“You have a history,” she said, “that you are responsible to.”
“What do you mean by responsible to?”
“You’re responsible to it. You’re answerable. You’re required to try to make sense of it. You owe it your complete attention.”
Don DeLillo – Underworld
Sometimes you don’t know you’re running until you look back and realise something’s chasing you. It might not catch you on a long hike. It might not catch you—quite—on an intercontinental flight. But it might very well catch you on a Greyhound bus from Austin to Houston.
Towards the end of the three hour journey the road was growing lanes and the flags on poles in front of car dealerships were bigger than ever, than anywhere. As if it were possible to doubt what country you were in, here, of all places, where the present, vast and empty in the temporal dimension, occludes all context. In the beginning there was the I-10 and it was seen to be good—vaulting the surface streets on the approach to downtown. Cars and trucks in adjacent lanes edging ahead and falling back on the waves of traffic. Each one containing a person, coming from somewhere and with somewhere to go. A beginning, and an end. A story.
To have a story is what it means to be American. It is the land of apocrypha, history’s eternal preludes. Because so many of the stories that we consume are American the template for our own stories is American too and, leaving, it felt like mine had come home to roost or to rest amongst the novels and films, amongst the quotidian things people tell each other about who they are.
Paris, Texas opens with the lead character alone, insignificant and lost in the desert, vast and empty in the spatial dimension. I used to think it was a story that started at the end, the story of how he came to be there. I was reminded of it because the view filling the windows of the bus matched the scene where he drives to Houston, his going-on-eight-year-old son in the passenger seat. I thought about why they’d been written onto this same road, where they were going, in the cinematic light of the evening, 1984. I realised that the story of the film is just much as about the son, going to Houston to search for his mother.
This summer it will be twenty years since she—mine—died. 1994. I’ll turn twenty eight in July.
The tired travelling cliché is that it’s about finding yourself. I’ve never believed that, but a part of my self—an eight year old boy, searching—had found me. The end of this trip was the beginning of accepting that—him—and that there is something that I won’t find, not anywhere and not in anyone.
The person it has made me I did not previously, fully, apprehend. That made things more difficult than they needed to be in America and before. I’d leaned on Sarah harder than was fair and I felt guilty for it. She dropped me at the bus terminal in Austin with the promise that I had a friend for life. To say such a thing, having seen me at my worst, meant a great deal.
I disembarked the bus into a newness that I wouldn’t be privileged of again soon. And I realised that the greatest freedom is to be wholly present, in the story you’re reading or the one that you’re writing, in the river you’re swimming in or the city you’re wandering around, as you wait for a flight, on a spring afternoon, 2014.