In love not with scenery but with distance, light is a stranger in this universe, a traveler passing through at 186,000 miles per second. On its way elsewhere, it flashes off the ruffled surfaces of lakes and the snow-settled slopes of mountains. It vaults in shards off the glassy highrises of cities and in handfuls off the windows of remote farmhouses. It retreats, at its absurd velocity, from the mirrored eyes of nocturnal animals back into night. Mostly, however, it hurtles by unobstructed and, even less fortunate than the shark, remains in motion forever. Unlike sound, it has no fear of the vacuum. Masquerading sometimes as a particle, sometimes as a wave, it passes through the void as if it were truly empty.
It doesn’t occur to us, as we turn a page of the morning paper or smile across the room at one another or stop to admire the cut clarity of a diamond, that light’s foremost desire, from the instant of its creation—whether in the fused heart of a star, the sulfurous head of a match, or the glowing filament of a bulb—is to escape. While physicists preoccupy lifetimes mapping the details of its movement, measuring its various properties, and assigning it a place in their theories, its vanishing presence is perhaps most appreciated by painters who, over the centuries, have devoted themselves to reproducing its effects on canvas.
Even before the sun has lifted into view, light begins to shift the mood and cast of a city. With the grit-black of the sky receding a grain at a time, this is the hour when a painter might be unpacking his brushes and setting up an easel on a bank of a river. Each solid thing—the copper façade of the train station, the trees guarded by square fences of iron, the fire escapes zigzagging across the faces of tenements, the tenements themselves—slides away from the placental dark in which each of them shares an unbroken existence. From dawn to midday to the onset of night again, nothing changes but the light and yet, as any painter can affirm, a hundred cities have flickered in and out of existence.
This might also have been the hour of mourning in 1879 when, after an all-night vigil at the bedside of his wife, Claude Monet realized that not even Camille’s death could quell his obsession with light and its infinitely varying hues. Kneeling beside her body, he stared with burning eyes as sunlight found itself unwittingly caught in the trap of the bedroom. He watched Camille’s face assume unfamiliar and unforeseen aspects. His eye was entranced by her tragic temple as he would later refer to it, by the color degradation that death had just left on the motionless face, by the blues and grays that deepened like creeping shadows.
That, Monet concluded, is what I had come to.
No better than a pendulum whose arc was determined by Newton’s laws, he was merely a collection of reflexes set in motion by the colors of his dead wife’s face. Appalled at himself, at how thoroughly he’d become rooted in pigment, in the smell of the oily paints and the coarse surface of the canvas, he likened himself to an animal turning round a millstone.
Does it come as any surprise that he painted her on her deathbed? Although a bonnet covered her head, although she was bundled in bedding and veiled with a gossamer shroud, her husband insisted on cocooning her in color as well. Sun enters his portrait from an unseen window on Camille’s left, flaring some of the bedding into yellow, while she herself, her eyebrows raised almost inquisitively, is submerged in the somber blues and grays that had taken hold of Monet’s retina. Unnaturally, his vision is undistorted by the lensing effect of tears. Museum docents and art critics point to this portrait, Camille sur son lit de mort, and speak of it as another frame in Monet’s lifelong study of what lay between his eye and what he despaired of ever adequately rendering in paint.
Light and its shifts attracted Monet the way a magnetic field might draw an iron soul; light as tempered by degrees of shadow on a milieu of objects; light divided by time. Did it matter to Monet whether light was particle or wave? Did it matter to him that neither he nor anyone else ever actually saw an object, that the eye is capable only of gathering the light fleeing innumerable surfaces? The likely answer in both cases is no. Instinctively, however, Monet may have felt that the emptiness he struggled with every day—always there no matter how much paint he squeezed from tubes—would have been unbearable if it were not for the reliable visits of a radiant stranger.
Vincent Czyz is the author of Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is also the recipient of the 1994 W. Faulkner-W. Wisdom Prize for Fiction and two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts. The 2011 Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers, his short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Georgetown Review, Camera Obscura, Louisiana Literature, Southern Indiana Review, andWasafiri.
Last week, I posted the article “‘This Did Something to Me’: Authors’ Favorite First Lines of Books” (The Atlantic, July 25) to my Facebook page. The article’s author, Joe Fassler, was motivated to begin this project of asking contemporary novelists about their favorite first lines following an interview he conducted with Stephen King. King, he relates, gave him the idea “off-the-cuff”:
‘You could go around and ask people about their favorite first lines,’ (King) said… ‘Why not do it? I’d love to know, like, Jonathan Franzen’s favorite first line.’
Twenty-one writers replied (and Franzen was among them; he chose the first line of The Trial by Franz Kafka in case you, like Stephen King, want to know) and a widely varying but revealing collection took shape. What did the collection reveal? That across genre and despite any range in “tone and execution” of the lines chosen, it is clear that first lines matter the way first impressions do. Just as when you see something intriguing in a person – a fetching smile, memorable eye color, an appealing style of dress, a quiet confidence – that makes you want to plumb the depths of that individual, a memorable first line will also draw you in. It will make you want to plunge into a book headlong; it will be, in Fassler’s words, the “inward swing of some inviting door” to a reader.
My favorite first line ever is this from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” With this opener, Austen certainly prepares the reader for what is to come – a book about marriage – but there is something wry in there too, a hint perhaps that there will be no easy road to marriage. The mention of personal wealth (“a good fortune”) subtly introduces the reality of social classes, and hints at what might happen when a wealthy man looks for a wife within a society that draws lines between rich, poor, and everything in between. This is no simple romance about marriage. Instead, with just a few well-chosen words, a story of manners and shrewd observations is underway.
A couple of weeks ago I finished the novel He’s Gone by Deb Caletti. I started the book one night at bedtime and finished it the next morning. Could not put it down. A story about Dani Keller whose husband, Ian, simply disappears without any warning, the book drew me in right away and held my attention right to the very last word. Here’s the opening line: “I used to imagine it sometimes, what would happen if one day I just didn’t come home.” I was ready for a story about someone who just didn’t come home and what that might mean to the person left behind with “all the daily pieces of (an) interrupted life.” Pieces such as an abandoned coffee cup or a pair of pajamas in the laundry basket. What would Dani find of Ian in the days after his disappearance? Would her discoveries give clues to his whereabouts? Or would they mean nothing? I expected (and wanted) the mystery of that interrupted life to unravel and answers to reveal themselves bit by bit as I read.
Compare that to the first line of the book I’m reading this week, another story of a disappearing spouse, this time a vanishing wife. In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the opening line comes from Nick Dunne, husband of the gone girl, Amy: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” That single sentence doesn’t offer many clues about what might happen and the story’s direction isn’t clear from the start. One paragraph into the book, Nick reveals what he is really thinking about: his wife’s mind, “…all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes.” And there it is, the intriguing kernel of information that reveals this will be a book about a husband’s lack of understanding and a wife’s complex, unknowable mind. This book began slowly for me, and I think I know why: the door into this particular story isn’t as invitingly wide open as it might be at its start. In fact, the door doesn’t open fully until several lines later.
Take some time to think about your own favorite first lines. Think about what draws you into a book and why. What book have you picked up and stayed with, excited to keep pressing on and turning pages? What one (or ones) have you set aside after only a few pages? In both cases, did the first lines play a part in your decision to read or not?
A STORY OF VENTURERS AND INDIANS, OF WILDERNESS AND SETTLEMENT, OF WITCHCRAFT AND WAR. Karen…
I am running through a field, pink with irises.
After the surgery, I won’t be able to do this anymore.
The grass is damp under my toes, the sun is warm. When I get tired, I keep running anyway. When I crest the hill I jump, and the world falls away so that it’s a marble, glossy and small.
The surgery is four hours; new advances have made it an outpatient procedure. It’s practically painless after the gas. I still can’t make my heart calm down.
I’ll spend my last hours here, a hundred thousand miles above the earth. I float among the stars, touching them in order, forming a picture, connecting the dots. When I step back I see it as tall as a tower, my name in shining lights. I like to think it will stay even after I’m gone.
It’s not that I’m lonely, it happens to everyone. I checked the records, there will be a dozen others there with me at the hospital, all there for the same thing. Solidarity is a word I can’t wrap my head around.
I leave the stars and touch down on earth. The snow is falling; the smell of my favorite bread is in the air. I’m home, before we’d moved, when the rafters of the house were still too tall to touch. I spend the last of my time baking cookies with my mother, hands sticky with dough, lips sweet with chocolate.
“The doctor is ready to see you, now.” The woman says, but it’s not my mother, and I’m not home.
The doctor’s office. Clean, clinical, crisp. Nothing has changed.
Today is the day I get the third quadrant cut out of my brain. Clinical terms replace the messier ones; my dreams are gone. For a while, I thought about running, but skinned knees and broken fingers proved the wall was too high.
Today is the day I become an adult. It’s only now that I realize how much I hate phrenology. Or maybe I just hate myself; my body got older before I was ready. Change is inevitable, systemic; I thought I’d have more time.
I get to my room.
I look out the window and search for my stars.
Last June an unexpected roommate arrived. The last time I’d seen him, he’d whisked me away from the Seville airport on the back of his motorcycle for a two week trip through Spain where he knew the language, the roads and the people. It was a vacation for both of us. For him, a break from his life as a language teacher in Italy; for me, an exciting break from my mundane life as a graphic designer in Cambridge. Now back in the States, he was without a job, friends and transportation, dependent on me for the moment until he could save up some money and continue on to South America before settling down with a “regular” job. How was I to set boundaries with my new roommate, my 25 year-old-son?
During his last year of college, I had resigned my role as keeper of bedrooms when I sold the house, cut my expenses and returned to graduate school to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. By the time my thesis was done four years later, Aaron was an ESL teacher in Rome, and his older brother Michael, a musician living in San Francisco. The two sleeper sofas forming a “conversation corner” in my new living room rarely opened. But even though I missed my sons, I was finally going after my own dreams without having to worry about taking care of anyone else. I could let the refrigerator go empty, read all weekend, unplug the phone and finally catch up on all those years of being there for everyone else. At last I had a plan. When I’d squirreled away enough money for a six month sabbatical from my design work to nurture my budding writing career, Aaron moved home from Italy! The mother in me was thrilled to see him again, but what about my new baby: my writing career?
I moved one of the sofa beds into my newly abandoned design studio, emptied out file cabinets for Aaron’s clothes. My exercycle with the reading stand (read: clothes rack) went to the storage room along with my drafting table and all my winter clothes. I slept in the living room, setting up my laptop in a tiny end of my kitchen for a writing space.
By mid July, our cohabitation had its perks and its quirks. Aaron cooked great Italian meals, but he didn’t clean the tomato sauce that spattered over my stove. He filled my car with gas and the refrigerator with food but also the shower drain with his long curly blonde hairs and the bathroom sink with his beard trimmings. He politely tiptoed around the kitchen as I sat behind my folded screen that warned “Working writer——do not disturb!” but I found myself inventing solutions to his life problems instead endings to my short stories. One minute I’d be writing, then the next looking over the screen to tell him he ought to send a thank you note for that job interview, or maybe the time had come for him to cut his hair.
Before long he raced around to corporations and language schools teaching enough classes to save some money and South America took a back seat to just making a living. Without any end in sight to our living arrangement, I suggested that if he were still here by mid October he could start paying me rent.
For quality time together, we decided to eat out one night a week. But who pays? He assumed I would and I did but not without wishing he had offered to treat me. While in the middle of an elaborate meal of lamb vindaloo in a mediocre but expensive restaurant, I decided our occasional meals together should be at home.
I rented a tiny room outside of the house where I went every day to write. No telephone. A door I could close. A desk uncluttered by bills, toast, and lists of suggestions for his life.
Mid summer I fought back a wave of nostalgia when I visited a friend’s house——one of those homes where in spite of two grown daughters, the play room is still untouched, window sills stacked with every board game ever printed and a play castle surrounded with enough toys to open a licensed day care center. I no longer had the big nest but my bird was back.
When rent time arrived, we hit a low point. After he handed me a few hundred dollars, tears welled in his eyes when I actually took the money.
“I’m your son,” he wailed, “How can you take rent from me?”
“You should force the money on me,” I said. “I wish you’d say, ‘I know how hard you’ve worked over the years. It’s my turn to help you out.’”
We were back in our familiar pattern: I felt unappreciated and he cried that I didn’t care about him. It was a battle we’d been fighting since he was a curly topped adorable but screaming four-year-old squirming in the seat of a shopping cart I rolled through a toy store that had gone belly up. For the first time I’d been able to fill a cart with toys I bought for pennies. Yet Aaron cried at the checkout counter when I wouldn’t buy one more thing. “Never enough!” I said to myself. “No matter how much I give, this kid’s never satisfied.”
But now we were two adults talking. He wanted me to keep some of the money as a good faith gesture but not rent. I kept enough to cover the cost of my writing room that month, and we dropped the rent issue completely. He would save for his own place. I began to understand what he wanted was welcoming him here with no strings attached. Unconditional love——not very common among roommates. And not really possible on Things got better after that.
As I stuffed my winter clothes back into my overcrowded closet, my roommate/son announced he’d found an affordable apartment. He’d move out January first. Sadness took me by surprise. I’d miss his impersonations of his foreign students’ struggle with our illogical language. His smiling face and maybe even his dark moods. But he’d be nearby, no longer a continent away. He was tired of living out of boxes and file cabinets, of having girls hang up when they heard my voice on the answering machine, of not being able to bring his friends home, of tiptoeing past my bed in the middle of the night. By now he removed his hairs from the drain, washed his whiskers off the sink, and cleaned all the pots and pans when he cooked. When we ate out, we went Dutch.
As his day of departure approached, everything shifted into high gear. The clutter in the apartment grew exponentially as he collected pots and pans, a huge used TV, books and records exhumed from storage for his new home. And my maternal tendency to butt in culminated in another confrontation.
The phone had rung. It was for him. When I asked without thinking who had called, he burst out of his room and waved his arms as he recited with vaudevillian verve, “That was Thomas. I’m giving him Italian lessons, and then I’m going to buy a pepper mill for my waiter job and…” on and on he continued with every minuscule detail of his day. “And what about you?” he challenged, “How’s that book coming? You’re such a recluse, always in front of that computer. You only have 20 or 30 years left, I’d like to see you find a man and settle down!”
He delivered his attack with so much affection and humor that I rolled off my bed to the floor laughing. His performance was flawless. After all, he’d been rehearsing it for six months.
One night before he went out to a party, he asked whether the red or the green sweater matched his blue shirt. I said neither. He tried on a third, sighed, then put on the green one and walked out the door.
I’ve decided to move my bed into the bedroom when he leaves, but to keep my writing office outside of the house. Just as important as it is to give my young vocation all the trust and backing it deserves, so too with my son as he moves on to the next phase of his life.
It’s time to admit my efforts to be more roommates than mother/son have failed. As long as he’s under my roof, I can’t stop harping on where he should look for a second job, how he could be more assertive in negotiating his lease, and criticizing his insistence that the women he dates be thin—advice I’ve learned undermines his own confidence. The nest needs to be a fluid and open space in the mind and the heart, not threatened by a common roof or the physical doors we close or open.