Ivan Returns to Ithaca

Photo by eflon (copied from Flickr)
Photo by eflon (copied from Flickr)

Ivan did not go home for the summer. There was nothing beautiful about home. He stretched out on sofas in Berlin; he taught English in Budapest; he sat on benches on street-corners that meant nothing to him and scribbled down their names. Sometimes he wrote letters. He signed postcards with the names of hotels he had not stayed in, he wrote to his mother about palaces and his father about museums. He had set sail, he said, to unknown and dragon-haunted places, where everything stopped his heart.

Nothing stopped his heart. In October, his mother telephoned him at three in the morning and told him he was coming home for Thanksgiving. She’d already made up his room. She’d pay for the ticket.

Ivan came from the airport along the East Side Highway, and when the city lights blinked out, and the skyscrapers floored him as they always did with the geometry of their strangeness – they couldn’t be three-dimensional, he felt sure; they were trying to trick him! – he pretended to yawn and told himself that he had conquered it all before.

The street-names here meant nothing to him. They were only numbers, uninteresting on postcards, alluding to nothing, and still when the cab passed the corner on 79th Street and Amsterdam his chest tightened, and he did not to think of her.

There was nothing beautiful about home. His mother dried her eyes on his blazer and his father went down to the coffee shop to get Ivan the fruit salad he used to love and outside his window the lights were pink and plastic and the air smelled of bagels and the dog was rolling uselessly onto its side. He showed his mother photographs, and declaimed the legends of his travels across the living room. He gave things Greek epithets; he called things by their foreign names. He hung a panama hat on the back of the chair.

“You’ve seen so many things,” said his mother. “And now you’re grown – and of course it’s the same here as it always was. You’ll be bored of us, soon enough.” She sucked in air and waited for him to correct her.

She fussed about the seasoning of dinner; she commented on the protrusion of his collarbones. She worried about the length of his hair and then at last he snapped at her.

At night he could not sleep, and so because he could not sleep he took the leash and wound it around the dog; together they walked in the shadow of Central Park. Everything was still now, quiet and shiveringly familiar, and Ivan reminded himself that right now, were it not for his mother – for the rending of her garments and the beating of her breast – he would be strolling down the Ringstrasse, or the Rue Rivoli. He would be tipping his hat to passersby and leaving ostentatious flowers on the graves of writers he had loved.

The squirrels stirred the bushes; the moon hit the benches. Streets drafted down toward the edge of the city, and angled in such stultifying ways, and then he was on Amsterdam and 79th Street, and so he thought of her.

He had walked to school this way, often enough, and he had waited here often enough with his mother and with the dog, and so there was no reason that, just because he had kissed her here, it should be this pressed with the seal of her. But here they’d seen a rat scurry under the scaffolding, and so to be chivalrous he’d placed his arm around her shoulders, and then because they were both red in the crossing-light and things were too wonderful for them to speak they walked towards the park and it was there that he’d kissed her. They’d gotten in people’s way and been shouted at by strangers and so, gloriously emboldened, he had kissed her again.

Of course, he’d forgotten her by now. Now he was used to foreign girls, expats in hostels, and once for six weeks in Prague, and in any case he had been a child when with her, wading though the pools of their childhood places, and what he remembered was probably not how it was. Catherine was 16, and he was 17 and knew all the secrets of the world; he took her to the Metropolitan Museum and pointed out to her the ruins of the places he would go to, and the broken pottery of the cities he would make his.

They traded stories on the steps and he told her that one day he would be an adventurer. He made her eyes grow wide and then because of the rat he kissed her by the crossing-light on Amsterdam and 72nd Street, and across the park the light off the Time Warner Center gleamed and blinded him, and for a while he mistook it for the moon.

But that was before he had seen and known all things. That was before he had set off, set off to spend college vacations in his friends’ spare rooms, avoiding his mother’s emails, sending home souvenirs. He thought of writing Catherine, too, but he had done nothing that he hadn’t already told her he would do, and so he had nothing more to add. In any case, he doubted she’d open his letters.

The dog barked; Ivan jerked on the leash, but saw that it had been spooked by a rat and so let it whimper. The rat flicked its tail at him; he thought of her.

He had started to walk the old route – up, left, towards Broadway, up the old street, up to his old school, where subway rumbled under the grate and gum puckered at the bottom of his feet. He saw the pizzeria where he used to buy lunch, and he saw the bodega where he would wink and puff out his chest for cheap beer, and when he passed them he saw her, all-conquering on the stoop, asking him if he would take her to the museum.

It was four in the morning; she was not with him. The subway rumbled beneath his feet, and once when Ivan was six he told his mother that the steam from the grate was in reality the exhalation of giants. This made perfect sense to him; this is how it was.

“One day,” they’d said, “We’ll go together. To Berlin.” They scribbled their itineraries on the back of napkins at the frozen-yogurt shop on 84th Street.

The city was so strange to him. It smelled of gasoline, of cooking-oil, of vomit, and it smelled of none of those things because it smelled of her.

The dog barked again, and the moon shifted against the clouds, and then the light appeared long-fingered against the East River; then the trees in Central Park looked like faces, and on 86th Street Ivan pretended – gloriously emboldened! – that if he only crossed the park, that if he only made his way to the Museum, that she would be waiting for him there.

She owned this city. The streetlamps and the light on the concrete belonged to her., and so they became stranger

Ivan took the route he always took. The joggers by the Reservoir were echoing off the dirt path; to Ivan, they were the sound of horses giving chase. The false moonlight gleamed again off the skyscrapers, and once he had walked this way with her, and the way was full of dragons.

He walked faster, and then because he could walk no faster he ran. His chest grew tighter; he coughed and spluttered; the dog catapulted itself over bushes and upended garbage cans; he ran towards the great glass walls of the Museum, splattering mud onto his shoes, and in the ricocheting of his heart against his ribs she was with him.

He tripped over the leash; he fell palms-first onto the hill and across the grass, and through the clear windows of the mezzanine he could make out the ruins of the Temple of Dendur, which once he had shown her, and which had once made his heart stop.

He barely noticed the hands that seized on his elbows; they were not real to him. The fingers rifling through his pockets could not deter him. They belonged to a giant, maybe, or a Cyclops, to bandits or brigands; in any case, he only had a twenty-dollar bill.

In any case, the city breathed with her breath and once, in the days he did not remember, Ivan sat with her, his hand in her hand, and told her about how full the world was with adventure, and how Alexander the Great had wept, once, because there were no worlds left to conquer, but he would never get to the point of weeping, because once he set off he would explore forever.

The dog barked – in the aftershock Ivan decided that it had three heads – and Ivan began to clean the mud from his shoes, and when morning came he remembered how they’d sat with their sandwiches at the back of the museum, and how he’d believed that their kisses were the kind that could split apart continents, and that crossing-posts were citadels, and subway-roars were dragons. This is how it was.


Tara Isabella Burton

About Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.


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