Iteration III

The day I left Turtle Cove

August 6, 2007

When I was eleven years old and I never thought of death, I used to go with my dad to a place we called Turtle Cove. There are a hundred Turtle Coves on the big Island. Some marked that way on maps, some known that way in the neighborhood, and some, like ours, only ever called that by four little boys and their dad.

Our Turtle Cove was at the very end of a street that stopped about 30 feet above where the Pacific Ocean started. The cliffs were black, shiny lava, and the ocean carved them into inlets and arches and caves. In bare feet you could feel the power of the waves vibrate up through the warm stone.

One calm day I was chasing the little black crabs across the rocks, and I could see that there was a ledge about six feet down from the lip of the cliff where dozens of them came out to sun themselves. I knew that if I could climb down and then hold still for just a few minutes, one would get close enough to throw my tee-shirt over. That is how you caught them. Under a tee-shirt they would hold perfectly still, thinking they were hidden, and you could scoop them up and put them in a bucket to run in circles for a few minutes while you peered over the edge and tried to figure out how they moved sideways so quickly.

One thing I always appreciated about my dad when I was growing up is that he would not immediately veto a plan like climbing down the face of a cliff over the thundering Pacific Ocean. Instead he would ask what my plan was to get down there, and then he would suggest ways to improve the plan, leading me towards something less suicidal in a way that let it still be my idea.

One of his contributions this time was to ask me how I was going to keep an eye on the ocean if I was paying attention to handholds on the cliff. The two rules I remember most vividly from growing up are “feet first the first time you jump” and “never turn your back on the Pacific.” Sure, there was “stop, drop, and roll” and “stand in a doorframe when there is an earthquake,” but those were for big, ambiguous dangers. Even with all of my ill-advised experimenting I never set myself on fire, and even in Hawaii earthquakes big enough to worry about were rare, but the Pacific managed to sneak up on me almost every time I gave it a chance.

In the end the plan was to have him lower me down with his long arms, while I paid attention to my landing and he watched the ocean. That way everything was covered, and I would be able to safely (or at least less dangerously) try to catch a new crab to study. As far as it went, the plan was perfect. He lowered me down slowly while I walked backwards down the face of the cliff, and when my toes could just touch the ledge I pushed back a little, swung out from the face of the cliff, and let go of his hand. I landed lightly, and the crabs scattered at the vibration or the shadow or whatever supernaturally perceptive sense it was that told their little brains “Sideways! Sideways to safety!”

I hadn’t even straightened up when I knew something had gone wrong. All afternoon not a single wave had broken as high as the ledge, but somehow, in the two seconds my dad had looked down at me to make sure I had landed okay, one was coming. It wasn’t even coming, it was there. He saw it when I did, and called out “tom, here!” as he dropped down on his stomach and reached down again. I don’t remember being scared. I could feel the roar of the wave running aground in the shallows at the base of the cliff. It was all around me. I jumped and grabbed onto my dad’s hand with both of mine, and the wave broke over me.

That high above the ocean, the wave was already rebounding from the impact lower down when it got to me. It pushed up and pulled away, salt in my eyes and water in my mouth before I could close them. The world turned to white noise and one hand on both of mine. Then all of a sudden there was air in front of me again, and I took one deep breath before the second, bigger, wave broke. I was drawn away from the face of the cliff, suspended, caught between the ocean and my dad, and I never doubted he would hold on.

Straight Lines

August 1, 2007

They drew a grid on the rainforest with a D9 and a compass. Half a mile by a third of a mile between each unpaved straight line through the jungle. Walking between them you could believe almost anything. That all the relics of human society were decaying at a thousand years a minute. That the rain would never stop. That the footprints behind you were part of a hoax to make you believe that you were supposed to be right where you were. The ferns that grew along the sides of the roads were perfectly symmetrical. You could pick any leaf at random and follow it back to a fork in the stem, then take the stem less traveled and find its exact twin. Follow back from where the two leaves branched apart to the fork before that, and you could find two more identical leaves on another identical branch. Like rice on the emperor’s chessboard, if you followed it for too long the island would be overcome. It was difficult to resist, but you had to, because you knew you might be the only one left alive. If you didn’t keep the ferns in check with studied disinterest, no one would.

Forest Hills

August 1, 2007

Harold stood at the far end of the platform of the last station on the Orange line, letting the snow collect on the shoulders of his jacket. He was sure that if she could see him there, gathering snowflakes, gazing down the tracks, she would love him. It was a pose, really; it was a picture he was making for her. He wasn’t even the most important part of it. Take away the snow and the mood was all wrong. Take away the green jacket, the jacket he was wearing the first time he put his arms around her, and he would just be another commuter getting cold and wet waiting for the train. Take away the train station and they might never have met. Take away Harold, and she would still look down the platform when the train doors hissed open and smile. It made him happy to know she would smile.

There were two other people on the platform. Both in dark winter clothes, staying sensibly at the other end where there was shelter from the snow and the wind. They hadn’t looked up from their morning stares since they arrived. Harold shifted his weight and smelled her perfume on his shirt. It drifted up from under his jacket in little bursts of warmth and sweetness when he moved. They had fallen asleep in the big chair in her apartment, and he woke up to find her arms wrapped around him. He hadn’t wanted to change clothes after that. He knew he would never again be as important as he was in the few hours she slept against him.

Down the tracks he could see the bright headlight of the orange line train. He wanted to wait until the doors opened. To see her look down the platform. But he knew she would smile. He could see it perfectly: her dark hair peeking out under the red knit hat; the long black scarf that was twice as long as she was tall, wrapped around her neck so that she seemed to peek out over it.

Harold smiled. It wasn’t so bad after all. He shook the snow from his shoulders and stepped backwards off the platform.

this is crap, but appropriately

July 24, 2007

The island was exactly sixty paces long in the morning, and shrank to as few as 58 paces by the time the sun touched the water on the far side. This happened gradually over the course of the day as he walked from shore to shore and back again. It was not much of a change, but it was something. One sunrise. One sunset. 450 round trips between them. One step gained for every 14,000 taken.

There were no tides and no waves in the water around the island, but somehow he knew he could never mistake it for calm. When the sun was at the right angles, the surface shone like a mirror, and the same face always reflected back when he leaned over from the shore. It was not his face, but he knew it. He was afraid to touch the water, though there had been no consequences on those occasions when he had not been able to help himself. His hand on the surface caused no ripples, and the reflection was unmoved.

The Diamond Fork

July 5, 2007

The most coveted and contested chore, perhaps the only coveted or contested chore, in all of the years that my brothers and I lived in the same house, was setting the table. We would argue over whose turn it was. We would do other chores to gain credibility with the adults. We would argue that those who had done other chores surely deserved a break, and kindly offer to take their places. It wasn’t the work that appealed to us, of course, but the opportunity. You see, the one who set the table got to choose his own fork.

There was a single fork in the silverware drawer that had a little diamond cutout between the two center tines. In our infinite creativity, we dubbed it “The Diamond fork.” I suppose this sounds fairly normal, much more so than Maude or Fredrick, but what may not be clear is that “The Diamond Fork” was not simply a description of what set it apart from the other forks. Even in a sea of forks with cut out diamonds, only one would ever be The Diamond Fork. I know this because my mom once tried to stop the nightly table-setting arguments by adding a new diamond fork to the mix. Like many of the things my parents tried over the years, it was interesting as a sociological experiment, but an utter failure as a means of securing the peace. After the impostor was introduced things got worse. Then there was The Real Diamond Fork and a fake diamond fork. Even the people with plain forks felt superior to the poor sap eating his hamburger helper with the fake diamond fork.

Life with my brothers was often a complex political game, with each of us trying to prove that we were more worthy than the others. I am tempted to lay the blame for this behavior at the feet of poverty. I could say that when you are eating a plain bowl of white rice for your tenth meal in a row it becomes more important that you at least have the pleasure of eating it out of the blue bowl. But the truth is that the real hard times, the times when we had a legitimate incentive to fight over resources, were not nearly as dramatic. The truly intense competition was a game, and we all knew we deserved to win.

At one point it was so bad that we had to have a written schedule for who got to sit in the passenger seat of the old jeep in the mornings, because otherwise the sullen enterprise of getting ready for school would fall apart completely as we each tried to justify (by volume, where logic failed) our god-given right not to have to sit on the squeaky plywood seat in the back. But even with the schedule we would get into complex deals and try to trade for an advantage. If you could give up a day now for two later, or if someone was sick on their day and you could convince them to bequeath it to you, you could get ahead. And once you had extra days you could really start to maneuver. You could even bribe the person setting the table.

The Swish and Crunch and Swish

July 3, 2007

In one night all the leaves in the city had fallen to the earth. They made great piles of red and gold that moved with the sound of the sea in the restless early morning air. Standing at the corner of the small park in his neighborhood, he thought it looked like a watercolor painting that was started and then abandoned. Two broad strokes of red and yellow along the ground and pencil-sketched trees and buildings rising into the featureless sky.

He was standing at the corner and considering how his choices for the morning had been diminished. He had not decided whether he was upset or depressed, and with so many leaves on the ground, it wouldn’t matter now. A brooding walk would swish and crunch and swish the same as an angry one. He didn’t like the idea of making such an ambiguous performance, even if he was the only audience.

It was a cold morning, maybe freezing, and the air was heavy and wet and greedy for heat. Standing still, he could feel all its little infiltrations: the back of his neck; his right ankle where the cuff of his jeans had gotten caught on the top of his shoe and left a gap; the fronts of his thighs where his skin touched the fabric. He liked taking tally like that, putting his attention to each place that felt the cold, but without moving. He found it reassuring to be able to resist the urge to move. Actions would come when he wanted them, not out of reflex.

Without a clear way forward, he sat down on the sidewalk, just in front of a round iron manhole cover. It had an art deco pattern around the edge and something written in the very center that had been worn too smooth to read by years of people passing by. You can step over a manhole cover, or you can step directly in the middle. He remembered walking by the park with a lover long ago. He had stopped at the corner that day too, and tugged lightly on her gloved hand. When they kissed, they were standing over the manhole cover, each of them with their toes on the edge. Still, the patterns around the edges fare better over time. In all those years he had kissed there only once.

Sitting on the ground he could smell the sunny brown scent of the leaves, the last of the summertime that they had gathered up inside them finally being released. He thought that if he died here, the trees would take him up, and he would join the leaves in their yearly cycle. But of course that would never happen. No one would let him rot away where he chose. There would be embalming and a coffin and people crying. There would be a mess.

It was getting later, and the streets were beginning to show signs of life. A woman rode by on a bicycle, bundled up so that she looked like a stuffed doll with a red scarf. He sighed and stood up. He had decided he was lonely, and the swish and crunch and swish would at least be company.

Last Time

July 3, 2007

The last time I died I was in Boston. I was at downtown crossing, waiting for the red line train to take me into Cambridge. It was a Friday evening, and the platform was packed, mostly people in their twenties heading out for the night. I had headphones on because I always have headphones on when I ride the T. It’s part of the ritual of Boston: Airport early in the morning, coffee from Dunkin Donuts while I am too sleepy from the flight to taste it, Johnny Cash on the T. It’s the way things are supposed to be. In the evenings it might be Simon and Garfunkel, but there has to be music to go with the screech and sway of the trains.

I had been standing on the platform for some time, maybe ten minutes, feeling like a stone in the stream of activity around me, when suddenly I was afraid. It was an instinctual fear, primitive, almost purely physical. I could feel it coming faster than the lights of the red line train that had appeared in the tunnel.

There was nothing to do but stand there, watch the people mill around me getting ready to push their way onto the train, and wait. I wondered which face would be the last one I saw. The fear boiled in my stomach, but I was protected in the music and the screech of the train, in the isolation I had built around myself.

The screeching came to a stop, and the doors swished open. I took a place standing by the door, hoping to see the view from Longfellow Bridge once more.

This time it comes more slowly, but I don’t think I’ll make it to the bridge again.

At the Tips of My Fingers

June 17, 2007

When I do a flip and a half diving from the springboard at the pool, I have a moment of doubt just as I jump onto the end of the board. But then the board pushes back and my arms are coming down and it’s too late to stop. I curl and the spin is too fast to keep track of from within. I don’t know where I am, and can’t tell where I’m going. Then somehow I know, and open up the curl, and there is the water, just at the tips of my fingers every time.

For the past week I have wanted to write something that started with the line “I think, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to see the shape of my future ahead of me, still indistinct, but taking on more detail as it gets closer.” The problem is that I am not actually sure it is the truth. My future has always been big changes with little warning spaced between periods of calm. I find it difficult to imagine time as a continuum. It’s more like bodysurfing on a starless night. Time comes in waves, and there is nothing you can do but let them pass you by or try to ride them without going over the lip. I think I can hear a wave coming, but I can’t yet feel the water pulling back.

Walking across the parking lot to the grocery store tonight I could see the moon, a tiny orange sliver in a sky still clear blue with the end of the long summer twilight. Venus was close, almost perfectly aligned between the two pointed tips of the crescent. It probably happens with clockwork regularity, but the last time I remember looking up and seeing that particular configuration was in 1997. I don’t know if Venus was particularly bright that summer, like Mars was in 2003, or if it was just the first time I paid attention to it. Continuity can be a comfort, but it’s usually superficial.

I don’t see the moon now like I used to anyway. It is a little smudged these days. When the crescent is very delicate there are sometimes two moons unless I squint. Too many hours spent pressing buttons instead of getting lost in foreign cities, I suppose. Too little time spent upside down after I turned twenty.

All of these things are related, but I’m spinning too fast and I can’t keep track from within, and I don’t want to open up until I know. Until I see her at the tips of my fingers.


June 15, 2007

Once, not so long ago, there was a secret town in Russia. It was far to the north, where the snow piled up in such mountains that sometimes it lasted through the whole summer, and people would keep their meats cold in it during the warm months. If you were to come across this secret town, you would not know it was special. There would be no way to tell that it was any different from a thousand other little towns in northern Russia. Its secret was not protected by anything so dramatic as a magic spell or one of the baba yaga or the leshachikha (though such creatures were spoken of by the old women who lived there, and there were always children who claimed to have seen a tall man covered in hair by one of the little streams that unfroze in the height of summer).

Even that far north there were visitors in the summer. Explorers and traders and travelers who brought news of the outside world. But they never seemed to remember the town when they returned home. “I stopped in six or seven villages” they’d tell people, with a little bit of a frown on their faces. The more perceptive, careful travelers would be disturbed by the fact that their journals seemed to indicate an extra stop that they didn’t remember very well, in a town they had neglected to take down the name of, but it could always be explained away by fatigue or oversight.

Those travelers were not alone in their oversight. Indeed, no one had ever taken down the name of the town. It was on no maps, mentioned in no histories, and spoken on no lips. The little town had no name. It could not be spoken of, nor even thought of. There was no force that prevented it, the town simply did not fit into a mind. It is not so surprising, really. There are sounds no ears can hear, colors no eyes can see, and in just the same way, there are things that no mind can think of. One of these things was a little town in the north of Russia, where no one will ever remember that they have been.

Another Midnight

June 12, 2007

On the wall of my house there are three clocks. Standing in my living room tonight I could see myself reflected in their faces. My head in Eastern Time, kept here by the day to day of life. My heart four hours across the Atlantic, with the girl it has followed since the first time I looked into her eyes. And my hands three hours behind me, in the time zone where they work each day.

The first time I remember thinking about moving from one time zone to another I was ten years old, flying from Hawaii to Boston. I imagined myself leaving the skipped hours behind me like a breadcrumb trail to follow home. Eight pm was dropped off in the middle of the pacific, nine just off the coast of California, ten somewhere in Nevada. I wouldn’t need them in Boston, where they were already on tomorrow. I called it my “bag of hours” theory.

It was a good way to visualize how I fit into the different times I moved between. Sometimes I still think of it as I pass over thunderstorms between one ocean and another, but it is all so much more complicated now. My bag of hours is all mixed up. I’ve got the late afternoon hours in there twice, and three am is missing half the time. I can never find eight in the morning, but there always seems to be another midnight, no matter where I am.