I open a book to an underlined description of a city: "Euphemia, the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox." The hardcover book has a shiny silver dust jacket and has been visible on the bookshelf in our dining room for as long as I can remember. I know I enjoyed the book greatly once, but I can't remember reading it, or underlining that particular passage. I flip to the flyleaf, surprised to see that my friend B. gave it to me forty years ago, when I lived in Ithaca. I haven't thought of that particular friend for many years. I see her before me now: skin so pale it was almost translucent, pale blue eyes, thin, straight hair—a color that used to be called dirty blonde. A townie, the daughter of an engineering professor, she'd dropped out of college after a psychotic break years earlier. She lived on food stamps and temporary part-time jobs and magical thinking. She kept a miniature Tarot deck in a cedar box and frequently read my cards. I don't remember what future they foretold.
I remember the many-storied house on the hill where I lived then, a rickety old house subdivided into a rabbit warren of apartments. I was living in the top story apartment with a glamorous German grad student when I had my own breakdown, and then the cellar apartment with B. and her cat when I returned to grad school after my mental health leave. It was the twelfth apartment and eighth city I'd lived in after leaving home. I've lived in several more cities and—I count them on my fingers—ten more apartments and houses in the decades since then. In Greek legend, Ithaca is a longed-for destination at the end of the hero's journey, but in my case it's a place long since left behind, along with my memories of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
Do the citizens of Euphemia trade new memories for old ones? Or do they trade memories, telling stories to newcomers in exchange for theirs? Or perhaps they trade in memories, as I do, circling around the same moments in the past, seeking new entry points, encountering past selves and places I've half forgotten.
Instead of rereading the book from the beginning, I skip through the pages, looking for passages I underlined, none of which I remember. I've underscored a passage about Zaira, a city that contains its entire past: "The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls." Forty years later, I've become more aware of the pasts buried in the present, excavating memories that are layered and hidden. Sometimes I'm astonished at fragments that surface out of nowhere—an object, an image or sound or smell, a snatch of conversation, a shard of pottery—puzzles that require dating and provisional interpretations that change over time. The past is more present than it once was, and I pick over detritus for trinkets and artifacts of interest to no one but me. Calvino's city of Leonia tries to rid itself of the past, which nevertheless accumulates, threatening to return in an image I marked when I was in my twenties: "an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years, withered flowers."
Calvino's fabulous cities multiply like dreams, a secret discourse where everything conceals something else. Eudoxia, for example, is filled with "winding alleys, steps, dead ends" where it is all too easy to get lost, and I often dream of hurrying through serpentine streets in unknown cities, and labyrinthine hallways leading to hidden rooms in the houses of my childhood. Was that already true forty years ago? Is that why I underlined those lines in pencil? Who was she, the girl with a pencil in her hand? If I follow those winding alleys, climb those steps and descend others, will I arrive at a door that seems familiar? Will she open the door if I knock?
Doors from my past flash before me. The townhouse door hidden in a courtyard on a mews in Dublin where I struggled to climb in an upper window after I'd forgotten my key. I remember how badly I had to pee that day, and the two young lawyers who broke into the house for me. The door of the stone building on the cobblestoned castle grounds in Jühnde in Germany, opening to stairs that I ran up and down many times a day with a canister of oil for the stoves that heated our rooms. The ornate cement entrance to the apartment building in New York called "The Bertha," just down the street from St. John the Divine, where bells pealed wildly on Sundays. Apartments where I climbed stairs to get to my door, apartments where I descended stairs to get to my door. The long path and three steps up to my house in Castro Valley now, shaded by two enormous trees far older than any human habitations in the neighborhood.
And if I were to open the door to my former selves now? In my imagination, they climb three steps to the house in Northern California where I've lived for over twenty years and knock at the door to the present. I wonder what memories of sorrow and jubilation we might exchange if I opened the door to the girl who lived in Dublin, or the girl in Göttingen—who both traveled so widely, eager for adventure, the girl who fled to New York—where she crawled out of a somnolent depression, or the girl who lived in Ithaca twice —where her marriage broke up, where she rode a manic high until she crashed, where she took refuge in the library, writing 600 pages on Edgar Allan Poe (haunted by those women who resurrect themselves again and again). Yeats imagined children staring at him in wonder, a "sixty-year-old smiling public man," his passions and history invisible. Will that girl be surprised by the sixty-something writer who stands on the threshold?
I rediscover Calvino and the city of Euphemia, where memories are traded on every equinox, on the day before the spring equinox. I secretly believe that there are no coincidences, but I don't say so out loud, because I associate that belief with my long ago journey into madness. It was a time in my life when everything was interconnected, everything a portent holding significance for the future. It strikes me now that all of my underlinings in Invisible Cities forty years ago centered on memory and the past, though there are more prominent themes in the book. Was I anticipating a future where my present would become the past? Or maybe I already saw doors closing behind me—cities and friends and experiences I would not revisit, except in memory. One passage I marked seems particularly true to me now. As the traveler advances to the future, "what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey."
I replace the shiny silver book in a bookcase littered with family pictures, behind a small photo in a round gold frame of my father before he had children, before he married, on his one great adventure, a months-long voyage to India and Egypt. He's standing on a busy street in an unfamiliar foreign city with two other sailors, wearing a pith helmet, his work shirt half unbuttoned. He's so young, so happy, slouched with a cigarette in his hand, grinning. A man I don't recognize at all.
Going through my father's papers after his death, I found a torn envelope where he'd written a list of cities where he'd lived as a child. I've lost the list, and can only remember that the town where he was born, the site of a WWI munitions plant in New Jersey, doesn't appear on maps any more. All of the cities might be said to have disappeared with him. Memories as insubstantial as air, fleeting as clouds on a windy day.
Jacqueline Doyle's award-winning flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl is available from Black Lawrence Press. In addition to flash fiction and nonfiction in The Cafe Irreal, Hotel Amerika, threadcount, and The Collagist, she has published fiction and creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Passages North, Midway Journal, and Fourth Genre. Her work has earned numerous Pushcart nominations and six Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. Her story, "Losing Time," appeared in Issue #48 of The Cafe Irreal. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter at @doylejacq.
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