Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie




After the museum, Cross looked up into the gray sky and thought he would risk cutting through the park. It had been some time since he'd walked through Central Park in its autumn glory, and as he worked his way south, kicking up endless eddies of dead leaves on the path, he thought perhaps he would visit The Redhead.

She stood at the south end of the Great Lawn, and even from the northern edge of the oval he could see her, lonely and softly blazing, like a bonfire spied through a veil. He walked onto the lawn itself, past a father and daughter tossing a softball back and forth; the sun broke through with heat but no light, and Cross took off his hat for a moment. Depsite the threat of rain, it was warm for a cloudy November day. Like the trees themselves, balanced between green and orange, the afternoon felt poised between two states of being: as if the world was briefly of two minds.

Cross was of many minds of late, many of them turned to the distant past. Strange to think a decade or so would feel so distant... or, rather, strange to think that it wouldn't. As he approached The Redhead, he thought back on just three years before, when he first noticed her--when she worked her way into a poem, and the poem into a manuscript, and the manuscript into... well, the manuscript had yet to work its way into anything.

It was the brilliance of her leaves, the deep, blood-bright red of her turning: leaves like curled flames. Cross was a sucker for trees that turned pure red, and he felt the usual pang of idiocy that he still didn't know what kind of tree she was. She only stood out, amidst so many other Titians, because she stood alone at the Great Lawn's southern arc, like a signal beacon below Belevedere Castle to the right and above.

"She..." Did trees have genders? A muddle of half-forgotten biology rose up in Cross' mind, and he pushed it away. She was a redhead as far as he was concerned, even if she only dyed her tresses once a year for a few weeks.

This year her upper branches were nearly bare from the recent storms. As Cross walked beneath her, a carpet of crimson tugged at his feet. He bent down and picked up the dark red leaves, still a little soft but tending toward crispness.

He couldn’t really explain why he felt such affinity for a tree, except that he loved autumn (yes, in New York, and, no, he couldn’t answer why it felt so inviting), and that those first few walks through Central Park when he first arrived were simply enchanting. Sometimes, his explorations of the park loomed larger in his experiences of the city than the city itself. It was, Cross supposed, part of Olmstead’s intent: the one place in Manhattan where you didn’t stride purposefully, head down, intent, but you strolled reflectively, meditatively (unless you were just in a hurry to get to the East or West side, of course).

Cross felt the pull suddenly. He did have somewhere to be, after all. He placed two leaves in his notebook and nodded up at The Redhead’s branches, promising to visit again next year. As he set off past the Delacorte, he thought of past walks, moving back and back until he thought of his very first day in the park, four (thousand) years ago. Thinking of it, he found himself retracing steps, until he passed Daniel Webster (and was happy to whisper “The Union stands firm” as he did so) and crossed the road into Strawberry Fields.

But not forever, no, and there was doubtless something to get hung about, if only memory. Though the usual peace sign composed of roses and votive candles adorned the IMAGINE mosaic, Cross’s thoughts didn’t turn to Lennon or peace or even the song... Just to the north of the mosaic, there was an entry into a long, wide clearing, ringed with dense trees of various kinds. Fifty yards in, the clearing narrowed, and the earth rose a little to a bit of a hill before it ended in dense bushes that concealed a sloping bluff. Where the clearing narrowed stood a large, low-branched tree, obscuring the smaller, higher part of the clearing the way a rock in the middle of a stream would hide the shape of the waters beyond. There was often some one or two people in the larger part, by the path, but the smaller clearing was nearly always empty when Cross visited it.

Today someone slept against a tree to the east. Cross strode past them and around the tree in the center, thinking back to that first walk: how he had looked up, just about here, to see a hawk circling, drifting, above his head. He walked to the very slight rise at the end of the clearing.

For some reason, the clearing always put him in mind of the one in Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Cross often felt that there was some aspect of this spot that he should be inspecting very closely, as if something lay hidden in the grain of green and gray. Why else would he always be so drawn to it?

But, really, Cross knew what drew him. He looked up to see the twin towers of the San Remo Apartments, looming like a fantastic castle above the trees—from this spot on the rise, they were otherworldly in their beauty. He knew, as he had known when he had first discovered this very quiet, empty spot in the teeming park, that this spot was where he would ask someone to marry him... if he ever had the occasion to ask that question again.

Once again, Cross stepped over that invisible barrier that separated New York as soundstage from the real city. A pathetic fallacy, of sorts, but one he made often—for without that sense of the city as a stage, the city itself would crush you in its monotonous indifference. To stand in that spot, remembering the omen of the hawk, and how a cloudburst soaked him to the skin just minutes afterward, the same way the sun, now fully shining through a break in the gray, was soaking him—well, it was another moment of pure potential. Not hope, perhaps—but potential, possibility. To stand in a clearing was to remember that possibility had not been closed off: that a clearing was just that, a respite, an opening that promised further expanses, and not merely the wide, sinister outline of a noose.

Would he ever stand here with someone else? Cross sighed, realizing the question itself as on the verge of maudlin. But such questions crowded the solitary’s existence, no matter how often you cast them aside. Cross shook it off, and retraced his steps, and as he walked around the dark mass of the gatekeeper tree, he was rewarded with a vision.

Of sorts. Standing now in the wider clearing was a variation on the dream—Cross was instantly startled and bemused. She was tall, tall even if she had not been wearing five-inch heels. Her long legs, sheathed in black stockings, met the hem of short, tight black skirt; above, her smart black jacket with ringed in a faux-fur collar. Her chestnut hair was tucked beneath a pillbox hat, and the black net that fell from it couldn’t hide her clear blue eyes. Very red full lips offset her pale, high cheekbones, and she had one black-gloved hand at her ear, tugging at it to dislodge a bit of burnt orange that clung there: a leaf. Her whole appearance was incongruous, as if a marble faun had appeared in the washed-out cubicle of a corporate skyscraper.

Next to her stood two women, both dressed in shapeless clothes, one in a dark down-vest; in her hand she held the black mass of a camera and flash. The other held a black duffle and was helping, Cross now saw as he circled past them, the model (a model, of course) to remove the errant leaf. A photo-shoot: there were hundreds such scenes, every day of the year, in Central Park.

As the vision coalesced into something understandable, even mundane, Cross shook his head and turned his eyes to the path. Somewhere, a director was crying Cut!; somewhere, a voice was saying, low and intimate, Action. Cross felt a pang and stepped out onto the path, threading his way past Lennon’s pilgrims. But, true to his vocation, he turned and looked back once more on the tableaux.

The assistant now held up a reflector, a gold disc she raised behind the model as the photographer took one, two, three steps back. The model struck a pose; Cross couldn’t see her eyes, but her profile against the disc, like someone standing suddenly between you and sunset, was sharp, and somehow perfect. Whatever the photographer, who was now snapping away, would capture couldn’t compare to this glimpse, brief as autumn color, that Cross now filed away as he turned his face away, forward again, toward the city.





By the time Cross made his way upstairs, the room above the bar in Fraunces Tavern was packed. It wasn’t the Long Room, where General Washington said farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War (and after so many reconstructions, even the Long Room itself wasn’t itself), but it was big enough to hold a SRO crowd—for a poetry reading, no less. Cross had seen Mark Strand read many times, but he’d never seen Paul Muldoon. It was part of a series of monthly poetry readings, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and it soon turned out that Muldoon had insisted on going ahead with the date even after the organizers realized it was that November 4th. Cross was happy for that—it would not have occurred to him to spend Election Night at such an appropriate venue if not for the reading. Whatever happened after Strand and Muldoon were finished, and the crowd descended to the bar to gaze up at two flat-screen TVs, one tuned to MSNBC and the other to CNN, Cross knew it was a good choice for either a celebration or a wake. Cross suspected celebration; he knew, however, that a wake was more than probable.

As it turned out, though, the crowds didn’t descend upon the tavern. While the reading was packed, everyone seemed to speedily drift out toward uptown and Brooklyn at 7:30, doubtless heading to bigger, more crowded, swankier parties. The reading was good. Strand occasionally befuddled the audience with his elliptical elegies, and Muldoon indulged in his lyrical word play, each poem punctuated by a cheeky pursing of his lips after every stanza (Muldoon, under his curly mop, looked for all the world like a Mike Myers character; every purse of his lips recalled Dieter from “Sprockets” to Cross’s mind). But only two dozen or so souls ordered another round of pints or well-olived martinis (Cross nearly ordered a Guinness, but ordered a Sam Adams instead—he was a stickler with sticking to a theme once he’d hit upon it, like any respectable geek).

Cross was puzzled at first, but soon warmed to the thought that only a handful were sticking around to watch the returns. After an hour, the group at the bar—two or three intersecting circles of friends, with Cross the only soloist—became fast friends, their running commentary glancing off the network bloviation like stones skipped across a river. Cross drank and watched, his skepticism and dread waning every time a state turned blue. His hope waxed accordingly, and as the hours wore on, he felt something swell inside (his heart? idealism?) that he scarcely remembered was within him.

By the time Ohio and Florida turned blue (Ohio! Florida! Come home, all is forgiven), Cross’s compatriots at the bar were staring at the screens as if they’d never seen them before. The bartender had earlier declared that they’d stay open past 11; he now set up twenty shot glasses and poured some sort of libation the color of Windex into each, in honor of the blue that swallowed the Northeast and upper Midwest and was slowly turning North Carolina and Virginia—Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy—into a cobalt map of momentous, historical, astounding change.

All such words, benumbed by cliché, were the only ones anyone, whether in a TV studio or at the end of the bar, could reach for—once again, the most extreme emotions, the greatest passions, could only be put into the most mundane vocabulary. But the bears were indeed dancing as the random souls gathered at the bar beat the kettle drums of language. Cross drank down his sticky sweet blue shot—vodka and blue Curacao, surely—and chased it with a grin. For once, politics seemed escape the bounds of irony that held it earthbound. Cross felt as giddy as if he’d just stepped out of a showing of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

By 10 P.M., the outcome was obvious; the math of the Electoral College could not be denied. But the anchors could not say so, not until the polls on the West Coast closed, even though they were clearly bursting with glee at what everyone knew but could not officially declare. An hour later, the announced it like a sudden cloudburst on a sunny day: Barack Obama projected winner—Barack Obama elected the 44th President of the United States.

Pandemonium—the sweet release of pure, uncalculated joy—burst across the screens, from Grant Park in Chicago to 125th Street in Harlem. Cross found he really was astounded; he was speechless, he couldn’t find the words that matches his feelings; he turned to the crowd at the bar and found himself paraphrasing Auden:

—Friends, raise your glasses to the end of a low, dishonest decade. Good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

People laughed, toasted, hugged each other. A woman said in a lilting Italian accent, shaking her head in wonder at the revelers on the screen, “You would never, ever see a celebration like this in Italy.” Another woman bemoaned the fact that her sister was on her way from work to the tavern, and was missing it all. But she arrived soon enough, just minutes after McCain’s gracious concession speech (for, the distortions and deformities of having to be his party’s standard bearer aside, Cross suspected he was still an honorable man). There was another round, of drinks and exclamations of astonishment, while everyone waited for President-elect Obama’s victory speech.

President-elect Obama... the very words gave Cross deep pleasure. He was under no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead; he knew Obama, after all, was only going to be the President, and would find himself hampered and hemmed in as all presidents are. Cross knew that the best thing the nation could do in the morning was to lower their expectations. But to have such high expectations at all, about a political candidate, seemed the rarest gift. Cross still couldn’t liken the experience to anything having to do with American politics—his memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall came closest. This might be what it was like to live under FDR or Lincoln, Cross thought to himself; ruefully, he reminded himself that that was all hindsight. Still. Cross marveled that he could have such feelings, after nearly a life-time of watching as cynicism, greed and arrogance rode high in the saddle of the American ideal.

And to see such a thing, as was obvious yet still seemed incredible, forty years after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Cross thought back to the passage in Invisible Man, about the white paint mingled with the black to create the proper mixture, and shook his head in wonder; he shook his head in wonder again at the ordinariness of it—not that the stain, the original sin of America, had in any way been erased—but that it had been, somehow, superseded, if only for a moment. A little voice in the back of Cross’s mind whispered that this was a fundamentally racist nation, and always would be; Cross knew that voice was likely right, but so what? For once, it wasn’t one step forward, two steps back, but its inverse. All those blue states that once voted Republican was proof enough that this moment was exceptional—that this moment signaled a renewal that no doubt would be betrayed, somehow... but the renewal was real. Without that renewal, it was nothing, nothing, nothing but betrayal.

At last, at midnight—one day crossing over into a day that had never before existed—the President-elect appeared. Obama’s speech did not disappoint—sober and soaring, it spoke volumes both to the moment, and to the terrors of the future. Cross felt as if he could have heard a pin drop over the whole of the city while Obama spoke. When it was over, as Obama’s and Biden’s families spilled across the stage (someone in the back said of the knot of black and white faces, Look at that, it’s America), the whole of Fraunces Tavern, with its mural of the Revolutionary Army on horseback, its buff and blue, its red and white like streaks of morning light, seemed to exhale in profound relief.

Cross did not linger. He shook a few hands, exchanged a few smiles, and exited out onto Pearl Street, not far from where Wall Street still shuddered in spasms at the consequences of its heedless, wanton excess. No one in sight but street cleaners as he walked toward the neon marquee of the Staten Island Ferry and the train that would take him uptown to the party unfolding in Harlem. He knew, as he walked a little unsteady, that his hangover would not be pretty. But it would be the most surprisingly sublime hangover of his life.





Too often, Cross found his restlessness irresistible. He found himself wandering all over Manhattan, usually below 14th Street, for no good reason-he could hardly afford to partake in the city's pleasures these days. He started each day lately resolved to accomplish this or that task (or towering stack of tasks); invariably, he went farther on the train than he intended, and walked toward vague destinations for vaguer reasons that shifted as he approached them. Had he been out West, he would have simply gone for a drive, but here there was no strict equivalent to the aimless road trip. Come to think of it, gas prices what they were, he couldn't have afforded that either.

If these jaunts had been about playing the flaneur, as he had done so often before, he would have enjoyed them without pause. But they were driven by anxiety and dread, and as the weather grew colder he knew he could not indulge them much longer-which fed the anxiety and dread. It wasn't nameless, this fear, but Cross tried to pretend that it was. Acknowledgement of it only intensified the despair he felt, a despair not so much closing in as threading the labyrinth, leading him deeper into the dead ends instead of the ways out.

Cross knew, too, that the city, for all of its charms, its absurdities, its energies, often tinged that despair with a rosy tint. New York was never boring, and the sense of pure potential-of pure possibility-was the city's oxygen, the freshness that enabled you to breathe in more than just bus exhaust and split-open trash bags. But the city more and more seemed to be designed for three types: the Six & Seven Figures, shadowy characters but for the glint of their shoes and handbags; the Immigrants, who propped the tent of their poverty with the termite-riddled pole of the American Dream; and Trust-Fund Twentysomethings, who walked the streets like so many open windows, nothing but vista. Even if that last group didn't have a trust fund, they still bounced back from New York's blows with an alacrity that Cross, having stepped over into middle age, could no longer fathom.

Strolling through the Village, East or West, Cross could count on navigating shoals of these, NYU types, mostly; they made him feel as if everything about him was too late, too late. What frustrated him was that it wasn't too late-what terrified him is that one minute from now, it would be. I should have come to New York ten years ago, thought Cross. No, twelve. 1996. What was I doing then that prevented me from simply doing so? Cross shook his head, but he knew precisely what prevented him: his twenty-nine year-old self. That Cross would have no more struck out for New York than he would have the moon. Out West, the moon was nearer.

The financial meltdown that daily fed the autumn flames cast the streets in a perilous light, all glitter and doom (the depressing possibility, however slim now, of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in the election didn't help matters). Tough times would doubtless wreak a few changes in the city, but Cross, who was planning to begin a serious job search and hourly plotted to escape the monk's cell that had been his home for nearly three years, couldn't help but feel that his time here was coming to an end. He had always lived with this possibility, and he wouldn't be the first person to feel the heel of genteel poverty on his fingers as he clung to the cliffs of Hamilton Heights. People were forced out of New York (or, fed up at last, the balance of struggle outweighing the brilliance, fled) every day. Cross would be no different... and that, he was disgusted to admit, was the cruelest fear of all. You're no different.

For what was the point, if not to have proven different? The old desires and dreams stirred, raised their battered faces, their bloodshot eyes. When Cross arrived, he told everyone that the outcome didn't matter-whatever else, he would have enjoyed the pleasure of being a New Yorker for a while. He had the degree, the ostensible reason for being here. Yet it was a lie-Cross knew that if he left before his real goals were accomplished, it would be failure. And if not really failure (for as long as he lived as he chose, as long as he refused to fall back, as long as he survived to do what he felt was within him, it could not be called failure), it would feel like failure.

Cross knew, too, that the damage done these past months, the damage that he pretended was behind him, was the real name for his restlessness. But he did not yet know how he would throw it off. He could not imagine being healed, yet he did not imagine he could accomplish anything without being healed. Work was a distraction but no balm. He kept waiting to feel, not healed, but improving-as if he stood at the foot of a his own hospital bed, gazing at a chart, murmuring, I see we're improving. But he wasn't. Physician, he wanted to scream, go fuck thyself-how the language of "healing" and "wounds" disgusted him in any case. Why don't you just man up, he said to a passing glimpse in a darkened storefront, and accept what it is you must do? What you have no choice but to do?

Cross despaired that he would ever resign himself-but wasn't it resignation that was needed? Wouldn't these hours of wandering soul, the hopeful hopelessness that was the city, the feeling of being lost in the mirror of self-reflection-wouldn't these dissipate when he was at last beyond his disappointment? Oh no, sang-spoke Peggy Lee in the back of his mind, I'm not ready for that final disappointment.

He had told her-even now he could not think of what to call her, as all her names burned his tongue-that she had robbed him of his dreams, leaving him nothing but goals, items to be grimly crossed off an orderly list that stretched into his future... If that was so (he felt it so) why was he still so haunted? What could haunt him, these things that had never lived but in her lies and his belief, but dreams?

Once again, he walked down West 10th Street. He had resolved to avoid it, but here he was, once again, walking past the lovely brick facades of former centuries, toward No. 11. As he drew up to it, past the ivy that clung to the fissure that separated it from its neighbor, he saw how the windows were still papered over. The construction notices were gone (and how he had made hay with that, asking, suspicious but willing as ever to give her the benefit of the doubt, what was going on with their future home; how coolly she had explained that they owned the place at the back, that all the renovation was going on in the apartments that faced the street, that it would all be over soon and they would move in...). The façade was still dark, darker now at this end of the street, between the weak glow of the streetlamps.

But Cross knew that one day he would walk, helpless, down this street, and look up to see lights in those windows, and books on shelves, and paintings, and the laughter, of lives that once he thought would be his. He would look up, and catch a glimpse of what had been taken from him. He wondered what he would do-that even if he managed to survive and stay in New York, if that sight wouldn't make him flee at last, free from the intolerable rage that would flare up, the rage that wanted to tear the whole city down around him... or if he would keep walking, searching for the numb release of all the other streets, the other streets, the other streets.





October made Cross unspeakably happy. Between the turning of the season, that first wonderful chill and gray light, and the approach of Halloween, still his favorite holiday, it was a month in which he felt comfortable in his own skin. So it was odd that this October made him uneasy. While shaving one morning, reviewing in his mind his calendar for the next few days, he was brought up short by an uncertainty: was the ninth his grandfather’s birthday? It had been 19 years since he watched the motorized lift lower his father’s father’s coffin into a green-fringed slot in a Michigan cemetery whose name he couldn’t recall. What should it matter if he’d forgotten his grandfather’s birthday as well? Still, it gave him pause, and in that pause the remembrance that October was the fifth anniversary of his father’s death suddenly came to him.

Cross’s father spent a great deal of time with him; far more time than when his father was alive. Once a month or so, he appeared in Cross’s dreams, suddenly mercurial: kind or witty or silly or simply odd—in short, anything other than who he actually was, the immature, insecure bully whose ashes Cross cradled in his arms the way his father had once cradled him. His father always came as a stranger wearing his father’s face, a true Dream Father of sorts. Cross often wondered if the concept of heaven didn’t arise so much in a fear of death as it did in the fact that people who died constantly showed up in dreams—were somehow more present in them than in waking memories.

Cross’s father spoke to him, told him things—mysterious things that seemed of great import in the midst of the dreaming, but faded so quickly upon waking it’s as if they had never been said. All that remained was the probably erroneous feeling the something vital was communicated, some answer or admonishment (or even—why not?—praise). Cross often spent the rest of the day after one of these dreams in a sort of bright fog. He thought, You turn to a friend at some point and say “I had a disturbing dream last night,” but you can’t say what happened in the dream, or even what made it disturbing. You’re left with less a feeling than the ghost of a feeling.

It seemed to Cross that most of our feelings are ghosts. Reading back through his old journals, Cross got the impression of a graveyard, filled with dead feelings—if you’re lucky, thought Cross ruefully, for some feelings linger on like zombies, ever-ready to eat your heart out after they’ve finished with your brains. Like graveyards, those journals were at once serene and creepy, full of transcendence (I’m so glad that pain is gone) and horror (Could I have been any more full of maudlin self-pity?). But Cross thought that the little graves of yourself matter less and less as you approach the big grave, the one in which all hopes and fears will cover you like so much dirt. He wondered now at the memory of himself at 21, watching his grandfather sink, and at 36, watching as the attendant (it was hard to think of him as a gravedigger, without a proper coffin sitting nearby) wrestled his father’s granite-gray urn into a hard plastic case for internment at the Veteran’s Cemetery.

Cross finished shaving (he couldn’t shave anymore without thinking of a line by a friend: How many times must a man shave before his chin gets the message?) So, thought Cross, like the turn of seasons, the ghost feelings touch you lightly and pass on. Whenever autumn approached, even in the midst of his pleasure, Cross always heard Leonard Cohen singing “I Can’t Forget” in his head: The summer’s almost gone/The winter’s tuning up/Yeah, the summer’s gone/But a lot goes on forever… Leonard Cohen was his father’s exact contemporary. How strange that was—the thought of Cohen singing of Joan of Arc while Cross Senior sat behind a big glossy desk, going over new listings, complaining about taxes, looking forward to voting for Nixon… Cross shook his head in a momentary fit of not so much cognitive as epochal dissonance. The irony was that, in his dreams, his father was always someone other than that narrow, parochial, abusive, Republican workaholic. It wouldn’t have surprised Cross if one night his father didn’t open his mouth and speak in that rich, deep voice: I stepped into an avalanche, it covered up my soul…

Cross watched the lathered water sink down the drain with a soft belch. Part of the reason, thought Cross, that he loved autumn, which felt as much like a time of renewal to him as did spring, is that spring itself is embedded within it, in a crimson-chilled blaze of glory. Those ghost feelings crowd in, perhaps, because they know they will be far paler, far thinner, by the time another spring arrives. The October Country is always a stone’s throw from the Undiscovered Country. That used to make it sweet; today, the chill cut a little too deep.

Only my father continues to follow me through it all, thought Cross, turning away from the mirror with the uneasy feeling that he wouldn’t remember his grandfather’s birthday; only my father, wearing the masks that some mysterious functionary in my mind assigns him, reminding me in weird, myriad ways—ways that would never have occurred to my father during his life—that he is dead.



The whole world was red and green, mostly red, but green where it counted.

They were very quiet for a time, in the red and green, with some white, too, blinking. Her face was against his thigh, still, and his hand was in her hair, stroking it softly, forgetting, then stroking again when he realized he had stopped. He said, soft and matter-of-fact,

—It’s Boxing Day, now. We really should do something about all of these boxes.

He could feel her smile against his skin, the corners of her mouth lifting, and turning into a kiss that turned into her own voice, and she said

—They’ve been here so long, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

—I know where to begin, he said, smiling. We begin by you bringing us our robes.

She kissed his leg again, and stretched with a sound that was protest and satisfaction, and she stood up. She was red, too, still, and he watched her blushing cheeks as she walked into the next room, and he saw her whiteness as she returned, her dark maroon robe open, and above it her face flushed, her lovely white mask, and she knelt again, and handed him his black robe to swallow his red and green tinted whiteness.

Then he stood up, and he whispered good girl, and she lit up, not like a Christmas tree. Deeper than that, more red, more green. He said,

—Bring me a small one. From the top.

Her hand held on to his robe for half a second, long enough to say without words kiss me, but he did not kiss her, and she sighed, then turned and narrowed her eyes, as if in thought. At last she walked to the center of the pile, the pile that ran the length of one wall, and took down a box twice the size of a shoe box. It wasn’t a red or green box, like the ones nearby that sat torn and empty, having disgorged their secrets, broken like eggshells but retaining the simple beauty of an eggshell even after it’s cracked. These boxes were brown and bound with yellowing tape and covered with labels and thick black marks: addresses, instructions, admonitions. FRAGILE. THIS END UP. Traveled boxes.

She brought him the box, her eyes reading the letters. She said,

—It’s not very heavy.

He pulled a chair up, and sat down, his robe parting as his legs became a lap. He said

—Any guesses?

She shook her head.

—It’s been so, so long. I can’t remember. It could be anything.

She sat on his lap, balancing the box on her knees as he handed her the widened scissors. She drew them across the tape, and the lids, so long held fast, came apart like the wings of something that could no longer fly but remembered what it felt like, that first, shrugging, swelling motion, that pause.

Gingerly, she pulled the lids apart over a sea of rice paper. It crinkled as he watched her hands unearth something dark and glossy and hard.

—Oh… Oh! she said. Oh, I remember this!

—Wow, he said. That’s stunning. Where did you…?

­—In Malaysia, I think… no, it was Bali. There was a strange little shop in the hotel. We were there for a conference. It was strange because all they sold were these and European magazines that were three months out of date. I think… (she dug down deeper). Yes, here it is: a copy of Le Monde. I think the little old clerk threw it in for free. As if this wasn’t enough.

—It’s exquisite, he said quietly. Then, excited, as if the morning had returned, What else?

The rice paper flew in waves over the tops of the box. She brought up several buds of tissue paper, blue and pink, and opened one and laughed as her finger teased it apart.

—Oh, yes. From Hong Kong. There should be a whole set of seven. Hand-carved by Dr. Wu. He was the project director. I was so honored when he gave them to me as a good-bye gift, until someone told me that he was OCD and that every moment he wasn’t working he was carving these and that even the bellhops got some as tips.

The blush of her face waxed, waned, became dreamy and far-away, present and excited by turns, as she took each thing from the box and unwrapped it and told its story as he listened and commented and made little jokes about this or that, until the tissue and paper were no more and they had reached the rough, empty cardboard floor. He cleared his throat, and said in that tone that they shared, now,

—This box is empty.

—Why yes, she said. It is.

She shook her head, a little wonderingly.

—But there’s so many more, she said. How will we ever…

—We are, he said, soft and stern. Now bring over another. A larger one.

She obeyed. She dragged over a box the size of an ottoman, a heavy one. Something clanked, metal on metal, inside. She dropped to her knees, again drawing the scissors across its sealed surface, and he leaned forward, eager, smiling, watching her smile, her eyes, expectant.

And what wonders they brought forth. Sandalwood. Ivory. Jade. Incense, and the comforting mustiness of old paper. Leaves, carefully pressed. Bone. China. Hard plastics, too, and softer ones, and a riot of color filtered through the red and the green. Cotton. Silk. Glass, and behind the glass faces, or in the glass her face, than his as she lifted it up, silvered, somehow unshattered. A little real silver, some gold. More paper, glossy, and manila folders, reeking of the office, and of Manila. Stainless steel. Boxes within the boxes, brocade and gunmetal gray, with their own locks, their lost keys. Newspaper, newspaper, newspaper, tissues, newspaper. Things carved, things sewn, things held together by ancient Scotch tape. Things sentimental, things practical, things utterly mysterious. And holding it all together, in box after box, the web of her handwriting, spidery, blotched, precise, in notebooks, in the margins of books, on the backs of bent business cards, those little coffins of old identities, other wages. China, Nepal, Tibet. Japan, Korea, Singapore. Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia.


A whole world, slowly unpacked in the red and the green. Washed up as from a shipwreck; the two of them, on a desert island surrounded by winter, by the scent of pine needles and the ghost of snow, kneeling amidst box after emptying box like devotees of some cargo cult. A whole world, giving up its past.

He thought to ask her if it was bittersweet, these memories, at last recalled, unearthed. But she was laughing, flushed now with delight. He could see her moving forward even as she tracked back. He helped her sort, his tone—orderly, precise, loving—flowing through the objects, categorizing, placing, directing. He felt his own delight. It had been an overwhelming task, but now the wave had receded. After the deluge, me, he thought. He smiled to see her smile, still red but greener now, newer. His new world.

He held a piece of driftwood in his hands as she stuffed spent paper into a transparent bag, and he said, smiling,

For I am every dead thing,

In whom Love wrought new alchemy.

She looked up, smiling.

—What’s that? she asked.

—Donne, he said. From his poem on St. Lucy’s Day.

Her eyes shone from her mask.

—Wasn’t that just last week? she asked.

—Yes, he said, placing the driftwood into the pile of miscellany. It’s the solstice.

He drew his robe a little tighter. There was a chill. He began to put small, empty boxes into larger, empty boxes.

—Boxing Day is actually St. Stephen’s Day, he said. That’s where that line in “Good King Wencelas” comes from, about “the feast of Stephen.”

She held something small up to the twinkling lights, listening, and said

—I never could keep track of the saints. Which one is he?

—Why, he’s the protomartyr, which is a fancy way of saying he was the first saint, he said. He paused, holding up a tiny origami bird, holding it in his palm as if it might leap into the air. St. Stephen’s Day is sometimes known as Wren Day in England, he continued. It seems Stephen was hiding in some bushes from the people who were looking to stone him, and he was betrayed by the song of the wren.

He put the origami on her bookshelf.

—I guess that means no wrens in heaven, she said.

He looked over at her, and she was not looking at him. She was intent on her task, and smiling. They had been chatting like this for hours, in perfect ease, as this whole world slowly grew around them. He looked at her, and he had never known anything more beautiful or simple or right.

—Well, he said, in an ironic voice, I don’t think a saint would carry a grudge.

—True, she said, and, laughing, They’d take away your holy decoder ring for that sort of behavior.

I love you, he thought, in the deepest red and green of his mind, his heart.

And, just like that, all the boxes were empty; the world, unpacked.

—Come here, he said. She turned, and put down what was in her hands, and still kneeling she came, flushing red, weaving slowly between the little mountains of pirate treasure rescued from her past into their present.

It took her a while to navigate her way to him, a few extra seconds of felt hours; for the world had risen between them that night, even as they discovered it, and re-discovered it, and mapped it anew. The world had risen as if a tide.

—Open your robe, he said.

And she did, all undone.

And he, open, in red. In green.

And neither knew, then, the tide: its hour, its height.