you only live once/twice

“The light from the venetian blinds, the autumn,
silver Kansas light laving the table that Sunday,
is what I recall now because it was beautiful,
though of course would not have said so then, beautiful,
as so many moments forgotten but later remembered
come back to us in slants and pools and uprisings of light,
beautiful in itself, but more beautiful mingled
with memory”

“Beauty,” BH Fairchild

I flew back to Texas on October 11th, a Sunday. The weather was just starting to turn and I had to wear a thin sweater and a light jacket the Friday night we sat on a concrete median on Vanderbilt and drank wine and tequila and pretended we were in Paris again. Layers and alcohol kept us warm. The next day, Saturday the 10th, I got a haircut and pressed ignore on two calls from my papa—accidental dials, I figured, like they almost always were. My granny called an hour later while I ate eggs on a sidewalk in Williamsburg. They were at the doctor’s office; Papa was having trouble breathing again, she told me not to worry. He went to the hospital later that day and never checked back out.

I flew back to New York on June 12th, a Saturday. My 48-pound suitcase got stuck on the plane for over an hour (reluctance?). I sat on the carpet at baggage claim and charged my phone and listened to the songs I listened to in 2017. I sweated through my shirt/sweatshirt/denim jacket combo. I took a cab to Aleks’s apartment, the same ride (with more confidence!) that I took almost exactly six years ago when I took my first one-way flight up to the city. We ran errands in midtown and uptown and ate dinner downtown (hummus, falafel, red wine, a salty salad). A cab at the end of the night took us over the wrong bridge and we said nothing about it. Did you know? The cab TVs switch now between advertisements to live in the city (for who?) and miniature Jeopardy! segments. Answer, question, answer, question.

That first week back home in Houston I stayed (quarantined) in an Airbnb on a cobblestone street in which I could never get comfortable. It was too hot or too cold. I slept horribly and had nightmares nightly. My granny called from the hospital and my mom drove into town with the dog for a dinner at a patio shaded by the thick branches of live oaks. I wrote bad essays and revised decent ones. After enough time and a negative test I went home and rearranged my teenage bedroom for adult living. My mom and I spent weeks out at my granny and papa’s house, where you can see the sun rise and set across the pasture and time passes slowly because of it. I drank decaf coffee and sat on the patio, sweating and working, offering portions of myself up to the mosquitos. The news changed every day and with each call from each new type of doctor. Optimism and grief on shuffle, a rollercoaster where your stomach never catches up.

It is June in New York and the weather is just starting to turn again. Hot, cold, hot, cool, hot hot hot. In the second bedroom/dining room at Aleks’s apartment, the AC I installed six years ago is still screwed into the windowpane. I flew in for the first time on June 2nd and slept comfortably without AC for that first week, then the unit came and I blasted it every day after for the whole summer. We are in the gulf right now. It is so humid outside you wouldn’t believe it. Soon the train platforms will be like swamps. A problem with New York: The afternoon storms hardly ever arrive. There’s constant build up and no release. Is this why everyone is so wound up? The weather isn’t what I know. A pattern that’s hard to forget, and break.

Interlude: A memory. False? Some real? Summertime. Sitting on the lowered gate of my papa’s truck in the garage, eating popsicles with sticky juice that fell in teardrops down my small arm. An afternoon storm rolls in across the pasture; the break that comes each afternoon, after the tension that’s been building since sunrise pops and the humidity finally folds in on itself. Storms to set your watch by. Lightning bolts flash sideways. “Heat lightning,” my papa says, and I pretend to understand because it feels so true. The air between us is thick with sweat. I imagine small bolts of lightning connecting my arm to his. We watch from the truck in the garage. The sky unfurls and rain comes across the pasture toward us like a speeding train. The sweet smell of ozone and my papa’s beer. Wet grass. Cow manure. A melted popsicle.

My papa died in the morning on November 7th. Biden became president-elect within the hour. I cried at my mom’s dog and my phone screen filled with people celebrating in the streets. I cried again. Relief? Outside our house in the suburbs the street was quiet, which felt falsely somber because of events I will never be able to untangle in my memory.

I am back in New York City and I am no longer looking at the sky. In Texas, was constantly looking up. Papa standing somewhere on that thick cloud? The horizon is filled with possibilities. Here, instead, there are all these real people. You can watch them and feel them. They give off warmth that feels like syrup from the microwave. There are other reasons to cry.

At my papa’s funeral in mid November they played “Taps” and old men in hats and ironed suits shot bullets into the air. I felt my little brother crying next to me. After the service, the old men shuffled around in the grass in a circle, like a slow carousel, trying to find the casings. We laughed; after a day of rigid formality and prayer and hymns sent amorphously up to the sky, it felt good to see something that felt clumsy and unrehearsed. Gravity pulling something back down to the Earth, only to hide it.

On Sunday, I rode the train alone for the first time since the first week of March 2020. My Metrocard still had $8 and change on it. Now they let you tap your phone against a screen. On a Q train running local from Canal Street to Brooklyn, to pick up my bike from my ex-boyfriend’s apartment hallway: A man sat down on the orange middle seat next to me and the air between us grew warm. I thought about how the warmth of a stranger feels different than the warmth of someone you know and felt comforted by this. All these people! On my phone, still playing the songs from 2017, a coincidence I couldn’t believe: “You Only Live Once” (The Strokes) came on shuffle directly before “You Only Live Twice” (Nancy Sinatra); I switched back and forth between the two rapidly, watching “Once” turn to “Twice” over and over, smiling/smirking behind my mask. How embarrassing and perfect, to have emotions in public again.

Something I cannot help but do: Think about how each new thing feels, in the absence of Papa. Grief is a tangible hole that you carry around until someone big and invisible says “when.” In Texas, where you are always driving alone and into the sky, I found him constantly. He was in every cloud that greeted me at the top of each overpass. Now I am back to moving underground and I feel him in the heat of a stranger on the train, and isn’t that the worst thing you’ve ever heard? Maybe it’s relatable to you, maybe you have been charmed by the warmth a stranger’s arm gives off on a Q going local, and smiled. What I’m trying to say is I came back to New York City in June and the last time I was here, my grandfather was alive, and I wasn’t so prone to crying at things just because of the way they are. How to reconcile? I don’t know how to stop looking. I don’t know how to stop wanting to look.