Someone breaks into your studio in the attic. They take money and jewelry and a tray of lettuce. You call a friend to change the lock and the landlord calls you yelling, “who do you think you are, changing that lock? Entitled flower child”. Flower child. When was the last time you heard someone called that. You don’t take it as an insult though. You do dress a little hippyish.
He says he wants you out and although you have no immediate plans to move, you like your job and friends and the apocalyptic undertones of the place, you also think it could be time to leave. There are more issues here besides the obvious security one. Something is unraveling again.
From a basement to three different studios in the same building downtown and now, an attic in the suburbs. It’s a different attic, with beautiful hardwood floors and a large window looking out onto a small but private back yard. This time, you have been appointed shelves for food by the woman who owns the house; one in the fridge, one in the cupboard. So here you are, the first morning seated before the squinting Venetian blind in the kitchen. Slices of light mark the smooth wooden table top. Two cups of coffee and conversation as you gaze at the spaces between the slats and without thinking say, “someone is close”. The words spill effortlessly into the room and vanish before you have a chance to question them. You feel the space they had occupied as unfamiliar; an uncharted corner of your soul.
It’s a Sunday in spring. You have been living in the attic for two months. Emptying and refilling your kitchen stocks, working in a local diner, making jewelry while gazing blankly out the window over the kitchen. Here part of the roof juts to form the porch at the back door. Some days you and your landlord climb out and sit on the roof and talk. These are good days. But underlying (all you can think of is that first morning in the kitchen) there is a sense of everything being transitional. It’s like the pressure felt in the air before a thunderstorm. That vortex of heavy calm. The silent yet powerful approach of something in the distance.
On this warm Sunday you have been invited to brunch in a rustic, transcendental cafe. The cafe is large and white with Eastern art gracing the walls. There is a white napkin on one of the tables which is occupied by six people. There is a foreign man with hair the color of a fading sunset. His fingers skirt the edge of the napkin. His face is like the dot at the end of a question mark.
You hear what he asks but stare down at the mound of brown rice on the plate in front of you. Although you have just met, you are not sure you like this man. He has too many questions. You have the feeling he is trying to fit together pieces of some elaborate and life-altering puzzle.
Next to the napkin is a black pen. The color of his t-shirt is brown. He waits.
You pick at a strand of seaweed snaking through the rice, sip tea. There are other conversations taking place. Your landlord is leaning forward talking to the foreign man’s girlfriend, out of the corner of your eye the other couple at the table; mouths moving but all you can hear are plates clanking and a muffled background sound. The cafe takes on a slow motion, soft focus quality and at the same time you notice everything. All the edges and lines and colors in the room so stark and bright it nearly blinds you and then, the foreign man asks one question. Something about relationships. It hangs like a chrysalis between you.
You are not looking for a relationship but play along anyway. This doesn’t feel real but rather like watching a scene from a movie about an insistent matchmaker or a silly romantic comedy, but this man seated across from you seems deeply serious. More tea arrives with dessert; a creamy looking blob with fruit on top that you will not be able to eat.
Finally, there is a name. An address. A long number belonging to a telephone in a house across an ocean. You can tell, the foreign man thinks this ordinary napkin containing words and numbers is a triumph. He believes that the final puzzle piece has been locked into place. That this moment is light and joy but only you can feel the true weight of this invitation as he hands it to you from across the table. You already sense its history and as you fold it away into your pocket, can feel the depth of its responsibility.
The Silent Japanese Gardens
There is a lot to process. This napkin and its contents can go several ways. You can write the letter. Make the call. Or, you can toss it away as you would after a meal.
Get into the car and drive. Visit the silent Japanese Gardens. Rhododendron. Wisteria. Cherry and Bamboo. You think of a place ancient and faraway, a landscape very different to the everyday one you inhabit. Here there are warm wooden benches. Smooth stone circles on the ground. Time. Hours. Like an out of body experience.
Time in its ever-evolving advance and yet time still as a pond and the lotus floating on its dark surface. This tiny ocean of memory. You close your eyes and see yourself at twenty wearing a black bathing suit, snorkeling somewhere tropical in water like glass; down, down to the sandy bottom and back up clasping a small pearl. A small treasure from when everything was new. Love was new but like the pearl, you lost it along the way.
It’s getting late, the gardens will close soon so you continue towards the exit. “This feels like starting over”, you say out loud to the pond and the trees and the stones on the ground. The Bonsai seem to nod as you pass.
Nervous Little Pause
For a while after brunch nothing happens. Life moves at a pace that is slow and fast at the same time which renders it neutral. Within this neutrality is a nervous little pause, an anxious waiting that doesn’t seem connected to anything in particular. There is no explanation and you’re becoming accustomed to it. Work is busy work. Greek salads. Hummus. Moussaka. There is your boss; too pushy, too volatile. Kitchen staff arguing in another language. Your roommate is a little distant. There are social invitations that do not interest you. There is an ennui in every day, a cycle of sameness almost unbearable.
The piece of paper containing the address and phone number is in the top drawer of the dresser. You haven’t paid much attention to it since your visit to the gardens. You open the drawer. The neatly folded square glows white and hot against the drab colored t-shirts and dark socks. You stare down afraid that if you touch it, it will burst into flames and consume you.
By April you have already written several letters. The phone calls stretch to infinity. You’re not sure how you’re going to pay the phone bill. You still have your job and have been stuffing tips into an old cigar box. But you don’t know how long you will be able to keep working there. The boss seems more unstable with each passing day.
By April your landlord wants to talk about something important. This time you don’t go out to the roof. The atmosphere in the kitchen is stiff and uptight. She is selling her house. She wants to pursue an art career in New York. You’re going to have to move again.
By May you have spoken about this to the foreign man, the one belonging to the napkin. He asks you about moving to where he lives. He asks as if this is the most normal thing in the world.
In June it occurs to you that an ice storm has descended on the usual warm and sunny interior of your mind. Sensible thoughts. Caution. Discretion. All the little cogs that make up the better part of your judgement and sanity have frozen solid and been cast to the dead of winter.
You are in possession of the following:
a plane ticket with an airline you’ve never heard of.
the contents of the cigar box.
three bags filled with everything you own.
And now you are being driven a long way, to the airport, by a friend. Out the window you see an unfamiliar landscape; it’s hard to know what might be going on out there.
You do know this. With confident abandon, Fate has grasped your hand and pulled you unceremoniously onto the dance floor. It happened before you realized, before you were able to ask, “what dance is this?”. It’s all forward motion and fast steps, wild and free and unknown and you’re trying very hard to keep up.
And here you say goodbye.
To your friend.
The life you knew.
The life you thought you would always have.
What is real and true and dependable.
And here, you are alone.
And then, your flight is called. The gate looms like a storybook forest. Once again time advances, time stands still.
They say that before you die your entire life passes before you. Rapid fire memories and pictures, people and events marking the beginning and the end of who and why you were.
You are not dying. But as you hold the ticket in your hand and walk slowly towards the departure gate and the smiling flight attendant, there is this sense, an ending. As you settle into your window seat and look out you don’t see tarmac and buildings and the other passengers boarding. The scene changes and you are five years old, ten, a diagnosis at sixteen, seventeen – troubled and moving away from home. Twenty-four, married for the first time. Thirty, divorced. Stages of your life all tied together with messy bows. Fast years, difficult years, good years showing themselves in bittersweet detail as ‘fasten seat belt’ glows green above you and the plane begins its ascent.
Up here in the clouds thinking is easier. The pictures have faded, the ice storm has passed and it is quiet. The memories have left a warm, familiar glow. Inside the plane the lights are low, people move about slowly, sleepily, the flight attendants bustle back and forth. There is nothing to do now. Nothing to decide or think or question.
Up here in the clouds you can press your forehead to the cool window, close your eyes and whisper ‘goodbye-goodbye’ and wait to land.
‘Departures’ (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
First published as ‘A Different Attic’ in ‘At Love’s Altar’ (c) 2020 Labello Press
All Rights Reserved