There were so many places he could have lived, but he lived in the shack so he could dream of his daughter.
Spread from Paul Thek's notebook, No 16, 1976.
© The Estate of George Paul Thek,
Courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.
Some years ago I had my birthday on the same day as my ex-boyfriend did, and we ended up at the same place for breakfast. This was an accident. Me and my mom. Him and his girlfriend. There was a man reading a newspaper by the window, otherwise we were the only people there. My mom and I both got baguette with butter, coffee, orange juice, apricot preserves. The baguette was as pale as uncooked bread.
We went there because it would be quiet and it was. The couple was quiet. I spilled coffee, and the napkins were near the couple. I could have got the napkins, my mom said when I returned. The night before I had asked her about love but she kept reverting to platitudes. Can a romantic love be as strong as what a mother feels for a child? She said yes, but then was unsure. She thought there were all sorts of love and that it could change. I told her Raymond Carver believed in romantic love, but his version had a narrow timeframe.
It was my plan to talk to my friends about love. On the street she asked if I would do it on that day, my birthday. I told her I would hold off for a few more days before we started to talk about love, but that when we did it we were really going to do it.
Back then I was remembering my dreams more. I was sleeping late, which meant waking and falling back to sleep several times, and so the dreams were remembered as in waking. When I dreamed about moving to Paris, it was as if I was moving. I had the feeling of it. I had read about Jack Gilbert moving to Europe and it seemed possible. I wrote to a man who was moving to Berlin and told him about the dream. I hadn’t heard from him in weeks, but he was leaving, so what did it matter what I could lose. I said I had dreamed of moving to Paris and it was a hopeful feeling, like something opening inside of myself. He was saving his money in a tobacco can, and had told me if it was gone he would know who had it. If you look closely you can find terrific suitcases in thrift stores. Perhaps this involves going to many thrift stores, but you’ll find them.
There were so many places he could have lived, but he lived in the shack so he could dream of his daughter. It was the only place it happened. He told me this when I moved into the shack next to him. These were shacks in the dunes, next to the ocean. We swam through until October. Why the shock of the cold could make you sleep I didn’t know. But we slept and we dreamt in our shacks, and then often had a drink in the afternoon while we talked. I was dreaming of a lover who had left me, but it had happened a long time ago, and I didn’t know why I was dreaming of him. I felt that when we dreamed of others we loved, we were dreaming of parts of ourselves that we had lost. That was why the familiarity and warmth. He felt that when we dreamed of others they were actually in our dreams, as people separate from ourselves. I felt that he was mourning his daughter. That this was the way we worked through loss. But he thought he had his daughter with him because he did in his dream. When I went home and saw the old lover, I knew it wasn’t the same person I had been dreaming of, and I missed that other person.
There was a noise show in my ex-boyfriend’s basement. I walked home with a friend afterwards and asked how she was. She was getting back together with an ex but wasn’t sure. She didn’t think it was a problem then, but it could become one. She thought she wanted to go to Italy, or at least he would need to want to go to Italy. I said, yes, divide the world between those who need Italy and those who do not. This seemed smart to me, so did getting together with ex-boyfriends because it was October. Outside my office the first leaves were turning yellow. Every year the leaves don’t turn the way they should for different reasons such as too much rain. I would wish for whatever it takes for them to look like a postcard, but I am confused about the weather this requires.
My ex-husband was a great lover of whales. I remember on the whale watch he stood on the deck with binoculars while I sat in the cabin with coffee. There was something so nice to it, the way the sun came in. When he came in the cold came with him and I was irritated. No whales yet, he said, as if it was a football game we were watching. Later I would say to friends that if I had known what I was leaving for I never would have left. But I didn’t mean that either; it was just another way to frame a decision I had made with so little thought or evidence. What did I want a man to look like on a whale watch if not the way he looked? What would have satisfied me? Wasn’t it enough that he came in from time to time, that someone on the boat knew who I was?
I’ve never seen anything like those whales, I told the man in the shacks. We wanted to go on a boat, though we had little money. To eat we climbed the jetty to get mussels. We cooked onions in butter over borrowed propane, dumped in a can of beer, and steamed them open. There was worth, for both of us, in doing it this way. We forgot about the boat by the second whiskey. The neighbors thought we were in love and we were, only it wasn’t the type you could do anything with. Mornings I washed my clothes in the ocean. Give me those, he said from the shore. He wanted to take everything to the Laundromat. I wanted to make a statement or have something to do with the ocean besides being frightened by its proportion. One day he bought a kite at the t-shirt shop. They were having a sale. All the shops were closing. Don’t the seagulls know anything, he said. We went out where the dunes sunk in like a bowl and stayed on the edge. Of course the kite didn’t fly. In what world would it have flown?
There was a fifth shack that no one lived in. The owner was sick, and Henry, the man I knew, took care of it. When the owners died, the shacks were torn down because of the fragility of the dunes. Visiting this shack was finding the only place you’ve ever wanted to live in, right before it disappeared. It was out near the trees, away from the other shacks. It was the only shack you could see fall from. It was a wet fall and the swamp filled in, the ground soft with algae. We rolled our pants to wade through. There were other ways to get there, but this was the way we liked. It was the only shack with two stories. A ladder went to a sleeping loft, and downstairs there were several rockers and a braided rug. Henry bent to sweep flies and sprinkle them outside.
Years before, a woman in town was killed by a lover. The clam warden was a suspect, but he was acquitted because of a variety of things, including DNA evidence. Every week when I clammed he gave me the New York Times, as he also delivered papers. His jobs could be seen as a variety of sizes and shapes—looking in our buckets to see if our clams were big enough, and rolling the newspapers and sliding them into tubes—or they could be seen as stories, the stories in the paper and of the townspeople he talked to when he climbed down the jetty to see how clamming was going. It was a lonely and beautiful sight, all of us out on low tide, in boots and packs, slipping past him with our regulation clams.
Word came that the owner of the fifth shack had died and the shack would be torn down. As happened with the others, you could take what you wanted from the shack. There was very little to actually want, but you could be surprised at how much you wanted it, for instance a lamp, if you knew a spot where it could go. Most of the things in our shacks had come from now-lost shacks. There had once been over thirty—you could see the outline of them on clear days. These are the opposite of tombs or a graveyard in that they are taken away when we die. There was a set of glasses that I wanted, and a trunk, and a rug. It was a clear day and there was a plane overhead, and the four of us with Henry to unlock the door. He had explained to me the unfairness of going there early, before the others, saying that systems created openings, but glassware had seemed a reasonable thing to want.
This is all I know about Berlin or Germany and Germans in general. I thought I would list it in case it was helpful and because Germany has remained a part of my life for unknowable reasons. There was a man from Germany I felt I could have married, but he moved away, and I think he has found happiness and that it will last. And I just mailed a lamp to a man who I knew when he was moving to Germany, and I got his lamp, but he came back to the States, and I mailed it back. They eat a lot of sausages there, yes, but it was the ice cream that surprised me. And the cold cuts for breakfast in the hotels. All the castles, etc. Thomas Bernhard is worth reading, and so many authors I love have ties to Germany, lived there, or, like Sebald, moved away from there. This is true of Argentina as well, but I don’t feel the same way about Argentina. I love Germany because it has once possessed or is going to possess many of the things that I’ve cared about, though in fact I have only spent two weeks in Germany and I didn’t care for the food. If you move to Germany and you’re not happy there it’s okay to move back because you will still love Germany, as I’ve learned that Germany is one of those things.
Or, you’ll go to Germany, but come back to a small town in our country and you’ll realize there is something or someone you love, and you will stay, though you may not be happy with this town, but in this way the small compromises of life will become larger and more significant to you than Germany. At some point I might send you something, whether it’s a lamp or another piece of mail. At times you’ll think about Germany, what it was to you, and in that way you might think of me, and I’ll think about you, and Germany, and countless other cities I’ve never lived in.
There was a party one night and my ex-boyfriend was there and so was his girlfriend. He talked about raffles, his fondness of them, the desire for winning in comparison to chances. He explained the sort of raffle we were doing was called a Chinese raffle. Afterwards I thought it would be better for him to have a field so that I could set fire to it. Not out of vengeance or to do harm, but just for the fact of a field on fire.
My ex-boyfriend boarded the bus the next morning and I saw his face as a stranger might. He looked handsome, older. Not knowing I was on the bus, he hadn’t prepared his face into one I never quite liked, and this face—a man on the way to work, looking for an empty seat—I found I liked. He didn’t see me. For a long time I had wanted to say something to him, and this time on the bus seemed the time I had waited for, but I stared ahead and got off at my stop, near my office.
Several years back I went on a train ride to visit a man I was in love with. I told Henry I had been waiting a long time to make such a gesture, believing there were only two or three chances in life when one can take such a risk. I was with the man for a week and then went back on the train, through Texas, which I remember lasting for many days, while I sat in the observation car, at first feeling close to this gesture and then, as the train went along, feeling further away, though I still kept contact with it, and believed I would for as long as I was on the train.
Before I came here I went on another train trip to visit cities I might live in. I picked out two to three potential cities. Perhaps the question isn’t why I’m not living in any of these cities, but why there aren’t more cities one could live in. For my next train trip I would like to visit minor cities, cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh that you wouldn’t otherwise think to travel to.
A drama had once occurred in one of the shacks, though we knew little about it. One night we were invited for dinner, and walking home we discussed what might have happened. To tell an event from its repercussions is mostly a matter of sense, of sensing the insides of someone, looking not for openings, but for dark spaces clustered too closely together. I felt love that had been complicated. That had been lost, but lost only for one of them, and that it was probably his love for her. Though it’s hard to tell. It’s not true that it’s easier to move on if you’re the one who has fallen out of love. Falling out of love made me feel like a woman without any money left. During dinner we had listened to the radio, as someone had been lost at sea. In the morning they would be found, but we didn’t know this then, and shared the fear they might not be, as we tried to enjoy this, our last meal together.
And if you say it is better to have loved and lost, does this lend itself to more phrases? Is it better to have set sail and lost? Better to have moved to another country and lost? And even then, in these situations, do we not infer love, as if it’s the only possible thing to lose?
I once lived on an island three miles out to sea. We couldn’t see the island from the shacks and I was glad for this, as the island had been beautiful, but it was now impossible for me to go there, for I no longer knew the people who lived there. My letters remained unanswered. I tried to find the ferry but I couldn’t remember where it was. After this island there was another island. One day I rode their ferry out, standing when we approached my island. I had thought this would satisfy me in some way. We rode the length of it. Saw three houses facing out of deep woods. Thin wooden docks stretching into the water. It was seeing a family home in a dream and knowing there was no way to get there. I stood the whole time, fumbling with a camera. If the other passengers noticed, they didn’t say anything. It’s monstrous, these things we do to ourselves because we haven’t thought something through well enough.
The other island had once been a leper colony and was now a boy’s home. It was a bald island. No trees. Nothing but a hill rising from water. Birds darting everywhere. They gave me many things on this island: videos of the work they were doing, a book, lunch, a tour. We had two hours to wander after, fighting the claustrophobia and panic that these boys endured every day while they cut logs for the fire. In the end we looked for rocks on the shore while waiting for the ferry.
There was a small isthmus on the island, roped off because of nesting petrels. This had been an ongoing situation for many years, I was told on the tour. The problem was the gulls that darted everywhere, making the sky ripple like the ocean. They had prevented the petrels from nesting. Something of the anxiety of birds was explained to me. The government had sent a man to shoot down the gulls, and poison was also attempted, but you can imagine the problem of the bloody birds. Finally the man camped in a tent and at night played the sounds of gulls in distress and occasionally shot off fireworks.
Not long ago I spent the day with an ex-lover and another man, a man whom I had never gone out with but had feelings for. Because it was a visit to a different town, there were several restaurants and cups of tea involved, which meant there were many fortunes. If this continues on I’ll have it all figured out, I told the ex-lover, as he made me another cup of tea. And yet by the end of the day I had lost all the fortunes, and would only find them later, scattered in different pockets.
He was an artist, which also meant parking lots with sculptures that moved in the wind. These too felt as if they could tell me something, but what they were saying was less clear.
All this aloneness has taken some time to get used to, and time, too, to get over these lovers we have lost. It’s a wonder there’s ever time to find new ones.
Henry used to leave in the morning with a thermos of coffee and another of soup and a bottle of wine. He would take a notebook and his camera and would walk the fire roads to see the whales. I never learned where these roads were, though I could have asked. It seemed useful for him to have a world separate from mine. He found a place to watch the whales and described it to me. A canal that cut near the lighthouse and was so deep that the whales came up close. They would lie near him, some of them turning on their sides, touching the water with their fins.
There was a woman from town who came to the dunes to look for seashells and scavenge for mushrooms. They said she ate mostly from what she found—cranberries, clams, the mushrooms—but that since her mother had grown sick, she had to travel to be with her and was often gone. You can reach a point where you think you won’t fall in love again, not because the options aren’t there, but because the inconstancy is no longer something your heart desires. I had thought she might teach me to mushroom, but only passed her once, in town, in the dark, when she was coming back from taking care of her mother.
I once knew a man who kept goats with other friends. He had thought to make money selling goat’s milk, but the goats came down with some sort of disease. The man thought perhaps syphilis. Others thought he couldn’t take care of the goats and tried to take them away. The man said he was able to keep the goats, but perhaps these people were right after all. After a time the goats got their heads stuck in a chain-link fence and died that way.
Sometimes it seems the places I’ve lived the longest, and the things that I’ve worked for, have disappeared in a way I wouldn’t have guessed. And the places I’ve lived for a short time, places where not even my furniture came with me, or places where I’ve never lived, have remained with me, perhaps because I needed nothing from what I found this way. That our natural state is motion, is bodies in transit. Or movement fascinates me in the way it erases so much, and what stays with us—one person that we loved, a house, the way the ocean looked—apart from all that change, all that time filled up, sometimes seems a way in which it might be possible to exist.
Anytime I have, even for a moment, done something right, I’ll immediately try to repeat it, and it will become the wrong thing, made useless by repetition. It’s only the surprise of the moment, which isn’t something we can contain or plan for, and yet life requires some sort of planning, something beyond the instant.
I’ve sometimes said that after my next affair, I’ll move to another city rather than stay in the same city with this person. When you lose someone, and they stay in the same city, they can feel like a phantom, something you see that doesn’t actually exist. In this other city, seeing them will be impossible. It’s creating a city in their absence, and, in this way, the other city will always be better.
Before I left we went walking in the dunes. It was an exploration of what we would mean to each other later. Sometimes it takes years to find this out—what we won’t be able to let go of, what will cause us pain as we understand what we’ve done wrong. We wanted a quicker way, so we went walking in the dunes in the snow, which was like being lost in the desert for many years. We got stuck in the cranberry bogs. Both of us caught our ankles in ice, telling the other to go forth, to get help. Our knit things blowing in the wind. What did we find out? Very little. That we loved each other, that we thought getting stuck in ankle-deep ice to be a funny thing, the way you couldn’t tell if it was ice or snow until you stepped down, and how funny it was that the bogs seemed to go much further than what we had remembered when we had come, the month before, to pick cranberries for a sauce.
Sara Majka’s stories have been published in A Public Space, The Gettysburg Review, and The Massachusetts Review. In 2016, A Public Space and Graywolf Press will publish her debut story collection. She lives in Queens.