March 24th, 2011 - Eric Shonkwiler
Hungover, shirtless, wishing I would evaporate. I sat in the backyard on a chair, the California sun laying on me like a sheet. That sky, gauzy with smog, witness to two years of my life. It was my last semester at Riverside, the last semester of my degree. Weeks ago, I’d walked out of a colloquium to learn my first novel was being read by one of the nation’s biggest agents. A night ago, my girlfriend broke things off.
The first few days in that city, I hadn’t known there were mountains around me. Then rain, and I woke up to find a snowy peak to the north, just miles away. These are the mirages of the modern desert—you think you know the way forward, and you find after a shower there’s a mountain in your path.
I was used to working, to fighting, to grand gestures and heartfelt letters. I was supposed to work to hold on to things. Sitting there in that plastic lawn chair, sweating cheap whiskey, I watched all possibility vanish. Days ago it had all been aligned: success was guaranteed, if somewhat distant, and there was the woman I loved. We were supposed to run off together that summer, to start the rest of our lives. I had been waiting to reach a moment of denouement, the end of the twists of my story, for a while. Shoot off the fireworks, fade to black. I didn’t know then quite how life worked, that you have to live every day of it. I could have sworn I was on the cusp of the break that lets you live in a highlight reel, a kind of dream.
As much space as the California sky takes up in my mind, more of it is taken up by Ohio’s, now. The bluish gray of the early days of quarantine, turning onto what was supposed to be a busy street to find it empty. It’s busy again, but it’s changed. I wrote in the California days as I do now about the end of things. Dust storms and droughts, the walking off of most of the world like that chiaroscuro shot of the leads in Seventh Seal, filing after Death. To exist in a time that I have written about, fictionalized, to live in a role that I’ve written, is profoundly odd. To be at once the man I hoped I would be back then and to be someone entirely different—if I could show him the highlights he so desired to live back then, I wonder, would he be surprised?
Eventually I would get up from the chair, step through the dry grass and get ready to teach. Eventually I would learn that your life does go faster, but not in the way you want. Eventually I would come to expect a mountain behind every occlusion.
It would take a year for the agent to pass on my novel. Three books published since then, in quick succession, and silence after. Not what he would expect. I married a brilliant, beautiful poet, which I think he would. I work in a hospital. I keep people safe. I write about keeping people safe. We’re purposely distant from each other these days but I find myself more concerned with others than ever before in my life, and I wonder if that isn’t all of what I was lacking back then: a community. But I know better than to think I would have listened had someone told me I had a climb ahead of me. I probably would have tried to cut around it anyway.
Eric Shonkwiler is the author of three works of fiction, including Above All Men (MG Press). He is the writer of WHEN/IF, a newsletter of preparedness for leftists. He lives and works in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, poet Ruth Awad, and their many dogs.