I came out of the past and appeared to myself once while living in Beirut. It was one of those awful times in this life of high adventure, this life in hopefully wonderful exotic places, when everything had gone wrong – living in Beirut, surrounded by the very worst sort of non-Arabs, the Arabist anti-Semites and pack journalists. I had to admit that there were people I knew there who could seem alive and decent and even entertaining, yet their presence served not to change the picture but, by being so outside the picture, make its awfulness even more clear. Here in a tunnel of hopelessness – and also broke – down and out in this nowhere place city whose pretentious French façade was about as convincing as my family’s British façade had been.
The English couple downstairs in the Sinno building in Ein-mreisse say that for their party they would like everyone to bring a childhood picture. I have just recently received in the mail, out of the blue, a small slightly dog-eared and fading Brownie snapshot of myself at maybe 3 years old sitting with an expression of abandonment all alone in a rowboat on what is clearly Echo Lake where the highway meets the foot of Cannon Mountain at the entrance to Franconia Notch. This picture sent to me from Littleton, New Hampshire, by Aunt Alice in this time I am in what is feeling like a dangerously deep mire – which I am just beginning to see always comes when family seems to surround me – even when via surrogates and from a great distance.
At the party I stay drunk on the most outlandish of alcoholic beverages – Lebanese rosé alternated with arak. No one else brings a childhood picture to the party, so, with relief, I take mine back upstairs, where I will lose track of it, pleased that I have been a good enough sport to have been ready to go along with this unpleasant childhood picture plan.
But well over a dozen years after Beirut in this time of travel into the White Mountains, this time on the hunt in my Aqua Mustang time machine, I am suddenly, as I drive, thinking of that picture – and now also of Aunt Alice with shiny smooth skin suckling her baby, back when I could not have been more than 7 or 8, but not too young to notice wonderfully smooth female nakedness. Pretty Aunt Alice, the black sheep of her generation as am I in mine, which maybe was a part of why I had been so ready to think of her as being what I was told she was, my favorite aunt. Maybe also that she was warm and that she liked me.
I drive through the Notch now. I see lying by the side of the Notch road an old broken sign. Its scratched and faded letters say “ROBIN’S NEST, See a tree growing through a restaurant.” And then another old sign rotting near the shoulder, “DRINK AND JEST AT THE ROBIN’S NEST.” When I was a child we never went to the Robin’s Nest, even though it should have been a proper place since it was in the Notch, which was family approved, but nonetheless the Robin’s Nest was damned as a “tourist gag.”
Now decades out of literal childhood I will go to look for the first time. I turn off on an overgrown driveway that is what I think was the entrance, and suddenly it is like the Planet of the Apes when they come upon the century’s old ruins of New York city. The restaurant building is all loose and rotted boards and broken windows, with a live tree poking out.
I continue on to the edge of the Notch where I come to Echo Lake, where when we were boys and girls starting to live on the exciting side of puberty we went swimming at midnight with hormones wonderfully raging, and I had been sure I had escaped childhood forever. But it is cold today on Echo Lake. There is a familiar cold wind in August. There are no swimmers. The only sign of anything human is a muscular man wind surfing, something that did not exist back in the past I am exploring. Round and round the lake he goes.
I get out and walk on drizzle-soaked path that follows the lake. Clouds are coming down. I nearly trip over a long, partially crushed green megaphone. Planet of the apes. It has to be the very megaphone that used to hang from the arm of a high pole and you would shout into it across the lake and your voice would come back to you.
I hold it up, and I make noises. It is more intact than I had realized. I hold it up. I have no words, just noises. But it works. The noises come back to me from across the lake where once, in ancient times that might, I think, have been present times if I had not taken to the road – where once I was a hopeless child alone in rowboat aware that the worst was probably happening.