It’s like that moment in the morning when you look across the bedroom at the bookshelf that has been there for years, but instead of seeing the shelves and the books and the wooden dolphin you got in Costa Rica when you were eighteen years old, you just see lines and shapes and colors, with no recognition or identification of discrete objects, and then all of a sudden, like one of those optical illusions that seems to rotate in one direction and then the other, it becomes familiar again, and at first you wonder how you could look right at this object you know so well and not really see it, but then throughout the day what you really can’t stop thinking is that maybe that abstract jumble of shapes and colors is the real bookcase, and you have only ever seen it that one time.
Or maybe it’s like the moment just after you think of something really important to say, but when you open your mouth it’s not there, as if you’d never had the thought, and instead of pausing or making an excuse you forge ahead, awkwardly stumbling from one filler word to another until you decide on an anecdote you can pretend you meant to say the whole time, but then half way through your cover story you remember what it was you originally wanted to say, and now you’ve moved the conversation off in a different direction, and you never do manage to get back to it.
It is not like when you expect something to be heavy, and so lift it with much greater force than is actually necessary, though it might be a little like the opposite of that, or like when you are carrying boxes from your storage unit and in the top of one is a white plastic bag of old hemp rope that was left over after you repaired the rope ladder that your great-grandfather made, and every time you take a step you can smell his workshop and the sea, and even though it’s a happy memory you feel immensely sad.
It’s hearing all the silences left when something didn’t have to be said echoed in the silence left when it can’t be.
I went down to the lake to take pictures just as it was starting to get dark. I’ve taken a lot of autumn pictures lately and I am a little tired of leaves as a subject. Sometimes it is not about the pictures, though. It’s about walking slowly and letting my focus shift further and further outward until all my thoughts are about light and shapes. It’s my personal form of meditation.
Most of the leaves have fallen now. All of the paths are covered with a thick slippery mat of them that smells woody and sweet. It is a smell that carries me away into memory very easily.
The last time it struck me so powerfully was in Boston. I think it was 2003. I was walking through Jamaica Plain from the green street T station to my grandmother’s house at about six in the morning after a red-eye flight from San Jose.
I always arrived in Boston early in the morning, and this was before I had learned to sleep on planes, so I was tired. I had not been able to get in touch with my grandmother since the week before, and I was not sure where I would stay or what I would do if she was not home. But turning onto Sedgwick St there was a giant maple in one of the yards, and the leaves surrounding it in piles and drifts just smelled so good, so right, that it all seemed like it would be okay. And it gave me the strength to manage what came next.
Autumn is something I require. It is something I cannot do without. I am weak in the other seasons, but in autumn I can be strong.
My grandmother was of a generation that wrote letters, and more to the point, a generation that expected letters. She told me that when she was young she could write a letter and get a reply in the same day, as the post was delivered morning and evening. I never knew if that was the truth, or if it was meant as inspiration.
I was never particularly good at living up to this expectation for letters. When I was young she wrote to me often, and I certainly knew that she wanted a response. That it would make her happy. She made me tapes of herself reading my favorite books, and though I loved them dearly, I did not write back. I do not know why. Perhaps even at that young age I simply took my close relationships for granted.
I do remember one letter I wrote to her. It was in pencil on wide-ruled notebook paper. Perhaps in thanks for Christmas or birthday presents. I don’t recall the exact topics I covered, just that I sat down and wrote it. It filled about half of the page, which seemed like quite the accomplishment to me at the time. To fill the rest of the space, I wrote “finly!” in various sizes across the rest of the page in red pen. My mom pointed out the spelling error, but it was in pen, and I felt that the point would still get across: Here it is, my grand and worthy contribution. Cherish it, there may not be another.
I was such an ass.
Hey, it’s Tom. Guess you guys are out running around. I know how that is. I’ll catch you later, I’m sure. Just calling to chat, nothing terribly important. I think I’ll be in the kitchen, so if you call back I probably won’t be able to answer. Don’t want to get doughy hands all over the phone. I’ve been making a lot of bread lately. It’s a nicely physical activity, and there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment when you pull a loaf out of the oven. Anyway. Let me know when you’ll be around.
He turns around. The warmth of the sun travels over the back of his head, across his cheek and face. Even behind closed eyes the light is bright enough to hurt, and then it subsides again into cloudy red afterimages. Left foot, inhale, dark, exhale, bright right foot, there are too many competing rhythms for it to be peaceful. It is a clear day, and he can almost believe that if he just keeps spinning he can evaporate into the wind.
He imagines looking out over the ocean, the sharp salt air and vast blue. He breathes in. He imagines gently biting someone’s lip, feeling another body arch against his. The sun warms his face. He imagines a man with a gun, someone he could fight with the excuse of self defense. He shifts his weight to the left foot. The ground is uneven. He imagines carrying a little girl to her bed, a goodnight kiss on a sleepy forehead. The afterimages of the sun waver and break into relative darkness.
The thoughts hold him in the shape of a man, tying him together. He resists the wind, forces it to move around him. He hates the wind. He hates it for not being strong enough to carry him away. He rages against it with all his terrible violence, but it is the wind, and it does not care.
The woman down the street from us was a widow. She lived alone in a small house surrounded by a very well-kept garden. It is not easy to keep a garden in good order in Hawaii simply because everything feels it has a right to grow everywhere, and the environment is entirely supportive of this conviction. If all the world were like Hawaii we would have never abandoned spontaneous generation as the dominant theory of abiogenesis. No one would argue over the probabilities of amino acid combinations because it would be plainly obvious that life is the natural successor to not-life in every situation, even when the landscape is burned away by molten rock.
But this woman, whose name I do not recall, had a very well-kept garden. One of the things she used to keep it was a low wall of dark black lava rock between the beds, and nestled into the wall every few feet were geodes. I think her son brought them to her. He had also built the walls. I asked him once, while he was working, how he knew where to put the stones. He replied that he picked up each stone and asked it where it would like to be, and then placed it there. That way the wall would never fall, because each stone was satisfied where it was. It was a frustrating answer, because I could see the logic in it but he refused to explain how you understood the stone’s response. It was the type of answer I had come to expect from adults by that age, though I had not yet determined that it always translated into something between “I don’t know, but don’t want to admit that to a six year old” and “I don’t want to explain because I like the feeling of power that having more information than you gives me.”
I do not know where her son got the geodes, but there were a lot of them. In addition to those set in the wall, there was a great heap of them in a small walled area under one of the hapu’u ferns. Naturally, I decided to steal some and open them up. After all, who needed so many geodes all for themselves, and not even opened?
They were particularly irresistible to me because I had always been a collector of interesting stones. When my family drove across the US on our way from Massachusetts to Hawaii I amassed a large and varied collection, which was necessarily abandoned when it came time to get on the airplane. I think my dad still feels guilty about not being able to bring them along. I don’t remember missing them so much.
I took the geodes one or two at a time, climbing into our neighbor’s yard through the trees at the far edge where I felt I was less likely to be noticed. Because she spent so much time in the garden it could be difficult, but it also meant I knew she was not inside the house watching, invisible, from a window.
I would take each of my prizes home, and then break them open with a hammer to see the formations inside. (I briefly tried sawing them open, to get the smooth edge, but that proved impossible with a hand saw intended for wood.) There is a technique to hitting them just hard enough to crack them, without shattering them into pieces. I called them my crystals, and I kept them in an old red Rubbermaid cooler and very proudly showed them off to my parents and friends.
Of course my parents asked where I had found them, and I made up stories about wandering in the lava fields behind the house. It was a pretty weak story, but my parents did not know our neighbor and her geodes, and they had no better explanation. I also think that they often simply found it easier to believe me, even when the story was ridiculous. I once removed almost all the shingles from the roof over the living room, telling my dad the whole time that I was just taking the loose ones which had already been knocked out of place. We burned them in a campfire together, with marshmallows and hotdogs, and no one ever questioned the sheer quantity of shingles I had removed until the drywall started to bow under the weight of the water sitting in the attic.
In the end my scheme was discovered. The woman saw me leaving her yard, and her son came over to talk to my dad. I tried to claim that only some of the geodes had come from her garden, and that I had found the rest myself just as I had always claimed, but that sounded transparent even to my parents, and I was made to return them. I carried them back in the little red Rubbermaid cooler and put them back into the big pile from which they had come. I listened to my dad tell me how it was wrong to take things that were not mine. I listened to the woman tell me that if I had only asked she might have given me one. I listened to her son tell me that I had better not be caught on their property again. I didn’t really pay much attention to any of them. I didn’t care about going back on her property, and I didn’t feel guilty for doing what my dad said was wrong. I just stood and listened, and tried to work out how long I would have to keep my remaining crystals hidden.
When I was fourteen years old I lived for a time in a small house with my mom and my three brothers, a crazy martial artist, a pipe smoker with heart trouble, an old man we had picked up by the side of the road on the drive across country, and our Danish au pair.
It was a bit of a squeeze finding room for everyone to sleep in a two bedroom house. Grandpa, which is what we called the hitchhiker, camped in the living room with me and my brothers on the first night, but after that he made an arrangement with the martial artist and they shared one of the bedrooms. He told me that they were both military men, with trained reflexes, and he was afraid of hurting one of us in a semiconscious state. Something about how he said it made it seem a little less ridiculous than it sounds, though still not entirely credible as he was in his late 80s. As for the martial artist, he had no qualms about hurting people, though you could tell he preferred to be fully conscious while doing it so that he could really savor the experience.
The other bedroom was for the pipe smoker, though eventually he would move in with his girlfriend and leave that room free for squatters to move in. I think he may have actually owned the house. That was never clear to me. It must not have been very clear to him either.
In the second week we were there I decided that I no longer wanted to sleep on the WalMart futon chair in the living room, and so I rearranged the boxes in the garage to form a small cave into which I could climb at night and have some space of my own. This was an old habit of mine – I had once created a reading nook in an old washing machine box, and when very young I would climb out of bed and sleep in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
It was only a semi-private cave, as the greater garage area was shared with our au pair, Ronnie. This worked out mostly to my advantage, because he had pictures of topless girls from Denmark, and would let me look at them. He would also relate his plans to hack into bank computers and steal enough money to buy a very fast motorcycle, on which he could commit suicide on his 30th birthday. This was a key part of his life plan, and I found it fascinating.
When you gather such a strange group of people together into a small space, it is important to find common ground. Especially when it is an El Niño year in southern California and you are stuck inside the house together for days on end. For us, the common ground was breakfast, which consisted of five pounds of potatoes fried in a liter of olive oil, and as many eggs as each person felt capable of. Somehow, over fried potatoes and eggs, it did not seem so strange to speak one day about grandpa’s gold claim in Alaska and the next about how many ways the martial artist could kill all of us without getting out of his chair.
I dearly miss my twice-yearly trips to Boston. Taking off from the toasted grassy hills of San Jose and arriving at Logan before I realized that this was something wrote before. Let me start over.
When I was four years old I went on a hike with my parents. I don’t actually remember where in the world we were at the time, but I will call it New Mexico for the purposes of repeating myself. Fuck.
There are no maps on the walls in this room. No pushpins holding New York up over Costa Rica. Which makes this paragraph merely derivative, not repetitive. It’s not really any better, though, is it?
I have no way in at the moment. There is a terrible tangle of words behind by eyes, and I am far from being able to start unraveling them. My dad taught me about knots. The first step is to find the end, and that, at least, I have done. I found the end, but now the tangle needs to be teased apart. Slowly loosened. I don’t have the patience for it that he did.
Let me illustrate: We used to take family trips to the local dump. Perhaps that is an overstatement, but my brothers and I would not let dad go to the dump without us, and we would often spend a few hours there. There were old engines and broken televisions and all sorts of interesting things lying around. One day I found a combination lock lying in one of the piles, and while my brother Cory and I broke bottles and stacked up boxes into towers and then kicked them over, my dad sat on the bumper of the car and worked out the combination. One one one. One one two. One one three…
My own instinct is to buy a new lock. Or to get the Dremel tool and cut through the mess the easy way. I get to a certain point and it’s all just busywork. I want words, one after the other. I want to say whatever this is, but it always comes out as nonsense.
And so I am at an impasse. I have found the end, and I wish I could lose it again.
It was difficult to get onto the roof, and more than a little dangerous. You had to stand on the shaky railing, already more than twenty feet from the ground, and then jump up, pull, and push, using the same motion as pulling yourself out of a pool. Each time I did it there was a moment, after the jump and pull but before the push, when I was sure I was going to fall backwards. It was a wonderful weak-kneed and giddy feeling.
The roof was covered with asphalt shingles, rough and sandpapery and offering good traction to bare feet despite the steep incline. Directly in the center was a chimney. Or what looked like a chimney until you got up close. In fact it was more like a platform, covered over with plywood and tar paper. It did not relate to any structure in the house, and there was no fireplace inside. As an observation platform, though, it was unmatched in all of Hawaiian Acres.
Standing on the chimney you could see the old abandoned shed off in the jungle where my brothers and I had found glass bottles of pesticides and strange mechanical implements. You could see the small muddy pond we discovered about a quarter mile from the house while building trails, and the tree beside it that we had used as our landmark and our refuge from wild pigs. In the other direction you could see the guava tree groves, bent down like Frost’s birches, and for the same reason. And beyond those the treetop forts, connected by poles run from tree to tree.
I do not know if you can ever feel quite as satisfied as a twelve year old boy perched high above his empire.
The evening before you want to make grilled fish with rice, plan to pick up a meal at Saf Sap down the street. Don’t forget to bring a tupperware. You can pick up your girlfriend’s scooter at the end of the alley if you don’t feel like walking. She left it there earlier in the afternoon to avoid driving though the sand. If the neighbor kids are sitting on it and making “zoom zoom!” noises, say hello. They will respond at eight hundred words per minute in a number of languages you do not speak.
While riding the scooter, watch out for patches of sand in the street. It moves in drifts, and can be several inches deep in a place where it was clear the day before. Also keep your eyes on the cabs, which might stop at any time. Stand up when you go over the speed bump so you don’t scrape the bottom of the scooter.
When you get to Saf Sap, make your way to the back room and say salam aleikum. Shake hands with everyone. Do your best to be polite, though you will not understand anything anyone says. If you are feeling brave, attempt to ask what dishes are being served. (It is not as difficult as it sounds. The choice is usually between yassa and maffe, and it always includes at least one of them.) Otherwise you can peek over at the steaming pots next to the giant bowl of rice. The dark red-brown stew is maffe, and the lighter one with onions is yassa. Ask for three portions of yassa. Don’t be shy to hold up three fingers if they don’t understand you at first. That will be enough for dinner, and you will have leftovers of rice for the fish the next day. Pay 900FCFA and tell everyone you will see them tomorrow, even if you do not expect to see them tomorrow.
The following morning, plan an outing to the big store. This will be much more exciting than you imagine it will be. It is the big store! You have heard stories about the big store, but neither you nor your girlfriend has been there. It is a place of legend. You have heard that it even has multiple brands of olive oil, but you don’t believe everything you hear.
At the big store, marvel at the twelve full isles stocked with groceries and household items from Europe and America. Pots and pans! Chocolate! Smoked salmon! Try not to be shocked when you see coke zero on the shelf. Try not to choke when you see the price of the coke zero on the shelf. When the lights flicker, stop. The power is about to go and you don’t want to run into anything in the dark. The backup generator will kick in after a few seconds.
When your girlfriend points out that they have your favorite Belgian waffles, the ones you used to get in Strasbourg but had not been able to find in over a year in the US, try not to cry in public. It is not a manly reaction to waffles. Put at least three packages in the cart.
Eventually make your way to the seafood counter. It should be your last stop, because marveling at the rest of the store will take at least an hour. Spend a minute puzzling at the price signs, which display the numbers in XXxx format, just like they use in European and American supermarkets to distinguish the decimal portion of the price, but which is very confusing in a currency that does not use fractional units. Are the big numbers the thousands? Is it meant to be read straight across? Will the person behind the counter understand if you try to ask? Eventually decide that it must be meant to be read straight across, and buy some dorade. Get two per person. You can always save leftovers for lunch the next day.
That last thing you need to do before you get home is stop by the charcoal man and get some charcoal for the grill. One scoop is enough, but get two so you don’t have to go out again the next time you want to grill. Stop at the boutique to get a couple bananas as well. You can have them for dessert.
While the charcoal is starting, clean and scale the fish in the kitchen sink. Put all the nasty stuff in the blue bucket under the counter for carrying down to the sea after dinner. Rub each fish with olive oil, and season inside and out with salt, pepper, lemon grass, dill, and paprika. Place a slice of lime in the belly of each fish. Cut a few onions into thick rounds for grilling.
Heat the leftover rice from Saf Sap along with any remaining yassa sauce on the propane burner and ask your girlfriend to keep an eye on it while you grill the fish. They are small, and the lump charcoal burns very hot. A minute a side should do the trick. The onions might take a minute longer, but if you put them on first and take them off last the timing will be about perfect. When it is time to turn things, remember that you do not own a spatula in this country. Use two forks. You will do fine. Just move quickly, or you will burn the hair off your knuckles.
Serve the fish and onions over the rice. If you have a cold beer in the fridge, this would be the time to get it. Toss two bananas in the coals with the peels still on and sit down to enjoy an awesome dinner.
When you have carefully pulled the last of the meat from the bones, sit back contentedly in your chair. Look across the table at your beautiful girlfriend. Life is good. When you smell something sweet, fetch the now-blackened bananas from the coals and peel them to reveal the perfectly baked fruit inside.