Trees of Eden

Looking through the train window, he noticed a blur of fall color. The whirr of branches and leaves pulled in his gaze, and he slipped into a trance of yellow and orange. After several lost minutes, he realized that the sweep of the passing bouquet had stifled his ability to make out any of the individual trees that, collected together, called out to his spellbound eyes. So he leaned forward, picking out one tree on the horizon and tracing it with his eyes as it traveled along the length of the window frame. This way, he could see how the bark was a rugged cream color on one tree and a dark grey on another; how what looked like an old oak had pale green lichen draped over its torso; how a sapling of some species he couldn’t identify had decaying leaves that refused to fall off.

And then he thought that love is like a forest as a train rolls by. He felt regret that there were so many trees in a forest—trees that, had they been in his back yard, would have been affectionately ingrained in his memory. But these trees were not loved, not known. They just sat there, on the side of the tracks, and waited patiently to die—their existence meaning nothing to no-one. Perhaps one day they would be made into paper, and someone would write something down on what was left of them, and maybe, just maybe, that something would be important.

Love was like the trees that nobody came to look at. Love was mere chance; luck. Love was the way you would be forced to focus on one tree because the whole array of colors was too overwhelming for your senses. Love was the way you couldn’t focus on reading Nietzsche because that woman in the pink blouse to your right was telling her friend Carl about how her daughter Samantha had failed her Chemistry test.

There were countless other trees, other people out there that you would never meet; the fact that you chose this one to pay attention to—to love—was meaningless and random and stupid.

Love was like life, and life was like the shadows among the gaps in the trees of a forest that nobody came to look at.

29 October, 2013

 

Nantucket Fast Ferry

It was a pristine morning. The harbor and the docks opened themselves into the ripening bouquet of autumn—when the colors swayed and vibrated between reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. The caffeine smell of early morning issued from the silent hull of the ship while harbor waves treaded delicately. Passengers shuffled onboard and took their seats: the Nantucket Fast Ferry was guaranteed to arrive in Hyannis Port within two hours.

Some minutes passed, and the doors of the ferry closed. Everyone was inside, sitting calmly in the rows of nylon. Next to the front row window sat a man. He was complaining about something, and in the reflection of the window his withered hands trembled, subdued by the cold iron voice of his once bewitching bride, who sat next to him—a sweet looking woman in her early eighties, wearing a pale gray sweater and chic blue foulard. She had on dazzling pearl earrings.
She began to shout as she stood up and Why don’t you quit whining! made the room swell with bitter feeling and Jesus, just STOP it already! words that pounded against his wilted ears. She walked off.

The solitary profile of his once handsome face was barely visible from behind the tall ferry seats, but the hands—they stood out in the light against the tinted windowpane. Slowly, they worked at the muffin and tried to make the pieces drag themselves up to his mouth. They were hands that betrayed themselves—now scraggy and pale but clearly once muscular and commanding. The thin glass veins struggled to lift the wrapping from the baked treat that was his breakfast. It seemed that somewhere behind the back of the chair, a mind was pulsating intense decrees to make even the most basic movements possible. Deliberately, the pieces began to disappear. The ferry pushed off from shore; it would be only two hours until it reached Hyannis, and no more.

His wife came back and, bending over him, forced a coffee into his hand. As it spilled out he gasped and cursed her Well good JOB! in his own emaciated way. Furious, she ripped the cup out of his hand and You can take care of yourself, all right! threw it into the trash bin. What should have been a moment of sympathy—an old shell of what had once been a tall rugged man now unable to even hold his own coffee—deteriorated quickly into GET UP, it isn’t a big DEAL! something pitiful as he looked up at her and with a crack in his voice begged her Please don’t, you’re embarrassing me… for just one moment of understanding, of unconditional love.

Where were his children? They had probably dropped the two of them off at the ferry and fallen back into their own circuit, their own youthful life filled with its own host of first-world problems and just enough good health never to really notice how good it all was. But the circuit would again come round, and in twenty or thirty or some number of years they too would be dropped off on some ferry by their own children and face the cold unforgiving Atlantic, alone.
That was the way of Nantucket—of countless other islands that catered to the wealthy—where fathers’ houses were bought by children at good rates and then updated and redone in ways that were fashionable and modern. The parents then became strangers in their own homes, no longer movers and shakers but now pushed aside to make room for fast-paced dinner parties. Gradually, the children began making more and more money and the parents stopped earning anything, relying on the image of what used to be—the oh-so-important appearances of manifold wealth and importance. Draped over their threadbare bodies rested expensive suits of impeccable cloth—articles from a bygone era when they triumphantly swarmed upon the islands and felt like they were somebody.

Unsure of what else to do, his hands—sufficiently greased from the ferry-bought breakfast—began to search for something to clean themselves with. They looked this way and that, one finger haphazardly prodding the blue blazer lapel before deciding not to further sully the wardrobe. The jacket was as traditional as they come: navy with gold buttons, probably bought at Brooks Brothers some ten years earlier. It hung loose, with pockets of fabric sagging across the shoulders of his frame.

Unable to bear this slow, unproductive effort, his wife shoved some napkins his way. After several seconds, his hands grasped the old crumpled paper, now brown and worn with the refuse of the blueberry muffin. He worked diligently, as if the one thing he had left, the one quantum of control that he still possessed, was his ability to keep his hands clean and civilized.
Finished with their work, they fell back into place at his sides, gone from the light of the windowpane. The ferry continued onward: the engines humming, steady, consistent.

Sunday in Autumn

There was an uneven sound in the air, and it wavered across the room and into the foyer.

The foyer was mostly dark. Inside there was an antiquated radiator that stood next to a large chest—a blur of green lacquered mahogany heat. Through the depth in the shadows of the foyer were reflected the loud sounds of a September morning. It was as indifferent as any other September morning: it was that time of year when things were busy leaving, inevitably beginning their quarterly end.

Michael peered out between saturated lashes, looked across the grass and the pond and through the mist and noticed the emptiness.

Michael was between the two spaces. September was the month of Michael’s birth, and yesterday afternoon he had celebrated with his friends that were still local—those who hadn’t yet moved on like the flocks of white painted geese searching for the hot swamps of Florida or Alabama. The swamps of Florida and Alabama were quite populous this time of year.

The air filled the room unevenly; it disturbed something. Michael reached for his coffee.

The contrasts of the world, the inconsistencies of life, were most pronounced in the autumn, that time of his former undergraduate life when the good boys from down the road some ways would drive up in their trucks or SUVs, carrying their hopes and aspirations for the year (the closed-in amount of time where they’d be free); when a year’s time seemed insurmountable and it was always unfathomable that it should ever be brought to a close. They drank pints and threw cans hollering about southern traditions and the legends their daddies’d handed down in the dog-gone gone-by days of before.

Now Michael got up and put his orange juice away. He took one last sip before the glass swept across the iron sink, taking its place amongst the clutter of yesterday’s still unwashed dishes.

Some friends had come by for a small party. They mostly just talked about the times they’d shared back in college—that long-lost life, now only ten months past. Michael now trudged along the cement floor of this new life—his nights sharing a room with nobody out in the country, the crickets and the sounds of nature’s reflexive honking his only company. His best friends were scattered, cut up into chunks across the country and in some cases the world and they weren’t moving back anytime soon.

He sat calmly in the sun looking at the still morning light behind the deaf old willow that comprised his yard; one long thread of young green remained—the tree’s last signs of life—dipping into the stale murky pond below.

In many ways Michael was angry. He hated the ways things had insisted on being. He was tired of the old system; he didn’t consciously know it but he wanted more than anything for things to just quit, to cease and be simple like they once were. Not ten months had passed since graduation.

He packed the pipe and watched the smoke as it curled and danced up into the THC horizon; his vision became warm and fuzzy; soon he was smiling.

Michael sat back into his chair and closed his eyes, letting the bright shards of a new Sunday—of a new start—carry him off into the morning.

He awoke to his hunger later, in the early afternoon, as the sun was overhead and coming down over the house in clear, even draughts. He wiped his eyes and yawned.  Getting up slowly, he checked his answering machine and listened to the cold silence. A gray cloud seemed to circle overhead. Michael packed the bowl again. It was a Sunday, and there would be many more like it.

12 September, 2012

Water and Tea

It was a blur.

It was a blur that reached out onto our restaurant table and wove itself into the napkins and our glasses of tea and water. It was very clear.

It was very clear that this blur that existed in the space between our sips of water and our vocal chords was what I had tasted on many occasions. I wondered if its opacity was mutually transparent.

I smiled. We’d been friends for the year, my year in China. We’d been friends for this, my first year in China—abroad—and we went to meals together once or twice a week. In typical Chinese fashion, we alternated between who treated whom to dinner. This time it was my treat. The last time it had been his.

We were friends for the extent of a year. A year was a long time. We knew each other well, and this was my treat.

I was not merely taking my friend out to eat spicy chicken with noodles (the chicken came on a big plate with flat white noodles); thestakes were higher: I was taking the possibility for interconnectedness between people from disparate cultures out to dinner as well.

I sat there awkwardly and consumed this heavy serving of clarity—that we had had so many dinners like this very one and that our meals had always come with a side order of the same, dull dinner-table conversations. And then I wanted to leave the table, wanted to escape the haze of in-between and its rich hoisin (hoisin? really? was it?) sauce. It was a dark brown; it was a bright red; it was spicy.

It was spicy and it stung my nose and confused me. It was dark and rich and beautiful indescribable and yet here it was, asking me to describe it.

The best I could do was to say that we weren’t friends—that our year together had been spent playing with our forks, gently pushing the food around our plates without really knowing what it was or why we continued eating it. We were posturing at being full.

And then it appeared that we had continued eating it because we believed that eventually the cultural issues would break away and we would find each other truly interesting. So I kept asking him to lunch, or dinner. We continued eating that chicken with wide noodles and the rich hoisin sauce because there was nothing else to do; because we had forgotten how to order anything else; because Will the intercultural interloper was looking for some savory dish of an experience to bring home with him after his year abroad and serve piping hot to my friends and family and potential colleagues. Internationalism was social currency.

I took another bite; the dish was cold. We put our napkins down, said our goodbyes, and went to our separate apartments where we would listen to different music sung in tones that were linguistically comprehensible but emotionally unintelligible.

We walked out, leaving behind the tea in our glasses; it tasted like water but called itself tea.

14 June, 2012