At a party in Durham, I get into a conversation that goes nowhere. That is, it goes on, but it violates the cardinal rules of party conversation: it is not about sex, and it does not show any signs of becoming about sex, either. I slide over to another conversation, which is about something a little less stiff, and then it is about bike cops. “I find bike cops endearing,” I declare.
“Which do you prefer,” someone asks, “bike cops or horse cops?”
Difficult question! The women ponder their relative merits, and then someone—it’s probably me—notes that there is “something kinky” about horse cops. The next conversation over stops. “Thank goodness!” exclaims the hostess, emptying the last of what must be a jeroboam (“surprisingly good, considering it only cost twelve dollars!”) into her cup. “It was nothing but boys talking about bike accidents before.”
I’ve met most of these people just once, at another party in the same “set”; their names, jobs, provenance are a soup in my mind. “You’re from Florida,” I say to one woman, waving my Solo cup of prosecco at her, “maybe Tampa, Orlando?”
She gives me a fish-eyed stare. “I’m from Pennsylvania, actually,” she says, as if she is rebuffing the fortune-teller at the fair, “which is about as far away as you can get.” I would have thought that was Alaska, but maybe she means temperamentally far away, which could be true: she looks very sensible, and Florida is where crazy people come from. When that got to be true, I’m not sure; I don’t think it was the case when I was growing up there. But between the 2000 election and the sinkholes and Swamplandia! and Florida Man on Twitter, my home state has become firmly established as a crazy place. Sure, I have stories, but who didn’t go to an off-brand Montessori with a circus net in the backyard? An off-brand Montessori that is now, I might add, an abandoned motel.
The Pennsylvanian and I mutually split, turning away from each other like double doors opening, and I shortly find myself in a line-up of three rather tipsy redheads, all leaning in to hear a fourth redhead, deadly sober, describe the circumstances of her long-distance relationship. They are allowed to see and sleep with other people, as long as they don’t fall in love. “Excuse me,” someone bursts in (is it me?), “but that’s—” Whoever it is puts her hand over her mouth.
“No, say it,” says the sober girl. “It’s bullshit.”
“It’s bullshit,” we agree.
“I’m doing the same thing,” one of the tipsy redheads proclaims. I’m starting to wonder whether any of us really have red hair. Maybe the sober girl; her skin has that ginger tinge. It turns out this other girl’s relationship is almost opposite: she and her erstwhile boyfriend are not in love and not planning to be together in the future, but they still sleep together. What the relationships have in common is sex without attachment, which I for one could never do. Those silly things—a curl of hair, the dimple of a back-muscle—how do you immunize yourself against them? How can you be a lover without loving?
Besides, everyone wants to be swept away, I think, even sensible Pennsylvanians. Everyone wants to fall in love, everyone wants to believe.
I FLY TO MINNEAPOLIS FOR THANKSGIVING. Outside it’s bitter: the air is white, the wind is mean, the landscape is pared down to its winter palette of browns, and the lakes, freshly skinned with ice, look like still photos of themselves. But inside, Minneapolis glows. In La Belle Vie, all chandeliers, banked candles, and cocktails like precious jewels—a red wine like a ruby, a gold-tinted martini—my love and Linda and I carry on a happy chatter. It’s the sort of conversation you remember almost nothing of later: stories, compliments, effusions of enthusiasm. We talk about—this I do remember—the postmodern leap, the moment when you accept that art does not need to make sense, does not need to be beautiful in any familiar way. Making this leap is like losing your religion, or like falling in love, in that there’s no guarantee it will happen to you, and you can’t really make it happen, but when it does, nothing is the same again.
We are all laughing as we talk, marveling at our good luck. But from the outside, from the other country, postmodern work looks dour and unfriendly; I remember that. The disconcerting freefall—art can be, I can be, the world can be entirely other, deeply unsettled—I remember touching the edge of that, like a child tasting wine, or a swimmer putting a toe in an undercurrent.
There are, of course, other stories haunting this romanticism of mine. In Sri Lanka, my friend asked our driver how he happened to become a vegetarian. He told us the story. He and his brother and his brother’s wife were all at home; his wife was up the hill, at the temple. Then the tsunami came. In a moment the home vanished in the wave. He and his brother clung to a storm wall and somehow survived; the brother’s wife was swept out to sea and never seen again. His own wife, up the hill at the temple, was fine. So he converted, became a vegetarian, became a driver. Everything they had was gone, and he had to start over.
Now, whose story am I telling, and how does it relate to the undertow? Two stories are simple enough. My friend and I, strangers in this beautiful island, dazed and foolish, but protected by our American passports and credit cards (and by Sri Lankan friends), could afford to let this new world wash over us. And the sister-in-law: I imagine her relation to that wave was simple enough. But I wonder about the driver—Ranil is his name: chastened but alive, eyes opened to his survival, how did he think of it all? I remember that he drank the strong highland tea so fast his mouth steamed when he spoke.
Back to Durham. One of the two tall buildings downtown, the SunTrust building, is in the midst of renovation; it’s becoming some kind of high-class art hotel. They’ve been taking the letters off the top, and they’ve stopped, the last couple of weeks, at RUST. It’s probably intentional: Durham is an odd place, and Durhamites can afford to laugh at their city’s dirty, rusty image now that Durham is in the midst of a boom.
Drinking my coffee, looking out at the sign from a renovated garage that is now a very hip little coffee shop, I have a sense of riding a raveling edge. A thousand miles away, my love’s getting on a plane to come back to me; I am diving into revisions of poems, peeling away my lines to feel the dark matter between.
Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.