The Lovers in the Lilacs
A notebook entry.
This essay was written as part of Project 1,825 Things.
I keep thinking about the art installation by Félix González-Torres called Portrait of Ross in L.A. I saw it at MoMA in San Francisco in 1998. It’s a mound of colorful wrapped hard candies heaped against a wall, or in a corner, or gathered in a pile in the middle of the room, sometimes with a spotlight on it. We saw it there together, that summer when I brought you out to California to meet my family. There you are, in your sea green shirt and blue jeans, under the gray sky of the downtown San Francisco bus terminal. We’d been on that bus for more than three days. Worse than the hours on the bus itself was the endless stopping and transfers. We were so young, still teenagers, both of us, although you would turn twenty in a matter of weeks. Our bag was full of bread and cheese and a jar of olives, so that we could avoid the expense of the fast food restaurants when we stopped.
It’s funny to think that every detail from that cross-country trip is stored in my mind somewhere. The summer evening as we rode through upstate New York. How I tried to sleep against your shoulder. Can I remember that? The feel of that one long-sleeve knit shirt you owned, a lightweight cotton sweater, in a kind of blue you don’t often see anymore. It had a buttoned placket and a polo collar, and I can feel it now against my cheek. In the dark early morning, this is what rises up. You, standing in the Cleveland bus station at 3 a.m. as we learned that yet another bus transfer was cancelled, and saying in anger, in your deep voice, fuck me. Cleaning my face and teeth in the bus station bathroom. All the insects collecting on the big yellow lights just outside the station, in that city where my father was born, and which I have still never seen. We arrived there in darkness and left so early and exhausted that I didn’t notice anything else.
There was this cast of characters that we followed, that we kept encountering, on different buses, in different cities, as we traveled along, ill-slept, collapsed against each other like children. There was a woman we called “the frog lady”, and the large man and his tiny son we named “big daddy”, and others, but I can’t remember them now. I want to remember you. If I can remember the knit shirt, I can remember the jeans, and then the rest of it. But still it’s not clear. The warmth of you, and the architecture of your bones. There was the Asian woman who appeared to speak no English, who was left behind at a Burger King somewhere, and all her things still on the bus. Her neat little bag. Her discreet floral pillow there on the seat. The driver had told us when we stopped, don’t go inside, there isn’t time. But she didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t she think it was another chance to go buy food and use the bathroom? What ever happened to her? The driver would not listen to us, would not wait. Twenty-five years later, there is a ghost of her still standing there, I’m sure, right there on the pavement, with no cell phone, and no luggage, and no way of knowing how to get back to what she’d lost, what had left her behind.
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