Life is an affair of people, not places. But for me life has been an affair of places and that is the trouble. — Wallace Stevens
Everything looked a little blue, just a faint cast from the flickering silver bodies on the other side of the glass – salmon. They struggled in the ladder, all shoved into the same corridor, jumping and flopping onto one another, sometimes landing in the next bin and sometimes tumbling all the way out, into the freeway-exit shaped trays that slid them back down to the bottom of the ladder.
“Nice,” thought Frances, breathing deeply as she watched the exposed gills strain and collapse. “All that work and what do they get at the end? A smack in the head.” The salmon continued to writhe and wriggle between one another, moving ahead, changing lanes, darting in and out of line. All that same dull shade of silver, all plowing mindlessly toward certain death. Why all that same color? Why the unnatural leaping out of their comfortable environment to move slightly closer? Why, oh why, the stupid haste?
“Are you alright?”
“I hate traffic. I hate . . . stupid greyish silver cars.”
“The rental place didn’t ask for a preference.”
“Loathe. I mean loathe. Hate is an awful word; I hate hate. I loathe it.”
“It was this or a minivan.”
“Look around. They’re all little flits of silver. We’re swimming upstream. To mate and die.”
“Come on, can’t you just enjoy the weekend? No phone calls. No work.”
“You are taking me out of the city.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing. No trash pick up at 3 am.”
“How will I ever get any sleep? Ahhhrggh! I hate you.”
Frances dropped the seat back flat and covered her face with her hands.
“Are you crying? Don’t cry – you’re going to love it, really! It’s beautiful and peaceful, and there’s wildlife — “
“I’m not crying. You don’t know anything about the country, do you?”
“No. No, I can’t say that I do, because I have this girlfriend who can’t be more than five blocks out of the downtown free bus zone without getting the vapors.”
“It’s not like you think it is. Those happy woodland creatures you’re expecting do not exist. The bunnies are rabid and the deer have mange. The scenery consists of junk cars, rusty swing sets and trailers set at rakish angles on muddy lots.”
The last image brought a queasy silence to the inner chamber of the Daiwoo; it was broken by a most unfortunate query.
“Did you take – you know, your . . . stuff?”
Frances rose without bringing the seatback along. “I told you I was not going to take that filthy poison.”
“Look, I’m just trying to make a nice weekend for us. If you could just, you know, take the edge off so it doesn’t turn in to some – now you’re crying – you know, people don’t usually have to take sedatives to go on vacation.”
“No, people do not. And besides, I only cry when I am very, very – wait. Did you put it in my coffee? I feel funny.”
“Great. Something new to obsess about.”
“I’m not obsessed about it, I just asked. Well?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Frances.”
Don’t worry; the weekend didn’t turn out all that badly. Frances didn’t take any prescription drugs but she drank a good bit, at least until they ran out of vermouth olives and the general store didn’t have anything but plain old manzanillas. She took that news pretty well, but on the hike she stopped halfway to the waterfall and screamed “I have a stitch!” until David gave up and went on alone. Later, she did show him how to find Orion in the night sky, plain away from the city lights; he thanked her and said he felt very close to her just then. She announced that something had bitten her, went indoors for bug spray and did not re-emerge.
Whatever the world is when you’re twelve — that’s essentially what you have to work with. It must be the threshold of external awareness or some such. Try though I might to be something, anything else, when I view myself truthfully, I can see what I am and what I will continue to be forever. I have been pre-punk, punk, post-punk, alternative, never really grunge because the aesthetic wasn’t discernable to me. I have been Mod, Modern, Post-Modern, Post-Contemporary, New Wave, No Wave, Not Waving At All. I was never, ever a hippie because of the whole rustic/wilderness/country aspect. do not know what I am now and I live in fear that I am retro in some way. I guess I am, secretly; I am 1978, close enough to hear the echo of my Granny laughing her ass off at Watergate every afternoon, but before those ostrich years of Reagan (for twelve republican years I shut off some part of my brain — it was easy, I was an adolescent, and I’ve never been strong or responsible enough to handle the horror of that reality). In 1978, I was still watching everyone else with no sense of myself being watched. My cousin Neil, my idol — when I was fourteen he closed that era of anonymity for me, commenting on my hair: “You don’t listen to that stuff, you know, like the Dead Kennedys?” His grimace sank me. He’s a lawyer now. I think he’s even in politics. It’s perfect, isn’t it?
“And it’s all on purpose?”
“When you are alone, do you still explain things? Just to yourself?”
“How long did you leave David out there?”
“David left himself out there.”
“Did he suffer enough?”
“I don’t like bugs.”
“Why do you feel safe in a city?”
“That’s not really what I’d say I feel.”
“Well then, how would you describe your feelings about the city in contrast with your feelings about rural areas?”
“In cities, there are living people.”
“And in rural areas?”
“Your humor helps you cope, I assume, but it may undermine your progress ultimately.”
“I have no idea what that statement means.”
“You exaggerate for a contrived humorous effect, of course. You do not mean to say that those people are dead, do you?”
“Effectively, yes. By certain standards.”
“Do you think your attitude is negative?.”
Things happen in cities. That is what Frances meant to say. Or at least, later she thought she might have meant to say that, and that it was at least a much nicer thing to want to say. Some people have trouble coming up with swift, fierce rejoinders — that sharp phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, a good one to use, except you have to explain it every time. Frances had trouble thinking of a nice thing to say, you know, in the moment. The spirit of kindness was there, just like the spirit of outrage is still there in a mute, wronged nice person. She should have said what was in her heart, that she loved the excitement of possibility the never knowing what might be contained in any given day. Except that she loathed people who said what was in their hearts. But there was an excellent example: Boston.
Frances never had been to Boston for any serious reason but she had a great fondness for books and a lesser fondness for boats, as long as they did not have large, looming hulls. The great citywide festival that is Boston’s New Year’s Eve was the circumstance of her first visit; all of her Boston friends claimed her love for the city came from a mistaken early impression that in Boston everyone was friendly and all the shows were free. She explained differently and more specifically:
On the plane I knew I recognized him, but if he hadn’t spoken to me, it would have been a guess, like the time I thought I saw Cher which gradually just became, That Time I Saw Cher. Anyway, he was back in coach with me and his buddy was of course up in first class, still distancing himself as he had in high school – with some tangible reason, at least in his mind now, I suppose, having a big company involving computers, the internet, or something. When you run into someone from high school, especially when you didn’t know them well (note: you don’t know anyone really well in high school) it just seems like the entire conversation, no matter what they are actually saying, consists of them shrieking over and over “I really do exist! I really do exist! Because I found you and you are really there!” The rest is just blah, blah, blah.
So anyway, they invited me to this party. It was in Cambridge, but they assured me it was not far from where I would be staying. Bill 1 (they were both named Bill, of course) had an enormous, impressive blonde wife who intimidated even the stewardesses. She seemed to maintain her blinding smile by focusing on a distant point above my head somewhere. I took the directions she sketched out in a little leather notebook and went off to catch a cab, my carry-on having become a drag-about.
Somewhere in the drunken melee of the evening, my Boston friends were going over plans for New Year’s Eve and the various parties. Hey, I said, I got invited to a party. I tried to explain high school, blondes, stewardesses, first-class Bill and coach Bill. But mercifully they cut to the chase:
“Where?” asked Kevin.
“Here,” I said, “in Cambridge.”
The furniture seemed to be laughing my friends off of it. Boy, I’m funny, I thought, chuckling along. What the hell did I say?
“Cambridge,” Chris managed to form with semi-straight face and pretty straight arm holding up straight gin, “is not here.”
“We don’t generally go to parties in Cambridge,” they all said. “We go to parties in Boston, an actual city. You do not want to go to this Cambridge party, we promise.”
“Let me see those directions – no, this will never do,” Kevin shook his head sadly, tearing the tiny piece of paper into tinier pieces. “No honey, you stick with us and you will have a much, much better time.”
I was inclined to trust Kevin’s assessment – so much for trying to raise my own stock by having my own party invitation to contribute. Kevin was one of the most entertaining people I knew, or that I might ever know, for that matter. So that’s why they call them gay, said one of my friends at the acme of a bar-filled evening with Kevin. I think by that point we were all comparing our lingerie and our various useless advanced degrees: Creative Writing! Philosophy! Numismatics! You’ve got to be kidding – what the hell is numismatics? That deserves a toast – to numistmatics! Let there be nothing but numismatiticians! And peace will surely then reign.
But the point: on that New Year’s Eve, Frances had a most superficial epiphany. She still treasures that moment – standing outside the Old North Church, snow swirling, chamber music just starting inside. They were waiting for one more in the party, a friend she had not met yet but who her friend had described as “a man pretty enough not to be real.” It was eight degrees – eight is a nice time for dinner, Frances protested, not a temperature – and Lara’s understatement had not nearly prepared her enough for Mark’s entrance. Down the sidewalk a figure swept, a long, cashmere-coated Calvin Klein model sort of figure. Not a Calvin Klein model sort of figure, no: an actual Calvin Klein model. Boston tolerated no similes, it seemed. But she did not know that then. And it is not important in the end. The figure spoke to her friends, using their actual names. Frances started to tear up just after being introduced and just as everyone started for inside.
“What’s wrong?” Lara asked.
“Nothing,” said Frances, blinking. There is so nothing wrong, the not-wrongest I think I’ve ever been, the snow, the music, and that man, who is far too attractive for anyone I know actually to know.
How do such things come to pass? It must be this place. It’s the place, because it certainly is not me. I’ve been me all my life and this has never happened.
But things like those have happened to you.
Only in that place.
Only in Boston?
Not Boston. That place.
“No,” Mark said to me later that night, on the couch in Kevin’s living room. “No, you did not want to party with the Cambridge people.” I shook my head slowly, like him, so as to maintain eye contact. I understood. It was a mistake I would never make again. Most everyone was asleep by then, except us, and Kevin, who was trying to be unobtrusive but continued to scrutinize us from the hideous papasan chair. The tv was on. Here’s another lesson – do not rely on the tv as a conversation sparker! Save up quips if necessary – Boy, that mountain air in Sun Valley went straight to my head! Did you know the Macy’s parade is the world’s second largest user of helium? – everything was going along so nicely, but then:
“Look,” said Kevin, “Star Trek movie!” He realized the error almost immediately, but there was no saving the magic of the evening, which flew out the previously airtight bay window and flickered for a second before whipping around in a twisted frenzy like an untied balloon.
“Can you tell which one?” Mark asked brightly. A nice young man, a lovely sentiment. It was only the time that was wrong for us, my darling.
“Hmm, maybe four,” said Kevin. “Which one has all the snow in the beginning?”
I was paralyzed by the knowledge of what was coming or I would have thrown my drink in the air and taken off all my clothes. No, that would never have happened, but I might have at least turned off the tv. I expect there was a remote handy; there’s really no excuse.
“Well,” Mark said, taking his arm from around me and his legs off of my lap, “I’m going on up to bed.” We were succumbing already to the oddly formal; there were passed out sleeping people all over the living room. He paused for a moment and smiled.
“Well then, goodnight,” I said. My illusions have vanished with the sight of pointy ears and fur, I meant.
“Oh. Goodnight, then,” he said.
Is he gone?
Kevin just nodded, slowly and sadly, and for the second time in twenty-four hours I prayed to fit better into this magical world.
“I know how you must feel,” Kevin whispered.
“Damned Spock!” I wailed, falling over the sofa arm.
“Yeah,” said Kevin, “Star Trek never got anyone laid. That I know of personally.”
Could you consider the possibility that it is not the place itself that causes these occurrences?
You could not consider, for instance, that it may be a difference within your own self and attitude? That it is you, after all, not a city?
Of course it’s me; don’t you think I know anything?
Well, do you see behavior as a choice?
I do choose. I stay where my behavior is better.
But surely it’s you who controls that behavior, not your environment.
Really? Maybe it’s just a question of who’s bigger.
Why don’t you talk about the country?
No one will like what I say.
It’s not charming.
Can I alter taste?
Consider it a challenge.
Fine. But I’m getting nothing out of this.
One night me and my momma and my daddy was sitting on the back porch whittlin’ birch branches into eatin’ sticks when long up came a possum and daddy went out after it in his pickup truck.
That’ll be quite enough. If you’re not going to take it seriously…
I am being serious
No one talks like that.
How can you be sure? One thing about the “no one talks that way” argument: somebody somewhere is always worse. Or more or better. People will talk almost any way you can imagine. Authenticity is in the ear of the, of the…
OK, I’ll try again. One night my mom and dad were eating Stouffers stuffed bell peppers off the coffee table watching Sanford and Son. We were not allowed to talk during Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, or any of the intervening commercials. Thus it was a shock of no small magnitude – after all, it was his rule – when my dad started to babble. Maybe it was the incoherence that was most shocking; he was not a babbler by nature: “Thing. Thing! Thingthingthingthing THIIING! Skitter. Dirty. GET!”
In retrospect, I can see how my mom got “There’s a mouse on the floor” from the outburst, but her interpretation was swift and impressive at the time. In many ways, my entire childhood can be reduced to this single visual image: my father, perched on the slate coffee table brandishing a dustbroom like a staff-wielding kung fu master over stuffed bell peppers, shrieking in a language of his own making while my mother on her knees trapped a tiny confused mouse in a decorative green glass water tumbler.
I don’t know; it’s not a bad story.
It’s an ok story, but it’s a bad memory.
Doesn’t it give you any perspective?
Yes. She took the beast outside and beat its brains out with a brick from the barbecue my dad was building. Everything they ever cooked on that barbecue tasted like rat to me.
Are you sure it was stuffed bell peppers?
Well, it could have been macaroni and cheese.
So it is a story.
Sure. It’s mine. Now you sound like a lawyer.
Am I supposed to be insulted?
I don’t know; it’s relative, I guess. Before you sounded like a therapist.
Well, I’m not either one of those things. You’ve only got yourself to blame.
And that has been my point all along.
Look, do you want to tell the story or not?
I’m trying, but you won’t help me.
There’s no helping you.
Frances had an idea. It was a wonderful, terrible, essential idea. From that first hour at which she was able to form thoughts, she had been plotting escape. An AFS trip to France with a bunch of third year French students may not seem very liberating, but it was handy. At thirteen she got picked up by a van at the end of a dirt road named after a tobacco farmer’s dog and was whisked to the Raleigh/Durham airport. She watched through the window as the men in jumpsuits wheeled a staircase to nowhere across the tarmac. She imagined herself at the top of that unhinged staircase, hair billowing behind her, sword ahead, like a warrior goddess hurtling across the North Carolina piedmont on a metal flight, looking for someplace to ascend. But then they stuck the stairs to the side of the airplane and after some plastic trays, seat belts, flotation devices, and several aircraft, poof! Frances was going through customs, a transaction that had previously always suggested to Frances a kind of cultural exchange. Nonetheless, the ritual retained a bit of rude glamour for her.
What happened to Frances there? I’ll ask because you may not be wondering if you are at all cosmopolitan yourself. What happens to a thirteen-year-old, misplaced, bookish country girl in Paris? It’s going to involve some ideas with which you may be familiar: fear, change, regret and euphoria. How far away are these sentiments from absence, silence, distance and loss, which, according to experts, are the four main boulevards in cheap-shot city? Speaking of cheap shots, we’ll be looking at some familiar terrain as well: Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and the Louvre, of course, but not the Mona Lisa at least because there were about six thousand Spanish tourists camping in front of it and when Frances finally saw it, well, under all that glass, it just seemed small and sad. Her expression seemed to say, Sorry about the wait, and by the way, this is all he gave me; I’ve got nothing else to work with.
I was on my bicycle, so I must have been at least eight or nine. I had terrible balance and wore glasses but he would never let me have training wheels so it took me damn near forever to learn how to ride. I ran over a snake on the way back from the dairy farm down the road – probably it was already dead but I rode home in a sprint, never looking back in case a giant black snake was racing along behind me like a huge vibrating question mark. When I turned onto our road, he was at the end of the field turning the tractor around. He kept towards me, bearing down, and I must have stopped pedaling or hit a rock but I woke up on the ground underneath my bike looking up in to the giant Allis-Chalmers letters getting closer and closer. He can’t see me, I kept thinking, but I couldn’t move. The front grate of the tractor hit my back tire and I jumped out of the way. The force of the machine threw my bike through the air beside me. He was sitting on top, laughing. He had never stopped looking at me.
“I’ll race you!” he shouted over the engine. “I’ll race you, dammit!”
But all I heard was “I’ll erase you!”
The front tire was too bent to ride.
I thought you weren’t going to talk about the country any more.
Frances was wandering around the Louvre feeling sorry for the Mona Lisa and thinking about how the Mona Lisa looked nothing like her cousin Lisa while also trying to identify as many different languages as possible at once without hearing any English at all. When she got close enough to hear the Germans, she lost the Japanese. She thought one group was Dutch but couldn’t be sure – while listening for K sounds she noticed a large group in a coved intersection of several corridors. As she got closer, she didn’t see anyone from her group, so she skittered on up behind a column. Here was everything – German, French, Spanish, the possibly-Dutch family, Greek, an African dialect? Russian, oh, brilliant speech in exploding prisms of consonants all chorused into the same refrain of wonder, wonder, wonder – what were they all looking at? Frances turned around.
“It flew at me.”
The marble floor was warm from bodies. All those faces looking down at her, the tipped-up nonsense of foreign questions – she was consoled without reason. Even if she had spoken any one of those languages with the completest of fluency, Frances could never have explained to anybody on hand that she was not suffering from any number of common tourist miseries. She could never have detailed the way in which the Nike of Samothrace – she’d see it again later, Winged Victory – how it moved toward her from the other end of the corridor, swooping its enormous headless form down from its pedestal and rising just above the top of the white staircase. It stopped there, hovering. It could not see her.
—Nicole Sarrocco tries to live in as many places as possible at one time. Arundel Press published her book of poems, Karate Bride, in 2004. More of her work can be seen at www.karatebride.com.