Saturday, August 8, 2009

Strange Beds

The new South Asian owner of my hometown's bowling alley greeted my friend and me at the front counter with a foreign accent. But after waving off my money and taking my friend’s five-dollar bill for the pool table deposit, he mimicked my friend's Southern inflection dead on, saying, “We know how to treat ah guests round heah.” I, officially the foreigner now, bought beers, racked the balls.

My friend and I hadn’t spoken in four years: a phone conversation as I was entering graduate school in Indiana. And we hadn’t actually seen each other since we’d served as pallbearers at our friend Avery’s funeral nine years prior. The weight of the coffin had been shockingly burdensome, I remember, almost unbearably so, even between six twenty-year-old men. I recall the frantic image at the thought that we might drop it, fiberglass shards peppering our ankles as the metal and wood encasement hit the sidewalk in front of the church.

My friend would handle the task easily now. He’s solidly built, a police officer, deals with homicide cases every few months. And though I’ve attended my share of funerals since, I’m an academic, an artist now, a svelte version of my formerly muscular self. Death to me is more a metaphor than a reality.

Our pool game followed a family reunion for which I’d flown back home from Texas, the first of five trips I’ve taken in the past six weeks. I’d shared a room with my mom and sister at the town’s brand new Hilton, pulling the bed linens and a pillow onto the floor when the mattress got too soft for my back.

On subsequent trips I’ve curled up under a Redskins blanket on a friend’s sofa in Fairfax, dozed in a SEPTA train en route to Philly’s 30th Street Station, drifted in and out in a velvet-upholstered computer chair as I attempted to pull an all-nighter in the lobby of an upscale inn, and conked out—exhausted from all the shuttling about—a few nights on my apartment’s lumpy leather couch upon returning home.

With this travel, with these strange beds, with the act of meeting new people along with encounters from the past have come deep-rooted questions regarding my identity. Am I actually the straw fedora-sporting beau from the Texas-Louisiana borderlands or the button-down, Midwestern, conference-hopping academic or just the country boy in the ball cap hanging at the weekend fish fry? Do I normally disguise my Southern accent or am I just faking it when I adopt one at home or do I naturally talk in a blended dialect?

Regardless of the answers, one hard ontological fact remained: I was still pretty dang killer at pool. I sank stripe after stripe and solid after solid between pauses where my friend and I caught up on family, love lives, and careers and following his turns at the table when he just seemed to clack the balls around. Even so, I lost two games out of three by carelessly scratching twice on the 8 ball.

These overconfident losses come to mind now in retrospect, thinking of the morning four weeks later when after one too many nights of slumbering on my couch, I awoke to discover that my back was out—way out. Carefree travel had affected more than my mental sense of self; it had thrown off my entire posture.

And now, a week off my publishing rhythm with Cake and Potatoes, I wonder if my brazen repose in strange beds has likewise unsettled my creative impulses. If the original intent of the web comic was to tide me over until I felt inspired to write fiction again, I think my inundation with sketchpads, tracing paper, and Adobe Photoshop has now, for me, sufficiently “defamiliarized” and revitalized the prospect of taking on literary work.

This isn’t to say that I’ll stop posting comics; it’s just that I won’t be posting them as often. Who knows? Between the two media—visual art and writing—perhaps I can strike a symbiosis by which one continually casts the other in a strange, new light.

That’s all inspiration is anyway, isn’t it? That good, old friend whose face you haven’t seen for a minute but who, once you’re reacquainted, treats you to a game, reminisces while hitting the balls without really trying to win, and rehashes old memories in a way that makes them feel strange, alive again—so that when, inevitably, you bid farewell, it’s as if you and your friend had never parted.