Saturday, October 31, 2009

Abrasive


“Alors,” I hear her through the vent between the rooms. She punctuates her speech with Alors, the voice so shrill and ebullient that I’m grateful for this stabilizing sound. Alors. In my technical cave I am out of sight. I hear their maladroit stutters in French, their scribbling in notebooks, pro forma. But they cannot see me. They are playing a song, once, twice, five times. The tune catches and my eye is now grabbing through the vent, trying to see the name of the song. Is it written anywhere? I listen to the lyrics: la liste des choses que je veux faire avec toi. Google is my friend. Thirty seconds and I have it, playing silently in my Youtube. Je sais je suis trop na├»ve... La-la-la. I’ve a new obsession. I play on repeat until my shift is over.

A screen is all I know. The world becomes a display that flickers, a skirmish between eye and fancy. You should get out more, I tell myself half-heartedly. But it’s just like Bill’s plans, Bill’s myriad plans that are consummate chimeras, theoretical unlikelyhoods. So I sit here and build platonic solids out of white card, stick the tape on the inside for neat effect, and I think of all the stuff I’d do if I were not pinned, by noxious infrastructure, to this chair. How I wish that we were given education for the body as we are given education for the mind. It seems to be education for the butt, actually. An endurance test. How many hours can we sit down and listen. How many years. I am being schooled in liberal arts and I think that what I am performing best at is Sitting. My diploma will attest that I graduated summa cum sitting, which is to say that I’ve spent so much time fastened to a chair that I deserve to be praised.

And they ask why I will not hear of grad school.

Stories are fugitive, skeletal. They shine for a moment and then leave me, inchoate, and I unable to keep up with the pace of reality I wither in my cocoon and go back to the computer, where all my work is. Work that others give me to do. How much more work is there to do in the world? If I stay up all night, will I finish it? Will I be free then from this enslavement to the screen? I feel myself softening, caving in like a paper in water. Detrition builds. When this extrinsic reduction becomes intolerable there will be fracture and depression and drama. Then, I will start up again. My story is in want of moderation. But there can be no temperance in a world where there is so much sitting. Have a seat, she says, and breathlessly I retort that I would rather stand, so she looks at me as if she finds me odd. How could she guess that I am going mad. How could anyone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On Target


This is my new dalliance. Sunday mornings, when the dorms shudder with snores of indolent students and the churches swarm with the promptness of the pious, I go to Target. The first time I went to the Target in Macon I was indirectly repelled, because at checkout I read on the cover of People magazine that Britney Spears loves to shop at Target. But they did have cheap m&ms, which always lulls me. I did not return, however, until it dawned on me that it stood a nice bike ride away. Just demanding enough to leave you short of breath on scorching summer mornings, when the hills of Edna Place swell up into ever viler monsters that must be defeated, always lower gears and aching knees and never resignation.

So the circle and dot is today part of my weekly program. I am already familiar with the museography and know where to find each thing. I conduct myself through the isles with the grace of mermaids, for I feel quite at home in there as if it were my private cave. I try on things, which normally bores me to death. But Sunday morning the fitting rooms are empty and lonely, so I put on ridiculous garments and waltz solo along the corridor between the rooms like a harlequin. Nobody’s there to see me.

In theory I don’t buy anything. But invariably I end up picking something off a shelf and paying for it, something insubstantial like tea or, yes, m&ms. Partly I find it unsatisfactory to leave a store empty-handed, and I’m well aware that I don’t need things, but given that I’d like things, a transaction has to occur, however small.

But this Sunday I ended up going home with a blue sweater. A baby blue boucle sweater (if you were a fabric-fetishist like I am you would know what boucle is and how fantastically warm it is) for which I will not justify myself, suffice to say that I wanted it. Arriving to my palace-dorm room with three closets, however, and opening one of them to be drowned by my overflowing collection of vestures, I had to recant. The blue sweater had to go back.

As I drove to Target in my blue car, the blue sweater slouched poignantly in the passenger seat, I thought titillating things. I have never returned anything before. The solicitousness in retail, peculiar to America only, makes me stand in awe. Diffidence has kept me from taking advantage of these unprecedented paths until now. So here I stand, before two women who are folding things without particular enthusiasm, declaring proudly that I want to return a blue sweater. One of them calls me with an outstretched arm. I remove the despondent creature from the plastic bag and hand it to her. “Way too blue for me,” I offer. She chuckles, and so does the other woman. She asks me how I want my refund processed. I answer. The other woman catches my accent and asks at once: “Where’ you from?” Always amusing, the reactions that “Romania” educes. “Wow...” Both remain dreamy for a full second, surveying me like I’m a brochure for exotic holiday destinations. “Do you like it here?” she asks me, and happy to know the right answer to this one I rejoin “Sure! What’s there not to like?” “Yay!” one of them says and the two of them rejoice, that I’ve validated their homeplace with my European sacred seal, that I’ve deemed their country more appealing than my own to live in.

And this reminded me, so painfully, of a scene in Belk some three months ago, mother and I at the register paying for the matryoshka set of suitcases that she got, making smalltalk with the two boys who worked there. They asked us where we were from, mother’s verbal presence making it so much more difficult to camouflage my foreignness, and we told them. It was exactly the same reaction, a dreamy “Wow...” and wanderlust wafting in their eyes. It made me think about Steinbeck’s conversations with people he meets along his Travels with Charley odyssey, locals who tell him that they’d like to “go” too. And the child who begs him to take him along, cozens that he’ll earn his ride cleaning and cooking and whatever need may be. Such were the two boys at Belk looking at us as if we were Martians, asking us with their eyes to take them along, wherever we’d go, promising they’d earn their fares. “I want to go to Romania,” one of them said seriously, and then mother said something that was silly and gratuitous and displeased me: “You will, someday.” Like one of those things they say at the end of mawkish movies. I wish she hadn’t said it. The boy will probably not travel anywhere farther than Mexico, and if his possibilities should expand he’d surely choose something more “occidental” than godforsaken Romania. Well, so much for dreamy youths.

We spoke at length, Maria and I last year, about poor students, mostly black, who don’t know to point Europe on a map, who don’t know what the capital of Iceland is, like we do. We – who can do math and speak in full sentences, we who every winter fly home on tickets bought by parents. The smart ones, the internationals. We scoff at them, they who remain in the ignorance in which they are born, such degage criticism we offer.

But really, when is one supposed to learn geography when working at Target, folding things all day to feed how many, perhaps, as many as our extended families in Romania. Ignorance not chosen but rather borne, like a cross, while in the background imagined journeys and remote dreams smolder away. Is this not what movies are for, simulated adventures for the poor, the busy, the overworked or the demure. For the people who work at Target or Belk, who sleepwalk home at night with one wish: to sit the hell down. Unreasonable? I don’t think I’d want to open a book either, or study a map. I think I’d like to space out for a while, maybe stare into a screen that tells me nothing intellectual, and hit the reset button on myself so I can live through another day. That’s what I’d like to do if I spent my life folding things. And the highlight of my day would be a girl with an outlandish accent who’d bring back all the chimeras I’ve worked to silence. She’d tell me how great it is to live in the States and I’d avow how I’ve warped things into gloomy, how it’s not so bad after all, especially since a European says so. And out of the blue, under grayscale October sky, the day’s a little brighter.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Ride


It always comes down to weather. Moody, you’d call me, but actually it’s only echolalia of nature, this is what I’m made of. Build, therefore, your own world, Emerson exhorts and so I do. Today’s gray but not rainy, still but not bleak, chilly but not harsh. It looks like it’s ready for something to happen, something of note. So we wait. There’s that smell in the air, that heavy smell that The Toad told me was from a paper plant nearby and Bill told me it’s what Georgia clayey soil smells like in a sitting pond. Balo told me that she always thought it smelled like the garbage they forgot to take out. It’s perception that drives the schism between people, unconditional loyalty to our own symbolism what exacerbates these rifts. What smells to me like odyssey smells to you like gasoline that’ll take you to the mall. What smells to you like garbage smells to me like vespertine walks along the Ocmulgee river, at length expatiating on how unbecoming it is for Otis Redding’s statue not to have any eyeballs, and promising that I will fashion him some out of bubble gum. “I won’t let you do that,” you said solemnly and I, defending the argument, “But he’d be able to see us!”

Yesterday, since it was deliciously autumnal outside, I beseeched Nemesis (since we’ve developed a species of friendship I decided she must have a name) to take me on a ride to Lake Tobesofkee, at least that was the plan, a tour originally mapped for 70k which ended up reduced to 50, for reasons that I find somewhat humiliating. As a parenthesis, my firm-framed friend has been named after the goddess that delivered the reckoning for arrogance to the Greeks. She replicates this image quite well, for more than once I’ve seen her rehabilitated in the eyes of other bikers who had illusions of outspeeding, since she’s only a mountain bike after all, and not a fancy one either. She has been goaded, on occasion, to keep presumptuous drivers in check too, especially those who want to turn right on a red light and surmise, naively, that she’s not part of traffic. This reminds me: I’ve got to get a horn. All things considered, I’ve found Nemesis a fitting name, for other mythological reasons as well, but I won’t burden this story with them, especially since I think there are some things that ought to remain between my bike and me.

So I went, westward past the interstate, where the road narrows and climbs steadily, then climbs steeply, and what I wouldn’t give for a bike lane sometime, a little ribbon of asphalt that’s all mine. But this is Macon, after all. Further up, the road is edenic, with orchards on each side, miniature farms and tractors, and yes, a kid doing stunts on a scooter in his back yard. Hardly any traffic at all on a Saturday morning this far from the city. People are gorging themselves at Chick-fil-a, out for a movie at Amstar, having brunch at Starbucks, leaving this marvel to me, all to me, and how I jubilate and chant for universal shallowness. Following the map in my head I count the imaginary miles, more going downhill than uphill, since when I’m climbing I have a hard time focusing on anything else than trigonometry. These hills of Macon are such nuisances sometimes, as they worm their way onto the surface of the earth in a demented sinusoid that drains and drains, my shirt wet before I’m even 10 miles into the trip.

So at this point, where at the top of an agonizing hill I find deliverance in a road sign saying “Estes,” where is where I’m supposed to turn, I realize, like a fugitive flash of intelligence, that I can well hear the chain of the bike. Now, from my scarce experience with these animals I know this to be inauspicious, much like doing a headstand and hearing my back cracking, that’s when I know that I should stretch more often. Then I remember, an epiphanic flashback, that I never oiled this bike, and that I adopted it following a long period of idleness in Bill’s sunroom. Knowing Bill and how much he actually applies all the activities he plans, I’m not sure in fact whether the bike has ever been oiled. So here the mystery is elucidated, why it’s so hard to pedal, why I feel life squeezed out of me with every hill, and as I palpate the viscera of my Nemesis (so fitting the name just now) and my hand’s still clean, grease consummately absent, desperation enters.

Pulled over I muse, study my map, quickly improvise a shortened version of the trip, not considering for a minute going back, for I’m sure living with myself after such a failure would be impossible. So I climb on, chain parched and plaintive, but this Estes Road is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and I forget all about my distress. Sun sifted through the trees, corrugated patterns on the grass. And a horse, two horses grazing, not even looking up as I pass with all my mechanical noise, they are in their own world and this space has no place for me, I’m merely a peripatetic observer, and even if I wanted to stop I could not.

After Estes reality is nauseating, busy thoroughfare with rushed drivers. And a dog! Yes, halfway up I see a dog sauntering toward me, quite an exotic character around these places. The traveler is a Pit bull and I’m going uphill on a thirsty bike, so precaution advises me to proceed on the other side of the road for a while. We pass each other, he seems to consider me and dismiss me as part of the landscape. Cars honk insanely as they see the itinerant animal and finally, someone elicits more traffic noise than me. On the same road a mattress leans against a mailbox, covered in flies, and I really can’t help but stop for photos. I’m goaded by a similar image later on, but quickly rebuffed by canine guards, so I snap one fast before their raucous threats turn into action.

There was a point when I actually considered giving Bill a call, a casual call to check if he’s around, if maybe he feels like driving a little out of town, where, oh nearby, nearby, not far at all, and it’s not that I’m in trouble but I’d really like you to see this route I’m taking, so bucolic, and maybe... give me a lift? And it’s right at this moment, providence and her sleight of hand, that a troupe of race bikers passes me. I know that they do this on Saturday mornings, but I didn’t imagine I’d run across them like this, so nakedly, at the intersection of Maynard Mill and Shi, when I’m in such an unflattering position and they’re so fast, and polyester-clad – some topless – and lofty somehow, going downhill at the speed of light, a flock of birds in full flight. Twelve of them perhaps, pedaling compact, and as they pass me they ask, each one of them, if I’m all right. And I, holding my camera which I’ve produced I don’t remember why, probably as an excuse to stop, nod reassuringly and pretend everything’s fine although it’s not, the chain getting drier with every mile and it’s palpable, especially in my thighs that scream with horror at what I’m doing to them. But for this fraction of a second, while they pass, everything will be just fine, I will look contemplative and impossibly fresh-looking, and they’ll have something to talk about as they continue downhill.

Coincidentally that’s my path too, Shi Road that is, so I blast after them and as I discover it’s all downhill, steep hills that anybody’d be downright crazy to climb in the opposite direction, so I slide with my brake pressed hard and still I fly. But well, these Southern lands are treacherous and whenever there’s a reprieve I know that there’ll be hell to pay later. And this happens soon, on Zebulon, where hills get the last sap of me, sometimes stepping out of the saddle and wondering if I’m dead or alive. Photos are no longer in the program. And still, there’s a mailbox in the shape of a school bus, so I have to stop for a minute to get that on film, and before I depart two bikers pass, struggling with the rough climb I’m descending, a he and a she. He, in the lead, salutes and smiles and I respond. She is behind and I wait for her to pass me, eager to say hello since she’s the first female biker I’ve laid eyes on in Macon, but catching sight of me she speeds up, visibly clenched on the bike and fierce to catch up with her man, and she does not so much as glance in my direction, even though I’m three feet from her. It’s OK, I tell her in my mind, women don’t usually like me. I’m not upset. But in reality I’m bothered.

It doesn’t matter how I got home, does it? In truth, it was one of those trances that we wheedle our bodies into, to go on automatic pilot while our mind meanders through other places. That’s how it was. The pain’s all gone now, after a good night’s sleep of seven hours, a royal treatment for me, really. Oil the fucking bike, a green post-it says. But now the world of Java awaits again, weekends crumpled into dialog with a compiler that argues with me about syntax and makes me want to pull my hair out, which occasionally I do. All this code, I loathe it. And even if you’re there to tell me what to do, to bring equanimity to my dementia, to give me a saintly hand out of quicksand, code is still something I suffer through, like purgatory, which I’ve the power to curtail at any moment, yet I don’t. With Java I feel dead. With Nemesis I feel alive. That’s just me and, don’t I know, it’s high time I stopped betraying both with this specious stagecraft.