Write about places you have lived, places you know better than anyone else, places in your mind, places you could inhabit, what it means to exist within a place, start with one large room and focus tighter and tighter…whatever place this takes you, follow it. You might not know where you want your story to focus when you start out, or you might start this exercise with the zoomed-in piece of star-matter, only to slide the telescope backwards and realize this moment in context.
Starting with 300 words, each part of the telescope is half the length of the preceding section.
I spend hours on the roof at my host family’s house in Varanasi. The branches of a banyan tree rest next to me like ancient elbows. To my right is the Ganga, in front, a temple. The bells chime constantly; I hear them in my dreams.
Most afternoons my little brother comes up here to fly his kite. Later in the year boys fight with them, strings slashing at each other’s wings, falling to the earth like wounded moths. He jumps from roof to roof. Don’t fall, I scold; this means, I love you.
On the riverbank below are funeral pyres. Being cremated in Varanasi releases Hindus from the cycle of rebirth. Sometimes I go with a friend to watch the burnings; we join the locals, chatting, passing fingerfuls of paan. After a month in the city I begin coughing up black smog. I tell myself that it is car exhaust instead of bodies finally at rest in my lungs.
The Ganga is a deity whose touch is meant to purify. Each morning locals bathe in the river, launder clothes. I have seen the bloated carcass of a cow float past; I have been confronted too with half-burned limbs. This place is not mine to understand.
The water is, they think, what’s killing me. You’re dying, the director of our program says. I am unconcerned. You need to go home, he says. This confuses me. I am.
Before I leave my family covers my arms with mehindi, dyes the bottoms of my feet magenta. A sendoff for a bride. In a sterile US hospital the nurse tries and fails to find a vein. My mother watches, crying. What does this mean, the doctor asks, pointing to the twisting henna. That you were loved; that you were sent far away.
I am with a friend on a sand bar in the middle of the Caribbean. We have come here on her family’s boat to gather sand dollars. A man in their employ is our chauffeur. The sky is reflected on the damp surface of the snow-white sand, a mirror. We walk upon the clouds.
I find a flower-marked round dollar. “Why’s this one grey,” I ask. “It’s still alive,” the man says. I am horrified.
A skiff pulls up and a Bahamian boy disembarks, begins collecting dollars.“They’re destroying their ecosystem,” the man says, smug. I do not point out the impact of our leisure, of the man’s daily trophy fishing. He is angry because what the locals take he cannot steal from them. As we walk back to the boat I leave behind the corpses I’ve collected. I hope the boy sells them, rips off righteous tourists.
One summer evening my grandfather leads me and my brother up the mountain at his farm. He leaves us to check on some fences. Stay here, he says. As the light falls I take my brother’s hand. Finally he returns, guides us down the summit in the dark. He praises us for our loyalty. When he was dying my grandmother waited outside the operating room for thirty hours, wide awake, knitting prayers between her fingers.
I want to know a body the way I know the way around my house when I return at night. The native smells, hands brushing familiar surfaces; the inevitability of finding rest. The sense of coming home.
“maggy and milly and molly and may went down to the beach(to play one day) and maggie discovered a shell that sang so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles
I. I spend an hour planning the logistics, writing down numbers in thin black ink on the back of my Pre-Algebra quiz. It would begin at midnight. I’ll sneak out, take the bus downtown, and spend the night at my friend’s house. I can bring only the bare necessities. A few sweaters, two turkey sandwiches, my piggy bank, and the crumpled up twenty-dollar bills hidden in my socks.
I’ll leave my friend’s at dawn, walk to the train station, and spend my quarter collection on a train ticket to Connecticut. Once I arrive, I’ll walk to my parent’s old house. This walk will take roughly forty-five minutes, but I figure I can do it if I ask for directions. At the house, I’ll have to figure out a way to get in. I could steal the key, but I can’t give my parents any hints. I need to disappear completely. I think, if I try, I can get in through the kitchen window. Once I’m in, I’ll have a few hours, maybe even a day, to figure out where I can go next.
I suppose I could spend a few days at Tod’s Point. I’ll bring some blankets, sleep by the beach, and eat the French fries from the stand that is there during the summer. I wonder if it’ll be there in November. I hope so. If it gets too cold, I’ll start making my way South. I don’t know where, but I’d like to be near the water. I think that people who live by the water are probably happy people; they’ll help me. I fold the quiz in half and tuck it inside my backpack, yawning. I fall asleep and dream of the ocean; I am sitting on a dock. I lean forward to dip my toe in the water. I wake up, surprised at how cold it is.
and milly befriended a stranded star whose rays five languid fingers were; and molly was chased by a horrible thing which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:
II. It’s all about luck. They’re not always there. It has to do with the currents or the moon or something. I’ve only seen them once, when I was ten, but I can’t sleep and maybe tonight is the night. I tiptoe out, making sure not to wake my parents up. The air is hot and sticky and I brush away mosquitos; Tita says they bite me because my blood is sweet. I make my way through the jungle, carved out by people who live here for people who don’t live here. The sand is cold and my feet sink in deeper and deeper as I make my way to the water. I wait for a wave to crash and run in. The current pulls back. Tiny stars swirl around me and I move around in circles, splashing and thrusting my hands in as I try to grab them. I close my eyes, floating and buoyant in a sea of luminescent phytoplankton. When I open them, I can’t tell which is the sky and which is the water and where I am in between.
and may came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone.
III. We sit on a rock, arms slightly touching and small waves lapping our bare feet. I’ve always liked this place, I say. He nods and I watch him and I wonder if I love him, I don’t know. We sit in silence and I imagine the rock breaking in half. The part I am sitting on detaches and drifts off.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) its always ourselves we find in the sea.”
– e.e. cummings
I. There’s a place on Route 66 folks out west don’t talk about. Somewhere between coming, going, and a turn too many. The tin-can tourists who used to burn across Kansas dragging Shastas and tired dreams of revolution knew it well. Some say it’s been around since as far back as the ‘30s, when farmers would drive through a billow of dust only to emerge on the other side and find themselves there. Others say the place is long gone, vanished in the renovations of ’85, swallowed by the backroads. But a careful ear can still catch whispers of it. Drivers hunched in booths late at night letting their coffee go cold, murmuring of the mapless place and the toll you pay for finding it. Don’t ever forget where you’re headed, they warn. That’s how it starts. A wrong turn. A missed exit. A map left at home. The road slithers out ahead of you, too long, too empty, and then you see it, blooming on the horizon. A solitary filling station. The pumps long dry.
The old man who sits outside will wave you down, pushing up the brim of his hat. He’ll ask if you’re lost, if you need directions. Then he’ll smile, tell you he can set you back on course, but not before you stay for a drink and a game.
II. A checkerboard on top of a wooden box, the squares scuffed, worn. That’s what you’ll remember next. The old man smiles across at you, his leathery hands tapping the pieces against the board as he lays them in neat rows. He’ll play red. He always does.
You notice his eyes. They gleam, smooth and reflective, like a snake’s. The red of the desert shines back at you as you search for a pupil.
The old man clears his throat. He says he’d like to make a bet. A game’s no game without a winner. Beat him, and he’ll send you on your way. You start playing before you can remember what you’ve offered.
III. Gravel clangs against the fender as you drive off. The old man waves you on, the wooden box on his lap, the checkerboard leaning against the slatted wood wall. He tips his hat and grins warmly. As you wave back, he opens the lid of the box and drops something inside. That’s when you see it.
IV. The box is full of faces.
I. I was living in the most contentious city in the world and I was completely carefree. While everyone else read about the latest Palestinian terrorist attack on a bus stop or berated Israeli citizens for continued occupation of the West Bank, I sat at my favorite café in Jerusalem’s city center sipping a non-fat cappuccino, raw brown sugar artfully sprinkled atop the foam. I was more concerned about whether I should order the Israeli breakfast or the French toast. Even at the epicenter of the conflict it felt faraway, like hearing about a fatal drunk driving accident at the neighboring high school. I’ve realized that the violence ebbs and flows in an almost predictable pattern, and maybe I’m naïve, but I know enough not to ask my friends that live there whether they’re doing okay.
Walking around the city didn’t feel like a death wish; I wasn’t scared of an ambush attack while waiting for the light-rail, and didn’t consider the possibility of a suicide bomber on my bus rides to Tel Aviv. I’d walk around at night without a second thought, bracing myself for catcalls from lecherous men but not for the next intifada. Life was good in Jerusalem—being there, you can’t let the the fear of potential terror affect the way you live.
Our dorms were two light-rail stops away from Palestinian East Jerusalem and three from Mahane Yehuda, the famous outdoor marketplace. Maybe my experience of the country is different than the world’s perception of it because I went to the market exponentially more times than I did East Jerusalem. I still don’t know what it’s like for them, living as strangers in a land they call home. But I do know that Jerusalem is my home too, a city known for its blood and strife but also for fresh vegetables and gooey chocolate rugelach on a Friday afternoon.
II. We filed out of the van one by one, drunkenly stumbling into the throng of men who had too much cologne and too little tact. I nudged my way to the front, which is one of my talents, flashing my California ID and handing the bouncer a 50 shekel note. They always told us American girls wouldn’t have trouble getting through.
In our inebriated state, we didn’t question the two or three escalators it took to get to our destination. Inside, the bass thumped in time with our heartbeats, hyped up on adrenaline from the excitement of seeing old friends and dancing with new ones. At the end of the night the DJ played “CoCo” and I Shazammed it because in my impaired judgment I thought it was a quality song. It was impossible to leave a Tel Aviv club without dripping in sweat, but it justified the cereal we would scarf down before passing out in our beds.
III. I’ve lived in Israel three separate times and I’m still not perfectly fluent in Hebrew. I wish I were but Israelis make it so hard. They all speak English as soon as they detect my egregious American accent. Sometimes I would insist, ordering a meal or conversing with my taxi driver in Hebrew, but more often than not I just didn’t make the effort. I would be more bitter about this, but at least I passed out of Princeton’s language requirement.
IV. Two of my best friends are in the Israeli army voluntarily. When they made this decision everyone congratulated them, including me, but to be honest I’m not sure whether it’s something to be admired.
I. It’s fine to call at three a.m. because for you it’s morning. We promised we would never do this to each other. You promised me too many things. I won’t fall in love with you, I swore. I crossed my fingers behind my back and kissed you. The day before I left we stood on your veranda as the sun came up across the Thames, two bodies ponderous with dread. You held your head in your hands and did not look at me. This is a damned and bloody foolish thing, you said. When you cry your eyelashes become dark and clotted; pink blotches grow across your watercolor cheeks like flowers covering a grave. You cannot go, you said. A week before I’d almost thrown my passport off a bridge. Three days before I left my parents called while I was with you in bed. Did you buy a ticket home yet, they asked. Yes, I lied. On the plane coming back I thought that we would die. I always do. I wrote you a letter, almost sent it. Someday. The other night a tall blond boy instructed me to Loosen up because I wouldn’t dance with him. I thought about invoking You, this semi-mythical creature from across the sea. He has tentacles and snapping teeth, I’d say. He calls in young maidens from the shore; they die for him. A few Sundays ago I drank a bottle of Champagne with St. Germain, in broad daylight with my friends, and suddenly was with you in some foreign place, your house at four in the afternoon, post-sex pre-cooking dinner in our underwear, the scent of elderflower on your fingers as you dragged them through my hair, drawing furrows, to plant something deep within us that still lives.
II. We meet in Switzerland, Neutral ground, the boy claims, half-joking. I book separate rooms at a hotel where my grandparents stayed during their honeymoon.
I ask the manager if I can see their guest records. He stiffens. From sixty years ago, I clarify. He beams. He points out those of historical significance—famous men, men who formed the world, who started wars. I am here to find the ones who made me.
I find their names in the book—“Mr. & Mrs.”—was it thrilling, to write that for the first time? The year was 1953. The Europe they had known was slowly rising from the dust.
When I am with the boy I think about the cities that they visited—Vienna, Florence, Lisbon. Places he and I have been. I wonder if they saw the same things we did, if they loved each other. If I still love him.
III. It is five a.m. in Barcelona and we crawl into the ocean. The girls wear ball gowns; the boys, tuxedos. The water is dangerously frigid. I get out and beg them to follow. “We’re going to die,” I urge. Do they not know? I think about it all the time. The sun is rising at the world’s edge, drowning us in gold. “We’re dying,” I remind them. They laugh, continue floating in the waves.
IV. I’ve been across the world without you; there are a thousand places I would like to share. But mostly, this: my dorm room here at Princeton, early morning, in the moments before I realize you are gone.
3 Places That May Or May Not Exist
Since I started college, I’ve come back home a total of 14 times. The route’s always the same, a series of train rides spent watching barren industrial vistas slowly sprout trees as I leave New Jersey and enter Connecticut. I always end up in the same garage, greeted by the same family, more or less—my younger brother maybe having gained or lost a girlfriend, my dog’s stomach mogulled by a few more benign lumps—but the home itself is never exactly the same place. It’s still the place that we, our first week on the east coast, built a fire in August’s sticky heat, because for the first time we had a fireplace to build one in; the place, years later, I drank too much for the first time and where my dad peeled the contacts from my unconscious eyes later that night; the place my friends and I snuck outside in a snowstorm in our various underwear to go hottubbing, our torsos flecked with snow and shivering, our legs submerged in a shared warmth. I took those memories with me when I left home. I bring them back when I return too, expecting them to fall back into place, to find only that they no longer fit—I am unable to square my memories with the home I return to. Maybe they change shape while I’m away, morphing and distorting until only I can recognize them, or maybe my home has merely shrunk in my absence. That’s what my bed always seems to do, my time away measured not by how many days I was gone but by how much more my feet dangle off its edges. I am still a growing boy, grown past the confines of my youth. How little of me the past can bear.
I step off the dinky late on a Sunday night, dark and wet, back from break, and think: this home isn’t all that different from the other one. The same overly pretty trees, grown slightly more barren and yellow while I was away; the same yuppie-ass main street with the same shops, the same shoppers; the same assignments I still haven’t finished yet. It’s like in those cheap ‘60s cartoons, about a cat doomed to chase but never catch a mouse—they run forever, past the same infinitely repeating bushes, rocks, and trees, bushes, rocks, and trees. Until we pan back, and the whole thing is revealed to be an illusion, a treadmill placed in front of a rotating backdrop, the universe rendered finite for lack of imagination. I want to pan back on the world until I’m sure it’s not printed on cheap paper, hiding somewhere real behind it.
Back in my room, I shut off the light and open my computer. How many times have I sat in darkened rooms like this one, seeing nothing beyond the dim glow of the screen, unmoored from space? Times like these, I feel like I might be nowhere. No—I’m everywhere all at once, my homes and the places I have left them for, and the place I’ve carved within me, a home I never left.
When I try to list the names I can no longer call myself I realize these relate mostly to spaces. Places I have forsaken, places I no longer have any claim over. The strongest of these is my old ballet studio. I return to it often in my mind, when I think about what aspects of myself I’ve given up, since these aspects often correspond with places I can no longer go.
My old ballet studio was not particularly beautiful, though it could be in the early mornings. There always seemed something strangely precarious about the building. The third floor of 218 South Wabash should have stopped existing a while ago, I think. The instructors often left the doors closed so our parents couldn’t watch, though sometimes they peered through the windows. The building wasn’t crumbling, exactly. The elevator stalled. Junebugs crawled through the hallways, jumped off exercise balls. In Studio A, we negotiated around weird pipes that stuck out in the middle of the studio floor like stalagmites, like rogue dancers out of formation.
One Friday night someone interrupted my teacher to tell her that the building was on fire. How bad? There was no fire alarm. My dad and sister picked me up from where I stood across the street, shaking; my dad drove us to Ed Debevic’s so I could get a milkshake as consolation. The Tribune suspected arson. The Ed Debevic’s closed in September; new apartment buildings took its place.
The El stop at the corner of Madison and Wabash no longer exists, and neither does my old ballet studio. A few years ago I rode up the elevator to the old ballet school building to see if I could take an open class and found Obama’s campaign headquarters there instead.
I live about a three-minute walk from my old house in Chicago. I used to read in the car on the way home from ballet so it took me until I could walk to the El alone to understand exactly how close these two places are. When decorating the old house, my mother befriended a muralist who painted a night sky on my bedroom ceiling, a tide-pool next to my bed. When I was young I would imagine the room filling with water but that I could still breathe, imagine myself swimming through the closets and dining rooms, the sunken, narrow hallways. The house transformed but still present. When I go on runs around my neighborhood I pass by my old house and wonder if it might recognize me, a sweating, stretched-out version of myself. I’m too cowardly to knock so I stare and wheeze from across the street.
Pompeii. The Library of Alexandria. Austria-Hungary. Blockbuster. The Aral Sea. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Disney’s River Country. Fun Park Fyn. The Hippodrome. Pennsylvania Station. Every New York City sublet. The Original Mitchell’s Diner on Clybourn. The movie theatres on State and Lake. Limited Too. Studio 54. The bedrooms of other people. The Firestone Holden Room. Frick Lab. The fire escape of 231, 1937 Hall. My memories displace themselves. Everything is still happening there still, just somewhere else.
I walk through the invisible hallways, press my hand against their wavering outlines. Nothing stays. I might’ve left things behind, who knows. When I no longer have the right to these places, can I still collect—?
I stand at the familiar bus stop a few blocks away from my house, waiting for the 164 to take me into the city. The buses are always full of stale air and they are prone to getting caught in traffic leading up to the tunnel, but the bus is cheaper than the train, and at least I don’t have to transfer in Secaucus. I can have an uninterrupted fifty minutes or so to just sit there, eyes closed, music turned all the way up past what’s healthy, loud enough for the thumping in my ears to continue long after I’ve turned it off.
I’m alone at the stop; it’s late enough in the morning to be past the peak rush of commuters. I stare down at my boots, examining them, worrying the lingering wetness of last night’s rain on the sidewalk will seep into my feet. I glance back up as I hear the screech of brakes. I peer into the cars as they line up, waiting for the light to change. A few drivers use the pause to fix their hair or check their phones, while some sit in silence; as soon as the light flashes to green I’m alone again. Everyone’s going somewhere, like me.
Kids walk down the street in small packs toward the middle school. My middle school, once. I avert my eyes and stare down at my phone as they pass. Middle-schoolers scare me more than I’d like to admit. Why aren’t any of these children experiencing that awkward phase that I so painfully endured for all of middle school? That I’m still enduring? I hear something large making its way down the street, and I wait expectantly. But still no bus. Instead a landscaping truck rolls by, and I can smell the fertilizer.
My music’s on shuffle but I skip until something by the Beatles. I stretch out my legs, trying to get comfortable. The sound fills my ears and I drift into sleep.
When I’m in the middle of a dream, stay in bed, float upstream…
I float through Glen Rock, Fair Lawn, Saddle Brook, the passengers slowly trickling in; when I open my eyes again, the bus is full and we’re now in Secaucus, heading toward the tunnel.
Keeping an eye on the world going by my window…
I realize I’ve had the same song on repeat since I boarded the bus. I look out at the highway, orienting myself via the towns I slept through, the familiar sights I must’ve passed. The soft watercolor of suburbia gradually gives way to the crisp lines of the city. I see a billboard I’ve never noticed before. “We Buy Ugly Houses,” it says.
There’s traffic, of course. Where ru, the friend I’m meeting texts me. Where am I? In Secaucus. In traffic. On a bus. I feel I’m nowhere, really, in that moment. I’m stuck in limbo, trapped between Ridgewood and New York, where I was and where I’m going. We creep forward, progressing in inches. I pass the time by looking into the tinted windows at passengers on the other buses. Where do they want to be?
My personal hell would look something like the Port Authority—too crowded, too poorly organized—but better hell than limbo. My phone buzzes. Find me outside. Eighth Avenue is full of strangers, so I’ll have to look hard.