A short short about an epilogue.
You want a book and a blanket, warm shoes, a strong cup of coffee. You want interesting birds at a comfortable distance, flowers nodding in the sun, forgetfulness at least for a time. You even want redemption, relief, the past to stay past—even as it reaches out somehow to the present—symbolically, perhaps in dreams or in the figure of shadows beneath the trees—to reassure you that it’s going to stay put. You want the world to stop ending for a minute and the mountains to stay purple under their white peaks. And, yes, you very much want to be in love.
Of course, as your body expels a month of agricultural pollution, you mostly want to breathe straight. You decide you love clean air more than anything else.
Coming out of the San Joaquin Valley in the high-pollution days of summer is like being reborn. You don’t remember how it was the first time, but can’t you imagine? Screaming, covered in slime, a slap on the ass, and then the first ragged breath: this is what it’s like driving north on the 5 and looking back at Gustine, Newman, Patterson, Westley. You stop for gas in Lathrop. You consider taking a detour out to Manteca because someone in your PhD program said he once ate a good enchilada there and you’ve been chewing old jerky since Buttonwillow. You didn’t want to get out in Los Baños because breathing there makes you want to brush your teeth.
But you don’t do the detour. You push north, feverishly. Maybe your fever isn’t only because of the gallons of chlorpyrifos being dropped on orange groves by the freeway. It tastes like talcum powder. It’s on the windshield, turning the sap of dead butterflies light gray. As with the butterflies, so with your lungs. Enchiladas de Manteca are one thing. Getting out of the Valley—really getting out without an engine fire or a family emergency or a carjacking or the strange magnetic pull of Fresno simply yanking you back to the Tower District—that’s an enchilada of a much higher order.
So you get out, and it’s quietly amazing. You spend the night in Sherwood and dream about a forest. You go up to Portland and you look at a tugboat. People walk past you with hands in their pockets. Someone laughs at a joke. The Willamette is clean beneath grey steel bridges and pillars of rust. You decide this is where people go when they figure out what matters in life. You buy a silver Ganesh pendant on Burnside Street and spend hours in Powell’s Books reading about Mikao Usui.
Finally in Washington, you make your first journal entry in weeks: I think I feel healthy—what happened? When you blow your nose, the tissue isn’t stuck with black. You no longer have a smoker’s cough after walking outside. You think this might be something. It might be momentous. Your lungs don’t feel like ten pounds of water.
You are inspired to meditate for the first time since you left Michigan. You are inspired to sit for hours at the edge of Puget Sound and not think about the doctoral program you left behind like a messy divorce. And you don’t think about the virus much.
You’re still running—both to and from some other life you could have, should have, would have been leading. But you might take a little time to watch an orange spider in its web. You might read a novel. You might close your eyes in the sun and breathe clean air for a while and, just for today, let everything slip, moment by moment, into evening.