they are walking
And there are rowers
under light rain,
then heavy rain.
It is humid
and the buses are
And the girls,
the girls are fine
as they pop
a hive of bees
on the north side
“I don’t know where this feeling comes from. It rushes at me all at once and makes me feel smaller than loneliness, my organs collapsing into themselves in pain. It is the most ashamed I ever am. Shriveled up. And not shriveled up into something sweet like a raisin but something sad like the end of a mushroom cloud.”
Beaujolais on Easter
I took the wine to the window and looked out at the empty town. There were only a few cars parked in the street and the storefronts were all shuttered as if a great storm was coming and everybody had evacuated. I liked when it was quiet like that. Hardly anything moved and I poured a glass of easy-drinking Beaujolais, feeling the soft humid rain drizzling into the screen. It was only when the church bell rang that I saw people walking in, walking out, dressed in bright pink, blue, and floral patterns. Everything besides that was gray.
I never cleaned my room. Piles of dirty clothes pushed up against the desk. Some of the things in there were old. The roommate had moved out, Sophia had moved in, and the beginning of spring was spent like that. On the sill, white and chipping, was an ashtray with cigarette butts. These were the old things. Half of them stuck out with regular yellow ends, colorless otherwise, and the other half were tipped with pink lipstick that made them look like tulips in comparison. Those were Diana’s cigarettes. Diana had died. Diana was an anthropology major at La Salle and was the best woman I ever had. The first time I visited her in the hospital, I tried to apologize for drinking that night. I wasn’t thinking. Actually, I was, but I was thinking without regard and that’s just as useless.
“Tell me you’ll forgive me,” I said.
“I need to know now, before anything else happens.”
“I’m not mad at you, the doctors say I’ll be okay.”
“You lost a lot of blood.”
“Yes, and they’ve pumped me full, like a car.”
“It isn’t funny.”
“Are you okay?”
“Surface wounds. Don’t care about me, it’s you you you I’m terrified about.”
“It just won’t be the same after this. You are truly good, but it just won’t be the same.”
She had gotten worse while I was in the bars for the next two weeks, while I was still out drinking and driving, blaming myself, while I sat in bed for days like a solider at his post, begging for the erasure of her mashed apart body from my memory. I did every dangerous thing without a helmet in the hopes of concussing myself and forgetting. Of course, there were the easy things like downing beer and wine until I stumbled around the house nearly blind, shifting my hands across the wall and crying at the same time. I sat on the highest point in the town during every April thunderstorm in the hopes that lightning would strike me at least once. But nothing happened to me. And that was the worst thing that could happen.
Down to about the half-liter mark of the two and half liter bottle, I went out to get something to eat. The parking garage next to my apartment hung over me like a death sentence, and I remembered those chilling nights at the top of it where I would lean over the concrete wall and spit and counted that, from the top to bottom, it would take seven seconds to hit the ground. Seven seconds did not sound like an unreasonable amount of time to end it anymore. But I learned that what kept me going was having something to do and I had an obligation to eat. I thought that having a full stomach would be good after all that wine and all the wine that was coming and was being looked forward to.
I walked up to Bernard Street and on my left, down to where it crossed High Street, the cherry blossom trees were spread out and clawing inward, letting their millions of pink petals fall onto cars parked in the driveways and sides of the road. They were beautiful and Easter-appropriate even as their skinny limbs pointed toward a dead sky of gray and the hazy white linings of clouds.
I picked up some cheap food at the 7-11 and talked to Rick, a local bum, who said he was used to losing everything. And he told me that you would have to be insane not to accept loss forever. And I asked him what that meant. He said that we are always losing things. We lose keys and important things and sentimental things and of course we will lose people. We will lose our senses and our minds. We will lose because of mortality, because we are men. We will lose when it is our fault and when it isn’t. Does it hurt more to lose when you’re at fault? I asked. I don’t know, he lied, nothing I ever lost was my fault.
I walked away, past the pay phone, thought to call an old friend to have someone to talk to, but I thought that nobody wanted to hear from me. I hated myself in a way that would make it easy for others to hate me. I planned to walk up the main street to feel less lonely and more attached to whatever environment this was that was slipping away from me. But the cherry blossoms were the only beautiful things. And no one was walking around. Everybody was praying in the churches and waiting for brunch. I went back up Bernard and lay in the middle of the street, looking up at all those pink petals. They fell into my mouth and onto my eyelids and my back was wet from the ground. Each petal that landed was a morning kiss, Marlboro tulips, a cigarette sucked to its end. For hours I stayed there, drunkenly dreaming of dying, floating, having the power to forget her face. The pink covered me so that I should’ve looked like a piñata in the street. In a way it was like prayer. But in a way it wasn’t.
ignorist asked: I hope that your life is awesome.
“We spent time talking about all the things we would do. And then we never did them—that was the ultimate sadness.”
“Remember when we drove through the banana fields? You were close enough, you figured, and I watched your balled up fists reaching out of the Jeep. Then you opened your hands for them and instead grasped hot air. You cried and I snapped a big bunch off and handed you two. Up past the plantation we stopped and you looked up into the Golani sun as if you had soap in your eyes, double-fisting green bananas. You hated bananas. You didn’t even eat them. You just wanted something to hold on to. And I was trying to give you that in the larger sense. I was trying to give you your identity on that trip.
And those are our memories. They are no one else’s. Your mother didn’t want to come with us and your brother wasn’t born yet. You could argue that Chava, my foster mother at the kibbutz, shared those memories as well because she was there but really it was all for you.
We started the Jeep again and drove down a road that kissed the riverbank, flinging up the hard mud with our tires. Your eyes tried to take everything in—the wrinkles in the mountains, the many vineyards, the cool puff of clouds, the eagles in the sky and the cattle cracking their tails like whips against the flies zooming about their asses. I can’t imagine how you felt. You must have been overwhelmed with the beauty of it. Surely, you had never seen a place like that in America.
Deserted on the hill behind the lake were old tanks baking in the sun. I knew my tank would be there with the others, as they were old models that the army had left there for presentation. We stopped and ate lunch on the front of the tank, underneath the big gun before I lifted you by your armpits and placed you in the hull. You were touching everything and it began to boil in there and you looked up at me in anguish like how could you survive in these things? But I did in ’82. That was the year we invaded Lebanon. A lot was learned about the man I would become in that tank. Those were dreadful days, climbing on and off the mountains in the sun like some hot, dedicated love that you did naturally, for country.
In the afternoon, we gathered up our sleeping bags and tents and, with you attached to me, climbed Mount Hermon. It took nearly three hours. Chava tickled your feet and played with you to distract you from the path that was narrow and had no guardrail. Once we got almost to the top, we spread out our sleeping bags and tents and I got a pot of coffee boiling. The sun was bleeding down like watercolors and I lifted you onto my shoulders and pointed you in the direction of the beginning villages of Southern Lebanon and said wave! Wave to Lebanon, wave to Hezbollah! And you didn’t know what I was talking about but you waved anyway, right into the face of danger. We had heard on the radio the next day that rockets had fallen into the Galilee and I wondered if they saw your pure pink face through binoculars and wanted to destroy you.”
“I’m still here, though,” I said.
“Yes, but soon you’ll be over there.”
I looked at his face, really looking for the first time ever, and you know when you grow up with somebody how they never seem to age? You are stuck in that time of agelessness, of being with them everyday and you take for granted that they will stay like that forever. Well, my father was old now. I could see it in his cracked smile, his heavy eyes, his paleness, the increasing thickness of his glasses, his non-beer gut.
“I think this will all be good for me,” I said. “I’ve found myself here and I’ve lost myself here in America. I’ve been burnt out on American life for too long.”
“I wished I would have known what I was doing when I asked your mother to leave with me to New York,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have made the same decision looking back at it.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t you happy here?”
“I don’t know if America was all it was talked up to be. We had wild dreams and the years have tamed them into submission. There were also important things I missed back home. Your mother, too. I don’t think she ever forgave herself for leaving your grandmother.”
“I can’t believe you ever convinced her to go with you, to cross the ocean.”
“Isn’t it funny? She won’t even leave the house now, but that’s mostly because of the surgery.”
“Will you be fine with her if I go?”
“We’ll be fine,” he said. “We’ve always been fine.”
“Will I like the farm?”
“I think it’ll be good for you. The farm is different than it used to be when I was there. There’s a lot of technology plants that they use the volunteers to work in but you’re going at a good time when they need people in the orchards, picking apples and other fruits.”
“That will be all I need for awhile.”
“And then you’ll do your army service. Three months of basic and three months of combat.”
“It isn’t so bad.”
“No, you won’t see any war.”
“War is a crime.”
“You’re a smart boy, you’re my boy.”
The El Al stewards in their blue suits and white shirts began to wave toward the people in the waiting room. I watched a few planes take off outside the window, rising up, getting away, leaving the soil. It would all be different now. I was nervous about that. And the nervousness was a result of not knowing what I was doing or what it was that I was running away from. But it was bad to think like that. I was always thinking in the negative and it was bad to think that I was running away from something when really I could be running toward something. I hugged my father and kissed him and moved toward the gate. Should I look back at him? I decided not to. I decided not to ever look back because it would crush me. This existence, with its many tricks and unpredictability, had placed me where my father was at 22, only I was going the opposite way. I entered the tunnel, the humidity of the outside pouring in, and began my new life, his life, my life, his life in reverse.
And then came the hard pellets of freezing rain. They cracked open on jackets like cold little asteroids and a flat gray sky gathered toward Manayunk and then Philadelphia. There was forest on either side of the tracks and fog hung in low between them so that you couldn’t see the trains coming until the last minute, their lights like Anglerfish coming through the dark water.
I had promised Ann that I’d be at her parents’ house early. She told me while I was in L.A. that her mother was very fond of me and asked that I come to Christmas Eve breakfast at their house on Prahls Island, which was a part of Pennsylvania or a part of New Jersey depending on how you wanted to look at it. I was still very hungover at the train station. It was only 6:20 AM. By now, Jack, Pete, Charlie, and the rest of them were sleeping it off somewhere in the warmth. Ann had insisted that I come straight to Prahls I. from Virginia but Jack was getting married and I couldn’t miss the bachelor party. It was incredible to us that one of our own was getting married. It was incredible that anybody was getting married these days. We had all left the bar around 4, went to the Diner, ate, went back to the strip club after management found the heirloom watch that Charlie’s grandfather owned as a pilot in the Second War, and got to the station by 5:15 in Pete’s busted up Ford. Jack slept in the backseat with Charlie, and me and Pete lit up cigarettes and listened to jazz. All our ties were loose and our shirts wrinkled and we smelled of diner food and whiskey. At 6, Pete left me at the station. He had to haul ass back downtown to get the kids ready for the half of the holiday they’d spend at Pete’s ex-wife’s house. Ann wasn’t happy with me when I told her about stopping in Philly because she knows how I drink sometimes with the boys. She reluctantly agreed to it on the condition that I wouldn’t show up to Christmas Eve breakfast still drunk. I loved Ann. She accepted all of me.
The next train to where I was going wouldn’t arrive for another 70 minutes. And every one of them felt like a minute in that weather. Each time the wind blew it made the hangover worse. Miquon Station didn’t have a little place in the middle of it for coffee or a place to really stand inside at all. Across a clearing in the forest, I could see the transit workers building the new high-speed trains I had read about in the paper. The sweat climbed off their heads into the air and at that moment I wished I had a say in where my taxes went. I heard a man say once that anything is negotiable, but then I laughed and thought of tax and how the paper said that would be going up too just like the sweat from the transit workers.
A bell sounded and the loudspeaker cracked over the madness of winter.
NEXT TO ARRIVE ON THE OUTBOUND SIDE: THE 6:45 LOCAL TO NORRISTOWN. NORRISTOWN, NEXT TO ARRIVE.
There was no one around when the train pulled in. The fog had cleared only slightly. Instead of rain, snow piled onto the overhang above me and the tracks, rusted orange like some sunset in some warm place, disappeared under the white. The door of the train opened and one man got off with two packed suitcases. He was thin and balding in front. Little wisps of his hair stuck out in the wind as if by static. He wore a black peacoat, oversized, and thick glasses. Each lens seemed to have come from an old magnifying glass.
“So, this is the one?” he yelled over the wind to the train operator. He was pointing at the big billboard next to me above the bench.
“Yeah, yeah,” the train guy said. “That’s the one. Happy Holidays, sir.”
The train knocked along. The man in the glasses just shook his head in some ultimate sadness and guided his finger down the board schedules.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “That damned bitch in the SEPTA office told me they were running on a SUNDAY schedule, none of this Christmas special shit.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t know about it either until this morning.”
He looked over at me, then the board again, then the snow and set his things down in front of the bench and sat next to me.
“Smoke with me.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Christmas Eve and divorce.”
“You got divorced?”
“Wife kicked me out today, so I guess we’re in the beginning stages, right?”
“No, I’m afraid not even Jesus could save that marriage.”
He drew two cigarettes from his pocket, lit mine, lit his, passed mine and we smoked them in the cold.
“Where are you going now? What’s your train?”
“7:40. Lansdale. Old college buddy has an extra room. Lives above a bar, too.”
“Is the bar open today?”
“It sure as hell better be.”
“I fell in love.”
“We ran out of money, and somewhere along the way we lost the love, too. I been unemployed for a good amount of time now. Last year I had just enough money to get the kids presents. This year I didn’t. Even the tree looked shittier than ever.”
“And that’s why she kicked you out?”
“How old are the kids?”
“One is 8 and the other is 5. Both girls.”
“What’s the other part of it?”
“I made a mistake. Granted, I only had to move a little to make enough money for the bills, presents for the girls, and even something nice for the wife. Police got to me last week. It was nighttime. The girls were scared pretty bad and my wife said she didn’t want them to be around me anymore. She said that I was getting sad and desperate and uncharacteristic. I stayed out late. I smoked and wouldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t know what to do. I convinced her like I always did and she let me stay. But now, you see, I didn’t have the money anymore and the girls ask for more things from Santa every year. Last night, my wife and I got drunk into the morning and made love through the morning like all had been forgiven and when she got up to do her hair and couldn’t turn any of the lights on, she realized I hadn’t paid the Electric Company bill and threw the curling iron at me and threw me out saying she had had it.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“How do you explain it?”
“You don’t even try, that’s how.”
“But you loved each other.”
“Where you going? What’s your train?”
“You’re a young guy. Coming home from college?”
“To see my girl. She lives on Prahls Island with her parents.”
“You ever meet them?”
“The parents? No. First time. They invited me to Christmas Eve breakfast.”
“Must be serious, you and her.”
“Hell, I don’t know.”
“Do you love her?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve never been in love. You’ve been in love.”
“Because I’ve been married?”
“No, because you admitted it.”
“Well still, marriage is not love. So even when I say I loved her, it wasn’t enough to put a good marriage together.”
“So tell me how you knew when you loved her.”
“It’s different for everybody.”
“I just want to know it.”
“What’s there to know?
“That feeling when you realize it. That indescribable one. There must be something common about it. I’ve never known it and I want to know it when I see it.”
“But there aren’t even words for that sort of thing.”
“I’m sure there is one.”
“What makes you sure?”
“Don’t you know about those words the French have?”
“The ones with no English equivalent. Like La douleur exquise.”
“I don’t know that one.”
“It’s a term meaning the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have. The unique feeling of it. There’s no word in English for that.”
“I never knew anything about it.”
“So, I’m sure there is one. One for the feeling of knowing you’re in love.”
“Is that all the French do is make up words for things?”
“There’s words like that from all over.”
“Well, we dated for two semesters in college and at the big summer party they have outside for graduation, we drank and drank a lot. I was ordering more drinks at the bar when she came up to me and snapped her teeth at me with her beautiful drunk eyes floating and reflecting the lights and she was wild and I was tame and she bit me on the nose when I turned around and I grabbed her by the waist and said ‘Marry me, you fucking bitch’. And we did a couple weeks later.”
“So at some point you did actually equate love with marriage.”
“Who the hell doesn’t think that when they’re young? I just didn’t want her to be with anyone else.”
The snow fell harder upon Miquon Station as if the universe had answered sadly to the man’s heartbreak. The sun was hazy and up in the sky but no light reached down to us.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about that old saying,” he said.
“What old saying?”
“That all’s fair in love and war.”
“What about it?”
“What do you think of it?”
“I never took it seriously.”
He laughed. “I didn’t either at first.”
“And now you do?”
“I used to think that at least with war you had a choice, right? You volunteered to get your leg blown off in the desert. You volunteered to be killed. That’s why war is fair. I didn’t see love as the same thing. Especially if the result of love is this. This devastation. You didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t volunteer for that. I know I didn’t. It isn’t a damn bit fair. Where’s the warning? But now that I think about it, all’s fair in love, too. Love is simply war dressed up much prettier. That’s why we think nothing bad will happen, because love is figurative and war is literal. And you don’t see love on the news, but you see war all the time. And you identify love with good intentions and war with bad ones. So you find it impossible to be let down by love. You get into it for all the right reasons. And then you realize that those who don’t believe that all’s fair in love and war are the ones who have either never been in love or never been to war. You volunteer for both. You volunteer to be destroyed by both. It is unspoken. A part of the ritual. There’s no way around it. People feel entitled to love. And good love at that. But they don’t know what to do with it once they have it. People feel entitled to love. But nothing is an entitlement around here. You see, you’ve never been in love and you’ve never been to war so naturally you think it’s unfair.”
“Does anything make it easier?”
“She was worth it. Only that. She was.”
“You just can’t be afraid to lose them. You have to live without the fear of losing them and the reality that they are wild souls and won’t wait for anybody. They can leave whenever they want when you don’t make them happy anymore.”
“Do you make her happy, your girl?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Then you start with that. Build it into a fire.”
My train pulled in and I said goodbye to the man. On the train, a husband argued with his wife and a banker laughed and there were poor people with nothing and there were rich people with everything and the children hopped with their shoes on the seats. I looked out the window at the white, white, white and I died a little, thinking of how much of my life I had spent looking at the world through a window. We passed a square with many stores and many people going into them and out of them. I saw the little episodes of people trading momentary sparks of compassion. Compassion that they saved, that they restrained, that they held out on using like sick days until the middle of December. And December always moves so fast. How soon after do we go back to hating each other? It’s an ugly time, and people think that it can never get ugly but it does. The man’s wife kicking him out—that was honest ugly business. But when it falls apart it falls apart. You are then unable to dress your wounds. Especially ones that have no intention of healing. And as he’s drinking the bottle later, he’ll realize this and smile and think of good things like his daughters.
When I finally got to the edge of the River and could see Prahls Island, I breathed and looked around. The fog was thick and pressed against the water. The trees were rough and gray like elephant skin. And I couldn’t see any movement. The lights of the house twinkled from up on the hill and another one lit up by the door as Ann walked out. She wore a green trenchcoat and waved a speck of a hand to me across the river. She smiled as she came down the pier and untied the boat. I could see her climb in and start to pull back on the motor string. She came forward, cutting through the water, and the sparkle of her blue eyes came through the fog like train lights. The engine sputtered and the wind took her hair in its hands and she was beautiful in the spray. Beautiful and militant. The boat was rushing at the riverbank too fast and she cut it left just before land. A tiny wave of water drenched me and she laughed and I smiled at her like I don’t often do. I was happy in reaction to her happiness. I thought that might be love. She pulled at my tie and I fell into the boat. And we just sat out there on the water until we were hungry.
manateesandmermaids asked: I've already left you a rather hero-worshipping-type ask before, but I simply wanted to remind you that your writing is phenomenal. I fall in love with words rather easily, but your words are some of my current favorites. And I'm presently also slightly worshiping Kerouac and Salinger, so this is serious.
Kerouac and Salinger are both giants in their own right. I hope to live long enough to get there and to please you along the way.
I know, I’m here for you.