For When I’m Not by Thomas Larson

This campus I’m walking through, once my undergraduate home, has tripled in size, as much up as out. Its new luxury condos loom above treeless sidewalks. Star-blocking apartment units squat on land once lazily humped by parking lots, Camrys and Accords now garaged underneath.

There, in an Italian restaurant/bar, where a jug band played every Thursday, a space-station-like admin-building has landed, glass-enclosed, a Chronos humming. Farther on, beside a six-story research lab, passels of students in football T’s, the black and the gold, recount in echoing swats their agony that the team, unbeaten till today, has lost. An alarm bleeps, a beer can rolls, and three pony-tailed blondes, their backwards-capped dates behind them, clop by.

Ahead, an aquarium-lighted Taco Bell stands on the corner where a park once lay, and there a friend told me he believed (we were twenty-one) that I, an avid journal-writer (even then I had the auto-bio-graphic bug), would record my life.

To Waugh Street I go, still a block of unlit blue-black dark. At #126, upstairs, I rented the back room, $25 a month my sophomore year, one of the hair-long horde, an English major, who spent Saturday nights easy-chaired beside my desk, out of the boom-box dorms, no more in loco parentis. There, I queried Blake’s “London” in my Norton anthology, those tissue-thin pages, my pencil jots surrounding the poem whose rein-holding syntax began,

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

I fell big for the doom-truth of Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles,” the chimney sweep’s cry, the soldier’s sigh, the harlot’s curse: my stupid marriage, five years hence, was already hearsed. Mired in his spell, I hustled to the porch, and down the stairs, and onto the grass, this grass where I stand now, to expunge his nihilistic wonder. It didn’t work. Nothing changed and nothing changes. So back in I went to bedevil our world-withdrawing self, to finish the paper, (I am still finishing the paper, still use writing to possess what time won’t keep), and tonight, forty-five years on, I find this man racked in that younger man—a jingle-jangle I announce to the mute home, to the soupy air, to the side yard’s fallen elm, lightning’s lucky twist, to the tavern wolves, howling again at TV screens in the distance, feeling someone should know or maybe just hear that my life’s bow was strung in that room in this house on Waugh, where Blake cursed what would become of me.

And what was that?

One who mattered, who mattered not.

How trite! How true!

Like the teenage atheist I met not long ago who fears the dwindling updates that will follow her death, whose insufficient bandwidth will not maintain and remember her—she posted, she replied, she had a face in a box, and her likes will go unchecked.

I can’t believe I’d die, she told me, and have no life-after on earth.

But if I negotiate the moment now, I cannot say—and can’t pretend to—that I should be troubled by this house/that room/his poem determining the rest of me.

When I’m not.

So much of so few hours is left, and I can’t attend the past, its memorial bunting draped endlessly down main street, fare forward the horses sway and forgotten buck. My life wants me to feel what happened then is happening now.

When I don’t.

In its place I let the myth mount my worry.

Claude Levi-Strauss said that every myth is driven by the need to solve a paradox that cannot be solved.

Which columns one of many whys I’ve come. To visit my oldest college friend whose cancer treatments have unmanacled his mind, who tells me—after we talk half the night, half his stomach gone—and just before he shuts the bathroom door:

That first day I was infused, I went home and lay on the couch and was so sick I hoped I’d die. How much I begged death to come. But it wouldn’t. No matter how much I begged, death would not come. But I didn’t die that day or the next or the next even though the poison was supposed to kill me. I told the nurse that so long as she didn’t kill me I would come back for as long as it took until she did.

We had a good laugh at that, and then she stuck the needle in.

 

Thomas Larson—critic, memoirist, and journalist—is the author of The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University. He holds workshops on memoir writing as well as delivers multimedia talks on Samuel Barber, the musicians of the Titanic, the craft of nonfiction writing, the ‘social author’ in the digital age, and his heart disease, throughout the United States. His essay series, “The Social Author,” is ongoing at Guernica: one essay in the series, “The Digital Bible,” was featured Nov 2013 at NPR’s On the Media.