My Girls: A Memoir

August Kleinzahler

There’s a window, 36 hours or so, not even, after travelling by air between places, places where you’ve lived for a long time. When you’ve landed and into the next day, perhaps the evening – then you begin to lose it. It goes very quickly, decaying like a tone in the air. But for a while, inside that window, you’re hyper-awake. I’m talking about light, scale, smell, all of it familiar, but for that short while extending beyond the common registers of the familiar until the buildings, river light, the smell of benzene and tidal flats, what have you, become almost stereoscopic, carrying a taste of the unreal – as if the world had been passed through a solution, cleansed.

I take much pleasure in these hours, perhaps too much. I anticipate them. I savour them afterwards and even try to put them to use. I plan my time and movements for when I’ll be inside this window. The degree and nature of intensity is not always the same. Even the duration will vary. Like a drug, it can be overpowering, even unpleasant. The heat of combustion depends on atmospheric conditions, internal and external.

Rain is good. It was raining when I took the ferry to Jersey that Sunday afternoon. It’s not a long ride, only twelve minutes or so. Heading into New York City in daylight, I enjoy the dense, vertical chiaroscuro in front of me, looming larger and larger; and as the ferry closes on it, the sense of sliding into its great maw, of the city pushing in on me. But I like best leaving the city by ferry at night, heading toward the cliffs of Weehawken and the desultory sprays of light. The great lit towers of midtown rearing up behind as the ferry moves away never fail to move me.

Places are conditions of mind. They’re places, to be sure, but after that initial phase of entry, or re-entry, when you’re awake to change and the attendant little spasms of memory and the senses, you’re soon anaesthetised. You wake up in the place as if you’d never left. It’s like visiting your family and almost immediately turning back into the child you were.

The Passaic River drops with considerable force and spectacle some seventy feet at the Great Falls of Paterson. There’s a nice picture of it on the cover of William Carlos Williams’s book-length poem Paterson. The river makes its way through traprock and sandstone to the level plain of the city, continues north to Hawthorne, then doubles back on itself and begins its southerly flow to Newark Bay, about twenty-five miles through manufacturing and industrial towns and suburbs, places like Garfield, Lyndhurst, Kearny and Harrison, where it hooks east, then south again under the Pulaski Skyway and into Newark Bay.

These are working towns, low-lying, all dirty brick and clapboard, drab little shopping strips and VFWs and Little League fields: nothing remarkable about them except the cancer rates. You see them as you fly in and out of Newark Airport. And the river flowing through them, picking up effluents from service stations, slaughterhouses, tanneries, chemical plants. People used to drink from the Passaic. In 1881 the Newark Aqueduct Board noted: ‘Instead of sweet-tasting limpid water, we have a bluish red liquid, disgusting to the taste and smell.’ And always to the east, the towers of Manhattan across the meadows, partially hidden by the hump of the Palisades, an eroded cross-section of a diabase sill hundreds of feet thick and dipping gradually north-westwards.

The New Jersey character – at least this part of Jersey – is straightforward, plain-spoken to the point of bluntness, though not at all unfriendly. The humour is deadpan, ironical, playfully deprecating. It’s a beer-and-a-bump kind of place. Affectation is quickly and viscerally registered. There’s a swagger, a bluff air of menace that many of the males wear. Sinatra is a caricature of it. Once, after leaving a restaurant in North Beach, here in San Francisco, I gave a panhandler a dollar, a middle-aged black guy with some amusing riff or other.

‘Thanks, Jersey,’ he said, to the great amusement of my companions.

‘How did you know I was from Jersey?’ I asked.

‘Are you kidding?’ he said.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flown in and out of Newark Airport over the past thirty years. Over the Goethal’s Bridge and the Kill Van Kull, where Newark Bay feeds into the Narrows of New York Harbor, the ‘windowed cliffs’ of lower Manhattan brilliantly alight when you bank west on the approach to Newark at night. During the day you can see the cloverleafs, storage tanks and freight yards, the shopping centres and clusters of homes. Heading over the western edge of Jersey, you pass over the Great Swamp and the headwaters of the Passaic. We are now at our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet. You are free to unfasten your seat belts and move around as you wish.

I remember one night I was flying into Newark from the West Coast. It’s always night when I land at Newark. I still had that sickness in me from when she left. It seemed to go on for years. The first wave of it nearly did me in.

I don’t know how long it had been. I do know we’d already stopped getting together when I came to New York. What a fucking disaster that was. I’d be haemorrhaging up and down Second Avenue as I walked from Astor Place to 12th Street. There I’d be at her door with a bottle of vinho verde and blood pouring down my trouser leg. There she’d be, mop in one hand and a pail of disinfectant in the other, like an apprehensive young wife in a 1950s Spic ‘n’ Span commercial.

That particular evening, the plane made this steep bank towards Jersey, with lower Manhattan, the Trade Towers and the rest all lit up, and falling away at about a 60° angle; and this horrible sensation passed through me, just horrible – not nausea or any other sort of pain or discomfort with which I was familiar, not even the love agony I’d felt after she went. It was worse than that. I couldn’t breathe. I would have groaned or cried out, but nothing was coming out of me. Nothing. There was nothing left in there to come out; that was the problem. When the plane began its steep turn, whatever was holding me together had disappeared out my mouth, like they say your soul does – a little invisible bird fluttering off – when you die.

I had the cab let me off at the foot of the block. I wanted to slow things down a bit, take in the neighbourhood. It had been a few years. There were some new, outsize homes built over two lots and extending out to the sidewalk: Graeco-Roman fortresses, my father called them. But it was the same sleepy place, only the sound of the rain falling on the canopy of leaves belonging to the maples that lined the street.

There’s a very particular afternoon rain light you get in the summer here, that and the smell of the grass and wet pavement. It came over me like a powerful narcotic. I knew it would. Being back after so long away, especially this time of year . . . I was being played like a pipe organ, and with all the stops pulled out: Cor de nuit, Hautbois, Voix humaine.

The back door was open. I walked in. Nothing had really changed. I felt like one of those characters in a Dutch painting, ‘the old burgher’s son’, returning to the canvas out of which I’d strayed for a time, having lost my way.

My parents were in the living-room, entertaining. Some out of town relations, a retired professor and his wife, had come by to say hello. In truth, they were there to say goodbye. There were copies of my books and publications spread across the coffee table, along with pastries. My father and mother embraced me, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for me to turn up after four years. The cousins glowered, clearly having been brought up to date on the prodigal’s unspeakable behaviour. I did my best to be cordial, even charming, in an attempt to dispel their low opinion of me. I don’t know why I bothered, really. Habit, some vestigial notion of courtesy . . .

As little of my mother as there was left, she looked very nice, almost pretty, a bit like the more elegantly dressed old Chinese women I see in San Francisco from time to time. She’d got a touch of Tartar in the eyes, and in her older age seemed to favour a vaguely Oriental look: quilted jackets and what looked to be black silk pants.

Even this close to death she remained a clothes-horse. This was even remarked on in her high school yearbook. I told her that her hair looked nice. She apologised. She said she couldn’t make it to the beauty parlour this week. That was one way I knew she was dying. And she was crying. She wasn’t crying because she was glad to see me. She was glad, in her way. She misses me if she can’t have a look at me every year or so.

I could only remember my mother crying on two occasions: when the dog died and when they found my brother dead. I remembered both times vividly. With the dog it was a gentle, almost girlish sobbing, rather endearing. With my brother it was something else. She was like a gored beast.

My father was sitting at the dining-room table where he always sits. I was sitting where I always sit. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said nothing. The look was a soft command: see what time and illness have done to me. See what’s become of me, and what will become of you.

There’s a moment of despair I experience returning to San Francisco after a visit East. It usually comes as the taxi is about to cross Haight Street, headed up the hill from the Panhandle. I’m not sure why it always hits me at that particular point. The ride in from the airport is sufficiently dreary to provoke such feelings as you head north along the western shore of the Bay with its billboards, warehouses, commercial buildings; then you make that turn and you’re suddenly back in Oz.

It always seems to be early evening. Haight Street can be desolate, even repulsive, to be sure. But it’s familiar to me after so many years, and I sometimes even like it, especially looking west to the park when the sky’s doing something interesting. It all just feels so hopelessly nowhere at that particular moment, like this is really the end of the line. Like if you got on the 72 bus and took it another three miles west you’d fall off the earth. Then it passes, even as the cab heads up the hill to Frederick and turns right. Like a brief bout of nausea.

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