My grandpappy used to always say that we were all born with hearts of gold. That we all naturally glowed brighter and with a gentler warmth than the sun could ever hope to match, and that we brought more joy and happiness than the peaceful dawn of a beautiful morn ever could. He’d always tell me in that raspy smoker’s voice of his “Johnny boy you light up my world.” Being the naïve boy that I was at the ripe old age of eleven back then, I always did believe him. I used to take my shirt off and run around the house shouting about how I was spreading joy and warmth.
“What a joke.” I laughed to myself with a broken grimace. If the past decade has taught me anything it’s that all that lies in most people are the pieces of a shattered heart, poking at them like shrapnel stuck in an old wound. No gold, no warmth, just scattered baggage and broken dreams. Maybe that’s just the big city though, gotta think that a place like the big apple, with its towering monolith like buildings casting darkness all over the place must be some sort of epicenter of pain and sadness, right? God, I miss the countryside. It’s too bad I won’t be seeing it again.
It’s only been six years, but it’s felt like a lifetime. I’ll still never forgive myself for not being there when grandpappy left us. I remember telling him I’d be right back, being so excited to show him the trout I caught in the river that passed through the back of our property, I remember running through golden fields of wheat and petting the brown spotted cattle on my way as I barreled toward that old wooden shack we called a home, biggest damn grin I ever had on my face, only to find I had lost the most important person in my life when I finally got there. The only things that were waiting for me in that old log cabin were the crying faces of my ma and pa, never seen tears run down my father’s face till that day. Guess that was when my useless golden heart started turning into a cold chipped stone.
Back then I don’t think I ever would have imagined myself marching through New York City on a cold winter’s night like this, guess a lot can happen in ten years. Like parents divorcing, custody battles, school woes, failed relationships etcetera. Life just finds a way to keep throwing shit at unassuming people till they turn bitter or just give up. Suddenly I hear the flapping of wings nearby, turning my head to the side I see what appears to be a flock of pigeons taking flight. I remember when I wanted to fly like that. Even as I walk through central park, natures one safe haven in this concrete jungle, the one place that brings back some good memories, life still finds a way to remind me of my failures.
Back when I was sixteen, I wanted nothing more than to be a pilot. To freely touch the great blue open sky and ride the air currents like the waves of a raging sea. I always used to imagine myself in a biplane twisting and turning through the sky like an arial dancer, I’d swiftly swoop and careen past amazed onlookers as they cheered and hollered at the spectacle of my flight. I wanted to make the act of flight a joyful experience that everyone sought to pursue and enjoy, I wanted the world to soar. Grandpappy always used to describe his experiences with flying as his journeys to the afterlife. He would often encourage me by saying things like “If I can survive flying in a coffin than you can survive a day of school.” Given that he was part of a bomber crew in World War II that made sense, he was probably rolling in his grave when I started pursuing flight. At least he got to rest easy after I realized my dream was unobtainable and that I lacked the gumption and book smarts needed to pursue it.
I suppose I never truly did give up on flying in the end though, if I had I don’t think I’d find myself going to one of the tallest places in the city for something like this. As I make my way to my destination, trampling over dead leaves on the sidewalk with distraught glee, I notice a couple sitting on a bench across the street. They were sitting snugly and enjoying each other’s warmth amidst the biting cold air of the winter night, it was like watching a live action rendition of a couples Christmas card. Witnessing the radiant warmth that emanated from people so connected reminded me of the abyssal tundra in which my heart resided, a heart once golden, now heavy and sunken with no person nearby to fish it up out of the murk. As I trudge along, night getting ever colder, I attempt to warm myself with the memories of past loved ones.
My mind snapped me back to the times with my family before my grandpappy died. Back when my ma and pa still showed me boundless affection, and before they started fighting like cats and dogs. I remember when Ma used to tell me bedtime stories while she sat on my bedroom’s white windowsill in front of the moonlight, when Pa taught me how to fish on camping trips, and the countless re-enactments of Grandpappy’s past. Along with the torrent of positive memories came a flood of negative ones. Like when Ma found out that Pa was cheating on her shortly after Grandpappy died, or when I was forced to go live with Ma when she chose to move to the big city, or when she started beating me because I reminded her too much of that “cheating bastard.” You’d think that the death of a loved one would strengthen family bonds, but it sent my family down a one-way track to complete obliteration.
“So much for warming myself up.” I softly spoke under my breath as I brought my ice-cold hands up to my face, now standing in front of my destination. The Empire State Building now stood in front of me like an ominous spire to the heavens, it’s seemingly infinite number of shining lights cutting through the dark. As I looked up at the unreasonably tall structure, mouth agape, I felt my heartbeat quicken and my palms began sweating. I was finally feeling nervous. Caught up in my swirling memories I hadn’t given my body the chance to reflect on what was happening, I hadn’t let it respond to my decision. I suppose tricks like telling myself I’m just going for a stroll, or just sightseeing won’t cut it anymore. I knew why I was here, and a bit of instinctual wavering wasn’t going to stop me now. I dragged myself inside the building. The spacious interior of the ground floor glistened with colors of autumn leaves and golden dust, it ironically made me think of the golden gates to heaven, a place I’d never see. I stepped into a nearby elevator for a final session of reminiscence as I make my ascent.
What if it hurts? A question that kept interrupting my thoughts. Like a record skipping, every time I tried going back to the past my mind would suck me back to the present. A memory from school, what comes after death? A memory of my childhood pet, will I be missed? Every floor passed, another crank of the tension dial. Floor five, dry throat, floor twelve, tremors running up the legs, floor twenty, heart palpitations. As if in a desperate bid for survival by my instinctual mind I was shown a barrage of the good things that I’ve been through. Every time my family was proud of me, every time I surprised myself with a good performance, every small success I achieved in my life. To fight back and keep my trajectory I focused on every significant negative memory I had. Every time my parents admonished me, every time I gave up, everyone I’ve lost. It was like looking into the past through a kaleidoscope’s lens, ever shifting fragments of good and bad waging war in my head. Before I knew it I had passed floor fifty. “Oh god where did all the time go?” I nearly broke down as I spoke, swallowing the questions and the doubt erupting from within. What if it hurts? Still echoing in my head, resounding with every new floor hit.
Never did I ever think that an elevator ride up one hundred and two floors would take so much out of me. By the time I made it to the observation deck at the top I had just about nearly vomited from anxiety, I finally understand how my grandpappy felt in his flying coffin. This was it, it was time to fly for the first and last time in my life. As I walked out onto the observation deck, the freezing winds nearly knocked me over. As I walked to the edge of the deck I made note of the safety fencing along the perimeter, a small obstacle to someone inclined to jump over, like a final chance to turn back. Trying as hard as possible to not look over the edge I meekly climbed the fencing and solidly planted myself on the other side, what ifs still pounding in my head, I worked up the courage to take a close look at my predicament.
Looking out from so high up was like seeing the edge of the universe through an angle’s eyes. All of the sparkling lights of the city contrasted with the pitch-black sky looked like a field of stars sitting under a still pool of water, the frigid wind licking at my legs was almost beckoning me to join the stars beneath me, and as I looked out onto the city my feelings of anxiety slowly began to fade leaving me with a calming acceptance. “Is this really what you want?” I asked myself aloud. Do I really want things to end here? My final chance to turn back. Pondering the question for the last time I remembered a letter my grandpappy left me. “We may all start out with hearts of gold, but sooner or later we develop calloused hearts of stone and glass. Trying to protect ourselves we build rigid shields that crack, chip, and eventually shatter, but under the rubble we all have a heart of red that pumps the blood of life through us.” I think I finally understand what he was trying to tell me.