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David Foster Wallace once wrote that every love story is a ghost story. That phrase always had the ring of truth in it to me, but I’m afraid that I don’t fully understand what he meant by it. I’m afraid of not understanding that phrase in the way that only a closeted and fledgling art kid can truly be afraid. Unless I can successfully demonstrate my full comprehension of every layer of subtext, every referential nod if there are any, everything that he could have and did in fact mean by saying that “every love story is a ghost story” then I am…well, a fool. One of them.

But then, does it really matter what he meant when he first used that phrase? Or when he used it again and again and it kept resurfacing, dolphin-like, now in a personal letter, then again in the first draft of The Pale King, then one final time in a later draft? Or is the thing that matters most how the words affect the listener and then how well the listener can articulate that, how convincing they can be so that their meaning is listened to and accepted?

Thinking about this now reminds me of a story.

More than ten years ago my best friend and I were talking online. I think we were using AOL Instant Messenger, which we called AIM. “We gonna AIM tonight?” we would ask each other, nary a care in the world. Of course we would be AIM’ing tonight. Of course we would. The kind reader will recall that this all took place in a world before unlimited calling on nights and weekends, when “long distance” calling was still a thing. Not just a thing but also a cause for concern when your father was as sharp-eyed as mine was when looking over the monthly Sprint phone bill.

But let’s get back to the story.

My best friend, who I’ll call Brian, and I were AIM’ing away when he began to tell me about an English homework assignment that he had received from his high school English teacher earlier that same day.

He began:
“mr. adams gave us this assignment today, it was impossible. so subjective”
“what was it”
“we had to read this short story and tell him what we thought it meant”
“what was the story?”
“the story was about this woman who is having an affair and every day her lover comes to her house and they sleep together in the middle of the day when her husband is at work, and while they’re having sex she always says out loud ‘French film. French film.’ weird right”
“i’ll tell you what it means” I said.
“yeah? go for it”
“the words ‘French film’ remind her of a movie whose name she can’t remember that she saw with her father when she was really little, before he died. it is one of her only really good memories of her dad and she thinks that if she can remember the name of the film it will help her to put every piece of the memory in the right place and will give her some comfort now that her dad has passed away. the whole point of the affair from her perspective is to remember the name of this film and she thinks that if she can feel good, totally abandoned and free in the act of breaking all vows to her husband, it will put her mentally more in the place where she was before she ever took those vows, before she was married. When she was just a little girl watching a movie with her dad. And so she keeps trying to remember and she keeps failing. It has gotten now to the point where she tries every day, but she’ll never remember it. She’ll go on living and the memory will still be in pieces and the rest of her life will be too.”

For almost a minute there was no reply and I clicked on the Juno icon to check my email.

Then:
“Dude you should really be an English teacher.”

And that, I think, was the day I fell the rest of the way in love with stories.

I fell the rest of the way in love because I realized that what I had done wasn’t some kind of clever interpretation, because there wasn’t much to interpret. I had just started telling a story myself. It was like writing.

“This is something that I can do” I thought to myself. Later that year I wrote a paper in my own high school English class and my teacher, Mrs. Hanania, wrote across the top of it “Call me when you win the Pulitzer.”

It was some real feel-good BS but it was encouraging at the time and I kept writing.

So the first love story I can remember living out is between me and books. And the ghost? The ghost is that French film. The last nagging hole in the picture, the frayed end hanging from the sweater that you can’t stop wanting to pull on. The ghost is the story you haven’t written yet.

Maybe what the phrase really means is that we are haunted by what we love. That it will follow us, wake us up in the middle of the night with that bump of inspiration that seems to expand, to grow inside of you, as soon as you touch it until it fills you all the way up and you forget about the frayed sweater end because now it doesn’t matter. Now, you can just wear the sweater and be.

People say that we crawled our way out of the ocean and found a way to survive on land, evolved somehow.  So there must be some part of us that remembers that dark cold briny wet and wants to go back into the great womb of the world that bore us.  That delivered us up onto a forgotten shore and whose slow circulating deep cries out to the deep inside of us and pulls us back. 

I was thinking this as I sat up there on the deck and looked out and saw them down by the water’s edge.  They were holding hands and seemed to be so small and slow as they walked, with the whole damn Sea of the world behind them moving and shining coldly in its green even as the storm piled up far out and down to the horizon. The heavy air was pouring in from over the water, wet and as wild smelling as a song.  The air poured in and around them and they made their slow way through the salty thick and talked as if they would live forever and always be as they were, confident of the future and happy.  She was wearing her red shirt that fit her loosely and flapped like a flag and held your eyes when they had just been passing over and made you think if you had really ever seen red before you saw her wearing that shirt or if you were seeing it now as if you’d just been born. 

So people were always seeing new things around her. 

They made their way along the edge of the great deep green and didn’t seem to look at it once as if they remembered every piece of it from their long crawl out. 

I sat up there and watched them until they passed behind the edge of the wall to my left and after that I looked at the wall for a long time and went out into space somewhere in my mind, way out beyond the deep green that was in front of me and the storm that would break in a little while and soak everything. 

I thought about how I’m nothing but a small and slow-moving shape in front of the deep sea of green and at the bottom of a deep sea of air and at the top of the deep sea of my heart.

I thought about how the two of them and me and all of us really are Ocean deep and wild inside but sometimes we hide it or only see the top of it in each other. 

I thought like that for a long time until the glass door behind me slid open and brought me back.  It was Annie.  I smiled hi and the corners of her mouth stretched a little as she turned and closed the door.

“Join you?”

“Sure.”

She pulled a chair a little closer and sat down.

For a while we just looked out over the water and were quiet.  The wind had picked up.

Then I looked over at her, at Annie.  Every once in a while when I really look at someone I’ve known for a long time I start to see and hear and feel again the time that we’ve spent together and the places we’ve been.  So when I looked over at her and her far-looking green eyes that barely squinted just now as she saw the storm and studied it and I saw her hair as it fell short around her neck and her soft square of a face that would point right at you when she talked and was brave too, my mind ran back and back and deep into the ocean we shared, splashing out into it all.

We had floated on our backs in the rolling saltwater and seen the deep blue and the gulls flying.  Our arms were floating out and our hands had brushed but kept moving. 

We had stood hunched out in the hard cold because that was the only place we could go to talk right then and she had to tell me about her choice, about moving West just for the summer.  I had smiled and we had laughed about what was ahead for us in a few months but in my legs I felt vertigo and wanted to step back or grab something. 

We had sat and stared at the table when I told her about Papa dying and she hadn’t looked at me when I broke down and was shaking and couldn’t stop.  She had let me do that as if I was alone in the world but after I had finished she looked up and showed me in that look that I was not alone and couldn’t be.  Ever since that day I’ve seen a warrior inside her. 

And then almost a year later to the day when she told me about the accident and her sister and the coma and it was my turn to look away and let her be and then look up at her the same way, I did my best. 

So looking at her then, on the deck, those other times rose up in my chest and caught in me.

Her eyes were still far off on the storm as if she was sitting there alone.  I looked out over the water too. 

We sat there and looked out as if we were orphans of the world.

John and Sara made their way back along the beach; Sara’s red shirt was flapping so hard I could almost hear it.

“You know,” Annie started, still looking way off.  She took a deep breath.

“Yeah?” I said.

Now she looked at me and smiled.

“There’s so much beauty here and we can’t escape it.”

She laughed and pulled me into it.

And the rest of that day?  Well, it passed.

Take something down from the shelf and put it on.  Move your shoulders around and see how it feels and try it on, really try it on.  Take a self off the shelf and put it on, your new self, see if it fits and if it does then wear it and wear it out.  Feel like it’s really you, if you can, until the thing wears out and the mirror can reach all the way past that down to the you that is really you instead of some thing from a shelf.  Do this, though, all of it, if only so that you know finally that you are the real you and you are not something that you wear but that the real you is what gives shape to everything you put on and that things you put on are just things on a shelf without you there to shape and fill them and to put them on.  So that you know that any suit or mask or whatever is not really you but is only something that is either worth being put on or not, and probably it is not.

So wear whatever you want, but if you want to change then you have to be the one changing.

And if you want to change then rejoice, because you are in the land of wants but your want is a good one, and difficult.

Places you live grow into you and you grow into them. People you live with are the same. So you’re growing out on two levels and sometimes, then, they’re intertwined. Root on root on root, shoving around growing and shrinking. Until eventually you know you want to stay or want to go, or are pulled away or forced to stay. What happens when some roots die and maybe even poison the water; what happens when on drinks all the water? What happens to the others and who tends to them? The roots tend to each other, probably, and the raingiver does. So our lives are intertwined with place, time, and people and this is one of the good things in life, this tangle. Some above ground and easy to see and most hidden underneath everything else.

But we get to pick where we’re planted, sometimes.

So what do you say when one word could end the world? And where do you look when one look can unmake what you see? When every glance falls on some fly-wing thin thing that winks away, out of the world, just before you can really tell what it is. What do you touch when everything will just turn to gold and heavily fall, useless. Move your feet; learn to eat gold. Walk through the world mute, blindfolded; golden gloves imprisoning you, weighing your arms. Learn to stop your ears to the friend-sounding calls of the others begging you to touch something of theirs, anything. And the growing mob then, finally, stealing your gloves until the first one brushes your thumb and is cast eternally as the thief: golden man holding golden glove. As you stop moving and wait. Thinking I may have to open my eyes just this once, just for as long as it takes. Until after the rushing pause you hear the people crashing in, taking the golden man away to wherever, to maybe satisfy their greed for a day.

Until there is only one left and you can just hear the shifty step. Your neck pricks with the animal knowledge that you are seen.

“Hi.” she says. She sounds little.

“Say something.” she says.

“Hi.” you say.

Fold up my mind into an envelope, mail it, put it on a truck and drive it through every town along the way from here to the Coast.  Put me on a bus and kiss me goodbye, send me on my way.  Put me on a rocketship to the moon of some other earth, tell me goodbye and hold my son up so I can see him one last time and so that he can see that his daddy’s face is smiling and waving goodbye and cannot see that inside I am dying one long death.  He cannot see that inside I am bleeding out and back in, ka-thump ka-thump ka-thump, as the newsreels squeeze me onto a flatscreen and stamp me with a headline.  He can’t see anything but my face.  He can’t see anything.  Nobody now can see anything but the engine flare as I go up into ether and glory and crushing nothing.  What does any of it mean?  This rush of words, this rush of life now entering me and leaving me.  Now soaking the ground and my hair and this space-worthy aluminum. This metal ripped from the ground and thrust into the sky.  This cooling crude flesh ripped from Annie’s bed and thrust into a white jumpsuit and the metal.  Just as my son will one day be ripped from her or her from him.  Just as everyone I know is dead and I am dead.

Laying back against the seat, zoned way out somewhere beyond exhaustion but before actual sleep, seeing the dull red of streetlights through my eyelids, feeling the warm bumps in the road, hearing mom and dad talking in low voices; that’s where I was when Thanksgiving break began.  It was 5am.  Dad, the road warrior, rolled us all out of bed and marched us to the van through the fog.

The fog was everywhere.  Once or twice I opened my eyes and looked down the highbeams stretching out 20, 30 feet.  Like bridges.  Or, harnesses pulling us on into whatever was out there.  On into long conversations with family we haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving, since the last long drive.

Somewhere in Ohio we hit a bump and I realize that I’ve been asleep.  Lifting my head, letting my leg slide off the bench, feeling it hit…what?  My bookbag, packed up with textbooks I won’t open but feel unarmed without along with a rumpled copy of The Great Gatsby.  That’s the same copy that I read through twice in the week that, well.  That’s something else.

Closing my eyes again I can see the frozen roads and the naked trees.  Everything is hard and empty.  The fields are full of shin-high corn stalks: remnants of another hot green year.  One more street, now a hard turn and I’m there again.  Not knocking or going in, just standing outside and looking through the walls into whatever there is.  Speak, memory.

Another bump and my eyes are open again.  The sun is shining down into my face now and how have I slept through so much light?  If I took the amount of daylight I’ll have slept through by the time I die and added it all up, what would I have?  A month or two?  Six?  Years, even?  Enough time to fall in love or learn to dance.  But that whole time my eyes were closed and I was somewhere else.  Right now I’m the closest to hating sleep that I’ve ever been.  Maybe I won’t sleep again for the rest of this trip.  I could go back to school hungry and with heavy lines under my eyes to balance out all the rest of the well-fed and well-slept Midwesterners.  For two hours of grey pavement, swelling green hills, and obscure towns my intention was set.  I would take no rest.  I would force myself to think through all of this, to be fully here for this long drive.

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