Friday, February 01, 2008

that feeling of safety you prize

Though I have been hesitant to say I am fine, especially now that my lungs feel as though a slab of iron has been strewn across them, I realized that I needed to go back. I needed to go back and remember. I want to remember.

It was a Sunday morning. The sun was filtering through the stylish wooden shades. I was idly passing my fingers along the books on E's shelf. He had a large collection of the works of Albert Schweitzer, I noted, though at the time I was completely unfamiliar with the author. E was considerably older than me, and occasionally I got the feeling that his apartment was all an attempt to project a kind of affected worldliness. The masks from Africa hanging on the wall in the den come to mind. These books I thought to be more of the same.

That was pure speculation, of course. When it came right down to it, we did not know each other very well. And I can quite safely say that neither of us lost any sleep over that. Neither of us were particularly keen to figure the other one out, to delve into each other's insides, take them apart and put them back together again. We were content to occupy the same sphere and let each other be.

Occasionally, though, we teased each other. Like when E expressed his bewilderment that I could find Morphine a good band (I still stand by that, for the record). And like that morning, when I saw the yellowed tomes in his library and asked E if they'd come with the shelves. It seemed like the sort of books you'd see in a furniture store- the kinds no one ever actually read, but certainly complimented the aesthetic.

And just as I had called him an unimaginative jazz & blues snob for his derision of Morphine, he had arched at my dismissal of Schweitzer. I did not know at the time that I had pushed a button. At the time, E seemed to me perfectly satisfied to live his days out in this well-appointed apartment, make his living, eat good meals and drink good scotch.

As I said, we did not know each other very well.

He had not read me the riot act exactly. We never fought. Ours was not that sort of thing. The misstep was just noted and then I became attentive, becasue, and this is what I always liked about E, he told a good story. When he told me about Schweitzer, in all of Schweitzer's multi-faceted glory, I was charmed. It wasn't so much that I thought E was going to do mission work in Africa, or that he was going to record music, or become a physician. But I could see, just then, for a moment, what he was trying to show me. It was the closest we ever got, that blink-and-you'll-miss-it seemingly meaningless conversation.

Funny really. I could refer you to those who know me and they would tell you E had little effect on me one way or another. Many of those people, who know me so well, might even tell you they'd never even heard of this E. And while, on some level, that reflects an absolute truth, it is equally undeniable that E had a lasting, shocking impact.

If you had asked E, never in a million years would he have predicted that I would have actually absorbed what he was trying to show me. He was not trying to influence me, after all. What's more, when he knew me, I was 22 years old, a straight arrow with a trajectory that seemed more like a tidal wave, so unstoppable and predestined did it seem. I had imagined life as a linear, step-wise process, which was probably why I could toil away in an organic synthesis lab for years without tiring of it. My whole life had been planned, in my head. I had a clear idea of what I was going to do, and where, and by when. Even taking a year off to work had seemed like a failing until I had collected enough data that indicated that it was a perfectly acceptable, conventional route to graduate school. So, if you had asked me, the 22-year old version of me, if I had been moved by what E had shown me, I would have simply shrugged and said, eh, good for him.

E, of course, lived up to his vision, that life need not remain static, that there is no such thing as stalling out. I, like a pinball, bounced- first straight, then banging around chaotically in a panic until I remembered, one jarring September day, that collection of books on E's shelf. And how it was time to start going for the possibilities rather than assuming that kind of reckless abandonment was reserved for the free-spirited sorts like E.

We did not know each other very well. But I think he might have saved my life.

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