I turned 73 today. I look it. My hair is shaggy and white as old snow, my moustache a bit rough over my upper lip from the electric clipper I pass over it. My ear hair sprouts like bits of moss the barber misses if she’s in a hurry. So it goes. My bladder is erratic and impulsive; I have to be on the qui vive at all times to avoid an accident. My mind is still good, but I get bulletins now and then that inform me I have forgotten the first or last name of an old friend, an author I liked once, a song title, a movie whose plot is now in fragments as I try to recollect the story line. Part of my day is spent taking a quick inventory of losses to my dignity, but seldom am I moved to pity myself. I take it this is the cost one pays to survive. And the cost can be severe at times.
This year alone I have lost two friends who gave me affection. One was older by a decade who died standing by a creek in the woods, falling face down into the damp leaf-carpeted bank while his dog wandered off briefly. She came back and stood guard over him and barked when a hiker came too close. He wore a pair of good walking shoes, a sweater he bought from a Scottish wool store here in Vermont. His hands were long-fingered and delicate, instruments of a man who had turned many pages in his life, and who loved learning. The other was a Canadian professor from Ottawa, a criminologist who was fluent in both English and French, and who invited my family to dinner at his rented farm house in Provence most summers. He put on a feast each time, and served excellent dry, crisp white wines from the region, and finished the meal with dark, chewy reds from the lower Rhone. He withered away from a brain tumor no one could arrest or remove. Both men walked into the mist without turning back to nod or wave.
To turn 73 is to pass from one sort of house to another, both identical, both painted white, with porches and double-hung windows, with spacious high-ceilinged rooms with a stairs at one end of the hall rising to the bedrooms and bath at the end of the hall. Both are continuous with the other houses I have lived in and left, and represent a kind of curved, organically turned series of pasts such as a chambered nautilus secretes in its effort to transcend the impossible limitations of existence. I know them all; indeed, my dreams are like an architect’s sketches that keep repeating the same details without quite finding the ideal structure to build. Each draft is temporary and imperfect; each set of lines connects something but without capturing the infinite or the eternal. All fail for one reason or another, mostly because they are founded on principles the earth alone determines – and everything on earth returns to oblivion.
So I am now 73. I am reminded of a voyage I took with my family long ago, back in 1958, from Southampton, England to New York on the sparkling new ocean liner, the USS United States, the biggest ship afloat at the time. I shared a stateroom with my two brothers, and we could order room service all night long, and on our first night, did, with a platter of fresh fruit and shrimp arriving every other hour until we could eat no more. The first class deck was our playground; we hiked the length of it and came back the other side, and held onto the ropes when a storm blew up. The girls were pretty and from wealthy families; the old codgers were no different from the millionaires who had boarded the Titanic forty-six years earlier. We had more lifeboats and god knows more gauges and radios to alert nearby ships if she should founder. No one worried about it. The captain was a distinguished looking Oxford-don type, with a Boston accent and a finely trimmed Van Dyke of salt and pepper. He smoked a cigarette at our table one night, a Turkish one he had twisted into an amber holder and held aloft to keep the smoke from drifting into our eyes. We were thrilled to be his guest that night.
I won a dance contest in the cavernous ballroom, dancing wildly with a girl not yet fourteen, but who flung herself to my arm’s length and almost flew off her high heels. She was ecstatic; her smile was that of an older woman’s, almost glazed with energy and pleasure. She was more mature than I, a flimsy adolescent of fifteen with enough bones to allow me a few sensational leaps and collapses onto the wooden floor and enough spring in my tendons to let me leap back into action. The crowd encircled us and clapped and the orchestra kept repeating the middle bars of the song to let us show off. We finally stopped and the orchestra blew all its brass in celebration. I think the prize was a fruit basket, which I had had my fill of. The girl disappeared; she had no other interest than to experience flight, and I had given her the excuse to try.
After five days of churning gray seas, New York rose up like a ghost city, the towers rising into a fog that dissolved their tops. But there it was; I hadn’t seen it for three years. Now it kept resolving into detail like a photograph in a developing pan, detail by detail, light by light. The rusty water tanks on Brooklyn roof tops were perceptible after an hour of staring and probing. I could make out the fanned silver blades of the Chrysler building, and the solemn immensity of the Empire State tower. The piers were black and sprawling, and the water seemed like part of some unfinished painting a painter had walked away from. The incongruous parts that made up New York from the sea gave me a feeling I had not had before – of returning to a city that was unfamiliar, unrecognizable. I felt uneasy as we neared the sooty, logy edges of the pier, with its many faces gazing up at us and beginning to cheer.
It was a long while before the ship was properly moored. But the crowds below thickened and became a dizzying array of unfocused masses murmuring, whistling, calling up to us, waving hats, blowing kisses. We had emerged from some strange dimension where we traveled in the invisible latitudes of pure time, without having to bear the weight of embodiment or experience. We had been dining in rapturous light and music, floating over decks that gently rose and fell under our feet, sleeping in the hum of our protected stateroom, hearing the subtle throbs of the hull buried deep in the slosh of the Atlantic currents. We had moved forward in the lobed and satin-upholstered interiors of a long pause in our lives, only to emerge at this raucous terminal with its strangers jostling and shuffling to get a better look at us.
And down we gazed at them, like near ghosts, total strangers, wary prodigals returning to life. I feel that way now, in my aging body, with my soul partially alienated from familiar things, an older man, a figure no longer of sexual interest to women, a ghost in ordinary street clothes, a man not unlike Joseph K wandering the streets of Prague with a sentence looming over him from a mysterious court where life and death are adjudicated.