Category Archives: Place

17 One-Sentence Stories

20080609_subdivision_900x600Another experiment in fiction…

1. He left his castle in the sandbox hoping someone might visit it.

2. It was a street added to tendrils in his imagination.

3. Their neighbor’s “hello” weaved past empty boxes stacked in the entrance hall.

4. Summer baked the pavement—heat rose as from a new hell beneath his feet.

5. The girl in the desk ahead glanced to the side, perhaps to look at him.

6. When he reread the note later, he knew he couldn’t give it to her.

7. The dance not even half-way over, he worried no slow songs remained.

8. Her mom called her in, but he stayed in the tree’s vee dreaming her echo.

9. His father stayed shut in his bedroom, and that winter seemed chiefly gray.

10. The red eye of the phone machine blinked, its endless notice persistent.

11. His best friend warned him no one wants to be known as one half of a pair.

12. The cellar door promised cooler darkness—they took the steps together.

13. They would drive separately along highways she’d marked in daisy yellow.

14. Memory is cruel and made him believe what is so was always so.

15. What if other lives cross into this one, creating alternate webs?

16. Amid everything strewn about, nothing seemed accidentally broken.

17. She did his laundry then left his bag wide open on their unmade bed.

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Filed under American Sentences, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Writing

When Americans Became Americans

000_0699My assignment this summer is to review an American history textbook in preparation for teaching in the fall. This week I hoped to reach the revolution, but I keep stopping to look for the adult US in the accounts of the child.

It’s all there, the best and the worst: conflicts of justice and profit; idealism and its steady drift toward self-righteousness; deep devotion that excuses persecution; autonomy dismissive of interconnectedness and gratitude; practical tolerance and its red-line limits; everything-is-possible (and allowable) ambition; can-do self-assurance that here, at last, is something different… and better.

One of the most interesting questions in American history is when we stopped thinking of ourselves as British subjects and became Americans. Well into the 1760’s, the textbook says, Americans still thought of themselves as British subjects. According to the book, British mismanagement (specifically all those taxation and regulatory acts that I will have to get straight one of these days) galvanized Americans as Americans.

Though I’ll be teaching history in the fall, I’m no historian. I wonder, however, if the textbook’s account of our origins follows another American tendency—self-justification. We like to believe that, as victims of circumstance, we’ve responded to necessity. Whatever trouble we get into, we like to believe someone else started it, caused it, created it when, from the beginning, we’ve made choices to set ourselves apart.

The textbook contains a two-page spread asking whether slavery arose from racism or whether racism arose from slavery. However, both options put the blame elsewhere. If slavery comes first—because Africans captured to be slaves and transported to the colonies as slaves were slaves when they arrived—then colonists only took part in an existing institution. If racism came first, the colonists’ cultural circumstances prevented them from fully seeing the great evil of their actions.

Yet, the French and Spanish models of colonization were quite different. The French trapped furs alongside the native population, and, though their approach also exploited opportunities (and set environmentally disastrous precedents), they traded with Native Americans, and intermarried with them. The Spanish were perhaps as cruel as the British, but their paternalistic model sought to “help” indigenous people through conversion, organized farming, and mutual protection. You might argue they faced different environments and needs, but neither group turned to importing slaves or embraced slavery on the scale British colonists did.

For the British colonists, slavery arose after indentured servitude failed to provide labor forces of the size, economy, and quality desired. When indentured servants fulfilled their terms, their caretakers provided little to assure any future, and former workers roamed the countryside begging alms and/or robbing the local population. Land owners weren’t willing to pay former servants to stick around nor were they willing to offer incentives to attract more laborers from overseas. African slaves, in contrast, needed no incentive other than compulsion, and the institution itself assured that no reward would be necessary either. Slavery was, in other words, a rational second option for colonial farmers, one entered into consciously and deliberately. Neither racism nor slavery mattered as much as economic advantage. Both justified money-making choices.

Peter Wood, a historian writing in the seventies, offered accounts of colonists and Africans working side-by-side in the early years of settlement before the rigid plantation model supplanted the more flexible and intimate system that preceded it. Early colonists faced the choice of working on a smaller and less profitable scale. Instead they refined means of forced subjugation. They nurtured it. They profited from it. They perfected it, and institutionalized cruelty marked its improved apparatus.

One example does not a case make, but the history of slavery in the British colonies (and later the US) suggests something was fundamentally different about the American colonies from the start. Out of communication with the capitals of Europe and old-world values, British colonists experienced unprecedented freedom to reinvent society—and to do so, in the case of slavery, with depraved cynicism and for economic and pragmatic ends. Though they may have called themselves British subjects into the 1760s, they were, from the start, set apart, not yet renamed, but different because they were free to act according to their own ways.

I’m reminded here of a former student who chided classmates whenever they turned to listing “American” traits. She would say that Americans are people, that the characteristics we ascribe to them are human characteristics, not American ones. Perhaps, but the American experiment granted human nature unprecedented liberty. The child who grows up away from its parents, who, in the absence of absolutes, creates its own codes and rationalizations for selfish actions, who invents its own self-esteem and pride… that child grows into a very different adult.

And what you call that adult may matter less than recognizing its defining and abiding nature.

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Filed under America, Arguments, Essays, Identity, Laments, Opinion, Place, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts

In My Room

article-1184369-04FEF065000005DC-530_468x310When I was young, tantrums—fits, really—sometimes possessed me. Some minor slight would set me off, and I’d rail in ire or angst or something between. I lost it so often my family nicknamed me “The angry bee” because I buzzed incomprehensibly and spun like someone signaling a path to poison flowers. I couldn’t have been easy to watch, so my parents sent me to my room. Their instructions were simple and direct: “Stay there until you can come out and be a civil human being.”

Once alone, I’d…

  • rail against the injustice of my oppressors
  • formulate elaborate plans to run away
  • fantasize how much I’d be missed
  • cry until crying grew tiresome
  • relive and revise the moments that landed me there
  • embrace whatever criticism I’d received
  • crack the door to listen to my family without me
  • catalog my other shortcomings and fatal flaws
  • excoriate myself for the sins of my nature
  • cogitate over what made me so unsuited to society
  • resolve to become Spock and never feel emotion again
  • compose the newest chapter of my prisoner’s autobiography
  • prepare my apology and a sincere promise—this time—to change
  • rehearse a jocular re-entry sparing my saying anything
  • wait, hoping someone noticed and retrieved me

These episodes ended much less dramatically than they began. I slinked back into the TV room. One of my brothers or sisters scooted over to make room on the couch or in a chair. I slotted into the space, and no one said anything. The biggest kindness, they must have believed, was silence, forgetting, moving on.

I’d say the process didn’t help me much but really it made me. In many ways, I’m in that room still, a ruminating creature subject to the same looping reexaminations and recriminations, looking for a place when I’m never entirely sure I belong anywhere. Without my history of time alone, I might not pursue sense so desperately now. I might not read the way I read or write as I do.

Nonetheless, the infinite time out isn’t anything I’d recommend, and it wasn’t a course I could take with my own children. My wife’s request I let my son or daughter stew, to give them time to process, to calm down, to think twice about the things they’d said—such patience felt impossible to me. In their place, I’d await some angel’s arrival. I wanted to be the angel. My children weren’t always glad to see me, and sometimes they welcomed continuing our dispute just where we left off, but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t leave them alone, couldn’t leave me alone, couldn’t leave questions alone.

My self-restraint never lasts long. Though I’ve learned to affect a preternatural calm, I’ve never actually had much. My mood changes more than weather, is more subject to subtle shifts in air pressure, cloud cover, temperature, and wind direction.

You can accept never settling some issues because variables are too multitudinous and circumstances too chaotic, but thinking every issue insolvable is a bad habit. And one hard to break. Disbelieving assures you’re right. Though self-recrimination is a tremendous ally to deliberation, a motivation to think over, under, and through complicated questions, a spur to exploring subtle distinctions, implications, and applications, though I wouldn’t be myself without this relentless sense I haven’t thought anything through yet, that room is lonely.

The greatest kindness may be someone who can stop spinning flywheels of thought and affirm what you might otherwise never believe. Some rooms you can’t escape without help.

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Filed under Aging, Anger, Apologies, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Parenting, Place, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing

Intermittence

par-intermittence-5846321. Sometimes I find myself staring and seeing nothing.

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2. Sometimes the pool of the world fills as from a spring pouring out of the last shovel strike.

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3. Sometimes the operations of my neighborhood—the trains and dog-walkers, the people loitering on stoops or shifting their weight as they stand beside locked cars—seem the working parts of a vast clock that only winds up.

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4. Sometimes a breeze turns as from some new impulse and urgency.

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5. Sometimes the moon seems to watch.

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6. Sometimes I have to close my eyes because fathoms-deep tides pull me under and, try as I might, their insistence is irresistible, the pleading voices of souls seeking company and solace.

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7. Sometimes, when walking seems new to children, I wait to see parents take their hands.

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8. Sometimes ice on the lake undulates the way the earth must during a quake, and, watching, I’m momentarily disoriented, my own legs wobbly.

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9. Sometimes, when a cold gust raises tears, I’m happy for the relief.

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10. Sometimes I imagine saving the sun from stampeding clouds.

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11. Sometimes the sun burns through the hardest ice.

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12. Sometimes unguarded people allow our eyes to linger.

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13. Sometimes, if my trip to work is full of images, sounds, and smells, they drown my thoughts and urge acquiescence and sacrifice.

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14. Sometimes snow flurries are so small and random, they remind me how much I long for mayflies.

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15. Sometimes I see empty storefronts, their windows expansive and vacant, gaping almost jealously at passers-by.

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16. Sometimes a shout from nowhere reminds me I’m really not alone.

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17. Sometimes people insist I listen.

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18. Sometimes I wonder if it might be a relief to be deaf.

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19. Sometimes branches move only when you watch.

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20. Sometimes cars lurch through intersections with visible resistance and sometimes they punch a new hole in that direction.

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21. Sometimes gray appears most of the world.

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22. Sometimes the parts of a broken glass seem to long for one another.

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23. Sometimes I do and don’t want more.

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24. Sometimes a flapping sail feels restless and sometimes reluctant.

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25. Sometimes my brain thirsts for color the way you want salt.

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26. Sometimes I forget the day started with my sitting on the edge of the bed willing myself to rise and silence the alarm and praying it might silence itself or, at least, only be part of a dream interrupted.

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27. Sometimes everything looks already made.

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28. Sometimes actors bow days after the show is over.

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29. Sometimes the sun’s exit is perfect.

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30. Sometimes sometimes doesn’t seem often enough and other times too often.

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A Necessary Virtue: Saturday Morning

bronze_armchairA busy day awaits, so I tried to make a virtue of necessity and allowed myself an hour to write this morning. Here’s what came up with, probably more exercise than composition, but all I can manage:

Quiet seems more complete when the heater’s blowers die, and the outside noises that our inside noises erase suddenly become audible—the L roaring past, tires crushing snow, a whoop of laughter into a cell phone. Inside, everything is still but an insulating film over the fireplace, a covering my wife added during bitter cold two weeks ago. It bellows with drafts and winds, and I imagine it as a giant eardrum, sighing on its own as it gathers every vibration and variation of pressure.

The house is so still this morning, I see myself in every object and perceive them as companionable. My family shares our home with things we admired, wanted, needed, received, surrendered to. Sometimes these things have their own voices, announcing their provenance as your eye falls on them:

  • a drawing an art teacher at my old school gave me, a casual doodle that once seemed the dissected limb of an alien but now, sun worn, returns to whiteness again.
  • my daughter’s backpack beached beside the chair we threw it out of
  • boots and shoes on a mat by the door, speaking the desperation with which they were thrown off, home at last—their hulls bump as if some unseen current moved them
  • the cutting board squeezed between the drainer and the sink wall in the part we never use, the board’s face scratched and scarred with incidental art
  • a nearly finished sweater, a Christmas present from mother to daughter—green nearly black in the twilight this time of day—draped over the back of the couch and trailing yarn to the floor. It looks marine to me, a sinuous creature attenuated by life in the sea and unsuited to gravity
  • a badly stacked pile of folded New York Times Book Reviews, all unread, their half-faces staring up blankly

Meanwhile, as I create this list, the day stirs. Three floors down, someone scrapes the sidewalk of last night’s snow. Upstairs, my wife clicks the computer mouse. These noises don’t advance time as a watch ticking does, but, irregular as they are, they mark moments as well, alerting me to the doing I ought to start too. The L passes. The heater kicks to life—the blower followed by the throat-clearing ignition of flames to heat air. No silence will stay. I can’t stay. Light, even the gray light of an overcast day, demands motion.

Maybe things watch me as I do them, each of us having our instant of visibility, our utterance, our place, our beginning, our purpose. Something calls us, and we are. Something prods me on.

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The Other Spider

spicafAnother parable…

Most spiders build well or beautifully. A special few do both, their art being function and their function being art. Dewy mornings display their webs’ perfect parallels and perfect circularities, and, though their work couldn’t be more visible, they catch wary prey looking too close. Drawn like moths to light, their victims barely struggle in the sticky strings of arrest. Acquiescence overcomes will. Even things that once flew know they’re had, and the web maker feels no impatience to meet and complete its kill. You’d call that sort of restraint self-control, but it isn’t control exactly when command requires little effort. Such a spider issues such a web, and waits. It seems made for that life.

There’s another spider, though, whose webs are neither expert nor special. Its abdomen is stuck open and launches filament after filament in a tangled, impatient mass. Its eight perpetually scrambling legs carry it from place to place, away from its leavings and toward any empty cranny, dragging its ductile chains. Design may govern even things so small, but this spider knows little government other than compulsion, moving because it must, because it cannot not. You’d recognize its webs—after so much practice how could they be anything but consistent?—but, unless you mistake uniformity for artistry—you’d find little to admire, especially when comparison is so easy and ready.

This spider feeds on the accident-prone, insects wandering from common paths and into shadowy niches. Bad fortune carries the spider’s food to the wrong places, and the spider, ever grateful for the least attention, wraps victims almost before they know they’ve been duped. The spider knows its clientele and strings the landscape with traps. It can’t do otherwise because no advantage lies in one well-made thing when making rather than capture dictates life. It wants to eat, that’s all. It needs to express sticky strands, so a diet of gnats is as good as a grasshopper.

The work of peers passes as the spider moves to undiscovered places. You’ll see no grumbling in its steps. There isn’t time but there also isn’t envy. Part of knowing place is knowing context. The spider sees its ways relative to others, and their judgment is his own. Sometimes, passing under the great arc of a masterpiece, the spider dips its head and recommits to the path before it, but whether that’s bowing to emulation or oblivion is unclear. Neither shows in its next effort in any case.

An ending to its restlessness might be welcome. Were its supply of web to cease, the spider could be content to play caretaker, to wander among its many webs watching to see if anything unsuspecting remains to be caught. Eventually the spider would see all the strands break and maybe then it would feel loss as its life dwindled, but perhaps not.

What future awaits has little place in the spider’s attention. It looks for new space. It means to work.

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No First Person

row_houses.jpg Reprise from Joe Felso…

Mr. Couch was never far from view.

He was sitting in a lattice lawn chair on the porch, or standing with a much younger companion at the open hood of his 70’s Cadillac, or stooping slowly to pluck stray bits of paper from the patch of grass between his sidewalk and the street, or painting just a bit of the railing on his front steps, or waving mutely to cars that crept down 30th Street.

Or he was inside, sitting in the gloom of his front room. Approaching the window periodically was part of his regular surveillance. Neighbors never failed to tell Mr. Couch when they would be out-of-town. He promised to collect any papers that arrived (despite the vacation stoppage) and place them inside your screen door. He promised to call the cops if he saw anything unexpected, and the neighborhood knew Mr. Couch could judge the unexpected better than anyone.

No one talked to Mr. Couch without an exit strategy. He wasn’t a storyteller—people knew remarkably little about him—but he could husband conversation the way he’d husband the cast-offs that peeked from his garage when the door rose. All those old paint and coffee cans full of something unseen expressed what every sentence said—Mr. Couch could make much of little and nothing went to waste. A string of clichés with little between them, every conversation left the lightest touch. The expressions he used were genteel and anachronistic. No one was sure what job Mr. Couch was retired from. No one knew his first name.

One winter, it snowed so heavily a snowplow couldn’t make it down 30th Street. All the neighbors came out to shovel the block. It wasn’t strictly necessary—no one would have been stranded or starved—and the gathering was largely accidental, a collective case of cabin fever pushing everyone out their doors at the same time. When a circle of neighbors gathered in the the street, it looked like a rainbow coalition—30th was a racially, professionally, religiously, and sexual-orientationally mixed street—and the first task was to clear Mr. Couch’s driveway and sidewalk. He shouldn’t do it himself, and everyone knew it should be done. The scrape of one shovel drew him from his sitting room. He thanked the workers stiffly and extensively and then, the transition invisible, he turned to supervising. Mr. Couch knew where snow should and shouldn’t rest, where plots of light fell on sunny days in February, the spaces snow might melt.

Sometime during the second hour, someone suggested a potluck, an improvised block party. That night, sitting around a neighbor’s living room few had visited, you might have had to blink the blur of implausibility from your eyes. There was Mr. Couch, enthroned in the best chair, explaining the lineage of every house on the street, its first and former occupants, the additions and subtractions, the children and adults that grew and left. His history wasn’t personal precisely. It was a conflation of names and events inseparably mixed, a story that couldn’t be teased apart. Mr. Couch was a balky time machine no more sure than his Cadillac, but all the neighbors—gathered as they never had and never would again—listened.

Everyone on the block knew Mr. Couch couldn’t stay forever, but he seemed to stretch the seasons with his slow steps and talk. You counted on him the way you counted on time passing, and another mark in the year found him in places you expected.

In memory, he is there still.

But now Mr. Couch must be gone—that was some years ago. 30th Street must be a new collection of names attached to the same addresses. Without Mr. Couch, it would have to be only that, a collection instead of a coalition, people who live on the same street, not neighbors.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Gratitude, Home Life, life, Memory, Modern Life, Place, Recollection, Tributes, Urban Life

Memory’s Geography

The English office of a school where I used to teach offered a window on a courtyard penned on all sides by buildings. The roofs of these buildings were green-gray slate, and, when an earlier winter storm started to melt, patches of snow on the roof slid away from other patches, wrinkling and drooping in fanciful ways. These patches reminded me of continents with mountain ranges and coastlines, the irregular scalloped edges like harbors opening onto exposed slate seas. The color was right even if the sea divided neatly into regular rectangular shingles.

When it really warmed up the continents fell from the roof in sloppy landslides onto the courtyard below. The sound reverberated in the closed space, alerting you one moment too late to see it happen.

I may have caught it happening—I spent a lot of time standing at that window staring at nothing and sorting through my last or next class—but I don’t remember.

Some pictures are too big for the brain, and it crops the edges until just a detail remains, a square of canvas presenting fingers of one hand or a sfumato hillock too distant to need definition.  Strangely, I derive such comfort from these details, their visits reminders of memory’s consolations and the sweet poignancy of recalling something that seems outside yourself.

Here’s another:

During a wet June in coastal Texas, my older brother—and soon the whole block—dug a Venice out of a boggy vacant lot. All those ells of canals opened into a grand pool, and along each we erected cottages and palaces of dredged mud, grass, and sticks. One edifice in particular rose like a Tower of Babel, its layers cork-screwed to a plateau just big enough to hold an Astros’ pennant. The work paused long enough to wipe our brows and sigh admiration. It was an impotent city—for nothing—a construction of imagination with no aim but passing summer.

The scene likely ended with a pick-up truck rolling up, a driver’s side window rolling down, and a voice rolling out some version of “Cease and desist,” but that’s lost.

Two weeks ago, I saw my older brother for the first time in a year, and I meant to ask him about this Venice, whether he remembered it, whether my brain cut another misleading square of canvas, or whether I’ve made it myself, my creation completed by wishing it real.

But maybe I didn’t want to know. When these memory postcards return, I pause to marvel. Whether they’re actual or painted by desire sometimes seems immaterial.

Life deserves more attention than we give it. It’s a shame we can’t share our postcards, if only to communicate where our penlights landed, what our own angles illuminated. The snow continents slip too soon from the roof, and I wish I knew a reliable way to make them hang on longer.

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Most Days…

I could be living anywhere, but some mornings I wake to the city. My walk to work takes me under the L track the moment the train passes over, or I’m blasted by the uplift of warmth from sidewalk grates. Some mornings I hear the neighborhood shouting man greeting passerby along Wells near North. His words are rarely intelligible, but anyone within hearing senses the charged air around him. People pause and look for him, like animals momentarily alarmed by what’s outside their cages.

I once lived in Delaware and wrote an essay about what it’s like to inhabit Anywhere, USA. The suburban commute of my old life was the most insular act of an insular life. I climbed in my car in my locked garage, and, ten or twelve feet down the driveway, the car doors locked automatically. Climate control was no farther than my reach, my radio stations were preset, my route invariable but for the occasional nuisance of someone else’s accident or the glacial progress of road construction. Modern marketing made most of the scenery interchangeable, the cycling background to a chase in a seventies cartoon.

Here, it’s different. Oh, I see people try to avoid humanity in Chicago—ear buds buried deep or cell phones magnetically pulling at their heads. Some wear phones like Borg from the second incarnation of Star Trek. Fully assimilated in their virtual meetings, they advance down sidewalks speaking blissfully from another dimension. But even they shudder under the L tracks or hasten to escape when real blasts of human breath beg for recognition.

Before I moved here, people told me they could not live an urban life. It’s too impersonal, they said, everyone is a stranger. Superficially that’s true. I’m not really friends with the people in my building and know no one on my block well. Yet Delaware was the same. I don’t miss the insulation of suburban civility and the cooperative way we spun each other’s cocoons. In a city, the shouting man yells you’re not alone, which is a strange comfort on a cold morning.

 

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My Gym Mates

Reprise

home_gym.jpg Truth is a pathless land. —Krishnamurti

Every morning between 5:00 and 5:15 am, I arrive at a gym in my neighborhood, walk up to a desk and scan my UPC identity from my keychain. The attendant mumbles something I assume is “Good Morning”—I hope so, because I always say “Good Morning” back—and then I make my way to the locker room to stow my stuff in preparation for working out.

Every morning I can expect to see the very tall man wearing the Pabst Blue Ribbon tee-shirt who ought to bathe more often…or get another shirt. I see the woman with bowling ball calf muscles who leaps on and off a flying treadmill and yet never takes a “Jetson” or, for that matter, an unsteady step. I see the dreadlocked male model in crocs and the barrel-chested man who lifts the maximum weight on several machines, but walks around on bird legs.

Every morning one of the three trainers will be busy encouraging someone to step on and off a bench or lunge with hand weights or hop from leg to leg as if they were speed skating without the bother of ice or forward motion.

And every day, they must see me. Who knows how they might describe me—”the guy who does the same damn thing in the same damn order every single damn day” or “the guy I always catch looking at me.”

We know each other and don’t say a word.

Sometimes this habit we have of ignoring each other is hard to maintain. If I’m not careful someone might catch me with an open expression on the brink of speech. If I’m not careful, they might see recognition, even affection.

Recently at a store across from work, I was in line behind one of my gym mates and felt a sudden urge to shout “Hello!” the way you do when you see an old friend in the airport, in the theatre lobby, or at an art opening. An unexpected meeting, especially after a long absence, always elicits a natural warmth in me. But I didn’t speak because the absence wasn’t long—we’d just seen each other that morning—and what could be more expected than another unacknowledged encounter?

Today is an imitation of yesterday and that was an imitation of the day before, so we don’t dwell on what we might have said on the second day of our acquaintance. Not speaking is fundamental to the rhythm of our relationship. We meet daily and choose—again—not to initiate eye contact.

Still, inside, I hear my voice speak. I see myself turning to the girl who takes the elliptical trainer next to mine three or four times a week. I hear my voice telling her about a deep embarrassment I once suffered in the second grade, a story I tell only my closest friends.

I could tell her. We have known each other long enough to expect that sort of intimacy, as I spend more time with her than with most of my other friends. And, after all, she knows my basic animal self—the scent of my sweat, the broken way I breathe when I’m past controlling it, my involuntary grimaces of exertion.

I know her too.

Yet, instead, I leave her the way I found her, someone real I’ve chosen to imagine, another person I know and have decided never to meet.

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