Essay: Freewheelin’ in the Imagined City

I’d taken the train down to New York City. It was winter, or at least, I imagine it was winter. Somewhere on the sidewalks waiting for me was my old friend Caroline, looking as lovely as I remembered, wrapped in a sweater or winter jacket or something like that. I stepped off the train barely able to contain myself; my anticipation of what she’d say when we first talked to one another again. Maybe she’d tell me over coffee, or maybe right away, or maybe later that night over a few drinks once her friends had left and we’re alone. I could almost see her waiting there amongst the crowd, her blonde hair cut shorter than I remember, or has she grown it out? I never get close enough to find out. Nothing happens after my arrival in the city, and she never tells me anything. My imagination fails me after this point. I’ve never been to New York, and I haven’t seen Caroline in years.

This staged scene is inspired by the cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Freewheelin’”, with the photo of him and Suze Rotolo taken in the early 60’s. I like to imagine that New York is still kinda like that, strewn with hints of snow on the ground and filled with the faint bustle of city life far off, while Caroline and I walk with hunched shoulders down the center of the road toward somewhere warm against the chill. It’s an idealized fantasy, a dream well known to me from many crisp mornings spent listening to that album, and looking at the cover like it were some way back into a past that I’m not even sure ever existed.

That way back brings me back to Caroline. I haven’t seen her since we both attended this writing program at UMASS Amherst the summer of my junior year of high school. At the time, I was in a bad way with a girl from home who hated me in the way she loved me. There was this one time when she’d been so angry with me for being late to her house that she lay in bed and refused to speak to me for an hour or so. Her bedroom was cold from being a poorly insulated addition, and in that air I sat on the end of the bed the entire hour listening to her breath angrily rolled onto her side beneath a mess of sheets. In that year I’d lost all sense of self and worth, and most of my friends had taken wind of the defeated atmosphere and fallen into the background. “Why would you put up with someone like that?” I remember Caroline saying, looking up from a plastic mug of steaming chamomile tea. We’d stolen the mugs from the college dining hall that afternoon. The atmosphere of the dorm room we sat in with our friends felt cool in the night air of the summertime in the Berkshires. When I couldn’t answer she smiled quietly at me. One of our friends nodded in agreement. “Honestly” I paused, “Honestly, fuck her”. I said it with an old conviction that I hadn’t felt in a long while, and I sipped my tea. I can remember her best in the scenes in places we went together.

Caroline and I became close after that night spent talking over tea. She always seemed happy in this goofy sort of way, and had a spring to her step when she walked. I remember she used the word “y’all” with pride because she was from South Carolina. But there was something else too that caught me in her eyes a second too long. On our last night in Amherst, Caroline and I took a moment in her room on the third floor to say something of feelings, and though there was something mutual there, we weren’t really sure what to do, so we left it at a hug, and a few kind words about an impossible future.

After Amherst, Caroline and I kept in touch. Every couple months one of us would feel a lonely or unsure of something and call the other late at night to catch up. While a cold dry wind blew during the school year we would talk long into the night, retreading old ground hundreds of miles apart. It was an odd sort of thing late at night to see her face again. In my new life, without the girl I’d dated junior year, back with friends from my hometown who’d returned to me made new. How I might fit Caroline into that new atmosphere was a though which kept our digital meetings to late at night, and only when we felt we needed to escape for an hour or so. We continued in this cycle for two years. On one late night call she told me that she wanted to go to NYU for acting. Months later she called again and said that she’d gotten in, and that since we were only a train ride away now, I should come visit her sometime in the city. I was in my Sophomore year of college by this point, and at first I wanted nothing more than to buy my ticket one frost covered morning and make my way down following the Hudson River to see her again. But there was something that held me at the sound of her voice a little too long, though it was as pleasant and lively as I remembered.

I thought of our faces as we walked, or maybe ran toward one another in the streets of New York. Maybe she would smile and blush a little; maybe we’d talk about past feelings like we did a few times during the months after Amherst. Or maybe, that would be old news now. Maybe she’d forgotten. Maybe it wouldn’t be the time. Best to stay friends? But to see her laugh- that goofy way we talked walking aimlessly through a CVS one sunny afternoon. New York in the wintertime seemed an impossible place. The snow around our feet, wrapped in clothes there- just the two of us. Where would we go? Would we go to a record shop like we did in Amherst that one time when I stood by the turntable for twenty minutes listening to side B of an old Simon and Garfunkel album? She wrote me a short message on the back cover in permanent marker before we said goodbye.

I wonder where Bob Dylan and Suizi Rotolo walked to after that photo was taken? Were they going anywhere in particular? I know the answer is that they weren’t going anywhere. The photo was staged, one of a few taken. I’ve seen the others. They stand out like impossible constructions, as if any scene with those two outside that iconic photograph could simply not exist. If it were Caroline and me, could we follow a couple of blocks behind a few decades later? I hold the scene of the album cover tightly in my mind as if without it the entire mess of New York streets would fall apart and Caroline would disappear into a crowd or a party in the halls of NYU. She left with her friends, I was trying to keep pace through the rush of it all, and I couldn’t get a word in. She fell asleep early. We hadn’t shared drinks when her friends had gone and we were alone; we hadn’t talked of that past I couldn’t get out of my mind’s eye like sand against the cornea. Despite the warm scratch of Dylan’s voice and the promise of that iconic photograph, I knew that reality as something good enough as fact. After we meet at the train station silent faces and questions late at night that have no good answers invade. I’m drunk in a dorm room in an unfamiliar and imagined city- the worst kind. Far below the cold windy streets shudder. The pavement might feel familiar for a moment, and the heat of the summer kisses my neck, and for a second I feel a novel sort memory take shape beneath my feet before the North Country wind blows it away. I couldn’t bear the thought, and thus I couldn’t bear the ticket. After Caroline and I stopped talking about me coming to visit, and a few months later we stopped talking regularly. It’s been a year since then.

My girl from the North Country was from the south, but she’d come north to me, so close I could feel the rattle of the Amtrak car and taste that terrible coffee they serve for three dollars in the café car at the back of the train. In the lonely winters upstate I’d time and time again thought of calling her. Friends came and went, some in immaculate fashion, taking with them the footing I’d gained that summer years ago. The atmosphere of defeat might have cleared a bit, but the taste never left my mouth. Not completely. It was in moments like this that I wanted to call and hear her talk, to be reminded of the sound when it was all new for the first time. But I was afraid there would be something different in her voice, a sign of the years go by, a clue to what we could not relive no matter how many trains we took or miles we traveled.

Caroline and I sat in dorm rooms filled with the ancient air of summer nights; we listened at poetry readings from authors late at night, and wandered downtown near the house of Emily Dickinson. In Amherst for me, there is not that much to imagine. Caroline and I are more there, than we are in the windy streets of New York. We’re there with all out other friends from Amherst, mulling over manuscripts and catching the bus downtown. A timelessness hangs in the air, a newness of spirit that I can’t fully remember, but I know it was there. It had to have been. There’s no album cover for this recollection, no songs or imagined cities that can bring it to life for me. It happened long ago at a time when I needed it most, and for that it is perfect- and for that- I am inclined to let the moment end as it should as the shutter is snapped. And Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo walk out of frame. The street returns to its unremarkable nature. But for a moment, a single moment- it held the world. When it was my turn to walk that street, Caroline was gone, and the cars were of a new age, the snow was black and the air had on it a dreadful taste of carbon. The sound of cars off in the distance was like angry breathing behind me in a small room. I saw Caroline walking faster as I fell into the distant crowd, I saw her kiss me on the train platform as I moved to head home, I saw her smile the way we once had. I saw us in every possible place in this imagined city. But there, in the cold of that timeless street I was alone, and I quietly wondered who it was that I had come here to find.

 

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