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Smoldering ashes of youthful ambition

I gazed out the taxi-cab window, staring with hypnotized eyes at the sparkling lights of downtown. Life, vitality … excitement. And yet I felt no part of it. I felt empty, barren … like the acres of desert wasteland surrounding the city. That’s the problem with this city: I never feel whole. I always feel as if the desert, its emptiness, is creeping past the city limits, reclaiming the cement and concrete and casinos, crumbling the foundations that keep this whole shimmering palace standing. Maybe someday it will all collapse, and the tourists, the drunks, the losers … all of them will come crawling from beneath the rubble, dazzled by the brilliant sunlight — parched by the dry, desert air — and wonder where in the world their lives have disappeared to.

There’s a nervous tension in the air tonight, fraught with despair and uncertainty. Or maybe it’s inside of me — I don’t know. It’s a tense, harried energy, like a current surging through a severed cable, snapping and sparking with nowhere to go.

I think back to fifteen years ago … of fun-filled Friday nights, conversations with strangers, plastic cups sloshing with beer, the neon-filled nightclubs. The memories are aged and hazy, cobwebbed from neglect and fogged over by experience … but the images are there, still and real. Mired in time, they glisten through reminiscence.

I can see them, still: old friends from college, preserved in adolescence. Rowdy, ragtag groups ushering in diversion and shrugging off adulthood … embraced and encased in that snug cocoon of youth … that fragile, transitory covering that eventually fades away— flaking off like skin, crumbling away like a shell — bringing the horizon into focus, the future into the present … narrowing paths and possibilities and forging granite realities from the shapeless, wanderlust, cotton-like clouds of infinite aspirations.

Life. Vitality. Excitement.

And the smoldering ashes of youthful ambition.

We were on the verge of something big back then. Our dreams blurred like billboards of twinkling neon, but the visions were bright. Standing on the steps of my dormitory, I could feel it: a rushing, sweeping tide carrying us to the precipice of destiny — to a boundless, endless landscape of opportunity, and chances.

But dreams can turn to dust, and the brightest of visions can dim. Beckoning horizons can be replaced by drab, concrete walls — lifeless and windowless and impossible to scale — blocking off the distance, blotting out the light … and shutting in the soul while closing in from all sides.

I remember walking downtown with friends on a cold autumn night, lose and springy, a noticeable bounce to my step … and a homeless man grabbing my hand and saying “You’re Clark Kent, man! You’re Superman!” And he wouldn’t let go.

And the raging lights bathed the streets with a surreal sheen, pulsing to the rhythm of the city and the trembler of traffic, casting a glamorous gleam on the scenes below. Out on the town and unencumbered by age, we felt like we were on the cusp of something wonderful and magical — something shared in the collective heart of our own generation. Our toes inched across the starting line, waiting for the sound of the starting gun to spring us forward — to run, baby, run … galloping like gazelles toward adventures unknown.

Only somewhere along the way, we lost our momentum. Somewhere along the way, it all fell apart. The levity of dream gave way to the tedium of truth … and the luster of youth gave way to the specter of age.

Later that night, I met a woman in a bar. She was a college senior, like me. Nestled in a corner in a standing-room crowd, we had to shout to be heard above the jukebox jumble.

Animated by alcohol, the conversation drifted to post-graduation goals. Her dream, she said, was to travel to Europe: to saturate her senses with the sights, sounds and smells of faraway lands. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she told me, grinning. An adventure.

Yet she didn’t have the money, and she didn’t have a plan. The dream was there, alive and real, but the means were not. It was a “someday” thing; a dream to be realized if only life would allow.

The bar was smoky, and dim … and she and I moved together, slowly, leaning closer and closer … but then the door suddenly flew open, letting in a late-evening chill. The icy breath draped over us, sweeping away the heat … and for whatever reason the passion dissipated, breaking the spell and sucking the warmth that had enveloped us like wool.

And I realize now, that chill, that coldness — that icy sting that had sucked away all the warmth — that was the same feeling I felt when I realized that my tomorrows were limited, that my future was finite.

It was the feeling you feel when you truly grow up; when you emerge from your youthful cocoon into the world of adulthood.

The day your dreams dissipate, and fade.

I lost sight of that woman in the bar — at some point she pulled away and retreated into the din. I didn’t follow her or call her back. And I wonder sometimes if she ever made it to Europe, crossing the expansive seas on a cross-continental flight, armed with only a suitcase and a camera and a blank mental canvas to soak in all the scenery — to saturate her senses with Europe’s sights, sounds and smells.

Or I wonder if she’s like me, like so many others in our generation: adrift with no direction — with no compass or vision. Maybe she’s trapped in a job that she hates, or maybe she doesn’t have a job at all.

I wonder if maybe she gave up on that trip to Europe, realizing with despair that it could never come true. Maybe the real world closed in, curling its gnarled, icy fingers: fingers that can pry into daydreams, to stir up the doubts … fingers that can shred away fantasies, to pull lovers apart.

Ah, nebulous memories tonight as this taxi flees down the freeway. It’s Friday night, but there’s no excitement in the air, no bounce to my step. Something’s changed these past fifteen years. The lights of downtown are as bright now as they were then, but their neon glow seems somehow muted. No longer do they seem surreal and gleamy; now they’re just carnival-like, and gaudy.

If I were strolling downtown right now, at this very moment, I doubt the homeless man would be there. And I doubt he would grab my hand and call me Clark Kent.

If he was there, maybe he’d miss me as I passed, because I’d look the same as all the others on the street — all the weary, jaded adults who’ve forgotten how to dream — because like them I’d have no whimsical sense of purpose … and no supernatural aura.

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