Note: The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress
Skating down towards Central Park, Leah’s hair flew behind her in a white and haunting ghost.
As she rode, apartment buildings looked like mix-matched checkerboards, and each window was a square. Some were illuminated, some pitch-black. Inside the illuminated ones, maybe a family watched TV, laughing, smiling, and bonding. Inside the dark ones, maybe a family slept. Or maybe they were empty. Maybe no toddler ever made a mess on their floors. Maybe there was no food on that toddler’s plate. Maybe they only knew emptiness. Like Leah, who felt like an empty apartment, a deserted room with nothing inside of it. Except for maybe a frozen pizza and some Hot Pockets.
As Leah sped down dirty sidewalks with overgrown moss, she arrived at Central Park with only one thing on her mind: Tower Rock, her and her father’s favorite rock in Central Park. The first time they went to Tower Rock, it was breathtaking. Leah was nine years old, and she had just finished her best-ever softball game – she had a whole two hits! As a treat, her father brought her to Central Park and got her a double scoop of strawberry ice cream.
“Holy cow,” her father said. “That is huge.” The ice cream cone was bigger than Leah’s head.
“I’m not sure if I can eat this all,” Leah said. Hoards of people milled around Central Park that day; it was a mid-afternoon in July. Couples walked by them hand-in-hand, children ran away from their parents, and people rode on by with their skateboards and bicycles.
They made their way to a bench and sat down. About ten feet away from them, a man sang “Let It Be” with an acoustic guitar.
“What a day,” her father said. “I can’t believe you hit two freakin’ doubles!” He took her by the shoulders and shook her in his excitement.
“Stop it, Dad,” she said, smiling. “You’re gonna make me drop my ice cream. And then the pigeons will eat it and get sick.”
Leah smiled, ice cream seeping out onto her lips and chin. She liked how her father got so excited about things.
“So how do you feel now that you’re a softball star? Can I get your autograph?”
“I’m not that good,” Leah said. “I just got lucky. Why isn’t Mom here?”
“Oh, you know that your mother’s busy,” her father said. “She’s always working.”
“Today is Saturday,” Leah said. “There’s no school on Saturday.”
“True,” her father said. “But there’s a PTA fundraiser today.”
“Oh,” said Leah. “That stinks.”
Her father thought for a moment. “Hey, have you ever climbed on the rocks here?”
“Do you want to try?”
“Because it’s scary.”
Her father shook his head. “I remember climbing the rocks here when I was your age. It was fun, climbing up there and seeing the world. It was like I was flying, except…”
“Humans can’t fly, Dad.”
“Do you want to try?”
“I guess so,” Leah said. She couldn’t finish her ice cream, so she gave it to her father. He ate it in ten seconds, got up, and took Leah’s hand. They navigated their way to Central Park South. It was a five-minute walk, but there were so many people that it took at least fifteen.
They saw children playing frisbee on the open grass, people on benches reading books, and ducks swimming along the pond. And then she saw the rocks. Most were short and flat; little children climbed all over them, some racing to see who could reach the top first and others trying to knock each other down, much to their parents’ dismay. One rock rose above them all, reaching ten feet in height. Its exterior was smooth, and there were very few footholds. Only a handful of people were at the top, most of them kids that were older than Leah.
“Which one are we going to do?” asked Leah, but she already knew the answer. Her father looked at that rock, his eyes wide. Leah supposed that he was trying to take in as much of the world as possible.
“That one.” He pointed to the tall rock.
They walked over, Leah’s knees shaking.
“You go first,” her father said. “That way I’ll catch you if you fall.”
She grabbed a handhold and pulled herself up. Feeling the rock’s surface with her shoe, she tried to find a foothold, but she just dangled there. Without knowing what to do, she let go and fell straight into her father’s arms.
“Woah there,” her father said. “Maybe I should just take you up there. Get on my back.”
He set her down and squatted. Leah climbed onto his back and grabbed his neck.
Inch by inch, her father scaled the rock, and Leah saw what he meant. She looked behind her, and the world started changing. The trees grew tiny and far away. The world on the ground didn’t matter.
“What’s this rock called?” she asked.
“I’m not sure of the official name,” he said. “But I always called it ‘Tower Rock.’ Isn’t this beautiful?” They reached the top in one minute, and her father placed her down.
Leah nodded and touched Tower Rock. It was cold and hard, and she could tell that it would be here for eternity, would remain here long after everyone around her died. In all her life, she saw nothing as beautiful as the view from Tower Rock. Two teenage girls laid on their backs looking up at the sky. A boy sat at the rock’s edge leaning against his mother’s shoulder. Everything seemed like it was a thousand feet below her. From that height, all of the trees, all of the people, all of the wildlife, emanated insignificance. Looking up at the sky, Leah felt that if someone would give her a boost, she could grab the sun with her hand and give it to her father.
“Well,” her father continued, squeezing her shoulder, “one day you’ll come here by yourself and not need me to help you climb this. You won’t need me for much longer.”
“I don’t think that will happen, Daddy,” Leah said, burying her face into her father’s shoulder, and hugging him.
“Okay.” Her father chuckled, placing Leah onto his lap. “But if you need me to help, just tell me and I’ll be there.” He ran his fingers through her hair. They smiled.
Four years later, her father died.
One night when she was thirteen, Leah laid asleep when she heard her mother enter the apartment. The door slammed, her mother’s keys jangled, and she kicked off her shoes near the front door. Thump-thump. Curious, Leah crept into the hallway. Her mother sat at the kitchen table crying, a picture in her hand, a glass of wine in the other. Soft, silent sobs.
“Mom?” Leah whispered. She almost didn’t want to be heard. Perhaps it would be better to let her mother have this private moment to herself.
Her mother quieted and set the picture down. “It’s past your bedtime, Leah.”
“I heard you come in.” Not knowing if she should approach, Leah stood there, frozen.
Her mother chuckled. “I guess I shouldn’t have worn these.” She gestured to her boots.
“They make you even more of a klutz.” Leah wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to say, but it was the first thing she thought of. Although she sometimes hated her mother, she didn’t like to see her cry. So she tried making her laugh.
It worked. Her mother smiled. “Yeah, I guess they do.”
“You probably can’t even walk in a straight line,” said Leah. “Because of the boots, not the wine,” she clarified, flinging her hands toward her mother’s feet.
“Because of the boots.” Her mother sighed, nodded, then added, “Sit down.”
Leah sat, hands shaking, heart pounding; she heard every pulse in her temples and looked at the table. The picture was right in front of her. She, her mother, and her father stood beneath the arch at Washington Square Park. Her father stood in the middle, his arm around her mother, and he held Leah’s hand. In her other hand, the nine-year-old Leah held a churro. They smiled. In the background, a saxophonist played “My Favorite Things.” Staring at that photo, Leah couldn’t remember the last time her mother looked that happy. Back then, her mother was thirty-three, her hair jet black, her skin clear, and her eyes filled with life. The person sitting next to her had aged thirty years in the past three.
“Mom.” Leah reached out and held her mother’s hand. “Tell me what happened.” Her voice cracked. She could already figure out some of it. The picture. A drink. Tears.
Her mother looked her in the eyes. “Your father’s gone, Leah.”
Leah shook her head.
“It happened in his sleep. They said it was at 11:37 pm…”
Leah’s heart pumped in her chest, sending her body into a frenzy. She tried to move her hands, but they couldn’t stop shaking. The clock on the wall read 1:04 am. Less than two hours ago.
She only believed it when her mother hugged her because the last time they hugged was not long after that photo was taken.
“It’s ok,” her mother whispered. “It’s okay, Leah.”
“Liar,” Leah whispered, her voice hoarse. She started crying, thin, cold tears trailing down her cheeks.
“Shh, shh.” Her mother patted her’s hair, stroking her fingers through her long blond strands that, according to her father, were brighter than the sun.
Leah pressed her hands against her mother’s chest and pushed back, launching herself so hard that she almost fell out of her chair. She stood up, knees trembling, voice wavering.
“Don’t lie to me, Mom.” She took rapid, deep breaths. It was like she needed infinite air to survive.
Her mother stood up, eased open a cabinet, took a glass, and filled it with water. She handed it to Leah, who took it and drank. One sip, then two, and she drained the glass before she knew it, the cold water sloshing down to her stomach. She put the glass in the sink and sat down.
Her mother handed her the photograph. “Take this.”
Leah took it, examined it for a moment, and handed it back to her mother. “No.”
“I don’t want this photograph to be the only way for me to remember what he looks like.”
Her mother took a deep breath and stood up. “I think we should try to sleep.” Without making a sound, she left Leah in the kitchen. She also left the photo behind.
Leah looked at the photo and closed her eyes. She felt it, pinched the upper left corner, and pulled. It ripped. Her mother’s face fell away. Pocketing the photo, Leah went back to her room.