To *telescope* is to slide concentric components within themselves, to shrink sequentially, to condense; it is also a means of magnification, of interstellar discovery, of distantly focused inspection. In the succeeding entries, we telescope our past selves by recounting and recasting our memories. Each succeeding memory of a series is composed in exactly half the number of words of the previous. Diminish with us below.
*A childhood vacation, a dream, and a book*
My cousin Ricky lives in Puerto Rico with the rest of his family, all Shubs. Their dad and my mom are Cuban but where Moti’s parents clung to the Caribbean’s clear warm water, Miriam’s emigrated northward to cold and murky New York harbor and now we journey back down every so often to replenish our pale skins with pigment and vitamin D. Miriam orchestrated one such pilgrimage on the occasion of Ricky’s bar mitzvah, where a boy I did not know became a man I do not know even today, though we have crossed paths a small number of times since. This particular crossing lives inside of me as follows: I remember feeling thankful and appreciative that the Shubs chose to commemorate Ricky’s metamorphosis with electric blue suede yarmulkes with oceanic imprints because they were cool to wear on my head at my stringent Jewish day school. I remember my bewilderment at the candle lighting ceremony (a Jewish American ritual not observed in the Orthodox sector from which I hail) during which I arose for the Out of Town Cousins Candle and again for the Friends Candle, though I felt out of place for the latter because “Friendship” did not accurately describe my relationship with old and unfamiliar Rick. I remember swimming in the clear warm sea, way far out to a floating rectangle some distance from the sand, a landmark achievement for a boy my age but an absolute pleasure for a young lad accustomed to the arctic freeze typical of the Atlantic as it laps up Long Island’s south shore. I remember our hotel room overlooking the beach and an internalized sense of indulgent pleasure and affluence upon being told that the Caribe Hilton is unusually expensive for our family’s taste and budget. I remember a serene sun.
I am fourteen in life and in my dream too and I walk across a cement playground like the ones you see at schools on TV and head toward a girl about my age or maybe a year older. She is not anybody I know from life but an amalgamation of motion picture teens, or at least I suppose so in aged retrospect. What’s important is that at the time she is very sexy to me, so much so that I approach her and assert, “I’d like to rock your body”; or perhaps it was an inquiry, “Girl, would you like me to rock your body?” And because it is a dream and I am then a romantic naive she assents or affirms, “Yes, rock my body,” she beseeches, and I kiss her and hold her and hug and grope and caress. I wake up and my shorts are wet.
In Amherst, MA, I waded through a bookshop’s dense stacks. Adventurous, I pushed past the glossy graffiti photography and antique birding guides that usually ensnare me and found hidden in the store’s rear some plain gray shelves of college course books. The space allotted for “Visions of Utopia” (or something similar) held fifteen copies of Callenbach’s Ecotopia. I purchased one and read it through and I uphold its values even now: journalism, herbalism, human dignity.
I. A childhood memory
This is the myth of fires: that you run from them.
I did not run that August day at the end of the long drought. I went upstairs, packed my things, and watched as my grandfather beat out the flames with a broom. My older sister, aged nine, filled buckets from the faucet.
Somewhere inside, my grandmother pulled on her snow-white sneakers and cursed the man she wed fifty-three years ago. If he had not looked like Humphrey Bogart, she would not have married him. If he had not given her the house overlooking Manhattan, she would not have filled it with his children. There was no way she could not have loved him.
He would not let us call the fire department because he was a Navy Man, and also a German. He would fix it himself. No matter if the barn went up, or the house, too – prime firewood, aged for two hundred years under the ancient oak trees.
I evaluated the situation with green eyes (peculiar ones, inherited from this proud grandfather – green with orange centers). I took my pet llama, hitched up my Curious George rucksack, and started down the road in search of better prospects.
II. A childhood memory
The curse of loving animals is that they leave you. With my first cat I did not understand. I only knew how they came to you. Bucket and her sisters were born under the barn, were nuzzled out of the hay by the horses. Crying, eyes closed in newness. Like the brother my parents brought home that same September.
A year later, my father found her on the side of the road. Brought her to say goodbye to me, to run my paint-stained fingers through her coat. And this is my first taste of death: black velvet lining a box.
III. A reflection on my death
The first time I die is in wetness, drowning in the pool at the Leonis’. Watching my mother’s hands reach down to free me. The second time is in fire: smothered in oily poison as they pump me with steroids. The third is in soil, clutching at the Indian dust.
IV. A reflection on my ambitions
I don’t know if I want to design houses, or just inhabit perfect spaces. The same with stories: I write my future, a wish list.
V. A reflection on this piece
When you come to the half-twelve word how will you slice it –
*Worst Kiss/Best Kiss/ First Kiss*
You were some sort of Israeli businessman. Your hair was slick and strange and we bumped teeth. It was the summer I had decided to show my displeasure with my parents’ aggressively functional home by going to clubs. I had cabin fever in the city’s four walls and I solved it by drinking watered down vodka at Tenjune, getting my heels stuck between Meatpacking District cobblestones and prying them up with a feral, clutching grip. I sucked my stomach in and smoothed my hair back and tried to make my face look thinner. I liked to think men wanted me in spite of my being seventeen but knew, really, it was because of it; you were one of those. The club was shaped like a boxing ring. I was trying to get to the dance floor in the middle and you were pressed against the velvet rope that undulated membrane-like along its edge. The tastes of Lucky Strikes and cognac battled for supremacy within your mouth and your hand was on the small of my back; I felt suddenly as though the fabric of my dress was not nearly thick enough. I stumbled away and found myself in the room’s center where I danced alone looking for the friend I had come with. I did not find her. I found a law student named Craig and he made a self-deprecating joke about dancing like he was at a bar mitzvah, so I made out with him (you had set the bar low). I still associate the taste of Trident Tropical Twist with him even though I can’t picture his face. In this same room later that same summer, someone would put something in my drink.
You gave me your business card and I spit my gum into it later.
The best is a moment in my mind, before impact, hesitancy free of consequence or implication, smoke in clutching palms. A series of settings all promised to be best, a series of infallible moments. Something always spoils in me when idea translates to action, like a sliced apple whose innards were once a thick gleaming white but brown where and when they touch air. Wine drunk on an Upper West Side terrace hanging over Central Park, spring air in gauzy light-filled folds; a hammock in summer, mass of ropes biting my legs and overhead a mass of preening branches; cocooned in fragrant sheets, traffic of a foreign city seeping through the window. But nothing ever measures up to anticipation, the humming of accumulated memory around articulated points in a broad swath of vagueness: the back of your neck when you’re driving (badly), the way the small hairs catch the light.
School trip to Costa Rica, I snuck out to the beach with you where the ocean water didn’t throw the moonlight back but swallowed it in uncompromising darkness instead. Your mouth too warm on my neck. Things felt overdue. Years later I was your first and hated myself for it. You declared love with a mundane regularity. You raped someone years later; I thought it was my fault with a mix of guilt and self-congratulation.
There’s a black border on the scanned copy of the short story I’m reading. It’s “Lawns” by Mona Simpson. The border is this smooth, inky L on the left edge and the bottom of the page. It’s where someone let the light of the scanner escape from beneath the pages of the book, but it’s dark now.
On the fourth page, there are two white splotches on the bottom part of the L. On the fifth page, I can see it’s the middle part of a finger. There’s the top crease and the middle crease and the vertical striations on the skin. I think it’s an index finger. It looks like an x-ray. It’s the fingerprint of the person who let the light escape when they were holding the book down. I imagine it’s a student worker’s, in a back room of a library. I want to ask them, whoever it is, “did the light hurt your eyes?”
The girl in the story’s dad started molesting her when she was little. He still does it now when she’s narrating it, and she’s in college. I underline important parts and write in the margins. I realize I’ve been frowning. I draw an exclamation point and circle it next to two paragraphs. I don’t usually write those on things I read, but I do on this story. It gives me chills, and it makes my stomach feel tense.
There are no more fingerprints on the other pages, but the bottom black band changes in thickness from when I imagine the student worker flipped the book over to turn the page and flopped it back down on the glass again in a slightly different spot. I want to know if they read the story. I want to ask, “did it give you chills?”
There’s no electricity because of Hurricane Sandy, so the only light I have comes from the thick plastic flashlight perched on my shoulder. It creaks when I adjust it, and the pale yellow circle it projects on the pages of Dreamland: Adventures in the Science of Sleep bobs up and down with my breaths. I’m in bed before eleven and reading a book for pleasure—two things for which I rarely ever make time, but with the power out I have few other options. I check the charge plate in the back of Dreamland. Only one person has taken it out before me, and already they have left faint vertical pencil lines next to some passages. The light from my flashlight refracts off the plastic-covered edge of the hard cover. It reflects off my bedpost, creating a long, glowing vertical line that seems to just hover there in the dark.
“So You Ate A Cupcake?” asks the Cosmopolitan cover with Taylor Swift on it, chin lowered and looking out of the corner of her eye as if to say, “Did you or didn’t you?” I roll my eyes, but soon, by an inexplicable force, I’m flipping through the pages, sucking in words like “lip stain” and “boy confessions” and “make it hot!” as if I am Honey Boo Boo and they are my Go-Go Juice.
*Three visits to friends’ houses*
You were one of my first friends at Princeton, and this fall break began with a
visit to your home. When I was a kid I would see my friends’ houses multiple times.
They would become familiar, I would be able to remember the distinct smells of their
basements and carpets and couches. But since I began living away at school four years
ago, I have only known these houses from my fleeting one-time, perhaps two-time visits.
And these visits inevitably feel strange, distant.
At your particularly old, quiet Greenwich house, the childhood ghost-things
that inhabited it presented themselves through you. They breathed through you as we
slept under canopy beds or spoke through you when you called for your mom or smiled
through you as we ate non-dining-hall home food. These wisps of an unknown youth left
no room for myself. They are ghosts I will never know, can never know.
We stood at the cold granite countertop in the kitchen and you unloaded some
canned pumpkin from a grocery bag your mom just brought inside. You told me how
much you loved fall food with a giddy remembrance of probably many times cooking
with your mother. I never really knew autumn to be a genre of cuisine at my house, and
longed to remember some sort of pumpkin muffins my mom might have made when I
was younger, but could not.
We sat on a sectional sofa and you explained how you always loved burrowing
into the corner during movies or how you were not supposed to use your brother’s X-Box
but the DVD player never worked so you had to. I listened to you, but I will never be able
to recall those homey details with the nostalgia you felt just by sitting on an old couch.
You were my best friend forever, and I didn’t meet you before senior fall.
Together we spent Long Winter Weekend, a four-day break from boarding school. You
and I, each living too far west to go home, haphazardly planned to stay at our friend
Alice’s house on Long Island. We’d go into Manhattan, see school friends in rooms
filled with smoke, on streets lit up long past our 9:45 curfew.
I don’t remember that smoke, or those streets, but Alice’s eerily new, enormous
Gatsby house, and the décor that exemplified her Hong Kong parents’ idea of American
wealth. I remember aimless ping-pong with you, the empty basement, the floor scattered
with a hundred neon orange ping-pong balls by the end of our conversation. I remember
you appearing struck by my white towel-wound figure. I remember sharing a bed. I
remember thinking and quickly dismissing a thought of us hooking up.
You were my first best friend. Your house sometimes felt more my home than
the house where my family lived.
We made pastel colored chalk dust by corroding whole sticks of sidewalk
chalk on your pebbly cement driveway. We covered our hands and bodies in the dust.
Someone took a picture of us with a disposable camera. We took a bath together.
We snuck into your childless neighbor’s tree house.
We peed behind your garage.
*Three far away places*
I. Persia 1923
It is night and a boy and his two sisters lay shivering in a black desert somewhere in the Middle East. Their fingers and lips are as blue as the night sky that hides them, but their nurse and guide cannot make any fire for warmth lest they attract bandits on the long and empty road through the mountains from Tehran to Alexandria. This is a memory of my grandfather’s. He did not grow up in a small town in still-rural New Jersey like his father and grandfathers before him or his children and youngest granddaughter after. Instead, he grew up in the dry heat of what the world then called Persia. Unlike him, we were raised among maple trees, farms, old churches and colonial houses. Unlike him, we never baked in white sunlight and dust that choked noses and throats, blocked the lungs, blinded eyes, and turned skin into soft red sandpaper.
My great-grandfather died in the Spanish influenza of 1918 and his wife and three very young children barely had time to grieve before she married another, an evangelical minister. This man’s extreme Christian instincts told him to pack everything and everyone and move to the Middle East in order to convert Muslims to his own faith.
In one hot, windy, sand-covered recollection, a carriage arrives one morning to take my grandfather and his sisters to school in America. The driver had recently killed his wife for adultery, and with only a Russian nurse who didn’t speak Farsi, it’s a miracle anyone saw them again. The nights pass much like the one before with darkness that presses upon open eyes and makes the tears of little ones like drops of ink. The party encountered no bandits. Instead, they encountered remnants of a medieval Ottoman world including a village where the deformed came to live, rejected from the mothers that birthed them. These children, too, were leaving their mother for a new home. On the last leg of the trip the three took a bus with primitive air conditioning in the form of a block of ice set in front of a fan, spraying a cool mist to soothe cracked faces, hands and feet.
I’m sitting on the hardwood floor of a quad whose inhabitants I hardly know during freshman week. One girl has a map on which you scratch out all of the countries one has visited, like a giant lottery card to hang on the wall. Everyone helps and ironically we use pennies to scratch out Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and Kenya, before the girl scratches out Tanzania and mentions spending Christmas in Zanzibar.
Christmas in Zanzibar? Where and what, now? I don’t know what it is like in real life but in my mind there are palm trees and soft warm breezes and echoes of chattering monkeys. This is not a regular tourist destination but undeveloped, little-known natural beauty with limestone cliffs and caves and promontories jutting into the Indian Ocean. Here there are no seasons, and dewy green forests, emerald frogs, scarlet flowers and red-butted baboons are unaware that it is Christmas.
But the talk turns to where people want to go on the street tonight and I remember I am still in Princeton and I leave this African island to return to the cool floor with people I just met.
III. The Mediterranean
My feet shift upon the cool stones on a beach in Southern France on a moonless night. I am alone except for the sound of quiet laughter from a nearby restaurant and of the water that gently laps against my toes. It doesn’t just beckon but begs my body of just fifteen years to enter and claim as its own nymphet. Slowly I step in and give my small self to this sea. My yellow bikini is gone and the laughter disappears as I close my eyes and hear a train pass before going under.
*A lesson, a poem, and a dilemma*
I was a terror since the private school era, which began my second year of kindergarten. I’d already done kindergarten once in public school, but when my parents forced me to make the switch, my birthday fell on the wrong side of the cutoff line and I had to do it all over again.
I was older and much larger than most of my new classmates. A hardened public-schooler, forced into captivity with a bunch of spoiled brats. One in particular caught my eye. His name was Carl and he was a total weenie.
Naturally, I began to bully him. I’d wake him up during naptime; steal his juice box; watch him build a block tower from afar just to knock it over as he slid in the final piece. I could do whatever I wanted and did, every single day. Carl never did anything back.
This routine continued uninhibited for weeks. I was a smart and silent bully, always on the lookout for teachers and snitches. Poor Carl didn’t stand a chance.
One day, I was getting a post-recess drink at the water fountain and I felt a hand grip the back of my head. Before I could react, the furious hand slammed my face into the metal. I crumbled to the floor, gushing blood from my forehead and tears from my eyes. I looked up to find Carl standing over me, grinning triumphantly.
Lucky for me, Carl was an inexperienced villain and hadn’t taken proper precautionary measures. A teacher caught him in the act. He was in big trouble. They assumed he was the bully and had been all along. I played a convincing victim and let him take the fall. I wasn’t about to turn myself in.
But I also wasn’t going to mess with Carl again.
Hesitant, I raise my hand to question
praying He is a merciful creature.
Any chance I can get an extension?
If there were, by now it would’ve been mentioned
but false hope is my foremost feature.
Defiant, I raise my hand to question,
don’t you think you can make one exception
before I’m in clouds, an eternal sleeper?
The things I could do with a little extension!
Then I’d gladly drift to a new dimension,
but you can’t change the mind of the Reaper.
Once more, I raise my hand to question,
is it wrong for me to assume an ascension?
Silent, he answers, my hell-bound leader.
His arm reaches full and final extension,
I look back on my life to make sacred confession:
sins that would stop the heart of a preacher.
Resigned, I take hold of the hand in question.
What have I done to deserve an extension?
It’s Intersession. I’m drunk in Canada. I wake up. My shoes are missing.
Two days pass. They stay hidden.
It’s time to go. I leave my name and number with the front desk.
I make an announcement on the bus. Nobody has seen them.
8 months later, I stand in line at Olives. I see a kid from Club Skiing. I say hi.
I look down. He’s wearing the shoes.
What the fuck.
*Three AIM conversations I had that haunt me to this day*
Leigh was two years older than I was. She was dating my friend’s brother who I thought was cute and I added her on my buddy list to see what kind of person she was. This was normal for me—a kind of proto-Facebook stalking that allowed me to arrange the wild fragments of my pre-teenaged conscience into something resembling a coherent self. (I think this is why I had so many screen names: it was like choosing an identity for yourself, and each time I tried, I knew that I had failed.) I remember her screen name was a variation on her first and last name. Every time she signed on I would look at her buddy info, which was immaculately arranged and ever-changing, full of cool typography and lyrics to songs by Dashboard Confessional, Something Corporate, The Spill Canvas. She had links to her Piczo, her Xanga and other websites middle schoolers used to use to show how many friends they had and how pretty they were before they were allowed to be on Facebook. Her profile became one of the ones I checked ritually, stealing her most ingenious color schemes, googling the song lyrics she posted and downloading the corresponding songs into my computer’s library because I didn’t have an iPod. Then, she cheated on my friend’s brother, and my friend—who had a roaring raging anger inside her all the time, who would cry when we lost basketball games, who would throw things in class—said I should hate her too. So I instant messaged Leigh one day from a secret screen name and, because I was not angry with her at all, because I felt nothing but admiration and wonder and awe for her, and hated myself for it—told her she was a whore.
A boy IMed me. He was friends with my friend Jane, who attended another school, and she had apparently said nice things about me. We would talk sometimes, but not regularly. One day I went to see Jane play basketball at her school, and when I came home, Luke IMed me and asked if I wore a long black coat. I did. He told me he had seen me at the game. He said I looked older than other girls he knew, he said I looked 18. He said I was hot. No boy had ever told me that before. I remember my heart started beating so fast that with every pulse I thought it would get stuck. I felt sick to my stomach. I told him I had to go and added him to my block list. No one would tell me I was hot again for three years.
Sami and I called each other best friends but we only interacted on IM. Our conversations were hours long and top-secret. We each had a page on each other’s BuddyProfiles and I thought she was the one person I could tell anything to. Except once I told her about a creeping and sickening sadness I felt sometimes and she was quiet for too long. I knew I had shared too much. We never IMed again.
*Coming of age*
I am sitting on a slightly damp patch of grass with you in Dolores Park. It’s not a date. You are not my boyfriend. I am not in love with you. You are a friend who was too shy or scared or whatever to ask me out during my freshman year of high school. But here we are eating Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream together. I had gotten malted vanilla and cookies and cream. One scoop each. I forget what you got, but I remember I had liked those flavors too. I am sitting there contemplating the texture of the ice cream and its sweet, sweet flavor, and I want to just lie there and breathe in San Francisco in all its glory: the well-brewed coffee, used bookstores with that familiar smell of old books, and the salty taste of the nearby ocean. You are not letting me though with your constant talk. You complain of college, your GPA, other people’s GPA, friends, graduate school, and I am sitting there thinking how you represent everything I hate about home and wanted to head east to escape from. I think back on that promise we made that one summer night at 3 AM in the morning. We had gotten the idea from How I Met Your Mother–if we were both still single at forty, we would marry. Stupid idea. I was feeling achingly lonely at the time. As I listen to you rant on and on about your life, all I can think is how tired I am of you. I feel sad too because if the deal were to happen, things wouldn’t work out though on paper they might. I finish my ice cream, wait for you to finish yours, then we walk towards the train to head back home.
It’s dusk. I’m lying on the grass with hundreds of other people around me. Some are chatting in circles on blankets. Others are calmly looking out and blowing smoke in the air. I can’t see or feel the sun anymore, so it’s a little chilly and I wrap my arms around myself even closer. It’s comfortable though, having the light breeze brush against the tip of my nose and the blades of grass tickle the backs of my legs. In the near distance, delicate guitar chords are being strummed. It’s my lullaby. It’s the soundtrack to the summer. I close my eyes and invite the music to close in on me as I forget about all the nitty-gritty details in life. I feel at peace for the first time in ages, and I swear I have one of those infinite moments captured in those coming-of-age novels people always write about.
I am lying in bed with you and you ask me to kiss and hold you. I am hesitant. I have never done this before, but I lean in anyway and allow your taste and scent to wash over me. It’s like having two soft flower petals rub over my lips. In the morning I wake up to look over at you, and I realize I love you in a way so different from lust.