Books are notorious for their outsized influence on young minds. For me, The Crying of Lot 49 and The Sheltering Sky acted as catalysts for a transformative state I experienced during college in the early 1990s. You don’t need to have read them to follow this story, though a few of their plot points are revealed.
Estación. Ida y vuelta, by Rosa Chacel, was a novel I found in a bookstore in Seville. “Ida y vuelta” means a roundtrip ticket, and it’s what you ask for at the station when the teller says, “Dime.” (“Tell me.”)
I adopted some of the Spanish directness that spring, in the way I ordered a glass of beer or described a bar covered in patterned tiles (“Qué alucinante!”). Back in high school, a friend complained I always said a movie was “good,” instead of “great” or “amazing.” No longer!
When my older brother and sister flew in to visit, they were impressed with the directions I gave the cab driver. “You do better in Spanish than English,” my brother said, and it made me a little sad about returning.
I walked home from class over the river, passing the orange trees, eating plump green olives from a newspaper cone. The courses we took, despite being in Spanish, had a breezy, forgiving air.
It had been a long time since I’d really felt at ease with a friend. But I had a good friend there. I admired her—she could talk to anyone, even about soccer with strangers on the bus. But I also really trusted her. She listened, and she was curious about obscure topics, and just made everyone comfortable. That may have been all I needed.
The only real pressure as summer approached, in 1993, was to come up with a subject for my senior thesis by the fall. After reading The Sheltering Sky, I began thinking about female characters following signs to—where? And by the end, their realities disintegrating.
I’d read The Crying of Lot 49 twice before, and saw some parallels between the two books. Still I didn’t know how I’d fill 100 pages. I could probably fit what I had to say onto five. The 17th-century poet Basho said everything in three lines.
A frog jumps in
The sound of water
Earlier in college, a group of us played a surrealist game, a variation on exquisite corpse. You were handed a piece of paper with a sentence written at the top, then wrote the opposite of that sentence below it, folded the paper down so only your sentence could be seen, and passed it to the next person. After the papers went all around the circle we unfolded them and read them aloud. The ending of the last line I remember: “when I walk on your mirrored ceiling.”
A few guys from my first-year dorm, two years before Spain:
Tim, in his room upstairs, always looked as if he came in from fall air. A shine to his brown eyes, his hair full, slightly long and dark. Lighting a cigarette. Though not blonde, a lion. He always got the joke in advance. Being closer to him would have solved everything.
Matt, lanky and dirty blonde, was wearing a flannel shirt. I called it burgundy, but he said it wasn’t burgundy, it was maroon, and maroon and navy were friends.
Jason and I played that old game at the circular red booth in the snack bar. Sitting behind him, I slipped my arms beneath his armpits and acted out his hands. Shaved his face with a bagel. It was fun.
One time I walked up the stairs to my room on the third floor, and when I came out of the stairwell the hall was dark, a group of people were talking all the way at the other end. When I began walking toward them, Matt flipped on the light switch. Instead of the hallway lighting up all at once, the lights along the ceiling turned on sequentially from his end to mine. When the light reached me I stumbled back as if thrown by a force field. He turned the lights off and I advanced in the dark, beginning to run, then he flipped the switch back on, the light moved toward me, and I stumbled back again as it approached. It went dark again, I charged, and I ran till I reached the end of the hall and we all laughed.
About Tim, how did it happen that one night we lay on the floor in the dark, listening to music, even talking about the excitement of postponing a kiss?
In one of our last conversations, sitting against different walls, he said you didn’t really get to know people by talking. You got to know them by taking walks, doing things together. We had just never done that. The school year was almost over and I left his room.
It was around that time I saw Matt lying on the green reading Gravity’s Rainbow. (“The green,” ha. A place for people who have it.)
He told me about the scene where this guy visits an old lady’s house and she offers him a jar of dusty candies, with these over-the-top, sort of menacing British names. He loved it, and talked about the author as if they were both on the same tier, two men who had figured out a lot, even though Pynchon had gone further.
That’s how I heard of Thomas Pynchon, and why I read The Crying of Lot 49, home from Brown for the summer in Queens. I got into the head trip of it, the code-finding, the language that skewed everything just a bit off.
Still, due to factors completely unrelated to the novel, and actually that ran counter to how I felt after finishing it, by August, I had very little sense of myself, or my attractiveness, what to say, or who I would hang out with that fall.
Riding the subway with my sister, she told me who I looked like, a name she said with frustration and a bit of revulsion. A depressed roommate she once had.
She said this as if she herself hadn’t done something that summer that hurt, something I’ll get to later.
At home I woke up in the dark every day, but didn’t notice. As little kids, my sister and I had shared a room in our apartment, divided by two bookshelves, which left a few feet open at the top and the side. (She had the window, I had the door to the hallway.) Sometimes we each performed in the space between our rooms to make each other laugh. At night we whispered stories to each other from our beds. I said, “Let’s talk about colors.”
Then, when I was in fifth grade, my parents had a paneled wall built in the bookshelves’ place, a rec-room-style wall with “knotty pine” panels and a plain wooden door. Rather than dividing the window between us evenly this time, as I’d pictured it, the wall went up in the same direction, but now shut out all the light to my room. When I first saw it, running all the way up to the ceiling, I looked at my mother. There must have been a crease between my eyes. She tilted her head, with a sympathetic look, somewhat sympathetic, to say I needed to accept it. And she would point out later, they made my room the bigger one.
I can only think of a few instances of direct meanness, during childhood, from my sister. One was a time I looked at her with the crease between my eyebrows. Maybe I found something unfair. She pointed at the crease, the contracted muscle, the confusion, the need, the pathetic look, and said, in a hard way, “Don’t do that.”
I haven’t learned. Sometimes, the way someone looks at me, I know I’m doing it and it’s too late.
Another time I was asking my parents how to bring light into my room, full-spectrum light. What prompted her remark exactly? She told me not to be a baby.
My father drove me back to school in the fall, starting my sophomore year. My sister, on her way to visit a family friend’s house, took the front seat. I rode in back with my stuff, and worried to her about the looks of my cassette and CD player. “It’s fine,” she said, looking out the window. “If you were just more confident.” It was only that summer she’d started saying things like that.
When I opened the door to my new dorm room the afternoon light was gray. The room was cold. An overhang on the second floor caused an afternoon shadow.
Over the next weeks, walking around campus, I looked at people talking, deeply involved with each other, or chatting and laughing. I didn’t know how they had so much to talk about. I couldn’t think of a thing.
After class I threw myself into bed in the dark, like a wet bathing suit in the hamper.
Even my body had changed. My period stopped for three months.
At lunch in the dining hall I saw Matt carrying his tray. When I looked up again he was walking in the other direction.
Later that fall, he gave me a birthday card. In it, he wrote my “paradox,” roughly: you’re driving down the road, with a stretch of beach to one side, and a field of flowers on the other. The steering wheel is broken, but the brakes work fine.
I clung to what I could. By the middle of November, despite being raised to be nice, to care about the feelings of others or what I guessed they might be, developing a late-blooming sense of contempt for anyone who didn’t get me provided some relief. (The function of contempt, when self-preservation is at stake, is really underrated.) Halogen lamps were new. When I brought one back to the dorm and it lit up the room, I became a little hopeful. Then, before Thanksgiving, I wrote the paper.
It was the final project for the most meaningful class I took in college, taught by Meera Viswanathan. The subject was travel, the “journey” in literature. We read tales of religious pilgrimage, exploration, ecstasy, Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. And we talked about moving from the known to the unknown, through the liminal state that was neither one.
The assignment was to write about the journey in a novel we’d read on our own, and I picked The Crying of Lot 49. Rereading it, the discoveries I made at each step, each sentence, thrilled me.
In the book, Oedipa Maas sets out to execute the will of her dead ex-boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity. As she begins her quest, she finds that the sign of a muted horn keeps appearing (first as bathroom graffiti, later as a lapel pin, and on and on), leading to more clues, possibly to a secret society working to subvert the U.S. Postal Service and form their own system of underground communication. Or it may be a different conspiracy altogether. Along the way, Oedipa’s psychiatrist goes insane and other connections go haywire, or simply vanish. She arrives at one last destination, awaiting the answer.
I relished calling the Tupperware party in the first line a “celebration of containment” and moving from there to, in Pynchon’s words, the “circuit card” landscape of a Northern California city, “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning,” away from “insulation … the absence of an intensity.”
While sorting out Inverarity’s story, becoming acquainted with his milieu, and attempting to do as his name suggests (puncture untruth?), Oedipa begins an unlayering, at one point embodied by a game of strip poker. But as the layers fall away, the conduits to what she seeks disappear as well. The threshold keeps moving out of reach, crossing over becomes impossible, the truth recedes infinitely.
From beginning to end, messages become scrambled (“What’s is a potsmaster?” “Guy in the scullery”), the reappearing image of the muted horn multiplies in its leads, dream and waking life blur.
An awareness of energy surfaces throughout the book. How it powers, transfers, devolves into entropy. And the perpetual motion machine Maxwell’s Demon, purported to operate through receiving a “staggering set of energies” in the form of communication.
There’s something in Pynchon, the gags, the goofiness, Mike Fallopian, the warship “the Disgruntled.” Words such as “oubliette” appear offhand, a tucked-away attic. From the same root for “oblivion,” a forgotten place.
Meanings diverging, suggesting how far the mind could go if it followed signs to their sources (if such things exist) instead of stopping where it normally does.
Despite the impossibility of “knowing,” there’s a delight in maintaining irresolution: the liminal becomes sublime. Even in the throes of paranoia, Oedipa speculates that she may have stumbled onto, as Pynchon writes, “a secret richness … maybe even onto a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life.”
I stayed up all night finishing the essay, sweat a little, the fever broke. Once I handed it in, I had nothing left to do besides pack to go home for Thanksgiving. That night I went to a party at a friend’s dorm, drank wine, felt at ease. Put a hand on Matt’s shoulder as I told a story and he smiled. Maybe it’s unusual that I remember that, but it hadn’t happened in a long time. I felt who I was.
Thanksgiving weekend in New York I walked into the Meadowsweet Herbal Apothecary on East 4th Street, a long, narrow shop that smelled of sap and budding and decomposing things. It was owned by a silver-haired woman with an elfin voice, who sat at the tall counter lined with tiny dram bottles. I had an idea that night for a piece of jewelry to make, and came back the next day.
At the wooden shelves in back, I scooped dried rose buds, marigold blossoms, hibiscus, sage and soft curls of maidenhair fern from glass canisters into brown paper bags, bought a book on the magical powers of herbs, picked up slender dram bottles and cute half drams. Then teeny corks from the brewing supply shop a few blocks away. (So many musky, hoppy places in the East Village.)
At home, I took one of the bottles and wrapped stainless steel wire around the threaded top, bending the middle of the wire to start. Then, with pliers, I twisted the two ends and arched the twirled wire over the cork, tucking the metal tips into the bottom of it. I filled the bottle with a love mixture of pink and red petals and leaves, then sealed it with the cork, pulled a shiny black rayon cord through the wire loop, knotted the cord, and wore my amulet to land low, falling just below my chest.
January my sister and I saw a movie in the Village, then went to a late-night diner. Things had mostly returned to normal between us. My French toast came, and some of the syrup spilled on the bacon. I was so happy taking a bite, buzzed on the combination and generally feeling alive again. I asked her to try it and she said no. Then I urged her to try it and she still refused. Actually she was getting a little irritated. In the past it might have upset me, that after everything she wouldn’t just give me that, trying the bacon with syrup. But I laughed to myself, admiring how different I was from her. It was so rare to revel in that, our separateness, my own person.
Back at school from winter break, I went to a party at the Spanish house where a band was playing. I wore a vintage top (a mustard-colored corduroy button-down with a mallard duck pattern) and the amulet over it. Matt was there with two friends visiting him from other schools. We danced a little. The three of them were tripping, but his style was to do that low-key.
After I got back to my dorm in the rain, I heard a knock on the window, Matt and his buddies. I let them in and we all hung out in my room listening to music, the Stones’ Let It Bleed, and Matt and I sat on the floor talking. We discussed the benefits of being a witch, which Matt felt he would be if he were a woman, since it was subversive and sexy. Only a week before, appreciating how I’d lifted myself from the depths, he’d called me an “artist of the mind.”
Then I had something to show them.
We all gathered at the halogen lamp, which stood to the right of my desk. I pointed to the window at the left-hand wall.
As I turned the light all the way up, our pale reflections appeared in the glass.
I slowly turned the knob to dim the light, fading the reflections to nothing, revealing the night outside. The stretch of lawn to the wrought-iron fence came into view as the light poured out the window, the streetlights sharpened, turning the exterior brighter than the dark, quiet room in which we now stood. It really did feel like something falling, the darkness.
I told Matt that when I turned off the lamp I always looked for the point when the light balanced on either side of the window, before the room faded out and the outside lit up.
“Do it again,” he said.
I turned the knob all the way on till it clicked, the room fully brightened, and our reflections appeared, then I began turning it down.
“Slower,” he said.
I turned the control very slowly, lowering it until the light dissipated.
When I ran into him the next day, he told me I kept them sane.
The following year, Don Quijote was the required course in Seville. Insanely modern, to go mad reading books. The post-modern version might be to go mad reading signs. Or, what about entering the liminal space?
We had an attractive professor, Luis, who taught the class in his living room. One day when I nearly repeated his question back to him as the answer, he said, “Esta chica es verdaderamente inteligente.” I have to say that when he gave me a lift home after happy hour on the last day of class, it was ego-boosting, both electrifying and calming. As he dropped me off and leaned over to kiss my cheek, he closed his eyes. I leaned back and looked at him as if I caught him and, a little stunned, savored it.
When he opened his eyes, he said with humor, and not meanness, “Afuera contigo.” Outside with you.
Traveling with my sister the summer before college, I read Perfume, Love in the Time of Cholera and Bonfire of the Vanities on train rides. The Bonfire of the Vanities paperback was browned, hardened and falling apart, maybe it had gotten soaked. By the end, a page would drop to the floor after you turned it. We pretended that was how reading was done, to nonchalantly turn the page and let it fall.
Language says the mind comes alive with the sun: enlightenment, brilliance, brightness. Beauty and intelligence sparkle. Lucid and hallucinatory.
Coming back to New York after my semester in Spain set it all rolling.
That’s sort of how I see it now. Not an up and down, but a slipperiness of self, a soap bubble of a self, an inevitable burst.
I felt together in Seville. And I’d wanted to start my senior year feeling the same way. But I wasn’t going to. Who I was never stuck. The same unsureness, the same hesitancy, the same embarrassing, involuntary deference began to come back that summer. Anxious as before, that I wouldn’t have enough to say. Trying to hold it in, trying to break out of it, walking into a turning fan.
I might sound consumed by myself, but to me, everyone else appeared enormous. Something came naturally to them, a definition, a surface that I could not reliably locate, and it was what you needed to exist.
My siblings’ visit to Spain had gone well, months before. But now the comfort I’d once shared with my sister failed again. And so much rested on that.
As a teenager she went to art school, painted album covers on the backs of denim jackets (Def Leppard, Pyromania, on mine). She built a pinball machine we actually played from a cardboard box with various working parts. She was tough and funny, wore a leather jacket, loved Joan Jett, was universally admired, respected and sought after.
She didn’t actually go out that much, though. The occasional rock club. I didn’t realize at the time how much, out in the world, she performed. She wasn’t showy. It looked so natural, instinctual, and made everyone feel good.
We stayed home watching Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
She was herself with me, and the only person I ever felt really myself with. Despite my loneliness in high school, my bond with my sister at home made up for that.
The summer after my first year at college, something had gone wrong. My sister went to stay with her friend in New Orleans, where Tim lived, and I gave her his number. During the spring I’d told her about him many times, the talks we had, the book he bought for me, and then just friendship.
They all went out to dinner, went bowling (her friend covertly walked out wearing a pair of bowling shoes, and left her own behind), swam in his family’s pool at night. Then my sister told me on the phone that they had another night out planned. I had to eat dinner with my parents after that and talk about nothing.
She made a confession to me when she returned home, about what happened between them before she left. She didn’t mean to. She was sorry. After awhile, when I was still crying, she tried to keep telling me about her trip.
When I’d come back during my fall semester to visit in October, I still felt blank, walking with her in Washington Square Park. “You used to be fun,” she said.
I had no words for it. There was a piece of myself I’d surrendered for her a long time ago. Because of that surrender, perhaps, I didn’t attract Tim and she did. And neither the surrender nor the wall nor anything else would be repaid, only punished. Ultimately, in her life, she didn’t even want to be with men.
After I revived at the end of the term, writing the Lot 49 paper and making the amulet, then went home for winter break, she told me she had a dream, worrying. She gave me a mandolin she brought back from Mexico. I didn’t mention how she’d treated me. I wanted things to go back to how they were, now that I felt better.
August after the semester in Spain, all I focused on was my senior thesis and going back to school. I made notes about The Sheltering Sky, which follows the couple Port and Kit, wealthy, detached Americans traveling through the Sahara after World War II, sleeping and waking as if sharing a dream. “Patterns of language” obscuring the truth; Kit’s “system of omens;” language and consciousness changing everything they touch. Some things only visible indirectly. The notes of lute music, as Paul Bowles writes, “like watching the smoke of a cigarette curl and unfold in untroubled air.”
Kit has an awakening, flushed with a joy that feels endless, then departs at night with a caravan, before, months down the line, she cracks. (If she’s based on his wife, Jane Bowles, then why is Paul so cruel to her in her fate?) The sky always a fragile buffer from the intensity of the sun, or the void, or infinity.
“A rift across the heavens that let the faint white light through.”
Alongside The Crying of Lot 49, I’d find the links in the women’s journeys, their reading of clues, barriers falling, losing connections as well, while seeking meaning. Both venturing out in the wake of the death of a man to find themselves alone among men. A circle, a U-turn at the end, is this the movement of the story, or words, or the universe? Completely different tones, one hypercharged the other somnambulant, both passing through dream states, remnants of conquest, subversions rumbling. The authors perhaps acknowledging that they themselves are obsolete and women must take it from here … and yet somehow abandoning them.
My sister and I went out for drinks with her friend Maria, who was bold and arty and quick-witted.
I don’t remember what I was talking about. My sister looked at me and said, “But I wouldn’t say it slowly.”
Then she looked off. Maria giggled.
Among all my doubts, it never occurred to me the speed at which I talked and whether it was slower than other people. After everything, knowing I’d be going back to school with this in my head, as if I hadn’t grown in Spain, come into my own. Worse now because of her instead of better. To see her looking at me from the outside, anticipating my rejection … I never told her how it set me off, just that one line.
I thought being confident was not caring what other people thought.
That was what she’d said in the car up to school, “If only you were more confident …”
“But I wouldn’t say it slowly.”
Pot was always unpredictable. Laughter, intense flavors, revelatory thoughts, trouble swallowing, fast heart rate, paranoia. But I did have a bit of it saved at home, and though I had never smoked it alone, I did that a few times in those last weeks.
My sister was staying in an apartment under the Brooklyn Bridge where a friend of hers grew up, and I was sleeping over occasionally.
I brought materials: large iridescent red beads and smaller iridescent green beads, and I wanted to bead a fruit that I would wear around my neck, to go back to school. The beads created the effect of a ripe berry.