Skip to main content

Human Atoms

“I go jogging at night,” mused Ian Sikora,

“and I see the cars with their steam rising stopped

at red lights, the people inside sealed off

from everything, and I think, What do these people live for?

Ian drummed in an alternative band

called the Spoonbenders—his hands ached after a day

not gripping the sticks—although jazz was his true love;

“Rock and roll babysits your brain while

you’re doing something else,” he declared,

yet he alerted me first to the Smashing Pumpkins.

When classmates in Geology mocked

Paul Rice the ur-science nerd in his absence,

Ian vindicated him: “It’s important to have

that passion for something. Though I can’t say I share

his passion for science, or academics period”;

one of the same classmates, flaunting her 4.5 GPA

on a report card laden with Advanced Placement courses,

teased, “That’s more than Ian gets in a whole year,”

prompting from him a hearty but bashful laugh.

He raved over the catalog of the Berklee School of Music

in Boston, but soon foresaw it straining his family’s

savings, and resigned himself to Maryland.

I never bumped into him there—one of the atoms

in my Epicurean social universe at

Roosevelt, congregating from wherever by chance

into combinations we thought fixed then but lasting,

in the long run, for the twitch of an eyelid until

dispersing on disparate, capricious careers.

Sarino Suon perennially dressed

in plain Izod rugby shirts minutely

spattered with toothpaste: “When I brush,

I brush violently.” His father, Cambodian,

worked as a postal clerk like mine.

Fascinated by film, he nonetheless insisted

altruism inclined him to neurosurgery

despite unmeticulous cramming of

papers into his binder—“There’s a system in there.

I have no clue what it is, but there’s

a system.” Pensive, reticent aside

from his goofy wit, he one day told us,

“Everything I see makes me believe more and more

in G-d.” “So if I gouged my eye out

with this pen,” some smart-aleck heckled,

“that would make you believe more in G-d?”

“Yes!” In our maiden college semester,

his soul became born for a second time; “It’s very comforting”

was all he divulged of what spurred conversion.

We ruled the room’s front row that final high school year,

and during down time expounded on

books, movies, music; I brought in literary journals,

Ian shared a right-wing organ of opinion

he found who knows where called, of all things,

Heterodoxy, and a magazine he picked up

at Tower Records touting models suspended from

branches by leather straps with metal hooks sunk

into their flesh. He blew ten dollars on it “because

I knew it would stimulate such a reaction.”

Sarino glued his gaze to it. I wouldn’t look.



Maggie (short for Magdalena) Anders,

arrived from Poland three years before,

spoke flawless unaccented English and edited

a school newspaper section as I did.

She marked copy in the News Review office

the night at the end of junior year I

raced in and pitched my article on the bomb threat

that shut down school that day; as I clabbered

over ice by the lake on a Sunday

the following winter, Maggie emerged out of

nowhere, overtaking me from behind with her

nimble stride: “Hey, I just left you a message—

Ms. Pohl called and told me the President’s visiting

school tomorrow.” Clinton turned out a no-show,

and our journalism teacher would have only

remanded the class to the press corps as go-fers.

Something restrained me from inquiring

on late evenings arranging a forthcoming issue

if Maggie shared the blood as well as the name

of Wladyslaw Anders, commander

of the homeless Polish World War II army.

"The next I knew of her, twenty years later,

cancer’s closing curtain engulfed her,

stealing her from husband and toddler daughter."


As we in the back of AP Psychology

babbled about what we all at that age babble

about when hardly any of us

have something to say, Toi Perkins,

with gentle genial smile unchanging,

shrugged and said, “I’m one of those people

who’s like a nun until she gets married.”

You’d never tell she possessed the school’s

preeminent flair for acting—she played her caped captive

Queen Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

with a proud, foxy prowl—although maybe

her very mildness of mien imbued each move

with aristocratic bravado. Sable-skinned,

she bragged that her friend Craig Halper named her

an “honorary Jew” and savored the way

his New Yorker mother called his father Martin “Mawt.”

At graduation, the principal apprised us

Toi won a journeyman year at Oxford to further

her craft of assuming invented selves.

The next I knew of her, twenty years later,

cancer’s closing curtain engulfed her,

stealing her from husband and toddler daughter.



Audrey Morris’s company two seats ahead

sweetened the drear of Pre-Calculus—tall and pale

with loose, deceptively wavy chocolate mane,

features so soft they seemed not quite

fully formed, freckles melting into a faint

orange-brown scrim on her skin. Her drawings

graced the halls and the literary magazine:

portraits haptic and articulated but

with some foreshortening slightly flubbed, trompe l’oeil tableaus

of the tender circumvolving of rosebuds spun into

snails’ hollow, bony whelks. A folk musician to boot,

Audrey filled the auditorium with

a voice as long and whispery as her frame.

And senior year she began to write

poems and stories in lambent, plangent style—

striking a melancholy yet Rimbaldian note,

“At seventeen the poet believes there’s little

left to be seen”; commencing an adolescent’s

silent plaint to her mother while driving,

“I hate stoplights. The tension is worst at them …”

I’d see Audrey traipsing through school before

classes in beryl blouse and faded jeans

or ankle-reaching calico skirt with her longtime boyfriend

or the one who replaced him now

that he’d graduated, sitting cross-legged

on the hallway floor after the four-o’clock bell

sketching or strumming acoustic guitar.

She’d provide private exhibits of

freshly finished work, and any essay or poem

I carried I’d lend to her to peruse.

A few times we planned to survey each other’s oeuvres

at leisure, but something always caused her to cancel—

falling behind on a paper due soon, her brother rushed

to the hospital, her faulty memory.

When we last spoke, Audrey still didn’t know

her dorm’s address at art school in Baltimore;

she had my address and telephone number

but didn’t use them. I often thought of her

at the easel in those remodeled brick lofts,

taking pains to perfect her touch

of brush to canvas, nib to stock. Ages elapsing,

I found Audrey on Facebook using the married name

another alumnus gave me and sent her

a friend request never answered.



My locker neighbored that of Karl Pilato,

also an artist, in “the caves” under

the first central staircase’s lower flight.

Quiet but not unsocial—he always said “Hello”

and offered a “Sorry” or “That’s O.K.”

as we jostled each other and everyone else

packed into that alcove to change books and supplies—

serious but not ponderous,

he wore unostentatiously

the burgundy slacks of a teenage aesthete.

I didn’t really know him until a day

in November with shortened classes

for attending an afternoon football game;

my hall pass admitted me, though, to Ms. Farrell

my English teacher’s room, and Karl sat

at the desk nearest the door leafing through

a folio monograph on Emil Nolde.

“You like art?” he asked with a hint

of incredulity as I joined him

over the green faces and splotchy scenery.

He showed me a sketchbook entry:

his younger brother’s unclouded sleep in lines

so loving one would have thought they were drawn

by a father. Later came woodcuts—

dark, blocky, haunted—and the series

evoking living shapes in single curlicued bands

of black paint published in our last magazine.

Reunited in cyberspace, I discovered

his dynamic equilibria of prismatic

splashes and swirls, and that he learned

at the Massachusetts College of Art

when I lived two blocks up Mission Hill.

How many times had we missed each

other, boarding and hopping off of

the streetcar at Longwood station, or crossing

Huntington Avenue where his campus straddles it—

unwittingly shy of a welcome reminder

that no past we were part of departs from us for good?

Favorite character

Related Articles