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Translated by Andrea Scrima from the original German edition Am Fenster, wo die Nacht einbricht: Aufzeichnungen (At the window, where night breaks: Notations), Limmat Verlag, Zurich, Switzerland 2013

 

Read the full selection on Statorec.

EXISTENCE 22 / MOMENTS OF BEING TOUCHED

What one lives from. The brief moments of happiness when one encounters something, a person, a plant, an animal, a phenomenon that touches one in the most profound way, speaks to one, captures, delights one, like chemical elements that attract one another, do not wish to separate. A moment of this kind can be triggered by a musical modulation (Mozart, Chopin, Wagner…) that “strikes” like lightning, pierces the heart so deeply that one never forgets this moment, brief as it might be.—Leafing through an encyclopedia, we are taken by the portrait photo of someone long since deceased, as fierce as love at first sight; the gesticulation of a tree branch catches our eye and, it seems to the viewer, is directed at him; the particular hue of a pond in a watercolor is perceived as a “soul color,” a butterfly as messenger, a lonely cloud as a being that was waiting for one to finally see it; the sudden comprehension of another being; an elective affinity, entered into in a trice with creatures or things of an entirely different provenance. These magical connections between things ordinarily foreign to one another can be induced by works of art, in moments when we are completely open to the point of endangerment, or physically weakened by an ailment; the nerves are raw, the mind is wide awake, perceives, draws connections it would not have in a stronger state.—Spoke to Jannis Zinniker yesterday about these redemptive moments.

burkart 2

The earliest memories of the self, and how the mind retains them: a fleeting moment, a vivid, invisible color in the mind, nothing more than the stark perception of oneself in the world, the immensity of time, the distant certainty of death. The child who looks around in wonder and thinks to itself that the grandmother and grandfather were also, at one time, children: but does the child really believe this? It is a kind of theoretical knowledge that it accepts; after all, the child is reasonable enough to understand that, for instance, things fall from up to down, and hence the concept of gravity is plausible, useful for explaining numerous phenomena. But when the child compares its own perceived superiority to the limited worlds of the adults it sees around it, the constraint of their understanding concerning the simplest, most self-evident things, does it really believe it will ever be anything but a child? It is like looking at an old photograph and focusing one’s attention on some fleeting detail—the crisp shadow of a branch on a wall, a reflection in a water glass—and thinking this really happened this way, this was exactly so in this moment, but there is no way to understand this or to comprehend a past consisting of infinite such moments that happened in such a way and no other. Better to remain in the present, in the certain understanding of what one is: a child, forever or almost, while everything else remains pure speculation.

And you. Do you remember how we sat on a balcony—was it in Gythion?—and I asked you what it was you wanted to do; we’d been traveling for weeks already and I was beginning to miss the studio, amazed that you could spend so much time doing nothing. What do you want to do with your life? And you, who had always been hesitant to lay claim to anything, to wrap your fingers around it and close your fist over it and say It’s mine, who had been vacillating for too many years already, accustomed now to indecision, to squandering time, said you wanted to play the piano. The speed and certainty with which you delivered your response startled me. Good, I said, then we’ll move your piano to the studio when we get back to Berlin, and when we did, it was so huge and heavy I thought the sagging floorboards in the rickety old factory building might cave in, but they didn’t. And then you began to play, and that’s what you’ve been doing ever since: all you ever needed was permission, someone to say إفتح يا سمسم, Open Sesame, though it wasn’t the treasure of forty thieves locked inside the cave that you sought, but your own.

We spent years piecing through our family histories. We were looking for the black box, the irreducible core of things, telling each other story after story until we narrowed it down to an essential repertoire, one for you and one for me, the Story of A. and the Story of C., and these became the stories we told each other, over and over again, trying to make sense of them; wondering if we were numbing ourselves to their effects as the groove we dug grew deeper and deeper. And where are we now? Our exchange orbits around a child into whom half of you has flowed, and half of me, whatever it is we carriers of genetic information might be, living libraries. We’re no longer children, but once we were like two orphans who’d left behind a trail of breadcrumbs, and then we woke up and found they were gone and there was no way to retrace our steps or to begin again. And so I took one path, and you took another, and it’s the love for a child we have in common now; the worry. Appendicitis on my side of the family, Goodpasture’s Disease on yours; diabetes on mine, cancer on yours. Schizophrenia on mine, schizophrenia on yours—but your piano is still in my studio, and it always will be.

Is there a way to live between the lines, to suspend time? You would remain in Manhattan with your wife and son, I’d stay in Berlin, but there could be a sliver of space we’d inhabit together, a shelf where you’d place the things you still have and I’d place mine between them, like the small objects in tarnished teapots and carved wooden boxes we used to give each other as presents: the dried end of a vine branch tapering to a perfect spiral; a thin slice of sedimentary rock interlaced with transparent hues of violet, perfect haikus in lieu of the more sentimental declarations we shied away from. I still have a collection of bellybutton lint, numerous tiny balls I imagine to be baby blue from a sweater I gave you, a color that matched your eyes. When I check to see, I discover they’re all in shades of gray with the exception of two, which are dark pink.

I remember the blisters on each of your knuckles from stretching canvases for that elderly painter—what was his name?—who was finally, towards the end of his life, having a major exhibition of his work. I remember standing on the sidewalk on Westervelt Avenue after the building almost burned down, the dogs on leashes and the cat on my shoulder, or on yours, and I was suddenly infused with a sense of joy and limitless potential—the joy of sheer survival, no doubt, because I can still see you heating up a can of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and stirring in pepper and maybe chives and all at once the kitchen filling up with white smoke, it took a moment to understand that the soup and the smoke were entirely unconnected, and we had just enough time to grab the animals and run, a matter of seconds—and I said if we can’t live here anymore, let’s move to Europe. I remember a night you didn’t come home; I stayed up late working on something and cut myself with an X-acto blade and had to go to the hospital for stitches, and when I returned early the next morning you still weren’t there, you hadn’t had a chance to be alarmed by the drips in the sink, by the bloody gauze, I had nearly cut off my thumb by mistake and left behind what looked like a crime scene, the kind of thing we do when we need to externalize something, to make a thing obvious that we already know inside, but you hadn’t had a chance to see it and feel sorry. These were the things we never talked about.

I remember sitting in a bathing suit on a craggy shore in the Peloponnese, turning my head and suddenly seeing you instead of the man beside me, my first real relationship seven years after I’d left. It was as close to a hallucination as I’ve ever experienced.

The first time I came back to New York I walked around the old neighborhood like a Rumpelstiltskin; I stood across the street from that pub—was it Third Avenue?—where you’d rented a studio on the second floor from a man who was a friend, but who’d charged us fifty bucks to drive a few paintings downtown, a man who let us do all the carrying, whose jaw shifted as his expression turned smug and he decided to rob us, but you no longer lived in our apartment and you no longer worked in that studio, you’d packed my things into boxes and taken our cats and moved to the west side, and it was my first experience with returning to a former life and finding the vital parts missing, like being back from the dead and discovering oneself invisible.

What was possible, you ask? In the end, is it only what we choose to do? Would I have stayed, would I have come back if you’d asked me to—back in the time before cell phones and email, Facebook and Twitter, the distance unimaginable by today’s standards and a telephone call to London far too expensive. I still have them somewhere: letters and postcards and a photo of you with a bandaged thumb, an odd parallel, now that I think of it.

These are the objects I choose to put on the shelf today: a baseball you kept in a box of old stuff; a sepia drawing your brother had made. An old Polaroid of a sweet kid with a sideways grin, leaning on the arm of a chair next to a handsome and valiant hound dog named Red, the picture you sent me a duplicate of after I’d come across it in a box of old photographs. And a faded green canvas bag among the tools in my studio, the bag you carried your laundry in even before I knew you.

An email notification—is it a coincidence that you’ve begun following my blog?

What can I tell you, now that I know you’re here? You were young, as sure of your brushstroke as a lean boy hungry for experience can be, and I’d loved you for so long already, since the first time I saw you in P.’s class. Did I never tell you that? I see us standing on a corner on Second Avenue, the sun so bright it blinded me, the fiercest squint serving only to make my eyes tear. I pressed my face into you, wishing I could become small enough to fit in your pocket, to stay with you and never leave your side again, even if I was only headed to the studio. That’s how I was back then, licking my wounds as my mind curled increasingly inward, and yet just as cocky as you, just as certain.

I see us on a downtown train, striking up a conversation for the first time, our heads resting on our arms as we clutched the bars overhead, swinging slightly with the movement. I didn’t think to tell you I had to change at Brooklyn Bridge. When the conductor announced the station, I jumped off the train and looked back and laughed at your consternation. I leaned in and gave you a quick kiss, and when the subway doors closed, you stared at me through the glass, looking almost annoyed. I smiled, and then I swiveled around and sauntered away, just long enough until I was out of view. I kissed him! I thought as I skipped across the platform to catch the local. I made sure to ignore you after that, just long enough for you to begin following me around. This is one of the moments that surfaces in my mind when I think of you.

Another: we are walking in Central Park, me in a pleated burgundy skirt I wore for a job interview, you in your pea coat with the collar turned up. The side of your face, the long neck and slightly protruding lower lip was an image I drew again and again after you left me that first time. You didn’t want me anymore, but it always takes me some time to realize these things and it took me some time that day as well, trying to catch up with your long-legged gait, trying to tell you what it felt like looking for a job somewhere on Wall Street, a former math wiz turned art school dropout—I wasn’t yet nineteen, but already the first sense of a decision’s irreversibility had instilled itself, of life being a board game in which you could miss your turn and wind up too far behind.

I showed you an abstract painting I’d made, and I see your mouth pucker in scorn. You asked if it was about anything, if I had any ideas; evidently, you considered me capable of engaging in meaningless activity. I’d been the class genius, had never been exposed to that kind of thing before, the way dudes think that girls are somehow less smart. As always, it took some time for this to sink in.

These are the things I see; that, and how innocent we were.

I see us at P.’s, cat-sitting, living in one of the tin-ceilinged lofts we’d missed by a decade, we whose lot it was to gentrify the roach-infested, rat poison-reeking tenements of the East Village. The Grand Street pediment of the Bowery Savings Bank, its reclining classical figures and domesticated lions: this is what we saw from the windows as we lay in bed, the female figure holding a mirror, the male a hammer: it was everywhere, of course, and I was only beginning to understand.

I see us in our apartment on Ninth Street, after we’d already been living together for several years: I tell you that I might take the apartment upstairs, and I see your eyes moisten, see how this stings you. It was one of the few times I became aware that you loved me.

And later, how many years later, P. drooling over his dinner, but as sharp as ever, as ornery and stubborn as ever. I was drained of emotion; I’d begun mourning him months before, when the illness hadn’t yet devoured his head, the tumors hadn’t yet begun to distort his face. Later, after we’d put everyone in a taxi, you walked me downtown, and I could have talked with you all night if I hadn’t been exhausted from lack of sleep. You brought me to the Neuhaus installation at Times Square, where we stood above a subway grate enveloped in a space of sound that initially seemed mechanical, plausible, but gradually induced a subtle disjunction between sight and sound that was sufficient to suspend time and elevate perception, render the reality around us cinematic. Later, further downtown, you told me you’d Googled me, tracked down my address and seen the semicircle of flagstones in front of our building from above. I was moved beyond words to learn that I continue to live on in your mind.

P. was the only father you’d ever known. When we gathered at the Grand Street loft one last time for Thanksgiving, he was still contrary enough to reprimand my son, who hadn’t been doing anything wrong besides wander a bit too close to the paintings. The tipsy joy I felt after closing the door to the tiny loo, the time-travel voodoo only physical surroundings can induce, when paint on a pressed tin wall and the crunchy pull of a ball chain hanging from a light bulb can transport you back to paradise. I’d forgotten how happy I was back then. But then, at the dinner table, there it was again, that sense of banishment from the magic circle: P. with his boys around him, speaking the P. language and not the least bit curious about my achievements. And I, after all these years, still needy enough to notice. I’d told this to you years before, after you came to my opening on Broadway; you said I shouldn’t pay it any mind, that P. was set in his ways, that there were certain things he’d never understand. I, who had been my father’s rightful son, but was a girl and hence had never been given that rite of passage; who had been born in a sadly Amazon-deficient world, a sorely Amazon-deficient time, felt the snub once again. These things are difficult to explain, but you, O fatherless friend, must surely understand. Later that evening, on our way to your studio nearby, where I saw that self-portrait of yours with the lines drawn on an orange ground—a painting you made when we were together, a painting I still love enough to steal—I turned around and saw that P. had made the journey downstairs after all, and the sight of him lugging a garbage bag to the corner filled me with grief as I stood there, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions and feeling foolish, a grown woman crying there in the middle of the Bowery.

Twombly 2

 

I formulate the words, yet I’m beginning to understand that it’s you who writes the script; in it, my protests sound like Greek tragedy, the unwitting assurances of a character that is bound, by an elaborate twist of fate, to annihilate the very person she seeks to protect. You predicted that I would leave you; this is one way of looking at it. Another is to ask why, from the moment we first understood we were in love, your mind leaped ahead to the end.

I am turning this into a book, I said. Is that OK, I said. How many blog entries will you have to write, you said. I don’t know, I said. However many I need to work through this. I am writing about love because I want to understand what it is. Take a guess, you said. Eighty? I said. Oh good, you said. We aren’t even halfway there.

Another way of looking at it is this. To understand what you’re writing, you need to know how the thing will end. One day I write something, and suddenly I understand that this is how the various things it describes will come to a conclusion. All at once a circle closes and the entire conglomeration crystallizes, acquires form. But I’m not there yet, I say. I have no idea what it’s about, I say. Eighty entries, that’s halfway, you say. We still have some time, you say. I am perplexed. Are you saying it will end with the book, I say. Do you really think that’s what this is about? But what use will you have for me after that, you say.

Another way of looking at it is this. You’ve decided it’s over, or will be. You’ve written the final scene, you’ve fine-tuned the lines: they’re exquisite and sad, and you ascribe them to me. I am the character chosen to recite them, but when the moment comes I stand there, perspiring beneath the hot and blinding spots, and remain silent.

When scripts collide, it’s time to turn off the lights, to shut down the stage. There are entire stories that still need to be told, and none of them as well-crafted as a book or a play, all of them far messier than that. Half of them preserved in a kind of amniotic sac of amnesia and the other half stuck in the muck and sludge of experience, but all of it life, and very different from this.

I have taken to my bed, and I’m not quite sure why; is it fatigue, or a kind of incubation? Each night I resolve to wake up early the next morning and to remain awake, to begin work, to turn this nocturnal life around into something that more closely resembles the lives of those around me. And each morning I rise with the alarm, make breakfast, and then slip back beneath the covers after my son leaves for school. Only another hour, I tell myself, but I know that I’m lying, know I won’t make that ten-o’clock-appointment, and even still I willingly believe the only-another-hour story and pull the covers closer to my body. Only an hour, only another hour, I chant, and then I drift off into blessed sleep.

Is it the medication? I have another month to presumably sleep through before I speak to the doctor about reducing the dosage. I could sleep, sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, there are no limits to the hours I could spend in bed right now with a cat at my side and another at my feet. I’ve found my new world: crouched under the covers, the window open wide, I can have my comfort and fresh air at the same time—what more do I need? To think that only a year ago I jogged five kilometers each day is not only startling; it seems like a blatant lie.

We talk nearly every night now, we never run out of things to tell each other, but sometimes we lie there with our eyes closed and remain silent, each of us in our own bed, nearly a thousand kilometers apart. I am pupating, resting on the threshold between one phase of my life and another. When will I wake up, and what will I be?

I hadn’t been outside in over five days; on the way to a reading on Tuesday I stopped at the bank to make a cash withdrawal. I typed in my PIN, but it was wrong; I typed it in again, wondering how I’d made a mistake, wrong again, and stupidly, instead of pausing to think—but why is the number wrong?—I typed it in a third time. By this time, the sequence of four numerals had begun to feel strange, as unfamiliar as a word one turns over in the mouth again and again until it’s sucked clean of meaning; I had begun to doubt myself, my own memory, only five days and already my PIN, as familiar to me as my own birth date, was dissolving in my mind like a mirage. Wrong for the third time: the automat informs me that I can no longer use my card.

That was three days ago. For three days I have been planning to get to the bank to correct this problem. In the meantime, it came to me like a flash, the correct number materialized in my mind, and it didn’t seem strange in the least—I’d transposed the first two digits, that was all—and once again I felt reassured that the world I live in is indeed familiar, hasn’t mutated in my absence. Although it occurs to me that I couldn’t remember my neighbor’s name recently, a name I’ve said hundreds of times. I was about to insert it into a sentence—and it was gone. My mind groped around the cubbyhole reserved for this particular neighbor, felt the sides, the bottom and top. I knew her name began with the letter S, but the cubbyhole was empty and remained empty for what felt like a long time.

I am not old enough for this to begin happening. I meant to tell you this, but forgot. Is it a side effect of the medication? Is this what it feels like to have your life crumble away from you? One name, and then another, and then the dates start to go, telephone numbers, numbers you haven’t had to write down in decades, numbers you have to search for but cannot find because they aren’t written anywhere, they’re too obvious to write down, as obvious as the names of friends too close to require a surname in your mind—but what if you’ve forgotten the name, what do you do then? And what if you’ve forgotten your own? Like the class photos from grade school: I still remember thinking that I would remember my classmates forever, thinking how stupid adults must be who look back on their youth and can no longer remember the name of the boy in the third row, second to left, or the girl next to him. How can you forget your own life, I used to wonder in disdain.

I was recently contacted by a woman on Facebook; she claimed we’d graduated high school together. She had a clear memory of me: who I was at the time, the things people thought about me, said about me, the places they’d imagined I’d go one day. Nearly twice my entire lifetime at that time has passed since. She attached a photograph of herself: tweezed eyebrows and eyeliner, blow-dried hair, an Italian-American name like thousands of others on Staten Island—but I could not, for the life of me, remember her. And how many of them have forgotten me?