I’ve been reading Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut collection of short stories. In one story, “Snowman”, the narrator heads out to play basketball on a brutally cold winter day, because their friend has aspirations of being a superstar player. The narrator gets caught up in a wild adventure that takes him away from his friend, and when he finally returns to shoot some hoops the moment – the magic – is gone.

I know I’m wrong, but in my memory it seems like he lost his touch forever on that freezing afternoon.

This sentence dredged up in me a number of memories. Things that happened in my youth, and I’ve wondered what happened since, and what might have happened if things went differently.

When I was very young, my mom would take me shopping with her at the Schottenstein’s department store. I always liked going because they had a small cafe, a couple of arcade games, and little video booth for kids. My mom never splurged on the booth for me, so of course it was always the thing that I most wanted to do.

It was just a box, with a bench inside and coin slot. Upon depositing the right coins, a small television would flicker to life and show a short cartoon. I have no recollection if the cartoon ever changed, because I never really got to see it. Until the day I sat in there all by myself, imaging it was on, as a child is wont to do. Then a boy entered the booth holding a box of popcorn from the cafe. His mother slotted coins and the cartoon started. I have no memory of what the cartoon actually was. Mickey Mouse? Tom and Jerry? Woody Woodpecker? It was shorter than I wanted, but the brief minutes felt magical to me. The boy even shared some of his popcorn with me.

Then I heard my mom calling for me. She didn’t know where I was. The cartoon was over, so I stepped past the kid and out into the store proper. In my haste, and my lack of care about anyone else, I knocked into the boy’s arm, and spilled his popcorn all outside the viewing box. It crunched under my feet as I stepped across under the angry gaze of his mother.

I never apologized. As a kid, I didn’t know what to do. I felt bad, but I couldn’t undo it; and my mom was looking for me. I remember that one moment extremely clearly. I don’t have any memory of what happened next. Did my mom talk to the other mom? Did she apologize for me? Did the little boy cry?

When this memory hits me, as I lay awake at nights, I worry that the family was low income, and the popcorn was a non-trivial expense for this family, and I ruined it. I worry that this little boy grew up angry, resentful, of people like me; that he extrapolated from me and projected onto an entire population. I ruined his life, from this dumb little mistake. How might the course of that young boy’s life have been altered, in what ways, had I not spilled his popcorn? Had I apologized to him?

A less drastic memory in a similar vein was some years later, as I was playing on the playground equipment at the rec center. There was the iconic tire swing, and I was having fun spinning as fast as I could. I’d race around in a circle, building up speed, and then hold the chains and let my feet fly out, as the centripetal motion carried me around and around.

Other kids were there, and we took turns spinning. Then we started pushing each other on the tire, seeing who could push the others higher, or faster. When my turn came, I thrilled to spin this one kid around and around and around. I was breathless from exertion, and the kid was laughing. The others were cheering me. The kid on the tire stepped off and wobbled, dizzy. We all laughed. Then the kid vomited all over the swing.

I stood in shock for a moment, feeling terrible about what I’d done. Then I ran to my bike and pedaled home as fast as I could. I’m sure this kid had no lasting repercussions. I’m sure he didn’t develop a life-long phobia of swings, or spinning, or playgrounds. But for years I carried around a kind of vague guilt for ruining that kid’s day, for being responsible for fouling the swing, and as I got older for realizing that some poor employee had to clean that up.

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