______, you asked me to write you letters from _____ while I write my book, but things are never that different when you travel; the heaviest baggage is always yourself. Part of me likes to think that I can be someone new each time I go elsewhere, but I am only slipping on a mask in the hope that others will be fooled into believing I am someone else. I wear them but still shy away—almost pathologically—from speaking to people. Holidaymakers congregate with fellow countrymen, loud and drunk in the evenings, happy to have found someone else to talk about the otherness of the country they are in, repeating ailments and complaints like letters of introduction from mutual acquaintances.
Why do I shy away? Because I do not know what to say about myself, unwilling to say what it is I do—feeling as it does, fraudulent and undeserved—hesitant to tell the complex story of my life, an expected rite of the traveller. I can barely look others in the eye—when I raise my head, it is to fix my gaze on a point in the distance just past their shoulders, anywhere: the rows of a dusty vineyard pregnant with bunches of grapes; a villa whose rooms are starting to light up for the evening, exposing old wood-beamed ceilings; an almost artificially turquoise tiled pool with a magazine-like tableau taking place in miniature around it. The horizon is an assumption of the infinite, and I think in there must lie a possibility, a convincing persona for me too—if not in one of those points, then surely another. When the light begins to fade everything becomes golden, something I had not noticed until it was pointed out. Now it is all I can see, a patina which turns the sea and cypresses to bronze, our skin to statuary.
I am here marking a new age in an ancient country, partially as another escape: escape from what? Myself, of course. I think I can be normal here, put on a mask and assume the guise of someone who is trying to write, a person who isn’t constantly helpless and angry just beneath the skin at not being able to steer her own destiny at the speed and in the course she desires. If I was once frustrated at the collapse of my marriage and subsequent consolatory but unsatisfactory relationship with the same person, it has now been replaced by rejections and the silence of indifference. The latter is a fate worse than rejection, because the former at least recognizes your presence. The great irony is that this is normal: the most welcoming thing of all in this mad, lonely kind of life is failure. ‘From the depths of my disgust, everything literary looks to me like a chastisement’. E.M. Cioran’s words echo in me whenever I am told at the great emotion by an editor reading my experiences, such emotions to deal with! But no … we can’t sell you, how many copies could we ever sell of you, you have no broad appeal, you think too much. You, you, you—until you becomes an abstraction, a meaningless word, the sound and shape of it strange in my ears and swimming in front of my eyes, little waves that drag me under, you emerging from my struggling lips, rising to the surface in its attempt to extricate itself from me completely.
Are they chastising the story or the writer? The deluge of comments are oblique but regretful, so much so that at times it feels like I am drowning in the pool of Cyane’s tears. The other day a small sentence ran through my head: you write for no one. It was pessimistically optimistic, the realisation that I write for myself. That is something, at least—to write for no one, it frees you to write anything. But when you are free to write anything you begin to realise how little there is to say eloquently that is yours alone or worth the bother of putting to paper, and that loneliness—because that is what it is—echoes from the page back into your head, the dull throb of a voice with no ear to comfort it. And so I retreat into that other normal thing in my life, hunger. Once again, I find myself as two people, a replica and an original with only its flaws in different places. I hunger yet I want nothing. This ravenous creature does not ever seem to retreat, as it has the luxury (for now) of not having the more desperate cares of daily life to distract from its indulgences. But then, in the times I was plagued by a gnat-like cloud of worry, my appetite—fantasy though it was—diverted me from the swarm.
I am trying to find a rhythm in this country, knowing that what Cynthia Ozick says in an essay about travel applies to me at this crucial point: ‘what we remember from childhood we remember forever—permanent ghosts, stamped, imprinted, eternally seen. Travelers regain this ghost-seizing brightness, eeriness, firstness.’ This new time reminds me of its urgency, each experience, however mundane, to be pressed in my memory like the dried flowers I would sometimes come across in my parents’ books. Eager to create new ghosts so that my old hauntings might fade into my lost years, I also know that to be haunted is to realise one’s layers; it is impossible not to accidentally turn back a page at some point and not be overwhelmed by the austere old paper and spice of decades-old rose petals of other lives. Those dusty, shadowed spectres mingle like uncomfortable guests here, their cold mustiness clashing in my nose and memory with that of the relentless early fall sun, the wild herbs that grow around the house—lilac-blossomed nepitella, mint, lemon balm, and thick blue-flowered rosemary bushes, the sweet spiked fallen cactus fruits which overripe and obscenely split, expose engorged red-purple flesh noisy with feasting, nectar-drunk bees oblivious to the rest of the world in their own hunger.
Through the prism of travel, the mundanity of everyday life reflects its interesting facets; ones that in our own countries no longer register any observation. No matter what: weekly trips to the outdoor market and hypermarket, how one eats, the way one converses with strangers and what about—the rituals within them of family, society, and culture suddenly appear to be prominent, and I find myself shaking the tree of my memories in order to find parallel ones. Why, I don’t know, other than it seems necessary that I can hold up some recognition and mimic what is around me in order that chameleon-like, I might know the pleasure of at least a semi-anonymity while here. It helps to have always been a tourist of sorts in my home country. Being physically marked as from another culture now allows me to move from one to another with a sensitivity towards custom and difference, an eye for the minute details of the fine web of others’ lives, rather than stumble into it headlong like a fly expecting welcome.
Every afternoon I go around the property and gather trimmings left behind by the gardener who randomly appears to tend parts of the ground, change a gas canister, or fix the damage to the electric fences made by the wild boars. By the time I have made my way back, my arms are full of rosemary and bay, fig and olive branches. There is a large open stone fireplace in the house, and I learn how to stack the wood properly so that it will draw. This is the early evening ritual that we take turns to do. For a while, we sawed the main firewood ourselves from the piles of fig and olive left to season in a half-open shed, and I enjoyed the total concentration it required, expelling any extraneous worries about writing, the dull satisfying ache in my arms from holding and sawing. Now that we have found a firewood seller on the outskirts of town, every so often a truck pulls up and unloads an enormous pile of roughly cut, equal size logs next to the gravel path that we then pile into a wheelbarrow and manoeuvre down the slope to a little wood-alcove between the house and a stone wall which has an espaliered fig tree.
Contrary to what we see in movies or television, fire takes its time, and is even stubborn about its willingness to catch hold of the wood and paper and whatever else you have built it from. But there is always a thrill when that first small flicker reaches up and caresses something it has found to its fancy: I watch in rapt delight as it slowly takes hold of everything else—almost shyly, as if it does not yet know its own instinct—then increasing to a brooding, ravenous hunger. It treats the broken bits with especial playfulness, for the natural oils in the bay and rosemary result in a scented burst of loud pops and crackles like a cluster of small fireworks. It was during this time I started to read Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire, where he describes the act of watching a fire as reverie, ‘a phenomenon both monotonous and brilliant … it speaks and soars, and it sings.’ I stare into its depths in the evening, seeing entire small civilizations built in glowing orange-red fragments of wood, piling on top of one another, then crumbling, almost liquefying into red-gold lava-like mounds. You think of everything and nothing while looking into a fire’s heart: an unconscious mimicking of the thing itself. There is creation, destruction, and even in its grey morning-after pile of dull ash, a promise of renewal.
The following day, I tip out the daily cold remains into a small ravine in the back as we have been instructed, and marvel at how our nightly flames derive from the flora around us, then return to the ground to fertilise the trees and bushes that will eventually feed it again. Fire inspires an abstract desire to create and destroy, where destruction is mostly a symbolic devouring, and I can only imagine this due to being present night after night for the circularity which is the life of a blaze. If I feel dispirited by the end of the day over writing or anything else, a great surge of possibility floods through me each time I see those small flames begin to cautiously taste the wood and branches newly laid out for it like an offering. It occurs to me that what much of the world has given up in the domestication of this particular ritual is primal hope: the setting aside of everything but an innate understanding that all is cyclical. Here, I see cycles everywhere. Not just in the flames but the plants and trees and animals, something that makes me realise that artificial time—simply time kept via the machinations of an unnatural, or technical, world—is an erosion of that innate understanding. We have lost our time despite our constant clocks, and it is a revelation of sorts to feel my body and mind reset, though I know I will return to that other world, and not with unhappiness.
My perspective of fire is not the same as it was when I was young. We had no fireplace, and I associated them with those with more money. The seemed to be a symbol of another life, and more than that, the control and civilizing of a primal thing. On television people who were money and time-wealthy sat by fires, although almost never brooding upon them; rather, their backs were turned or they faced away, the ultimate luxury that one could ignore such beauty and danger. Back then, I had relations who built a fireplace so it could be viewed sitting in the dining room as well as in their sunken den. I would sit on the stone ledge and watch, mesmerized, though no one else seemed to pay it any attention. Captured, it served no more purpose than an animal at the zoo. Later on, in high school, I had a friend whose new home had a fireplace, but I never saw it used. It seemed, like the second formal sitting room they had, to be merely a display: what was necessity—and still is, in places—reduced to a monument, one of the acknowledged class requirements of the time.
Here, it is a necessity, though the property itself is owned by someone wealthy who we have never seen. It is a remnant of the original house, and so was the primary method of heating then, and remained so. Despite the house being internally remodeled in the 60s, its modernity has since quietly dissipated, the family who was once raised within its walls now long scattered over various countries. There is a wood pellet burner in a guest cottage where the utilities are, and that feeds what little central heating there is downstairs—the couple radiators there are on the upper floors are so small and oddly placed that they are useless. Upstairs, the floors are terracotta tile which are cold at night, and the woman who acts as remote caretaker arrived one day flanked by her two enormous white dogs Rose and Gianni, with a large rug rolled under her arm, apologetic. On the day we arrived at the house the dogs were the first things we met: with friendly barking they bounded down a side slope, and after a sniff each immediately placed themselves tight by our sides. As we appraised the property, they appraised us with the kind of inquisitiveness animals do when they have an attachment to a place, sensing if a person belongs there or not.
Often when we bathe we must be quick as there is never enough hot water, and using two appliances at once runs the risk of a fuse blowing (which happens often and usually at night). That means one of us must take a flashlight or walk in the pitch-dark to reset it in the shed where small birds like to fly in through an open cat-flap (there is only a neighbour’s cat, who occasionally leaves paw prints in the ash box just under the entrance on its way in and out). The stove runs off a gas canister, and there is an old-fashioned pantry just off the kitchen where I store root vegetables. The property is vast and wild, with large iron gates and a sweeping gravel path flanked with nut trees and rosemary to the house, which sits on the edge of a ravine. The stone terrace has low walls which we sit on to eat our lunch on warm days and look out into the thickness of the trees. The garden slants downward rather drastically and is dotted with olive trees, whose abundance of fruit I will shortly pick and brine.
Small lizards dart about everywhere in the sun, slipping out from cracks to lie on the stone ledge with luxurious ennui, at other times adventurously scaling the walls of the house and deciding to venture into the main bathroom through a window, where is a bath in an alcove and a marble sink set in a mini-hallway off of our bedroom. There is an impossible amount of ironwork furniture and abstract sculpture; we are told a friend of the family created these. It is oddly modern for the house, the strict geometries of outdoor chairs bent into triangles and squares and the marble slab table with its iron half-moon base austerely contrasting with the gnarled chaos of the large walnut tree which overhangs them. There is a lone iron chair sitting on a nearby bank of grass and wild herbs just off a set of precarious and uneven stone slab steps: sometimes I go out to sit in it, legs splayed, neck tilted back and hands nestled in that secret warmth, the scent of lemon balm and sun golden and heavy, mingling with the one between my legs. There is no one to see me but the deer, wild boar, and birds sweeping the valley, and I feel a sense of animal kinship in my primal gestures of pleasure. It echoes similar movements from when I was young, sitting under the shaded grape trellis in the garden, unconsciously replicating the curlicues of vines and sensuous fullness of its fruit on my skin with a finger. Most of the time we smell thoroughly of wood smoke, which pleases me as it feels like an olfactory possession meant to convey belonging. This place is both luxurious and frustratingly rustic, the dichotomy of which temporarily satisfies my restlessness.
Physical interruptions as well as psychological ones mean that, temporarily, I cannot eat—indulge—in ways sexual, and, necessary, and creative right now. Without wishing to diminish anyone else’s unwelcome interludes of illness, it is not unlike having an eating disorder and needing to work at putting things in your mouth, going through the mechanical steps in the recovery of nourishing yourself. Breaking down the process and then getting used to it until it is second nature again. In a 2014 interview with the Paris Review, Adam Philips said this about children and hunger: ‘an appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways.’ From early on as a child and to this day, I have understood hunger as a thing moving restlessly, permanently, between two poles: the conscious and unconscious, later, naivete and corruption, the latter two not necessarily tethered to childhood and adulthood. It has an element of fear: the body and mind relaying a desire for an alien satiety which we then decide whether or not to invite in without knowing its effect. What I want, what I need, and what I devour—or not—is both a private desire and an unwitting performance.
We do not think that eating or satisfying hunger as an exertion until we severely lose our appetites; faced with food or desire, unable to do anything. Both require effort. While we constantly hear the refrain of you need to eat, somehow desire is different; it is still not thought of as necessary in the same way. I admit even after that six-year drought without the satiety of intimacy—bodies without sex and emotions without communication—it was easy to forget again. This brief period of inactivity—an inevitable, and normal part of life—has scared me. ______, perhaps I rely on you in these letters to remind me that I can never let it happen again; to let that normalcy become a state of impenetrable slumber, like Sleeping Beauty. Not the fairy tale, but the girl in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus: asleep in the brothel, body pristine, surrounded by dreams of carnality. I wonder if it is normal to have an emotional alter-ego of sorts; that is not to say what I am in words is not truly who I am, but it would also be true to say that when I could not fulfil myself physically, I needed this—our letters— to remind myself I was still me.
But now, is it a betrayal? It is the one thing we do not talk about. I think because we know it both is and isn’t, a Moebius strip moving one surface to another, eternally. That at times it saves us to be who we wish to be, more, with others that are not part of our most immediate lives—this is natural enough, although perhaps we have forgotten that when young, we do this: a form of play and performance that helps us learn who we are and what we need. Does it seem strange that we can be so many things to someone when the other person’s corporeality is not available to us? Is it because we cannot see the cracks in the foundation, the parts that are worn thin from experience and emotion?
You have seen me worn and cracked, at times. But damage viewed from a distance sometimes takes on a false elegance in the way one views an ancient monument—we can recollect the story of the damage but do not necessarily understand how it relates to us; a tourist in another person’s history. It becomes unreal because most pain is only an idea, especially when you have never experienced a person in the flesh. The part of my story that does not include you is almost fictional, that version of me nothing more than a character. In the hallway of this stone house on the white wall there is a sculpture of a single open eye. Because it is also white, it resembles a bas-relief, part of an ancient living structure that watches and questions me wherever I go within. In an uppermost room where no one goes, there is a pile of dead flies; not one or two or even a few, but a black mass under a shut round window frame. How they appeared is unknown. It was a long time before we gathered the courage to clean it, because their silent appearance and subsequent death seemed chimerical—as if they had gathered to form something completely different—and to me, allusive. I felt those individual flies represented each time I ventured out into a new place in the world as a different person, their failed collective attempt a reminder that I was missing something crucial in trying to recreate and reanimate myself.
______, you once said that this relationship of ours was free of the things that usually taint everyday life. Taint was not meant negatively—just that here in our letters, between us, we are able to hide away the little daily frustrations or the larger burdens that make up life, but without the pretense of perfection. The only rules are to be honest and raw and true. To be with someone—fully—you have to understand what it is to struggle against those things, confident at the end of the day that the entirety of a person will always retain their emotional value. You know that, because I remember you once saying that we had yet to experience certain things, like each other’s laughter or tears. This is where it becomes complicated for the world, because there are relationships outside of our primary ones that are acceptable and others that are not. I think that when we have centred our physical and emotional lives around a single person then we treat the relationship defensively; a low and constant fear that something, someone, might cause them to break free of our orbit, leaving them drifting.
A more accurate reality is that people come and go, and it is only natural that attractions and connections flow, peak, and ebb without them damaging the ones we choose to spend most of our time with. You and I shared certain pain—one of the rawest kinds of all, when we have spoken of what it means to be undesired, to desire when there is nothing to answer to our hunger. Love, desire, and its intimacies remain present even after death, to the people left behind. For the lonely, how complex is the life that is without these things, which nevertheless longs for them? And so I move between you and he, the undercurrent and the surface, because even in contentment one must not erase the paths that led there in the folly of eternal certainty. This kind of loneliness renders us an island amidst an ocean of people. Once, I was that island. We are so enthralled by the idea of the message in a bottle, a message randomly drifting the waters until an equally random person opens and reads it. But all of this really is how we navigate the world. We forget that it takes so very little to go from being part of the ocean and becoming the island, forgotten though it can see so clearly what surrounds it.
I remember that first time you ‘spoke’: black letters on white, a bottle and message that felt as close as a voice down a telephone line feels to the person whose ear is pressed tight to it, as intimate as a first touch. Someone spoke with me—me, who had been spoken at, over, around, through, but not with, not for so long. This is one of the most difficult things to explain, to have a lack that deep and to feel drawn in again. It is like quenching thirst, satiating hunger, blessed sleep following night after night of closing your eyes without rest, inner eyelids a screen on which the anxiety of endless motion is projected. It feels like someone has pulled you back into the light of the world—because they have.
Sometimes I think of hurt in a relationship like a slowly rising tower. The little damages we cannot shake off in our heads and hearts become another brick, and we watch as time goes on and the tower grows higher, wanting more than anything to reach out and raze it. Honest and raw and true. When I have a rare argument, or feel hurt, I think of that, and try and remember that I once lived in such a tower with no doors or windows, my only exit to burn it to the ground and hope to emerge from its ashes. The words you said to me also apply to my other life, where I am nothing but flesh and heat and flaws. I think you recall that there was a time in our writing when I only existed in the depths of the water, not knowing if I would ever return to the surface. One waits and hopes, but also tries to forget, feigning a kind of indifference to the gods that they should have their wishes fulfilled.
Vilem Flusser says on letter writing that ‘letters are things one waits for—or they arrive unexpectedly. Of course, waiting is a religious category: it means hoping.’ The epistolary relationship, especially in the realm of email and even more so with a correspondent who has never existed to the eye or touch, is the ne plus ultra of this. Flusser is speaking of physical letters, and views their technological future with some skepticism, but as someone who has written in both forms extensively, there is just as much near-holy mystery to the one we write in. While it is true that the electronic letter writer is ‘faceless but wears various masks’, it is equally true that there is a pleasurable constraint in maintaining the structure of honesty in a form where we could be anything. If I struggle with myself in the physical world, trying on different masks in an attempt to find a person I can feel at home in, I do not when I write. This infinite space without rules is the freedom to examine myself minutely in body and mind, without prejudice, and that openness with its mutually drawn boundaries I think is something we both crave.
Betrayal is one of the most normal things there is; do we know of anyone who has not experienced it, or felt they had so strongly that it amounted to the same? And yet, like love, it is a thing that almost solely exists to be blown about in the wind of shifting perspectives, a weathervane in a storm. The betrayed has been wronged. What has the betrayer done? They have been false, greedy, withheld. I can’t tell you what I need in precise figures—the idea of satisfaction nothing but a calculation—any more than I can tell you who I am; as if my life were done, finished, reduced to verifiable anecdotes and dates. When nothing is certain, how can there be betrayal—can I not see it because I view myself as uncertain and unmoored in the world? Or is it because I cannot bear the idea of anyone being completely certain of me anymore—even you—a kind of possession not unlike the pulling of a marionette’s strings?
______, once, long before you, there was someone in my life: present, but absent to touch and sight. We spoke and loved—love is a word which causes alarm at times for its tendency to be misinterpreted, but I use it to represent complete emotional trust—in a similar manner, through our letters. And then came a day where I thought there would only be calm and no wind, that my emotions would be fixed to one person whom I had started to see. So I brought those letters to an end, thinking that I was doing the right thing, without any concept of what that meant. But half of me was empty, even when times were good. And I was honest, speaking of him when questioned. Why not? Like now, there was nothing to be ashamed of in that odd relationship. But the fury that came of it was the fury of a past that was seen to rival the attentions of the present. I was not allowed past emotions or desires, because that indicated my potential for betrayal. I protested, but I did not know what terrible behaviour it was that I was trying to defend. It was then I knew that there are those that expect love to be like a flower in ice, fully formed but frozen. Not dead, not living, but simply there to possess in useless beauty, an irrational possession Maupassant describes in Bel-Ami: ‘… a sort of hostility against her, stirred in him, an hostility directed against everything that he did not know about her, all that part of her feelings and life which did not belong to him.’
Now, with a new person, I have been honest about you because I saw so clearly that without, nothing would have followed; I would have remained in that lost physically loveless time, too afraid to seek out another one. These things—relationships, encounters, emotional vignettes—are an education of sorts. There is a quote he likes from a Beckett novel: ‘And I said with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.’ It is my small joke that I think this must be referring to me, the complex and unknowable.
If no one can be certain of who I am, that must mean that part of me is forever free. This might be a fool’s wish; anopia which is really just the inability to face who one is. But then maybe I am so damaged from those lost years that I believe I will somehow be safe if no one really knows me. But we all yearn to be known, even only if by a single person who becomes our world, visible just to each other. ______, do you remember how Bruno Ganz plays the angel Damiel in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire? How he falls in love with the lonely trapeze artist who senses his presence without knowing he exists—the entire movie so perfectly capturing the world we actually live in, its inner voices with their secrets and desires rushing to and fro creating another city on top of Berlin, thought-pathways instead of concrete. We often sense connections before seeing them, and sometimes, like us, cannot even do the latter because there is no body to observe, whether due to impossibility or constraint. So you and I, we are talking to ourselves even though we like to think we are talking to each other through a screen, a wish and an ache in a constant conversation we place nothing but—or perhaps all—our faith in that we are heard by the other.
The adult betrayals I witnessed when young—not just sexual ones, although I was only dimly aware of what that kind meant—made me question the concept of perspective. How impossible it was to say whether one was right, another wrong—or if it even mattered in the end. People are always coloured by perspective; facts become an obstacle to overcome in trying to create a narrative that fits our emotions—because if it doesn’t, who does that mean we were, and are? I would watch, at the intersection of two or more, able to see why each person believed what they did, even if it seemed to my inexperienced eyes to be implausible. What I had yet to understand was that our perspectives are influenced by other experiences—or the experiences of others—and that rarely were they solely the result of the issue at hand. I was too young to realise that life leaves residue that clings to your psyche; that perspective was just a filter coloured by that residue. Wenders’ Berlin angels see the world in black and white while those on earth view in colour; I could see in both, and like the golden Victory Column Damiel observes from, that is the loneliest viewpoint of all.
To sit at the intersection of emotional perspectives is to be a constant observer; if it is not neutrality, it is the closest thing. But while many would see this as indifference, it is in reality a set of scales forever attempting to balance. To be empathetic to multiple points of view can be perplexing to others, firmly attached to their own weights, and it becomes almost impossible to conceive of such a state. That false conception of lightness equals a kind of suspicion, as if we should always pick a side immediately no matter what the issue, lest our silences be interpreted as damage. Perhaps we have forgotten that due consideration is the greater part of understanding and empathy. This is not to say that I have not been that person, feeling certain experiences should be the greater measure. I also know too well that the weight of it can sometimes mean you are held down by it for a long time to come, unable to let go. How can we hope to understand anything when we keep ourselves perpetually static? But there is also a stability in knowing that out there somewhere, there is someone with whom we can rest from our constant observing, whose own gaze casts us in golden light and makes us both human and immortal.
There is a scene in the movie The American Friend (also by Wenders), where the terminally ill frame maker, played by Ganz, removes a sheet of gold leaf—so fragile and full of movement that it could be the surface of water—from its booklet with only his breath and a palette knife. In a gesture so intimate as to be erotic, he lifts and releases it with a trembling hand, watching in silence as it drifts infinitesimally in the still air for an eternal moment before coming to rest in soft folds at the base of his other hand. He leans in, and with another breath gilds his still-quivering skin, which I think must be a fleeting wish for immortality. ______, do we gild ourselves thus in words so that we might become very real myths to one another? That scene was déjà vu the first time I saw it, and it took me several days to think why. When I was young, I opened one of my father’s old leather-bound books that were shelved in a glass case in the front hall. It was a stiff but pillowy black leather, rather than soft and worn. Oddly, it had a silver clasp holding the covers together. Because it and I were small, I liked to take it down and undo the catch, leafing through the tissue-thin pages. I recall that it was in German, and that one day I came upon a page that held a golden fish. It was transparent, with the scales and fins and face carefully printed upon it. I picked it up and it moved gently as I did so, differently to a piece of paper. Placing it in my palm to examine it more closely, its tail and head curled gracefully upwards and inwards as if alive. Not knowing it was because of my body heat, my child-logic attributed it to a form of magic. That golden fish became my secret pleasure, and I would sit on the hall steps, letting it bend and writhe in my tiny hand.
I am in the cool remoteness of a country where I do not speak the language, trying to find a rhythm. There are pomegranate trees here; I have secretly plucked one, small and unripe, pale pink and yellow-green around its pollen-filled crown—not to eat, but to look at. I will be here for six months, in an unfamiliar land for the winter. If I am not a mythomaniac, it feels as if I can only view myself through the eyes of one, for I see signs everywhere that speak more to me of who I was and could be rather than the unfamiliar person who looks back at me in the mirror, the am that is here. On the days when I cannot hear my voice there will still be yours, like a distant murmur through a shell, guiding me back towards a person that is real.
Sometimes I can hardly believe I am a woman again, and this in turn reminds me that I have another life now, with people around me that I can touch, who can touch me. Such a simple thing to acknowledge the existence of others, yet it is also one of the easiest things to forget. Cynthia Ozick wrote that ‘traveling is seeing; it is the implicit that we travel by. Travelers are fantasists, conjurers, seers—and what they finally discover is that every round object everywhere is a crystal ball: stone, teapot, the marvelous globe of the human eye.’ I am traveling to see—most of all myself—but the mystic ordinary that surrounds me often does so with cloud and not clarity. Even in the realm of the dead, what was left to Persephone was still hunger.
The other day I sat almost immobile as I deseeded a pomegranate from the market at the wooden table. This is an almost excruciatingly pleasurable task in its restraint: all concentration lies in the eyes and fingertips, an awareness that the slightest excess pressure will crush one of the buds of garnet liquid. Fingers must turn and bend back the honeycomb-like nests of seeds, peel away the fine membranes without disturbing the clusters, then coax each plump jewel away from its sisters. It is a fruit of sensitivity; the act of opening and removing one of blushing eroticism, disturbing and sensuous. To merely offer it does not arouse, but to watch someone manipulate its flesh with a fine touch is to unabashedly gaze upon a lover lost in the depths of intimacy.
To be accepted is to become a chameleon; to fold yourself in the colour of your surroundings. This is as true in travel as relationships. We remained tourists throughout the summer, but one day the weather turned. Walking through the cobbled streets of the nearby town with our reusable carrier bags from one of the hypermarkets, we suddenly became local, shopkeepers recognising our weekly presence, routine, and preferences. The tourists had left with the changing wind, and we found ourselves enveloped in the rust and chestnut of the autumn countryside, living on new time which was nevertheless a constant reminder of the old. It is the peculiarity of being in a place whose history and sense of place—if a place could be said to have a sense of itself—remains fresh despite the ongoing years. I am sure this is different if you are born into it completely, but as someone who was not and has never felt the shadow of what is sometimes referred to as a mother culture or guiding sense of home, I cannot deny the pull of feelings I begin to have for a country that exists seamlessly as both ancient past and present. It feels like an impossibility to know completely—the way I think of myself—and perhaps for that reason I find a welcome intimacy within it.
I like the streets best during the hours when the shops shut up in the afternoon; that custom of rest which refuses to pause for modernity and its constant need for consumption. Only the cats are out at this time, slinking across empty squares greeting each other or briskly rubbing the stone walls as they walk by, lifting their heads and blinking in slow surprise at the presence of a person; for a moment it is as if I have intruded on their secret world here in the sun, one where people willingly withdraw to behind the wooden shutters in order that this feline conclave might take place. I peer into dim apothecary shops with their old medicine jars—sometimes just for decoration, but there are still places that sell herbal remedies—next to bottles of French bien-être-style perfumes and stacked large bars of elegantly paper-wrapped soaps: olive and tangerine, fig and almond milk, pomegranate and blackcurrant, and thermal water, which smells like worn stone and chalky springs. When I bathe with that one, I imagine it depositing its mineral layers on my skin until I become another statue in this country which is but a vast garden of ruins and idols. For a moment the fancy overwhelms me that every figure I have seen are people throughout time who have wished for and been granted this peculiar tactual eternity.
______, do you know the movie Dans la ville blanche? Ganz (yet again) plays a sailor, Paul, who leaves his ship at Lisbon, one thinks driven mad by the people and routine. He wanders the streets anonymous and records what he sees in film and letters, as much for himself as his lover back home. He also has an affair with a local woman; in a scene where she sits on a bed, leaning against a wall as he kneels before her parted legs in the wonder that precedes the time-erasing spell of pleasure, I thought again of pomegranates. I have always wondered at the idea of escaping from oneself and living in the kind of liminality that exists despite being in a definite place. These silent vivid observations in reels and words—what you and I do in this equally dazzling space—are Paul’s white city as much as the streets he walks. The beauty which lies in the solitude of desire and the desire of solitude is exposed, as is not knowing in which direction time moves, the backwards clock that mesmerizes him in the first bar he enters.
In my mind the images of the movie blurs into the words of August Endell in The Beauty of the Metropolis: ‘the light of the sky drowns out everything, it dazzles the eye and spreads a mantle of flickering, uncertain, twitching light over the whole street, appearing everywhere and yet originating from nowhere.’ I am living this way now, in this liminal white and golden space of time and solitude, and it is like those dreams you have just before waking, where you feel the surface of consciousness despite existing somewhere below it in the slow-motion depths. This tabula rasa where we can write and rewrite each other as we please, our relatively fixed lives overlapping this free, empty one is like a fine vellum map that displays the cartography of longing. Does this mean, unlike what beloved Alya says in Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, that we are both writing to each other for ourselves: as if I am actually another you, and you another version of me, conjured in the heat and light of this blank city where we have escaped from another place in order to discover who we are, find each other—or are we here in order to find a way back, and if so, to where, what, and whom?
Image: Tomoé Hill