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It's Nelly's World

Reading Maps

alec vanderboom

Unpacking after a move is a road map of sorts--to one's past. Former enthusiasms are reflected in box after box of books: apparently I was seriously interested in film, on the evidence of two bookshelves' worth (my annotated What Is Cinema, Andre Bazin, pretentiously dated the day I bought it, in a girlish hand, 1978). I had almost forgotten. Who else was I? Photography, one and a half shelves. Modern poetry, one shelf. Philosophy--s**t, almost two shelves, and all nearly incomprehensible to me now. Is it the loss of brain cells, or is it just the inability to focus in that manner of the youthful book-eater?

No, I still have the capacity for enthusiasm. Lord knows, I still have the capacity for a whole line of temporary insanities, or at the least, very, very bad judgment.

The vinyl collection reflects times frozen in amber. High school: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (I still remember slow dancing to them, but not the person with whom I did it; music lasts while young love does not); almost all of David Bowie, and when I stop unpacking to listen to Changes, it has some new resonance. Later, I see, I had collected the entire oeuvre of Talking Heads and its offshoots; I also managed a fair amount of Bootsy Collins and Parliament Funkadelic--we used to dance ourselves silly in college. Here comes R.E.M. and XTC. UB40, the Clash, Beastie Boys (Let me clear my throat!). And look--Robyn Hitchcock! Now I sing with him as I try to put things to rights in this new place, in a new time ("Brenda's iron sledge . . . Please don't call me Reg, it's not my name"--you really can't beat that, can you?). Of course, I should not be playing these records at all with this old cartridge--or, for that matter, with what I assume is a rotten belt, since the drive is making funny noise all the while--but the combination of being both a lazy SOB and broke never bodes well for having equipment that works right. And so nothing I have quite does.

The other evening, after humping boxes and furniture and books and clothes and toys and pictures and records for eight days straight, having stayed up till 2 a.m. the night before carving a path through the ancient detritus left by the movers in what would, in the best of all possible worlds, become a living room, I finally allowed myself a respite. A glass of Campari and soda, and a dinner comprised of hors d'oeuvres ("a Melissa meal," in the term of one of my college friends, since some stripes do not change; or, to spin it another way, I was serving tapas to people in place of meals before it became fashionable to do so). Then I sat down with the maps. Paper maps. (I had just unpacked my map collection, as well, and it too is a record of the past I had forgotten: is it really possible I have been to all these places?) I am going to make my first big trip of a new life the old way: no GPS, no radar detector. Sharpie'd directions written for the map pocket, and pray it doesn't rain, because the tankbag rain cover obscures it, and then you have to go on memory. That which I have no longer.

There is nothing, nothing, better than dreaming over maps. The first one I consulted, between handfuls of smoked almonds, was the map of the eastern U.S. that, eighteen years before, had gone with me on a journey of five thousand miles. The route was traced in green highlighter, and so it was the ghost impression of trips past, left on the windowpane through which trips future are glimpsed.

Yesterday at the auto parts store at the Kingston Plaza, where I'd gone for bulbs and fuses and the bits and pieces that will be stowed in the topcase for a few days from now, another man at the counter was looking at me, noticed my jacket and my helmet in hand. "Nice day for ride, eh?" he said in a longing voice. "Absolutely perfect," I agreed. He told me he used to ride, but had now quit. I told him I had once quit, but now I was back. I told him he could go back, too. And wouldn't regret it. "Yeah," he allowed. "I'm beginning to think maybe you can quit riding, but riding never quits you."

As the sun set, I drained the glass, refolded the map that was coming apart at every seam, taped and retaped. This time I am not trying to re-create the past. I am trying to live in the present, in this exact second, unaware of the next, and trying to make it last for miles.


[There will be no post next week, since the person responsible for writing them will be here and also because she has been spending too much time in front of maps/boxes/Campari to have been able to write anything in advance. But she might have good tales to tell the week after next. Nelly, by the way, is going to Camp Janet, where she will eat better than most upper middle class humans.]