Justin Skolnick lives and works in Portland.

Could you do this?

Originally posted to blockquote.org on in Chicago, Illinois

Overcast, ninety degrees, wetness, garbage slow-cooking in black bins, light gusts lifting the odors from every alley to every sidewalk in the city. Bodies laboring to move from shade to shade, legs exposed, breasts exposed, shirtless joggers in a thick sweat sheen, eyes showing no sign of thought, a heaviness, no stamina for the social graces that carry the burden of sharing space with three million people. Everywhere you go, somebody’s already there.

Then evening, and a walk up to Miko’s. I order the smallest size, lime. “It’s ninety four degrees,” the clerk grunts, “are you sure you don’t want the bigger?” I say I’ll be fine.

Another half mile to the column. I and my ice settle on the base, looking south at the traffic on Humboldt Boulevard. The air is calmer, cooler. I reflect on the prior week. Worse things have happened, much worse. You know you’ve been through worse. The ice gone, I rest my elbows on the granite. Maybe I’ll see the stars. Always a chance.

Footsteps, a boy running my way, and he speaks: “It’s hot!”

“It is!” I reply. It is exactly this abrupt. “It’s cooled down some.”

“Yeah. Could you do this?” And he jumps off the base. Then he’s back on the base. “Hey, could you do … this?” He does it again, sideways. I say I could. In two seconds he’s up hugging the column, “Could you do this?” Then jumps off. Back up. “But could you do this?” And he jumps again. Then back up, sideways this time, then jumps, then back up, facing forward, “Could you do this?” Jumps.

It goes on like this for ten minutes. He tries the base forward, sideways, backward, one eye covered (“Hey now,” I advise), both eyes covered (he slips, stumbles), then one eye shut (he glows with pride). Done with the base, now off the column. “Could you do this?” He climbs a light pole and flies to the ground. Up again, higher. “Could you do this?” I point out that he’s got better shoes than I do. “But could you do this?” These are skater tricks. He needs a skateboard, I think. He’ll have a skateboard. He needs an audience.

I tell him I’ve got to get going. He contends with me. “Why?” “I’m done with my ice.” “Why?” “Because I ate it.” “Why?”

When I leave he follows. I take the steps. “Could you do this?” He bounds down the granite rail. The next instant, he’s accosting a young couple laying in the grass. I hear a laugh and look: he’s grinding his head into the grass.

Down I walk to California Avenue. A woman, walking opposite, makes a face of pure annoyance. Her face says, Ugh, another person, looking at me. The facial expression is familiar, I know what it means. But, This city is public, I think, and being looked at is part of the deal. You can always leave.

And then, So can I. And, Someday, I tell myself, I will.

At California I wait for the green light. Before the light changes a bus crosses Milwaukee and comes within a foot of my body, stops, idles, coughing exhaust on my chest, pulsing heat. On the sidewalk a man bikes up to another man and the other man asks if the man on the bike is looking for a fight, is he looking for a fight. He isn’t. The man shakes his head and grumbles.

A bike ride home. Unlock door one, up the stairs, unlock door two. The air conditioning switches on, that and no other noise, every light off. For the first time in years I live alone. I strip to almost nothing, the air falling cool from the overhead vents onto my head, my back, my legs; no one to see, no one to placate, no one to tiptoe around, at last.