Saturday, May 2, 2009

Half Moon Overlook

Sometimes this life is a meal too big for one.

Today, a perfect Saturday. Sunny, not a drop of moisture in the air (though the forecast said rain). I spent the post-swim morning reading, and most of the afternoon commenting on student essays (subject: Darwin's theories of evolution and survival of the fittest as played out in A Streetcar Named Desire).

By five o'clock I wasn't done, but I was done. All day long I had watched the patch of tantalizing blue sky through the part in my curtains, and heard the birds singing (songs about the weather, no doubt, and how good it was). I saw the light playing off the bricks of the apartment building across the street, and the girders of the blue bridge that reigns over this neighborhood and that is named, like so many things around here, for Henry Hudson. For spending such a magnificent day indoors I felt a combination of foolish, guilty, stupid, and sad. At five o'clock, finally, I closed the lid on my computer, grabbed a random book from a shelf and went out, neglecting to lock the apartment door behind me. Hell, I must have thought. Let whoever steal all of indoors.

Mine is a neighborhood full of parks, but my favorite by far is the one that everyone who lives around here calls the Overlook, short for Half Moon Overlook, Half Moon having been the name of the ship Mr. Hudson (whose statue stands atop a high column in another park) came here on. As parks go it must be one of the smallest, a sixteenth of an acre, if that, shaped (intentionally? ironically? accidentally?) yes, like a half-moon, with room scarcely for one long curved wooden bench—another crescent. The overlook occupies a strategic point overlooking where the two rivers—the Harlem (Spuyten Duyvil Creek, technically) and the Hudson—meet. From it one has a view of the swing bridge connecting Manhattan to parts north, and of the Palisades clear down to the George Washington Bridge, the New Jersey-side tower of which is just visible to the right of the mound of trees that is Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan.

What luck: no one else was there. Usually there's at least one couple. On a sunny day to have the spot all to myself was a luxury. I sat with the sun in my face and opened my book, a collection of stories chosen by editors of literary journals, accompanied by essays wherein the same editors espoused their ideals of great literature. To read is pleasure; to read outdoors on a dry, sunny day with a view of the Palisades and the sun in one's face and no one around touches Heaven. I read a paragraph, looked up at the view, read another paragraph, and so on, neither able nore willing to choose among two beauties: of language and of nature.

Then a couple, a man and a woman, entered through the squeaky, cast-iron gate to break my perfect solitude. They were middle-aged: a term once far removed from my condition, but lately having crept so perilously close I felt it lapping at my doorstep (in fact it has entered and taken up residence).

The man wore an aqua blue sweater and green baseball cap. The woman wore a purple sweater and a thin brown flowing skirt. Though they had already swept passed the point where I could have seen their faces, and now stood facing the view to my right and in front of me, still, even from behind I could see that they were fit, healthy people, their fitness suggesting care, intelligence, responsibility. He had a gray mustache (its ends stood out from the contours of his face); she wore large classes. I felt their intelligence, their loyalty to their children as well as their participation in community events all to the good. I read it in their body language, their goodness, and in the way they stood admiring the view, saying nothing, as intelligent people will when confronted by beauty. They were people such as I might have wished to befriend in some other life, I suppose. I lowered my book and watched them watching the sun as it settled slowly toward the Palisades, which had taken on a bluish-gray cast, while the sun itself still burned hot and white, hot enough to heat my brow so its skin tightened. I wondered where they had come from. They were not locals; I had not seen them around. Maybe they were visiting others, early for dinner, killing time. Were they as aware of me as I was of them, thinking of me, wondering who I was, where I had come from, what I knew, whom I would be eating dinner with (a pair of turkey cutlets thawing on the kitchen counter, each for none but me)?

To be in such close proximity to strangers in a closely defined space creates a special energy, an energy of intimacy, but also a protective, cunning, defensive energy. After all, though the park is public, they had invaded my privacy, and surely they must have known it. Whosoever sits alone on a public park bench commands that bench, however briefly. And in a park so small the same formula extends, multiplies itself by a factor of Y, to include not only bench but gate, fence, view, water and sky. This was my territory, my world to which they had added themselves, and now I looked upon them as a landowner looks upon trespassers, however obviously benign.

These thoughts I entertained or ones like them when the man turned and spoke to me.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "Beautiful."

"It's a great spot," the woman added.

"It is," I said.

"You come here to read?" said the man.

"Sometimes. And to write."

"Oh. You write?"

"Sometimes," I said, and nodded toward my notebook, which I'd also taken with me, but which sat unused on the bench.

"What do you write?" asked them man.

I shrugged. "Stuff," I said.

In its stinginess that answer was meant to discourage further discussion, at least of that subject, and it did. The couple soon turned back to what was not their view as much as it had been mine, and which shared more with them than I was willing to. They watched the river, with its line of shadowy barges, and the cliffs of the Palisades, which by then had turned a deep gray under the floating sun, itself gone from white to a yellow, like an onion carmelized. I no longer felt its heat on my forehead. The air felt suddenly cool, and the same top three buttons of my shirt that I'd undone before I now buttoned again. Now I felt like leaving. My restlessness had found me: no point arguing with or trying to evade it. I gathered my things.

But just as I was about to rise the man took hold of his companion's hand and said, "C'mon; let's go." And with a nod to me that was simultaneously friendly and a rebuke he and she made their way out through the swinging gate, which squeaked again—this time louder and more plaintively than before. A howl of pain.

I was alone again, back in the solitude that I had craved earlier, but which now looked like the spoils of a meal I had ordered with one appetite, and had failed to finish with another. What had been a feast now sat before me, a pile of leftovers, greasy and coagulated. At once the thought of returning to my vast and empty apartment (and to those bloody essays: why, why had I foisted Williams, let alone Charles Darwin, upon a bunch of sweet but mostly callow undergrads?) repulsed me. My life repulsed me. Moments ago it had been a charmed thing; now it seemed nothing but wretched.

It strikes me now, and with a blow as firm as any delivered by the wooden mallet with which I pounded those turkey breasts so thin you could have read the Times through them, that in not sharing with that couple, with those two strangers, in my blind greed for solitude I had denied not only them my company, but myself theirs.

And I wonder now, too, by extension of that thought, if that same sort of Pyrrhic greed, a greed in direct opposition to itself, has informed my decision not to have children, to have the world and this life all to myself--a meal much, much too big for one.

1 comment:

Katinka Neuhof said...

Peter, a lovely piece as always.

Remember, when you're feeling the blankness, despairing in the moment,kicking your own ass, flailing your fist and wishing it could ALL be different, new, or at least easier damn it, remember this:

Someone who knows you well, who isn't as far away as all that, thinks of you every day and can't help but smile.