You can´t put your arms around a memory. Sounds like the title of a song, doesn´t it? that´s because it is: the title of a song. It´s true, you can´t put your arms around a memory, but you can reinterpret one.
I´m a desert girl by nature. That´s a fact! If I were to tell people who know me, that I once spent a whole week in an abandoned cabin in the mountains – at Christmas, they would probably start to doubt the validity of my story, or ask what I had been drinking?
And yet, I did!
Following the death of his wife, a good friend of mine had turned into a hermit.
One December afternoon, he called me up and invited me to spend the holiday week with him, to keep him company and give my brutally honest opinion, on a book he was working on. Christmas has never been the highlight of the year for me, so I thought: why not? I had been trying to break down the doors of his grief-induced loneliness. I was happy to hear that he was ready to leave his private mourning rites behind and found hope and a new commitment. I would help him let in a new future over the holidays. It was a matter of life and death.
I gladly accepted his invite with visions of a truly bewitching village or hamlet, which would spread its share of fairy-tale magic, transformed into a winter wonderland with snowfall. Winding cobblestone alleys, half-timbered houses, an onion-domed church, perhaps a curling river or a tranquil lake, stunning scenery, and mesmerizing views with countless photo stops.
I think I tell myself a revised version of that story every Christmas. The licentious nature of my memory leads me to erase the high heels I had on, trooping through the snow and the fact that my cell phone had no service when I tried to call my friend, to let him know that I arrived.
I was in the middle of a dense forest, and before me lay an extensive hiking trail.
No suburbanites around to offer me a ride, offering me an orange and a working cell phone. A mangy dog followed me around, despite my comic attempts to shoo it away. I cried for a while as I walked. I started to imagine that I would make the headlines as the frozen corps
in high heels, when a Christmas trucker took pity on me, stopped, and offered me a ride. He bought me a warmish coffee and started the engine.
The ride started out well enough. The truck hiccupped the road, while the driver commented quietly on the weather. Somewhere around a little chapel on the edge of a field, the road cut through a series of steep hills and the ride turned into a rodeo, lurking, and thumping like the laundry in a dryer. Finally, the driver pointed his finger to a crumpled barn:
So much for fairy tale magic. This must the ancient ruins that testified to a once enchanting cabin, I thought to myself. Did I leave the safety of my home for this? I tried to forget my frozen feet and greeted my friend who was sitting on the porch like a lonesome somewhat awkward knight, drinking coffee.
-“The natural world should be respected for its beauty as well as its dangers.” I said a bit angrily, reciting Mary Shelley when I noticed a snow-covered jeep.
The house was untidy. A mount of washed clothes waited on the sofa to be folded and put away, though I didn´t see any closets or wardrobe. The stench of tobacco filled the air with a pungent scent. A frying pan, caked with scrambled egg leftover was sitting on a gas stove. Mugs were balanced precariously on an ottoman, giving off the smell of dried coffee. Stacks of magazines on every available surface, chargers laying everywhere they had been left. It looked like this cabin was his cocoon where he had been living on spirits and processed foods.
-“If you´re hungry.” He said, “I have some ice cream in the back. No need for a freezer here.” He chuckled shyly.
-“There are more stars here!” he said, “Come look!.”
I was starting to feel irritated, and I was hungry, but I was not in the mood for ice cream.
-“I can make popcorn in a frying pan.” He smiled as if he heard my tummy rumble. I respectfully declined.
He showed me to my bedroom, which looked more like a storage room: books, shoes, and boxes full of stuff… I bid him goodnight, threw myself on the bed, and cried for a few minutes. It didn´t take long for me to drift off.
When I woke up, my body was bristling with anticipation. I opened the blinds of the window; the sky was salmon with streaks of red.
I walked around the hut, picking up clothes off the floor and crumpled napkins, hoping the noise would wake up my friend since I was dying for coffee.
Dante´s Divine comedy lay on the kitchen table. I was about to pick it up, the long poem about a lot of dead people, when he entered the room in sweatpants and a blue bathrobe:
-“Let´s go do some shopping.” he said.
In the car he told me, he got addicted to pizza and fried foods. I suggested we´d buy garlic, carrots, and tomatoes.
-“So, what are you writing?” I asked him after my second cup of coffee.
-“A grief memoir.” He answered.
I drew the parallel between Dante´s text and my friend's experience, by staying in this cabin this dense forest, or dark wood as the Italian poet called it.
We can recall things in perfect detail and yet, pain, wistfulness, and long-ago glee, corrupt memory.
-“The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.” He spoke.
-“I have heard the quote before.” I nodded, and added, “One is not supposed to be bereaved for a lifetime.”
His wife had been involved in a car accident and did not survive, nor did the baby she carried inside her, who was due to be born three weeks later.
-“You´re writing a self-help manual?! I asked.
He shook his head: “I just want to use the memories of our good times and try to reconcile our past together with my future alone.”
His wife had been a woman with a generous talent for life and beauty, but from the onset, it seemed clear, that she was not ready to submit to him and his sometimes brutal appetites. She never really expected more of him. The consequence of avoiding conflict at all costs. They were in the middle of a cold war when the accident happened.
-“There´s an obscene absurdity to what you are doing.” I said cautiously.
-“From one instant to the next, I went from soon-to-be dad and husband to widower. I can´t help but still feel married.” I think he was saying more to himself than he was talking to me.
-“You created a somewhat risqué alternative identity where you are now wedded to death?” I answered with a question.
-“I am plagued by attacks of ghastly panic.” He said while he lit a cigarette.
-“You really should kick that habit.” I tried to smile at him. “ I realized I sounded like the warning sign on the pack he was putting back in the pocket of his shirt.
-“I´m in the middle of my book.” He said, “This is where the story really begins.”
-“How so?” I asked
-“I provide the reader with a question.” He replied while blowing his cigarette smoke in my direction. I pinched my nose and asked what that question might be.
-“What is the opposite of death?” he answered. I kept looking at him, thinking he would provide me with an answer.
-“It´s not life.” He continued, “It´s birth.”
-“And what is the opposite of life?” I asked him.
-“ Maybe nobody knows.” He whispered.
-“You end your book with an open philosophical question?” I pushed him for an answer. He shook his head:
-“I provide an answer. My view of things.”
I felt like beating the answer out of him:
-“Sitting on pins and needles here:
-“I let my soul quicken to the love of music and the music of love. I thrum back to life, so much the reader will wind up thinking I´m a lucky man.”
His words sounded like a melody.
-“Lucky to have survived my grief and to have put it behind me.”
I spent a nice snowed in Christmas week. He hugged me when he dropped me at the stain station and asked if I would be back.
-“If I do, it will be when these vast mountain meadows are flower fields.” I blew him a kiss and was happy to return to the eternal mystical sands of my beloved desert, thinking that it´s true that you can´t put your arms around a memory, but you can reinterpret one.