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In the Weeds

I remember the times it happened.

I remember a chaise longue by a pool at a roadside motel where several hundred prized teenagers were gathered one weekend. Alone, recently arrived at the conference, I sat in the smog-tinged roadside sun and read a copy of The New Yorker that I had purchased at a bookstore in Berkeley.

I read a story, one story in particular, one whose title or author or even plot I cannot recall, though a steep driveway figured prominently in it. But I remember what that story did to me, how the mock-Tudor motel in the crook of a highway interchange bursting with over-achieving teenagers ceased to exist. Except for one girl who sat near me amid the bland terrain of my adolescence and asked me what I was reading and listened as if she understood.

It happened again, this time with first and last name: Giuseppe di Lampedusa. And title: “The Leopard.” The book was assigned reading in a college history class taught by a graduate student whose only object seemed to be my humiliation. He habitually returned my essays ungraded with only “off topic” scribbled on the first page. It is true then as now that it was terribly hard for me to stick to an assigned topic; I tended (tend?) to start at some safe, well-defined point and end up on the far side of town. But though that officious graduate student made me suffer that Spring by forcing me to re-write those essays two, three, even four times, he also gave me one lasting gift when he obliged me to read “The Leopard.” I spent several memorable days on the university lawns in sweet ecstasy while I devoured the book.

For someone so word infected, oddly enough it has also happened with certain photographs. I remember a color photo of a palm tree at night lit garishly by headlights and neon. It was an art postcard. I bought it and never got around to sending it off.

These original moments are imprinted on me with such force: it was then that I first realized that if you pushed aside the drapery of our ordinary lives, if you cracked it open, you could get to the deep-red, pulsating core of it all.

It started with a short, poolside story, a chaise longue and an unknown woman. It has since become my religion, my one obsession. I know where it started, but not where it will end.