By Andrew Bertaina
The world cares little for our departures. It spins and spins in the dark unaware that we are even here, spinning in that same dark. We are left to construct our own signs then, spin our own yarns about the moments that have marked us. We tell ourselves stories about first loves, parents, home, in order to give our lives structure, a foundation on which to build the architecture of the self. The meaning of our departures comes in hindsight, a postscript, leaving is not the car going down the driveway, the hand waving goodbye, it is considering, days, months, years later, what the leaving meant, trying to remember if you held your hand against the cold glass and what it meant that your mother didn’t cry. This essay is already a failure, an attempt to send myself a postcard from the future. I doubt I’ll have the sense to read it.
The last summer I spent in Chico, CA before leaving home was like any other: blazingly, soul-scorchingly, hot. It was the sort of heat about which people out east say, “It’s a dry heat though,” which is why I dislike almost everyone out east. The observation is made no less obnoxious by its veracity. The summer days in Washington D.C. are sauna-like, something to be endured, like watching golf on television. These relentless days always leave me longing for the cool California nights of my youth—crickets chirping and a light breeze prickling night’s skin.
Departing for college was the first of many adult severances. It felt like a pin prick at the time, an inevitable retracing of the steps taken by siblings and friends. They returned in the summers, strangers in a familiar land, stopping for a visit with the natives before returning to their new home. And yet, as the years have passed and college friendships and memories have faded, I realize that leaving Chico was a severance, an end to the era of a childhood and a farewell to my home, and to the idea of any place being home.
It’s difficult to be nostalgic for something you haven’t yet left. It’s now that I remember our sloped driveway—basketball hoop nailed into the roof—countless afternoons spent shooting as the sun faded behind purpling cathedrals of clouds. It’s now that I miss the tangled oaks, with knots like the hands of grandmothers that line the streets of downtown, now that I miss the dappled light flickering across the water of Lindo Channel. Perhaps what I mean to say when I say I miss home is that I miss childhood that I ache for innocence—card games, stick wars, picking plump blackberries from the ground, the succulent sweetness of them midsummer. And then it’s gone, in a flash, and I am older again, peering back as it nears midnight.
I spent that final summer scraping aged wallpaper from the cornices and lees of a sun room in a quiet house of clapboard siding and shutters, converted twenty years prior from an old farmhouse. I was doing the work for a member of our church, John. John was an older man, with a quick smile and a head wreathed in white hair that made him the envy of any good Franciscan. Our chats about the work and how it was to be done were brief, which was good, because I wasn’t good at the work.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been “good” at anything. That is not entirely true. I believe I was good at the multiplication tables, near great. But no one ever made a statue for knowing quickly that six times six is thirty six. I should say that work didn’t suit me, and that I didn’t suit the work, and that no work ever suits me except that which I have chosen, and, even then, after a while, it no longer suits me, or I get bored and restless and feel unsuited for work.
What I remember most vividly is his daughter, Jen. She was a year younger than I was, and I’d carried a torch for her since we were children, or maybe I only carried a torch for her that summer, or perhaps, even now, I am only remembering that I carried a torch for her that summer before I left for college, when in fact, I only carried a real torch for her when we were children, or maybe I never carried a torch for her at all.
My desire for Jen was not complex. My desire for, Jen, was randomly generated. She had the good fortune of being of the female sex, which meant that I desired her. This is not a Shakespearean romance. It is the unique traits of the beloved, dimples, skin color, hair style and length, slight overbite, slender legs, etc. that set them apart from the masses, move them from abstraction to reified whole. She had black hair, I remember that much, though it might have been dyed blond, or it was blond and had been dyed black. Or maybe it was red but had been dyed blond and black at different times of the summer. I remember that it was short, of that I can be certain, I think.
I was an untutored youth, not familiar with semiotic theory, and so I believed my attraction for specific women was unique to the collection of molecules and atoms that comprised my being. I didn’t even know the word trope and thus, did not know that loving itself was a trope, though later in life, I was to discover the word trope and reapply it to periods of time in my life, wondering if I’d known the word then if I’d have identified them as tropes, or whether you would only apply the word to a portion of your life in the past tense, because to imply that a moment in your life is a trope as its happening is to take all the fun out of existing, to make it less mercurial than determinate. Perhaps I never should have learned the word trope.
I labored that summer in the pre-Ipod era: an era that included a shocking amount of silence. What does one do with brute silence? Plays games, I suppose, constructs poems or melodies about the particular play of light on the wall or the nuthatches song melodically slipping through the limbs of old elms. I did none of these things. I have to be writing to be thinking. My mind, if given silence and time, plays a cruel and useless game. It spins in circles like a top. I think I thought of two things, just how damn hard it was to scrape paint from a wall, and whether or not Jen found me attractive. The paint was hard to scrape from the walls, and Jen did find me attractive, I think, or she found me passable, or attractive but unapproachable. I never got around to asking her.
Her voice from a far off room would set off a series of intense physical reactions, increased heart rate, pin pricks on the scalp and neck, along with elaborate fantasies involving hay, period costuming, and a good deal of sweat. As in all romantic relationships carried out exclusively in the mind, when we actually spoke it was shot through with cold doses of reality. The beloved is partly the beloved because she is nothing at all. She’s a shadow on the all of Plato’s Cave, a puppet constructed and controlled by the strings of another’s mind.
In truth, I was hoping to write an essay about love and home, or women and home, or sex and leaving. And yet, I find myself fumbling to write about any of them, home is a collection of ideas rather than a place, women: an abstraction, sex: a distraction. Perhaps what I am writing about is merely a summer, a bit of ephemera dredged up to be looked over like a pan for gold. They say that the DNA of a child gets locked into the birthing mother’s body. The same is true of the women I have loved, the places I have called home. They are a part of me, even now, when I am so distant from them.
You see, leaving the safe haven of my hometown, of my baseball cards and fantasy novels, was also to leave behind imagined love: the sort where you could carry a torch for someone without ever speaking to them, the sort where walking past them after class, even if they didn’t smile at you, the mere fact of occupying space in their vicinity was enough to leave you floating away in a manner that would have pleased Peter Pan. I quickly moved from the general to the specific in college. Women were no longer phantoms and succubus, but corporeal beings with artsy dispositions, possessed of idle chatter, or beautiful and unattainable girls with boyfriends in distant cities. To love generally, non-specifically, as I did before I left home, was safe. The heartaches engendered by phantoms are frequent but less seismic.
In truth, it is a challenge for all romantics to have the fine texture, woven from silken dreams, made into crude and disappointing flesh. Life, for any good romantic, is better observed, better dreamed, better imagined that an actually lived. The basic failure of the romantic temperament is that it is more pleasurable to sit across the room and peer at one’s lover than to sit with her and discuss the weather or day’s events. She might tell you that it was sunny in the afternoon, and you might add that it was a bit breezy, and this will be your evening. She might tell you about her brother when you really wanted to hear about her sister, or she might need to blow her nose when you wanted her to kiss you. It’s just these sort of inconveniences that make loving a person so unwieldy.
Knowing now, the fallacy of romantic love, I understand that a person generates fantasies about home and about being a child as well. A home is less an authentic space moored in a place and time than an idea. It’s a series of memories burnished by the years into something golden. The strawberries in the side yard of my neighbor’s house were not just strawberries, but the best strawberries I’d ever eaten. The dappled light in Bidwell Park is not just the dappled light of any park, but the finest dappling of light that I’ve ever seen in my life. You would want to dapple everything in this light, trust me. These false constructions are what make being a human being livable. Imagine if our insignificance was routinely made manifest?
Home is the place where I peed in the backyard. Home is the place where I gathered dandelions. Home is the place where I threw a blanket over a heater and trapped in the warmth. Home is the place where I was loved very deeply and specifically, as it seems to me now, only a child can be loved.
Perhaps I’m just trying to force meaning, for we are animals of meaning, onto a summer devoid of it. Perhaps that summer meant nothing. And yet, I remember deconstructing a deck, pausing on the iridescent glimmer of a snake’s shed skin. And later, after we have finished pulling out the rotten boards, we rebuilt the deck, putting new boards over that shed skin, burying it yet again. For the purposes of the metaphor imagine that the skin did not move, imagine that I am a skin, imagine that a summer and a self are like skin, easy to shed.
Her name back then was different. It was near Easter. Her cheeks were pale and round. She was wearing a blue dress with white polka dots. We were sitting on the crushed grass in her parent’s back yard, counting the small chocolate candies gathered from plastic eggs. And then, just like that, it’s gone, and the next thing I remember is five kids, her included, wandering onto the train tracks that ran behind her house, though our parents had promised that there would be hell to pay if we did. I remember the older kids talking about putting a penny on the tracks, talking about how that might derail the train. And then, the small breeze of a late April day, thin clouds making whorls as if they are fingertips. We are waiting for the train. Oh please let it come before our parents arrive and carry us home.
Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. HIs work has appeared or is forthcoming in: The Threepenny Review, Hobart, Literary Orphans, Fiction Southeast,Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Big Lucks, Whiskey Paper, The Journal of Microliterature and elsewhere. He is currently a book reader and reviewer at Fiction Southeast.