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In Silence We Became the Most Real





What’s best is on windy days
when the smell of Antilles lilies or petrichor
washes over me like an illusion of a warm summer

“Antillian Landscape,” Ruben Quesada

Perhaps because it’s that time of year I walk among the suits and respectable black dresses of Grand Central, attempting professorial, getting caught up in the shuffle of syllabi, reading lists, assigned poetry collections not even published yet, new faces who take offense I don’t remember their names on the first day, just after class has ended. Perhaps it’s because some students linger, walk me to the train, the not-single-file of us trekking down the hot, congested city streets are taken as a direct threat by other pedestrians, and even though autumn is a lie in New York anyway, and even though I have a suspicion all those Autumn in New York films are shot in the most controlled-temperature, Instagram-filtered locations far from actual NYC in which summer lingers well into the final days of September, when it’s both humid and chilly, everything sweating, shivering, fanning itself while zipping up hoodie, stripping off raincoat because it’s too hot still, even then, I’m grateful for my students to cluster around me, sharing over-exclamated exchanges about poetry and poets, as we pile into the subway station, bound and shove our way down the stairs and perhaps it’s because of their familiar-unfamiliar faces, the unrelenting heat, and general roar of the city, that I feel buoyant and slightly somnolent, thinking this all a dream, as I remember your words in “Antillian Landscape”: “I am / weightless in thought. My eyes close. I smell a sea rose,” which is all to say I’ve been thinking of you lately, but no, not just for this reason.

Perhaps because in New York City, academia must strain to keep straight all its right angles and fresh-sheet-of-paper theories and tweedy-armchair-cutty-sark-club mentalities, trying to distance itself from real life, and the life of cities, and I’m not being facetious when I say in autumn, the whole thing casts a spell over me, so that when I began writing this, I wanted to call it something solid, something empirically pontific, something like “On Poetry & the Nature of Friendship,” which I texted as a possible title to myself on a faulty-air-conditioned car of the 7 Train, in torn jeans and t-back camisole most unprofessorial, the train so crowded I didn’t have to hold onto a pole or handrail, glued to the numerous sweaty bodies which kept me upright as I freaked out over a title like “On Poetry & the Nature of Friendship,” worrying at the very least I didn’t get the capital letters in a title right.

On Poetry & the Nature of Friendship. How clinical. How terse. Like you and I ever existed in the minds of twentieth-century shoot-bear-matador-treatise-expat-experts. I’d rather just tell you these things in person, meet up at Temple Bar just as it opens at five, when it’s neither afternoon nor evening and it’s still empty and dark inside and we have the place mostly to ourselves, but you are in a different city, a different time zone, Chicago, which means you’re not on the other side of the country, but also not close enough. It’s a real kind of distance, in which the angles of geography strain a little less to remain real. It’s the kind of distance you can’t speak in one breath. A distance that pulls on the crook of my arm, your not-here-ness, which also makes you more real, keeps you in my subconscious, a filter over what’s imperceptible.

You are the kind of friend I talk to every day even when I don’t, the kind of friend whom I should call more often, always, and I want to start this with Dear Ruben. No italics, no finite stop.

Dear Ruben,

Dear Ruben…

* * *

Where has it all gone,
the roll-away television, the lost morning?
Today, hundreds of miles away behind
closed doors, huddled in empty corners,
the fractured flowering of words…

—”Interstate,” Ruben Quesada

Shabbat morning. I’m writing this in an acid-washed romper, which is actually a casualty of bleach I mistook for stain cleaner. By chance, a bleached heart emerged when I pulled it out of the dryer. I no longer observe Shabbat, yet this is what I call Saturday. Our cat, fed up with the heat, fitfully sleeps away most of the day. The orchid on my desk is still asleep. Have you met Kaveh Akbar? He’s a wizard; check your floorboards. Or rather, listen to what’s underneath them. My ear is to the floor as much as my eyes are to the sky. The sun has gone away. Steam arises from sidewalks outside. I make casualty of my own body, forgetting to drink enough water, forget the figs my husband washed for me. I drag him outside during the hours experts warn to stay inside, and as we stand under the shade of the large trees on Skillman Avenue, I remember that I have to water my orchid sometime soon, not too often, is it too close to the window, has the sun bleached its exposed roots?

My husband assures me the orchid is coming around. Some mornings I lose my temper and call it The Most Difficult, Stubborn and No-Good Flower Around. Since I discovered the orchids of Kaveh Akbar (check your floorboards, dear Ruben), I’ve read my most difficult and stubborn used-to-be-a-flower poems. Last week, our super came to fix a burst pipe and I felt shy about keeping my early morning schedule, reading a poem to the orchid as I drank my coffee. I shut the bedroom door. He watched me do this from the bathroom as he fixed our sink. I realized I didn’t want to whisper, hide what I was doing. I opened the door and explained to the super that I read poems to my orchid first thing in the morning, before I eat, before I teach, before I leave the apartment. He said: Sure.

Later, as we walked out together, the leaky pipe fixed, he turned to me and offered: don’t read the flower any news; it’s all depressing these days.

 All days, since forever, I said, in my mother’s voice.

Exactly, he said to me, my mother.

By the way this is all new, I admitted. Reading to plants. I don’t do well with them.

My wife talks to our car, he smiled. I get it.

I smiled back, and then he added: She’s a terrible driver.

Ruben, I’ve been taking driving lessons. More specifically, when we visit Toronto twice a year, my husband drives me to deserted parking lots late at night in his family’s one car that still runs. Mostly I practice turning. Around and around we go. I accelerate while turning. I realize in real life this is not a good idea. As in on real roads with two-lane traffic, super highways, bumper-to-bumper gridlock. We have to fit inside pattern after pattern, or we might get hurt. Ruben, do you remember leaving that bar at AWP in Seattle with Brian Kornell and we were complaining that it’s such a straight world, how it pushes us to its something solid, something empirically pontific? Stay within the lines. Yield, which is not always a full stop. Right on red, but only sometimes. And yet what a sensible, staunch, upstanding world of parallel parking, alternate-side parking, meters, tickets, defensive driving, DEAD END, DO NOT ENTER, WRONG WAY, NO STANDING ANY TIME, NO OUTLET, who doesn’t get tired of such things, with the roads we’ve been told are the most real thing in the world, and quite possibly the only real thing that carries us, that makes us real, when we are three leaving a bar in Seattle and we are even more, there’s many of us, in fact, who want to be the kind of unbroken roads in which one could just go go go—

You can’t treat everything like the Autobahn, my husband brings me back to Toronto, trying to be helpful, but instead I speed up. Luckily it’s always a big space, the empty lots he finds to practice well after midnight. Around and around we go. In Canada life seems easier; places are very frank about what they sell. We order pizza from Pizza Pizza. We buy beer from The Beer Store. We buy groceries at No Frills, Save-on-Foods, Real Canadian Superstore. Then there’s the days his mother likes to stroll with me arm-in-arm at Pacific Mall, which claims to be “The Largest Chinese Indoor Mall in North America,” and she too is someone I talk to every day even when I don’t, the kind of beloved whom I should call more often. Around and around we go shopping for clothing, food, Cantonese-language movies in which she hopes I look at the subtitles less.

When we get back to their house, often she’s still awake. She has tea and a snack prepared for us, congee, ramen, something light, something to keep us another waking hour with her, and I try to imagine being married to another person and having another woman as my other mother and it’s the most impossible thing.

How is it out there? She always asks, as if we’d just returned from some Great Adventure and not the parking lot of a No Frills. I am certainly not Hercules. I haven’t been condemned like Atlas to hold up the sky, nor is my name synonymous with maps. How is it out there? I think about driving along the real roads of the most remote parts of Iceland where sudden snowstorms disappear the road in a matter of minutes, if minutes, the sky, your line of sight, everything, that kind of real life in which the most reliable of roads don’t stand a chance.

I think of the people I’d want in the car with me. No final moments. We escape each and every time. Snowstorm can’t handle. Nothing is remote about a road full of people that a single car has trouble to contain. Perhaps this is why I accelerate on turns, my instinct knowing something about that real life I can’t seem to shake, wedded deeply within my genes, that if it came down to it, I’d become the protective metal shield of car as well as the escape. I would be the horses that would lie in wait, the good, strong, weather-proof horses that would carry everyone to safety, I would leave this body of mine behind and become a whole, winding interstate that uproots itself if necessary, and it frightens me, thinking what love makes us capable of, and how much you mean to me.

* * *

Every day,
you should breathe in deeply
for the fireflies and the crickets; watch
the constellations of moths choke
on the glowing street lamp and the yawning
cockroaches before the sun flushes away.

—”Cimmerian,” Ruben Quesada

Yesterday after we spoke on the phone, I finally understood a word that has eluded me for years: reify, that desire to make something abstract more concrete and real. It seemed to have come out of a short moment of silence between us, a silence that came out of nowhere, which is not to say it came from nothing, for that silence, which could not have even been a minute long, took on a weight, filled my entire head with glaring light and the sound of the sea. Not how one hears the sea in a shell, but the actual sea, that which I’ve stood at the water’s edge of South Padre, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, countless shorelines and islands and inlets. I heard the limitless standing on its limit. I heard a light in the silence, crossing from me to you. Not Facebook “sending you lots of light” (although I understand the good intentions in which that springs). I mean what suddenly, unapologetically interrupts our busy lives. Our children we do not have who scream nonetheless. I was afraid of the silence, how a pause can turn into something too large to contend with. As a Jew, I am afraid of such stillness. I want to mark the screen, fill the page, go on speaking to a God who no longer speaks like people speak.

Was that silence between us a forgotten language? The first language? A remnant of our-better-used-to-be?

Is sharing a moment of being silent with someone the kind of trust one has only with a few?

Perhaps the silence that reifies the bond between us is the same silence that reifies the distance between us. I was never so silent with anyone in my life, my dear friend. Forgive me for interrupting the silence that day, prematurely, with words and then more words, only to have the phone disconnect us, as if I had let down some higher power. The silence as a Jew I could not bear that day I will learn to bear a little more, even as this page fills, even as the roads I cannot yet imagine are forged in some much greater silence.

 * * *

For some time now, Ruben, I’ve been thinking about all the work you do for poets, for the LGBTQ communities, for the Latina/o communities, and how all these worlds cross and are never one world anyway. I’ve been rereading your poetry and your book Next Extinct Mammal, and while I don’t know about angels, I do know about conduits, and I see you in the words and work of other poets I love, even if you don’t know them. The trees I still cannot name on Skillman Avenue remind me of you. The doves that come to rest on our fire escape remind me of you.

Is this what it means to reify someone in our lives?

There is no occasion for these words. Do we need a reason to tell someone how much they mean to us? I no longer handwrite letters, though I long to, I’m not sure my fingers will remember the music in picking up a pen as they do now when they type. Perhaps I’m just making excuses. Perhaps I just follow where the music goes. You are there. You are in the music, and you are there when it goes silent and I’m still learning to let it hold. Next time, and the next, and still again, I’ll learn to reify the silence with you as something necessary, as something good, as something overflowing as the desk in which I write this, as I read it aloud to the orchid, to my husband who passes through with fresh coffee and the figs I’ve yet to eat, to the bar stool I’m using as a little table next to my desk piled high with books, all sort of books I read in on crowded trains and attempt to teach professorially, poetry collections, Icelandic thriller paperbacks, novels by S. Y. Agnon and Yaakov Shabtai, the Icelandic sagas, Murakami short story collections, a copy of the Pritzker’s Zohar, Volume 1. There’s Jennifer Givhan’s Landscape with Headless Mama and R.A. Villanueva’s Reliquaria, and you are there in all of these volumes, these dog-eared, highlighted, note-filled volumes, some of which I would not part with when I left Jerusalem, heartbroken and shattered, a time in which I did not know you as a friend, a time that is one of the few things I can say has ended, for now there’s only knowing you, and knowing you longer. Tomorrow I will make my way through the crowded streets with a new silence, a new way of listening. Tomorrow, an idea reified as the sound of snow falling in other quiet places, other places not New York City, whose elevated, exposed train tracks I walk under in Queens, as trains pass over, splitting apart conversations, innermost thoughts, plan-making. Tomorrow, the most quiet place I have yet to find again, with you, over a perfectly-clear line, over a certain distance, how it goes on and on, until it is not silence nor distance but you, a most reified you which I can never lose.

Night is falling, and I take a break from this to talk to Darrel Alejandro Holnes and although I said nothing about you in particular, you are there, with both of us. Looking out the window at the box-shaped apartments in colorful rows of sky blue, white, caramel, marmalade, and you are there with verse-spiraling ribbon, with ink-well and tools, with sunsets to lay over them. It’s a seasonless evening, all clouds, no sunset, extremely humid, a slight chill everywhere. Not seasonless, but every season, and you, you are there.