When my wife’s out of town, I go out late at night.
I walk down an alley below the balcony of an old woman smoking cigarettes and yelling what sounds like Russian into her phone, avert my eyes from the teenagers smooching in the bakery parking lot, pass under the sickly green signs of the clustered drug dens “collectives” and the blinking neon of carpet stores and electronics shops, nod at the Chinese guy breaking down his boxes out back of the donut shop and the homeless men arranging theirs in the vestibules of insurance agencies, peer into the yawning maws of empty buildings and the kitten dens of all-night vets, watch as the intermittent strobe of headlights amplifies the garishness of sex shop window wares, side-glance into the “CLOSED” Mediterranean restaurant, too intimidated to look full-on at the table of dark-suited men drinking arak and smoking cigars (yes, on white linens), step down into the street around the sidewalk-piles of box springs and shelving units that’ll all be gone by morning, wondering just how late it is that the nocturnal rag-and-bonemen come.
I tell myself I take this stroll to unwind, to help settle my stomach after the dinner I ate over the sink two, three, four hours later than I would if she were home, to clear my head after working on the book, to relax before sleep, to circulate the blood, or whatever other justifications I can come up with for what’s really, if I’m honest about it, an excuse to pretend I’m like Charles Dickens.
He did that, went for walks at all hours of the day or night, to take in the country, to see his city, to engage with the landscapes of his tales. He was a writer, I’m a writer. He was eccentric, I’m a little bit weird, sometimes. Kind of. I pretend to be, at least. And I live on a street that bears his name, so I think about him even more often than I normally would (which, when you’ve read all his books at least once and some several times, is a lot).
And it really is nice to go out and walk around late at night, especially now when it’s so hot all day and the streets are finally cooling down a few hours after nightfall. You see people driving their cars then, along Ventura Boulevard when it’s nice and quiet and traffic-free, and they have the windows down and maybe if they’re lucky the top down too and even if they don’t have a hand out the window fluttering in the rush of air, you figure they must have a moment ago.
But where The Inimitable would walk twenty miles, I walk half of one, maybe thrice that if I’m feeling especially energetic, before I wish I had some destination, someone I was going to see, to talk to, to interact with. Novel writing can be kind of like doing cocaine—once you get started, it’s pretty much all you want to do the rest of the night, and you have so much to say, and you feel really industrious but also, after a few hours, kind of thin or hollowed out, drained but restless, and the last thing you want to be doing is wandering around aimlessly even though you want it to help and you’re not quite sure what else to do with yourself.
I like to think at the end of several solitary hours inside our small abode that being out in the wide world will rejuvenate me, reconstitute me, burn off whatever energy the work has generated and start sowing new creative ground. But the Valley’s empty streets are no balm for whatever that ailment’s called. Walking is not calming or stimulating, and I’m distracted from the distraction, and I have to admit, picking at the plywood of this week’s boarded-up restaurant or staring into next week’s plastic-wrapped CrossCoreYogaFitFlexTan&Talent, that what it all amounts to is loneliness, a longing sometimes bordering on despair.
I don’t like running the AC when she’s gone either, on some kind of principle that I could neither name nor describe. So I shower when I get back, a quick cold shower to get my heat down, and lie on my bed and look uncomprehendingly at black squiggles arranged into lines on eggshell pages. Invariably, as I reach over to flick off the light and set my alarm and see the time, I think—I say aloud—Why do I do that it’s stupid this is not enough sleep.
But the next night, come ten thirty or eleven when I’m brushing my teeth, excited about the prospect of a rare solid hour+ of reading, I find myself thinking about my local haunts, wondering if the donut guy with his boxes is just getting to work or only finally leaving and how maybe this time I’ll finally ask him, and before I know it, my t-shirt’s back on and I’m slipping my feet into sandals and hitting the door.
I used to think of it as a secret, this going out at night, back when Erin was just my girlfriend. As a thing belonging only to me. Paul Theroux said somewhere* that writers thrive on secrets, and I know what he means. I don’t know what’s changed about it now, to tell on myself about it. To tell you. I’m not afraid—or hopeful—that doing so will dispel what little charm the exercise might have to lose.
I don’t think I could do it with her home—leave her sitting in the apartment watching TV or reading, saying as I head out the door, “Going for a walk, babe, exorcise some demons, you know. nbd. brb.” It’d seem…pretentious. At best.
And I wouldn’t need to if she were home. I do not need to when she’s home. It’s never occurred to me to go out and “stretch my legs”/channel C. D. when Erin’s around. And perhaps—and we arrive at the point at last—it’s the simple fact of having gotten married, of finally being on the other side of a ten-year courtship, that’s got me looking at things in a different shade of streetlight.
People’s most common question these days is, “So, how’s married life? Any different?” It’s an obligatory question, and most of the time I give them the polite nonanswer they’re hoping for—”Naw, not really” or “You know, it’s really great” or “We’re finally talking about something besides the wedding.”
But this is something that is different. It’s not that I’m pissed she has to travel for work or that I resent her for being gone or that I want her to be home every night by 6:15 (I mean, I do, but you know what I mean, not “in front of the stove” &c.). It’s that the abortive rambling no longer seems to be just mine. It no longer seems to have nothing to do with anyone else.
It’s what I do when my wife’s not home. It has to do with her absence, so it has to do with her.
It’s a fairly fundamental aspect of my personality that I best learn things in the negative. Like Taj Mahal’s crooning up there in that song, like the people of the great state of California are starting to realize, I don’t miss my water till my well runs dry. Which, no, is not the same as absence makes the heart grow fonder.
I’m surprised sometimes by how slow I can be to pick up on things—as I said, it was a ten-year courtship. I know so many things intellectually. We all do. We all know how you’re “supposed” to feel about marriage and a spouse (what “supposed to” means is different for each of us, yes, but the knowing is universal). But that’s just information, right, and as a wise man once said, “information is not knowledge.”** Sometimes when we move on to knowledge, when we realize what a piece of information means to us or how it makes us feel or how it affects our behavior, we’re surprised to find it’s substantially different from the information we thought we had. A lot of times, when I get up in to the knowledge arena, I’m surprised at how straightforward it is.
“Ah,” I think, looking away from a dumpster full of lilies behind the florist’s so I don’t get caught weeping on Van Nuys Boulevard, “so what you’re saying, Universe/gaping hole in my chest, is that I’m better off with her here than without her? Holy shit, you’re right! Man, good thing we got hitched.”
I’ll probably have to learn and relearn this a few more thousand times before it really sinks in, or stays sunk—another persistent delusion of mine, this assumption that my default setting is “Loner.”
Or maybe, being reminded of something often is actually a working definition of “knowledge.”
I’ll always keep some things to myself, of course. Like a friend of mine says in response to Penny for your thoughts?,
But I’m beginning to realize and recognize that doing so is an act of identity—what and how much is ours, what and how much mine—and that my identity is very much in flux again. Or maybe I’m just hyper-aware of its flux capacity now, with my shiny new golden hoop. Either way, it’s a pretty good feeling.
There’s this insistence among people who get married at my age, or maybe just among men (or maybe just among me), that it’s of the utmost importance to maintain your sense of self in marriage, to remain independent, to not be one of those couples that end up in matching Hawaiian shirts. But I’m starting to see that a “union” can reveal other rather interesting and novel avenues or (if you’ll permit me a little New Ageiness) ways of being that I hadn’t thought much about or even conceived of, really, and that I’m certainly not able at present to describe any better than that, except maybe to add that I feel a great sense of being on the threshold of things. Poised before the promise of adventure, if you will.
And that, maybe, contrary to a lifelong belief, I’m not Charles Dickens after all, and prefer to walk as part of a pair.
*It was in an architecture magazine, I think, that I saw in a doctor’s office two or three years ago. Meaning it could be as old as ten. I’ve searched and searched for it because I’d love the exact reference, but alas this is one treasure the interweb is keeping to herself.
**Man went on to say that “knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, and love is not music. Music is the best.”