I started out in a stranger’s house in Stony Brook. It was a hot day, hot in a way British people do not understand. I left the house with two author copies of Little Wrecks, wearing a black linen dress from L. K. Bennett which was the only thing I could stand to be covered with on a day like that. Since I appear so comfortably middle-aged on the outside, the dress made me look like a lady who lunches. First disconnect of that day. First imperfect resonance. There are at least two Long Islands, and I have never lived in that one.
It was when I went out into the road that the landscape hit me. A pair of blue jays screeched in the scrub pines; everything was so arid, so sandy and thin. I don’t remember it like that. I walked on the shoulder because in America sidewalks are scarce, and because it was in the shade. I thought how stupid I was not to have brought water, how English and defenceless I’d become.
I suppose most authors drive to places on days like this, with copies of their first novel on the seat in the back, with friends and family laughing beside them. With the air conditioning on. I could have chosen to do it like that, but somehow I never do. The day I took my first copies of Little Wrecks around Long Island, to my high school and my childhood public library, was the platonic ideal of all the days in my life. I was alone and it was a little bit more than real, more beautiful and strange.
I like it that way.
I held my books against my chest and looked at those pines, the gritty soil, the stingy shadows, the empty ranch houses full of dead air. This was the landscape out of which I’d wrenched a book. Walking through it was like pushing through water, like when you were tripping and you had to concentrate to carefully untangle what was real from what wasn’t.
My memory lay on top of the present geography, slipping and wearing through. I got off the train at East Northport, which I fictionalized in Little Wrecks as a wrong-side-of-the-tracks kind of place, full of working-class people, cheap houses and engine oil. Still, when I saw it that day it shocked me. I don’t know whether the increasing disparity in wealth has made East Northport more itself than it used to be, or whether I’ve forgotten what real neglect in a place without a welfare safety net looks like. Both, I suppose. I went into a dusty bodega for an egg sandwich and some water then took a picture of myself in the shade by the station house, smiling up at my phone in my inappropriate dress. I bought that dress years ago at a street fair, for a pound.
I had some idea what direction my high school was in, but it had been thirty years since I’d been anywhere near it. Going home to Northport has always disturbed me, and no one I love lives there now, anyway. I turned on the GPS and followed it in between some cars, up a gravelly bank and onto the road. The sun slammed down on my head and shoulders. Why hadn't I brought an umbrella?
Somewhere down the winding road things got a little more affluent. Somewhere along there also, my memory started to settle down over the string of blue dots on my phone. I looked up and knew: it’s that way, just around that bend. I let my phone go black and followed my own feet.
Despite my sudden sense of location, I wasn’t prepared for the sight of the dry brown lawn and the front courtyard. For the strangers who greeted me, for the size of things. So small. The receptionist took me around the corner and I dropped from one world into another world that was the same world. My heart was pounding. Tears fell out of my eyes, expelled by the pressure differential between what was inside me and what was outside. I’d stepped through some ghost of myself, exhaling curses and smoke without a body or throat. How was I supposed to tell these complacent ladies with nametags that? They drive home to some other town at the end of the day. If they ever lived through the kinds of crazy violence we lived through, they’ve buried it somewhere else, in another landscape.
I left school and walked towards 25A. The A&P is a Stop and Shop now. The gas station where I forced them to give me a job when I was fifteen is gone. The Dunkin’ Donuts is there, with a new façade and the same smell. At the library a woman was very kind to me, until her boss appeared. He looked at my novel and my L. K. Bennett dress and said, ‘How are you distributing it?’ I said, ‘Harper is doing that.’ He seemed surprised, and changed his tone. I guess comfortably middle-class ladies who wear L. K. Bennett dresses to Long Island libraries mostly pay to have their novels printed by con men. I was dizzy and dissociated from the heat; things looked blue around the edges. I dropped my special signing pen and bumped my head on the counter when I bent to pick it up. Then I had to go into the bathroom and finish feeling sick.
I hadn’t recognized the library at all. The place where I borrowed all of Nin’s novels, where they have one-off recordings on vinyl of interviews with Jack Kerouac, made while he lived for a while with his mother in East Northport. I don’t know whether the library has been remodelled or my memory is unreliable. I remember a round opening and a spiral staircase that don’t seem to be there now.
I didn’t go into the village. I didn’t look at the water or the park. I am not that brave. I turned back across 25A and bought more water in the Stop and Shop, put on my sunglasses and retraced my steps. The glare all around me would never reach the starry space wrapped around my bones. There was a separate, specific gravity under my skin, and enough room for a whole world, a whole lifetime that doesn’t match up with the objects outside my body. Maybe never did.
In what place are you carrying yourself? Where do you feel it?
I walked back through all that light to the big Salvation Army thrift store next to the station. On the way I passed some woods full of confused rabbits, too stunned by the heat to hide themselves. I walked through all the sprinklers and then gave the moisture right back to the starving air. The Sally Army was air conditioned, so I went in there to save myself, sat on the discarded furniture and called my sister, watched teenagers try on clothes. To make sure I don't forget that day I bought another dress, embroidered in gold with palm trees and monkeys and stars.