Shining Off You
by LUCY MORRIS
I write you this time from the upper deck of a red and blue bus zipping through the Midwest. I write you, computer balanced on my knees, from cramped window seat quarters. I write you with a sore throat, runny nose, carpal tunnel, humbly, in the tradition that I always have: to see if in explaining things to you, I may incidentally end up explaining things to myself.
A funny thing has been happening to me out there in Iowa, where I boarded this bus, and I don’t know how to explain it to you except to say that it’s started to seem like nothing matters besides the thing I’m there to do. I have a funny sensation of everything else slipping away, the margins of what my life used to contain growing ever smaller, sliding off the page, until all that’s left is the text. I stay busy, of course: I jog up Summit Street past what qualifies as mansions there, feet padding out some order to the day, and I drink tea downtown with my computer for companionship, maybe knock on Ellen’s door and sit with her a while. But I now spend so much time inside my own head that when it comes time to go out at night, I find myself loathe to leave it.
I am so detached from a reality beyond the page that I have even stopped appearing in my own dreams, am a mere spectator of scenes filled with strangers. I close my eyes each night, ready to watch the movie that appears on my subconscious’ screen. There are too many characters and they speak too fast, like an Altman film, but I can’t look away.
If this sounds nihilistic and disturbing, I don’t mean for it to: it is, in its own way, superbly liberating to no longer feel beholden to the rules of real life, to no longer imagine that you exist on a plane inhabited by anyone else you know, and I wonder if this is what you feel, so many thousands of miles away in Nepal, in a physical landscape so unlike my own. I would be lying if I didn’t say this entire experience is lonely. I would also be lying if I didn’t say it is utterly transformative.
Back in school means back home for the holidays, which makes me think of those years we used to talk with phones pressed to cheeks in twin beds in childhood bedrooms halfway across the country. I miss phone-line sympathy for our gorging on potatoes, on pie, on the indulgences of being the youngest. I miss you like I’ve never missed anyone else, wildly, and yet it’s been so long that it’s now just a part of me, this missing manifested: it’s in my hands when I type, in the time zone computations I do in my head, in the hair I cut myself like you taught me to, wetting the comb, pulling the hair taut, closing the scissors carefully. I start stories about you with, “My best friend, in Beijing…”
I told some of those stories to Ryan when he visited a couple weeks ago. We went to George’s and he asked what kind of wine they had. “Red and white,” said the waitress, “But I wouldn’t recommend either.” I laughed for about ten minutes and realized it’d been a long time since I’d laughed at all, since those muscles in my face and shoulders had stretched in that particular direction. Later we went home and slept together. I find sex with him, as with all old boyfriends, to be comforting in the way I find the opening bars of an old song to be comforting, or the 978 start of an ISBN. You know roughly how it’s going to go from there. You also have some basic understanding of how it’s all going to end.
I used to think sex was only interesting to me with the potential of possibility, which meant it needed to seem not inconceivable that I could date the person I was sleeping with. But at some point it also started to mean that sex was not interesting to me with people I was dating — because the very fact of us already being together also represented in some way the absence of possibility.
This worries and intrigues me. It’s the type of thing you’d be better at explaining: you have for a long time been better at interpreting me than I am myself. When I miss looking you in the eyes part of what I miss is seeing by proxy how you see me. But it’s also missing how you see the world at large, which is the gift of a friend as close as you: a second shot at how to see, which is in itself a second shot at how to be.
Do you remember that first winter after college when we went to that open bar party, and for banh mi afterward, and then for expensive ice cream? I hadn’t been that intoxicated in so long, both on wine and the whims of a city, taking the train downtown to satisfy a particular craving and, hands still sticky from the sandwiches, running across the street to catch the ice cream truck. I lived with a boyfriend then, which is why I hadn’t been going out so much and got drunk so easily; when I got home he read me poems while I cold-sweated and waited to puke. I never did puke and I broke up with him just a few months later.
I didn’t know then that breakups meant committing yourself to a certain kind of history, that they signified at the very least the elimination of one particular trajectory. I’m keeping my options open was a thing I used to say to you a lot that spring, and you rolled your eyes. I thought then that it was because you disapproved, but I can see now that it was because you already understood the fundamental impossibility of actually doing that, that you comprehended the inevitability of shutting some doors.
I imagine myself now, still with that boyfriend, but he is the abstraction in the equation, only the life I would have had with him remains clear to me. Having not chosen that life or any of the three or four that presented themselves to me afterward, I sit on my bed some cold Iowan Saturdays and allow myself to feel a minor grief for those paths unchosen, the alternate lives left unlived. I feel that for a while and then I get up, roast some squash, put on my boots, go over to Ellen’s to chat and cheer up.
These are things I believe I have taught myself to do in your absence, as if each minor bit of progress is a tangible object to show you when I see you next. I regret that my letters read so selfishly, that our distance is now so great that to recall anecdotes from our shared past seems anachronistic. All I can offer is the simple fact that you are present in each of these lines, that you have been the intended audience for every word, for every action, for all of it.
I’m on my way back to Iowa now, the bus I’m on weaving its way through actual cornfields. I never imagined myself here, would never have allowed the thought to cross my mind. I wonder if your adaptability to place, which I so lack, comes from your superior imagination, from the things you let yourself conceive of that I avoid at all costs. I wonder, too, if this can be learned — like the roux you taught me to make or the darkroom you once showed me how to use — and if, with enough practice, I might one day be able to do the same: to close my eyes and picture the things I want, and to open my eyes and, in not so very long, find them there.
Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about moving to Iowa.
Images by Angelika Sher.