Wish You Were Here

By Tyler C. Gore

1

We planned it as a reconciliation, “a time to bury all the old dead,” as you called it. But it rained from the start. You said, “I wish there were a camera fastened to this window, so that we could record all the conversation and laughter that will unfold in this car,” as the first small hard drops, like cutting remarks, splashed against the windshield, punctuating the silence that would stretch out like the road before us. I remember thinking, to the monotonous rhythm of the wind­shield wipers: I do not understand time or distance. Is this road that contains us both really an expression of either? But I did not say these things to you.

2

I spend days hiding in the saloons from the curtains of rain that sweep the French Quarter, drinking and writing letters to you that I will later destroy. Sometimes, when I am not writing, I think I see you in the exquisite backs of young women at the bar — white shoulders draped with soft hair, the curve of the spine hinted at under a light summer frock — why is it that I can find you, like a Platonic ideal, in the shapes of other women?

Annie subscribes to the ancient superstition that images contain the properties of the object
they represent

And sometimes I wonder if what I have idealized is not you, but rather my shapeless need, for which you are merely empty vessel, the container of my desire.

But when it really is you across from my beer, I see that your hair is finer and blacker than the girls at the bar, your shoulders carved more delicately, your eyes bright and lively with the force of your own unique soul. You speak cheerfully of your day, describing the iron grill of a terrace, how the chipped black paint sparkled in a moment of sunlight; or the candid smile of the little girl who called out to you from the third story of an old tenement building. I know then who is really the empty vessel, form without substance.

3

Annie spent most days alone — or at least, not with me. One of the first evenings, though, she took me through the narrow streets, guided by her maps and booklets, to one of the more famous saloons. She informed me that this establishment was, half a century ago, instrumental in the birth of jazz. She named musicians, some obscure, some very famous, told me where I could find their re-mastered recordings, and I nodded absently. Most of what she said was printed on the back of the beer list sitting on the table.

An apparently endless line of tourists poured in at the door, drawn by the common belief that by entering this place they could somehow participate in its romantic history. It is a kind of time travel. Annie, I am sure, also thinks this way: she subscribes to the ancient superstition that images contain the properties of the object they represent; by collecting postcards and photographs, by visiting all the important sights, she will have captured the history of New Orleans, and, by a twist of the imagination, shared the life experience of all those who lived and died here.

4

I hated the nights most of all: the nights when she didn’t come home; the nights when she did. Sleep, like a gift, always came easily to her. I would lie awake beside her, listening to the anonymous sounds of this antique city, and carefully study her face for clues to this terrible situation. I was not trying to discern her motivations: I was trying to discover my own. Who is she, I thought, that she has come to mean everything to me? For I was smart enough, on these occasions, to realize that for me, Annie was no longer a person, but a symbol of undetermined meaning. Surely the key to deciphering that symbol could be found in memory — I had to pinpoint the moment in the past when the transformation had occurred, when Annie’s meaning had become divorced from her person and taken on an independent existence. I could not, however, find that enigmatic and shifting point, for it seemed to me that all of our past together had somehow escaped the field of ordinary time and entered into the shadowy realm of mythology. Incidents of no particular meaning had become symbols in themselves, the changing interpretations of which determined the events of present and future. And though I could perform these semantic calculations with clinical precision, fully understanding the absurd implications of my obsession with the past, I was nonetheless tormented by nostalgia and desire, alternatively.

The resentment that is the true core of all religious fanaticism would then rise in me, until, like a believer whom God has disappointed, I would grow enraged at the symbol I had created: I hated her, I wanted to kill her, and thus obliterate the source of hope and shame all at once. I thought about murder. Elaborate plans were constructed. One night, I even placed my fingers around her throat as she slept, and I’m not sure what I would have done if she had not just then turned her head slightly, as though disturbed by an unpleasant dream. I withdrew in horror, and realizing the seriousness of my sickness, my hatred turned against myself. I slipped out of bed and into the bathroom, rummaging about for razors, pills, anything to put an end to my miserable existence. And finding nothing that could be used towards this end, I sat on the cold tile floor and wept — quietly, so not to wake her. Murder and suicide: the two poles of my perception, and once again I was painfully struck by my failure to understand time.

5

My jealousy really knows no boundaries. When you spoke, that Tuesday afternoon, of the saxophonist on Bourbon Street, I felt old and unwanted. It’s like that with everything you admire or find beauty in — the museums and gardens, the artists who move you, the music you love. When you speak of these things, when your eyes glitter like a memory of the future, I am reminded of my own ugliness, my lack of grace. It is when you are the most beautiful that I hate you. I think you have always known this about me, but it confuses and hurts you.

6

I am standing in an anonymous garden, admiring a tree of excruciating beauty: the smooth trunk is thick and majestic, like a marble column; dancing branches stretch out to pierce the grey sky. A low branch hangs near me, a single drop of dew collecting on the end of a twig, and in the depths that tiny pearl of water my reflection is formed, unfolds, and grows into sharp clarity. A slight breeze shakes the drop almost imperceptibly, dissolving my image and replacing it with Annie’s. I turn around and there she is, sneering at me. “I used to admire you,” she says. I back up against the tree, seeking reassurance in the hardness of its trunk. “I used to love you,” she says, and opens an umbrella. The branches of the tree squirm like snakes, and twist towards me, gripping me against the trunk. I can’t move, I can hardly breathe. There is thunder, and the heavy rains come flooding down. Annie sadly informs me: “You are the enemy of life.” I open my mouth to protest, but I am choked by the rain. Annie laughs contemptuously, walks into the rain and is gone. As I struggle to free myself from the tree, the drops of rain become hard and cold as ice, and I realize in horror that it is not water but broken glass falling from the sky. My body is lacerated and bleeding, my skin hangs in strips. “Annie!” I scream. “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding!” My mouth fills with glass and blood, and gasping, I sat up in bed, sweating. Annie was sleeping peacefully beside me, smiling.

7

I never had an interest in New Orleans. I already knew that the city had died long ago; it was Annie’s desire that brought us here. I did not, as Annie did, try to fill myself with the pale ghost of this city. I did not try to package it, wrap it up to take home. I took no pictures, bought no postcards or souvenirs. And yet, it seems to me that the city has already claimed me. I know the narrow sad streets that sprawl with the drunken memories of better years like I know the twisted circuitry of my soul. Annie, with her camera and umbrella, remains a tourist, a visitor. I carry no umbrella, and I am already filled to the head with the heavy rain of New Orleans.

8

The jazz was old and stale; not even you could pretend to enjoy it. I think by then you had finally realized what was meant by “a time to bury the old dead.” Whatever bonded us died long ago. Most of me died with it, but somehow enough of you survived to pose by the bar, flirt with the young man with long blond hair. I read your soul in the movements of your delicate shoulders, and found nothing. Perhaps I was mistaken after all; perhaps there is nothing that separates you from other women: the part of you that remains captures my desire but not my love. The ghost of a memory, like the pain an amputee feels in his missing limb.

9

I got your postcard today. Thanks. I liked the picture of the San Francisco bay. You told me it was sunny and warm there. You wrote “Wish you were here,” and signed your name. I think of you often, and perhaps someday I’ll write you. Maybe I will tell you something new about New Orleans, something you must have overlooked in your guidebooks and brochures and pictures and maps.

The city, as you know, lies just above sea level. But did you know that this intimacy with the sea prohibits the digging of graves? Yes: they would fill up with seawater — the dead would float, rise through the grass and mud, and bones would wash out into the streets. The dead are therefore laid to rest in dry crypts above ground. But even so, there are heavy rains, and the gravekeepers must exercise constant vigilance to protect the coffins from flooding. In this city, even the dead are in danger of drowning.

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About Tyler C. Gore

Tyler C. Gore, a native New Yorker, received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, and has taught at Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and for Gotham Writers Workshop. His essays, short fiction and columns have appeared in many publications, including Literal Latte, MeThree, Lungfull, Opium Magazine, The American, The Fire Island Express, and Rosebud. He has been cited four times as a Notable Essayist by The Best American Essays annual anthology, as well as a citation from The Best American Non-Required Reading anthology. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for Creative Writing. He is also a graphic and web designer.

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