I go months sometimes without talking to people I consider dear friends. And then there are days like yesterday, where I had three separate 90-minute phone conversations, mostly catch-up, with some industry, some encouragement, some plans for the future.
And so, yesterday, I found myself repeating a few things that have been on my mind: this constant sense of discombobulation, not knowing whether I am coming or going, a floating feeling of disconnect from the present world, as if I am myself only as I was in the past, in some time before change (whenever that was), as if in my confusion I hit some sort of mental re-set that flung me back a few decades. A childlike fog, a barrier, both protective and smothering.
Since moving to New York in August, my years in Chicago have slammed me. Shattered more recent memory. Five years in Rhode Island? That quiet, bounded place. My time there is a satellite broken free of orbit, or at least cast into a long elliptical. Now at apogee.
Meanwhile, back in a city, the biggest city yet, my memories have begun to cross. All the cities I’ve ever lived in are sinking into each other like layers of wet onionskin lightly written upon. If I write down my address, and I do not concentrate, it becomes three addresses in one. Penn Station is Ogilivie; I don’t even hear myself when I speak wrongly. My internal map is blitzed. Rego Park is Oak Park is Forest Park is Forest Hills.
All subways of the past, CTA or MTA, commingle in a single subway to nowhere, no place, just this limbo of movement filled with Scrabble. I have trouble sleeping if I play too much Scrabble too close to nighttime: my brain tumbles bright Tetris-falls of meaningless letters, trying to polish them into usable jewels. Can I somehow rearrange this Q and this W and this V and this Y and those three A’s in a single 7-letter word outside of whatever fantasy world I currently inhabit? If I can, I shall be like Kai, spelling ETERNITY in shards of ice for the Snow Queen.
The subway is infinite, an endless roaring wormhole of peeling cement, darting rats, the redolent strata of urine, staircases mosaicked black and gray with the random dispersal of chewing gum. I descend into that perpetual florescent dimness, ascend again to a white-water-rapids of humanity whose currents clip along faster than my walking pace, my heartbeat, my ability to think. All I do is cry sometimes. I have to stop and put my back to a wall, or a gate, or a pillar.
I love my work. The commute is three hours one way. I am away from home for 3 days, maybe 4, staying with friends or, more recently, Air BNBs. My work is sitting in a black box, sunk into the architecture of an alien mind, talking to myself, unspooling their storylines, exploring their characters, in all the voices at my command. My work is wonderful, absorbing. If I don’t strictly adhere to a particular sleep pattern, it doesn’t work. My flesh resents me talking to anyone on a night after I’ve been working; my spirit is willing; my spirit yearns. Sometimes it wins, and my face goes numb, my throat scraped. It’s worth it? I bought yoga balls to help ease certain pressure points in jaw, neck, back. It’s possible to sustain this pace without popping preventative Aleve every morning? It’s possible. It must be. My bladder swims with “sour water”: my drink of choice. Hot water and apple cider vinegar and honey. Sometimes a Sleepytime tea bag. Sometimes a splash of pineapple juice. It varies. What doesn’t is the amount. I am well-hydrated. I am at capacity. And yet, still dry and greedy, gaspingly, graspingly. When I am not working, I do not drink like this.
Time away from home, away from a kitchen to call my own, it is harder to control food. Difficult to exercise regularly beyond the walk to and from the train station. Perhaps I am not trying hard enough. I am not disciplined enough. I am not, I am not, I am not. And of course, with contract work, the possibility of never working again seems to loom every month, even if that’s unlikely to happen if we go by what pattern suggests. Sometimes I do not know if I long for that guillotine blade. For someone to tell me, “Stick with writing; your narration work’s not up to par, your ratings are low, you’re a hack, really, and ruinous.” Writing, of course, is even less certain, but I’ve been at it longer. I am better at it. It exercises a hold over me.
I go from this quiet, solitary, physically tasking world, my black hole, my whisper box, back to the rails, the long ride home. Transition time. Liminal space. I have been using this time well; I have been watching TV or listening to audiobooks–something I haven’t done much of over the last few years at all, and even though sometimes I have to force-feed myself pleasurable entertainment, it always seems to charge a battery I keep forgetting is on empty.
And then, here I am again, New York, and there you are, New York, and I am crying on your sidewalks, and I am crying in your underground, I am ascending in Queens, and there’s the moonlight, and I’m almost home, and there is Hernandez, waving from the window, pointing to the door below, miming turning the key, beckoning me up, quick, quick, and I start to laugh, and my tears are drying on my face, and he throws open the door, and voila! It’s all right again. More than. More than all right. I never dreamed this rightness.
A few days at home work to unscramble me. Cooking grounds me. Writing mornings with Hernandez. Long walks in these quiet neighborhoods surrounding me. Sitting here, between the two windows of my study, looking out at the clifflike brownstones against the luminous overcast that Hernandez calls “The Other Sky.”
A certain hour of twilight, nacreous with mystery, recalls all my other twilights in a long string of opals that end here, right here, this blue fire opal burning on my breast. I am caught in the water-swirl, perfectly enraptured, utterly myself. It is fine, fine to be alive. To dream only of death and destruction eliminates an infinity of options. Is a failure of the imagination.
“I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring . . .”
(Today, John Denver)
Writing-wise (is that like sunwise? or widdershins? depends on the day), I am finishing revisions for my novel, for my agent, who is wonderful, who answers my elaborate emails with courtly courtesy and encouragement, and I haven’t had so much fun writing or liked my writing so much for the last two years at least.
It’s all I wanted: to remember what it is to love writing, and I dare not think of this book’s future, or even if it has one. That’s not my job right now. I do not even know what I want from it beyond this. Beyond finishing. Beyond making myself laugh at the footnotes. I feel this fondness for the book, and for myself, and it is like a friend I have been missing.
I miss my friends, near and far, old and new, constantly, an ache of failure. Of failing to be for them what I was at fifteen, what I was at twenty five. I can talk to a friend and miss them at the same time. I see them like burning brands, like signal flames flaring across the umbral reaches of the Internet, and I still miss them. They send me emails, and I do not reply, and I think about them all the time, and I miss them. I send them emails and they do not reply, and it is all right; we’re no longer what we were, nor have the time to spare for all we desire. This decade is about something else. Wide flung nets, circling the wagons, self-care, household, career, relevance. Something. Branching out into the World Tree. I have friends who have gone missing, who feel as distant to me as I sometimes feel to myself. I do not know how to reach them, or if they want reaching. It seems best to leave them be. That ache of failure.
Joy is local, Hernandez tells me. And whenever I do feel affixed to my location, I tend to snag on joy. I want to do better, to double-down on it, in all wry awareness. Is there a way to purge foulness but not complain about it? Is there an expression of complexity, of exploring the facets and fractures that is not also just whining? Dig my heels in, without resentment. Engage in community without fear of unfurling. Do some more dishes. Start singing again. Something.
It is not enough to know myself; I have to keep knowing myself. Whatever I say now will probably all be different next week, unpindownable, no matter how you jab. The future is tremulous quicksilver, an incoming tide. Nevertheless, I set my face to it. We have plans. We are an anthology of hope. A florilegium of possibility.
Anyway. It’s spring.