by LUCY MORRIS
It is well below zero in Iowa City today. It’s long johns and duck boots until April, a fur hat around the house, four layers of clothing to go jogging. The fake chenille gloves I bought on St. Marks Place long ago do not cut it here; I curl my fingers into fists inside of them, bury them in my pockets. It is difficult to recall a time when I ate something that had not first sat in the oven for an hour.
I was born into a Midwestern winter and for a long time believed that the packs of gritty perma-snow in the city where I made my arrival meant something fundamental about who I was. I thought of it this way: how can a person who sees no green for the first six months of their life function in the same way as someone who does? I have long attributed my closeness with Californians to this fundamental difference, to that foreign palm tree perspective they can provide.
I had forgotten, in my years away, this particular brand of winter. In a cold such as this, your life shrinks to bare minimums, to the fewest trips out, the shortest routes possible. Some days the confines of my life seem impossibly small, treadmills and Word docs, a grid of five streets, books and bedtimes. I no longer have a solid recollection of what it feels like to be heartbroken or high or any of the extremes that once seemed so ordinary, so central a part of my own landscape. This is a remoteness from reality that I had not imagined I could naturally achieve. But, if I am to be honest, I think I probably always wanted to.
In weather like this, any reason to get glum will do, but my main one lately is that not long ago, someone I loved stopped talking to me because of something I wrote. These are the occupational hazards of the trade: carpal tunnel and being disowned. In the scheme of things, these are minor damages. Still, every day on my careful walk up icy Washington Street I spend fifteen or twenty minutes thinking about how to undo what I’ve done. I vow to make this person mix tapes every month for a year or hunt the Haunted Bookshop for books they’d love, mail them on with quiet inscriptions meant to make things right. I will do anything but I will not say sorry because in my life I have tended to regret the apologies I did issue more than the ones I did not.
I used to think I’d rather be a good writer than a good person, but to think I’ll never see this person’s sideways smile at my door again, never open up another midday email from them, hurts like a hangnail tugged at daily. I can’t explain it except to say that this is a person who once called me St. Lucy of Iowa City, who would put $5 in the jukebox and let me choose all the songs. I was often bereft after seeing them but now in their absence I ascribe that to the fact of their departure, not of their presence. In case you haven’t guessed by now, eulogizing is the conversational mode of the season around here.
Lately, a number of people have been talking to me about the nature of love, about hovering under the covers with someone all winter, or about holding out for somebody better, or about getting married. I still know how to play my part in these conversations, but the ideas and scenes described to me seem remote, unrealistic, and not even particularly desirable. Whether this is a winter condition or a permanent condition is hard to say. I sleep with my cell phone and a volume of Proust on the pillow next to me and on not all but most days, this strikes me as more than enough company.
But there is a person I say goodnight to on the phone before bed and I can sometimes feel as the tender words fall out of my mouth the ultimate damage they will do, even though they contain nothing but truth. It would be incorrect to say I have forgotten how to love but somewhere along the way I lost the excitement over its possibility. A friend says to me sometimes, wistfully, charmingly, “I just want to fall in love,” and I am surprised to discover that I don’t want to, not at all.
To think I may have found a way to exist without love makes me feel superhuman and also like someone who is totally and completely doomed, for whom there is no hope at all. When I say that there is no cold like Iowa cold, probably what I mean is not just the temperature.
I remember once feeling very sure of what I wanted but lately that certainty has been wavering so much that I wonder if it too was a fantasy, like the one in which I’m always pleased and never once waver when the temperature rises above seventy. I look out my window at the trees, branches like vertebrae against the gray sky, and consider never writing another word, never striving for my madeleine line. It’s not that I thought I would write one of those, but if I had been sure that I would not, little could have compelled me to sit down at my desk every day.
I want to tell the person who no longer speaks to me that I wrote about them because I wanted not to lose them and felt that I inevitably was going to. I understand the irony that it was the act of doing so that was precisely how I managed to lose them. I remember the belt and knit hat they were wearing last time they said goodbye, although I did not know then that it would be the last time, or maybe I did and that’s why I committed it to memory.
I was being insincere about the madeleines. I continue to write, even when I understand it best not to — and this is one such case — so that I will remember the black knit of that beanie, the brown leather of that belt.
Someone in class the other day said that nostalgia is memory as an aesthetic object. One winter a couple years ago I found someone willing to drive me across America. We broke down in the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico on the shortest day of the year. The sky was an inexplicable violet. I think of this when I reach for the optimism of longer days, of some small relief at the sun not having quite disappeared before my walk home.
I recall a time when my fantasies were more interesting, more ambitious than this, but now the main object of them is summer: windows thrown open, socks discarded, stumbling home in a sundress at dawn. That I have in my current apartment an air conditioner that requires closed windows and no longer possess the constitution to stay out all night are realities that do not intrude upon these imagined scenes. Fantasies are hope as an aesthetic object.
Lucy Morris is the contributing editor to This Recording. She is a writer and translator 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 living alone.
"Prodigal" - The Ember Days (mp3)
"Face in the Dark" - The Ember Days (mp3)