Over the past few weeks, swings have grown on my campus. Overnight, they emerged: simple red planks of wood hanging on long white ropes from sturdy branches of trees, anonymous and silly. They happened everywhere, eight or ten of them strung about my small school. After trying a few of them, I found that one, in particular, was a perfect swing—a bit challenging to start out on, but once it got going it would soar to the height of the big tree’s branches. I put stirring music on my headphones and smiled benignly at the amused stares of onlookers, closed my eyes, remembered my childhood’s afternoon school recesses. The upswing felt like flying, and the backswing felt like bowing to the sky.
I investigated the origins of the swings. The hands that made them, it turned out, belonged to a best friend of my best friend. Maayan always wears three things: a yarmulke, wire-rimmed glasses that owlishly magnify his eyes, and a camo-patterned army flightsuit. (It is very warm, he says. Besides that, he is the sort of personality that deserves a uniform.) I thanked him for a piece of childhood. He smiled and nodded.
I received an email the next day:
Subj: Operation Sail Away
To: undisclosed recipients
You have all indicated interest in seeing or participating in the next phase of Operation: Red Swings. Here is your chance.
Tomorrow at 20:00 assemble at the back of the theater parking lot. I’ll be waiting in a red pickup truck with supplies. Wear warm clothing, but leave the balaclavas at home.
Details will be revealed on site.
Needless to say, this is to be a top secret operation.
Make sure you are not followed.
It had a post-script:
“It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities and talents.” – Eric Hoffer
We met in the freezing bitter night. Maayan, official in his flightsuit and a knitted cap, explained our mission: piled in the bed of his red truck were four triangular nylon boat sails, lengths of rope, winches. We would comb the campus for triangular threesomes of good fat trees, and string sails between them to make…something. Hammocks. Sculptures. Playthings. We would be covertly efficient. We would use the cover of night wisely. We piled into the bed of the truck, lying on the soft furled sails. As we drove off to our first possibility, I watched the cold constellations unwind by overhead, the stark black winter branches of trees. My cheeks grew cold.
It took us many tries to find a suitable troupe of trees, but we did so, methodically and carefully. We found the right ties and tensions through trial and error. Maayan taught us all how to affix knots, how to crank the winches, until the wide white sail hung flat, suspended chest-height above the ground, shimmering gently in the frigid breeze. Timidly I swung up onto our sail. The trees’ bark whined protestations and held. Another and another of us clambered onto the sail, and we stretched out on our backs, suspended airily above ground, watching the stars.
“What the hell is that?” asked three drunken passersby.
My friend Tess flipped on her stomach. “It is a weather experiment,” she lied authoritatively. “We are examining the relationship between barometric pressure and surface tension. Would you like to try?” She slid off the sail and beckoned them graciously forward. They raised their eyebrows, shrugged, and piled on the sail, giggling like children. I glanced at Maayan. He was grinning softly to himself, proud of the laughter he’d made.
Before our next construction, we stopped by a coffee shop to warm our hands. I cupped a mug of hot chocolate and gulped it like water and savored the chatter of friends. It occurred to me to ask them a question I’ve been asking everyone over the past few months. I collect the answers to this question like marbles; I don’t know what I’ll do with them yet, but each new answer feels like adding a new color to something I am painting.
They gave me their attention. “Say you’re on the greatest adventure of your life,” I began. “You can be anyone, at any time in history. That doesn’t matter. All you know is, if you make it out of this alive, it’ll be the biggest story you tell your grandchildren. It’s that moment.
“What does it smell like?”
They exchanged the usual bewildered glances that people give me when I ask them this, then settled as they realized it was simply a weird question that deserves a weird answer.
“Cinnamon,” began Phil, my best friend, who has heard me ask this many times before.
“Grass,” chimed in Elisha, and thought a moment more before nodding. “Yes. Grass.”
Tess has a bit of a wicked, imaginative streak, and I waited hopefully as she chewed over her answer, knowing it would be good. “Baked rock,” she finally said. “Like in a canyon I visited, when I was little—rock warmed in the sun. And the smell it had after it rained, then.”
I smiled at that—the answers with just a hint of illustration are the best. I turned gently to look at Maayan, who had waited for last. He peered at me over the rims of his glasses, and for an instant I saw, in his twenty-something face, the face he would have as an old man.
“The greatest adventure of my life?” he clarified. I nodded.
He answered without another moment’s hesitation: “My wife.”
It was the perfect answer, unequivocally the best I have found. Without a word, I stood and bowed deeply to my friend.
Tess arched an eyebrow, knowing him, of course, to be unmarried. “‘Your wife’? Do you somehow know what your wife smells like?”
“No!” scoffed Maayan, grinning. He took a sip of his tea. “But I will.”