Meditations from the first days of a blank new life.
I looked at all my things laid out in front of me and felt a sense of wonder at how they painted the picture of my life. Three suitcases played out on K’s reading room floor. A sea of black, white, and red fabric, my pots and pans, my kitchen knife, my favorite wooden spoon stained yellow from turmeric, the camera I bought for my trip to Istanbul, a notebook with the saddest love letter I ever wrote inside, another notebook with the plot of my next novel inside, two bottles of fountain pen ink -one red,one black- a pair of my father’s old surgical scrubs that remind me of the smell of hospital and orange and cedar cologne. I’d give a lot to know what scent my father wore. I’ve never known the name. It comes in a dark green glass bottle more elegantly tapered than Ralph Lauren Polo. The nozzle is gold. The cap is square and crystal-cut to reflect the light. My mother bought it for him in Belgium, when I was 7. There are notes of smooth cedar, vetiver, of tobacco and neroli. I know I couldn’t afford it even if I found it. I don’t want to buy it. I want to find it again one day so I can remember with certainty what it felt like to be eight and nine and ten standing next to my father at his monstrously large bathroom mirror, feet cold on the marble floor, as he put on his cufflinks and then one quick spritz of the only other scent I associate with him besides a hospital surgical suite.
I’m on a plane, and when it descends I will look out the window onto a place I’ve never been, and there my life and many of its secrets will be laid out before me, occluded only by time. I know that it will be beautiful, because it will be new, and in new places the anxiety that plagues me on a nearly constant basis fades. I don’t know why. It’s as if the facts of solving the problems of daily living in a place where I do not understand the language is medicine enough. Or maybe it’s that Americans are so chronically stressed that I get swept away in our communal cultural panic. Or maybe I’m just a better expat than Oregon local, and I’m finally beginning to learn what makes me happy; sunlight, outdoor markets, good produce, genuine people others might call rude.
I am new and strange here in a deeper way than I’ve ever been, new in a culture, new in a language, new in a world that people keep telling me is my own. My father was a Jew, but I have off-kilter views about God, and I was not raised very Jewish. I resent it. Losing understanding of my culture and heritage was one of the things that ended up making my life very difficult for a while.
Looking back, I see that my mother resented my father’s Judaism. I didn’t know until I began the process of moving here that he was close with his Rabbi, or that he went to Temple regularly. I haven’t spoken to my mother since I was sixteen, and she asked me if I was afraid of her over the phone. The question blew me away, because even hearing her voice made my heart pound, and I didn’t understand how even she could fail to be aware of that. She told me once she wished she’d killed my father. She told me I was just like him in the same conversation, where I was asking her to see a psychologist and get some help for the depression that subsumed her in the end.
But that is neither here nor there, at the moment. I’ve been filling fresh pages of the story of my life for a while now, and they have been good ones.
Here, however, begins more than a new chapter. This is the beginning of my life in an illuminated way. I love blank books. I collect them and fill them even if it is so much slower than typing. I love this blank-book feeling.
There have been two perfectly happy moments in my life that I remember clearly. I was sixteen during the first, and felt the ache of what my family did to me soothed by the balm of honest friendship. Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” played as a soundtrack to a slideshow. It played again as I got into the cab at the airport that would take me to my dormitory. It wasn’t a vastly significant thing, but in that moment after a day’s travel it was a reminder of of old relief so perfectly timed as to mimic poetry.
It is hot. There are palm trees lining the streets. The men are a picture of extremes, either very handsome or very plain. My dormitory room is breeding dustbunnies that hop across the tile floors as I walk from my bed to the window, but the windows open without screens or guards so I can hang my upper body out of them and look down on the courtyard below, the walls and floors are various shades of palest blue, slate, and white, and my bed is comfortable. The market across the street has student prices and huge, sweet globe grapes and tiny pears that taste of sunlight. Arak is expensive, but some things are worth it. It’s all good.