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"If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose."
All night, we hear the wind chimes tied to the tree in the backyard, and in the morning one could mistake their sound for strange and distant birds. Everything is inchoate in the early hours, with the vellum of sleep still heavy on the buildings, the grey lanes, the sole figures loping in the late dawn, and one can easily mistake the sounds of metal for breath. Even the air encourages this error as well-meant witness, as the morning film transfigures and misguides, and I love it still, as I love the sheet of plastic that blew in some time this summer and tangled on the boughs of that same backyard tree, and now, in the absence of green acts as the only leaf on the otherwise bare branches.
My partner and I walk to the park and stuff our hands in our pockets and talk about animals and the animals we are, how these days the only thing that feels possible is hibernation, and how movement feels less substantiative than sleep. The week-that-is-not, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, has followed us into a new year that in the daylight looks little different than the last. Except that we are still tired, our animal bodies a little stiffer in the cold. In the crook of a tree I spy a pile of clementines and they are so prominent and fresh they could not be there unless intended. I wonder who else has passed by and fancied them, their lick of orange almost brutal against the wet dirt and dark grass. Anything bright in January feels scandalous and my childhood impulse to hide emerges in the sudden light—I’ve preened and crowed for witness yet any intimation of the nakedness it requires and I eschew molting.
Near the end of Rachel Cusk’s Second Place there is a part where the narrator, M, and her daughter fling off their clothes and run yelling into the water under the thick skein of the moon. The light their bodies make in the phosphorescent brilliant, the precarity of the instant ecstatic. She writes, “I believe there are certain moments in life that don’t obey the laws of time and instead last forever, and this was one of them: I am living it still, Jeffers!” Blessedly, infuriatingly, these moments we forever leap into seem to require the same nakedness that arises out of loosening our need to be beheld as anything but a body in the dusk. Or: an animal under the trees, unaware of its sight amongst the last light’s bruise.
When I lived in Seattle and was very sad and very ebullient, frantic that I avoid the great fear and unhappiness that lay beneath my hurried movements, I spent many evenings walking miles in the dark. I lived next to the water and I would walk across the gravel of the shipyard to get to the Ballard bridge; in some areas, the walkway was wide and separated by a large grate from the traffic, but in other sections, there was barely a barrier, and the cars would pull you in towards their wake as they roared past. I would walk this bridge and then through the city, through the scrapyards and past the abandoned workplaces, savoring my aloneness and the ecstasy that often coincided with my grief and anger then. I often cried and then when passing the rare person out that late, felt both panic that they would see my tears and rage that they did not seem to see me at all. I sometimes stopped for a kombucha or a stale cookie or a plum that I’d slip into my pocket and then eat hungrily in the dark. I’d cross a different bridge a few miles down with a better view of the water and then hurry the last mile home, glancing at my reflection in the dark glass of office windows that seemed to swallow the streetlight’s halfhearted halo. Sometimes, I kept going. I would get to the stairs up to the apartment and keep walking, make the loop again, press my nails into my palms until something gave.
I’m no longer that unhappy nor that afraid, though my self-preservation sometimes still only feels possible via endurance, be it through pain or the exhaustion of my body. When my impulses tilt this direction, I rub my breastbone and speak to the child who is afraid, and in her fear thinks she can outrun the night.
I’ve turned to fiction in retelling these days as it offers a privacy that only lately has felt both precious and precarious to me. Most of my youth was spent explaining my life gladly to any audience that would offer an ear, and my compulsion towards witness (spectacle: revelation: astonishment: admonishment) has followed me for years, always an overwrought shadow demanding it not be forgotten. As if you could forget tights sewn to your feet. Now that I am so far from the names that used to be mine, I am cagey, reluctant to offer any pronunciation or record.
My life as it is now lies years from the places it sprung up, and what deviations in weather that broke off branches in childhood have long been accounted for, just like the pressure of my teeth pressed too tightly together. I need to get my wisdom teeth taken out, but I don’t want braces—I’ve grown accustomed to the look of my mouth, the slight overhang of my canines, the metal flashing in the back of my molars from filled-in cavities. Which is of course a loose metaphor, flimsy really, for something more robust and difficult and ultimately simple—the ordinary today and the palimpsest underneath.
For several years, I’ve not spoken to my father, as I’ve been estranged from him and most of his side of the family, and have left his name behind, along with the stories I tell about him and what he meant to me then, and what he could no longer mean to me now. While this silence is necessary and my choice, enforced by both distance and the inattentiveness of his manner, it is still strange to hear nothing when the dependable turns of the world arrive and I remember again, I do not belong to him. The last letter he sent I burned in the kitchen sink until it was ash and there was nothing discernible left. Again, it feels there is no space to place the absence.
Most days I do not think about him, or if I do, it is distractedly, like glancing at a film someone is watching on the seat in front of you on an airplane and trying to remember the name. It has been nearly a decade since I lived with my family in one home and seemingly even longer before that that we were happy together. We are happy now, many and I dare say most of us, though the global we is like watching globules of rain against a car window and naming them yours. We live in different states, we speak at different frequencies, we laugh easier. We are in debt to each other for how we clung together and in debt for how learned what to hold onto. Most acts of love feel like improbable impositions of eternity and our own belief in remaining within its brightness. Any catch of light is like that of spotting your reflection against a sudden moving train, the face across yours blurred in exchange.
I feel most alive when I remember I will die and when I remember I will die I want to kiss life hard on the mouth, quickly, carefully. I want to bear my nakedness to the moon and share the places my palms have pressed with those I love, instead of making stone bleed. I want to forgive everyone and be forgiven. I want to learn to love the way the wind fills an emptiness and makes it sing, or almost, or can if we accept the absences it ensconces in motion.