Unfixed, Transfixed, Transfigured
We left home that day trying to relive a moment. The morning began with mom, waking calmly, and packing some bottled water for the drive. Next was dad, waking excitedly, and reading the printout of directions she’d left for him. Lastly me, barely waking, rubbing half-rested eyes and dowsing myself with some luke-warm coffee.
The plan was a day-trip to a museum in the Hamptons, a re-visit to the Parrish Art Museum. Back in twelfth grade, a painting of mine was exhibited there, alongside those of a couple classmates. Since then I had attended an art university, and now found myself entering that precarious senior year, dancing along that razor-edge age, faltering towards adulthood.
We input the directions for the museum into the GPS, planning to stop off at the nearby Golden Pear cafe we had eaten at that last time as well. If replication is the sincerest form of flattery, surely we were flattering our own gauzy, nostalgic memories by trying to re-experience them.
The three of us kept our eyes wide and searching for the museum’s narrow archways, sturdy pediments, classical figurative sculptures, stony stairway, and generally cathedral-like semblance, mingling amongst a number of other storefronts. Instead, our instructions found us at what had the outward appearance of an unnaturally oblong farmhouse, standing solitary in a broad breadth of field.
Assuming we’d been somehow misdirected, we drove further on. Past quaint farm-stands alongside expansive roads and labyrinthine hedges edging against suburban streets. Soon enough, we found ourselves somewhere unrecognizable, and turned back. Perhaps we had missed a crucial turn. After some more confused meandering, we managed to find the cafe we had been searching for, it seemed.
We parked next to a hefty old tree, its roots weaving in and out of the pavement, its overhang of leaves dappling the car in a mosaic of light and shadow. The trunk was fluid, gnarled, alive and bursting out of the cement, but coated all over with hardened bark, checkered and flaking, like lava frozen over with the coolness of time.
Stepping inside the cafe, immediately it became apparent this was not that cafe from years ago, only a doppelgänger, one from the same chain. We were not even in the right town. Swallowing three mini egg-and-cheese sandwiches, two blueberry breakfast pastries, and a few too many refills of coffee, we were on our way.
After some more fruitless searching, we decided to phone a friend – specifically, my reliable elder brother with reliable wi-fi access – for some more accurate directions. While waiting for the return call, we made one final endeavor to find our own way. Somehow, we just managed to loop back to around to the very same cafe we had just left.
At last getting the call back, it was only to hear that the Parrish Art Museum we had been searching for for the past two hours was gone, relocated and replaced with some new establishment. Having spent enough time on the drive, my parents decided we’d visit it nonetheless, whatever it was. With a new set of directions, we were on our way to see what had taken its place in the years we’d been away.
Another art museum, it turned out. What we were searching for was now called The Southampton Arts Center, and was comprised of art by a series of professional painters and their snazzy business cards, without the smattering of student work.
The structure of the building was much the same, but this was not the place we had been searching for. That place was gone, that time was gone, those adolescents who hung their work beside mine were finishing college, finding jobs, wives, husbands, lives. A burst of wind outside pushed at my back, and I searched for footing. How do we hold onto these moments?
I thought of the painting I had done, back then. The assignment was self-portraiture, and every day I sat down in that class for forty-five minutes staring down my own features, parsing them down into discrete portions, trying to figure out what I was looking at. This went on for about a month, until a nearly life-size bust of myself was there to stare back at me, through acrylic eyes from a flat canvas. By then, that person was a month behind where I was. That was someone else.
Along the road home, my parents spotted a stunning pond, decorated with ducks and leaves and algae floating along its surface. Dad edged over to the side of the road to snap some pictures, almost managing to snatch one of what looked like a crane in flight. That was when the camera broke.
Our day’s mission had been a fallacy from a start. There was no point in trying to relive what had past, or in trying to immortalize these moments. They come and they go, and even the truths we hold dear now will fade, or build, or be transfigured entirely. What I could do, though, was attempt to more fully live these moments as they brushed past.
Adulthood and all its trappings would come sooner than I was prepared for, yes. I was caught with that mix of knowing cynicism and willful naïveté that comes naturally to we fools attempting the creative ranks. That did not, however, need to be frightening. Fear of the future need not propel me, bunched in fetal-position, back to the past. This moment was enough, and soon enough the future would come for me, but not with a vengeance.
So I sat there, listening to the wind as it blustered through that peak of open window. Listening to my parents as they muttered to one another about which turn to make next, how they might find the way home. Listening to the thump-thumping of the car as it rushed over mostly-paven roads, rocking away from and into itself.
And so I sat there, watching a car pull to the side of the road, the driver stepping out to bury their ear intently into their phone, looking concerned and loved. Watching as the front-seat passengers in the car next to ours gestured the stories of their lives to each other, tracing the shape of it with roving hands. Watching as the clouds hurried at the horizon, masking and unmasking the sun in their own excited motion.
It was not a thrilling day, these were not thrilling sounds or sights, but I felt content – perhaps the most undervalued feeling we humans can have. I wanted to bask in it, to absorb all these beautiful minutiae. In this moment, they were everything.
And if I’m grasping at straws, that’s only so I can drink it all in.