Pulse, by Theresa Daskalakis
The aerial tramway pitched up the mountain. The slow dance swaying of the cable car, the metronome for my breathing.
Inhale. The car jerked left.
Exhale. The car pulled right.
Rocking together we rose to the top. I fought the panic that threatened to overtake me whenever I left the ground. Even standing on a chair gave me trouble. My legs wobbled as I stood as far from a window as I could get. I concentrated on my breath. Rubbing sweaty palms down the legs of my jeans, I accidentally caught a glimpse of the view. The ground of the Coachella Valley had fallen away and the car hung, as if on a clothesline lazily stretched across the bottomless canyon. Palms changed to shelves of jagged rock and pine. I sucked in a gulp of biting air.
I felt a tap on my knee and looked down into the eyes of a tiny, green-eyed girl, dressed all in red and pink. She wore a red sweater with pink polka dots, paired with red drawstring pants. Her dark blonde hair was done in pigtails held by pink bows. Her red cowboy boots on her baby pony legs swung back and forth under her seat. I guessed she was about seven.
“Hi.” I said.
“Are you scared?” She asked me. She must have heard my gasp. I was worried that if I said yes, then maybe she’d get scared too, but I never lied to children.
“Well, a little. Are you?”
“Well, you must be very brave.” I said and I really meant it. I admired her as yet unspoiled innocence. That is where we all start.
I was there because I was scared. I was there because this was not my fear, but one that was passed down to me like some damaged chromosome. In the summer of 1964, the world’s fair came to N.Y. My mother and my Aunt Martha planned to spend the day there. My Aunt bought a new camera, the kind with the blue hued flash bulbs and sprocket advance wheel. Aunt Martha had an even newer interest in photography and suggested we go on the aerial tram ride across Flushing Meadow Park, where the fair was being held. My mother was terrified of heights. I was six and afraid of nothing. I relentlessly begged her to let me go on with my Aunt, but my mother was having none of it. She was not going, and therefore I was not going. Heights were not the only thing my mother feared. Life, with all its chaos and unpredictability was the source of her anxiety and she did not hesitate to share her advanced warnings with me whenever I strayed even an inch from her side.
“Don’t walk too close to the curb! A car might go out of control and run you over.” She’d then grab me and pull me to her.
“Watch out for that bee!” Her long, thin arms flailing like a possessed marionette, her fingers would find my shirtsleeve and yank me out of the path of catastrophe. Every warning, punctuated by grabbing me and pulling me closer to her. I don’t know what changed her mind.
Maybe I wore her down with my promise to wash the dishes for the rest of my life. Maybe my Aunt shamed her for being so afraid. Aunt Martha had that skill. She was the oldest and the cruelest. My mother was the youngest and the most unsure. I can only remember that she relented. There was a long line of people waiting to board. The sign above the entrance said, “See the Fair From the Air!” My mother grabbed my hand and with my Aunt on one side and me on the other, we climbed into the open car.
The single, colorful cabin hung from an oily, black cable. The attendant helped us in and the car advanced slowly onto the track. My Aunt, not wanting to miss an opportunity, cranked the little cogged wheel on her camera, advancing it to the first frame. The car lurched forward slightly as it began to move along the cable. The track fell away as we became suspended above the park. A rush of cool air swept around us as the car rode along the cable, advancing higher. The sunlight sparked off the Manhatten skyline and the colorful pavilions below. My Aunt, excited by her new vantage point, spun around causing the car to swing to the left. I jumped to her side so I could see, too. My mother let out a startled gasp and her arms shot out to steady the car but her abrupt motion caused it to pitch to the right. The cabin started to rock. Aunt Martha was twisting and turning in her seat, snapping off picture after picture, while my mother reacted to each fluctuation in the car’s swing. Each of their movements counteracting that of the other.
My mother and the little car sought balance, but every movement traveled like a jolt of electricity resulting in another new tilt from which neither could recover. Oblivious to my mother’s distress, my Aunt continued her snapping, cranking, twisting and turning. Every inch we climbed, every swing of the car added to my mother’s terror. I was not afraid of the height, or of the listing of the cable car. I was afraid of my mother. I had never seen her like this, arms like live wires slashing the air, looking for purchase. She was in a panic and her eyes darted fiercely looking for a way out. I sat down hard on the seat across from her and pinned myself against it, now starting to panic myself. She was reaching, reaching out for something and if she grabbed the handle, we might all tumble out like clothes out of a laundry basket.
Her hands found my shirt and yanked me up and out of my seat.
I banged down next to her. She held me like a vise and cried, “Just look at the floor!” now near hysterics. I obediently dropped my head and glued my eyes to the floor of the car. My small hands were engulfed by hers.
The white knobs of her knuckles threatened to tear through the skin on her fingers as she squeezed her hands together, mine trapped inside. I heard her animal heart pulsing in my ears. We were both staring down at the floor as she kept telling me not to look up, keep my eyes on the ground, it will all be over soon. I was afraid to move. I wanted to look out, I wanted to see what the problem was, but I did as she said. There must be something terrible happening, I thought, to make her so frightened. Were we falling? Were we going to die? Did these cars go out of control too and were we going to get knocked out of the sky?
I never should have asked to go, I never should have moved because now something bad was happening and it was my fault.
My Aunt continued to twist in her seat. The car continued to buck and roil. My mother continued to command me to keep my eyes down. She assumed I was afraid of being up so high. She never considered that her panic could be passed along to me. I had always been and always would be, an extension of her. And in that moment, as the three of us were carried slowly across the sky, over the beautiful gleaming silver that was N.Y., the current of my mother’s fear passed into me.
It was hot metal passing through my hands as she clutched them so tightly. Veins, capillaries, the pulse of her panic soared up my arms and into my chest. I felt it course through my frame, shocking me and jolting my teeth together. I felt it root me to my seat. And I began to cry.
In the brown stained dresser, much of the laminate peeling away from the drawer fronts like parched skin, lay an envelope. My mother’s things, and inside it were the photographs my Aunt took that day. Most were shaky views of the skyline. But there was one she had taken of my mother and I. We were sitting closely, our heads bent downward and touching slightly, my hands held by hers.
Two people caught in a moment of sweet discussion, no trace of the truth as our expressions were hidden by the angle of the photograph.
I reached into my jacket pocket and removed the now yellowed envelope I brought with me on the trip to the mountaintop. The tram came to a rest on solid ground and we all began to exit the car. I stepped out into the cold mountain air, walked a few yards and followed a path that led to a trail. A sign, off the path to the left, nailed to a wooden post read” Scenic Views,” with an arrow that pointed toward the trail.
I walked over, knelt down and started to dig a small, shallow hole at its base. I moved rocks, leaves and earth with my hands. I removed the photograph from the envelope and placed it in the space I had created for it. I covered it with loose dirt and leaves. It was early. The sun was warming the path in front of me. I began to follow the arrow, looking for another point of view.
Theresa Daskalakis has no idea why anyone would want to know more about her and her writing. Born fully attitudinal and hailing from the borough of Queens, N.Y., most of her past life remains a mystery. She is rarely seen in public and never talks about where her inspiration comes from. The little that is known about her is even questionable as she frequently lies. Public records indicate she is currently spending an abnormally long time at Antioch University in Los Angeles, pursuing her B.A. degree in Creative Writing. It is unlikely she will graduate.
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Tags: family, fear, memories, relationships, Theresa Daskalakis