Choosing one life means missing out on another; it is not possible to be everywhere all at once, to do everything, to be everyone.
Leaves of Grass Waldenreal writers
Never Can Say Goodbye
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
How, then, to say goodbye? Is leaving akin to failing? Was I admitting defeat? At the same time, I realized I was moving toward the life I’ve been fantasizing about since becoming a writer: a life of simplicity, of less. I was going to be a real writer, as my high school self had designated.
You’ve done nothing but tortured me, fuck you, I’m done, I said silently while facing an overflowing garbage can in the street, perhaps to make it easier to turn my back.
Upon hearing the news of my move, a friend told me, “Just don’t get up to any of the weird stuff Eve does,” referring to a character in my second novel Constellations of Eve, which drew inspiration for its desolate setting in the countryside—proof that I’ve been traveling in my mind toward quieter grounds, though I was now abandoning the very place where the novel had taken shape and came into being. I didn’t know yet that it was the industrialized misery of the city that had driven me inward to the mystery of the country and of nature.Counterintuitive though it may sound, I could imagine the countryside setting because I didn’t fully grasp it, and because I was immersed in its contrast. Inspiration, I’ve learned, is a sense of understanding, not necessarily mastery or familiarity; it is knowledge imbued with mystery. I often write about things because I seek to understand them, things that flicker on the line of being just within reach and, at once, ungraspable.
The cabin where I now live, in the summer, is surrounded by thick green foliage. Nestled in shadows, I am secluded from the road, other houses, other people. USPS does not deliver to my address. My phone does not get reception either. As winter approaches, I go out less and less; my only social interaction is with my husband and occasionally his family, who live about a forty-five-minute drive away. I resist falling into “the weird stuff” my friend ominously warned me of but increasingly find that my brain craves feedback where there is none.
A heavy sleeper my entire life, I suddenly find myself awake nearly every night around two or three in the morning. To lull myself back to sleep, I read with bleary eyes, not registering the words. As I’ve started doing commissioned copywriting, I find myself reading on how to write better headlines, SEO optimization, and sale conversions at three in the morning, while a family of squirrels noisily scurry back and forth on the cabin’s roof. Unsurprisingly, this does not put me back to sleep. I realize that I am hungry, so I rummage in the fridge for snacks, but there is nothing interesting there, as Asian food and ingredients are a rarity in the area. I’m hungry, hungry, hungry, my brain screams. The next day, I binge Inferno for six hours, a Korean dating show on Netflix—the Asian faces a comfort. There I am, I tell myself, as though I need to remind myself of who I am.
It isn’t only food or diversity I’m longing for, but the sound of an ambulance whirring past the window at midnight, the subway performers that I would pretend to be indifferent to while discreetly following their every move, fascinated by their ability to disappear amid a crowd after their act ends. It is different to walk down a city street as one among hundreds of people than to walk down a country road and encounter another person by chance.I am not just any stranger out here: I am a Vietnamese woman walking her dog. I make sure to nod at the passerby in order not to be perceived as rude. The specificity is agonizing—I realize how often I’d counted on invisibility in the city as protection, as a shield. How comforting it was to be one among millions, to be nobody. I rush through my walks, counting the steps because there is no marker by blocks, go inside the cabin, and shut the door. Silently, I pray to the transcendentalist poets to help me understand nature, while in reality, I cannot conjure the enthusiasm to go for a hike, let alone study a leaf’s detail with Zen-like devotion. Where is the inspiration I was promised?
Some days, I go with my husband to his father’s property, where my husband is building a tiny house on a trailer, plank by plank, nail by nail, with his own hands. It is winter, and snowing. I’m sitting in the front passenger seat in our car, my laptop on my lap, propped up by a neck pillow that permanently lives in the vehicle. My coffee steams in the car’s cup holder; my dog sleeps at my feet. I try to connect to the Wi-Fi from my father-in-law’s house, which doesn’t always reach the car—which is probably for the best; I will work on my novel instead of answering emails. Occasionally, my husband turns from wherever he is perched—on a ladder, on the roof—and waves to me to come check out his progress. I walk across the field, toward him, ice crunching underfoot, careful not to slip. He shows me the planks of wood he has torched and sanded, varying shades of a burning dark. They are beautiful. He is proud of his work. He is happy here.
Back inside my mobile office/SUV, I write about the city. I’m thinking of the time when I found a green glass bottle with its neck wrapped in paper towels shoved down the toilet at Think Coffee on the Lower East Side. I had really needed to use the restroom, so I bit my lips, took some paper towels, and fished out the bottle. Let’s hope it’s not a bomb, I half joked to myself. I think about the neatly dressed young man who was in the bathroom before me, who had held the door open for me. Who are you? I thought, and, Why? He couldn’t have possibly believed the bottle would fit. What exactly was his goal? I alerted the store manager of this strange occurrence, and also because there was no running water—it appeared the young man had also turned off the valve to the sink water before he left. Was it just a random act of ill will, or childlike malice?By the time I left the café, I was alive with inspiration.
Where is the inspiration I was promised?
In the city, there are vast fortunes, as well as misfortunes: under bridges are the makeshift tents of many people struck by homelessness, and skyward are the multimillion-dollar penthouses, which ironically are often vacant since they only serve as pied-à-terres. This sharp contrast creates the kind of industrialized misery particular to metropolis. Perhaps it is from this constant social tension that writing is born. All good writing introduces, wrestles with, sustains tension. Ideas occur perhaps not from what happened, but within the tension of what could have happened, not from what was, but what could have been. In my writing, I’ve always prioritized emotional and psychological landscapes of people and not of trees or of weather, unless they reflect the characters’ inner states. Ideas come from other people—a small revelation. And the city offers, if anything, the gift of other people in abundance.
Today, I find myself looking out the windshield. My father-in-law is fidgeting with the engine of his tractor. Frustrated, he grumbles to himself. Across the lawn, his other son, my brother-in-law, is trying to find out whose dead cat he has wrapped up in a piece of cloth in the garage, after mistakenly informing everybody that his own pet, identical in color and markings to the dead cat, had apparently been run over and killed. Occasionally, people come knocking on the passenger window to tell me something, a bit of news, some gossip. My brother-in-law stops by to hand me The Book of Paul, written by his great-grandmother about his great-grandfather. It reads like the idealized résumé of a king. I’m moved by the book, its attempt to commensurate a life, and by the exclusion of the vulnerabilities that would have made that life interesting. I consider my brother and father-in-law, and my husband—three men in the same orbit and yet always missing each other, unable to say just what they mean.
The winter sky is gray and silent. Instead of street lamps, star lights are the unintended witness to the lives of others. I do not overturn stones and rocks on my path, nor am I able to differentiate between the songs of birds—I’ve finally given up on letting Whitman or Thoreau dictate how I should love nature—but I am looking underneath things. Choosing one life means missing out on another;it is not possible to be everywhere all at once, to do everything, to be everyone. For inspiration, I needn’t look far, but out the windshield, at the whirl of lives around me. The silence of men is louder than any city sirens. The city and the country have that in common; they’re both built on the backs of people. They’re both chock-full of unrequited dreams, hopes, and regrets. I, too, can love a blade of grass when it’s held in the palm of a grandmother, and the serenity on my husband’s face as our home materializes before his eyes. I push the car ignition to turn on the heat to warm myself. Someone tells me I am welcome to work in their living room, but I decline, not quite ready to exit the car, to let go of the idea of being in transit. Things might be different tomorrow, next week, next month, but for now, I can sit here in the life I’ve chosen. Joyously missing out.
Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood is a Vietnamese and American author. Her debut novel, IF I HAD TWO LIVES, is out from Europa Editions. Her second novel CONSTELLATIONS OF EVE is the inaugural title forthcoming in 2022 from DVAN/TTUP, a publishing imprint founded by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, a scholar of Asian American history and literature, and Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen to promote Vietnamese American literature.
Her works can be found at TIME Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, Cosmopolitan, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, Catapult, Pen America, BOMB, among others. She is the founder of Neon Door, an immersive art exhibit. Find her at www.abbigailrosewood.com