I'd never seen so much gold in my life.
From kid-brother sincerity to grand performativity.
Funny things illuminated out of the dark.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
On Peter Mendelsund and the literary experience.
The giraffe swung in the breeze, a bruise-colored tongue hanging from its mouth. The wind carried the smell of roasting hot dogs and the sound of niños screaming, either laughing or crying.
“We were surprised.” Neil’s sister-in-law, Meredith, handed Luisa a margarita in a glass rimmed with chunky salt crystals. “Pleased as punch, but surprised. We all thought Neil was… and you’re so pretty, too. Me gusto the guac, by the way.”
Luisa didn’t bother telling Meredith that she’d bought the guacamole at Walmart or that, as Meredith probably suspected, she’d originally married Neil for immigration purposes—or that their marriage remained no consumado despite her best efforts. In fact, Luisa ignored Meredith, focusing instead on the circle of children gathered by the nearby cherry tree. Neil was in the centre, blindfolding Meredith’s son, Jeffrey. The blue bandana Neil used was the same one he wore to keep his floppy graying hair out of his eyes when he was painting miniature ogres. She imagined Neil’s smell, pleasantly sweet for a man, like baby powder, all over that bandana, sneaking its way into the boy’s nostrils.
Meredith followed Luisa’s gaze. “Do you like the piñata? I thought of you when I got it.”
“Sure.” Luisa breathed deeply. They’d filed for a green card when she first got there seven months ago, so it would be another five or six months at most, but the prospect no longer excited her.
“That party store is so disorganized,” Meredith said. “I didn’t even ask for a giraffe. I wanted a penguin—they’re Jeffrey’s favourite—but they screwed up the order.”
“Yes,” Luisa said.
“I watched this documentary about giraffes on the Discovery Channel the other day. Did you know they’re gay?”
Luisa took a swig from her margarita, the cold rushing to her head. “Si?”
“The males do this thing called necking where they rub their necks together and sometimes it’s a violent head-butting type situation, but a lot of the time one of them will mount the other and…you know. Pretty perverted, huh?”
Pretty perverted, huh?
When Luisa was growing up, the neighbourhood boys used to follow her home begging for blow jobs. They would call her late at night, panting and laughing and asking if it was true that she liked it in her culo. She’d been the first girl in her class to develop breasts, which everyone—including some of her teachers—seemed to blame on her, as though her early puberty was proof of an insatiable sexual appetite.
“Actually,” Luisa said. “I think it proves homosexuality is natural.”
“I never thought of it like that,” Meredith fiddled with the tiny diamond-encrusted tennis racket dangling from her charm bracelet. “Maybe you’re right. But it would’ve been nice to get a penguin. Penguins mate for life.”
The baseball bat passed from Neil to the boy, and Neil crouched down until he was right in the boy’s face. Luisa froze, letting her glass tip, clumps of neon green slush plopping onto the lawn.
“Can you see me?” Neil waved his huge hands in front of the boy’s covered eyes. “Can you see me?”
“No,” Jeffrey said.
Neil squeezed the boy’s shoulders, spun him around and around beneath the giraffe, its neck exaggerating the distance between head and heart.
Luisa had met Neil through a website that paired American men with Mexcian women. Even though she’d found Neil’s hometown (Eden, New York) and his interests (comic book collecting, larping) strange, he’d seemed harmless, not the boring macho type who slapped women around or called them putas for talking to a lost tourist.
When Luisa first started chatting with him, her only real concerns had been escaping her on-again, off-again relationship with Carlos and moving to the United States. Part of her always believed she was destined to live there. As a teenager she wore Levi’s and white T-shirts. She ate cheeseburgers and Twinkies. She memorized every line from American Graffiti and could sing the entire soundtrack of Grease. For her quinceañera, she and her friends choreographed a dance to “Summer Nights,” trying not to trip on their enormous sequin-laden gowns as they mimed revving motorcycles and tossing pom poms.
That’s why when Luisa accepted Neil’s proposal, she hadn’t imagined a mini bride and groom on a tall, white cake. She’d imagined a milkshake slurped out of a chrome cylinder. Endless green lawns. A blond girl at a baseball game crunching peanuts open, dropping the shells at her feet.
a milkshake slurped out of a chrome cylinder.
The baseball bat nudged the giraffe in the neck, poked him in the eye. The hits were so soft it was as though Jeffrey were stroking the piñata rather than attempting to spill its guts.
“He’ll make an excellent father,” Meredith said before noticing the margarita seeping into the lawn, a glob of the drink freezing on her pinkie toe. “Let me get you another drink.”
Luisa handed Meredith the glass without even looking at her. “Thank you.”
“You’re a natural,” Neil said to Jeffrey. “One more big swing and then it’s someone else’s turn. Here let me help.”
Neil reached around the boy from behind, a bear hug, his hands on top of the boy’s hands. Her uncles in Guanajuato used to hug her, pinch her cheeks, pull coins out from behind her ears, and there was nothing sinister about it, so why did she suddenly find herself sprinting the short distance to the cherry tree, adults and kids parting before her, staring?
“Darling,” Meredith yelled after her. “What about your drink?”
For the first month in Eden, Luisa had been grateful for Neil’s reluctance. He was so kind and generous, so unlike Carlos with his permanent quasi-erection and empty wallet. Neil took her on a honeymoon getaway to New York City, didn’t laugh when she gasped at the Statue of Liberty, held her hand as they wandered up the Guggenheim spiral. He complimented her incessantly, and not for her ass or her tits, but for the musical twinkle in her laughter, the delicate bend in her wrist when she swirled milk into her coffee. He suggested she might want to go back to school and offered to cover tuition costs. In the evening, after he did the dishes, he would sit with her on the couch and read her Tolkien or Le Guin. He was so gentle that she wanted to repay him, to fulfill what she thought was her end of the bargain.
By the third month, she began to worry. Every time she reached for his belt, he would tense and flinch and say he was tired. She hadn’t expected to feel so frustrated, hadn’t expected to feel anything beyond obligation, but something about Neil’s physical largeness coupled with the tenderness of his personality, the softness of his skin, made her ache.
By the fourth month, Luisa had convinced herself she wasn’t living up to Neil’s expectations. She left her Levi’s in her drawers, started wearing dresses again for the first time in a decade. White and black peasant dresses with bright flowers embroidered around low necklines, the closest approximation to her idea of an American’s idea of how Mexican women dress. Unconsummated. Scarves billowed around her head and waist. Bangles shivered on her wrists. She lined her eyes in coal. Went to tanning beds to darken her skin. Unconsummated. Bought sexy lingerie but nothing too trashy. Tried to get Neil to take shots of tequila or to pull him off the couch as she gyrated to the salsa music she’d bought at Target. She exaggerated her accent, throwing in Spanish cuando sea posible. Unconsummated, unconsummated.
Luisa yanked Neil’s arm off Jeffrey, not sure who she was protecting. What if Neil’s issue was something else completely? Maybe impotence. Maybe a vitamin D deficiency. The momentum sent the boy reeling and the swinging bat hit Neil squarely in the head.
“Fuck,” Neil screamed. It was the first time Luisa had ever heard him swear.
The bat thumped onto the grass. Luisa knew she’d have to explain herself, but she wasn’t sure whether she could force the words out.
Jeffrey’s father, Gary, pushed his way through the ring of children and adults. “What’s going on here? Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine.” Neil rubbed his head. “Sorry about my language.”
Jeffrey pulled off his blindfold and began to cry, snot dribbling down his nose. “It was an accident, Daddy.”
“Daddy doesn’t blame you. Daddy just wants to know what happened.”
Meredith scooped the boy into her arms.
“Are you okay?” Luisa’s fingers brushed Neil’s temples. Without answering, he looked at the ground. Red blotches spread across his cheeks and collarbone. She longed to smother him in kisses.
Once the children knew their cousin wasn’t going to be punished, they grew bored with the scene. They wanted their candy. A girl lifted the bat off the ground.
“Luisa, why did you do that?” Meredith was still holding her son, rubbing his back.
Luisa tried to think as her heart hammered in her chest.
“Can someone please get me some ice?” Neil mumbled. “My head is a bit…”
One of the other adults jogged towards the house, and another one said, “Someone better take him to the hospital. He could have a concussion.”
“I still don’t understand why his wife did that,” Gary said.
Luisa stood there with her mouth open, clearing her throat. She clenched and unclenched her fists.
She clenched and unclenched
It had been a week since she’d found the crumpled photograph. Neil was normally so fastidious about keeping things neat that seeing anything on his bedside table surprised her, let alone a photograph that looked as though it had been rescued from the trash. In the picture, Jeffrey stood beside a pool. His stomach was pushed out, his bellybutton a raspberry, and he was wearing tight red swimming trunks. Yellow water wings encircled his upper arms. A person’s shadow darkened the right side of his body, dividing him in two, and he was further divided by the creases that crisscrossed the picture, creating a spider web. Something about those creases, the boy’s trusting smile, the bedside table had made Luisa’s blood feel hot and thin. But how could she explain it? She had to say something. “I was worried?”
“Worried about what?” Gary says.
Worried that Neil could never love her, not the way she loved him. Worried that every decision she’d ever made was the wrong one.
“Ice,” Neil said. “Ice.”
The girl didn’t bother with a blindfold and all it took was one sound smack for the giraffe’s belly to explode, sending coloured discs flying everywhere.
“Lemon,” a boy yelled. “Grape.”
“Trade you for an orange,” a girl said.
Jeffrey wriggled free of his mother and joined the others. Picking a red-coloured disc off the ground, Meredith blanched. A cherry-flavoured condom.
“Kids, bring those all to me.” She tried to grab as many as she could. “Spit them out. Those aren’t for eating. I’m going to kill those party store employees! Gary, help me out here.”
Some of the children had already opened the wrappers and begun sucking on the latex. The parents tried to collect the rest, pocketing some, throwing others in the garbage. Neil put his hand on Luisa’s shoulder, and she shrugged it off. Mascara-darkened tears streaked her cheeks.
“For once,” he said. “For once I thought I wouldn’t be the freak at one of these things. Why did you grab me like that?”
“I found the picture,” Luisa whispered.
Neil swallowed hard, his eyes widening. “I’ve never been anything but patient with you. I know you’re going through something, but I don’t know what you want. You expect too much.”
Before Luisa could answer, he turned and headed for the house, his shoulders slumped.
Luisa stared after him, feeling chastened and ashamed. She wondered if she’d made up all this drama as a way of justifying why Neil wouldn’t touch her. A picture, what did that prove? Maybe sex wasn’t a major force in Neil’s life. Maybe he’d just been doing her a favour by bringing her here. Maybe she really was expecting too much. She’d left Carlos for good, like she’d wanted. She was in the process of becoming an American citizen, like she’d wanted. She lived in a nice house with a kind man. She should be happy.
A picture, what did that prove?
With his mother close behind him, Jeffrey galloped over to Luisa, his hands full of gaudy currency.
“Want one?” he said. “Where’s Uncle Neil?”
“Inside,” Luisa said, remembering how every Friday Neil would bring home tulips, cut their stems sideways, and ease them into a vase.
“Does he want one?” Jeffrey said.
She ruffled his hair. It was unbearably soft.
“No,” Meredith said. “Now hand those here, mister.”
Wails rose out of Jeffrey’s throat as his mother pried the condoms out of his tiny fists. “Gary,” she yelled. “Gary, come deal with your son.”
Luisa smiled at Meredith, suddenly certain this would be the last time she saw her sister-in-law. The decision to leave was as inevitable as the cherry tree’s shadow, a botched and simplistic rendering of the original, heavy on the lawn. She sighed. Losing America now seemed less important than losing Neil.
On the way to the house she tripped on something. The giraffe’s head. To get a closer look she picked it up by the neck, and it felt so fragile in her hands she was afraid she would crush it. She turned it around, curious to see every angle: its crêpe-paper mane and the backs of its floppy ears, then its left googly eye and the profile of its snout, until finally she was staring at it head on. The giraffe’s tongue—which, she now realized, was actually a purple condom—stuck sideways out of its mouth, and Luisa stared hard at it, unable to decide if it was mocking her. Or trying to cheer her up.
To whom did he apologize to while excusing himself to a quiet room with a mirror?
A home-cooked breakfast nearly every school morning for my entire life.
I've always had trouble making a clean break from my lovers, no matter how tumultuous our affairs or their endings. There is comfort to be found in the familiarity of bodies and habits. I have become especially skilled at slipping into that particular dialect spoken by lovers at night, and then out of it again in the morning. Everything our bodies say at night is a salve for loneliness and unfulfilled desire, but it does not last past the morning.
Outside the bedroom, I knew which creaky floorboards in the hallway to step around. I knew that the black towel was the roommate's, and that the blue was his. I knew to wait 30 seconds for the water to warm before stepping into the shower, and I knew that sharing his toothbrush was a better idea than to leave smelling of beer and morning breath. I reached into the medicine cabinet for toothpaste and on the shelf next to it there was a bottle of cologne. I've never worn cologne. The bottles I have received as gifts over the years gather dust in the drawers of my desk, scents too musky, spiced, or sweet to ever pass as my own. I never imagined that a scent from a bottle could inhabit the lines of someone's body so comfortably, but there I smelled him again just as he smelled with my nose against his collarbone. Of course, no one smells that good all the time — but right then, I felt cheated, betrayed in a way that was so irrationally powerful that I felt only generalized nausea. I didn't want that smell to come from a bottle, was all.
A smell, a taste, a touch or a sound is sometimes all it takes to bring feelings, forgotten or buried, to the surface.
I once sat alone in a restaurant sipping on a glass of wine so drily mineral I may as well have been tonguing a rock and ate a salad that looked and tasted and smelled of the coast. Triangular slabs of a meringue whipped out of egg white and ash formed a rocky shoreline strewn with samphire, which was dark green like seaweed but firmer, crunchy, tasting of salt like an accidental sip of seawater. A scattering of sea-buckthorn, the small tart red berries I wished I could find by the water and pluck directly from their shrubs, completed the landscape — and I was closer to the east coast of my childhood summer vacations than to the couple dining next to me at the bar or the friends waiting for me to join them down the street.
I felt cheated, betrayed in a way that
was so irrationally powerful that I
felt only generalized nausea.
No matter how minor the fall, the feel of my skin scraping against asphalt brings me to the edge of the pavement at the entrance to an underpass along Parc Avenue, dizzy, breathing haltingly, suddenly thirsty, flung what looked like a mile but was only a few metres from where I last remembered my feet turning pedals and my hands gripping the white tape on my handlebars. I ache in the muscles that took months to heal, and I feel weak again.
As a child I was scared of thunderstorms. My family would gather in the living room with the lights off, watching storms blow in, darkening the sky early on summer evenings, through twelve feet of floor-to-ceiling windows. They watched the lightning dancing through dark clouds, flashes reflected on the lake's choppy water. I had no reason to be afraid, they would tell me, but trees would bend in the wind as the sky rumbled and I was always scared. I would hear the thunder before the storm arrived and feel my fear in my stomach. When I was eleven years old, I went to a day camp in a strip mall underneath a bowling alley. When the first balls barrelled down the lanes above me in the afternoon I felt so sick that I spent the rest of the day lying down, shaking. And there was a day in late August this year when the humidity rose to tropical levels in the Mile End, building and building throughout the day until it became unbearable. After sunset, a storm broke and thunder rumbled and my friends stood on the balcony watching light flash across the sky. I stood beside them, afraid for no reason, nauseous, powerless, alone in those feelings as the others took in the spectacle.
That cologne — it smelled like the first night in his room, warm despite the sub-zero weather, the heat spilling out from the radiator harsh and dry. I lay in bed sticky with sweat under thick wool blankets, his body clinging, sticking to me. My breathing still heavy from lust, my cheeks tender from his stubble on mine, I gazed out the window (half open to moderate the heat with an icy winter breeze) as the bare branches of a tree bobbed to a rhythm I tried to count.
I remembered the house I grew up in, surrounded on three sides by fifteen-metre cedar trees. From the fourth side, a wind drifted in off the lake in the summertime and whipped snow squalls to our door in the winter. As a child that scent of fresh cedar was so omnipresent that I was nearly impervious to it — once, I stuck my head in a cedar chest in my grandfather’s basement and insisted to my city-dwelling cousin that I couldn't smell anything out of the ordinary.
The other facts of our lives were
pieces to be welded onto this truth
in whatever way they could be made to fit.
The air between us was sticky as a Montreal summer. He smelled like sweet sweat, like cedar wood and cardamom. I was more enamoured than was reasonable, but the way we lay in that bed, my forehead resting on his shoulder and my nose on his chest, pressed in that heat and caressed by that cool breeze, fuelled a teenage feeling. He smells so familiar, I thought — comforting now that the urgency of sex had passed. In the city, where everything smelled like asphalt and exhaust and cigarettes, I found the smell of my home on this blond prairie boy.
The rest of our romance fell into place around what I felt in that moment. I, normally cautious and distant to the point of indifference, submerged myself in this boy like a warm bath. He smelled right. The other facts of our lives were pieces to be welded onto this truth in whatever way they could be made to fit.
I don't remember what any of my other lovers have smelled like, but I found him all the time. Clean and fresh and herbal out of the shower. Coffee and cigarettes in the mornings when I'd lay in bed until the last moment as he dressed and made breakfast. Sweat and cedar again, always, after sex. I told my best friend about the strange intensity of my preoccupation with this smell and he laughed. «You've never experienced pheromonal attraction before?» Is that all it was? When deprived of one sense the others are supposed to intensify, but I couldn't smell him any more strongly when he led me by the hand through the maze of art-school darkrooms than I could smell him on my pillows three days after he last lay on them. I'm not sure what colour his eyes are, and I've forgotten his sister's name, his childhood pets. He's still that smell. I close the bottle of cologne, step into the now-ready shower to wash clean. It's morning.