—a town so small we all had the same therapist, honest, and called her by her first name: Carla. Predawn in a Denny’s booth, we debriefed our sessions, shared notes, compared diagnoses, and wondered where her tattoos were hidden. We marveled over Carla’s insight. Her ambient charm. Her bad jazz mixes. The slight dent in her forehead, how it hued and curved the light.
We drove ourselves in circles telling stories of how she saved our lives. Where else are myths made but in dark diner corners? That long bulb flickering overhead. Gaunt faces reflected in the glass. Stomachs dumb with syrup. Waitresses tamping down our every simple need. Please, it’s the cradle of conspiracy.
Edurne Portela’s novel, Formas de estar lejos, recounts the story of the slow disintegration of a marriage, worn down by apparently small acts of emotional violence (invisible, even) which, taken together, gradually destroy not only the protagonist, Alicia, but also the perpetrator of those acts of violence: her husband, Matty. The title of the novel itself, as is often the case, is virtually untranslatable. A literal rendering might be Ways of Being Distant although, as I worked on my translation, I found myself thinking of it, in a nod to Gabriel García Márquez, as Chronicle of a Divorce Foretold, one in which the breakdown of the relationship can be attributed not so much to the inherent incompatibility of the partners (whatever that might mean) but rather to the alienation they experience in their personal and professional lives, and the way they respectively succumb to and exploit wider social forces such as patriarchy, male violence, social conservatism and racism. I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that this situation gradually transforms the narrator of the novel into a prisoner and her partner becomes her unhappy jailor.
When I return to the landscape of my growing up years, making the five hour drive from my home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the gentle farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I drive by the farm where I grew up without stopping. I do not turn in the lane once shaded by a canopy of catalpa trees or pass by the rock garden where the “Slow Children at Play” sign my older sister painted so many decades ago once stood among the hostas. It could as easily have said “Slow, Children at Work.”
It’s a conundrum—where to put the baby in the grime—how to remove him from his blanket and place him on anything in this room. This room is what my husband and I get for $99 a night on Trip Advisor at .2 miles from the Philadelphia airport. The hotel sits in a strangled urban desert—a place bereft of tree, water, flow—a sprawl of light and concrete. This is a hopeless place for trapped people, meant to curb the anxiety about the most unnatural of journeys.
Seen on a topographic map, the town of Port Jervis, New York, appears to be guaranteed some drama. It is situated at the point where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania come together at the banks of the Delaware River, where the riverbed takes a radical turn to the southwest (as if it had suddenly decided to avoid New Jersey), deepens to eighty feet, and begins to take on the grandeur that will come to it fully in the Water Gap some ten miles farther south. But whatever Port Jervis once was—a railroad and logging hub, a transport center for the produce from local farms—it no longer is. The town center seems exhausted and weakened to such a point that no expectation or promise could safely settle on it again.