This weekend I visited my brother in Brooklyn. Once upon a time, I lived there — and now I miss it, terribly. It’s more than possible that the fact that I can never return makes the city look more appealing from afar, since when I lived there I know I often felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and overstimulated. But I know I also came to a steady, though at times barely balanced, peace with the place after I had lived there for long enough to learn its streets. As one of my favorite novels claims of a kind of spatial knowledge of a similar city, “There are maps and there are maps and there are maps.” And as Brooklyn and the wider cast of New York City became known to me and those maps resolved into a tangled but distinct series of layers and threads — geopolitical, cultural, artistic, and even the subway lines — I learned to love its hyper-dimensionality, its density.
And being back this weekend reminded me of that. Wandering the Brooklyn Flea — which I had forgotten I had even gone to before getting there, it’s weird how memory works — I was faced again with the inevitable cluster of artifacts that New York City and its burroughs is known for. And the brownstones and the flecks of light that ran through early summer city leaves, and the curious graffiti on sidewalks or the one manned pizza places or C-Town — yep, I even missed a grocery chain.
And here, on the other end of my life now — Boston, a city I’m still learning to find bits and pieces of that I can maybe learn to love — I’m faced with another inevitable. On Thursday, my oncologist is going to tell me I need to get a port.
I hate writing those words. Or needing to write them.
I’ve been putting off a port for a long time, enough so that writing about it makes me anxious and nervous. The thought of a permanent implant that I need because of cancer that pushes against my sternum and shifts the shape of my skin leaves me feeling disconnected from myself — and, oddly enough, from time. Since discovering that I couldn’t avoid the port any longer I’ve been thinking almost obsessively about last summer, which was (arguably) the most fun summer of my life. And also the most chaotic. And I spent time in Brooklyn. Go figure.
I remember — in the way I always imagined The Great Gatsby (no, I haven’t seen the movie yet and I don’t know that I will) remembers, moving through a series of slow but complicated movements under a bed sheet, or a veil — playing wall ball against the back of my elementary school at eleven at night; charging back to a cabin in a steady, thick downpour on what suddenly turned into a stormy late afternoon, only to give up and walk slowly in the final mile, soaked but happy; the bizarrely ancient and frightening mechanical cow puppets that adorn one particular stretch of the Hershey Park tour ride; sitting by a fountain on Georgetown’s campus until early into the morning with water bottles full of tequila (which, for a series of reasons, was my alcohol of choice last summer), orange juice, and lemonade; stopping at a spring on the side of a dirt road to get fresh water and never figuring out — even though we went 10 or 15 times — how to fill my water bottle without getting soaked; sitting crowded and sweaty in a not too dark bar in Brooklyn, ordering absurd drinks and listening to a friend’s band, complete with a stirring horn section; looking down at my cowboy boots while trying to maneuver a chainsaw to cut through the trunk of a fallen tree and suddenly realizing that I finally had my energy back after treatment. That I finally felt real again.
I don’t know what these memories do for me now, but I know why they’re orbiting my consciousness. I’m apprehensive about the port because it signals a kind of finality, a kind of permanence that refuses the possibility of that kind of itinerant summer again. I lived out of my truck for 2 months; 2 suitcases, kayaks, laptop and DVDs. The longest I slept in the same space was 2 weeks. Now I’ll have a surgical implant that reminds me, constantly, “You have to come back to Boston — at the very least and if things go as well as they can — every 3 weeks.” And though that 3 weeks leaves plenty of time to travel, it also marks my life with a regularity I’m not accustomed to. The steady march of medical progress on my cancer orients my body toward this city — a city that I’m apprehensive about to begin with. But maybe those memories push me in that direction with more energy or more clarity. They are reminders, remainders, that once existed, that I still and will always have in storage. So I wonder if these remembered snapshots offer some kind of glimpse into a normal life — not because I can have it again, but simply because it was once out there and lived.
And if the primary reason I write here is to craft a letter to myself when I’m at my worst — to have words by which I can remember that I do feel good, that I can be strong, that I can be happy — then those memories are part of that equation. I don’t know that they give me hope — memories, these days, make me sad — but they give me something once tangible that still feels real enough to make treatment worth it. Even if the port is more real, more immediate, more pressing, I still existed without one once.
I miss Brooklyn. I miss my wandering, suffused summer. I miss me without cancer, without the edge of reality creeping up on me, drenched in what feels like a blinding light. Soon I will miss me without a port. But I won’t have to miss those memories; I have those.