Now and Then

The coolness of the morning air invades my throat and leaks down into my lungs, giving a strange sense of freedom. The stuffy place we live in doesn’t allow for clean air, as there’s only one place for air to come in or escape—our singular door. Some mornings the dense air in our neighborhood causes an asthma attack, but not today.

I close my eyes and breathe in, remembering my life five short years ago. If anyone would have told me I’d be struggling for food to feed my children and gathering pennies to pay my bills, convincing me would have been quite the challenge. I smell the dog food factory and wonder how many others smell it too. When it’s really hot out, and the wind blows considerably, I scurry into the hot apartment or taste the meaty liver in the air wafting up my nostrils and invading my pallet. It’s the only meat we get anymore. Perhaps I should be grateful for the free samples.

I plop down on the lumpy portion of lawn by my car watching the ants climb up the thick, rough-barked tree that reaches high into the clearest blue sky, dappled with clouds as soft as the foam on an inviting hazelnut frappuccino. The same sky I had five years ago before we were forced to moved from our prominent home in the next county.

My kids and I used to live in Draper, less than an hour away, but at the same time another world altogether. Our home was stationed far above on a mountainside, the air smelled sweeter, lighter and crisp. Sometimes the slow churning pollution covering the valley floor in the mountain’s bowels concealed the buildings in the oh-so-distant valley. Several degrees cooler, I was grateful we didn’t have to suffer like the poor schmucks in the valley below. Even our grocery stores had elite items, allowing us to stroll on the finer side of life—the privileged side—where the kids could play with neighbor friends and I didn’t need to remain outside the entire time protecting them from strangers, drug dealers, and thugs.

The mountainside housed sizable living quarters with four-door oversized garages protecting the luxury cars, family boats, and top-of-the-line motorcycles the families owned. The lawns were bright green with flowerbeds hugging the homes like an everlasting hug, not littering dandelions so thick the sparse grass could hardly be seen at all. The neatly trimmed hedges with an occasional topiary decorating the lawn, not like the half-dead trees jutting up as if attempting to pierce the sky with sharp, bare and half dead branches, threatening humanity to keep its distance.

I remember the couples jogging by with their special three-wheeled strollers, appearing from a Sears-Roebuck catalog with tank tops that coordinate with their shorts and Adidas shoes. Expensive water bottles strapped around their waists on a special belt, housing clean and pure mountain water. They don’t have water that leaves dark mineral fragments across the bottom of the bottles, or that scrape the roof of their mouth between their teeth when they swallow, coating their tongues.

The father steadied the stroller with one hand and picked up the tossed out rattle with the other. He gave the rattle a brisk wiggle before placing it in the baby’s tiny and innocent hand. The baby cooed and gave it a celebratory shake as if thanking his father in baby language. The family giggled and continued their jog with the sun on their faces and the cool wind at their backs.

In front of me now, I see two kids playing on the street from under the tree. Their tangled hair drifts in the leftover air spewed from the mountainside. Their clothes appear as Salvation Army rejects, a stained green shirt and wrinkled orange shorts with cloth-topped tennis shoes—K-mart’s $5 special. Probably all hand-me-downs.

The boys kick a ball up and down the street as it lazily wobbles side to side over the uneven edges where the stitching threatens to give way.

“I win!” A child gleefully shouts until his somewhat larger friend delivers a hard kick to his stomach, grabs the ball, and dashes home, leaving him doubled over in the gutter at the side of the road. “I won,” the boy groans insistently, “fair and square!”

How much does winning really mean?

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