Brown-shoed, seated in straight rows, we were taught
and believed the impossibility of measuring the horizon.
Today, waiting in line for coffee, the horizon seems as good
a goal as any, especially when a latte order goes
into greater detail than the directions Columbus had
when he cast off on what promised to be a new route
to the West Indies. Of course, he never got there. And customers want
no discoveries in their morning drinks. In front of me,
two women talk about the return of pumpkin spice as though
it were a ship returned after three years’ absence, its hold filled
with silks and spices enough to flavor endless meals, to clothe
a succession of queens and, most important, to make the captain
endlessly rich. What we knew of endlessness was the flat hour
before school ended, leaving us to navigate the slow walk home.
I don’t recall when pumpkin spice bloomed into a flavor
that spread over late autumn like a cloud, but I know it was not
one of the spices Columbus hoped to fill the hold of his ship with.
Columbus never found the riches he thought should be his
by right of invasion, sat chained and coughing for six weeks
in a Spanish jail at the end of his New World adventure, even
his theory about the shape of the earth fallen into disrepute.
The narrow view of the horizon available as I walked home
or stared slow and wide out the window said
our boundaries were defined, a pencil slash along
the edge of a yardstick. Venture far enough from shore
and the horizon grows until it surrounds you, a tilting
indifference you notice gradually, then realize you must pursue
until the pursuit becomes like an obsession with riches, a piece
of music that demands to be heard over and over. In front of me,
a woman orders a soy latte, skinny, half-caf with extra foam
and a splash of something. Each year I drift a few knots farther
from the shore where my students stand. I sip my plain coffee,
black, and recall that when I started teaching, a joke about Nixon
fetched laughs. Now their brows furrow if I mention Dick Cheney.
The sooner they can silence my arcane concerns, the sooner
they can return to cell phones and pumpkin-spiced coffee that turns
their eyes dewy with sugar. It takes a while to see how a journey can
slip off course and longer to understand that drifting off course is
the true purpose of journeys, especially when the horizon moves
so the distance between us is constant and as impossible
to measure as the weight of steam rising damp
from this cup and all the cups before it.