I don’t pray every night, but I probably should. After baths, books, conversation with wife, I usually drift into writing, creating, rearranging words on a screen. Mind a whir, could journey depths until dawn, but the clock of calculation, of sanity, of sacred sleep, tells me to stop. I go into my daughter’s room, turn down her light, I love you, I say to her curled up slumber. I meditate in my son’s room, the sound of his breathing, my pew, my stained glass, my sanctuary. Seated, darkness, air in, carbon dioxide out, first minutes filled with brain bouncing from thought to thought, the earlier, the tomorrow, the could happen. Then sometimes the indescribable now, when I’m nowhere, everywhere, witness to all time, and no time at all. Emerge a short life span later, pray for my colleague, that her malignant tumor retreats, allows life, hers to continue. It feels like I could stay forever, talking to God, to no one, to everyone.
I’m in the backseat, we must be going 75 mph, reverberating Berber music like Salat, ritualistic Islamic prayer with drums, voices, sintir strings plucked, boom from the car’s speakers, permanent Sahara hair dryer heat fills my nostrils. We left Merzouga earlier in the morning, before that, the Atlas Mountains, Azrou, Fez, Tangier. The road is gone, only sand, like after the first inches of snow have fallen. We stop at the edge, no billboards, no little tourist kiosk, nothing, only a thousand miles of granular fragments, beaten down quartz, dolomite, calcite, silica pixels. I touch its wildness, primitive, uncontainable, not a Tonka truck home, not the domesticated box from my childhood backyard, it looms, immense with dry waves of undulating silence. We walk into it one by one, like swimming past the ocean breakers, together, apart. Speechless, it has absorbed our words, sun pulsating, the desert almost asking us to quietly join it, forever. Human shadows elongate, planet rotates, heat ebbs, darkness, then stars. They appear, first one by one, little white births, souls of the night sky. Then a torrent, a blanket of speckled light, countless orbs above, total blackness below. I think of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust, children who died. Never thought much about heaven before, alone, surrounded.
We’re in the Volvo on highway 101 heading to Calistoga, Napa Valley, wine country. The radio and Supertramp have just saved me from his questions. Where do horses come from? Where do cows come from? Where do people come from? My 6-year old son asks. I try to explain evolution. I was a monkey? He wants to know. En route to some easy hiking, then dinner, Indian Springs and their 95-degree thermal pool. We pass acre after acre of grapevines, wineries, and restaurants. Napa, my old adult playground, the place where I was wed. Schramsberg champagne, Storybook zins, the Sterling vineyard aerial tram, the Epcot Center of imbibing.
We hit the trail, balance from rock to rock, avoid the mud. I’m a rock-jumping expert. He says. After the hike, dinner is his favorite, pizza. I drink sparkling water, he has an apple juice. Back at Indian Springs, it is cold with drizzle, I put on a white robe, he throws on his LL Bean fleece, we head to the pool for a night swim. What is that smoke? He asks, staring at the steam. The water is the kind of hot that makes synapses disconnect, that turns a wine buzz into an outer body experience. My son doesn’t know how to swim; we play fight with pool noodles in the shallow end.
I see her tiny feet pitter-pattering by the side of the pool; she looks like a doll with moving legs, her mother is busy with another little girl several yards away. My son and I are the only people in the pool. Out of the corner of my eye I look at the toddler again, maybe thirty feet from us, her body is doing a back dive, head entering the water first. Minutes later I will remember Tim O’Brien’s words from The Things They Carried, just flat fuck fell, describing a guy after he got shot in Vietnam. The little girl was like that, graceful gravity, then submerged. NO, NO, NO, I yell, high hurdling through the foggy water. I get to her seconds after the splash, turn her upright, she’s coughing, spitting up water. The mom hears my shouting, runs from the other side of the pool. She’s been walking by the pool all day, she never came close to the edge, she says. Is that wine on her breath? I wonder. That was an emergency, says my son, barely able to comprehend what just happened. Back in our room I find myself guessing how many minutes the little girl would have been hidden, silent under the water, before her mother figured it out.
I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, the newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged, middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts.
No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.
Manicured ladies in stilettos navigate ancient smooth
stoned pathways, corridors assembled during Roman times.
Their legs, butt cracks, and cleavage pattern the night,
wafts of perfume mingle with the smell of grilled
octopus and cigarettes.
Some cling to tan wrinkled arms
of sugar daddies, men with white chest hairs
attached to fortunes drenched in cologne.
I never visit the island for Gucci or Fendi,
air-conditioned square shops of consumer luxury.
The purring cicadas surrounded by sea
are my siren song, blue water darkening as it journeys
to Tunisia. Pulsating, my calves quiver up and down steps
to Villa Jovis where Tiberius reigned supreme, decadently
tossing the unwanted off cliffs into the watery
chasm of time.
The ruins sit unaffected by sun’s sweat dripping
from my elbows. I rest in pine tree shadows, imagine when
Neruda was here, arranging verse in his head. Away from the glitz,
everything is as it was, as it is, ants, jasmine, laughter
of the old women who were born in Capri,
born by the sea.
I’m on it again, the Facebook, as Zuckerberg first called it,the guy who doesn’t believe in privacy. I’m here with the photos of lunch, landscapes, selfies, the everything, the nothing, on a flat screen, on a computer, on a phone, it notifies me, assures me that I’m not alone, together with all my friends, who I like.
We brag with our images about going to Hamilton, riding on cruise ships, meeting celebrities. We want everyone to know, that we exist, have money, status, are real Americans. Compulsive clicks show we care about the environment, the presidential policies, the status of women, and we do care. We raise funds, promote books, films, cuddly cat videos.
Curated, we pick the best parts, the worst parts, the wars, the almost wars. The screen is our battlefield, our competition, our attention already waning as the electronic ink disappears into the next post, the one that will mean more. We’re here, together in this internet-tethered world of distracted connected humanity, crossing continents, fragmenting minds.