Lately I have been avoiding topics like, How have you been doing, and Jesus Christ where are you these days? It seems to me a great ordeal, the whole talking thing. Probably because there is such a thing as sensory overload, and my senses, frankly, are on overload. The act of talking, of moving one’s vocal chords, of producing audible sounds that render words that render meaning that render speech that renders the communicative act of me talking to you in a vocal tract exchange that extends, too, to non-verbal signifiers, such as tone and inflection and gestures and pauses and nods—yes, talking seems, to me at least, rather strenuous.
I have been avoiding these topics because the answers to these questions are addressing the sole question I have been trying to answer since it occurred to me that it was the only question worth asking. It doesn’t take a keen observer to observe what is observably oblique. But, you know, that is the first rule of diversion: to divert.
The truth is, on a humid summer night, when fireworks exploded overhead the lake shore and children sat wide-eyed at a constellation of blues and reds and whites, I decided that Uncertainty had emphatically made its point. I had gotten used to dismissing the banal, the cliché. But there is something about sitting over two thousand miles away from what you know best, from a life that seems both distant and familiar all at once, and realizing that these decisions make us who we are. How to cope, how to work, how to live.
When I die this earth will continue spinning at a twenty-three degree tilt, and it will revolve around the sun, and all those three hundred and sixty five days our sun will have risen and set, and fanatics will shout apocalypses and doomsdays, and the young will look even older and the elders will shake their heads, and words will change and the oceans will change and policies technologies biology will change, and there will be more weddings and more funerals, and women will have babies who will have babies too, and taxes will be filed, debts will be made, and the poor will steal because they are hungry, because they are starved, and there will be conspiracies and theories, and couples will make love on squeaking beds—
When I die I will have remembered when my parents were living dirt poor in a Chicago suburb. They took us to a nearby icecream shop and told us to choose our favorite flavors. I chose cookies n cream, my brother and sister some candy-coated sorbet. The three of us sat outside, feet kicked against the curb, and happily ate, unbeknownst to us, the last of our parents’ dollar. My mother’s head against my father’s shoulder, my father and his protective gaze.
We were so happy for a time.
You can move across the continent. Across the Atlantic.
You can spend money, and money can spend you thin.
You can plan for two years and crumple it in a wastebasket.
You can eat some humble pie, bigger bites the better.
You can miss payments.
You can defer loans.
You can buy cheap grade shampoo because it is all the same.
You can pack light, lighter than before.
You can serialize Good into tin-cans and papered bags.
You can pretend to know because you know it so well.
You can call your friends and talk telephonically.
You can do without the bullshit.
You can pace yourself between this and that.
You can walk in narrow lines—there’s still so much room.
You can last on French loaves and cuts of cheese.
You can drink in paper cups.
You can talk in clichés because your Ego is on sabbatical.
You can go on sabbatical.
You can hear the trees because this is the language they are speaking.
You can look to science or you can look to the sky.
You can drive 85 on a 75 speed limit.
You can thank Chemists.
You can empty yourself whole and still know who you are.
Be right back. Traveling across the continent.
I always try to write about you, but all my questions have been answered. Love is supposed to be reserved for everything contrary to fact. Because it is cryptic. And it is taut. I would just be spewing out facts. Facts and facts and facts.
With you, for instance, it was never some grandiose moment. Some over-arching, big worded adjective after adjective epiphany. No, it was just the settling realization that out of a million variables, there you were.
No one wants to read about facts though. So I suppose I’ll scribble down facts that make sense to the only reader that should ever matter. That is what the greatest poets ever did. Read and you will see.
One time I had this party, and not the let’s get drunk kind of party, although those aren’t half bad if you ask me. But I had this party, and it was Girls Only. We didn’t post a sign outside my front door, the kind you’d expect for exclusive club membership. Something serious like felt tip pens or even permanent markers. No, my kind of party was even more obscure. Personal invites only. From my mouth! And so this party, which I suppose if I were to admit the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God, I would say that this party was to commemorate what citizens of the United States of America call Thanksgiving Day. Citizens of the United States of America specially appoint this day so that we might remember that our history books have embellished an entire nation’s birth. We imagine that instead of thousands, or maybe millions, of red-skinned men and women and children with painted cheeks and feathered bands dying ruthlessly by the hands of pasty colonizers, we imagine a hearty feast, an armistice, a peace-loving agreement punctuated by a bloated turkey. On this day, it is particularly important to give thanks for our blessings, because the universe or God or the Spanish king or invisible molecular organisms in space have given us these bodies, these fruits so that we may live full and happy lives.
At my party, the Girls Only party, we gave thanks by saying stuff like, I am thankful for my mom. I am thankful for my health. I am thankful for aesthetic pleasures and half-off discounts. And so on. But then there was this moment, and it was significant because we were females. And females can become very sentimental. Like sometimes, it is not out of the ordinary for females to hug each other very tightly to demonstrate how much they care. In the United States of America, males even shy away from hugging each other very tightly for fear of appearing too feminine. So there we were, counting our blessings, and then it occurred to us that we should go around and say one thing we like about the girl to our left. This was like a game for children, except we were all in our twenties, and we were drinking wine, and it was like something you do at a sleepover party in the nineteen fifties when poodle skirts and Elvis Presley were the thing. We did not mind being sentimental though because we were girls. And it was Thanksgiving Day. And so we dubbed it a good idea. The truth being that I, the Girls Only Party Leader, dubbed it a good idea.
When it got to my turn, meaning that the girl to my right had to say something nice about the girl to her left, which was me, she said: Rachel, I really like your hair. It is so dark and pretty. This was then followed by a collective Aw! and Oooo yeah! and So true, so true! by the other girls sitting around me. It then occurred to me that this was a compliment. Sometimes, because I am a female, I forget how to properly respond to a compliment. The truth being that wired into a female’s cranium is the belief that compliments are nonsense, and compliments must be immediately dismissed. For hair, I thought to myself, was really just a biological part of being human. Long strands of protein units that grow from follicles in our scalps. Filaments of biomaterial, as they say. Hair was just hair, but sometimes, I’ve learned, it is best to remain Silent.
I’m trying this new thing out. It’s called Silence. The first time I heard about Silence is when they told me about it in the pews. You were supposed to be Silent in the pews because Silence was how you respected the other people in the pews. Also, the man on the cross. It was difficult practicing Silence because there was so much to say about my immediate surroundings. I wanted to tell the woman in front of me that her bra strap was showing, and that my grandma would probably think she was being suggestive about her bra strap showing. But when you are practicing Silence, you have to turn off your thoughts and let the universe do the rest. For instance, if I remained Silent, then perhaps the atoms in the air would do their atomic work, and there would be some, like, chemical infusion in the woman’s brain, and then maybe she would intuitively know that her bra strap was showing. She would mindlessly shift her strap, perhaps between some choral arrangement or while people shuffled in line to receive the holy bread. I remember the face of my Grade Three school teacher when she told us that everything was made up of atoms. Everything! The whites of her eyes were wide and ominous, and I wondered if even the ugly parts of people were made up of atoms too. Then I went through a phase of tacking on atom- to everyday life. For instance, today during class, Mrs. Proust drank her atom-coffee, which made her have atom-coffee breath, and I hated the way her atom-desk was never organized. Atom-papers, atom-erasers. Even atom-charts of atoms. On most days, I wished to stab my atom-pencil in her atom-forehead.
Silence is also really helpful when someone dies. People fill in blank spaces with words and sound because no one knows what to do otherwise. I have noticed that people generally say nothing at all, but nothing with words is more tolerable than nothing with Silence. When we found out that my best friend died in seventh grade, my mother allowed me to be Silent for four days in a row. This was a long time to be Silent. But the thing about death is that words are pretty insufficient to describe the hole you feel in your gut. The big secret being that everybody wants to say something, but nobody knows what to say. Because no one understands death. Especially when he’s twelve and has got a tumor the size of your fist. Silence doesn’t make it better, but at least it doesn’t make it worse.
The better half of my pubescent years was spent learning formulas. A squared minus B squared equaled the sum of A plus B times the difference of A and B. This was called the difference of squares. When I learned about circles, their equations differed substantially. There were coordinates involved: Cartesian, polar, parametric. I did not understand the practicality of these applications, but I could have probably recited R squared minus 2cr times some cosine in Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Just because. Later when I taught grammar to undergraduate English students, I formulated grammar rules in variables of x and y. Because if X were an independent clause and Y were a dependent clause, then X and Y need not that painstaking comma if using any coordinating conjunction. X comma X was a comma splice. This was bad. X period X was grammatically correct. This was good. Formulas taught me there were definitive answers, even amassed in the world of infinite numbers and symbols. I saw a world pearl-lined with answers. Things could be equated to things. It was only a matter of logic.
But perhaps the most compelling part is when I turned twenty-three, packed two suitcases for London, and spent the next five months rejecting formulas. California to London was greater or equal to a distance of 5,000+ miles, my bank account favored subtraction over addition, and my slowly changing realities could not be divided into any recognizable parts. I knew what happiness had looked like before, but its symbol had now been effaced, replaced by some brisk walk in Hyde Park, sleeping overnight in Madrid’s dim-lit airport, getting rejected by really really smart phD institutions, because Ms. Rachel Trillo, we’ve had many desirable candidates this academic year, but we cannot grant you admission at this time.
The variables don’t match up. Scrupulous life enthusiasts differ from math enthusiasts only marginally. There’s a formula to things. Definitive equations and definitive results. But how does one explain the inexplicable when the odds are stacked so reasonably, so logically against you? Why am I the happiest I have ever been when this is the most uncertain I have ever been?
I have no direction. And yet I feel the greatest sense of purpose.
There’s nothing quite like living in your twenties—the world at your feet and enough gut to believe that you are something, that you are a remarkable human being. I sometimes wonder if I ever cared this much about not caring at all. But America tells me that I should be all I can be and I will be what I want to be which of course is the best I can be. The entire team of soccer moms has already rallied for me. Knobbed knees on wooden kneelers, my grandma prays for me too, you know. I once knew a man who ordered a macchiato every day as he parked his 911 in front of the cafe. He told me that one day I will be split-britches rich and have a nice home and go on lots of vacations and working as a perpetually skint barista will have paid off. But living abroad for the last four months has taught me that all fluff is excess. I have mastered the tricks of public face, of institutions, of responsibility, responsibility, responsibility. It has never appealed to me more than to live the rest of my life without the weight of the world on these dirt-scuffed shoulders. I want to read books and drink coffee and spontaneously combust when my plane touches down on Friday night. I want to affirm the things that have already been written.
The best part is, once you can no longer reconcile these splitting versions of yourself, you find comfort in that you know nothing at all.
I got new specs and I feel good about myself and I can see blemishes on people’s faces on the street and in the tube but that’s okay because now I know that this woman has freckles and this man has wrinkles and we’ve all got something on our faces that we probably notice more than anyone else and despite our vast and varied differences we’re really all the same you know and it’s beginning to set in that I’m leaving London next Friday and I am going home to a home that I feel far and detached from but what I’ve realized is home is less tangible than you’d think and there are people, tons of people, sifting in and out of your life but there are that marginal few, a considerable few who bring a certain calm that pulses through your veins and into your arteries and then my home is no longer defined by this house and this street and this city and this bed because home, at last, is in that ineffable you.