by isaac black

I just got back from a weeklong trip wherein I drove a couple of friends’ moving truck across the country for the price of a plane ticket home, meals, and a place to stay in Brooklyn. I have a habit of inhabiting situations where I feel barely competent. As a guitarist I always improvised, and still do, preferring to chance upon something brilliant than rehearse something to flawlessness. This tendency comes from a desire to learn, a restlessness that has me overcommit and fake the difference, an impatience with the depth of mastery. Or it comes from a long harbored sense of inadequacy–my coddled, little albatross. In that theory I’m uncomfortable with success, awkward about excellence. A couple of weeks before giving my two weeks I biked up a steep canyon. Two miles from the top I bonked. I had food but I forced myself to finish the ride, ginning up frustration and anger to stoke my metabolism. At the top I popped cola flavored gummies into my mouth without volition. I was training my body, my self, not for achievement but for survival in grim conditions.

I signed myself up for the trip to New York without knowing what I would do there, only trusting that I would find something. As the time came I acknowledged that I would rather stay under the comfort of  blankets in my chilly room: writing, running errands and doing my Spanish lessons. There was no option to back out, so I painted my fingernails turquoise and drove through the Corn Belt.

The drive was scenic and beautiful, but, having lost an hour each day and hobbled by the truck’s hard 75 mph limit and abysmal gas mileage at high speeds, I only ever made it to my target late at night. Pulling my backpack into a chain motel I would get ready for bed right away and then realize I had nothing else to do there but sleep. Two nights were spent in that lonely way, salved by Colbert and the punctuation of interminable commercials.

That first day of driving, as I learned to appreciate rather than resent the state of Nebraska, my mind settled into the topic it’s avoided the last two and a half months. No one could see me cry in that cab, if I needed to cry. I allowed myself to miss her, to think of the magical times we had together. I focused on the beauty of it all; the sadness was and will be present enough that I didn’t need to focus on it. I had been skipping through Garth Brooks’ greatest hits, a choice I snickered at as I put it on. But the chorus of “The Dance,” a song I had dismissed as schmaltzy when it played ad absurdum at church dances, surprised me. I had never listened to the words. “And now I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives were better left to chance. I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance.”

Sometimes when I’m meditative my mind latches onto a mistake I’ve made. Even blunders made years ago, long forgiven by all, will dredge up feelings of humiliation and anxiety. I don’t do this when thinking about her, though those moments were plenty. I don’t dwell on the mistakes I made with her, maybe I trusted her to handle herself. Maybe because what we had for that brief time was an understanding so deep that forgiveness was implicit.

I would sometimes wake her up in my sleep, wanting to talk. One morning, annoyed, she told me about my doing that the previous night. I had no recollection of it and, while laughing, apologized on behalf of my subconscious.

The night I got to New York I found a spot for the truck in front of a hydrant a door down from the apartment. My friend and a friend she had made were on the bare floor of a new, two story place with a bag of chips and a bottle of whiskey. I excused myself to go the bathroom and downed some whiskey to calm my nerves, aggravated by too much coffee, going too long without a bathroom break, and my GPS’ insane route through the cramped streets of Brooklyn. The three of us took another shot and ate delivered Indian food and brought up a bed and a sofa, after which they helped me pull the 16 foot truck into a legal spot with 6 inches to spare on either end.

We read tarot cards. My cards didn’t resonate, except for one–the six of bottles. The book interpreted the card with the story of a trusted friend making a healing cup of tea. It sounded so nice. I fell asleep on the couch while the two of them talked late into the night.

The next afternoon, after helping unload the truck, my friend went to get some schoolwork done. I set off in search of a park. I felt uncomfortable in the one I walked to, self conscious of my whiteness and tourist’s ignorance. I felt lonely. I decided to take transit to Prospect Park, a place I had been before. When the bus came I had three singles in hand, ready to pay the fare. A sign on the till said no bills. I asked the driver, and he said “Just go, just go.” To not waste time I didn’t thank him, except when I got off.

I felt better as I walked to the park. The streets were lively; it was Saturday evening. I wasn’t aimless. I found a spot of wilting grass by a pond and lay down. I intended to read but I just lay there, sunglasses on, sorting through my loneliness. I dozed a couple times for a few moments apiece, and not too long after I felt rested and refreshed, energized enough to do the labor of reaching out, of asking friends for what I need.

The next day I slept in late, feeling slightly awkward about my sloth while my host unpacked and got ready for the day, but not enough to rouse myself. I showered and got coffee with an ex girlfriend, a meeting that went as well as I had hoped. I got on the train to the natural history museum, but seeing how beautiful the afternoon was I strayed to Central Park like a sailor to a siren. After an hour of sitting on a rock in partial shade I got falafel from a truck and spent the next couple of hours reading on a sunny lawn. I was adopting her mode of traveling–coffee, friends, and scenic place to park with a book.

Afterward I went back to my usual travel style: moving quickly and seeing sights while allowing for interesting detours, paying attention along the way, feeling for the unique flavor of places. I arrived early for a meeting with friends and walked to the 9/11 memorial. It was grim, surreal in its beautiful bleakness. It affected me profoundly, aided by the small memorials of stones and flowers left by the names of deceased loved ones. I met my friends for a monks’ choir concert in a nearby episcopalian chapel. The chairs were arranged in a horseshoe faced inward and the dozen monks completed the rectangle when they filed in. I was able to view the other attendees. The impression I got was one of weariness. Some people had shopping bags. One young creative class couple rested their hands on each other’s knee, her head on his shoulder. Normally I would have viewed the scene with disdain, the singing of anachronistic monks for privileged people as a self-conscious, past-fetishizing affect.  That night, a Sunday night, maybe influenced by an old impression of urban chapels as a refuge, their thick walls muffling the streets’ clamor and their dusty stained glass obscuring the city’s stimulae, I saw the concert as an act of solace for those who needed it. Which is everyone.

I spent the next day with friends who introduced me to a friend of theirs, culminating in a cordial goodbye when I came to my stop. I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen for years. We had dinner, drinks afterward, and unloaded our respective heartaches. For my last day I treated myself to a ferry ride, bought myself some books, revisited the natural history museum just in time to get in free for the last hour. I had pizza for dinner, a $2.50 slice of cheese better than anything I can get at home. Now I’m back, doing laundry, trying to sort through emails and dreading a little the contract work with my former employer that I agreed to do while I was gone. Back in the confines of competence.