They say you take artifacts from each place you visit, no matter your stay’s duration, and I know it because I’ve spent upwards of four seconds at a concrete median on a busy street in New York and captured in this time—which could otherwise have utilized to pick a hangnail, to tuck a bit of hair behind one’s ear—a potency of, a clarity in aliveness as I have yet to have experienced nine months henceforth or seventeen years prior.
It was the scene of an accident, carelessly arranged. A chrome nugget reincarnated forcibly from what appeared to be a Lexus headlight. Gray toothpaste colored pavement. Raped red plastic. An emptiness where one expected harrowing sound and found instead a concentration of sun the color of lemonade and thicker than wool.
I have carried that scene with me, back home on the JetBlue plane, where it was joined with the metallic blue wrapper of a peanut pack in wallet condensed—little alligator teeth, unwelcoming coin revolutionaries—home to San Francisco, where edamame shells and cubes of drowned tofu tried and failed to compete with its place in my admiration, to the journalism lab in which I now sit—plywood desks, white Apple interface—and turn it over as clearly as one can any Guinness cap born of Dublin or keychain totem of Santa Fe.
So too have I carried other pieces of my past. My body, now seventeen, with giraffe legs and strangely oversized bowl-like hands, haunted with ghosts of tennis bruises and skin bitten raw out of anxiety, occupied with revolutionary Bic pen graffiti on one palm and not the other, like the split opposite Brandenburg—littered is the West, bare the East, and the West my left—is the effect of all that it has experienced.
Fitzgerald once said, “It’s not a slam at you when people are rude—it’s a slam at the people they’ve met before,” and it is of this I think as I apply Chapstick with stealth, pull the duck-tail end of sweaters—lavender and cream and black—long in the back, of this as I tuck my paddle sized feet between me and the sunken brownie leather couch at rehearsal, of this as I am most aware of the proximity of the pair of legs beside mine on a study date at Starbucks despite the often closer proximity of such legs. Of how I shy away from the people who love me, like an origami turtle, by design nestled inward.
The girl who sits to my left in APUSH wears a low ponytail the color of obsidian and a red and black striped sweatshirt more often than not; she is making folds as I write this, creasing spines from patterned paper, extracting sheets from a repurposed pencil pouch, with nimble fingers and a pundit’s stoop bestowing life in triangles and squares.
It is a fascinating thing to watch. I suppose any giving of life is a fascination, which is why they’ve made a documentary about that man Sully who saved the airplane from ice and havoc in the Hudson. Which is also why this week at Starbucks, as a little Asian boy stumbles over Horizon chocolate milks—dinosaur baseball cap, an extremity of confusion such as persists in no one beyond the age of two—my friend and I fumble, smile involuntarily and large.
Birth in any form merits fascination. Now I think of this, of all the life that has been breathed, like gust into the tomato colored sailcloth I remember from that lonely bobbing skipper of my youth, into this body. How as I use it to clean the opaline surface of my teeth from toast crumbs my tongue, like any child of the earth, understands it where it was born (in Gambier, Ohio where it first was kissed). How my calves, despite their day-old shaving nicks and week-old scrapes known their initiation to this world due a slab of forest colored concrete chained of with link fence labeled ‘Lafayette Tennis Club.’ How my nose will always, to an extent, consider itself a vestige of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer movie, pre-Xmas, in which it first drew comparison.
Last week, when we had to do research in the library, a different classmate—otter colored hair, cornflower eyes, a happy lethargy born first of privilege and encouraged second by a string of Hotmail emails which promise, in short but definitive words, recruitment for water polo to Princeton—leaned over the hump she’d made of her backpack on the table. Delivered in her usual attire—gray Princeton quarter-zip, the deadpan intonation which had prompted, more than once, my suggestion that she host a radio talk show—she asked whether I didn’t think it was a miracle that we don’t learn how to breathe.
While I at first considered it one of her usual humorous though substance-lacking remarks, as I look back on it now, remembering emerald and sapphire and gold-speckled creatures being born of folds, remembering the awe with which I caught my own motion in a sun-penetrated bathroom, approaching the sink with, highlighted by this grating light, my body whole, complete with all its pieces—giraffe legs masturbated with tennis club concrete, hands holding scribbles like bowls might hold cherries, Rudolph nose escaped of but not free from five-year-old connotation—not separate, or divided, but together intact, working as one whole, I begin thinking maybe is right.
I’m considering how this afternoon, as I wear the same color in shoes and drink and cardigan, a camel tan, or a caramel, or a nude burnished through considerable time outside, the Starbucks website, at my inquiry, returns to me the same composition of my iced chai latte; just as my body is not a singular plank, neither is my drink, however I consider it otherwise—a headache cure, a work-inducing reprieve—the earth-tapped prodigal honey I’ve come to consider it. How it, instead, is made up of milk and water and black tea and sugar. Vanilla and ginger and black pepper and honey. Star anise. Citric acid. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves.
So now, with the taste of chai on my tongue, which was born in Gambier, Ohio, with the bulb of my Rudolph-rendered nose apparent in my laptop reflection, I reconsider her comment. Turn it over. Think how my body, a compilation of all it has seen, is proof of how experience becomes permanent. How things—tennis court over-exertions, ideas which demand recording, shows of affection to which we must shirk or reply—happen to and stay with us. How we let them, for we, without explanation, are equipped for such acceptance. For adoption and amnesty and adaptation.
So now, sitting regretful in my corner of the neighborhood Starbucks, I am sorry. Sorry because I found my own nose in a children’s cartoon about reindeer and was gifted the lines in the pads of my fingers from quarters in a grubby, Westchester, NY diner, and because I, before last summer, held in my possession a capacity for Elysian English but no tongue. Sorry because it is a miracle that we never have and never had need for instruction in breath. Sorry because it is not only a miracle, but one of those so profound, like the process in which lobsters can be killed so slowly they feel not, or how the earth, with an average heat a few degrees more severe could not be, but is, that we, knowing not how to grapple there, grapple not.
So now, knowing she was right, and I was rude, I carry the weight of regret. So now, looking at the bit of chai—really cardamom, cinnamon, cloves—I’ve spilled into the caramel colored fabric of my sleeve, I understand I’ve been touched. By her comment. By the world: men’s eyelashes, Nantucket sandwiches, the carnage of 9-11 delivered in video footage. So now, I’m considering these pieces. Others. How they could manage, apparently infrangible, to meld so quiet and so profound.