fragments - journal


nov. 12 '21: fragment two - some years ago

On clear days or dark nights, I would get in the car and look at the old atlas I kept shoved in the door. I'd pick a spot on the map, and trace out a route on my phone in the warm silence of the cabin. With the leaves burning gold and a high, clear sky, I raced down the freeway away from the school. I ran without thought until the land ran out and the sea stopped the car. In the parking lot, I turned the engine off and walked down to the shoreline. The only sounds were the rustle of the leaves high above and the tiny gurgle of the water's lap against the sand and rocks. The inarticulate desires that flung me there passed me then, racing out to disappear somewhere low down at the unbounded horizon.

I tried not to think, tried not to put words to the longing that gripped me, so that the ephemeral balance of that present might not be destroyed by inward timelessness, by the closed interpretive circle of my past. I desperately wanted to return, to transcend the present into the future that was still, then, more real to me. But giving in to the dreaming brought nothing but despair.

While I waited, another car pulled in, and edged right up to the water. Two young guys got out to begin unloading. I envied them: I envied them the bright adventurous stickers all over the bumper, the vivid sporty colors of their rooftop bags of gear, their calm and confident way of organizing ropes and nylon and stuff sacks across the pavement. Everything spoke of their being-in-the-world, of their belonging and mastery, the traction they had against the gritty surfaces of what is. All seemed so far away from the floating and separate world I had come to inhabit, the world of reflection beyond time, my unknown fears and aimlessness and the little car that I used, I know now, to flee from despair, quietly waiting for its master in tired and sober black.

They kicked off into the windblown water in their wetsuits, with boards and sails.

"What is that like?" I asked, before they got too far for talking.

"There's no feeling like it," they said, "the freedom. The rush." In their hands the strings jerked taut as the great soft sails caught and filled, and the sharp cold breeze blew them out to sea.

For a minute then the enthusiasm flooded me, for I had once known that rush and that freedom well. On the long drive back, though, with each mile I felt the boundaries of my own life settle down around me once more. Maybe there was a way to soothe my restless spirit, I thought, thinking of those adventurers; maybe I too could be happy in this odd world I'd landed in, of ambitions and copy machines, of youth and paychecks - if I could once in a while wade out into the sea.

nov. 10 '21: fragment one - from the recent past

flora has developed the habit of asking me whether i've been out drinking every time i stick my head through the kitchen door. "you go to drink?" "you drink now?" between big sister flora, who passes out after two mouthfuls of rose wine, and victor, silently wishing he could flout the rules like me, i've been starting to feel tense.

on this late night, however, i push open the kitchen door to a blast of warm, scallion-and-grease-laden air. flora is sitting at the table sipping tea, and i pause with my palm flat on the half-open door. she takes one look at me and starts laughing. i am having trouble getting her broad face to come into focus. i have no choice but to start laughing too.

"i don't even need to ask where you've been," she chokes out. i decide i need to make a fumbling dive for my dignity. "listen," i say. "i had no choice. i was out with a professor and he was the one buying." stepping into the kitchen, i flip the switch on the kettle to make myself some tea. now that we've had a laugh about it, my desire to avoid her has oddly melted away. i have been seen for what i am.

it was the gregor special that did me in. when my supervisor invites me out, with that friday-night tiger twitching in his eye, it will be t'one-and-t'other: pints of guinness followed by shots of whiskey, four or five rounds of that. gregor's twist is throwing in a bottle of red wine as a nightcap. we all stagger home through the gathering, wet-leaf september dark; i begin the long and unsteady trek back to flora to confront my misdeeds, unrepentant laughter in my heart.

her expression sobers as i sit across from her at the little rickety kitchen table. "ah." she says. "'in chou." i repeat it a few times until she is satisfied with my pronunciation. what is it? it's the chinese business practice of inviting younger men, students and employees, out on the tiles. honor is involved; for men only. naturally, flora regards this with disgust.

i am exerting effort to keep the overlapping images of flora's face from wandering too far off, and sipping my tea. men are always off drinking when you need them. they're never at home to play with their little daughters or inquire about how school is going. they just want to stagger back in and collapse into bed. right. right. sure.

and the worst part is that it isn't just the alcohol. they all have mistresses too. you have to have another woman to be successful in business, that's how you know you're successful. after all that time, he cheated on me. i gave him everything i had. i told him, i don't care, we don't need another car, we don't need a bigger house, i'm just happy with you. i lent him money to start his business. and he found some other woman to spend time with and told me he was out drinking with his friends. and he never came back to see our daughter, so i told him that i wanted a divorce, i was done. and now he lives somewhere nearby in beijing. why are men so untrustworthy? she asks me directly.

"well, i had something similar happen to me, you know," i said. she was beautiful and successful and smart, and i loved her very much. but i couldn't trust her. we were supposed to be married, two years ago. but she left me for someone else. and she cheated on me many times. "why didn't you leave her?" flora asks. i still don't know the answer to this question. 1:15 am. i'm starting to regain my grip on the world. "i loved her," i said, "and i didn't know any better." this week, that's my version of the answer. "but she cheated on me a lot." flora laughs. "honestly," she says, "i'm kind of impressed by her." i drain off the rest of my tea. thanks, flora. that helps.

on my bed, with dawn on the move somewhere below, sliding up the curve of the world, i laugh. i can't count the number of times i've heard this story by now, in kitchens, on porches, leaning on balcony railings. i can't help frustration or humor at the irony: why on earth can't the women who want one man, and the men who only want one woman, find each other and rest peacefully in each other's arms?