Notes From The Temple of Dominoes #38
"Where the pristine shore of great literature
meets the speeding oil tanker of real life!"
"The flawed, promising first novel!
Read it before it becomes hip!"
Copyright 1998 Martin Azevedo
97/12/11 Being a writer without a job means I get to procrastinate full-time now, as I've been doing for the last two months, waiting for my brain to return from whatever mush-state it's been in, waiting to rediscover how to form a sentence in conversation that doesn't mention food or sleep, waiting to become the handsome articulate god-awfully funny master typist I'd love all my friends to think I am. Since arriving in New York in October I've been killing time, visiting friends, watching movies, washing dishes and vacuously stamping out perverse arts and crafts for an obscure profit venture I'll explain later...I've been putting off writing about my recent five-week somersault through Europe - Paris, Barcelona, my sister's wedding in Germany - and now it's been seven weeks since I got back and I've spent that time wondering when my heap of delightful remembrances was gonna suddenly form into a tidy beginning, middle and end like a well-behaved travelogue. By now my fondness for the story has grown into an ugly paralysis that leaves me turning the puzzle over and around, searching for any place to start that would allow me to preserve some illusion that my transcendent vacation was worthy of a novelization or even the effort necessary to remember that it happened. By now I'm bored with the details, sick of the sound of my own voice and terrified of spending my adult years broke and unfulfilled, like God's sad little example to the world. Directionless, unemployed and rapidly running out of room on my credit cards. Nothing to do now, then, but tell the story.
97/ 9/11 It's not real yet - suddenly nothing is. In a vivid dream I woke up on a plane flying to the other side of the world, much farther than anywhere I'd been before. I remembered giving all my stuff away, quitting my job, moving out of the city into the backpack waiting in the overhead compartment, flying into Paris and a life I had no desire to plan. It would be a vacation, an education, a massive change - I didn't want to know which. And now, after the blur of several weeks became a day-long hurricane that swept five years of living from my room in a few hours, I wonder if I've been kidnapped, if someone else has been making all my decisions and now leaves me alone to make sense of the fantastic consequences. Half my life I've been dreaming of this type of electrifying freedom and now, for what it's worth, I'm awake.
There's an old joke...an angst-tortured writer with no story to write prepares to throw himself off a bridge. His emotional state proves contagious to the passersby and one by one half a dozen others join him to contemplate their last moments on the bridge. Finally the group counts in unison to three and they all hurl themselves into the water...except for the writer, who remains on the bridge, suddenly invigorated with an exciting story to tell.
It's been weeks since I've really slept, awake for hours each morning before the alarm, lying in bed resenting my exhaustion, repeating lists to myself, things to do that never got done and don't matter now. I'd scheduled myself to go to work every day until the moment I left to catch the plane, which was less of a stupid mistake than an ambush of awkward circumstances, still culminating in a final week of breakneck preparation that would make for a hilarious essay if I could remember any of the details that screamed by like runaway train cars plunging over a cliff, but that's all lost now and it's just as well. Ben L. drove away at 2:30 in the morning with a carload of cassettes and guitars and stereo equipment - maybe it was still mine, maybe it wasn't - and Evan and I left the house for good a few minutes later, another load of books and junk remaining in the garage that Evan said he'd clean up in a few days. In the end, the purge was hurried and sloppy and incomplete, somewhere between a spiritual purification and a crash diet, but the change had been eerily sudden. It was easy to give things away. Some days distributing my belongings felt like handing out tablets of poison to trusted friends, knowing I could someday get them back if I really wanted them. With every possession I gave away, I lost a commitment, a promise, a restriction. I became a little less of what I was and a little more of what I might become. I became smaller, and the world became larger, and I became more a part of it.
Evan dropped me off at the airport at four in the morning and I finally had time to arrange my possessions to fit in the backpack, feeling that thin sickly version of wide awake that lets me stay up indefinitely as long as I'm doing something that doesn't involve abstract thinking. I must have boarded the plane at seven, but I'm not very clear on that part of it.
97/ 9/12 10:30 pm Lying on top of the covers in a small hotel room near Paris. I turned on the TV and found a bottomless well of probably-dopey French sitcoms to help me remember at every moment that I haven't just traveled to Sacramento for the weekend...I left SF at 7 am yesterday morning, arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport at 7 am Paris time, 15 hours later, which felt about right. Found my way to a train station and bought a ticket to Paris, except I didn't know if I was already in Paris, so I had no idea where to get off. Watched oddly familiar buildings pass by...from the train it looked like any other big city. So far visiting Paris is a lot like visiting downtown Oakland, except the money's different and everyone here speaks gibberish.
Saw a rental-car place near the Massy-something station and jumped off to look for a hostel. I found a sign for a hotel I hoped was cheap and two local folks provided very friendly useless directions. I deduced that a well-pronounced question in French will be met with a friendly mumbled answer in much faster French, and unfortunately I've developed the habit of listening to people blather on nonsensically and responding with "yes" and "thank you", politely nodding as if I had some idea what had been said, as if establishing friendly human contact was my true purpose in asking directions to the hotel where I might sleep for the first time in thirty hours. Next time I'll use a guidebook. Yet I feel no regrets.
Found the hotel at 10 am, got a room and slept six hours, showered and shaved, scattered and sorted my belongings on the hotel bed and walked out into the world. Bought a delicious piece of quiche from a very nice deli owner and developed a theory that everyone in the country is short-changing me. The movie theater was closed and nobody spoke English. I found a small shop and spent several days' worth of unfamiliar money on maps I would never use.
American money isn't worth anything here, which all by itself made me feel like I was being de-programmed from a cult - it's only paper - but traveling in a country where I don't speak the language means that everything around me becomes just what it is, without all those words to get in the way. And so I had traveled underwater, into a mute world, like Jacques Cousteau. I walked past big metal things and flat wood things and little green things growing through the ground by the blanketful. Those who were speaking made French nonsense sounds and I felt like I'd learned something very basic I'd never known before.
I'd been re-united with some wide-eyed view of the world long forgotten in me, and so, treading for the first time on European soil, my heart pounded with the premonition that I'd soon be discovered and deported by the authorities because I couldn't order a sandwich or know how much it cost without an illustrated chart. Maybe I've watched too many American crime shows. Or maybe I've just spent the last fifteen years trying too hard to blend in. And now I'm in Paris, illiterate, confused, alone, wearing a big hat and carrying everything I own. I'd never felt so nakedly American before.
So I'm trying to learn. Everything in my life has melted together into a solid pounding demand that this trip be my turning point, the moment I grow up and out of the Pinnochio-childhood I've been dragging behind me everywhere I've gone for the last thirty years. I left California because I was sick of being a writer with nothing to write about and a workaholic who hated his job and a romantic who spent all his time hoping. God knows what I'm actually hoping to find...
Sarah K. told me shortly before I left that it was finally time for me to become a father: "...your own father. Your own anchor." Somehow on this trip I would become a man, even returning to a different coast when I come back to America, moving directly to New York. Katherine called this my "hero's journey", my "transformation"...or part of it, the beginning of it. It's my transformation vacation.
For six weeks I've been living in a world scheduled to end yesterday, and so I've spent every spare moment shedding possessions and playing with friends and doing things I'd long put off and becoming convinced that community colleges should offer "Armageddon Therapy" classes, wherein anxious, frustrated citizens who enroll are informed that the world will be ending at the end of the semester and any possessions, meaningless worries or neurotic attachments not relinquished before that time would be counted against each student's final grade. Clever enrollees would soon realize that the grade itself would mean very little after the final destruction of planet Earth and the end of life as we know it, but ultimately, peer pressure would win out and each of the participants would surrender these meaningless burdens and learn the value of living in the moment, just in time for Summer vacation.
During those last few months I'd spent evenings singing with Laura, who invited along Katherine, who was beautiful and talented and intelligent and dating Andrew the Law Student. Katherine sung gracefully, spoke precisely - she'd soon be teaching college English - and she wore the determined look of a young woman becoming a woman...clothes chosen carefully, straight auburn hair folded into a spiral and gently pinned up. She admitted to her fears only with a disarming smile.
Katherine asked to spend time with me before I left and suddenly we were seeing each other a few times a week, lamenting the approaching event horizon and talking excitedly about anything - favorite movies, family Christmases - as if we'd fallen together into a slippery cave of discoveries, excitedly sharing the same confused religions. Soon I'd told her I'd had a premonition that within two years I'd ask her to marry me. She spent two hours talking me out of it.
The next day she left an inexplicable phone message. "I've decided you were more right...than I thought."
She was in between. An educated pagan who could not sleep outdoors. A confident feminist determined to live the life of a lady. A passionate artist struggling for security. I had no idea what I was leaving behind.
I knew while walking through the airport, past black men with rough and relaxed voices laughing in polished French, security guards who might have thought my "bonjour" was from a local, maybe - I knew that this was my new home. If only for the next few weeks. In my hotel room, I put on headphones, shut off the lights and leaned shirtless out the open window, watching the moon over the motionless suburban streets. The voice sped through announcements between songs and I listened to "Stand By Your Man", watching over the road and the dark rooftops, kneeling in the dark.
5:30 am Trying to bore myself to sleep so as to get my money's worth from the hotel room. Woke up at 3 am, when California was having dinner.
There's an ugly spin in my head...over and over I think about studying French, adding that depth to my life and character, making myself more a part of this place. And every time, I conclude that I'm thirty and my life's directions have been chosen. I can't pursue a new home, a new life, a new me - except to move on to the next stage of the life I've already been living. I've felt dead inside, already beyond the last offramp to head in a different direction. Somehow I've been cheating myself and now I can't undo the damage.
In a museum years ago I saw a picture of three blue children - their skin was dark brown but they were covered with blue paint. The people of their culture believed that the child must die for the adult to come into being. The blue child was the dead child, waiting to be reborn into a new life.
Yet in my own neighborhood I had seen the same thing: young people dressed all in black, some draped in black lace or wearing white makeup, looking very much like young, hip, chain-smoking corpses. This was the same ritual. Each was enacting a child's death, leaving a lifetime behind. And wondering if there would be an adulthood to greet them...on the other side. If the paint could ever be washed off.
I've never come so far in my life. And now that I'm here, I feel a hunger to keep going, across the continent to new cities, further and further into some populated wilderness I don't know. I'm on the path of the unfamiliar...newly arrived into someone else's life, a city already more beautiful and exciting than any I've ever seen before...yet I know I haven't yet left the world I came from, only a distance away. Only distance. And knowing that, looking out the window at the train tracks leading back to the airport, I want to leave everything behind, fly and drive and walk and cut myself loose from the familiar suburbs and mattresses and freeways and wake up in the next world. But that would mean traveling forever.
I think I can sleep now.
USEFUL FRENCH PHRASES:
Do you speak English?
Did you understand me? Do you speak English?
M'avez-vous compris? Parlez-vous anglais?
DOES ANYBODY HERE SPEAK ENGLISH?!?
Y-A-T-IL QUELQU'UN LA QUI PARLE ANGLAIS?!?
Your boss shortchanged me.
Votre chef ne m'a pas assez rendu.
Oh, Jesus. Is that what I said I wanted?
Sacre bleu! C'est ca ce que je vous ai dit que je voulait?
Can you take this back to the kitchen and cook it?
Pourriez-vous le renvoyer a la cuisine et le cuit.
Can you please take a picture of my wife and me in front of the statue?
Pourriez-vous prendre une foto de ma femme et moi en face de la fontaine, s'il vous plait?
Can you teach me how to drive a stick?
Pourriez-vous m'ensegner a conduire avec une boite de vitesse manuelle?
Which way to the graveyard?
Ou se trouve cimitiere? Il est ou le cimitiere?
How old is this building?
Il a quel age, ce batiment la?
In America, the authorities would shut you down for this.
Aux Etats-Unis les autorites vous fermeraient pour ca.
Me? No, I'm...Canadian. That's it, I'm Canadian.
Qui moi? Non non non. Je suis... canadien, moi. Oui, c'est ca, je suis canadien.
Please tell me the age of consent.
A quel age est-ce qu'on devient majeur ici?
You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my entire life.
Vous etes la femme la plus belle que je n'ai jamais encontre dans toute ma vie.
You and your six friends are the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my entire life.
Vous, y compris votre six amies, etes les femmes les plus belles que je n'ai jamais encontre dans toute ma vie.
It would really mean a lot to me if you would pretend to be my girlfriend.
Il serrait vraiment grand chose si vous puissiez pretendre d'etre ma copine.
This movie is much too long and slow.
Ce film est beaucoup trop long et trop lent.
97/ 9/13 Finally in Paris, wearing walkman headphones on a fold-out bed in a stranger's apartment with slanted white ceilings, six stories over a narrow, neon-lit street. I suppose I expected this. Certainly more than I deserved it.
I began the day with my new exercise program, donning a 30-pound backpack and walking four miles in the wrong direction. Covered the same ground three times, past malls and factories, finally catching a bus to a strange train station, a train into the city. Found the river and walked toward the Louvre museum, stopping at Notre Dame Cathedral. A chubby man in a San Jose Sharks jacket lumbered past and I felt immediately like I'd been cheated out of some pure experience I'd crossed oceans and continents to have. I'd half-expected the city to provide local costumes for the more mundane visitors, so as to heighten the illusion that the world I'd left behind hadn't been shipped to Europe as I slept.
I stood in line under the Notre Dame bell towers that reached high above the surrounding blocks. Dropped my backpack at my feet and was suddenly gripped by the feeling that I was standing in an amusement park in the United States: from everywhere I heard the nasal, complaining guffaws of Americans and Germans and Japanese on expensive vacations. I congratulated myself for not being one of them, until I remembered I was, and soon gave up and took pictures. The women next to me had come from Seattle - Annie left her job and home in the United States several weeks before; she was thin with long, dry hair and she seemed wise and funny without bothering to display either deliberately. Lori was much younger, relaxed and casually friendly, recently out of college and visiting Annie before crossing Europe with a rail pass. The three of us climbed the stairs and I squeezed my pack through the narrow tower walkways, rushing through four rolls of film photographing Paris as if I was preparing a detailed report for my distant home world.
Annie vanished without my noticing and late that afternoon Lori and I were hiking past the Louvre, through the gardens, over bridges and past a menagerie of statues in the streets toward the Trocadero apartment where they'd been staying. Wine was very cheap and I felt all the privilege in the world pouring over me in some kind of karmic retribution for the life I'd lived between the years 1971 and 1994.
Annie's ex-girlfriend Dawn is an American writer living with her current girlfriend Linda in an aged, remodeled fifth-floor apartment on a Paris hill overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Dawn's agent maintains the apartment on the sixth floor, where her clients stay when touring through Paris. Stiff gold knobs mark the center of each of the large green double doors, and a small label by the knocker reads "Charlotte Sheedy" - "Ally Sheedy's mother," Lori pointed out.
We drank wine, ate bread and cheese as the room darkened. Annie appeared at the door and apologized for interrupting, saying she was discussing business deals with Dawn and Linda downstairs and asking if she could borrow our remaining bottle of wine. We said yes and she and the wine disappeared into the hall, Annie popping her head back in to add "Oh, Marty - there's a chance you can stay here tonight." Lori and I continued rambling to one another about traveling and her boyfriend in Seattle and our mysterious futures as the afternoon grew darker before Annie appeared at the door again some time later, scrambling imbalanced through the apartment and noting "Marty, you can probably stay here tonight" before rejoining her friends downstairs. Lori and I agreed to see a movie and were preparing to leave when Annie returned again, thanked us for the wine and said that she'd be staying downstairs and I was invited to sleep on the fold-out couch in the apartment if I wanted. Three literary lesbians getting plastered on the fifth floor means I get a cozy room all to myself on the sixth! Is this a great country ou quoi?
I spent my first day in Paris not believing I was here. Even the Eiffel Tower seemed fake; I had to remind myself "...that's not just an Eiffel Tower...that's the Eiffel Tower." I wondered where they'd hidden all the English-speaking people - obviously they were somewhere. The streets and buildings were beautiful but still Paris wasn't as convincing as I'd hoped. Until I saw the movie.
Seeing "Face Off" for the third time was nice; seeing it with French subtitles and an audience busy reading them and laughing a moment late at the transcribed jokes was a dearly welcome slap in the face. I'm in Paris!!! It was not an exotic museum, but a beautiful city where skateboarding boys and old fat French-speaking women live atop a mountainous pile of history, celebrating life in Paris only by continuing to live it. The whole world had spun underneath me and for the moment I knew I was in my new home, many thousands of miles from the places I'd grown up.
97/ 9/14 Woke up at 5 am under a sheet and a few towels in the fold-out bed in Annie's or Lori's or Dawn's or Charlotte's apartment. Wrote postcards and listened to French radio until Lori stirred in the next room. We ate bread and cheese for breakfast, said a friendly goodbye and I set off to find the catacombs, feeling like a backpacker in Disneyland, eager to discover what really lies in the tunnels.
A friendly nun finally directed me to a line of tourists after I'd carried my pack around the same ten-block circle several times looking for the entrance, and I followed my fellow pilgrims down hundreds of spiral stairs to a cave entrance deep underground. Thousands and thousands of centuries-old bones and skulls are stacked along the walls of a maze of caves over a kilometer long - the remains of relocated cemeteries, filling underground halls stretching out in all directions. It wasn't quite sad or profound; the corpses had mostly died of natural causes, leaving the dark labyrinth as a testament to nothing save the enormity of death - and therefore of life - itself. A motionless parade of former lives, all names and stories quietly lost into the noise of history.
I hiked through - doesn't take long to get the point - and escaped, ate lunch and called my parents to coordinate plans for meeting in Germany. Mom answered the phone angrily announcing "You owe us!" and suddenly I was back in California, back in the trap. My former housemates had assumed that the pile of stuff I'd left in the basement - journals, photographs, donations, trash - had been abandoned and they demanded that my aging parents haul it away. Mom and Dad were furious that I'd been so thoughtless, my former housemates were furious they'd been left with such a problem, and I was furious that people who were supposed to trust me had assumed that I'd behaved so irresponsibly. I'd made arrangements, dammit. I was on the vacation of a lifetime and suddenly I'd returned to my parent's house, wronged and wronging, still the same kid I'd been for far too long, dragged back into that tiny space by people who couldn't possibly have been further away. I walked a few blocks and sat on the curb by a busy street, my head full of angry noises and places I didn't want to visit ever again.
97/ 9/...15? I arrived late last night at the Hostel in the remote Cichy district after I figured out I wasn't going to fall in with a pack of hospitable runaway lesbian writers every night, and so I reserved a bed while a well-spoken young Slovenian man bitched about how he'd requested a room to himself if such were available and now several other brutes were invading his quarters. This morning I discovered the lockers in the basement and thus was set free to experience France without the weight of my wardrobe supplies crippling my hips and knees. By today it had already become painful to walk, some damage already done.
Saw another movie, walked and walked and walked trying to locate an internet cafe to continue intercontinental argument with everyone back home via e-mail, finally arriving in the Jewish district to get one of the glorious falafels that Lori demanded I try. She said to find the deli with the framed picture of Lenny Kravitz shaking hands with the owner of the store, then leave and order a falafel from the place next door, the name of which she couldn't remember. Confident that there are places in the world where they still address envelopes like that, I searched for Lenny Kravitz and eventually bought one of those tuna fish waffle-sandwiches from a corner stand.
Someone I passed on the street called out to me. "Nice hat!" American? A grimy, weathered middle-aged woman sat against a building. She said she was a dancer from New York with two kids...when she was young she performed and did very well, spent lots of money. "Saw three movies a day." She couldn't imagine this happening to her.
I gave her two francs. "What brought you to Paris?" I asked.
"God." She said she was pregnant and told me she loved my hat. I almost handed it to her, another shard of an old life left behind me...but I'd be going through Barcelona too. And it was my only hat.
One of the metro lines had broken down the evening before and I considered spending the night outside. Being homeless in Paris for a day or a week or longer is not impossibly far from reality - not my reality, anyway. But she was something different...her life was an otherworldly blend of triumph and disaster. She'd wrestled her ambitions, lived a dream life for a time and now she's drinking in the gutter in Paris, my worst nightmare, the spirit of showbiz spectacle yet to come. I gave her 20f and left. If she was making it all up, she deserved a reward for the fake accent.
I stumbled through the gay neighborhood and considered seeing a show at a drag club - I had to eat dinner someplace, after all - but rode the Metro to the Eiffel tower. Chatted with tourists underneath the great structure, rode the multiple elevators to the top and spent half an hour squeezing all five minutes' worth of excitement out of standing exhausted and alone in the icy crosswinds hundreds of feet over the streetlights of Paris. Things looked smaller and closer together. Maybe I learned something. Took the metro back to the hostel.
So far France is gorgeous and charming, very old and very beautiful and graceful and expensive and I can't figure out where the Parisians buy their groceries. I suppose there are huge ugly shopping malls full of Pak-N-Saves and Lucky's stores hidden underground somewhere so the locals can purchase the necessities of survival...for three days all I found were baguettes and Orangina and Coke and fruit and sometimes quiche, all of which were lovely but after a few days I began to feel anemic. I've been trying to avoid Pizza Hut (and every roof in Paris has a Pizza Hut under it) but I couldn't afford or pronounce anything from a regular restaurant's menu. The orange juice is either fresh squeezed (expensive) or canned (disgusting). Many restaurants in Europe don't offer drinking water that isn't carbonated and sometimes the soda is served warm. After despising Costco stores for years, I see them differently now...in a European store, I can't buy what I actually want. In Costco, I have to buy so much of what I want that I don't want it anymore. In so many ways, I am learning what it is to be American.
Eventually I discovered cheap Middle Eastern take-out places and these long crunchy sandwiches they press in a waffle grill at street stands. I'm surviving.
I could get used to living in Paris. They seem to take liberty seriously; nudity is no big deal. Everybody drinks good wine. The most popular form of transportation is jaywalking. The women are incredibly sexy. The buildings are beautiful...and each one is older than my home country.
97/ 9/ ?...16 Don't even know what day it is. Very little sleep last night...I came back to the Cichy hostel and entered my new room to find the Slovenian guy asleep in the single bed. He'd taken an extra pillow from one of the bunk beds and neatly spread his clothes over every flat surface. I quietly arranged my things and slipped into my bunk with the one remaining pillow. At two in the morning, a friendly surfer from Portland, Oregon stumbled in drunk, flipped the light on and found his pillow under the Slovenian guy's head. He jovially yanked it out (no pun intended), bid me goodnight and lumbered onto the top bunk. The Slovenian tossed and shuffled in bed, furious but mannered. I'd have expected him to stomp down to the front desk to demand another room, but he knew the hostel was almost full. The lights were out and all was calm for a moment, until the gent from Portland began to snore. Not ordinary snores...great hideous gurgling engine trouble plane crash snores, like Darth Vader drowning in a bathtub above me. The Slovenian tossed angrily, his one pillow squeezed over his ears, and I wondered what this moment could teach me about America's place in world culture. Was this the way all Americans were perceived? The nations of Europe and Asia had raced with one another for centuries to create a dignified and graceful modern society, until America entered at two in the morning to steal away the pillows and throttle all remaining human dreams with a noise so ugly and overpowering...that those innocents listening from below could only create a folklore of metaphors to describe the atrocity.
I noticed Diana at the hostel last night and met her at breakfast this morning, chatting about her home in Florida over our regulation continental breakfast of two hard French rolls, jam, cocoa and watery orange punch. We rode the train to the palace at Versailles together and I did my best to enjoy the massive sprawling estate without walking or spending money. The palace is impressive, the way mountains of burning money are impressive, but aside from the historical intrigue, it's all kinda one idea piled on top of itself over and over.
Split with Diana and took the Metro across town as the afternoon darkened. Ben L. had given me a few things to deliver to Eve, a French native and the only woman I'd ever really seen him fall in love with. Ben had planned to join her in Paris until she told him over the phone that she'd forgiven her ex-boyfriend and they'd resumed their old relationship. And now I was in France, returning a book Ben had borrowed and delivering some personal message I didn't know how to read, a half-holy emissary for my oldest friend, on the street in Paris, guessing at the right address.
A lady sweeping the lobby opened the front door and explained in broken English that Eve had moved away months before. She didn't know where. I thanked her, walked several crowded blocks back and rode the Metro again through the strange dark city, now filled with someone else's longing, someone else's loneliness.
97/ 9/17 Met Andrea on the Metro - adorable, exciting 22-year-old language teacher from Costa Rica, speaks Spanish and perfect English with no accent. We chatted past three metro stations and I mentioned my regret that I'd not made this trip ten years ago. She asked why. "You'll get more out of it now," she pointed out. "You know what you want." What I wanted, of course, was her, suddenly...I asked for her address, no doubt with some vague intention of wooing her through the mail and convincing her to move to America, tutor me in Spanish and give me daily massages. I didn't expect my plan to succeed, of course.
Saw the Musee D'Orsay and met Pat, a very nice, tragically dull woman my age from Ohio...we saw the art, talked about Paris and her parents and her stable boring job that she'll never leave, walked through the Latin Quarter and had a nice dinner in a sidewalk café. The food was delicious. Aging men in berets chatted at the bar. The spell of Paris threatened and swelled with every footstep on the sidewalk and every spoken word that drifted by. And I ate my dinner over a lengthy conversation about...Cleveland, Ohio. Her hometown. "Oh, it's really nice, you know. We even have the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame now." I secretly decided it was good that we were speaking in English, since we were probably breaking some city ordinance, on a public sidewalk full of witnesses.
We said an unspectacular goodbye and I walked back along the Seine river, taking a few pictures of the glowing water and the melting colors of the evening sky...a scene too exciting to be real, too thrilling to be held closer than with my eyes and unclear words of praise. Beautiful, romantic, perfect, timeless, an eternal moment that somehow I knew I didn't understand. I'd come this far to learn how to see the world more clearly, more accurately, and here I was in the center of the most glorious city in the world and after a sleepy afternoon I was alone again, fighting to see into the depths of the picture glowing alive right in front of me, all around me. Pat lived her life to keep herself safe, the opposite of a risk-taker, a true seer. I can't be safe and truly be here. I hope...that I'm here.
I grabbed for my camera a few times when I saw buildings I couldn't ignore, things I couldn't categorize...even if I didn't need a picture. I've been using the camera as a defense...instead of being transformed by something and swallowed into it, I take a picture and put it off until later. I fingered my camera on the stone path by the river and considered smashing it right there.
97/ 9/18 1:10 pm Okay, this'll be my overdue "All the French are Dickweeds" essay. I got up at 7, tiredly took the Metro to another hostel where they said to show up at 8 to get a room...I'd have been there on time but most streets only continue about three blocks before they change names, so I got lost and walked past it twice, carrying all my stuff, and yes, all the rooms were full when I arrived...okay, it really happened because I'm incompetent, but that'll be our little secret... my legs still in terrible pain, moan oh agony...so far I've been to two internet cafés that closed just as I arrived, although they'd been open later on other days. Everything shuts down early and opens late. The department store opens at 10, but the internet place inside doesn't open until 2 - this is a profit venture? Je ne comprends pas...the internet place at the Virgin Megastore is more expensive and they told me at 10 they'd be open at 1, so I came back at 1 and they said 2, then changed it to 1:30...meanwhile I'd rather spend my vacation in a wheelchair than walk another ten meters...my backpack is in the cloak room at the Louvre, where I'd be if I could walk and I didn't need to check my email and I really gave a shit about the Louvre. Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to spending a week there someday, but this ain't the time. I don't need culture, I need tranquilizers.
1:30 am Just called a florist in SF to deliver a bouquet to Katherine for her birthday. Got off the phone and immediately panicked, envisioning the flowers arriving exactly when her boyfriend shows up to surprise her with lunch. I'd resent her boyfriend for thinking my interest in her was romantic and I'd resent her for thinking it wasn't. Exactly what brain defect is it that gets me into these things?
Saw the Louvre this afternoon, a few hours walking through the world's greatest museum, my legs bitching and stabbing with every step. It's a glorious place...if all the art was removed from the Louvre, I could wander through the empty building for three days without getting bored. Stared at sculptures. Drank orangina and wrote postcards. Stumbled into a crowded room containing the Mona Lisa. That never, ever happens in America.
My French vocabulary has leveled off at about ten phrases, mostly about food and getting it to my side of the counter. After leaving the museum I took the Metro to the Gare de L'Est and bought a train ticket to Barcelona for Saturday. I love Paris but my ego demands that during my months in Europe I visit one city where I can at least conjugate.
Boarded a boat for an evening tour of the river Seine, overjoyed just to be sitting down, my full backpack at my feet. I waited in the dark, looking over the water, the black surface rippling and reflecting broken streams of light from the streetlamps and the bridge...absolutely, hauntingly beautiful. And so terribly simple. I'd stumbled into it...it wasn't the first moment I'd enjoyed in France, but maybe it was the first moment I felt really right about, finally recognizing my home for what it was. The feeling had been building since I'd bought the ticket to Barcelona that afternoon, but it came to a focus in that moment. I will miss this place greatly. A dear friend, a home, a whole world I may never really live in...a whole life happening outside of me, away from me, with or without me, never about me. For years I've been living in a tiny tiny world that's formed around me and only me...and Paris doesn't give a damn about only me. Thank God for Paris.
Took forever to find the new hostel, the third I've seen in Paris. Roommate Pierre from Toulouse translated a few lines to be sent with the flowers. Wish me luck.
I wished under the bridge on the river that I would get a kiss on my birthday, two days from now.
98/ 9/19 Got a haircut and did my laundry in the gay district near the Pompideau Museum. Three tattooed Germans stood wrapped in towels as their clothes washed. I found the deli with Lenny Kravitz on the wall, but couldn't figure out which nearby falafel place was supposed to be the good one. My daredevil friends would tell me that's the way adventures happen.
Walked to the Latin Quarter and ate three pieces of quiche in a small park as the bells on Notre Dame rang across the river. The nearby rep theater would soon be showing the Rocky Horror Picture Show and a crowd of horribly sexy young Parisian geeks slowly gathered around me. The regulars showed up wearing the same costumes I'd seen in America and the whole gathering looked like a seamless foreign-language dub of a familiar American ritual, like going to Denny's in Spanish. "Creo que comeré el desayuno de Grand Slam, con los huevos revueltos y hash browns tambien, gracias." It was just like that.
The group filed into the theater and the show was one of the high points of my life. Half-naked French kids screamed foreign-language nonsense at a screen showing a movie I'd seen sixty times and everybody laughed when the familiar, subtitled lines answered back. They made fun of the characters. They made fun of the subtitles. They pulled each others' clothes off. Life could get no better. I was in agony. Suddenly I'd become a breast man and an ass man and a horny teenage puddle of drool all at once, and I yearned to build temples to each of the holy perfect women I'd seen - the bodies I'd seen, the curves, the skin, Jesus. (I wasn't being shallow...they didn't speak English.)
Rocky Horror always leaves me feeling left out, but this was different. It was at once the most left out and the most included I've felt all week. I told the English-speaking Brad that I loved the show and needed to know how to get to the Metro by midnight. He gave directions, shook my hand goodbye and suddenly I felt like a true part of the whole event, like a Star Trek character who discovers he's supposed to change the history of the planet. I ran the blocks to the Metro feeling...like I was just starting to learn.
I boarded the train and sat near an attractive woman who entertained her friends by making fun of American accents. I greeted her and she came over, took my hands in hers and wished me a good time in Paris. Everything I'd learned, I immediately forgot. I should have told her: "Today is my birthday. I'm leaving the country tomorrow. And I'm very, very rich."
97/ 9/22 In Barcelona. Haven't written since Friday.
I left Paris on Saturday morning on an hour-long train ride to Chartres, a modest city encircling one of Joseph Campbell's favorite cathedrals...Notre Dame de Chartres watches over every point in the city from atop its central hill, and so navigating is easy, past postcard shops and hotels and bakeries with signs in English. It looked pretty typical for a small French town, really, but everybody knew what all the tourists had come to see.
The cathedral was massive and cavernous and beautiful and meditative inside, big enough to contain scores of tourists and leave room for contemplation. I walked past rows of straw chairs under a series of stained glass windows. The cathedral is constructed in the shape of a cross - the center is a raised platform for musicians and ceremonies, the arms and bottom all fields of seats with confessionals lining the walls, the head of the cross containing an inner sanctum enclosed in three enormously detailed walls enacting religious scenes in carved stone...or plaster, I don't know.
Along the wall in the left arm of the cross stood a line of black metal racks covered with burning candles. I had stopped walking. It was there I remembered where I was and why I had come so far. An emptiness inside me had brought me around the world to this very spot and I had no idea what to do next.
To one side were stacks of candles for sale, five and ten francs each. A candle would be a prayer, one of many in the vast cathedral. Nobody within a thousand miles even knew who I was. I had left California in an excited attempt to kick-start some process in life I didn't understand. My sister would soon get married in a place I'd never been. It was my thirty-first birthday and I had taken this trip to decide what to do with the rest of my life. I had some praying to do.
I lit candles for myself and my family before I ran out of money. As my own candle came to life I asked myself what I was hoping and praying for. And my mind flooded with clumsy wordless thoughts. I didn't know. I didn't know. And in fact, I'd come here explicitly to find out.
Times like this, I cash in on my modest religious upbringing and act out my Catholicism like the second language, the earlier language, that it is for me. The inner chamber in the top section of the cross was blocked with a sign reading "Silence - reserved for prayer only" in English, French and German. The seats were arranged in neat rows before a great alter underneath a stone cloud of angels ascending. I bowed to the tabernacle (Catholics do that sort of thing) and sat down to think.
I don't remember anything but the few thoughts I carried away with me...so all I know about my meditation is what must have happened. I remember sitting with my camera and bag at my side, waiting and wondering. I had come thousands of miles to this very spot to learn something. I desperately wanted to unlock the door to the next chapter of my life, to unleash myself into a torrent of wise moments and ecstatic insight and I wanted it all to drop into my lap before I left my seat.
Some dickweed took a flash picture from close behind me. Apparently a tourist who couldn't read English, French or German.
Many things soon became obvious. I wasn't going to stumble upon a mammoth well of insight that would change the direction of my life that day. My life seemed to be going in the right direction...much too much too god damn slowly, but to anticipate a major re-evaluation of goals and interests just seemed wrong. I've been focusing, I've been letting go of those things that don't feel alive and crucial to my center, my heart...
What did I want? Was I willing to draw a circle in the sand and wait in the desert for a divine voice to instruct me? Or was I going to be reasonable and admit to knowing some of the answers already?
I don't pray very often, and when I do it's to a very logical, democratic god of which I am a slightly reluctant part and participant. I believe in recognizing those forces in life greater than myself - it's vital to do so, my egomaniacal life has demonstrated - but when I pray I immediately recognize that mostly what I'm doing is asking for something and usually it's something that God can't help me with if I'm not willing to pursue it myself, love or success or some greater social good to which I may make some small contribution. I'm a very self-conscious believer.
If it was a conversation, then all the voices were mine. Insight would not drench me by the time I left the building. This trip wasn't a package tour - I'd only left my home a week before. In that time I'd come to feel at home in Paris, to experience another life, another tangled set of rules and expectations and prejudices and glorious opportunities. And in that time I'd seen that my life was a perfectly good life. I was good at it. I knew how to live it. It was easy. Maybe I needed to do this only to learn something again that I no longer knew...some basic physical skill that no longer fit my adult body, and hadn't for some time...
I saw that this cathedral, this visit, was only a marker, an entry point. For better or worse, the most I could do here would be to ask the right questions and hear myself asking them.
The one I remember is "Where is my life?"
I left to find lunch...quiche and bread and water, typically. When I returned, a wedding was taking place...the line of tourists continued but the tour guides were a bit quieter. I climbed the towers and looked over the city - fields and horizon in the distance beyond a thinning stretch of houses. I dashed between the towers as the enormous bells swung and crashed into motion beside me, rolled by small electric motors. Certainly no louder than most rock concerts.
I climbed down to say goodbye. I'd heard that it takes a free moment alone, silent, to say goodbye to a place properly. And I knew as I found that moment in the cathedral seats, looking up at the walls of stained glass, that I was saying goodbye to all of Paris, to France, and to some direction my life might have taken, a child's life spent somewhere across the world or an adult's path starting where mine had begun and rapidly circling away to places I would never see, even after years of traveling and searching.
Spent an evening on the train, speaking shaky childhood Spanish with a young couple returning from Eurodisney. Woke up rolling through old Spanish villages on the coast - steep narrow streets and clay buildings standing modestly over a glorious ocean. Pulled into Barcelona, found my way across town and up the hill to the hostel, and dashed out to see a bullfight.
I saw myself as a covert reporter, a UN observer, infiltrating the Spanish sporting world to expose the rampant barbarism that would shock a world of sports fans familiar only with civilized activities like hunting and boxing and rugby and feeding rats to snakes. Still, once the band began playing, the hilarious outpouring of ceremony transformed the proceedings into a ritual majestic enough to give apparent meaning to any feat of nonsensical cruelty. I was swept into the action as I might have been at any exciting sporting event, with one important factor separating me from the enthusiastic local fans: I sided with the bull.
I've been to baseball games at which my team loses, but it's just not the same thing.
A matador is someone whose job it is to kill a bull, after - AFTER - assistants have driven the bull in circles, stabbed it with spears and pikes and watched much of its blood spill into the sawdust. Most Americans would describe this as "animal cruelty" (the rest would call it "cheating") but in Spain, cheering crowds waved white handkerchiefs and sang along with the trumpeting band in celebration of each human victory. When the bull fell, the matador graciously turned to bow before the audience as another assistant dashed out and sank a short dagger into the animal's skull, the same way a tennis player might shake the hand of a defeated opponent. A trio of horses chained to a yoke trotted out and dragged the carcass across the field and out of the ring, leaving behind a skidding stream of blood.
Six bulls killed by three matadors. It was thrilling to see such machismo all gathered in one place. (Imagine fourteen pumped-up Eric Estradas in a circle-jerk to the death...) I'd stopped taking pictures when the Tom Cruiseish matador was butted and tossed like a hot rag doll and I spent the rest of the evening wondering if I wanted it to happen again so I could carry home photographic evidence of what unfeeling louts the Spaniards could be. It didn't happen again.
Today I trudged around town, running errands, writing these paragraphs, solidifying my belief that I really didn't care for this butt-ugly macho tacky hood-ornament of a city. Saw the Templo De La Sagrada Familia and knew it was the ugliest building I'd seen in my life. A construction crane stood over the scaffolded ring of walls and huge odd-shaped towers spelled out "HOSANNAH" in recycled bottles and cans embedded in the stone. I assumed the ancient cathedral was being hollowed out and converted into a casino.
I'd arranged to meet downtown with two Canadians who never showed up, and alone I returned to the city square, Catalunya Station, where a week-long festival was continuing. Dancing, music, gay rights groups, volunteer groups, every liberal in Barcelona handing out literature to the passing crowd. I walked past a haphazard row of palmists and tarot readers of varying levels of apparent authenticity. One woman sat frustrated - no customers - and I'd come all this way for answers. 2000 pesetas. I offered her the 900 I had and she told me to shuffle the deck.
She dealt the cards out and asked me what I wanted to know. Again, my head flooded and spilled over, not with questions but a panicked hope...that I might find out what I wanted to know without having to decide which questions to ask. She spoke a bit of English, she said. She preferred Spanish and so did I. It would be an eerie conversation slipping back and forth between the two languages, trading one dream for another, over and over.
"Voy a encontrar lo que quiero encontrar en Nueva York? Esta mi futura en Nueva York, o en San Francisco?"
She looked over the cards, and asked where I was from...San Francisco. I don't remember many of her words...it was noisy outdoors; she spoke quickly and quietly. I asked her to repeat herself...sometimes she responded in English.
She said my future was in San Francisco. I had much to learn, much work to do. Not all the people I would be with would be good for me. But I would learn.
"Pensas demaciado. Tienes que estar positivo. Positive. Be optimistic."
I remember scattered phrases here and there, out of order and context. It all flowed like a steady melody. When I first asked my question, she placed a few more cards in order on the table, reading over them and almost interrupting our conversation. "Estas bien. Tu vida esta bien. Your life is good." I already knew the directions I needed to go.
If anybody told me this story, I'd offer all the logical explanations. It's her job to tell me what I want to hear. And I did want to hear all this...I interpreted it exactly the way I wanted to. In the end she didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. And maybe she didn't tell me anything at all.
I told her I was a writer and a filmmaker. She told me to relax...write, but...I forget her words. Let things happen. "Piensas demaciado. Don't think too much. Eres escritoro...asi escribe to futura. Write your future."
"You are alone. No?" she asked.
"You have been alone a long time?"
She spoke on in Spanish - how this is a time for relaxing, not thinking, not...I forget the words she used. Not planning. Rewards would come...economic, success. Writing. She pulled "The Lovers" card from under another card and turned it toward me.
"This is not the time for this. Amor." She reiterated the statements about...I forget her words; anything I tried to repeat would sound ludicrous. This is a time to live my life and not to worry.
"Tres años estarás solo. Three years. You will be alone." A time to live, relax, work on other things. She began a statement...I don't now know whether she spoke a few words and I concluded her sentence in my mind, or if she spoke it out...I was incomplete. Had much growing to do. I had only to enjoy and experience, not to think...
She asked if there was anything else I wanted to know. I pointed to the lovers card. "Amor. Voy a encontrarlo?"
"Una mujer..." She laid out more cards. Vas a encontrar la mujer (something)...the right woman. The right woman. Entiendes?"
I had to ask, although I really didn't want to know. "Es alguien a quien ya conozco?" Someone I already know?
She laid out a few more cards and stared over them for some time. "That is...the risk is too great to ask that." I was oddly relieved.
She still worked to answer the question, laying out a few more cards and looking over them. "Es una mujer a quien conoceré. You will meet her. Hasta entonces, amigas."
I thanked her and strolled into the crowd. I'd glanced down the avenue earlier - like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley: street performers, vendors, a huge walkway of people and trees between two narrow paths for cars. Now this sea of people seemed to be the whole world waiting to receive me, another drop unfolding into the water.
This was silly. If she had told me anything at all it was nothing I didn't already know...and maybe she only helped me tell myself things. And it mattered not at all. I'd devoted much time and expense to get here and had decided I'd hated the place. Now, drunk with hunger and still lost on all but a few streets, I saw the city burst open before me. This wasn't Paris, the beautiful and elegant. This was a seaside port full of people working to survive and shake their lives into being with as much noise and Earthy flair and playful sexiness as they could manage. And I was free to walk through it, throw my arms out into an open embrace, listen to the beautiful music from every direction, watch the hilarious costumes and puppet shows and lunatic dancers hoping to be rewarded with coins...this wasn't ancient rose-petal dignity in action, marriage in a grand cathedral; this was a time and place to celebrate. I walked through a dizzying maze of flashing lights and ancient buildings, watched, smelled, listened, laughed, and finally found a restaurant that would accept my credit card so I could drink beer, order a good dinner and write this.
USEFUL SPANISH PHRASES:
Well, I liked Paris better.
Pues, me gustaba Paris mas.
Paris was a lot better.
Paris fue mucho superior.
It's not as nice as Paris.
No es tan demaciado como Paris.
They don't allow this kind of barbarism in the United States.
No permiten esto tipo de barbarismo en los Estados Unidos.
We met at a nightclub at three o'clock this morning.
Conocemos en un disco a los tres de esta madrugada.
I've been locked out of the hostel.
El hotel ha cerrado la puerta a mi.
I want to take photographs of the terrible poverty.
Quiero tocar las photografias de la pobreza malo.
Let's sit somewhere else, away from the pigeons.
Sentamos en otra lugar, lejos da los palomas.
97/ 9/23 Nothing in life makes any bloody fucking sense without people to share it with. First big insight of the trip and a big slow-healing pain in the ass, since most human beings bore the living shit outta me, I can't relax and I can't speak French and I can't afford to stay here until I break through to greater understanding of what it is I'm doing wrong.
I'm so sexually frustrated I could scream. Paris is one big melting mouthwater meringue pie in tight slacks and smooth voice and I want to dip it in chocolate and lick it clean. Spain is France's slutty-dressing hyperactive younger sister and I don't want to marry her but oh, what a weekend we could have. And I'm so damn alone here...
I know I've made a horrible, horrible mistake in my life by spending so much time alone. Since elementary school I've strategized that my art, music, writing, my life-giving projects would win me the attention and love I needed and craved. And now I'm never sure if I've really set myself free or trapped myself in a coffin, my own mirrored skull room. But of course there are no mistakes...only directions to go from where I am now. Or so I tell myself.
All my worldly idiot friends have given me lists of attractions they insist I visit, like I was headed to the mall to do their shopping. One of the Aussies ranted for five minutes about what a mistake I'd made traveling without a guide book, thinking divine providence would lead me to the bottled water or cheap food I needed to survive. I've spent most of my time wandering on foot, watching the people and trying to directly confront a mystery that could only be farther away back home.
I'm back at the hostel. A class of German students has been gathered around the piano, singing, listening...one girl, Spanish but living in Germany and cuter than a kitten on snow skis, has been singing for the group unaccompanied, just standing to one side, eyes closed.
So, should I be her? The performer? Or should I be the guy who writes about her? Or should I be the guy who befriends her and goes to the bar with the gang to amiably shout at each other about stuff that couldn't interest me less? Or should I be the guy who visits Europe to figure his life out and discovers when he gets there that he can't stand to watch other people have fun and he lies awake at night worrying that he snores like only an American can?
I've forgotten already what the tarot reader told me yesterday...she lifted me ten feet in the air and I need to know today what I knew last night. I am on the right track. The decisions I make will be the right ones.
Still meditating on Katherine, envisioning us together, furious at myself. I can't have her. Not yet. But I nervously sip at the thought. I want to sink my enraged limb into half the women I've seen on the streets of Paris and Barcelona but she interests me more.
She has a small collection of old-fashioned keys; I bought one for her at a locksmith's shop in Paris and today found another in downtown Barcelona, each mailed along with a long letter written on a paper placemat or pages ripped from my journal, stories about little more than walking and seeing and thinking.
Today was a wash of errands, walking, hunger panic. Gave tech support to five Australians at the internet cafe and agreed to meet later for a drink, which made me feel better about traveling all the way to Europe to check my e-mail when it would have been so much easier to stay in the United States.
Met the Australians at the fountain and decided I was bored stiff. I could barely hear my bland new friends speak below the tinny pop music scratching out of the nearby bars, I hadn't eaten since breakfast, drinking a coke and dizzy, my brain spiraled downward into yawning oblivion, listening to five traveling jocks whose every nuance I would forget before midnight, and I thought maybe suicide would end my years of irritating loneliness. Just yesterday I'd looked at this city and seen the whole world, glowing with life in every direction, and now all of it was tedious and empty.
I finally bid a yawning goodbye and walked through the pigeon-infested corridors of the old city, wondering why life suddenly felt more like a prison sentence than a gift. Panicked that upon arriving back in the US in a month's time I would immediately remember that I was unqualified to do anything with my remaining years but struggle to keep myself fed and pine for women I can never have.
I felt a crack inside. The vat of self-pity had swollen beyond capacity and exploded and the liquid swooshed loose inside me. And suddenly the whole idiot zombie-trance world was unthinkably funny.
I'd been looking at my whole life as a pole that I had to hold up at one end:
When in fact, I saw, the whole of life is a moment, a baton, to be held aloft without effort.
...and suddenly I knew the real question I needed to ask was not "Where is my life?" but "Where is my dinner?"
Ate pasta salad and felt much better. Cracked jokes to myself and spoke with a patient grandmother on a park bench at ten p.m. She listed places that I should visit tomorrow. I didn't hate her for it.
97/ 9/24 I've been wearing the same baggy pants for two weeks, small green army bag over one shoulder, button-down shirt and a grimy fedora everywhere I go. My legs are still injured so I walk slowly and confidently through the alleys - Indiana Jones on laundry day. Kids and construction workers sing the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" theme or call out as I walk past.
Wrote postcards tonight listening to "Stand By Your Man" again on local radio. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is everywhere - bars, radio, German kids singing at the Spanish hostel. Songs I'd ignore in America call up a vague homesickness I never thought I'd feel. Only in Europe can I see that there's a kind of loneliness that's distinctly American. I miss it.
I've been spending afternoons downtown at the ongoing festival. Followed a noisy parade of paper maché giants dancing through the Ramblas past crowded sidewalks. More pasta salad, propped back against a mailbox in a city square, watching the people and thinking about my life in New York and my someday return to California and other details I can't plan. A chubby, sour man in a Charlie Chaplin suit and mustache pushed a small cart through the crowd and settled against a far wall. His tape player squawked with chimey music and he dinged out irritating melodies on a small xylophone without breaking a smile, starting with "California, here I come".
I miss America. Not the cities...and maybe not the people. I miss the loneliness. American loneliness.
Ben said to visit people, not places...and now I know why. A city is just real estate and tourist attractions if I can't share it. That's all my trip to Europe has been. A whole living world to watch from the outside.
That's why I miss America. It's dark and empty and sad and I'm part of it. A great distance to be crossed and nothing to distract me or keep me company but the lonely song on the radio that echoes the moment with chilling precision.
Laura wants me to live in the moment, instructing me to chant "Be here now" at every opportunity, and it's not working. "Be here now" turns into "Be Laura Now" and I become Laura watching myself fail to experience the moment. Yet I am determined to relax for once in my life, struggling to breathe steadily, a calmly focused Zen pilgrim. Drinking seems to help too.
Downtown Barcelona - the Ramblas, the Gótic district - is a six-story maze of crevices between ancient stone buildings. Massive cathedrals that might have scowled from a distant hilltop look across little more than an alley before the tangle of aged tenements continues.
I entered the church of Maria Del Mar as the doors opened for visitors this afternoon and I found a massive, brightly lit grey stone cathedral, medieval yet glowing almost warmly inside. Shrines to saints and religious figures lined the walls. The man at the door reminded me to remove my hat and I obliged, feeling like I'd entered the sacred building playing a tuba.
I stopped at a sharply angled carving of Christ on the cross in a small shrine at the side of the cathedral. I removed my bag, my camera, and kneeled on the stand, clasping my hands together.
Jesus. Was I here to think? Or was I here to learn not to think? I could leave everything right here, the last of my worthless possessions...were I brave enough to see who I was without them. I so desperately wanted to give myself over to a world greater than myself. I might be willing to lose myself to do it.
I knelt, hands clasped together, breathed. Calmly stared at the statue. A limp lean man with a stab wound in his torso, suspended from nails through his hands and feet. A woman walked past me and kissed its wooden legs. She touched her fingers to its feet and walked away.
I thought of the poem "Lost": "Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called here and you must treat it as a powerful stranger - must ask permission to know it and be known. Listen."
I might have cackled. If I was truly lost, I was in the right place for it. I knelt in a far corner of an obscure cathedral in the middle of a maze of ancient buildings in a busy region of Barcelona. I did not know the name of anybody living within a thousand miles.
There is a time not to think and this was not it.
Words leapt into mind. Sometimes I hear myself narrating whatever it is I'm experiencing, choosing words to describe it. Words flooded in to write the story of this moment in the cathedral. Words I would be guaranteed not to remember later if I did write the story. And I recognized that if I could do one thing to better live in the moment, it would be to live the story now, write about it later.
But was that enough? Was I somehow smothering myself, writing and recording detail after detail? Why did I come all this way if I would only leave to continue distracting myself from my own life by devoting myself to describing it? I'm so sick of hearing my own play-by-play...
I studied the statue, and asked. I was here because I knew I must give myself to something greater than myself. But what would I give myself to...and what would I release myself from?
The statue hung limp, its arms stretched far above its sunken body. Crucifixion victims die of asphyxiation - they finally lose the strength to lift their bodies enough to breathe. When Freda lay in her hospital bed the last time I saw her, she complained that her body was falling together in that same way. She asked my help to raise her up...
I thought about that day, how I'd introduced Freda to Stefan, only to hear her ask five minutes later when she would get a chance to meet him. She was 97 and very sick. The world's grip on her rapidly slipping.
As a younger woman, she could have navigated all through my trip...speaking French, Spanish, German and English with equal fluency. I only knew one of the many people she could be; only one of her many voices...
I cried. Only a little, typically. I missed Freda...I wanted to visit her now, and I missed the chance to visit her more than I did when she was alive...to share a trip like this with her. More than I was sharing it with her now.
Like tears, more words welled inside me. And I was torn again.
I heard my own voice say in a casual thought, "You pray by writing."
I had knelt at the side of the wide prayer-stand...to leave room for others, and to reflect the fact that I was only in disguise as a believer. Now, holding close the thought of Freda, I shuffled to the center and stared right at the figure of Christ. If he was to say something to me, I would hear it clearly and with my full being.
I watched the statue. I had seen believers kissing statues, crossing themselves, kneeling...I had done all these thing myself. Was I seeing this image the way a believer would? I couldn't pretend I did. It was a carving. A statue.
"I pray by writing."
A family stepped onto the platform in front of me and one of the boys climbed inside the priest's chamber of the confessional. I smiled, took my things and made my confident, slow-moving exit.
Picasso museum sucked but the gift shop had great t-shirts. Shrimp pizza and beer for dinner. I've discovered how a beer at the right time can counter many a neurotic anxiety, for better or worse.
This is a good trip. It's clear to me that I won't be able to appreciate all it's brought me until well after it's over. And it's far from over.
But now in some way I'm lost in the middle of America. A lonely country song is on the radio, the world is dark but for the glowing lights racing in a line to the edges of the lanes beside me, and yet it's all very familiar. I know the language of my isolation, I know how to follow the signs to get where I'm going, and I know this quiet feeling of being all alone with the engine and the radio and nothing else in the world that knows I'm alive...I know that feeling will return. It's part of what makes me who I am, part of what makes me sure I'm alive. And that's what those songs say to me...and maybe even to the German students singing them cheerfully in the hostel. It's the familiar sound of knowing where I am, even if nobody else does. It's the warm, sad sound of home.
97/ 9/whatever Frankfurt, Germany I thought the smoking hacking phlegm-breathing oaf sitting next to me on the bus from Barcelona would be getting off in some small town in Spain or Southern France, but when he started speaking German and I realized he'd be on the bus for the next twenty hours, I moved next to Alexander - small-town German guy with blonde heavy-metal hair who'd never met an American before. I've suddenly got a cold that makes me weak and shaky, probably from dumbly agreeing to share a bottle of water with a friendly but bitter CPA from San Francisco, about fifty...one of the several American or New Zealander travelers I've met, men over forty who've seen the world and insist on telling everybody how awful it is. "Paris? A cesspool. The people are rude. I hated it."
I lost 5000 pesetas, about $35, on the street in Barcelona to several con men in a shell game yesterday. I approached them knowing fully that they were thieves, feeling sorry for anyone stupid enough to fall for it, ready to warn anyone else not to waste their money. The guy moving the shells let one slip up so the ball was visible; the sucker who handed him the money picked that shell and he won, all smiles. Again the guy moving the shells let one slip as he shuffled the shells so the ball was visible for a second and I was eager to catch him. They were asking 5000 pesetas - exactly what I had in my pocket - and the second I pulled it out it was in his hand. He asked for another, I said no - had to repeat myself. Somehow my "guess" was wrong and they all tried to convince me to play again - even the guy who had just won. They were all in it together, the whole crowd, a den of rats. I walked away. A lady stopped me in the store - "...Ellos son ladrones! Thieves!" - and said the police would be there soon and they would be gone. I emerged from the store five minutes later and they were nowhere in sight...until they returned later that afternoon, and the next day. They would always be somewhere.
I could afford to lose the money. I gave the rest of my cash to a homeless guy on the street. I hated for them to have my money and I hated that I'd done half their work. I had been sure I could cheat them. And anywhere in the world such naiveté exists, they would appear, collecting a tax on the arrogance of passersby.
This is what Sarah meant. Someday I would become a father...and the title would not come with a bag of secrets. It would come with an endless nagging awareness of how little I know.
I hauled my backpack on foot - Metro was on strike for the day - down through Parque Guell, past dry sand trails and surreal Flintstones park benches, into the city to kill my last few hours at a downtown office building that resembled a seventy-foot-high wall of melting ice cream. Another Gaudi-designed building, a museum on the top floor.
An odd chandelier made of kite twine and lead weights hung suspended above a mirror laid flat on the museum's concrete floor. Gaudi created an inverted model of his building in kite string and attached weights to represent the stress on the supports of the structure. The mobile of weights pulled the web of strings into stretched curves... shapes that would become exactly the shapes of his support arches in each building. Thus he constructed powerful 7-story buildings with unorthodox shapes...using no mathematics stronger than his own intuition. The mirror reflected the hanging image from below and revealed the shape of the arched structure to be built.
Gaudi's work was full of odd curves, stretched and distorted faces - an eerie parody of architecture. The first building I saw downtown was his Templo De La Sagrada Familia, a hellish growth of jagged towers that looked like an impoverished kindergarten's ongoing class project, designed by some deranged religious school principal. The whole city, I decided, had that look of a coloring book attacked by angry toddlers.
But on my last day in Barcelona, after seeing the grimy crush of stone walls and bridges and paths in the old city, the saturation of life in the churches, the unstoppable flash of thieves appearing and disappearing from the sidewalks, the parade of ridiculous creatures fifteen feet high in a noisy festive march down the Ramblas, the sexually charged demand of the local people to live and make the most of it - it all made sense. The primitive tiles, the uneven surfaces, the infinite spirals - it was all a tribute to life in Barcelona: almost threatening in its demand to live despite the desert struggle, the weight carried with every step, the endless history, the poverty. The mirror reflected the stretched, weighted, curving shapes and the reflected image became the model for life in Barcelona: strong, vital, unorthodox, able to sustain great pressures...needing no strategy greater than its own intuition.
USEFUL GERMAN PHRASES
I forgive you for your country's evil deeds.
Ich verzeih` Dir die bösen Taten Deines Landes.
The food is disgusting here.
Das Essen hier ist zum Kotzen.
This is the last time I travel with relatives.
Das ist das erste und letzte Mal, daß ich mit der Verwandtschaft verreise.
This kinda reminds me of Disneyland.
Irgendwie erinnert mich das an Disneyland.
This place is just like home, foggy and depressing.
Dieser Ort fühlt sich ganz wie zuhause an, neblig und deprimierend.
I don't remember ordering another beer...but thanks.
Ich kann mich nicht erinnern, noch ein Bier bestellt zu haben, aber Danke.
You live in the village? Are you one of the Village People? Ha ha.
Du lebst also im Dorf? Bist Du also einer von den Village People, was? Haha.
I don't know nothin' about feudalism.
Ich hab` K.A. vom Feudalismus.
Them ancient Romans sure knew how to pour concrete.
Diese alten Römer wußten wirklich wie man Beton gießt.
97/10/ 5It's 8:21 pm in Nuremberg, Germany and we're in a hotel just inside the old city wall - sister Joane watching Bavarian sitcoms and kinky German talk shows beside me, my parents in another room upstairs. A bookworm newsman married a lonely young teacher and now they're retired tourists visiting their children in a distant country.
The four of us have noisily grated on one another for a week now, everyone pressured and screaming at everyone else. My parents have suddenly become old - Mom arrived at the airport carrying a cane and Dad rests to catch his breath after a single flight of stairs. It's clear that Joane's terrified he'll have a heart attack...as am I, my fears only slightly tempered by the fact that I've been terrified that one of my parents would die for at least ten years, convinced they'll choke or fall unexpectedly... now we're on an exhausting, monumentous trip and every moment feels like the apocalypse. My Dad has high blood pressure, my mother cholesterol problems, each so frail they look like they're about to miss a step and tumble down a flight of stairs.
Meanwhile, it's an angry four-person chess game stalemate, all the stresses of wedding planning and international travel and up-close family lunacy packed into one rented station wagon and dragged from city to city like a touring carnival attraction. Today the clan arrived in Nuremberg to find a hotel. Joane is the only one who speaks German. I'm apparently the only one who can find a parking space in a metropolitan area. Dad's the only one who can pay for everything and get his way through sheer obstinacy. My mother is the only one who can ally other players against one another. So Dad is driving, Mom's trying to make everyone else's decisions for them, Joane and I are pushing one another's irritation buttons like vengeful data entry professionals and I'm in hell because this sardine can of carbonated resentment and carsickness will entrap the lot of us until Dad finds a fucking parking space and yet he merrily and slowly drives past each free space I point out, responding with a doddering "Wha? Huh?" that lasts just long enough for the un-clueless Mercedes driver behind us to whip into the spot. Doesn't help that we've been driving through narrow cobblestone streets that were squeezed into place several centuries before cars were invented...however pleasant our mood may be when we enter the medieval city walls, the pressure and aggravation threaten to make us leap up in unison and strangle one another in a beautifully symmetrical Escheresque web of necks and arms and hands and necks and...
Seeing my parents day and night for two weeks is like watching all my faults divide into two groups and seize control of a pair of innocent senior citizens to present some sad stereophonic Theater of the Tactless, putting on display every embarrassing behavior I've exhibited for the last thirty years. In my mother I recognize the source of my obsessive, cacophonous zest for life; in my father I see my thoughtful, inhibited, self-righteous logic. That the two conflicting roles might combine to create me is both horrifying and oddly comforting. It explains a lot.
My father was stationed in Nuremberg in 1953, when most of the buildings were still huge piles of rubble. Today the city wall encircles shopping centers and restaurants and parking garages, all disappointingly familiar despite the German architecture. Yet I still miss the smaller details of American life - being able to read shampoo bottles and order any food that's not beef or pork or tongue-and-blood sausage.
So far Germany is a lot less sexy than Paris or Barcelona or anywhere else I've ever been, but while the neat cobblestone courtyards and gingerbread-house buildings look like they should be populated by little round boys waving Hallo and singing "It's a small world after all" I haven't reconciled the munchkin-town quality with the fact that these are the same streets on which marched armed Nazis threatening to capture the entire world...both visions being the prejudices of a simple American whose nation has not experienced a violent death and rebirth in the last hundred years.
97/10/10 Too much to fully explain - I'm drunk on beer I can't pronounce, writing at a school lunch table in a crowded multi-purpose room, the Wieden Ski Club's awards ceremony in the middle of Germany's Black Forest...I didn't mean to order the second beer, I just nodded at the wrong time and it came...the white-haired man at the podium has spent the last forty minutes reciting the names of every member in the Wieden Ski Club's 90-year history; I've been applauding at all the right times, feeling warmly included without having to pay attention or care, which has been a secret goal all my life, finally realized. A huge banner reading "90 Jahre, Skiclub Wieden" hangs at the back of the stage over the seated 50-piece orchestra playing Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do, I Do It For You". This is a peak experience. Impossible to duplicate in the US. More hilariously tedious than waiting for a ripped tendon to heal...now two karaoke singers are entertaining the crowd. Before the ceremony, the president of the ski club warmly shook my hand and tried to start a friendly German conversation - holy mackerel! Now sixteen costumed locals are folk dancing! This is the best! Everyone held hands and swayed along...I wish every night could be like this. And I get to make fun of it, too...
97/10/10 10:30 pm Back in my room on a wet foggy night...haven't had my own hotel room since my first night in France. Pays to have new in-laws who own resort hotels. Sauna and hot tubs are closed for the off-season and the maze of empty halls reminds me of The Shining, unmarked doors leading to shrunken, windowless bowling alleys and mazes of lifeless card rooms with animal heads mounted on the walls.
Joane left California two years ago to work as an au pair in Germany; she was in my room in San Francisco when she heard the phone message that she'd gotten the job. I heard her gasping and assumed she'd received word of some close friend's death until I saw her smiling...she lived in Rosbach, near an American army base, caring for the year-old daughter of a German fashion designer in her late thirties. The house was a modern German fortress, cinderblock walls and electronically controlled steel shields rolling over every window automatically each night. Typical new home in the German suburbs.
I met Stefan at the airport two years after Joane's move...he'd come to Chicago for a month for his postgraduate literature studies and flew to California to meet the family and visit Freda in the weeks before before she died. I was late to the airport to pick him up and found him wandering through the terminal, a befuddled little German man, not fearful but still looking lost, arriving alone to meet his new family for the first time.
Joane and Stefan's wedding wasn't nearly the trauma it had threatened to be...none of the German women I'd met tried to manipulate their children by threatening suicide (as apparently is the custom) and the parents of the groom were perfectly civil upon seeing one another for the first time in twenty years. The joyous couple spoke their vows before a friendly German judge who paused between sentences for a mumbling translator to pretend to speak English without making noise.
97/10/12 Fairy-tale hotel in Rothenburg, another ancient walled city destroyed with modern weaponry during World War II, just like Nuremberg... reconstructed but centuries of living destroyed, a living past cut loose in desperate attempt to rescue a future.
More explosive shouting matches with family members about absolutely nothing. Three weeks to be a family together and we silently panic to know that what happens in that time is everything we can ever have together, leaking away much much too fast. Joane and I screamed at each other when she angrily presented me with a gift I'd already told her I didn't want...a cartoon moment playing wrongly in real life. Dad fought to catch his breath after walking up only six stairs. "Are you okay?" I asked. He looked at me from inside a thought I can't know yet. "That's a good question."
I spent two weeks in France and Spain learning that I couldn't live without people and two weeks in Germany learning that I can't live with them. They're irrational, condescending, hurtful, defensive...and too valuable to experience without some degree of sadness.
97/10/18 Alone in Stefan's apartment, Mainz. Walked out tonight for dinner, considering for the hundredth time on this trip what I was missing, whether I was somehow failing to recognize the exciting alien depth of this still unfamiliar place. The sky was that color of bottomless deep blue it passes through on the way to the black of night, grey clouds tumbling across the darkening sky and a fierce wind blowing tree branches back and trash down the street. Light rain fell slanted onto my glasses and my sweater filled with water drops but I so enjoyed being a part of it...as if the weather had set out to remind me in this one meaningless moment that the Earth was alive and no dull routine or boring sidewalk can be taken for granted.
97/10/19 Last night in Germany. A moment of intense family drama and I've spent every minute thinking about Katherine, mostly out of boredom. Family drove to Eltville this morning, small town on the Rhine River...not raining but cold dense fog, my legs cramped and chilled, all surplus energy drained away. Aging parents and adult children walking and talking, beautiful and somber. Yet I knew I wanted to be with Katherine, to pursue this thing and get it out of the way, to find out if we really did want to walk by the Rhine holding hands or if we'd hate each other within a month. Maybe she's too much like me - two bitter Virgos each determined to predict the other's steps and stay a safe distance ahead, both forever neck and neck running, threatened and threatening.
I told Joane how I'd thought of inviting Katherine to visit me in NY and she calmly stabbed back at me, mentioning Katherine's boyfriend and how torturous it is to listen to someone describe an infatuation so doomed to failure. I knew the speech instantly...I've given it to her so many times, the same pattern repeating. So many women with boyfriends. So many I could never have.
I've been doing exactly what I told Katherine I wouldn't. Waiting. For her. So...do I force myself in? Do I invite her to visit me? Do I ask myself exactly why I need another woman who's safely busy elsewhere? What an ugly sport...
Drove back, packed our stuff. Joane edited pages of her old poetry sitting quietly in the corner, just to be in the room, just to hear us moving and know we were there.
97/10/20 My great-grandmother Mariana Caetano left the Azores at age nineteen at the turn of the century to live with her sister's family in Austin, Nevada. It wasn't until she'd arrived in New York that she learned her sister had died of typhoid. Her brother-in-law had lied to her and couldn't be trusted. She knew nobody else in the country, could not read nor write nor speak English.
She crossed the continent to the Portuguese communities in California, where she married a man twelve years older, Jose' Silvera de Azevedo, also from the Azores. She lived in the San Francisco area through the fifties and sixties. News from her family was exchanged through infrequent letters written and read by friends. For the rest of her life, she never again saw her home, never heard her parents' voices.
We said goodbye to Joane in Frankfurt airport...only she was crying, as if the rest of us didn't know what she did, how far away we'd be going. My parents were exhausted and practical; I was already in New York and California and twelve other places, thinking days or weeks or months into a future I didn't want to predict and couldn't wait to begin.
We hugged her goodbye, patiently, before she returned to Stefan's arms. My father leaned over to comfort her in his logical, calm way. "You're not my grandmother," he assured her. "You are going to hear my voice again."
97/10/20 We arrived at Philadelphia airport and my parents casually patted my back goodbye, as if I was late for work. Train into Philadelphia, Amtrak to NY, underground A train to a new home in Brooklyn, seeing it all for the first time. Three kids boarded the train, introduced themselves to the six people on the benches, blasted a hip-hop tape and leapt into an acrobatic dance routine on the shaking, rocking subway car - somersaulting, crashing into the poles, landing just short of passengers' laps. One boy stood on his head as the other grabbed his ankles and leapt forward and the two rolled over each other down the aisle, over the feet of the riders in the seats, landing in a heap by the exit as the tape stopped suddenly. The three jumped up, thanked the small crowd and accepted dollar bills from a few passengers. A homeless man complained - "I never get love like that. You kids makin' nineteen dollars...I ever get two dollars in one car, I..." The doors opened and they all walked out.
A woman next to me sat shaking her head as the kids danced. "I hate the A line. Actually, I hate all the lines. I can't stand this city. Can't stand this city. Born and raised here. Can't stand this city." She told me where to transfer and I stepped off to begin my exciting new life. Stood outside in a dark liquor-store neighborhood and Daria picked me up, drove me home and showed me to the room I would share with Conan's latex-makeup art supplies and the somber plaster cast of my face he'd made fifteen years before.
97/10/27 Conan's a genius artist living in a form-fitting sarcophagus of apathy. He hates New York - the food, the people, the subway, everything. He's here for Daria and Daria's here for Manhattan. In a few years they'll flee back to California and get married. In the meantime, they've invited me in and treated me like family, except we aren't driving each other mad.
I walked through midtown and bought in-line skates, wobbled ten blocks and decided Manhattan was the worst place on Earth to learn rollerblading. The sidewalks are covered with large hoodlums and hurried executives, the streets packed with vehicles piloted by highly skilled homicidal maniacs and I can't stop or stand upright without grabbing a pole that's usually not there. Eight-year-old children screamed past, chasing traffic on skates with no brakes. Gay commuters (I'm guessing) performed graceful spins in the street between packs of angry vehicles. I'd wasted my money.
Danielle phoned and invited me to visit her in Austin. I'll go when I can afford it.
97/11/2 Called Katherine at work in SF...her first question was "When are you coming back?" She said we could meet at Disney World when she's there in April.
Last time I visited Disneyland in L.A. was with Marianne...I slept on her boyfriend's floor, kissed her in front of Cinderella's castle. Spent the night wondering what to do next, wondering how anyone could stand me...
97/11/5 Walked through a Manhattan park with Ben C., wondering when I'm returning to SF. Ben thought I was moving here permanently and I knew all the reasons I'm not are named Katherine...she's become everything I need and don't have, everything I'm afraid to leave behind. Is there a pill I can take that will cause me to only be interested in single heterosexual women who live less than a hundred miles away? I hate the taste of all this...
Wrote her a long letter I didn't send, walked alone downtown...called Evan from pay phone to tell him how I felt lost and confused and had no idea why I was here, busses and cars and siren-blasting ambulances stuck in traffic next to me as I shouted to him. Watched a movie and rode the subway home listening to three smiling, Spielberg-cheerful black kids with colorful clean clothes and backpacks talking about guns and niggaz and shooting cops and guns they'd seen in Schwarzenegger movies and guns they'd hide in their boots. Kids being kids.
97/11/11 My life has crumbled...can't stop watching TV. Haven't written anything of consequence in months. Barely touch my journal. Spending time watching videos and gluing fur hand-shapes onto black cloth gloves for Conan. Wasted hours cleaning the house with weird determination, wondering what I'm really supposed to spend my time doing.
Christmas for Perverts
97/11/14 I feel drunk - well, I am drunk, I keep forgetting. Most confusing evening of my life. Drove with Conan and Daria to the Black Rose Bondage & Sadomasochism Convention in Washington DC to sell the fur-covered gloves I've been helping Conan make instead of earning money in Manhattan for the last four weeks. Friendly folk in rubber outfits poked through the vending room until 9 p.m., when we all entered the dungeon - a massive exhibition hall filled with racks and cages and semi-naked people, a makeshift gymnasium crowded with perverts chaining one another to the workout equipment and lovingly beating each other with the jumpropes. Mostly normal stuff... chubby butch lesbians flogging one another adoringly, so sweet and healthy I plunged into a morose longing for all the lost romantic moments of my life... holding hands on a beach, whispering secrets in bed...one cheerful white-haired man, looking very much like Santa Claus but wearing only a cock ring and orange forceps on his nipples, stood bound inside a tall wooden frame that I might otherwise have mistaken for a swingset. His wincing smile expressed grandfatherly satisfaction as one of his elves spanked him with a paddle. I'd never felt so alone.
Then came the slave auction. It was conceived as an ice-breaker...I gave away my play money and watched friendly aging women and smiling guys in their underpants cross the stage to be sold off for the evening, the price rising only in accordance with which dominance-and-submission games each slave had consented to play. (Sex was not permitted in the dungeon; understandably, the public spaces were to be used only for torture and humiliation.) Isolated in a cavern filled with the warm laughter of reunited friends, I thought of offering myself up for auction, but I didn't want to have to make up the necessary list of likes and dislikes: "This is Marty; he's into comfortable clothing, awkward stretching exercises and masturbating in private without telling anybody about it. His safe word is 'Not until we're married'."
Voyeurism was encouraged. Crowds formed. A beautiful woman was chained naked and spread-eagled against a wooden X cross and whipped by her master, facing the cross at first, then with her back against it. He approached her to rub rabbit fur on her reddened skin, caress her pierced genitals and kiss her and she smiled ecstatically throughout, her head writhing with pleasure.
Some gear lost a tooth in my head and my brain spun loose. What the hell was I supposed to do with this information? All at once? The invisible VCR in my head that painstakingly records this kind of thing for later playback was fast running out of space on the tape and I still hadn't seen half the dungeon. This was supposed to be a wickedly exciting celebration - Christmas for the damned - but it all felt like I was trying to suck a gourmet steak dinner through a paper straw. Was this sex? Sex is delicate lovemaking with an adored spouse. Sex is inept fondling with a nervous classmate. Sex is cynical humping with an excited mail carrier. Sex is not sitting alone in a crowded room watching naked strangers receive their punishment. This friendly gathering felt like a surreal church retreat and looked like some weird political protest aimed at reforming the penal system and at no point did it feel like sex.
Don't get me wrong. It was fun.
And of course it wasn't sex...it wasn't supposed to provide affirmation or sexual gratification. All the conference provided was floor space and playground equipment. The affirmation I would have to dredge up for myself. Yawn.
A long-haired woman pleasantly resembling Marcia Brady had stripped off her skin-tight bodysuit and stood smiling, handcuffed to a tall post, her body tightly bound in cellophane from her shoulders to her ankles. Her boyfriend alternately caressed and paddled her until she quivered while I strained to see what graceful details of her flesh I could make out through the layers of Saran Wrap. This is what my life has come to.
97/11/15 Learned today that Daria's father bought her a car in Berkeley and I volunteered to fly to California next week to drive it to Brooklyn.
Conan and I sat in the hotel room this afternoon, gluing fur to gloves and talking like the old friends we used to be, maybe we still are...he was mystified as to why I'd want to make the drive. To see the country, I answered; to say I'd done it. And because the loneliness of the road is somehow attractive and necessary to me now. Maybe it will feel real, somehow genuine, like life almost never does. Or maybe I'm just looking forward to feeling that my life has direction for two or three weeks.
Watched Star Trek and drank again with Daria and a few of her followers while Conan remained in the hotel room transforming himself into the most beautiful thing at the convention and together we all entered the dungeon, the room again filled with exposed bodies happily being chained, whipped, caressed, spanked, caged, suspended, tortured...the woman who'd been on the cross the night before was now bound to a square frame, passionately kissing another woman agreeably roped into place facing her, their collars fastened together, their faces held four inches apart. If the moon had crashed into the Earth I might not have noticed.
Then again...maybe I'd seen enough.
It was late, I was tired, and I had to admit that we'd crossed the threshold. Watching lovely kink folk strip one another of their clothes and enter the playground was always pleasant, and the moment each new victim was naked and chained up everything became bland and predictable, like watching batting practice. How much longer would I have to stare at them before something really new happened? This was no sport for spectators. I was in an enormous room chock full of unclothed perverts laughing and whimpering, whips cracking and popping continuously like the whole dungeon was a giant bowl of rice crispies...and it was then, in this mad house of goofy sin, that I discovered the three funniest words of the English language are "I'm getting bored."
These people were not drawn together by sex; this room was not a bed chamber. This was a community, and the convention was a calm celebration, and this room had become the world's largest walk-in closet, lawyers and teachers and office workers in rubber dresses and leather corsets smiling with the relief of sweaty trick-or-treaters now home again and finally free to remove their costumes and enjoy the evening. It was joyous.
97/11/16 Drove back to NY after spending the morning at a group discussion of sadomasochism and spirituality. Gratifying to know the scene has its share of former evangelical ministers...since many people who claim to surrender to God have never practiced surrendering to anything...
97/12/ 4 Back home on Mars. Planned to leave for New York after four days but contrary to earlier reports, the bargain fixer-upper getaway car I was to deliver back to Brooklyn hasn't been purchased or selected yet. Daria's parents are grumbling quacking lunatics and I'm stuck on a surreal vacation in limbo until they get their shit together. Surprise Thanksgiving with family. Eerie Santa Cruz fling with Tara, ten years overdue and now suddenly past tense without discussion. Staying with Ben L. or Evan or Tara or wherever there's space.
Called Ben from SFO late Tuesday night two weeks ago and, jetlagged the next morning, I found Katherine at work in San Francisco. Had no idea why I was there except that I had to see her. Had no idea what was to happen except that it had to happen.
I would only be in town a few days and she was buried under work. She'd received my letter from New York... part compelling declaration of intent, part white-flag surrender to the way things are; a determined slap and a mousy apology in one baffling gesture. She was excited and angry. I was sleepy and aloof.
I'd always been sure she had lied to me - about her disinterest, our future together, her daily contradictions. Andrew had playfully suspected I was attracted to her and she had assured him I was not, I was gay, I wasn't interested. I couldn't trust her as long as I knew she was also lying to Andrew. She'd lie to Andrew as long as he suspected I wanted her. He would suspect I wanted her whenever he saw me, because I did.
I'd spent those months imagining we would finally break through it, one way or another. Another year of wasted daydreams. Our friendship was a joke - a cardboard box straining to contain a sloppy rainstorm. I could not trust her. I could not trust myself.
We made vague plans to meet in her neighborhood Saturday. Friday my clutch fell apart and I spent the weekend in Santa Cruz. Left a message.
I sent a note a week later saying a determined, resentful goodbye. She demanded that we see each other.
We walked several wet blocks past puddles to a cozy restaurant and she spoke on the way - fast, angry and very very articulate. I was there to listen. I knew she had good reason to be angry. I'd already told her goodbye and I knew the only one who stood to lose was me and I was already as frustrated and hurt as I was going to get.
An hour after we spoke in her office the week before, she had lunch with Andrew and told him everything.
Or what passed for everything. My premonition, my infatuation. My heterosexuality. He didn't set out to find and kill me. He said she could do whatever she wanted...but he'd be very hurt if she remained friends with me. I understood his response. Almost respected it.
She mentioned my letters from New York. "You put a lot of heavy stuff there. Saying you might come back here and tell me to dump Andrew and go with you...and then, you retract the whole thing in the second letter. Before you left, you said you had a premonition you'd propose to me. And then you retract the whole thing by saying maybe it'll be a joke, maybe it won't happen."
It wasn't until hours later that I put all that together.
"I wasn't retracting anything. I was...I've developed a habit. All my life I've wanted to do the right thing." I suppose I'm paraphrasing myself. "I'm capable of being very gentlemanly...and it's gotten me nowhere. So what I do is...to put everything on the table, say what I have to say. And then see what happens."
I had never realized this about myself. I wanted to do the right thing but I didn't know what the right thing was - the assertive thing, the polite thing? So I did as much as I could to make myself receptive and understood and appealing...as much as I could with words and letters. And I let somebody else make the decision. Anybody. I let myself tell but never show, impress but never demand, never need more than I already had.
"If I'd told you 'I'm dumping Andrew, I want to go with you'...you would have screamed and run."
"What you're describing is not a human being. Yes, I've had a tendency to become...infatuated with people I can't have. And that's not genuine. It's artificial. It's dehumanizing. But I'm trying to break free from that."
She half smiled, knowingly. "If I were not with Andrew, you would not be interested in me."
I didn't know the language to use to make myself clear and believed.
It all felt oddly real and important. We were discussing whether or not we'd ever speak to each other again and neither of us could imagine how the answer could be yes. I wasn't sad, or even excited. I could speak my true mind to her. I enjoyed it.
But maybe it wasn't real.
The whole picture has been changing colors behind me as it falls into further retrospect. When I left her I thought everything had been said. I walked away flawed and frustrated, finally escaping my own trap.
The next day I was angry.
And today I recognize another world of things I might have said that it's now too late to ever say. "It's really important to you that I believe that." I might have said. "It would make your life a lot easier if that were true."
"This really really sucks!" she complained. She wanted to invite me over to Thanksgiving in twenty years, work on screenplays together, celebrate holidays together. Andrew would be hurt and resentful if she was to be friends with me at all. And now - as of October - she was in love with Andrew. And if she decided to take me instead...
"Did you want me to break up with Andrew? Were you trying to break us up?"
Was it a trick question? "No. No...uh...yes. If it was the right thing to do. Yes, if it was the right thing to do. All I did was tell you how I felt. I wanted to do the right thing. I wanted the right thing to happen." Doing the right thing...it was a joke, an insult, a poisonous idea.
She was furious. We were in a trap...but it wasn't her trap. It was mine. "I feel sorry for you..." she said. I didn't bother to point out to her that except for her, my life's just great. "I'd hate to be you right now". I couldn't change her life because, she was sure, I couldn't change my own. I wasn't sure. As long as I was alive, I couldn't be...
And who was I thinking about? Andrew. I'd be better off without Katherine. Whatever the outcome, she would get what she deserved...and she would not be alone. Andrew had done his best, treated her right, and I had driven a tree branch into the side of their relationship. He had no reason to like me and plenty of reason to hate me and I had no way of undoing the damage I had done.
My speech slowed down. I could think of no right words to say and I needed to speak. We were beyond everything but what to do now. We couldn't be friends. She cried. Three months ago I'd begun a playful game of tug-of-war, imagining that Andrew was on the other side...and now he really was on the other side. And she was in the middle, stretched and breaking.
"I felt so alive talking to you," she said. We'd each found in the other so much we could find nowhere else. "I wanted to meet you at Disney World. I wanted to do creative projects together...write screenplays, do things. And now if we do it's hurting Andrew..." She demanded "So what do we do?"
I didn't know.
"You need a girlfriend. Get a girlfriend!" she concluded. I'd heard that before. I'd said it to myself.
Time to finish. This is what I'd come to do...tell her goodbye without hurting her more than necessary. It had all been too ugly and humiliating and familiar. I wanted to escape from all of it. I didn't care if I'd never speak to her again.
Several false starts. "OK, here's what we should do. Let's not be friends anymore. If one of us wants to contact the other later on sometime, fine." I can't say if she was happy with the idea or not. I guess I was.
We left the restaurant. "Katherine, my friend...I wish things were different." I suggested I walk her home.
"Look,..." she paused. She warmly hugged me goodbye.
I waved, not looking at her. She repeated "Get a girlfriend!"
Sandra came by that night. My head was swimming and heavy, but she needed - needed - to talk. She and her husband are having terrible marital problems. Vicious arguments. Their marriage may be ending.
My life was better than it's been in years. And the world was a garden of nightmares...
Visited relatives the next day. My brother and his new girlfriend have already been whispering about getting married.
Only today did Katherine's words really open up to me, now firmly part of the past. "You put a lot of heavy stuff there...and then you retracted it." Angry.
My God. She'd been insisting that I didn't mean what I said...because she wanted to believe it. She needed to know what to do. She would stay with Andrew...and for the rest of my life I would want only what I can't have.
But if she believed I could love her...then she would have had to choose. She knew he could not see the world as she did. She knew I could offer her no security, no guarantees, no safety net. Stability or freedom. Safety...or...passion. The love he'd given her when she could trust no one. The excitement I'd seen in her when we were together. Whichever she chose, she would destroy the other...and perhaps wind up with nothing.
All I had to do was demand it. Tell her not what I feel...but what I want. Give her not who I have been, but who I am. She may have chosen no differently. But she would have had a choice. I forced her to know what might have happened, while proving to her that it was never going to happen. She could not have leapt into my arms. I assured her there would be nothing there to catch her.
I saw how selfish I'd been. Andrew would survive...and he'd have her. Whatever the outcome, I would come away with everything I'd always had. But Katherine...everything valuable to her had been put in jeopardy: her security, her satisfaction, her sense of excitement, her very sense of feeling alive - all these poisoned, at risk. Whatever the outcome, she would lose.
The Car Wash
97/12/ 9 In Santa Cruz - slept last night on Tara's couch. Cleaned her kitchen before I left, partly as a gesture of gratitude and partially because it was a sickening hole and in my current state of directionless angst it was nice to drop the wandering-tortured-artist schtick and feel a sense of purpose for an hour.
Still no news about the car.
Ran errands, drove into the hills and arrived at The Resort - a rebuilt vacation lodge in the woods where Kaz lives with six other bohemian computer geeks and college students. The living room is a huge empty sunlit dance floor, the kitchen has a monstrous eight-burner stove and a single jam-packed refrigerator and a lengthy pile of food-encrusted dishes, a few left outdoors for weeks at a time and covered with dirt and leaves. A friendly gent named Raven welcomed me and showed me to my futon.
97/12/10 Woke up early, ate breakfast outside by my car - that's where all my food is - and spent a few hours in the brisk forest air sorting through all the crap I'd thrown in the back seat and fixing the broken door handles and tail lights. Made my way inside and paid a few days' rent by washing all the dirty dishes I could find and trying to avoid attention as I did so...didn't want to have to explain why I was doing household chores for a bunch of people whose names I couldn't remember, like some weird Catholic penance ritual. Left the counter piled high with wet glasses and pots and triumphantly snuck back to my car, feeling like a mafia hit man who'd misunderstood his boss' instructions: "I want you to find Bugsy, and...clean his kitchen." Casually replaced spark plugs and looked forward to bewildered thanks from my beloved temporary housemates.
Finished with my car and greeted a few of the cheerful residents on my way to the downstairs bathroom, where I'd noticed the outside door (opening to the front of the house) was coming un-glued and would no longer close all the way. I locked the inside door behind me and removed the screws from the outside door frame, quietly rushing to finish the job before anyone noticed or left the house. I had almost lifted the door from its hinges when it occurred to me that this was pathological behavior. Kaz was gone for the day, nobody currently in the house had known who I was the day before and now their guest was in front of the building, secretly removing the door to the downstairs bathroom without explanation or permission, carrying out some wicked agenda that would never be explained. Perhaps I'd crossed some important boundary without noticing...I envisioned an enraged homeowner appearing behind me with a shotgun and grunting "Put...down... the screwdriver." Was it something inside me that had come unglued, some great void in my soul crying out to be hung properly? There was a knock on the door - I called out hello and a voice bounced back "okay, no problem", leaving me free to straddle the door in the front yard and pound it with a brick until it fit smoothly inside the frame. They'd never want me to move out, I was sure.
98/1/11 Pacifica Called Danielle, whose words dragged, depressed. "Remember how your and my relationship is cyclical?" - it returns from the dead every few years - and, she said, again she's been thinking of me as the best thing for her, her ideal man whom she should spend the rest of her life with, something like that. She said it like she was describing the fortieth of fifty pairs of shoes, like it was nothing.
I was...not even honored, just flattered. She's still dating Robert and we'd had this conversation every three years since I left Santa Cruz. Even so...
Jesus. Someday I hope to evolve into a creature capable of learning from his own mistakes.
98/1/28 Staying at Eden & Kathy's in Felton, beautiful forest hippie den buried into a hillside seven wet curvy miles into the darkness from the nearest major intersection. Kathy cuddled in the living room, buried in a cradling mass of pillows they call "The Love Pit", reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to another guest before leaving him to sleep. Pouring rain outside. I took the basement bed and lay warm and awake, afraid the dirt would slide in the rain and my car would tumble down the hill, afraid raccoons would enter through the permanently open window to attack the food I'd brought with me, afraid of what horrors might be waiting in the guest bed at any hippie house. Eden stumbled in looking for her laundry and hugged me goodnight. I do love this place.
98/2/1 Car died in the mountains above Santa Cruz, distributor soaked with rainwater. Coasted into town as the rain stopped, engine started again and made it back to Pacifica. I lay in bed playing computer scrabble for three hours, telling myself I was sick and would soon be asleep. I'm 31, sleeping at my parents' house, unemployed, waiting three months for the car to be ready...it's infuriating, it's death. And it's what I decided to do...
98/2/2 A day of confronting the great mysteries.
Time & Death: Had whole day to myself. Tried to produce writing with which to win success and immortality but accomplished nothing. Wondered how people with jobs do it. Remembered it involves being always panic-stricken and exhausted.
Man's meaninglessness: Drove through rain and pounding wind to take pictures of mammoth waves crashing over the pier. Felt like a gnat in a car wash.
Love & reproduction: Answered e-mails from several distant female friends, some of whom even date men. I've been discovering it's hard to date when you never sleep in the same city three days in a row.
98/ 2/ 5 The car is ready. I'm leaving tomorrow. I should probably be angry. I feel like I just won big on a game show.
98/ 2/ 6 Freshly painted blue 1986 Dodge Aries with water in the trunk and a broken side mirror. Packed the trunk and all available seats with bags of food and tapes and books and chairs - deliveries for New York friends - as raindrops dotted the pavement. Took Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz, the storming ocean waves muddy and twice their normal size, the grass and ocean and sky and sunset all burning with intense green or grey or orange colors more pure and thrilling than I'd ever seen before.
Loaded a framed picture into the back seat in Santa Cruz - too large to fly, Jenn left it when she moved to Manhattan - and I headed on to meet Bonnie in San Luis Obispo. Her room is warm and candlelit, quiet gamelan music playing, a perfect moment of peace. She's scribbling in her journal, I'm scribbling in mine. Feels like I've temporarily joined a really good cult.
98/ 2/ 7 Burbank, CA Drove four hours through hilarious shitstorm all the way down the coast, grey opaque rivers of water trailing behind every car. Only real dangers were the misty tunnels that flew up beside large trucks; passing through was like driving into nothing, absolute greyness. Windshield wipers strained the whole way, road only visible between the upstroke and the downstroke. Car drove beautifully. Luxury ride through the watery apocalypse.
Found Fran's house after crossing five identical miles of boulevard back and forth four times, plowing through the same outstretched puddles over and over. Fran's ex-boyfriend John joined us for dinner and took me seriously as a visiting independent movie producer. We discussed our latest projects and script ideas. Suddenly I'm among people whose career ambitions are just as exciting and worthy of ridicule as my own. Fran's taking me to Disneyland for free tomorrow. So far this is better than Paris. Except, it's L.A.
E-mail exchange with Danielle is escalating. She lamented the distance between us and I said I'd move anywhere in the country to be with her. Life is short. I'm sick of waiting.
98/ 2/10 Joshua Tree National Park - Writing by moonlight, perched in the cold air on a collision of round rocks fifty feet tall, looking over chaparral desert with spiny trees raising their arms overhead across the flat valley floor. Coyotes are howling in the distance, high whines echoing like whale calls through the ocean. The neighbor people fifty yards away speak their inane couple talk clearly in the holy silence like they expect me to transcribe it. For this they had to leave the city.
Three days in LA. Disneyland made me miss Katherine. Nothing to do but think about it.
I drove up from Burbank this afternoon, through suburban strip mall desert towns, almost uninterrupted strings of lights through the mountain country...cheap motels, restaurants. Rolled into Joshua Tree after dark, nobody at the gate. Took the campsite at the end of the long road and ate dinner of rice milk, V-8 and cashew nuts.
Wandered carefully away from the campground, straight into the flat brush, like wading into a very shallow lake, a quarter-mile out, to look back at the dry people on the land. I stood in a still civilization of individual trees, each a few giant steps away from the rest, slowly searching the ground for water. Somehow I felt, at last, I was not alone. The world stood silent, alive in the moon's eerie blue daylight. It was disappointing to remember that the road was put in place by people and I shared the park with people and among them I'm just another pilgrim - another tourist in a nation of tourists, looking for something I probably won't recognize when I find it.
For this I was awake. These trees call me into a different world...this world, the genuine Earth, every physical mistake and undiscovered wonder another landmark that tells me I've come the right way.
A few more steps, further and further away from the campsite and the few distant people, into the world of the strange men. I stood bound warm in my jacket, still, like them, for minutes at a time. I don't know how long I was there - twenty, forty minutes, ten - it was no effort. I was busy. Thinking about their world, thinking about my place within it. Thinking about Danielle. Standing thoughtless in the moonlight. "It's time to return to your own kind", one of them might have said. I heard those words inside and turned back, smiling.
The neighbors have left now - drove away with a small fire still burning behind a rock that cups over it like stone hands. I placed an old ember over the flame and suddenly I'm warm. Clouds have cleared away from the moon now, the night bright enough to read by. The only sound is from the campfire and the scratching of my pen on the paper.
98/ 2/11 Paid ten bucks to leave the park and asked the way to Vegas. I wore pants and a bandanna, car packed neck-deep with groceries and furniture. Drove through the rocky February desert listening to Phil Spector's Christmas Album. Calculated that getting to the Grand Canyon tonight would leave me enough time to arrive in Vegas and then leave immediately. Seemed appropriate.
Took Amboy road past canyons of nothing and dry, cracked sea beds of bromide, flaked and shipped from a plant at the edge of each dead white lake. Workers laying fiberoptic cable between Vegas and L.A. slowed the lanes for a hundred miles. Arrived on the strip at Sunset.
Adolescents have acne, America has Las Vegas. A great hole of desert filled with lights and noises and arrogant hope. Every square inch of the Vegas Strip battles for attention, mammoth hotels moving past each arriving car like whole undiscovered civilizations exploding into being beside the busy street. Driving becomes an afterthought, something you remember doing earlier in the day, no longer important.
I entered the Treasure Island hotel and cashed $20. Put my first dollar in the slot machine and won a hundred. The Filipina cashier lady told me to cash in and leave. Suddenly she changed her mind - "Keep playing. It's hitting for you." I put in the remaining nineteen dollars I'd brought, won another sixty-five and walked away, suddenly feeling responsible enough to parent.
The waitress asked "How are you?" I said "Great. Just won!" She responded "Just one?" and removed the second place setting, my victory dropped into exacting perspective. I ordered seafood. A brutal mistake in the desert.
98/ 2/11 midnight Quiet room at the Comfort Inn in Williams, Arizona. Snow covers the ground outside and I'm an hour from the Grand Canyon. Needed good night's sleep, shower and a shave. There is no running water in Joshua Tree National Park.
Drove a little over five hundred miles today, two hundred after leaving Vegas in the dark, onto the Arizona plateau, past wide fields of snow. Pulled onto the highway gravel and leapt into a moonlit snowbank, tasted it and fell into the powder, giddy, again shirtless. I hate shirts.
All this time, thinking of Danielle, studying some tiny shadow of her carried inside me. Five years ago I'd have been sure the shadow was her. Now I don't know who it is I'll meet when I arrive. Moving daily toward the answer, thousands of miles through a massive obstacle course, remembering every baffling moment we've shared over nine years, every elaborate misfire. Perhaps this is just another trial. Somehow I have no problem with that.
I heard a John Doe song on a tape Danielle had given me years before and I realized I'd found in this moment exactly what I had longed for in Europe...driving along an endless quiet road into a familiar darkness, a haunting song on the radio, somehow knowing there was a purpose and a sense to the emptiness I felt. Arizona and the entire country stretched out before me, rolling toward me, and I was hungry to meet it, endless stretch of meaninglessness that it is.
98/ 2/12 Here's why I came to the Grand Canyon: I figured that any civilization that would destroy meadows and fields to build strip malls and then dutifully leave the strip malls in place when they've been abandoned should not be trusted with the care and maintenance of my immortal soul. I came to the Grand Canyon because it's an ancient blank that rich white people have so far been unable to fill in. I came because the shallowness and depravity of life in the age of shrinkwrapped fruit so threatens to replace any clear sense of truth and daylight in the world that I felt a deep need to seek an understanding of life that I couldn't buy in an eight-pack at Costco, and the Grand Canyon, great empty bowl of meaning that it is, seemed like a reasonable place for me to begin the cosmic treasure hunt along with all the other new age idiot pilgrims huddled along the rim like ants by a swimming pool spacious enough to swallow the whole species without growing noticeably shallower.
I entered the Grand Canyon park rolling down long stretches of straight road through oddly level forest - brush and trees all fifteen feet high. Pulled into a vista point parking lot and crept down ice-covered rock stairs to the cliff lookout crowded with Japanese tourists and a busload of Scottish mountain climbers standing in muddy snowdrifts, looking into a valley of perpetual summer a mile below. I snapped dozens of tiny pictures I'll never bother to look at and did my best to consume the experience of the desert canyon from my snowy perch high above. What secrets did it have to teach me? What magic would the life in the canyon reveal to me? Can we go now?
I've been driving through barren, lifeless deserts, hundreds of miles of wilderness as unlivable as pavement stretching as far as the eye can see. I'd expected to love the warm red isolation and quiet of the desert, but within it I've felt lifeless. The world is an empty place, the view into the distance uninterrupted. A few people and a few animals and a surface of red chalk and nothing to do but survive and wonder why.
And this was the dark alley I'd entered in hopes the ancient wisdom would club me over the head and drag me to illumination. A flat world of dry rock, complex patterns and titan cliffs but so little movement, so little nourishment. I could not find it even here. The whole of the Earth seemed redundant.
I walked to another lookout and stared into the distant world. Thought and thought and thought. Walked to the end of the railing, stepped down into the snow and held my arms aloft, open to the canyon. Listened. Felt god-awfully horny, overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and busily finding nowhere else inside to put it.
I dropped my shoulders. I'd been traveling across the country, visiting tourist sights and struggling to manufacture epiphanies like they were movies to be watched and rewound and watched again. I'd been working to decide what the secrets of this place were, as if I were in Vegas and I'd win faster if I played faster. But any news this place had for me would have to be read in its own language. Looking out over the canyon was only looking out over the canyon.
I'd come here to see the invisible. I'd brought my camera.
The desert is virtually empty; many of the rocky details stretch on for whole lifetimes of distance. The life, then, exists not simply in the individual creatures and plants, but in the relationships between those things - in the world created between the rabbits and the rats and the holes and the cool springs. A world I was watching from a great distance away.
I've been struggling to deny the civilization that brought me here. I couldn't trust the world I grew up in and I'd come to suspect there was a more important, more genuine world hidden underneath. And maybe there was...some spirit dormant within the cliffs, waiting to be heard only by those who bring nothing else with them to distract from its sound.
I walked back to the car, stepping through stretches of icy snow a foot deep, almost singing: "My epiphany is the joy of walking through the snow. My epiphany is the joy of walking through the snow...."
98/ 2/13 Santa Fe, NM Woke up in hotel room in Cortez, CO and drove through Mesa Verde - a cove of ancient clay villages built into treacherous hillsides, surrounded by fifty miles of snowcovered forest. I'd last seen it when I was three years old...I studied the compact cities from across the narrow valley and imagined a harsh, mysterious life spent cradled in these mountains. Two gay tourists from Denver joked about sending naughty kids to their rooms, carved into sheer cliff walls fifty feet above the ground.
Drove 325 miles to Santa Fe, now rushing...toward Tucson and Austin, into the future. Ate bland dinner at a strip mall in Santa Fe, checked e-mail and came back to the car to find the lights on. Car wouldn't start. I suppose I was looking forward to this.
I pushed the overloaded hulk twenty feet uphill - I'd parked on an incline - then down and across the boulevard before realizing it's impossible to compression-start an automatic. Called AAA from a gas station and sat reading the Tao Te Ching until the tow truck arrived for a jump-start.
Had to drive to charge the battery so I headed into the city, got lost in the old part of town and wound up on an avenue choked with cars. It was a Friday night in New Mexico and suddenly I was cruising with the local Cholos, booming stereos blasting, low-riders bouncing up and down beside me. Perhaps they were charging their batteries too. I watched the ritual with wonder, staring deep into a grand canyon filled with gasoline and passengers and years of nights like this one. One more moment in an ageless America. We moved two blocks in forty minutes.
Another cheap motel. I like cheap motels. As much of a home as I've had lately.
E-mail from Katherine. I wrote a few days ago, somber and confused after seeing Disneyland without her. We share a vision of it - a deliberate world, animated and alive, sublime and romantic. Danielle hates the place. Andrew doesn't understand it...to him Disneyland is three rollercoasters and a bunch of ponds.
Now Katherine and I are distantly negotiating God knows what - we can't be friends, we won't be lovers. We'll visit Disneyland together someday, a fantasy weekend in the happiest place on Earth. Another exciting slice of a life that can never be lived, somehow coming closer all the time.
500 miles to Tucson...
98/ 2/14 It's Valentine's Day and I'm in a Ramada Inn hotel room in Holbrook, Arizona, a hundred fifty miles from Albuquerque, where I-40 stretches through hundreds of miles of snowy desert plateaus, desolate Indian reservations and the occasional truck stop. It's night and it's been raining. I'm a few hundred miles from the nearest person I know. My car is fifty miles away, parked at the ranch of the only mechanic in the area. I have my computer, two books, my clothes and my toothbrush. My room has a tiny clock-radio with scratchy reception; I switched it on and through the static heard "I Think We're Alone Now".
The hotel and a gas station cling to the narrow interstate, an oxygen line in an airless world. From the edge of the concrete the Painted Desert stretches uninterrupted to distant mountains in either direction, all dry shrubs and rough clay. A small pretend city crowds around the path further down the road. It's an exhausting place.
I don't miss California. New York isn't a destination anymore - just another place I'll be. The whole world is spinning, directionless. I want to go home. But this is home. This room. The narrow corridor between everywhere I have been and everywhere I will be.
I woke up in Santa Fe this morning, got the oil changed, ate blue corn enchiladas, dug my board out of the trunk and played in a skateboard park with local kids on the way out of town.
This was the middle of America, glorious mountains of red rock buried into the rough surface of the desert in the sunshine. I had nothing to do but get the car to New York by any means interesting. Listening to music, singing. I was happy. I'm very rarely just happy.
I-25 to Albuquerque. Gassed up and got on I-40 West, back toward Tucson. I've been driving fast - the speed limit in New Mexico is "If we can catch you, you're not going fast enough" - through empty desert plains and straight down endless hills on a separated road, the East and West lanes a hundred feet apart. I glanced at the speedometer. The needle pointed straight down. I didn't know it could. Car ran beautifully. I slowed down. The "Check Engine" light came on. I pulled over and found nothing. Just the calm rattle it had been giving the last few days.
Gassed up at a Texaco next to a few scattered houses. The sky was heavy and overcast now. I opened the hood and was poking at the spark plugs when a rough-faced man with a weirdly split nose and a hillbillyish accent asked what was wrong. I mentioned the check engine light. "Start the engine, I'll tell you what's wrong. I'm a mechanic. I've been doin' it since I was fifteen. I'm fifty now...I'll tell you what's wrong. Start her up."
I dashed around, turned it over. "Where you headed?" he asked.
"Tucson? You're not going to Tucson." He pointed to the rattling sound. "The oil's fine. It's your oil pump - hear that? Engine's not getting enough oil...you keep driving that, the engine's gonna blow up."
I probably said something but I forget what.
"Now, you can go into town, Holbrook, that's fifty miles. If I were you I'd be thinking about getting a hotel. I'm the only mechanic within...fifty miles of here. I fix everything around here - everybody's cars, done work on semis, I've done all of it around here. Now, you wanna get somebody to fix it, that's a three hundred dollar job. You won't be able to get anything done tomorrow, Sunday." The engine was running, rattling and choking, making horrible noises. He nodded down. "Now, I can do that tomorrow...parts would be around...sixty bucks. I'll give you the labor for a hundred and twenty."
I was gonna have it tuned up in Tucson or Austin. Three days through empty deserts.
"I can drive you into town, you can get a hotel. I'll bring you the car tomorrow." What planet is this guy from?
"How will you get back from Holbrook?"
"My wife will drive down."
"When could you take me into town?"
Fifty miles was quite a generous distance to drive me just so I won't bother him while he's stripping my car for parts - er, Daria's car. Or perhaps, I thought, he was only going to take me into a field and shoot me, like a reasonable maniac.
"In fact, y'see that thing there," - crappy orange gremlin at opposite pump - "I just rebuilt it. Totally rebuilt." A kid bounced around in the back and a woman sat in the front seat. If he was gonna kill me, he was hiding a genuine Satanic lunatic streak to involve the kid.
The car was sick. A breakdown in the desert would be more dangerous and less entertaining than accepting his proposed plan. He was pleasant without being charming, a walking geyser of good script material. What the fuck.
I followed him two miles up the frontage road and dug a few things out of the back as he walked over. I'd come for adventure, almost disappointed when he didn't pull out a gun. His name was Jim.
I introduced myself to his wife Linda and son Tommy in the back seat. He has two daughters, ages twenty-five and twenty-six. Tommy is nine. Jim first learned of his son three years ago, when Linda came out from New York. Jim's daughter is in town for a training class - she's learning to work at a correctional institution - and Tommy wants to go swimming at the hotel pool with her kids, Jim's grandkids, almost Tommy's age. They would drop me off.
I relaxed as their story grew more complicated. We drove forty minutes into town and Jim lectured about the development of I-40 from the old Route 66. Tommy talked and talked and talked and Jim told me about how he'd worked in L.A. as a landscaper, drove his own fleet of semi trucks, trained as a certified mechanic and worked for Chrysler and Ford, rents out horses from his ranch, builds or remodels and sells homes and properties in the area. I mentioned my three hours in Vegas and he told me how it had developed and what it had been like when he made the 680-mile trip every weekend.
"Did you like Vegas?" I asked.
"Eh...it was somethin' to do."
Swung by an ATM to take out the two hundred dollars I was supposed to pay Jeff. Met Jim's daughter and son-in-law at the hotel pool. They'll drive me back tomorrow afternoon. Very very nice people.
Called Danielle in Austin. Called Robin in Tucson. Took a bath. Played computer scrabble.
I want to get the hell out of the mountains.
98/ 2/16 12: 41 am Rode back to my car playing crazy 8's with Jim's grandkids in the back seat of a compact while mom blasted country music and dad gripped the violently shaking steering wheel in the front. Passed two gates, several ponies and a shallow moat of horseshit to meet Jim at his house. Tommy rode out with me to open the gates. The horses wouldn't move from the road. Had to drive around.
A hundred miles away the engine was retching again. One of the pulleys was pitching back and forth. That bastard hadn't replaced the pump. If I wasn't a hundred miles away...
It was the water pump. Maybe he wasn't lying. He had no reason to assume that I'd be driving across the country with a bad oil pump and a bad water pump.
Drove a hundred fifty miles through mountain snowfall down into saguaro cactus desert listening to the screaming death throes of the water pump, ready for the engine to explode, the wheels to freeze up, the car to flip over and for my lesson to finally be complete.
Arrived at Robin and Erik's house in Tucson. Robin was the most popular person I knew in San Francisco, greeted by fifty people walking three blocks down Haight Street. They moved to Tucson a year or two ago and they still know almost nobody. Robin's broke and quietly scared. Glad to have a visitor.
98/ 2/17 At the Motel 6 in Fort Stockton. Been driving through the Texas night for five hours...I had the water pump replaced in Tucson, but the crank shaft still wobbled violently. Not as scary as the wails the machine made before, but potentially dangerous and probably what caused the other damage in the first place. I'd have much preferred to drive across the country without learning anything about cars on the way.
Gassed up and took I-10 all the way through Arizona, mountains and dust storms and an evening commute in New Mexico, into Texas and the sprawling waste of El Paso, a windy grey neon-and-concrete stain in the desert... exhausted a tank of gas without stopping, filled up and did it again. Two days of desolate highway... occasional city lights in the distance gathered in small packs. The highway before me, lit only by slow parades of ghostly trucks, was a tunnel of darkness, a grey path through endless blackness under a blanket of distant stars.
And through this tunnel I saw where I would emerge. This was halfway. Halfway through my trip and halfway through my life. And there would be Danielle. Not in our Santa Cruz, not in her New York, but...halfway.
I would emerge through the tunnel into a world I'd never lived in before. I may blow it with Danielle. I did blow it with Katherine, still spinning toward a rough landing. But I've stepped forward, swum under a few of the fences, started breathing. No suffocation can take that away. I'm here now.
98/ 2/18 It's four in the morning Austin time and I no longer know what that means to the rest of the world. Drove in yesterday from Ft. Stockton, I-10 to 290 through Johnson City (Lyndon Johnson's hometown) listening to Fredericksville Rebel Radio. Needle sat on empty over most of 290.
I'd expected that Danielle and I would barely greet each other today...it would be pleasant and confusing, she'd go back to her thesis project and I'd go back to my writing and we'd both relax and accept whatever happened between us. I spun the radio dial and heard Rosemary Clooney singing "I'm getting married in the morning...Get Me To The Church On Time"..." Listened to jazz all the way into the city.
I arrived in Austin in the afternoon, wanting to kiss the concrete under the freeway overpasses.
Her housemate Stef opened the door - friendly woman, maybe 50, wearing a bathrobe in the warm afternoon. She called Danielle and I followed her in.
Danielle hadn't expected me so early and she bounded into the living room wearing an odd brown polyester suit in the warm afternoon, her almost-blonde hair curling into a wavy mane that carressed my face. We embraced each other slowly, kissed like friends and were soon wrapped around each other on her bed, talking about her thesis and my trip. Her room is small, a few bookshelves and a set of drawers and a small display of floggers and whips mounted on the wall from her time working as a dominatrix in a Dallas dungeon. I'd forgotten so much about her - she's still at once awkwardly mannish and outrageously sexy, a forceful Jewish matron of the future still disarmingly beautiful like the villain in a trashy spy novel and damn proud of it. Playing with her was like dropping back into an old addiction, one that might find balance this time. Falling into some kind of love with her would be no trick at all.
She's been casually dating a reporter from Dallas and she told him I was coming. "Marty's moving here. He's boundless in his adoration of me and he should know I feel the same about him. You should be jealous. We've done romantic things in the past. He's moving here. You should be jealous." Maybe some decision would be made for her. His response was "Well, I believe in monogamy." She mocked him.
She's writing her Art History Master's thesis on hair - hair in art, hair as social and political statement, hair hair hair. She wants to someday open her own hair salon/performance art space. She took the job in a beauty salon to learn about hair, but she hates her boss and she hates the job and they said they were cutting her hours and she realized the next day would be her birthday, so she announced that she was never coming in again. Funny - she'd also quit her job the day I came to visit her in New York three years ago.
Her sister Jan had just left after a weekend visit. Jan is 32 and suddenly very stable, has lots of money, is engaged to a schmuck and Danielle's frightened and jealous. 26 years old. She has no prospects for money or stability. She wants a boyfriend she can be in love with. She's not in love with Robert and he's not in love with her. But it's worked so far...
It was a warm, relaxed, playful visit and every ten or twenty minutes one of us would deflate, sadly, remembering this whole daydream conversation might slam naturally into one of a hundred walls blocking the path. She warned me that we might not wind up together. "I think you'll like Austin," she'd add, over and over. I suggested that I not move here while she was dating Robert. She said that if I wasn't here, she wouldn't break up with him. If I was here and it worked out between us, she'd dump him and date me. She might not. It's my gamble. It was my idea.
I walked back out to the car and suddenly I was throwing myself up and down, screaming, gasping, kicking the concrete. I've been struggling to stop pining for women I'll never get, suddenly considering a move to a strange city to hold my breath and give months of my life to someone who demands that I understand it may not work. She very much wants me to move out here. She could someday be in love with me, something deeply rooted in the years we've known each other. She finds complicated ways to defend herself; this challenges all of them and she's terrified. I'd be taking the risk she refuses to take.
I suggested I'd sleep on the couch. "No, you can stay in the bed. Just stay on your side."
"Y'know...I have this weird fantasy that someday I'll date someone and I'll get to kiss her before I've been in bed with her, and...hold hands...before seeing her naked." I'm so sick of pratfalling my way up the steps. Finally Danielle was in bed and I stood in the bathroom for ten minutes, wondering what the hell to do. Slept next to her, mostly to avoid making a statement.
98/ 2/19 "Marty, I'm kinda getting...cold feet about this." She lay against me on the couch. I lowered my head.
"Danielle...you said you wanted a boyfriend who was in love with you. Uhh...you know I could be that guy."
"But if that's all I was looking for," she continued, "I could just go with Bryce." Bryce has been starving in love with her for years...a beautifully crazy friend. "I want somebody who can...make a decision once in a while."
There was nothing here for me. One more life lost into a strange Texas city. If I lived here she'd be everything to me and she'd hate every second of it. I could be the man she wanted only if I stayed away from her.
Still she argued I should move to Austin.
98/ 2/20 She joined me on the couch in the morning and we curled together. I asked what she was looking for in a man and she repeated her list: "Tall, smart, funny, nerdy, thin, big nose..."
"I'm also kinda infatuated with success. I like people who are successful."
Took the car into the shop, settled in a cafe and we listened to her friend Sharon spout about how she's in love with her best friend who's straight and all the different women she's fucked lately and all the guys they've both fucked in the last few years. I sat silent, smiling. Annoyed them by taking pictures. Was mostly ignored.
Walking back I said it would be good to live in the same city...to develop some repartee we've never consistently had.
"Marty, I don't know how to say this...I love you and all, but I just don't think I want to be in a relationship with you now." At last we agreed about something.
I took the seat in front of her on the bus. "Aren't you gonna sit by me?" she asked. I moved. I moved back. She called me a freak. I gave a weak apology. Stared out the window. Didn't want to be near her. Tried to relax. Arrived home and slept.
Danielle and Stef had each been sick for a few days, some pukey stomach thing that came from nowhere. I had it too. It vanished every time I decided not to move to Austin. Now it was back.
We'd wanted to see a movie and bought tickets for "The Wedding Singer". It's a sweet, ineptly written story about marriages falling apart before they begin and thin-yet-appealing characters falling in fictional love, exactly the way it never ever happens in real life. If I had been naked and doused in cold wet paint I could not have been less comfortable in that theater, watching romance blossom onscreen, sitting next to Danielle in a state of frozen cringe.
Danielle said it wasn't as good as Happy Gilmore. She asked if I was hungry. I said I felt sick again. I said I could not have imagined a more terrible movie to see that day. Some wall of ice shattered.
"Marty, I mean this in the most loving, affectionate way possible...but..." She laughed. "...why don't you leave?"
"That's been my plan. As soon as the car is fixed."
"YOU DIDN'T EVEN TELL ME?!"
She continued. "I still think this living-near-each-other thing has to happen by accident."
I grunted that it was never going to happen.
"And then we can become friends. And then - "
"I don't want to think about that!"
"...if anything happens beyond that..."
"STOP TALKING ABOUT THAT!!! YOU HAVE HURT ME SO MANY TIMES!!! YOU HAVE CAUSED SUCH SUFFERING IN MY LIFE!!!"
And suddenly we were friends, laughing like we'd defused a vibrating bomb. Maybe I didn't even have to leave the next day. I wasn't eager to leave or to stay.
We shared a good dinner, met friends and watched a midnight movie, "Fetishes" - cheap, sloppy documentary about a New York S&M dungeon. Felt exactly as if the filmmakers had watched "The Wedding Singer" and sought to manipulate every crumb of my anxiety that movie had missed. Danielle resented the documentary because the judgmental interviewer had made each of the dominatrices feel defensive and pressured, which caused them to seem inarticulate and pathetic. I resented Danielle because I recognized in the dominatrices onscreen everything she had been doing to make me feel defensive and pressured, inarticulate and pathetic.
She asked which one I liked better and I had no answer. "Which one reminded you of me less?" she asked. The documentary, I said. She asked where I was going to sleep. I said I hadn't decided yet.
Entered her room and asked if I could share the bed. I probably wouldn't be seeing her again for a long, long time. Climbed under the covers, lay there for maybe a minute and knew I was never going to be able to sleep next to her that night. I said I'd sleep better the couch and got up to leave.
"You're a freak."
Didn't even want to write. Wanted to read. Wanted to better myself. Wanted to be successful. Wanted to grow up.
98/ 2/21 I've been thinking throughout this trip about all the boxes of tapes I'd brought with me and how a true Texan and/or Buddhist might cross the hot distances listening to one tape over and over until the experience of maddening repetition broke open to reveal a deeper, richer reality.
Nobody ever said enlightenment was entertaining.
The car needs a new crank shaft pulley and gear and every shop in town will be out until Monday. An unshowered mechanic named "Jimmy Dean" had run out of time to get the part the day before. Danielle drove me to a junkyard a few miles away and followed me through the muddy maze of decaying vehicles, stepping carefully, outfitted in black pumps and tight dark clothing hugging her scrumptious curves, face and hair made up pristine and stunning. All I could express to her was my frustration with life...I'd need to start again from the beginning, do everything over as a different person. "Maybe you could be a mechanic," she suggested. All of life looked cracked and dry. Except for her.
I told them I had a 2.2 liter engine and one of the grunt workers extracted the part. Took it to the garage and Jimmy Dean said it was a pulley for a 2.5 liter engine. I dropped Danielle off at home and took her car back to the yard to spend ninety minutes pounding through the mud, trying to find and yank out the right pulley. The one English-speaking junkyard hand followed me between the rows of vehicles.
"She your girlfriend?"
"I wish. We've been negotiating that." First time in a week I could speak honestly. I was ecstatic.
He shook his head. "Man, I'm gonna go to hell for the things I was thinking about her."
"I've already been there!"
He then told me about the "bitches" he'd "fucked" and the several times he'd been forcibly moved out of whatever (woman's) house he'd been staying in, all his things stolen, again and again. The ugly bleak world was suddenly even uglier.
I returned to Danielle's, telling her I'd be hanging around until Monday. I suggested I stay in Austin and she go to Dallas as planned. "Good idea," she guffawed. "If I stayed here I'd have to kill you."
I took a shower and lay on her bed. Such a shitty day.
I told her she'd been abusive and domineering and that's why I'm such a dufus around her. She asked for examples and I couldn't think of any. Some kinda glue is in my brain. She countered every statement intelligently and I remembered how painfully bright she is.
"How did I put you down, Marty? I think you're very accomplished. All I did was give constructive criticism. If somebody says something stupid, I'm gonna call them on it." Maybe she was right.
She showed me her whips and she asked if she could try them on me. "Mmm...maybe later." It's usually my policy to deny those who cause me emotional devastation the opportunity to pummel me physically as well, if I have a choice.
I asked questions. She didn't want to talk about it.
"You sure you don't want to try my whips?" she asked, smiling playfully. Fine, I said. I hadn't come to Austin to talk.
I removed my shirt and she gently slapped each one on my skin, a string of mild shocks. I lay on the bed and she spun her two favorite floggers, brushing my back, whispering against it, then drawn slowly over like fingertips...then SMACK, clip, clip, SMACK, two whips in rhythm...then fingernails...then her hand...then smoothness...
Jesus, she's talented.
Visceral, physical. Enough to...yes, this is what submission does. In accepting the sensations, in allowing her to create them, in giving power over to Danielle...I surrender my ego, and so recognize it. It's my ego that has made me want her so badly, injured and desperate to prove something to myself and the world. It's my ego that's prevented me from accepting her for everything she is. It's my ego that's been wrestling with her, panicking when she forms the only clever words between us, when I become nothing beside her. Is it her job to help me? I've known her for nine years and now she seems balanced, strangely non-analytical, accepting life as it comes. Parts of it, anyway.
I thanked her. I apologized for letting my ego almost destroy everything. She made dinner and I read from the Tao Te Ching. Surrender of the ego, abandonment of all desires. Danielle...she looks like desire, dammit.
Lady Desire and I went shopping and renting videos and she rambled about the body types of former boyfriends and then apologized...no, I didn't mind hearing about it. "We've only been together three days. In New York, we wanted to strangle each other after the first three days too."
"Yes...and that's why I do think it's important that we live in the same city."
98/ 2/21 Still in Austin, in Danielle's bedroom. Mexican voices are laughing outside the apartment and an annoying stereo downstairs has been repeating the same three Tejano songs for the last ninety minutes. I've been trying to read and relax and wondering if I'm capable of either. Probably going to sleep soon. Car will be ready Monday and I'll be out of here.
Danielle's in Dallas, at her boyfriend's house. She won't be back while I'm here.
I lay on her bed while she packed to leave. She crawled over and placed her head near mine. Two kids on a playground.
"Thank you for letting me stay at your place."
"While I'm escaping from you!" she laughed bitterly.
"I'd have been gone yesterday if the car had been ready."
"Well, fuck you!" This was weirdly friendly. We couldn't be any other way with each other.
She was ready to leave. We stood and slowly wrapped our arms around one another. I kept expecting the embrace to end. It didn't.
"This is sad", she said.
"I can't articulate that yet."
"Because we may never be doing this again?"
The ghost of some life spent together circled around us, waiting. Our fears of each other...my desperate blind optimism, her brash defensiveness, my ego, her pride...all our weaknesses had wrestled against one another for all of four days with the whole future bet on the outcome. I can't say she didn't warn me.
Three years ago I flew to New York. Arrived at her apartment while she was at work. I slithered around her shelves, settled in, slept in her bed. It was a slow immersion into her life, into some dream of her I'd had, the shell of her world with myself as the only beating heart. Finally she arrived, purred against me, crawled over me and the time began.
And now I'm again in her room, in her world, alone, experiencing the end of a disappointing dream. As if she were never here. As if it's only been me, waiting alone in a distant, safe, alien world.
98/ 2/22 Jimmy Dean, the fat grimy alcoholic who was supposed to fix my car this morning, never showed up for work. Another mechanic named Craig is working on it and I'm here another night and Mardi Gras will be over when I get to New Orleans. I spent the day reading Interview With The Vampire in Quack's café, watching women pass on the sidewalk and congratulating myself - "She's not Danielle, yet I find her sexually appealing! Oh joy, rapture!" I've finally started to like this place.
Danielle's housemate Stef, 50-year-old university administrator who takes several bong hits every night while watching TV, invited me to dinner after the most recent delay. Good tex-mex and our conversation felt like exploding out of prison...she told amazing stories about her various marriages and homes and jobs and I bitched about her housemate and Stef agreed it had been very natural for Mistress Danielle to make her living doling out psychological abuse. I told her stories...Danielle was the same woman who split the cost of an airplane ticket to NY so we could finally have sex; the first thing she told me when we were unclothed in bed together was "Let's just be friends." She's a walking sitcom. Stef and I spent the evening laughing.
98/ 2/25 Craig never showed up for work today so Ray fixed my car while I finished my book. Drove back at 3:30, packed my things and sat in the living room listening to Serge Gainsbourg. This would be my goodbye.
Stef arrived home to get the key and joined me playfully on the couch, her bare feet pulled up beside her, giddy smile on her face, somehow both forceful and carefree. She hugged me goodbye, followed me out to my car and sat on the steps, watching me drive away.
I loved Austin like anybody would love a beautiful island in the middle of a vast empty sea. I couldn't escape fast enough. Drove carefully. All was well as long as the car was pointed away from central Texas and the wheels were moving.
Only made it to Beaumont, exhausted. $45 room at the Ramada Inn. Ate soup and peaches cold from the cans. Just what I needed and more or less free.
98/ 2/27 I've been evading thunderstorms nationwide, the whole of the South lush and sticky and almost sunny. Finally escaped Texas and arrived in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday, feeling like I'd shown up at the voting booth the day after the fall of the government. The whole French Quarter smelled like stale beer. Confetti and colored necklaces covered the ground. Thin crowds of leftover Catholic revelers with black smudges on their foreheads wandered between shops. I left after two hours, still sick with whatever had siezed Danielle and Stef.
I grew up on the West Coast and I've lived my life unable to imagine how I could survive without knowing the ocean was somewhere nearby. It was my anchor...and I wondered if only I would need one. And now, finally, it's clear to me that those who live in the plains have established surrogate psychological anchors that allow them to live in otherwise desolate places. These anchors are called Wal-Mart stores, and they are placed like mileage markers every seventy feet of every interstate through the middle of the United States, so that no American need panic at the vast emptiness of the plains.
The lessons continue.
Yesterday woke up at a dirt-cheap hotel in Meridian, Mississippi and drove through Alabama without stopping...also Georgia, oil change in Atlanta, through the Carolinas. The headlight switch broke after sundown and the console and tail lights went dark. Stayed in Burlington, North Carolina and today rolled through Virginia to Maryland and Washington, DC. The center of the nation at the edge of the continent.
Brief exhausted visit with old family friends in Maryland, the Vincents...Youngest son Mike was seven years old when I last saw him; now he's a software engineer, married for six years, owns a beautiful new home in a Maryland suburb and he moves and talks the same way he did when I knew him eighteen years ago. I've been staying at his house - slept in the spare room late Friday night but didn't meet his wife Kim until Saturday, when I was parked in the driveway with a key to their house and she was just arriving home from work. Mike was at the office working on a release deadline and I argued that I wasn't a prowler, I was a friend of the family. Almost couldn't think of Mike's name.
She spoke very fast and with rampant energy all evening...I suppose she was performing, meeting the stranger. I told her about my trip and my writing, she told me about her nursing studies and her marriage to Mike. "I met him through his friend Ted." (I think the name was...) "Such an asshole. Total asshole. I dated him for three months, and then he dumped me. Total asshole." Etc. etc.
"So when we broke up, Mike showed up at my door, still in his Pizza Hut shirt, and he asked me out. So then when he came to pick me up, his car was...well, his dirty underwear was on the front seat. And then we got to the restaurant and he said 'Oh, I forgot my wallet...' and I'm thinking 'what an asshole.' But I talk to him, and he's nice. And he keeps getting nicer. And I start to wonder, "When is this guy gonna turn into an asshole?' but he kept getting nicer. So I started testing him."
"You know, like doing mean things to him to see when he's going to turn into an asshole. I think women have a fear of abandonment."
This was such an insight. It had never occurred to me that women had been hostile and abusive because they were too impressed with me to believe their luck.
"But he never turned into an asshole. He was just laid-back about everything. He's a grounding force for me, I think. And I would never ever in a million years leave him, unless like...God would have to take me away from him."
We talked and talked and she invited me to live in Maryland in one of their spare bedrooms, take classes and meet worldly women in DC. Suddenly I was living someone else's life, free to move anywhere in the country and be received as family. No idea how long the disguise would last.
The National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution featured the same Props-Of-Star-Wars exhibit I'd seen in California, and walking among the costumes and artifacts on display felt like visiting beloved relatives and seeing how each of us had changed since our last holiday together years before. The exhibit has grown steadily, now hinting at the mythological structures behind the story and the development of the movie from conception to completion.
When George Lucas created the story, he asked Ralph McQuarrie to paint the characters and creatures he'd conceived, to give the designers and builders common reference points from which to begin their work. When illustrations of the first characters - Luke Skywalker, the 'droids - were complete, Lucas asked McQuarrie to "put them in a context" - on a world, in the desert. And studying those images of the characters in a desert world...I remembered something.
For weeks the world has been grey. I've passed through deserts and discovered only an emptiness within myself. I looked out to see into the world and I found nothing there. Walking bones.
Yet as a kid I would stand in an empty field or a forest and see...Han Solo, aliens, rebel soldiers with blasters running between the trees. Star Wars taught me that deserts and forests have magic in them and Luke Skywalker and all his ships and weapons and tools and friends were what the magic looked like.
As an adult I saw nothing deeper than the barren surface... purely because I had not been taught how to see what is there, the depth and mystical fascination that can only be seen in the silhouette shapes of other things. Mythology exists to satisfy exactly that need I had; it reveals a world enough like my own that I can recognize in it my own conflicts and desires...and only then can it demonstrate that this common world does contain exactly those riches and depths I've been coming to fear did not exist.
Which is why myths are exactly like dreams: dreams represent the depths of a human being, while myths represent the depths of a people, a society of living creatures with an amorphous spirit living among and through them. I've hungered to see the depths of the world. And I've only been skipping along the surface, delving deeply into no one experience. I've been looking for answers in a pile of questions.
Spent this morning searching Maryland junkyards for a headlight switch. Replaced it three times. Same problem.
Went on to the National Museum of American History, expecting hall after hall of Fonzie's jacket and Archie's chair. Instead I found...the country. A low rider from New Mexico, Ladybird Johnson's home in Austin, bridges in New York, tunnels in California. The world I'm still driving through.
I stood in front of the White House and felt it quietly inside me. American. Privileged and defined by that identity. Somehow I've always considered myself something else, some esoteric monolingual world citizen. American was an image that didn't resemble me. Yet I've found part of myself here.
Maybe America itself is the mythology I had hungered for in the middle of the desert. The Smithsonian Institution is a massive complex of buildings filled with lessons on how to live as a human being within this society.
And yet this is not a magical place. It's a human place, where the giants exist only as conspiracies negotiated between ordinary people with heartbeats and body hair walking in and out of buildings just like that one. And I'm one of them, inspired and struggling and alive in the world. And learning more about it all the time.
98/ 3/ 3 Left front wheel bearing is on its way out, rattling through Maryland and all the way up the New Jersey turnpike...which, aside from the danger of losing the bearing completely and skidding into a crash, is a terribly dull road.
Drove across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan listening to Frank Sinatra singing "New York, New York". Hopping excited to be back.
98/ 3/15 Returned to Brooklyn to spend the last few weeks answering e-mail, watching movies and feeling unattractive and directionless, caught up in lifelong delusions, still a boy at 31. Skateboarded to the subway and downtown for a haircut. Discovered that the pedestrian crowds parting for me as I rolled toward them at each crosswalk were actually parting to avoid the many cars racing up behind me.
98/ 3/27 Been wearing my one grey suit every day, paid to sit downtown answering phones that don't ring. Best part is that playing on the internet and trying to look busy are mostly the same thing.
98/ 3/29 Ben got my e-mail. "You're really leaving, huh?" I've barely been back. New York is claustrophobic and I need to train for the California AIDS ride in June. It's eighty miles a day for a week, two months away and I can't afford to buy a bike to train in NY. Been rollerblading across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan, hoping that's enough until I can get back to CA and retrieve my bike from Mike's garage. I'm nervous about not training enough. I'm panicked for time and money. And I know I'll miss New York when I leave. Just like I now miss driving to it...
It's too late now. I'll miss somewhere, wherever I am. The trap of the traveler.
98/ 4/17 Finally found real consulting work, ten days before I leave town. Troubleshot Mac systems for ten hours for a firm of graphic web designers who screamed at each other about which colors would make the Cover Girl website more appealing. I'm feeling more competent now, even after two days in the company of neo-yuppies who spend every minute empowered and complaining in a gratingly positive way because they've pursued and achieved excellence and that's why they're privileged to recognize the world's mediocrity for what it is.
I've been reading "A People's History Of The United States" on the subway. First three pages made me want to work on Columbus Day.
Still don't know how I'm getting back to California. Need to train. Nervous all the time.
98/ 4/24 Flew into SFO yesterday, finally...today put toe-clip pedals on my bike and rode 65 miles from Mike's house in Milpitas to Santa Cruz. Walked up five miles of hills. Didn't notice my knee creaking and straining until this evening. Changed back to normal pedals and wondered if I should keep training or wait to recover.
98/ 5/17 Slept at the Resort again, banging on my computer in the basement living room with half-empty bottles and glasses and dirty dishes scattered over every flat surface, same as December. It's like they're always cleaning up after a party. Except there was no party. And they're not cleaning up.
Working in SF three days a week. Still broke. Staying at Mom and Dad's or wherever else I can.
Met a beautiful young woman on the bus a few days ago and made the mistake of mentioning it to my mother. The bus woman is 27 and recently moved back in with her parents after a breakup with her boyfriend. She's lovely and single and she can't hold my economic status against me. My loser dream woman.
Mom's response to the bus woman's recent cohabitation was "Well, I don't approve..." I didn't explain that I was glad to know the young lady's lifestyle would offer no absurd religious constraints to our potential romance. "Besides, Mom, you know how breakups are. They probably haven't had sex for months."
98/ 5/25 Getting friends to donate money to charity is like dragging a leaking pillowcase full of heroin through customs. I'm scared I'll tear my muscles on the AIDS ride if I don't train and I'm scared I'll destroy my knee if I do. Finally rode and walked and pushed maybe 20 miles today. Plunged down Santa Cruz mountain roads and along Highway 1, passing others training for the ride pedaling in opposite direction. Knee feels okay. I'm alternately excited and hateful about the ride. Nothing to do now but begin it.
98/ 5/31 First day of the AIDS Ride. Barely slept, staring awake for two hours, bitter and resentful at how exhausted I would be when I got up at 4:15 to spend the day pedaling my bike and squinting from any bright light. Opening ceremonies at Fort Mason before 7; food, ceremonies, Willie Brown, tearfulness, moments of silence...we'd raised 9.5 million dollars and were all called heroes, over and over and over. Slowly acquired our bikes and made our way through the Marina to the park. A woman in her seventies hit the front brake at the bottom of a hill and went over the handlebars, her cheek bright red with blood...by night I'd see three or four more ambulances, riders in plastic neck braces lying stiff on stretchers, like we'd charged toward an imaginary enemy, now to discover it was real and gruesome and dangerous.
I knew I wouldn't make it...I'd blow out my knee within two days and finish the week in a folding chair, handing out granola bars and pouring gatorade for people who'd trained properly. Crowds in superhero tights and plastic helmets lashed with Barbie dolls or Star Wars toys had filled the enormous hall that morning for the dramatic sendoff. I knew nobody else connected with the ride and I wished I'd never signed up. But I was there, now part of it, assured repeatedly of what it meant. If we could ride our bicycles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we could do anything. In a world of the small, they said, we had chosen to be big. I felt small.
I pictured the finish line as I stood in the crowded hall, as I pedaled with criminal slowness up the first hills in the Presidio. I imagined the distance that was everything in front of me. The asphalt under the tires was part of it, the path stretching unbroken through California into Los Angeles, into Mexico, into the rest of the world. I'd barely begun.
We followed strange paths through familiar cities, columns of moving riders stretching for miles ahead and behind, a moving line on a map...and I was one tiny dot, an insect carefully pedaling his little insect machine, pushing into an endless maze of roads.
It was inside the insect that I saw it. The wiry skeleton shell of fears and inhibitions and excuses. The patience it would take to escape from any part of it.
Rolled into Santa Cruz at 5:30, thinking I'd conquered planet Earth.
98/ 6/ 1 Exhausted and overjoyed to arrive in King City - I never thought I'd say those words - greeted by packs of local kids waving and screaming for souvenirs, whistles or toy propellers we'd been given. At camp I set my bike in the rack and strutted like the king of the dance floor, gathering my things before heading in for dinner. I just bicycled to King City - I repeated the thought over and over, bouncing, widely grinning, alone among the bicycles. I coughed. My shoulders shook and I dropped to hide between the bikes in the dirt, out of breath, crying stupidly like I'd lost something I'd always had and never wanted. I'd bicycled to King City. I would make it all the way to Los Angeles before the week was through. I had become a part of the mammoth event I'd been sure would leave me behind. I would fulfill my promises, to the AIDS organizations and to myself. And I knew I could do anything.
Struggled to protect my left knee by putting most of the pressure on my right knee so now both knees are bandaged stiff to prevent me from ripping my tendons out completely, ice and ibuprophen several times a day. Again up at 5 this morning, hauled tent and pack to the trucks, ate eggs and potatoes and bananas, filled bottles with gatorade and hit the road.
98/ 6/ 2 My right shin feels like a rusty brake cable is scraping inside whenever I lift my toes. Doctor in the medical tent touched it for one second and called to a younger med student - "Here, wanna know what acute tendonitis feels like?" She wrapped my ankle in a cast of tape and I eat lunch and dinner now with four bags of ice balanced on my legs. By Friday I'll be a mummy in bike shorts.
Also got massage from Nancy, hippieish therapist volunteer from Berkeley. My current goal for the week is to collect as much in free medical attention as I spent fixing up my bike.
Today - long windy farm roads, a stretched-out line of riders passing flat green fields, immigrant farmworkers tossing heads of lettuce onto giant conveyor belt tractors beside us. Slowly pushing through the dusty wind felt little more useful than stopping. I watched the fields pass and juggled lustful thoughts about other riders, athletic and immodestly dressed. "The AIDS Ride - the perfect vacation workout package for the ass man with a social conscience." Repeated the phrase over and over. Nothing better to do.
98/ 6/ 4 Up late and busy, haven't been writing...
Big day? Small day? Hard to say - ride good; injuries didn't slow me down much - hills were much smaller than I'd been led to believe. Walked a mile or three, no big deal.
Over rolling country roads and super-slide hills, through fields, stretches of road construction...cars waiting for travel in opposite direction included a full schoolbus; the kids gave us high-fives as we rolled past in a crowded mass...Guadalupe was the town, pit stop #1, near a tiny church established in a quonset hut...transvestite dominatrices served gatorade and bananas, oranges, water and granola bars.
Long stretch of field country highway with a glorious tailwind, I walked up a few hills...only 54 miles, my joints ached and threatened to suddenly collapse but behaved...tomorrow too, please, God...I want to finish...
Talent show at camp tonight - two beautiful guitar songs, many cheesy anthems and sincere lovers' remembrances sung over grating homemade synthesizer tapes, all pleasantly received. One rider sang a heartfelt ode to a childhood friend who'd died of AIDS, performing somberly on the platform while a hairless man wearing only a grass skirt stood in a UPS truck beside the stage, preparing to go on next.
I've been wondering how to describe this event to anyone who isn't here, anyone who doesn't understand the AIDS community or the defiant celebration within it or the necessary parody of gender roles or the way people act after four exhausting days without privacy. Got into camp at Oceano last night, showered, shaved, iced ankle, ate dinner waiting for a massage...Sol was my masseur, wonderful man, muscular, 45ish...he asked gently if I was straight or gay; I said straight, mostly, you know...he was delighted that so many straight people were here; he'd only been to events that were entirely gay, retreats and such. But...how could he be surprised?
The woman in charge of the L.A. office later described the same feeling during the evening's announcements, that she was "delighted to see so many of our straight supporters"...as if AIDS would affect only gay people. Yet she knew exactly what was happening, whom she was speaking to. She knew that to crush the fear of one would be to crush the fear of the other.
I was disappointed. Was this ride merely a gay event, narrowly focused, self-interested, even if with infinite compassion? Or was it the universal right I'd expected it to be when I signed up for it, expecting all my friends to instantly recognize that this was the major cause currently worth fighting for? Was I alone after all?
I closed my eyes and relaxed on the table while Sol worked on my legs...I had biked four hundred miles, after all...and I felt a third hand, then a fourth. Sol moved to my neck while a woman, the supervisor of the massage group, caressed and pushed my knees, toes, calves, studying tendons. "He's been icing his knees - they feel okay." I lay there in the warmth, free massage by two specialists, in the middle of one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences of my life. I was happy.
It was the same feeling I had noticed coasting down sloping country roads that afternoon...past military blasting ranges, pleasantly lonely and green...in the warm late-spring morning. I was happy, awake. Instantly I thought about how I'd either have to record this happiness or lose it as I soon would, of course, but I let myself just feel it, rolling gently over that warm grey road through a conquered green wilderness.
Sol hugged me after my massage, just as my Nancy had done. Very natural. We'd connected.
I kept thinking of Laura, how I would describe it to her. "Laura - you'd love the AIDS ride...the experience itself. It's...it's our people, meeting. In communion, in summer camp, in force, in extreme exertion. In impossible achievement, together. Its our people."
But what did I mean "our people?" Deviants? Gay people? Gay and straight? Young? No...what is holding these people together is not gay/straight, old/young, black/white. It is AIDS. It is death. It is the common enemy of us all. And to conquer it we must conquer our fear of everything it stands to destroy. Love. Sex. Passion. Happiness. Growth. Life. We must live, loudly, outrageously, violently, proudly, in the face of it. We must gather ourselves into a single being to combat it. And that is what we are doing. On highways, freeways, small town streets. We are being seen, we are pushing our bodies beyond the expectations of those who would let such a disease, such a misunderstanding, such a terror roll over them. We are riding to show that we will get there, of our own power, on terms that allow for us to remain human beings...we will get there without losing our humanity. We will get there with our spirits intact even as our bodies strain and fracture. We will reach a life together, and we will conquer all those things that seek to prevent us from achieving that goal.
I knew then, watching the crowd laugh and moan and respond to every moment and announcement with humor and compassion that what I was experiencing was indeed that thing I had wanted to describe to Laura - the community, our community. Yes, it started with gays. Because gay people are forced to demand freedom from within themselves before their lives can be lived as anything but shadows; the majority of all humanity has yet to learn that lesson. but now it's more than that. It's the common enemy around which the people find not just the heart to gather, but the purpose. Our humanity is the substance of the body we form together; our common cause provides only the shape the gathering will take.
AIDS, in other words, is the Vietnam of the nineties...and of some years to come. And the AIDS ride...it's the protests, the peace rallies, the love-ins; but with shape and purpose. The memory of the sixties is now a cartoon silhouette of what the real thing was like; so it was, so it is, many many causes mother these explosions of glorious human purpose. Our enemy is AIDS, and that is the reason for this gathering. But our enemy is also isolation, loneliness, our willful ignorance of not only the suffering but the very lives of others. Yes, this great number of people gives us a lot to keep track of, too much to do. But we will find ways to come together to combat each of our fractures, our weaknesses...
Late now. Gotta sleep. 91 miles tomorrow. Right ankle still creaking like a rusty door hinge.
98/ 6/ 5 Last night of the ride - camping in Ventura. Rolled down long tailwind straightaways into Santa Barbara before lunch, passing missile manufacturing plants and bike trails along the beach. Rushed through Carpentiria late in the afternoon...local folk gave out hot dogs to the riders and small groups of Mexican kids called for autographs as we rolled past, waving pencils and binder paper. I silently debated the eerie meaninglessness of celebrity as I wrote my name several times for kids who clearly didn't know why they wanted it.
98/ 6/10 Staying with Bonnie in San Luis Obispo, today drinking gin and tonics, watching South Park and playing four-square in the parking lot with a loose pack of stoner hipsters who run a pirate radio station and a complicated social network out of the small apartment complex they dominate a few blocks from downtown. Agreeably sleepy overall.
Fran picked me up in Los Angeles a few hours after the ride, after the experience of an exhausting week vanished suddenly into a noisy smokescreen, thousands of people leaving in thousands of different directions, even as a too-quiet ceremony continued onstage a few hundred feet away. It was over, the crowd dissipating. Some moment I'd been waiting for had passed by unnoticed. I followed the mobs to the waiting row of trucks and dragged my things to a lawn a few blocks away to wait.
I recognized her along the path - Nancy. Again she hugged me, saying she couldn't believe it was over and behind us. I so wanted to speak to someone, maybe anyone...to find a moment of conclusion. Yes, I wanted to know what it meant.
As we rode through Hillsborough on the first day, we passed a church where he parishioners were enthusiastically handing out fruit slices and water to the riders. One nine-year-old boy passed around cookies that he proudly declared he'd made himself. One of the riders suggested to the boy that perhaps someday he could join the ride.
An adult later pulled the rider aside and explained who the boy was. His mother had died of AIDS and his 7-year-old brother had HIV. His life had been shaped and devastated by AIDS. And this is what he could do about it. Bake cookies for us. His tiny gesture desperately designed to change the world.
We were assured we were heroes. Choosing to be big, in a world of the small. Taking painful steps we didn't have to take. None of us were doing everything we could...except perhaps that boy. Each of us was doing something. Maybe not enough. But moving, finally. And in the right direction.
98/ 7/31 Once in a long long story the hero might wake up in another country, or traveling on a ship or in an airplane, with no reasonable explanation given of how he got there or what it means...only the understood miracle of ludicrous coincidences that push the months along to tie that moment to all those previous.
And so here I am, living in Katherine's apartment.
She called three weeks ago...she'd had a dream that I was angry at her. We'd been in distant touch, infrequent and maybe meaningless e-mails from behind solid walls. Nothing genuine. Yet this cynical conversation somehow became an excited exchange of ideas and beliefs and thoughts we'd never shared - children, gender roles, religion. And suddenly we had again become friends, or something less practical. Maybe it shouldn't have happened. It was too easy. Every thought I had that evening, that week, I wanted to share with her. And every thought of sharing anything with her made me kick myself. Our dialogue still echoed but I'd left her behind, finally part of my past. Now she was back.
She was leaving her apartment for two weeks in Hawaii and I needed a place to stay.
I had a story to finish over the coming weeks and every night and free afternoon I would sit on the floor, sorting through old journals and e-mails on her coffee table, hammering selected phrases into place. It was maddening, assembling furniture from piles of dust. And I kept hammering. Somehow I knew the finished work would be my costume and at last I could disappear within it, no longer weak, no longer foolish, no longer childish.
If only it fit...
I can't answer the phone. Andrew can't know I'm here. I'd written him months ago asking his permission to be friends with Katherine and she gave him the letter personally. He never replied.
Squeezing a manuscript out of a mass of old letters means I must be convinced somehow that there is a novel already there, hidden inside. But...there is no novel. Just as there is no Marty & Katherine, no love waiting to happen, no excitement hiding behind the facade. What is there is what is there.
And now for weeks I've been waiting, again. Knowing something had to happen and knowing nothing could happen. Waiting for her to make up her mind. Waiting for the story to end.
98/ 8/ 4 As of yesterday afternoon she'd been back a day and a half. I'd been waiting, again. Sat in the library editing. Could not take it any more.
Showered and drove into SF with a few books, listening to a tape of The Harder They Come.
I saw the whole thing happen fifteen times in my head on the way there, different every time. Great dramatic dialogue, explosive overdue confrontations. I couldn't know for sure. Knowing the outcome would have stolen all its weight. I half expected to arrive after the surprise had left, lumbering into its exciting car and speeding away in disgust as I pulled onto her street. I'd been waiting for a great moment to happen, finally turning to speed toward it, following the edge of the ocean into San Francisco. And it had already arrived, slipping past unnoticed. I thought winning her was going to change me.
No answer at her house. Left garbled phone message with my pager number. Ate dinner. Walked back...my old neighborhood. Called again. Waited for her to page me. Beer at the Plough and the Stars. Read Steinbeck. Wandered through cafés. Retrieved my bike from her lobby and rode to the park and down through a dark forest path, gliding into a world of grey trees flat against a blue night sky, the lights reflected in a black lake.
Hung out at Green Apple bookstore. I'd leave at 11, maybe. She paged me at 10:10 - just home from work. "What are you doing here?" "I wanted to talk to you." "Come up."
She looked...tan, and tired. House was a wreck, like I'd never left. She smiled. Did not look surprised to see me.
So...how would I do it? Very easy to imagine, when I'm not actually doing it.
"I...had a lot of things I want to say to you. And...none of them..." I might have been a great radio actor, staring into the table between us, reading the lines off an emergency teleprompter in my head. "...mean anything..." I looked up at her. "...until...I kiss you."
I was there to kiss her, and that was the wrong way to do it. Even while it woulda worked with anyone else. I moved next to her on the couch.
I didn't recognize the voice at the time. Terrific pressure building suddenly. Not parental pressure, stray anguish over a meaningless decision. More immediate. Her life was at stake.
"Could you...say the things first?"
I kept asking myself what I'd really come to do. To kiss her? To confront her? To tell her? To take her?
I told her. We'd spoken weeks before - another talk, I knew at the time, that would speak in one language to me and another to her. But...it opened up places in me. Everything I found in the days that followed I wanted to share with her - thoughts, places, movies. I could not stop thinking about her. And I knew as I lay in bed that night, that she was only a few miles away, thinking about me...
I told her about the story I'd been writing, the whole year of my life. I'd slowly discovered...the story was about her. When I'd met her a year (to the week) before, I couldn't be the man she needed. I couldn't be present for her. I was gone, in New York, I was moving too fast. I wasn't ready.
And now...I'm here. I knew she needed somebody to be more stable, more demanding, more present, than I had been.
"I came here to kiss you."
It all lost something as it was spoken, some substance it might have had. But...even a breath can ripple the water at the right moment.
She'd listened calmly and without interruption. I said some other things. Can't remember now.
"And I know, I know that Andrew is a great guy, and he really loves you, and...you love him, and - "
"You don't know."
It was her turn.
"Okay, I'm gonna cry now..." she giggled as tears welled in her eyes. "I don't know where you get the idea you have to be assertive with me."
"You've been assertive. And...our conversation...was not lost on me. This has been a really hard time. And when I was in Hawaii, arguing with Andrew...yes, I entertained the notion. What would it be like, with Marty, here, talking...with the family..."
So many details, now puzzle pieces broken apart and back in the box. It was polite and exciting and romantic and cowardly and beautiful. A graceful joke.
Then came the oil drums. I couldn't see them for what they were, not at first.
An oil drum is a prop. It's what a female character in a horror movie pulls down onto the path behind her as she runs screaming away from the hungry camera. And that's what Katherine began throwing at me. Thrown down as part of a fearful fantasy.
But real, nevertheless.
She has to be honest with herself and with me, she said, hesitantly. She was raised a spoiled, affluent child. And she intends to raise her children the same way. It's important to her. She knows what she wants. And what she wants is to give her kids cars for their sixteenth birthdays, to pay for their college educations. She's become accustomed to it, and that's what she wants.
And she knows she wants to teach. Which means...if she gives up her desired job to make money - or if her husband does - then they're only going to wind up hating each other.
Maybe she believed that, maybe she didn't. Made sense at the time, speaking to her. I smiled, almost relieved. "Well...I think I've told you...I intend to be rich."
She laughed. Of course. So did I, embarrassed.
"It has nothing to do with my faith in you!" she demanded. Wrongly.
I thought it would reassure her. I only wanted the chance to date her, I said. Wanting to marry her now would be conclusive proof of mental collapse. Too late for any of that, perhaps. This was already a comic sketch, a first-date nightmare.
"Would you want to have a cat, or a dog?" She was angry.
"Okay, your sixteen-year-old daughter is having sex - okay? The sex is just a given. So, do you let her bring her boyfriend home and have sex in her own bedroom, or do you tell her 'not under my roof'?" She wasn't joking. At all. I answered the question.
It was lively conversation at the edge of a cliff. It was a game show. I told her so. I could hear the buzzer ready to sound off when I gave my wrong answer.
I did okay. Got to the bonus round, at least. Described my respect for children as individuals and my time with youth leadership organizations. I was reciting my resume for an angry, hurt woman with a possible job opening she knew she'd have to fill. And she hated her job. And suddenly everything she was doing seemed reasonable. If that's what she wanted...then of course she couldn't stand the thought of being in love with me. Even if she could be. Even if she was.
The wound had tightened into a scar and all her decisions had curled around it, all become part of it, unhealed. I couldn't see it any other way. I was watching the aftermath of surrender. A surrender that cost more than she had...
"They're my decisions to make," she said, almost proudly.
It was so absurd and so ugly. She was right. She wanted stability, and I had none to offer. Perhaps I never would.
"I'm gonna direct a film next year. I think I know how to work my writing in a populist way that...well, what I want to know is...what are you going to do when I'm thirty-six and I have all that money?"
Some of the same lines were repeated. Then it came.
"I know what I look like. And what effect time is having. And you... you're going to run away with a supermodel."
I mentally scanned my file of all women who'd spent any part of the last ten years desperately pursuing my sex. I counted no supermodels.
It was touching. And flattering. And surreal. And sad. It was an angry dream coming true. And...four years earlier Christine had told me the same thing.
"Look at Quentin Tarantino. Nobody would have dated him until he directed Reservoir Dogs."
She had a point.
At least I'd been through this before. She was very good at painting me sideways and backwards into whichever little corner she wants me to stand in. But...paint dries.
"Okay, look, you just go, marry your fuckin', rich, -"
"Don't use that voice. I listened to your whole statement without that kind of reaction."
She was right. This was not a fight. It was a stalemate. It had been a stalemate for months. I couldn't understand why she was dating Andrew and she...I'm not even sure what it was she didn't understand.
"Are you gonna marry Andrew?"
Now the defeat showed. Maybe several defeats.
"I don't know."
I don't remember when it happened. It might have been as I finished my first sentence. I spoke, she spoke. I lifted my hand and darted calmly for her lips. A moment's opening in the radar screen.
It must have been a cry. The sound of a living thing squeezed into a space too small to live. She didn't push me away. She turned her head to the side and screamed just a little, all from her constricted throat, hacksaw divided, suddenly. I backed away.
I left at 1 am. A failure.
Perhaps I was just rescuing a memory. Yesterday and today it made more sense. Yes, she had wanted things I could not possibly provide. All at once I understood the nonsensical rantings of an entire year.
"I can't say what you want me to say," she announced. But there was nothing I wanted her to say. Every step of the way, she assured me she knew what I was thinking.
"I'm not here to force myself on you."
Today was only sad. She wants to live in a world a million miles away from mine. I'm still struggling with the same problems I've had since I was ten years old. And yes, it all pushes me away, makes me wonder what the hell I'm doing with this strange woman and the nightmare plans she's panicking toward. How much I share with her...exactly the right people at exactly the wrong time. Both now backed up against the hollow picture they've dreamed into possible existence, both, perhaps, to fall in, somehow separate, somehow together, somehow alive, somehow not; somehow victorious, somehow leaping into an eternal surrender they didn't even see coming.
She needs structure. A life lived without structure cannot be strong and tall...and a life that clings too closely to a defining structure cannot be a life.
She knows when she sees me how much she's given up. She must be praying it's worth it. Just as I might admire her determination, the weird confidence she's placed in an entirely different series of unwise gambles.
Nobody knows what's going to happen now. Maybe Andrew gets what he wants. Maybe I'm better off. Maybe nobody wins.
Beyond that...I finally know myself. I'm making no promises. No promises at all.
It is what it is and it ain't what it ain't and it's behind us now and everybody's better off. Most of it's true and the rest might as well be and I'm getting sick of writing my life story so from now on I'm sticking to recipes and greeting cards. Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted. Have a nice day.
All writing herein copyright 1998 Martin Azevedo.
Return survey forms to Raining Goldfish, PO Box 590104, San Francisco, CA 94159-0104. notes@templeofdominoes dot com . Need a housesitter? Please write. Big gooey public displays of gratitude to Laura Shapiro, Evan & Wendy, Conan & Daria, Ben Lorvan, Paul Zola, Ben Chesluk, Kaz, the Resort, Eden & Kathy, anybody with a spare futon, Jennifer F., Alex K., Bonnie, Joe & Amy, Fran, Karen, Keith, Sondra, my family, Robin & Eric, Mike & Kim, Sarah, Stef, Mur, princess, the debutante and anybody who still owes me dinner. Life is short! Everybody dance in the mud!
Copyright 1998 Martin Azevedo