"You must've packed in a hurry," said the uniformed man as he sifted through my suitcase, which lay unzipped on the conveyor belt at a security checkpoint in the Philadelphia airport. His hands passed over dirty underwear, drawings, a sewing machine, books loaded into the mesh zipper pocket…
"Yeah, I did."
I remember him assessing me grimly, and me feeling embarrassed he’d had to go through my stuff. And then the clothes were rearranged back over the sewing machine, the suitcase was closed and zipped up, and there must have been some words or gesture made to indicate that I was free to go, although that moment escapes me.
Is it wrong to quarantine certain times in your life – perfectly innocent weeks or months presumably no less alive in memory than any others – to stop and suffocate these recollections before they become too insightful? And is it worse to try to narrate those weeks and months, tell their stories from this cool remove, while the memories are still locked away in dimness, breathing shallow, confined breaths?
Shortly before I moved away, I noticed a friend using a neologism – “hammerhead” – both a noun and an adjective: hammerhead won’t take no for an answer, will not consider other points of view. Or, you’re turning hammerhead when you’re obsessed with shortcuts, nevermind that you keep hitting your head against the wall – again and again.
I didn't really want to know what I was doing. I thought I would attend grad school, and move to New York that way. Work on being an artist. I guess I was going to get an internship. Two separate ideas, but see how I forced past that in my mind. Philadelphia was not New York but it was New York, basically, for our purposes. Hammerhead.
We went there as much as we could, enduring the Chinatown bus ride. It was only supposed to be a couple of hours, but usually ended up taking around four. There was a bathroom in the back where piss sloshed around on the floor. We tried not to drink too much water.
On one excursion I bought a special pair of shoes from Opening Ceremony.
"I'm on a trip, so I have an excuse," I said to the salesgirl. I had saved up some money from my job at a shoe store in Vancouver. I’d almost spent it on something expensive from my work before I left town, but changed my mind after discussing it with a male coworker who said, "You're going to New York. Buy shoes in New York."
"I wish I had an excuse to buy those shoes," the Opening Ceremony girl replied gaily.
"You're my hero, by the way," my coworker had told me.
Asher put down security deposits and paid bus fare and did fix-it things around the house. We bought jugs of Poland Spring water rather than drink from the taps. Was there a problem with the water? I went for long walks and wrote incessantly:
October 26, 2007
"Feeling ancient". It's like an overwhelming nostalgia that comes some days when the seasons are changing. It makes my skull fill with color – I’m not kidding – glow shifting from tiffany to lavender to royal blue. A synaesthetic buzzing, punctuated by pink and gold.
I was watching the Indian summer sun illuminate some leaves swirling on the sidewalk and something triggered a warm adoration in me. I let my head buzz and go for a walk, letting this feeling take my feet somewhere. In shadows and corners of streets I seemed to be looking for a place inside me that was at least as old as my first memory.
My room had three windows that faced the street. Below was an African money order and phone card place that played thumping, up-tempo music all day at an intrusive volume. Our apartment had two floors and three bedrooms and we had a roommate, who lived in the room below mine. He had recently moved from New York; a Cooper Union alumnus, boyfriend of our friend, and sculptor of oversized granny craft objects made from wicker and fabric. He sang along to Sinead O'Connor in the mornings, hitting all the high notes: "Since you've been gone I can do what-ever I wa-a-ant..."
His room opened into the common area with French doors, which he dressed with curtains. Wall-to-wall mirrors covered the space, creating a heightened, drab feel. Mirrored shelves were mounted in the corners. Asher photographed my new shoes and one of my books there, posing them as he set up the shots with a tripod.
On Thanksgiving, we went over to the house of some friends. Before eating, we all held hands around the table while the hostess gave a rambling speech, which ended: "Fuck you, Mom and Dad." Then we stuffed our faces, got drunk, and walked down to the Delaware river, where it was completely dark except for a few halogen lights from some commercial docks blinking in the near distance. You couldn't tell what was water and what was night sky. There was a full moon but it only seemed to make everything else blacker, all light restricted to its white orb. I was too freezing to think much about how eerie it was.
Someone cried out about Thanksgiving, or the Delaware, and then we turned to make our way home. The walk seemed to take forever, as if our thoughts and voices slowed down in the cold.
At the end of November a bunch of us did acid. I didn't see or realize anything. I felt alien, alone and paranoid – and stony, like listening to the dark moments of a song on the radio that I was indifferent to. We were at a park: a ravine, covered in leaves, variously loud and crunchy and moist and spongy, down a trail and up a hill. The trail seemed to have been a service vehicle road, the route to a drainage pipe, which lay further in and was a swimming spot in the summer.
At the mouth of the pipe, there was a rope swing and some rocks above still, shallow water. The leaves were supposed to have been turning around this time but the colors were mostly faded and fallen, the trees dull and naked. Thinking back to the mossy forests I was used to, I felt a helpless gloom as one of our group members explained, "It's kind of gone now. It would have been a lot more colorful a few weeks ago, I guess."
I kept asking questions and tried to have fun, exclaiming at the view, but the people in our group seemed immersed in their thoughts, quiet and contained, unintelligible and stupid when they did talk. The day had been overcast and as the light faded it began to get darker.
I felt suddenly achingly hungry, after a long day of wandering in the forest, and blandly expressed that we should get going and eat. We hiked uphill out of the ravine and left in the autumn night, driving back to our neighborhood while someone chattered about new designer drugs.
We stopped for Mexican food, which I had never much eaten before but always seemed to be eating then, and didn't particularly enjoy or understand at the time - tortillas and rice and cheese and various things, not fresh.
"You can tell she's crazy by her hair - she just picks at it." Asher had said about a member of our group that day. I thought of this while the girl ordered chicken tacos, and stared at her; I wonder now if she just seemed weird at the time because I was making her uncomfortable.
I chose a vegetarian burrito. When it arrived, I looked at it and sliced it down the middle. Gazing at the slit in the center, I kept preparing to begin. It just sat there and looked at me. I must have tried putting some of it in my mouth, but couldn't do anything with the lettuce and cooked vegetables and cheese and rice and sauce, so I waited for everyone to finish so I could go home, still hungry and anxious.
November 17, 2007
Closing your eyes you feel the wrapper of your skin resting a quarter inch over the denser mass of your muscles and organs, and the stillness of the bones beneath. Your eyes are blacked out in your skull, silent mush levitating in dark water. Sometimes you manage to stay so still that a royal blue penetrates the blackness; a deep ballpoint blue that’s almost violet.
Labelled Fiction, Non Fiction