Sojourner (Back in New York City)

from by Lee Foust

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A traveler loses track of time and place for a night.



You arrive and it’s spring, windy and green and the fever keeps you warm and sweating into it, without sleep. Living on fear and wonder and the freedom of not having to care about sleep for a day or two. You’re feeling strong after all that pain, but a little lost in all this familiarity. It seems long ago now that you belonged here and were always suspicious of its hold on you. Like sleep itself, you wake up in a strange bed and then remember, slowly, opening your eyes, that they’re all strange now, now that your link to sleep has been laid this slack.

You’re a tetherball, you decide, chipped off the knuckles, waiting to be brought down by gravity, heedless of your tether yet locked into an orbit for obscure reasons. Did it ever matter? Sleep? its locale? your partner in it? Was it ever anything other than a frame for the mirror holding your reflection, your various self-constructions? A nest in which you hatch yourself and from which you then fly?

You suppose you’ve come here for this: for the memory of so many constructive reflections, for the professional good cheer. Because sometimes you can only find the mirror by tracing the way its frame outlines the oblivion that may otherwise be divided solely by the gray border between sleeping and waking.

All these people passing, wanting to be admired without being looked at, without being seen.

* * *

It’s different because your native defensive hostility’s gone now, calmed by that European lack of liberty’s kick-ass rhetoric that makes people laugh instead of scream at their neighbors. All those things done in desperation that should have been done in jest. So your old friends chip away at you, happy to see that innocent need of re-instruction in your eyes as they needle you into sync with their own disappointments, which they’ve already termed tragedies, until they tap the universal vein of sorrow and can welcome you into the sacred circle of suffering either as an enemy or as a friend that they can resent as not as pitiful—or as deserving of pity—as they themselves. It would seem that they hate loved ones and strangers equally as they taunt us with their need to step on our toes harder and harder to make sure that we know that they’re there.

There was never any doubt. Only they're taking tragic pleasure, now, in the comradeship of our resigned groans.

* * *

And love is somehow more real sunk within the pause, in the somnambulism, without an accepted rhetoric or a pillow on which to rest its head. Love is the secret behind all coming and going. No amount of staring turns it out.

* * *

You begin losing things, getting confused; wandering in the streets you so often trod with purpose before. That was another of your nine lives, you decide, when your home was in another person, when you weren’t just visiting. It’s that easy to get locked out, to forget your borrowed keys, to have to kill a whole night with coffee and cigarettes—if you can find a place to smoke them.

It’s easy to blunder permanently into an uninvited acquaintance with one of these places of transit: a hallway in which you wait, a stoop upon which you sit, the greasy spaces of the grill behind the counter at Veselka Café. And, when you come to know these spaces, their resilience is astounding, their independence above and beyond our hurried passing, and we find their apparent consternation with movement of any kind disconcerting at best.

Two goodfellows pass, talking about time: a specific time that had been confused for the same time of another day, or an a.m. exchanged for the same hour p.m. You’d think, listening to them, that clarification could always be that simple, before or after the brightest moment of the day or the darkest moment of the night, a specific point on a discrete scale demarcating all of the incremental differences of the same proceedings. But our loves, our homes, their feelings and house keys, escape us. We wander familiar streets in a new daze, not looking for the things that we’ve mislaid but waiting for them not to matter anymore.

These are problems best solved with the solution of attempted indifference, committed deferral, a calculated ignorance of the situation’s gravity. Nothing to be done but not doing—the wind will eventually unfurl the flags of our consciousness of its passing—and to wait for things to undo themselves, to loosen like the string that we knotted in our haste to get ready, not to be late.

* * *

Objects get in their way, those who look too hard and strut drunkenly through Veselka’s on their way to the bathroom: counter stools, Sunday papers spilling off of tables, leaning mop handles. Objects are vindictive of those who, locked in to movement, believe themselves powerful. Objects invite us into the flow of the universe, demand attention, reflection and, ultimately, recognition. Perception alone isn’t quick enough to protect us from all of the objects that we put in each other’s way.

* * *

Distance collapses after four a.m. The fringes move in closer as the night slows down, and the losses loom larger and more irretrievable than ever, as the left hand of injury—or the recompense for the injuries that you have caused—begins to ache at your side. The sky turns blue, darkly, despite all of these predicaments, shifting locations and, finally, these scribbled locutions. Although one spends most of these transitory waiting-room hours praying for just this kind of symbolic event, they pass unremarkably and are only the tiniest twists in the unraveling of the knot. And knots are so easily tied, so easily bungled into when you’re in a hurry and nervous.

* * *

But one comes back into time as well, always comes back into the here and now from out of the waiting room. That’s the force of our construction of time. We always only digress, digress and return, return and stay. Sleep comes back with exhaustion and hunger, builds us a home as a haven against traveling, against lingering too long in the past, and all of the homes we've since been forced to vacate.

The trials of your distracted carelessness are almost over. You’re walking towards the door now. You want all the doors to open for you; you’d like to open up the windows as well. Once again your dwelling is sleeping beside another human being—and though you were not wrong to have trusted in the past, now you are more trusting than ever and this will assure the triumph of sleep over you, the rest you will need to be able to go on into strange lands again without being afraid.



from Sputnik, released March 11, 2016


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Lee Foust Florence, Italy

Lee Foust is an author and performer from Oakland, California who has lived in Florence, Italy since the mid-1990s. He teaches for various US universities abroad and is the father of one. Lee is the author of Sojourner, a collection of short stories and poems about the mystery of place, and Poison and Antidote, 9 Bohemian tales of San Francisco during the Reagan era. ... more

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