TALES OF AN ORANGEPEELER
an archive of pleasures, wounds, sublimations
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02.02.08, saturday evening
I return to past houses again and again, re-building them as faithfully as possible. Faith is malleable. I didn't understand this for years, so many years, too many years. Now I return, again and again, to remember another detail recovered by the distance of a transatlantic flight, an elegant phrase in a book, the unexplainable color of the sky when the sun hangs at a certain point on a certain day of the year. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit describes her childhood house, how "awnings, eaves, and patio roof prevented sunlight from reaching in directly to this place made of formica and tile and linoleum and dark green wall-to-wall carpeting with a nap like aerial photographs of forests."
I put the book down, the pages resting over my lungs, where my breath begins, and I remember a bedroom in southeast San Diego, in a house that overlooks a busy road. When the windows are open, all you hear is traffic, so the windows are never open, so that when no one else is home, it is as silent as the silence inside a closed mouth. At night, a street lamp pours florescent light around the vertiginous fir outside my window and through the slatted blind, so that a solid column of shadow falls over my bed, a phantom intruder or a lover on another night in the suburbs.
The fir sways; the shadow sways; more shadows sway, with names learned painstakingly: oak, beech, sycamore, aspens, ash, eucalyptus.
Eucalyptus. That reminds me of Berkeley, of short BART train trips heading north to a split level house on a hill, surrounded by more hills and houses on those hills.
The house is very ordinary, full of ordinary things, some beautiful. There is a cat, a lovely and disdainful grey Persian, and a dog, a smelly droopy-bellied dog that whines and leans against your thigh if you forget to scratch him. Upstairs I lie next to Rini, who throws her arm around me so fiercely, I am breathless. A beautiful teenage girl, all big hair and plum lips, grins in photos. This girl laughs with abandon, tells stories from the emergency room, marries in late September before the leaves could begin their seasonal descent. There are always parties in this house, so that every room teems with the memories of doctors, researchers and medical students; everyone is full, full on stories, full on the copious amounts of food Rini's mother always made with such pleasure. If only I had as much pleasure when I wrote, I think. One day the dog dies from old age, and the cat stares at the spot where the dog used to lie on at night.
In the garden of another house nearby, blankets have been laid on the damp lawn. The evening before the wedding is cool and blue-green in the way I imagine northern California. As Sohini dances, undulating shadows drift across the party, mingling among the guests in their handsome clothes. Ice cubes clink, on the verge of melting in that tremulous second, when the memory of that last note quivers. How my friends and I have leaped from heartbreak to heartbreak, held each other through rough seas, argued and made up many times over. The new year comes before I can remember this night again; already things are changing; already someone else, someone beloved, is pregnant.
Why dance in darkness? Why have rites? Why share significant moments with loved ones? Why write and re-write every memory? I write not only to celebrate, but to measure my relationship by a careful consideration of tenses, the sacrifice of an easily arrived word, the avoidance of sentimentality and false nostalgia. Be vigilant with the truth, for it is a strange pact a writer makes with the past, to bind herself even more inextricably to all the places and relationships that have transformed her, for better and worse.