Monday, November 21, 2011

City Unfolding

I'm getting the feeling that my dog has started to think of me as her den-mate.  That's because I've been living like a caveman, or a psychiatric patient, or possibly both at once. Our house is like a cave, set back from the garden in a grove of pine trees. Despite the abundance of windows it's constantly dark inside my room now that the rain has started. When I wake up in my bed, I can never tell from the watery, grey light slushing through the clouds what time it is. It could be six in the morning or mid day or three in the afternoon. And because my body refuses to set itself on a fixed scheduled, on any give day it could be any of those times. It could be midnight. I'm never really sure.

I can't make coffee for myself. Does anyone else have this problem? Because for me it's a hopeless pursuit. Every morning I give it a try; I've got the individual drip thing and the filters and every other day I walk down to the grocery store, the nice one up on the ridge, and buy Zoka coffee beans in little batches so they don't get stale. I grind them right before I make the coffee. I've messed around with quantities and the temperature of the water, the ratio of milk or cream and no matter what, it tastes terrible, like brown water. Like dirt. Either too light or too dark. And I've lost touch with the root of the issue, I mean I can't tell now whether the coffee is bad or maybe I just altogether don't like coffee anymore. I can't tell whether the problem is inside or outside.

So every morning, after I throw the coffee down the drain and rinse out the cup, I give Hometeam her breakfast and we walk down the steep hill outside our house and a few blocks north to Cafe Bambino. It's a tiny place, so small that you can't sit inside. If you want to stick around you can sit on their porch, which has a roof that is lined with heat lamps so can you drink espresso and read a book outside in a rain storm. Two baristas, Pepper and Tyler, work in the pocket sized space behind the register. They make me a cappuccino with cinnamon. We talk about Pepper's music and what's been going on at the cafe. There's one man named Bruce who had a recent stroke, he comes in every morning, takes twenty minutes to order his coffee and leaves every day without ever picking it up off at the counter. It's like a ritual.

Sometimes I know that this interaction with the baristas will be my only conversation for the day. Some days. Not every day.

Then Hometeam and I walk home and go into my room. I light a few tea lights (everyone deserves candlelight, I once read,) and roll back the enormous bookshelf that serves as a door. The grey, spitting sky is depressing to look at so I usually pull the blinds down. And then I proceed to treat myself like a crazy person.

A few weeks ago I was writing a short story for a fiction class. I worried about it for a whole week, scared to death that I'd sit down, open up a notebook and discover I didn't know how to do it anymore. Fiction is a totally different animal than memoir. It's an alien. Anyway, once I got started I was happy to find out that it wasn't all bad. I could keep the pen moving for twenty minutes at a time, then sit back and take a breather, and low and behold the story was working itself out.

And then came sinister phase two, the reaction that everyone gets after they find something they love, be it a person or a career or an animal or money:  I became very afraid that I'd lose it. I was convinced that something was going to jump out from behind the furniture and steal away my ability to concentrate. So I took great care not to startle myself. I kept the lights very low, candles lit in the same pattern on the desk, and I listened to nothing but very pretty but very sad musical scores. No loud noises or sudden gestures. I'm so easily distractable, I had to shrink the world down to the size of my room. The dog became depressed and curled up in resignation under the bed.

But It worked! I wrote a first draft of a story that I really liked. And I can forget about the story for now, because once you finish a first draft you are supposed to print it out, stick it in a drawer and not look at it for forty days. But now I'm sort of stuck in this cave, this asylum, I'm afraid to pop on the lights or play loud music in case I can't find my way back. It's weird. I know.

In this quiet, soft room, I can't help but think about my last bright, vivid days in New York, after the conference was over. I lean back in my seat and drink the end of the cappuccino. It's nice. Mornings, or what I call mornings, are always the nicest part of the day. Mornings and night, because they are so definitive. It's obvious what you're supposed to be doing: winding up for the day, winding down before bed. It's the middle hours that can scramble me.

New York! The days flew by so quickly. I was always in motion, and I was never alone.

I stayed out in the Bronx with the Zamcheck family. I ate Shabbat dinner with them on Friday and watched as their lively conversation zinged about the table, after the candles and prayers and blessings, like a manic bird that began as Occupy Wall Street Movement, transforming mid flight into Lenin, was he an orator? What would he have thought of the Human Microphone? Folding like origami above our heads into the beat poets and Israel and I was lost, watching this careening free wheeling debate fly between Norman and Fran and their daughter Ariela and their two sons Abby and Akiva, and then everyone calmed down and we finished dessert and Ariela suggested we all go for a beer out her favorite bar in Riverdale.

Norman had ripped out a flyer for me about the graduate writing program at NYU. I told him I wasn't too interested in going to grad school, but then I read the list of faculty and visiting writers at NYU right now, a list that included Jonothon Safron Foer. So I asked Abby and Akiva to take me there. We took the long, silver train into the city and they showed me the brilliant new library with the fenced off floors (to prevent finals week suicides) and Washington Square park where the OWS movement had begun to spread.

We drank beers inside a bar that was so dark my eyes were never able to adjust. Candles threw little circles of light onto the crowded tables and walls, illuminating patches of a gold gilded, biblical mural. Gregorian chants were playing over the stereo, and we were only allowed to to speak in a whisper. Every few minutes the bar tender would climb on top of a chair and shush everybody from above.

They called a friend who is a writer to join us and we all went out to dinner. Then Ariella led me down the streets of the village and up a narrow flight of steps to a rooftop party. The deck was dripping with colored Christmas lights and everybody was wearing remarkable hats. The night was breezy and warm, more like early spring than late autumn. Our view from the roof was dazzling, New York City rolling out in every direction. I pointed out a splendid building all lit up with floodlights and asked, "What building is that?" And someone answered, "Uh...the empire state building."

I appear to have more friends here than I thought, but really, I know absolutely nothing about city. This pulsating, vibrating, flashing city. It can't always be this good, all the time. This city drives people insane. Was I insane for even thinking of moving here?

Then Zoey called and I ran down the narrow flight of stairs and met her in the middle of the street. Zoey is this unearthly beautiful girl, half Greek, half German, who paddled the length of the Grand Canyon with me one frigid February. She took me back over the famous bridge to her spacious, high-ceilinged home in Brooklyn. She had written little poems to herself with reminders to water the plants, and things of that nature, and the poems were all over the kitchen. There were spices hanging from the ceiling and plants in the corners and books everywhere. As I sit here in Seattle, I'm sure I'm reconstructing it in my mind. I remember Zoey's place as being almost too perfect, as if it were a set for a sitcom about a quirky, beautiful 20 something girl who works for a mad scientist and dates a red-headed jazz musician. (Which is indeed Zoey's life.)

She took me for coffee and pear juice in the morning. I kept updating my facebook status about it until my sister called and said I had to stop, I was driving everyone crazy. "You'd drive yourself crazy with all this if you could hear yourself."

My sister is always right.

So I caught a ride home back to Vermont from Pete's parents, who just happened to be visiting. I fell asleep in the back seat and woke up five hours later in a cold, quiet, starlit Vermont night. My mom picked me up from Pete's parents, and there's something about your mom picking you up, something about waiting on the porch for the familiar car to pull up on the gravel driveway, that makes you feel like you've gone back in time.


Anonymous said...

What a gorgeous essay and the photos are brilliant. I love reading your blog!

Mackenzie said...

Ooh, so many lovely bits and pieces in this one that stuck out- one of my favs is the part about mornings and nighttime being best: "It's the middle hours that can scramble me." Yes! I always feel lost and slightly guilty during the bulk of daylight. The bookends of the day are much more comfortable somehow. And more conducive to work.. why is that?

katie M said...

hey, Pepper is my good friend! 2 worlds just collided! great post!

Melina said...

Thank you Mackenzie! It's 4:48pm as I write this and I am right in the middle of that bad scrambled time...dishes have piled up from the afteroon, laundry needs to be done, not sure what to write next...ugh....

Melina said...

Thank you Mackenzie! It's 4:48pm as I write this and I am right in the middle of that bad scrambled time...dishes have piled up from the afteroon, laundry needs to be done, not sure what to write next...ugh....

Melina said...

Katie, how cool! Tell her you read about her here. She makes the best wet cappuccino ever. She's going to Chile soon!

Anonymous said...

Sister is always right.