You might remember the pink stuff in Cat in the Hat. The cat arrives, enters the house on thin pretexts, and, soon, pink spreads everywhere. Every effort to eradicate it only smears it on more surfaces. Mayhem flows behind it into every room. Meanwhile, the fish scolds, and the clock ticks toward the doom of authority’s return.
I love Dr. Seuss but hated that book. At the age I encountered the pink stuff, I couldn’t define metaphor, but some part of me understood. Pink was less important for itself than for what it represented, a contagion that, once introduced, could never be fully eradicated, or an idea that could never be unconceived fully.
Thinking about the book now, I see the other side—a little mayhem enriches our lives, and we can’t hope to live fully without getting ourselves into and out of messes. Courage spreads the way pink does. It starts small and stretches until we believe it can cover nearly everything. We reassure ourselves we’ve been here, or worse, before. We trust.
But then I spy another spot of pink on the baseboard.
In the fifth grade, I rode my bike to school everyday. I was just out of range to ride a bus, and, in August, my mother helped me draw a map of how I might get to school alone. I had to pass through a neighborhood where I had no friends, where every house held strangers, and she explained that I shouldn’t stop between destinations. I was scared at first, but, after a month of round trips, I started to enjoy the autonomy that bookended my otherwise constrained day. Being able to handle it brought me closer to adulthood, which, as far as I could tell, was defined by what you could handle.
Then, one day, a kid came out from behind a house and chased me. I must have been too surprised to pedal faster because he had no trouble catching me and gripping the metal loop at the end of the banana seat of my stingray bicycle. I stopped. He wanted a ride home, he said, and whatever change my pockets held. He wasn’t mean. I don’t remember threats. But he was bigger than I was—a grade older—and his self-assurance disarmed me. He climbed on the back of my bike, and I told myself I was doing him a favor.
I was afraid to take any other path. He caught me a lot after that, not every day but often enough, at different points on my route I could never anticipate. By then I knew his name—though I’ve forgotten it now. I didn’t tell my parents because I was handling it. If I saw him, I’d stop, ready to do him another favor. For his part, he softened toward me. I was his ride, and we had enough routine to know each other. He talked to me sometimes, stopped asking for money. But I hated the compromised feeling I got when I felt his weight on the back of my bike. I hated him.
One day in the spring, my mom called me to the door, and he was standing outside asking me if I wanted to play. I said no. If I had an excuse, I don’t remember it, but I do remember his disappointment. Of course I can’t understand what he felt, but I see some awareness in that moment now—he saw why I said no and why we couldn’t be friends. I may have given him more rides after his visit, but he disappears from my memory at that point, his mess cleaned up.
But not entirely. Experiences stick with us in strange ways. Try as we might to make fables of them, they have a ghostly life truer to themselves than to us. Long stretches lie between recollections of confusing or troublesome times, but they come back, sometimes at wincing moments deep in night. I can forget about the cat’s pink trail, but, when every molecule seems gone, deep principles of conservation are at work. Somewhere, memory waits.