The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
–Czeslaw Milosz, Ars Poetica?, 1968.
My favorite racing shirt isn’t my first, or my longest, or my personal record. It isn’t even mine. It was my mom’s. Commemorating a 10K she ran years before I was born. Its sleeves are long and velvety soft after so many washings, making it a prized possession even in high school track, when I left the shirt on a fence and, in picking it back up, tore a hole in the sleeve. Devasted, I sewed it back together and to this day cannot find the seam I know I put there.
When I wear the shirt, more people let me cross in front of them. I think they misconstrue the image of members of several branches of the military marching with flags–she ran the race on a military base–to indicate some sort of affiliation on my part. It should make me feel guiltier than it does. I hate waiting at intersections.
She never talked much about running to me, other than to say that it made her stomach disappear immediately. As someone who passed out from lack of sustenance, having stopped eating lunch in the hope that I’d get people to stop making fun of my weight, I was attentive to this anecdote. But I wish there were more stories. I wish I knew how she felt when running. Did she listen to music? Did jackasses cut her off with their trucks and refuse to let her go until they’d gotten a good leer? Did she like running alone, or with others? I like to imagine alone. I like to imagine, when I am wearing the shirt, trotting down a miles-long stretch of straight, unwavering road, that this is the sort of thing she did, at dawn, when most people were sleeping or making infinitesimal forays toward consciousness. Padding confidently through the semi-darkness, more awake and alert than anyone in any of these houses, aware of the lives going on around her (the smells of omelets wafting through air vents; the sound of alarm clocks trilling through open windows), but not part of them.
I like to imagine a resemblance.
The other day, I stood in an elevator with someone I’d crafted a careful email to, and received–against my expectations–a careful and even considerate response from, but he didn’t recognize me (why would he?) and thought I was a customer. Our weather-related pleasantries were perfunctory–a little more jocular than was strictly necessary, on his part, because he thought I was a customer, someone on whose satisfaction his welfare indirectly depended–and I got off four floors before he did so there was neither time nor opportunity to connect my face to my email. As the doors whisked open, though, I tossed over my shoulder a sympathetic remark comparing this weather to that where I knew he came from, and I relished the perplexed look on his face as the doors closed and took him away. No, I’m not just some early-riser; I’m part of the same organization you are; I know things; you liked what I had to say. You’ve forgotten already but it’s true.
But then the other other day, listening to another person I strive to impress pick up the phone and melt instantly in response to a friend, a relative, I don’t know who; I realized with a little constriction that most people are always going to be saving the best of themselves for someone else. Not because they’re being stingy or mean, but because they only have so much self to go around, and you’re of middling importance to a whole lot more people than you matter to.
And that’s so mundane a realization that it barely warrants the term ‘realization.’
I suppose the course of action that ought to result from this is a circling of the wagons, a drawing closer of those few whom you know you receive the best of. Who save the best of themselves for you, among only a handful of others.
But that seems like a kind of defeat, to me. Even as I typed all this out I thought, this is bullshit. If you settled for this you’d never get anywhere or have anyone give two shits about what you believe or have to say or think you can fix. You’d just piddle away at your present low level of importance for decades, and then die there.
So I don’t know that I accept it. I am going to make that guy in the elevator remember me. Because he liked what I had to say, and he doesn’t get to forget that. No one does.
I am uneasy when I start liking plucky, unlovely girls around twelve years old in novels. I admire them, I recognize myself in them, and then they go and do something horrible that I have to spend the rest of the book reminding myself I didn’t see coming–and that, really, we weren’t all that similar anyway.
Take Harriet in The Little Friend, for example. So far, I’m a fan. She’s too-serious and extremely focused and hates the form of girlhood foisted on her by the standard line. Most of her friends are boys, she has no patience for love or for people who are too fragile (which distastes tend to be lumped into the same dismissive gesture), and she is pompously certain her twelve-year old intellect can surmount problems whole fleets of adults couldn’t. I recognize that I I probably wouldn’t like this little girl if I met her today, but I know quite well I wasn’t much of a likable little girl either. I know why I stopped being the sunny child of early home videos, but only because I was told. I do not remember the process.
And I openly dread what Harriet will do. Because I can remember too well that crystal-clear conviction with which you can view a world whose gray areas you’re privileged enough not to have to see yet. And this:
It would never really leave her, the vertigo of this moment; it would be with her for the rest of her life, and it would always be mingled inextricably with the dim toolshed–shiny metal saw teeth, the smells of dust and gasoline–and three dead Englishmen beneath a cairn of snow with icicles glittering in their hair. Amnesia: ice floes, violent distances, the body turned to stone. The horror of all bodies.
“Come on,” said Healy, with a toss of his head. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I’m coming,” said Harriet. Her heart was pounding, and she felt breathless–not with the breathlessness of fear, but with something very close to rage.
I fear that.
Like Briony in Atonement–with whom I also identified right up until she ruined everyone’s lives, at which point I did some frantic backpedaling–she’s going to do something she is so convinced (has convinced herself, maybe) is so right. And it will be so wrong. And irrevocable. And the whole rest of the book will then be a punishment to me for liking a character I almost became but didn’t. To everyone’s relief.