place: Portland, time: the present
I go to the store to buy some ice cream. I buy cheese instead, some GF pasta shells. I’ve got a craving for milk fat. I eat a few chocolate covered almonds from the bulk bins to prove to myself that it is not, in fact, chocolate that I want. I finally end up at the icecream case, almost as indecisive as the woman next to me. There was a good song playing, something that made me feel alive, but now it’s just an old, tired tune, like a well-meaning friend who won’t stop her mindless chatter. The woman and I take turns opening a glass case until it frosts, picking up an ice-cream pint, turning it over, putting it back. We switch cases, hold the door open a little too long, remember the impending apocalypse, shut it quickly. As usual the flavored ice-creams distract me, even though I know they are never as nice as a good solid vanilla. I finally select my pint and cradle it against my wool jacket, with the pasta and the cheese.
On the bike ride home I am not thinking of you, for once. For once, I do not know who to think of. For once, there is no one, and I realize what a distraction it is, to think of someone. There is only the early dark, now, too big to hold, eating more of the light every day. It makes me feel like sleeping, it makes me feel like sewing scraps of fabric on carpeted floors, rubbing my eyes from the cat, reading for twelve hours straight. But tonight, I am too bored for that. Tonight I wish I had a woodstove again, a pile of too-green alder, a new ax from the hardware store and a bottomless Christmas sky.
I don’t know what to do when I’m not thinking of you. I guess you were never there anyway, just a sort of entertainment for my idle mind, stories I tell myself, creation myths and How The Carrot Got Her Heart In A Tangle. It makes good fodder for nights like these, at least it did for a while.
G. is at home and I offer her some ice-cream. Then she runs a bath and puts her feet in it while it fills, fully clothed, reading a book. I head upstairs to the room I’m squatting, with the cat hair on the carpet and the lumpy futon and the good windows that get the light. The staircase is dark and I feel my way to the top, cautious, even after all these seasons, even after all this time coming back, coming back, a different person every time- the first time, years ago, in the basement room, when I had scabies and Marion still lived here, before she moved to Asheville to follow her dreams and fall in love with a man who learned to make fiddles- the second time in the spring, a few years later, in the room at the end of the hall, with the blowing white curtains that where, somehow, an illusion of endless time- the third time this February, fresh from the country, to try and force myself to be someone I wasn’t, to try to go to school and live in the city and be happy. And date you. Somehow, that was all part of it. The first half of this year was maybe the hardest time of my adult life. I’d listen to Dolly Parton over and over and eat the slowest breakfasts I could manage, watch the sun rise higher every day and feel my nervous system try to crawl its way out of my body. Sometimes I’d sit in the metal folding chair in front of my desk and try to write, but I couldn’t write. Not a thing. It’s the city, it’s the city, I’d say. I’ve got to run away. I let everyone down and got a job as a cook in the woods east of Salem, and I was right. After two weeks I felt better. The insomnia went away and the anxiety with it, like I’d finally found a key to turn off the car alarm in my brain. I still don’t know what happened but it makes me afraid of spring, it makes me afraid of lengthening days and deafening birdsong and love affairs. Mostly, of love affairs.
I think loud thoughts to myself as I climb the stairs in the dark, clutching the wall that seems to tip with each step. Maybe I’ll be poor forever, I think. Maybe I will and it doesn’t matter. I am who I am, I have the soul of me, intact, and I’ll have that for as long as I want it, until it flies out of my body as souls are sometimes known to do, precious ethereal things that they are. And maybe I’ll be Annie Dillard one day but I’m no Augusten Burroughs, and Phoolan Devi lived twenty-five of my lifetimes in her measly thirty-three years. I’ve got a copy of The Writing Life now, thin as a pencil, and earlier I began to read it, and got stuck on one yellowed half-page, wondering, the way only a writer can wonder, how many football-fields of courage were cooked down to make these dozen sentences, and at what cost:
“A shoes salesman- who is doing others’ tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours- is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already- worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”
-Annie Dillard, from A Writer’s Life