There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. ~ The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
I am used to the hole he left behind. Familiar with its shape I know it has substance. At the bottom of the well there is depth. Weight. I’m used to carrying it around and can show you how the slope of my shoulders has altered, changed, because of it. I notice when the space is void of essence, painfully vacuous in all its nothingness, and have learned how to drag the mess around when becomes filled with immovable slag, still smouldering ashes and the thick resonance of want.
The thing is, he is gone. Long, long, gone. My rational mind knows that because I saw the box containing his body go up in flames. I know the form he once took no longer exists. Shape shifted, transformed, he moved from flesh and bones to fire and the crackle of soot before settling into particles we refer to as dust.
I have the death certificate to prove it but there are still times when I cannot be sure, second guessing myself because it’s what humans do, we’re gifted at it, but also because of the way the man to my left throws his head back to laugh. Or how the one behind me sucks the air through his teeth, the wind whistling through enamel a message only I can hear. Although this déjà-vu is subtle and jarring it still takes me, without my permission, to places that only exist in the past tense. Lost locales littered with the relics of nostalgia and homesickness. Places that can never be returned to because they no longer exist. We can’t go back because they, possibly, never did.
Such occurrences have taken place with such regularity that I spend an absurd amount of time thinking about the paranormal. Is it real? Do ghosts exist? I contemplate the middle ground between here and beyond especially when the timbre of the man’s voice (the one who stepped on the D train two stops ago) hits my ears. It’s my father, and he sits so close that he is within reach. I’ll lean in and close my eyes. I’ll lean back and contort my face. Either way I will be rattled by the pitch of the voice that has dislodged the base of my soul from its very foundation. I’ll grow unhinged from seeing someone I used to know reflected in the faces of people passing by.
The other day it happened as I was on my way to Whole Foods. Cutting through the midday heat I ignored humidity’s hand on the small of my back and pulled my cart behind me. I crossed Atlantic Ave. and took small side street that led to Gowanus. I wiped my brow, held up my hand, shielded my eyes from the sun. Trundling past the slower moving pedestrians, I kept them on my right as I passed on the left.
But then a cloud passed overhead. A fly sped past my ear. Something in the air changed, and when I looked to my left I saw him, shuffling less than a block ahead. His spindly legs sliding beneath him. The aura recognisable, known to me. Home. The familiarity that hit me was so irrefutable it nearly forced me to my knees. I slowed my pace and drew in a breath. I cocked my head to the right because that’s the best angle to see things with the heart.
His height was about right as was his physique, those long lines encased by that burnished mahogany skin. And then there was the white shirt with the red piping detail and the khaki slacks–at least one size too big. His shoes, non-descript black trainers, looked like they were comfortable, albeit worn and overused. And that fedora atop his head…it was a dead ringer for the one my father used to sport every Sunday to the races. Without seeing his face I knew it was him.
Snap. Snap. Thwack. What you don’t learn in school is the heart’s capacity to swell and crack like a thick rubber band. I saw this man and my thoughts spun, my palms perspired. My arteries constricted and my chest grew tight. I chased down the man’s shadow because there were so many things I needed to say. But as I closed in on his outline I felt my soul start to drift. Solid lines turned wavy, my certainty became hazy, and the darkness gave way to grayscale and then patches of light. I needed something to anchor myself to so I squinted, which only made my apparition more vivid; and the departed, in that split second, returned.
There he was. My father, in all his former glory. I found him in the curve of an arm and tight wind of a hair follicle. He was present in the awkward lift of a broken hip and the skip of an aluminium cane on the sidewalk beside him. He was there all right, in the flick of a wrist and bobble of the head, and while my rational mind knew (it knew, it knew, it knows) better I preferred to believe what I think I saw, which was: my father. He there, at least until I closed the gap and exhaled. He was there until the wind shifted and the sun sank another degree. He was there until the humidity rose another percent. He was there blistering under the sun right next to me.
I pulled alongside him, the clickety-clack of my shopping cart complimenting the unfinished crescendo of emotion splashing against my ribcage. I knew then I would cry, burst into tears, if I lingered: there was too much memory in this stranger’s mannerisms. All the reminders that felt like connective tissue, they were that
familiar familial. Even the way he sang softly to himself was a mnemonic device–accents from the Caribbean are impossible to forget–and so I strode by as quickly as my feet would carry me. I refused to sneak a peek from the corner of my eye.
Only when I crossed the road did I give into my compulsion to have a look. I curved my neck slowly and broke all the rules. I held my breath and waited for recognition to strike. But the man’s head never lifted. His gaze always seemed to be steady, on his feet. The old man’s wide brimmed hat threw all manner of shadows across his face and, locked in his own world, he trundled along, every step deliberate, as he pressed on to everywhere that was not here.
I waited on my side of the road and watched him approach the corner and pause before turning. The stoplights flashed. Red man. Yellow light. A flash of green. White man. Walk! The old man took a sharp left while the rest of the pedestrian traffic slammed into me like a high tide that was a long time coming. I watched him keep his head down and a touch to the right, preventing me from seeing his face. And I stood, I stood, sweating, squinting and craning, as I watched my mid-summer hallucination shuffle on his way to everywhere. All those very real spaces he needed to be.
When he disappeared from view I bit my lip. I turned back to front and didn’t bother wiping away the sweat that scrolled through my brow into my eye. I didn’t hold up my hand to block sunlight. I instead tethered my soul back to its foundation before continuing on my way, walking in the direction of all the places I was to turn up.
The very real spaces I ought to be.
*Photo credit to: http://malecodependence.com/category/aging/.