green spaces

At John Soanes’ house, we asked one of the free-floating volunteer docents about the green square outside, and whether the small parks set between houses in this city are mostly public or private. We were surprised we were allowed to go in this one, that we could sit on a bench and talk under our breath about people’s outfits as they walked by, just like in any public park. The squares in London have always seemed to me as though they were part of a different world, some soft and kind-cornered parallel dimension where it’s eternally 7pm on a summer Friday. He told us more of them were open than used to be, but that in the wealthy neighborhoods like Mayfair and South Kensington, more of them are closed, private to residents. This fits with how I feel here. I long toward every park in the summer and in the same gesture assume them to be closed to me and beyond my means. It fits with how I feel in this city, an abundant and inaccessible green world. 

In Shakespeare’s comedies, the green world is the forest, but the forest works as a kind of secret garden. Characters, usually young people on the threshold of maturity, disappear into a forest that closes up behind them, a place that acts as a kind of testing ground. One could see it as a metaphor for youth, or at least the idealized version of it: This is the place -- and a place can be a time, too, an era in one’s life, the stretch of frivolous and permitted years -- where one is free to make mistakes and learn from them. In the green world, identity is malleable; loves and genders and loyalties shift and mutate from moment to moment, tried on and thrown off like costumes and as near-weightless as summer clothes. Eventually, characters emerge as who they’re supposed to be and loving who they’re supposed to love. They move from the possible to the certain, from the future tense to the present one. 

I’ve written elsewhere about how the green world, when mapped onto a real life even as a notion of youth, is a fiction or at best a luxury. If these blameless spaces do exist, they exist only for the wealthy; money is always the key that turns the lock to secret gardens, the difference between second chances or sometimes even first ones, the thing that allows errors to be tools for learning, rather than the thing that imposes limits on a life and shrinks it smaller, until the echo of the mistake is the only thing for which there is any room. For the most part, youth is a word we use to mean money or beauty, and having time to waste when you’re young turns out to have been a false promise. The difference is merely that you don’t feel it, that sometimes the urgency can be postponed to a later date. There was a time, I think, when I didn’t feel acutely that every next moment was rushing out of my hands and away, but maybe part of that was just that I cared less and about fewer people. It turns out I was always losing things, was always moving on away from something. Summer is always almost over before I really notice that it’s here.

Summer is supposed to be one of these green spaces, but maybe that’s why summer never quite feels enough like summer. If there has even been such a thing as a green world in my life, though, it was my friend Aaron’s house in the summer eight years ago, when I arrived after an overnight flight to meet a person I had only ever known before on the internet, and turned all day g-chats into a two-week ceaseless conversation. I was there for work, on my way to Switzerland for more work, but Aaron invited me to stay in his house while I was in London, so I did that, and it was one of the few times summer has ever felt exactly like summer. 

That summer we spent all our time imagining the future. We were each a few years past large griefs and we felt that the world owed us something for them, which is a perpetually wrong and perpetually irresistible way of thinking. We wanted a green world. We went to outdoor concerts and festivals to see middling-popular artists play music, at the end of the 2010s in the blaring-out zenith of the era of indie bands made up of sad glittery party kids with no real problems playing songs about love and drugs, music from before the lessons of a recession had set in, music that always took place in the last hour of the same collegiate house party, bands that were themselves a green world. I was - and had been, and am, writing this as the afternoon slides on into what feels like its seventeenth hour - astounded by how late it stays light in London. I hadn’t though of how much further north it is here than I was used to, and in July it seemed like the sun never went down. I would walk back from the train at 10pm in a perpetual blue hour, feeling like everything was redeemable, like no one would ever die. Later I stayed here over the winter and learned that this, like everything, has consequences, has an opposite and equal payment, but at the time it felt it like being given time back, that the days had no sharp edges and I could earn back whatever I had lost. 

Nothing really happens like this, of course. Aaron and I both mythologized that summer after the fact and while it was happening, too. We told ourselves the story in which we wanted to live because telling the story as hard as we could was the only way we knew to control what the world gave us. The summer was a lot of pain and annoyance, logistics, long and frustrating work-days, heartbreak, rejection and assumptions and all the other itchy, errand-like everyday things that make up any time in life, no matter how young we are and no matter much it is summer, no matter how much the locked parks glow green. 

That summer Aaron and I kept talking about something that we short-handed as “boat drinks.” By this we meant a future in which everything had worked out, in which all the big plans had come to fruition. The meaning of whatever we were struggling with now was about this infinitely perfect future. We both knew on some level that this was false, that success and even money do not work this way, and that it was unlikely anything would remove the sense of not-quite-fulfillment, that no matter how good our lives got we would never really get to relax with drinks on a boat, literal or figurative. But at the same time, we believed in boat drinks whole-heartedly. This kind of twinned illogical belief - knowing the thing is false while believing in it to the point of it being an animating principle - is, I think, how a whole lot of us live our lives, right at the line of dissonance. We imagine these future times in the same way so many more of us than would like to admit it still in some buried part of ourselves imagine a future time is coming when money will finally fall from the sky into our laps. 

I’ve been back at Aaron’s house again this summer. The backyard is lush with tall grass, framing the sky the way houses and skies look in prestige television. The afternoons still last forever, a long and achingly gentle twilight. I feel like I need to live up to it, as though it is supposed to in some way transform me. I feel like a cover song. There is a small tragedy in the sense of being in the middle of something rather than at the beginning of it. I can no longer tell myself that I am forever anticipating something better. I am no longer an about-to-happen, or a before. What happens when you’re old enough to only have the present tense available to you, to be unable to dazzle with stories of what you will do, of what you’re going to do next or one day? It no longer makes sense to tell myself that a summer is a green world, a thing from which I will emerge transformed.

We drive down to the Cotswolds, where I’ve never been before, or not since I was old enough to remember. The green of it is immense, and overwhelming, right at the long edge of dusk. The hedges wrap nearly over both sides of the road, swallowing the cars that careen through and around them, so even noise stays private and contained. Like everything beautiful, it feels not for me, even as I am standing in the middle of it, even though there is nothing more I could do about it than to drive here, and stop here, walk into the fields and take photos and watch the view get dark and eventually drive home. There is no way to make myself feel at the center of it rather than on the outside. That first summer felt like that too, willing ourselves tooth and nail into the center of something, of some obscure and ceaseless joy, precisely because we felt so much on the outside of it. Aaron says that at my wedding, he wanted to say “this is boat drinks” and then he thought better of it. You know we’re there already, he says. Neither of of us are happy, yet. Neither of us have gotten to the top of the mountain, yet. But we each now have a significant number of the things we talked about longing for that first summer. Logically, this is boat drinks. It’s just that nothing actually feels that way. We cannot keep saying “yet,” to keep situating all the truly good things in the future, or else in the past, as though a summer eight years ago were the source text, and we were only its annotation. 

We go to see The National (I have written elsewhere about my very embarrassing love for my very embarrassing favorite band) because we went to see The National that summer, but now Thomas is here, and our friend Emily, and I run into people I know from the internet at the show and the world has expanded, has crowded with love and connection, and all the obligations and blurring and difficulty that comes with it. That first summer was very lonely, I always have to remind myself. That was where so much of its clarity, its rushing-air sense of new freedom came from. Aaron disappears into the crowd when the show starts. I consider doing the same thing, looking for the intentional loneliness that once made me feel so young, so fully situated in future tense verbs. But halfway down the crowd I give up and go back and find Thomas and Emily. Thomas puts his arms around me. It’s awkward and not quite right sometimes, it’s not a pure or perfect experience. I love this band and am deeply moved by their music and also going to see live music is more annoying and obligated than it is anything else. Love was supposed to feel like boat drinks but it doesn’t; the future tense when it arrives just feels like the present. It may be that perfect experiences - summers or loves or cities, friendships or romances or single days or evenings - are possibly only when one is isolated enough to be able to rewrite the experience while living it, to say “I’m happy” while actually being annoyed and not have anyone who loves you say “no, you’re annoyed.” We’re exhausted after the show, trying to push through a crowd of mostly drunk people to find the car somewhere in the streets beyond the park. The park isn’t a green world and the night isn’t a neat narrative completion. Every summer never quite feels like summer; every summer feels like the actual summer is happening to someone else, someone younger, richer, more beautiful, more loved. But we go on through it anyway, driving past the green, into the present tense verbs.