Authors: Charles Finch
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I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.
When I was a self-serious child of ten or eleven I believed that novels were largely about the weather. In a fit of ambition I would start
books I carried around school in the hopes that someone might ask me what I was reading, and which perhaps I thought would inaugurate my career as, what, a grown-up? A thinker? I’m not sure. Every one of them opened with the same thwarting descent of description: It was an unusually hot March evening in upper Cornwall; the rain in Burma had been going for days; the clouds lowered over the moor. The first eighty pages of
A Passage to India
are a description of some caves. I’m pulling that number from memory, so it may be inexact, if anything too low, but the point stands.
I suspected that in the end humans would walk into this weather—I remember feeling a spark of excitement when a “cart” threatened to provide me with some in
Return of the Native
—but I attached no special primacy to them. I rarely made it further than six or seven paragraphs into any of those books, which left my illusions about their nature intact. Finally when I was twelve some intelligent adult—likely my mother—got it over with and gave me
The Catcher in the Rye,
and I found the same banal and vibrant sanities everyone does in that book.
Really, those novels were right, however: There are times in life when the weather and the landscape seem suddenly as if they’re for you alone, and for a moment there’s a novelistic pressure, an interiority, to gazing out through a window at the snow, or the sun.
I’m thinking of the late August afternoon when I was supposed to leave New York for England. It was uncommonly cold for the month, and there was a heavy rain, the kind of day that reminds you, oh, of course, the other seasons are coming soon.
“Are you hungry?” Alison asked.
I shook my head. “Not especially.”
“Come on, we’re forgetting something. You had pizza last night, we got soup from Veselka. What else are you going to miss?”
“Well, you.” My tone had it both ways, mocking this kind of straightforward tenderness and taking credit for it, too.
She rolled her eyes. “My hero.”
We were in the living room of our apartment on Horatio Street. Its estranging collocation of familiar objects—its picture frames, its hanging garden of pots, its chromatically organized bookshelves—seemed so much like a vision of life to me, now that I was leaving.
“I should go soon anyway. I have to check all these bags.”
“Okay.” She stood up, her long brown hair falling down her shoulders. There was a tangle of silver necklaces spilling in and out of the top of her shirt, and her sweet, intelligent face—prone to worry—was drawn inward with concentration. “Last check, then. You have the bag of medicines I packed for you.”
“And you have a sweater handy in case it’s cold when you get in.”
I pointed toward the largest suitcase. “Yep.”
“And do you have a book?”
The Captive Mind,
it’s sitting right in the outer pocket of the blue bag. With my headphones. And the sweater.”
“And that bag of pretzels I got you for a snack?”
“And that bag of pretzels you got me for a snack.”
“And your passport.”
I felt my eyes widen. “Oh, no.”
She smiled to acknowledge the joke, and then when my face didn’t change her expression grew uncertain. “Wait, are you kidding?”
I stood up, my ears hot, my face tingling. “I didn’t even think about it.”
“Where did you leave it after you got your visa?”
“Seriously, I don’t know.”
We spent the next fifteen minutes rifling through our uncluttered apartment like thieves. I inspected every pile of paper I could find, old bills, Christmas cards, making no effort to reassemble them before I moved on. How long did it take to get a passport? Or could Alison’s dad get me a temporary one, good for a week or two until she could find mine and overnight it to England?
I was in the bedroom, sifting through our drawers of clothes, mine empty now, when I heard her call out. “I found it.”
“Oh God, thank fuck.” I ran to the living room, where she held the passport up in triumph. “Is that definitely it?”
“Yeah, it was next to mine. From Montreal in July.”
I took it and flipped to my picture to make sure. “Jesus. Thank you.”
I looked around. “The apartment is a disaster. I should clean.”
She looked at her watch. “No, no, you don’t have time. I’ll tidy it up when you’re gone.”
“Thanks, babe.” I put the passport in my pocket, a stiff, awkward panel of hide. “Should we go downstairs?”
“Just come lie with me for a minute first, would you?”
We went into the bedroom. She kicked off her shoes and slipped herself into the sheets, and as I followed her in she pulled me close, her encircling arms a loose, too loose, fortification, the walls of a city anybody could get into or out of. “A whole year,” she murmured after a minute.
“It’s not even that long.”
I loved her more than I had in months, months. Our breath began to even out, the silence of the battering rain. I looked at the bedroom, gray in the unlit afternoon, at the cheerful battalion of photographs of us along her dresser, and next to them at her perfume bottles, clustered in their leather tray. The quiet disloyalty of objects. How serious it is to be young!
It seemed impossible that the next morning I wouldn’t blunder sleepily out of that bed, that it would be elsewhere, in different time.
Alison and I had first lain together this way four years before, during college. We had been on a few dates already, but there was still a formal element to our conversations, even our kisses. One Saturday my friends Geoff, Ben, and I spent a few hours throwing a football to each other on Old Campus. We stopped as it began to get dark, and even though I was hot and dusty I decided to drop by her room; I hadn’t been there yet. She lived in Connecticut Hall, a building made of that salmon-white brick common to all of the remaining colonial houses in New England, on the third floor.
She answered the door in a hoodie and navy shorts, with
written in white along the hem on her left thigh. “Hey,” she said and looked past me up and down the hallway, as if I might be part of a group. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I just wanted to say hi.”
She looked puzzled for another instant, but then her face opened with comprehension. “Oh, good, sure. Come in. I was watching TV.”
We sat on her bed to watch together. I fell asleep right away. I remember briefly waking, feeling cold and shifting my weight into her body. Her hand was stroking my head, and her neck, where my face was buried, was warm and fragrant and sleepy, like a hayfield at the end of summer.
Now, essentially for the first time since then, our two bodies would be apart, we would be apart. She looked at me. “Are you sure I can’t come to the airport?” she said.
“No, no, go to the fund-raiser.”
“Okay.” She looked at her watch. “You should leave, you’ll never be able to get a cab in this weather.”
In fact I got a cab immediately, my day’s travel misfortune already allotted to the passport scare, and we loaded my bags into the trunk and the backseat.
“Look out for some treats,” she said. “They might be squashed, I guess.”
I smiled. Whenever I went on trips alone I would find things that she had tucked into my luggage, magazines, Snickers bars. “Thanks.”
She gave me a kiss. “I’ll see you soon.”
“In a month. It’s practically tomorrow.”
I got into the cab. She was standing with her arms folded, watching me, from the dry of the awning. I got out and gave her a last kiss on the cheek, and she smiled and squeezed my hand. Then I left.
Right then I wanted what we all want: both things; to leave and to stay at the same time. I looked through the window at the wet-blurred taillights of the cabs around me, their brightness an increasing proportion of everything visible out in the world. I remembered that day in college, how after we woke up Alison and I had spent half an hour making a poster to welcome Bill Clinton to a meeting. We both belonged to the lower reaches of the upper reaches of the byzantine bureaucracy that ran the Yale Democrats. That was how we’d met.
“What should I put?” she asked, sitting cross-legged, marker in hand, hair back in a ponytail.
“I would avoid mentioning blow jobs.”
“What about kneepads? Or impeachment? Or Ken Starr? Or Whitewater?”
“Maybe impeachment if you have a good joke.”
“No, come on, what should I put?”
“Hm. Maybe something about Bulldogs? Go Bulldogs? Bulldogs for Bill?”
“I think I’m going to draw some bunting and write just ‘Welcome Home,’ in big letters,” she said. “I think he’ll appreciate that.”
“It’ll definitely come in handy the next time you go to a rally in Arkansas.”
“He went to school here. That’s like a home.”
As the cab moved north toward the Midtown Tunnel, I opened the outer pocket of my suitcase to fetch my book and came across a bag of Twizzlers, which had been on Alison’s list of the foods they didn’t have in England. I opened it and ate one and thought of that phrase,
That’s like a home
. I had reached the age by then, twenty-five, when I had finally stopped believing, in some illogical and hopeful chamber of my heart, that one day we might all gather up our things, reassemble, my friends and I, Alison, and go back to school again together. Yet here I was, returning in a way. Without them, fine; but without her, that seemed unkind.
* * *
My first exchange with an English person was at Immigration.
“Didn’t bring anything dangerous or alive, did you now?”
I laughed. “I don’t think so.”
He gave me a sharp look. “What’s that?”
He looked down at my immigration card. “Says here you’re going up to uni, then? English literature?”
He said these last two words as if they were individually irreproachable but hilariously stupid side by side. “Yes, sir.”