Our love of personal history, that which is remembered perhaps poorly by the participant -the one who can say, yes, I was there- is founded, however uncertain their story may be, on the fact that they were there and despite prejudices or the curve they may throw across the equator of memory, they need do no more than imagine themselves back in time and then leave it to us, the unknown readers, to decide what to trust, to understand, to take on faith or disbelieve.
The only other matter worth considering is time itself. When was it that this account was written or collected? What else, between the lines that the diarist conceals with his elbow as we read across his shoulder, should we bear in mind? Is he now jaundiced about the affair he describes? Is his objectivity a mask for quiet slander, some balance slyly tilted? A victory claimed now that the combatants have left the field?
My memory is certainly a faulty thing and the components laid out here have been collected together from different journal entries, from mail sent and mail never sent, from two-line poems remembered and, perhaps worst of all, this later memory, truly this poor historian, who now tries to make a case for it all, while trying at the same moment to properly remember.
This portion, these events, come from a greater, or at any rate, larger exercise in collection. And they are, as this is, written to the woman they concern. For in the end, my history here is hers and my life, in too many ways and for too long, has become hers as well, but not yet for long enough.
This is a true story; no historian can do better.
It was April and I came back, flying across America towards New York from San Francisco. We’d met for the first time there in the warmth and anonymity of the West. I arrived home to find the house deserted and my wife gone away to the Hamptons for the weekend. I had hurried there, not guiltily, but only supposing that was what men did, having spent time in the arms of another. It was only by sitting alone however, and seeing those same arms empty again, that I understood the holding to be as nothing compared to being lost and found in California, but then that was long before I knew that the finding, the holding, was in the self, and the self was the gift that the other had so easily given, even unknowingly.
Do you remember how it went for us there? Do you remember what I remember? I can only think of police parades and witnesses behind the glass, as though addressing the pictures of their memory, choosing different rogues to sentence. Or how a dozen people, caught suddenly in the accidental, will remember an event’s sequence differently. Despite the fact that we had talked so much (for that’s all we’d done until then, do you remember?) and for all our imaginations and shared fear, we two must have seen such different things, approaching ourselves with cameras set separately, focused by our previous lives.
You stayed on in California afterwards, traveling up to Monterey, your brown skin in my mind adrift, and all I could think about was if only. If only I could have stayed with you, traveled on and watched your bare arms in a sundress, heard you talking to bartenders, polishing your glasses and buying books. But I didn’t understand then that we’d already begun a far greater journey, nor did I know about the greed you had opened inside me. I felt it certainly, that hunger, not in some poet’s stirring, but in a fully confused torrent, as different from poetics as an imagined wind withstood and the tempest which batters down along a life, ignoring the paltry body and blowing straight on through to the soul. No, I can’t lie now and say that I understood.
On the airplane back East, so warm and cool, so gathered up with talking in a level English voice, I wrote:
“I picked up a copy of Visions of Cody at the airport bookstand, a volume I have been looking for since America (me coming, not it starting). Of course, if it were to be found anywhere, Jack’s beloved Bay City was the place. The very holding of it on my lap is enough to raise my spirits and remind me (again) that the movie we’re in has yet to have its ending written and, after all, it is we, you and I both, who are its only authors.”
Do you remember? Did you walk back into your stone house, into Pennsylvania eventually, wondering what you would find on your computer, the very same one I write these lines upon now? Was there a moment when, while gathering up your last glass of wine and as the West Coast diminished behind you, you thought What if…? What if, after all of this, there’s nothing. If electronic silence greets me, as comment enough or some review left blank as if to signal the critic’s true feelings.
If your fear of making love, your uncertainty in that first and single night, had all along been well-founded. As though this experiment, these few weeks of pouring ourselves into the ether had in fact been the triumph of this boy’s manipulation. The very thing he’d warned you of, had told you so often that you had for the first time breached. Had he lied? Do you remember? What if? But it was never so.
If only you could have seen me sat in New York, unpacking my bag and finding the T-shirt you had borrowed in your modesty:
“Have you got something I can sleep in?”
“Yes,” I whispered not, “these arms, this heart, this body, sleep here.”
I took it to my face then, sat alone in a cold bedroom, empty of nothing apart from hope, and without thinking breathed it into my face, literally burying myself in its fabric, as though your skin had been slipped into my bag, printed with tattooed flowers. But I could smell nothing, and that nothingness, the thin odor of washed cotton, sent disappointment through me like a sad slow jolt, and it was then I found the first measure of my obsession, a thing beyond kilograms and yards, beyond measurement.
I remembered that you’d mentioned a hotel you would be staying at and I tried (for how long? An hour? Two?) to summon the sound of your voice saying it; the voice came but not the information. I wanted so much to speak to you, as if by talking I could stop feelings from fading, yours, my own. As if they could. I remember writing: `The East is cold.’ And it was. I remember.
I wrote you a love letter that weekend. It was not the first certainly, but I can see myself writing it as though trying to make you understand what was happening to me. As if (and here the inertia of all my other cleverness worked against me) I could somehow override the years of deceit and noisy silence. I remember being wet still, covered in beads directly from the bath, and retrieving from my mind what I had thought there; not a metaphor, nor some interpretation of desire distilled, but something so simple, something shocking, the truth. I wrote:
“In perfectly clear water I laid down about as still as I could, as though it were a game to keep this little sea asleep while the giant was thinking, and I saw your face in two thirds profile and your hair all like spun straw made soft. Beneath this sheaf and mostly taking up the picture were eyes so wide they looked pulled from some mask painting where it’s only the eyes you can see, faintly amused, and by now I was sailing, as though a ship of a body upon the sandbar but even so beginning its move, and my heart like a motor, like some buried down generator, began stumbling on as those men in their dirty undershirts shoveled in the coals of memory.
What work they do those men. Endlessly breaking up furniture when their anthracite grows short, pushing in the slightest combustible pieces and never thinking of a future without fuel. They are massive, invisible, and have sinews made strong by these pathways of true feeling. They will never stop. Because of them, motionless, wet, yet traveling now at the speed of light, my five layers of finger trace down your back again and again and my tongue moves across the line between your upper gum and teeth which do nothing but wait patiently.
What a thing it is to have details no longer just imagined and yet still have so much left for the imagination to consider within its altogether separate housing, built here so cleverly beside these pistons of my memory. The water grows cold. I do not.”
And there was something else also. I asked you, for the first time, to collect up things if you wanted to, not knowing that you had been doing so all along. I never saved anything then. I had consigned the thousands (the hundreds of thousands?) of words we’d shared to digital invisibility, to deletion, death.
So concerned was I, not at being captured by the words, for I was already far past that, but being caught in some marital farce which would render what we’d given as nothing but evidence in rhyme, the dirty underwear of guilt rather than the silk I saw it as. But then, having finally, suddenly, met the flesh and blood of all those wishes, it was not that I became committed to you, but more that I was beyond the rationale, that I felt that this was my future, not you so much, although you have become that now, but me; my future. And not one to be thrown away. Did I think then of writing this all out, of doing the very opposite of deleting the past, of instead memorializing it?
No. Surely not. But I did know what was happening was history, my own, our own, not ephemera, and thus, shyly, came my request. One so easily interpreted by the analysts in this post-analog age; Save these files, save these words, in short, heart-doctor; save me. Do you remember?
“We are all of us all the time
coming together and falling apart.
The point is, we are not rocks.
Who wants to be one anyway,
our history already played out….”
And so that was the past. Or at least it was the point where I stopped writing of that first weekend and began thinking about the future, some of which has now happened. But the story of San Francisco, of what happened there, and in Las Vegas before that, as well as Sundance where you spent your time before we met, is still to be explained. Again, like a witness (her spy in the house of love), I begin:
“When I came to understand that there are mythic patterns in all our lives, I knew that all of us, often unbeknownst to ourselves, are engaged in a drama of the soul which we were told was reserved for gods, heroes and saints….”
I can’t be certain now why it was exactly I was going there, or, more precisely, why it was that they wanted me, rather than anyone else from New York, to go out to San Francisco and meet with those people who had their offices on Montana Street or Dakota Street or somewhere else named for a state I’ve never been to.
As it was the business side of it, the talking and the clever clothing, would have faded from my mind even faster had it not been for the fact that we agreed at last to meet. In a strange way I remember more of those presentations, what pen I used, how my arms whirled around in front of some computer projection, than I would normally bother with. And even though my memory itself tends to accumulate holes as though tissue paper set on fire from its middle, there are many things I do remember and always will.
It was to be a two or a three day trip, but I asked dear poor Thomas to make excuses from out in San Diego, which would mean making it last at least another day. The extra day becoming the afternoon and evening, the night of our time together.
I had said to you one night, typing as fast as I could while you sat in New Hope, that I would be going to California. Whenever I tell the story now, I have you say, by coincidence, that you were also on your way out to the Coast. I think, more probably, I wondered whether you could ever get out that way. Whatever the case of it, I know that somewhere in the next morning, and typing again like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern amongst home electronics, you said you’d been trying to figure out a way to get yourself down to San Francisco at about the same time. However this happened, this discussion or exchange, whoever believes whatever, or exactly how the deal was done, counts for nothing. What matters is that it happened, against all expectation, against the unspoken rules almost.
These two, in search of nothing than their mirror in space, fell forward within weeks to words and poems and pictures and then, inevitably, their very external selves. But then we were ordinary people, and as Rosencrantz, as Guildenstern, as characters in our own play, we had every choice but to resist.