PART THREE: EMILY’S WORLD
On The Beach
She wakes up.
She’s lying on her back in a large bed, a soft pillow behind her head, in a sun-bright yellow room within a small white house, only a few blocks from the beach.
Oh wow is it stuffy in here. She sits up and as her face moves forward in space the air doesn’t budge. It’s heat that has mass, actual weight.
A small bead of perspiration drips from her neat-cut bangs, lands on her slender nose and travels down, dropping on her lip, salty to taste. Gross.
But here’s the thing: when you’re this close to a beach, none of that stuff really matters. Even with the first fresh ocean breezes of the morning blocked by the rising dunes there’s still that vast oceanic ambience that pervades every particle of the surrounding atmosphere, that measured maritime that slows clocks and resists calendars, invites contemplation, and makes everything you eat and drink taste that much better.
She drops down from the bed and sees a pair of shorts conveniently located at her feet, which she proceeds to lift up and button. Good, they fit fine, there’s still room for more ice cream. Pulls a wrinkly t-shirt over her head and glances over at the full-length mirror on the door, the sight of which causes her to shake her head a few times until short-cut hair flops down in something resembling a satisfactorily uniform fashion. She's got the looks that kill, he old song went. Pewl, fires a fake gun, blows invisible smoke off of the muzzle, and gives herself a wink, satisfied with what she sees.
Next stop, the bathroom. A cold water splash from the sink, minty toothbrush and mad dog foamy faces in the mirror, and it’s off to take on the greater world at large, a task which always begins with Sam, Sam who will be surely occupying the couch in brightly colored Hawaiian shorts and probably not much else. There may well be chocolate frosted donuts. Please God let there be chocolate frosted donuts.
What is now proved was once imagined, the poet William Blake once remarked, and so it was that Emily Sellers, teeth freshly brushed and eyes still challenged by the notion of streaming sunlight, bore witness to her temporary roommate Sam biting into a large chocolate frosted donut, as yellow cake crumbs poured freely onto the lap of his brightly colored Hawaiian shorts.
“Hey Sam,” she says. She wants a donut, but she’ll have to suffer through a speech first. That was the rules.
Not today, she tells herself.
Sam lifts an open can of Coca-Cola to his mouth, takes a long sip, making a satisfied haaaa like he was in a soda commercial.
“Go ahead and stand there and make that face,” he says.
“I’m not making a face,” she says.
“I’m having a chocolate frosted donut and a can of Coke for breakfast.”
“I have no problem with that. In fact…”
"Adversus solem ne loquitor."
“Do you know what that means?”
“To be honest I’m not completely sure. I read it somewhere. It has something to do with art, I believe. The simple fact that the artist is never present without a can of Coca-Cola. You see the artist? Now see the Coca-Cola.”
“Wherever he shall be, so too shall it follow.”
“Exactly,” he says, clearly satisfied. “You said it. Wait what is that from?”
“It’s from a letter that someone wrote me,” she said.
“Wrote me. Not you.”
“I must have read it not knowing it was written to you.”
“Dear Emily didn’t give it away?”’
“Give me a donut.”
“This is how you ask?”
“It is. And I won’t ask twice.”
“Jeez, simmer down here you go.”
He reaches into the plastic cellophane package laying among the detritus of the coffee table, pulled out a chocolate frosted donut, and offered it to Emily. She all but snatched it out of of his hand and quickly took a bite. It was delicious.
“Is there coffee?” she asks.
“There’s Coke. In the fridge. Help yourself.”
“Oh, I will.” She steps into the tiny kitchen and opened the fridge.
Sam turns around gave her a queer look. “What’s gotten into you, Em?”
“Adversus solem ne loquitor, dude.”
She holds out the can of Coke like it’s some kind of magic talisman. Sam shrugs and grabs a book off of the table, opening it to a random page. He pretends to read. She can see that it was a poem by Robert Browning.
“Can I borrow that?”
“The book of poems by Robert Browning.”
“Can you see that I’m reading it?”
“I absolutely can. That’s why I asked you if I could borrow it.”
“I don’t like this,” he says, closing the book and handing it to her. “I don’t like this new Emily one bit. I liked the old one better. Where did the old one go?”
“Remember how it ended?”
“Yes I do. It was late and I turned out the light and went to sleep.”
“And that was the end of the day.”
“And that day will never come back again.”
“Of course not.”
“Well neither will the old Emily.” And with that, she nudged her feet into a pair of flip-flops, walked through the creaking screen door, and out into the bright afternoon beyond.
Sandy sidewalks splashed with sun. Mild traffic drifting down the hot asphalt of Ocean Avenue. A noisy pickup truck rattles by, jammed full of migrant workers and happy tongue-hanging dogs. The sun is a white disc somewhere directly above, signifying noon. A barefoot jogger wearing only shorts. Two kids jumping back and forth through a sprinkler. Sand already infiltrating her flip-flops. It’s so hot out today.
Noon already? It’s so hard to tell, time here is more of an ambience than an actual moving force. In lieu of clocks there are the ebb and flow of tides, the wind beneath kites, the remaining liquid in a bottle of rum.
To the west lies the marshes, vast and uncrossable, populated by stinging flies and nesting osprey. An armor against the rest of the world beyond, that awful elsewhere of subway entrances, fluorescent office lights, humming fax machines, and hastily composed emails. Ulcer-inducing cups of sludgy black coffee in Styrofoam cups, paperclips and desks. Never again, she said to the world beyond the marshes. You are gone like yesterday, may today last forever.
Forever, like the eternal white hotels that dotted the shoreline like old teeth.
She’s making her way up a set of wooden steps leading to the breezy crossway between two of the oldest white hotels on the island. The buildings stretch upwards toward the too-bright sky, their shapes blotted out by the hot sun like lens flare on a camera.
Over the wooden boards flanked by dunes sprouting clumps of grass and small prickly cacti. One more set of steps to go.
And so, alighting upon the final step of splintery wood, there it is, that final stretch of Earth before the big blue swallow. The All-American beach spread out before her eyes: the uncountable colored umbrellas, tanning bodies on beach towels, hamburgers cooking on portable grills, cold beverages ice-jammed in red and white corners, a couple playing Frisbee, two couples on opposite sides of a volleyball net, and a small child intent on digging through the sand until she strikes water, and then to China.
And then, suddenly, humanity ends, replaced by the white-blue chug of endless water spreading left and right as far as the eye can see and ending at a distinct line met by a sky of nearly the same color, a perfect horizontal line marred only by the indistinct black smudge of what is probably an ocean liner, transporting goods from one impossibly distant place to another. A bi-plane trailing an advertisement that says “Eat At Joe’s Crab Shake.” Her stomach growls, wanting to obey.
She’s been living here for what, four weeks? Five weeks? No one ever talks about what month it is, if the calendar page has turned there’s never any reaction, but lately it feels like it must be midsummer, that time of the year for that famous night’s dream, for that is what the nights have been like, they’ve felt like dreams, soft and harmless, the open sky blanketed by low flying wind-clouds and nebulous black spaces pinned by innumerable stars.
She finds a space in the sand and lays back, blankets be damned. Headphones on, press play and the world goes away, the twin horns of Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard trading notes from far away to the here and now, her eyes closed to yellow-red light behind black lids, the sand on her back a hot comfort, and in her mind she is writing again, another long letter that begins:
Dear Mister President...
I am writing you another letter because for years now I have been travelling this country (of which I am a proud citizen and to which you are the President) and I figured that if there was anyone to whom I should regale with my stories that it would be you. Being as you are only one person (with many advisors) there is absolutely no way that you can know everything there is to know about this country and that is where I, the dutiful citizen, come in. I will help you understand everything that is beyond your reach. You will understand it through me. It will be as if you are me. E pluribus unum.
Let us begin with where I am now, laying in the cool shadow of the old white hotels. No member of the Executive Branch has ever seen these hotels, I am sure of it. Each hotel – and there are many – is at least four hundred years old. That makes them older than almost anything else in the United States of America. How is that possible? What wonderful culture or strange civilization constructed these looming white sentinels filed neatly along the shoreline nearly half a millennium ago?
I mean seriously what the fuck, right?
They are constructed out of some kind of long-forgotten material. My roommate Sam thinks it's coral from an ancient Atlantic coral reef hailing from an epoch when the the world and the waters were warmer. I think they’re straight off the pages of that second volume of Proust where he’s chilling on a French beach with all the ladies and every night he’s eating the best dinners ever. They have these incredible elevators, operated by this seriously complex and clanky set of levers, pulleys – honestly I couldn’t begin to tell you how these contraptions work – but they are beautiful, like massive gilded bird cages, riding up and down in semi-enclosed columns but mostly in the open air. Made of the purest white material, immune to rust or soot. The first time I rode in one there was a storm coming in from the sea, and wild gusts of salt misty air whipped in and around the cage with me in it, while all those pulleys and levers creaked out their sublime noise. The rain-lashed shoreline seeming to expand as the elevator raised me further and further from it.
The combined effect of which made me feel completely and unquestionably alive.
You’re the President, so you tell me: what pre-American society built these beautiful white hotels here on the beach over four hundred years ago?
Actually, save the answer. That’s not what this letter is about.
This is what the letter is about: I want to talk to you about Richmond, Virginia. Not about the city today. Not about its rich history. Nor does it concern the Burning of Richmond in 1865. This isn’t the Richmond you know at all. What I want to talk to you about is an altogether different Richmond. Think of it as a Richmond in the Mind.
Mister President, I am with you in Richmond.
Many years ago, when I lived somewhere deep within the Great Eastern Megalopolis, I once met a boy, on a college campus, who had lived in Richmond. We first saw each other at a crowded party – a house party, we called them, just one house and many young people and all the booze you could drink – I was going up the stairs and he was coming down. We locked eyes, it was clear that we were in each others way, and both drunk, which effectively doubles how much in another’s way one can be.
He said: Excuse me.
He had dark eyes. He was cute.
I thought: I won't forget you.
And I didn’t. It was a perfect face not to forget, ill-lit and possibly brooding but with no way of truly knowing, the moment of locked eyes having lasted for only one, perhaps two seconds total. These were my favorite kinds of memories, indistinct and blurred, usually only recalled during the darkest night of the soul (3am always, according to Fitzgerald), for that is the kind of insomnia I have, I go to sleep just fine but it’s 3am when I’m back, far past any chance of an awake mate in the room, or at the other end of a telephone line, an hour so late that the only thoughts that float to the surface are the vague ones, dim and murky from so much time spent in the depths. I say my favorite kind because all the best things in life are unfinished, and incomplete. Once you remember something completely, then it’s over, there is nowhere for it to go but on the shelf, to collect dust like a finished novel. Novels fit between two covers, life has birth and death, but life, the whole of it, is always by design incomplete, is infinite. My memory of his face was like the memory of the dinosaurs, just a scattering of bones dug up in disparate locations across the globe, but like any good archeologist my joy was not in the completion but in the collecting, the assembling, the final sketch seemingly in sight but always mercurial and in flux.
In other words, I was content to never see or hear from him again. But I also wished that I would. At the same time. That’s the agony and the ecstasy of incomplete things. It’s like what Oscar Wilde said about cigarettes: “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”
Three weeks later, his email arrived. Apparently he had figured out who I was through a mutual friend of ours who happened to know someone whose friend was at the party for only a few minutes? And that person had my email address? Or something like that? This was in the years after the advent of electronic communication but before the sticky lines of the web had been completely spun, you could find the names but our faces were not yet available for clicking and liking across the massive online database of souls of which are now all concurrently constructed (and continue to be constructing) together. Back then, we were still hard to find. We were still able to exist as incomplete thoughts. There were still parts of the map where no one had been.
I had never been to Richmond. I didn’t know anything about it. And here on my screen was an email that told me more about Richmond than I had ever known before. I read it more than once. As I have said, this was in the early days of email, when just waiting for an email was like standing on a dock waiting for a ship to come in from sea. When they arrived, it was a big event. Just think: that chair, that keyboard, that screen? You weren’t there that often, you weren’t strapped in like you are now. You were taking your seat in a newly constructed state-of-the-art theater. Even firing up the computer took a long time, it was an elegant ritual. Modems and dot-matrix printers had their own soundtrack. Emails were the children of letters, except they were better. They were letters backlit by a screen. They were the the big-budget Hollywood movie version of letters.
Much like the ancient white hotels set against the background of an endless beach and the impossibly blue ocean, the Richmond he evoked was an old, crumbling Victorian dream fading beneath the gnarl of overgrown vegetation, the serene silence of ruins broken only by the whooping shouts of romantic youth on bicycles riding drunk down the open avenues in the buggy, humid southern night.
The avenues were wide open, shadowed by rows of moldering statues depicting unknown heroes whose names and legend had long ago slipped between the fingers of time. Everything here was wooden, creaking, rotting, and beautiful. In the middle of the city sprouted a futuristic and sterile downtown, almost Swedish its austerity, Japanese in its efficiency. Men exited buildings via revolving glass doors, wearing crisply clean suits, smiling as the warm southern sun fanned out across the empty streets at the end of the day.
Downtown was intersected by a wild, rushing river, flowing incongruously through the center of the main avenue – the James River, America’s first, upon whose banks Jamestown was born. That untamed sense of possibility still existed here in Richmond, as reckless youth floated down the rapids in inner tubes at high noon, whooping and hollering much to the chagrin of the serious suits eating brown-bagged sandwich lunches on the various park benches near the clusters of sleek office buildings.
His email spoke of late night parties in the austere half-timbered mansions high up in the hills, shrouded by sky-reaching pines. Stepping out into the humid night air just before things get strange, following the lantern-lit cobblestone pathway to where his bicycle was parked, and heading off into the fog-covered beyond.
The old road spiraled down, funneled through one of the many valleys that corkscrewed into the edges of the city, his bicycle picking up speed as lights from the old wooden manors flashed past from beyond dark trees, watching like the jungle in a painting by Rousseau.
The bike’s frame shaking as it picks up speed. The gulps of air so clean, night pine and mint all across his teeth like a toothbrush. A dilapidated timber schoolhouse whizzes by, incalculable in its age. He slows when the road turns to dirt, ending finally as it fades into the darkness of a massive black lake.
The humidity down here is so thick its like a pulse. That dirty mineral smell of damp broken bricks, algae, and lakewater.
He dismounts, lays the bike down upon a tangled patch of brambles, and begins to take off his clothes. Peels off his shirt with effort, cooling sweat having sealed the fabric to his skin. The humidity wraps around his naked skin like a blanket. Steps forward into the black water and lets it envelop him.
It was like he had stepped into the innermost core of summer itself. High above him a mad moon shown down, its pale light trickling down as if from the top of a well. No matter his movement the surface of the water remained perfectly still. He felt wild, and crazy, and alive.
Everything was possible, because everything was here and it was all happening now. It was the center from which it all radiated. Here was the proof. This was the motherlode. Whatever happened tomorrow was his solely to decide.
Right around here, the email ended.
I didn’t write back. I never saw him, never spoke to him again. Whoever he was, whatever life he lived, for me it was quantified, it began when we passed each other on the steps at that party, and it ended in the warm black waters at the bottom of the valley. He was a short story. Just a few pages and that was that.
But it was a story I couldn’t seem to get out of my head. For weeks I kept thinking about Richmond, Virginia. The massive cemetery where half of the Civil War was buried. The river roaring through the middle of town. The old mansions high on the hill. I had been living for years in the overpopulated, sprawling cities of the Great Eastern Megalopolis, and suddenly it seemed like I had been doing it all wrong. There were other ways.
My summer nights weren’t magical, they were oppressive. The stagnant city heat so brutal that no one could sleep, so we wandered around in a somnambulist stupor down streets indistinct with smoke and industry, the garbage-strewn sidewalks barely illumed by the dying lights of the sputtering metro lamps too old to function for much longer. We drank beer from aluminum cans, hidden in the shadows of the twisted trees overlooking the roar of the interstate freeway entrance. The steady stream of lights from all those speeding cars seemed to know something that we didn’t, escaping one after another unto infinity. It didn’t matter if where they were going was somewhere better. It was somewhere else.
I remember walking with this guy back to my neighborhood. I had just crushed an entire day languishing in a dingy cafe, reading yesterday’s papers, drinking hot coffee despite the heat, swathed in a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, the heavy air barely affected by the incessant rattling of the ceiling fans above. Now it was late and the café was getting ready to close.
I stood up and pushed my seat in and the young man across the room stood up too and asked if I was heading home. We were neighbors, only a few blocks a part, although I didn’t really know him. The truth is I didn’t want to know him. In those days I didn’t really want to know anyone, and that is why I had so few friends. Space and time were all I craved, while the city squeezed in on me from all sides and said we will give you neither.
He had recognized me and asked if I was walking back to the neighborhood. There was no come on about it, it was a long trek, exiting the city center through snaking streets, many closed off thanks to the collapse of abandoned industry, and then upwards across a series of small hills, finally ending where we lived, the dingy old apartment buildings that looking down upon the city that looked down on us.
“Alright then,” I said. “Let’s get going.”
I had to stop at the little bodega first. For a six-pack of Rolling Rock tall cans. I bought one every night. They were the perfect color of pale green, there was the image of a horse on the label, the copy told me that it was for my enjoyment, that it was a tribute to my good taste. There was a mysterious number in quotes, “33,” the age of Christ at the time of his crucifixion, and my age too.
Six tall cans. I called them my green pills. I had to take them to stay sane.
We were passing through the Warehouse District, endless blocks of sealed warehouses storing things we’d never know, their doors chained and locked decades ago, the location of the keys long forgotten. Concrete tombs, not for people, but for things. I was drinking Rolling Rock as I walked, clearly relishing the experience, and he said “You’re not going to offer me one of those?”
I stopped to pull a can from its plastic neck. The streetlight above us sputtered out and died, dropping a wide puddle of shadow all around us. I handed him the can and he popped open the tab and took a foamy sip.
“Pretty good stuff,” he said, wiping his mouth with his wrist.
“This shit is my shit,” I said. “I drink it every night.” I offered out my can which he happily clinked with his, and we both took a long, refreshing gulp. Even at night the humidity was unbearable, but the beer was still cold.
We continued making our way through the empty city in silence until I asked him if he had ever been to Richmond, Virginia.
“No,” he said. “Haven’t been anywhere in Virginia.”
“Me neither,” I said, and I began to tell him what I thought about when I thought about Virgina. He listened. He seemed to agree. Turns out he had some thoughts of his own.
“Whenever I think about Virginia,” he said, “I think of the tops of trees, seen from above. Thousands of trees like a bluish-green carpet, the aerial camera panning in just the right way to fill my heart with a comforting warmth. Virgina is for lovers, they say, and I can feel this just picturing all those trees rolling out to the horizon like a soft wave. The image is not overwhelming like an image of endless nature would usually make me feel, it is as I said a comfort. These trees smell sweet, and collectively it is an ambrosia, they are green and the sky is blue, and I know deep down that I am in love. It doesn’t matter with whom. It doesn’t matter if I am loved back. Virginia is for lovers, Virginia is for me. But where is Richmond in all of this?”
I had the answer.
“Richmond is a very old city rising out of a clearing in between all those endless trees, reaching up into the blue sky above. The highest are the modern buildings, streamlined and reflective. Then come the stone places of worship with their heavenward spires, and finally the stately structures made of wood, ranging from elegant mansions to squat shacks. The long avenues are lined with statues, equestrian statues and statues of generals saluting great achievements, forgotten battles, eternal victories. There is a beautiful, clean river running through the center of the city, and as it passes sloped streets it cascades into rapids, crisp white foam churning while while able-bodied youth astride inner tubes pinball scattershot across the lambent surface toward the downtown below. At night you pedal your bicycle until the wind whips through your hair, free beneath the overhanging branches of secretive old trees. You pass warmly lit porches, jammed with people you’d want to meet. Leaning the bicycle against the silent stone of an ivy-covered wall, you head toward the house and as you climb the creaking wooden steps a figure emerges from the shadows and hands you a bottle of red wine, still cool from the cellar. You’re in Richmond. It’s a very good place.”
“And yet,” he said, “you have never been there, have you.”
“No,” I said. “I have never been there. But I want to.”
We were standing outside of my building now. I only had two cans of Rolling Rock left, hanging from their plastic yoke like dead birds.
“This last one is for you,” I said, yanking free the last can and handing it to him. “Goodnight.”
I unlocked the door and headed up toward the pitch black square at the head of the stairs, into a future that was always arriving but never seemed to come. All I wanted that night was to sleep without dreams and to never dream of Richmond again.
Thank you for reading my letter. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, but lately I just don’t know if it's enough any more.
Write back. I don’t hate you.
She awoke and it was evening. The tape had ended hours ago. The sky was a bruised purple, streaked by chemtrails and sunsetting clouds, the sand had cooled and the beach was nearly empty. The tide was in, the surf boomed and hissed. She got up, dusted herself off, and began to make her way back to the house. She was hungry. She wanted something to eat. She wanted a pen and a notebook. She wanted to write another letter, except this time a real one.
"Emily's World" is excerpted from The New American Novel, a work in progress by Erik Bader. Follow Erik Bader on Twitter @erikbader.