On 9/11 and Its Aftermath

When Liberty Island reopened to the public three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, tourist information plaques on the island still needed to catch up with the altered Manhattan skyline. A vacancy had appeared where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood. “Amid the glittering impassivity of the many building across the East River,” John Updike wrote in The New Yorker a few days after the attacks, “an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.” Even three months after the events, one of those tourist plaques, situated just at the edge of Liberty Island where visitors could get a breathtaking view of the tip of Manhattan, still featured the ‘old’ Manhattan skyline in which the two towers stood proudly intact.

The disparity between reality and representation was haunting. It placed the two instances, the old and the new, in a relation of simultaneity, of coexistence. This dialogic simultaneity between reality and its representation gave an ominous aura to “that day”,as 9/11 came to be called in its aftermath, and it reflected a state of mind. It was a showcase of before and after akin to shampoo TV commercials or those brain-fitness puzzles that askplayers to spot the differences. Yet, it indicated something else as well, a shift not just in terms of landscape. The gap in the “glittering impassivity” of Manhattan’s skyline needed more than concrete and hard physical work to be sealed.

The plaque on Liberty Island was not the only one to proffer such uncanny commentary on the changing scenery. In November 2015, while I was staying in New York City, during one of my morning runs in Astoria Park, I stumbled across a similarly ominous plaque. Situated on the sidewalk, approximately halfway between the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and the Hell Gate Bridge, the green plaque faces the East River and, beyond it, Manhattan’s skyline. It does not contain any images, yet the weather-beaten plaque tells the story of the 1904 General Slocum Disaster, which involved a steamboat that sunk in the East River along with its 1,300 people on board. Out of all those people on board only about 280 managed to survive. However, that was not the information that caught my eye as I was skimming the long commemorative text. What drew my attention was the last sentence of the first paragraph, which tells its readers that “prior to September 11, 2001, the burning of the General Slocum had the highest death toll of any disaster in New York City history.” Besides the seemingly innocuous comparison that this piece of information offers, which is most likely meant to help New Yorkers and tourists get a sense of perspective with regards to the death toll and the importance of such an event, I could not help but think how the plaque is incidentally much more about what happened on and in the aftermath of 9/11 than about the General Slocum Disaster.

The two events, akin to the two versions of Manhattan’s skyline, were also placed in a dialogic simultaneity. Yet, in this case, the comparison between the two was no longer about forceful changes in an otherwise recognizable landscape but rather about how certain events are dethroned by culturally resounding ones in a city’s cultural memory. It somehow chronicled the degree to which 9/11 turned into a watershed moment in the city’s history since most people will not remember a steamboat that sunk on a Sunday afternoon due to “organizational and leadership failings.” The comparison also offered 9/11 as a unit of measurement for the perception of that other disaster, as if the General Slocum Disaster could not have been understood without bringing 9/11 into the picture, and maybe even the other way around.

Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, was making a similar, albeit unconscious association when, while speaking about how violent events are almost always preceded by unremarkable circumstances, she brings together the “ordinary Sunday morning” of Pearl Harbor and the “ordinary beautiful September day” before 9/11 happened. Yet, the mental levelling Didion succumbs to in her comparison is not far-fetched. Akin to Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was an act of unswerving aggression perpetrated on the homeland, and Didion was surely not the only one to shed light on the connection. David Ray Griffin, an American professor and political writer, declaratively entitled his book on the Bush Administration after 9/11 The New Pearl Harbor, and in the days following the attack, politicians of all colors resorted to the same association in their public speeches. In this sense, it is as if there is a transfer of ‘cultural weight’ between these events placed in dialogic simultaneity: the steamboat incident offers the death toll, 9/11 offers the attitude and the solemnity the former somehow fails to trigger, while Pearl Harbor legitimizes a military response.

This transfer of cultural weight could be easily explained and understood in psychological terms by invoking such notions as the “availability heuristic.” If applied, the notion would reveal that whoever conceived the text for the plaque offered readers a mental shortcut by relying on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating, for instance, the death toll of the General Slocum Disaster. Yet, such an approach is limiting, to say the least. It reveals more about the authors and the readers of the text, as well as about the post-9/11 atmosphere, than about the nature of the events themselves, if such nature could ever be graspable.

On this line of reasoning, it is my contention that this dialogic simultaneity indicates a modification in the world’s primal scenes and constitutes a symptom of how 9/11 and the ensuing wars have created a ripple effect from a cultural point of view. “Many people”, George Packer argues in The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, “allowed historical analogies to do their thinking for them.” In the case of the ‘war on terror’, triggered by the events of September 11, the two primal scenes, or mental shortcuts, were the Second World War and the war in Vietnam and many people funneled their perception of the new wars along those lines. However, the General Slocum commemorative plaque indicates a further development inthat mental process. The plaque seems to suggest that, in terms of casualties, 9/11 has become the primal scene for the understanding of the General Slocum Disaster despite the chronological primacy of the latter.

By taking into consideration both fictional and non-fictional texts as well as other cultural artifacts coming from different fields, this article looks at how culturally resonant occurrences such as the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ tend to become ‘selfish events’. As this paper will argue, this transformation is particularly fruitful when these artifacts enter processes of dialogic simultaneity with those artifacts that have “circulating signifiers” and whose cultural frames could be exported to fit new contexts. To this purpose, by looking at Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue as well as other texts pertaining to the discourse(s) of the ‘war on terror’, the paper tries to argue that such dialogues result in ‘violent’ interpretative intrusions not only at the level of succeeding cultural discourses but also at the level of preceding discourses. However, the notion of dialogue employed in my argument does not inherently imply intertextuality. Albeit their authors do acknowledge some writerly debt to other cultural artifacts and authors, the degree of influence is never stated specifically within the texts themselves. ‘Dialogue’ hereby implies simultaneity and is most observable when these texts and cultural artifacts are brought together in interpretative processes and their overlaps are pinpointed and discussed.

One way to go deeper into this process of transfer to understand it better would be to look for other instances in which this dialogic simultaneity and transfer of ‘cultural weight’ occur, and post-9/11 literature offers plenty of revelatory examples. One of these moments of cultural transfer is accurately documented, for instance, in Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World. In terms of narrative tactics, the novel strategically builds the story using different points of view thus permitting the reader to see the issue from dissimilar angles. After having lived for so long in the shadow of her art-connoisseur-dealer husband, Harriet Burden, the protagonist of the novel, decides to conduct an experiment by concealing her female identity behind three male artists who agree to present Burden’s work as if it was their own. The purpose of the experiment, as explained by the protagonist herself in the many journal entries included in the novel, was to show the degree to which the art world was biased against female artists, the latter being portrayed as victims of a ‘phallocentric’ perception of art. What interests me most however, is the way in which one of Burden’s art installations, titled suggestively “The Suffocation Rooms”, was perceived simply because it was mounted in the aftermath of 9/11:

The show was mounted the spring after New York was attacked, and the little mutant that crawled out of the box had the haunting look of a damaged survivor or a new being born in the wreckage. It didn’t matter that the work had been finished well before 9/11. The increasing heat in the rooms contributed to the interpretation; the last, hot room felt ominous. At the same time, my debut was an insignificant casualty of the falling towers.

Yet, in Hustvedt’s fragmented narrative, Burden’s art installations are not the only ones that fall prey to the cultural violence of the ‘falling towers’. The works of another artist, who goes by the name of Rune and who later becomes one of Burden’s male fronts, are subjected to the same kind of interpretation with the only exception that his works are exhibited well before the events of September 11. The narrative thus chronicles how after 9/11 Rune’s ‘colored crosses’ took on an entirely different meaning. “Modeled on the Red Cross symbol in different colors,” one of the narrators explains, “they could have been an ironic reference to the whole history of Christianity or to the Crusades. After 9/11 they looked prescient: East-and-West conflict, civilizations at war. Or were they just a shape?”

In a similar vein, the novel also accounts how after 9/11 artists themselves felt compelled to change their own aesthetics. Culturally resounding events such as September 11, the novel seems to suggest, not only contaminate interpretation but also engender a need for aesthetic shift and a commitment on the part of the artist that transcends the boundaries of representation. They formulate an ethos of art production and perception, one that must necessarily acknowledge the presence of these events as regulatory ‘primal scenes’. This double shift even became the topic of a 2012 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Entitled September 11, the exhibition gathered a series of artworks most of which were not necessarily connected to 9/11 but were close enough to force the audience to come to terms with the idea that while the works themselves had suffered no alterations in the meantime their perception had in fact changed in the aftermath of the events. “The exhibition”, as Michael H. Miller notes in the Observer, “is more about how September 11, 2001 changed the experience of viewing art after the fact, and less about the day itself. This new kind of context gave certain works a more menacing appearance.”

A similarly striking example can be found in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man, where a still life painting by Giorgio Morandi, showing a series of household items (boxes, biscuit tins, and bottles), appears to be weighed down by the same artistic prescience with regards to 9/11. It is worthwhile to note that Morandi’s paintings, much like Rune’s ‘colored crosses’ from Hustvedt’s novel, had been conceived and exhibited more than fifty years before 9/11:

Two of the taller items were dark and somber, with smoky marks and smudges, and one of them was partly concealed by a long-necked bottle. The bottle was a bottle, white. The two dark objects, too obscure to name, were the things that Martin was referring to. ‘What do you see?’ he said. She saw what he saw. She saw the towers.

The two dark objects in Morandi’s painting could have been any two household objects as the series itself suggests. Yet, after September 11, their obscurity and lack of a definite signifier takes on a precise meaning. The mere resemblance to the Twin Towers makes them appear as representations of the towers themselves and the dark implications that come with that interpretation. In a similar manner, George Segal’s sculpture titled “Woman on a Park Bench” mounted as part of MoMA PS1’s September 11 exhibition corroborates the same kind of interpretation process. When the show was mounted at MoMA in 2012 the artist had been dead for more than ten years, and his artwork first came to the light of day well before 9/11. Yet, the woman in the sculpture, of complete whiteness as if covered in white powder, could have been easily seen, akin to the “little mutant” in Burden’s art installation, as one of the survivors who had fled the clouds of dust coming from the falling towers.

The same process of dialogic simultaneity becomes apparent even in the case of the discourse(s) surrounding the American ‘war on terror’. To include even examples from popular culture, consider for instance the atmosphere of government surveillance portrayed in Netflix’s original series Stranger Things released in July 2016. Though set in 1983 the audience of the series could only perceive this atmosphere from the point of view of the Edward Snowden leaks and the ensuing surveillance scandals that dominated the mass media immediately after. When Mr. Wheeler, the oblivious dad from Stranger Things, tells his wife to trust a pack of shady government officials because the government is always on their side, somehow that does not ring true anymore considering recent events. Much like the works of art in Hustvedt’s and DeLillo’s novels, these images become prescient and almost an admonition directed at those who, in their daily ignorance, ‘had not seen it coming’ even in the 1980s.

Now, taking these examples into consideration one might begin to see a connecting thread. Even though these representations do not make specific references to the events of September 11 or the ensuing ‘war on terror’ along with their subordinate discourses, they do tend to have “circulating signifiers” that can be easily exploited by a culturally dominating event or a ‘selfish event’ (following Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “selfish gene”). This interpretative intrusion occurs not only at the level of succeeding cultural discourses (consider, for instance, the examples from Hustvedt’s novel) but also at the level of preceding cultural discourses (consider, for instance, the Morandi painting in DeLillo’s novel), up to the point where even cultural artifacts that previously bore no inherent connection to the events themselves begin to gain new significance in the aftermath of the occurrence of those events. These become prescient in a bizarre kind of way.

Such was the case for instance of an episode from Van Partible’s American animated television series Johnny Bravo that was aired on April 27, 2001, on Cartoon Network. Entitled Chain Gang Johnny, the episode innocuously shows in the background of one of its scenes a movie poster that features a burning tower. Ominously enough, the movie poster vaguely states that the burning tower is “coming soon”. The movie featured in the poster does not have a title, which further fueled the imagination of conspiracy theorists around the world. The theory was later dismissed as mere coincidence.

Even more ominously and somehow ironically, on September 10, 2001, on a stage in Vegas, George Carlin, the comedian, performed a “red-hot closing bit he planned to use for his latest HBO special” in which he told his audience that he enjoys “fatal disasters with a lotta [sic]dead people.” It is worth noting that before this closing bit of the show Carlin had also joked about Osama bin Laden and airplane explosions due to excessive flatulence. The HBO special was released only fifteen years after its initial recording. Carlin had supposedly withheld the release on matters of taste. The Quiet American, a movie based on Graham Green’s novel with the same title, “had been ready for distribution just after September 11, but Miramax’s fears that the movie might be thought unpatriotic delayed the release for more than a year.” Like Burden’s and Segal’s works of art, these cultural artifacts would have become casualties of ‘the falling towers’ if they had been released on time.

To put it differently, culturally resounding events such as these have the capacity to contaminate cultural artifacts that happen to be in their proximity and change the way they come to be interpreted by an interpretative community, a contamination that is never unidirectional from a chronological point of view. When cultural artifacts with “circulating signifiers” are placed in dialogic simultaneity, be it temporal or spatial, with these ‘selfish events’ they tend to be absorbed within the discourse of those events, especially when the events have not yet had the time to form a stable discourse of their own and they are still ‘cultural stumps’. Like Dawkins’ “selfish machines” they will stop at nothing to preserve their cultural subsistence. To push the concept even further, one might say that such ‘selfish events’ ultimately perform a‘cultural appropriation’ of sorts. Their ‘cultural stump’ enters a dialogue with fully formed cultural artifacts and they appropriate some of their features up to the point where they even contaminate those artifacts. By extension, and due to this ethos of appropriation that ultimately becomes the signature move of culturally selfish events, the cultural artifacts that further stem from this kind of events will tend to replicate that signature move. But cultural appropriation can be a tricky thing. To appropriate one cultural artifact or at least some of its features impliesstepping away from one culture, shedding the characteristics that separate it from the others, and plunging into another. Such appropriation also infers that boundaries between cultures are always clearly set and accessible by intellectual means.

This last assumption is probably what drove Elliot Ackerman, “whose five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan left him highly decorated”, to write his first novel, titled suggestively Green on Blue. Set in Afghanistan and told from the perspective of an Afghan soldier who desperately fights to maintain his wounded brother’s manly dignity, Ackerman’s novel has been repeatedly described by literary critics as performing an act of ‘cultural appropriation’, an audacious act unheard of at least in the genre of war writing. True, novels about the enemy are common in times of war, but Ackerman does more than that. Green on Blue lets readers linger, at least for the duration of the reading, in the very mind of the enemy, who, in the end, is not much of an enemy after all, but the peon caught in the vicious whirlpool of a war in which money has become a “weapons system”, to use a phrase from Phil Klay’s Redeployment.

Yet, besides the typical reactions that a novel narrated from the perspective of the ‘enemy’ could ultimately trigger, and besides the ideology of the conqueror/winner lurking in the backstage of such denunciations of ‘cultural appropriation’, it is my contention that Ackerman’s novel also offers precious insight precisely into how discourses surrounding such historical events as the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ‘war on terror’ perform these interpretative intrusions by setting up a dialogue between two cultural artifacts. One way to assess the degree of this intrusion would be to bring two other cultural artifacts, one pertaining to and imbued with the culture of the one performing the ‘cultural appropriation’, namely Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, and the other pertaining to the culture of the ‘enemy’, namely Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq.

Though Ackerman explicitly stated that “while the American West wasn’t ‘front and center’ in his mind while writing, ‘the American counterinsurgency campaign was, and so by default, the Indian Wars became a layer in understanding how Americans behave in these types of war’.” Worth noting from this point of view are the novel’s frequent covert references to the American West and the Indian Wars, which, besides being pertinent because of the similarities between the Afghan landscape and that of the American West, also attest to a cultural recognition of preexisting narratives. In fact, a great number of vets identify McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as the novel that best describes Afghanistan for several reasons that are not as striking as they look.

The resemblance is mostly visible in the way the landscape is described in Ackerman’s and McCarthy’s novels. On one of his first missions with the Special Lashkar, a military group supported with American money to maintain a balance of power and influence in the region, the narrator, Aziz, describes the Afghan mountains in animalistic terms, giving them the characteristics of a mouth that “swallows” the convoy, the ravine that “rolled out like a sloppy tongue”, descriptions that recall some of those present in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains.” From this point of view, both Ackerman’s Green on Blue and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seem to portray a geography whose constitution is imbued with fear, a feeling prompted by a nature that refuses to be something other than a stubborn force, that refuses to accommodate human presence. In both novels, nature has its own impenetrable rhythms, it follows cycles and unwritten rules.

Along the roads travelled by the protagonists of the two novels, one can almost hear the same sounds, the same barking dogs, see the same “low mud houses”, and sometimes even encounter the same characters. Consider, for instance, the old hermit whom ‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian encounters towards the beginning of the novel, an old man who is so much like Mumtaz from Green on Blue, both offering comfort to the protagonists. “The family of itinerant musicians” who “were dressed in fools’ costumes with stars and halfmoons embroidered on” reemerge under a similar guise in Ackerman’s novel as “travelling musicians looking for work.” There is even something in Aziz’s demeanor that reflects the behavior of‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian. Both protagonists are young and unknowing, and their education, or lack of it, is not aligned with the violently changing political environment, an aspect which in turn reinforces their malleability. Yet, the references to the American West are at their peak of visibility particularly when the narrator tells of how their military company had been divided into two groups with revealing names, the Tomahawks and the Comanches. The split, Aziz explains, had been done not only for strategic purposes but also because their American sponsor, the ghostly Mr. Jack, “had a great affection for the American West”.

Yet, it is my contention that this is the issue with Ackerman’s attempt at ‘cultural appropriation’. Though the novel is written from the perspective of an Afghan soldier, Aziz is still the beholder of an ‘American gaze’, or, to put it more bluntly, an ‘Americanizing gaze’. Aziz inherits some parts of that myth of the self-made man. This is particularly visible towards the end of the novel, where Aziz emerges triumphant as a spy in an American spy movie, as someone who has reached a superiorunderstanding, despite his limited education, of the very war he had been fighting in and of the forces that come into play. His ‘Americanizing gaze’ is also visible when he goes back to visit his maimed brother under the guise of deceit to tell him that he had been apprenticed to a merchant in Kabul and that he was doing the work of an honest man. Aziz acts like an American when, while still fighting for the Special Lashkar, he pounds on the top of the car to let the driver know that they are all ready to go. The gesture, somehow an awkward imitation of Hollywood action movies, has the same hollow ring as the scene in which ‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian enters a bar and all the men inside “quit talking when he entered”. Most importantly, that presence of spirit is there when he tells his imagined readers that Mr. Jack wrongly assumed that they, Afghans, “did not understand what it meant to be named after the Indians of his country, but we understood. To us, it seemed a small but misguided sort of insult. For our tribes had never been conquered.” For an uneducated Afghan soldier, Aziz seems to know an awful lot about Native Americans.

Still, the novel’s cultural appropriation works best particularly when members of the US occupation forces come to be portrayed throughout the novel. Besides the occasional American soldiers that appear in contrast with the Afghan soldiers due to the size and shape of their bodies, the only instance of American presence that somewhat strikes a chord is that of Mr. Jack, whose ghostly presence matches in tone the almost carnivalesque appearance of the Comanches and the Apaches in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Mysterious, coming and going only during the night in a pitch-dark vehicle, Mr. Jack stands out chiefly because of his blinding white teeth, his ridiculous wardrobe, “his shalwar kameez [that] still held the creases from where it’d been folded in plastic packaging,” and his American way of speaking Pashto.

One way to test the accuracy of this instant of cultural appropriation would be to look for similar textual instances in narratives written by those within the culture that is being appropriated and see how they engage in dialogue with each other. The example that comes nearest to that of Mr. Jack is the representation of “the blonds” in Hassan Blasim’s short story “The Madman of Freedom Square”, included in The Corpse Exhibition. Albeit the narrative does not specify overtly that the two blonds are American, their narrative seems to follow a prescribed structure: two blonds, most likely a reference to the color of their skin and hair, come to town and suddenly everyone is getting a raise, the town’s infrastructure develops, the usual tropes of American financial support within the discourse of the ‘war on terror’. Soon enough, akin to Mr. Jack with his blindingly white teeth and eyes drained of color, the blonds acquire a certain mythical aura around their presence. “The local women”, the narrative goes,

attributed to the baraka or spiritual power of the blonds the fact that their husbands, who worked sweeping the streets or as school janitors in the city center, had all received pay raises. The husbands, who had been skeptical about the baraka of the two men, soon stopped scoffing, when the government decided to install electricity at the beginning of winter.

The very presence of these two men bears an uncanniness akin to the presence of Mr. Jack in Ackerman’s Green on Blue. This mode of describing American presence, however, has apparently turned into a trope and is not limited to fictional representations. In The Assassins’ Gate, while describing a formal meeting between American officials and Iraqi exiles that took place at the London Hilton Metropole in 2002, George Packer resorts to the same vocabulary. “Sprinkled among them”, Packer notes the contrast, “palely lurking, were the Americans. […] These Americans moved through the throng of Iraqi exiles with the glowing and watchful fervor of missionaries among the converted.”

Going back to the notion of ‘selfish events’ and trying to give an answer to the question as to why interpretative intrusions such as these occur, it is my contention that any such event, due to the immediate effects of its occurrence, does not have the time and the cultural resources to create a discourse that could explain the complexity of that event, and as such it resorts to cultural artifacts that happen to be in its proximity so as to sustain its cultural presence at least until a separate discourse, of its own, has been created and culturally reinforced. This process is most visible for instance, in the kind of comparisons that politicians, and other figures that retain high amounts of cultural capital, make in the immediate aftermath of violent and sudden events. Such is the case, just to give an example, of how the attacks of September 11 were frequently compared to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. At that point in time, 9/11 lacked an eloquent discourse that could make it culturally sustainable and therefore it needed another, more eloquent discourse, to act as cultural scaffolding. And until the ‘war on terror’ does not form its own eloquent discourse it will keep resorting to other discourses for cultural sustenance. For the time being, it thrives only within this constant dialogue between cultural artifacts, images, ideas, texts.

Architectural Design: A Novel is now OUT!

It’s finally out!

The novel I’ve been working on for the past five years, Architectural Design, is now available on most online bookstores!

The cover of Architectural Design: A Novel

The paperback and Kindle editions are available on Amazon: order your copy here!

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If you are interested in receiving a free copy please contact us by using the form below.

Snapshots 3

The headmaster is explaining to us the importance of broadcast programming. No more movies containing nudity or sex scenes. “Children need to be protected,” he tells us, “from the vices of our times.” I’m thinking how wonderful it is that there are people who take us, children, into consideration. No more hiding our faces when people in the movies start having sex. No more French movies at noon. The headmaster’s words sound prescient.

Children rejoice all around the world.

Math is not my forte: I just can’t deal with divisions because the numbers are asking me to take giant leaps and I can’t do that being overweight. Math makes me angry. Numbers feel as if I’m drowning. The teacher, a short plump woman whose hands tremble violently whenever she’s angry, doesn’t like that. In the eyes of everyone, my failure is her failure, so she asks me to stay after class. Tears run down my chubby cheeks while I watch the other kids head home. The lightness in their step feels like mockery. I sit at the wooden desk by the blackboard and watch the numbers commingle with the numbers on the page.

Why can’t I just be like all the other kids? I’m so ashamed I can’t look my mother in the eye when I get back home. No one mentions it.

The headmaster is a tyrant teaching biology. He sits and watches us as we return to class after the break and at the slightest sign of misconduct he grabs us by the baby fat under our chins and the hair. He slaps the girls at the back of their head as if to obtain cinematic effect: their ponytails startle and bounce. The shame of getting caught doubles the pain. It’s our way of learning math.

Later, the math teacher, whose thick glasses make his head look ovoid, laughs at my geometry homework in front of the class. “You can’t just say the base of the triangle is this long,” he stops and laughs raising his face to the ceiling, “you need to calculate it!” The room roars with laughter. Why can’t I just draw the triangle and measure it? I don’t tell him my father helped me with the homework because that would only make matters worse.

The headmaster enters the class and orders us to take out a sheet of paper. “THIS IS A TEST!” He’s angry at us because he is thirty minutes late for class. Question number one: “THE LUNGS! YOU HAVE 5 MINUTES!”

We’re going up the stairs after recess, and someone pushes a girl from my class and she’s limping because she’s had an accident and broke her femur. I stop to help her, but the headmaster sees me break the line and I instantly become his target. He levitates. He pulls me aside pinching my baby fat. I’m wearing overalls and I feel ridiculous because I hate them. I hate jeans. Other boys follow suit, all of us trespassers. I try to explain to him I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was merely helping the girl, but he won’t listen. The headmaster is adamant in his decision to have me punished. He tells us to wait until the teachers come.

Potato. Chicken. Worthless. Sheep. Devil. Not-amount-to-anything. We’re being called with all these names when we fail to understand the rules of our adults.

At times, I gave my classmate, A–, peanuts in exchange for his math homework. “This exercise is worth four peanuts,’ he says pointing to another triangle and the calculations that surround it, “it’s not cheap, I know.” Reluctantly, I pull out the four peanuts from the bag and give them to him. The math teacher with the thick classes leans down to look at my homework and nods in agreement. Behind me, someone says he didn’t have the time to do his homework and he receives a blow. Potato!

I use my fingers to count because unlike numbers, I can hold my fingers. Feel them. Counting them feels like progress.

Every once in a while, I go to A–’s place because he’s got nice hair and his thumb curves in a weird but somewhat sexually appealing way. And he’s very good at math in a mad-scientist sort of way. He shows me the ropes behind equations and complex exercises, but I need to stop him again and again because I don’t seem to understand why the parenthesis goes there and not all the way over there. I laugh heartily whenever he explains stuff. His mother comes into the room. ‘That’s why you’re so fat,’ she says smiling, ‘because you laugh too much.’

After another recess, someone pushes a kid and he falls and starts crying. A teacher asks who’s the culprit and the kid points at me. There are about a hundred kids around me but no one says anything because teachers cannot be contradicted. The teacher punishes me. I do my best to explain to her I had nothing to do with it, but she is adamant. Tears roll down my cheeks as I await my punishment. I am asked to stand with my arms raised in the corner of the class.

High-school. Our history teacher beats the crap out of one of my classmates because he smiled at something that was said. We don’t look at him doing it. We only hear the words and the teacher’s open palm hitting hard against the back of his neck. “Why are you laughing, you idiot!?”

I run out of fingers to count.

Snapshots 2

“I can’t photocopy that book,” the man at the copy shop said, “the pages are loose and I might damage the spine.” The shop was in the corridor of his aunt’s apartment. At least, she acted as if she was his aunt, and he was the nephew who was desperately trying to make a living by illegally printing books for equally desperate students. “Please,” I begged him, “I need a copy of this book. My professor sent me.” I told him I would return the next day. 

Cluj-Napoca, 2008. My daily routine involved waking up early in the morning to go to university. One morning I peed myself because there was only one bathroom and there were four of us. When my flatmate, who was studying medicine, came to my door to ask whether I was coming with him to the bus station, I declined saying I didn’t feel that well. 

Everyone feared the Phonetics professor. Rumour had it that out of hundreds of thousands of students, only three lucky ones passed his exam, and that he was gay. Those same students mentioned names of alleged boyfriends and other such horror stories. Whenever a classmate showed the slightest interest in the topics he taught, he instantly became gay. The newspapers spoke highly of the professor’s cruelty, but there was no mention of his homosexuality. He was one mean guy. Students changed courses just to avoid him.

I ate kebabs and felt guilty about it because I always bought two and told the waiter to hold the mayonnaise in one of them. One’s for me and the other one’s for my colleague at the office. “Of course,” he said, “I’ll put an X on the one with no mayonnaise. At home, I hid in my room and ate both of them. On Saturday mornings I cleaned my room and was extremely happy when I managed to do it before ten in the morning.  

My classmates studying Norwegian spoke approvingly of one of their professors. He was tall and had curly hair and spoke various languages. One cold evening I had the opportunity to watch him closely while he was waiting for the bus. He read and made annotations under the street lamp. Every once in a while, he raised his head to look at the passers-by. The eagerness with which he did that felt somewhat uncanny as if he was waiting for someone to appear and save him from what he was doing. I thought, how odd! Can’t he wait until he gets home to read? But then I realised I wished to be as studious and diligent as him and read while waiting for the bus. I was also surprised to learn that he was gay. I mean, he had curly hair and spoke different languages, and read under a street lamp. Of course, he was gay!

I once fell in love with Gaspard Ulliel from Les Égarés (2003). I watched all of his movies and wanted him to be my best friend. Then, I came across a gay commercial on YouTube about a man who imagined being friends with every handsome guy he laid his eyes on. I thought: how odd! I’m feeling something I should be ashamed of.

My dentist recommended x-rays, so I sit in the waiting room secretly hating everyone. Why are they so slow? On TV, teachers and university professors are asking for a raise: they’re working with their brains, they say, they need more money! The President, Traian Băsescu, wants to say YES, but then the railway workers also ask for money. Then the doctors ask for cash as well. Everyone wants more money. CRISIS. My world crumbles. I also notice the president’s face is anfractuous, and he covers his bald head with the hair on the sides. It’s my turn: I rush to the door with the yellow sign that says “DO NOT ENTER X-RAYS”. The doctor places a rigid collar around my neck and tells me to stay still. Then, she goes into another room and speaks through a megaphone. STAY STILL! IT WILL ONLY TAKE A SECOND! No problem there, doctor, stillness is what I strive to become.

I receive a short message saying “meet on Thursday afternoon?” and I reply “who are you?” with the urgency of a virgin who secretly wishes to fuck and be fucked by everyone. Three days pass until I get a reply from my secret admirer: “I was just asking.” I imagine there’s a silent “Jesus” at the end of that message. Jesus, hold your horses. I call the number several times, but there’s no reply. Months pass, but there’s no reply, so I let it rest. After months and months, I am reminded of that first short message by my obsessive-compulsive desire to be desired. Call that number again! Do it now! I recognise the voice at the other end: it’s my Literary Theory professor. Oh sorry sorry sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude! Please excuse me, professor, really, I don’t know what I was thinking. “Now you know,” he says. I think of all the calls in the middle of the night, the minatory short messages I sent, and I shudder at the thought. But then I realise I’m the one who’s being stalked here! 

One of my classmates wants to talk to the Phonetics teacher, the allegedly gay one, and she stops him on the way to class. He looks at her, fuming. “Ms, LEAVE ME ALONE!” he says and walks away. “He’s such a dick,” she tells me after class, “I only wanted to ask him about the exam.” In fact, I believe she meant “he’s such a cock sucker.” Of course, he is gay, he wouldn’t be so frustrated otherwise. Years later, on Facebook, she tells me I’m so fucking full of myself. I wanted to remind her of that time when, during a literature exam, she asked me about the difference between the Philistines and the populace, but I didn’t.

I return to the copy shop and realise the guy is a good lad. He’s nice (perhaps too nice) and tall and somewhat muscular but on the chubby side. He says: “I’m really sorry, but the printer’s out of ink…


The first time my mother came home from Italy to attend my uncle’s wedding, she brought me a phone with a camera on it.

I took tiny pictures with it: of grandma’s roses; of my shadow against the trees in the forest behind the house.

Before mother’s arrival, my older brother had told me about the phone’s miraculous features. I could watch Cartoon Network if I wanted. Make video calls. Watch porn late at night when everyone else was sleeping. My world thrumming with expectations, I taught myself patience, a virtue that had been growing within me since childhood.

When the phone finally arrived, I stopped eating. There were so many things to do. Mother couldn’t stop looking at me. She hadn’t seen me in years and was now somewhat impressed of my development. “He’s so different,” I overheard her telling my father over the phone, “he sounds like a man now. I can’t believe my ears!”

A video I shot in the garden with my new phone was so real that my aunt’s brother said it had been processed on a computer.

Then the phone started running out of memory so I had to cancel some of the photos. Some of them were saved on a computer, which I no longer have. It became my uncle’s computer so I had to delete any traces of my persona from it.

There was no Cartoon Network on it either. In Romania, at that time, there was no 3G connectivity and the phone only worked with one operator and there was no way to bypass that.

The next time mother came home was at Christmas time and she brought me another phone. It had no camera but it had a full QWERTY keyboard and a huge screen.

Though shiny and new, the phone felt like a disappointment of sorts: I had hoped to receive a laptop computer. Father was in prison and I was ashamed to ask for more or show that disappointment.

Mother sat by the kitchen stove and smoked and wept. “Stop smoking, child,” grandma said, “your boys are here with you. What else is missing?” But I knew she was missing my dad and the cigarettes reminded her of him. I knew what grandma thought about father because long before that she had confessed to have asked mother to ask for a divorce. “It was high time she got a divorce,” grandma said. Her words were as soft as wooden smoke: they curled above her nose and went up into the air and turned into a fungus. I imagined men lining up for my mother’s hand because that is what had happened when father left us to go to Italy for work. The men called her and came to our house and mother’s cheeks turned red.

I watched TV on that phone: the connection broke at times and I had to give up trying. We didn’t have a TV in the apartment I lived in during college. Mother asked me to go visit my dad in prison and I followed her instructions. Go to the guard at the reception, tell him who you are. He will take you to your father. The guards rummaged through the bag I had brought for my father. His medicines were in there. We sat at a table in a room that was probably under ground because there were no windows. One of the guards sat with us at the table and I felt as if I had to play a part. I was embarrassed, as was the guard. I couldn’t wait to get out.

The new phone did not have a calculator. One of my classmates drew my attention to that. “You can watch television on it,” he said before a class, “but you can’t do 2+2 on it?” He had a Lenovo laptop computer his brother had bought from the UK. It had facial recognition.

Not having a computer at home, I had to do research and write my papers for university at Internet Cafes and libraries. Since I couldn’t save anything on those computers, I had to email everything to myself and print pages and pages of summaries and things found on the Internet. I printed handouts and lesson plans. The printer was often out of ink…

On beauty and love (I)

A few years ago I created a Google Form and shared it on different social networks just to see what would happen. In it, I asked people to talk about the people they fell in love with or about the things that made them fall in love with people. Since it was anonymous, I specified that respondents should be as sincere as possible. To my surprise, I received plenty of responses that seemed very encouraging at that time.

The first question in the survey asked respondents to talk about what they saw in their significant other. And this is what I got:

I admire the man he is despite hardships he’s experienced. He’s kind and sweet, even if a little rough around the edges. I love his creativity and his mind, and his blue eyes.

“Protection, humor, goodness.”

“A nugget of purity in a corrupted world. Honest eyes. The ability of being so goddamn cool without posing. A curious mind.”


“My best friend and sometimes my enemy.”

“I see him as a friend, a boyfriend, a lover and a husband. He is different from me (he is more pacific, I’m a tornado) but we are at the same time similar, we shares values, ways of thinking and we have something special that links us. It is difficult to explain.”

“Chemistry, magic, smell, a sexy voice, a stimulating dialogue, the fact that we share a life, in its wholeness.”

“I am in two relationships, actually, and I love both. I respect both. Both make me feel safe, although in very different ways: one gives me security; the other adventure. But I know I can count on both. One makes me feel loved, the other makes me feel desired (although I know that the first wants me, and the second cares for me). In some sense they look alike, similar beautiful greenish eyes. One of them seems fragile, but he’s a rock. The other seems strong and powerful, but I am beginning to understand his utter and dangerous fragility. At the end of the day I realise that, although I like feeling cared for, it is me who ultimately cares for and protect them, both.”

“Gli occhi, la voce, se ha un moto di gentilezza nei miei confronti, se vuole sinceramente aiutarmi senza credermi un inetto, se hai dei bei piedi, se gli piace leggere e fare un po’ il cazzaro… che abbia rispetto per la propria famiglia e la mia, se è sincero con me, se ha l’addome deformato, se ha un pisello nella media, se è in grado di comprendere i miei silenzi senza forzarli, aspettando che riesca ad aprirmi a lui.”

“Sinceramente, vivo una relazione con una persona che trovo sempre più diversa da me. Con lui mi sento al sicuro, è un ragazzo forte.”

“Una persona da amare e che mi ama, con cui condividere il mio quotidiano, sia nei momenti di fatica, sia in quelli di divertimento, gioia o tristezza. Un compagno di vita.”

“Me stessa.”

“I see a Partner who can bear with me through thick and thin.”

“A partner in crime, a friend, a beautiful lover, an awesome father.”

“I see a person who wants to be with me and likes me they way I am.”

“The admirable way he is unapologetically himself. The sparkle in his eyes when he looks at me.”

“Kindness. Laughter.”

“I always thought him more attractive than the average humans walking the Earth. When we first met, I found myself comparing him to every Hollywood actor I ever had a crush on and I witnessed myself falling for his looks as he annoyingly overshadowed each and every one of them. My list specifically included a young Colin Firth and Jon Hamm. He does in fact have a Hollywood smile and a soldier s allure, both complimented by a genuine unawareness of his beauty (that s a gorgeous trait always). I also love his weird coloured eyes (I believe that greenish light brown is called hazel) and his wavy kinda vintage haircut.”

“My future in his eyes.”

“The possibility to communicate on a very complex and emotional level.”

“A person I can trust and who takes care of me.”

“Vedo la persona con cui potrei stare tutta la vita. È sia il mio amato che il mio migliore amico.”

“I see a person who gives me peace and from whom I can learn everyday.”

“I’m in two real relationships. On one of them I feel challenged in an intelectual level and motivated to DO things, to move the world. The other one give me well being, it is my beautiful island away from this chaotic world.”

“Someone that understands me.”

“Inspiration and a way to improve myself.”

“Not in a relationship, except the one with my cat.”

“Confort, security, stability.”

“Besides her personality, also the small things, like the way I smile when I think about her or being physically close to her, the way she smiles after I kiss her or all the funny little things she does that she probably doesn’t even knows etc.”

“A trusted person, that loves me, that I can rely on.”

“Quanto sia capace di capirmi, quanto sia aperto mentalmente, e che mi attragga fisicamente.”

“The only person I can tolerate this life with.”

“Un punto di forza.”

Unattended children

While you sleep, I imagine ships leaving their harbors unattended. Left to their own devices. At last, the world is free of speech.

On torrid afternoons mother went to work at the telephone exchange and I would call her to ask what time it was. Which was another way of asking: when are you coming home? My brother and I never asked for father. He was at work, somewhere. Late in the afternoon, when mother’s lips turned bruise mauve, he returned and prepared food for the pigs. He smashed the boiled potatoes with his hands and mixed them with bread and water and maize. In the barn, the pigs squealed and hit their heads against the wooden doors.

‘Get off the line!’ Mother would sometimes lose her patience and beat us with the rubber tube from the washing machine. Father never raised a hand and he was proud of that. In church, the gods often had raised hands and I winced at the sight of them, expecting a blow. ‘You’re keeping the line busy,’ mother said, ‘there might be an emergency somewhere.’ The phone was made of shiny red plastic. On Sundays, mother and father slept late and we were not allowed to make noise. My brother and I looked for ways to forget about the time spent in our parents’ absence.

At school, the teacher would place the notebooks of those who wrote flawlessly in a showcase at the back of the class. My notebook never got to that point. ‘If it hadn’t been for this tiny error,’ the teacher said pointing at a smudge with her red pencil, ‘your notebook would have been placed there, behind glass, for everyone to see.’ It felt like a tiny success to me.

‘You’ll get there,’ mother said and I went and hid in the garden and stared at the clouds. ‘Give me a sign,’ I would scream at the cotton candy above, ‘tell me I’m the chosen one, and I will stop being so sad and lonely!’ I wished for infinite knowledge and for everyone’s attention. I wanted to be a boy but not just any boy. Envy was what I pined for.

Instead, rain came and I couldn’t cry because there was nothing to cry about. ‘Stop being such a child,’ mother seemed to be saying.

That one looks like a bunny.

That one looks like an ice cream cone.

That one looks like a cock.

I looked for things to play with in the trash. ‘Behind the bar,’ one of the kids told my brother, ‘there are lighters galore!’ When we got there I wanted to pee really badly so I had to use the toilet behind the bar. There was shit and broken glass everywhere and it had no doors. I told everyone I peed when I had not.

Mother worked at the telephone exchange day and night. She slept on the table because of the mice. People called in the middle of the night. She listened to all of them, helped them connect to the source of their longing. At times she eavesdropped and told grandmother about men and their mistresses. On TV, people sang about love lost and I turned to my brother: ‘why don’t they just get married?’ He said it was not that simple.

Mother never received money from the telephone exchange. That is, I never saw her receive money. We were always running out of money. At the end of the month she went to the slaughterhouse and bought salami, which we cut in thin slices and ate on Sunday mornings.

When the salami was over we went back to eating potatoes and mother seemed to hide within her clothes. Her collars became higher and thicker; her hair grew beyond control. Her shirts seemed borrowed. Grandmother hid behind the tall grass in the garden and mother avoided our gaze. My brother and I searched for food and we found dried polenta and pickled cucumbers.

We ran from home, which was another way of saying: ‘when are you coming back?’. I jumped over fences and bruised my thighs.

My brother said Champagne instead of Spain.

Once, I was so hungry I stuffed myself with green plums until they started coming out through my nose. In between plums I said: if only I could find a friend.

I found him inside the food I wolfed down and in the prayers I read from a small yellow book. I burned incense and googled how to make a pact with the devil. I wrote notes on small pieces of paper and woke up in the middle of the night to read them. I wouldn’t cut my hair and saw myself as a mythological creature. I went to church and asked for forgiveness.

I discovered joy in eating meat and found nothing under the Christmas tree.

‘Stop eating!’ Mother screamed at me. When she wasn’t looking I searched for the sour milk and dried polenta. We ate crab apples.

Unattended, I ate.

In Other Rooms, Other Weapons (a novel)

The Man in the Long Coat

I sat in the undersized chair, notebook on my knee, surly pain developing in my upper back. I couldn’t complain, it was a kindergarten after all, and all the chairs were similar, the teacher’s included. There was nobody else around, even the janitor went home after having shown me how to lock the door on my way out. The staff was submissive enough, and one of them apologized for having made me wait for so long. I hadn’t waited for long, but I accepted their apologies with a dismissive wave of the hand.

The kid started crying when he was told he had to stay behind after class. He perceived it as a form of punishment. I tried my best to reassure him, while he was sobbing uncontrollably, that it wasn’t a punishment. I simply wanted to talk to him about matters from his past.

The school headmaster had indeed warned me that this was one sensitive kid, prone to crying every time he felt he was being singled out for something he wouldn’t even think of doing. I sympathized with the kid on that, because I, too, often suffered from such fits of paranoia. The headmaster did not seem to understand the meaning of my statement and instead smiled awkwardly. I knew such people. This man had probably never left the village, and probably could not even recognize the Empire State Building when shown a picture of it taken from an unrecognizable angle. Mental illness was probably as bizarre to him as a pair of human kidneys drying in the sun. But then again I was at his disposal, and I couldn’t deny the awkwardness of the situation. I was a tall man in my late twenties wearing a long coat and a black hat, and I wanted to see a kid who had absolutely no idea what I wanted from him.

When I asked the question about the woods and the older boys again, the kid became defensive. That caught me off guard. He raised the tone of his voice and moved his arms frantically. He was clearly trying to mime an older member of his family, most likely the mother. But I could see through it anyway, I didn’t feel threatened, he was still a kid, and I was the adult in the room.

‘Why are you here?’ The kid almost jumped from the chair. ‘What is it that you want from me? Just leave me alone. I’m going to tell my father about this, and he’s going to come and talk to you.’

I’m here to tell you about strings vibrating underwater.

I tried to reassure him again by telling him who I was and what I was doing there. I told him about the investigation I had undertaken, I told him about my research and the fact that his case might provide useful information. He smiled then as if to say that yes, he probably had some helpful information, something the other kids didn’t have. Most likely that made him feel special, and so he relaxed a bit. He started talking again about the Russians and the stories his grandfather told him about the war. I jotted down all of that, and he slowed down every time I showed signs that I wanted to write something down. He obviously thought I had picked him out from the other kids because somebody told him he was a genius of some sort. I didn’t want to break the spell because not only would he not understand that it was only a spell, but he would also refuse to talk further. I tried steering the discussion back to the woods and the older boys. He told me he was ashamed of talking about it. ‘There’s no shame in talking about that,’ I told him, ‘I’m going to write a book about it, and you’re going to be in it.’ That seemed to satisfy him beyond recognition. His face got lost suddenly, became the flicker of a mask as if he was trying to settle on the kind of look he needed for that moment.

They were his brother’s friends, not his, he didn’t have any friends, he didn’t say why so I pressed him for it. I knew the answer, of course, but I was also trying to lower his defenses by making him feel small, humiliate him. The kid was obviously overweight, and his parents had been overly protective about it. Don’t let the kid suffer, he’ll have the rest of his life to suffer, just don’t let him suffer now, right? I bet that was the philosophy behind it. The kid’s relationship with food must have been out of control: irregular meals, overcompensation, lack of control, hence lack of taste when it came to food, no idea about nutrition, just a whole lot of inherited ideas about food and how a person should look like. And the parents had also probably inherited the notion that people are going to accept the kid the way he was.

‘The other kids don’t like me,’ he told me after brooding over it for a while, ‘they make fun of me, and I don’t like it. They just run away, they don’t want to play with me.’

‘Why is that? Do they feel threatened by you?’

‘Because I can’t play their games and also because they’re stupid.’

‘And you’re not stupid.’

‘I’m not,’ he said, ‘I read books, I read books every day.’

I had, in fact, checked the kid’s library card and noted that he took a lot of books home, but they were returned the very next day when other books were taken on loan, which most likely meant he didn’t read them till the end. I mean, this kid could not have read Crime and Punishment in a single afternoon. He seemed content that I knew of his readings and so I pressed him to tell me about Crime and Punishment. As I expected, he told me the beginning of it then got lost and told me he had forgotten the details. That was a book he had read just a few days before our encounter. I asked him if he knew anything about Dostoevsky. He didn’t. He had simply read Crime and Punishment, and that was the end of it. I told him I thought he was lying and he swore that he had, in fact, read the book. He was obviously lying, but I went back to the episode with the older boys.

‘What were you doing out there, you and the other boys, in the woods on that Sunday afternoon?’

He told me about the schoolteacher, who had these grandchildren living in the city. Every once in a while, the schoolteacher would come to visit and bring the grandchildren as well. They were a couple years older than him and when they were all alone in the woods just behind the house discussions obviously deviated towards sex and what adults did in bed. They were hiding in the tall grass when the kid turned face down and told the others he was going to stay like that. He even pulled his pants down, showing his ass to the other kids. One of them stuck a twig in the kid’s ass. I asked the kid whether the twig penetrated him, and he denied it, saying it was only playful.

I told him to continue, and that’s when I saw what could have made the other kids avoid him. It was his effeminacy and the excessive way he tried to look small in a body that refuted minuteness. If ever I could even begin to believe in the separation between body and soul, he would be a good case study. Inside him, something else moved, which was what he seemed to hold onto with naive keenness.

The kid couldn’t remember the transitions, his memory just wasn’t good with that. In his mind, his life was a series of sudden screams, moments painted in intense colors, oversaturated, excessive structure, contrast turned to extreme degrees. Each memory was a construction made of human bodies. So the next thing he knows he’s part of an orgy in which, by turns, he is a newborn and a mother being fucked by a nasty husband who just came home from work and brought green leaves instead of green dollars. No penetration was involved, the kid assured me, but they did wave their little dicks in the air and mimed penetration. He described the place where it all happened accurately. I wrote some of the details down in my notebook. There’s a small puddle next to the place where it happened, and it is surrounded by thick greenery. He clearly recalls the smell of musk and then the smell of shit because one of them had taken a dump afterward simply because he wanted to show the others how shit can sometimes come out with blood on it. The demonstration was successful apparently. He also recalls the leaves that the other kid used to wipe his ass.

Clearly, I was disgusted by the whole story and didn’t make any effort to hide my disgust, so the kid grew silent. I asked him if they had, at least, washed their hands afterward. He couldn’t recall any such detail, but then he told me about the crab apples they used to eat in the woods and the green leaves that had the taste of lemon, so I realized that personal hygiene wasn’t one of their strong points of the people in the village.

‘Why did you pull your pants down there in the woods?’

‘I don’t know,’ the kid told me, ‘I just felt like it.’

‘You felt like offering them your body on a platter, just like that.’

He didn’t seem to understand but nodded anyway.

‘And were there other moments such as these?’

He told me there had been plenty of moments. The same thing happened with a cousin of his who used to come to play. And again he gave up his body to this other boy who was still too young to have an erection.

‘Why did you do it? What was the purpose of it?’

‘We were just playing, the kid said, nothing more to it. We wanted to be adults, wanted to see what it was like to have sex.’

The moaning of adults must have been fascinating for them, the guttural ululation, the intertwined bodies, the sweat, they were curious about what happened between their legs. They must have seen it in the movies on TV, they must have overheard adults talking about it or even doing it. These people gathered together during the winter and slept in the same room, sometimes sharing the same bed to save on the wood used for the heating. Younger parents always got the advantage of having a place all their own for specific reasons, of course, while the other members of the family were crowded in the same room.

‘What was the thing that you enjoyed most about it?’

I don’t recall exactly how the kid told it, I must have written down the thing mechanically because the sentence sounds too elaborate to have been uttered by a kid his age. He told me that he liked the warmth of the other boy’s body on top of him, the weight of the body pressing him down against the floor.

‘You didn’t do it on the bed?’

Never on the bed apparently. The bed was like a sacred space that could not be disturbed with such trivial matters. It wasn’t an empty floor, of course, there were thick covers placed on the floor where the parents used to nap after lunch.

‘Did that happen often?’

Often enough, and he was never the one to initiate the situation. It was always the other one, who appeared surreptitiously and without warning when nobody was around. I tried to imagine the reach of the hand and the touch that then led to the rest. I wondered how that must have felt. An arm reaching across an unperceived chasm? What sort of satisfaction were they hoping to receive at the end of everything?

The kid then told me about the other guys, a different group of friends who did the same things with him. He was always the one at the bottom, and in his presence, the others felt like asserting their alpha masculinity. It was the same scenario over and over again: the husband coming home from work, tired, bringing green leaves that stood for money, hoping to have a good fuck with the wife who was always waiting at home. No penetration was involved. It was the performance of those roles that gratified them since there was no orgasm at the end. I thought of the games children usually play when they have used up all of the resources of their imagination. It’s always the ‘family game’ that comes up next, a sort of effigy of family life minus the issues because, at that age, family issues are ever taken care of by the adults. The children are part of the decision, but their own opinion is never really taken into consideration except as a side note. And the fake parents in the children’s games are performing similar roles, but they never get as far as sex. But then again the games also respected gender differences, the mother was always a girl, and sex with a girl was just too real to be performed in a game. What was it then that made those boys perceive this kid as a woman?

I then realized that I had been talking with the kid for too long, and he was getting visibly uncomfortable. He was also hungry. And so I told him that he could go home because it was getting late and his mother must have been expecting him for a while. He put his coat on, which seemed about two sizes too big for him though it was rather new, and put his bag over the shoulder, his belly awkwardly protruding against the bag making it stand up. For a moment he resembled a mentally retarded kid. I did not say anything because I was waiting for him to go out so I could see the way he walked. I was hoping to get a clue of some sort, something that could help me elucidate the mystery of this kid. What made him so vulnerable and, most of all, what made him so socially awkward? He went out, and I could see the tip of his hat just below the window. A woman was waiting for him at the gate.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Seventeen)


Let’s start with anxiety, a name whose vibration makes me cringe: it begins with a deep tremor in the chest cut short by a glottal stop, which then explodes into an electric shock, and ends in a condescending cry. The sound of it is ominous, the way Pavlov’s bell must have sounded to his dogs: a harbinger of an alteration in the fabric of things.

It arrives akin to an unexpected guest. It sneaks up on you, which makes it even more odious; it rains on your parade, it precipitates things, it makes you lose patience. You might be on your friend’s couch, watching a movie, enjoying yourself, and then feel a sense of impending doom creeping on you. Anxiety is the ominous lump in the armpit of reality.

Around you, everything turns to paper, and you’re afraid of touching things because you fear they might be props. They are props, true, but in a narrative that is not meant to deceive. You stop distinguishing colors and textures as if they no longer interest you. When people speak, their words do not register. Their sound expands to monstrous proportions, alter beyond recognition.

So you begin to go through a list of things that are supposed to help you.

Name five things you can see: the faces of my fellow commuters early in the morning, moving to the rhythm of their broken dreams. The train is packed, and although the air conditioning is on, hot air sticks to the back of my throat as if I’m hiding under the covers. My heart is racing, and my breath feels uneven, struggling to catch up. My chest is collapsing in on itself.

Focus on your breathing, feel the air going up your nostrils, become aware of the swirl it makes at the back of your throat.

I imagine myself fainting, their worried faces looking down on me, asking me whether I had had anything to eat and I make a list, ashamed of this quasi-confession. A banana, yogurt, cereals. They disapprove of it, they nod at each other akin to priests who have seen immorality unfurl. What else can you see? The guy in front of me is wearing one of those orange vests, and he hasn’t shaved in two days, and I bet he doesn’t worry about fainting. I see him coming in through the door. ‘Honey, I’m home!’ [canned laughter and applause] There’s a backpack on the luggage rack above the guy; it reminds me of childhood and vomiting on road trips.

I feel like throwing up, light beams hanging down from the ceiling like icicles. We’re almost there, I tell myself, just one more stop and everything will be excellent. Something else I see and don’t see: the outline of your face against the pillow in the moonlight coming through the window.

Do I count from one to five or the other way around?

Name four things you can touch: there’s the blue handle on the door of the toilet, the one that looks thick and sturdy as if it’s made to be used as a weapon in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The god in the machine at the end of a movie. That guy’s ass doesn’t count because I can’t touch it. When you’re panicking humor can be refreshing. The red handle of the emergency brake. ‘Abuse will be punished.’ I’m going to faint now, please pull the red handle and call an ambulance, my mother will rush from work when she hears the news that her son suffered a stroke on the morning train on his way to university. Are these enough or do I need more? Your beard, the one I’m touching while we kiss and I moan because there’s not much else to do.

Name three things you can hear: the woman next to me is complaining about something on the phone. ‘He’s an idiot,’ she says bluntly, ‘I don’t know what else to tell him.’

At what point in my life did I get scared of trains and people on trains?

Come on, we’ll get there in no time. This isn’t helping, please stop, I just want to get off this darn train. I’m a horse running down the train tracks. I lose count. I hear the valves of the air conditioning opening and closing above me. I’m inside the belly of a whale traveling underground.

Reality is made of video strips working in unison. I can see where the pieces meet. If I cram my fingers into them, I could open a portal to a new dimension, one where I’m happy and do not need to worry.

Name two things you can smell: I don’t know; I can’t do this, please stop. I want to express my hesitation but that “err” sound people make feels like a loss of control, like falling down in a dream. I can smell your sweat, the softener on your clothes.

And, finally, name one thing you can taste: the salty flavor of your tongue as it explores my mouth.

Moments later, I’m out of the train, the world around me loud, then silent and loud again like the back of a zebra, and I forget it ever came.

You see, I tell myself, it wasn’t that bad after all.


During my outdoor runs, there are moments when I become achingly aware of the weight of the world, and I begin to realize I’m stuck in a body that is, ultimately, inscrutable. This bundle of flesh and bones I carry around with me, which obstinately demands things and is open to temptation and addiction, will never fully reveal itself to me, which is akin to having a bag full of stuff I will never be able to know or use to their full potential.

The exertion of intense physical exercise also reveals how capricious the body can be. Every moment now it might throw a tantrum, object vehemently to something I want to do. My joints might give up at one point, but I can’t possibly know when. And that’s just the first item on a long list of likely ailments. I might develop some tumor, somewhere, and that will feel like an unexpected invasion and a betrayal on the part of the medical establishment. I might lose my hair at one point in the future, but there is no way to know when that will happen. My teeth will decay no matter what pro-expert toothpaste or mouthwash I use, or how many times I make an appointment with my dentist.

Every gesture meant to appease these tantrums or counteract these objections is a form of loitering in the neighborhood of old age, and each of those gestures is somewhat an acknowledgment of defeat. Small physical alterations compound like coins in a piggy bank. A crease here, a wrinkle there, a cluster of Fordyce spots on my upper lip. They all accrue like a crowd at a concert.

Albeit I’m confronted daily with approximations of how this mass of flesh will act in the future, the people around me serving as reminders of how the body develops a palate for autophagy, that reality never truly registers with me. I’m young, I might think, I have my whole life ahead of me. I can still develop healthy habits. There will come a time when a salad for dinner, and not a plate of pasta or a pizza, will seem like the natural choice at the end of a fatiguing day. I only need to get a grip on myself and eat mindfully, like all those highly successful people one encounters in self-help books.

Soon, I might tell myself ominously.

There’s so much potential for improvement hidden somewhere in the depths of my being. Lying dormant, waiting to be aroused, somewhere just behind the sternum, where anxieties cleave black holes that gnaw at my breath. Running reveals all this and more, it is the friction of change. Constructive abrasion. Then, I wake up one morning and notice that my skin sags in certain places or that a vein has decided to break free and blossom beneath the surface of the skin stretching between the talus and the calcaneus. My face, the bathroom mirror tells me in a passive-aggressive manner, has developed a rudimental form of memory, a frown permanently etched on my forehead, crow’s feet from all that squinting and smiling.

That’s all fine, the song goes, all those little imperfections unveil who you are. The secret is not to let rancor seep in, or see these symptoms of time passing as a form of treachery. Accept them, wear them with pride the way you (ought to) wear your heart, on your sleeve, and the others will unwittingly accept them as well. Besides, most of them can be hidden underneath a shirt: clothing flattens irregular forms, standardizes them, generates recognizable categories for us to inhabit. Tapered, slim, skinny, regular, loose, large, extra-large, and other variations. Clothes are the low-cost version of suburbia and area codes. They’re forms of creativity with sutures and hemlines, textured interfaces.

Some of those bodily imperfections will only be revealed in intimacy, which is always a form of exchange. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Meaningful intimacy requires time, which, to me at least, is not necessarily a whim, or a form of procrastination that betrays prudeness or bashfulness, but rather a ritual of preparation akin to tantric practices. Time precedes acceptance; it builds desire. In the flight or fight economy, the time we grant each other is the less aggressive form of the latter. “There’s no such thing as perfect,” a talking fish tells Courage, the pink dog from Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, “you’re beautiful as you are Courage. With all your imperfections, you can do anything you want to do!”


“Anxiety is a bully. And like most bullies, the more you let it shove you around, the pushier it gets. […] Fundamentally, you can beat anxiety, like any bully, by standing up to it.” (Rhena Branch & Rob Willson, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies)


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a professional runner, nor do I strive to become one. To be frank, everything I know about running is the result of a continuing trial-and-error thing that’s been going on for quite a while. I do read articles and books about running, and occasionally watch some of those YouTube videos, but I’ve never had someone coach me, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Long-distance running is one of those activities you go to on your own; you discover something with each step you take. I learn something new about running, and about how far I can push my body, every time I put on my trainers and press start on my workout app, and I don’t imagine this is going to end anytime soon.

And that’s okay.

Perhaps what I like most about running is its offer of mindful solitude. You are alone, yet always in the presence of something that isn’t usually there: the terror of an imaginary finish line you see yourself crossing, which also feels like controllable anxiety. Your sense of fatigue suddenly becomes urgent in a way that may be unknown to you. It will try to convince you to stop by telling you, repeatedly, that you’re a loser and there’s no sense in persevering. You’ll steadily worry about the future of your run, and obsess over how much there’s still to do. Each mistake, however insignificant, will feel like a proof of your inherent inability to perform such an activity. Or finish what you started. You’ll stumble, slip, hit obstacles, cuss, spit, blow your nose, sweat like a pig, get angry at those who see you coming but refuse to get out of your way. All these trivial things will occupy your mind, and that’s okay because you’ll still be running, and all of them will feel like the ground you’ve covered: flat, and already behind you.

Running turns time into space, which becomes meaty, viscous, dense. Doing the same track repeatedly enforces this transformation. You pick milestones that soon morph into markers of progress. The circularity mitigates whatever anxieties you might have. You revisit places that felt differently. I often look at the distances I’ve covered (I use Runtastic for every run) and see them as anxiety-trial-runs. I’m running with the fear of not being able to finish. Eyes turned inwardly, I see my failed relationships and count all those instances in which I felt unlovable and alone. And they all come and go because running forces you to move away, literally, from everything. You don’t tiptoe around your fears, you face them, head-on, which is what anxiety doesn’t want you to do.

It wants you on your knees, begging for mercy, pining for relief.

Running suggests solitude, one that is free of rancor. I don’t need other people to be able to do it, and no special equipment is required except for a good pair of running shoes. I’ve tried doing it with others, but then I inevitably start comparing myself to them, and I fall out of step, I falter, lose my breath. Soon enough, it feels as if I’m failing them, denying the satisfaction of some elusive expectations they might have of me.

When I run alone, everything becomes porous, space is suddenly welcoming, distances expand, and contract, they become markers of success, not generators of exhaustion. My body carves its way through all this, uncovering layers, refuting hypotheses, and creating new ones. Air becomes functional once more, achingly so, as my lungs struggle for breath.

To be frank, I might have a slight aversion towards running with others because it feels as if I’m working against a threshold, and this might discourage me from putting on my trainers and going for a run in the first place. I did try it in the past, and the feeling is exquisite, especially when you all get to reap the benefits of a good workout, but I also feel like I need to entertain the other person, which can be a drag. Talking while running feels wastefully extravagant, akin to talking on the phone with a person who is in the next room.

The sounds of exertion: panting, hitting the ground, grunting, the accelerating heartbeat; they outline a vocabulary that commands attention. It is the lexicon of now-ness, reality’s firm grip on wandering thoughts. The mind might branch out; it is the rhythmic breath that brings it back to the ground, rooting it into the realities of the body. The side stitches, the numbing pain in the thighs, the thirst, they all claim dominion over your attention. Running doesn’t let you obsess over your thoughts, however dark they may be.

Running shouldn’t feel like a social activity. I dread the awkward silence, and I’m embarrassed by the fact that I sweat more than the average person. Really, at the end of a 10k, I’m drenched in sweat, my pants stick to my crotch and thighs, and at times it might seem as if I peed myself. Long runs also make my nipples bleed when I wear the wrong kind of t-shirt, and to some that might resemble gratuitous violence. Then there’s the question of tights, which, to the uninformed onlooker, might seem a form of excess, or a way of showing off.

When I’m running with somebody else, I can’t listen to music, and that is sometimes discouraging. Music is, after all, a form of companionship for the lonely. Some runners out there, namely the serious ones, say they don’t need music while running because it distracts them from the pleasure of the exercise. They listen to the beat of their footsteps, birds singing, the wind in the trees and all that. But when the beat drops in that Beyoncé song, my whole body goes fuck yeah I’m gonna crush this motherfucker, and I become a single lady at least for the duration of that song.

When Spotify introduced its running playlists, with music that matches your tempo, I was ecstatic because running suddenly felt like dancing, another activity that is both solitary and blatantly visible.

Sometimes, though, I pause the music and listen to the thrum of my heart the way medical students listen to sound recordings to train their ear for the broken beat, to distinguish the healthy from the defective. The sound of it is meaty, internal, and slightly detached, akin to the speech of an alien race, or the muffled slosh of wet ground. The echo of my footsteps early on a Sunday morning when there’s no one around is somewhat reassuring. Yes, I’m alone in this, but I’m digging my way out of this solitude the way a mole finds its way through the dirt. I’m moving to make that isolation sustainable, to make a living in this economy of the loner.

Running is the sullen travel companion. It’s always there, watching you, following you, yet it never attempts to lure you. It never says, ‘I told you so.’ At first glance, it seems unapproachable, disagreeable even, and it will reveal its secrets only if you strike up a conversation with it. From the outside, runners often remind me of Hopper’s Nighthawks, present but removed, always with their back at you, their sweaty faces a blur, their bodies emotion made flesh, eyes locked on some internal struggle that is invisible to us mortal onlookers. Somewhere deep inside them, hidden dialogue occurs: they’re silently bargaining with their bodies, the ground beneath their feet, the road, the trail, the air, the light. Then they’re gone akin to a saintly apparition.

‘Don’t mind me, just passing through.’


Humans evolved to become endurance runners, giving up speed for distance. Dogs can run fast, but they have to stop to cool down after a while, and they do that by sticking their tongues out. We can keep going because our bodies can thermoregulate through sweat and breathing, and in terms of energy consumption, running can be cheaper than walking. We ride the momentum, our legs acting as springs propelling us upward and forward, we jump and fall to the ground, working with gravity the way chemists mix substances to obtain something new.

Don’t mind me, just passing through.

“I’d observed pigs on treadmills for hundreds of hours and had never thought about this. So Dennis and I started talking about how, when these pigs ran, their heads bobbed every which way and how running humans are really adept at stabilizing their heads. We realized that there were special features in the human neck that enable us to keep our heads still. That gives us an evolutionary advantage because it helps us avoid falls and injuries. And this seemed like evidence of natural selection in our ability to run, an important factor in how we became hunters rather than just foragers and got access to richer foods, which fueled the evolution of our big brains.” (Daniel Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body)


I began running on a treadmill at the gym about five years ago at the extreme end of a homemade (that is, punishing) weight-loss program that verged on becoming an eating disorder. Most likely, it was that, or it was a dangerous combination of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, sheer madness, and a disregard for my body’s needs. I had reduced my calorie intake to the point where a cup of milk for breakfast and steamed broccoli for lunch felt as if I had indulged myself and needed to be punished by not eating anything else for the rest of the day. In time, the punishment began to feel reasonable, a form of atonement for all those years of gluttony. It felt like adulthood, a way to assume responsibility for how I looked.

I downloaded cooking apps on my iPad and saved tens of recipes. They were all for later, I would reassure myself. I watched videos of other people preparing food with the fascination one develops for a fetish. I couldn’t see their faces, but the way their hands moved while mixing ingredients betrayed a joy that was becoming increasingly extrinsic (and toxic) to me. Do these people know, I often wondered, how much harm food can inflict? Are they aware of how hard it is to shed the guilt that comes with it? I convinced myself that cooking was akin to treading on dangerous ground because through it, I would revert to my old habits of eating mindlessly. There was no way back at that point. I had closed all the doors behind me, measured my life in units, made hunger my friend.

I worked out at home twice a day, lifting weights and doing indoor cycling. Every day, I had to do more. Bigger weights, more reps, lengthier virtual tracks. I counted calories in my head obsessively and looked at cakes on Instagram before I went to bed to feel less hungry. Those who starved themselves became heroes who had the weight of Shakesperian characters. Soon, I would promise myself, all of this would be over, and I will have a slice of that chocolate cake. Just one more day of this. But then the next day, the vicious cycle began anew: I ate, felt guilty, and punished myself.

One apple for breakfast, salad for lunch, sunflower seeds for dinner. I felt my stomach expand and thought of myself as pathetic. I watched action-packed movies to waste time and keep my mind off food. Just keeping my back straight was exhausting. My legs went numb whenever I stood in one position for too long. Lively conversations, and even laughing, made me lightheaded. My grandparents warned my parents that something was off, and my dad kept asking me whether I wasn’t hungry. Looking at the food on the table suddenly felt like yearning for an expensive object I could not afford.

Grandma asked why I was doing that to myself. I told everyone I was doing it to get healthy, yet, secretly, I knew I wanted to be noticed for the right reasons. I wanted to be loved.

Hunger makes you increasingly aware of time. If there’s an organ in the body, or a pack of neurons in the brain, that unconsciously measure time in the background, hunger makes them work full-time. The longer I could go without food, the better I felt about myself. Throughout the day, I would have false starts: I painstakingly prepared the food, looked at it, had a bite, then served it to others. It wasn’t the food itself that I feared, it was how I would feel after I ate it that made me have second thoughts. I couldn’t bear the guilt of it because it was enervating.

Sought-for hunger makes reality acute. It engenders a yearning for sensations stronger than itself. I set objectives bigger than myself, made plans, went out with friends, worked for hours that seemed centuries. Throughout the day, keeping the mind busy by engaging in convoluted arguments became a top priority. I spent time in places where it was difficult to have access to food, and whenever I felt hungry, I reached for my cigarette pack. Coffee was a constant presence, it made me feel tight but shapeless, and it helped me muster forces that were becoming increasingly scarce and therefore, precious.

One more hour without food.

At the end of the day, I felt exhausted, and I blamed it on my lack of resolve. People I knew ate so little so why couldn’t I do the same? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about food? I watched others eat and experienced jealousy. Their ease with food felt like irony directed at me because I saw it as the ease of those who could do stuff I was only beginning to learn. At times, I felt superior because hunger gave me an extra load of lucidity. I wasn’t enjoying the food, I measured it, cut it into small pieces, adding the calories in my head.

I began to suspect eating was a competition of sorts, one in which the less you ate, the higher were your chances of winning. At parties, people were overly conscious of the things they ate. ‘No, I shouldn’t have that, I’m trying to lose weight. I only had a yogurt for lunch, and I feel fantastic.’ After major holidays such as Christmas, they went on diets, much akin to rituals of purification. They prepared for Easter lunch as if it was a battle. I distinctly recall a friend of mine posting a photo of him in running attire. The caption went along the lines of ‘I’m not afraid of you, Easter lunch.’ Everything revolved around food and eating. Walking on a tightrope felt suddenly more accessible, and I resented all that. This is my life now, I would tell myself.

Meals were an alien race, their heads grotesque, their tongues moist.

I fell asleep the moment I put my head on the pillow and woke up in the morning in the same position I had gone to sleep. I touched myself to feel my ribs and hip bones jutting out. My mouth was often bone dry because I knew that drinking water would show on the scale. I weighed myself compulsively, and when the numbers went down, I took it to be a sign of success. Every lost pound was a small victory in the big war against my body.

More often than not, I remember waking up and thinking there was no more joy left in the world, and I should do my best to get used to that. The constant hunger devouring me was no longer a form of longing for the next meal I would have, but rather a sort of disappointment that my body was so needy, that it had given up on trying to survive on the meager amount of nutrients I was giving it. I looked forward to Christmas and Easter because those were the only times I would let myself have a proper meal. I binged, of course, and felt sorry for myself. Then I swallowed laxatives to free myself from the weight of my guilt.


“Running also poses problems for head stabilization. Unlike quadrupeds, humans have vertically oriented necks that are less able to counteract the greater tendency of the head to pitch forward at foot strike during running than walking. Such inertial accelerations would be reduced in Homo relative to Australopithecus and Pan by a combination of decreased facial length and occipital projection behind the foramen magnum. In addition, the radius of the posterior semicircular canal is significantly larger in Homo than in Pan or Australopithecus, presumably increasing the sensitivity of sensory perception to head pitching in the sagittal plane, which is potentially much greater during running than walking.” (Dennis M. Bramble & Daniel Lieberman, “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo”)


In his panegyric to running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami calls this heightened sense of body awareness “runner’s blues.” You start to have the feeling that all that hard work might never pay off, that there will come a time when your body will begin to break down, almost systematically, without asking for your permission.

Murakami experienced a version of it after finishing an ultramarathon (62 miles) in 1996. At one point, after completing about two-thirds of the race, he felt as if he had crossed a barrier beyond which his body transformed into a machine that no longer protested against pain and fatigue. His runs, he says, never felt the same afterward. It was as if something had switched inside him.

I’ve never done an ultramarathon or a marathon, but I can sympathize with what Murakami is saying. For weeks on end, a long run throughout which you push against the limits of your body can feel like a record that is hard to beat. Compared to a 27k race against yourself, which is the longest distance I’ve covered in a run at the time of writing this, a 7k can feel like child’s play. Long-distance running teaches you different forms of bargaining with your body, a kind of mental haggling you might never develop under different circumstances.

At times you think the only way forward is up. It doesn’t get easier, trainers often say, you only fight against it more efficiently. Muscles break and rebuild, they begin to remember how your race pace feels, your threshold pace, they engage in a concerted effort to help you get through that sprint. You get faster, your body starts using resources wisely, your breathing feels effortless, and all this gives you the sense that you’re in control of your body. You gain a deeper understanding of superiority, and you inevitably start judging those who might be sitting on their couch watching one more episode of that Netflix series.

Nothing can stop you now.

But then you wake up one morning and your left knee protests against even the most mundane of chores, such as taking a trip to the bathroom. The body can be an obstinate beast, it will take its time to show you the results of all that hard work. It will delay gratification. For months on end, even years, it will offer you only intimations of its internal battles: muscles will grow silently under your skin, fat will find its way out slowly, gradually, as if to test your patience. It’s akin to the promise of an afterlife free of distress or pain. It’s the delayed gratification that pushed Faust to make a deal with the devil.

Since running is such a holistic sport, because it requires both muscles and brains to work together, a glitch in either of those systems can prevent it from happening again. Even a minor injury can force you to stay on the bench for months on end. All the mental energy you otherwise would have put into running morphs into liquid admonition, which further fuels the runner’s blues.

When going for a run ceases to be a part of your physical and psychological routine getting back in the saddle can be an onerous task. In time, you’re left with a bitter aftertaste, the kind you feel when you’re nostalgic about old times. ‘I used to run,’ you think, ‘those were the good days!’ The miles stretched ahead of you like an invitation, and you accepted it, the way a thirsty man drinks the water coming from even the most insalubrious puddles. But then that empty stretch of road, ready to be yours, ceased to be so alluring.

In 2015, while I was staying in NYC and working on my Ph.D. thesis, I stopped running for more than three months because I hadn’t brought my running shoes with me. I had packed my stuff thinking that once I got to NY, I would unmistakably buy a pair and go on with my running routine. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be able to afford them once I paid rent and bought some food. It was incredibly frustrating to know that the only thing that was stopping me from covering those distances was a simple pair of shoes. Albeit there was a voice in my head telling me that if I really wanted to do it, nothing would stop me, not even the fact that I only had a pair of leather shoes with me, I still couldn’t do it.

A guy I had met on Tinder told me I could buy the shoes if I quit smoking, which I continued doing, passionately, despite the prohibitive price of cigarettes. It seemed as if I had made up my mind about not running, accepted it as a form of punishment. Buying a new pair of running shoes felt like a luxury that required a sacrifice I was unwilling to take.

To make up for the lack of exercise and burn those extra calories, I walked a lot around Central Park. I listened to audiobooks and podcasts. I paid excessive attention to what I ate. I became a vegetarian and made sure everyone knew it. But still, it felt as if I was robbed of something that I had claimed as mine. I envied the runners I saw doing their rounds in the park and imagined myself running alongside them, making up for all those miles I wasn’t covering.

If running often feels like lavish purposelessness, not doing it is akin to a refusal to participate in the world’s endeavor to change. It’s an admission of guilt and an acceptance of the consequences that stem from it. If there’s a god of running out there, you’re admitting to being a sinner.

Not running, even for brief periods, also invites doubt and constant worrying. I worry I might not be able to run again, or that my muscles will forget the moves, the amounts of fatigue they can tolerate, lower their threshold. Mentally, I imagine one of those life-bars that characters have in video games: you need to keep hitting something or collect tokens if you wish to progress. It makes you question your determination and ambitions if you happen to have any. You’re pathetic, you think, you always fall back on your old habits. Others can do it, but you can’t because you didn’t stretch enough, you skipped the warming up part, you didn’t listen to your trainer who told you that your body needs to recover after an intense training session.

Your anxiety returns, regal, its entourage of dark feelings in tow.

There’s the runner’s high as well, and though it is as elusive as the runner’s blues, it comes as quickly as it goes. This might be because we experience positive aspects of our lives as fleeting. Time flies when you’re having fun and seems static when you’re wallowing in pain. But I believe this is also because the runner’s high is ultimately an undefined state. You do not become suddenly aware of it and say to yourself ‘oh, there’s that runner’s high again, it’s a beautiful feeling, I will hold on to it for as long as I can.’ It comes, trust me, but it might come when you least expect it. You might be halfway through your run when it happens. You look up at the sky and whatever fatigue you might have been experiencing suddenly vanishes.

I get the goosebumps when it comes. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck go up in unison, and I feel as if I could go on for much longer. Yet, at times, I get those even when a song I like comes on during a run. So I never really know whether it actually is the coveted runner’s high. I also sometimes cry when it comes, which feels odd when you’re running because someone might see you. Tears well up in my eyes, and my vision gets blurry, and I feel like chocking. In those moments I cast my mind back to my failures, that is, to instances when my body failed me, to the times when I’ve been told that it isn’t good enough or it doesn’t correspond to the invisible standards of manhood.


“The scale in the bathroom sits partially on the bathmat. I move it to the hallway and set it on the wood for absolute accuracy. Zero. Give me zero. I was 92 yesterday.

“91. One o’clock. Some of that is urine weight.

“Soon, I will disappear into the wall.

“Soon, I will be light as gas.

“Just being awake burns calories. Just being awake brings me closer to you.

“To perfection.” (Sarah Gerard, Binary Star)


My earliest memory of body shame: my grandmother asking a mill worker to weigh me on a rusty scale they used for flour and wheat. I don’t recall what age I was, but I do remember staring at the ground when the man told grandma I was a small piglet.

They weighed us at school for statistical purposes. The PE teacher came in with a bathroom scale under one arm, the way one holds a ledger. One by one, we got up on that contraption and waited for it to settle, the numbers on it a truth one can’t deny.

The teacher wrote the figures on a sheet, and the students laughed. I was overweight once more, but the teacher approved because he, too, had a protruding belly and told everyone what a great kid I was and how much he would like to have me as his child.

Shame stays with you the way a scar does. I wear it in my bed every night I go to sleep, and it often wakes me up in the middle of the night. It’s akin to a subdued giggle, the inappropriate kind, the one that might occur at a funeral, or in class when you are little.

You push it down with your hands the way you push a muddy dog away from climbing into your lap. But still, it perseveres, doggedly, until you acknowledge it. Until you muster the force to wave it aside and see it for what it is: an inherited tool for self-harm.


“I want to be unique. I want to have a thigh gap.

“I want to see myself on television. I want other people to say they’ve seen me on television.

“When I’m on television, I want my body to look damn good.

“I want never to see the scale again.

“I need to be protected.

“I want to go whole days without looking in the mirror.

“I want not to own a mirror.

“I want to try on clothes at Macy’s, and see myself in three mirrors at one, and look good from every angle.


“I want them to stare at me.” (Sarah Gerard, Binary Star)


Running unveils your character the way it reveals your collarbones. It is the harbinger of your work ethic and, at least in my case, doing it regularly creates a discipline that seeps into all levels of my life. You start running, and you don’t give up. Despite the pain, despite the constant worrying, despite the heartbreak that threatens to open your chest. You run so as not to cry. Crying is for the weak. Boys don’t cry. It is that resilience to pain and discomfort that proves you can make it after all, even under other circumstances.

In 2017, while I was staying in Berlin and working on my Ph.D. thesis, I ran every day except for weekends. Being able to wake up early in the morning, while everybody else was still asleep, did not make me feel superior. Instead, it felt as if I was doing myself a favor, performing some act of kindness. Shopowners swept the sidewalks, washed them with water and soap, and all around me, there was the smell of fresh bread and freshly ground coffee. The runways of a former airport became my running ground. Every morning I would return to my room with the feeling that I had accomplished something already, and the day had only just begun.

Those days were also my most fertile in terms of writing and working on my thesis. Much like running, writing is about moving forward with each word. You do one more step, and then another until you get to the end. You write one word, and then another until you reach the end of the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the chapter, you get the picture. Both of them are chiefly about the accrual of units, and ultimately of meaning. Seeing those kilometers add up also gave me a confidence boost, each of them a small encouragement. The pages I wrote during those days also added up, and to my astonishment, by the end of that month, I had written just shy of seventy pages.

I also lost a lot of weight, I noticed it in the way my jeans sagged around my waist, and the way my parents looked at me when I returned home. I didn’t have the time to cook, so dinner was mostly crackers and blueberries. Though I felt as if I was overeating, the intense physical exercise and the grueling hours spent in the library drained me of all desire to expand physically.


For most of my life, I have been afraid of showing my body and did my best to cover it. Whenever I went to the seaside, which happened two or three times in my entire life, I would never take my shirt off, or, when I did, I would just close my eyes and pretend I was alone in the entire world. I turned the music up in my headphones so that I might not hear people comment on the inadequacy of my body.

I envied my brother’s ease with his body, a form of boyishness he carries to this day. He still has no qualms about taking his clothes off when the situation requires it. The same goes for all the men in my family, irrespective of their body size or shape. Men in the village where I grew up showed their bodies despite the overwhelming lack of abs or massive pecs. From the outside, they did not seem to question the adequacy of their bodies. None of the other people in the village seemed to do that. As long as you were a hardworking man, your body did not matter.

It was within this culture of acceptance that I grew up with the idea that I would be accepted by others no matter what. People made jokes about my weight, my man boobs, my round face, and head, but I recognized it as a form of communication, envy even. Everyone said I looked healthy, and I felt healthy. Those who had known my dad since his childhood told me that he had been chubby as well, but then he grew out of it. It was within this culture that I took my body artlessly.

Moving to the city during high school was emotionally traumatic. I got called names on the first day. A bunch of older kids laughed at me because I was wearing a leather vest and a short-sleeve shirt. I do realize now that it might have been a bit too much for early September when the sun was blazing hot, but I didn’t know better back then. I was the proverbial country boy moving to the big city. My response to all this name-calling went against that culture of acceptance. What did I do to them to deserve this? I hadn’t done anything to them, they didn’t even know me, but that was most likely their way of asserting their superiority, their place in the pecking order.

Years later, while reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, I came across an eerily familiar passage, one that strongly reminded me of my childhood. “The only good thing about being fat,” the Crapulent Major tells the narrator, “besides the eating, is that everyone loves a fat man. Yes? Yes! People love to laugh at fat men and pity them, too. When I applied at that gas station, I was sweating even though I had walked just a couple of blocks. People look at a fat man sweating and they feel sorry for him, even if they feel a little contempt, too.” Perhaps those older kids in the schoolyard pitied me, or maybe they didn’t, I’ll never know, yet, nowadays, whenever I see an overweight person on the street I feel a pang in my chest because I know the ordeal they have to experience every day. I am familiar with the stares and the looks, and the giggle of high-schoolers, the finger-pointing, and the acrid jokes.

Once, while I was getting home from the university by bus, a group of high school students started giggling and talking among themselves. At first, I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying, but then I began to realize that they were, in fact, talking about me. “Look at him,” I overheard one of them saying, “he looks as if he’s retarded. Just look at his face.” I did not raise my head to look at them because I was ashamed, and perhaps I should have confronted them, but I could see them out of the corner of my eye, their faces blurry and directed at me.

When people ask me why I don’t want to teach English to high school students, I usually tell them I find it hard to connect with them, and that’s true, but only to a certain extent. I did practice teaching English to high school students and found it exhausting. They laughed at me and made snide comments about the sweater I was wearing, and one of them cupped his hands around his pecs to point out the volume of my chest. I just couldn’t maintain any authority over them, and there were times when I thought that I just wasn’t cut for teaching.

Going on road trips with my classmates in high school was as mentally grueling as waiting for a significant test result. I hid in the bathroom and behind curtains when I had to take off my shirt. While the others had no qualms about walking around naked and touching their genitals while the others watched, I went to the toilet just to change into my pajamas. Letting others see me brush my teeth made me feel ashamed. What if I wasn’t doing it well enough?

Albeit in the meantime, my body has gone through significant changes, and I have learned to work with it, I still carry that shame with me. Sleeping with other people is a tiring task, and most of the times I resort to old habits: I close my eyes and think I’m invisible, or that I’m somebody else. Knowing that I can’t be seen makes my body livable and desirable once more. My body, the empty signifier, malleable, and ready to acquire new meanings.


There was a point during my weight-loss period when people started noticing my eyes were blue. At the time, I did not pay attention to the remark because it sounded like the type of thing people said when they had some breath to spare. My friends and I were idling at the local library when a girl said my eyes were getting bluer. Truth is, they were not, yet I felt a shift in focus. I no longer was the chubby guy who complained about divine injustice and did nothing to counteract it, but someone who had blue eyes.

Then I suddenly started to show up on people’s radars. On dating sites, people became interested in what I was doing, the things I wrote. I suddenly had content. People wanted to know more and asked questions. I was inebriated with the sudden rush of attention and wallowed in it. They complimented me for my strong will and my ability to overcome mental and physical obstacles. And I played the part that was assigned to me in this narrative of success: yes, if there’s a will, there’s a way, yes, I changed the way I saw food, everything went smoothly. I swept the lonely hours spent thinking about food under the rug.

My thighs became something people envied. When I went on dates, they were the first thing at which guys looked. I welcomed their gaze the way one accepts a precious gift because, for the first time in my life, there was a part of my body I wasn’t ashamed of showing. When they touched my thighs, I flexed the muscles as if I were on a bodybuilding show.

It is not my intention to demonize anyone. I think we do know how superficial we are, and this doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In the lexicon of relationships, be they sexual or amicable, being attractive inevitably refers to how the body works and presents itself to the world. The body is a portal, an interface that offers access to what is underneath, and it betrays your attitude towards the world. The body is the joke at the beginning of a serious talk, the smile that makes the audience relax and open their minds.

Physical changes inevitably reflect internal movements, but I cannot say for sure what comes first. I can recall, though, a moment or perhaps a series of moments in which my body began to feel different because the people around me felt different about it. And the more you perceive that the more you look for it because it empowers you. It’s akin to a snowball. As it rolls down the hill, it grows in size and gains momentum.


The runner’s high is often described as legendary, which, more often than not, paints the picture of a mythical creature observable only by the chosen few. It is therefore dubious, or handed-down from earlier generations of runners. Something to chase akin to precious prey, a replacement for what our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to track and hunt.

Research conducted in the 1980s showed that prolonged exercise caused endorphin levels to spike, and for a very long time, they were believed to be the cause of the runner’s high. But then researchers realized endorphins were too big to pass through the blood-brain barrier and had to reconsider.

Then, researchers noticed that besides endorphins a runner’s brain also releases endocannabinoids, a naturally synthesized version of THC, the chemical accountable for the feelings that smoking marijuana triggers. As opposed to endorphins, which are created by specialized neurons, endocannabinoids, particularly anandamide, can be produced by basically every living cell in the body, and are small enough to get through that barrier and reach the brain.

The much-desired mood is also a question of finding your sweet spot. Go too slow, and it might never show itself. Go too hard, and it might feel like you’re punishing yourself. Stressing your body and mind during a long run is good, but do it in a way that feels controllable. Interval training does it for me. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, and knowing that I can get some rest, be it by walking or doing a light jog, at the end of each interval makes everything seem so manageable. At moments I feel as if my body is going to give up, and that might make me feel anxious, or desperate, but then it’s time to take a break, and those feelings subside.

Perhaps that’s what makes running such a good antidote for anxiety and depression: you panic and start doubting your capacity, you bring yourself down, you suffer, but then you know that at the end of it, a conclusion that you can foresee and control, those feelings will dissipate. Becoming acquainted with the transitoriness of your emotions by going on these trial runs, is much akin to exposing your body to toxicity to build up defenses. If you can overcome the anxiety that comes every time you feel like lacing up those running shoes or the one that occurs when you feel like you just want to stop running, then you can certainly overcome anxiety in the trenches of daily life.


These feelings I have while running, be them positive or negative, are overwhelming and, more often than not, I feel like stopping. I start doubting my running form and technique, my breathing turns shallow, and my shoulders creep up, stealthily as if to shrug or to push up against some invisible force. Most of the times, it feels as if there’s no way out of this realization, that whatever I do to mitigate this sense of doom, whatever mind trick I might have up my sleeve, I will never be able to run fast enough to escape it. I’m like a bear in a trap. I can see the cause of my problem, the rusty teeth of the metal clamp pressing against my shin, but I do not know how to open it.

It doesn’t get easier, running coaches typically say, you just get used to it. Yeah, I think, and you’re so full of shit. Literally, shit is coming out of your mouth. I try and picture them, these coaches, with their protein-shakes in tow and their perfect faces and taut stomachs, and I get angry. When am I going to be like them? When am I going to achieve that ideal form? Is there a point where this won’t feel like work?

Then, a moment later, I shake my arms, I take a deep breath, refocus on the distance I still need to cover, and the classes I still need to teach, and how I could explain, for the nth time, the present perfect. They’ll just feel it, I tell my students. The present perfect is almost instinctual. It’s a gut feeling. My mind goes bonkers, and the speed of my thoughts starts to match that of my feet. My heartbeat harmonizes with the cadence of my pace. Soon enough, I realize that nothing can stop me. I can still go for a while longer; I just need the patience to do it.

There’s this egotistical force wedged between the ground and the soles of my feet that pushes me forward. I don’t even have to think about it and, deep down, I know that if I stop, that drive to move forward will never forgive me, or it won’t show up next time I go for a run. So I listen to it. Lean into it. I am faster than my regrets, stronger than my failures, my anxieties, better than all those guys who rejected me.

Like all runners, I tend to be superstitious. To me, running is tied not just to physical rituals, such as preparing my running gear the night before and getting enough carbs into my system before a long run, but also to mental routines. For each workout, I prepare mentally. I think about how I’m going to feel at the beginning, or halfway through, or towards the end. I know that the first few minutes are going to be harsh, and a voice in my head is going to tell me I should give up because there’s no point in it anyway.

My imagination will run wild. It will throw at me images of hamsters playing on a running wheel, just to make things more exciting. From an evolutionary standpoint, I shouldn’t be running; I’m not chasing prey. I can just open the fridge, and the food I need will be there. Out of the blue, I’ll think about how cardio exercise is an occupation related to excess: there’s too much food lying around, and we’re always in search of ways to burn the extra calories. So we’re running, moving, heaving our bodies, chasing nothing but the fulfillment of the desire to make our bodies palatable to the coveting eyes of our peers.

Every run is a form of education in that sense. Each step is a small victory in the battle against whatever fears I might have, against self-doubt. They start creeping into my mind the moment I open the closet to put on my running gear, which gives off this weird smell even when they’re freshly washed. It’s a combination of burnt plastic and something feral. It makes me want to vomit. That self-doubt is still there even when I put on my running shoes. They’re not tight enough. They’re dirty. The insole feels a bit off, and I can’t seem to find the right position. My battery is low. Why am I doing this to myself when I could just sit and read something, finish that piece I was working on, mark some of those papers that are eyeing me from the pile?

But then I find myself running, the air around me welcoming.

Running is a form of training in emotional agility because it shows how transitory emotions can be. When you’re running, the only ultimate reality worth paying attention to is that of your body. Albeit you might worry about the future of your workout, the best way to deal with that anxiety is by focusing on what you can do to feel better right now: find a rhythm in your breath, relax your shoulders, control your cadence. Sooner than you know, the feeling is gone and you’re still moving, which you’ll always be doing, even when you feel like your life has ended.


There is a scene in the animated series Final Space (S01E08) that brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it. Desperate to close the breach in space that threatens to destroy the universe, Gary and his friends visit Bolo, a Titan trapped between dimensions. Once Gary enters Bolo’s mind palace, he is greeted by other versions of himself: there’s a Construction Hat Gary, an Eagle-Faced Gary, a Cookie-Headed Gary, and a Little Micro Gary. “In order to face what’s ahead,” Bolo’s voice says, “you need to face what’s inside of you.” And what Gary needs to face in that particular instance is the Amazing Mustache version of Gary, who tells the real Gary that he will never be able to get a thick, abundant, luscious mustache like that. “It’s true,” the real Gary says embarrassingly, “I’ve never been able to grow a mustache.”

Amazing Mustache Gary then begins to comb his mustache with his little mustache comb. “But you’ll never know the satisfaction of that,” he says and starts to laugh copiously as he flies above and vanishes. As his voice echoes and fades out, the real Gary begins to be engulfed by some sort of dark gooey thing that grows on him, slowly pulling him down. “Your anxiety is consuming you,” Bolo says, “you know you can’t succeed.” “Because I can’t grow a mustache?” “That’s exactly why,” the voice of Amazing Mustache Gary echoes again.

Of course, the mustache has nothing to do with closing a breach in space. It does have everything to do with how the protagonist feels about his capacity to perform that action. When you live a life in which you are being criticized every step of the way, even the most insignificant thing, such as your lack of facial hair, can become a nuisance and stop you from living a full, healthy, life. And yet, against all vicissitudes of fate, faulty plans, miscalculations, Gary tries to do it anyway, and sometimes he succeeds.

Gary is my hero because his lack of confidence reminds me of my own. More often than not, I’ve avoided doing things, such as talking to people who seemed intriguing, for the simple fact that I couldn’t muster the confidence to strike up a conversation. And I’ve always lived with the regret that stems from those missed opportunities. Just like Gary, my anxiety has consumed me and pushed me around. It still does. The other day I accompanied my boyfriend to have his sunglasses done and noticed that the name tag of the guy who served us said he was a writer. I wanted to ask him about that but then never did. And then we were out of the shop, and the world took us to other places, and I might never see the guy again.

And that’s that, and here’s the thing: you might not have a thick, abundant, luscious mustache, and you might not have the abs to show or the perfect hair, but you can try to be like Gary. You can do things against all the odds and still be successful, because trust me, the regret you’ll feel for not doing things is much worse than the embarrassment of rejection. If you don’t feel like running, go for a run anyway. If you don’t feel like talking, do it anyway.

I’ll go for a run now. Have a good one.

Sixteen (Architectural Design)

When I looked up, the birds were vibrating in the evening air screaming for water, and I asked the Lord for forgiveness, not just for myself but for the whole world. Grandma had told me about the birds, and the way they asked the Lord for water, at night, hidden in the trees behind the house. I thought, how cruel this Lord of ours is, one who refuses to give water even to the most innocent of us.

I took the wooden cross from grandpa’s homemade altar and went out into the fields and dipped it into the parched ground to force the Lord to listen to our plea. ‘Feel,’ I repeated as I walked around the orchard, ‘I want you to feel the hopelessness in the ground beneath our feet.’ The clouds gathered and boiled above me, and a woman from the village urged us to throw the shovels into the middle of the yard because the Lord’s wrath was upon us. Grandpa threw the shovels on the concrete, and the grass popped as if it was burning. We breathed in, and the air was incandescent with thirst, thick with the commands we shouted at each other. The woman walked away, the shawl she wore on her head disheveled, her breasts moving on their own, ahead of her, her hands furiously stroking her face as if keening for a son lost in the war.

The chickens had to be led into the stables where the cow and the pigs had been tucked away like precious gems. The windows had to be secured. Grandpa could not stand damage resulting from human errors that could have easily been avoided. Church bells ululated in the distance, the sky above full of leaves and dust, the hills around the village like subdued dogs. Big drops, here and there, then everywhere, my brother was nowhere to be seen, he who had always been afraid of thunder.

The Lord’s love arrived in gusts of wind and sharp drops of water, and our brains reverberated with images of sanctification. ‘Lord,’ we thought as we watched the sky come tumbling down, ‘how could we have ever doubted you?’ We barricaded ourselves in the house, all in one room, far from any source of electricity, removed from the windows because people got struck by lightning that way. Everything in the house had to be unplugged: the TV, the refrigerator, the radio. Then grandpa would run one more time through the rain, a long blue winter coat hanging on his shoulders. One last time, he had to make sure all the animals were safe.

As the rain poured, grandma crossed herself, and we waited in the half-dark rooms, every thunderstorm a pedagogy of survival. Stay out of nature’s way, it said. Sometimes the rain would fall for days. But that first couple of minutes after a storm had the taste of sainthood, proof that we were still loved by our Lord. As we headed out of the house to assess the damage, the earth seemed renewed to the core, and we knew that, at least for a while, we won’t be praying for rain. We prayed, though, for my brother to return.