Those Marble Composition Books
by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
On that first date we fell asleep watching Bottle Rocket. The poem ended one line after as I described his tissue paper thin t-shirt that I borrowed for the night.
I was twenty-two and high the first and only time I have ever written a love poem. With perceived eloquence I sat on my bed and remembered a first date from years ago, detailing each bit chronologically on a piece of paper I have now lost. Using the kind of scrutiny one might assume when proving a point, I produced a poem that offered little attention to feelings or the fumbling beginnings of closeness: shaky eye contact, commonalities, taut and clumsy flirtation, cool smiles, heartbeat. Instead, I rattled off a joyless inventory of the night; a tally of what I had ordered, what he had worn, which album we had argued about, and on what street we shared a kiss. My bias for pragmatic writing outdid my hope for something more sentimental (!) and meaningful. This was a list disguised as a poem, and worst of all, I took pleasure in its accuracy, persuaded that precise recollection might yield more tenderness than dopey hearts and shooting teenage inclinations.
My habit for list keeping could be isolated to a single memory, like connecting someone’s command and sway to that first group exercise in the fourth grade in which there was a time keeper, a secretary, and a leader, and where we were taught the verb to delegate, or, like tracing versatility to resourceful, creative parents who despite moving the family numerous times in earlier years, were quick to design the notion of home around a single and consistent possession or tradition; the giant Dieffenbachia plant, banana fritters after school, or sandalwood soap in all of the bathrooms. In my case, I’m sure there was an adult—a friend’s mother, a piano teacher, most likely a woman who could French braid and who kept curative distractions and snacks in her purse, and that I ruefully wished was my own mother—this same woman, hoping to quiet whatever anxiety was overpowering me at the time, handed me a pad and pencil and said, Here, Durga. Make a list.
I am unclear if this likely compounded memory mushroomed into a character trait, though part of me believes that my impulse is largely intuitive and present in those who, from very early on are bound by some need to record and restore, and seek pattern, as if preoccupied with some expectation of defeat.
As a kid, I often spied on everyday happenings, assuming a Harriet Welsch compulsion to fabricate intrigue in nominal things: decoding neighbors' license plates, perceiving foreign accents, supposing ulterior purpose from things that unscrewed, appeared fancy, or were unmarked. I collected long lists of notes that shared zero relation but were somehow kindred because I had decided on that day to collect them in a blue spiral notebook on a page marked Thursday, June 5th, 1995.
I was nine and couldn't steady the length of our aluminum pool skimmer. I remember the feeling of cold water running down my arms as I tried to navigate the net before giving up and asking my brother for help. I sat and watched as he scooped and cleaned the leaves that had fallen from our neighbor’s Maple tree. The sound of the pole’s metal din as it scraped the sides of our pool was very specific and I haven’t heard it since. Years later as I scrambled to find a half-filled notebook and recycle it for a new class, I discovered the page on which I had seemingly indexed our entire backyard. I had accounted for everything: the chipped shed door that revealed an old coat of aquamarine, the fat azalea bush, the smell of chlorine, the feel of wet cement under my bare feet, and the sound of the skimmer as it shaved the side our pool. Matching that uniquely stark shift of entering a place where quiet is obliged — the library, a museum, a church — I read the list over.
Though I was happy to find this anecdote from my childhood, I was troubled by its judicious and ordinary range, but more so by its delusive expectation of custody...and loss? Still, these concerns pass just as easily as they present themselves. Our childhood, a maudlin alloy of lapse memory and possession: my cursive handwriting was once bulky, round and sweet; the bottom corner of the page still curls where I pressed hard on my palm and wrote in black ballpoint.
Sometimes hidden among my lists were a build-up of details that hinted at change — notes on a distracted family dinner, unusual pairing-offs of parent with child; splitting up to park the car, buy the tickets, save the seats — and by and by, clear signs of my mother and father’s eventual divorce.
Children list-keepers expect filigree from collected facts. They care deeply about their first family tree assignment in school, and though their T-shaped diagrams might pile awkwardly to one side of the page, lopsided with a wing of extended cousins or half-siblings, its carefulness and fidelity to specifics embodies the kind of exhaustive design that inhabits their everyday. Baited by Haeckel's lithographs, by grandparent stuff, and by cutaways in DK Eyewitness travel guides, children list-keepers are yanked by asides, labyrinths, and stories of missing kids and mysterious abductions. Envious of those with photographic memory, children list-keepers will anxiously store incidentals that might later guild together. Their minds: a cherry wood curio cabinet filled with doodads and trinkets, invaluable for future analogies, and called upon years later in college when a professor assigns the ratios and ornament amid expanse of Moby Dick.
It was in my literature classes that my hankering for cataloguing was put to use. I would copy a novel's first sentence only to hear its echo in Part IV or Part V. I would predict romantic pairings based on how a woman's dress was depicted — not its cloth nor its color — but how it moved at her feet or sat on her shoulders. I kept notes on recurring characters, peculiar posture, food pageantry, and individuals who never removed their gloves or their hats. I especially took to narratives where childhood was imparted with an overture-type clairvoyance. Those were my favorite.
Instead of flagging pages with post-its, I dutifully copied entire passages into notebooks that I would return to when writing a paper or when trying hopelessly to retrieve whatever it was in that particular sentence or pair of words that had originally wooed me. Sometimes my reason was far less calculated: a Dickens character that I imagined as a Tintin character, and that I'd share with my friend, Tait, via text message on my walk back to the dorm. Studying literature paired the utility with the coincidence of list keeping; something I had seldom enjoyed before. Because my first impulse has always been to write it down, whatever it is, immediate function has been a rarity and meaning has presented itself in belated, sometimes confused, bounty.
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