Dark comes in from the edges of the view like dust collecting on a windshield. Tatiana, nineteen, beautiful, long-legged, nervous, and engaged to the exiled prince of Syria, says there are bats. She says if you clap your hands the bats will come and circle around your head. The traces of the French language in her English make it sound like she’s always laughing, so I never know if she’s joking. Then again, there’d been a fox the other morning, while I was teaching in the kitchen a fox, red-tailed and skinny nosed and just like pictures, ran right across the lawn as though it were making fun of me for being American. The fox was real, and Tatiana isn’t joking about the bats. I don’t clap.
Tatiana is lonely and it’s terrifically charming. Her loneliness needs me. I’m never an annoyance, I’m precisely the person she was waiting for, I find myself giddily useful. I am certain she makes everyone feel this way. It’s a kind of genius. I hold my breath when she talks to me. I sit barefoot in my tiny summer shorts and pull my waxy skin knees to my chest, waiting for what she’ll tell me next, seeing how much I can get. Tatiana tells a story about the time her fiancee came home from a party with Lady Gaga’s number in his phone. I try to paint my face casual. I think she’s testing me.
The lawn spreads out like the world’s most expensive picnic blanket. It’s impossible not to talk about money when describing Geneva. Imagine the feeling you have when you deposit a large check and know you’re going to be able to pay your rent without thinking about it for at least the next few months. That feeling is what Geneva looks like. That deposit slip and what it does to the way you breathe is the street layout and the quality of light, the cafes and the lake and the giant, pointless, obliging jet of water that rises up to mark the city like a place holder or a pin in a map.
But money isn’t specific enough, anyway. Geneva isn’t the money you use to buy hotel rooms or plane tickets or heavy food or booze or revenge or oblivion. Geneva is not the way that money carbonates your blood and makes you do stupid things. When I say money I mean very specifically that Geneva is the money you leave, sleeping on clean sheets, in your bank account and use to pay your rent on time.
Everyone who knew anything told me, after I came back, that Geneva was boring. No one had warned me before I got there. I imagined mountains and lakes, money and diplomacy, a whole world of Gatsby’s lawn and a pleasingly gritty underbelly. Really, I was thinking about Paris and London. Paris and London feel desire, hard as blood-surging veins, and from it they want to impress you. They buy your drink, they push you up against the wall on the way home, show off their gadgets and their good education. Geneva, on the other hand, is like being on a date with someone who doesn’t want to sleep with you. I walked around and around the sleepy, winding streets in a dress with a large skirt, and tried to get the city excited about something, about anything. It wouldn’t even move its eyebrows or open its mouth. I walked out to the end of the tiny, slick stone pier under the jet d’eau, almost falling down about a hundred times in my heels. When I got to the end I stood still, poorly balanced. The water was getting in my face. The sunlight was like a postcard. Aware I was in a famous and famously beautiful place in the world, I wondered what I was supposed to do about it. Eventually, I turned around and walked back.
Tatiana is my student’s older sister. I live in their house like a governess in a book, and they all speak French and I don’t. The family reeks of family, for all the mother’s absence, and the father’s disappearance to work on his money and his race-cars, they have the easy faces and bickering shorthand that mean family. They are the kind of family that can make the most perfectly happy person feel like some abject orphan in a melodrama, pawing the windows. Perhaps I only felt that way about them because I don’t speak French. I feel a lot of ways because I don’t speak French, starting with fat. I’m convinced that if I spoke French, I’d never feel fat again.
Beyond the end of the lawn where the corners are getting blue, falling in a musical progression, small cafe-lights point out Lake Geneva’s calm-shouldered surface. Yachts and their close relatives skim the water like large, complacent insects. The answering shore’s houses agree with our house about wealth and heritage and summer. They have an easy conversation, after-dinner armchair talk, things they’ve said many times before. Tatiana points at a house straight across the water, exactly the size and shape of a museum. She says she used to be in love with the boy who lives there and now he’s engaged to someone else, just like she is. She says his family is Russian. When she says family and Russian she means it. The meaning reaches back at least to where civilization started getting interesting. Everyone I meet here lives and breathes my high school European History textbook. I ask her if they’re still friends. I’m ready with stories about my ex whom I still love dearly, how we became real friends and then actually I dated his wife for a little while and everyone was ok with it and happy and isn’t that great. Tatiana says that she and the Russian cannot speak anymore. When she congratulated him on his engagement he said she was dead to him. She says to me that that was a manner of course, of good manners, of proper action. This is the way things are, with our kind of families, she says. I do not tell my story; America, as it turns out, is all the jeans and t shirts, all the sloppy kissing a stranger that everyone says about it.
In the afternoons, finished teaching, I’d go to the old part of the city and climb around in the hills, stand near the churches, stand near the castles, stand near the cafes, stand near the street-signs, stand near the flower clock and the lawns the people sitting on the lawns and the other people standing near the flower clock because they’d heard you were supposed to stand near the flower-clock. I didn’t want to buy food when I could just eat back at the house, so I’d get dizzy and then the dizziness would make me feel like I finally belonged in Europe. I’d walk home and look at the lake and think about Byron and Mary Shelley and the summer of 1816, and wait for their ghosts to talk to me. But they never did; I think they were too distracted by all the European teenagers in bikinis on the beach. I didn’t blame them.
I still haven’t clapped for the bats and the weather is so perfect that it’s like there’s no air at all. Tatiana tells me about her fiance’s family. When they were exiled from their country, his father brought as many people as he could, boatloads of them, with him to France. Once there, a few miles outside of Paris they built an exact imitation of where they’d come from, so that you could live a whole life there and think you were still in Syria. The world exhales pockets, trapdoors, secret rooms. I’m already holding my breath; now my held breath holds its breath. The night is complete and the kitchen is shows up in the darkness, asking us to come inside and eat off the clean counters. Tatiana tells me about meeting her fiance’s father’s four wives. She says it’s not what you think. I say no, I don’t think anything, and I don’t, except that I’m not going to remember this story right and later I won’t do it justice and people won’t believe me. I think that must be how the best secrets keep themselves secret, and how there exists outside Paris a perfect imitation of Syria 50 years ago. This story is going to sound ridiculous when I tell it; if I were really good at collecting the world I wouldn’t tell it at all. Tatiana goes inside to get cookies. I clap my hands and then close my eyes when the bats come.
When people ask me where I’m from, depending on my mood I point uptown to the hospital, or downtown to the sullivan st rowhouses, and say “a few blocks that way.” Sometimes I let people believe I was eloise, a modern girl who lived at the plaza before they tore it up into apartments. In a way it all started at the mayflower hotel the summer I was thirteen, when we visited, after we’d moved away. I know people who are raising kids in the city and I envy those kids so violently that I don’t want to be around them. I worry I would try to press 3 year olds’ faces against the pavement and the wire-crossed fences in the playgrounds in the village and yell at them about how lucky they are.
It’s early nighttime in the new apartment. We have the keys but we still haven’t moved in. Nothing is here yet; it’s empty as an old song about cowboys. I have all the lights on and the windows open, the floors are the color of scotch with too much ice. The theatre with its bright marquee across the street paints the empty darkness, reflecting in the windows and on the sharp floors. It’s like living inside a mirror. I’m lying down because I think places are bodies or something, and I want to put my hipbones in the floors like a signature. If I look out the window correctly, I can see the red letters of the New Yorker building spelling out their announced title. I think they’re waiting for me to do something entertaining or meaningful. I think they have very high standards.
A friend of my parents’ is talking to me about the old neighborhood, how he used to live here back in the days when New York was in black and white and Gershwin. He narrates butcher shops and vegetable markets, tells me on which side of the street to walk and when and where to buy coffee and groceries and ice cream, and all of it matters as desperately as though it were the story of a war or a love affair and not just where the deli is in relation to the good Italian place. It’s ridiculous that people talk about how big this city is when it’s so small. Manhattan is magical in the last sense of the word because it’s so impossibly small, so traced-over, so walked-on, so done and done and done and redone, fraying from fingers passing it on the next user. Everywhere in this city, every block, every window, every doorframe is someone’s old neighborhood, the blueprint lines of someone else’s identity. The city is a map drawn by things that happened to someone else. Everywhere I’m wading in someone else’s youth and heartbreak. In soho all the people shopping at bloomingdale’s are trying on clothes in the middle of my dad’s divorce from his first wife across the way in the loft building that now looks in the store’s window. They’re hip-deep in the parties he and Lynn used to throw where people would climb up the fire escape to get in because they’d heard Andy Warhol was there.
I squint out the window, where the globe lights on the building across the street are still awake, to try to see what I’ve heard, to try to put illustration to myth. The old neighborhood was still dirty, was still dangerous. I didn’t make it on time for the grit and the hookers and the city you’d sink your fingers in, pliant and infectious as a swamp. Everyone in New York who’s stayed long enough believes you missed it, you got there too late. The failure handed to you on arrival this way is sure and skin-like as the uneven skyline and the way the buildings change color like trees with the seasons.
I go out to make some unnecessary midnight run to the deli. The fog’s come down into the spring night, all day it’s been trying to make up its mind about rain and when I went and got the last of my furniture from Brooklyn it insisted against the skylight, trying one final, futile time to get me sad enough to listen. I swing my heels through the city’s stone-thick heart, and the rain starts up again gently and then less so, like a test of some kind. I assume the obscured tops of buildings approve when I let water soak my thin t-shirt. I put my one hand against the curving metal wall marking off the part of the street above the lincoln tunnel overpass. Eventually I’ll kiss someone up against this wall when walking home; you do almost everything if you live somewhere enough, and then you move and change your life and some other kid comes and lives up inside your stories as though you’d vacated them. You talk about it as though you’re waiting for someone to mail you a security deposit from your wild, hopeful, lying youth. Both my parents seemed always to be waiting for that security deposit; sometimes I feel they sent me to go and get it back for them. They returned me like mail into the bars and the broken streets, the museums, the wine stores, the vegetables in front of Fairway every morning as bright as paint when men were painters in the 50s. Oh, how we are never going to live up to fights or their shirtsleeves.
My father and I were once walking down near Astor Place when I was a kid, and he all at once breathed in sharp and tried to cover his reaction with a shrug. Then he pointed across the street at a woman waiting for a bus and said she looked exactly like his first wife. I assumed that was actually who she was. I don’t mean that I thought she was his first wife grown older and gone along with life in the way my father was, 20 or 30 or whatever years continuance. Rather, I assumed she was the woman from the 1970s about whom I’d heard. It seemed only logical. I assumed there wouldn’t be streets without stories and wouldn’t be ladders on fire escapes if there weren’t memories. I assumed I was holding the city together by a willful act of imagination, that it would be possible for me to blink negligently enough it would all tumble and fall back to a meager sketch. There are windows on 5th avenue at Christmas because my mother told me that it was important, a Thing to Do, to go look at them when the season starts and they hang the lights and call the tourists to all come meet on these tiny blocks. The paintings in the Met are visible because my mother would lose whole days there in her first years in the city and take guys there on dates, to the rooms with the big windows in the snow in the winter. Tiffany’s is still there because Capote said it could be, and most of Midtown is only standing because college kids are still posting Frank O’Hara’s poetry on each other’s walls on facebook.
Across from me a parking lot of some kind yawns into trucks and construction, the feeling of a half-died out masculinity that perpetuates itself in grease-and-smudged glass pockets, gas stations and car repairs. Time stops or at least slows and checks its watch and buys a sandwich. Sometimes, New York, it’s too much, sometimes I can’t even go outside to buy bagels without wanting to just lie down and put my face in the pavement to prove how much I know about the city. Then sometimes an old friend makes some offhand comment and uses the phrase “this town,” and the nearest street sign grins like a girl about to undress. Our breathing matches at last, the city and I, and we fall asleep together without arguing over the bed. This place will be the old neighborhood soon enough. My stories will be some other kid’s fraying antique map. So I take my hand off the wall and my eyes out of the lights with their stories about zeppelins, and click my heels back to where the rats scamper at my approach between cars and trash cans. I walk slowly up the stoop and in the glass door. I can still see the New Yorker building’s red letters, but I’ve got plenty of time to convince them to care about me.
Arden and I want to go see the pick-up artists. The are mostly in LA, and Arden already knows them. She says they’ll be happy to see us. It will be an adventure. She plots and narrates. I lift my hand to open a new tab on the computer. The jetblue website is a promise that words can be hands and feet, too. I make mild crazy eyes at her and say “Let’s go to LA right now.”
For a second she doesn’t answer. My heart gets high and scared in my chest, throwing a party, breaking vases and then apologizing nervously for the mess. We actually could, we could put shoes and bras in bags and put our jeans on and go hail a cab to the airport. The world really is that porous, that soft-skinned, and going somewhere else is just as deep-breath easy as starting a conversation with a beautiful woman.
The plane would exhale off the runway to the promises of blue murmuring sky-and-wing, and then Los Angeles would slink into view below, coming up along the underside of the plane like a sneak attack, low bungalows in diner colors. Los Angeles makes me think always and immediately of a diner, of sticky formica counters, of not-quite-clean windows in the flat, overheated, sand-grit useless part of the afternoon.
I haven’t been there, excepting the airport, since I was 16. People who love LA always say that you have to know it, and I’ve recently warmed to its idea, created a kinder and brighter-calling fiction. I imagine a place slick with secrets, a town of trapdoors and hotel rooms like the grainy movies and the lowbrow paperbacks that slide ever closer on the shelf to the good fiction. LA has become a good story, a long night and a fast drive and a roadside-stand with french fries and guns and rhinestones and kissing, and slow evening symphony halls climbing up into low mountains, and the freeway rushing everywhere and trying to force the cars to kill you, and little stores of out walls of low buildings in dirty streets selling burritos and clear plastic shoes and dirty words.
Arden and I, I decide in the pause in her face after my too-loud question, will reel off the plane, all legs and sunglasses, and find a car some kindergarten-finger-paint color. We’ll sleep in a second-story motel room with an untrustworthy concrete balcony and a sliding door that looks at a parking lot and a half-hearted palm tree, a sleazy chlorine pool, a dusty immediate freeway and low, raucous city cluster and beyond that, as the lights slide home and drink too much and then eat too many fried things and so decide it’s a good idea just maybe to lie down right here, and eventually mutter out to darkness, on the horizon the promise of the desert and its good, answering nothingness, the purple shot sky and the catcuses with their old-man truths. LA feels safe because the desert is right there just beyond the edges, keeping everyone honest and promising easy escapes route from every high-stakes, fast-round game of dress-up.
So we’ll go to LA, right now out from our carpeted living room into a cab to a plane to a car, and hang out with the pick-up artists. We’ll all sit at bars with high seats and hooks for shoes, we’ll be fast-talking and sharp-hearted. LA will whisper at its hidden doors and take off the locks and the chains and let us in. We’ll walk around the evening that fails to make it to any real darkness, from one bright, crouching place to another, laughing too much and trying not to think of going home, from sirens to lotus eaters sleeping late the next day into the sandy sunlight. I’ll sit on the balcony in the afternoon half-awake and think about dying my hair badly on purpose, and let my shoulders freckle and think that it has something to do with being touched like an easy second language.
An ex called me once while he was in LA and said he was driving along the highway by the ocean (he probably shouldn’t have been calling me while driving, it’s true). I said the highway almost made me wish I was there. He was driving a vintage convertible the color of grown-up nail polish and good wine. My disdain for LA and for driving and for him was purely fake, I wanted, with a straight-pouring focus, to be in the passenger seat with my head back against sure-wristed beige leather and the ocean playing my hair long out the side window, legs and glove compartment, the long road and the easy speeding drive, the winding hills and the dropping ocean view where the world streamed out to everywhere else, invisible, the car the same as talking, the need for conversation slowed and erased to something better, softer and more certain. The decembrists have a song about California’s Highway One that gets it, the happy-eyed and slow-day-beach-stoned, and Arden and I and the pick-up artists could all drive the forgiving curves of the last road in the country and fall almost alseep in the pasenger seat, in the curve of the day’s shoulder. I will never quite get over a weird longing for california’s slowness and sleepiness, the end of a long day at the beach.
And then Arden says she has to work and I admit we can’t afford it anyway, and we go back to typing on our computers on our separate couches, and then later collin comes over and we order a lot of late-night food and make evil genius plans and laugh until I’m worried I’ll choke to death, and so it’s just like always and it’s an adventure, too, in its weird every-night held-hand-home, but I keep thinking of a plane changing the weather by just a six hour eye-blink. We’ll go see the pick-up artists soon, we say, and say it like we’re leaving it there.
The motels and the highway and the pick-up artists purr across the continent, waiting for two girls to finally get irresponsible and impatient enough for a good story.
Didion says that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I tell myself stories about airports.
O’Hare was my favorite for almost two years, the long hallways, the low blue ceilings. There’s a Midwestern light show between terminals, you dive down a vertiginous escalator whose glass enclosing walls reflect the sky. They never failed to tell me how pretty I was. I was always all lipstick in O’Hare, all begging reaction, skirts and heels.
I used to go back to LaGuardia as though it were a living room, easy and careless to impress, my shoes off, my makeup smeared, careening with a bag that spilled one last garter belt and paperback. In the seven am blue and the flat four pm sunlight I traded flimsy standby passes for first class seats and arrived in Chicago drunk on 10am champagne and with a crush on the sweet girl flight attendant. I just needed a cigar and a lipsticked collar to complete the story. LaGuardia was where I first met B, the grimy airtrans baggage claim where he arrived small and panicked in a british band’s t-shirt and corduroys. He said in an email that I’d recognize him because he’d be the boy carrying his heart in his hands, but that was silly because that’s what everyone looks like in an airport.
JFK is the big promises, it’s what I think of when my eyes get wide at the verb ‘go.’ Here it’s always the international terminal and my heart pounding like a basketball on a summer blacktop. There’s a big swooping on-ramp to the drop-off area where on that one Fourth of July Gwen and John sped me to the curb in their getaway van and dropped me off fast, safe from pursuers. In the interior everything looks like a shopping mall and is big as the atlantic, promising an ocean crossing with a gesture to match the 19th century’s steamer trunks and class-divided liner decks.
There is no competition, and no point in mincing words: Heathrow airport is my favorite. I am madly, sticky hands and wet heart, in love with Heathrow, its ordered whites and greys, the five-story ceilings at baggage claim, all the exit-corridors where I have had early-morning, rubbing-eyed mishaps with payphones, and the black cabs with their huge backseats breathing long air through a taunting ribcage. Oh, Heathrow, let’s sneak around a corner away from the party and grab each other’s faces and breath hard. The little London houses, green moss and old red-brown brick, prepare autumn for the coming year like a marinade, and the trains and the cabs run oiled routes down to the city in cool absolute greys. London is the fog that cools down a sticky summer, that takes an american adolscent hysteria to a cocktail party and teaches it good manners that make it stop crying.
I barely remember Florence but that it was so disorganized and bright-colored that it might have been constructed of tissue paper and flowers. Or maybe that was Milan.
There is a long stretch of factory-ugly between Vienna the city and Vienna the airport, and the only things to eat in the food kiosks are cake and schnitzel. There really is a schnitzel kiosk. I think there was more than one. Vienna was where I had an airport security experience indistinguishable from an internet fetish video.
Barcelona was made of concrete somewhere between a very edgy art installation and a parking lot and all the signage promised summer would never end as long as you never left and kept buying soda and potatoes.
Frankfurt was a funhouse made of glass, so many panels so uninterrupted by any other material that I had to believe they were going to shatter at every next moment and tried to walk as light as I could, hoping it would be the group from the next flight, and not mine, who would reap the harvest when the mirror-shards burst.
Dublin was mostly under construction, but it was late at night and the plane was very small which meant that in the middle of the night I walked my big boots and frilly skirt across a tarmac alone, in the dark, and if you’ve never felt free like the word singing straight out of the dictionary I cannot recommend this enough. I swear the moon outside was green, but I made sure not to tell anyone I thought so.
I don’t believe Venice has an airport but then again I still don’t believe Venice is real.
B and I once drank large beers and ate stupid burgers in the airport bar in Cleveland and then we went to the souvenier store and I bought a bright blue shirt that said ‘Cleveland Rocks’ because we’d just spent a weekend at his best friend’s wedding in some impossibly remote town in Ohio and we’d had a rental car and I’d put my legs on the dashboard and all my continuing days, I was sure, would be hand-held symmetry like a stick figure drawing of a boy and a girl.
I’ve never flown out of Geneva but I’ve watched planes take off over and over from across the lake and everything in Switzerland is beauty colored by numbers, a sexless date with a painting, mountains and health and I’ve always thought I could never fall in love with anyone who really liked getting up at the same time morning which has somehow to do with how little I was compelled by Geneva.
I used to come home to San Francisco and I would know the whale-belly-blue curve of the bay, the deceptively shiny city, like a memorized label. I could recite it with my eyes closed, I could recall it half-asleep, I didn’t need to look at it to see it, and the airport was big hands and a wide face and shrugging driftwood art. You can feel there how San Francisco, for all its small town flannel shirt frame, rubs up against the far-flung remoteness of Tokyo and Bejing and Argentina. The ocean and its rapid elsewhere is present in the moving walkways as much as in the kindergarten painted Victorian homes and hilly streets and long-day-stoned light that comes down Geary street as it goes all the way to Baker Beach, seals and surfers and backseat blanket kissing.
Oakland airport is the one I left for New York when I went to college.
I keep passing through Gatwick on trains. I actually believe that Gatwick airport is a train station. I hear I’m wrong.
I once spent 9 hours in the Vegas airport after an engine failure and resultant emergency landing during a flight from LA to New York. Most everyone else went and gambled; I stayed in my seat and watched the violet, promising lights come on in the desert, shallow and flat like the bottom of an empty bowl, and I decided I was on another planet. Vegas through the giant airport window was all the boys who’ve acted like disdainful big brothers to me, it laughed a hard laugh and said I wasn’t ready for it.
Atlanta is pink and turquoise like a track suit and one time Rebecca and Matt drove me there very early in the morning and Matt wore just boxers and boots and a blanket but got out of the car and hugged me exuberantly curbside anyway, and we tried to recreate it the next time I was there but by then it was only a gesture.
Even the airport in New Orleans seems to have secrets.
Boston is my dad and I trying to rent a car in a snowstorm.
I don’t remember the one in Florida but I remember when the cab left it it went into roads like sponges and the grass was not plants at all but just lined up alligators, nighttime came slower and less demanding than it has ever been anywhere else. If I wanted no one to find me, I would have stayed. I was tempted, but I was scared I’d sink first.
I’ve been in the airport in Paris at least eleven times and the only thing I remember about it is a man with blue eyes who I saw there once when I was 19.
I wrote all of this because I couldn’t write about O’Hare. A teacher in college once told me that though you fall in love again and again and again all your life, you never quite get back what you lose when you lose first love, it is never quite like that again. O’Hare is saturated a thick paint blue, the color when kids finger paint and want to grow up to be pilots. I was there once in a lightening storm; my plane was the last one they let land, it was in the air way after the airport had been shut down for the weather. B and I had only just met, it was the third time we’d see each other, and I waited for him in a cattle-milling throng of panicked people at the baggage claim. No one was really claiming any baggage, everyone was just crisising all over the blue rubber floors, and I was very young and thought I was in a very special story. He came and found me in the same car each time, it was often cold and I was never dressed for it, and we usually fought before the car even got out past the airport parking ticket machine, but I loved him for a while like I love take-offs and landings, which I also hate, too, and I’ll inconvenience myself for a long time, probably, so that I don’t have to fly through O’Hare.
Grey and unreal as little roofs with deep-set, blue-shuttered windows blooming out of them, and the streets always perfect and water-stained in their narrow little smile-wrinkle curves. Streets come and go, wind up in eachother’s angles, as though pushing hair into fingers, elbows into the backs of knees, legs around waists, discreet in their entanglements as small hats and neat hair. There is forever the suggestion of hot lights in Paris, but never—blessedly—quite the realization of them.
I know that there are catacombs under the city. I keep being told that that these old-world, book-turned, behind-hands-history sewers are actually a museum, and one could go there, imagine torches, imagine escapes, disease and romance, a nobleman lighting a large bill on fire to find a small lost coin. But I’ve never actually gone. I only contemplated the cold underground passages from the warmth of an impossible claw-foot tub in a blue-painted bathroom, in an apartment that fell through my having like a sieve because there was no way I could ever be grateful enough for it, no way even to begin.
What other city in the world would make its sewers into a museum? I have been to Paris eleven times and still feel as though I have never actually been there. I’ve stayed with residents and in hotels, I have touristed blatantly and I have sat in cafes and small bars for a day of hours, in the strange, gray months when airplanes are cheap. I’ve gotten lost in the up and down turning streets and I’ve started relationships with bookstores and coffeehouses, I’ve stood in cathedrals until my neck ached, made preposterous mouth-love to cheese and chocolate and stayed in restaurants with skinny frites and smug bread, and yet for all this I still feel that I have only looked at a painting, stood respectful at a distance well beyond the embrace of the frame and made a student’s showily contemplative face at the image.
The closest I’ve felt to climbing inside was–in all obvious body metaphor–the metro. The small, thoughtless grey trains, and the lazy, ominous gesture of the bricked and arched ceilings, are in my memory torchlit and filled with the skeletal staircases to nowhere that you see at the backs of old, dying theatres. These rumbling utilities held me inside a secret-keeping mouth and rushed on into the buried, masked truths of the city. But I was too frightened, too young, too inexperienced, too fat, too American, always too something for it, and whenever Paris was about to give me the show I and everyone else always imagine of her, I closed my eyes tightly and didn’t open them until it was over, when once again I stood just outside a charming painting.
Two winters ago, in a little finger-twisted heartbreak, I got very close to it. I wrote on sallow-lined pages in a skinny notebook and drank espresso over and over again, triumphant daily about my visibly stained teeth, watching the cold go by through the grand windows of a café. I walked around the backs of gray streets signposted where red bar lights bloomed like mouths into the ash-cold air, until the serpentine tangents of the city made me nauseous and dizzy. My heart was then splitting like plywood about a sloppy and inelegant American boy, and I tried to Paris—as a verb—away my feelings for him. I kissed Oscar Wilde’s grave with all the lipstick I could muster, and I stood on bridges and followed how Notre Dame drove the sky down the curve of the river, aching in the laid-out winter for a properly lost generation.
There was a single day’s long walk, and I ended up crossing the Louvre’s large courtyard. It was the end of the afternoon, and all at once this huge, freezing cold sunset arrived. Its color seemed to eat up the winter, as though color were a rush of blood all to one particular vein. It hit all the glass in the pyramid and the million windows in the grand, multiplying structures, and I was just helpless, rooted to the beautiful ground, beautiful people on bicycles going by around me, their beauty equal to the scene, and mine utterly insufficient. In the distance, a ferris wheel, a river, a great many eye-lidded windows and trees and a menacing park out of stories, and somewhere churches and dancing girls, somewhere fine homes and gates opening for carriages, somewhere everyone, every woman, every perfect woman, getting into bed slowly, with stockings and leggy cigarettes, and somewhere a revolution opening and closing like a day’s light, and I stood there in the thundering, silent, hard pastel beauty, and could not get to any of it.
So I went to get hot chocolate which kissed me at least as well as any person had up until then. My fingers finally warmed up and I wanted to curl them inside Paris as though into a man’s coat collar. I held the small cup, put my palm on the café table, and Paris waited for me to meet its eyes. But as many times as I tried, I still couldn’t.
In Barcelona, on the wall in the Maritime Museum, behind tenuous, unconsidered glass, are maps from long-past centuries. At the edges of the older ones, curling meticulously inscribed waves, various dragons climb with curious, hungry little faces, wondering at you and what to do about you. They illustrate the assertive black uniform letters beside them: HERE THERE BE MONSTERS. But they don’t look as threatening as the text would make one assume, and I remember that maps were drawn by the people who sailed, who left the land and ventured out to skim the borders of monster country. They might eat you, yes, but they might also welcome you in and tell you low-voweled teacup secrets. As warnings go–if it is a warning–it is ineffective, and seems perhaps to have been intended that way. I had expected to be frightened by the edges of these maps, hoping to cram myself imaginatively into the shudders up sailors’ spines, fear inspired by drifting toward the borders of the unknown, into a world where imagination could still carry logic around in its big, knowing hands. Instead I feel hungry and anxious to get to the monsters. They must have meant it this way when they drew the maps: Here there be monsters. Let’s go to there.
I’m supposed to go to South America in January, so I start playing with the map and the pictures google offers grafted over the locations and borders. Clicking on pictures takes me South, and soon I’m sprinting down the map in a giddy spree. This is the end of the world. Science and steel ships and computers have done quite honestly nothing to dispel my heart-jumping, anxious belief in the monsters on the edge of the map. I want to reach out my hand to them, to learn the correct password to get down to where the days-and-hands world dissolves into a hushed mythology of shipwrecks and dragons. My travels have stayed cold and northern, even in Spain. My skin slides toward the unthinkable warmth of January summer. Perhaps I will never come back, just descend further South until I disappear into lighthouses and sailors’ legends, down to where land crumbles, still believing that I could actually get to where there be monsters.
About this time last year I tried to impress my brief girlfriend by telling her in a conversation about kink that we all turn our lovers into monsters. It was supposed to be sexy, and it was at the time, sex as a map with edges where dragons climb up on waves, ceaseless fear as the forever-end of boredom, all these extremities making Columbus-promises of adventure, of owning everything nameless on which you could put your hands. But I’ve loved someone and then watched us turn each other into monsters, and it was not taboo and clipper ships, and metaphor never performs as beautifully as its big wet eyes promise. Instead there he was like some creature summoned out of the horror movie lot, all muscle and all red and no one I knew, and even then in that nightmare-room I thought that that flippant pronouncement, ‘we always turn our lovers into monsters,’ had come back for payment. I was a monster soon after, a scream instead of a face, and then we traded off for weeks and months, monsters, borders, and nowhere else for the map to go. When he was soft and human again, a whole body warm for holding, I could feel nothing. I would have better monsters, ones for admiring, ones free from my heart. I’ll go down to the bottom of the world and see the better dragons.
The trees are suddenly bare and I do not know when this happened. The night is purple. The night won’t stop being purple. I don’t know when this happened. I can somedays think of nothing but the leaf piles, all of adulthood and love’s possible hope is nowhere but the leaf-piles and shoes in them like east-coast children. But despite the leaf-piles I did not expect the branches to be bare, and now they are staring at me, admonishing me for not noticing, for not being aware of what was happening the whole time until it was a done thing, all happened already, beyond me.
Afternoon has happened and almost nighttime too, and you think they’d be content to indicate themselves in the usual ways, but instead the sky turns a terrifying and hardly credible purple, and then it just sits like that and waits for me to notice, to change what I am doing, as though we are playing a game where it won’t stop until I stop. And I am not doing that, even for the holding purple sky. I was burning to the small corner of my bed and too much dangerous two fingered typing. The heat hasn’t been on in the apartment all day and my own warmth is working so hard to make up for it that touching my own skin makes me want to faint. The noise that the computer makes is so goddamn banal and inappropriate that I shouldn’t be able to take myself seriously at all, but it keeps making it and I keep answering when it calls. Then I look up and the sky is still purple, so I look at back the screen and burn like a radiator, and then eventually look up again, certain it was just be nighttime by now or at least a reasonable, known color. But the sky is still completely purple, and we are each waiting for the other to stop, pull the brake, call chicken.
I think the trees think that they were my responsibility. I think they won’t ever forgive me, that they suspected and worried things about me but wanted to believe the best, wanted so badly that they did in fact believe I was right and good and honorable. Every time I sat in the kitchen and turned my head like a bird or a painting, I was demonstrating loyalty. I noticed the yellow leaves, I fell in stupid, lush love with them when they were green, and waited all summer in a held breath like the absence of romance for the colors to change, celebrated it and wanted to weep my face into them when they did. Every day I congratulated myself with the view out the kitchen. It was autumn and everything would, in the talking colors, be redressed. Now I cannot understand how they possibly got onto the ground, or how the branches got bare. But the apartment is freezing cold now, too, so something must have happened. It’s cold as long fingers and the bed and computer are still burning dry heat at my easy skin, and the sky is still purple like another planet.
If I focus correctly on it, fictionalizing it only slightly, it looks like bruises. I used to bruise all the time. It was fantastic, no story was ever lost in the shuffle of cataloging memory. Now I just have little breakages, a slight pilling of blood vessels like lint collecting on a sweater, subtle runs of reddish pointillism. I look at a spot on my arm, start up all radiator again and the purple sky grows all the more determined not to change.
I had imagined the winter here warm inside and melting-soft as flannel shirts, old ones from the back of the closet and the first time either of us ever loved anyone. My legs would rub up against his all night, thoughtless knowing. He’s in the other room. He doesn’t know the sky is purple, or that it’s trying to protect him, like a parent on a porch with a shotgun waiting for me to bring their daughter home. The porch will find the daylight before it sees me. I point my skin back at the small, hot screen. Honestly, it’s not like I don’t know that the sky is going to have to give up its light sometime.