The Night We Stayed Up, Counting Lightning

Another summer day, another golden chapter in the story of stinging sunburns, chlorine, and fresh watermelon, comes to an end. As the grapefruit sun juices itself atop the sharpest peak of the Rocky Mountains, the beggar sky rushes forward to drink. The blood-orange manna rolls down its chin and then its neck, staining its blue skin brilliant shades of orange, pink, and yellow. Following the feast, the sky lapses into a deep, deep slumber. Except instead of sweet dreams, its sweet supper induces bitter nightmares- blurry, dense, tumultuous nightmares. The sky rolls over in its heavenly bed. Then it starts to snore.

Twenty-seven…twenty-eight…twenty-nine… Steven and I perch ourselves on the windowsill in our shared bedroom and count the number of lighting bolts exploding from the sky and collecting in the earth. Together we will spend the next 2 hours watching the sky and earth communicate. But you see, their conversation is a scholarly and thoughtful one, and sometimes several minutes pass before vocalization occurs. It makes no difference to us. We scrutinize the sky like the most meticulous detectives trying to unveil secrets tucked up under the clouds. Sherlock Holmes and Watson.

Our bedroom is on the upper level of the house. We live at 4304 Muirfield Drive. From our windowsill we can see for miles: the brown ocean of prairie; the Harley Davidson building at the edge of town (just this year it was blown over in a windstorm); and farther still, the silhouette of the rock giant, Pike’s Peak, named after Zebulon Pike, an American explorer of the late 18th century.

Our beds are both twin-size and have matching plaid comforters. Each bed has a hand-painted headboard with a tropical fish in the center. Similarly, the wall that the headboards rest upon is painted in shades of blue waves, with fish stickers glued to it. I used to lie on my bed and stare at the wall, finding faces in the shades of blue. They stared back at me, but it wasn’t creepy. It was home. Tonight, the faces sleep under the mask of the night, but the semi-frequent flashes of lightning startle them.

Thirty-five…thirty-six…

We had an aquarium once, with real fish. It was a freshwater. Fifteen gallon, high. Eight or nine fish. One frog. A couple of albino snails. It sat on a dresser against the wall opposite our beds, centered with the gap between them. I want to say that we loved it. But then I might be lying. Probably what happened is what usually happened with the “stuff” we had: it was novel and remarkable for a moment, but sooner or later lost its luster, and something else stole the spotlight of our fancies.

When we were younger and one of us had nightmares, instead of running to our mother and father, we would wake the other up, and slide our beds together to create a “super bed.” That way, we had the other nearby, as a sidekick, to battle the wretched dreams. Embarrassingly, I think I woke him up more often than he did me, even though I am the older by three years and three months. But that didn’t matter to us. There was never societal or hierarchal pressure for me to be a “big bad brother.” I didn’t have to appear tough when I was around Steven. When my girlfriend of two and a half years broke up with me last December, I cried into his arms for at least several minutes.

Forty-eight…forty-nine…

In the distance, the rain starts to fall; a grey, slanted smudge confirms this. It won’t be raining in Pueblo tonight. Storms often have this funny fear of Pueblo, and they circumvent the city as they tumble across the Midwest. When it does rain here, Steven and I race leaves in the little currents that develop alongside the curb. The first leaf to enter the gutter wins. When it does rain here, my siblings and I secretly pray for a hailstorm, while our parents pray for the cars and flowerbeds. When it hails, the four of us, Steven and I and our two older sisters, put bike helmets on our heads and run around outside in it. The sky loses its marbles and so do we.

Fifty-seven…fifty-eight…

Once during a hailstorm, I was parading around the yard with my helmet and swimsuit on, and a hailstone struck my big toe on my left foot and cracked the nail.

Fifty-nine…

Another flash illuminates the night. What terrible dreams plague the heavens tonight! In the distance, the prairie dogs are shaking with fear in their burrows: the jackrabbits, too. The birds departed as soon as the first drops splashed upon their wings. In their startled flight, did they shed any feathers?

Sixty-six…sixty-seven…

The feathers will be soaking wet by now.

Sixty-seven…

The frog died. All of the fish, save one, died, too. The albino snails lived, I think. Yes, they must have, but I cannot remember what we ended up doing with them after it was all over.

It was a Sunday. We had just gotten back home from a family trip. Don’t ask me where we were; I cannot recall. The tank desperately needed cleaning. Steven, my mother and I transferred the fish and the frog and the albino snails into a bucket of water and proceeded to clean the tank. But the obligation of Catholic mass interrupted the cleaning process. We left the fish and the frog and the albino snails in the bucket and went to mass. When we got back, all of the fish had jumped out of the bucket and onto the carpet. Later, we discovered the dead frog and began to ponder the unsolved mystery of its death. It was still in the bucket but for some unknown reason was floating, unresponsive. The bodies of the fish had gone limp and grey. We frantically scooped their slimy grey bodies up with our bare hands and put them back into the tank, where they promptly sank to the bottom, like silver coins in a wishing well. The irony was that these “coins” were both the means to the end and the desired end of our most pressing wish: live, live.

After half an hour, one had regained its color. It swam amongst the corpses of its former “tankmates” like nothing unusual had happened. Like it hadn’t just eclipsed the face of death and made it out alive. We buried the dead fish in the flowerbeds. Good fertilizer, my father said.

Seventy-one…seventy-two…

We left 4304 Muirfield Drive to a new home down the street when I was fourteen. I had spent the past eleven years of my life at 4304 Muirfield Drive. I had shared a room with Steven for that long, too. Our new house was three times larger than our old home. My new bedroom was more than twice the size of my old one, and I had it all to myself. But for the first few weeks after the move-in, Steven and I shared my queen-size bed. Our twin beds had been sold and our matching fish headboards were in storage. Steven didn’t have his own bed yet.

I remember one night Steven woke me up and claimed that something had bitten him. I rolled over in the darkness and turned on the lamp. Sure enough, red, inflamed abrasions stuck out of his shoulder. As if struck by a lightning bolt, we leapt from the bed and yanked off the sheets. A smashed scorpion lay in the exact spot I had been sleeping. Apparently, after stinging Steven, it had crawled across the bedspread toward me, but was smashed by me rolling onto my back in my sleep. Amazingly, there weren’t any marks on me. We awoke our parents, who treated the stings with some ointment, and sent us back to bed. Surely not to go back to sleep? I thought. And we sure as hell didn’t. For months afterward, both Steven and I checked, no, scrutinized our beds before sliding into them. I think he might still do that to this day.

It wasn’t home. It still isn’t. It is too big to feel homey. It is too new. I still have dreams of 4304 Muirfield Drive. I dream that I still live there. I dream that we still have Joey, our sugar glider, who after escaping his cage and defecating all over the house, was given to a neighbor whose cat ate him one night. But in my dreams he is alive and well and defecating healthily. I dream of the thirteen steps that lead into the basement and I dream of the wooden porch that gave me more than one nasty splinter. But mostly I dream of the bedroom I shared with Steven.

No, it will never be home. But now that I am away at college, I have learned something else, something more important. The location of home is irrelevant compared to the people of home. I lay in my twin-sized bed at night, with my roommate laying in his, and I imagine that it is not he, but Steven who shares the room with me.

Eighty-four…eighty-five…

We have a Play Station. We have a Game Cube. We have bikes and board games and action figures and toy cars. We have plenty of “stuff” to do tonight, but this evening calls for a change in pace. It calls for an acknowledgement and appreciation of the elements of the planet, and here we are, responding to the call. The lightning flashes. Ninety-seven… Our room progressively darkens and welcomes the shadows of the night, but neither of us dares to reach for the light switch, even though both of us are still a little bit afraid of the dark. Flash. Ninety-eight… At our young and tender age, we have already developed an appreciation for ambiance, and nothing is going to spoil this moment. This is home.

Ninety-nine…One-Hundred.

 

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The Tale of the Eno Hammock, the Limbless Tree, and the Cherry Pie

At CU-Boulder, during the warm months, Eno hammocks, suspended between two trees are a common sight. Students will read, sleep and study while cocooned in the durable, yet comfortable fabric of their Enos.

I bought mine on an impulse. It was one week before finals started, and the weather was really starting to warm up. I was studying Calculus with some friends outside one of the dorms surrounding Kittredge Lake. We quickly noticed a student “hammocking” across the lake in a vibrant orange Eno. He looked so serene under the shade of the trees as his hammock gently swayed back and forth. We all agreed that a hammock break sounded nice, but alas, none of us had one.

“Let’s go get one, right now,” my friend, Emily said.

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

Naturally, I spent a huge chunk of my remaining time at school in my green and blue double-sized Eno. I read, slept and studied (but mostly read and slept) in it, and quickly realized that this had become one of my top ways to kick back and relax.

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me and my Eno, under the cherry tree (you’ll learn about the cherry tree later)

The first thing I did when I moved back home (even before I unpacked my boxes (I actually still haven’t unpacked (oops))) was head to University Park, the park nearest my house, and search for two trees close enough to suspend my hammock between. I was quickly disappointed. No such pair of trees existed. There were so many pairs that were juuuust out of reach, and I was beginning to give up hope, when I realized that I didn’t need two trees to hang my hammock. All I needed was one good tree. And before long, I found it. Deep in the park, this tree had two branches jutting out at almost 90 degree angles from the trunk, and spaced perfectly far apart in a fashion so conducive to hammocking I figured it was fate.

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my hammock under the tree

And of course, it would be this tree. You see, this tree and me had a history (can’t read that without rapping it in my head). It had always been my favorite tree in the park, because it’s branches used to grow all the way to the ground, creating a hemisphere of leafy coverage. I had picnicked beneath it’s branches and taken several “artsy” photos of it, before all of its low-hanging branches were cleaved from it a few years back. Since then, I hadn’t visited it much, but now I’d found a new reason to start again.

I hammocked at that spot a few times before I left for South Africa. I considered bringing my hammock with me on my trip, but decided to leave it behind to conserve space in my suitcase. Toward the end of my month abroad, I was beginning to really miss home, and thoughts of family, my dogs, and hammocking under the tree filled my head. Within the first few days of returning home, I went back to the tree for what, unbeknownst to me at the time, turned out to be the last time I would hammock from it. I took my dog, Gracie, read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, then packed up and went home.

The next day I returned to the tree, only to discover that the two branches I used to support my hammock were gone: cut off cleanly at the trunk, with only sawdust remaining. Presumably, I was very distressed and spent several moments just staring at the tree. It looked so lopsided now :( This couldn’t have been a coincidence. Somebody cut these down because I was hammocking and they didn’t like it. I decided to investigate.

Naturally, I called Pueblo Parks and Recreation to inquire if somebody had complained about me and if maintenance then came to cut off the branches. As the phone rang, I kept constructing all the different scenarios that might possibly play out once the person at the other end picked up. You know what I’m talking about: when you expect conflict between another person, so you rehearse what you will tentatively say, and predict what the other person will say back and yada yada yada. Of course, I would start the conversation politely, but if things got out of hand, yeah, I was totally ready for a throw-down.

“Hello?” The man on the other end said.

“Hi, yes. My name is Paul Rastrelli and I live by University Park. I’m calling because one of the trees at the park I used to hang my hammock from had it’s branches cut off. I’m just wondering if somebody called you guys and complained and if you know anything about that.”

“Paul Rastrelli? This is John Gordon!”

As it turns out, one of the security officers at my high school whom I was close with also worked for Parks and Rec. After I explained in more detail my fondness of the tree and the suspicious correlation between my hammocking and the tree’s multiple amputations, John wanted to meet me at University Park and see the tree for himself. We met fifteen minutes later at the playground and proceeded to walk to the tree.

“You know,” John said, “hammocking is not allowed in the parks.”

“Really?” I asked. “Why not?” Even though I already knew the answer.

“Because the straps could damage the trees. But let me be honest: we have way bigger fish to fry than somebody hanging in a hammock.”

“Yeah, but I actually use towels to pad the straps,” I replied. “That’s what they have us do at CU-Boulder.”

As we neared the tree, John inspected it for a few moments, speculating that this was indeed the work of maintenance, due to the indication of a chainsaw. He pulled a radio out of his pocket and (no joke) radioed the “main tree guy” of all the parks in the city and asked him if there was any report of recent trimming of trees in University Park. The main tree guy replied with a negative.

“Well, I really don’t know who did this,” John said as we walked back to our cars. “Maybe somebody just forgot to report it at the office. But these cuts don’t look like they were made to benefit the tree. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

Well the mystery of who cut off the branches remained unsolved because John never got back to me. For days I mulled over what I knew. 1. The tree had the two branches I needed to hang my hammock cut off. 2. According to John, it looked like the work of maintenance because a chainsaw was used, but 3. The tree was harmed, not helped, by the amputations which points to a culprit other than maintenance. 4. I was not technically allowed to hammock in the park. It all seemed too incidental to be a coincidence. I was still convinced that the branches were cut off because of me. I thought of leaving a note on the tree asking whoever cut off the branches to “please call me at (insert my cell number here)”, but decided that all I would receive would be endless prank calls.

By now you might be wondering why the hell I still cared about figuring all this out. The tree was already limbless. That was an irrevocable fact. Why didn’t I just let it go? Well, first of all, I did end up letting it go, eventually. But I guess my answer would be that I wanted to chastise the person who cut off the branches. I envisioned myself acting as a diplomat for the trees in the park, preventing future senseless acts of violence against them, as ridiculous as that sounds. Also, I really wanted to have the last word in this whole ordeal.

Except none of that happened. As of now, I have yet to figure out who cut off the branches and whether or not I was the reason why they did. But I’ve stopped trying to figure it out because (here comes the silver lining): I found another tree!

It happened about a week after the incident. That day I was particularly missing my Eno and decided to return to the park and look once more for a suitable tree. The cherry tree I ended up finding is on the polar opposite side of the park of the first tree. At the time, it was covered with thousands of ripe sour cherries. It is the only tree I know of in the park that produces fruit. I now use two of its branches to hang my Eno, its shade to keep cool while I lounge, and (get this!) its cherries to make cherry pies! It turns out that the sour cherries are perfect for making a bomb cherry pie, and I’ve made two already!

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look at these little nuggets

My family has returned to the tree with me to collect more cherries to freeze for future use. Apparently the season for sour cherries is short because all of the remaining cherries are already starting to rot. And if you are concerned like I briefly was about this tree being cut down, the people who live near this tree don’t mind if I hammock there. I asked them and they said they couldn’t care less, and acted kind of weirded out that I was even asking them in the first place (if only they knew).

I guess the moral of this lengthly tale is that sometimes you just have to let the past go, because when one door closes, another opens. (Feel free to insert any other cheesy message here) But the weird thing is that my family has been visiting that park for 16 years, and until I found the cherry tree a few weeks ago, none of us knew it existed. So maybe a better theme would be: explore every corner of what you think you already know, because you never know what you might have overlooked.

Ladies and gentlemen, the cherry pie I made from scratch:

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showing my pie off to my friend, Kristina

 

-Paul