Last December, after I had finished my draft of The Last Mound of Dirt, I began sketching out the plot of my third novel, which would be set mainly in Madrid because it was a city I had grown fond of, in part (but not in total) due to the fact that someone I loved very much lived there at one point. I freewrote the course that I intially imagined the story would take and then suddenly found myself writing a scene that went like this:
The journalist finds out that the poet is having a reading. He goes to the reading and approaches the poet. They don’t speak about their fight; they just shake hands. Then the journalist goes out with the poet and his new girlfriend. The poet suggests that the journalist should bring his wife sometime and that all four of them should go out together. The journalist says:
“Yes, that would be nice.”
“I think so.”
They all get drunk and the journalist slow dances with the poet’s new girlfriend. Their dancing is innocent. The girl tells him a story about her childhood and then the journalist asks her if she loves the poet already.
“Do you love him?”
“I don’t think like that.”
“What do you mean?”
She stopped their swaying and put her chin on the journalist’s shoulder joint. The press felt warm and, for a moment, he wished she were his—all brand new with the smell of enthusiasm, carbonated beer, fragrant shampoo and the moisture of a warm October night.
“Anything is possible (this written in Spanish).”
They continued to sway. The poet walked over to them and put his hands on the girl’s shoulder. He eased her slowly into his chest and wrapped his arms around her from behind.
The girl nodded.
“Vamos,” the poet said.
They exited the bar and went out into the street. The wind had died down and it wasn’t cold at all. It seemed like the morning would be unseasonably warm. The poet took the journalist’s hand.
“I think so,” the journalist said and smiled. He brought the poet toward him and gave him a hug. The girl walked over and hugged him too. She felt warm. The poet and the girl stepped away from him, waving.
The journalist walked along the streets. The street washers were hosing down the garbage on the sidewalks and in the road. The morning would be warm, so he started for his wife’s apartment. Maybe she would let him sleep there tonight and the next day they could have coffee and fruit and read the newspaper. And maybe then things would be better.
I have been thinking about that little sketch of writing for much of the past two months. There is nothing that has directly made me think of it. What pulls my mind towards those words is the feeling that my body and soul have when the image of that scene forced itself into my mind. At those instances, my mind feels fresh, relaxed and attentive to the spaces of the world – that is, the moments before and after people leave me or I leave them. The smell of the entryway to a bar; the warmth of the hallway in a sophisticated apartment building; the spacing of cars on the sidestreets in a neighborhood; the look of melting mounds of snow when the temperature hits fifty degrees and you tilt your skullcap to the side without a care. Maybe it is also the fact that that scene gives me a sense of my own approaching manhood for some reason. Makes me feel some guilt or pride in getting over my immaturity – the very idea of having a wife to reconcile with. Or it could also be the fact that I like staying out late on New Year’s and I believe in the idea that perhaps in the morning things will be better, just as long as your teeth are rearing to go at the world with that first cup of coffee fit snugly in your hand.
On New Year’s Day, I thought about this scene again. I walked two of my best friends to their car with a hangover buzzing around my head. Then, I took someone I love very much to the train. After I had said goodbye to her, I tilted my skullcap crookedly on my head and stamped my boots through disappearing tracks of snow and slush. I watched streams of water trail into sewer grates and small, old, Italian men push heaping shovelfuls of ice into the street to be matted into nothing. As I walked, I thought of the person I had just left at the train. I thought of how well I knew her and how long I had known her. There was a deep knowledge of her shape, her hair, her cheeks, the smell of her shampoo and understanding of the mind. I counted the years off and even thought of the period when I felt that all the things I had known, I would never enjoy or remember again. Only during that time, I hadn’t forgotten them; I just didn’t allow myself to feel them, which deprives the rest of the people and parts of your life from that part that can love. I tilted my hat once more and felt human and strong in my new wool sweater in the warmth of the winter afternoon.
When I returned to my apartment, it was quiet and slightly dirty from the guests that had slept there. I cleaned up the debris, set the pillows on the couch, opened windows at either end of the apartment to let in air and the sound of birds, and then lit a candle. My head felt exhausted and my hangover continued its dull buzz, so I sat on the couch in the early afternoon light, which in winter is the same light of 6:00 PM in summer. Out of restlessness and convenience I used my phone to look up Facebook. I scrolled through status updates and pictures until I came to a picture of a guy I used to play basketball with and the girl he dated, who used to be a good friend of mine. They were dressed nicely, smiling and leaning into each other on a very green golf course somewhere. I remembered the guy I played basketball with because I used to look up to him so much and he used to drive me around in his green/teal 1992 Chevy Blazer (I later got the same car) and we’d smoke cigarettes and drink beer. A maudlin thought came into my head, “I liked playing basketball against Garrett.” The simple sentence repeated in my head and I looked at the picture and thought, in an instant, about all the people I loved and had loved in my life – as though I were floating high above an incessantly spooling narrative of life – any life – unfurling itself somewhere in the great space of America.
Two weeks later, that moment stills seems valid to me. We get certain moments where our hearts open up to the memory and the images of all the people we love; how they are simply spinning out there somewhere in all of this eternity we live in each day. For instance, around the same time I wrote that scene sketch, I had a similar moment of openness while I was riding the train home for Christmas:
The train picks up steam now and I can see the snow, flat and near ice, on the Belmont. The snow is piling high and the village steeples are beginning to show. There are immaculate snowy playing fields and empty pool clubs with deep ends full of snow. The night is going to come tonight and smoke will unfurl from chimneys and around the corners of those corner bars I love so much. The snow will be stacked along the sidewalk in front of wine shops and delicatessens. A cat will clean itself among the bare brush branches near the marsh and the streets will be lit in a scale of orange as they always are. My mind will open with memory and I’ll think of those people I love. I’ll think of their gestures, their happinesses, their shapes and I will get thirsty for beer. A night in Quebec City with four feet high mounds of snow will reveal itself. A boy with a beer is using his feet to script his name in the snow. But that memory won’t be mine anymore. It will belong to someone else. Maybe a friend, maybe the protagonist of my next novel. Because I am only as good as the shine on the water of a half frozen pond next to a school yard. I’m just riding on the flat, trying to find Isis so that I can tell her I love her on the fifth day of May, in the drizzling rain.
Perhaps these moments spring upon us around the holidays or as each year comes to an end and we take stock of how much we have achieved in a given year or given era of our lives. Because we live our lives from day to day trying to document our memories, our successes and even the low points we get to when we just want to watch DVDs of our favorite TV shows continuously for hours just to forget, for a simple few hours of respite, that things are not constantly moving forward. However, things are always moving forward and we should never be anxious about that. We should embrace it, because it is only in moving forward that we can remember all the people in our lives that we love so much. The motion of life ahead makes the space for those people to rise up in illumination for a moment of glory, stupid laughs, or even just an image in repose that will stick with you long after they have moved away.
On New Year’s Day, I had one of those moments, which was triggered by the picture of my old basketball teammate. Perhaps it’s slightly self-serious of me to expand on all of these points about memory and the fact that time continues on no matter what. However, there is nothing self-serious, to me, about how life can be so strange and how a certain mood or the unexpected warmth of a day can open your chest up in a way that feels both alarming and welcome at the same time. You can fully visualize each of your friends and loved ones and you know that they are moving somewhere and the images are dark, but they slowly come to light and you can see them: going to the store for the weekly groceries they have to buy; sitting at the edge of their bed with their boyfriend or girlfriend late at night, leaning into each other perhaps after a fight; laughing with co-workers; feeling invincible for a moment while listening to that song of the moment. I get pissed at everything just like anybody else and I feel trapped and want to escape all of the things in my life that make me feel itchy. But, the world is a large place and, as Miranda once said, “has such people in it.” When you are younger and you think you have a handle on all of your friends or even the girls you love (like any guy ever really does) you never imagine how large the world is and how many opportunities your friends have to move about it in their different ways. Yet, it sits out there each day and calls you on and out into it. You can deny it as much as you want to, but you will always be struck at a time by some object like a photograph that reminds you just how many small moments you have had with people and about how many other small moments they have had in their own lives —when your back was turned! That is when the heart opens and you understand more than ever how much you love people and how much people have loved you; they are all just passing images in the middle of a warm and light afternoon.
And, like always, this could all just be elementary thought. We all know that we make memories and love other people. We are all hungover on New Year’s Day and sprawl out on the couch, there is nothing groundbreaking about all of this. Yet, we all get worked up about New Year’s and feel bad. When, really, New Year’s is all about those moments of space in our life and how we get to them so that we can see everything and remember everything better – those strange moments of repose. And maybe then there will be coffee and fruit. And maybe then things will be better too.