Hello, my Puddlers!
I come to you on this first Sunday of the summer of 2016, to provide a slight update.
As you know by now, this blog is now nothing more than a place for me to periodically provide my thoughts on music or to post some fiction that I can't get published. But I haven't fallen into laziness or disrepair. My days are busy and mostly provide me with fulfillment. I'm not pitching articles or writing essays as much as I used to.
The majority of my time is helping smart people (smarter than myself) write, edit and publish stories over at Artsy Editorial (it goes without saying that they are also better writers and editors than I am as well). We're building something, that I think, is very exciting. Its an environment I've always wanted to be a part of in my relatively short career in publishing. I'm working with people who are passionate, sharp, and who pursue what they love without ego. Every day is truly a joy. When you have some time, check it out.
For now, though, I bring you a little bit of fiction that I've been working on. This is a small section of a larger novel manuscript that I find myself fully invested in at the moment. Probably I should be spending my time working on a new batch of short stories to hone, refine and submit, but I've never been sensible when it comes to my writing, so why start now?
Until next time,
A working excerpt:
If she could ride a train forever, she thought she might be happy. There was a directness to it. You boarded and were promised safe delivery at another point. Like all things, she knew that wasn’t necessarily true. Amtraks crashed. They crashed and killed people just as planes did. But there wasn’t the same feeling of helplessness. When you boarded a plane, you in some way gave yourself up to God. The wheels rolled down the runway. The wings cut through the air. Only then, as the entire lumbering cabin began urging at full speed did you notice the chipped metal on the wing out your window. And then the whole thing, the whole notion of flight struck you as folly. Each day screws fell out of machines all over the world. Things broke. Mail was delivered to the wrong house. Paperwork in cavernous, bureaucratic government buildings was misfiled or lost. People made mistakes. With each day came an infinite amount of things that went wrong. So flight was an act of recognizing that. Trapped 30,000 feet in the air, you were vulnerable, and in some way had to accept the notion of death. Not picturing yourself dying in a fiery crash became exhausting or, at the very least, boring after so many loops. That was direct, violent and obvious. Instead, it was the emptying of yourself that appealed to her, feeling transience, opening yourself to death, to the notion that if something went wrong you’d soon be once again part of the universe—back from whence you came. It was that part of flying that she was drawn to in its own perverse way. Everything else about it was second rate.
By train you were both transient and still present. You could watch the world unfold before you while receding into the oblivion of travel—especially when you were alone. Thick brushes, tall trees, open plains with peaked, taunting mountains in the distance drew your eye. The slow continued hum of the car, the wheels rolling, the track silent beneath you, uncoiling or veering slightly through impossible nooks and waterside stretches, or lying flat and inseparable from a wide expanse of plain or desert, a metal prayer in the middle of nowhere. Life existed out a train window. Light fell in different shades. Shadows, gold tipped beams, the off-again, on-again of buildings all came through the broad panes of glass. It wasn’t just endless cloud mass, bright, too-bright, stratospheric blue. On a train you were part of the landscape, whatever it might be that both rushed by and seemed to hover just feet from your vantage point.
And there you were most like a passenger. You sat, making stops in different towns. At each one you increasingly became a stranger to those sitting in the car around you and those who entered. On a plane, there was always the same unspoken agreement, the same collective holding of breath until the vessel landed. You looked around the cabin and thought, are these the people that I’ll die with? On a train everyone was just a passenger moving from one point to another. It felt ancient and true. It gave her a sense of peace. If she sat and was quiet, the train might continue on forever. It might take her to somewhere she hadn’t expected. When this fantasy crossed her mind, she could never think of the place where she’d want to end up. And that made her happy because it didn’t matter. It was part of the allure, part of being in the world and, by being in constant motion, removed from it at the same time. You were a spirit, you were nobody and whenever the train stopped, where the line ended, you were there. And once you were there, then you could be whoever you were going to be in that place. You’d have to be. You’d have to figure out who you were in order to continue on, to figure out what to do next, where to go next. Because even if you were nobody, even if the travel was able to remove you from your body in some way so that you just became a moving consciousness on a train in the middle of a mass of land, you were still somebody.
She knew it all too well. The train only moved so fast. There was only so much track before you hit ocean and could go no further. And there is where your past, your personality, your life caught up and collided and merged back with your body, with the body of nobody, the body of the traveler. And even though she was free, now, she’d still be a girl from Long Island with a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts college, who rented an apartment and paid bills in San Francisco; who had a California driver’s license in her purse. Once the train stopped, she’d be Sonja again. She knew it now, sitting, watching squares of golden grain fields stretch out beside her, and she’d know it all too well once the train finally stopped. Once she knew it was time to get off and stay off.
They were in the middle of Iowa. She’d been gone for four days. Even though she tried not to, she kept count. It was natural to her. Thick yellow afternoon sun filled the train car. The dull maroon upholstery of the rows of cushioned seats were given a shine, a sepia tint that made them seem much more substantial than they were—man-manufactured seats careening across the continent for countless body shapes and personalities to sit and recline in. Across the row, a mother and daughter that had gotten on at Denver were sitting, both of their heads bowed over an iPad watching a movie. The little girl had long, stringy brown hair. Her limbs were lined with small muscles visible from the cuffs of her shorts and t-shirt. Every so often, the girl would lift her head and chin from the perch of her mother’s arm and she’d readjust her compact body on the seat. It was an elaborate dance. She’d stand one foot on the seat, one knee resting. Then her arms would flash up, stretching. Then she’d curl her standing foot under her, which helped her tilt her body forward—almost on top of her mother’s shoulder—for a better look at the screen. For a moment she would hold this pose before getting bored or realizing it was uncomfortable and then return her knobbed knees, her tiny feet in small white sandals, to their cross-legged position. She’d conclude by propping her chin once more on her mother’s thin sweatered shoulder. The whole time, her mother never moved, other than the occasional glance out the window. And in that brief moment the sun would splash against her brown complexion and turn the hair along her temples a bright gold, make her skin completely smooth. Then she’d return her gaze, drowsily, to the small screen in her lap. It was public, but intimate. As if Sonja were watching a mother zebra and her young calf finding a comfortable spot in the shade at some penned in prairie at the zoo.
Sonja turned her head out the window. The endless fields continued with only the odd silo or ramshackle farm compound breaking up the expanse. She stared out at what spread before her and tried to find something inside that related to this rural landscape and life. The bounty that myth said resided at the heart of the country. She also tried to imagine what the mother across the aisle felt when she looked out the window. Did she look out and wistfully think of a world where she didn’t have a daughter? A reality when she was once again unencumbered as she had once been as a girl in Boulder or Fort Collins or Colorado Springs or whatever non-Denver adolescent existence she had come from. The world of wide-open Colorado skies; impossible blues and high-hanging white clouds. When her nights were purple and filled with drives to an old quarry or swimming hole for night swims. The thrilling click and flame of a lighter at the edge of twilight, the smell of pot in the air. The handing out of beer, the smell of dirt. And maybe she hadn’t planned to have this daughter but instead wanted to be a liberal senator, or a WNBA player, or an attorney, or the owner of a fancy restaurant in Denver. And maybe she wanted to just get the hell out of Colorado and go to L.A. or New York City to become famous. Or maybe, just actually, she’d fallen in love with a man, they’d worked, gotten married and decided to have a daughter.
The landscape said nothing to Sonja. It just enforced the thrill she had of disappearing intro travel. Nothing about it gave her any insight into who she was or what she was doing. Because what she was doing was so very clear in it’s own confused way. She was on the run. Streaking away on a silver train from a life she couldn’t recognize as her own anymore. A life that wasn’t any more familiar to her than any scenario she imagined for the mother across the aisle. Or for the families living in farms and houses out her passenger’s window. It was a hiatus from the last ten years of her life. How long it could or would continue was another question. How long could it last?
From the pouch in front of her, she pulled out her iPhone. The temptation to turn it on, to reconnect had been strong. The urge for information, for the ability to reach out to someone and let them know she was all right. None of this was fair. She wasn’t self-absorbed enough to deny that fact. People would fear the worst. And she could just turn on the phone, send an e-mail to Kirsten or Jess or her mother and tell them what she’d done. She could lay it out very clear and directly.
I have decided to leave San Francisco and Lee for an indefinite amount of time. At this point, I can’t be sure how long this period will last. Fundamentally, though, I need some time away. Some time to myself to figure out what it is that I am looking for in life. I will remain in contact as frequently as I can. While I understand this is selfish and perhaps short sighted of me, I hope you can understand.
There wouldn’t have to be much more to it than that. The message could perhaps be simpler, though, the motivation articulated more directly. But she wouldn’t throw Lee under the bus. She wouldn’t divulge any of the details of their relationship. An email wasn’t the place for that. And it wasn’t in her nature to let people in that way. There were certain glimpses of yourself and your private life you gave to other people. And understanding what they were and how to do it, very often said what kind of person you were.
She placed the phone back in the seat’s pouch and removed her bottle of water. Behind her came the low conversation of a couple that had been on the train since the start at Emeryville. Jeremy and Amanda Grant. They were in their late forties. She’d eaten dinner with them the first night. They were from Albany and had flown to California to spend a week before taking the train back. They’d always wanted to do it. It was for their twentieth wedding anniversary. They’d met right out of college at the government offices in Albany: he in the Housing Authority, she in the Mayor’s Office. The vacation time was plentiful for state workers. They joked they had so much time off that they didn’t think they’d ever be able to use it all. Over steaks—Jeremy had read a travel blog that said the food on Amtrak’s cross-country train service was surprisingly trustworthy—they talked. Sonja was hungry and after two beers and polishing off her steak, she drowsily asked them about being married for twenty years.
“To be honest, it kind of snuck up on me,” Jeremy said. He rubbed his thin black beard. Amanda poked him in the arm.
“What he means,” Amanda said, “is that after a while, you don’t think about it so much anymore. Being married just becomes part of your reality.”
“Right,” Jeremy said. He removed his glasses and cleaned them.
“But that doesn’t mean you can take it for granted.”
Jeremy shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
“So what do you guys do?” Sonja asked. “Travel like this? Remember to keep the romance alive? Sorry that sounds like something out of a magazine.”
Amanda laughed. She took a drink from her plastic cup of beer and looked out the window. The sun was setting over a stretch of Nevada desert. Outside the sky and land were the same vivid shade of dark pink. It looked as though you could walk to the horizon through the low dotted brush, across the sand, to the mountains in the distance and then somehow proceed vertically up into the sky, as if it were all continuous and contained.
“Well we don’t have kids. That’s for one thing. Kids change everything.”
Jeremy leaned back on the stiff dining seat. He rested his hand on his stomach. He was handsome in a way. A large chin, long wolfish smile. But at the same time he was undeniably professorial. That same slight bored and baffled air that her father carried with him. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ve thought about it. I love kids.”
“So do I,” Amanda said. “I’m a three-time godmother.”
“We just understood that we liked other people’s kids. You have to know that about yourself.”
“That makes sense,” Sonja said. She finished the last of her beer. The cabin was beginning to dim. The seats, the aisles, the Windex-smelling table they had eaten from, all were covered in the fine remains of the fading pink light. “Did all of your friends change when they had kids?”
“Yes,” Jeremy said. “They had to.”
“It’s not like they’re strangers or anything,” Amanda said, giving him an incredulous look. “Some of them still have nights where they drink too much and act like they did when we were twenty-two. But there are kids to answer to in the morning now. At every waking moment. That’s just more important.”
She looked back out the window again. The skin of her cheeks was still firm. She had a slight overbite that made her seem adolescent in a way, like a woman who is constantly an assistant and never in charge. But her lips, her chin, something gave her face a downcast look. Sonja could almost sense the sadness coming from her, a sadness she felt that every woman who doesn’t have a child must have somewhere within them, no matter how happy she may truly be, how grand and accomplished her life, no matter how firm in her decision to stay child-free. It was hormones. It was nature. But it was also that more powerful thing. The remorse, the wondering of what could have been. That crippling, powerful sway the imagination has when it begins to pull at, unravel and retie the strands of time.
“But what are you asking us all about this for?” Jeremy said. “You’re twenty-five. Jesus, we’d both kill to be twenty-five again.”
She’d lied to them about her age. She’d shaved four years off, hardly an exaggeration. It felt natural to lie. She’d given them her real name, so it wasn’t that she was pretending to be someone else or that she necessarily wanted to be someone else. Being twenty-five made the trip, this escape, make more sense. It was something she should have done when she was actually twenty-five. And she should have done it without Lee. And that was at the heart of it. She wanted to pretend, to see what life, what a trip without him would have been like when she was younger, even just a few years younger.
She’d excused herself from dinner and went back down to her seat to read and sleep. Now listening to Jeremy and Amanda talk behind her, with Iowa rolling by, she understood that pretending to be another age meant she did want to be another person. Wanting to know what a trip without Lee would be like was the same thing as taking another identity. Four years wasn’t a long time. You both changed and didn’t change in four years. Like in college. She came to school as a musician. Someone who defined herself by what she was listening to, by the fact that she could play guitar, bass, piano and even banjo if she really sat down and faked it. When she set foot on campus, she brought with her the identity she’d taken on through her teenage years—she was a girl who could impress, who didn’t need friends and who didn’t care about being liked or understood. By the end of college, she was still that same girl, but she’d modified slightly. She didn’t play in bands anymore, but she still listened to music religiously, still treated her CDs and vinyls with reckless abandon. They were her prized possessions but somehow the only part of her life that she approached with complete disorganization. Even rare records like The Beatles’ Asher Demos she’d picked up at a record store in town, her bootleg version of SMiLE! Bobby Charles’ self-titled record. Al Kooper’s I Stand Alone. Music was like air. You cherished it by not thinking twice about it. Because it was a part of you. It was what gave you life in the morning, what picked you up when your energy and body failed you, what pressed you to stay up all night because you had to listen to one more song or, what the hell the whole album, or no, this album isn’t enough, let me put on another one. You mixed and matched until you found the song, the record that fit your mood and then, only then, could you sleep easy. She was still that girl. She still didn’t care about having close friends. Nothing bored her more than sitting around with girls in her dorm—from Bedford or Brooklyn Heights or Newton or Madison—and listening to them talk about boys they while drinking cheap wine or pretended to like bourbon.
But by the end of four years, she’d come to rely on Lee. To need him in a way that was completely foreign to her, but which had become her entire life. It had happened so rapidly and completely, sustained for so long that she wasn’t quite sure how to press back to the surface, to regain some clarity she once had on who she was and what she wanted out of life. At one point, life was going to bend to her. She forgot what that felt like. Maybe that was natural, the way you were supposed to lose parts of yourself and your adolescent ego as you grew older. That was life. There wasn’t anything else. It was inevitable. Like the tide drawing in on shore, waves crashing closer and closer to you until you had no choice but to abandon where you sat or otherwise get pummeled and absorbed by the water, salt, rocks, sand and foam. There was a kernel left. It glimmered within her. But it only came when she listened to music. Either a new song she’d never heard before—an overlooked song or record from decades ago or some remarkable new track by an artist she appreciated, but didn’t love—or an old song she knew well, but had forgotten the immediacy and beauty of. A few months ago, “All The Young Dudes” had come on a Spotify playlist while she walked home from work. It was a song she’d heard so much when she was younger that she’d actually forgotten the song existed. But, for some reason, it now struck her as beautiful. The piano part in the third refrain was so clear, so alive, played and produced so well. The melody and the swelling organ. The chorus didn’t mean anything, but yet it added up to something, it was powerful. She’d looked around her at San Francisco. The light above the city orange at sunset. The wind cold, but never bitter. The incessant multi-colored homes changed hue in the orange light and she turned her head up, down, behind her in confusion. Her steps stuttered with energy and she could feel herself want to cry. Not out of sadness—how stupid to cry to Mott the Hoople!—not out of feeling trapped in her life, but because there was some story of her life remaining to be told. That she would wake up the next day and more would happen. More would happen and she’d have a say in it. But the song ended. She continued walking home. She returned to her apartment, to Lee.
What it was she’d first loved about him, she couldn’t remember. The details, the phases of love had cycled so much that her feelings, even the original ones, were no longer clear in her mind. There was the fact that he was a musician of course, and that he treated it as seriously as she did. He knew more about music than she did. Knew who played what instruments on what records and then what records those sidemen made on their own. He tossed around names like David Fripp, John Simon, Dennis Linde, Jesse Ed David, and countless others like they were in everybody’s collection, as if everyone should have spent their high school years connecting obscure dots from records across decades. That thirst he had to find every secret song. The vastness of his universe attracted her. He could write a melody better than she could, but she was a better player. Songwriting, taming and working out a melody was never her strong suit. Everything meandered when she set out to write a song herself. No matter how much she listened to Ram or even Band on the Run she could never find the root of the melodicism at the heart of the most fluid bass playing, the structure of the best written songs. She couldn’t bear to sing or play any of the choruses she wrote. Lee saw how the parts fit. He knew how to build a pre-chorus. He knew about truck driver modulation. He was as concerned with a B section as he was with a chorus or a verse. And still he knew that whatever he wrote wasn’t good enough. He would take his guitar and sit on the green alone at night working over a melody. He would listen to Lee Hazelwood, Harry Nilsson, Jimmy Webb over and over and over again. Years later, after they’d graduated, when his love of songwriting began to fade, when he focused on mood, rhythm, wordless composition, she was almost relieved. She couldn’t match that original intensity, which had shocked her. Because she’d known herself as the most intense person—the one with the sharp edges and the propensity to withdraw. But he had another level of introspection. Another level of self-absorption and self-hate.
But that’s what also made him vulnerable. More than anything, it was the fact that his very posture, the way he walked and lived, called out for care that eventually drew her in. It was his long, stringy hair, his frail wet dog’s chest, the chain-smoking. She’d never considered herself overly feminine or nurturing, but his very presence called up something in her. She wanted to hold him, to tell him that it was all right, that it didn’t matter if he ever made some critically acclaimed album, or if he never wrote (or even ghost wrote) a hit song. Life could be more than artistic achievement. She knew on some level she was foolish. Some days she laughed at herself and how she was just another girl falling for a boy who thought he was an undiscovered genius. And she was smarter than that, better at avoiding clichés than that. Except he never got angry then. He never blamed anyone but himself. He worked hard at his songs and he was focused. That attracted her as well. She knew that if she could hold his attention as much at the guitar and his writing could, then she was doing something right. It was its own accomplishment, its own form of power.
It scared her even then how mixed up her feelings were. At some moments her love was all consuming. It was passion. Quick sex at any moment. Sweaty, never completely comfortable. One of them standing or half-standing while they did it on bad furniture. At other times, her love was deeper, warmer. He was irresistible, but she had a sense of removal. She wanted to be as close to him as possible but without fucking. She wanted to admire his body, take pride in him, in his music, in the way that he existed in the world beside her. That part terrified her. But she felt it deep within her every day. It was a path. She saw it. But back then, all paths were short ones. You could retreat. Nothing said you had to see it through, that you had to follow it to its conclusion. And she knew that now—her back resting at one moment comfortably, at another in pain against the armrest of an Amtrak two-seat. You could retreat. Pride no longer mattered. But somehow she had gone so far. If this was a retreat, then what were the consequences? What did that mean? And was it a retreat at all? Maybe her love for Lee, her submission to that life had been the retreat. Perhaps what she was doing now, this journey across the country—West to East, the opposite of American Destiny—was the course correction. She’d been on the right path for the first half of her life, but she’d shied away from that path at the most critical juncture. Now she’d found herself lost in a wood because she’d run back, because she’d retreated. It was time to forge ahead. She felt it was true. But there was never any way to know.
The sound of Jeremy and Amanda’s conversation continued. His voice slower, slightly nasal; hers looser, each word sounding as if she worked her whole mouth to get it out. Sonja adjusted herself in her seat. She propped her pillow against the window. The coolness of the glass seeped through the cushion and thin white case. She looked across at the mother and daughter again. The mother had fallen asleep while the daughter sat rapt with attention staring at the iPad. Every now and then she would glance up at her mother, stare for a second, and look back down at the screen. Sonja’s eyes began to droop. The thought of coffee crossed her mind. She wanted to take in each part of the trip as much as she possibly could. The morning she left, she had seen the fog roll in from the city out over the bay and ensconce the entire train in thick grey. In Utah she’d watched the sun rise slowly through the desert and spread faint lavender light across dozens of shades of orange and peach on buttes and mesas. Through Colorado she stared at the choppy mud water of the state’s river, its banks giving way to bright green brush, kayakers moving along white swells in the wake of rapids. Then into the Great Plains, still somehow five thousand miles above sea level. The sky an impenetrable light blue. And then into Denver on a clear afternoon, the sun shining in beams that she swore were visible. The high rises of the city reflecting the sky’s blue so that they almost disappeared. The romance of it all struck her as maudlin and naïve. It was an idea of America she had laughed at on the one hand, but on the other had secretly hoped existed. That traveling across vast landscapes on either a wide-open highway or on a fast train could mean something to you, no matter how dim or imperceptible the feeling. The idea had been beaten to death, the gospel of God Bless America, but because it had been beaten to death, part of her knew that there had to be a reality buried within. It wasn’t so much that America was great, it was that life was great—life was vast, unknowable, and always changing. Each landscape was a planet. When she saw the grey rock and crevasses in Colorado canyons, her mind drifted to the character of America. The idea that all Americans are outlaws or immigrants in some way. Each one with a weirdness, with rough edges passed down through generations and characters over time: fur traders, frontiersmen, gold rushers, watch dangling moguls, snot-nosed and suspendered dock workers. Each one out to define what this country would mean. All of it came back to her in small squares of memory, glossy photos and prints of paintings from ten-pound textbooks she’d toted in her backpack or stacked in a metallic blue locker. It came back to her and made her feel empty, but slightly melancholy. How was it that she had been a student at one time? That these histories and myths had been taught to her? That she’d taken textbooks home and sat and read them? That each chapter, each with its neat subsections and bolded fonts was just as important as the bent bindings, just as important as the names of the students who had carried the books before her. Each with their name printed in fading pen or nearly invisible pencil on neat, tabled lines on the inside cover, a year marking their ownership: ’89, ’93, ’99, ’02. All of that history, both the local and the national, contained within a large brick building where she had passed her days, where she had thrived as a creative person. Where she had relished being different and had desired to escape. That was America too. But not just America, that was life. That was what happened no matter where you were—longing, history, escape, remorse. The streets of her town began to unroll in her head. She saw Old Town Road bending up to her high school. The neighborhoods were fuzzy, road names became confused. Was it Lynx lane? Or, no, was it Woodchuck? Did you turn right or left onto Gnarled Hollow? She began to drift off, the road to her house was clear in her mind.
When she awoke, the sun was beginning its descent and the cabin was full of honeyed, amber light. They were approaching Chicago. She’d have to get off the Zephyr and transfer to a new train for the last leg of the trip to New York. She looked out the window and saw the city in the distance. She would get off. She would spend the night. Maybe two. Or maybe three. Her rail pass was good for another ten days.