On a Spring afternoon during my final year of college, I was approached by a young man while I waited for a crosswalk signal to turn. He had a passage from one of the gospels marked out with a bit of string that a loop tied at one end for his thumb as a bookmark. He wore a school backpack, and a beanie, and there were bags under his dark eyes. I first saw him from across the street, and I know he saw me then too, because he made a beeline for me as soon as there was an opening between the cars. I asked him, when he tapped me on the shoulder, if he was part of the Episcopal church a few blocks further down Broadway from the college. He cut me off mid-sentence, “I’m not part of any Church. I’m a Christian”.
He walked across the street with me, and then in a nervous voice, began to read, stopping only when some shouting further down the street made him pause for a moment. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered the exact passage he read, but I know I listened. “God, bless you” he said when he finished and began to walk away. “And Jesus loves you”. I ducked into the coffee house where I’d been heading that afternoon and recorded the date and time of the encounter. I took a lot of notes back then, especially when I was at my most panicked and paranoid. In four years of being in that town, nothing so strange had happened to me before, or has happened to me anywhere I have been since.
I will always remember the first time I drove down to her house in rural Connecticut. It was our first summer. On the way, my motor that controlled one of my car window had stopped working, and I had to keep the pane of glass up with blue painter’s tape wedged into the space between the glass and the door. I remember the heat, and the nervousness in my stomach when I first climbed the stairs in the garage to meet her parents. I remember sleeping in her room, though the spare bedroom had been made out for me. I made a show of messing up the sheets to make it look like I’d been spending my nights there. Apparently, it worked, because she told me her mother washed them when I left. I felt a little bad, knowing that I’d spent no more than five minutes in that room throughout the weekend.
In that last spring at college, it was those moments that were keen to seek me out in memory, like great canons outside a walled city. My composure was lost. There had been a great and irreversible shift in my life that hadn’t quite struck the nerve yet. I was home for spring break when most of my defenses came down. I didn’t sleep or eat or bathe for three days. On the fourth day, I went to the corner bookshop in my hometown. I knew the owner. Two years earlier, the owner of the store had been kind enough to buy a few copies of a book of poetry I’d self-published and dedicated to the girl from Connecticut. I think only my family and a few close friends bought them.
Things had started to take on a grand sort of narrative for me during those days. That was just how I was. I bought from the store the very last copy of my own book of poetry that’d been hidden on a shelf, along with a plain black King James Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. It was a strange gesture, and looking back on it now, I’d be lying if I said I knew what I’d been thinking. I just remember the motions. It was the golden cross from the cover of the Book of Common Prayer, which I used to trace a cross onto my shoulder using the bathroom mirror and a permanent marker. The ghosted image of this symbol can still be seen today in a set of bed sheets used as spares in my mother’s house. The ink bled into them when I woke up covered in sweat in the morning.
Once, when she had visited me at my mother’s house a few years before, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of rose pedals and several packs of tea candles. While she waited, I ran into the bathroom and filled the tub, sprinkled the pedals on the floor, and lit every single candle I had throughout the small room. In the mirror I could see reflected light flickering from nearly forty small flames all burning together.
We used to sleep together every night in the same bed. When I started to develop a drinking problem during out last year of college, she took care of me long into nights I can’t remember. Dreams of sprinting through the city calling out mysteries, and mornings she looked me right in the eye. “You scare me. Are you ok? Do you need help?”
Then one night in one moment I made good on doubts, and the room and the bedroom we had shared became purely my own, and the little inconsequential things that made me happy in isolation took on an almost obsessive quality. In the spring air, with the windows thrown wide open, I wouldn’t leave the four walls unless I had to. I became convinced our old mutual friends had formed a conspiracy against me. I put on record after record, and when I ran out of songs I would switch to a dusty old cassette deck. I fidgeted with my typewriter long into the afternoon, and adjusted cameras and vacuum tube clocks like a mad scientist deep beneath the ice of his secret glacier base above the arctic circle. In my kingdom of Dust, I was the king of Constantinople, and no one could reach me behind my many-walled city. I was on a quest to either find or destroy myself. Like a cigarette smoked years prior on a beach in order to rid myself of something imagined in the narrative of myself, I was once again swaying wildly with want of some romantic gesture.
There were lots of questions I asked myself or were asked of me in those days. The worst of these questions was the one that she asked when I told her about my moment of doubt. It was the only time in four years that she had ever raised her voice toward me. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” At the time I didn’t know what to say. But looking back, cutting through my metaphors and biblical illusions which I’d lifted from my education to make myself feel connected to something greater, the answer is quite simple. I was scared, and I hated myself then. That is why.
My memory of the places she and I had gone to together has never betrayed me. Instead, it has been faithful to a fault in bestowing my sleeping mind visions of our happy past. It didn’t fail me when I got to the college at the end of that spring break in a fury. I’d made the four-hour drive in half the time by speeding the entire way. I’d come back that night to try to save things between us, and I rattled away memory after memory to her in the light of her room which was so dim it was as if it were lit by candles. She always hated florescent lighting.
Together, cross legged on the floor, instead of how we normally sat on the edge of the bed, we went through happy histories that now felt as if they belonged to someone else. There was the time we went to the Elephant’s Trunk flea market by her home town in Connecticut, and she was supportive of me when I almost bought a Russian balalaika. Or when she’d visited me on Cape Cod, and I’d gotten food poisoning on the ferry ride home, and she was very accepting that I had to beg my brother to come pick us up, because I didn’t think I’d survive the bus ride. There was time when she and I accidentally bought matching English three speed bicycles independent of one another without realizing it, and later rode them together through the streets of the town we spent our college days in. We relived the heat of countless trips back and forth across state lines between Massachusetts and Connecticut to visit one another in the summertime, and for a faint second, I could relive the excitement of seeing her another again after many weeks apart, in the frantic pace by which I drove through weeks and months and years.
That wasn’t enough though. I don’t think anything could have allowed me to go back to that more innocent time. I felt as ruined as my crucifix stained bed sheets. I wasn’t some forgotten king of isolation. My walls were not those of an ancient city, nor was the dust the rubble. I was just an asshole who’d fucked things up. You can quote me on that. I have been a bad person. In the end, we can only escape to the past for so long, because eventually, it will lead to the present. There was silence when we ran out of memories, and that night I left her room to sleep in my old bed of unwashed sheets and waited without any more ideas or histories. That night I slept without fear or panic for the first time in weeks. Rebuilding Istanbul. Starting again. Making new myself; the only earth that I have.