Did I want to know what it was like to go fast in my friend’s new Tesla Model Three? Not really, I thought yet didn’t quite say. Not that it would have made any difference. Within a split-second of the question he hit the gas, or drove up the voltage, or did whatever it is you do to a Tesla to make it nearly lift from the ground and speed forward like something launched from a catapult. My hair stood on end and my ass rose from my seat, reminding me that it was a ride—just a ride, my internalized soothing voice opined. “That felt like flight,” I said as we slowed down just seconds later, the result of heavy traffic in a busy part of town. Fleetingly, I considered that the Tesla Model Three from 2018 seemed designed for the salt flats of Utah, not the civilized grids of an overpopulated California. Frustratingly for my friend yet thankfully for myself, this meant that bursts of speed would be brief, and if I am going to fly or take flight on matters and sustain the air speed, it will need to be in contexts of my own choosing.
Been thinking a lot about flight recently. It keeps showing up in my memory and therefore as appendages to thought and reverie. The themes are polarized around positive and negative connotations, with one meaning suggesting fear and disappearance, the other ambition and drive. I want to fly, says the ambition. I want to take flight, says the fearful cousin. Anyway, the antecedent memory is from the preverbal era of my life and contains narrative that is disputed by the principals, myself excluded. I was merely the center of attention—of horrified attention. See, I was two and a half when it happened. No, that’s not right, says a dissenting voice: I was closer to the age of three. The resolution of this lies in a discussion of chronology, plus a backwards itinerary of where my family lived in the years 1969 to 1971, roughly. These were years of mobility for our family, and years of my taking flight, apparently. They were the years of stepping away, of sneaking away, or running away from containing or leash-holding adults. A beloved aunt and later Godmother got more than she bargained for when she successfully corralled me at an amusement park and fixed me into a rickshaw that would carry me home. I may have been restrained physically but not emotionally, and at age two, I could wail with the best of them. My aunt’s ears rang for another thirty years. That’s how long she kept alive the tale of my oppositional or determined separatism until she and her opinions were muted by age.
Once, she may have been a prominent voice of criticism in my parents’ ear, given how “willful” I will have seemed at the time. Or fearless. The most striking anecdote of these early years of mine centered about this aforementioned tendency to climb upon ledges and flirt with the danger of falling, poised to fly. I recall some later episodes, instances from my latency years of ages 6-10 when such precipice-approaching behavior jangled nerves, eliciting shrill complaints and punitive aftermaths. But there was no punishment after the earliest of these known events, as far as I know. At the outset of this chronologically ambiguous event, I was standing upon a window sill, hanging outside an opening that looked out from a second floor onto a back garden. As I picture it now, I conjure thick deciduous vegetation and a verdant lawn, the result of plentiful rain across seasons in Britain. Our family garden will have been about twenty yards deep, but the well-cut grass, moist and somewhat soft, will have stopped several feet short of a back door, yielding to a stretch of hard pavement, unforgiving to a falling body. My mother recalls hearing my voice. “Hello Mummy,” I called out cheerfully, she says. It’s funny, but the “mummy” bit is the one that makes me cringe, with embarrassment, I mean. Others think it cute or charming, this distinctively British term. I find it precious. Not me. Regardless, in this context, not even my mother found my expression charming. “STAY RIGHT THERE AND DON’T MOVE”, she recalls calling out. Next, she dashed into the house and ran upstairs, and within seconds she had gathered me in her arms and thus rescued me from falling to my death.
That’s the end of the anecdote as it is recalled by her. Recently, my aged father added that he was as scared as my mother at the time, for he was at the bottom of that garden also, only less quick to move. While my mother ran to grab me, he positioned himself at the base of our house, looking to gauge the trajectory of my imminent fall and hoping to catch me. My mother disputes this piece, claiming with a hint of bitterness that my father wasn’t even there—like he often wasn’t there, she seems to imply. To be fair, I haven’t done or thought much in the intervening near-fifty years to add anything to this memory. But recently it’s been coming back, this memory, though not quite in a haunting fashion; rather, again, as a fragment attached to the end of a thought-train, as if the image of myself upon a window ledge, looking out, has something to say to a thought unfinished. I have finished the anecdote recently for my mother’s benefit. Meaning, I have speculatively recounted the missing pieces, adding a script to the thirty second yarn as it has previously existed. In this re-boot, I wail, just like I did to my Godmother once, when my mother pulls me away from the ledge. I conjure for her the moments of terror as she rushes into the house and dashes upstairs, wondering if she’ll get to me in time. Can you imagine? I also suppose the recalibration that occurred as she sat me down on her lap, upon a bed or some other piece of furniture, just feet away from that ledge. Her nerves will have been on overload but in decompression mode—her heart and head thumping with slowly ebbing alarm. She may have shut out my cries of protest, instead gripping me with longing, determined to not let me go as she rocked me in her arms, soothing herself more than she was me.
Modern psychology casts a skeptical eye upon such moments, thinking there is a sting in the tail of clinging motherhood, the context notwithstanding. I likely didn’t like it either at the time, I have supposed. Upon my re-enacting description, my mother confirmed that theory, quietly saying, “That’s right” with a stirred-up air about her, like she was reliving a hitherto censored moment through my imagination. I wanted to fly then, I think. I wanted to do things I wasn’t ready or meant to do, and I often stepped out of line, not thinking that others would pull me back to either compliance or safety, but I experienced that good luck anyway, of course. I’ve done my own pulling back as an adult–to a fault, some would say. I should do this or go for that. Latter day conservatism has blocked me. Minor frustrations on paths of mooted improvements can feel like punishments for getting away from a more carefully prescribed course. More recently, it’s been, you should have done that years ago. You’re getting a late start now. That’s me thinking—thinking instead that I got a too-early start, followed by a gradual retreat from precipices, the good and the bad. Now they beckon again, the risks, the impending losses, the opportunities and the defeats. It’s a selective critique, however, one that picks and chooses still what seems like worthwhile play, adventures that fit me versus those that feel like gratuitous indulgence or danger. No, Joe. No Tesla for me, thank you very much.