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Far Away From Where I Am, Further Still From Where I Was

from My Life's Work by Ben Seretan

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I recently had the opportunity to rifle through a bunch of shit I left at my parents lake house in Missouri the summer I graduated college. That was 8 years and a season ago now and most of this stuff I hadn’t thought about or even remembered ever possessing. It’s now wallowing and slowly eroding away inside purple plastic tubs kept in a storage unit in Las Vegas. I took a quick inventory. There was my yellow melodica, purchased at a flea market in Berlin when I was 17, along with a felt replica of my yellow melodica, don’t remember who made it. A beautiful tambourine, a set of bongos, an old transistor radio. There were old LPs from various people’s collections - I recognized my brother’s taste in 90s hardcore and power metal and my dad’s love of fusion. Most of them are warped and probably won’t play right, but I took a few under my arm anyway. There were three unlabeled VHS tapes, no idea what they are. Books I read in college, graded papers, notebooks full of notes from classes. I can barely read my own handwriting. The hat I wore at my college graduation plus some of the decorations from a party I don’t remember. A kaleidoscope. A “don’t tread on me” flag. A signed picture of the Beach Boys I received in the mail at age 7 after I sent a letter to their fan club. Brian almost wears the big tweed suit and beard comfortably, with dignity, but he’s in the back, obscured behind Al Jardine. Mike Love has “USA” written down the sleeve of his leather jacket. There was another picture of the Beach Boys, too, this one larger and unsigned and in sepia tones from their early, striped shirt days. The contrast and the gulf of time between the two photos is astonishing. There was the label from an antique can of squid given to me by a docent at a maritime museum in California in 2008, neatly preserved in plastic. High school yearbooks full of inside jokes indecipherable to adult me. There was a really official-looking commendation from the state of California recognizing my efforts in organizing a charity dodgeball tournament at my high school on behalf of the victims of a tsunami. A copy of my high school girlfriend’s child modeling headshot. 3 paintings by Steve Keene I won in a raffle in 2009, one of them is a quickly rendered version of the album cover for Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.”
All of this took me back. It took me aback, too, but the thing that really got me was the amount of correspondence I held onto, how many letters and postcards I accumulated. I found a note from my friend on the night of my senior thesis recital - there’s a facsimile of an Agnes Martin piece on one side and him saying he believes in me on the other. I don’t remember receiving the note or having read it or why he apologizes at the end, but the physical proof of it existing, of it having been in a box next to a lake for the last 8 years, gets stuck in my throat. There’s a letter from a friend of mine written on a particularly large leaf. We don’t speak anymore, not out of anger or out of anything other than growing apart. Her handwriting is craggy and hard to make out and the more I handled the leaf the more it crunched, pulverizing in my hand. I remember getting really stoned with her once years ago and throwing a frisbee around and giggling nonstop, a pure and simple moment of boneheadedness. And now we don’t speak, but there’s this leaf. There were two photos of someone I once considered my best friend, tucked away discretely behind other powerful totems of my history. Some days I feel that I ruined that friendship, other days I feel it’s his fault. There was a beautiful self portrait of somebody I dated for maybe 5 months when I was 18, someone I was not prepared for. In this drawing she is blue with a loaf of fresh bread under her arm surrounded by cloves of garlic in a desert that stretches out to the horizon. This in particular terrified me because I often worry - sometimes waking up in the middle of the night with this thought - that I used to feel more. That I can no longer access the wilder wilderness of my emotions, it’s walled up. There was one letter from a friend - someone I didn’t remember being close enough to warrant receiving a letter - which included a three page list of things she liked. There was a postcard from my brother sent from Spain and addressed to my whole family - something being said in my holding on to it for myself, squirreling it away. There were 8 or so notes from my father all written on the exact same type of note card with a tropical fish on the front. They span 5 or so years but still are almost entirely uniform, as if they were written all at once.
I don’t talk at all to a lot of these people anymore, these people with a papertrail. If I ran into them on the street I’m sure it would be friendly and maybe even great (“oh, guess who I ran into - it was so great”). We might make plans or exchange numbers. But then again I always wince remembering the time I ran into someone in the 7av tunnel at 14th street. I spent a whole summer living and working alongside her once but still totally blanked and guessed incorrectly as to who she actually was. I asked her if she was still working a job she had never worked or in fact even ever heard of. I thought she was someone I met when I was a telemarketer, for whatever reason. Stopped just short of calling her the wrong name. If you’re reading this, I’m sorry. That probably made you feel small. But that’s the way it is - people fade, new details flood in, recognizable faces disappear seamlessly into the wider fabric of humanity.
And not to speak of what’s lost! Days and weeks gone! What wasn’t written down and is now sprinkled ash like to the wind! What was ripped up or burned in the sink in a fit of post breakup pique! What was remembered incorrectly! What is unverifiable, undocumented, unacknowledged! What is lost!
As I’m writing the last my life’s work thing these letters and proofs are all I can think about - heartfelt and deeply wrought correspondence winding up in a storage unit, spending its days unregarded and in the dark. Is that what I’ve been doing here? Writing down lists of things I like, sending them to you, only to have them filed away with two moments of thought? Will these someday be discovered by you? Will you smile to yourself knowing that someone - me - took the effort to write to you in this space, to you specifically? That you were the eyes these words were meant for? Where does the corpus of this work lie, is it digitally entombed, can I go and lay flowers at the appropriate drawer in the mausoleum and remember the time we spent together? And why is it so important to me to matter to you? Do I find it validating? Why do I need more than what I’ve got?
This is it.
You may stand up and applaud when you finish reading this.
I am scared that it is ending.
If anything as a result of the last year plus, know this:
One person cared for you and reached out in their way for you. There are hours and hours and pages of care for you. There’s that.

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from My Life's Work, released August 30, 2018

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Ben Seretan Troy, New York

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