I can no longer remember certain things about the past. Faces dissolve…. A gentle touch… gone like a candle blown out by the wind. There are still shapes in the fog…. A sort of pestering form in the darkness. I can still remember the disjointed rattling of the el train as it passes by my window. I can still remember the sensation of familiar voices in the street… scenes of sidewalks buttressed with snow, and cars buried underneath… smoothed over by the dim orange street lights. These things remain with me.
The time is gone to me now… beyond reach. Yet, its remembrance is suffused with rich melancholic hues…. It all seems better, or at least easier, to forget. Ideas, like pages ripped out and cast into flames, have dissipated… their effect no longer distinct, their totality lost. Only corners… disjointed corners remain. But, I still feel their importance… with all the desperation of one caught in a flood.
All these places have merged in my remembrances. An alleyway, still cobbled, at the edge of the macadam… in Philadelphia… or San Francisco. A motel room, the walls yellow from smoke, the TV glowing with white noise… somewhere in the north woods. An apartment looking over Broad or Main Street. A bar across the street, where crowds mill about outside smoking cigarettes. A path in the woods, up the side of Snowy or Haystack Mountain… which, I can’t remember. My brown leather shoes, pacing across the ashen grey sidewalk, casting long shadows across the pavement.
I have rest my weary head too many places. They have all become the same upon waking. I no longer know one from the other. Each seems unlikely… too much like a dream… and I am troubled by the lost time.
I am restless now, and I wish to repeat certain things… if only to myself… to be sure they are real. I don’t know how much longer any of this may go on. After all, it was maybe ten years ago since…. I’m not even sure now… perhaps it never was. It seems a ghost to me….
I had been living near the ocean… at the far end of Rezanoff, near Fort Abercrombie. For weeks on end it would rain. I can still see the dense fog, the mountains lost behind it… the eerie, constant turning of the wind turbines on Barometer Peak… the puttering engine of the 4 pm plane coming in.
Kodiak is an isolating place. Only really Coast Guard and fishermen. I would walk up Rezanoff to the bar, drizzling rain ever falling. In the square, ancient looking Alutiiq natives lined up around the welfare office… neither menacing nor friendly. The bar was filled with dim light, and bearded men lined the counter drinking pints. The fishing ships hadn’t yet put out for the late summer salmon runs, and all the men got drunk while waiting.
When the fog broke enough from the wind coming in off the ocean, you could just make out the blue domes and triple crosses of the Church of the Holy Resurrection. It’s one of the oldest Russian Orthodox Churches in the United States…. A reminder of who got here first. Somehow, there seemed to be a lingering presence of the Russian Empire on the archipelago… hermetic cabins, deep in the woods, emblazoned with the triple cross…. Monks in long robes and Rasputin beards pacing the grounds. The only thing truly American were the sailors.
Somehow Aida was always present at the bar. She was 22, with dark hair and fair, freckled skin. Her eyes were light blue, almost grey like the fog. Her husband was a fisherman. I kiddingly asked her once; how could she put up with the smell of dead fish when he came home. “He stinks like money,” she said.
She was the kind of woman who had grown up around men, so she tried to be tough like the men. She would cut firewood in her husband’s absence, even refusing her father’s help. She was fiercely independent, in a way many people only pretend to be.
Growing up in Alaska was a tough life, I gathered…. Once, while walking the trails on Near Island, she told me about how her father used to be a fisherman. While out in the Gulf of Alaska his boat was capsized from a stiff, high-pressure wind. This was common. The winds came off the back side of the tall peaks, blowing down across the water at over 100 miles an hour. All the fisherman knew this; they said you could see it a long way off…. But, by the time you’d see it, it was too late…. His boat got caught, nets in the water, with a heavy load on the wrong side.
The coast guard called Aida, asking if she knew any reason why his emergency beacon may have sent out a signal…. “Some reason that would not be an emergency, you mean?” She asked the dispatcher…. She suggested, strongly I imagine, that they mobilize the search.
For three days, she didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. When he came home, he didn’t buy another boat. He became a welder. The only one on the island.
She was standing in the background, on the other side of the bar, talking tough with the sailors—most of whom, it seemed, knew her father. When she noticed me, she smiled and waved…. I waved back but didn’t go over. I just went back to resting my chin on the palm of my hand, and having a staring contest with my beer. When she finished the conversation, she came around the bar to where I was sitting.
“Why so glum, chum?” She joked in a hoarse, raspy voice… patting me on the back the way working men do.
“I’ve decided to leave,” I said, almost ignoring her attempt at humor, but cracking a half-smile to let her know I had caught the attempt.
“I can’t say I’m terribly surprised,” she said. “But why are you sad then? I thought you wanted to go home?”
“I always get sad leaving,” I said. “It’s like all the things you took for granted, or failed to fully appreciate, remind you that they’re there….”
“It’s not like you’ve been particularly happy here…. Won’t it be better?”
“Yes, I’m sure it will be…. Once I get over it.”
“Tell you what, I’ll write you letters so you can remember how much this place sucks!” We both laughed, and I took a long drink off my pint.
“It’s been nice to have you around,” she said, looking at me over her glass, which she held in front of her face with both hands.
“Bullshit it has,” I scoffed. “I’m a regular ray of sunshine….”
“No it has. But I understand… You miss your old life… You miss…”
“Yea… Caitlin…. I do miss her.” It was a sore spot. I didn’t really want to talk about it, so I stuck only to what was vaguely true. “Don’t you miss Sam when he goes away?” I asked.
“I do… But I keep myself busy. I don’t let it get me so upset. But, then again he isn’t 3,000 miles away.”
“No, but what he does is pretty dangerous. Don’t you ever worry that what happened with your dad could happen with him?”
She looked suddenly distant when I said that, and I felt immediately that I shouldn’t have brought it up. It was a journalist’s question… one of disinterested fascination.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No. It’s fine. I just try not to think about it. It’s kind of a way of life around here. If I had a penny for everyone I’ve ever heard of disappearing in a float plane, or not coming back from sea…. But, you get a thick skin… You have to.”
“Yea, I guess so.”
“When do you leave?”
“Tonight’s my last night…. Tomorrow I leave on the 4 pm.”
“Yea…” I said. I suddenly felt drunk.
I motioned to the bartender and settled up. Aida settled up too. We went out of the bar and wandered around somewhat aimlessly in the fog. I felt nervous somehow, like so much wasn’t being said… Like a lot of it shouldn’t be. Sometimes we walked in silence. I could feel her standing next to me without looking at her. It felt strange.
We walked past the church. I admired its Russian domes, all carved of Sitka spruce. “I’ve always liked this place,” I said.
“The island?” she glanced at me, confused.
“Well, the island is nice, but I meant the church. It’s been standing in this place since we were fighting our revolution, bottled up on the other coast. We hardly even knew it was here.”
“It still feels that way sometimes.”
We walked up Kashavaroff and back down Rezanoff towards Mill Bay, where I lived. There was a fog horn sounding periodically. It reminded me of the Presidio in San Francisco…. All of that seemed so far in the past. Years past.
It was a long time before we came to the house. It was a drab-brown chalet style house, with a wraparound porch and a large window facing the ocean. It appeared to blend in with the Sitka spruces that surrounded it. We were shivering from the wet fog, and I invited her in to sit by the stove while I packed. She came in and sat down on the bed.
“It almost doesn’t seem right,” she started, “that they brought you out here to do the story on the oil spill.”
“What do you mean? Somebody had to write it.”
“Yea, but for three months? That’s long enough to start a life… to start to feel like you belong somewhere.” She drawled the world ‘belong’, as though it held some special fascination.
“Unless you’re like I am,” I said.
“What? You don’t ever start to get attached?”
“I do, but only once I’m about to leave. That has nothing to do with time…. I’ve missed places and even people after a day. Most of them I’ve never seen again…. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time…. I’ve lived in just about every city at one point or another. While I’m there, I never really feel like I belong. I just feel like an interloper. It’s only right when I’m leaving… then I start to miss everyone…. Before they’re ever even gone really.”
“Have you tried to keep in contact with anyone?” She leaned back against the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It seemed like a loaded question.
“No,” I said, kneeling on the floor, fussing with odds and ends… shoving them into my suitcase. “Keeping in contact makes it worse. You start to regret where you are, and where you have to go…. You just wish you were in that place again. I try to only feel that way as long as I have to. I try not to prolong it….”
“I understand.” She said.
She seemed to be somewhere far off…. Thinking of Sam on some boat somewhere, I imagined.
“If you actually did write me, I would write back,” I said, somewhat sheepishly.
“No, nobody writes anymore,” she said. I got up off the floor and sat at the edge of the bed, feeling worn out.
“I have appreciated my time here…” I said. “It’s weird to say it. It would’ve been harder if you hadn’t been around….” A long silence passed between us. The gulf seemed unbridgeable….
“I think I got married too young,” she said. “It’s part of this place. But, then, you can’t ever leave.”
“You would want to leave? This place seems so much a part of you,” I said.
“Sometimes. I mean it is home…. It’s a hard place to get back to, so I just stay.”
“It must be nice to feel grounded… Like there’s a place that is home,” I said.
“What’s Caitlin like?” She asked abruptly, still looking at the ceiling.
“She’s alright, I guess….”
“Alright?” she screwed her eyes up a bit, sounding incredulous… like she couldn’t quite place the remark. After a moment she said, “You seemed to miss her…. Isn’t she the reason you’re such a miserable bastard?”
“No, honestly, it hasn’t been that exactly.”
“You don’t miss her, then?”
“I don’t even know if things are working out,” I said, not really grasping the weight of it. “But, I feel like I should be there… whatever that means.”
“To try and fix it?”
“No…” I said, trying to find the right words. “To try and end it. To try and start over from scratch… find a… place that feels like home….” I must have sounded a bit cruel, but I had put a lot of thought into that. Things were not going well before I left. They hadn’t improved while I was gone. I wrote her letters, but never got any in return. I started to feel the distance.
“I don’t know, at your age, that you can just find a place that feels like home. It doesn’t work like that…. It takes having had the time to attach all your memories to a place. You can’t just make one.”
“Sometimes I get to thinking I feel that way about my town, but then I get there and I wonder what the hell made me so homesick. I always think I miss my friends, but I get there and none of them live there anymore, or they have jobs and don’t have time anymore…. The things I idealized to myself are all gone. I’ve been to a lot of different places, and none of them felt like home either. I keep hoping one day I’ll just have that feeling, you know? Like the nostalgia you get for a place when you are idealizing how it used to be. I imagine that to be what home feels like.”
Aida was no longer staring at the ceiling. Her eyes had closed, but she wasn’t asleep. I gently touched her shoulder, pretending to try and wake her. It seemed like the best way to break the silence. She reached up and trailed her hand along my arm, until it reached my shoulder. She pulled me towards her. I pulled away weakly. “What about Sam?” I whispered. She pulled me more urgently and kissed me deeply.
In the night, she left while it was still foggy. I wanted her to stay until I had to go, but I understood that she wouldn’t… or couldn’t. When the light came up, I went to the café for the last time, and watched the morning plane come in. I decided to climb Barometer one more time. It was early August, but already it smelled like fall. There was a persistent chill to the air. The peaks, which remained snow-capped year round, had received a fresh coating overnight. I got up to the snowline, and it became difficult to walk in the slushy wet snow.
From the top you could see all of Chiniak Bay. It was a clear-blue day. The blue was punctuated only by the white-caps, which went on as far as you can see. Out past the town there was nothing. No roads, no houses… just mountains, alpine meadows and stunted Sitka spruce. Looking out at it was like looking at the farthest reach of civilization.
The plane came in on time. I watched it swing around the mountains, wobbling back and forth on its wings. I had hoped Aida might come to the airport to see me off, but she didn’t. I knew there wouldn’t be any letters. I just hoped to say goodbye. To stamp something firm and final on the whole thing.
The plane took off at five. I took a seat by the propeller, so I could watch that tiny island disappear.