Because reading is at the absolute top of my favorite-things-to-do list, I needed to do some rudimentary math to calculate how many books I needed to bring with me for three months on Ibiza. I use the Kindle app on my iPad—so I knew that I’d have infinite books available for airplanes and indoor/night reading—but I needed to know I’d have enough books for beach reading.
My suitcase has four pockets that seem made for books (or dirty laundry), so that was the number I gave myself to work with. It was hard to pass up some of the unread titles already on my shelf—The House of Sand and Fog, Just Kids, Sister Water—but after an absurd amount of toiling I hammered out my summer reading list.
I started with Beautiful Ruins, a story that takes place over fifty years mainly in Italy and Los Angeles, but—like a sneak-attack preview of my future—an area of Idaho not far from Missoula makes a cameo appearance toward the end. Beautiful Ruins is a clever book. It bridges small village life with big-city dreams, and weaves together stories over entire lifetimes. The common thread is love in various forms: lost, reclaimed, misdirected, selfish, silly, self-defeating, desperate, undeserved, etc.
Thinking of love in it’s various forms made me think of this:
There are so many ways to love.
Beautiful Ruins is poignant but really funny too. I marked many pages with stars, hearts, and underlinings, and in the back made a list of page numbers that include images so good I need to share them withy a friend. I always write my name in my books as well as the place and date when I read it. I can usually look at that and be thrust instantly back to the place I was in (both physically and emotionally) when I first read the book. My markings serve the same purpose, and for Beautiful Ruins it will always take me to the time I lived in a rustic pagoda-style hut tucked into a hill previously burned by fire. It also happened to be the place where my book matched my bedding:
Jess Walter wrote about wishes that get upgraded to prayers, and how “Words and emotions are simple currencies. If we inflate them they lose their value, just like money.” He wrote about how foreigners view Americans, “It had such an open quality, was such a clearly American face…He believed he could spot an American anywhere by that quality—that openness, that stubborn belief in possibility…” I marked that line as interesting though it would be another couple of months before I really understood both the truth and gravity of that statement.
I finished Beautiful Ruins, but wasn’t quite ready to let Jess Walter out of my sight, so I read every word on those pages including an interview with the author in the back where he says,
“The story itself was pretty simple, reflecting a question I had asked myself: what might cause a man to go looking for a woman he hasn’t seen in years? I wonder if the truth we know from physics—that an object has the most stored energy right before it acts (think of a drawn bow)—was true of romance too, if potential wasn’t, in some way, love’s most powerful form.”
Holy Crap. This sentence was how I started my summer, and it became the self-fulfilling, bottomless, occasionally painful thesis for my time spent in Europe.
The next book I dug into was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’m not even into thrillers, but this one is psychological and got me thinking about things I didn’t even know I cared to think about. I even cheated one night and read a few pages in bed. By the time I started it I’d made friends I enjoyed taking to and laughing with, so often toted the book to the beach but never even poised my pen over the open pages.
The Secret History is an upfront book. In the very first paragraph we know someone has died and we even know who, then in the second paragraph we’re told it was a murder yet it takes three hundred pages before the act happens, and then almost that many more pages to flush it all out. I also chose to read this very long book with deliberate slowness—I’d read a chapter and then assimilate the pages with a good, long swim—so I wound up carried The Secret History around in my beach bag for so many weeks that it needed several rounds of surgical taping to make it through.
The end of The Secret History was a pisser because I hated to say goodbye to it (even after 558 pages) and because I wasn’t sure what to read next. One of the books I brought with me is a book I’ve wanted to want to read for over a decade, but although I’ve held the book in my hands like it’s a treasure (and it is) I’ve never been able to sink my heart into it the way I’ve hoped.
I think I can officially say the stars may never align for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and me, though I’ll never say never. Even though it’s core is autobiographical, it’s not quite rooted in reality enough for me. Without any attachment to the pages, I left it behind knowing that finding it on the yoga retreat’s bookshelves would be total score for someone.
I have a male friend I’ve known for a while now. One summer when I was particularly overwhelmed and self-punishing he’d twist my arm into doing fun stuff I swore I didn’t have time for. Sometimes he’d announce we were going to float the river or go out to dinner and I’d say, “I can’t. I have to get my act together.” He’d sigh, look at me, and say, “No you don’t, Jaime, it’s just an act anyway.” One evening right before I moved away, we lounged on twin couches watching something funny on television, and he turned to me and said, “Isn’t unrequited love the best?”
Both Beautiful Ruins and The Secret History feature unrequited love as a character, and a strong character at that. If my summer thesis was about the potential of love, then my closing statement comes from a book that is the unofficial bible of unrequited love, Love in the Time of Cholera, AKA as the last beach-read that I started (and enjoyed) but didn’t finish. The truth is that I enjoyed the book, but barely got into it, ending at the spot where Fermina’s husband dies and she’s about to give it a go with a man who’s waited fifty years for her. But I got this, and this I needed:
“Think of love as a state of grace; not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.”
Maybe love isn’t about anything beyond the moment we are in it? What if….
There’s no actual cholera in the book that I know of, but it’s a punchy metaphor for lovesickness, which shares a lot of the same symptoms. There’s even an adjective—choleric—that refers to a disposition that’s at its worst is irritable and bad-tempered, but at it’s best is ambitious, passionate, and strong-willed. Choleric people like to get a job done and they like to do it ASAP. They’re good at planning but are also impulsive and restless. The element associated with this element is fire. Folks, I think I might be choleric.
I don’t think I’m choleric ALL of the time, but it’s one of my default settings in love for sure. In my last blog post I wrote about how grateful I was when a man I started seeing at the end of the summer called me out on some bullshit behavior. We’d had our first disagreement and I acted like the word choleric was invented for me. The worst part about it was that I’d let a little thing become a bigger thing, and all day the poor guy tried to help me let it go, but I was having an absurdly hard time doing that.
Finally he called a spade a spade, and made it clear he knew what I was up to: I was behaving badly because I loved him and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. I hadn’t felt that way about anyone in a long time, and even as I was falling in love I future-tripped about all of the (quite realistic) roadblocks that stood in between a summer fling (flirty and trendy) and something with staying power (boots for inclement weather).
I left Ibiza for Rome, but I found the middle ground between Forever 21 and L.L. Bean, and arranged to spend ten days with Mario in Barcelona before I returned to New York. I knew there’d be a lot of joy in that time together, but I also knew that it would be emotionally with the reality that we had no idea when we might see each other again. I wasn’t exactly sure how choleric I would be…..
At some point I’d had a delusion of recharging my visa and spending ninety days in the USA before going back to Barcelona to live happily ever after, but a different love-related reality hit me the closer I got to it: there was no way in hell I was going to voluntarily spend any more time without Lucky. The summer had a unique set of family circumstances, but that was over and Lucky and I need to be together. He is hands down the number one person who’s taught me about the kind of love that’s as far from unrequited as it gets—the unconditional kind of love.
Somehow I was able to get my old job back, find friends who’ll take me in, and cobble together a plan for a road trip that involves visiting family and friends en route to Missoula. When I mapped all of my stops together it turns out that the shape of my trip is a slightly crooked smile, turned up and curled a little on the Northwest side. It even kinda sorta looks like a smirk, or the mirror image of a question mark depending on how you see it.
I’m beyond thrilled to be taking my old man on what is bound to be his last major road trip. A cross-country trip is enough for most people, but I’m basically doing everything BUT the part of the drive that’s a direct shot between NYC and Missoula.
Lucky has been traveling with me since day 1, and it’s really no big deal for him. Plus, we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. But, at 12 ½ , is Lucky too old for a big trip? I suppose that’s possible, but he’s going to have a comfy area in the backseat and plenty of time to do what old dogs do best: sleep. If it doesn’t agree with him I’ll figure something out, take a more direct route, slow the pace, whatever he needs. In the meantime I know a few things to be true.
This is a dog who loves to travel:
When he’s tired he can cozy up:
He can get some space from his mama if he needs it:
In some rapid time-elapsed version of my current life I’d have an ending to the story I’m entrenched in. The passage of time would be apparent when the reel zips forward to Mario and I living in a sunbeam-filled cottage on a tree-lined street near a town that’s charming but still has a bit of grit. There will be a garden and one or both of us writing books. Soup simmering, tea brewing, even from a photo you can tell the place smells out of this world.
The aesthetic would be a mix of old and new with beautiful colors and textiles, heavy on the house plants. In the final frame one of us would turn to the camera with the surprise being a baby with the gentle eyes of a Labrador. These images will come as the credits roll, but there will be no more dialogue. Townes Van Zant singing “If I Needed You” will play, and people who cry during romantic comedies will cry.
But the thing is, I’m not one of those people who cries at the end of sappy love stories when everything goes right. I can barely sit through a Rom-Com unless I have the flu or five loads of laundry to fold. I’m just too realistic for those story lines, so when I find myself in a live version of one I hardly trust it and feel miscast in a role not appropriate for my range. But we all know that life’s best adventures begin outside our comfort zones.
As if it wasn’t bad enough leaving, I had one of those hideous, terrible, good-for-nothing departure times so my airport taxi picked me up at 5:00am. When we (still) weren’t sleeping at two in the morning Mario decided to hard boil some eggs for my snack bag that also included two cheese sandwiches, granola bars, breadsticks and a plum. He wrapped most of it in aluminum foil, and I overlooked the environmental impact of this to focus instead on the fact that he wrapped my sustenance in something so resistant to corrosion.
When I arrived home I was pretty battered, but I had more than a few things to look forward to and some surprises too. One of the surprises was a package from a friend I made at surf camp a few years ago. It was great timing, because in addition to being a nice treat, it was also a reminder that with a little effort we can stay in touch with the friends we meet traveling. I knew Tracy was sending me something because she asked for my address, but I wasn’t prepared to be so touched by it.
Tracy had sent me a mint-condition, vintage copy of The Mentor from 1919 that she came across while rummaging around in an antique store in Minnesota. “It made me think of you,” she said, and signed her note, “Blessings.” The Mentor is an obscure, defunct periodical, but an interesting one. Its purpose was to present information in an accessible way so that people might “learn one thing every day,” which is also inscribed on the cover.
The issue that Tracy sent was about fiction writing with a focus on women authors. It profiles a few writers and then gives some great writing advice that’s just as relevant today as it was ninety-five years ago, but the best advice is the very last thing printed on those pages:
Make The Spare Moment Count.
I’m starting to believe it’s the spare moments that matter most, the time that feels half-borrowed, half-stolen, like the cash you find in the pocket of a winter coat. It’s the time that suspends and contracts without warning, time that’s separate from limitations. It’s everything that exists beyond the outer limits of possibility.