The past only smells of sandalwood.
Over the past few days, I've been home, and when I mean home, I mean my ancestral home, Sharkey, not where I live. My father just turned 70 years old, and I, and my wife, Peou, are here to celebrate with my family. The realization of the mortality not of myself (I've long been comfortable with it, since everything Changed) but of my parents has been dawning, and birthdays are beautiful but they also are sad, as we see the lives of our loved ones approaching what the demographers say is the average span, and I have been thinking about “holding on” and “letting go” and this naturally led me to The Garage. There, I have boxes and boxes of things, most of it put into storage in July 2008 when I changed my life and went to graduate school to study Asian philosophy on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a scholarship paid for by a dead white man. So some of the boxes have not been opened since they were taped closed then.
The boxes were packed with packs of sandalwood incense, purchased in Penang, Malaysia in 2002, with the idea it would keep them from smelling bad or drive away the insects, or something to that effect. Trying to recollect the reason I put them into these boxes, eight years later, is hard to do, but I remember it being something like that. I can remember the boxes, gaping, sitting the in the floor, being filled, being carried and stacked, put into storage to wait darkly for me, to wait in the past for me to come to them in some distant present, and now it is that present. However, the boxes still smell of the past, infused with the scent of sandalwood incense. The smell was already of the past, when that past was still the future, those months in Southeast Asia, and so now that smell, pervading these relics, from the pages of books to Indian cloth, is the smell of time and not of anything earthly like pages or threads. If anything is ethereal, it is time.
The first summer I returned to Kentucky . . . not in 2008, when I returned home for Christmas with stitches still in my head from a bad night in Chinatown, but another time—I don't know when—I dug out one of those boxes, marked “Letters,” and from that took shoe boxes upon shoe boxes full of letters, sketches and drawings, napkins hastily written upon and pictures snapped at parties, plastic rings and broken bracelets, spanning from the time I was a junior in high school (I think) all the way up to 2008, from my first extraordinary love. It was a love that lasted a long time, more years than I have been away from Kentucky, and so there were a lot of letters and what now I might call the detritus of attachment. I did not read any them, I did not open them or shake out their envelopes, filled with four leaf clovers and Post-It notes, but unceremoniously dumped them into the trash can.
I have other boxes of letters, from other people—camp friends, girls who loved me but I never loved in return, girls I loved but never loved me in return, friends who moved away, postcards from abroad, and others—that someday, I hope, I will photocopy and return to them so they can see themselves again, from the past, a different self than the person that they have become, I am sure. When they receive these envelopes, and they break the seals and discover their words from the past, it will come with the wafting scent of sandalwood.
But now I am going through all of these boxes, piece by piece, item by item. There are old belts that have molded and stuck together, photographs of people's whose names I've now forgotten, and clothes I am not too old to dare to wear (and as I pen this the Professor has purple hair). One picture is taken out of a half-opened window, and is a Martel sign—that is all. Looking at it, I knew exactly where it was, a hotel on a street in Penang near the Indian theater that showed all the latest Tamil movies, where I spent so many days and nights with my good friends as they worked as door to door plastic ware salesman and as I lived like a vagrant, drifting around, living off of scholarship money, happy to company. In fact, it was those three boys that burned this incense, in a ritual to help Peter (one of the Tamil boys) bathing him in flowered water and chanting incantations, and that is how I came to know of this particular sandalwood incense. I took that picture so someday (today) I could pick it up and say, “That is what I saw when I first opened my eyes.”
There were three boxes labeled “Keepsakes,” and one that I had not opened that last summer (whenever it was), and for the first time I was struck by how odd the idea of a keepsake was. First, was it something that was worth keeping for the sake of it, or was for the sake of keeping? What was the criteria of a keepsake? As I opened it, and as I poured through it, I found different disparate items. One was a family tree I had made as a school project, with my mother's help, years ago, with pictures of dead relatives whom I had never met plastered in their respective branches. There were three shirts: an old orange Surf detergent shirt and a Rowan County Vikings shirt, both threadbare, and a Hogtown, Kentucky shirt. There was a pair of baggy jeans, torn, stitched, with patches on them, and even a pair of tattered overalls. There was a pair of my mother's pants she had worn in the seventies, before having any children, and a somewhat moth eaten suit of my maternal grandfather, and a smart denim vest and sport jacket that had probably been the only suit, outside of a GI's uniform, my father ever wore or ever will. There were mementos from my past love, too, a few errant letters that were missed in my first purge, and few photographs with endearments written on the backs, and other mementos of emotion. There were plane tickets, and maps of Kyoto, and scraps of papers, and half filled notebooks, paintings friends had given to me, black and white photographs I had taken my freshman year of college . . . and so much of it was not worth keeping for the sake of anything, not worth the sake of keeping.
Why was any of it worth keeping? A shirt that I had gotten at the Elliotville gas station that said “Hogtown, Kentucky” on it with a picture of a smiling pig, all in blue, one I could were when I was a skin and bones 18 year old, barely 130 pounds: why was it worth keeping? For the memory of being 18? Could I not remember without such a shirt? Other things are symbols of people gone, or that will be gone (we will all be gone; that is the one truth that was given to us); a cheap souvenir my grandmother bought me when she went to the Smokey Mountains, a knickknack Aunt Pont had given me when I was seven or eight, a stained shirt a friend, now dead, had once left behind. I dug through it, knowing it all, remembering it, but now it was all the same: now, from the shirt I knew I must have last peeled, wet with sweat, off my old lover's body to the exit sign I had torn down from the high school and taken home with me, it all now smelled of only sandalwood. Although it had been patiently sitting, waiting for the present, it still smelled only of the past.
I threw away clippings from Japanese newspapers I had appeared in, I threw away photographs of girls I had touched all over their bodies, I threw away bills I had paid 15 years ago, Avon bottles in the shape of Viking ships, scholarship award letters, yearbooks which I never bothered to take a picture for, fifty year old clothes, bars of soap, a Post Office jacket, sketches, brochures from Sado Island, erotic letters, a nude oil pastel someone made of me, folders full of notes, philosophy articles, a doll that resembled my maternal grandmother who passed while I was with my ex-girlfriend in New Mexico and whom I decided to stay with rather than returning home for the funeral, the beginnings of fifteen novels, sea shells from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, photocopied books on Buddhist stupas and Negrito religion, stained designer shirts, poems about pain, bits of string, a bluegrass shirt a friend had left at my house after he threw up on himself but never came back to pick up even after I had washed it for him, pictures drawn in high school, a light blue pleather jacket, postcards that were bought but never sent, devotional pictures from Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage sites, maps of Delhi and Kota Baru and Chang Mai and Rangoon and the Penang Heritage Trail, unread love letters still in the notebooks they were written in, old stamps, a collage expressing the pent up sexual aggression of a skinny eighteen year old, a belt that was a gift from Guatemala, train ticket stubs from Thailand, tiger striped pants, and socks lacking a mate, all smelling of only sandalwood.
And as I picked things up, turned them over, sat them down, sorted them, threw them away, put them off, or boxed them up, I was amazed and appalled I could actually remember so much that I had not bothered to remember, or had not tried to remember, or had hoped to forget, like the first line of a novel someone read me, or picking up that sea shell with Srijay while the waves of the Arabian Sea crashed against the rocks, or locked in a sweaty passionate embrace while the spaghetti was boiling, or watching my grandmother hold my infant nephew. It is not that I regret those decisions, or these things that make up the semiotics of desire, and my life looms over me and I am ultimately, irrevocably joyful. An yet, there is something in me that resents these memories, that resents that I was here before I was, that I made decisions then that I have to live with now, and that I am still here even though I usually prefer to be by myself. I resent that I cannot wave away that smell of sandalwood, and that the perfume of the past continues to linger around me.