Virginia Street to Kendall
I am looking at the chickens. Or, at least, I’m standing on the Washington Street Bridge and squinting down into the darkness below. The darkness contains a reclaimed allotment, some artsy plant boxes, and a chicken coop.
If I am looking at the reclaimed allotment where the chickens live then I am not on Somerville Avenue and I am not going to go past Market Basket. I took the wrong road. Again.
Never mind, I’ve stopped now. ‘Chickens!’ And my heart rate’s dropping. ‘Chickens!’
Who am I trying to impress, shouting at chickens in a cutesy voice? The chickens are as asleep as everyone else, they’re not going to pop out to satisfy my whimsy.
I am an idiot for calling for the chickens. (I have very definitely stopped. I have all my limbs.)
I am an idiot for tearing across the McGrath Highway. I felt so good when I set out that it made me reckless. All the way down Pearl Street I was trying to find the words for how it felt to be speeding under my own volition. I tried: like a paper dove let loose on the wind, then; like an arrow shot from a quiver. But I didn’t want to entrap my experience in similes, I wanted it to be its own visualisation. I felt like a person on roller skates going down the middle of an empty road a little before midnight.
Everything on Pearl Street was stiller than me. The houses were like steps on a staircase; every one pushed me onwards. The sight of so much weatherboard cladding – new to me, quaint to me, endearing to me – reminded me of the ridges in the tread of an escalator. And I was streaming, sliding down a tarmac banister. I could have been in any of the past six decades, because this town seems so old-fashioned, atmospherically speaking. Besides, a self, propelled by self-propulsion, is essentially timeless, because the body is eternally trying to catch up with the next point in space, that’s what it was made for.
I was so proud of that tidy, steady joy and the clarity with which I’d identified it that I thought I might move to where the roads are made for hurtling. But I’m on roller skates and I do not belong on a highway. Fucking stupid idea to go across it, even this late at night. That fucking truck. They drive like that here, as if they can’t remember what it’s like to be a body outside. When you’re in a vehicle, the landscape readjusts itself around you. No wonder so many cyclists die.
Well, maybe not in Somerville. But certainly at home. Idiots in trucks.
There’s a specific arrested stillness to rage and fear. I am just standing here.
This is not the therapeutic night-skate I had hoped for.
What would Tom tell me to do, apart from not go skating late at night? ‘Think positively’, probably, and even though he’d deliver that advice with self-aware irony, he would still mean it. He does mean it.
So. I positively love the sight of the allotment, which is tumbledown and impractical. (I mean, who stores chickens under a main road?) I love the idea of taking something smoky and dirty and run-down and, rather than shining it up, bringing out the contours of its ugliness until it becomes deliberate. Although Tom calls it shabby chic and says it’s the first sign of gentrification. The actual working classes, he says, wouldn’t be growing basil in $10 craft beer tins.
I don’t need to think about this right now.
I’ll take this road until Beacon Street and turn down Hampshire. There’s a nice slope downwards, it’s wide and it’s straight and I’ll be able to feel the wind in my hair.
(Tighten this strap though. Don’t want to stack it. The more direct and unmitigated the thrill, the greater the chance of injury. Ask anyone who’s gone in for a little weekend BDSM.)
That’s how I’ll think about this afterwards, ‘I could feel the wind in my hair’. I’ll describe it to Tom just like that. That’s how you know you’ve done something worthwhile, you can apply clichés to it, and clichés have become clichés because they’re the cleanest expression of a singular, honest sensation.
(OK. Tightened. Good. Nice to be self-sufficient. Won’t mention that to Tom.)
When I try to talk about the night-skates, I get lost in sentences. It makes them impossible to justify. And inarticulation is like a crime against intimacy. Tell me, Tom used to say, after the panics set in. Just tell me how I can help. Tell me what’s wrong. But every time I try to narrate myself, I screw it up.
The road is wide, the light is low, the air is warm. The houses here are low too, and family-filled, and I can see almost to the end, where I’ll hit Beacon
Street. The streetlamps are making the night sky look chewy, like layered ta y. I’ll write this all down later.
How does it read, to skate down a street at night? On, on, on, push a bit and
wh-h-hh-h---eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee this is!!!!!
Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee it is!!!!!!
car past car past
car past car past
( heart beat
heart beat )
crossroads coming need to slow down slow down,
here building here, and here building here, and here building here
here we go, slowing down Very elegant, my most elegant stop.
I’m quite sweaty actually. Panic sweats from the highway. I’m cold where wet.
This is why I had to stop riding bikes. I’d always have sore, sweaty palms, where I’d gripped the handlebars every time a vehicle came too close, or there were too many pedestrians to negotiate. There’s a particular sense of momentum that comes from bike riding, because of the balancing act you supposedly never unlearn, and the tough little circles your legs make over and over, always effortful. I was always so aware of my physical efforts, and that made me hyperaware of my body and its fragility. I started imagining the moment of impact, car to flesh, though the impact never happened.
I’ll take Hampshire Street, slowly.
Here we go. The parked cars ash past with video game regularity.
This is nice. It wasn’t nice to ride a bike. I’d imagine the impact and feel every rib under my skin, ready to crack. My whole skeleton getting porous, pumice-like. One dumb turn and I’d be dust under a Vauxhall Vectra. At least, that’s how it felt. That’s what I said to Tom when I gave up riding the bike he got me. You know that’s not even how bones break, he said, unhelpfully. It’s my nerves, I said. My whole body is a nervous system. He laughed at that, although he never stopped looking sadly at the bike whenever he saw it parked in the porch. In the end I put it in the shed, at the mercy of the damp.
I’m coming up to the Druid.
The Druid makes the best fish’n’chips in Cambridge. We all insist it, which is why we’re fine paying $15 for something we could pick up at a fryer for a third of the price. Plus, they have Guinness on tap. We miss Guinness, we all insist it. None of us are Irish or Nigerian, incidentally, and it’s not as if there isn’t a more-than-decent beer industry in New England. I think we miss, from the future, what it feels like to sit in the Druid together, and know each other well, and know how the next years will be framed.
I’ll write that down later.
I’m moving like a slow wave. I’m moving like a child’s drawing of the sea.
I can tell Tom, when he wakes up tomorrow, that I went past the Druid. It’s a good piece of common conversational ground. That’s cool, he’ll say, and, unsaid, he’ll allow the fact of my night-skates. I hope. I don’t want a repeat of what happened when I announced I was going to start roller skating at night.
Why, he’d said more than asked. Well, because I want to.
But is it for exercise? Where could you be going? Won’t you be tired the next day? he’d fired at me, one after the other, because he knew he wouldn’t get any answers. I just want to, I told him. The streets here are so much wider than they are at home. They make me want to take them up on their challenge.
He didn’t like that. No one likes it when you talk to them in the sentences that you write. As toddlers have indoor voices and outdoor voices, writers have writing voices and people voices. And it hadn’t been so long since I’d had that panic attack on the bike up by Davis, I suppose. It was likely he was worried about that too, actually.
You’re weird, he’d said. You understand that everyone will think you’re weird?
Then, later, after I’d let the argument peter out by not responding: You can’t make decisions based on their aesthetic appeal.
But what else am I going to remember the sensations by? Words are only useful when they describe something lived and true. I didn’t say this to him, then or since, but I wake up to the crescent moon curve of his cheekbone on the pillow beside me, and I think of how many times I’ve thought of it as his crescent moon curve. I think the words before I focus on his face. I hold my days together in this way, naming specificities, knowing I have the ability to name.
When they shake me out of the ambulance all these images will hit the ground and shatter.
Am I talking to myself? I think I’m talking to myself. Outside the Druid. Scuffing agitatedly at the pavement though the car is long gone.
Maybe I am weird. Oh well.
I haven’t managed to clear my mind, the way I hoped I might, but I’m certainly adding to the image repertoire I have of myself, so that’s something.
Look left, look right, left, right. All clear. Don’t think about Tom, unsleeping on his half of the slightly-too-small bed, grill-hot and ruddy at the throat with the warmth (blurring his freckles), waiting for me. No, don’t think about Tom, Christ.
Just go. Forwards.
The sound of skates, a grit-filled announcement, is decanting behind me. I’m moving like a ferry, churning sound. I can’t pick up proper speed as I’m nearly where I thought I might end up, and even knowing there’s a destination has put the brakes on me.
Where I come from, the roads aren’t this wide and you can cross the street anywhere you like. But this town is a series of destinations strung together by big swathes of necessary movement. Or, as my friend put it: being in Boston is like being on a motorway in the 1990s. I think he was being scathing about the amount of North Face everyone wears, but the point still stands.
Past the Garment District. Past the swank coffee shop, to the railway.
Here is the railway. It runs through the Stata Center through the middle of a building, narrowing away like a narrative.
Here’s the thing. Tom’s phone is full of photos of railways narrowing into the distance. He doesn’t post them anywhere, or even, I think, look at them again after taking them. I asked him why. I ask him why quite often, because I love hearing him answer me with: I feel so fond of them. It’s the most romantic he’s ever been – not romantic towards me, but Romantic like a poet moved by a sense of the sublime.
When I first saw the Stata Center, I thought it was unbelievably ugly. It’s a Frank Gehry, Tom told me. It looks like an embarrassed explosion, I replied. There’s a lecture hall in there that makes people nauseous, he said cheerfully. Great, I said. Cool. Nice. It wasn’t until I saw the railway that I started to see how you could care for such a huge and deliberate ugliness. Because I could see, from my point in the past, the place I would be in the future, forever recalling the way the railway looked running through the Stata Center. I would remember myself as I am now, waiting for the years to come, waiting for what I’ll become, stacking an image repertoire around me. It was so certain a sensation that I started to panic, because I could feel a future nostalgia curling around me, dragging me forwards. I’d been in Cambridge for mere weeks and I saw half a decade flicker at the horizon where the train tracks disappeared from view.
If this were a last confession, right now I’d hear the train coming up behind me. But all I see is myself, remembering myself imagining myself remembering myself.
I can just keep skating. If I’m not going anywhere, I can keep going indefinitely. A temporary immortality, I believe.
This story first appeared in print in Issue 18 of the excellent Under the Influence Magazine.
Photograph by Luciof / Creative Commons