4. Then one of them moved. And that changed things.
One of them moved from the island in the Pacific to an island in the Atlantic. Two of them stayed on the island in the Pacific.
But because one of them refused to live on the island in the Pacific with all its thought and its histories, they agreed to begin physically careening back and forth for a few years between various islands and climates and cultures. They spent the fall and spring on the island in the Pacific and then the summer and some of the winter on the island in the Atlantic.
They grew tired of this back and forth very quickly. The moving back and forth was both physically and emotionally hard. To get rid of this feeling—the feeling of disorientation—the two of them that were living on the island in the Pacific decided to move to the island in the Atlantic. They also moved to be near the one who refused to live on the island in the Pacific. They moved for love, for desire, for friendship. And they moved for other reasons also, reasons they couldn't fully articulate to themselves but instead felt in the gray matter at the backs of their brains.
This gray matter held things up front like desires to have less sides to themselves and desires to have less emotion about the place where they lived and also desires to be surrounded by people who like them moved around a lot and somewhat valued the moving around as a way of learning about things even as they saw the limitations of this moving around, such as a certain rootlessness or a certain lack of historical perspective or a certain inability to understand the ecosystems of the place. The gray matter would say to them that part of the move was just a desire to spend less time on planes, in cramped seats with twitchy legs breathing stale air and trying to sleep. But really these thoughts were only what the gray matter let go to the front of the brain. The gray matter at the back of their brain told them to move to the islands in the Atlantic because the islands were known for their perversions and various sexualities, and they wanted to live someplace known for its per- versions and various sexualities. The gray matter at the back of the brain wanted to move to the place that self-identified as a place of complicated sexuality, a place for people who liked to be getting in and out of various beds in various different ways. A place that celebrated different beds and different ways of bedding down and around. There were many myths about the sex lives of the people on the island in the Pacific that they had just left also, but the myths were different and just made them sad. The sexual myths of the islands in the Pacific were made by haole men who came from elsewhere, and as a result the myths reflected their colonial, their sexual values, their fantasies. The haole men presented the island in the Pacific as full of beautiful dark skinned women who liked to dance with their hips and really enjoyed the company of haole men over all other categories of humans. But the myths of the islands to which they moved, the islands in the Atlantic, were full of perversions of all sorts, and the stories told had all the genders in all the different combinations—even ones beyond the two that so defined their culture at that moment. They liked this. They liked that the islands in the Atlantic to which they moved were so famous for their perversions, so famous that televangelists mentioned them often as the root of all evil. In the hometown of one of them, many people called the islands in the Atlantic Sodom and the rest of the people called them Gomorrah. And this is what so attracted the gray matter at the back of their brain to the city. This was it. 26 〈 jubilat The front of their brain did not admit that this is what attracted them. If asked, the front of their brain would have disowned it. It would have pointed out that their sex life was not as glittering as the sex life of the characters in the various television shows that were shown about the islands in the Atlantic that featured wealthy, vain, and self-centered characters of unusually distinctive beauty. Their sex life had no shiny sheets or group showers or accidental pregnancies after one-night stands. It was slower and more private than all this. It had lots of laundry and house cleaning in it. The front of their brain liked to think that their sex life had more respect in it and less panting. But sometimes it had more panting and less respect.
But neither the front nor the back of their brain knew what to say about their relations with one another. As a result, they tried not to talk about it. And when they did talk about it, both parts of the brain worked together to do so in the most boring way possible. They used detached pronouns or they used metaphors of impossible sexual positions or they were just really vague and hoped no one would notice.
But still that their sexual lives were shaped around triangles rather than straight lines did shape their lives, made the back of their brain realize that it wanted to live in certain places and not in others. Made it known that they wanted to live in a city of perversion and variety so they could disappear into all the variety and not worry about what others thought.
So they packed up. They packed their stuff into cardboard boxes, and they carried them down to the post office to be shipped to the island in the Atlantic on a boat. Then they got on a plane, and this plane flew off the island in one of the flight patterns that they could have seen from their lanai, had they been there on their lanai at that moment instead of sitting in the plane in a small compact seat.
Ten hours then passed in a haze of sleeping pills and salty food and then the plane landed on an island in the Atlantic.
The island in the Atlantic on which the plane landed was 1,377 square miles. It was nestled beside a continent, and it was connected by bridges and tunnels to the continent as well as to two other islands.
Because the island in the Atlantic was so close to a continent and because the islands in the Pacific were not, the places were very different. The islands near the continent were points of entry and had all the economic advantages that points of entry have. And these islands were close together, so people moved among the islands all day long effortlessly. But there were other ways in which these islands were similar beyond their island-ness and their relation to the ocean. Both islands were full of concrete and very tall buildings. Both were dense with people. Both had oversized roles in the cultural imagination of the nation. The island in the Pacific was known for beauty and for the military. The other in the Atlantic was known for world culture, for immigration, and for finance. Both had colonial histories. Both had high land prices. Both places had a changed ecosystem as the result of birds released by those who came from other places.
These were the sorts of things they thought to themselves on the way from the airport to the apartment where the other of them lived. They wanted to only think of the things they were moving to. But they felt they also had to list the things they were moving from for the incantation to work, for there to be any meaningful width to their thinking, for it to be at all sophisticated. They knew this, but their grief at leaving various things—things like how the lighter green of the kukui indicated a stream in the side of the mountain—made it so they couldn't list them.
So they thought of the list of things they were moving to as they rode in a car from the airport to the apartment. They were moving to a connection with other islands and the continent; they were moving to being able to go between things; they were moving to a certain roughness and destruction, for the islands in the Atlantic were known for their toughness, for their guns, for their drugs, for their projects, for the dirtiness of their subways, for their organized crime, for their loudness and extremes, for putting great wealth and great poverty on the same street corner. At the same time they were moving to the certain, very specific beauty of the islands in the Atlantic. They were moving to the sun hitting the side of an old building and the very brick in the building lighting up with a certain sheen that was luminous and impossible to describe but deeply glowing as if the wealth of the industry in the buildings was so great that it seeped into the very mortar. They were moving to a horizon and then a spread of lights at night over this horizon, a horizon with so many levels and so much depth and so much wideness.
After many sleepless hours breathing bad airplane air and bad movies on a small screen they arrived at the apartment and they carried in their bags and they began the process of getting settled. One of them had a father who had been a singer on one of the islands for a while. He had sung songs in burlesque clubs, and as one of them grew up he sang to them (half in parody and half in celebration) songs about the city. He would sing words such as If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere to them in their beds late at night in the middle of the continent. And while they knew that he hadn't really made it there (as at the time they lived in a small rural town in the middle of the continent, a town without libraries or private schools), they still listened to the words of those songs with a sleepily mesmerized intentness, as if they were in a language they could understand if only they concentrated because they couldn't imagine at the time a place so privileged that it told people that they had made it or not anywhere. At the time that their father sang these songs, they were living in a town where the highest building would eventually be six stories tall, and at the time of their singing that building hadn't even been built yet. Later in their life, they thought a lot about this six-story tall building even as they felt they were at a risk of overthinking about it. But they couldn't stop from seeing it as a sign of how low the aspirations were in the place where they lived. The buildings in their town didn't have bricks that glowed. It wasn't that the buildings had no aesthetic. But it was that they had a different aesthetic, one more transitory and utilitarian. There, buildings were not built out of hope but out of need. Which was fine. This place where they had grown up had an entirely different set of issues to deal with, but it did explain why they were so caught up in tall buildings and their bricks and their steel girders, a caught-up-ness that was not without its critiques or hesitations, not without its suspicions. But the caught-up-ness was one part of the beginning of an explanation of why they moved from the islands in the Pacific to the islands in the Atlantic. They got settled by thinking more and more about how the islands in the Atlantic were all about wideness and had a specific beauty of stability and time and solidity.
While on the island in the Pacific, they zoomed in and noticed leaf texture and plants growing on top one another; on the islands in the Atlantic, they spent all their time looking up and down avenues and streets, focusing on the distance, noticing the lines of bridges and the dialogue that the uneven heights of buildings in a row had with the air above them. They noticed filled space and empty space. There was so much height and then within that height so many humans and so much motion that they couldn't zoom in at all, and so they had to let all the height and the people and the motion flood into their minds; they had to open their minds to wideness. They had to open their minds to a different, dirtier, more layered beauty. A beauty of many different languages in one line at the post office, languages full of meaning and histories that they couldn't even recognize—guttural languages, languages that clicked, other languages that had rhythms too intricate for their Midwestern ears to hold in their minds as anything but an unusual, unrecognizable, and thus beautiful song. They had to open their minds to a beauty of different and contradictory ideas. To a beauty of lostness and never feeling fluent but feeling that that was OK, that that was part of being in this place and that one was in this place of lostness, without fluency, with a whole bunch of other people. This ability to recognize one's self as lost and belonging with the others in the lostness—this is what made the place matter, what brushed off on them and made them matter and everyone around them matter also.
This was a place that told grandiose stories about itself, told others that it was a place to which people moved and it didn't matter how long you were at this place, that this place was for people from all over. Yet it wasn't really true. The nation which governed all these various islands had very restrictive rules and complicated passport checking booths at the borders to prevent large numbers of people from moving into the nation, to prevent large numbers of people from other nations from using up the wealth that the nation had accumulated at the expense of other nations on the planet.
And yet it was somewhat true, because the main difference between the islands in the Atlantic and the islands in the Pacific was that being born on one of the islands in the Atlantic had no extra meaning, granted no special privileges, was rarely even discussed. It was a city that celebrated the swarming movements of people. On the island in the Pacific people set down roots and then charted them in genealogies. People counted generations. On the island in the Atlantic people moved around in mass, changed their names, hid their nations of origin or exaggerated them, and did other things that people who are attentive to moving like to do. These islands in the Atlantic were so layered and so full of so many people from so many different places that various weird fevers were brought to the islands from other places by the constant movement of people. If there was a plague or a virus or a bug or an animal-borne illness in any one corner of the globe, then at any one moment someone on the islands probably had it. Yet because the islands' residents were known for their resilience, they just took this up as yet another story they told themselves about the greatness of the islands. And it was true, although whether it was great or not they could not say, but the traffic through the islands carried a huge amount of all the information it was possible for humans to carry. And as the islands were so small in size and so dense with people who were constantly brushing up against one another and touching and pushing each other into and out of the subway and up the stairs and then out into more people, there was a constant exchange of air in and out of each other's lungs. So they got to the island in the Atlantic and they too began to breathe with others.
They lived on one of the larger islands but in a part of it near the smaller, more dense, and most prosperous island. They settled into an apartment with an upstairs and a downstairs. One of them had a desk downstairs. Two of them shared a room with two desks upstairs. They all set up their computers, and one of them built a network that connected all the computers. Each of them had folders that contained shared files and also folders that were password protected on their computer, and in these folders they kept their writing.
There were other things in this apartment. There were two rooms with beds. One bed was softer and one bed was harder. One bedroom, the bedroom of the harder bed, was full of light and had a tree outside the window and various sorts of city birds lived in the tree and sang city bird songs in the morning. One bedroom, the bedroom of the softer bed, was a room in another room and no light from the outside entered it and it often got stuffy in the night when the doors were closed.
They got used to each other again at these desks and in these bedrooms. And they entered into the world of mundane worries and fights about who should take out the garbage and who had to sort the recycling and who had to clean the bathroom, and beneath all this mundaneness they had dreams in their soft and hard beds. One of them dreamed of being crushed by two big blue rubber balls, and that in order to stop the crushing they had to jump up and breathe, then hold their breath and jump down underwater, beneath the balls, and swim out. But in the dream they were afraid to swim out under the water, even though it would have been easy. Instead, they just stood there letting the two big blue rubber balls hit them in the face. One of them dreamed that they were getting a tattoo of birds—the hedge sparrow, the dipper, the peacock, the ostrich, the bird of paradise; all of them in flight or walking, whatever the individual bird's preference—in a circle around their upper arm. One of them dreamed about Three Dog Night and the Three Stooges and opening and closing doors.
Their dreams were deep but this period of moving from one place to another place and having this motion take over their thoughts the way metaphor takes over poems was only a brief period. A period of some two months or so. During these months there were other things that they thought about. They thought about steel and concrete as invented, mongrel products. They thought about how the islands added concrete to themselves at the rate of one Hoover Dam every eighteen months. They thought about the starlings released into Central Park by Eugene Schiffelin, a man who founded an acclimatization society in order to introduce to this continent across the Atlantic all the birds in Shakespeare's plays. They thought about the monk parrots that may or may not have escaped from a crate at Kennedy Airport and now lived in Brooklyn, where they built three-story homes of twigs along the power lines. They thought about the warm-weather plants that aclimatically thrived in the area because of the heat that collected in the city's large amount of concrete. They thought about the triggerfish, parrotfish, queen angels, butterfly fish, sergeant majors, spotfins, angelfish, damselfish, groupers, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, and all the others that were washed up into the waters near Far Rockaway beach by the Gulf Stream each spring. They thought a lot about how plants and animals survive with concrete, and they liked to see in all of this a series of metaphors about resilience. They thought a lot about resilience.
One of them was at this time developing a sort of environmental paranoia that may have been paranoia or may have been rational, as they had lived for so many years on the island in the Pacific—an island with one of the highest concentrations of species death in the world. So they liked to think during this period about how things continue to grow and mutate against all odds, and they found these thoughts a pacifying balm. They liked to think of the stability of the city's buildings and yet how this stability was illusory. Someone had told them that if the humans went away, it would only take one hundred years for the land to become someplace where concrete was not dominant. They liked to think on this. They were not sure how much longer the humans would be around making concrete, and they didn't like to think that concrete had to be there forever after humans were gone. They would rather it was not there at all. But it was there, and so as a result they liked to think about how things might continue on without humans, which seemed to be only a matter of time. As a meditation practice to cope with this paranoia, they would sit in a chair looking out the window at the street. They would sit in a chair and breathe in the concrete and then breathe out an image of grasses and trees growing out of the concrete, breathe in the street and breathe out an image of roots breaking the concrete apart, breathe in the cars and breathe out slowly collapsing neglected freeway overpasses, and with this meditation practice they were convinced all would be well.