rubble from underneath. And it was there, along the back left side where the woods flanked in close, pressing up the corner of the lot into a near wave of rock. The hill was not a hill, I suppose, but what else did you call it, rolling steeply down into the underbrush? A skittering of stones and dirt, a check to ensure none of same has left permanent, mom-alerting traces on clothing or shoes, and I am there. Removed from every other thing. Invisible. Secured.
I have lost the time I spent there. I have no idea what I did while the sun sank low and my mother attended meetings and studies. But it was good time. Time when nothing mattered but nature's sounds and whether you could see the moon through the cracks in the trees. I didn't have a name for it then, but it was here I learned to sit quietly with God, neither of us saying anything. Clambering out again (with a second check of shoes and shirt) was a dull goodbye, but only a slight one--places like mine did not change or leave or shift their attentions. It would patiently wait.
I don't remember taking any girl friends here--I had friends at church, but I don't remember sharing this with them. Maybe that's the veil of memory, or maybe I was afraid they would take my place and make it theirs. But boys, I remember.
I took Eric there one afternoon. I don't remember any other memory of him but this one. I was whatever age it is when a boy's rat-tail begins, very slightly, to shift from weird to intriguing--disgust giving slow ground away to desire. And his large shoes crunching further into the woods, slowly gazing up trees appreciatively. "This is cool," he breathed, and I appreciated his agreement. Later--that same day? a different one?--he had to pee, and went to the far side of the clearing to do so. I stood immovable, neither turning away nor turning toward, acting with meticulous carelessness, insisting more to myself than him that this was normal.
Some years later, I took Jon there. We stepped easily down the slope--one step, then another--and I waited for the same sigh. I don't remember what he said--only my replies. "The house didn't use to be that close." "Well, ya know, I only came here when I was little." He wasn't mean, I remember, only confused. I'd brought him eagerly out to this place that was barely big enough for us to stand, looking plainly into backyards of neighbors.
The place wasn't the same after that, though it kept its promise and never changed. I tried to go back once, maybe twice, and by then could appreciate that whatever spell had kept me hidden, had kept the walls thick and the world at bay, was broken and gone.
Walking past the reeds today, I missed my place. I have no shortage of places I love to go--restaurants, beaches, parks, wooded trails--but none of them are exclusive to me. I must share custody with a thousand other souls, and the places are less themselves for it. My house is mine, but with no secret, open to all visitors--a different kind of ownership. So I share my spaces, and I commune with God in front of my computer or looking out my bedroom window at the moon. And these new places, and the time spent there, are good--but are a different kind of mine.