The ghosts that haunt your building are prepared to take on substance
And the dull pain that you live with isn't getting any duller
There's a closet full of almost-pristine videotape
Documenting sordid little scenes in living color
- "The Young Thousands"
The winter of my freshman year of college I broke into a house. It was alone at the top of a hill that bordered my little New England campus, and I'd passed by it almost every day for months on a loop my friend X and I walked in the evenings, when we were sick of our reading and stirring inside our own muscles. Those months we talked a lot about being young and smart and unhappy. We traded books and I mulled over going to Divinity School, which I knew nothing about but liked the sound of. She hummed bars of songs she was writing, talked about linguistics using all the new jargon she was learning, and smoked the occasional cigarette, which seemed to be a thing you had to do if you were going to live in rural Massachusetts and talk about Hamlet all the time and never sleep. This is, in my memory, how I spent most of that year.
We were barely seventeen -- all self-consciousness and the sounds of our own voices -- and that winter everything was beautiful because it was difficult: the spare gold plant that grew along the road even in the snow, each other's cheekbones, the thick dark bodies of the last geese in the fields, the lake frozen over. It was cold all the time, so we wore scarves and fur-lined boots and coats with high collars, and we blew on our hands.
The house was where we always stopped and turned around, pausing at the crest of the hill to look down at the scrub grass and the bare branches and all the feet between us and the valley. It was in that shadow state between use and abandonment, and we debated for weeks whether or not it belonged to anyone, drawing steadily closer, peering in the windows and over the low fence at the wild garden, and running our hands along the siding and the window latches and the doorframe. We never saw a car in the driveway, and though we sometimes thought we noted changes in the debris on the front lawn, there was never any certain sign of life.
I don't remember why we finally went in on the day we did or whose idea it was, just that X found an unlocked window and slid her body through it like a fine thread and then came around and unlatched the front door so I could come inside. The first floor was one vast, open room: empty except for a few scattered cardboard boxes, an overturned paint can in the fireplace, and an old piano in the middle of it all. X went to it and put her hands on the keys and started to play, first softly, and then so loudly I was sure someone would hear and call the police. I would not have dreamed of telling her to be quiet. She sang and pumped the pedals, and I went through what was left in the kitchen: an unplugged phone, a flashlight without batteries, one of those little yellow legal pads for taking messages, a bright red colander. I was a sucker for it all, the weird, specific beauty, the sense that it was illicit, and the way it made me feel like a character in someone's novel, which is all I wanted that year: to put my hands in my hair and feel wild.
In middle and high school I was good and safe and lonely, and the small ways in which I was sometimes a disappointment to my parents were never surprising or beautiful in the ways I thought they should be; they were just messy and boring and brief. I did not go to parties where people lit things on fire; I did not filch cigarettes from my father's car or beer from the basement fridge. I did not lie about what I was watching or reading because I was allowed to read or watch whatever I wanted, and then my mother would sit at the kitchen table and talk to me about it for hours and tell me that she thought it was beautiful too. I did not go alone to rock concerts, because my father was happy to take me, buy expensive teeshirts, and stand right in front of blaring speakers and then drink Frostys at Wendy's at 2 a.m. on a school night and drive home in the new dawn. I did not make big mistakes. I did not make noise.
Raised by and among artists mired in the making of art and struck by the real practical and psychological blows and blessings of a creative life and temperament, I should have been immune to the cliche: the ache to be a brilliant rebel, hard-edged and fearless and sarcastically lovely in grainy photographs, but it was intoxicating. I was ecstatic that somehow I had ended up singing a sad song in a house I'd snuck into and picking through a of box of black and white pictures of uniformed men in the attic. The people who'd left this house had a strange and gorgeous life, I was sure. I was getting to dismantle them in pieces, and this was a scene from every movie I'd ever loved: through a window you see two beautiful girls, cross-legged on the floor, stripping off their coats and shoes and sweaters piece by piece. The light is copper and thick around them, and you can see a quilt, a gilded frame, a lighter. They move slowly and you want madly to be close to them and whatever it is they are recklessly tearing apart.
Several years later I am writing this from California between hours of filling out graduate school applications. I am only a little less young and a little less dumb, and I worry, writing this, that I'll be guilty of the thing my father always says he notes in youthful writing: the misplaced sense that one is saying something meaningful and remarkable when, in fact, all it is is a copy of a thing you've read too many times in other words. But preparing to graduate in an entirely different kind of country, in what feels like an entirely different cosmos of my life, I've been dreaming of this house.
Here is what happened: We left the house that afternoon and, in the manner of people who are worried about ruining something fragile and wonderful, we didn't really talk about it again. But within less than a year (six months, really) much of what had seemed beautiful about our reckless misery had tarnished and grown too unwieldy to sustain. The year following was in many ways an awful one. Although I know this can't be true, in my memory of that year it snowed without stopping, my muscles ached and split, my body broke down and, in concert, so did my brain. I didn't know what I wanted, or whether I had any control over where I'd ended up and where I was going. I made a mess. There were real moments of sweetness and light, of course, and I was educated in a remarkable way, but these were punctures in the pitch dark. It's not an interesting story. When I tell it, it feels stock and unspecific. What matters is that coming out the other side of a second New England winter I wanted entirely different things: I wanted light and sunshine, energy and ease. I wanted out of the margins. I wanted to love things and be safe. And I was in luck; I could strike out West.
Late this summer I was joking with my parents, who'd flown to California for the week, about my literary career. "Maybe," I laughed, "I'll write a best-selling memoir."
"Not enough horrible things have happened to you," my mother said, sipping her drink.
She's right; tragedy and chaos have really only padded around the edges of my life, their intrusions small and occasional, and most of their indelible marks left early, a whole life ahead of me to paper around them. This feels lucky beyond language, and I no longer believe in the romance of unadulterated suffering or of rebelling for rebellion's sake . I'm sure at thirty I will look back and want to rewrite this, think here is what you didn't understand, and again every few years after that.
When I think of that house now I want to go in and find myself in the kitchen and put my arms around my own neck. Look around , I want to say, but don't touch, don't pull apart. Look at the way they've left a comforter at the foot of the bed. See the way the man in the photograph is reaching his arm toward someone you can't see? I want to tell myself to write down the color of the colander I found because I've had to make it up now, to touch the fabric of the curtains, the bare bulbs on the wall.
This whole place and your presence here isn't proof of your own strength and power, or the romance of the abandoned, or that Berryman was right that the luckiest artist is the one who suffers as much as possible without being killed by it. It's just tenuous: the particulars of a left life.
What I love is that it's all irreplicable, that being there was like stepping into a still-life, and then we stepped away and behind us it continued to exist. There is a theory of quantum mechanics that asserts that we change the nature of whatever we look at just by looking at it. So, then, our presence there caused some shift before we even touched the keys of the piano.
Now, bound for someplace, something, new, I dream that house and a voice that says darling, tread lightly, take notice, go slow, be happy when you can— a voice that repeats those lines of Hayden Caruth's: my beautiful, beautiful Baby Doll, / let the dying be long.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
and on the railroad bridge, half a mile of solid steel
wheels were spitting out sparks, scraping at the rails
wind in your hair all right
sunset spilling through the rear window
your white t-shirt hugging your shoulders, beaded with sweat
on the day that i become so forgetful
that all of this melts away
i will burn all the calanders that counted the years down
to such a worthless day.
- The Mountain Goats, "Twin Human Highway Flares"
Women in their early twenties are struck by the shape of things: the bells in a clock tower, their own wrists, the slope of windowsills, the fine amber necks of bottles, and the foreheads of the men who bring them. In that particularly dangerous hour of the late afternoon when the light is gunmetal and low, their tether to themselves is tenuous, and when they're walking to and from their homes, or the post office, or that job where they've been sorting files, they're likely to end up looking down at their shadow versions and thinking: what a wild little marionette down there: talking about Faulkner, or going to the ATM, or pulling her hair in behind her neck. Their parents are aging audibly thousands of miles away at the end of telephone lines, and the girls are determinedly buying oxford shirts and laundry detergent and matches.
Half the time they are trailing their fingers through the thick air outside car windows and watching wide cities roll past, they're turning up the volume on CD players and trying to be nowhere but right there: loud and gorgeous and quick on the side-streets of their own country. They get good at drinking, not for the buzz as much as for the weight of the glass in their hands, or the hush at the back of their throats, or the way that they hope they look by the lit up window with a watered-down whiskey they've been nursing all night. The lines of their bodies against the pitch feel indestructible, and there are moments when they're tempted to hurl themselves at things to prove the point.
The rest of the time, though, they are trying to cast their eyes ten years or fifteen years into the future and predict the corners of the rooms they'll live in, some kind of steadiness: an office and cicadas, another body in the front hall, sometimes a child, sometimes not. They're struck by how pedestrian their futures look, and by the fact that they don't mind it.
Women at twenty are caught, brief, dumb and wild, more fragile than they realize. But they know, for just a moment, what men at fifty will rediscover— that the grace of a life is in the small, the mundane, the tangible that looks like refuse: stacks of dusty plates, the caves of their own bodies, the plastic wine glass filled with paper clips and sea-glass on a desk, stacks of papers and postcards and defunct stamps on the broad windowsill. They're bowled over by it all. What they can't imagine, or can only sense in flashes, is that this is important, and that they will forget it and then spend so much just trying to remember.