July 2, 2007

The Unlikely Vessel

It started with a long walk. There is a place where you can pick your way over broken slabs along the shore, just below the sightlines of the factories and warehouses whose back lots you are trespassing through, all the way to the mouth of the East River, and there you reach this final barrier that juts out over the water, just far enough to put a full-stop at the end of your run-on sentence. I posted this photograph online, and some well-wisher left a note saying "You need a coracle for these situations." A what?

It turns out a coracle is a very small lightweight boat barely big enough for one, a popular mode of travel in the British Isles some time ago. I never really thought of sea travel as an option when I ran out of land, but I'm glad someone looked at this dead-end photograph and saw an opportunity-- and ever since I found out about coracles I've been driving myself restless trying to figure out how to build one.

Of course, not being able to just bop over to Home Depot and haul home a sheet of plywood, my eye has become a coracle-building- materials scanner. Every day as I bike to and from work, every night when I'm out on deliveries, I'm surveying the broken furniture and detritus parked on the curb, trying to fit it all together like a puzzle, ready to pounce. Since it will only have room for me, I don't have to worry about anyone shrieking over my shoulder that I'll never get them to set foot in that thing, oh no sir. Because of this, after days with no luck in the materials-scanning department, I began to get itchy and wonder if I should skip straight to making a kayak out of a tarp and some willow shoots. Cooler heads prevailed in the end and I decided I'd rather end up with a coracle in the long run than snagged and sunk in the East River in the short run. And so the hunt goes on. Do I raid the stacks of cowhide they are inexplicably selling this week at the thrift store? Do I find a springy young tree and chop it down? Do I hold out for an ottoman that looks like it can be turned upside-down, covered in pitch, and made seaworthy? Is it too early to buy an oar?

I didn't make any connection between this new hunger for one-person watercraft and the fact that Tex had let me know he'd be moving out. It did occur to me that I would be able to work on my craft without static of skepticism droning in the background, but I have come to rely on that skepticism as a valuable troubleshooting mechanism that has saved my skin many times over the last four years. When my ideas are let loose to manifest without any critical fire to temper them in, do even I dare climb aboard?

He left on Saturday. Somewhere, right now, right this instant, there is a room in West Harlem containing a sad man and a very angry cat, both of them anticipating, relishing, and horrified by their sudden freedom, testing it as one prods at a loose tooth. Over the weeks leading up to that departure I was in a fog, functioning at minimum capacity, all dreams and ideas and adventures put on hold until I knew what kind of person I would be when that door shut and I was on the other side of it, alone. Emails sat unread, phone messages piled up, I moved my books from shelf to shelf but didn't open any of them. Any idea that could not be immediately written down or achieved in the space of an afternoon was too much work and was released back into the stream. You catch a lot of ideas when there's no hope of ever eating them. I moved the furniture around here and there, pensively waiting.

First thing Saturday I went and had paint mixed. By the afternoon, when I knew I could return to the house without interrupting the move, I was all but in fits to get it started. Twenty-four hours later, there was almost as much paint on me as there was on the walls, but it was finished. When I woke up this morning, I was in a room that I didn't recognize, which oddly enough seemed to contain everything I own. So this is where it will all wind up having happened, whatever it is. I walk in and out of it, trying to convince myself I live here. It is greater than the sum of my parts, I'm determined not to diminish it by going over the math with a fine-toothed comb.

Last night the full moon rose over Brooklyn on its way to the mainland. It would not be shut out, it tore my curtains to shreds impatiently. Fine, I said. I shut off all of the lights, I blew out all of the candles, and laid down where it could stare at me unobstructed. I have no bed, just my small couch that folds down. Instead of armrests, it just curves up lightly at the edges and corners, so though my arms and legs hang out all over the place, I feel strangely supported by it, this near-perfect square of space too small to share with anyone, bearing me through darkness toward the hollow comfort of the moon. I laid there, beginning to sleep even though my eyelids may as well have been transparent beneath such a barrage of light. My curtains curled and swayed like entrails in the breeze as I floated in my vessel. My last thought before I dissipated completely was discovering with surprise that I had found my way into a coracle after all, without even trying.

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