Falling (A Christmas Letter) – 2015

(for DIANA)

Past Imperfect
We met at a carnival, on a ride, a tilt whirl went up and down, and gravity brought us together in the aisle, our little prison. Ten years hence and we were friends, good friends, as close as two could be without being collapsed into a singularity, without honeymooning on Jupiter and being compressed into a single atom together, and at that point in the relationship, I wasn’t ready for that level of commitment.
She was from a different, more civilized world, affluent and responsible. I was from an abandoned set from the movie Deliverance, a place with thirty-six churches and one library in a four mile radius–that’s not healthy. We were both still in school at the time. The more we talked, the more we talked; the more we talked, the more we sought to do so. She was cultured and soft spoken though boisterous and brimming with compassion, understanding with a poetic bent. I would later cast our mad romance in the vein of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I was, of course, the orphan madman Heathcliffe, and she the precious Catherine; I fought through a world of noise to reach you, so for now you must endure my silence.
We would end up casually dating, after spending time together at work, and much more afterwards on weekends. We went to the Museum of Modern Art a lot, checking out the Rembrandt’s and the painting of Antoine Lavoisier by Jacques-Lois David, Picasso’s and Caravaggio’s and that milkmaid Vermeer so small but perfect with it’s effusive hue along the wickerwork of the breadbasket. As high-minded and cultured as we affected, we worked at a sandwich shop one inspection check short of an issued writ from the health and safety commission, Nam Pang on MacDougal street in Greenwich Village. It was owned by a crazy ex physics professor from Cambodia who tried his hand at inventing and couldn’t invent much beyond a Philly steak that anyone seemed to care for. She was a manager, and I was a grunt. Which was appropriate for our levels of education. We worked there for years; her behind the counter, me on a bicycle, and everything was routine. Other than Ho-Chi’s inventions, and the stuff we did to amuse ourselves with other people’s food, there was nothing of interest to speak of, nothing but every time I saw her face it brought a lantern into a world that had been dark for me for so very long.
After work, we’d have drinks at a jazz club, Miles Davis and women in tuxedos. In top hats handing out cigars. expensive wine, atonal raucous music hovered over the thick pockets of cigarillo smoke. We wiled away the hours waiting for her responsibilities to locate her GPS signal, and she’d drive back to Manhattan were she lived; I lived in a garret above the sandwich shop. I was friends with Ho-Chi, and I was a physics student, off and on, as my health would allow, with an associates in English composition.
Literature is a time machine. You can relieve Raskolnikov’s confession, the pawnbroker’s murder; the nightmare of the horse and poor Mameladev all by opening Crime and Punishment. You could wind your way through time and memory with Marcel Proust, a prism reflecting shapes against the wall like his magic lantern animations from his bedroom, a pantheon of nature des mortes Gods on his cornea, or get lost in Balzac or Tolstoy’s world of the aristocracy, watch Anna Karenina dive to her death in front of the train, or go fishing with the Old Man on The Sea, attack the windmills with Quixote; But we wanted to travel back in time for real. Not for the respect of the scientific community; for our personal enjoyment, to see the premier of Don Giovanni; to have a glass of wine with Oscar Wilde, to go back to Dallas in 1962 and shout, ‘Duck!’ at JFK as he went down Elm st.
Everyone who has ever studied physics has wanted a time machine, and for different reasons. I always wanted to find one perfect moment, with one perfect person, like a sunset in the belt of Venus slowly falling, falling forever as I with someone loved, rewound the world to live that moment again and again. So I worked out the theory, and since he was an engineer, he worked out the rest. It took years, but when you’re working on something that can control the years, the time seems to be well spent, seeing as how you can become a thief of time, a thief that steals and rewrites priceless moments.
One day we found out that the carnival we met at would be coming back into town. We were dating at the time, and we loved each other–well, I loved her, and she tolerated me, so we decided to go together with a third wheel, a friend of mine. We got on that same tilt-a-whirl and during its normal method of action, something went wrong; the harness came loose and she was flung from the structure into the cold embrace of the metal railings surrounding the neon monster with its disco eyes. They stopped the ride. I ran and knelt beside her. She was okay, just bruises and cuts and a formidable headache, but nothing a shot of Cambodian fire whiskey couldn’t tame. They say when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t think that’s true–not the life you’ve lived, but perhaps the life you wont. And when she was flung, I saw a life we would never have, and when she was reprieved, I decided to attempt to make that life a possibility. I saw so much I didn’t know if I could live a life without, considering the happiness the moment’s contemplation brought me.
I was in my flat later that night with Ho-Chi and another coworker drinking cheap beer and Ho-Chi told me he thought that he had figured out how to make it work. The only catch was–and this was quite a catch–you could only go back in time for ten seconds, and it would only affect you, and anyone in contact with you. That wasn’t a serious drawback–as I thought of that never dying sunset with my love. And seeing that life we would never had, I always wondered if we could have a life together; at that moment, I wondered if I could ever live without her. I decided to do something drastic: I was going to ask her to marry me, against the advice of everyone I knew (two people) and an opinionated cat, I would ask her to marry me–as soon as the time machine was working, so we could watch that never setting sun together and live that perfect moment. At that point, her agreeing to marry me seemed more farfetched than having a working time machine.


The next day when we came into work, Ho-Chi called us into the dingy room in the back, the dingy kind of room that just looks sticky, and told us that his time machine worked. A genius is most often a crazy person because sane people don’t apply intelligence to things in the same way a crazy person does; this man ran a sandwich shop and spent his time working on obscure inventions (a toilet that wiped the would-be shitter,) and he had his button–the time machine. The science is boring and uninteresting, but the effects were most extraordinary. He pressed the button and I found myself outside the room again, and walked back inside to find him smiling. At first I wasn’t sure what it was that happened, until he extended the effect on everyone in the room. That is me, Diana, and my friend Thomas. He kept us within five to ten feet, me and Thomas and D, and had her write her name on a sheet of paper, sign it, and then he pressed the button. Time rewound, and she appeared outside the room again. She came back in and read the page–and, to her astonishment, realized, we had a working time machine. Albeit an ineffectual one, rewinding the world by ten seconds didn’t seem to have much practical potential–except for that eternal moment in the sun, with me and D and the belt of Venus blue, a light blue and pink wrapped round the world, and us high in the air, forever rewinding, drinking wine and laughing, forever together, forever falling.
There was a sort of catch with the machine–which we called the button, which he refused to announce to the scientific community–it took ten seconds to reinitialize. If it was used before it was recharged, so he said, it would break the universe. I’m not sure what kind of merit this statement had, but when you see the universe as an expensive, Ming dynasty vase, something that you’re holding that can break, it is unlikely that you’d want to drop it just to test a theory. The people of Earth would care for it more if it was a cheap keepsake on the mantle, outraged to find it scuffed. After that, things went back to normal around the sandwich shop. It was a sandwich shop, and Ho-Chi was too much of a bigot to submit his idea, or the theory we worked with, to any scientific publications. Being ostracized by the scientific community can do a lot of things to a person, not least of all it can turn them into a bitter asshole. So as soon as he went out, I broke into his office and took his button, asked Diana out to dinner, and arranged to steal an engagement ring in the meantime.
I went into the jewelry store and asked for a man to give me the most popular and expensive ring he could find. He gave it to me, and I pressed the button, and had a free engagement ring. We met at the Minetta Tavern on MacDougal St. It’s a nice place, full bar, classy–excellent service, and expensive. I didn’t really care. I lived above the sandwich shop, and didn’t pay any bills because Ho-Chi was a lonely, loveless husk of a man and liked having someone around who was just as joyless and bitter as he was. It’s easy to hang onto money in New York if you don’t have a drug problem. Anyway, we both had the Cote De Boeuf steak, wonderfully prepared and cooked, and were having drinks. After I paid the bill I took out the ring and asked her, “Diana, with you marry me?” Immediately, seeing her gasp, I panicked and pressed the button, and went back and didn’t ask that way. I handed her a ring and said, “If you will marry me, meet me on the Observation Tower and 6:30. Don’t say anything, just meet me there.”
I wandered around the city picking up wine and food and snacks and cigarettes and everything for our perfect moment. When you’re preparing for a moment never-ending, you have to bring supplies; cigarettes and bourbon, Cabernet sauvignon and blush chablis. And I sat there waiting watching my clock. 6:30 came and went. Then 7 and the sun began its descent and I was there to live my moment alone. And I thought back to that moment on the ride when I saw such beauty in our lives together, tired and smoking cigarettes sweating in a disheveled bed listening to Tchaikovsky’s baccarrole, with our happy children sleeping peaceful in the other room, unafraid, unconcerned with monsters–the monsters would be daddy’s friends.
They’d have racecar beds and video games, pianos and guitars and violins, everything they’d want and books, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and Where the sidewalk Ends. We’d read them to sleep and go to their baseball games, little league and spelling bees, and somewhere for their trophies. But none of that would happen. Then I saw the ghosts of a Christmas never coming. By myself with a bottle of wine at an old pool table writing verse, spinning the ball around the table as I thought about it, drinking myself to sleep and living in a mess of unorganized papers and cigarette butts scattered cross the floor. And there I’d fall apart, unpeeled by each passing afternoon like a bruised banana in my drunken stupor dancing to the singing crickets in full bloom by a poor man’s patio. And it isn’t money that makes a man rich, it is the value of his friendships, the meaning he derives from his pursuits, his knowledge, his experience and failures.
I looked over the ledge of the observation tower. The sidewalk is where it ends, I thought; to live a lonely life is tolerable until it is no longer a choice you’ve made that determines for you. When you’re the oddman out in a reject crowd, the outcasts always mourn–and alien tears will fall for them.
Like two doomed ships we passed in storm
We crossed each other’s way;
We made no sign, we spoke no words;
We had no words to say.
For we did not meet in a holy night,
But in the shameful day.
I remembered a day that I first read that poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Jail), by Oscar Wilde. It made me think about a lot of things, but one of the most striking aspects of the piece is the refrain. ‘I never saw a man who looked with such a wistful eye, upon that little tent of blue we inmates call the sky.’ He reiterates this throughout the poem in regards to the man who walked the same yard as he, though he was sentenced to death instead of hard labor for not loving in the acceptable manner. The striking thing about it is how after the man has been hanged, he reintroduces a slightly modified refrain, and instead of just that one man looking to the sky in such a wistful way, all the men who walked the yard have their longing glances upward cast. The image of such a group of suffering people, feeling the death of another, another’s guilt, is striking and it’s powerful. The reason it means so much to me is because of the window it opens into the poet who wrote it. Oscar Wilde had done something similar with the Picture of Dorian Grey, an externalization of an artist, and it resonates because of how artists deal with personal grief through externalization. It reminded me of a poem I wrote, Counterpane. It is a modern take on a poem of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson. In it, a child who’s sick in bed, conjures up mock battles and struggles in order to externalize his pain.
In my poem, a woman is attracted to a model village, and she populates it with everything she never had in her own life–and as I stood there just on the edge, I thought about that model village that she made; it was mine–the family, the loved ones, the father, she was queen and everyone loved her; when I looked below I saw no counterpane; this wasn’t my coping mechanism, it’s what made me need one to begin with. The pad, the notebook, the wordprocessor–this is how an author bleeds.
And the title for counterpane applies to the woman who makes herself queen of an imaginary world within the poem, and the poem itself is a counterpane, a populated world to take the focus off a world I couldn’t handle. And all those populated memories–the Christmas mornings, new socks and aftershave from the least favorite of my friends, that was the population of a counter to my pain that I saw vanish in the wind of that December day in New York City as I looked down. I’d have to die, I knew, for anyone to know my name; the only way to be forgiven. You can’t hang up the paradise sign until the property is sold. My counterpane was just a downpayment on something I would never have, an the Realtor who withdrew the offer was just too late to stop me this time. No pen, no pad, and with the button in my hand, took a breath, it’d be my last, and knowing she would never come, I closed my eyes and then I jumped.
I looked at all the people down below, hither and thither moving swiftly through the lightly falling snow. People with families, with kids and back and forth they went with shopping bags and holding hands. Happy people, miserable too, some going in circles. A lot to lose and nothing to gain is to die, an unbroken dreamless sleep. No hurt, no pain, no more love or fine champagne, no sleeping late on weekends, no well cooked meals with friends, just that dreamless sleep that never ends. And with the button in my hand, I jumped. In order for my life to pass before my eyes, I think I’d have to fall from the moon, but I started to see things that never happened. A wife, children, nice house in Manhattan, a name that matters not a whisper in a screaming city. I saw Diana and her happy friends, her happy lovers that I’d never live up to. I’d be a smear on the pavement, a thumbprint on a skyscraper lost among a million more. The higher you get, the harder it is to distinguish people from one another. But I could see her halfway down, as soon as I saw the clock–it was 6:23, along with the one on the building, and mine was too far ahead–all those seconds I had accumulated with that button had put my watch off.
So I press the button and… I didn’t make it far enough to stop myself from jumping, and so I was falling again. No way to get back to the top, except to break the universe. So I was stuck there, my perfect moment full of dread and panic and indecision. And I still didn’t see my life, my past, I saw impossible futures. Christmas eve and children happy. A family I’ll never have, two girls and a boy, and one would be a writer and one would be an opera singer and the other would surprise me and Diana both, we’d adopt like me because of the kind of love adopted children need. She’d do the queen of the night aria. And I heard her scream again and so I clicked the button. Falling again, caught in the ten second loop.
Another impossible future, Easter Sunday, and they’re looking through the high grass near Rose Hill. I went there with my church as a kid. I never really looked until they said some egg hid a dollar, and that made it matter, so everyone wanted it. And then the images came. There was Diana by the water, the pitter patter of her soft soled shoes as she walked beside me, stuffed animal in her arms like a clichéd movie, smiling wide. That ride that brought us together, that gravity, would take us apart; and it got bigger and bigger as I fell, and the images came faster. The queen of the night was in my ear and everyone below was smudged and through that holy music all I heard was screaming and I pressed the button once again, back just shy of the ledge to fall again, and so I fell.
I began to realize that that was life, falling not knowing when you’re going to land. And there I was at my aunt’s house, thirteen years old, the year before my father died. And there’s his casket bronze and quiet and him in his Sunday best sound asleep inside it. And everybody’s boohoo and wailing and I’m in the bathroom on the toilet with a cigarette, my cousin standing just outside on watch. Head in my hands, someone comes in and I douse the cigarette out. Press the button again. My little sister on my mothers lap holding tight crying against her best attire, my mother holding tight. The saddest thing I’d ever seen in my life. And my brother’s standing there not looking at anyone, head on his chest, eyes on his feet, uncomfortable with the noise, the crying. Ten more seconds.
And there I am in the emergency room, third grade and my head is bleeding. I did a flip off of a pole and landed on my head. Then the sounds became pictures, numbers had color, and that hallucinogenic effect extended to the city below me, and all I saw where walking skeletons, dying slowly on their ways to nowhere. From one prison to another on a multicultural slaveship, and my love in the distance in her best dress running towards me, and my clock too far ahead and I kept falling, falling, caught in that moment of hell forever, to break the universe or rewind time and time again until I’m no longer afraid to die.
Back at the ledge again and falling–waiting to see my love in the distance calling stop, no way to stop it; and we’re all falling, from day one falling, falling forever, from the start to fall. And I realized something as I fell, the past swells up more ghostlike but it’s no more touchable than the imagined happiness of days impossible; impossible days that extend beyond my moment trapped. Birthdays and valentines, anniversaries and wine–and now I’ll never have the time. Just ten seconds to live and regret over and over too scared of death to just fall in front of my love and my friend and all those nameless faces walking between the sewers and the vents on that hot summer day and the sunrise was perfect too. We could’ve watched it bob like a yoyo up and down like that tilt a whirl that slung us into one another’s arms, and in the air caught in a circle, I never could let go, and so I pressed the button once again to try to picture in my mind all the moments that we had just right so in case when I die I’m allowed one memory of Earth at the gates of paradise to take inside. What memory would I take? Me and my father on the lake, corks in the water bobbing with the ebb and flow of the prismatic lake below our boat that mirror for the sky to do its hair. Properly quaffed it rolls on, and the moon in orbit falls as well around the Earth by gravity. What memory could I choose?
There was that trip when I was in primary school to the space camp in Alabama. We got to be weightless, and listen to them explain what they did in space, and showed us all the planets going round the sun. Jupiter the cyclops with a bloodshot eye and Saturn majestic and engaged. Neptune the blue marble and mars the ruby with Olympus moms, phobos and deimos fear and panic at the side of that great God of war. And Venus where Venusians live, that pink blue bubble. Mercury that scorched rock burnt by its mother forever in nuclear flames And Pluto on the outside cold alone like all the children who never got a chance to grow, an orphan amid the Kuiper belt, a glimmer around a source of light it often forgets like dust caught in a bent sunbeam stretching from star to star. So that moment just like Pluto long in a crowd, that would be that moment that I’d take into heaven with me, a picture of what I thought heaven was, to keep on my wall in whatever mansion my good deeds could buy.
And then I had an idea that could save me. I pressed to switch and as I fell again, as my love broke through the moping sea, I would throw her the button and let her send me back in time to a point where I didn’t have it. And she came out and grasped and I threw it at her. Then everything went blank and I felt myself dissipate and fade into the background of the day, merging with the sky just energy aware of what I’d lost but losing the faces of family and friends like water cupped in my hands. And then I was falling again, slightly lower down, and so it went over and over until she pressed the button before those ten seconds were up–which broke the universe and froze me on the ground. She took my hand and went back and we fell from ten foot to the ground together, falling over but none the worse for wear. And everything was frozen. Cars and passersby, dogs chasing frisbees in the park, people on their cellphones with their umbrellas–and the sunset frozen in the belt of Venus locked forever with us the only animation.
We walked among the statues, frozen mid-stride, the snowflakes frozen in the air as we passed over the bridge in central park. Diana plucked a snowflake from the air and blew it across the frozen water like a dandelion puff. It spun like a dredle before freezing on the unseen stage on which everything was posed, posed for us and perfect–a silent world with only us to wander, not to fall, to walk through the amazon to see such beauty, jaguars beautiful in pursuit of prey forever saved beyond their reach alive, across the Atlantic ocean, dolphins frozen in the air in play, safe to never fall–a broken universe and everyone lives on, frozen in that moment, happy or sad, with that belt of Venus sunset hanging over the observation deck in New York. And we kissed atop the Eiffel tower with a glass of wine, walked across the never breaking shores of Galilee and Venice–lost ourselves among the crowd at Mecca circling the black rock, the Kabba–the rock Muhammad circled when he came back as general. We saw blankets of sand poised to strike but never to fall in the Arabian deserts like timid curtains, strolled along the great wall and into Russia, Rostov von Don and st. Petersburg–the world we were from was going, and everyone else was just a ghost stillborn.
And then we started seeing the green lights pass by us as we swung from a hammock under a blue sky in van Gogh’s Amsterdam. And again sitting in the lap of La Pieta and I fed her grapes and kissed her neck and rubbed her soft tummy such a color, a milk white and pale pink were her lips so soft to kiss the breath against my neck. And there I asked her once again, did she ever intend to marry me. The button wouldn’t work, and I had taken it apart to make a lighter, and she said yes. So we walked across the ocean once again, back to my garret above the sandwich shop in New York. Spin the bottle, always landed on her, and we kissed like we were still young. Always young, without cruelty or cowardice we loved a love so fierce, so visceral that it went beyond friendship, beyond family, and as we lay there in that bed that night within that static world I thought about our ceremony and my vows, so I rolled over to my desk and wrote them out.
I will never be good enough for you, no one could be; you’re more than just my waking life, you’re the substance of my dream, my cherub in a frothy cloud, from one to another in my head when I lay down in my bed I close my eyes and see you there still smiling, still there for me like the family I never knew but I know you and if we can remain together I think that there could be no sort of weather that could ever break us apart as long as we’re true to each other and true to our heart and love a love that encompasses all, when we’re standing proud and when we’re standing tall, when we’re down and when we’re out, when nothing else goes right you where there you were my light the light that led Dante out of hell up to Heaven just to see his reflection in a well with you the angel on his shoulder and there I hope you will consent to be as long as I, as we both shall breathe; to part at death would be too soon, for this is a flower that I never intend to allow a falter in its bloom, and this balloon we make to celebrate this joyful day, it is the best day of my life so far to think that when I see you, once I saw you, here you are, beside me sleeping soundly with your soft voice muffled exhaling deeply happy satisfied, won’t you please be with me, all my life, and as my wife/?
We wheeled our frozen family together with a priest and performed the vows ourselves.
Do I Brandon Keith Nobles take you, Diana Elizabeth Yannetti, to be my unlawful wedded wife? “You do.” She said. “Do I, Diana Elizabeth Yannetti, take you, Brandon Keith Nobles, to be my unlawful wedded husband?” You do, said I. You may kiss the bride. And when we kissed I felt we too had like the rest froze–and, married, decided to return to that observation deck again to watch our never ending sunset. We were old, had grown old together, no company except that green whiff of light that often passed us by, hovering in the air for a moment and letting out an inhuman static shriek, the sound of white noise and static on a dead TV station, and there we set with our sunset and at our end had spent our lives together; all together, a perfect life, so many impossible futures having never been we made the best with what we had. Do you regret it? I asked. “Not at all,” said she. “I’ve never felt alone.” Neither have I. And then behind us a tunnel opened and outstepped our old friend Ho-Chi, the bitter ex-professor shunned, upset that we had locked him outside of time; somehow he had saved himself, said he, and had been tunneling through time to find us, just to find the button. He took it from me, and I told him how I’d broke it for a lighter. Not a problem, said he; I can fix it. There, he said, after a few minutes. We can do it all over again. But we wouldn’t remember any of it. Would you like to go around again, my love? I asked. Smiling, said she, “I do.”


We met at a carnival, on a ride, a tilt whirl went up and down, and gravity brought us together in the aisle, our little prison, in our little prison free.

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