Friday, January 16, 2009

Stealing Time

To an object of brief infatuation during my eighteenth year:

I think, perhaps, that we have mostly forgotten about each other. Not the other’s existence—you know that I am here in Asia and I know that you are leading a life both familiar and foreign to me, with a mortgage and a spouse and even some offspring. It’s the rush of details that has faded a little, that overwhelming tidal wave of puppy love which I swore I’d never forget but which has ebbed, of course, with the passage of a decade. Moments come back to me still, though, and lately it has been a note that you scribbled on the back of a poster, a gift to me. “I hope this is not a stolen season,” it said, cribbing a little from the Bard for the sake of young romance.

Stolen seasons. It seems to me that we spend our whole lives trying to avoid them, skirting one while simultaneously backing into another. Six months ago it felt like time was something stored in a square but shoddy box, leaking minutes from every crevice. I would run to the New Brunswick train station, fleeing office hours with surly freshmen, only to find that the train was running forty-five minutes late. Life was a pattern of rushing and waiting, a halting race toward something difficult to name. Surely, I thought, it would be different in Cambodia. I would wake with the sun, I would eat when hungry, I would sleep when tired, and time would return to some kind of blessed natural order.

That is not what happened. If anything, travel makes us more obsessed with time than ever. Our recent trip to Vietnam reinforced this. Reminders of time are everywhere—train schedules, hotel check-in times, the speed of a motorbike racing the sun. The Vietnamese like rules and the tour guides were full of useful benchmarks. “If you can get a good photo in the next five minutes, you will have five minutes to use the toilet.” And New Year’s Eve, which I spent in Hanoi watching lighted Chinese lanterns rise as if by magic and drift slowly through the skies above Hoan Kiem Lake, is the ultimate reminder of time. If it has been a bad year, we try to seal off its damage; if it has been a good one, we mourn its passing.

Back in Siem Reap, it is really no different. I watch the numbers change on my laptop clock, waiting to rack up another hour of freelance work. Even unpaid work becomes about time—if I can just force my mind to concentrate on this story for two more hours, surely, surely, something good will come of it. But it is more than these counted hours and minutes and seconds. Everything we do is under the looming expat deadline of when the sand in the hourglass will run out on this adventure. “You’ll be home in no time,” my grandmother says on the phone, her voice quavering. “You’ll be back safe before we know it.”

The last English literature class that I will likely ever take was a dry seminar called “Time and the 20th Century Novel.” The syllabus was packed full of philosophers, everyone from St. Augustine to Husserl to Heidegger telling us what time is and what we should think of it. But it’s fiction that provided the template that made the most sense: Proust’s rope of memory, descending out of the dark to rescue us from unconsciousness. But a rope, a tether, can be restriction in addition to a safety line. When I wake up in a strange Southeast Asian hotel room, feverish and panicked with dreams, the first thing I want is to be able to see my watch and yet the position of the hands never seems to satisfy me.

Will we ever escape this cycle of stolen seasons, my bygone sweet, or has everything since our moment of puppy love been wasted hours? Will I ever do what I want, write what I want, before time inevitably runs out? If I could give you anything, it would be time enough to be the people we dreamed of being under Midwestern skies full of stars. Please return the favor. I can use all the help and time that I can get.

With fond nostalgia,


1 comment:

dunlapfabfive said...

If you aren't finding what you want in Cambodia you can always come home. Just thought I would remind you that we always have an open basement policy.