Letters from the Shore

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June, Sardinia

 

Dear —

 

I try to wake up at 7:30 every morning to write you for an hour before heading to the main house for breakfast and the rest of the day. I have found a reasonable way to stay in Italy: for a few hours of gardening and household work every day, I get to stay on this farm with a German family for two months. After this, I am going to Rome for a few days. And then home.

 

Mollo has a white mane, which I think of as the equivalent of that offhand European what-can-you-do shrug people without his age and stature would have to employ. He and Ines—a stocky, perceptive woman—have a daughter, Mandela, who is eight. Mandela is the only person I can communicate with fully in Italian. Ines’s son with her first husband, Manu, is visiting from Hamburg but he is leaving in a few days. They have a whole plot of land on the top of a valley. The river below feeds into the Tyrrhenian Sea.

 

My cabin is separated from the main house by a small field where Mollo herds his goats. Last night, I think a cat managed to get into the kitchen side of the cabin (which is unconnected to the bedroom side, accessible by another door from the outside) and tore through the breakfast pastries that Ines bought for me. There are so many possibilities for these kinds of accidents that I am at peace as long as I don't open my cabin door and find a donkey inside.

 

The work is light and manageable, mostly gardening and cleaning the guest houses with Ines. I tried to pick up German phrases, which eventually proved to be impossible as I have zero point of reference. Their conversations slide right over me down a slippery slope. But I am determined not to let incomprehension be an excuse to tune out.

 

Whenever I try to follow an episode, say, at dinner, based on their intonation and facial expressions, it hits me again: how little people know each other and still trust each other.

 

So far, the grand unifying lesson from coming to Italy is now I want to learn German.

 

/

 

Dear —

 

You used to be a text message away and now most feelings have expired by the time the Internet connects. Where do I begin when urgency doesn’t matter anymore? Moments pass quickly, while thoughts are elongated. You know how L always gets annoyed at my stories because she just wants to me get to the point, while what’s actually important is all the things that surround and build up to the point? This is how I feel about moving around Europe these few months. It is as if every socket of experience can be a beginning to something else, while resisting culmination, conclusion, significance—parallel lines, going on their own way for infinity.

 

This reminds me of what I once read in a review of Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate that sums up not only what is so radical about the narrative strategy in her works (think: the reckless performativity in the I Love Dick letters; in Torpor and Summer of Hate, the narrator’s use of the conditional (is “futur parfait” more telling?):

 

“The emphasis on doubt sends a warning to readers: Kraus's novel might not add up; it might end prematurely before there's time to do any adding at all. Catt muses that "she hasn't told anyone about these events, because there's no way to talk about them, she hasn't yet arranged them into a narrative." The novel might never even start. Summer of Hate begins with Catt's meditation on her death. All beginnings suggest the form of an ending.”

 

Can you read Kraus already? I know I can’t make you read anything, but trying makes me feel like I still care.

 

Yesterday, Mandela got away with hiding Ines’s cell phone for a while and she showed me photos of Manu and his wife or girlfriend. Mandela said she is a doctor or something. I didn’t want to know. My disappointment surprised and then disgusted me. You are going to say, how can you be attracted to someone you don’t even know? But isn’t this the whole point? That all of a sudden, you find yourself willing to know?

 

At any rate, the most difficult thing now is to sit at dinner and not crack a joke. I am not here to humour you if we are never going to see each other again.

 

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Dear —

 

I haven’t sent you any photos, not on purpose, but not by accident, either. Do I still feel as far away from you as you feel far away from me? But the problem is, you don’t feel far away at all, when I think about the fact that your fingers will soon touch these very sheets of paper. Sometimes, I think of the millions of inevitable transferences in everyday life as the secret handshakes of being alive, the way they quietly confirm your participation in society, the way your body belongs to you but everywhere you go, it invades—no two objects can occupy the space at the same time. If I zoom very far out in space and in time, I can picture us, two bodies on the ground on that terrace in Montreal. That was how we were there once. You can see that I have only recently discovered the reason people carve hearts and names with rocks on hiking trails. (I always say I am ein bisschen dumm, but no one believes me.) There is nowhere you can go without your body. How annoying is that?

 

Tell me how you are these days. I want to hear about everything I am not missing out in the civilized world.

 

/

 

Dear —

 

Mollo said this has been the driest year in the thirty years that he has been living on the island. Ever since I arrived, a wind has been soaring from daybreak to sundown, every second of the day. It came from the mistral from the south of France, which turned westward as it hit the Mediterranean and then swept across the island. "The wind sucks all the energy out of me," Ines said. She came back from dropping Manu off in town this morning and handed me a bar of chocolate—dark chocolate with hazelnuts, my favorite, although she wouldn't have known—"For the nerves.”

 

Manu left this morning and took with him the anachronistically contemporary energy he had brought here. I wasn’t expecting to talk about things like film festivals and mobile apps when I took a ferry and changed three buses to a farm by the shore. Now Mandela is putting away Wii console. The gossip and interior design magazines he left behind already seem dated. Packaged ice-cream sandwiches have become treats to be rationed.

 

But other parts of the house are held still by a melancholic echo that is barely present unless one listened for it. There are unwashed, half-filled cups from breakfast still on the dining table, amongst the usual pile of half-opened snacks and abandoned carafes. The cushion on the rocking chair is still stamped by the contour of Manu’s wet clothes from the beach. Outside, his chair was still angled to face away from the morning sun.

 

When I first arrived, Manu said he thought I am brave for coming all the way out here, by myself. People I’ve met on the way have told me similar things, but I did not expect this from him—he who I thought was so cosmopolitan, so adventurous, so experienced. Sometimes I forget that not everyone ends up in places. I remember asking Manu, on my first night here, How did you end up in Hamburg? He almost laughed, and then said, How do you mean? I was born there. (And you know my weakness for people who use “how” or “how come” in place of “what” or “why”.)

 

As long as nature stirred,
my mind could be freed from tumbling.

 

When it was my turn to answer, I tried to make my story as simple as possible at first. But there is always a moment when you supply one detail too much and immediately land yourself on the other side of the threshold. Sometimes you get to linger for a while before you decide to cross; other times it just happens. On Manu’s last night, at a moment of tenderness for the humanity of strangers (and the necessity to refute his idea of me as brave), I decided once and for all to tell him the real reason I came to Italy.

 

As I was hearing myself, I could feel myself growing into a knot, something with tangible dimensions, something more complicated than it should be. I heard myself being selfish, being unreasonable, being unnecessarily forgiving to a fault, demanding to be alone while perversely expecting the psychic power of others to care. Suddenly, I regretted it. I could’ve been anyone. Now I am still that person whom Z has given up caring about, who is afraid of hurting Z if I tell her how she weren’t there for me when I needed her the most and how I might never recover from that, how I thought I could escape these stifling expectations we have for each other by putting more distance between us, forgetting that distance was what made us close. Where can I run now except inward?

 

/

 

Dear —

 

The days that followed Manu’s departure were tranquil in a way only party hosts understand. Every turn in the house magnifies the memory of a gesture or an exchange: the what-ifs and if-onlys taking form. I am never going to see him again. There is beauty in that, too.

 

All morning, I wondered, does Ines miss her son?

 

But in the afternoons, the wind soared, and created a commotion that quickly took away any delusions of peace. The wind became a scapegoat for everything. As long as nature stirred, my mind could be freed from tumbling.

 

 

Dear —

 

I swam in the Mediterranean for the first time two days ago. Mandela is out of school and we commenced the sacred summer ritual of spending the hour before dinner at the beach. The trip downhill to the beach is a strange distance on foot: too long to walk, feels just right for a jog. It takes less than five minutes to drive.

 

Tourist season is also beginning to hit—it is getting warmer at around mid-day. According to Ines, more than five clusters of beach towels on the half-mile crescent would be considered “crowded”. So far, it has been mildly crowded between 5:30 and 6:30.

 

No sea is addictive like the Mediterranean Sea. It started as a myth and ended up like a dream. I hugged my knees, sank to the bottom, and hung like a bronze bell with my back towards the sky. Beneath was as clear as above and I didn't see a reason to come up again.

 

I went out to only as far the end of the quay. There is a reason I prefer the containment of a pool. If you give me the ocean, I would go all the way and end up too far. The sea seduces actually not by mystery but by clarity: swim out, never stop, and it's death. I think this is when living the scariest, when staying alive is an active choice.

 

No sea is addictive like the Mediterranean Sea.
It started as a myth and ended up like a dream. 

 

Back home, we have dinner, another hour of creature comfort I look forward to. Ines alternates between hearty German stews and seasonal local dishes. I make them Chinese food sometimes, fried rice with shrimp, eggs and scallions. Ines was surprised that I knew about Maggi sauce. I said I grew up with that stuff in Hong Kong, but no one in the States really uses it. I in turn was surprised that it was started by a Swiss.

 

/

 

Dear —

 

I close my eyes and hear Z’s voice, coarse and crumbly, reading: “I look at you for signs of leaving me and find to my despair that one of us has already left. Maybe it’s me. But, if it’s me, I always do come back, or always have. Please don’t go. Writing is always, in part, bending somebody’s ear. As reading is. In the matter of the commas. In the matter of the question marks. In the matter of the tenses. In the matter of the scandal at the tennis courts.

But then, don’t you see, I despaired. I simply, no, not simply, I rarely do anything simply, despaired. And then I despaired.”

 

It’s not that I stopped communicating. I always wrote to Z. But every time I try to ask Ines to mail them, I change my mind. Sometimes, I think, maybe I am just writing for myself, and I ought to keep them to myself. After all, what does Z care about donkey assaulting goats and the thankless trouble of picking beans? The truth is, we are living different lives now. We have been for a while but no one would acknowledged it outright. The obvious moves have been read by the other as compulsions necessitated by life. Even coming to Italy, Z accepted it as part of my “growth process”. Well, I don’t want respect! I don’t want acceptance! I want her to tell me what does she want me to be in her life!

 

Still, writing to Z is an addiction and a prepossession. (What kind of relationship survives on compulsion?) I have to let her know that I am still alive. But in writing this way, I am sometimes afraid that this could be the most selfish form of love: the kind of love that hopes for but doesn’t demand a return. What do I expect Z to say? What could Z possibly say? I feel my eardrums cringe whenever I remember Pitch Dark: “Writing is always, in part, bending somebody's ear. As reading is. In the matter of the commas. In the matter of the question marks. In the matter of the tenses. In the matter of the scandal at the tennis courts.”

 

But then I did despair!

 

Remember, two days before I left New York, when we had lunch? You said something, and I said, “I am there for you.” And you said, “But where? You won’t be here.” “Do you think it’s irresponsible for me to leave on a whim like that?” And you laughed. “Whatever. Nobody is as important as they think they are anyway.”

 

I think about this sometimes when I am digging for potatoes or whatever. I guess I just want to know, how am I still important to Z.

 

But how is it fair for me to ask? After all, I was the one who left. Now I feel like I’m stuck in an experiment where the control and placebo are mixed up.


 

 

Dear —

 

Some water has gotten stuck in my left ear from the beach. I feel like something could come out but it doesn't physically bother me otherwise. Now I have a tiny part of the Mediterranean lodged inside my body.

 

The clog, however romantic the idea—even Ines suggested, "Now you have a souvenir from Sardinia"—increasingly bothered me as the day went by, because I began to feel a little deaf, and the presence of something inside was increasingly positive. After dinner, I decided to look up on the Internet how to get water out of my ear. I didn't know why this hadn't occurred to me earlier.

 

I read out some hilarious instructions from Wikihow, and at last settled on trying the rinse-ear-with-warm-water method. But then Ines stopped me. "Let me see what Google German says."

 

/

 

Dear —

 

I can't sleep again. At one in the morning, I woke up. I got up to open the door for some air, but then I made the mistake of stepping outside and looking up at the sky. There were more stars than I have ever seen at a single moment in my life. More than that time in Death Valley; more than that time on Nantucket. The amount was almost too much. Things, scientific things, I know about stars began to come to my mind. I looked at the flickers of various strength and felt mirth—no, disappointment—to know that some of them did not exist anymore. I looked at the bright ones and wondered which one would die first.

 

At that moment, I found the words to what I have wanted you to understand: I wish you could understand what solitude means to me. I wish you could hear it. I wish—even though silence is permission, it’s not always invitation to be spoken over.

 

You used to wonder, what is the worst that could happen to our friendship? But you already know this. The worst is that one day I will pack up and leave for an island. What you ask of me is not in my nature to give, but I do it anyway, because I think this is what love is. If one day, I stop being able to react the way you want me to, it doesn’t mean that I love you less, it only means that I need to find a new way to love you.

 

Maybe this is why all these things I wrote to you will never be sent. I am afraid that you will read them, and eventually forget who I was in them, anyway.

 

This isn’t the end of us. But maybe it is the end of valuing curiosity at the expense of comfort.

 

/

 

Dear —

 

I am going to miss Ines and her odd clarity. This morning, she said, "I was going to take the clothes in. But then I thought, if I take the clothes in, then it will rain. So I am leaving them out."

 

It's August. Noticing the date this morning felt like a monumental gesture: I've made it—we've made it—things have made it through the first half of the year.

 

I am not ready to leave. When I first arrived, it felt like this would be paradise—if dying is a one-way shuttle to another planet; if not-existing simply means leaving one place and never turning back. The evening sky has become my wallpaper; the sea my bath. Now I think paradise must be wherever I am always grateful.

 

Have I changed? The same aneurysm is still living in the conscience; has only shrunk a little since I was last aware of its existence.

 

But that was the wrong question. I didn't come here to change. I came here for a change. I came away to know that I can still be the same person given completely different circumstances. If I can accomplish that, I will come back as a better person. If not, well, then I have changed.