Her Life As A Nomad
Catherine Gammon

Who taught me to pray to linear time?

Whoever it was
I must say to him
you were wrong.
—Laurie Kutchins

In her thirty-seventh year she felt she had met everyone she would ever meet, that her life would go on, but nothing new would happen in it, nothing involving anyone she didn’t already know.

Until that year she had been a traveler, never staying but often returning.

That year, a desert opened inside her. Without knowing why, she felt herself stop.

She thought her life had come complete.

She wore a long gray coat that fall, that winter, and hid herself inside it, very small.

The world began to disappear around her.

Until then her dramas, sufferings had been about the accumulation of a history, the aggrandizement of the self: not one word was real.

She hurt, she grew, that was all.

She fattened on pain, pain fed her, she grew heavy with it and greedy.

But she survived all that, she survived.

There was something else in her, some need for knowing, some eye for beauty, something left when the hunger for pain fell away.

Her survival began in that winter, when she had shrunk to almost nothing inside that great gray coat.

All the drama had gone and left her, and in the quiet, disappearing, she believed she was complete.

The past doesn’t love us, she thought, or at least not me.

She had married young; she had never meant to marry.

She took her husband’s name but didn’t keep it long.

It was a good name, and now it is her daughter’s.

Someday her daughter will be thirty years old.

Someday she will go canoeing with her daughter’s father.

Someday she will visit his parents when they are very old.

Someday she will laugh and really mean it, not just on the surface of the moment, but deep down, alive somewhere to the workings of all things.

Someday when she looks closely at the cat’s fur, at the symmetry of black and tawny tabby stripes, at the precision of the hairs themselves as they move from black at the base near pearly cat skin up through downy creamy gold to speckled silver at the tip, she will feel for a moment the certainty of an intelligence that made this beautiful thing, this perfect physical creature in its exactness and detail.

She studied philosophy, before the husband, before the daughter; she will know there is a precedent for this logic, and a logic to be marshaled against it.

She won’t care, for that moment nothing will matter, not the truth of the logic, not even the cat, only the truth of its beauty.

Her father’s gravestone is beautiful too, a human-made thing, roughly cut of granite, flat in the grass and glistening with rain and fallen leaves, as plain and perfect a thing as her mother could devise for him, who had asked that his ashes be scattered on the wind, despite which, because there has to be a marker, her mother said, his wife said, the ashes were buried, otherwise it would be as if he had never lived.

Someday she will see her father’s gravestone.

Someday she will laugh and really mean it.

Someday her daughter will be thirty years old.

But for now here she comes in her long gray coat.

In her thirty-seventh year she feels she has met everyone she will ever meet, that her life will go on but nothing new will happen in it, nothing involving anyone she doesn’t already know.

Until now all her suffering has been about her needs, her greeds, her hungers.

She has followed her body and taken her daughter with her.

She has moved from Los Angeles to Berkeley to Ann Arbor back to Berkeley to Boston to Berkeley to Ann Arbor to Yellow Springs to Iowa City to Berkeley to Provincetown to Fredonia back to Provincetown and in the end to New York.

She remembers a red-headed lover, a rosy-orange sunrise incendiary through thrift-shop lace, and the fire of his hair, his body, so radiant the glow obliterates any other thing she might ever know about that moment.

She remembers a Christmas tree with candles lit in a tiny dark apartment, herself and her daughter, two small rooms, two sickly cats.

She remembers a tornado sky on a country road burning grass and trees to intensities of green the eye in ordinary weathers never sees.

She remembers purple lightning skies.

She remembers yellow butterflies, swarming.

She remembers cocaine, wind blowing through an apartment she once inhabited with her daughter, doors front and back flung open on the night and music filling up the dark.

She remembers acid halos, gray and lavender etched across the face of her desire, the world gone flat.

But all that is already long past, the drugs long gone, the lovers gone, the last boyfriend at last sent home.

She thinks her life has come complete.

She is drinking, she doesn’t know how much.

She wears a long gray coat and hides herself inside it.

The world begins to disappear around her.

She is done with moving, she is ready to stop.

One Saturday at the end of summer she drinks vodka alone from nine in the morning until nine at night until the vodka is gone.

She is drinking for courage but her courage fails.

She weeps and wails until suddenly a prayer spills out of her vodka mouth.

A silence follows. A pause.

She tries the prayer again, chewing on the words, rolling them around on her tongue, knowing she’s forgotten most of them, swallowed them maybe, or left them behind somewhere on a long-since missing plate.

She goes to bed and sleeps and the next day drinks, because drinking is a thing she does every day, but already maybe less hard.

It isn’t winter yet, she isn’t wearing her coat, but it will be winter soon.

The drama is over, audience departed, last boyfriend packed, moved out.

A wind blows through her body; she feels the wind inside her.

She wants nothing, thinks she wants nothing.

The emptiness in her feels like truth.

Until now her suffering has been about hunger, need, greed.

But she has survived all that.

No new people, she thinks. No new people anymore.

She mistakes the external quiet, she thinks the pain is gone.

A silence follows, a pause, and the desert opens inside her.

She knew the desert when she was a child, the Mojave, Palm Springs.

She remembers the driving, the heat.

She remembers the desert of her solitude, the safety of the desert, where nothing could touch her because nothing was there.

She remembers yellow desert flowers and shadowless desert light.

She remembers a desert wind blowing through her, like hope, like a kiss to the heart.

She remembers that the nights were cold, that the desert emptiness felt like truth.

She has put herself in danger, she begins to be afraid.

Someday she will travel to Paris, to Italy and Spain, to Mexico.

Someday she will live again in L.A.

She lives alone now in the desert, in a loft alone in Brooklyn, in a loft she shares with an artist to help pay the rent.

The artist takes up space, always more space.

At work she hears voices, her own voice, a constant noise of complaint in her mind.

At home, alone, for silence, she drinks wine, vodka, bourbon, beer.

Sometimes at night she hears her mother calling.

She wakes with sweats, her heart a racetrack of horses pounding, her heart a butterfly—first one, then the other—backward and forward, her sweat and skin gone cold.

She wakes from nightmares of suffocation, choking on cries for help.

She wants deliverance from her own story.

The past doesn’t love her—maybe other people are better at keeping this relationship going.

She took her husband’s name and now it is her daughter’s.

Every sentence is a narrative; she begins to be afraid.

She followed her hungers and took her daughter with her.

The artist takes up space, always more space.

She shrinks to her corner and the desert opens.

She puts herself in danger, begins to be afraid.

She wakes from nightmares of suffocation.

She thinks the problem is her heart.

When she doesn’t drink, the noise in her head gets louder, her body buzzes.

When she doesn’t drink, she trembles and shakes.

Someday she will travel to Paris, to Italy and Spain, to Mexico.

Someday she will live for the rest of her possible life with a lover she hasn’t imagined yet.

Someday she may live again in L.A.

But first there is the empty humming in her body.

She remembers that the nights were cold.

She remembers the accurate light.

After three days without a drink, fevered and chilled, her body aches.

After eight days she begins to dream about drinking.

After three weeks she understands how crazy not drinking might make her.

She hides inside her gray coat.

Before everything begins again, before she can look closely at the cat’s fur, see the passion of its black and tawny stripes, before she can go with the lover she has hardly imagined to St. Louis for the first time to see her father’s grave, there will be a pause, a silence.

In the silence she will know the desert.

In the desert she will find deliverance from her story.

After three days without a drink, unable to sleep, her body all shudders and aches, she will sit at the table in darkness wrapped in a blanket watching herself watch a cockroach as big as her thumb scuttle across the phantom face of things.

After eight days she dreams she’s drinking.

After three weeks she understands how crazy not drinking could make her.

Someday she will give away her gray coat.

Someday she will travel to Mexico with her lover, to Italy and Spain with her daughter, to Paris with them both.

Someday she will leave New York, someday she will live again in California, or maybe someday in France.

Someday she may leave her lover.

Someday she will learn to live with the desert empty inside her.

Someday she will go canoeing with her daughter’s father.

Someday she will visit his parents when they are very old.

Catherine Gammon is a fiction writer and Soto Zen priest. Her novel Sorrow (Braddock Avenue Books, 2013) was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Her novel Isabel out of the Rain was published by Mercury House in 1991. Catherine’s fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Iowa Review, among others. Recent work appears at The Collagist and Kenyon Review Online.