I live two houses from a park. It's nothing big- a large rectangle of grass spotted with thick plastic playground equipment, one splintering pavilion with a dozen or so picnic tables, a mound of sand that made for a volleyball court at one time, an antiquated swing set with peeling paint and swings that are too high off the ground to ever really get airborne, and a squat brick building housing toilets that you'd have to be really desperate to use.
This is the park I used to sneak into after dark.
Too old to remain home on a summer night and too young to really have a place of my own to go to, I'd hop the wooden railings that border the park and make my way inside. My first stop was usually the slide, which any teenager knows is meant to be conquered in running steps, avoiding the actual stairs completely. CLANG-CLANG-CLANG-CLANG and I was at the top, perched in my own personal watchtower, from which I had a good view of my parents returning to our house next door.
If I timed it right, I could extinguish my cigarette, pull the travel-sized mint toothpaste from my pocket, liberally apply the paste to both my tongue and the two fingers that act as my cigarette chopsticks, wipe it all off on the inside of my shirt, jump off the slide, sprint across the street, blast through the front door of our house, and be upstairs in my room studying the back of Prince's Purple Rain album before mom and dad even put their key in the lock.
My park didn't tell me I was too young to smoke Marlboro Lights, one after another, while rolling my thumb over the grooved thumbwheel of my zippo, crunching the flint below. I took comfort in the fact that enveloped in the dark, I appeared to be nothing but a faint pulsating orange glow. I could disappear into myself.
On certain occasions I'd have company. People who spoke the same language of contempt for anyone over 18 and anyone under 15. Pat, Blake, Natasha...they were allowed in. Anyone else was nothing short of an intruder. The park was my outdoor basement with much higher ceilings and no parents clunking around one floor above.
A time or two I led a boy there. Besides smoking, my park also encouraged the kind of making out that left one's face raw, as if rubbed vigorously with a loofah. Large pieces of concrete tunnels were meant for making out, however cumbersome they were to climb in and out of. Scraped knuckles and knots on the head were all part of the experience. War wounds of teenage love.
Scattered across the park several inches below the ground's surface are a dozen or so hermetically sealed tiny glass jars; remains of a self-absorbed piece of performance art from my 20s. Inside each jar is a relic from my childhood- a bit of fabric from a curtain that hung in the house I lived in when I was a kid, a photograph of my dad holding the plump, toddler version of myself, scraps of paper with various scribblings. This sort of thing. At one point in time, I knew the location of each jar. Under what was home plate. Near the base of the big oak tree. Twenty paces from the drinking fountain. These are things I knew a long time ago.
Tonight I walked past the park with my dog. The sky looked like someone brushed india ink across it, and I could scarcely make out the swings or the slide set way back from view. The park was empty, as far as I could tell. No one is claiming the space tonight.
From time to time, while walking my dog late at night, I catch a faint whiff of cigarette smoke coming from deep within the park. Sometimes I can see an orange dot glowing. Pulsating. A teenage beacon. I walk parallel to the wooden railings over which I feel too old to cross after the sun goes down. (There is a "park closes after sunset" sign, don't you know. When did I become old enough to obey signs? The thought makes me smile.) I stay on the sidewalk. Walking. Walking my dog at night on the sidewalk. I will pick up my dog's poop, place it in the proper receptacle, walk home, wash my hands, and be in bed before 10:00. I am the adult for whom I had so much contempt. This also makes me smile.