“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” I intoned solemnly when things were normal back in the BC days (Before COVID). “In truth the prison, unto which we doom/Ourselves; no prison is.” I winked at my “Forms in Poetry” class to let them know I felt their pain. It turned out to be our last face-to-face meeting for the semester. We were studying the sonnet and I’ve always used William Wordsworth’s love poem to strict forms as a pep talk for beginning prosodists. “And hence for me,/In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound/Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”
Easy for you to say, I tell my three-weeks-ago self. I had no idea what was about to hit us. I’ll bet my shrinking TIAA stash that you didn’t either.
Last May, having exhausted all possible local options, my husband and I got into our car and drove one hundred miles west. We left home early that morning in search of two specific things: better medical care and a definitive diagnosis.
During that first drive into Manhattan, we held hands. Almost ten years into our marriage, it’s something we rarely do anymore — and certainly not for prolonged periods of time. Looking back now, I was holding on for dear life.
More than anything, I want to shrink down into the dirt like a tiny brown beetle. I cling to the Woolworth’s bag containing things I cannot bear to leave behind. Pushing through row after row of wavering wheat, I imagine sinking into the edge of the field where the sky swallows the sun at night. Trying to push from my mind the trail of bent wheat that betrays me, I trudge toward the line that divides gold from blue.
Rain pelted down onto Altamount Road below, the delicate en pointe technique of a thousand ballerinas rumbling across a stage. Earlier, the sun had exploded into full bloom for an hour, after which rain clouds shuffled in again. I was resting on a single bed as mid-afternoon light filtered through the darkening clouds and cast the sky in an impressionistic purple-gray hue. In this unfamiliar guest room with its pomegranate-velvet Victorian sofa, I listened to the soft violence of the monsoon shower through the flung-open windows. The same sound had been a steady backbeat to my childhood years in Bombay. Then, just as quickly as the rain shower had come, it disappeared.
In the early 1990s, as fighter jets flew over burning oil fields in Kuwait, the star wars of the Cold War relegated to recent memory, astronomers questioned the apparent emptiness of the outer solar system. There had been a long-standing presumption that the outer reaches were entirely devoid of the matter—the planets, the asteroids, the moons—that existed in abundance closer to the sun. What if, instead, out in that deep and dark expanse, items existed but only fleetingly? What if the gravitational pull of larger planets cut the lives of smaller objects short? Was it possible that there were more beautiful things to explore? But without the technology or means to prove it, the presumed void remained just that—a void.
“No one has mastery before he is at the end of his art and his life.” —Michelangelo
On that bright morning in November—the first day I saw her—Anna Lea Lelli wore the outfit that distinguished her on the streets of Rome: a long cape and beret. The beret emphasized her craggy jaw and prominent Roman nose. Under her Scottish wool cape, Lea wore a gray suit in gabardine and a cream-colored silk blouse with French cuffs and pearl cufflinks. Just the right amount of cuff showed under the suit, no doubt perfectly tailored to her years ago. At her neck was a silk scarf, on her hand a carnelian ring carved with the face of Mars. She held a cane with the silver head of a horse, the patina worn from the warmth and pressure of her hand.
Normally along this straight back road in Idaho lay only quiet flatlands stippled with clumps of yellow grass, but today the prairie was bustling with cars and RVs and people gathered around camping chairs and telescopes. We were all here to see the Great American Eclipse of 2017—not only the first total eclipse of the sun to cross the country from Pacific to Atlantic in a century, but the first to grace the mainland at all in thirty-eight years. Since thirty-eight happened to be the median age in the United States, this meant roughly half the people readying to see today’s eclipse hadn’t yet been born the last time, and half who witnessed it then, in 1979, had since died. My husband and I, driving down the road in a blue compact, were a man and woman on the sadder side of the median, but only by a few years, so we weren’t used to it yet. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t decide how much this was worth, witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. I feared I might have lost the ability to distinguish true excitement from an admirable effort to keep life exciting.
A wooden chair, washed up on the beach between Nauset and Wellfleet. All drawings by the author.
“We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue: that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.”
—Henry David Thoreau, July 1842
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came plainly while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was some time ago, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, sadness, and pain that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. Her husband—my dream had rendered him with dark hair in a cowlick, wearing a red shirt rolled to the elbows—stood bedside, holding her hand while she took deep breaths. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers, something I must have seen in a movie. Though I wanted to leave the room, I stayed, because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.
In his thirty years of work in publishing, my grandfather never once revealed to his colleagues he was gay. Doing so could have cost him his job as a children’s book editor at a prestigious house, or at the very least, his reputation as an honest, hard-working family man. It took me only ten minutes, in a phone interview with the same publishing house, to accidentally out him.
The walk to the outhouse was some thirty yards—across the bare back yard, past a fishpond filled in with sand after a turkey had drowned there, and through a gate at the garden fence—to a little unpainted hut behind two salt cedar trees. It was quiet inside, the murk tempered by sun slanting in between weathered boards. The hush was lovely—breezes outside cocooning the silence inside. When I was seven years old, I discovered solitude there. And the pleasure of staring. At men. In lieu of toilet paper, our outhouse was stocked with last year’s mail order catalogs, with pages of men’s underwear for me to hover over. I was several years shy of learning about sex—from a Roman Catholic booklet so primly informative that I pictured two fully clothed adults just returned from Sunday Mass, facing each other in straight-backed dining chairs and holding hands while some kind of mystical transference occurred between their covered laps. Though I had been to confession, I hadn’t yet discovered that my body could be an instrument of sin, of shame. Somehow, I had absorbed the need for privacy, for keeping the secret of my mail order fascination.