Reading Nook: Like others before him, Christopher Castellani found a welcoming haven in Provincetown
I remember my first night in Provincetown. I lay on a bare mattress, which was on the floor, in a shabby, sloping bungalow that creaked and groaned with the summer wind. I stared at the Rorschachs of smashed mosquito corpses on the walls, which to me looked like butterflies. That’s how happy I was to have finally made it here.
I remember hearing that Provincetown was a refuge for misfits, queers and artists. I fit the first two categories and was aspiring to the third. It was the place to disappear from the world and to meet writers and immerse yourself in your novel, and then, once you wrote enough pages for the day, to swim and dance and run naked through the dunes like Tennessee Williams. I came back year after year to various rented rooms and crash pads and did just that.
I remember that every time I walked to author readings on Pearl Street, I’d pass a rambling but stately Victorian that had once been a flophouse but was now an association of amiable condos. These days, I was told, you had to be a zillionaire to own a place in Ptown, even a sloping shack; so when one of the condos went up for sale with a suspiciously reasonable price tag, I called the Realtor.
I remember the blustery Mother’s Day she led me up the flight of outdoor stairs to this 230-square-foot apostrophe on the top floor in the way back. We stepped down through the front door into a narrow galley kitchen, which featured a plank of wood bolted flat against the wall that could be flipped up into a table or — I was already thinking — a writing desk. A double bed filled the entirety of the sleeping area, which had sliding barn doors and high airy ceilings crisscrossed with dark beams. Branches battered the windows, but the place stood solidly, uncomplaining. Its best feature turned out to be its exterior: a wide, expansive deck — bigger than the apartment itself — that overlooked well-loved gardens of hibiscus and hydrangeas. When I squinted, the far-off bay winked at me through the trees. From the harbor came the horns of the ships coming and going ahead of the storm. I knew right then and called my husband to make a case. He did not complain.
I remember that in Andrea Lawlor’s astonishing novel, “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” a young shape-shifter moves to Provincetown for love. It was Lawlor’s novel, capacious and elegiac, that led me to the book in my hands on this sunny afternoon: Joe Brainard’s 1975 classic, “I Remember.” I’m now lying here on my very own deck on one of the wrought-iron loungers we inherited, its wheels rusted immobile, in the shade of a giant elm tree.
I remember never having before read “I Remember,” a book structured as a series of brief, exquisitely precise recollections from childhood and adulthood, each of which begins with those two simple but profound words. Not quite a collection of vignettes, not quite a memoir or diary, the book reads like the flickering of a man’s mind, a gentle but vivid wave of associations suffused with longing and yet refreshingly devoid of analysis or moralizing or saccharine nostalgia. Though “I Remember” has no traditional plot or arc, Brainard crafts expert, subtle patterns that gather power imperceptibly page by page.
As the ghosts of artists fly above me, stirring up the scent of lilacs from the bushes crowding the stairs, I am losing myself in these patterns, taking on memories of a man I never was but in whose skin I’m convinced I have lived.
Christopher Castellani is the author of four novels, including, most recently, “Leading Men.”
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