The Places Your Body Is Not
“Can you take me where you’re going if you’re never coming back?”
New York is a city of narrow skies. It is a long way from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where I grew up. Down there it’s green and warm, the world a series of gentle slopes. Down there something always seems to be singing; birds, cicadas, and when those disappear for the winter, people.
New York is different. The landscape is vertical, not horizontal. It’s loud and sharp, and my idyllic portrayal of where I’m from belies the fact that I left for a reason. I totally bought into the dream of New York. The world is wide screen in Virginia, which means that things are smaller. They have more space to breathe, and so they diminish and dissolve. New York is a place almost painfully real.
All those people, the cars, the horns, the scrape of the subways coming up through the grates in the sidewalk. The garbage, the trash, the things cast off. Skyscrapers, subway stations, halal carts, all of Brooklyn’s vinyl siding. It’s all real, it’s all alive.
And beneath it all, there is a rock in central park. It’s not any of the ones that you know about, at least not yet.
My father took his own life on July 4th, 2018. I will not get into too many of the specifics, I’ve already devoted too many words, most of them miserable, to that particular subject, so for now I will simply present it as an undeniable fact. My father took his own life on July 4th, 2018. It is an event that has loomed impossibly large on my personal landscape and casts most things into shadow. It’s a shadow that I find myself in when reach the top of the subway stairs stairs at the corner of 57th street and 7th ave, a shadow both real and symbolic.
Everyone’s father has his own particular habits, and one of my father’s was collecting rocks. If he saw one on the ground, and it sparked some interest, he would bring it home and it would live in a bowl. There were others like him. As life moved ever forward, we would encounter new people, those people would come to the house for the first time, and every once and a while someone would spot the bowl and remark something simple, maybe a “cool rocks,” or even just a raised eyebrow and a nod toward the bowl. They understood.
“Okay so there’s a package in the mail for your birthday and you need to call me when you get it because I have to explain.”
The delta twang in my mother’s voice is subtle and warm, much like Memphis, the city where she grew up, and the city where she now lives. After a 30 year arc, she has returned to a city that’s always felt like home to her. In the years spent away from the place, she lost her accent, and these days it only comes out when she’s nervous or talking about something she truly cares about — I can’t tell which it is this time around. It reminds me of school assemblies where my mother had to speak on behalf of the PTO. It reminds me of hearing stories from her own childhood, when she would simply revert to the way she had always said the names of places or old friends.” It reminds me of the phone call to tell me that my father had died.
“You know how Dad always collected rocks,” the explanation begins. I had received the package from my mother and immediately made a confused phone call. Inside, among other things, was a ziplock bag containing five rocks, “CALL ME” written on the outside in permanent marker. “I want you to pick five different spots around New York, places your Dad liked. Try to hit the places he always talked about. You know the city better than I do. I want you to go and leave a rock at each place.”
My father’s ashes are in a trout stream in the smoky mountains, he was an avid fisherman, but this anonymous stream off of I-40 was his favorite. It was the subject of an article he wrote for Outside Magazine, where he was the senior editor for several years. The article opened with “I know where I want my ashes to be scattered.” There is a photo of him, alive, standing waist deep in that stream, knowing that one day, eventually, he would be back. That was my father, unafraid of the dark, even when he was going to meet it.
His actual remains are in a single place, so the rocks seem an obvious stand in. A way to leave pieces of a person in all of the places he loved. My father was many things, but my favorite was always his role as a contributing writer for National Geographic. He went so many places, met so many people. It only makes sense that the man loved the world well beyond where his body could rest.
One: The Central Park Zoo
Coming up the subway stairs at 57th and 7th, the rocks sit in my left coat pocket. They click together as I make my way up, high-pitched and arrhythmic, and at least a passing thought is given to Marley’s ghost. I have been thinking a lot about ghosts recently.
In New York City it’s one of those March days when anything feels possible because for the first time in a long time the weather is what passes for warm — at least by comparison. I didn’t wear black to my father’s funeral, but I am wearing black now. My father always joked that he was like a cartoon character, wearing the same outfit every day. A white button down and Levis 501 jeans. That is what I wore when respects needed to paid, I even wore his favorite pair of boots (our feet being the same size.) Suicide is a weird thing, a complete and total overload of the system. I didn’t begin the typical grief process until months later. It’s like that high pitched ringing you hear in movies, lingering after a bomb has gone off too close to a person.
For a long time it didn’t really seem like he was gone. Having spent his life traveling the world, it wasn’t uncommon for my father to find himself somewhere way beyond infrastructure in the places where even a cell phone’s invisible hands could not connect us. Growing up there would be entire weeks, occasionally even a month, where we wouldn’t hear from him by phone, trusting always that he was okay. Sometimes a postcard would show up, a confirmation of life on a delay like when you hear an airplane and look to where the sound comes from only to find that the thing is moved on. After he died, I spent months under that same assumption. That he is okay, but unable to call right now. But now there are no postcards, and I am still looking toward the sound of something long gone and out of sight.
I make my way along Central Park South, past the hotels and luxury apartment buildings, basking in the occasional warmth of the overhead heating lamps attached to awnings of the wealthier buildings (“wealthier,” I say as if there is a shred of non-affluence along Central Park South.) These bursts of heat remind me of being in the back seat of the family car on road trips as a kid, trying to read a book by half sentences under passing streetlights.
The air between buildings is crisp, not warm, not cold. It sounds strange to say, but this is the kind of day when people are supposed to die. Beautiful and unassuming. People don’t die on the Fourth of July. They don’t die during celebrations. The world shouldn’t be allowed to work like that.
But it does.
Across the street there are still large sections of unmelted snow in the park, on dark sides of hills and beneath trees. White and lifeless, little bursts of lunar surface here on earth.
It feels fitting to start in Central Park, because that’s where my father began. His first day in New York City was September 19th, 1981. He arrived as a cliche, little more than a backpack and an idea of what he wanted to be. He had no job, no apartment, just a couple of friends from college who had spaces on their floor.
The night of September 19th saw Simon & Garfunkel performing their legendary concert in Central Park. Ed Koch introduces the band. They walk out on stage and shake hands, a truce drawn after an on-and-off battle of personalities. An estimated 500,000 people were in Central Park that night despite an all-day rain, and my father was among them. After all, it was free, and there’s nothing New York loves more than free.
The album opens with “Mrs. Robinson,” and as I make my way under the Inscope Arch toward the zoo, I’m shocked to find out that the lyric is “laugh about it, shout about it” and not, as I had remembered it: “laugh about it, cry about it.” Indicative, maybe.
I first moved to New York in 2012 to pursue a career in photography in what feels like another life entirely. A departing piece of advice my father gave me on the morning I climbed into a U-Haul was “when you get the chance, go look at the seals in the Central Park Zoo. They’re kinda zen. They don’t owe you anything. I used to do it all the time whenever I would get overwhelmed.”
As far as I remember it, this ritual was lifted wholesale from a movie, but the title of which is completely beyond me. As a result, the idea firmly belongs to my father, at least to me.
Even in the moment I know that this first rock is going to be the most difficult of the five. I’m here to say goodbye. My mother is a middle school teacher, and on her comically early spring break, she distributed her fair share of rocks across the mid-south in different trout streams, in front of favorite restaurants in different cities, and even hurled one into the lawn of the house my family had lived in for 20 years, which is an image that makes me smile thinking about it, even though I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see that house again.
Each time my mother leaves a rock somewhere, she kisses it before dropping it. She knows full and well that the rock is not my father, but she treats each one like some part of him is contained inside. I’ve selected each rock for a specific location, some of them more specifically than others, and I run my thumb over the rough surface of the largest one as I make my way through the zoo’s gates. And I mean the front gates, not the actual entrance to the zoo. I am an adult (13 and older) and an additional $19.95 is a precious thing to keep, so I stay in the free part of the zoo’s main walkway.
I hadn’t ever come to the zoo before, despite my father’s advice about the seals. I’d never even seen the place, outside of an animated version presented in Madagascar (2005), a movie whose branding coats most available surfaces, and a movie that my father and I saw in theaters and equally enjoyed, me at 12 and him at 46. I knew which places I would be leaving these five rocks, but not the precise location I would actually drop the thing.
Walking down the center of the path, it comes as some kind of miracle to me that you can see the seal enclosure without actually paying to go through the turnstile. The zoo was built in the 1860s, but at this exact moment it feels like it was built for me that exact same morning. It was showing itself to me exactly as I needed it to be.
There’s a large brick archway, directly in the center of the zoo’s border that clearly served as an entrance at some point but has since been relegated to decoration. I stand just to the left of the thing and watch the seals for a moment. Dad was right. There really is something peaceful about them. They swim in circles around their enclosure, they sun themselves on the rocks, they are self-contained and indifferent. It’s almost admirable in a way.
I pull my phone from a pocket and I quickly scan the Wikipedia article for the zoo, and learn, much to my surprise, that these are actually sea lions. I wish that I could tell my father, and I figure that this is as good a time as any to leave behind my first piece of him. I wrap my hand around the rock tightly, trying to remember what it was like to be with him in person, to be able to actually speak to him. In my head I decide on “Hey Dad, I tried to see the seals when I got overwhelmed, they got me on a technicality. Turns out they’re sea lions. I thought you’d like to watch them anyway.”
The rock slips from my hand almost by accident, like I wasn’t quite ready to let it go, but once it hits the ground, it looks as if it had been there all along. This feels meaningful somehow, but I can’t pin it down. It seems like I am trying to hold the breeze. It’s there, but it’s not mine to own, I can only be a part of it.
The rock sits at the base of a tree to the left of that central arch. I take a quick photo and I walk away. A parting glance over my shoulder reveals that a family in athletic wear took up my spot almost immediately. They don’t seem to notice anything new or out of the ordinary.
A public secret between father and son.
Two: The American Museum of Natural History
It’s 1.1 miles between the Central Park Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History but I swear it feels longer. The central promenade of the park seems to go on forever when you are standing at one end of it, but you cover the distance in no time at all.
I read somewhere that it’s the same way with life. That as you get older, things seem to speed up. It makes sense. I have a less-than-High-School education, but even I can grasp a basic fraction. The more years you live, the smaller a portion of your life that single year makes up. It’s been eight months since my father died, but I still wake up on mornings feeling as if it were August, as if it just happened.
Memory is a strange thing. Something that should be objective gets distorted into subjectivity like that. Take, for example, the table vendors that line either side of the Central Park mall. Every single one of them sells something can be found on any table between 34th street and 82nd street. Caricatures, black and white photographs of street signs like Broadway and Gay St., and in recent years, little paper sculptures of buildings. These things are constant, the people who purchase them are not. Most of them are likely from out of town, temporary in this place, and while anyone who lives here might know how often you can come across these objects, the people who do not, do not. Their relationship with them is going to be their own. Such is the same with life.
By the time I reach Bethesda Terrace and its fountain I am wrapped up in a question:
How do you deal with the fact that you will not always be present for the future?
Wordplay aside, Is the answer that you live on through objects? It has to be. I mean, look at what I am doing here today. Inheritances, tomb stones, rocks collected in a bowl — artifacts that prove that you were. More than that, is the answer to the question that you live on through the objects that you create? I am my own person, sure, but was I not created? Is my father not living on through me writing about his life? Walking across Bethesda Terrace, I wonder: how many photos will I be captured in the background of? Forever with my headphones on, my eyes wide, lost in my own question. What of this, then? What of The Places Your Body Is Not? Am I not trying to create something that might exist beyond me? Some words, encased forever in the relative permanence of the internet. Read by who? And for what?
For me, I guess. This is my history.
Of course this is where I get lost as I am walking to the American Museum of Natural History, a place dedicated to preserving history as it exists physically. How could it happen any other way?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that my father was larger than life. I would have taken him as a fictional character, had I not spent a quarter of a century as his son.
He once repelled down inside the crater atop an active volcano with photographer and fellow NatGeo explorer Carsten Peter. Dangling from ropes above certain death, all in service of Peter photographing lava as close-up as humanly possible (“Inside The Volcano,” National Geographic, 2001. He originally wanted to call it “Carsten Peter Can Go To Hell,” but you can see why they changed it.)
He toured Chernobyl to look at the ways the planet is reclaiming what used to be a city in the wake of the reactor meltdown (Best Life Magazine, 2008.)
He rode around the South China Sea to examine modern piracy (“Under the Black Flag: Life Among the Pirates”, The New York Times, 1994) and on the flip side of the coin, and I am not making this up, helped recover treasure from a pirate ship that sank in 1717 (“Pirates of the Whyda,” National Geographic, 1999.) A silver coin, literal pirate’s treasure, recovered from the hull of the Whyda Gally, sits in a frame at my mother’s house to this day.
I began seeing a therapist about four months after my father’s suicide. It took me six months of weekly sessions to say his name for the first time. When I talk to other people, heis always staunchly “my father” or the somehow more tender “my dad.” This is entirely deliberate, and I will not be using his name in this particular piece (despite listing the exact titles, publishers, and years for some of his stories.) What you do beyond reading this particular piece is out of my control, but in the meantime, I will try to remain in control as best I can.
My father’s descent into alcoholism, leading him to jail time, and eventually to take his own life was a five year struggle for my family. By presenting him to you, the reader, as simply “my father,” it feels like I can protect my memories somehow. If it is more difficult to Google his name, then you cannot do anything but take my word and accept the version of him that I wish to remember. After a person dies, you can only Google their name so many times before the results stop changing, and the internet is always going to skew negative.
I am not going to defend my father’s actions, but it’s like the saying goes: everybody loves you when you’re dead. I was deeply, impossibly angry with him went he went to jail, but I feel, now, like all of that has to go out the window.
This was not a senseless tragedy. This was not a a slip off a ladder while cleaning the gutters, or a heart attack while shoveling snow. Those things have their variables, sure, but suicide is different. There is history that can be mapped out.
His mother beat him as a child. Never either of his siblings. Always him. He carried that with him his entire life. He was at his mother’s bedside when she died, and even in her final days, she never delivered the apology that he so desperately wanted.
For most of his life, he traveled the world as a writer, and while sometimes glamorous, it was often anything but. Sometimes it was outright dangerous. My father was in Morocco in the winter of 2001, when someone clubbed him in public with a length of pipe and shouted “death to America.” An enormous crowd of bystanders piled on the man and held him down until the police arrived. In 2003, he was in Baghdad reporting on the outset of the Iraq War, of which he was an outspoken critic. He watched as an American soldier was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade. An Iraqi citizen picked up the soldier’s leg, now separate from the rest of his body, and walked toward the U.S. Army medics holding it, saying, over and over again, “the meat, the meat.” In 2004, he was tasked with ground reporting for the United Nations for their report on the Indian Ocean tsunami. That one, in particular, seemed to take a serious toll on him.
“I had to wear a surgical mask at all times because the officials were worried that we would all be breathing in particles coming off of decaying bodies,” he once told me. “Entire countries smelled like death.”
After my father took his own life, I spent weeks sifting through his things. In his Google Docs I found an unpublished piece, bluntly titled “The Hell In My Head.”
It begins: “there is no cure for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the maddeningly vague anxiety condition plaguing countless soldiers and other people struggling with painful memories.” It goes almost without saying that my father struggled immensely with PTSD. He was diagnosed with the condition by three different doctors. It’s impossible to know whether or not to know they were referring to the abuse sustained at the hands of his mother, or things sustained in all of his travels, or both. It brings to mind things you hear in movies and from media pundits: problems, both domestic and foreign.
He began to self-medicate, it landed him at the scene of a car accident, which then landed him in jail. Given the way that America demonizes its convicts, which it produces more of than any other nation on Earth, is it any wonder that my father returned to the only solution that he knew when he was released? Is it any wonder that said solution was, in fact, not a solution?
I have been trying to form a more sympathetic portrait of my father toward the end of his life, one where I do not have to be quite so angry (some, I feel, is justified.) He was a person forced to reevaluate a world that was, in many ways, actively against him. There were many on his side, however, but often the negatives in life function like anchors. As a 59 year old man, it is much easier to walk to a grocery store to buy alcohol and have them clearly see that you’re over 21, and thus not ask to see a valid ID, than it is for someone freshly released from prison to get back their driver’s license. Is it any wonder that he returned to drinking?
In some ways, you serve your time forever.
So with all of that on the table, I would like to present you with the version of my father that I knew. Growing up, most kids seemed to be embarrassed by their parents. Not me.
For my parents’ 20th wedding anniversary, my mother ordered my father a map and a bunch of pins to mark all of the places that he had been. He ran out of pins in the first night. In his 59 years, he had been to 104 countries, many of those working like fractals, with smaller clusters of pins marking all of the individual cities that he had been to.
In school, I always looked forward to the days that my father would come speak to my classes about whatever country that were learning about. With six continents and 104 countries under his belt, there was a fairly good chance that he had been to whatever place we were learning about, or could at least offer some kind of perspective on the region to Virginia grade-schoolers. Six continents, not seven.
My father maintained that he was once asked if he would be willing to go to the moon, and he said yes without hesitation. Once, when telling this story to my sister, she asked “wouldn’t you be scared?”
“Why would I be?”
The trip to the moon didn’t pan out, obviously. He claimed that it was because I was born, and he wanted to spend time at home with the family. It was either that, or his total lack of knowledge about aerospace engineering. You choose.
He was unafraid to leave the planet, but there was one place on earth that he was truly afraid to go. Antarctica. Someone once told him that “when you’re there, once you get cold, you never warm back up,” and that was enough.
Born in 1959, the son of a doctor in the suburbs of Chicago. He grew up in a place and a time where Men were Men. They were brave. It was a time when you simply did not show any cracks in the facade of the American dream, despite the 1960s being the gold standard for American dysfunction (until, you know.) Divorce was never spoken about, abortion was only accepted by the radical, and PTSD was not yet the epidemic that it would become in the post-Vietnam War modernization of the American military. (Others have echoed this sentiment, but my father was always adamant about saying “war” when discussing particular conflicts. He would never relegate countries to what happened in them. Vietnam is a country, a people, a culture — the Vietnam War is not the only thing to ever happen there. The same goes for Iraq, Afghanistan, and on a more personal level, the same would be true for the town in which my family lived: Charlottesville. My hometown has ultimately become synonymous in the minds of most Americans.)
In 2005, my father stood against the low-tide green of a public school chalkboard and showed off the body armor that he had worn in Baghdad. He would pick one kid in the class and make them wear the body armor for the duration of the 45 minute period, just to show off the weight of the thing, and how hot you would get while wearing it. He always chose my closest friends, the kids who he recognized, or whose names he at least knew. It was absolutely a special treatment, as if he knew the light he gave off and would let it really touch the people he felt closer to. Obviously he was not going to tell seventh graders about PTSD, or the politics of America getting involved in Iraq, but it was a civics class, and it was war time. Despite all the things that happened to him in countries like Morocco and Iraq, he would talk positively and passionately about the countries, and would return to them over the course of his life because of a genuine love for the world and all of its facets.
When the periods cycled through, and I finally landed in the civics class that featured my father as the guest speaker, he singled me out. “That’s my son, James. You probably know him as the guy with long hair and a negative attitude.” Nobody even looked at me, simply because of the black-hole gravity of my father’s presence.
This brings us, finally, to The American Museum of Natural History. My mother chose the rocks that she sent me at random, one of which happened to be an arrowhead that my father found in the woods behind our family’s house. Naturally, I have selected the arrowhead for the museum.
In the dinosaur-devoted floor of the museum, there are the fossilized remains of an Oviraptor, curled up around a nest of unhatched eggs, a desperate parent at the end of the world. The remains of this particular Oviraptor were discovered in the Gobi desert, a sea of sand that crosses between Mongolia and northern China. In 1998, my father was present in the excavation of the fossil, and is briefly visible (he wears a red baseball cap) in one of the accompanying videos that plays alongside the exhibit. Like with my middle school civics class, I have loved to tell friends that “my dad is in the Museum of Natural History” to feel, for lack of a better word, cool by association.
It’s cliche, and comes straight from a certain Salinger novel that will go unnamed, but I am hesitant to return to the museum to find that the Oviraptor has been moved into storage or made otherwise inaccessible.
I thought I would simply toss the arrowhead over the fence that surrounds the museum, but I was presented with a better option. On 77th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Ave, there is an entrance to the museum, the red-ish one that almost looks like a castle, not the iconic columns and Roosevelt statue. In front of the entrance is a planter full of ferns. I decided that I would bury the thing in the soil as if it was an actual artifact. Leave it for someone to find somewhere down the line.
When my father visited Chernobyl in 2008, his guide said to him that “Chernobyl was the crown jewel of the Soviet Union.” The appropriate American analogue might be Silicon Valley. It was the flash point of innovation, a technological marvel that went wrong. His guide said that if foreign diplomats were visiting the Soviet Union, they were taken to Chernobyl to see the advances in technology. They weren’t taken to Moscow to see Red Square, they were taken to see the reactors. His guide gestured around, the wind passing through the abandoned city, opening and closing thousands of unseen doors. “This was the future, and the future ended.”
In an archived radio interview that my father did about that particular trip, he says, of a barely-averted apocalypse, “I can’t imagine your future turning on a dime like that.” To some extent, in the wake of my father’s suicide, I can.
I think we all underestimate how difficult it is to keep all of this, the world at large, inside ourselves as memory.
I bury the arrowhead in the planter. I wonder how long it will be until anyone actually finds it.The arrowhead is an unofficial donation to the museum, and I am content to keep the dirt beneath my fingernails. Dirt, earth, the Earth.
I have no choice but to try to carry it all with me, much like my father did.
Three: Grand Central Oyster Bar
Naturally the A and C trains aren’t running downtown on weekends, so I have no choice but to walk the avenue blocks over to the 79th street 1 train station. Taking the train from there to Times Square, and then catching the shuttle train over to Grand Central.
To the west of the Museum of Natural History is a farmer’s market that is swarming with people even in the coldest months. While Central Park may have been crowded, it never bottle-necked like this, and for the first time today, it strikes me that I am not alone. I am in a bubble, sure, headphones on, jotting down notes on my phone, but for the first time I am aware of other people. It feels like the entirety of New York City is present in a single block.
Have you ever been shocked by the fact that the world does not exist singularly between your ears?
A Fresh Direct delivery person stands with one arm on a hand cart, his other holds his phone, escaping. There is an asian woman who appears to be drowning in her own scarf, it floods down her arms. There is an old Italian man holding an espresso cup in his large hands, the contrast makes him appear giant.
On the side of a bus stop, and on the side of a bus itself, there are ads for Broad City, Veep, and Game of Thrones. Every TV show seems to be in its final season, like the world is ending or we’ve decided that all of this isn’t worth it.
A strange thing happened after my father died. I became extremely, intensely interested in Haiku poetry. My father operated by a simple code: every year, you should become fascinated by something that you know nothing about. One year my family socialized a service dog, one year my father became interested in cave systems, one year he became interested in Cold War murals painted on the walls of nuclear missile silos by bored soldiers, one year he joined a local theater troupe and starred as Captain Von Trapp in a production of The Sound of Music This is a philosophy that I have attempted to adopt.
On a whim, I picked up On Haiku by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions, 2018) and what I found was what I needed most: clarity. Suicide is an intense, muddled thing and I found some sense of relief in people like Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa.
My father fluently spoke three languages, English, Spanish, and French (the last of which he spoke in two different dialects, European and African.) He spoke almost a dozen languages, either influently or just in fragments. He used to joke about being able to say “send two beers to my room” in every language on Earth. A joke that became progressively darker over the years.
In 2016, just days after my father was released from prison, I watched as he he ordered from a chinese restaurant using the small amount of Mandarin that he knew. As we ate, he said to me, “to learn another country’s language is like like figuring out how they think. Americans think in one way. Other countries think in different ways. I mean, shit, even England thinks in a different way than we do, and we speak more-or-less the same language.”
If to learn another language is to learn a new way of thinking, that is what I found in Haiku. Haiku is not necessarily the gimmicky five-seven-five as it is so often taught in the annual poetry unit of your grade-school English class. The commonly cited definition is that Haiku must be seventeen syllables,frequently focus on nature, and must capture “a moment keenly observed.” Haiku present clarity, the smallest observation, but still worthy of documenting. Basho is the most famous of all the haiku poets, his most famous goes: “an old pond / frog jumps in / sound of water.” Issa less famously writes “the snow is melting / and the village is flooded / with children.”
Haiku are often written as three lines, but are not required to be. And while they are written in one way, they are frequently translated in another, as one line. And for that matter, Haiku do not translate literally. Seventeen syllables in Japanese is any number of things in English. In bringing them to a wider audience, you have to break the medium’s only rule.
That is, more or less, how I feel about what I am doing here. By bringing all of this to you, by bringing you The Places Your Body Is Not, I am breaking my own personal rules. My thoughts and feelings — internal things, intrinsically understood by my body — require an unbelievable number of syllables in order to be read by anyone who does not speak my language.
On a Saturday afternoon, Grand Central Station is alive with moments to be “keenly observed.” There are an infinite number of people on an infinite number of cell phones talking to yet another infinity of people. Life is exponential in Grand Central because all things are temporary there. It is not a place you come to stay, it is a place bursting with the freedom of being carried away to somewhere else. Even the commuters. Is there not a carelessness to be found in simply going home? To be in transit is an unreality, a nowhere. You are rarely more yourself than when you are between two places, especially when on a train.
As a child in Central Virginia, New York was almost mystical. The only time I had ever been, I was too young to remember it. It was a fantasy city defended by super heroes. Its building scraped the sky. In Virginia, we lived in a ranch style house on a cul-de-sac. New York was beyond anything I could possibly imagine.
Given my previously mentioned belief that my father, had I not been his son, could have been the stuff of fiction, it only makes sense that he would have lived in New York. It was a city larger than life, befitting of a man that I always saw in the same way. It’s because of this unbelievable quality that I really came to cherish a particular story my father would tell about a weekly ritual of his.
My father would go to the grand central Oyster bar on Fridays. He got paid on Friday, so on his lunch break he would wander over to Grand Central Station. “I felt rich, so I would go and get something I couldn’t normally afford. Oysters taste like the ocean, so for a few minutes there, I could pretend that I was far away and didn’t have to go back to my desk job.” This was back when Condé Nast still had their iconic offices at 4 Times Square.
Now free from the Macy’s towel department and from being a bike messenger, my father was able to explore what he actually wanted to do: write.
He had been studying to go to medical school until he sold his first short story, tilted “Algebra.” It was about a high school kid whose dog dies, and how he likes algebra, because you show your work and you get a right answer but there’s no easy answer to the death of a beloved pet. This was back when submissions were done by mail, and when sending the story off, my father was so nervous at the post office that he locked himself out of his car.
When the check arrived in the mail, my father held it in his hands and knew that he didn’t want to go to medical school. He knew that he wanted to write, and so that’s what he pursued. My father used the money he got to pay his father, my grandfather, back for the fee that the locksmith had charged to unlock the car.
There are two quiet takeaways from the previous paragraphs. Two meaningful moments that would come to shape a person’s life. The first was holding that check for the first short story ever sold, and deciding that the track he was on was not actually the correct one. The second is, after two terrible jobs, finally finding himself in a place to do something he truly enjoyed
Even if he could only do it once a week, Oysters became a symbol to my father that he was making his way in the world. He would go down to the takeout window, order a six on the half shell, and feel like he was finally his own person.
Life often exists in the smaller moments. You do not arrive at a wedding day without the first time you ever laid eyes on a person.
Moments keenly observed. Quiet rituals of purpose.
A thing that tastes like the sea, tied forever to the dream of success.
Seventeen syllables, one line, translated from an internal language.
One of the rocks that my mother sent me was a fossilized seashell, collected from God only knows where. This is, obviously, the one that I have selected for the Oyster Bar. The takeout window of the GCOB is located on the western ramp down toward the restaurant’s entrance. The window is a half-moon shape, set into the yellow-tiled wall. Glass hazy with age, framed by green-ish iron. Along the bottom of the half moon, the flat side, are a series of ornate metal circles. I take a look around at all the people streaming by, and at the people inside the glass eating their meals, all of their lives richly and complexly their own. The takeout window is closed today.
I try to think about how many times I have been to Grand Central. I’ve been here before, and every time under a different context. From beneath those high ceilings, I have seen my girlfriend off as she returned to school, I have stood in the center of the chaos of the place with my aunt on her first and only trip to New York, I have boarded a train to go to Connecticut to visit my father at a rehab facility where he was attempting to work through his substance dependence.
I’ve been here so many times before, walked under these light fixtures, nimbly dodged people looking down at their phones, felt the promise of travel. No matter how many times I’ve been here before, I’ve never seen it the same way twice, and this is true even now. I haven’t seen it since my father’s suicide. This, like so many places, are familiar, but new to me. To me as an individual. I am not the person that I was the last time that I was at Grand Central. I am slightly more alone in the world, a constant has vanished. In 2011, my father said something to me after hearing that some close family friends had filed for divorce.
He said: “You go through stages, eventually everyone you know will be getting married, and then having kids, and then getting divorced, and then probably you end up going to more funerals than you do weddings.” My father didn’t reach the last part of his prediction.
I am slightly more alone in the world now, despite an innumerable number of connections. In the months after my father’s death, I was contacted by an overwhelming number of people that I hadn’t spoken to in years. All of them sorry to hear about my father, all of them voicing the same feeling of guilt: that they haven’t been closer when I’ve been going through something so difficult. Apparently, when the people that I know think of me, they now think of death. A testament to my father’s singularity, maybe, but it also makes me wonder what will happen to me when I die? Will I forever be the person tied to someone else’s death? How long until I can retake my own life after someone else has taken theirs?
I’m extremely hesitant to bring it up, but I cannot help but think of Infinite Jest, a book that needs no introduction, for better or for worse. What is arguably the most famous passage is about suicide, a burning building where someone standing on a windowsill is equally afraid of the fire and of the fall, befitting of an author who would take his own life, but that’s not what I think of. What I think of is James O. Incandenza, the book’s main character, and the point in which all the books various plot lines converge.
A prolific figure in his medium, a commanding presence, so much so that the Incandenza children refer to their father as “Himself,” as in “The Man Himself,” as if there were only one. Hal Incandenza, the middle child, is ostensibly the protagonist of the book, the lens with which you experience much of the story, and while he is the protagonist, he is not the main character. Hal is upstaged in his own story. In the book, James O. Incandenza is an alcoholic who takes his own life, and the Incandenza family must find ways to continue to live in both the shadow of the man and his own end. The family tree leaks pitch, a cry suspended in fall.
At the bookstore where I work, I jokingly refer to myself as “regrettably, the resident David Foster Wallace guy.” I think that by now, you can probably understand what Infinite Jest means to me, and I can spare both of us too many more words on the subject.
By now, leaving the rocks behind has become easier. I fumbled with the first one, I had to dig to leave the second, but the third is effortless. I am re-framing tragedy as I walk, trying to think only good things. Thinking about love. Thinking about my father, my memories of him, the stories he would tell, the way those stories would make me feel.
I leave the seashell inside one of the metal circles at the base of the takeout window and I walk away. I make my way back toward the subway, passing through Grand Central’s famous “whispering gallery,” a domed area where people talk quietly to walls, and the sound is carried up and over to an unseen person on the other side.
No metaphor there, I promise.
Four: 103 Macdougal Street
This is a story that I love to tell. In 2004, my father overheard me listening to “Holiday” by Green Day. The lead-up to American Idiot was the first time I had ever been interested in an album release cycle. Before then, I would listen to whatever was playing on the radio, which meant that in many ways, my tastes were more diverse than they are now. I would listen to Eminem, or Destiny’s Child, or Tim McGraw. Green Day hit me like a truck.
American Idiot was loud, it was fast, and it had a message. My 12 year old perception of music hadn’t yet grasped that music could be political. My father’s favorite band was Oasis, a band that I am ready and willing to defend, but if we’re being honest, they didn’t stand for much other than themselves. Like I said, my father was a critic of America’s involvement in Iraq, and everyone is, to some extent, influenced by the political views of their household. What I found, at 12 years old, was a belief that I held, turned up as loud as it would go. “If you can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”
I was listening to “Holiday” in my room on a cheap boombox that I had gotten as a prize from a school fundraiser. My father walked by and grabbed the door frame with one hand, as if his brain was fighting his body to keep him where he stood. As if he knew how important this moment would be to his son.
“What is this,” pointing to the stereo.
“Come with me.”
I hit pause and followed him. “Put on your shoes.” I did.
We climbed into his Ford pickup and started to drive. I don’t think he even turned the radio on, he wanted absolute silence to preface this. I asked him several times where we were headed. His response, uniformly: “trust me.” The answer was that we were headed to a local record store, one that no longer exists. The building is now a CVS, a company that seems more in line with a hermit crab than a pharmacy. We walked in, my father found his own way to the correct section, flipped through a couple of CDs (I suppose that “record store” is a misnomer, this was years before the 2010s vinyl boom) and he pulled out something I had never seen before.
The Clash’s London Calling.
In the truck on the way home, I found my niche in the punches of those opening chords.
As I’d previously mentioned, my father moved to New York City in 1981, a banner year for the city in terms of its own decay. It is an infamously violent year in the history of New York City. The Guardian Angels were on every subway, in every car. The Bronx was no longer burning, sure, and Son of Sam had been apprehended, but the sanitizing of New York was a war of attrition. It was America’s Wild East. The financial heart and soul of the country was literally on the verge of collapse, entire city blocks were vacant, windows all smashed in. This is the New York that my father moved to, a place that said “we’re going to fix this ourselves, or learn to live in the fallout.”
Again, as I had previously mentioned, my father escaped two bad jobs before finally landing a career in what he actually wanted to do. He moved to New York in September, but he didn’t find any kind of steady work until November of that year. He spent his time in a sleeping bag on the couches and floors of any college friend who would take him in. His first proper job was in the towel and bedding department of the original Macy’s on the 34th street. His first day was Black Friday, an unimaginable retail chaos. By mid-December, after approximately three weeks on the job, he had been promoted to the department’s manager. On Christmas Eve, he caught a Macy’s employee stealing. The implication is obvious, even then, employees weren’t making enough to afford Christmas presents. My father brought the employee into the closet-with-a-window that constituted the manager’s office. “As a manager, I should have to fire you for this, but as a human being, I can’t.” I’ve always laughed at the implication that managers are not human. By the middle of January, my father quit his job at Macy’s and became a bike messenger. In a world before email, he would cycle around Manhattan, ferrying different drafts of articles to newspapers and magazines, this is what finally gave him his doorway into the publishing industry. By March, a New York winter had beaten the bike messenger out of my father (being from Chicago, he assumed he could handle it, but at a certain point winter is winter.) He applied for, and got, a job at Conde Nast.
New York, as a city, said “we are going to fix this ourselves or learn to live with the fallout.” My father internalized that mindset He was always trying to aim high, until a point came where he could not fix things himself. Now, fallout.
I take the 6 train from Grand Central to Astor Place and the first thing that I am greeted with above ground, and I’m not making this up, is the sight of a man in a leather jacket and the official, Sex Pistols branded Doc Martens. The white ones, that say “NO FUTURE” around the ankle. The man is obviously headed toward St. Marks, once a counter culture hub, it has since become a Disney World approximation of a bygone, lower-Manhattan “cool.” It’s fan-service, almost. The name persists, little else does. Even “Trash and Vaudeville” is gone, moving to Alphabet City, I can only assume it’s been replaced with a SweetGreen that plays The Ramones while you eat your salad.
My experience with New York’s punk scene inherited the rules of a previous generation and used them foster a community less about the aesthetics of $200 Sex Pistols boots, and more about art and general attitude. Practice what you preach.
Art should be accessible, and come from a place of passion rather than money. That’s how voices get heard. You should make your art by any means necessary, even if it means doing so illegally, and as a result, many of my favorite places have since disappeared. Death By Audio, 285 Kent, Suburbia, Palisades, The Silent Barn, Shea Stadium (the East Williamsburg warehouse, not the stadium now known as Citi Field,) all of them are gone. All of these venues did similar things, they provided spaces for real expression. They were open to all, often providing sliding-scale ticket prices for anyone who could not afford to pay full price to see a band they wanted to see. The New York scene has provided many a safe space for any marginalized group, quite literally allowing them a stage for what they wanted to do.
My father saw one of Keith Haring’s subway drawings exactly once, but he understood its importance. When given its proper platform, and not constrained by things like money, art for art’s sake is able to more readily find its audience, and it’s an enormous shame that New York continues to attempt to stamp out some of the things that it built its reputation on.
When he finally broke free of the orbit of friend’s couches and floors, my father moved in to 103 Macdougal Street, just a couple blocks south of Washington Square Park. The park had a decidedly different reputation then, it was a hot spot for drug dealers, and many people wouldn’t go there without someone else with them. A far cry from today’s Instagram hot spot. My father was 20 years too late to connect with the version of Greenwich Village presented by people like Bob Dylan, but he still understood where art was happening. The scene had moved from the Village to the Lower East Side, but it was a quick subway ride, and rents were actually cheaper near Washington Square Park (a phrase that sounds absolutely, completely, unbelievably ridiculous now.)
Washington Square carried a bad reputation, but lower Manhattan is where the art was, and so that’s where my father wanted to be. As Manhattan cleaned itself up over the course of the 80s, spinning its long, slow arc into what it’s become today, the art all moved to Brooklyn. First to Williamsburg, and then east and south into Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. The exponential crawl of gentrification will eventually leave nowhere untouched. New York seems almost destined to become a city where nobody can afford to live.
While my father and my experiences in New York’s art scene might be different, my father’s spent with authors and at readings, mine spent in mosh pits, we have probably spent an equal amount of time in bar bathrooms so covered in graffiti that you cannot see your own reflection in what is supposed to be a mirror.
The sidewalks in Manhattan are different than the ones in Brooklyn. They literally shimmer in Manhattan, some particle in the concrete that catches the sunlight like tiny moons, blotted out occasionally by the black holes of ancient chewing gum.
Where I’m from, people drive without seat belts. Here, they walk across subway grates and the bulkhead doors that cover the stairs to the basements of bodegas and restaurants. You always assume the worst won’t happen, but by avoiding precaution, it’s a tacit acceptance of what might happen. Daring the universe, showing it you’re unafraid.
The sky above Washington Square Park is clear and turning, and the park is awash with a phenomenon pretty distinct to Greenwich Village in the 21st century: people who seem to exist to be seen. This not limited to performers, dancers, buskers, etc. It includes the old men who seem to do nothing but play chess for 24 hours a day, it includes the chic people sitting on benches reading whatever is the most talked about novel of the moment, it involves the people hurriedly scribbling in notebooks, the couples laying in the grass under the not-yet-budding trees. They are living the way that idealized New Yorkers are supposed to live, glamorous and untouchable.
Cutting diagonally across the park from Astor Place, I am headed for Macdougal Street, to look for a building that I cannot remember the exact address of. I can almost hear my father saying it, in his sort of half-talk-half-laugh. “When I was at 1XX Macdougal Street.” The exact number has vanished from my memory, I can only hope that the building isn’t the same way.
I’ll know the building when I see it, my father and I walked by it once before, and I remember something about it being red. It turns out to be the front door. Red and set back into the wall. Compared to the brilliant sun outdoors, it is dark on the other side of the entrance window. I stand there in front of the building, seeing myself reflected in the glass of someone else’s past.
My word choice in this particular article has been deliberate. At any point I could have described these things I am carrying around as “stones,” but I have used “rocks” at every turn. What do people say when things are difficult? They say that they are “rocky.”
For all of its chic elite, in my experience, “rocky” is a good way to describe life in New York.
Checking an apartment listing for the building, it’s immediately apparent that the building has been renovated in the 35 years since my father lived there. It seems just a another thing in the world is gone, which is fitting, considering where we will end up at rock number five.
There is no permanence in New York City but there are constants.
I leave the rock in the planter at the base of a tree out in front of 103. The planter is filthy, a place where people seem to just drop things that they no longer need. I set this particular rock down gently, leaving it surrounded by cigarette butts and discarded coffee cup lids.
There in all the grime, just as it would have been back then.
Five: Tortilla Flats
Our last stop is the building that once housed Tortilla Flats. A beloved West Village institution that closed its doors in October of 2018. I haven’t done any research on why it closed, but it’s not exactly hard to believe that it was a victim of the classic tourism creep. A place slowly losing some kind of authenticity as visitors who want something authentically “New York” drive out the authentic. You see it all over the West Village these days, most storefronts are large glass windows looking in on boutiques with proper-noun names. All of this repetitive language, this tangent about “the authentic New York,” is no doubt a ploy on my part to stall for time so that I don’t have to acknowledge the obvious: a place that my father loved is, itself, like the man who loved it — gone.
Being from the American south, I learned a peculiar way of talking. Everyone from there learns this. You can never get right to the heart of things, you have to talk around a subject five or six times, always entering in such a way as to never get fully pulled into orbit. You have to glance off the atmosphere’s upper layers a few times, wear it down, and then, as if the conversants have decided that “we’ve come far enough” you are finally allowed to drop the act and dive in.
It is time to confront the capital-I “It.” Four rocks, and many thousands of words later, we have to confront death. To confront loss. To confront absence.
My father has vanished over the horizon line as the world has continued to turn. I can still remember his voice, but I can no longer remember what it felt like to talk to him. Talking to a person and remembering their voice are two drastically different things. Like with the seals, which I now know to be sea lions, there are so many things that I wish I could tell my father about the previous eight months. I dyed my hair. I developed an almost religious reverence for the comedy stylings of Andy Kaufman. I saw my favorite musician three times in four days when he was recording a live album. My father would appreciate all of these things, he would have liked to talk to me about them, but I have no simply have no way of telling him.
With death, something larger than a person is lost. It’s like a door has closed, you lose an avenue to explore yourself. To some extent, your present is resigned to your past. Every person we come in contact with leaves an impression. And in death, a person who helped shape you is no longer there to continue the process. You have no choice but to surrender yourself to the future.
So imagine this: every single person that you have ever met hands you a black and white photo of themselves. As you get closer to the person, and learn more about them, the photo eventually begins to develop colors. At a certain point, you have it all in frame, a complete picture of them in full color. But it’s still two dimensional. We are all always going to seen in the ways that we present ourselves to others, and will thus be two dimensional. Only you can know the full extent of you. In death, you flip the photo over, and you can only try to remember what the person looked like, what colors they were, like trying to remember how a place looks in summer when you are faced with the sterile nothingness of winter. A person’s image is gone, but in flipping over the photo, you have briefly gained a third dimension.
And now I suppose I can drop my pretenses.
I’ve spun us through enough circles to finally let you all in.
I have been lying to you through my teeth. I have no wisdom to impart as someone who has “been through it.”
In the spring of the year 2000, my family had a house fire, almost everything but the actual structure was lost. We re-built, taking partial roof collapse as a means to add a skylight, and continued to live in there for 15 years. This is the same house whose yard my mother threw a rock from the safety of the cul-de-sac. My mother and I were on the way home from an elementary school function when we pulled into the driveway and saw all the windows of the house lit up. “James, did we leave the lights on” she asked, and then, without waiting for an answer, she said “oh my god, the house is on fire.”. We called the fire department, I ate a frozen pizza at a neighbor’s house.
This was before anyone in my family had a cell phone, so we had no way of contacting my father, who on his way home with my sister just a half hour later.
Driving down the dead end street, my father saw the flashing lights of the sirens and thought to himself “I guess something must have happened.” Upon seeing the multiple fire trucks parked on the front lawn of our house, my father thought “there must have been a fire at the neighbor’s house, and it was so hot that they had to put it out from our lawn.” It was only when firefighters tried to stop him from pulling into his own driveway that he realized.
My father, a globe trotting journalist, a man unafraid of everything except Antarctica, opened the car door and vomited.
Trauma is a strange thing, it forces you to grow in ways that you are not ready or not willing to do. It reminds me, strangely, of ginger, like you would see in piles at the grocery store, a plant with all of its strange and misshapen offshoots. My family spent the next two years living with friends and in various rentals. Growing up, I tried to find some kind of wisdom in the absurd, random nature of the house fire. I was now wise beyond my years, I understood something about the world that many people my age did not. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason. They happen and you survive.
Again, I am lying through my teeth.
I am putting on a brave face by saying some absolute nonsense like “bad things happen for no reason. They happen and you survive.” It’s trite, it’s an unhelpful, and it’s a meaningless aphorism. Ultimately, I just don’t believe it as some kind of objective truth. For lack of a better way to put it, something bad happened, and it made me think I understood the world. A feeling reinforced in my teenage years by the untimely deaths of two lifelong friends in a car accident. I thought that I understood the world, but in the wake of my father’s suicide, I’ve realized that I know less than I ever have.
There is one thing I feel relatively certain of, however. The simple fact of the matter is that it is incredibly difficult to be alive, and to be able to love, when even the inanimate can disappear.
I went to Tortilla Flats exactly once. In the summer of 2010, my father and I went to New York so that I could tour colleges that I would not end up attending for one reason or another. The place was strung with Christmas lights, the music was loud. My father told me stories about what it was like when he had been there in the 80s.
This is the standout: my father and his friend Chris, a photographer, had been there drinking the bar’s famously strong margaritas when a man in suit walked in. Naturally, a man in a suit is going to look out of place in a dive bar, and so every eye in the place was on him. He walked up to the bar and said “I’m the driver for Jimmy Page, you know, from Led Zeppelin. He’s in the limo outside. He wants a drink, and he wants it to go.” The bartender, in a characteristically gruff, New York fashion said “listen, buddy, if Jimmy Page is outside, you can tell him that he can come in here and he can drink for free all night.” Out walks the man in the suit, and in walks Jimmy Page.
I have absolutely no idea if this story is true. All of my father’s stories were unbelievable, so what makes this one any different?
The building that housed Tortilla Flats is red brick, and you can see the Hudson from its place way over at the edge of the West Village. The sign still reads “Tortilla Flats,” but the doors are locked, the windows dark. For reasons unknown to me, the place stands vacant, frozen as it was, outright resisting New York’s inherent desire to change. It sits right on the corner, of Washington St. and West 12th, and I walk back and forth around its two visible sides debating on where to leave the rock.
There are options, a side door, the front door, perched atop a vent that comes out of the side of the building. After three or four passes, the choice becomes obvious. I have to leave the the rock on the front step, so my father, should he be contained in any way within the thing, can come and go from a place that he loved. Maybe buildings have ghosts too. And that’s what I do. I reach into the pocket of my coat, significantly lighter now, and I set it down on the metal step.
And that’s that. It’s over. I’ve finally said my goodbye. Eight months later, I have finally come to terms with the fact that he is gone. But that can’t be it, can it?
In 2015, just before my father went to prison, a neighbor died extremely suddenly. He started to complain about severe headaches, and 48 hours later he was gone. A brain tumor, invisible and undiagnosed. I was back at home then, trying to be as supportive as I could as my family was shifting into a very different phase of our lives. My father and I went to the funeral, shook hands, gave hugs, tried to do the supportive things that you can in the face of tragedy. Walking back across the parking lot to the car, my father said “I think that people expect too much from funerals. There is no ‘This Is Water’ moment.” He was right.
Returning (briefly, I promise) to David Foster Wallace. “This Is Water” was the title of his famous speech given to the graduating class of Kenyon University (which happens to be where my father studied for undergrad.) The title comes from an anecdote about fish. Summarized, for anyone who hasn’t already read (or listened to) the thing: two fish are swimming, an older fish swims by them and says “morning boys, how’s the water?” one of the young fish turns to the other and says “what the hell is water?”
DFW goes on to say that he is not the wise old fish, and that “the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and to talk about.” I wonder if my father saw himself as the wise old fish that morning, providing me with a “This is Water” moment by claiming that there are aren’t any. I wonder if my father knew what I know, that the fish story appeared first in Infinite Jest, and is an anecdote told by a veteran Alcoholics Anonymous member to a person new to the program — a program that my father never successfully completed. Given David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008, part of me has to wonder if my father always knew how this was going to end.
In Infinite Jest, the fish anecdote concludes with “what the fuck is water?” I guess DFW toned it down for the ceremony.
So there it is, the only certainty I have is that I am uncertain, but it’s not for lack of trying.
I stand in front of the building, trying desperately to feel something, actively trying to prove my father wrong. He is dead and I am not. That should mean something right? It has to, it simply has to.
But if it does mean something, I cannot find it.
In the few minutes I spend leaning against the curve of a mailbox and looking at the building, two different groups of people walk by and say “this place is gone?” Their disbelief should stir something in me, but it doesn’t. It should reflect my own disbelief about the loss of my father or something like that, but it doesn’t. There’s no epiphany. There’s no swelling strings, no rolling credits. Stories don’t wrap themselves up neatly like that. You get on the subway, and you go home. Once there, you will simply continue to try and untangle.
Like I said way back at rock number one, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts recently. I say that in the hopes that you will allow me one final detour.
In paranormal research there’s something called the Stone Tape Theory. The idea is that ghosts are not necessarily an indication of an afterlife, but are rather a replaying of life, like a projection or a hologram. When you live, you give off energy, and natural materials like stone and wood absorb this energy and can play it back. Stronger emotions give off more energy, and that’s why “ghosts” are so often seen weeping. Negativity is powerful, and so that’s what gets stored, and in turn, played back.
My father didn’t have any of these rocks with him when he took his own life. They had sat in the house my family lived in for over twenty years, and later they in a storage unit when we moved out. In a final, miserable moment, they were miles away. I can only hope that these rocks, over the course of years, collected only good, and that’s what they will play back.
Maybe one day, when I return to these five places, the rocks will show something to me. My father and I will see each other again. A familiar sight in an increasingly unfamiliar world. And even if they don’t show him to me, I can still tell myself that he’s there, I just can’t find his face in the crowd. It will be a warmth, a feeling, that might have to be created, like holding your own hands.
There for a moment, and then gone.