March 2014

Lightsey Darst


An Answer to My Message


My friend B sways in front of my bookcase, trying to pick out a book to borrow. She's just been swearing a set of sloppy vows to be a better person, and this somehow is the result. Dante's Vita Nuova? By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept? I borrowed that copy from another friend and battered it beyond repair, unable to appreciate the irony because I was in my early twenties and hadn't yet seen Grand Central with its gold grilles and billiard-green ceiling and calm stars. In my early twenties I suffered undifferentiated hungers that never matched anyone else's hunger for me. I was all appetite, no taste. But an education in taste is a dangerous thing: you're likely to end up with a craving for something you can't get -- cherries in December, true and passionate love, a really good read.

Vanity Fair? My Philip Larkin, which I've never read, which I don't even know why I have? The Book of Lies? Oh no, no. She can't pick, but she goes on swaying to the music, even dancing, as if she's trying to enchant the books, calling them out of their spines -- the exceptions, the exceptions, always searching for the exceptions.


At the bookstore I troll the recent arrivals, looking for an answer to my message. My book disappeared two days after I sold it, so I know the message was received, but it's two weeks later and I've found no result. Italian cookbooks from the seventies: no. I can't imagine my mysterious friend owning these. They're clearly hand-me-downs, and like anyone one has a new erotic interest in, he seems to have no family: autochthonous, to use the word I learned in relation to the less explicable Greek and Roman gods. Romance novels, shades of gray: no, no. I flip through a guide to the stars, but it's as blank as if no soul has ever passed this way.

Then I spot it: The Elegant Universe. I hardly have to flip the cover to spy the spidery writing inside to know it's him; it's exactly right, and now it's mine. Of course he would answer thus. The Rings of Saturn, my gloomy, mystical, solitary trek, checkmated by this upbeat extrapolation; I offer the crimes of humanity and he counters with pristine symmetries.

But I barely get the book home before I realize it's a mistake. The book is his, yes, the handwriting's unmistakable, but this isn't an answer; this is a relic from a past life. Beside a diagram showing how "The quantum frenzy can cause numerous sequences of string/antistring pairs to erupt and annihilate," he's written "a fuzz factor." Beside an explanation of Newton's theory of gravity, he's written "easy to understand, easy to forget." At the back of the book, I find a shopping list: "post its staples? flash drive paper." This is from ten years ago at least, a pure accident kicked up by an inelegant chance.

Maybe, I realize after a few hours of disappointment and a couple of glasses of wine, it's just as well. What sort of reply would that be, anyway? You wander, I have the answers. Another lover I don't need, another voice with no ear.


I've got a box of letters I need to throw away. I don't have space, I don't care, I need to prepare for the inevitable escape, you know, the litany. But every time I look at them I think of their unlikely, transitional reality. Born late in the Age of Letters, they testify that 1998 knew notepaper, cursive handwriting, and the word sincerely. And they strike me as more than mere communication; because the writer had to be, first, alone with the paper, they are journals as much as missives.

"Did you get my email?" students ask me. "Did I answer it?" I ask them. "I don't know, I haven't checked my email yet," they say, and then they tell me what was in the email. The communication itself has no reality for them. For me, the doubling is almost painful: I answered the email at ease and in control, and now they ask for an answer when I'm on the move and out of breath.


I have my grandmother's letters. I have letters from two old boyfriends, packs of cream-colored envelopes and postcards tied with ribbon and twine. I have letters from high school friends, from the year or so we wrote to each other before we forgot and lost touch. I have the Valentines my father used to make -- the letters of my name or a greeting or phrase magically formed in the shape of a heart.

If you can't crawl, a friend tells me, you can't read. Apparently the two are linked: late crawlers make late readers. So my friend keeps leading her already-walking daughter back to the floor, modeling the cross-body wobble and the close focus. I don't recall crawling or learning to read. "I don't remember when I couldn't read," a friend says -- but it's not that for me. I remember making a deliberate decision, somewhere around six, to read, but I think I already knew how; the decision I made was that reading was worth what had been, before, an unwelcome effort.

I've been reading more Colette -- Julie de Carneilhan, a novella. My copy of Julie is paired with another novella, Chance Acquaintances, and this unlikely and slight work was my first introduction to Colette, ten or twelve years ago now. Colette! I remember postcards.

The young man in the coffee shop who holds his classics up close to his face -- Love in the Time of Cholera, Crime and Punishment -- a very tranquil-looking young man, a little pudgy, unmarked; mid-twenties, I judge. What is he? He looks so entirely content I imagine he's an angel -- a grown-up cherub sampling Russian angst and Argentine Malbec (because he often drinks wine, starting at 4 PM). Strange young man, with no troubles of his own! He's the opposite of the girl wearing liquid liner wings over her hungry eyes, scrunched up on the uncomfortable couch reading the last fifty pages of Vanity Fair. Neither Becky nor Amelia, she can't be reading it for fun. A grad student, I guess. She squirms, piles her bare feet below her.

I battered a friend's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept beyond repair once. Being in my early twenties, I didn't appreciate the irony.

Whose life is this, anyway?