Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 74 - OPEN AIR

We were always outdoors, as Kitty’s cousin, Ruthie Grout, pointed out much later. The principal, if not the only, venues for our socializing were in the outdoor parts of family compounds, and on the banks of ponds, and outside the cabins, especially one on a breezy hilltop, that the older people maintained for each new young generation – once even on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school, St Mary’s-in-the-Mountains, that I knew from my very different life in the winter, the place to which I had traveled with hope and fear from my own boarding school in the lake country for dances. I had gotten deeply involved there with an actual girlfriend – but it was closed for the summer, and anyway I could not see how these two worlds would ever mix.

The family compounds. These were not the 700-year-old family seat places I had seen in Europe, but for this context they had felt just as old. And anyway most houses up here were of wood or, like White Pines, partially of wood – and wood could not withstand the wear of centuries.

History was not long up here. This part of the north country had been too wild for Indians. It had not had permanent human life in it before the mountain passes, called notches here, were breached by white men, allowing settlement beginning only at the mid-point of the 18th century – which was like yesterday the way the old summer people talked up here, and also like forever. It was as if these Anglo imitation families and their houses had been here not from the most ancient of days but rather from the time in history that really counted. These big wooden houses framing history that counted.

In the years since my young days in New Hampshire I had been in wildly scenic places on most continents, electric green rice fields, wide jungle rivers, rippling deserts. But I had not in the seemingly eventual years between way back then in the White Mountains and now in the mountains again as a kind of secret agent, I had not in the time in between been so aware of everything in the natural world as I was right now.

This light that did not exist any place else. The constantly changing mountains, soft comforting at one moment, then at another moment black, hovering entities that blocked out the sun like dark giants who were always watching.

In this place where mysteriously in one-o’-cat baseball I could actually hit the ball, something that did not happened at school, hit it farther than anyone else. And on our hikes I was always out in front except when I ran to the back of the line to see one of my friends, or give someone encouragement, and then ran to the front again – for the first time in my life feeling like a leader, not a straggler.

One morning at the tennis courts at the Profile Club I leapt out of the car that brought me there and rushed over to the Mallory clan, which had just arrived for the summer from Philadelphia. Old Otto Mallory and old Mrs. Mallory in floppy but sturdy sun hats they wore for golf, their witty son David and his retiring wife, their wise little grandson, like my brother named Peter, and their granddaughter little Joan Mallory looking almost a woman in this new summer season. I stretched out my hand to each of them. And my unhappy young boy cousin Robin, who was always watching everything with sadness and anger, said why is you are the one who is always out in front? Could it be that Robin had not noticed that until this summer of my sudden adolescent popularity it had been my brother the good twin Peter who wowed everyone with what his maternal grandmother called his cute sayings.

When a group picture of all of us from all these families was taken one morning before we climbed Lafayette together I was in the center and Peter – I thought trying to be funny but I was not sure – held a straw hat over his face to hide from the camera.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 73 – AND ON WATER

Well before heading north I am making forays. I go to Central Park, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to the Bronx Botanical Garden, to Bear Mountain to Roscoe with the photographer Wayne Sorce, whom I know because of Philippine adventures and through my recent lover Jocelyn.

The light had been there when I looked out at the green hill behind our house in Connecticut, and when I was stumbling along the shore of Lake Carnegie in Princeton. It was there in a park with a cupid stature in Ljubljana. And there in the marble Toroko Gorge on Taiwan.

And most recently there in Daubigny and Pissaro and Cezanne – and now, as I go beyond Bear Mountain, in the man-made beauty of Vermont, where the Green Mountains have farmers’ squares of different shades of green high in the air.

Like fields I saw from a backseat in a childhood trip through Quebec.

In this spring of ’86 the light had been there when, with a poetic young lady whose harsh Republican father was an Alaska politician, I walked the length of Central Park all the way to the East Harlem corner where at a neglected lake called the Meer men and women fished with worms as if they were in Alabam. And on another day we rode sleepy old horses through Prospect Part.

And the light remaining when I was alone, as I was so much that spring, frequently circling another pond I had overlooked, which had a curving stone bridge, and an island bird sanctuary, in Central Park’s far southeast corner. Or while retrieving memories on a path around a bigger body of water, where so many years back I had taken girls out in rowboats.

Wayne loaned me fishing equipment and I picked up a license in a gun shop on the way in his K car to the East Branch of the Delaware. He went downstream. I stayed upstream, where I stood on a bank watching the antics of a feral cat moving in and out of everything on the bank across the river.

Wayne never kept his catches, never gutted them as I had done when I was a child. I decided I would not at this time in life keep any creature I caught. And then I did not bother attempting to cast an artificial fly, for the fly would have steel hook in it and I realized that not only had I never wanted to kill fish, I did not even want to hurt them.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 72 - THE LIGHT

And then past was mixing with present again as I stood on a familiar hill in the family part of the White Mountains, stood where there had once been a timeless old summer hotel. Stood looking out with my back to what before it burned down had been the Sunset Hill House. I was looking out at the same panorama seen from White Pines, and I said to myself that no place in the world has light like this.

Earlier that day I stood with Mickie as I looked across the field in front of White Wings, to which she had returned to live maybe forever – looked past an apparent Juniper to the woods beyond, the woods between White Wings and White Pines, which had been my grandfather's woods, as too had been the woods on the other side of White Pines that linked the house to the panorama. But right now I was looking towards tamer woods where Gaga had walked each day to check the level of two concrete-sided cisterns, with shingled roofs over them, that he called reservoirs. And that special light again, and this time I spoke aloud saying to Mickie what I had said by myself, which was that no place in the world has light like this.

I thought of it as the long rays of winter light even in summer, and could forget that the long rays came at the end of the short summer. Though in memory summer was always like the end of summer. Like the long sad cries of northern birds that thrilled me, the end is always there – winter light always there, even when the mountains are soft in summer sunshine.

It was a direct experience of what had drawn me to romantic poetry and emotional painting. And I had to ask myself if this meant that I was comparing everything in the world, always, to what was in northern New Hampshire? Like those family members, always wearing blinders, who could not see the totally different mountains of Switzerland without thinking they saw the White Mountains in them.

And I asked myself if I too had looked at the world that way? Whether it was that field with sheep across from a self-consciously rustic bar filled with stuffed animal heads that was near Vassar college and where I drank to the point of sickness with a not quite happy red-headed Vassar girl. Or whether it was the hill behind our Connecticut house, where high and happy one spring night, home from a date, I lay in the grass looking at the stars and feeling a happiness that was usually illusive. Or was it in the primeval woods of Borneo? Or the careful dark woods of Bavaria? Or that ripping drunk night on Manila Bay’s malodorous beach that I spent with a slippery girl named Baby, and after sunrise reached for an open San Miguel beer and remembered too late I had pissed in the beer bottle in the night.

Had the piercing light been there when I looked across green fields from the train I had boarded in Liverpool when I was 16? When I thought of Ryder rather than of New Hampshire, though England was far more in the Waspy summer people’s worlds than any other place.

The piercing light that at times posed as soft light. I knew before I was 16 that it was there in Wordsworth and Thomas Grey and Thomas Wolfe and especially Thomas Hardy. In Conrad too, a feverish tropical version, like sunrise on Manila Bay. It had been all over literature, certifying what was here in the White Mountains.

Though my turning point took place not in the sanctioned family part of New Hampshire but down in the non-sanctioned New Hampshire lake country, where I was changed forever by truly seeing the spring come in.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 71 - JUST LIKE NEW HAMPSHIRE?

Wherever they were, everything was seen in terms of New Hampshire. Peter forever would say of any girl he saw me with anywhere that she reminded him of Kitty, my girlfriend in adolescence in the White Mountains. Dad would not put a leash on his Cocker Spaniel and go for a walk in Connecticut without pointing out that if this were New Hampshire he would not need a leash. Pointing it out as an overriding fact of life. They talked that way whether, like Peter, they kept going back or, like Mother and dad, they took care to ration their time in New Hampshire.

I went to Switzerland in one of the last phases of a book I pulled together in nine intense months in which I was always on the move – New York, to London, to the Canary Islands, to Malta to Switzerland to London to even New Hampshire, to a raw hotel across from Grand Central. In the Switzerland part I had gone to Zermatt looking for a place where I would be left alone, though unable to forget how the New Hampshire summer people always said how much like being in Switzerland it was to be in the White Mountains. Which I knew to be ridiculous, for the landscapes in Switzerland might be wind swept but were never new Hampshire raw.

But it was true that I had thought of the White Mountains even when in such unlikely places as the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, or in the scraggly, untamed Slavonic version of the alps in Slovenia, even when climbing high Kinabalu in the tight little northern Borneo timber fiefdom of Sabah. I had observed myself picking up on the New Hampshire connection even when it seemed silly to me – as even though a doll-like girl from Singapore, or a rounded New York girl who wore tank tops well, were no more like Kitty than was my depressed mother.

But the thing was that looking out at the mountains every day in Zermatt, both up high in cable cars and funicular or cog railways to the point where everything was open space, then walking down and into woods, I was never for a moment reminded of raw New Hampshire vistas by the Swiss landscape, which was either clean year-round glacier or a man-made landscape of trimmed fields and forests, not unlike skylines in Italy where everything was made beautifully orderly, no matter how it had started out. And then the connection crept up on me unexpectedly. One reason I was in Zermatt was that I had sensed before going there that it was a place where I would be left alone – unlike the chaotic cities of the Near and Far East where I was spending so much of my life. And the food in Zermatt was plentiful and Germanic – much like the food in White Pines which had stood in contrast to the less than plentiful food in most of the Waspdom I knew, including in my childhood home in Connecticut, where meager pieces of greasy mackerel or leathery liver vied with overcooked Brussels sprouts or rope-like string beans.

And I was indeed left alone in Zermatt, whether writing or not. I was especially alone when there were people around – except some nights when I would get drunk in the town. I was alone as I ate my separate-table hotel meals and traveled by cable car or funicular railway, and then walked down through woods full of hearty summer hikers who looked prosperous in understated hiking clothes. I would pass through these people unnoticed as if I were a ghost.

It was that much like old New Hampshire!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 70 – DINING TABLE

I am in the dining room, my back to a standing clock and an opening to the entryway where on the right when going out there is a big staircase going up past the telephone room to the bedrooms and dressing rooms and also on the right the small staircase going down to the downstairs bathroom, and to the left past the walking stick rack the door leading into my grandfather Gaga’s study – the place where on a door turned into a desk, his back to a Franklin stove and a corkscrew iron staircase leading up to a trap door, he writes his books on yellow foolscap.

To my front at the table, past Mrs. Gillman, Nana’s distinguished old friend, who like her has perfect posture and who is the widow of the Herald Tribune’s music critic, and Aunt Peggy, wife of Uncle Nick, looking quite smug and quite pretty in a dress that shows off skin, soft and slightly freckled and appealing but not quite so appealing as Aunt Betsy’s darker, clearer, more shiny skin. For a long moment I fantasize that Mother, who spends very little time up here in the mountains, is dead and I am living with Aunt Peggy. And then I am looking past her to the long horizontal pane glass window that follows both the sweep of the long dining table and the sweep of the mountains. It is comforting that the mountains are always here and also that there is no sign of human activity between them and this house from which I look out at the dining table. It is even more comforting that way up inside the mountains there actually is a sign of life: the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, which is far removed from ordinary life, even the rarefied version of everyday existence that we live here at White Pines.

I have to watch closely, for the Tramway car, tiny at this distance, cannot be sorted out from the side of Cannon except during a few instants when it is near the summit and silhouetted against the sky.

The mountains take up as much space in my head here at the table as does this long room with its living room area down to the right past some Chinese looking screens and the Steinway and Nana's high desk, and to my left the swinging door to the kitchen, and to the left of the window the entrance to steps leading down to a big, airy light blue screen porch with white wicker furniture. I cannot see the porch, and I cannot see the kitchen or the pantry areas – nor beyond them to the Boy’s Wing with its steel-framed folding beds and its beaverboard walls that have very old foreign and steamship line travel posters on them.

The Tramway, the rooms, meld together, along with Aunt Peggy and Mrs. Gilman, and Uncle Nick, and also, at this table our very dark, laughing Great Uncle Prince Jehan Sesodia and Nana’s light-hearted younger sister, Great Aunt and Princess Katherine Sesodia, and my twin brother Peter, who seems much more confident than me, and also, though they are not actually present, Aunt Betsy, whom Nana says is with her young friends, and Mother, whose own mother is spending the summer not here but nearby at a big place filled with Southern ladies, the old Sunset Hill House Hotel, and Dad, somewhat inside himself like me, who is down in the city working at his publishing job.

They are here, just as is Gaga who is toying with his soup way down to my right at the head of the table, and to my left at the other head of the table Nana, who runs everything, including the servants whom she can summon with a buzzer she activates by pressing with her foot a bulge in the carpet that cover the buzzer’s activator. And in the far pantry there is a wooden box that behind a glass frame has numbers that drop down if people upstairs are in trouble or in need and press buttons.



Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 69 – DOWN FROM THE NORTH

So Gillian and I got back to the city very late on a Sunday night, back from the lake house I had proudly borrowed for trysting purposes in Vermont, back from forays across the border into the stark, striking landscape of the White Mountains – rocky peaks, jagged cliffs, and beneath them failed farms side by side with the rambling landscaped estates of the summer people with their Anglo pretensions – my people when I was growing up in those places that nonetheless had beauty to them and grace, too, it seemed, and certainly excitement – scenes of first love and artistic and intellectual discovery as well as family scenes – these places that were really not my world now, never had been, I had decided by now, though it had been a shock to discover they still had this pull.

The time with Gillian, which, as planned, had indeed become a trysting time, though that had not been agreed at the start, it was also like an exciting vacation in alluring lands, as much as it was an almost guerilla like series of forays over the Vermont-New Hampshire border, across enemy lines, to find out – it seemed my life now depended on finding out – just what had happened in the deep past that had already brought so many of my peers to bad ends in the present. Who had done what to who, who had done what to me – though in my mind the dark scenes were, however much about the past I was learning, still imposed on scenes of summer days, the smell of pine, the long sweet-sad sounds of northern birds – which in turn would be covered by scenes of dire darkness, things I knew and things I was looking for – but the dark scenes transparent so that the summer scenes where still there – and the other way around too – the darkness in the happy days versions of this place, the happy days versions that still, though I knew better (and I had hardly been there for thirty years) still had a grip on me.

And there was something that seemed so very normal, the powerful sexuality that was somehow tied in with all versions.

I actually thought for what was not much more than a moment that it would continue, the happy times somehow overriding the rest and taking me, taking us, into the present.

The trip down from northern Vermont to the city could be made by a motivated driver in seven hours, but with zigzagging through New England it took us from mid-morning on the lake to after midnight in my one bedroom apartment on 25th Street. And this did not – during this long moment – seem to have any aspect of being an ending.

We get out of bed in a small musty room looking out on fog rising from Lake Champlain, and many hours later are back in bed in Chelsea. The first time she had ever seen my Chelsea apartment.

In the morning we were awakened by voices outside the window, which looked out from the fourth floor over an abandoned back garden and then over rooftops and wooden water towers all the say south nearly, it seemed, to the Battery. The voices were two Indian workers on a platform suspended from the roof of this six-story building. They were talking away in Hindi, and Gillian was translating in whispers – it was all about how to handle women, where and how to fuck them, how to make them want more, and then Gillian, this blonde girl, leaned out the window half-naked and shouted something up in Hindi, and they started making sounds like they were calling out to their heathen gods for protection.

That both of us knew a number of faraway worlds was what had brought us together – though we still hardly knew each other – and then it turned out we had once known fairly similar, and sometimes quite brutal, supposedly correct, supposedly upper class worlds, in which our stories seemed to mingle as we ourselves mingled.

But it was only for a moment that it looked like this would last. Late the following day she went back to her sublet over near First Avenue. Time, we both decided to be alone. The next morning she would be back at work, selling African fetish figures on the sidewalk just down from the Modern Art Museum, presumably wearing the high yellow boots I had bought her at a hardware store in the middle of Vermont. And thought I would go there to meet her, take coffee and bagels to her.

Even that was far more intimate than it could be in reality. Whatever had been there was over.

Never again, I told myself, as if several decades had been covered in this brief trysting time. And I was starting to think that romantic despair had never lived up to its reputation.