My daily three miles in the morning—up from two miles, thanks to my Fitbit™—keeps me in passable shape, clears my head and gets me going. I start each day, after coffee and writing my daily post on Chapter1-Take1 by heading out along the sidewalks of our neighborhood towards the Activity Center where I like to walk in circles around the park. There's a gravel pathway shaded by Jacaranda trees, stunning in springtime when they bloom in deep blue purples, mandatory in the summer when LA heats up early. Today as I near the patio sitting on the perimeter of the park, I see the gardeners have hosed down the cement, the entire surface is still wet and puddled. Without my permission my heart starts pounding, bringing me crashing to a halt. Wimp, I think. That's in the past. Shake it off.
I can't. I’m afraid. I can trace my fear back to a sunny day in Puerto Rico in the late sixties. I’m walking in the footsteps of my 15 year old self, along a sandy road near the beach out in Isla Verde. My friend Linda and I are heading to her condo when suddenly we hear someone behind us singing "There is someone walking behind you. Turn around, look at me." It's a pretty drippy song by today's standards but that summer the hit by The Vogues was all you heard blasting out of transistor radios all over the beach.
Turning around—how could we not?—there was Rogelio looking like he stepped right out of the pages of Surfer magazine. He could have. Bare bronze chest, well-worn baggies, sun-kissed hair. A couple of tell-tale scars on his legs, surfer knobs on his knees. One of the local surfers we crushed on from afar, and he was singing to us! He said he was thinking about going to Aviones to catch a few waves. The morning rain had stopped, the waves should be primo. Did we want to go?
He was meeting Gary at the surf shop, they'd give us a ride to Linda's place to pick up our swim suits.
I knew Gary was going to college on the mainland, Rogelio had to be older too. Twenty maybe? Twenty two? Linda and I sat in the back of his car, exchanging looks. How cool was this? Wait till we told Candy!
We jumped out as soon as they pulled up to Linda's building. They didn't need to tell us to hurry. We couldn't wait to slip our suits on and get back in the car.
Grinning at the thought of these two gorgeous guys, practically men, sitting in the car, Linda and I went racing across the outdoor lobby to the elevator bank, the marble floor still slick from the rain. One moment I was laughing at the idea of Rogelio leaning out of the window, how the sun made his hazel eyes dance, vaguely aware that my foot was slipping, conscious of my head banging with a thud on the hard stone surface and the next thing I knew I was riding up the elevator in Rogelio's arms. It had happened so fast I barely registered the pain. One look in Rogelio's eyes must have been enough to make me faint again; the next thing I knew I was waking up in my own bedroom back in our San Juan apartment, the brightness of the sun coming through our seventeenth floor window bleaching everything white.
My mother stroked my head, and because she's British, made me tea. My brother was nice to me. My sister played nurse, put cold flannels on my forehead. I couldn't understand how I could be home in my own bed. Where had the twenty minute drive gone? Where had I been when the phone calls had been made? Did Linda cry? Who brought me home? Were Rogelio and Gary worried? I was deeply disappointed I couldn't have been both in the accident and be witness to the drama. My parents kept me home for a couple of days to recuperate and somehow Machuca heard the news. Jorge Machuca was my age but he was Puerto Rico's official champion surfer and I'd heard he might like me. Blondes weren't the dime a dozen in P.R. that they are here in Los Angeles; I think that was the attraction. Rogelio and Gary must have told him, because one afternoon a tiny wooden crate with a traditional Puerto Rican candy inside appeared on my bedside table. I kept that little box for a long time, taking it with me when we moved to California a few months later, painting it green and red, decorating it with hearts and Machuca's name. I never heard from Rogelio and Gary again, never got the chance to get to know them after that afternoon. I'm sure after that stupid fall they thought I was a baby, an idiot. That sweet gesture from the famous Machuca took some of the sting out of my fall from grace; unfortunately it didn't strike out the fear.
You could say I don't just have a fear of falling, I have a history of falling. I fell jogging on the streets of San Francisco in the late seventies and broke my glasses. I fell again in 2000 running to my son's class Christmas party. I had a concussion and had to have 17 stitches. I fell once more, a few years ago, flat on my face, breaking my nose. I'm not complaining, I'm just explaining why the sight of a wet slick surface can bring out the baby in me.
I try not to be a baby now. I pick my way across the surface, gingerly seeking out the dry spots, my eyes so focused on my feet I don't notice how close I am to a bougainvillea until a thorn scratches my arm, drawing a neat thin line of blood across my skin. There's some kind of lesson there, something about how playing it safe doesn't necessarily mean you can escape the pain. Making my way to the safety of the gravel path, I walk eyes forward, focusing on keeping my stride sure and confident. There's music playing in my earpieces, it could be Adele, it could be Cold Play but all I can hear is "There is someone walking behind you. Turn around, look at me." I just keep walking.