15th Street S. That name is still magic to me. It was the scene of my first and only blizzard (christened Snowzilla, January 2016), an impending catastrophe that wiped out the shelves of the Rite Aid next door, and sent Bostonians into gales of laughter at the DC area’s dramatic preparations. It was where, from our eleventh floor apartment, I watched the raindrops blur the traffic lights, turn them into smudges of inexpressible beauty against the dark nights. I fell in love with the Lost Generation here as I read Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Beach. From here I set off on fortnightly museum adventures with G. We saw things we had never seen before: a feature on Ira Gershwin, the Hope Diamond (to the point that we didn’t want to see it anymore), the ball gowns of various First Ladies, the works of Edgar Degas, ballerinas practising — picking up bits and pieces of trivia and beauty for posterity or forgetting.
A good deal of the time, though, I also struggled with the weather and the darkness that seeped in as a result. December of 2015 was dreary. The sun went into hiding and we awoke every morning to overcast skies or rain. On the few days that it rose, it just wasn’t early enough — checking sunrise timings only left me frustrated at how slowly the days lengthened even over the next few months.
Letting the movies brainwash us into thinking that Christmas was a never-ending festival of light and crowds, we were taken aback by how the streets of DC emptied out towards the last week of the month. We went to see the National Christmas tree near the White House, but we were there for only a few minutes before it started pouring and we took an almost-vacant train back home. A lot of DC residents went home for Christmas, with government offices shut, and all that was left was a sweeping quiet. The Potomac froze and the trees lost their leaves. Life was stilled.
As afternoons became lonely, I took to walking. I went out around half-past three every day, just about the time dusk began to set in. I would bring myself some light, I decided, and let the darkness ease in, as I took a familiar route every day, one where I knew when the lights came on. I walked past a construction site, entering the Aurora Hills neighbourhood, with its tree-lined roads, neat clapboard houses, and usually well-kept lawns, a little Revolutionary Road in my own quarter. I favoured some of the houses in my head, wondered about others, but did not spin too many stories about them: for I just had to pass the fire station before I reached my favourite part of the walk, the library. I was always tempted to go in, but I was also afraid of picking up another book to add to the teetering pile on my nightstand — so I gave myself two visits a week, usually when the librarians I was friends with were around. On other days, I peeped through the window, sighed, and moved on.
Libraries were a saviour. Both in Arlington and DC, they opened up new worlds for me. The librarians were among the kindest people I knew, forever generous with their conversations and gestures. One of the librarians showed me her Genealogy results when we got into a discussion on anthropology; another called out to her friend when I checked out an Ezra Pound book, giving me that special kindred spirit smile that only book lovers know. Some of those relationships still continue (a shout-out to DC Public Library’s Twitter book chats!) and I’m extremely grateful for them, as this is one of the most non-judgemental groups of people I know.
Back to the walk — and on to the more utilitarian part of town, with its malls and stores, where the green-gold of Aurora Hills was replaced by yellowish-grey concrete. I walked by them, unmoved, to the ice-skating rink. The lights on the Christmas tree flickered on, as did the ones in the stores. With the cold breeze whipping my face, I watched families skate and fumble, sometimes thinking back to Little Women or to the competitions from the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics that were telecast with unwavering regularity on DD Sports for a very long time. When my nose was numb enough, I headed home, past apartment blocks whose windows were now twinkling vaguely with the dim lights that people in the West, and those who aspire to hotel-like living in India, are so fond of. I’m all for bright lights at home; not for me those tentative lamps that give out a murky light you cannot read or do anything useful by, much as I like Victorian settings and the idea of candlelight. I went past some restaurants with few patrons — the office crowd would stream out of Pentagon City Metro only later — but with the music already turned up, a blast of pop music restoring some of the gaiety of the skating rink.
Nondescript roads and a building reminiscent of New York City’s red-brick structures followed. There was little to excite the imagination here. But I was soon in our lobby, where I stopped, like Swami of Malgudi, to talk to friends in the building. If it was D., we had long conversations about everything under the sun, from nail polish to substance abuse. With A., conversations were about the political situation he had fled to build a new life for himself. There were others, dispassionate, resigned, or sad. The block throbbed with stories. And as I went up to my apartment, turning them over in my head, I looked forward to the lights and the warmth which awaited me.