The fall I remember best and try to forget most is the one when I was experiencing simultaneously the two greatest romances of my life. I can say this with some certainty, because I believe “great romances” is a concept that loses meaning after you have more than, say, three of them, as well as after age twenty-five in general. The important things to know about the year I’m speaking of is that it was the year I met Catherine (romance #1), the year my “signature style” consisted of a side ponytail and Air Jordans, and the year I worked for a poetry organization in the East Village, a job that mostly meant carrying boxes of unwanted galleys to sell at The Strand, where they would often be rejected again, and then carrying them back to the office. I listened to Bruce Springsteen a lot then, and Robyn, and I ate scallion pancakes for dinner alongside some kind of bullshit green juice intended to compensate for the deep-fried portion of the meal, but which cost so much that I then had to forego breakfast the next day. This system of shifting the numbers from column to column, of keeping a mental ledger, of compensating and atoning, not just with money and food but with affection and assertiveness and good planning, was the main structure of my life at this point, and for several years that followed.
The other two interns were neighborhood kids whose parents had long been affiliated with the institution and who had deposited them to work there as part of some vague alternative schooling arrangement. I no longer remember their names but I do recall that they did more interesting drugs and more often, and dispensed more dubious advice and more frequently, than I ever did, despite the fact that I was older than them and therefore entitled to more interesting drugs and bad advice. One night I was ambivalent about going to Brooklyn to see the guy I had just started dating (romance #2) and the seventeen-year-old boy intern hawking chapbooks next to me said, with the kind of authority that on boys of that age is thrilling if you are also a teenager and laughable if you are not, “You should never do anything you don’t want to do.” I went to Brooklyn anyway and stayed three and a half years in that house. This all happened about seven years ago now but there are memories from early childhood that seem less remote than this one. I don’t remember that ponytailed self very well at all; what remains of her is a pair of worn Air Jordans in the closet, a predilection, even now, for misinterpreting ambivalence as “Yes,” for mistaking a dim yellow light for one that’s gleaming green.
I’ve said before that you can really feel yourself changing in a place like this, during these quiet Iowa nights, becoming more malleable, adjusting, even expanding. But lately I have noticed, too, other parts of myself, other tendencies, fossilizing, calcifying into something immoveable. I used to be so scared of my own habits, of remaining a certain way, in a certain place, with a certain person. The irony, of course, was that that fear was itself paralyzing; it was maybe the most effective measure at preventing the transformation I so desired. It’s why I can’t throw away those crappy Nikes, why I didn’t cut off that ponytail until last month, why I stayed in that Brooklyn house for three and a half years. The medium I’ve chosen to spend years working in is one that centers on memory, and this is no coincidence either––if one tendency has characterized my life so far, it is a reluctance to let go.
Fall has arrived, sort of, at least temporarily. It’s sock-necessitating,
thick sweatshirted, heavy-blanketed fall, a season I like and dread and stubbornly try to refuse granting any significance. It’s the season of letting go, which is why for me it is characterized not by sweaters or hot tea or anything sentimental like that, but instead by an abstract but also palpable sense of bruised-heartedness. I remember a subway ride during that fall I already spoke of, or maybe it was a nearly identical fall a few years later, watching a man, sort of weathered, raise a bible near to his face to read it more closely, and how sad I inexplicably felt in witnessing that gesture, how much I wanted to close my eyes and sink into the grimy floor of the R.
I wasn’t yet old enough then to make sense of this sadness, which I felt ashamed of because it seemed condescending. I was very young and that necessary scrim separating myself from the world was not yet developed so I did not know that the sadness I felt was not concern or pity for the man but a dissatisfaction with how I was turning out, with who I seemed to feel myself becoming. I still often am uncertain of what I want but on the occasions that I do know, it is easier to see now how to get it. This is the only lesson I can think of at this hour, late and dark, with the cicadas outside chirping, which is just a charitable way of saying whining. I’m someone who is prone to nostalgia for my past selves, but I want to note that I do not miss the ponytailed person on the train that I once was, although for a very, an embarrassingly long time I thought she was in possession of something I could no longer hold onto if I wanted to keep going, and when I thought of her it was not without envy as to her obliviousness, her utter ignorance of the forgetting that is required to sustain any motion.