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living in the unsustainable things
Bonfire night and we take the bus far into the south of the city where our friends live. The streets argue back and forth and refuse to cohere with one another, one block beautiful and the next one a wreck. It’s bright and cold and autumn is all over everything. But the whole place is still green, greener than I can get my hands around, green all the way down from August into winter.
Matt and Kaye bought a house so we go to see the house. We are jealous of the house because that’s how you are supposed to feel when you friends buy a house. But every house here feels like that. Every window looks like a better life, like the choices I should have made. Their house is so green, the long garden mumbling into a tangle of foliage. The glass edges of the kitchen, pushing out into the backyard, are painted to match. All the greens purr in the cold.
Some houses are like getting inside the of the yellow windows you see from the street. Some people’s lives are like that, too. Other people’s love, observed and inaccessible, is a more beautiful room than any that have ever been available to me. Every unachieved version of my life, all the bus stops I missed and every no that should have been a yes and yes that should have been a no, is warmer and brighter than anything I have ever come home to, and safer than anything I have ever held close to myself. Kaye’s cat climbs out of the door and up onto the stone wall between their garden and the next one. He puffs up in the cold, and presses his face to the glass to come back inside. Smoke rises from other people’s chimneys. We stand at the dark end of the garden, looking back down toward the lit-up windows of the house.
Like this, I imagine, you could see your own house as though it belonged to somebody else, from the end of a garden, on a slow evening, at the first boundary of the winter, when the dark creeps into the middle of the afternoon and settles slow and heavy on the day. The yellow windows of your own home might be as bright, and as warm, as those of somebody else’s. Maybe there is a way to love one’s own life like this, at a distance, in the deepening afternoon, in the smell of smoke from other people’s chimneys and the shapes of cats over walls. Maybe it is possible to long for the doors into which I am always welcomed, to want the things that I already have. It is so easy to love something that has nothing to do with me, something that has no tie to my life. I imagine for a moment that I could love the things closest to me in the same way. It gets darker in the garden; the greens blur into black. The sound of fireworks starts in the distance. The neighborhood celebrates something.
All week the sky has been rent with explosions. I jump at a noise and then it’s gone before I manage to see the trace of it. Thomas and I walked down near the train tracks the night before, where a long wall was thrown up between the street and a big empty space in the sky. Beyond it, more neighborhoods crowded up into distant hills, a city too big for me to ever hold onto it in fifteen years of trying, coming back for a week or a month and every time finding a new unknown inhabited by somebody’s else’s memories, flung miles from where I had begun to make sense of geography with my own.
The view around us exploded; we leaned back against the fence of someone else’s gracious home, clean white walls and big windows open to the evening, and kissed. I felt young and stupid. Behind us, the sky flared off and on like a television skidding through channels. Somewhere just beyond this street somebody was celebrating something. We hid underneath their celebration. We stumbled backward; we pretended nobody could see us. The night smelled like hot metal. A month or so ago I had drinks with a very old friend, someone I have known perilously close to twenty years now, and I said remember how we were always so miserable and he said yes except when we felt better than anybody had ever felt. And then I did remember: How joy was like a knife to the heart, like a bolt of lightning striking every step I took, in those years when I was lost and stupid and almost always sad. Part of the reason I was so incapable of my life for so long was that when I felt good I felt so overwhelmingly good, ecstatic and immortal. Nothing could hurt me and no one was ever going to die or get old. Every object was beautiful, every traffic jam was a constellation. How was it even possible to get through a day when a compliment or a small achievement or even a hopeful possibility felt that good, like levitating ten feet off of the ground?
I came here, to London, to a different version of the city, at that age. I was here for work. Aaron, whom I only knew from the internet, picked me up at the airport. My hair was the wrong color and none of my clothes fit and I got in his car and we went back to his house and sat in the living room, in the bright early summer when nothing was yet touched with regret or memory. The room looked like a magazine; time had not yet marked any of the objects in it, or dragged them into reality. We talked without stopping for three straight days, until we both lost our voices. We went to a concert in a park and the light melted over the view of other people’s bare arms raised in the air. I truly believed then that I would get everything I had ever wanted, and never have to sacrifice anything for it.
Last Thursday was the night before bonfire night, not the holiday itself, but the fireworks had already started. Everyone was desperate to celebrate something, to throw something up far away from themselves and watch it explode. Everyone wanted to make an occasion out of light, and color, and violence, to remind one other that all bright things are temporary. I used to try to live in that place, that electric shock on the walk home when I would turn and kiss someone against the wall of somebody else’s house. For a long time I thought I could stay there, that if I tried hard enough, I could make that fireworks-joy into a permanent state of being. I thought it was a house, and not a holiday. I made so many bad choices; I got stuck in the ditch beside the road of my own life so often. But I was so happy when I was happy, like a long burst of dangerous chemicals traveling out of a dark backyard to explode over the cold frame of a vast city below.
Last Thursday night, for a minute, I was back there. I was capable of that kind of stupid levitating joy, and then I wasn’t. It blinked out like a star, like watching a plane cross the sky, gone before I could hold onto it. Thomas and I stood ourselves back up and became people again, blending back into the landscape of adult lives. There were lists to make and things to plan. We walked back toward where we were staying, toward soft cups of tea, and little tasks, and worry, and sleep. All around us, the sky continued exploding in colors. The night smelled like a campfire.
I don’t really know what bonfire night is, except that it’s somebody else’s celebration. A holiday is just a repeated action stuck in other people’s memories, stringing together the long and meaningless collection of events that make up a life over time.
On the actual night, we’re way out in the south of the city, looking back at Kaye and Matt’s perfect house from the end of the garden. The sky smells like a campfire again, and like used metal, and like the shock after an explosion, a hot shower, an aftermath. Kaye and Matt’s neighbors come over and bring their kids, who bring an armful of explosives. We’re too old to be setting off fireworks, and they’re too young, but this isn’t our holiday. We hang back, we follow along, we do what everybody else is doing. The neighbor dad is very excited about the fireworks he bought for his kids; he talks about how much he loved this night when he was their age. The kids are mostly excited about eating candy, and s’mores, because they heard there would be Americans here. Thomas and Kaye try to remember how to make s’mores.
I hide in the kitchen and watch the lights when they flare. It seems like the explosions should burn down the house, but they don’t. Nothing catches; nothing lasts. Nothing has any permanent effects. The adults tell stories about their childhoods, and the children scream and run around and then get tired out early. The neighbors go home and eventually we do too. In the kitchen after the fireworks, we talk about the people we love who are getting old. Behind us the sky keeps exploding, determined not to loosen its grip on that big irresponsible joy. We are all trying to live permanently in the things that do not last. Love is an unsustainable brightness; we sit together in small rooms after dark, attempting to sustain the unsustainable. Later, Thomas and I walk to the bus in the cold, holding hands like teenagers. We kiss at stoplights and miss the street crossings. Somewhere a sharp point of light that smells like a gas station rises up and up and up into the empty dark over a huge city, and bursts before it disappears.
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