Saturday, December 22, 2007


I'm a week now into my journey east for the holidays. This morning I left my sister Jean's apartment in NYC after a great six days' visit, arriving this evening into Center Sandwich, NH, where I will be spending the next four days (including Christmas) with my friend Don and some of his relatives at his mother's house. After many empty promises since our days in the Desh, I've finally made it to the Northeast to see Don in his native country, though the drive in was mostly dark. I'm going to have to get out and look for campaign signs and at least one town hall meeting in advance of the January 8 primaries. For now, though, I know that I'm in a big house on a hill and the silence is deafening, quite a contrast to the corner of 1st Avenue and 20th Street, where my sister's apartment overlooked a cityscape reminiscent of Bucharest days: bright, busy, vibrant, full of white noise.

Katie didn't like New York City. We came out for a long visit in the spring of 2002, when I thought very hard about taking a job at a public high school in Brooklyn. I remember we went for a run across town and ended up in front of the Flat Iron Building, then the Empire State Building, Public Library, back down 1st Avenue. I thought I was showing her all the sights. I know she didn't like the frenetic nature of things, how random newspaper seemed to stick to everything, she felt there was little natural light. It was cold, and maybe it rained at the end of the run. Another visit, Jean took us to lunch at a Lebanese restaurant, then we went down to the village to see about piercings and tattoos (this was the short-lived period of Katie's navel ring). I got an ankh extended around the Eye of Horus on my left shoulder, it took hours, the work was beautiful, and all night whenever we rolled into each other I kept waking up exclaiming, "Watch the tat!" It became a running joke. In the end I didn't take the job and Katie started work that summer with GCFD, a job she loved and did very well. We came out one final time together in the fall of 2005, right after I'd had my feet surgeries, to celebrate Jean's phD. It was also the weekend we saw "Avenue Q." I remember thinking the show was okay, but once Kristy passed on the soundtrack, we became huge fans.

I didn't write this part into "Central Illinois," posted here previously and also the poem I read at Katie's visitation, but those three weeks later when we got lost driving to Iowa from Chicago for Dave and Meghan's wedding, we listened to the "Avenue Q" soundtrack quite a bit. There are these four lines during the last song, "For Now," that I thought would make a great prologue to a book of poems, okay, to a book of my poems, okay, that night I said I wish I had the guts to make it the prologue to my thesis. I'll leave the four lines at the end here. That night after the rehearsal dinner (which, again, changed for the poem, we actually did attend) we drove back to the hotel and sat in the parking lot playing "For Now" over and over. Katie looked at me during those four lines both times through, she knew how important they were to me. It was such a look of validation, approval, total enthusiasm and joy and love for the person I was at that moment, for us in that parking lot, singing along with puppets as loud as we could. It was a beautiful moment.

My feet hurt like hell but we went inside anyway and danced at the post-party in the hotel bar. My second left toe swelled up so much that night the pain pills were no good; it still swells up any time I stay on it too long. I should say something here like, "well, it was worth it," something to sum it all up neat, but instead I want to tell you about another moment that I think of often, another moment all about me, I guess, or about what Katie meant to me in purely selfish and me-centric terms, an afternoon when Katie and I were hanging out in the North Miami apartment. I was frustrated that yet another journal had passed on poems I was sure were poetry gold and we got to talking about something else and then it all kind of clicked into place, I went off on my own for a little while and then came back and told Katie that, if I had to be proud of something, if I had to stake my identity to something, and anyway I did whether I wanted to or not, well, I was proud that I was a good uncle. It was a strange thing to think of and an even stranger thing to say out loud, but whenever I got down on myself about writing, publishing, MFA-ing, which was pretty often, Katie would give me that look and tell me, "you're a good uncle." It also became a running joke, like the time I told Ed I always wanted to be called "Jack"--Katie would bust it out to be super supportive and then at other times to sort of knock me and my self-important tendencies down a couple of notches, but she always said it with great affection.

It’s been a hard holiday season. I talked a while back about Katie’s feelings about Christmas and the commercialism that surrounds it. I realized last week how much I like New York City, the intensity, diversity, and sheer momentum of being in the world’s capital, just like I know, while I’m not excited about a Christmas without Katie, I do and have always loved the commercialism, opening and giving gifts. My favorite Christmas present from Katie is the Russian watch we picked out together and she bought me last year. I wear it every day. I got her a pair of beautiful leather boots she wore exactly once. She picked those out, too, but I bought them. She wanted fashionable boots, they were all the rage in Bucharest last winter.

This Christmas I got myself another tattoo, at the same parlor as before, Andromeda near Astor Place in the Village. The tattoo is on my right shoulder, extending down the arm to just above the bicep. It's a black tree with bare branches, with a green apple leaned against its trunk. This is the first Christmas that I haven’t spent either with my family or Katie’s. I miss both like hell but I’m also relieved to be in a place where I have no specific memories of Katie, or of us here together, which is how I feel about New York City, and the various small towns that Ben and I plan to hit on our road trip back to the Midwest (I’m picking him up at LaGuardia) before New Year's. The memories are hard enough, if also wonderful. Here are those lines from “For Now”:

“For now we’re healthy

For now we’re employed

For now we’re happy

If not overjoyed”

Happy Holidays and Much Love,



Marcus said...

Watching "Avenue Q" was one of our first and very best memories of our time in New York City. We watched it in the very back row of the balcony, and those tickets still cost some coin. Helen and I listen to the soundtrack regularly, and in fact it's with us on our road trip this week from Berkeley to Phoenix.

NYC is certainly not for everyone; for some it's "nice to visit, wouldn't want to live there," for others it's a place to check off the list. Sounds like the latter was Katie's view, just like my family member's.

But I love that overpriced island, whatever its faults and inconveniences. One day I left work (32nd St/1st Avenue) with plans to catch two cross-town buses to the vicinity of Columbus Circle to watch a show. But it was a nice day, so instead I just walked and marveled in the fact that I could so. (San Francisco is walkable too, but you have to know how to avoid the hills.)

By the time we moved away this year I'd calmed down on the NYC snobbery, and clearly recognized its flaws (difficult to make real friendships, crazy prices, etc.) But now I look back at the NYC years with woozy, fond and biased nostalgia. This feels right.

And perhaps this is the best way to remember Katie too--no relationship is perfect, but from where I sit this one was pretty close. said...

You are a great uncle. And I say that with some authority.


Kayla said...

Your a Great Uncle! :] i love you.
I was thinking about this Christmas too. And about how hard it is going to be for all of us. I thought about the past holidays without Katie, yet this is the biggest. i really miss her.


SheilaandJeff said...

You're the Unclest guy i know. The boys are looking forward to seeing you!

KTB said...

John, Wanted to let you know I have tapped into the blog a few times. Merry Christmas. Have a good time on your road trip. I will have to check out these tat's someday in DC with Bill- sounds interesting. Katherine Briggs