The Rush of Invention
My flight to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport was less than full. Rows of empty seats surrounded me as the brown American landscape turned white. Down below the tips of evergreens cast spells of richness, bounty. With my head pressed against the window, I angled in all directions to take in the rectangular view. A young woman in the aisle seat leaned over the abscess between us. Her brown hair fell in two perpendicular lines from a beige fedora onto a denim vest. A silver ring looped her nostril. She asked me to take some photos with her iPhone.
"It's beautiful," I said, never getting her name. Just over four hours on the flight and we didn't say a word.
"First time to Washington?" she asked.
"First time west of the Mississippi."
I was twenty-two then, flying around the country for Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity. It was my first job and it paid what felt like crumbs and headaches. When I wasn't on a college campus meeting with undergrads and helping them deal with petty college drama, my schedule allowed tiny pockets to drift to unfamiliar locales. Those first two years out of college were my first glimpses of what America looked like outside of its East Coast. When I departed for my very first flight ever, to Atlanta, in July 2014, Mom slipped a Padre Pio photo in my backpack and Dad held on for a second longer when hugging me goodbye. My father, an Air Force veteran who worked on C-130 propeller planes, refuses to fly. To this day his fear grounds him as if he himself is a force of gravity unable to overcome itself.
When I was a child, my parents never traveled farther than what could be reasonably driven in a day. Our furthest extremes for vacation included Niagara Falls to the north and Hilton Head, South Carolina to the south. There was a cozy familiarity with the places we'd roam. Williamsburg, Virginia was by far the most visited. It was here that my parents had their honeymoon in 1991 and would return. Every time we'd arrive at the cobblestone streets, I'd be captivated by the stark difference between suburban Philadelphia where I grew up and Colonial Williamsburg. The very first college I ever fell in love with was The College of William and Mary. It's Georgian buildings and green quads enchanted twelve-year-old me. I imagined myself walking to a class on astrophysics or a dead philosopher. It felt right in my bones, being there in Williamsburg. Mom bought me a gold W&M sweatshirt with emerald text which I wore every day once autumn returned. By twenty-two, I finally upgraded. I traded the cramped backseat of my parents' car for cramped airplane rows. I traded the presence of my parents for journeys alone while all around me the world expanded infinitely. College was behind me by two months. I had compiled a stack of regrets and an even larger stack of fulfillments and now I was expected to be something different. Something attached to a contract with business cards and a paycheck.
It was in Seattle that I first felt the rush of invention.
A young man, alone. A city 2,819 miles from home. No history, no shame. I walked its overcast streets on a Saturday in October knowing how easy it'd be to walk into a bar, craft a backstory more enticing than the truth, and become someone I wished I was. My own creation myth. I saw the mahogany bar and crystal glasses and the bartender with a long beard, tattooed. I saw the young girl from the flight with her fedora. We'd acknowledge each other from the hours or days before and I'd move closer. The night would end with an ellipsis...
But that's never what happens.
I always deplane with a feverish fascination, googling every "must see" and "must eat" every city I land in offers, wrapping myself in daydreams that will take me somewhere unexpected. In Seattle, the air was charged with a sense of anticipation. The greens of the trees and grass and moss shimmered against gray sky. The streets and sky and buildings and people felt ready to open and pour itself out. It was slow. There was a casualness I was not accustomed to coming from Philadelphia. A man wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt and ripped khakis on the street asked me if I supported PETA and could I spare any change. He looked nineteen, at most, and soft whispers of hair began to sprout from his chin. I smiled and said no. Seattle felt precious, hidden.
Instead of becoming someone new, I slinked into the tiny maze of Lamplight Books nestled inside Pike's Place. I gravitated to that which gives me a sense of familiarity: pretty words on paper. The smell of old things was intoxicating. I felt every give of the floor beneath and the creaking of old wood. Books decorated the walls and aisles, their spines like Christmas lights. An old man stood with a cane reading a book about World War II and a younger woman with a child talked hushly over the children's selection. I did what I do in any bookstore and walked straight to fiction. Fresh coffee wafted through the door. Hemingway and Austen appeared, followed by Shakespeare. Every so often Updike or Atwood or Franzen or McEwan flickered. Eventually, one spine caught my attention: brown and yellow and emerald bokeh with Virginia Woolf's name printed down the side. I tipped the top of the book with my finger towards me and thumbed my way through Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, searching for the paragraphs that moved my soul to another plane of existence. This was the first book that made me think about my own life in a way that wasn't grandiose. A life of normal-ness upended and made complicated and real by one's own thoughts. I remember sitting in my Modernism and Postmodernism class; twelve of us around a dark table in a Gothic building. The way the words flowed and the plainness of those words. In Lamplight, holding a copy of the book, I yearned for a language I didn't possess or couldn't conceive to make whole my sense of wonder and solitude. An entire city to myself with its 724,745 inhabitants and I felt non-existent. No one knew my name.
I had read Mrs. Dalloway three times as an undergrad. First bored, second illuminated, third wrapped so tightly around Woolf's finger I still haven't escaped. I re-read in Lamplight, on the musty floor, Peter Dalloway's thoughts about Clarissa, the eponymous character of the novel. I felt his ego and his sadness and everything that wiggles in your soul. I remembered when I attempted to copy Woolf's writing style and how I felt like a fool when it turned out to be just a smutty adaptation from an amateur wanna-be. I thought about how I felt like Clarissa and Septimus and Peter and Lucy. How 1923 wasn't so different from 2013. Not at our most honest, vulnerable hour. I felt the beauty of language and the strangeness of Seattle and the strangeness of my thoughts and the myths I'd create and the fluttering of those myths right before they fell to ash.
I handed the cashier three dollars for that 2000 edition of Mrs. Dalloway and walked to the waterfront. Sun began to pierce through the afternoon clouds. A folk band entertained the swelling of people. I looked across Elliott Bay out into the Puget Sound at boats ferrying back and forth. Water lapped against the edge of the pier, a cool, calm, almost-emerald color. Woolf's words returned over and over just like waves beating against something it can't move.
As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame.
A couple walked up a foot or two next to me and took a selfie. They were laughing—some early stage of falling in love. The pier was noisy and a Sounders FC match was beginning. Traffic grew dense on Interstate 5. I eventually found my way back to my rental car on a side street, uncongested, almost empty. I drove back to the hotel asking myself why I didn't do all the things that could be done on a Saturday in Seattle. I glanced down at the novel in the passenger seat and smiled and scorned at myself. From the rear-view mirror, Mount Rainier slept.
For all of Washington State's drowsy and lush scenery, Mount Rainier is an American catastrophe waiting to happen. Volcanologists are increasingly concerned about the sleeping giant's ability to wipe out the Puyallup River Valley and threaten southern parts of Seattle's metropolitan area. The rushing flow of massive lahars in the immediate aftermath of Rainier awakening could suffocate thousands of people within minutes.
In my hotel, above one of the queen beds, hung a photo of the Seattle skyline. It was taken just after the golden hour. The buildings stood in hues of purple and blue. To the right, behind them, clear as ever was Mount Rainier. White and purple and gray she awaited for someone, something. Above it all the sky was pink, cloudless. You'd never guess under all that snow stirs a giant. I wondered how life would've been different if I'd grown up on the other side of America with Rainier and evergreens as my guideposts.
Who would've broken my young heart?
Would I have ever discovered Mrs. Dalloway?
Would Dad fear flight?
And what new myths would I have spun in my mind?
About the Author: Robbie Cusella is a graduate student in the Writing Studies program at Saint Joseph's University. He's currently working on his thesis, The Path of Totality. He lives outside Philadelphia with a biologist and an accountant.