I do not speak it aloud, this thought that I have when I travel. It stays unspoken.
I carry it with me like my notebook and my bag of chocolate espresso beans. It is packed along with my fear of being late for my train, stowed right by my confidence that I want to like the next person I meet. It is on my implicit checklist that I go through as I ready myself to exit each door of each apartment in each city on each journey that I take. It is there. I pat my pockets. Yes, it is there. It is as certain as zipping up or carrying a cap or remembering a pen.
The thought is one of return. That when I am part of some beautiful or interesting or fascinating moment, that I will get to go there again. I will be back. I will revisit it once more and this time savor it better, see it with stronger eyes, really understand it when next I am here. I will return to this place. Like that flutter of a thought I had in the sky flying home over Utah when I peered out to see the early snow sugar powder its brown mountains. I remembered then Greenland’s white peaks half a world and some years past when I saw them on that flight away from Iceland’s volcano. Their escarpments cast the only shadows in a plain of snow that day. That was the one when I first met Mira, the Woman from the Plane, as she called herself. It gave me a sense, those colors, that I did not want to lose. Let me savor that white on brown forever. Let me savor that moment of whiteness.
Or that late summer afternoon when the sun lit up the stony river behind Betsy as she walked up to me with her smile in shadow surrounded by the curly black of her hair and behind her the deep sapphire blue of the sky. Like that spring day in Eduoard VII Square in Paris sipping a café and thinking of Mira and how we had sat here together once and in front of me a scrap of paper lifted itself up like a dancer in a quick swirl and then a collapse and it soon rose up again to go down and then up and around in a vortex, her arms above her head in a twirl, spinning higher on the invisible hand of the puppet master, the hot wind beckoning her past the head of the tall bronze horseman and his permanent northern gaze in the middle of the square so high and yet she could not escape and so it was slow, without effort, that she fell to the bricks. The French children in their Japanese kimonos, in tow with their teacher, burbled past the scrap of paper moments later. Those moments I want to return to, as if I can.
It is unspoken but believed, this thought that I will see some grand vista again, smell its aroma once more, hear its rhythmic patter of bird chatter and river song. I will return next time and plumb its depths better, more fully, get it down inside me more completely this time. I imply this by a look, a glance, a nod to myself, a note in my head: I’ll be back. As if the surety of this next breath guarantees another.
I snicker to myself on my early morning walk in Boston. I see the tourists from Japan so eager to hurry through the Commons to get a picture of this flower and then like a bee over to that next lascivious tendril to take its image. Then they are off to grab a shot of the stolid statue Washington on horseback. I need this one and this one and this one, they seem to imply by their pacing. They are like children shopping at their first-ever candy store choosing and pointing at this and every thing that they see. It is a hunger, perhaps one that we all share, to feel life to the fullest and maybe an implicit knowledge that we can never know more than we do. Not a knowledge really, maybe a deep gut-slicing fear that life is slipping away from us faster than we can breathe. Maybe that’s the source of their frenetic photography. That life is a sentence that ends the same for everyone. Or it is a game that we didn’t ask for and didn’t receive any hints about how to play with before walking out on its stage. Life is expectant, waiting for us to quit toying with the balloon or staring at our fascinating toes or discovering the ducklings, waiting for us get up to take our place here on stage and receive our fate. We do and it’s frightening and real. It’s different up here. It’s everything we thought it would be and nothing at all like we expected. So we travel through the world, aware at some level that we will never return to this moment. Never have it in our hand again. This stirs so many to endless photography. They choose the camera to take the place of their never sated eyes as if repeating a mantra to themselves, Time won’t end if I take its picture.
Are we really that aware? Or am I flitting like the Japanese from idea to flower to idea? Do we instead, most of us, keep ourselves drunk on the nectar of the moment with its noise and color, surfeit and delight so that we can forget about life slipping away from us so fast? It is simpler that way.
What I do when I travel, is to go out to grasp the essence of wherever I am. I feel that this time I will hold onto this moment. This time I am armed and ready. The camera has its battery charged, my pencil has good lead, I am well rested and off I go to find the truth of the city, the verities of my time today. Yet the instant goes away like all the others. The whole busload of moments gets whisked away the next hour like a Boston Aqua-bus tour as it rolls a passel of tourists past me down the street to the Charles River, the driver recounting the history of the drunks and the students and the politicians who reveled here. I feel like their voices should have left more of an imprint on this corner where I stand. That I should be able to hear the events that transpired here. Witness history by breathing in the air.
We, I keep saying we, when it is I alone who feels this way, that a spent youth could be revisited, a reading list gone over again, a dance, or discovered canyons re-checked out like books from the library. I see them in memory. Why can’t I go back?
It is a sense that I’ll return, I’ll get to do this again, and do it better this time, and now as I grow older, I realize that it takes so much effort, so many energies that need to be marshaled to get up in the morning, to face the day, to face my failures and mistakes and my what-ifs and my almosts, that going back, that retracing my steps in Paris at the Musee or on that trail deep in the Canadian woods with my dangerous friend can be done more easily now as Memory, can only be done as Memory. They are gone. I reach out my hand to touch only Mnemosyne.
And that I realize is the other problem. Mnemosyne says to me that I can go back to anything I so choose, if I can only recall it. Well I can pull back some things easily enough but the mind blurs so many edges. I have to concentrate with a furrowed brow. This writing helps to bring back to me sights and sounds, fantastic oval grates seen in the Reykjavik street, an R & B band blasting out the bass and drum lines as I stand sloshed and vibrating at the window of a North End bar, banalities in conversation on the flight to Wyoming come back through a small door in my mind to reappear on stage, by simply calling them up to walk on.
So it’s that, is it? Mnemosyne that makes me think, oh it’s easy. If I can remember it, I can return to it. And yet I know that she is a sham, a liar, a faker. She strolls back on stage with a bucket of paint and a wad of brushes sticking out her back pocket. “Oh, that day. Let me remember. It was yellow and the sky was laced with white scuffs of clouds. Or was that yesterday? No, it was blue and cold and you walked with a limp from that tumble the other day. You faced that impersonal Brahmin city head on. You were brave and forthright. Wasn’t it that day? Or maybe no.”
Still and all, some moments shine through Mnemosyne’s blackened Kabuki teeth, torturer, necromancer, juggler. I see again the way the fog lifted off that meadow on my walk to school that one late summer. Like it was gathering its skirts this morning to tiptoe away into the high Sierra. It was cold in the dawn. I remember that. I remember that the coyotes were quiet, at least for now. No killing to come, just a yearning for the passed moon. The earth was waking up and rolling over to catch some sun up high on the mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, the sun hiding behind the hills. That day the sky was blue as blue was blue. I walked by the marsh in the treed path only to get to town and the hotels and their vast asphalt, to breathe in the parking lot, open my arms wide to the sound of the diesel bus passing by. For this was that morning too. I was late for class I remember.
Experience is messy. Memory is repletion. But it’s also suspect because it likes certain things. Why does the road and the intersection that my grade school sat near to come up so much in my mind like a warning sign or incense or elevator music? Yet I’m always facing away from my old school and up towards that house I visited only once where we had a picnic. I look down Higgins Road past the motel I worked at for one young week pulling weeds for a dollar and a quarter, never back at my school.
Mnemosyne is a mistress then I think. She is not so much coy as expectant. She will give me everything, if I can just think to ask. She is willing, ready, never shy if given the right cue. She is full of every moment I can imagine and then all of my thoughts and deeds she carries with her too. She is also imperfect, deaf in one ear it seems, and prone to repetition. Mnemosyne likes certain songs and phrases, well-worn phrases that she never tires of hearing. She wears the same pair of worn out cloth slippers everywhere. Dressed in pearls and a black dress she wears these slippers. She says her feet hurt her. She must wear her favorite slippers, so she does. It makes her seem shabby, redolent, familiar.
Mnemosyne is a demon too, and she can rush out at me like an oven fire. “Oh what’s in here?” I ask innocently reaching for the door and the crowd in the theater is gasping, saying to themselves, “Don’t do it. Whatever you do, don’t open that door you idiot.” Which I do, of course, and the sad memory comes raging out at me like a fireball. It jumps into my face and onto my hair and I put it out quickly. I remember. It was beautiful. I was in love. I forgot. I remember it now. Toss it aside. Leave that one alone.
Ah sweet Mnemosyne, what secrets do you hide? Where will I find you next? Under some rock I kick down the street that reminds me of waiting for my jejune school bus? Will you make me young again, talking to my imaginary companions Iggy and Wally on the long driveway walk to stand in the snow waiting for the frigid bus ride to school? Or will you instead be in the waft of a woman’s scent as she walks by, too close to me in some café? Her jasmine will remind me of the scarf she wore once, the way her ear felt on my lips. Will I let you lead me around with sighs, impertinent and haughty, as you show me this old failed room and peek a boo with a glimpse of that sad dark saloon? I follow you around like a school boy who has never seen your tawdry act before. Have I not been a witness to your weird sense of play more than once? Didn’t I see your lovely inner thigh and that snake tattoo inching up to your crotch and you revealed it to me just once under that dress at a party? Must I drink this drink again?
And then I replay the pouring of it.
Bartender, another shot please.
It is too much, I fear. I want to rip this Mnemosyne from my head but she follows me more surely than my dog used to. She is chained to me like a misshapen and transfixed drug addict who is convinced that I am god. That I alone deserve her obeisance. She will follow me everywhere and afflict me with song, with step, with sweetness and sorrow in her train, lamenting her mistakes, begging my forgiveness, wheedling, crying, nodding off to sleep and then waking again to remind me of where I have been, where I long to be again, where I never truly was.
I am so tired of my Mnemosyne’s companionship. Yet I fear to lose her. I hold her hand as we walk. It is important I think to hold her close, for some days I fear that I am not myself. Who I might be is undetermined, but I am not me. I am someone I don’t recognize until she comes along and reassures me. “You are exactly who you are,” she tells me, “you are exactly who you think you are. Your memories remind you that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.” I breathe a sigh of relief for I feared being rudderless again, lost in my mind moaning and weeping. Oh not that those moans and tears were from Mnemosyne again. How easy it is to mix them up, being lost and being found. It is said that drink doesn’t help us to forget. Drink helps us to remember. If this is so, then Memory is a sot and I thought as much.
Memory, you old fat drunkard, come over here and pull up a chair next to me. It’s good to see your fat belly again. The floor trembles as Memory sits down next to me. I will buy you a drink for I know that you will talk more to me then. Tell me tales of the women I knew and my paltry triumphs with them blown up now to mythic proportions. Those were the days my boy. Yessir, I remember my triumph on that stage with her. She would look at me in wonder then wouldn’t she? Or was it wonder, I wonder? And then, just because you can, you bastard, and I am distracted with the images you run through my hair, Memory you pig, you yank out my bar stool and I end up remembering too much now. Moaning I cry out, “Why did you bring her up?” We were so happy reliving satisfying romps and now we’re in Santa Fe and it’s boredom I’m carrying with me because my sweetheart is unhappy and blames me for her unhappiness, for her choices, for her choosing me, and I try to do everything I can but the Memory I carry with me there is walking the streets wondering what in the world I’m doing here in this fake palatial city.
Better to remember the giant flea market out of town on our way to Taos. Row upon rows of tents and tables plying old tools, beads, and incense that I walked down. Where the array of African masks made me stop short and stare. I wanted them all, I wanted the whole booth, I was inspired, I was frightened, I could not speak. It was here I did find my voice, didn’t I? Didn’t I buy that mask of the girl with the spirit bird on her head? Yes it was there I found it and dickered a little for the price of it and I found my voice to write. Or was it somewhere else? I forget.
This bloated slob Memory next to me takes advantage. He hogs the bar with his pokey elbows. He drinks out of my glass. He tells me to travel with him and to drive that way and then corrects himself, has me back up, and points us down another road. It is not right to be so faulty, so erring, so without direction. This drunk Memory is as reliable as the moon, a white beacon that from one night to the next changes its shape. Weren’t we just there? Sweetly he says, “Oh did I say that? I meant this.” He is a beggar, hoping to be loved and not abandoned. How could I abandon someone so miserable, so needy? He needs to be carried along to the next drink. Here lift him higher onto my back so his head doesn’t hit the ground or bounce into a curb as I pack him along with me.
Maybe I should throw him off for good and let him go down the sewer rinsed off with the soap bubbles, the sand dollars, the photographs. Discard her pen case, lose those t-shirts from all the art fairs, until all I can remember is my name, but only some of the time, and the bottle of my favorite Scotsman, Laphroaig.
I stop. I see that all that I have left with me now is Memory at the bar. Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh. Maybe I should let him sit with me a while longer and see what other past sins we can bring back to life, pull them up sputtering, pale white, almost dead from being under the mud for so long. We find these sinkers under the muck of years, these reminders of chance and fate and blow-downs that haven’t seen daylight since first we pushed them far under the bog. Falling down the stairs, dancing at my brother’s first wedding, laying the weary old Beagle on my chest the minute before I put him down. There, fifty years just traversed in a trice. Memory, how light you can be on your muddied and drunken feet.
“Have I died? Have I gone to heaven?” That’s what I said to the waitress that night at the Italian restaurant I loved because I was now eating a meal there so filled with my life when it was good, my life when Mira was with me, when my world made sense and the light was brighter and the darkness only another comfort. My life with her I remembered, that day on the Metro in Paris, when the Woman from the Plane looked at me from across the aisle and without a word winked at me as if to say: “I know you, I love you, I am your sweet accomplice in everything that we do.”
That evocation was worth feeling the knife. The one Mnemosyne uses to slip in again between my ribs. To remind me when that woman turned off her sun to me, when the world went cold and dark, when love ended and Mnemosyne only baldly took her place. Where is the light? Have I died?
Time to pay up tonight I think. Pay my tab. Mnemosyne is an unpaid check, a bill, an invoice. She’s not as cheap as I would like. There is always some fee for my returning instead of just wanting to be more open to life. I get it. I am not here to understand why there are so many whiskeys or Japanese women, or bouquets with earwigs and struggle inside of them. It is simply my chore to sniff and blink, taste and wonder why I am so lost in this world. Why can’t I remember the way back home?
“What’s the damage?” I ask. Oh well. Mnemosyne comes with a price. She comes with a cost and a gratuity fee attached like a lesion, a wound, a scar smeared with crusty blood. “Here you get to pay for this too,” she says. And you simply pull out your wallet and accept the cost of it. There is nothing to be done. Pay it, quit complaining about life. It’s here, I am on its slow revolving stage.
Come here with me, my old friend Mnemosyne. Let us lay down together. Put your arms around me, spoon me to sleep, and wake me in the morning with your sour sweet kiss. We will see what friends and demons, faithful dogs and unfaithful lovers that I have cherished and mourned, we will see which of them you bring to me tonight. It’s like this every night. The day rushes by, the sun tries to hide from me, and the darkness comes. It’s nighttime again. So soon? And I drift off wondering who I will be with tonight.
I pat my chest. I check my pockets. It’s all there. I hit the door to the world and hope I do better this time. No need to say its name. I remember now.