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It's Nelly's World

Geography of Memory Part CLXXXVI

alec vanderboom

Time changes everything, almost. It compresses memory
under its weight, the years making it denser, so it takes up less space. It is the recent past that seems more alive to the senses. The past behind it grows thin. Until you are no longer even sure if it happened to you, or if you read about these distant things, or imagined them. What is this ache? How can you today sit at a stoplight in Manhattan, staring at the blank and grimy brick wall of a hundred-fifty-year-old building on the edge of the edge of nowhere, waiting for the green that will send you flowing into the tunnel, and think, "Mother of god, I love New York City so much I can't stand it"?

It is because living here has changed your molecular structure, and it will always be in you. A visit back will trigger the fountain of memories, and the incessant play of emotions. Some are so powerful they seem a part of the fabric of the city itself--out there on the concrete--not in you.

A couple of years ago, thrashed by an inestimable pain, I could think only of fleeing to the city. It was going to help me understand something, or fix something, or get something back. I had to go to the place where our life began, together.

The second, and almost simultaneous, urge I had was to write about it. It's part of the strange concoction that is me. It feels like the only way to know where I am, as if I am constructing the geography of my life by drawing a map made of words. Then I will be able to put a red dot on it and say: There! There I am! I am not lost after all.

Here is what I wrote about that first trip back, a few days after it felt like the world exploded:

I was driving quickly away, as if pain were a locale. When I reached Brooklyn, I would finally escape it.

After we moved away from the city, our route back for visits had become the Battery Tunnel. But that costs money, and suddenly I saw before me a new life in which I would sit up late, stacking pennies into red paper rolls. Now it was dark Monday night, rain-slicked, and the Brooklyn Bridge would be empty. Free, also.

I followed the way off an old map stored in memory. This was the path of a thousand trips—-after dinners, after parties, after movies; in the back of a cab with my head on his shoulder, or in a car I drove too mindfully, trying to stay in lane after a cocktail or two so I could get to the place I used to call home.

The front tires hit the up ramp, and that’s when I knew I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have gone anywhere near our past, which resides at the junction of physical place and embroidered memory. Now my old life was rising up before me, all around me. The lights of Brooklyn were almost singing. They drew me toward the rocks, and I thought I was lost, until I looked through the windshield and saw myself, walking around the corner at Douglass and Fourth Avenue, Mercy at the end of the leash. I was hoping she would squat soon, so I could get home, put on my pajamas, maybe watch the eleven o’clock news in bed together. Then I vanished from the street, because I could no longer see through the windshield. The rain. Or no. Not the rain.

Today, I went back to Brooklyn. I traveled the same route. It took me along the same streets of history, and this time went even farther back; for a strange reason, I had forgotten the deeper, preceding parts of my life there, Pacific Street, Dean Street. Until suddenly I was going past them, in sequence. How wonderful of them to arrange these streets in chronological order for me. I drove up St. John's Place, to show my son the place into which he was born. He had never seen it. And I found something else there: the realization that with time, sadness goes. It leaves only a wistful residue of memory, and a new happiness: that I had it then, and that it is gone. I am glad for all of it. And especially that I am happy to return to Brooklyn, running into people from the past on occasion, walking the same grass in the park that was touched by a dog who is also gone, and mourned, but at a distance now. I remembered the way to get to the bridge, and I always will.