Theo and Sprout Excerpt for Kentucky Derby Day

I STEPPED through the looking glass when I mowed the lawn. I used to like mowing the grass. I know, an odd concept for a teenager. I liked to mow the lawn because I entered a separate world, alone. Alone literally or alone in the loud roar the mower created, a zone of aloneness around me. Too loud for people to loiter around or talk to me. Total bliss. As an introvert in a small house with a large family I took advantage of any alone time I could find.

The grass intoxicated me when I mowed it, the smell like a magic potion. The fresh organic smell filled me with life. I could be anywhere I imagined through this small but powerful connection to nature. An escape from the cramped house that didn’t speak of nature at all, except for the smell of babies. And there were always babies. Babies smell like life. Like musk or peat moss telling you nature is near, organic processes are occurring, that life is near. We spend too much time removing or covering up the smell of nature nowadays. We’ve sterilized our lives.

Liking to mow is crazy, I know. But it wasn’t crazy because mowing meant it wasn’t winter. And I hated winter. I still hate winter. One winter as a child, like four or five, I refused to go outside if I saw any snow on the ground. My childish logic connected snow and cold, and cold sucked. I refused to go outside. I committed so strongly to not going outside I wouldn’t change out of my pajamas. I relented when we visited my relatives for the holidays and put on real clothes, but dad would have to carry me out of the house because I wouldn’t walk on the snow. The wonderful irrationality of a child.

Apparently, my parents tolerated my refusal to go outside. But in a big family in a small house in the winter, the basic mental health of everyone required the children to go outside daily. I suspect the siblings wondered why I got a pass, especially when it was ten degrees below zero. I don’t know why I got a pass. Was something wrong with me mentally, emotionally, physically? I guess I could have asked my parents what they thought, but I was too young to contemplate such things.

In hindsight, the pass did me a disservice. Allowed me to rationalize my reaction to my hatred of the cold. Didn’t force me to overcome discomfort or develop coping skills. Allowed me to wallow in a prison of hopelessness as I stared out the window at the snow unable to imagine a faraway spring. I know now I can adapt to the cold. I know how to do it. The body acclimates. Your body is pretty smart. But I don’t acclimate to the long dark pit I fall into with the first snowfall of every long winter. I know the darkness might last.

Mowing the lawn demanded physical engagement, forcing me to move. I always needed to move. Young energy expressing itself. Putting perpetual motion to good use. Movement replete with satisfaction and completion.

One spring weekend I remember the running of the Belmont Stakes was showing on television. Horse racing. I didn’t know much about horse racing then and still don’t, but the slow buildup of anticipation to a three-minute race that seemed to last forever captivated me.

Horse racing embodied the ultimate in movement. For the horse, the movement existed for its own sake. For the jockeys and owner, competition drove them. For the gamblers, the thrill of beating the odds brought them to the race. I wasn’t a jockey or a gambler. The thrill meant nothing to me. For me and the horses, the movement exhilarated us. Powerful, natural movement.

I watched the three-minute race. Revved up by the pulsing movement, I needed to move. I decided to go mow the lawn. I didn’t have to ask. No one else wanted to mow the lawn.

I walked into the yard. The grass stared at me like sheep waiting for the shearing. I had a plan, an inspiration. I pulled the mower out of the garage. I began on the outside of the yard and mowed an oval. I pushed the mower around the yard again and cut another swath to widen the oval. I stopped the mower and observed my oval. My race track. Not exactly Belmont Stakes looking but a little imagination could transform it.

I started to run around the race track. We had a small yard. I could have run around the track hundreds of times. While the oval wasn’t large, the track still had straight-aways and curves so I had to slow down and speed up. The smell of the grass, the memory of the horse race, the young hormones. I obliviously ran around and around.

On one of the many laps, she showed up. The girl with the sprouted breasts, the full cheeks and gangly legs. This time I could sense her presence. I didn’t have to look or feel. I knew. I could feel anxiety at her presence well up in me, but I didn’t bother to debate whether it was a dream. This time she just was. With her came the tingling warmth that had spread over my body in the park. I smiled at the feeling she brought. Would she bring liberation again?

“Hi,” she said.

I smiled. “Hi.”

We kept running. The running began to feel like flying, soaring. I imagined jumping on the wind, flying up to the treetops, wind in our face. The smell of grass and leaves. Effortlessly moving in circles. I became a horse, an eagle, wild and free. I closed my eyes on the straight-aways and escaped. I leapt into the air like a horse running a steeplechase. Unbounded.

“We’re flying,” she said. “I can feel the wind in my ears and see the world below. Like an eagle.”

“I know.” We spread our arms out like an airplane. I swooped this way and that. “This is wonderful.” I jumped and spun in a circle. I jumped and spun again but this time stumbled and rolled to the ground. We sprang back up and raced around the track again.

“Where are we now?” she asked. “We must be high up. In the mountains, maybe. I see a stream below.”

I’m not sure where we had flown to, but we weren’t in my backyard. I didn’t care where my imagination had taken me. I felt unimaginably uninhibited gliding through the air. “How do you do this? Are you a genie? Able to transport us anywhere?” I had imagined soaring like a bird before but I had never felt it.

“Ha! Do I seem like one who would grant you wishes? I’m much more than that. Anyway, none of the genie stories end up well. You learn a terrible life lesson and end up with nothing more than what you started with.”

“How do you transport us out into the universe?’

“I let go.” She wafted her hands through the air. “I let it all go.”

“Let what go?”

“Cares, concerns, fears, worries, foolish pride. I soar and leave them on the ground.”

“Easy to say.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Hey, hey, knock that off. You’ll ruin the grass. Hey.”

I opened my eyes and tumbled down to the backyard grass brought down to earth by Dad yelling at me, worried about the grass. He walked to the mower and yanked it towards the front of the yard. “Can’t you finish anything? Jesus!” He started the mower and began to destroy my racetrack.

As soon as I saw Dad, I didn’t care about the grass or finishing the mowing. I cared about him noticing the unknown young girl running in circles in his backyard. I didn’t respond to him. I didn’t even acknowledge him. I left the track as far from him as I could and ran and hid behind the garage.

I squatted down and leaned against the garage. Breathing hard from running. Breathing even harder from the fight or flight response. My heart pumped out of control, terrified Dad might see her. I had gone from a soaring eagle in my inner life to a fleeing rabbit in my outer life. I shook form the adrenalin.

“Exhilarating, wasn’t it” she said.

“Yeah, until Dad showed up.”

“Yes, he seemed unnecessarily crabby. At least you were mowing the lawn. We didn’t have to run and hide. We weren’t doing anything wrong.”

“Oh yes we were. We were you. How was I going to explain you?”

“I don’t need to be explained. Be confident in who we are. In who you are.”

“You tell him that. He’d freak out. He yelled about mowing the lawn wrong. What would he do if he saw his son was a girl?”

“Learn to accept it?”

“Yeah, right.”

I hugged myself to try to calm down. I could feel her breasts right above my folded arms. This can’t keep happening. What does this mean? Is this real? It sure felt real. The presence of her breasts couldn’t be denied or ignored. Yet this was bigger than her breasts. This was about her. Even though I felt like I was still me, her personality somehow inhabited me without possessing me. We conversed as if that was perfectly normal. I was still there except for the way I felt.

I had felt free. Euphoric. The same euphoria I had felt in the park. I desired that feeling more than anything. Or was it the liberation that brought euphoria? I wasn’t sure. I wanted the liberation my introversion subverted in an extroverted world. Liberation from fear of the world, from fear of soaring. Is this how Peter Pan felt? Who needed other people or drugs to soar? I had her.

But fear. My fear overpowered my desire. Fear of being a monster. Fear of having to explain something I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to handle the fear. I could only run away.

I heard the mower stop. “Theo,” Dad yelled. “Hey, come finish this lawn.” He leaned around the corner of the garage and looked at me. “Quit acting like a space alien and come out here. I have to take your mother to the store. I don’t have time for this.”

Shit. Was I caught? I looked down. Nothing. She had disappeared.

Dad didn’t linger but shouted as he walked away, “Finish before we get back.”

I slumped down into myself, relieved at escaping exposure. But I felt the liberation fleeing and couldn’t stop it. Strange as it was for her to exist, she brought liberation and I wanted that more than anything. But in short, I was afraid. My fear drowned me in despondency.

I tried to recreate the sense of liberation as I returned to mowing the lawn, but it had fled with her. I imagined again soaring through the clouds. The euphoria evaded me, like trying to grasp a butterfly spinning through the air. My aloneness now felt empty without her. Her absence, like her presence, left me confused.

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