I Want to Believe We All are Full
for Hayley Brown
So maybe no one will ever ask
what I was doing when Notre Dame burned.
No one’s asked yet. It happened yesterday.
I was reading. I was reading a bad article.
Or a decent one that was making me feel bad.
One or the other. I could lie:
I don’t want to talk about it.
I could lie: I don’t remember.
Pretending not to know, the easiest
kind of lying. Strange we all knew
what to say—the people on the news,
the people on my Facebook feed. Oh, I was there,
once. Remember when. Recall the scene in movies
by him and him. Remember that summer you tried
to read Victor Hugo and gave up? We’ve all given up.
Or think we have. But then, all of a sudden, we know
what to say: It’s like we have these gated channels
we didn’t know about. Or maybe we’d forgotten,
on purpose. Partially filled. Or full enough. Our fingers wrapped
around the lever, the one that controls the gate,
even though we thought our fingers were up to something
else, like playing the piano or doing that intricate thing
of getting a half-inch piece of invisible tape
from the dispenser and onto the paper
hiding the gift. Brian Williams was persuasive:
Not just a France thing. Not just a Catholic thing.
A World Thing. A Culture Thing.
I drank up the casual elegance of an art historian,
a former Paris news bureau chief, a firefighter.
Three times a year I burn brush
on my basketball court. Holy moleskins! that sentence
put me at an angle
to myself. Why do I have a basketball court
in my backyard? How do I explain what I own?
Or claim to own? Or claim?
The article was “Four Signs You’re in a Healthy Relationship.”
I found something missing in every sign.
There’s a moment when I’m burning the brush pile,
which right now is everything I’ve collected
over the winter—the Christmas tree,
the branches that have fallen from the old trees,
from those trees I’ve neglected to trim
because it’s expensive (and I do know
it’s better to pay a man a thousand dollars today
than to watch a branch impale my two-year-old
tomorrow). There’s a moment when I’m burning
the brush pile when I know the fire
is in control. I’ve urged it along. I’ve created it,
I guess you could say. Then it takes over.
I’m holding the garden hose, thumb as gate,
spraying into the smoke, cooling the flyaways,
the floating embers. I’m trying
to be a good neighbor. I do not want
to set any house afire
or watch as the wind does.
Apparently my house once housed a youth group.
Or they met there. A former owner a pastor, maybe.
Young people. Christians. Basketball.
I don’t know. It’s just a story I heard.
But when the fire becomes itself, it’s like,
well, it’s like skiing,
or maybe drinking beer from a funnel,
or maybe getting the spine chills
when a certain person looks at you.
Oh my. Oh my new capaciousness.
Possibilities bloom—and then ask for more.
And in asking they’re telling me, too: Be afraid.
It’s all right to fear this. The light gets multiplied,
even as it’s refracted, another name for diminished.
Maybe it’s like a vegetarian going to the shooting range
with the husband of the woman
he’s only recently convinced himself
he’s not in love with. It’s like shooting his service revolver,
a Glock 9mm, at a target, and afterwards having a necessary drink.
It’s all the chemical pathways, all saying they’re ready.
It’s this police officer, wearing sweatpants, weeks later
dropping off his wife at the vegetarian’s apartment,
the gun in his waistband—but smiling,
it’s a joke, it’s a joke, it’s a joke, it’s a joke,
because the vegetarian’s driving her to Chicago for the weekend,
and nobody’s in love and there’s no threat, not even
the possibility of anything resembling anything anyone
might call a threat.
Or it’s all the openings
of all the pathways at once. Realizing: oh, a sluice.
It’s realizing your body
And they’re filling
you asked to forget
The other day Hayley was telling me about her brother. She’d written about him. Then I asked. She said her brother lived as if he didn’t have a future. A balloon expanded somewhere—I heard before I felt—and then I want to say, for the first time in a while, I could trust my understanding: I knew exactly what she meant and how she meant it. Or I believed that’s what the balloon meant. What it was asking to mean.
I don’t know a response that would have kept the spire from toppling, the one that, as it fell and fell apart, a commentator was pointing out wasn’t universally adored, wasn’t even 800 years old. There may not always be a sluice—for every future, for every past. I don’t know much about fire. I can’t even give a two-year-old a good definition. I don’t know much about rebuilding. I don’t even know if I can trust what I’ve said before, what I’m saying right now: The limits are usually built into the plans.
The four signs I tried to forget as I remembered. The skier through the sluice, the funnel dry. An empty chamber. Every silent minute on the long drive through Illinois. Which is to say now I can’t say what’s missing. What’s been missing for a while.