Here, where I live, there are roads where the asphalt has broken up. There are street-side shops which windows have been shattered. I like to watch the wind blow through the openings and bat around the abandoned interiors. Sometimes, I find old shards of glass scattered over puke-green carpet, the edges of the glass dulled from the passage of time. This is a dark place, a cold land. I don’t know how I came to live here. I could say I’m a drifter. I could say I let life tug me this way and that—this time to the corn fields, to the cow pastures, to the post-industrial wreckage, to the malls where I can buy baby clothes for my expecting friends, chilled wine to sip in the evenings with my husband, paint to give my interiors new life. I am chameleon-like. Over time I have understood that this means I have a tendency to mirror the landscapes I inhabit. I change myself in order to blend in. I employ camouflage to survive the drifting, the nomadic impulse I am convinced is there to harm me, causing me to disrupt my life as soon as the trees I have planted bear fruit, so to speak, as soon as the garden of my life blossoms. Here, in the heartland, my language has flattened to emulate the leveled landscape; it has become wounded, because when I look away from the fields, from the horizon of corn, I see the architectural wreckage, which suggests to me that those who lived within the ruins must have suffered an equally negative fate. They could have been buried alive, or fled the impending collapse in a mass exodus no one will acknowledge.
Where are they now?
I imagine bodies piled into rows of houses.
Out in the margins.
Here, in this city blasted wide open, I move around by car. I drive up and down damaged roads. When I feel weary from witnessing the abandon, I drive to the main strip, where there is life, where there are malls, and stop at the local Dairy Queen. I get in line at the drive through. When it’s my turn, I order a Banana Split. I park under the shade of a sycamore and eat it. When I am done, I drive up the road to the next chain, a McDonald’s, or a Burger King. I order fries and park under a different tree, a willow hanging over a pond in the corner of a parking lot. I watch ducks float across the surface of the water and compare the metallic sheen of the liquid to the gray of the concrete that surrounds it. I eat my fries one by one. When I am done doing this, I go to Walmart and walk around its mazed interior. I watch people idle through the corridors selecting merchandise to pass the time. I watch them eat the fried food-samples being passed around. Often, the person passing out the food-samples is old, or injured. They can hardly stand. When I feel a sharp aversion to the maze, when I can no longer look at the objects on display beneath the sickening hue of the floodlights, I leave. I enter the parking lot again. I get in my car. I drive home.
My husband is a gentle man and I know that my habits cause him discomfort. When I walk through the door he lifts his head from whatever he is doing, completing a crossword puzzle, or rearranging his books according to a new order, by country first and then alphabetically, as if he were displaying fine wines from around the world. He asks, “Why do you seek sadness when life doles it out?” Other times, he says, “Hello, darling, you seem like a fugitive on the run.”
I like the way he says darling. It makes me think of sunflowers in a valley opening their faces to a broad, blue sky. I remind him that most fugitives aren’t as calm as I am. I say, “I am as calm as a mirror,” and shoot him what he likes to call a Mona Lisa smile.
Sometimes, I convince him to come along for the ride. I say, “I will take you on a tour of the trail of consumption.” I tell him I am offering him a chance to see the world in the process of erosion, to get one last look before it becomes unsustainable and dives head first into the concrete graves of times past. He acquiesces as if loving me required him to submit to the reckless channeling of my emotions.
The truth is when he comes along things take on a brighter hue. We point out the sky to one another, which is so vast it gives us the impression of being infinite. The color of the sky changes depending on the time of day. Sometimes, it is salmon-colored, naked and beautiful, and we imagine together that it is closing down on us for an embrace. In the spring, at dusk, the sky is pearl pink, or violet, and the clouds blur into one another, smeared by the sunset wind.
The weather here is intense; it is full of fury. I wonder if it has become radical in its ways in order to compensate for the static nature of this place. In the winter, snow piles up on the edges of the roads. Huge flakes backlit by the moon come down nightly to join the feathered stacks which grow into compact ice that melts back down into rotten snow over the course of the season. Then come the thunderstorms, sudden bursts of sound in the atmosphere, followed by lightning, copper-colored, or tinted red as if the veins of the sky were being momentarily exposed. When summer arrives with all its heat, the trees explode, causing, for a few brief weeks, the city to look verdant, hopeful.
In the spring I often travel for work. I fly here and there to say this or that thing. A few days before traveling to Providence severe thunderstorms were rolling in from the south and rain was flooding the ground as if intent on drowning it. I turned on the television and sat in front of it to watch the Weather Channel. I watched the red line of danger move across the screen and heard the weather man’s voice become increasingly anxious as if what he were describing were not an approaching storm, but an advancing enemy troop. When the day of my trip arrived, I didn’t think my plane would depart, so I took my time arriving at the airport.
The night before I dreamt about my impending trip. At first, the dream was comfortable. I got on the plane. It rolled down the runway, gaining speed, then lifted off into an untroubled sky. Moments later we landed. We were asked to deplane in single file. We descended the staircase. We were shuffled across the tarmac and onto a bus by a man in a blue uniform who was waving an illuminated stick. The bus got onto the airport service road. We all stood quietly in it, holding the handrails for balance, until the bus stopped and its doors opened. We were far off from where we had begun, and yet the man in the blue uniform was there, ready to receive us again. I descended the bus. I took my place in line. I walked as instructed into a dark warehouse that was vaster than the horizon, larger than the sky in the Midwest. It was cold inside and I had the distinct impression of having walked into an enormous refrigerator designed to slow my blood pressure, halt my heart. I heard the man in the blue uniform seal the door behind us. He disappeared with his light. Slowly, the darkness retreated, the interior came into view. I saw several corridors. I chose one at random and began to walk in order to warm my limbs. I was alone. I couldn’t see the others who had been on the bus with me. “Hello?” I called out hoping to find someone, but all I heard was my voice echo back in the distance.
The next morning, when I arrived at the airport, there wasn’t a soul in sight. The airport looked as if it had been abandoned. I walked around looking for someone to help me check in, get through security, board my plane. I walked into the bathrooms, then into the convenience store. There was no one. The airport shop was full of stuffed animals with huge red hearts stitched onto their chests and clawless paws held up in friendly salute. There were clear plastic bins full of candy attached to the walls. There were refrigerators with glass doors stocked with rows of sodas, wilted geranium bouquets in black, plastic buckets, various display racks featuring fleece socks, earplugs, travel pillows with fake rhinestones stitched into the creases, greeting cards shouting out to no one: Get Well Soon! Happy Birthday! Congratulations!
A voice from above bellowed out through the void of the airport. I heard my name. I was being called to the check-in counter. I walked over. The attendant greeted me. She said, “Let’s see what we can do. You’re very late.”
I wanted to tell her that I had been there for a while, wandering through the airport with the same careful curiosity with which I tend to wander through the drafty labyrinth of my consciousness, but I couldn’t find my voice, and it seemed to me that it would have been useless to try because after expressing her take on the situation the airline attendant had moved on to other concerns. She looked down at the counter and began fiddling with the roll of receipt paper, her thin lips scrunched, expressing distress. She lifted the roll and held it up to the light. She examined it, then exclaimed: “I don’t know how to change the roll of paper. I’ve never had to do it before!”
The phone rang at the next station and she slid down the counter to retrieve it. When she picked up, the cord snapped away, but she kept talking, repeating “Hello, hello?” into the disconnected receiver. She had dull blue eyes set behind wrinkled lids, curled bangs that hid her high forehead, her hair a grayish-blond that came down to her bony shoulders.
“Oh!” she let out once she saw the limp cord on the counter. She smiled, exposing her short, square teeth. She was wearing a white button down shirt tucked into black pants that made her look like a waitress from an old diner, one who is accustomed to moving automatically from chore to chore as if each occurrence in life were an isolated event, disconnected from a larger picture. She plugged the cord back in and retrieved the message: the plane was at the gate waiting for me, the last passenger.
This is a dark place, a cold land. On the plane, the captain came on and announced that the wrong plane had been fueled, a plane that wasn’t scheduled to depart, but that as soon as this was remedied we would push back to the runway. “Prepare for a bumpy climb,” he said, then added, “Luda, our fantastic stewardess, is here at your service.”
For no reason, I thought: eat, or be eaten; ruin, or be ruined.
I closed my eyes. I needed to listen to the white noise of my mind, to settle into my chair. Some time later I felt a tapping on my arm. My neighbor.
“We are about to take off,” he said.
We lifted off through spring weather, the sky armed with thunder.
“What do you do?” he asked, his voice as choppy as the air.
“I am a writer,” I said, “and a teacher. You?”
I began to feel queasy. The wings of the plane were rattling and the engines were getting louder. I couldn’t make out my neighbor’s reply. I opened and closed my eyes between breaths to settle my stomach. I listened in portions. I tried to keep track. He was saying something about building temporary roads in desolate areas, about flat trucks, and vacuums that suck up the water used to wash the mud off the matts once the roads are no longer needed. I heard him recite figures: 175 dollars an hour to wash the matts used to install the temporary roads; 17,500 dollars a day for the whole crew to operate.
The plane began to rise and fall as if it were a ship conquering a swell. My neighbor continued to talk, even though I was holding my head in my hands. He said something about farmers, how they are attached to their mud, their land, their dirt. Then he began to excavate his memory. He was working backward, telling me the story of his life, about being a teenager in the sixties watching military planes break the sound barrier, about a patch of land in his city that burnt twice, about running without his shoes to the source each time, standing before the wall of fire, entranced. It was unclear to me what one piece of information had to do with another. I made an effort to turn to look at him: black hair and dark eyes, protruding stomach, white polo shirt, chiseled nose. I explained to him that I am a nervous flyer and that I may need to rest and focus on my breathing.
“Okey dokey,” he said, and reached for the in-flight magazine. He opened it to a random page and let out a loud laugh. When he stopped laughing, he said, “Let me tell you something really funny!”
Luda, the stewardess, came over and knelt in the isle next to me. She asked if I wanted a pack of ice. She asked if I was going to be sick.
“Oh, she’ll be fine,” he said and I felt my heart tighten to hold on longer to my blood, the way the farmers he had described had held onto their dirt.
I looked at Luda. She, like myself, was an outsider. When she spoke it sounded like she was sucking on a cube of sugar; her voice was sweet and melodious. She had long lashes and striking green eyes, a broad, round face, pale skin that I could see was well cared for, properly moisturized. She reminded me of someone I used to know a long time ago, but who I hadn’t seen in years and who I will probably never see again. That’s life. One minute you are here, the next you pick up your belongings and move them somewhere else. Just like that. Here and then there.
I leaned back into my chair. I thought of the abandoned houses, of the wasteland I could no longer see from the window of the plane because we were too far up. It occurred to me that somewhere along the line I had to have chosen to nestle in that ruin, whether to perpetuate my wounds of abandonment, or to deal with them once and for all. Then I thought of cows pasturing in the fields alongside highways. Then my neighbor pointed out the page in the magazine he was laughing about. I looked despite my newly acquired aversion for him: a photograph of two all-American boys with blond hair, polished cheeks, well-groomed boys smiling from ear-to-ear. In the picture, the boys are jumping off the back of a pickup truck with rifles strapped to their backs. I had no idea why my neighbor was laughing. I thought of the boys’ in the photograph, of how their faces reminded me of the faces of my students, of their naiveté, of their reach and their innocence.
My students live on a hill in the city. They do not descend into the ruins. They stick to where the grass is green. They avoid the shadowed fringes. They haven’t felt the brutal punches of history. When I open the door to darkness they are afraid to walk in. I used to force them to file in two-by-two. I would point at the darkness and say look at the pain here, and here, and here. Like my neighbor on the plane, I would go on even when I noticed them giving me timid, forlorn looks. The plane found a clear path to travel on and as it glided with ease I realized that this habit of mine to push my students into the darkness must have made me a bad teacher. I examined my motivations. I wanted my students to learn how scarce the good life is. Some of them were glad. Others turned against me, just as I had turned against my neighbor who continued to speak even though I was no longer paying attention. It was unclear to me what my neighbor was wishing I would learn. I pressed my neck into the pack of ice. There is no one out there to teach us how to pace ourselves. It is work we have to go at alone. How can I show my students when to slow down, speed up, stand still and reflect, measure and rearrange their thoughts, follow their intuition? It is always this and then that.
When we landed in Minneapolis, I deplaned and entered the airport restrooms. I stood in front of the sinks and stared into the row of mirrors. The mirrored wall reflected a fragmented image of myself. I looked at the multiple sections of my face separately. It was like looking at a cubist painting. When I walked out, a little girl I had heard complaining in the stalls to her mother about having lost her pet rabbit came up to me and said: “She’s black and white and her name is Ruby. Have you seen her?” she asked.
I told her I was sorry, that I hadn’t. I considered telling her that years ago I lost my pet parrot. His name was Havana. He had a habit of perching on my mother’s ashtray and chewing on her cigarette butts. But I didn’t tell the child about my pet bird because it happened years ago. I lived in California then. I always had sand in my hair and my skin smelled brackish because I used to go to the beach often, not to tan or to swim, but to stare at the ocean, to be reminded that it was there.
I remembered a saying my husband had once translated for me from the Italian. It goes like this: departing is dying.
I thought of all the people I had been.
I thought of the ruins.
I thought of people being pushed out of the center into the margins.
Here, and then there.
When I returned home my husband picked me up from the airport. He asked if I was hungry. I could tell he was in a good mood. He asked if I’d like to go on a ride down the trail of consumption. He pronounced the words the way I had pronounced them to him, with cautious exhilaration, as if the trail of consumption were a theme park in the process of becoming, or a future memorial to the double-edged abundance of capitalism. I told him I had been consuming everything in sight for the last few days, that I had eaten to my heart’s content. I told him that I had eaten as an attempt at living against the inevitable ruin. “Tell me more,” he said, and I listed everything: pickled lemons, minced lamb stew with saffron rice, goat cheese ravioli bathed in butter and sage, wine, Moroccan mint tea, then the Tunisian variety with pine nuts and almonds floating on the surface, Mongolian beef seasoned with red pepper that burned my mouth. He nodded approvingly. He told me that in my absence he had eaten chicken every night.
The next morning I stood in front of the window in our bedroom and stared beyond it, at our old sycamore. All winter the tree was bare, the ends of its branches exposed. Now it had little bursts of green on the ends. The cold and the dark were retreating. The tree was beginning to dress itself. It was preparing for the new season.
Every day in the summer, before I get dressed, I gaze at the tree through our bedroom window. I stand there naked. I wonder what my husband thinks of my little ritual, like what do I think, I’m Eve and he’s Adam and that we are reversing the trail of pain? But it’s nothing like that. It’s just a habit of standing there, of existing for a moment in the verdant hopefulness before descending the staircase and becoming fractured by the day, my mind slicing at it, weaving a million narratives, which threads evaporate by evening, a ring of vapor hanging over my head, reminding me of the palimpsest of the self, making me weary, drowsy, uncertain.