Latency Period: Attachment Fragments

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, October 17th, 2016

"We chew the caps and stems of the psilocybe cubensis mushrooms..."

Daniel Elder Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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It’s a hot spring day in 2010. I meet Frank at his apartment in a sun-drenched brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Velvet Underground is on the turntable as we chew the caps and stems of the psilocybe cubensis mushrooms I’ve carried over from my place. Frank is a decade my senior and it was our shared interest in such plants and fungi (as well as the loquacious stoned prophet Terence McKenna, who so ludicrously and eloquently sang their praises) that formed our bond.

Those aren’t the only things holding us together in brotherhood, though. As we walk to the park the most obvious but unspoken thread that links us is our friend Margaret, with whom we both worked for years and years, and who we just lost to cancer a few months earlier. She seems to walk with us, with every step.

The psilocybin tickles through us as we make our way to Prospect Park, entering the Long Meadow from the northern end. The park is a riot of color and movement. After a harsh and icy winter, people spill like orgasms out of their buildings and into the city’s precious green spaces. Blue sky, yellow sun, green grass. It’s a beautiful day.

“How about that hill, over there?”

And yes, the hill that Frank points to, it is the one. There is no doubt. With our destination fixed, we walk. Snippets of conversation flow like music past my ears. A throb in my chest announces not just the onrush of the trip but the simple fact that I am vibrantly alive. Breathe in, breathe out.

We slip down into the grass at the spot on the hill that we know is perfectly ours. The park is our Bodhi tree. It’s here in the flux of conversation and quickened breath and the soft small beauty of the world that something hits me. We’re talking about my father, from whom I’ve been estranged for five years.

“You know what, Frank? I forgive him. I do. And it feels good to be at that place, to just be able to let go of it, all the pain and the anger. I forgive him.”

This is the first of many times that I think I have moved beyond something, only to find that it still walks beside me.

We lean back against the grass, and our words trickle away. Paragraphs wither. Sentences crumble. The earth heals us through our backs and the sky sings its glory with every subtle shift of light above our heads. The world spins, and we lay there in silence, letting the park with its Frisbees and laughter do the speaking for us.

It’s maybe an hour or two later that I sense Frank moving beside me. He is propped up on his elbows now, looking out across the Long Meadow. Nodding to himself, he breaks the silence we’ve been holding.

“You’ve gotta be able to let go of your story.”

Clouds overhead are wisps, and every tree in the park stands at tall attention, fluttering in the breeze of his words.

“We’re all attached to our stories but at some point you’ve got to be able to say, well, who am I now? Your thought patterns and beliefs are stories that you have been telling for a lifetime. Meditate by asking yourself: who is the storyteller? Without the stories, what or who are you?”

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I’m peeking past my therapist’s shoulder, trying to see the new art on the walls. I know I could just ask him to move his computer, and thus the camera he uses for our Skype sessions, and he would, and I’d be able to see what was up in the gallery these days. One of his patients had a dream of being an art curator, and in a beautiful move, he opened up his office to her as a gallery space in which to start her career, which now flourishes. Every three months all the art comes down, replaced by new works, and whether it’s wonderful or banal or somewhere between it is always something to look at.

I liked Lee’s office a lot. I liked that it was on Fifth Avenue but the inside of the building wasn’t fancy, the hallway floors were linoleum and the fluorescent lights were garish. I liked sitting on the chair outside his office, with the white noise machine under it, waiting for the patient before me to finish their session. Then I’d step in, sit on the couch, surrounded by strange art, and we’d get to work.

Lee helped me change everything. I was emotionally in crisis when we started our sessions in September of 2014. My mother had just had a frightening brush with death and then I’d gotten into an uneven, unhealthy entanglement with someone while I was already in a raw state. I felt like I was spinning out of orbit when I first visited his office.

A couple months later, when we found ourselves approaching my life in a more or less evened-out state, I returned from a yoga retreat in a state of disaffection with New York. We were having a frustrating session, running up against walls. Lee asked me what I wanted.

“I want to quit my job, travel to South America, and move to Oregon.”

My tone of voice implied that all of this was utterly ridiculous. He leaned back, spread his hands as if to say, well there we have it.

“Great. Why don’t you?”

As if it was that easy.

But in the short time we’d known one another, he’d learned who I was, and he helped me navigate myself, my anxieties, my worries, on the channel to freedom.

Now we Skype, not every week, but sometimes every week, with three thousand miles between us. I appreciate him deeply but it’s all deeply unsatisfying, and as I sit in my attic and he sits in his office and I’m talking to him about my anxieties about a budding relationship, I wish I could download the history of my life into the brain of a new therapist here, someone I could sit with in person. I don’t want to start from scratch. I don’t want to spend hours explaining to someone who I am, and just how my life has fucked me up. The very thought is exhausting.

So I hold on to this familiar face, occasionally pixelated, transmitted not just through space but also time. Speaking with my past.

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No matter who I meet here, in Portland, I can’t just leave it at: I moved here from New York. They have to know my story. They have to know the whole of it. That I was born and raised in New York City and have never really known anything else. That a few times in my youth, we went to a house upstate for two months at a time, but that those jaunts were the longest I had ever previously been outside the megalopolis. Two months. That I’d gone to college there, and that if we were really going into detail, I’d gone to the same school, in the same neighborhood, from Pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade. This is my story and if someone is to know me, they have to know it. How hard it was to leave New York. How I came to be here, each and every step of the way. If the listener is patient enough, I might tell them everything.

And every time the flood begins to come out, I’m not sure that I can stopper it.

In those moments, I just want to be here. I just want to say hello, I’m Daniel, and if they ask where I’m from, just say, New York, and let the rest unfold however it might. Let the story rewrite itself, not from the past to the present, from the present to wherever.

There are times, on my bicycle and riding the greenways, where I briefly forget what came before, when I am just here and now in setting sun and spinning wheels. I ride down GOing St., a quiet afternoon. Someone is watering their garden and, sensing me cycle by, they turn their head and smile. I’m nothing more than just a moment.

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S. and I have once again managed to nestle ourselves as intimately close as seems physically possible. No space, just skin. Her breath warms my neck and my fingertips play along the freckles on her shoulders, the ones I have sworn to count—and how I delight in losing track and needing to count all over again from the very beginning. S. is telling me about her therapist, and I tell her how I long to sit in a room with someone, to have the privacy of that shared space, a closed door.

When I tell her about my trepidations, how frustrated I become when I think about having to explain everything–motherfathersistersimmigrantssexualrepressionangerqueerforgivenesssadnessallofit–to someone new, she leans back and looks at me curiously. It’s a look I’ve grown to love, one that draws out a difference between us: how we’ve both made a life out of navigating the road between the head and the heart, but how I still cling to the former while she largely lives in the latter.

“Why do you need to do that? You can just talk to someone about right now. The present moment. And if something from the past comes out of that, then you can go into it. But there’s no reason to think that you need to start off by bringing anyone up to speed.”

This is a revelation. It’s what I need to hear but still, something inside me doesn’t want to listen. I feel some sort of holding-on, some sort of grasping. As if, presented with a way to let go of my story, I cling to it all the tighter, wrapping my narrative around my shoulders like a blanket.

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It’s my second visit home to New York since leaving a little over a year ago. My grandmother’s apartment is largely unchanged over the years. The same old furniture, the same weird statues on the wooden cabinets, the same smell I can never quite pin my finger on, some confluence of aging and Russian cooking and this old building where she’s lived on the fifth floor for decades.

I feel more present with my grandmother than ever, today, as we sit across the glass table in her living room and play Rummikub, a colorful game of numbered tiles. Now that I’ve moved I only see her once or twice a year, and it’s impossible to ignore that every time I see her, it might be the last.

Yesterday I beat Grandma two games to none. Today she’s returned to the table with a vengeance. Now I’m down two games to none and when we begin picking tiles for game number three, my heart is thudding in my chest. Not because I’m afraid to lose again, but because I’m working up the courage to ask her about something that I know she doesn’t want to think about.

“Grandma, Mom tells me that you liked my essay, the one that talked a little about you.”

I’ve been writing a lot about family, about the traumas that have passed down our line, especially our matrilineal ancestry. A journal picked up one of my essays, a reflection on the refugee crisis that explores how my mother, father, and grandmother were all in their own ways refugees. This woman sitting across from me, arranging her tiles with delicate precision, is nearly 97 years old, and 74 years ago she was trapped in the city of Leningrad when the Nazi army blitzkrieged the USSR border and encircled the city, laying siege to it for 800 horrific days.

What little I know about the siege are the small details that the family has held on to in the decades since, the little anyone would speak about. The rest comes from books and documentaries. I sit across from my grandma knowing that her heart is full of stories, full of days spent starving and scavenging and shivering from bombs, and I want so badly for her to share those stories with me, so I can help them live forever.

“Yes,” she says. “It was very beautiful.”

“Do you ever think,” I ask, my voice wavering, stepping lightly over the line, “about telling more about that time during the war? Telling your stories? You must have so many.”

Grandma picks up her next Rummikub title and does this move she has when she isn’t sure that she likes what she’s just picked up, a sort of left-right head nod, shoulder to shoulder. It’s probably a double for a tile she already has; we both hate when that happens. She puts the tile on the rack and shakes her head a little. She doesn’t make eye contact. She just says one word.

“No.”

If there’s a common trait that runs in our bloodline, it’s stubbornness, and I know when a word from my grandma’s lips is the final word on the subject. There is a finality to this no, a decisiveness to it: it is the end of the matter.

A great sadness wells up in me, as I watch my grandmother’s lined face, and try to imagine the horror of war. It’s a concept that for me, even in the age of videos on the Internet and tanks with live streaming cameras, still seems utterly abstract. I have no idea of knowing what she experienced, and I watch her, my big-hearted Grandma, and mourn the fact that she has buried this away, locked it deep inside her. That simple single syllable seems to hold so much suffering. What a weight to carry.

But it’s a matter of perspective. I look around the apartment. The muted TV with the expressive faces of Spanish-language soap operas whose words my grandmother can’t understand but whose emotions she can. The bowl of Russian candies at the center of the table. The bread and plums in the fridge, which I brought to her when I came, and for which neither of us had to wait in endless lines. Beyond the apartment walls, her daughter and son and her grandchildren all healthy and comfortable and living their lives. And me, there, sitting across from her, playing a game of Rummikub. She only has three tiles left and I’m sure that at least one of them is a Joker.

My Grandma and her simple pleasures.

Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe it’s not that she spends every minute of every day burying that story, those memories, all that horror and war.

Maybe it’s that she’s let it go. It doesn’t define her. It doesn’t need to.

She has all she needs right here, right now, as she plays her winning hand with a grin. And there it is: a Joker after all. She looks satisfied.

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To read the last installment of Latency Period, “Definitions,” go here.

Header image courtesy of Mike Chan. To view his photo essay on NAILED, go here

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.