I’d been complaining all week about never running into anyone I knew in my hometown, despite having been back for over three months. Every day, I had been crossing town on my bike, running unimportant errands, trying to keep myself occupied. Downtown, under the blossoming apple trees or on the north side, on West Ave. up by the mall, I kept expecting to run into someone, the way I had so often as a kid, when I couldn’t walk down the street for more than a few blocks without someone stopping, saying ‘hi’ or offering a ride. No one was forthcoming. In the cafés, kids I didn’t know had long conversations about relationships, conversations I had been a part of once and now sat on the periphery of. In the streets, the cars roared by anonymously. Some honked, but it was only to get me to move. The sun was continually falling back behind the clouds and every evening as I rode home, I cleared my throat after not using my voice all day other than to order a coffee or thank a checkout clerk.
It was clear that everyone had gone, even the people who had once remained. Everyone left was unfamiliar to me. They were kids of another generation. Maybe some of them had gone too; maybe some of them felt left. I wanted to assure them. I wanted to say: “don’t worry, eventually, you’ll all leave.”
I had to call the people who were still around. We had to arrange times to hang out. They had stayed because they’d found niches. I had no niche and was only floating, like I had been for so long. Sometimes on Friday, we’d get a beer and I’d tell them a few of my stories; they’d tell me some of theirs and we’d go back to a time when we hadn’t been so completely defined by experience.
There was nowhere to eat, so I ate at home, often alone—never making it back for dinnertime, sitting at the counter, reading a library book. I looked forward to dinner as a time when I could accomplish a simple goal with a very real result. Cooking and eating felt successful like nothing else.
I applied to a few jobs, but no employers ever wrote back. My follow-up e-mails all went unanswered. Only Montana State University wrote to inform me that their job posting for a pooled adjunct position (barely even a job) probably wouldn’t even be relevant until 2018, which begged the question, ‘why even post it?’ ‘To keep the pool open,’ they’d responded.
In the evenings, I tried to read, but something from the day made me so tired, something about being alone, watching other people communicating and feeling so apart from them wore me down. I couldn’t read for more than 15 minutes before I’d start to fall asleep.
I never slept less than 8 hours. There was no reason to rush through sleep. When I woke up, I’d lay there, stunned by my situation, like the feeling that sets in after a car crash where the mind struggles to catch up to everything that just happened and the attendant consequences. Downstairs, I’d have coffee and check my mail. My inbox never contained anything other than Capital One bills and ‘Account Statement is Now Ready’ notices from the bank.
All day, I’d think of the e-mail. Not checking it felt like more of an accomplishment as time went on. I’d leave the house just to avoid it, until I began to believe that I’d gotten something from a potential job. The feeling would be so strong, I’d stop whatever I was doing and hurry home. While Gmail opened, I’d actually feel a chest-tightening anxiety, like I wouldn’t be able to stand seeing another empty inbox and yet, in a flash, there it’d be. Empty. “I’ll get something tomorrow,” I’d tell myself with a sigh before going to cook some food I really wasn’t hungry for.
After about three months, I went to Ann Arbor with my mother. I had been taking a lot of these trips. Primarily because this is what we usually did when I visited. Because my visit had gone on so inordinately long, force of habit kept us doing the same thing.
There was a Moth Storytelling event, but because I had told a story the month before, I didn’t want to ruin the good feeling (one of the few of accomplishment I still clung to) by going back and doing it again. But at the last minute, I decided to go, with my mom. I thought maybe it’d make her happy to see her son doing something other than sitting on the couch, reading overdue library books.
We left early and while she shopped for upcoming birthdays, I asked her to drop me off at the skatepark. I was 33 years old, being dropped off at the skatepark by my mom.
The morning was grey and slightly rainy, like a weather pattern out of the Pacific Northwest. There was only one other skater at the park. He went to the back of the park and I went to the front. In our separate worlds, we kicked our boards against the ground and pushed off the smooth concrete with the balls of our feet, bending out legs to take the varied transitions of the ramps, going up, coming down, getting hung up and jumping off.
After 10 minutes, he skated over to me.
“Ha,” he said pointing, “Look there’s a gummy bear standing up.” I had noticed the gummy bear before, but hadn’t thought much about it. I still didn’t really think about it, but that voice, the way he pointed out the gummy bear apropos of nothing. I knew this kid. I looked at his face, much changed.
“Don?” I asked.
He looked into my face, much changed.
And here, at last, was someone I knew.
It was almost too rainy to skate anyway. We sat on a concrete ledge together and talked about people we knew and the places they’d all gone. He had to leave to get back to work, but it had been good seeing him. It made me believe more in the unseen. I started to think of my e-mail, luckily, I had no way to check it.
The Moth was sold out, but there were only 13 storytellers. I got picked to go 4th, just before the break. Being on stage and being applauded felt like accomplishing something. However briefly, I was entertaining this room full of people. I was performing a function other than riding around on a bike or making myself dinner. After I came down from the stage, a number of people thanked me for my story telling me they’d really enjoyed it. Some of the staff remembered my last story and told me they liked my style. A drunk girl told me I was ‘sexy.’ These things pulled me from anonymity, however briefly, but when I got home, I couldn’t resist checking my mail. There was nothing there. I sat at the counter and drank a beer, just staring off into space. Not really prepared to do anything else for the night.
In bed, I finished The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I guess it was after midnight. I didn’t sleep well and when I woke up the next day, I just lay there for a while, less sure of how to start than ever. Eventually, I went downtown to the café, finished another job application and wrote this.
The next morning was grey and rainy. No one else was awake when I went downstairs. I made the coffee and started to write about a dream I had where my high school had become part of an airport or an airport had become part of my high school. I looked for jobs half-heartedly for a while.
I went up north to see an old friend. I stopped for a minute at another skatepark and noticed that there were tent caterpillar worms all over the park. I was conflicted about skating because it was impossible not to run over the worms. I tried my best to avoid them, but I kept thinking about how they used to be a nuisance species in Michigan. People were always saying they killed trees; I never hear anything about them anymore, but here they were, in the skatepark, nowhere near any trees. Maybe they were trying to ruin the skatepark, having run out of trees to eat.
After the worms, I met with my friend in a little café. He was sitting in the back and rose quickly to meet me with the air of someone greeting a person they haven’t seen in a long time, expectant but also scanning for changes. He’d already drank his coffee and his empty cup stood before him. The last few times we’ve met he’d told me how much I had grown to resemble my dad, so he told me again. I’m sure it must be odd for him, watching the change over the years, from one person into another. He doesn’t look anything like his dad, but when he and I first met his dad already had a lot of silver hair, so I guess he’s got a way to go anyway. But in other ways, there’s a resemblance. He told me he goes home after work and likes to write. “All that time in front of the computer,” he said. “Just like my dad.” Which was true, the predominant memory I have of his dad is of someone sitting in front of a computer. I asked him if he knew what it was his dad had been doing all those years in front of the computer. He answered that he still didn’t know. “Maybe he’s been writing, too,” I offered. He admitted that this might have been true.
We spent the next few hours talking about what our lives had been like lately, a big change from the way we used to talk about the past exclusively. I guess the past has become so distant that the old stories don’t spring to mind as ready anecdotes the way they used to. I couldn’t help but to wonder how many of these memories might be in his writing now.
After we parted, I went over to my old house, where two friends of mine still live. After some coffee, we talked all night as we usually do. Around 4:30 they went upstairs to their rooms and I wrapped myself up in throw blankets on the couch and looked around the room in the soft golden color that pours through the windows from the street. Some houses are day houses and some are night houses, designed for optimal use at one time or the other. This house, my old house, is a night house. The daylight seems to make it cold; the street lights warm it up. At night, after the doors are closed, the cats are sleeping and the heat is blowing up from the ducts, the house, like no other I know, almost seethes in its personality. Even the house I grew up in has no such display of character. Phantasmal footsteps bound down the stairs, shreds of conversation fall like dry leaves through the living room. A static, a snowfall, pulses with old phone signals and voicemail recordings like a cloud pulsing with lightening. In the groans of the door shifting in its frame are delayed reactions to years of different knocks. I haven’t lived here for ten years, but this house is pamplisest, written over into illegibility, but with occasional glimpses into the lives it has contained.
I lay there awake, listening to the conversations of the past swirl through the house. The night brought them out of the carpets and the coffee cups where they had lain preserved under a canopy of dust. I fell asleep listening to the sounds I had made packing up my room, years before.
In the morning, the sun flashed through the windows. I kicked my feet into my shoes and stumbled outside. I drove around the state the rest of the day trying to reconcile the changes with the visions the house had offered up. I felt ten years out of step, like someone who’s emerged groggily from a time machine, not initially sure it’s worked until they notice the cracks in the new paint and the wrinkles on the face with the same young eyes, but looking out on the world, as if from the past itself.
It felt like I’d never be able to catch up with the time that had passed. Everything seemed to have run off ahead into the distance, into age. I tried to skate at another park, but found I couldn’t, at least not very well. I stood back and watched the local kids skate over the tent caterpillar worms, like a stranger waiting for a ride.
There’s a building so large on the horizon it looks like a perpetual dawn, like a manila sun spreading beyond the highway, under the trees. If it wasn’t for the large white refrigerators on the roof, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I’ll be setting off toward that big-box store horizon in a few days. I’d hoped to leave carrying some kind of certainty to lighten the long walk into the future, but nothing has come; I’ll set out with no idea where I’ll be going. I’ll walk north for a while, just to go somewhere while I wait for something—an idea, a mission, a home—to pluck me from the woods, set me down someplace and say “Here. This is where you’re going to be now.” It could be anywhere. Last night, I applied to a job in New Jersey. I’ve got resumes on desks in Hawaii, Washington and Addis Ababa. They’re all supposed to start in the fall. I’m still signed up to take a hard-to-fill position with the fellowship. If, at the last minute, someone declines to go to Kigali, Urumqi or Tashkent, they might ask me.
So, for the next few months, I’ll be nowhere on the verge of everywhere, finally pushing myself out of this place, I will go to the woods, like so many other Americans before me to listen for something. I woke up last night and tried to imagine sleeping in a small forest clearing; I couldn’t, but that’s how these things work. You can’t really imagine the next place. From the woods, I probably won’t be able to imagine a Seattle apartment or even this place very well. It’s good; I guess it’s indicative of finding a place in the present, which is something I’ve never been able to do very well, but I’m getting better at.
Right now, in this café, I’m making another memory, packing it together like a snowball, something to hold onto when all this disappears. From the woods of Appalachia, it’ll be nice to remember the months I’ve spent here, the blooming cherry and apple trees, and when I come back years from now, it’ll mean even more than it does now. Everything already does.