travelogue

montpelier - july 2014

It seems as though everything is in bloom today – from the tall goatsbeard to the variegated hosta that grows low and dense along the path.

I walk facing traffic. A few cars slow and give me wide berth. I remember the day one summer years ago when I missed the last bus and walked for miles. My mother was dying but we did not yet know.

I slow down. Past a rehabilitation center set back among some trees. Perhaps a person could get well here, sitting on a bench facing trees and asking questions of the wind.

Across the street, there are stones arranged to line a ditch and I want to say this is called a French drain? I think about crossing the street to inspect this more closely, but I do not.

A man and his daughter ride down the hill on a two-seated bicycle and as they pass, they leave the scent of sunscreen in the air. Further up the hill, scent of chlorine and I turn to see white sheets hanging on a line. Shoes left on the front porch. Occasional  hum of passing car.

I have walked a large circle around my point of origin, although this is not what I had intended to do.

Rust on the sidewalk
the particular blue of mailboxes

At home, peonies are blooming
without me      

Here, wild strawberries tumble
down a slate wall

Sedum grows in the crevices

– 

At home the wheelbarrow rusts, abandoned in the rain. 
I tell myself: I would be a different gardener here. Here, 
I would be more diligent. Would take better care of my tools. 
Would keep a garden notebook to make plans. Would not 
leave all the mulching for so late in the season after all the weeds have already taken hold.
                                               And this is how it is with us 
believing this time it will be different. This time, I will be better.

A mustard yellow Dutch Colonial farmhouse so bright and charming 
the sight of it brings tears. A child’s playhouse in the yard. Mulch 
in neat mounds everywhere. 
                                                                 A person could have 
a good childhood here: Could trap frogs in jars and fall asleep 
to the sounds of crickets. A child could live 
on wild strawberries and sweet peas. Could find reasons 
to stay out all day singing          even after night 
falls gently down over the mountains         even after 
other children have gone to sleep.

Facing the sun which is low in the sky and bright

Hearing footsteps approaching but not looking up

Car drives past behind the bench where I am sitting

They must be accustomed to this. To have us descending
on their town, a week at a time,

marching down to the co-op and buying up
their wine, their artisanal cheeses, their cases

of Heddy Topper. Playing pool in their bars
and throwing darts at the wall.

A sign taped to the base of a windmill reads: Take Back Vermont 
and one wonders from where the threat comes.

Clematis white and purple

Woodpile covered in a blue tarp

I smell honeysuckle but cannot see it.

In the apartments across the street, a fight breaks out.
A woman’s voice shouting:

“I’m not going to fucking see it.” The word could be see
or clean or eat. An important word to know, in context.

A man in a white t-shirt steps out on his porch,
then disappears back inside.

Tomorrow, I leave this place, its blooming. At home,
the mulch will need tending. The weeds

will have advanced, unchecked.
And I will have circled this place for days. 

Circling, circling, and now stopping. 

travelogue nyc: nostalgia machine

We enter the city on the west side. It is a bright afternoon and the Hudson River shimmers. Once at our hotel, we set out almost immediately. We don’t want to waste the light.

We are on 25th street between Sixth and Seventh. We head west for the High Line. “You are telling me,” says our son, “that this park floats above the ground?”

We laugh. “You’ll see what we mean,” I say. “It’s not that it floats exactly.”

We begin at the northern end and walk south, navigating the narrow path. Our son wants to run the width of it back and forth and stop in the middle and have “walking races,” so we spend much of our time trying to limit his interference with the flow of foot traffic and apologizing.

When the path opens out to little alcoves - a bench set back along a bit of train track visible beneath the weeds or a raised platform holding small iron sculptures - he is free to take up space and he does. He climbs the bench, walks along it, then jumps off. He is content to do this repeatedly, each time he lands, asking, “did you see?”

Back at the hotel room, I fall asleep for a time. I dream the rooftops of the city - the gridwork of vents and generators and fans laid atop the flat gray planes.

At night, we walk. Yellow taxicabs lined up along the sidewalk. We head north toward the bustle of Times Square, but before we get that far, we are drawn into a sleek-looking restaurant by the lure of low brown couches. Inside, we walk to the back instead, find a quiet section at the long bar. There is a muted hockey game on the screen we are facing. The bartender points to it. “There have been two fights already,” he tells us, with visible glee.

We talk about childhood. About the basements of our grandparents’ houses. Even after all this time, there are stories we have not yet shared.

There is a photo booth in the back of the bar and before we leave, we go in, draw the curtain. When we emerge, we stand by, waiting. A narrow strip of photos falls from a hidden opening. There are four shots, sepia-toned. In the first, we are looking in opposite directions, caught off guard, not ready. In the second, we are looking directly at the camera, M. scowling, me with a too-wide smile. In the third, we are facing each other, foreheads touching. In the last, I am leaning into him and he has reached up to put his hand in my hair.

We walk out, and I am holding the strip in my hand, waving it. The lure of capturing these moments: this clear, cold night suspended in time. These fleeting hours with no obligation except to one another’s company; except, perhaps to the memory of early, heady love. This nostalgia machine.

Our son is up early, announces it. Tells us: “I am feeling very awake.” We try to lie still for a while longer, enjoy the darkness, but he calls out again.

I rise, shower and as I am coming from the bathroom, I hear his voice. “I have another question,” he says, “about reincarnation.”

He has been preoccupied with death and we have given him books, talked to him. He seems to take comfort in the idea of reincarnation. “What’s your question?” my husband asks.

“When your soul goes into another body, do you become that person or that animal?”

We walk. The boy stops to pick up treasures on the sidewalk. He finds rubber bands and pennies. He picks up the small branch of a fir tree, says: “Look, a rare cactus.”

We take our time, the whole day stretching out before us. We have made no plans. We will let the day unfold, the long city blocks, the cold air, the bright sun.

travelogue: rochester, ny

We spend most of the day driving. The long, gray roadways. The cold winds are fierce. By late afternoon, it is dark. Snow swirls in the headlights. 

This time last year, the sky was so clear. The stars so bright. When we arrived in Geneseo, I looked up the names of the constellations and wrote them down. But there are no stars tonight and a year later, few things remain the same. 

We sleep cocooned in pitch darkness. The lights here are distant and we are high up, far from the noise of the street. The silence. The enveloping dark. 

In the morning, the sky is spread with clouds. There is a light on in an office building across the way. I see file cabinets and stacks of paper. 

Mostly, I see rooftops, snow-covered. A parking lot, empty but for one white van in the corner. A radio tower in the distance, its red light piercing gray sky. A scattering of yellow street lights. 

I take the elevator down to the fourth floor. The treadmills overlook the pool, empty now, bathed in blue light. I leave the mute television screen on the bicycle as I ride. Someone has won a race. There is a fire burning somewhere. Somewhere else, people are gathering to pray. 

This year, we are steeped in the ends of things. There is no longer a house in which to gather. We are perhaps a bit unmoored, although we will likely not speak of it. So much of our lives lived in these silences. All the fears and the sadness that we wrestle with alone.

My son plays on the floor of our hotel room while I wait for the watery coffee to drip into its paper cup. There is the dull hum of the heating fan. The shower running. 

We stop at a favorite bookstore on the way in. It is warm, sprawling. In the back corner, there is a table of maps. I run my fingers over the displays, but I am distracted, so I don’t linger. My son finds me. He is carrying a small stack of books, holds them up for me to see. I take his hand and we make our way to the checkout. 

In the cafe next door, we order soup and sandwiches and watch as clusters of people come and go, carrying their bags and boxes. At the next table, a man and woman eat their meal in silence. She stares at a point just beyond his head. I feel sadness for them and then am ashamed of my sadness. I know nothing of their lives.

As they stand to leave, she picks up her own tray and then his and says: “I’ll take this to the trash.” They walk out into the icy night. 

We go downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast and are mistaken for someone else. Welcome back, the young woman chirps at us, her hair pulled high on her head. Where are the others today?

“It’s just us,” I say, playing along. There is no reason to get into it. 

I have a dull ache at the base of my skull and the skin around my eyes feels tender, swollen, as if I had spent the evening weeping. 

In the bathroom mirror, in the unforgiving light, I do not recognize my own face. There is a yellow cast to my skin, a sunken hollow in my left cheek. A dimple in my chin I had not noticed before. 

What happens to the selves we used to be? Each year that passes, how we shed our skins. Who are we now, and what will we become? 

In the hotel pool, Christmas music plays on an endless loop. We splash around, my son and me, let the cool water carry us. We are alone. My son sings songs he has learned in school.

At one end of the cavernous room, there is a wall of glass and through it, we can see snow on the ground. In the sky, there is a band of bright light where the sun tries to break through the layers of smeary clouds.

My son wraps his arms around my neck, his legs around my waist. I walk the length of the pool like this with him. He is still singing, softly now, his mouth near my ear. There are water droplets clinging to his cheek.

Later, perhaps the sky will clear. But for now we take all the light that is given. 

travelogue: paris - part 2: doucement, doucement

We take the train out to Parc de la Villette. At the boulangerie, we buy baguettes lardons and pain chocolat, eat them on the subway from their paper bags. We have fallen in love with the trains here. The woman’s voice announcing the station stops on Line 2 is beautiful and melodic. I try to sound like her, say Barbes-Rochechouart over and over until you look at me, give me a weary half-smile, and so I stop.

We go to the Grand Halle to hear the bands play, most of which we no longer know, but it is enough that we once did. We are more tired now than we once were, and as the night wears on, our age betrays us. We find a spot to sit down, toward the back of the cavernous hall, and you let me lean up against you. There is a cool breeze back here, with the doors open wide. The stage lights cast a soft glow on us.

It is enough to be here, in this place. It is enough to remember early love, the way we stood in crowded bars, our arms touching. It is enough to see the younger versions of ourselves. To see them happy. To see them standing way up near the front of the stage, damp with sweat and the heat of it, to see them embrace in the crush of people all around them.

On the way home, we talk about the music we know. What it was like to hear it in that giant hall. What it felt like hearing it the first time, what we remember of it. That early summer week spent in Jamestown. The relentless rain on the beach.

Our bodies have not yet adjusted to the time here – we eat, sleep, wake when we can – paying only the barest heed to the clock. It is a dream state here, with you. How like a familiar, recurring dream.

You choose the Parc des Buttes Chaumont for all its man-made pleasures. After the three hundred steps at Sacre Coeur, the ascent up the hill overlooking the park seems nothing at all. We get to the top and we take photos – again the city scape. Again the rooftops. We take these photographs that will mean nothing to anyone but us. As if we are the first to see the dome of Sacre Coeur in the distance. As if we are the first to see these rooftops, this beauty, this light.

We stop on the man-made bridge over the man-made pond. The bridge trembles as people walk across. And when you put your arm around my shoulder, the years fall away and you are a boy: You are seven years old in Geneseo, in the barn behind the house. With your record collection and your stones and your arrows. And I am nine in the apartment in Bronxville, with my dolls and the pictures cut out of magazines. I am thirteen, taping songs off the radio. You are sixteen and your heart is racing. I am twenty-one and my mother has died. You are twenty-three and alone in the city. And all of that places us here, we are here: you and me in this city, this city we have created together.

A man walks past us on the bridge, following after his sons. Doucement, he calls after them, doucement.

There are Halloween games going on in the park. Parents push strollers piled high with sweaters and scarves and bags for candy. The mothers wear headbands with orange baubles and glitter on them, their nod to the day. They hold hands with their tiny witches and angels, their pirates and ballerinas. The smallest devil I have ever seen is crying in his father’s arms, his curled tail crushed against his father’s chest.

The cave is a wonder – a feat of construction – its scale, its detail stunning. In the middle of this park, this cave. We stumble on it and are struck quiet in it. There is a small pool of green water that collects drops that trickle down the fake stone walls. Isn’t it amazing, you say, to have built all this purely to spark the imagination, purely to bring pleasure, and if you mean the cave or the park or if you mean the city itself, my answer would be the same.

Haven’t we made this city anew? Haven’t we remade it for our pleasure? Haven’t we torn away the place where we fought in the shadow of the statue of Charles deGaulle, and on rue St. Honore and the hotel there, where our bed was cramped and cold? Haven’t we illuminated what once was dark here? Haven’t we awoken what had been sleeping, roused it with our own hot breath?

Yes, I am so willing here. Charmed by everything I see. I walk around, eyes wide, grinning like an idiot. My observations are childlike, foolish, giddy.

Voici un homme parlant au telephone!

Et voici une tarte citron!

Et voici un sac en plastique avec des oranges!

It is just a bag of oranges, you say, as you hold it open so I can peer inside. But look, I say, with all the green leaves still on them, see how beautiful they are.

We arrive early for our reservation and while we wait, we read side by side as the sky gets dark. We bought books of poems at the cramped bookstore behind Notre Dame. (No more cathedrals, I had said.)

We sit in front of the park that is locked, now that the sun has set. We can see benches through the bushes, just beyond the gate. But instead, we sit on the stone ledge that circles the park. There with our books and our growing hunger. There in the dark of this city. There with you, with one last night ahead of us. This moment I will remember, even when others fade.

Once inside, we pretend that the language being spoken at the tables around us is not our own. We lean into each other, speak softly, try to block out the sound of the man next to us, trying to remake the menu: “I want this, but with mushrooms.” “I don’t understand.” “Do you have mushrooms?” “Yes.” “Well I want this, but add mushrooms to it.” The waitress agrees, finally, reluctantly. The woman with him orders hers, “but without the egg.” “Bien sur.” We order using only the few words of French that we know, make no eye contact with anyone at the tables on either side of us. Now, the family on the other side of us is arguing over the bill. Don’t we trample over everything. Les Americaines.

The end comes so quickly. We are here and then we are not – we are hurtling our way toward the sprawling airport. We hear news of a possible airline workers’ strike. Perhaps we will not return home today.

At home, snow has fallen. At home, our children are waiting. At home, dawn is only now breaking and we have been awake here for hours.

After our meal, after café crème and crepes dame tatin, we go to Studio 28 – a lovely tiny theatre across from our hotel. These, then are the ways we love, the ways we have always loved, here and at home: In the cool dark of the cinema, your hand on my knee, my head on your shoulder. In the places where the bands play music, standing side by side. Over café crème. Aren’t we building it all up again, going back to where we began? Don’t we love each other so well, here in this city of light.

On the train back to the hotel on our last night in the city, we make plans to come back. And we talk again about the last time we were here. We didn’t know each other then, I say. We didn’t know ourselves.

You say: I didn’t know what was important to you, what was important for us.

The lovely voice over the intercom calls out our stop: Abbesses.

You say: Now, I know. Yes. Now, we know. 


travelogue: paris - part 1: sacred heart

Arrival

When we arrive at the hotel, we throw the windows open wide. The gray sky is dotted with the white rooftops of the city. It is morning here. We have flown all night.

As the city awakens, we sleep. Hours later, we stumble into the street, dizzy with hunger.

How is it that the sky is more expressive here? you ask, the clouds seeming to form patterns we have never seen before.

Along the Boulevard de Rochechouart, you buy oranges from a stall on the street. We take the bag to the park and sit on the bench facing the building that is soon to be demolished. A grand brick structure, its windows boarded. From the green bag, you take oranges, one after the other. We let the juice run down our chins as if we have never before known any fruit so sweet.

What are you writing, you ask. Why are you writing everything down?

I say: I don’t trust my memory and more than anything, I want to remember this.

Sacre Coeur

The crowds at Sacre Coeur are not the faithful, it seems. They sit in the pews and tap on their phones, the screens glowing in the dim light. We sit for a moment, whisper about what we know and do not know about god. I have seen one too many cathedrals in my time.

We pay for access to the crypt and the dome, slide crisp bills under the plexiglass shield. The woman behind the glass asks: Where are you from? in only slightly accented English. Aux Etats-Unis, I say. Ah, tres bien.

The air in the crypt is cool. It is dark and quiet. Its objects and artifacts laid out in an odd pattern. There is little explanation for what we are looking at, save the stations of the cross, recognizable to me, even in a language I don’t fully understand, engraved in my memory as they are.

Three hundred steps to the dome of Sacre Coeur. When we reach the top, we are winded. The city is laid out before us in all directions – white and glittering – as far as we can see.

All around us, in the stone, the hundreds of thousands before us have carved their messages into the wall and the benches. Their declarations of undying love. As I sit there, catching my breath, do I scratch your name in the ancient stone? I do not. But with the taste of sweet oranges still on my tongue, does the memory of your mouth on me, the heat of it, overtake me for several moments, lightheaded as I am from the climb, so that I find myself falling back against the wall, which is cool and rough on my skin?

Yes. Even here, in this place of the sacred. Yes.

C’est ici l’empire de la mort

The line for the Catacombs circles around the gated park and we stand there, for hours, to view the bones of the dead.

I point out a tiny bird on a tree branch. I can’t see it, you say. I point again. It is there, right there.

We talk about the last time we were here in this city. About the cold rain. About how little we knew of each other. When we are quiet again, I put my hand to the back of my neck so that I can remember yours there, just moments ago.

The sky is gray, there is no sun this morning. It is mild though and we are grateful for it.

To talk about the sky, to talk about the light – the gray streaks of it across our faces – is cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.

Through the fence and through the bushes you can see a train car moving beneath a steel grate. You talk about the funiculaire that will take us underground. It will take us down, you say, a few of us at a time. You say: I am only speculating. I am making this up.

No matter, I say, it is the way I will remember it.

It is only the subway after all, but I will remember it in the way you described.

You point out a pigeon with a broken leg and I think what an odd kind of sadness that recognizes this.

To look away and then to look back is the only way to truly see a thing. This is what you said when you first spoke about my photograph. This is what you said when you first spoke about my face.

The walk to the ossuary seems endless. Dark and without markers, each hallway the same as the last in its dimness, in the endless walls of stone. At the entrance to the burial chambers, engraved on the archway: Arrete: C’est ici l’empire de la mort.

What is it that one can say after walking through corridors of death? Hundreds of thousands of bones. I will not attempt to describe the experience of it, but I will only say this: After the last burial chamber, there is a stone wall covered with graffiti – most carved into the rock itself. On this one wall, not an inch of space uncovered. You can imagine the rush of it, feel the urgency of scrawling your name on the stone as if laying claim to vital, blood-filled life. What relief to feel one’s own hand making marks, one’s own bones moving under the skin.

To see a thing, to look away, and then to look back again.