I dig through the boxes packed in the basement for my copy of Seneca from college. It’s dog-eared and torn up, but I need a letter to open, to speak to me when it seems neither my father nor my mother know how. Inarticulate, disarticulated. There is just her photo now added to the altar where the incense burns. I spent an hour with her, and I cannot help but wonder if she finds it odd that her nephew is there while her brother is not. No moments of silence but merely more noise. Of platitudes and encomiums that are found in Hallmark cards, of carpe diem reminders that seem to insult the dead rather than honor life. Eulogia. I scribble for fifteen minutes, but I crumple up the results. I do not have any desire to praise her, the heart to put a price upon her other than the coins I cannot even place upon her eyes.
It pains me that my father is choosing not to go back for the wake. I’m not in any financial place to afford flying back for it, so effectively none of us will be there to see her up to the mountain where the fires will take her home. Time crinkles its nose, and suddenly, there are a few days left before I journey northward back into what is rumored to be another winter from hell. This time I intend to furnish my little frozen circle in hopes that I’ll be better able to sleep at night, better able to pull myself up by my bootstraps. The work emails keep coming in because I’ve been technically playing hooky since classes began on the 28th. Notifications, one after another. Each a little unknowing form of disrespect for my peace, for the dead.
What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?
Jorge Luis Borges, from Dreamtigers (University of Texas Press, 1964)
I’ve, for a couple of years now, taken a page out of a friend’s book and documented my days on a wall calendar. I journal and freewrite frequently, but there’s something about seeing my days at a glance. The feeling of flipping through the months, witnessing (and most importantly, remembering) all that I have done, all whom I have seen and shared life with. I’m not troubled by this kind of sentimentality only because of how it enables me to take stock of what all occurs in a year’s time, in a month’s time, in a week’s time, in a day’s time. I’m most interested in what gets lost in between the little lines and squares. What is not invested within the lines made by a felt-tip marker, what does not make it onto the wall. There are the days of retrospection, the awkward task of trying to fill days and weeks well after the fact. Those are the profound moments of loss: a recognition that time has indeed passed, a recognition that I had (willingly or not) let go of something. If ritual forgetting is a part of how we make do, how we deal with the immensity that is life, I take my calendar diary as a necessary reminder. As I fail to account for certain hours, certain days, I feel that I’ve lost something infinite.
A case of you, I’d drink. I try to play by ear, but the piano needs tuning. Same chords, a feeling for the note to come next. I see the cats begging by the front door, and I leave their little bowls out for them. Purring and the elegies of the cicadas. Peace and my body limned by the dark beyond the stone of the front step. The sound of their scattering as mom comes down the stairs. A hug and a mug of sugarcane and barley. Home is this thick air until I fly back to him and my neighborhood brews.
A. almost drew me to the river. Picnics by the bank with the claret straight from his cellar. Barefoot on his blanket reserved for what the streets held in its coarse skin. We’d paint a little with our phones, and part of us would want to cast them into the waters. Postmodern sacrifice upon the altar of what flourishes even as it rots.
Sometimes, the scene can be best abbreviated as simply “two boys,” yet what is cut away in the brevity of two words drags him to the edge of the bank. Hold on, hold on. Face among faces: mine just happens to float, while his sinks.
A missed call. Two messages. The remnants of a breath and cc’s of morphine. Stillness, our four voices lingering on the line — closure in a digital age. A mourning with no tears because she, like Thalestris, was proud. She walks on while our little systems whir and murmur under our ever-shortening breaths.
Tempranillo meets pinot noir, and he shows me what he carries on his shoulders. To bed with Herakles and his lion’s cloak: even heroes need their rest. I linger for awhile in the whir of the AC. Bloodshot, these eyes.
I lace up to walk out, and there’s a kiss waiting for me before the door clicks. Invitations that never form into words but merely sweat in the heat. We both check out. Diaspora.
Pork in every dish. But we go way back, so I learn to savor it for her. Mutual laments stirred with a straw. The taste of cinnamon and a good house red. The lightness of small pleasures.
A call from a country code we don’t want to recognize. She now no longer speaks. Critical. How our voices fail to carry.
Satie’s four nocturnes. Music like wallpaper, he said of his work. So I feel then like a fly on the wall, a proliferation of spaces where my gaze might land. A gaze that cuts through the still air, and I return to an old photo of him, dapper in a tan trench coat in the middle of winter before he received his white coat. The titillation of the first, the one who shared my desires in their manifold forms. Shortly after that photo, he would ask me to call him a brother, and I felt hailed in that delicious kind of way that I had never felt before. The intimacy of thousands of miles of space, what lay between the words and every silent pressing of the enter key. No kiss, no tell.
Yet he chose ultimately to make a choice because of last name. Severance: all because he could not bear to see his mother cry. He would bury the rest in the snow.
E. once tried to teach me the courante, so I could properly dance to the partita I was able to play at one point in my years of violin. After watching me fall all over myself, she deemed me too embarrassing to continue teaching. She saw my face turn ever so slightly, her attentiveness catching me just as I flashed back to the moment when my teacher told me I lacked the form for any sort of physical grace. I laughed it off and played back the video we had recorded for her future blackmail should I ever gain any claim to fame. Yet what she ultimately desired was just to watch me at my most infantile. To see me as I was when I was struggling to walk, when I finally let go of the family coffee table to brave the world on my own. I have flown from her and our days in the backyard, and she wanted to see me again when I had courage instead of apologies in my mouth. I say sorry for the shadows that don’t speak, the ghosts that I presume are in the room, for the thousands of selves I feel don’t deserve to grace the light of day. Enough of the apologia, enough of my needless self-defense.
Much of the give-and-take has been in the slow acclimation to independent study. The way scholarly time itself is consumed, dispersed, transformed by the nature of research. I’ve been learning a lot about progress and process, both terms that have undergone significant revision in my understanding. As I’ve come to release my death grip on certain stakes in my profession, I’ve found that I’ve come to a place in which I can truly evaluate my relationship to my work. There is absolutely a problem with work, and I think the academy and its members are particularly vexed about how to handle the nature of intellectual endeavors and service to their departments and students. I have to think very seriously about what it is that I’m committing myself to doing, what kinds of investments I’m making in colleagues, modes of thinking, modes of being in the academy and beyond. I think to myself also as I approach 25 what kinds of questions I’m asking, be it scholarly or personal. Am I actually asking the right questions for myself and allowing myself to think of answers that might otherwise seem inaccessible, implausible, or inconceivable? What obstacles am I generating by deeming certain life paths are beneath or above my own? If asked directly, could I accurately and honestly describe my own position and where change might be appropriate?
I and a few of my fellow cohortmates have been particularly cruel to one of our colleagues because of what seems to be her blatant lack of commitment to the pursuit of her degree. While we feel like we’re barely able to make it week to week, she seems to have her energies everywhere else but in the department and in her reading. Yet, I must ask myself why her way of being a graduate student is so infuriating to me, especially when she is investing herself in places that might otherwise sustain her and contribute to her ability to be a scholar? I haven’t handled well in the past 2 years the precariousness of being a graduate student (or scholar-in-training, to some in this department). What pressures and expectations have I wholly internalized yet never truly agreed with from the start? What kind of graduate life am I choosing to live if it feels like one of which I might never take ownership? Is the inherited narrative of graduate school-as-struggle really the one I want to maintain when I’ve spent two years proving its wholly not viable?