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Chris Van Dyke
He was born on a late July afternoon before the humid sweat-song of city August heat, in the midst of a raging midday thunderstorm; the chorus of car alarms screaming back at thunderclaps echoed his mother cursing everything within eyesight, from the cracked red brick exposure of the brownstone to the steady twitching of the decrepit ceiling fan to her chain-smoking husband who slouched against the open window and who had finally, after repeated and violently rebutted efforts, given up trying to mutter reassuring phrases while patting her hand and abdicated his post in reluctant favor of Minerva, their midwife.
His earliest memory was of some nonspecific act of traveling, of sitting up in the passenger seat of a car beside his father in the tranquil solitude of night driving, neither of them talking, both wrapped in the loneliness of nocturnal thoughts and the iridescent glow of the dashboard numbers, yet somehow united by the shared experience of rushing through the same darkened Fresno desert countryside and flickering passage of uncounted highway sign-posts and silvery reflectors, the dim cabin blazing into occasional brilliance with the unusual oncoming car, the comforting murmur of AM talk droning on softly in the background.
He had always been fascinated by the battered dun-hued globe which sat at the end of a bookshelf in the living room, the curling paper edges of its variegated panels creating alien thousand mile canyons that bore no relation to any actual geological formation. He would sit on the floor with the globe cradled in his lap, hours sliding by as he set the sphere spinning, the muted-tone countries and continents and seas blurring into an undifferentiated smear of mountain ranges and coast lines until he brought it to a sudden halt with a swift jab of an index finger.
Years later, as he lay in the fevered state of half-wakefulness that chiefly comprised the last few weeks of his life, he repeatedly had the sense that everything been predetermined at some early stage in his life, that everything was inextricably interrelated through an impossibly complex matrix of cause and effects: that his falling in love with Ainsley was somehow directly caused by a visit to a cemetery in Indiana to make grave rubbings ten years earlier; that his walk in Central Park on June 23rd, 2004 was dependant upon a sketchbook he had lost while rowing on the Themes.
For his seventh birthday his parents bought him a Compact Edition of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary. Even at that young age he loved the heft of the tome, the solid, important sounding weight with which its heavy cover would fall open upon the table; that so many impossibly thin pages of onion skin could somehow accrue the density needed to gather that weight, that it was the weight of words, the very stuff of airy speech solidified and made tangible. He would run his index finger down the nearly microscopic columns, squinting against use of the magnifying glass, breathless.
Nobody ever spoke about it when he was around – not directly, in any case, though after a while it was easy for him to ascertain which intensely vague conversation was actually about him, what meaningful glances exchanged with what the two conspirators thought was subtly were somehow or other related to his "problem," as he had once overheard one of the doctors call it delicately when he was supposed to be getting a drink from the fountain in the hall. He had become accustomed to discussions lapsing suddenly into uncomfortable silence at his approach, and yet still he knew nothing.
As a young boy he would attempt to join in on games of freeze tag or keep-away, but even when he managed to overcome his physical awkwardness and actually achieve some semblance of success (as he inexplicably did on the kick-ball fields of Riley-Creek Elementary, where, for two short consecutive years, he experienced the satisfaction of being selected first for a team, although he had never truly longed for it) his victories always seemed hollow, unfulfilling, the battle from which he had emerged triumphant decontextualized to such an extent that it not only meant nothing to him, but depressed him.
When he first began noticing girls "that way" – wanting to do the vague, abstract things with them that his body yearned for but that he didn't fully comprehend, things involving their lips and soft hands and parts of their bodies he hadn't seen or even (yet) tried to imagine – he somehow invariably found himself, despite his reclusive nature, attracted to the trouble makers, the girls who got in fights on the play ground and were the first to wear eye-shadow, the ones who would be pregnant in a matter of years. They were softness and hardness in the same bodies.
They fell in love at the Curry County fair on the Tilt-A-Whirl, a ride he detested like all other rides that twirled you about in a cage of hastily assembled metal which threatened to fling itself to pieces at any given moment, but she wanted to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl, so the Tilt-A-Whirl was the greatest machine in the world as it made her flash her teeth in laughter and pull him tightly to her side and her hair smelled like lavender and rosemary and when finally it was over he was dizzy but he wasn't sure it was the ride.
Later, after their relationship was nothing more than a distant memory, he could only remember their beginning and their ending – the first awkward and silence filled days scrambling along the river bank by her mother's RV and a self-consciously perfect first-kiss; then the countless hours of listening to her crying over the telephone, the long walks along the beach in which they both screamed, cried, apologized, and, at long last, lapsed into awkward silences that ironically mirrored those first sun-bleached days on the river. Their beginning and end – everything in between was lost somehow in the mists of the past.
He had always missed places more than people. Perhaps it was that he always had more friends than acquaintances, figures that seemed to endless repeat themselves wherever he happened to be, similar archetypes merely with differing names and a variety of superficial characteristics, whereas landscape and skylines were truly unique. It was also the case that he spent more time with the land than with people, striking off on his own for an afternoon of brushing aside brambles and low hanging branches as he followed the deer paths of the backwoods or clambered up some vista overlooking the pacific Hudson.
By the time he arrived at college, he didn't have the slightest idea of who or what he was. Not that he was lost in the repetitively mundane sense, as his lack of identity didn't bother him in the least. He found that he was a social and personal chameleon, conforming not only his words and actions but wants and desires based on whomever he happened to be spending most of his time with. When he fell in love it was always both accidental and passionate, and he could watch himself change to match the newest object of his affections.
At some point she passed from the misty nether regions of casual acquaintances, a realm of caricatures and single personality traits, a place where names and speech patterns comprised the entirety of an identity, to being, with neither intent nor expectation, someone he actually considered a friend, someone with whom he could have rambling debates about medieval mystics and contemporary authors, someone whose door he could show up at unexpectedly in the middle of the night when his entire world was crashing in about him in the sudden and archetypical fashion which can only be caused by a dying love.
They went on walks late at night through the darkness of the unlit back roads of their rural college campus so the stars could sing above them with undiluted intensity, and he liked to point out the constellations that he had stared at countless times without tiring of their celestial patterns: gemini, leo, scorpio, ursus major, taurus, canus minor, orion, casiopia, pegasis, cancer, and she would let him despite the fact he had shown them to her a thousand times in the past. They walked and held hands in the dark, and sometimes they spoke, and sometimes they were silent.
Later, in the many vague points in life when he tried to think back on the genesis of their relationship, he became lost in the misty half-light that surrounded those first few weeks. There was a night of margaritas and the tentative intentional accident of their lips meeting, evenings of sleeping together which he knew happened but that he can't actually bring into any sort of focus, a walk in the woods to the waterfall and lying side by side in the snaking mass of vines and grass staring up at the dark mass of leaves and branches and stars.
We spoke over the summer, on the phone, I am sure of it though I can't remember any of our discussions at all, though I think we spoke once of Nabakov – she was reading Lolita, and I know she thought she might still be in love with her ex-boyfriend – but besides that there is just the hazy sense of lying on my sister's bed with a phone pressed to my ear, and talking. Its funny – you'd think all those first weeks and months would be burned into my flesh, tattooed across my memory, written in water and bone and skin.
There were summers in Manhattan in which they were still young, not new to each other but still somehow surprised by the others presence, six years of conversations and coffee and arguments confusing themselves into a comforting familiarity and yet a startling strangeness when the light fell just so across her sleeping form as he pulled on a t-shirt in the tepid tranquility of the morning, coming home to an empty apartment that still was saturated with her presence, casual to the point of breathing, breathing the Harlem air beside her in the evenings, sitting on the roof and breathing.
In the afternoons, when she was at work, he would sit in the house and listen to the world outside unfolding on the street outside of the window, the sibling quarreling over a skateboard, the muttered machismo of latino men huddled around the engine of someone's malfunctioning car, the repetitive tinny noise of the ice-cream truck, the barking of pit-bulls being hosed down by their owner, shouted greetings and the slap of hands and backs as friends cross each other's path "Holla migo, comosta?" and above it all the rumble of an airplane sliding towards LGA in the fading blue.
He took great pleasure in picking at his toes – for some reason he felt an immense amount of satisfaction when he could pull a strip of dead skin from his heel, tugging it gently so as not to tear it off before it could be teased into striping a good inch of his dried epidermis off, the new unexposed skin glistening and pink. Or when the edge of an overly long toe-nail could be snagged and torn off, the white of the dead nail curling jaggedly across the fore-edge of the toe, leaving him with an unexplainable peace of mind.
They retired in Iceland, when they both felt it was time to spend their days with the light and the land and the silence that pulses through those frozen northern nights, as breathtakingly alive and quivering as the aurora borealis that hang in curtains of reds and greens against the dark void, pulsing. The living pulse of the air had somehow never left their lungs after their short stay there when they were young, and for years they would turn to each other in fits of geographical passion and speak in hushed tones of the evening sun upon the snow.
Wake up. Come on, wake up. What time is it? What? Shhh . . . listen. What? There! Oh my god, its amazing! Isn't it? The rain started about a half an hour ago, and I've just been lying here in the dark listening to it and then, I can't believe the thunder didn't wake me up! I know, I thought you'd wake on your own, but when I didn't I figure you'd want to, I'm glad you did. Its so . . . Shhh. Just listen. Come here – lie next to me. What do you, shhh. Don't talk. Listen.
They both loved summer thunderstorms when they lived in Manhattan, the slow sultry afternoons when the air was dripping with heat and humidity, the sound of screeching children dashing through open hydrant spray and the old men sitting on the steps to their brownstones with a glass of lemonade and a cold beer each, too hot to say hello so just nodding with a little dip of the chin, and all the while the clouds gathering out of the blue limits of the horizon, the light going strange and still and then breaking open the sky with its bassoprofundo voice
The years slowly compressed themselves into a somewhat undifferentiated mass, sedimentary in their nature, the days and weeks and hours settling upon one another with the slow soft stillness of silt, the worries and joys of day to day life pressing upon them with a patience that fused them into something resembling sandstone – soft and easily eroded, layers made up of similar muted earth tones and yet strikingly distinctive each to its own, this one a burnt sienna, this a chipped rust red, a kaki dun hue sandwiched between two slivers of dried dull scab red, shades of Arizona desert.
A place subtly takes ownership upon you as the repository of your memories, the cobblestones and cornices of remembrance beneath one's feet and hanging in flying buttresses or water spouted gables above. Together they had etched so much of themselves upon the city that it became impossible to think of anywhere else as home – to move elsewhere would be to abandon not only an apartment but their past, to leave even the memory of those memories lying on the warn marble steps of an apartment in Morningside, tangled in the branches of a willow bowed deeply over the boat pond.
He woke suddenly to find himself old. Or rather he found himself not young; he had yet to reach the half-way point of life (or so he fervently hoped) but the steadily growing mass of years he could look back on stunned him. He had held his job for more years than he had spent at college, he had loans and a mortgage and all the accruements that our society usually looks upon as demarking a responsible adult. And yet he had noticed it happening – it had sneaked up upon him silently over the years, and now he was old.
The years continued to find there way past him without really making their presence known. They slipped by stealthily, disguising their passage in afternoon teas and Saturday brunches, in mornings of the Sunday Times Magazine and evenings of All Things Considered, there were dinner dates with old friends from college and the obligatory birthday parties at some isolated bar in Queens, DVD rentals and highly recommended novels by up-and-coming authors who wrote griping tales of human emotion or dizzying explorations of fantastic fancy, they went on walks and sat in art-house theaters. And somehow, along the way, he turned fifty.
By his sixtieth birthday they had been together for forty-one years. At some point they passed a line where the years they had known each other outnumbered the years they had not, though it had felt that way for years already. That point had passed nearly twenty years , and now as they both approached what others liked to call their twilight of their days (though neither of them particularly felt like a setting sun) they were to each other like drinking water - more involuntary than not and yet still chosen, daily, comfortable and yet, on occasion, startlingly beautiful.
Looking back over his life, he found he had many disappointments but few regrets. It was a distinction he liked to speak of at length in his last few years to anyone who would listen to his often mumbled, often circular diatribes and attempts at philosophy. She, of course, was familiar with it - he regretted little, as there were few choices he had made in his life that would change, yet he was disappointed at how often life made him choose, that he could not live in every country, work every job, live a thousand lives all at once.
It was strange and frightening to suddenly find himself living alone for the first time in nearly sixty-years. Sadness was not the hardest emotions to confront – after all he had worked through sadness his entire life, he could brace himself for it and easily explain his grief to others – but rather it was the more subtle melancholy that came with reading an article in the Times and thinking I should tell her to read it, but of course he couldn't. It was coming home expecting her and then remembering, it never having to ask where did you put my wallet.
I am dying, he thought as he lay on the bed staring at without seeing the ceiling fan slowing beating the air above him, I am dying he had time to think and he knew it to be true as he thought it and indeed it was. There wasn't pain, for which I am thankful, he thought, I never wanted to die in pain, nor was there fear, which he thought was surprising, as I always expected to be afraid of death, I always have been. It was merely a fact, something to note with curiosity as he lay dying.
He died on a late summer afternoon amidst the sweat-song of city August heat, in the silence of a sweltering sky that refused to give way to thunder; there was the white-noise whirring of the fan and the billowing of gossamer curtains that undulated with a breeze that blew of the Hudson and somewhere music was playing with an accordion and the exotic flair of trumpets. A person standing at the door to the bedroom might have thought there was a smile on his face, but then again it could just be the fading light that sifted through the trees.
The Tip Jar