He sits in a small room with diffuse white light. It is impossible to decipher where the light comes from. It is completely even. Flat. He marvels at this sometimes. It infuriates him. But there are cracks. Cracks in the cheap white paint on the concrete walls. And they produce small shadows. The shadows are a joy to him. He focuses on one small area and watches one shadow expand and then decline with the day. At the end of this journey, the hum of the magnetic ballast switches on and he collapses onto his hands and knees.
None of us were speaking, and for a rare moment we felt the preciousness of that space. We were so high up. One by one we would have to dive off, either elegantly or tentatively, scared of the landing. It was like standing at the top of AngelFalls; the distance below both great and unknown. We wondered if the landing would be too rough to come up for a breath of air.
Somehow right before leaping off into your life as a young man, you hear those great falls in South America that you have never seen. You make a swan dive with your chest, slowly, beautifully arcing. You put on a grand smile, hoping you will land with grace, and that the judges will score you high for both your degree of difficulty and your style. Ultimately, however, there is some fear that you may not land at all. Some go
head-first and some with their feet. Almost all close their eyes.
Shawn, my childhood friend, dove gracefully into a life that looked certain to be charmed. He seemed to understand early that his inheritance of looks and intelligence would offer him what he would need. What others would need from him. He was thus unprepared for the difficulty of the world—not the mundane parts which he seemed to bear well, but the rough sections, the scrapes. The loneliness and the brutality.
His initial ease in life did not entirely leave him, but by the time he left high school there was also a hushed but deep violence about him. It was never displayed physically, but in a slight skew of his smile. He was overly friendly at times. Sometimes his nerves manifested in fits of coughing, or near throwing up. Sometimes he would make a tight fist and gnaw on it with his teeth until he drew blood.
And now he could not forget her. His girlfriend had just died. It was the late summer. The heat in New York muffled his yelling. She died from an aneurysm. We all loved her. Her
name was Asha.
“She just fell over dead—collapsed. We were in a small argument. It’s driving me crazy now. I can’t remember what it was about. I want to remember. . .”
“We all loved her,” I reminded him, and myself.
“I have to spread her ashes. She once told me to spread them with the wind and sun at the top of the world.”
“What does that mean? When did she write a will? She never told me about it.”
I imagined Asha laughing. It was the only way I ever remembered her. She was raised in Geneva. Her dad was a diplomat of some kind. Her parents were drunks. Shawn loved European women—or at least the sound of that capitalized adjective. She was lovely, really lovely. She and Shawn were nice together, easy. Her folks did not approve of him. They did not approve of much. Shawn was charming—his eyes would nearly close when he smiled.
Asha would close her eyes slowly—as if she was conscious of controlling the speed her eyelids fell. Watching her, it was like being transported to a porch sipping something sweet and sour. A place where it was hot outside. Her eyelashes were so long that sometimes watching her read I would wonder if they did not look like little butterfly wings, if they would get caught in sunglasses.
When it rains in New York, people can’t see the direction the storm comes from. Shawn and Asha lived in the West Village. There was no view of the sky from any window in their apartment. The building was condemned. The landlords had been in court for years, and so the rent had been suspended. They never thought of saving in case they had to pay all of that back rent. They had bottles of full and empty red wine on the shelves in the painted kitchen as decoration. There were pictures in non-matching frames.
Asha had her cello in the corner of their main room. She kept it on a stand. It made it seem like there was always another person in the room. Like it was going to straighten up and start speaking. Shawn told me that she would play for hours and not notice him. When she would look up she could not remember who he was for a short time.They would take discounted tickets on Fridays and go to
the MOMA. They would revel in Monet’s full-sized lilies, sit for
They would see theatre and eat at Ethiopian restaurants that were too small. He would wonder about becoming an architect or an advertising man. He would play piano and write. He played like someone who had lots of childhood lessons, and a talent for it, but never cared to practice.
For a time that summer after Asha died, Shawn returned to Switzerland to look for something of her. He had her ashes; the will directed him to, “let her fly.” He did not know what this meant. Her parents were reluctant to give away all they had of their daughter. Her mother could no longer speak coherently. She could not stop drinking. She saw Asha’s green eyes all day. Asha had loved Geneva, or her memories of it. She was very young when she lived there. The only story she could remember was one where a distant relative, an old mountain guide, took her by her small hand on a hike in the foothills of the Alps. She remembered how windy it was. She remembered the wildflowers. She remembered his callouses.
Back in New York, he would look around the city for signs of Asha everywhere they had gone together. He went to places he thought she had gone by herself. His stomach always felt empty, his hands would shake a little bit, and if someone approached him his heart would race. He noticed that his fingers would move around looking for something in the sleeves of his jacket all day—looking for her hands. He could not figure out where to put her to rest. He thought of leaving her ashes in the middle of Central Park, in the Meadows. She had danced at concerts with friends there as a girl. Those days in New York he would stare at the stark skylines for hours and look for patterns. He stared at the angular buildings. He tried to find a view of the sky, trying to convince himself that he belonged in this world.
Shawn kept remembering how she looked when she slept. She would moan a little bit when he would gently slip in under the covers. She would move toward him even in sleep and grab for him. She mashed her teeth together softly every night. All her unconscious movements made him laugh quietly and kiss her on the side of the forehead and the cheek. He would move her a bit to hear her sigh.
I called Shawn that autumn for the first time in two years. He did not call me back. I pictured him as golden. His hair is blond—like a little boy’s hair before it inevitably darkens. I pictured him dirty, walking around the city after losing his connection to the world. Perhaps as a result of my call, Shawn decided to ride his motorcycle out to see me in Colorado for a break. He had read the book about motorcycle maintenance. He had studied Buddhism superficially. He loved the cliché of it. His motorcycle was too small. But the blackness of the bike gave him courage. He did not make it even fifteen blocks out of Manhattan before it broke down, quietly surrendered.
Then somewhat abruptly he bought a small two-wheel drive pickup truck from a Hispanic man in Queens. It brought him across the old Appalachians and through the flooded Midwest. It brought him through the fields of cereals and the high plains and the grasses. He had made tapes for the drive. Sometimes he could hear the music, and sometimes he kept the windows rolled far down to smell the cows and the grain and the dirt he had never seen, the heater on high. The pickup did not have a radio; he bought a boom box and placed it close to him on the torn vinyl seat. He smoked a cigarette every twenty minutes or so.
The smells of the great crops and slaughterhouses penetrated the pickup. My friend smelled the great odors with pleasure, feeling the earth continuing to revolve about the sun—as if it had stopped for a time. He felt in the high plains that the air was getting better, and he felt hungry for the first time in a month. He stopped on his drive when he saw a river that ran down the west side of the Continental Divide. He stopped because to him it seemed translucent. It seemed like moving flickers of light. It seemed an electronic manipulation, and not of the earth. He was naïve about what the earth can do. This small insight struck him especially hard.
That river rushed to the desert. It rushed through blocks of young ice. It was alive with trout. He thought it must be the same kind of creek that the young Siddhartha found to sit by. He sat by it and tried to listen to what the creek could tell him. It spoke its own tongue. It was not there to serve this young man’s needs. There were some yellow leaves in the creek, piled up on the sides in the areas where the fish rested. Sticks joined the leaves and together they swirled and bumped, but could not escape the pull of the eddy.
Shawn used to tell Asha that all people are alone ultimately, that at some level you cannot know exactly what another feels or thinks. Maybe you can know them for a very long time, but you are always alone in some way. Shawn, as he drove the windy roads, as clouds of blue smoke rose from his old truck, thought that maybe he was wrong. This bit of hope was not strong enough though. It just made him feel lonelier.
When he arrived in Colorado, he came up to me and we hugged. But when we looked at each other we did not remember how to act. We were then silent for a couple minutes. A wind rose from the southwest as it usually does, and we both put our hands in our pant pockets nearly simultaneously, and looked upwards towards the hills.
The first of December was Asha’s birthday. I had forgotten this. I woke up early to get a small fire started to warm the day. A couple of days before I had bought a cord of good-burning wood. There was still the leftover aspen from the year before. It was seasoned, but I did not like burning it. I told my friend to wake himself and warm by the black stove with the small ashen window. The flames were jumping high and starting to incite the smaller pieces to burn with them.
The last time I saw him was two months after he arrived, lying down in new snow. He was crying and cold. His tears did not all freeze because of their salt, but some formed soft icicles along the trail they had made from his cloudy eyes. He moved his arms up and down making a little angel, trying to show Asha how to fly.
Shawn did not make it through that winter undamaged. Somehow that trip across the country and the great spaces made him feel nervous all the time. They crept in on his sensibilities and the loneliness enveloped him. He left the valley and quietly checked into a quiet institution that quietly accepted him. He did not wake me before he left. I imagine him driving away with his hands shaking and the windows all the way down. I imagine him shivering and banging his fists on the fake leather of the steering wheel.
I am too scared to visit him at the center, and so I never do. I picture its landscaping and front door, and cannot seem to picture much more. I am too scared of its gravitational effect, what happens when you admit that the world is too much to bear. It must happen each day to thousands of people, maybe millions. It must happen every moment, some realization that your heart is shaking, or your hands are shaking or your head is shaking and won’t stop, that doing the next thing is simply impossible. This is what people lose in every season. They lose these things—the people, these certainties—that are so special as to be unfathomable. The depth of their emptiness
keeps them from believing in the things they once held to be true. They forget that death is part of life, like an exhale.
The deciduous trees are shuddering in a storm, the snow falling off in small drifts from the branches as they rush upwards, as if gasping. They bear the great honest color of green back to the valley. The people waking from their slumber. Everything bursting out of the clouds. It was as if our valley had realized all at once that it was alive. The waterfall in the valley where I live falls 400 feet to the rocks. It dives from an embankment. Or perhaps it is so surprised that the riverbed disappears, that it leaps. Once you have felt the wind those falls emit on hitting the rocks at their base, it does not leave you.
There are cracks in the trees and cracks in the clouds; cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.