That Strange Impermanence of Life

Last night, I went on a hunt through my archives. Hard drives long dead clattered as I rooted around through piles of papers and discs. I surfaced empty handed; I wanted to find the short essay about what I was doing 10 years ago, when I woke up at the start of the new millennium, New Year’s Day, 2000, because I thought it might be fun to reprint it here.

I can try to reconstruct it, but it won’t be the same, because so much has happened in 10 years, and now I’m looking at the start of a new decade and looking back feels like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, everything is so tiny and far away and remote. I woke up this morning about 10 miles from where I woke up 10 years ago, which is not where I thought I would be. Had anyone suggested it, I would have laughed derisively.

The 1999-2000 New Year’s party consists in my mind primarily in flashes. I remember someone wearing a lavish blue silk dress and wedging herself into the front-loading washing machine, for reasons which remain obscure to me. I remember racing out onto the back deck, where someone set off fireworks at midnight. I remember cramped rooms and music and laughter, I remember claiming a corner of the foldout sofa for myself and falling asleep, fully clad except for my boots, which had been shanghaied to hold car keys to prevent people from driving drunk.

I still have those boots, somewhere, in storage.

I woke up on New Year’s Day, 2000, to someone vigorously shaking me in the early morning hours and saying “where are my keys?” I was muddled and hazy, having fallen asleep not that long before, and I said, if I recall correctly, “what?” and she said “where are my keys,” and I said “in my shoe,” and I went back to sleep while she proceeded to upend shoe after shoe in the pile by the front door, looking for the one that held her keys, before zooming off into the morning.

When we woke up properly a few hours later, we were a motley and motheaten crew. We decided to get ice cream, only to arrive at the Mendocino Ice Cream Company and realize that it was closed, vacant, and had been for some time, so we decamped to the Bayview Cafe, where I had a dreadful avocado omelet. I still remember, vividly, the feeling of betrayal when I saw that it was filled with rubbery wedges of unripe avocado.

Then, we went to Portuguese Beach, and played around barefoot in the sand. Someone was heading back to the East Coast the next day, and was drinking in the sights and sounds and smells of home before returning to the grindstone, and we drew patterns in the sand and danced barefoot in the surf before drifting back to the house.

It was an odd sort of day. Usually, after parties, people dissipate in the morning. There’s almost a sense of awkwardness as we all see each other in the light again, and most of us just want to retire quietly to our caves, perhaps to take lingering showers to wash away the accrued filth and confusion. But we clung together through the day, each of us reluctant to be the one to start the exodus. We wandered around Mendocino like lost souls, a rather disparate group of people who weren’t particularly close or friendly, but who felt bonded by something.

I couldn’t tell you where any of the people in that group are today, except for perhaps one of them. I haven’t thought of most of them in years, and their faces are increasingly hazy today. We were thrown together by circumstances and although some of us had known each other our whole lives, we didn’t have any particular connections or bonds, really. We all just were.

I remember late in the evening on that January First, walking along a trail on the headlands and talking to someone. I don’t really remember what we talked about, now, but I do remember an odd sense of completion. In that moment, the members of our group were wholly dedicated to each other. Nothing else mattered. It’s hard to articulate, now, but it’s one of the few times in my life when I’ve ever been entirely consumed by the moment, totally present.

I came home late that night, still in a strange haze, unwilling to break the spell by talking to anyone from outside the group, by examining it in my own mind, even by showering or changing my clothes. In my left boot, a lone key lingered. I never figured out who it belonged to, and I kept it for years in my rolltop desk, taking it out every now and then to finger it. An ordinary copy of a house key, brassy and worn on the edges from being carried around and inserted into a lock and thoughtfully thumbed during moments of confusion or boredom.

2000 was a strange year. That January First, though, it was an even stranger day. It almost felt like we slipped outside time together for a moment. Like we were hovering on the cusp of something that we all just failed to grasp, maybe, like if one thing had been different that day (fresh ripe avocado, an open ice cream store, not getting the bottom of my pants soggy in the surf), everything would have changed.

I have gained and lost so much over the last decade. I can’t even begin to sit down to enumerate it all, although I can sift through letters and papers and photographs and objects and be reminded. It was, in a lot of ways, a bitter and miserable decade. Sometimes I want to go back to January First, 2000, and figure out what went wrong. Sometimes I feel like that day was the tipping point, and I misstepped.

It almost seemed as if we were poised at the end of the world, and didn’t realize it.