Transparency: The following is from a novella I’ve written (now editing), Imagining Amsterdam. The story takes place in the future – 2025. I’m publishing the first few pages because it fits Rebecca Sonit’s A Guide to Being Lost – you’ll see why.
“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power.”
Plato, Symposium, c. 385-380
“Why should a set of people have been put in motion, on such a scale and with such an air of being equipped for a profitable journey, only to break down without an accident, to stretch themselves in the wayside dust without a reason?”
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, 1902
“People look to the future and expect that the forces of the present will unfold in a coherent and predictable way, but any examination of the past reveals that the circuitous routes of change are unimaginably strange.”
Rebecca Solnit, A Guide to Getting Lost, 2005
–If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone. And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t. I don’t know. Or wouldn’t. You’d hold on. Tight. You’d hold on tight. To everything you could. Until you couldn’t.
I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years. But I did. And here we were.
— There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone. He paused, and waited.
— I’m sorry, I said, unsure of what else to say in the awkward distance I felt between us when I heard his familiar voice and it all came back to me again. I took too long, I said. I’m sorry, truly. I am. Too much time has passed. I know it has. I let it happen. Not you. Totally irrational, I know that too. It was me. It’s me. My fault. I feel terrible. Do you forgive me?
— All I have to do is shut my eyes and I see you, he said. I’ve been watching you from afar.
I smiled. Instantaneously.
— You didn’t think I would? he asked rhetorically. You probably knew I would. How could I not? I always wanted to follow you. To run away and follow you.
— I would have loved to follow you to New York and see what you were up to. Such a change for you, not going home and all. So far away, you know. So far. And you struggled and came through. The complete you.
— You mean the completion of who you thought I was.
— Something like that. The complete you, I like to think. All of you because I knew I didn’t see everything and I wanted to. The real you, you know? All of it, scars and all. I remember your scars. I can see them clearly, the parallel lines on the inside of your leg by your knee. They’re as clear as your name. Like a signature. A scar, a blemish, something that distinguishes a person becomes so much how you experience a person – you and the person. The scar becomes an intimacy, draws you in like. It has a history. Yours and then someone else’s, I think. And at a certain point, in the here and there, in memory’s shadows, you’re not sure whether it’s the scar or the blemish or the person or all of it that you love. The one and the other become one thing in your mind and that unique mark you just can’t do without is suddenly yours too. You even long for it. That scar.
It was night. I held my lights low against the luminescence stitched across the city and my reflection on my picture window talked back to me: head tilted to one side and rocking back-and-forth cradled in his voice, my arms crossed just above my waist as if I held a child. He filled the room. It was like it used to be.
I know he felt my hesitation.
— I wondered about you, I said softly, like a single syllable, a moan. I thought a lot about you. I did. I wanted to reach out – many times. I’d be grocery shopping, you know – I could be anywhere; on a date – and suddenly there you’d be, out of nowhere, something you said to me – in your voice, your tone. Something I’d forgotten. I could totally see you. It’s good when that happens. I don’t know. Just good. Good all over. I’ve always felt like … That you were looking out. There with me, you know. You were there. I liked that. I liked knowing that you were watching out for me. I wish I could really explain what that feels like. I’m not doing a very good job right now.
I went on and again told him that I was sorry for taking so long to see how he was, how he was doing since he’d meant so much to me, all those hours working with me – years actually, from twenty ten to twenty twelve. Advising me, mentoring me, putting up with my pouting, my tears, my wild rants. Holding me up. My self-involved irrationalities. Until one day something happened and we found ourselves somewhere else, a new place, inhabiting new spaces. Or the same places differently. It was near the end, almost to the end of my university life, the last year. We were in a very different space. I didn’t say a thing though, totally unsure of myself. Either did he – he knew better. He could see the long now and took care of me.
–What happens? What happens to people? I asked him, wanting to really ask him, what happened to us? since there was a time when I spoke to him almost every day just about. Emails, texts, voice – Can I see you? I use to say. I never asked about him. Never. Hi, when can I come and see you? That was enough. That was it.
— You have a life. Mine is quite different. That’s all. We’ve always been separated by a swath of time.
I’d forgotten what it was like, his ability to see through me, instantly.
I was staring into my tarnished memory of us, looking for answers, looking to see why him, why is he still here, here with me?
— You know, I’d say that we met because there is such a difference in our ages. Maybe without that difference, who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have met, he said.
— But we did and here we are …
— Again. Here we are again, I said and my voice trailed off and I changed the subject. I wasn’t ready to get into an examination of our relationship, especially since so much time had passed. I turned it over in my mind many times – and maybe that’s why I never reached out. I didn’t want to get to the questions. Yet here we were. As he said, again – a musical phrase that never goes away.
— Boston said you’re on an extended leave. What are you doing? Are you gone for good?
He took a deep breath that filled the silence.
— I’ve stepped away from the hallowed ivy – and come to realize that the ivy has tentacles that reach far inside a person. It’s ironic. And maybe tragic. A little tragic, anyway. That’s what I’m here to find out. I’m taking a step back to find out who I am once and for all.
— What are you saying?
— Just getting some distance. That’s all. Trying to gain some, you know. I need perspective. I’m trying to get it somehow – before I become more irrelevant then I already am.
— In Amsterdam. Talking about some change. Okay. Fine. But I wouldn’t call you irrelevant.
— We won’t be able to meet for lunch. That’s true. Yeah. You can’t simply walk across campus to my office, shut the door and spend a few hours. Impossible this time around, he said and laughed.
— That’s not what I’m saying. Is that how you saw it? A cliché, that’s what it was? You? What am I then?
— It’s a joke. I’m just joking. Common on. Can’t you take a joke after all this time?
— It’s not a joking thing.
— Well then, maybe I am a cliché – and it is too late. Maybe that’s the joke – and it’s on me. Wait. Wait a minute, he said and paused. I – am – being – tested. Aren’t I? Yes. You’re testing me. I think yes. Is that why you called? Wanna see if I’m still here for you. Talk about clichés. That’s why you called. You’re not sure where we are. Me. Where I am. Must be serious. And there’s a change – something’s coming. Some change. Something’s in the air and you reached out. That’s it. It is. Isn’t it? Maybe something already happened. Something big. Love shattered? A disappointment. There’s been a disappointment, yes – and you can’t write it off as all good, like you used to say. It’s got to be big. Yes, something’s happened. What? Tell me. What do you need? This is how it always goes for us, right? Doesn’t it?
— Okay. Okay. It’s on me. I know. It’s on me. I’ll take the chance. I’ll leap. That’s what you want. I hear you. I’ll take responsibility. But you can’t say you’re a cliché. I won’t accept that. You’re not a cliché. You’re not. Far from it. Don’t be ridiculous. You mean a lot to me – to a lot of people, I said to him.
Then I hesitated, unsure whether to say what I wanted to say, why I called him, after all. There was a long silence – and I just said it: I need you. As soon as I said it I regretted it but I kept on. I was already in. I was in the moment I got his number from Boston. I was in when I called him. Shit, I’d been in for awhile.
I breathed deeply a couple of times, and nervously just put it out there quickly: Are you busy? Can I see you? I asked and dropped my head, letting its weight dangle it there over my chest as if I’d given out. I shut my eyes and waited. I waited for the cold, sharp blade to drop on my neck.
My anxiety thickened – and he let it.
— Are you ignoring me?
He didn’t respond. I inhaled, not wanting to look up, even though we weren’t visible to each other – I shut off the broadcast just as I called him and I leaned on my picture window, full of anxiety, and whispered facetime off because I didn’t want him to see me like that. He’d sense my despair. That’s what he’s really good at sniffing out. Despair. We met at precisely the moment I was falling and spinning out between reason and chaos – and I didn’t know which was which. I sat hunched over in his seminar on punishment, my thick, black uncombed hair around my face covering my eyes. I was disconsolate. Didn’t know where I was and what I was doing. More importantly, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself – and I didn’t know who to turn to. You might say that this is expected of any second year university student, particularly if she is surrounded by classic “A” personality types with their lives totally visible in front of them. Mine was not. I was lost. I can’t even tell you why I took his class – maybe it was the rumor mill we students create and someone told me, oh yeah, take him, he’s interesting. And I did, not knowing what else to take. I just didn’t care. I hardly looked at him when he lectured. And he pointed to me one day at the end of class and said, softly, simply, See me. Just like that. See me. That was that. It began then, the spring of my sophomore year. See me. I saw him alright.
I circled my Tribeca studio.
— Are you busy? I asked again. Can I see you? What else do you want me to say? Can I see you? That’s what I want. I want to see you.
A hard rain began knocking against my window.
— Why are you not responding? Why are you doing this? I need to see you. Okay? I need to. I need … What more do you want? You know my history. Why are you doing this? I can’t make it up to you, all of it. All this time. Okay? What else can I say? I can’t – but I want to see you still. I’ve never known you to be cruel like this. What?
— No. Don’t do that. It’s not what you’re thinking. Please, he said, jumping in almost out of breath. I’m sorry, he said. I’m not testing you. I would never do that. You know that. I don’t want anything from you. I’m sorry. It’s just that when you asked me whether I was busy you put me instantly back in my office and there you were standing in my doorway – sweating, out of breath, smiling, like when you went for runs, your hair in a pony tail over your left shoulder and you’d stroke it and fix it compulsively. You asked me whether I was busy and could we talk. That’s all. That’s all it was. I was there. Inside that. It just came over me like that, all of a sudden. I was lost in it. And I hesitated. I’m sorry. There was nothing I could do. I hadn’t thought about anything like that in years – and it took me. Completely. I’m sorry.
— What do you think?
— I think that it may go like this. Things fluttering back and forth and that we have no words for. We’ll have to adjust, I guess. That’s all.
I saw him reclining in his leather chair, his feet on a large oak desk, Walter Pater or Henry James opened on his lap. He was graying, rounding. And he’d give me a big smile, sit up and nod to the black rocker, a crimson H engraved on the top rail, in front of his desk and say shut the door.
When the curtain came down on my Boston days and side-by-side with sixteen hundred undergrads walked into the wide, foreboding world we all feared – reality we called it in the sanctity of our luxurious schoolyard – I knew I’d had something special, something different that nobody else had experienced. His careful eye on me.
Maybe that’s why I called him again, to learn what it was that I felt, why I couldn’t shed it after all this time, that feeling that something happened to me. Maybe I wanted it again. I missed the light tap on the shoulder, a constancy that one day appeared, and stayed. Until I learned to predict it. Until I learned to see myself as he saw me. Until I could no longer feel obstacles between us, no challenges – only a genuine sense of freedom. Freedom. Just freedom. I longed for that feeling, the ease, the smoothness to be. I didn’t have it when I called. I’d lost it somehow – at some point.
— It would be easier if I saw you, I said. I think, anyway, it would be easier. I want to see you.
— Come. Come then.
I thought that seeing him would be simpler – a ride up to Boston. But nothing about us was simple, ever. Addicts of complexity, that’s what we seemed to be. I am, anyway, I think.
— Come, he repeated. Come. See what I’m doing. We’ll talk. See what you’re doing. We’ll talk about writing like we used to. We’ll read something together. Remember that? Take as long as you need, he said. But come.
— To see why it is that after all this time – how long has it been?
— Eight. Eight or ten years, something like that.
— Why now, after eight years – let’s say that – I call, and want to see you?
— That’ll be part of it, I’m sure. If you want. Sure. It’s something. Something is there, yes.
— And why, after all this time, it’s you I’m looking for? Again.
— My sentiments exactly. I can tell you that. So come. Stay. Let’s see. Come before it’s too late.
Ever since, I’ve not stopped imagining Amsterdam.