Coffee: Maxwell House Drip, Office Coffee
I stayed in the hammock long after everyone else had gone and even after my host had left to get ready for bed. It was 3 in the morning. I was 18. I was up thinking of stories.
Earlier, as in during the school year, I’d been at this same house sitting on this same porch (though the hammock wasn’t there, they strung that up for the summer) and talked a big game about how you could make a story of anything. I was trying to be encouraging. My host – we’ll call her the Gymnast – had a big speech coming up. It was at our graduation. She was co-valedictorian. She was scared.
So I said: “Take this: a ham sandwich. But the only topping is mustard. Sound interesting?”
She said: “No.”
I went on and on about that sandwich, building up a history with the bread and meat, a poignant love of mustard that had to do with an absent father. She laughed. It was a terrible story and I hadn’t proved anything, but at least it was fun.
In the hammock, I was eaten by mosquitoes. There was netting but some still got in. We’d been coming here weekly, me and all my friends, dying a last summer bleach blonde and bloodshot with late nights before we dispersed to different colleges. We hung out on the porch and in her basement, the Gymnast’s home. We all crowded in the hammock after her parents were asleep because none of us had gotten too cynical about touching another person’s skin.
I tossed and turned. It took a long time for the Gymnast to come back. She was brushing her teeth, I think. A perfect opportunity but I couldn’t think of anything. I knew I needed a better story but it all kept coming up ham and mustard.
When you’re young and not too poor, it’s easy to compress the universe into something pocket-sized. You take it with you everywhere you go, adding bits of lint, fiddling with it when you’re nervous. Back then, I was always nervous so I was always fiddling. I’d look at the moon and think it was two feet tall. I’d talk to the Gymnast and see a lock and a key and something precious behind a door I couldn’t figure out how to open.
I wanted to commemorate that feeling; I wanted the Gymnast to feel it too.
Finally, she came back and sat beside me, just us, she was in blue pajamas. She said: “Hey.” I said “I want to write something.” We sat together another half hour until it was impossible to ignore the mosquitoes, then she walked me out – past the kitchen where we’d baked together, the hallway she drew me in the first time, and out the front door. We said goodbye on her front lawn. I got in an old car that doesn’t exist as a car anymore (scrapped down) and drove home.
Whenever I’m feeling anxious, or stuck with writer’s block, I fiddle with my pocket and get lost in another universe: a dreamy one where I figured out a better story than a ham sandwich; an impossible world that doesn’t get past 18; some time and place where I knew exactly what to say.
Currently Reading: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
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What a weary time those years were — to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability.Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye