Sometimes I listen to the same song over and over; maybe fifteen or twenty times in a sitting.
I wish I could remember what song I listened to at the kitchen table in Silver Spring, Maryland when I was 23, with a plate of under-cooked brownies, pressing the same plastic button on the boom box when the track ended. The combination of chords somehow dovetailed with the gaps in my brain. Whatever it was, it carried me to the next breath, the next bite of chocolate, the next digital minute on the microwave clock. I’d been up all night and the sun was rising over the half-suburban partial-wasteland, washing over lawns and bushes chainsawed into submission, sneaking through the slats of our dusty plastic blinds, unwelcome rays, brassy as the cheap handles on the veneered cabinets. I watched the light without wonder, another bite of brownie, sometimes resting my flushed cheek on the cool formica table. Listening one more time.
I never know what song will save me. Once it was singing Like A Rolling Stone with Casey and the windows down, after the grad school fair that we hated. Long ago there was the “I Want You to Want Me” cover by Letters to Cleo that somehow stopped the pounding in my ears when I lived alone in Cincinnati for a summer. I danced barefoot on the carpet between reading chapters of Ender’s Game aloud to myself. Sometimes terrible music helps just fine. A Hanson CD was in the car I borrowed from my parents to drive from DC to New York at night in blinding rain, and I listened to the same song over and over, the one track that somehow had whatever chords numbed the fear long enough for me to see between the raindrops. In an airport I listened to Devon Sproule, unsleeping but exhausted, laying on the vinyl seats and waiting for the storms to stop. In high school it was REM, Nightswimming; the time signature calmed my heartbeat. When I first moved to Chicago I listened to some Bright Eyes song five times a day on scuffed and windy train platforms, on a CD walkman with the batteries taped in the back.
Now I’m remembering music. For months I haven’t listened to much here — my mp3s are on a computer in Chicago that’s been cold for months, and it’s rare to hear Western music unless you’re in an expat bar or something. But it’s back in my life. A guitar lesson in the park just before the rains came; new songs from JP in my inbox, Max’s playlist on a sunny afternoon, my big headphones on my ears again. I’m feeling voracious, with a gap in my ribs, needing to play the same songs over and over.
We left about midnight and walked down the hill in silence. The night was muggy, and all around me I felt the same pressure, a sense of time rushing by while it seemed to be standing still. Whenever I thought of time in Puerto Rico, I was reminded of those old magnetic clocks that hung on the walls of my classrooms in high school. Every now and then a hand would not move for several minutes — and if I watched it long enough, wondering if it had finally broken down, the sudden click of the hand jumping three or four notches would startle me when it came.
– Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
There’s a special kind of anxiety laced with wonder and ending in surrender that I associate with both my time here in Cambodia and the DIY fourth of July fireworks in Chicago’s Winnemac Park. It’s pretty cliché to compare any feeling to “fireworks” but I can’t describe it any other way — a really particular flavor of fireworks. You walk through the darkness with rockets popping from all the plates of the baseball diamonds. Homemade. Unpredictable. Light it and run. Spark-flowers bloom and rain down right over your head; bangs and booms; thick smoke tinted pink and green with each new blast; any footstep could send an empty bottle rattling down the path. A breath-long silence feels like a dead hush. You want to run away and never leave all at once, and soon your mind calms, detaches – floating high on that last rocket. Everything looks perfect from far away. Then you slip across the border of the park, and a few blocks later it’s just another night. You’re not sure it really happened though you still hear the blasts.
I don’t know what this hybrid feeling is officially called, but like happiness or anger, it comes in gradations. Small things. The everday. Like one morning I thought I was getting so used to everything until I saw a guy on the back of a motorbike wearing the bottom half of a Mickey Mouse costume holding a Mickey head under one arm and a Minnie head under the other. Or like how I met a monk on a bus and he invited me to the monastery for a tour, but when I got there he took me to his tiny cubicle room decorated with posters like a college dorm and saffron silk robes slung the way I sling my laundry, and he said I was beautiful and he wanted to be the wife of an American. Or like how one otherwise lazy morning with Colin we ran downstairs to chat with a busload of kids wearing things like papier-mâché deer heads, and I befriended a tiny girl wearing long black witch fingernails, just before they performed a beautiful dance in the center of the Vietnamese restaurant; they’d already hit the photocopy shop. Or like the time I woke up on the bare wooden deck of a fishing boat with a shark hook next to my left ankle and (floating high on that last rocket) dropped right back to sleep.
Sometimes every worry, every prediction, leads to the same place — a question mark in the sky, a bang and a dead hush. A few blocks past the border of the park you still smell smoke but sniff the shoulder of your t-shirt and shrug.
In April, most of Phnom Penh headed to the countryside as businesses and schools closed for a national holiday, Khmer New Year. I went along on a rented fishing boat to remote islands in the Gulf of Thailand and camped for five days in the woods.
I asked for this, to get a little jolt of the storybook pirate life. And, so it seems, sometimes you get what you ask for.
I have stories from this trip, but for now:
maggie and milly and molly and may
by e.e. cummings
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
I am terrible at locks. Part of growing up seems to be creating work-arounds for one’s weaknesses, so I created this one: If you hand me a new key, I will test it five times in front of you to feel the tension of the pins and get the intricacies of the turn.
Doors, in general, hate me. Recently I walked into a party and spotted someone I’d dated but hadn’t quite smoothed things with. I tried to slip back out again — everyone looked distracted by beer pong — but I couldn’t open the door. I started pulling on the knob, slowly, playing it cool, then straight-up yanking, until a friend came over and gently unlatched it.
Note: The “door routine” is a classic slapstick comedy trope. See also: Laurel and Hardy.
This issue started young. I was locked out of my uncle’s wedding when I was four years old, the flower girl, and last in the procession. A relative closed the church door on me (I understand. I was really short.) My mother found me a few minutes later, crying in my poufy white dress like I’d been locked out for days.
Once I was locked out of a monastery. Although I’m not religious this way anymore, that year I was trying to be a Catholic and went with a student group to a bucolic Wisconsin lakeside retreat; rolling green lawns, old stone masonry; plus that night, we were supposed to see a meteor shower.
For me the retreat was a minor personal fuck-up parade. I wasn’t as familiar with the routines as everyone else and did things like reciting the priest’s lines when asked to read part of the service. That night everyone went out to see stars as a group, but I slept right through it. When I woke up at 5am and realized what I’d done, I decided to go outside alone. I tossed back the covers, got myself downstairs, pushed open the door and padded barefoot on the hushed, dewy lawn.
It was lovely, if a bit cloudy, and mostly I sat on a little boulder by the lake stewing about all the crap in my head — graduating soon, no job, so much to do, why had I gone away for a weekend again? Especially a weekend of botching things? Soon I headed back to the abbey door, happy to sleep a few more hours before breakfast. But it was locked. Wouldn’t budge. Shut tight. For real. And so I experienced one of the most frustrating and enlightening hours of my life.
I’d come on this retreat because I just couldn’t fathom the chaos of almost-graduation, the knowledge that everyone and everything I’d known for the past four years was about to change because of a firm date on the academic calendar. The lack of control staggered me. But there in that doorway, huddled in a too-thin sweater, waiting for someone to wake and let me in, I was viscerally experiencing a gap between one landing place and another. All I could do was sit there in the pre-morning chill, and the suspension of options suspended my thoughts, too. Everything went as calm and still as the lake.
I remember that silence, that stillness. In such stuck places our mission shrinks. Deadlines, to-do lists, expectations and tasks; it’s all so complicated until… until your task is just to wait. And so many of the people I care about are waiting right now. Between diagnoses, between grief and okay, between new-love and comfortable-love, between wanting to leave our world and being okay with staying, between jobs, between a silent, painted room and a room with a baby, between here, between there, in the doorway.
Here in Cambodia it feels like I am always between. Other than the dorm, I sleep wherever. Your spare room, a double bed in a guesthouse split with friends (bonding!). Most recently I went on a five-day fishing/camping trip, so we can also add: “hammock in jungle” and “bare wooden deck of a fishing boat”. In restaurants I know what I am ordering only 60 percent of the time. Before I bite into a fruit, I must ask which parts are edible. At least four times a day I jump on the back of a motorbike that winds through traffic shuffling itself faster than a deck of cards. It’s overwhelming, sometimes, and there are days when my friend Kara and I sit facing each other at the coffee shop and repeat the following exchange:
–What are we doing here.
–WHAT are we doing.
–What are we DOING here?
But there are good points about hitting gaps in safety every other minute.
I love those motorbike rides. My roommate sometimes drives us to get ice cream and chicken sandwiches at the Song Tra Ice Cream on Norodom Boulevard, and last time she thought of a vocab question, en route. She hollered over her shoulder, in the midst of zooming traffic: “What’s the difference between stupid and crazy?”
I did what teachers shouldn’t do and couldn’t help but laugh.
Crazy, I told her, can be a good thing.
Crazy can mean waking at 5am for a star shower. Crazy can mean getting your ass to Cambodia and living in a dorm with thirty girls. Crazy can mean reconciling yourself to sitting there, near your door, even resting your tired head against it, though not on the side you want, though you don’t know when it will open. Deciding to just exist.
Pull your thin sweater tight over your ribs and curl up in a stone doorway. Watch the mailman come and go. Watch the first streaks of sunrise wash over the dim but lighter sky. And then knock on the window of the kitchen, where someone’s already awake and making oatmeal. You’ll wave. He’ll wave. Be let in.