Memory believes before knowing remembers.
– William Faulkner, Light in August
I could not finish the books. I couldn’t even really start them. Characters swam on the pages, darting away from coherence. Like minnows that scatter every time you step closer, the letters exploded away from any hint of meaning and reappeared further out and in a different configuration entirely.
It may have been the separation. My sister starting college. The hormones, the boys, the upending surges of adolescent depression. It could have been a misalignment in the stars or a bad batch of ink. In any event, Hemingway and Faulkner were not even nibbling on my line.
It was high school lit class and my mind could not penetrate the two assigned books for the second semester: The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises. Ambitious? Sure. But this was Montgomery County, Maryland where students were held to certain standards. If the professions of our 20-year reunion attendees were any indication, high expectations generally yielded the intended results.
By spring of our junior year, we had long since netted and dissected Baldwin, Bronte, and Shakespeare, so hooking these two should have been no great trial. Still, I could not make sense of them. Their language was barely identifiable as English. It was like trying to face Beowulf without Seamus Heaney in tow.
At sixteen, I was a poet already as well as a lifelong reader and writer. My amateur children’s stories were full-spectrum fantasies and my diaries oozing with odes to leaves and sky. Abandoning my bicycle at the break in the trees at the park, I’d walk alone into the woods with my ratty backpack flopping against my hips. As I crouched at the edge of the creek, the world would grow huge in its tiny pause. Whatever stained, curled journal I was filling at the time would open its pages to the sound of the gold-tipped ripple in the current. Sometimes a character would move from dormancy to gestation and maybe even to life. Like Wednesday, the girl who played a string of chimes made of spoons and had to find her way down from her mountaintop when her parents disappeared, leaving behind neither clue nor explanation.
When my hand was stiff from writing, I’d settle down there on the soft thigh of the water, open a battered copy of Sandburg or Gibran, and make my own self disappear.
It was misery not to be able to read those two books for class. Trigonometry and its indicipherable alphabet of tangents and arcs was bad but predictably so. Even having to re-take advanced algebra in summer school was tolerable compared to this strange illiteracy. Not to be able to read in my native tongue meant something worse than a few flitting minnows. I felt myself swimming towards them in steadily deepening water with lead weights strapped to my ankles. The further I plowed, the deeper I sank.
It was the season of sinking.
That spring, I left school for a few weeks. “Dropping out,” I called it, which it wasn’t. My world did not allow for disappearing. I was too suburban. Too amply resourced. Too loved. Absent parents reappaeared and began the frantic work scheduling appointments with teachers and school counselors. A nice child psychologist sat with me weekly in a cozy office as I stumbled around, dodging questions I didn’t know how to answer. The bewildering bureaucracy of the school figured out how to let me leave behind the toughest courses and only stay in the two I could manage — Latin and Social Studies — while still passing the whole of the year.
Then, my parents reconciled. We moved to Vermont. I cut loose my two millstones and swam for air. I never finished Trigonometry or William Faulkner.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Now, Hemingway is another story entirely. It only took me about a decade to nurse that wound and then get the hell over it. Anyone who hasn’t read Old Man and the Sea by about 25 shouldn’t be considered literate. In my case, two visits to Key West to visit that bougainvillea-draped villa and those six-toed cats made the man more a man and less a monolith. I’ve skipped on through For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, and it was almost a non-event when the car slowed and I felt Brett pressing into me.
As for Faulkner? Like one of those word-tangling, wave-making madmen upon whom I tended to glom my attention, he blew my mind before I saw it coming. He left me to flail at the riverbottom and then he swam off with the rope. I suppose I actually left him, but the net effect was the same. I couldn’t face his language without remembering the feel of both the ascent and the fall.
For two dozen years, his words have not been able to penetrate my protective resistance. Twice I’ve tried to let him back in. Something seized up in me both times. It was as if those full-grown fish were just an illusion, a school forming the shape of some coherent and sensible being. Each time, even as I’ve hooked and subdued Thackery and Austen and Whitman and Rushdie, Faulkner’s words split apart from their meaning at the exact moment I inched close enough to touch them. They scattered and left me blinking and grasping and kicking for the surface.
Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.
Then I move into this new home. It is the first I’ve ever owned, the first I’ve ever understood I could claim. I bring in the few boxes of books that survived the purge brought on by the final contraction. In one is a yellowed copy of Light in August. It takes it place in familiar if diminished company against a new wall. A few weeks in, after the pictures are hung and the dishes stacked away, I have a quiet nothing night. It is August. The days are still long. Boredom, another long-forgotten friend, scratches at the door.
Faulkner couldn’t care less if I choose him or Ursuala LeGuin to the right, Edward Abbey to the left. The traffic swooshes along I-66 outside my window. The dog sighs in her curl by the door. The fan hums. A story lives and not, like Schrodinger’s cat, inside the pages.
And memory knows this; twenty years later, memory is still to believe On this day I became a man.
I walk to the edge and step in. The water is warmer than I remember. The bottom, not so far down. Fish swim in smooth, fat arcs just below the surface. They are the color of tar and rust. Streaks of dusk flash against them. One slips against my ankle and lets me bend low to feel with eyes and skin the shape of its pulse. It pushes folds of water up and up my calf, my shin, my thigh, its alien muscle calls me in.
Night comes eventually. I swim out to him. He still does not bother with the rope. I don’t bother reaching for it. The low light is plenty. My arms, enough.