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Robb’s Last Tape (Take Sixteen)

line-in-the-sand

A few years ago, the daughter of one of my grandmother’s neighbors packed her bags and moved to Spain for work. Once there, she learned the language, found a job and a boyfriend, and seemed to be moving on with her life. The mother, on the other hand, did not take matters so lightheartedly and refused to accept her daughter’s apparent indifference. She had only one daughter, and she had dared to leave, to work and live among strangers, in a faraway country, and who knows when she would come back. The mother was and still is of the idea that you raise children to have someone care for you when you are no longer capable of doing that, and her daughter had ignored that belief by forging a life of her own.

She mourned her daughter’s departure and, long after that, she kept returning, doggedly and in spite of my grandmother’s supplications, to the place where she had watched her only daughter get on a bus and wave goodbye to her from the window.

My grandmother tried to comfort her to the best of her abilities since she is a veteran of sorts. She had watched as all of her children and grandchildren got into cars or on buses in search for a better life to return only perennially, akin to seasonal fruit. Then, when the supplications ceased working, and the woman seemed to be losing her wits, grandmother started berating what, to her, looked like irrational behavior. She needed to get a grip of herself, she had to do that for her daughter’s sake. For everyone’s sake.

The mother, as mothers often do, had built a life around her daughter and she would frequently get into fights with her neighbors and friends because of her daughter. Whenever she believed the little girl had been mistreated, either by her classmates, teachers, or even relatives, she would go to their houses and wreak havoc. Stern accusations would be served in rapid fire as the other person stood, dumbfounded, while the spectacle unfurled. After, she would avoid speaking to them or give them as much as a look when they crossed paths.

Every year, when the dyer’s greenweed in her front yard blossomed, she would pay a photographer to come and take a picture of her daughter sitting next to the flowers. The thing became a ceremony of sorts, a way to record the girl’s progress through life. The photographer was often drunk, and the photos would come out blurred as if to warn the mother of her daughter’s intentions. Always on the move, ready to sprint when the signal went off.

She was her daughter’s PR manager. Birthday parties were rituals akin to those concocted by wedding planners. Only the right people were invited or those who held some amount of clout. Eligible young boys were strategically placed next to her in case she would develop an interest in them. Those same boys were later scrutinized by the mother, their behavior weighed against that of other, ideal, boys, their families’ history accounted for in the process. Birthday gifts were reviewed through the grapevine, and if they were bad enough, or embarrassing enough, they could be used against you when the time was ripe. Friends were painstakingly selected, and if any of them ventured to trespass the unwritten rules of conduct that the mother had set beforehand, they would be shunned with biblical momentum.

People in the village frowned upon the mother’s demeanor and more often than not they disapproved of the daughter’s behavior. She wore high boots in winter and big circular earrings that reminded you of an R’n’B singer. She was a free-spirited girl and went dancing in the village discotheque, and she had been the first to introduce high-sole shoes and Spice Girls to the people in the community (including me). And when she broke up with the guy she had been dating in Spain, everyone, including my grandma and her friends, agreed that it had been a big mistake because she should consider her rank and nobody would have her after such impertinence. Beggars can’t be choosers, the consensus went. The mother battled on, her body shriveling, her health receding to some forgotten space at the back of her mind.

In the meantime, the daughter returned, whether to undo the harm perpetrated by her departure or not, I do not know for sure. She has now taken up university studies, and she has a mysterious new boyfriend who is always on the move, and nobody has yet had the pleasure to see or meet him. But the rumors never ceased: she is still the odd one out among the young girls in the village, a position, I believe, she both despises and takes comfort in, protected by the mother’s long and prickly wings. Personally, I take pride in her decisions, because I can sympathize with her predicament. In spite of all hindrances, she has remained faithful to who she is and has never been afraid of what people might think of her. I cannot fully fathom how the people in the village would react if they knew I was gay, yet I am confident the rumors would tear my family and me apart, so I prefer to keep some things to myself.

Like my grandmother, I also thought of the neighbor’s behavior as excessive, and, as if by habit, I frequently returned to a poem about letting go I had studied in college. It was a poem about a mother’s death, and it managed to encompass, in just a few lines, like all good poetry, the unnerving sensation and the pain of letting go. I cannot recall the exact poem, but its ending went along the lines of “it’s simple, you just have to let go.” As you might imagine, I could not tell the woman about the poem, she wouldn’t have understood it, and she wouldn’t have accepted it. She lacks the education needed to appreciate such an offering. And, as my grandmother has done on repeated occasions, she would have scolded me for my insensitivity, blamed me for being too far removed from the true meaning of the situation. Unlike the two of them, I had not experienced the emotional infirmity, the sense of helplessness prompted by the knowledge of being unable to see, touch, smell, and talk to the person that up to the point of departure had occupied a big chunk of my emotional life.

It’s simple. You just have to let go.

To be frank, I have made a habit of breezing through farewells and goodbyes, either by telling the other person that we shall meet again, that they haven’t seen the last of me or by depreciating the gravity of the moment. I would make a joke or a comment about something, wish them the best with the biggest of smiles, then turn quickly away and leave without looking over my shoulder. The quicker, the better, that was and still is my motto. For some reason, whenever I went out of the train station, or the airport, I would always look up at the sky, as if the blue impassivity of its vastness could act as a buffer for the brusqueness of my emotions. Yet, I have never broken down or cried in front of someone, except for that time, in high school, when my mother left me in a new house, with people I did not know because she had to go back to Italy.

But I have watched other people break down. My earliest memory of it is of when my great-grandmother died. I remember being at the cemetery, surrounded by people, and, as my great-grandma’s lifeless body was being lowered into the ground, my brother suddenly turned to me, his face melting in a flow of mucus and tears, as if to check and see whether I had any feelings at all. I did not cry, I was most likely dumbfounded by the ritual as I always am on such occasions, but I can distinctly recall my mother’s wailing, her supplications beseeching the old lady to return home because it was cold there, in the ground.

It’s simple. You just have to let go.

My mother broke down again when my father moved to Italy. When the suitcases were finally by the door, and the time came for him to leave, my mother leaned back against the fireplace and covered her face with her hands. Grandma cried, too, but more for her daughter’s sake. After all, she had never fully agreed to their marriage, and in her eyes, father’s departure was akin to a confirmation of her fears. Then mother pushed herself back up to hug and kiss my father, and the only thing I felt was this immense emptiness in my chest, the kind you feel when you are falling or traveling at high speed. I was stoic about it, or perhaps ashamed of showing my emotions. It was an impulse I could not control, or maybe I had made a habit of bottling my feelings. I could not figure it out, I was too young, my mind unripe, and decided to stay strong, because that is what boys did. Showing emotions was shameful.

Or perhaps it was because I had rationalized crying. It was something I did when I felt like it, and not when the situation required it, or when others peer-pressured me into it. I shed tears when I was furious or when I thought that some injustice had been perpetrated on me, not when people moved to another country. At that time, moving to another country spelled opportunities that had to be seized at all costs, it meant escaping deadening routines, earning new money, exploring different cultures. In school, I cried when I got a bad mark, or when other children made fun of me, which was pretty often. It was, in short, a way to diffuse pent-up emotions, an embodiment of rage. In high-school, at the height of my bully problems and those related to my homosexuality, I wished I could turn my heart to stone and never succumb to such manifestations.

Yet, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. There have been times when I desperately wanted to cry but could not. Times when something would rise up in my throat and stop me from breathing regularly, from thinking straight. Times when I felt like it would offer some respite from the tension that threatened to turn my chest to shreds. Last summer, when the guy who had got my hopes up and boosted my confidence told me he was no longer interested in pursuing whatever we had going on, I felt like crying but could not, for the death of me, muster the courage or the fragility needed to shed tears. I had finally got what I wished for.

Is it that simple? Do you just let go?

What I learned that summer is that letting go is a sinuous process, much lengthier than the closing line of a poem, more extensive than the gap the departed leave behind. It requires a daily dose of effort, not to close it, but to become functional again. You wake up, and there it is, the absence, grumpier than any sense of guilt, more obstinate than a stain on an old carpet. I tried reasoning with it, telling myself that I should have known better, that I should have set a system of checks and balances that would have kept me out of harm’s way. But still, it lingered. I tried writing about him thinking that it might offer some closing, but, just like that omnipresent absence, the words refused to comfort me. You are on your own in this, they seemed to be saying, and, finally, I yielded to their stubbornness.

One step at a time, I told myself, and I believed it.

Then, in late autumn, I met another guy, and that absence seemed to recede, its tail between its hind legs. I met him on Tinder, and I had come to our first date with that memory of disillusionment still fresh. Which was good, because it kept me with my feet firmly planted on the ground. I was not going to make the same mistake again, for sure, I had learned my lesson. We had been dating for a while when I told a friend of mine about him, and that friend warned me. Be careful now, he said, you’re falling in love with him. I denied it, energetically, I could not be doing that, my heart was still charred, still smoking, the burnt wood still emanating warmth.

But then it happened.

And how could I see, as Elizabeth Smart puts it, the light of a match while burning in the arms of the sun? And the sun darkened as if to take some time off from its constant burning. And I was left alone in the dark. I counted the hours. Hours turned into days. I became increasingly aware of time akin to an alcoholic trying to stay sober. I stopped contacting my friends. I did not feel like going out. I plunged into my work, taking on as many projects I could physically tolerate until time turned into a puddle; until I could no longer remember when I got that text message saying we couldn’t go on meeting. Before and after no longer made sense.

I went into a trance.

Is it that simple? Do you just let go?

I calculated everything. The number of steps I took away from you. The more I walked, the further I went, the better I felt.

I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t linger. I shouldn’t ruminate. I shouldn’t listen to the songs you like. But I’m really working on it as if my life depends on it. I’m elbowing my way through the thick molasses of my mind to summon an image of you that gives you the legitimacy you had on the first day we met. A picture that is disengaged from what I know now as I’m writing this. I’m working my way back to you in the hope of finding a way out. Back to that Wednesday afternoon, the one with the yellow shirt worn over a black t-shirt and the smell in that vintage shop in Turin we went into because we didn’t have anything else to do.

You tried on a green shirt. You didn’t like it. The man in the shop tried to sell you other things, but you were an immovable object, your body gyrating in the mirror of the dressing room with the ease of a clockwork ballerina. When you look at yourself, you disconnect, and for a moment you resemble those who are photographed unknowingly.

I’m walking backward, back to that Wednesday in mid-October, when I went into one of the toilets of the Porta Nuova train station to change into a red sweater, which I had bought for the occasion and felt like a runaway in a spy movie. The Wednesday with the cheap wine that had gone sour, when you told me about how you had put hemorrhoid lotion on your tattoo, thus ruining it. The Wednesday that still feels like the epitome of all Wednesdays.

We’re laughing over lunch, and you’re slapping your thigh and close your eyes when you smile as if the joy you feel in that moment must be kept a secret. You’re telling me about how you went into the Vodafone store, repeatedly, because you’d been having issues with your account, and they refused to help you with the stubbornness of a foreign language. Then, you’re telling me about your favorite movie, Pulp Fiction, and I feel small because, for the death of me, I can’t think of one single film that is my favorite. The Grand Hotel Budapest, I finally blurt out in my defense while we’re eating ice cream. The Isle of Dogs, I add. You’re not a big fan of ice cream, you say as we’re heading to the ice cream shop. Eating ice cream is exhausting. I had never heard anyone describe ice cream as exhausting, so I make a mental note of it. Something to hold onto later.

I still hold onto it, like I hold onto the night we had tea and chocolate biscuits in bed after midnight.

We’re walking, wandering really, and as we cross a square in the city center, you invite me over to your place. There’s an awkward silence at the end of your invitation as if it’s something that shouldn’t be discussed further, but I say yes anyway, and feel my spirits drop for a moment, the way they do when I’m about to go into a job interview. On our way up to your place, we meet an old lady who lives in the same apartment building, and she’s all over you, and you smile warmly at her, and you’re no longer the tallest man in the world.

Then, I’m walking the streets we used to walk on, the places familiar, resembling the relics of some lost empire, the glory of it now unpalatable, ridiculous almost. I’m undoing our steps. I’m the old witch in search of eternal beauty. Poetry helps. The words of other people a pinning down of an animal struggling for air, the muscles still twitching after its head has been cut off. Your face against the pillow looms large like that of an unforgiving god. The god of the old testament. You body seen from below acquires the immensity of church towers. In the crowd, I still look for your figure, hopeful yet afraid that it might resurface and I might not know what to do.

I am still learning how to let go of him. Some days are better than others, but I have made peace with it: he is not coming back. I deleted all of our text messages. I blocked him on Instagram and Facebook because seeing him still knots my guts. I have invested my energy into my work. They say it takes time and I am okay with that. One step at a time, I tell myself, and I believe it. It is not simple, you do not just let go. You draw lines in the dirt with a stick as if planning a battle. This is where you are, this is where I am. If you cross this line, you venture into enemy territory.

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Architectural Design (Prologue, One, Two & Four)

Architectural Desing Cover (Final)

PROLOGUE

The man with the beard and the round glasses who sold luxury bags for a living said: leave your history at the door when you enter this house. I complied and poured it all over the carpet that said: welcome home.

I tried to see myself as the person whose life unfurled in that home.

I felt light through the eyes of an astronaut, emptied of dichotomies and air. Free of the color of my skin. Finally free of my womanhood.

Repeat after me: first confusion and then clarity!

The man with the beard said: do your job. And I descended under the blanket, turned and tossed like a possessed woman, and spilled the truth over his pajama pants. He fell asleep afterward. He spoke in his sleep. He said: the future is not in the drones hovering above us. I hugged him and thought: my man, the prophet. He continued: the drones flying above us do not carry the future on their fairy wings; the highest truth has already been reached in the past when we put armchairs in the air. The future is in the memory of it.

I sang: I am the mother of me. History, my past, laid out in a graph like the seats on a stadium. And as I sang, I saw dust motes lit by sunlight, and I saw the weights he trained with on the windowsill, I saw his arms holding them and wondered whether he felt the same when he held me down, against the bed. In his sleep, he was implacable, adamant about the future.

This future in which I could not exist.

I sang: oh, the stadium where I was little and ashamed, put down on the grass for the first time, heavy men working above me, all of them sweating.

I saw the tip of a needle pushing through the skin, stretching it to the point of rupture. On that skin, the faces of people spread, too, like soft butter on hardened bread.
I took my history back on my way out and left the man with the beard in the doorway. He said: let’s see each other again. We hugged, but the man wasn’t in it. And I was already somebody else. I’m very good at that.

That was the last time I saw him.

ONE

On his way to the shop, the child, like any child, fell from the sky in the village of his grandma. He landed on his knees and elbows, all at once, like a broken cat, breaking the skin. Or perhaps, the child thought, some internal animal, eager to come out, tricked the child into falling on his knees and elbows to make the blood come out. The child thought he was the Messiah. The blood did come out, first shyly then stubbornly, like a playmate who refuses to leave when the game is over. In the open flesh, He saw the world.
The child ran back home crying, and the father suggested he wash his wounds with soap. The mother disagreed and instead placed the child on her extended feet, rocking him from side to side until the pain subsided. The mother’s feet, as you all know from those biology classes, were close enough to the womb. The child was aware of all this, so much so that he remembers everything. Even today.

The child had to wait for the wounds to heal and he grew impatient. The skin around the scratches turned hard, then brown in a series of slow-motion moves. The child looked forward to peeling off the hardened surface and so, to make time pass, he played on the soft grass, and read books on a blanket in the garden.

Then the day would finally come when the brown skin revealed the delicate pink surface beneath, the incarnation of an awkward kiss. That other skin would harden, again, and renew itself, still, imperceptibly.

The child was the animal Messiah. Not unlike any other animal Messiah in the schoolyard but somewhat different, more like a frown on a woman’s face when she saw horseshit on the side of the road. More like a fart everyone heard. The other children felt uncomfortable around him. The animal Messiah broke a sweat whenever he masturbated.

The houses in grandma’s village were the same. They were painted differently, of course, according to the taste and financial means of the owners, but they all had the same look. Like a child’s drawing of a house. Two big rooms with small windows to keep the cold air out. A kitchen at the back of the house, to be used only during rough winters. Most of the kitchens had slanted ceilings as if they were an afterthought. Added at the last moment, just in case. Opposite to the kitchen, there was a storage room that housed fruit in the winter and was dark enough for monsters to live in it. At night, the animal Messiah was afraid of going in there the way children in American movies are fearful of basements.

And then there was the attic, where clothes were hanged to dry during winter.

The houses were built around winter, and in those houses, they lived their lives.
The sky above the animal Messiah was so unavailable. A girl, a cousin of his, had told him he shouldn’t say the sky is blue. The grass, the grass he would encounter later on his trips to grandma’s village, on late November mornings like hair parted to the side. Counterless were the heads he had to cross on his way to school every morning. Those mornings like the amber droppings of cherry trees in the summer. The ground beneath his feet so sterile and unkissable that the neighbors’ grapes were sweeter and more inviting. On that ground, the cherry trees refused to grow, they said: no sir, not here, we don’t do business with you people, there’s only sorrow in this earth. Apparently, some rituals had not been performed correctly, the soil too young to give birth to anything appealing except for the children who needed to be kept away from harm at all costs.

The world beyond the front gate, so evil the children had to jump over the fence and live with the bruises that flowered, numbly, between their thighs. Fate grabbed them by the legs and bruised them and mother appeared like the Virgin in the doorway when they ran away.

As they ran, the trees fell from the sky like grandma’s heavy words. Grandma brushed her hair and her words in the morning, and the brush felt like wood against teeth. She dyed her hair only just above the forehead, the side that was most visible from under her headscarf.

The trees they climbed to steal fruit, or bypass fences ran along with them. Cherry trees were particularly precious. Old men guarded them with sticks and stones, and if they dared to steal the fruit, they ended up with a good beating and the silent treatment for days on end.

The words settled at the bottom of the sink. The words mother found on father’s clothes, the words that were as long as a woman’s hair. Mother said: these are not my words. My words are not as long as that. The condoms that mother found in father’s winter coat.
In winter, the mother smoked by the stove, and the smoke got sucked in the puzzled mouth of the furnace. She tried to get the father’s attention and threw a box of matches at him. It flew through the room and hit the father in the groin. When the children were not looking, the father made a face, and in that face, the children witnessed their parents’ adolescence and understood that adults were not the adults of books or those on TV. Those were not the adults who set on voyages not knowing where they went to seek a cure for mysterious illnesses.

The box of matches was still flying when father was in prison. Grandma said: stop smoking girl, you have your children with you. It is still flying through the room as I write this.

The bedrooms in those houses had to be big enough to accommodate large families. To save on firewood, the families had to stick together, elbows scraping against each other. The other rooms were used as storage places and for Christmas trees. Since Christmas trees had chocolate bars on them, besides the twinkling lights and other merry paraphernalia, they had to be kept in cold rooms. Not because of the temperature, the chocolate bars didn’t melt quickly, but because the children had to be kept away from them. Especially the animal Messiah, who was overweight. The tree was there for the pictures they took every year. In the photos, the children wear heavy woolen caps and bulky sweaters that were as itchy as they looked. The children didn’t go in there alone. They just knew they had a Christmas tree in a part of the house that was inaccessible to them.

Clothes were stored in the other rooms, and they were cold when they were brought in. People and clothes had to be separated that way. They needed their intimacy. Grandpa’s heavy leather jackets were particularly bashful. Akin to distant relatives they were brought into the warm bedrooms only on the nights preceding special events. Such as going to Sunday mass. And like distant relatives, they brought with them a smell of their own. It wasn’t grandpa’s smell. His heavy leather jacket, the suede kind with white sheep hair on the inside, occasionally smelt of aftershave, deodorant, and somberness. That wasn’t grandpa’s smell. His smell was that of chewed grass and hay and baby sheep. Little lambs that were brought into the house to sleep with the children on cold winter nights. The children didn’t mind it, they knew no other smells.

They built their lives around winter, and in those lives, they thrived.

What did you expect? They were used to seeing their own shit, and that of others as well, steaming in the outdoor toilet on cold winter mornings. And if they had to use the bathroom late at night, well, good luck to you, my friend! No matter how well they dressed to withstand the thermal shock of going out at night after spending hours in an overheated room, their balls suffered nonetheless. They had to pull their pants down. In a tiny wooden shed where breath turned to steam. Constipation was a drag from so many points of view. They gave up quickly because of the cold. Their asses froze. And sometimes a rat would appear and drown in their shit-and-piss concoction.

The houses were all the same. Sad mothers grew up in them. At dinner, the men ate the women, and they grew like skyscrapers. They grew up to become big strong men, so strong that even their convictions strengthened over time. Their heads turned hard, and their heads held the sky.

The animal Messiah rarely put things on his head. His head was big enough. If he put stuff on his head, such as a cap or a hood or a big idea, his head was bound to look bigger, hence disgusting. Nobody wants to feel that way about a part of their body. Unless something is going on in your head unless it’s messed up and the only thing that can make it right is reprogramming, the traditional brainwash, mental shampooing. Use a clean and soft piece of cloth for your eyes, you don’t want to scratch those LEDs. You’ll wreck the high definition. Yet, when he did put things on his head, and then took them off, he needed time to realize there’s nothing on top of his head. He put his hands over his head to tell his brain there’s nothing there. Eventually, the brain got it, and he forgot about it.

When the animal Messiah was little, a log fell on his head. He started running home the moment it happened, but the other kids stopped him and calmed him down. They said: there’s nothing wrong with your head, except that it’s too big and it stood in the way of the log. His brain understood it was still in one piece. It had been a big log. If he were to put his fingers around it, they wouldn’t touch. Not even close. He knew the trunk was going to fall on his head, so he stood his ground beneath it like a retard, just to see how it feels.

The instant it fell the pain at the top of his head told him to stand his ground. It was the full stop at the beginning of every sentence. His feet dug into the ground, and since then he’s been swimming in the dirt. The other kids didn’t want him to tell. They egged him on to see it fall on his head.

The log was part of a homemade contraption, engineered by the grandfather of his cousin, the girl who had told him about the blue sky. The animal Messiah had a swing made of wrought iron, and the cousin got really jealous, and she said to her grandpa she wanted one as well. So her grandpa put the log in between two trees and tied a rope around it in the shape of a swing. A wooden board with two half-holes at each end made sitting on the string comfortably enough to satisfy the whims of a little girl. If you swung for long periods, the log would rotate until it unhooked from the trees.

It went: plunk!

Nothing happened, really, except for the swimming in the dirt thing. Messiah’s head got more prominent because of that realization. His ears as well, to fit the size of his head.
Cousin’s granny said: your head is so big; you have the ears of a donkey, and your brother’s life will amount to nothing.

Cousin’s grandpa said: you stay away from that girl; go home and leave her alone. He was trimming the trees on the street, and the animal Messiah was just a little boy. He took his oversized head and went home, which was not very far because they were neighbors.

On the train, on my way to work, as I was reading through the manuscript, I thought about the animal Messiah and what he must have seen that day returning home. He must have seen mountains growing on the inside of his guts, their snowy peaks like those of homemade bread, the air in between them, the world bloated like a corpse left for too long in the open. He must have felt the shame of broken shoes.

A big head should house many things, even the unnecessary. Yet it cannot remember what happened to the toy stolen from grandma’s house. The grandma on the father’s side of the family had a home unlike their own, and in it, there was a room that had no power outlets, no lights, no heating. The father’s twin brother and his wife slept in there in winter. The warmed the pillows and the covers before going to bed. They tucked themselves under the heated sheets, and they slept.

They built their lives around winter the way you put a scarf around your neck, and in those lives, they slowly withered.

In that home, there were toys unlike those the animal Messiah and his brother had, and one of the cousins insisted he hid one under his shirt and take it home. But then, a couple of hundred feet from the house, the toy vanished. The animal Messiah expected, even after reality set in and he finally got home, the toy to fall from under his t-shirt. He looked for it in the folds of his pants. To this day he’s still looking for it, still waiting for it to appear.

How could a head so big forget about the toy?

In high school, a classmate said: your head is so big, why is your head so big? The animal Messiah moved to another bed. Where else could he tuck his head if not inwards? How could he renounce this large house of dreams?

The world must feel like a constant clearing of the throat.

The father’s car got a remake, and it got painted in a putrid red, the color and texture of overly ripe grapefruit. The day after it was brought home from the repair shop, the thin woman who was their neighbor and whose husband lost his mind came and marveled at it. She must have wondered how much money went into that paint. At times, the animal Messiah went into the car to listen to music on the radio. The car became his headphones. He listened to that song, Hotel California, without knowing what it was about or why the musicians had decided to call it that. It was the only song he liked, and he built his life around it.

The backseat was the most fascinating part of the car because that is where the goodies used to sit. Bananas mostly, and chocolate bars, and yogurt. An empty backseat was a source of disappointment. Once, on his birthday, the seat was empty. He had been showered with gifts a couple of days before, but that didn’t count as much as the vacant seat. He wanted the game console that resembled a computer keyboard. He could write on it. Play word games. Which, in the end, he didn’t play because they were boring. Yet just having the possibility of playing that sort of games made him go mad with desire.
On that day, he was around the school in the afternoon, and he saw his father’s car approaching. There was nothing in the backseat. He wanted to cry. At home, he sat on the front steps of the house and acted really sad. He told his father about the game console. Father said: rest assured, you’ll get it soon. His father the traitor, the unloving father.

TWO

I had a pole in my chest, and people held on to it as if they were on a bus. I can’t recall what happened to the animal Messiah. I closed all the cupboards and doors in the house. The man I had called over the phone was then crossing the front yard, and I couldn’t help but think I didn’t like him. What had I been thinking? When I opened the door, he looked around the house, a puzzled look on his face, as if somebody else, some pilot, had taken over the control of his actions. Then he turned towards me and covered the silence with words and steps, and his tongue was in my mouth, and I felt the excitement of a bladder emptied of worries.

Fungi growing where my womanhood should have stood.

He gravitated nakedly around the bed while he spoke with pathos about what he’s going to do to me. I ground my teeth and felt sugar crystals between them.

He had a name for each action, and they all spoke of how I was giving myself away, selling myself cheap to a man I had willingly let into my house. I thought of what the children would say even though I had no children.

This man like a disease walked all over me. He moved above me with the certainty of a surgeon. He shifted until I felt a warmth in my chest and I couldn’t tell the difference between outside and inside any longer.

He said: you’re no woman; you’re good for nothing.

After he left, I used bleach to wash my body, but the words wouldn’t go away. The fungi blossomed on my belly and chest.

[…]

 

FOUR

The man stretched in my bed and sat at my kitchen table as if he owned the place. I had made sure to do the washing up. There were no dirty cups in the kitchen sink. We talked and while we did that I caressed his shinbone with my toes. His mother was in the hospital with cancer, and he spoke about her with a disdain I could not acknowledge. He was at my house, and I felt powerful. He had seen the books in my room, and his skin had touched my sheets.

His mother was going through the second round of chemotherapy, and she had given up hope, struggling against the doctors and the nurses who kept telling her everything was for her own good. To him, having a cancerous mother was a nuisance, because he had had to take some time off from his job to be with his mum. His father had taken his place at the mother’s side when he came to my house. He was here on borrowed time.

Then he started talking about his ex, and I felt pity for myself. After he left, I didn’t even dare to look at myself in the mirror. I made the bed and scrubbed myself clean. I replaced the sheets and used bleach to clean the shower cabin, the taste of his tongue in my mouth. Still, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, so I covered all of them.

I thought of the animal Messiah. By then, it had become an obsession, and I searched through my notes feverishly, hoping to find something, a detail that had perhaps escaped my attention and which might explain all this. At what point in his life had he decided he couldn’t live outside somebody else’s presence? The search took my mind off things. I wished, oh how I wanted, to go back in time and tell him he should, by all means, do his best to be happy on his own.

One Hundred and Twenty-Five

I took the train back home and fell asleep the moment it started moving. The ticket inspector woke me up minutes later, and I showed her my ticket, then fell back asleep. The sun was setting when I woke up, and in the distance, the sky glistened with gold and victory. When I got out of the train station, the city seemed utterly unchanged. I watched as the same buses came and went; the man who sold newspapers still there, in his booth, surrounded by flashy magazine covers. A teenager asked for a cigarette and was intent on paying for it. I told him I didn’t want his money, but he insisted. I took a taxi to our apartment and asked the driver to let me off at another address. I felt like walking the rest of the way because I wanted to see the supermarket just around the corner, and the antique shop with the expensive Persian carpets on display. The fluorescent sign outside the gym, the coffee shop just across the street, they were all there, like breadcrumbs, to remind me of my way back.

The key still worked. I took the elevator because my suitcase was too heavy and I was too tired to drag it up the two flights of stairs. I could, for once, use the elevator. When I got to the door, I was afraid to unlock it. I waited in the silence of the corridor, hoping to hear something moving in the apartment, but nothing stirred inside. I unlocked the door and the moment I opened it a repulsive smell assaulted me. I got in and closed the door behind me, afraid that it might travel around and disturb the others.

Nothing had changed. My note was still stuck to the fridge. Inside the freezer, tomatoes had rotten to ash. The curtains were heavy with grime and dust, the sink in the bathroom calcified. I left my suitcase in the hallway and started opening the windows. I did not yet dare to go into our bedroom, afraid that it might rekindle painful memories. I knew I could stall the wave of memories, because, after all, I was aware of what they were. I would see your clothes on the bed and imagine you taking them off before bedtime, the yellowish light on the bedside table throwing warm shadows all over your body, the hairs on your chest golden, like gossamer in the morning. I was already imagining everything, with the clarity of one who had understood the situation a long time before and was only playing along so as not to disrupt the natural course of things. I felt like I shouldn’t dwell on those memories, that I shouldn’t go into the bedroom. Not going in was part of that natural course of things. I might have seen it in some movie, the protagonist avoiding certain places, knowing full well that he would be unable to stop some of those memories from resurfacing. To us, in the audience, that always seems exaggerated, a shallow thing to do. But then I was doing it as well, avoiding the bedroom.

I took the garbage out and washed the two cups in the sink. I bleached the bathtub and the drain, wiped the bathroom mirror clean. The water was first rusty red, but then it cleared. The smell inside the house began to change. But I still didn’t go into the bedroom. I went out to the supermarket around the corner to buy some groceries. The cashier recognized me and asked where I had been all that time. I told her I had found work outside the city. Was I back for good? I put the coffee in the bag, then the fresh bread, then the cheese. I didn’t know what to tell her. Maybe, I said, I’m still figuring out what to do with my life. I gave a nervous laugh to show her that I wasn’t too serious about it. She smiled and placed her right palm on her chest. I hope you figure it out soon. I thanked her, grabbed my bag of groceries and went out.

The nights were beginning to get cold, the dying light at the edges of the horizon like a cry for help. The approaching night relentless in its advance. Neon signs competed with the dying sun. Some of the shops lining the street were closing, the owners looking at me, furtively, and with an air of despair, as if I were some sort of alien figure who was a harbinger of a darker age. Cars were idling on the streets around me, people returning from work. I envied them because they had decided to stay in the city while I was running away, from what I don’t know. But the atmosphere calmed me; it made me think of the afternoons after work I spent with you when I was tired but thrilled to see you. The happiness that gave me the energy to spend time with you and laugh with you while music inhabited the background.

I got back to the apartment and turned on the fridge. It whirred to life. I turned on all of the lights, but I still didn’t go into the bedroom. I decided to cook some pasta since it was the only thing I could make on the spot without using too many pans. I washed one of the pots and turned on the burner. The warmth coming from the boiling water made the windows sweat. Finally, it felt like home. I turned the TV on and let it run in the background. I put the pasta in the water and lowered the flame. I wanted it to cook slowly as if seeing it boil brought comfort. I took a bottle of wine out and opened it. The taste and smell of wine made me hungry. I cut some of the cheese into little pieces and placed them on a plate. A man on TV was speaking about immigration. The climate forced people to abandon their homes to move to other countries. They moved in groves, like groups of nomads in search for new ground.

I poured some more wine into the glass.

And there you were, frying the vegetables in a pan, making them jump, the way chefs do on TV. You were wearing a white t-shirt that said ‘double cheese makes life better’ and a pair of black trousers that made your long legs look even thinner. We were laughing, and I was recording you with my phone. It was the evening in which we had gone to a vintage clothes shop to look at some stuff and returned home famished. When we went to the supermarket to shop for groceries, I felt like I was going to faint from the hunger.

Once we got back home, it was already well after nine pm. You held onto the pan with your right hand and placed your left hand on your groin. If there had been a reference into your gesture, I didn’t catch it, yet I laughed anyway because your hair stood in a certain way that made you resemble a very young version of you. Perhaps the little boy who had been told that he was suffering from some sort of syndrome and had to be medicated to keep his body from growing out of proportions. You had told me about him, the little boy, a while back when we said each other stuff one night, and you listened in silence while I told you the story of my life. When you spoke about the doctor and the things he said to you I wanted to hold you tight as if to let you know that the doctor had been very wrong, that you turned out to be the sexiest man I had ever laid my eyes on.

Stay like this, I wanted to tell you, there’s no need to change anything.

Up went the vegetables, and then back into the pan. You were actually good at it. Your glasses were foggy from the steam. Is it a video? I nodded because I didn’t want my voice to be heard on the recording. I can only hear my laughter now. I can see the two glasses of wine on the kitchen table, and I can listen to the music in the background. I remember not wanting it to stop, that moment. I wished the world left us alone, there, in your kitchen. Let us live, and we’ll let you spin, as you’ve done for millions of years.

You were cooking rice or some variation of it. You always asked me what I wanted to eat, but I never knew what to say. You were disappointed by that, but to me everything with you was new, even the rice you were cooking. We fed each other chips and dried veggies while dancing. We decided to eat outside, on the little table you had put on the balcony, where I went for a smoke every once in a while. Before we sat at the table, you cleaned the table. You were adamant about hygiene, and so you wiped everything before use, even the plates you had just taken out of the dishwasher. The water in the water boiler had to be changed before every use because who knows for how many days it had been in there. You had used it that morning, but still, the water had to be changed. You told me to wear house slippers when I went into the bathroom.

You cooked the meat then set it next to the rice on the plates. Then, you lit the candles and placed them on the table. I took small bites, to make it last longer. It wasn’t the food that made the evening resemble perfection, it was the fact that we were there, on the balcony, and the world was watching us. I wanted the world to envy us, to wish to be there with us, or live through a similar moment.

I couldn’t go into the bedroom. I tied a rubber band around the thought.

I heard a noise coming from the bedroom. A thump on the floor. I stood and listened, but the sound did not occur again. I drained the pasta and poured the prepared sauce over it. I arranged it on a plate. Before sitting, I wiped the table clean, washed the glasses, and I, finally, sat down to eat. I did not usually say any prayers before eating, but right then I felt the compunction to do it. Not a prayer addressed to God, no, I had stopped long before that to believe there was a higher power watching over us. It was, instead, the desire to make a wish, as if the plate of pasta was a birthday cake and I had to blow the candles. I wished, most of all, to see you return, to be able to share that meal with you, to let you know that I had mastered the art of making a meal for myself. You were always accusing me of being dismissive of food when the time came to eat something. The truth was, I hated cooking because it required time I did not want or have to dedicate to it. After a hard day’s work, cooking was the last thing that went through my mind. I wanted you, not to love me, I think we were well past that, but to be happy for me, to be content that I had turned into someone you wished me to become.

The rubber band stretched. I couldn’t go into the bedroom.

After I finished eating, I went out on the balcony for a smoke. I found the ashtray with the row of half-naked women on it, which you had bought as a joke. I smiled when I saw it because it was akin to discovering a part of you. The two small chairs with the dark brown pillows on them were still there, as was the little star with the LED light inside that twinkled. When I turned it on, the star lit up and pulsed, but only a few times and then it went dead, or to faint light. A car parked in the courtyard and a man wearing sweatpants came out of it. He did not look up and went into the adjacent building.

I was afraid of going back into the apartment after I finished smoking. It looked so empty and silent from the outside. I put the dishes into the dishwasher and decided to make camp on the living room sofa. I dragged the suitcase into the room. The man on TV was still talking about immigration and the challenges it posed to the soul transfer system. New trends were developing, people asked to be transferred into bodies that lived in the developed world. The notion of citizenship was becoming superfluous. I changed channels. I locked the door and stretched out on the sofa.

Then, I fell asleep and dreamt of my grandmother, who was taking me to an abandoned house. Inside the house, there was a special room that did not have any floors. And if you opened the door and looked down, you could peer into the abyss of your mistakes. I did not see my mistakes, or sins because I woke up before I could do that. But even before I could open the door to that room, I knew what my mistakes were.

How to kill a sobbing heart (88)

my-post-10In the car, Francis did not say a word. He looked, forlornly, out the window at the passing scenery. I put my hand on his knee and asked him how he felt. It’s different now, he said and placed his hand on top of mine. Different, how? I don’t know, he replied, just different. Then he was back in his mind again. I continued talking about trivial matters. The weather had turned hectic. Sea levels had been rising alarmingly, and people were fleeing from the coasts into the mainland. Cities were disappearing. The transition between seasons had become abrupt and unforgiving as if someone up there wanted to see how we would react to that. Have you read Dante’s Inferno? Francis was looking at me now. I asked him to repeat the question. He went on. That’s how I feel, it’s like I’m in beast mode. He closed his fists, placed them together and brought them to eye level, the way children do to mime the use of a telescope. It’s like I’m looking through a plastic tube. Everything is unglued.
Did the therapy help? It did, it made him aware of how his mind worked, it helped him become aware of the plastic tube. I promised him he was going to get better, but I don’t think he heard that. He was looking out once more.
There had been signs; signals, lights going on and off. Martha, who spent the most time with him, told me about these symptoms when we still saw each other regularly. Francis couldn’t sleep, and she would often find him wandering around the apartment in the middle of the night, without knowing what he was doing. He kept asking her, out of the blue, whether she wanted to say something because she was always clearing her throat. She wasn’t doing that, but he heard the sound at all times. People clearing their throats, preparing to say something, which they never did. And he was curious to know, so much, until that curiosity began to eat his guts, and he lost his mind.
The prospect of losing him terrified Martha. Because they had been living together for a while and he was taking steps into directions that unsettled her sense of the world. He would sit around for hours doing nothing, telling her about the things he was going to do. He could find a decent job that was going to make him so people-smart that she will no longer recognize him. She was scared witless. He smoked so much that the hairs inside his nose turned yellow. His teeth, too, because he overlooked oral hygiene. This torpor consumed most of his days. There were good days as well when he would go out and return with a bag of groceries. More often than not he would return empty-handed with a face that spoke a thousand words. She would then fall at his feet, beg him to come back to her. He would smile, fiendishly almost, and tell her that he was there. He wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t violent, he was merely absent-minded. He put the coffee brewer on the burner without pouring the water in it. The brewer burned minutes later. He didn’t apologize, didn’t promise to buy a new one.
They slept in the same bed but didn’t touch. They had stopped touching long before that. She leaned into him, and his attention could only be drawn from whatever was going on in his mind by her clear intentions. He needed to see that she wanted to kiss him, he didn’t do anything on his own volition. He had to be shown how to do it, and when to start doing something. Martha closed herself inside the bathroom when he went on the balcony to smoke, late at night. She cried from fatigue and despair. She was working shifts, and at times she was afraid of going to work, thinking of all the terrible things he might do to himself, knowingly or unknowingly. He could try and make coffee and forget the water again, or forget about the coffee altogether and set the house on fire. She cringed whenever at work she was called by her supervisor thinking that that was it, the call that told her he had succeeded in taking his own life. She also cried, bitterly, because, secretly, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she wanted to be finally, and irreversibly, free of him. It was going to hurt, a lot, she thought, but she was going to fight through it. She was strong enough to do it.
When she did get the call, that call, she broke down. She went to the hospital, to his room, where he stood, akin to a mummified pharaoh, on a bed of light blue sheets, and transparent tubes. He looked at her from above, and she broke down right there and then, in front of him. This time furiously, pitilessly, charging at him, hitting him, raising her fists in the air. You selfish animal, she howled, and the nurses at the central station turned their heads. The word, animal, akin to a ritualistic combination of words, the demon evoked in need of spiteful words to fully emerge from the underworld, to hatch from that egg of anger. I’m done with you, she continued, I’m tired of looking for you. I’m done with this constant fear, the continuous search for you. A smile played on his lips. You’re right, he said, I don’t want it any longer either. Martha then fell on a chair, next to the wall, and sobbed uncontrollably, because there it was, what she feared most, his irreversible loss in the murkiness of his own thoughts, out of which she had tried, and failed, to pull him. She grabbed her bag and held it to her chest. You’re melodramatic, he said, which also means you never loved me. She froze, her voice still buried in her guts, her legs finally lighter, her fatigue liberated, it danced somewhere else in the hospital room. The fact that you’re leaving me, right here; that’s what it means.
She was melodramatic, she thought on her way out, and he didn’t deserve it, not in the least bit, not even feelings heightened to theatricality. She saw his gesture as one of pure selfishness. He didn’t think of her when he cut his wrists and watched the blood run out of his body. He couldn’t have possibly thought of her when he sat in the bathtub, naked, and filled it with water. It was the downstairs neighbor who had discovered him there, alive, barely, the blood-red liquid that had oozed through the vents, to stain the man’s bathroom ceiling. He was the one who called the ambulance, and he was the one who had called her workplace. He must have left the water running on purpose, she thought, to ruin her bathroom, bring everything down with him, her carpets, let his blood soak everything. She was sure of it.
She got out of the hospital and walked toward the center of the parking lot. She couldn’t remember where she left her car and she stood there for a while shielding her eyes from the sun. She started getting impatient. For the death of her, she couldn’t recall from which direction she drove in. She started walking quickly, then running, then she came back to where she had started looking. Her armpits were dark with sweat. She turned on her heels and still she couldn’t remember. Then she sat down on the concrete, behind an electric panel to hide from the sun. She was out of breath.
The light above her changed, the evening sun was shifting. Heat emanated from the ground and the cars all around her. Another thought crept into her, and it disturbed her because it was unwelcome. Perhaps he was right as well. The fact that she had left him, at a time when he needed her most, was irrefutable proof that she wasn’t in love with him after all. That she had failed.
She stood up and looked around the parking lot. She remembered now. The cafeteria next to the parking lot, the big tree behind it. She remembered parking the car beneath it, in the shade. She walked, and to her relief, she saw the car. And that relief felt so familiar to her. It was as if she had been looking for it for a very long while.

 

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Fifteen)

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We didn’t have much money when we were little. Once, my brother stole money from my mother’s purse and went on a shopping spree that eventually cost us lunch money for almost a week. He bought lots of peanuts for some reason. I distinctly remember watching the other kids at school eat their wafers and chocolate bars while I only had one apple and a watering mouth. I know now that it was the healthier choice, but you know how envious kids can get. When the teacher wanted to know why I had only one apple for lunch, I told her the truth: we were out of money.

To my astonishment today, I didn’t blame my brother for it. At that time, I perceived it as a form of cruelty perpetrated on us by our parents. They must’ve had money stashed away in some hiding place, money they wanted to keep for themselves. We couldn’t be that poor. To my innocent mind, it was the grandmother’s fault because she was the one who took care of the family’s finances. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford that new game console, they just didn’t want us to have it. We had to wear the same jacket two years in a row while the other kids got new ones every year. I wore pants knitted by my mother, which I hated because they felt heavy and made me look bulkier.

People in school were mean for no reason. I was bullied throughout middle-school and high-school, that is, ever since I became aware of the fact that I had an ego that suffered when it was deprecated. Older kids made fun of me because I was chubby and studied a lot. Because I was a geek and spent time making mud pies. Some of my classmates derided my inability to run during physical education classes, which I avoided to the best of my abilities. I even had my parents bribe the family doctor to give me a special dispensation for those classes. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but my grandparents had convinced me that if I forced myself to do something, such as intense physical activity, something would burst inside me and I would die.

Once, I developed my own alphabet and wrote stuff using that. Kids in school made fun of that as well. I kept a diary and brought it to school every once in a while to draft and develop my thoughts. They stole it from my backpack and read it out loud to the others while I cringed with embarrassment. I had written about my first gay crush, who was an older student and a volleyball player. And for all this, the only explanation I could find at that time was that my classmates were inherently evil and that they hated my guts. So I tried to avoid them, get out of class before the bell rang, spend my weekends alone playing stupid online games. My father’s colleagues from work made jokes about my parents feeding me yeast, which made me look bloated like a balloon. My cousin’s grandma once told me I had the head and the ears of a mule. I was called a sissy by random people, on the street, in school, and everywhere I made an appearance.

Casual acts of verbal and physical cruelty were at the order of the day, to the point where even things such as “you shouldn’t sit outside because it’s cold,” took on the tinge of personal attacks. Why couldn’t they just accept the way I was? When my parents went away, I went to live in the city with an old lady (and a cat) who reprimanded me for my slowness and told me to suck it up and act like a man. These acts happened so often that I came to actually give credence to them and reach the conclusion that there was something inherently wrong with me. I didn’t deserve to have friends because I was so obnoxious. With this, there also came the belief that, eventually, somebody was going to accept me for who I was and save me from myself. The only thing to do, I thought, was to find that person and steer clear of all those haters who told me I wasn’t good enough. They were the ones who needed rehabilitation, not I. I was the innocent one.

Since then, I’ve made peace with it, with them, because the resentment consumed me. It still does, especially when I get rejected by someone and I am reminded once again of my own fallibility. It is in those moments that I begin contemplating the idea that perhaps my bullies were right after all. Maybe I am unlikeable just like they told me. Whenever I feel like I disappointed my students, by making an error or by not explaining a concept in the best possible manner, the feeling returns. Why am I even trying? Am I really that stupid to believe that I could actually do it? Yet, whenever this happens, I do my best to develop new ways of halting the stream of negative thoughts at their nascent stages. And it’s not by looking at myself in the mirror while repeating out loud that I am beautiful, that I deserve to be loved, that I am human and make mistakes. I do it by being frank about my fallibility up front so that people around me can identify my mishaps and perhaps forgive me for them, exercise empathy, nurture affection, or just ignore them.

As you can imagine, it takes a tremendous mental effort to do this, and at times panic settles in, and my body starts sending signals of encroaching danger where there is none. I had a severe episode on a Saturday morning in class when I felt I couldn’t go on teaching and had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom because I was afraid I was going to soil my underwear and pants in front of my students. I was out of breath and felt as if my knees were going to topple and I was going to fall over my desk. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely. That day, I taught for six hours in this pitiful state, taking frequent trips to the bathroom because I was drinking water like there was no tomorrow, and to this day I still can’t fathom what kept me going, or what, to my despair, was the thing that triggered it. The fear returns every once in a while, but I’ve learned to live with it, and now it no longer bothers me that much.

A similar episode occurred while I was driving the car with my parents in it, on our way to Romania. Our GPS got lost, and my reaction was way out of proportion. My blood pressure swiftly dropped. I couldn’t focus on the road, and I felt my senses receding to the back of my mind while I was desperately trying to focus on my breath. Luckily, I had not entirely lost my ability to make decisions and told my dad I needed to pull over because I was feeling unwell. The moment I did that, and I took a sip of water, I lost consciousness.

I woke up to a beeping sound, which in fact was only in my head, and to my parents’ dumbfound faces. I exchanged seats with my father, and just minutes later, after I had checked whether we were on the right motorway, I lost consciousness again. When I woke up, we were back on the side of the road, and there was that beeping sound still. Reality came back in chunks. First the sky through the windshield, then my mom and dad’s glassy eyes, their voices asking me whether they should call an ambulance. Then the realness of the situation: I had lost contact with reality a second time that day. My chest felt heavy, and my breath was labored as if no matter how much air I sucked into my lungs it just wasn’t enough. What scared me most, though, was the fact that I had uncovered in me this ability to explore, albeit unknowingly, this dark space that was beyond my control, and which ran dangerously close to death.

That summer, once we got to my grandparents’ place, I did a complete medical check-up. Blood tests came back clean. A cardiologist looked closely at my heart, literally, and concluded, somewhat to my chagrin, there was nothing wrong with it, except for the fact that it was slightly, almost imperceptibly, enlarged. I had hoped they could see my heartbreaks, but there was nothing there. Perhaps heartbreaks only make your heart bigger, able to accommodate even more people. Or more heartbreaks. I checked my blood pressure on a daily basis, and it stayed within the prescribed limits. My body was healthy, and all the tests corroborated that conclusion. The verdict was somewhat underwhelming: it was all in mind. My bullies were gone, only to be replaced by a bullying mind, which waged war on my body on a daily basis.

I tried meditation and mindfulness to dissuade my mind from going into a fully-fledged war with my body. My back ached from all those deep breaths I took. There was an urgency to the attacks which confounded me because I felt as if they went against my nature. I had been, throughout my life, a very calm person, so why was I experiencing them? Then, when all else failed, I tried medicating them. My doctor prescribed benzodiazepines, which I took, on doctor’s orders, one hour before my classes, so that the effects of the pills would be clearly discernible from the thrum of my irrational fears by the time I got to class. I panicked when I got on crowded trains, which was almost always the case, and I got lightheaded when I was about to go on a date. I resorted to the pack of pills, whose presence was somewhat reassuring, even when I was about to go out with my friends. My anxiety subsided the way an earthquake would, and I was able to enjoy life once again. I was back to my good old zen self.

The pills emptied me of whatever negative feelings I had. They slowed me down. Reality washed over me in a constant but calming stream, a rivulet really, and everything felt manageable. Whenever I made a mistake in class, I stopped, corrected myself, and apologized. I couldn’t care less about my slips. Yet, in time, I began being increasingly aware of the fact that the pills deprived me of whatever mechanisms I might have developed to work around my issues. They were not a way to do that, the tablets only numbed my feelings, which was akin to me avoiding my bullies in high-school when I asked my teachers to let me out the class before the bell rang. The solution was always the pill. When I couldn’t sleep because of all that constant worrying and dreading, my hand quickly reached for the pills, boxes of which I kept all over the house. I put one tablet in the pockets of every jacket I had, just in case.

I realized that matters were getting out of hand when I had gone out with a friend of mine, and he kept complaining about the humidity ruining his hair, and I was about to lash out at him and tell him that I was on benzodiazepines because I couldn’t deal with reality and he worried about his fucking hair?! I didn’t do it, but just the thought of wounding his ego in that way helped me understand that the medication was beginning to legitimize a side of me I wasn’t ready to call my own: the one that admitted defeat. The part of me which admitted to being unable to work without the pills’ helping hands. The side of me that had given up on trying to recover the calmness with which I had prided myself in the past. It was only a matter of time until I would resort to that chemical succor even for the most basic human functions, such as going to the supermarket or talking to neighbors.

Now, I don’t mean to say that medication is the easy way out of a time-consuming and challenging problem. When it comes to specific mental health issues medication is vital. That is, it saves lives. It helps people lead wholesome lives and prevents them from identifying fully with their affliction. You’re not your depression. Your anxiety does not define who you are. Yet, I believe it is also essential to realize that, in time, it could lead to a defeatist outlook on life, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders. Where do we draw the line between what we do and what medication makes us do? Does it affect our capacity to make decisions? Can we claim full authorship on a decision made while under medication?

Most of us probably know this, but medication does not go to the source of our problems, it only takes care of the symptoms. It sweeps things under the carpet where we can’t notice them, which can be a good strategy, especially when you have a full-time job, or you have to raise children who do not seem to understand your mood swings. It goes without saying that most people don’t understand mood swings because if they can just stop feeling depressed, then you can do it as well. You just have to be happy, embrace positive thinking, and start singing Bob Marley. It also goes without saying that this kind of advice is likely to make things worse because it implies that if one can do something, then all of us should be able to do it.

Over the past year, while dealing with my anxiety and panic attacks, I have also tried to identify as best as I could moments in my life that have led me to where I am today, but that’s always a difficult task. Most of the times the things you think have left a mark on you are not the source of your problems. It might be something else entirely. The abuse that was not perceived as abuse when it was perpetrated on you. Family issues, an alcoholic father, an opprobrious uncle, or a cousin whose sexual appetites were too developed for his age. It can be any number of things, and there is no right or wrong answer in this equation.

I always return to my bullies, which might be my easy way out. It might be that I’m giving them too much credit where there is little credit to offer, or where there is none. I also keep having the nagging sensation that my lingering on the high-school episode might be merely an obsession I have developed over the years and that it might be high time to just let it go. My bully-narrative does fall in line with the current craze for tales of redeeming à la Oprah Winfrey. We’re all looking, it seems, for a traumatic past that would explain why we are the way we are today, to be able to say that, yes, we’ve suffered, but we’ve managed to overcome that. Just look at how far we’ve come. And perhaps I’m vilifying my bullies the way I belittled my family when I felt like they weren’t giving me the things I wanted. I need them to be evil to justify the damage I seem to be doing to myself or to be able to say that the image I have of myself is beyond recovery because of that.

It’s astonishingly easy to vilify those who hurt us, or those who do things we perceive as hurtful. It’s as if we’re hardwired to do so, trained to expect instant gratification even when the rules of the game do not even mention it or are vague with regards to that. The slightest offense, such as reading a text without replying to it right away, triggers waves of resentment. Not getting a like on Facebook from a specific person is often interpreted as an indication of a friendship turning cold. Each gesture, even the most unconscious, is thus soaked with intentions that are, in most cases, detrimental to our mental wellbeing, deprecating to our egos, disrespectful of our investments, be them emotional or physical. The road from peace to fully-fledged war is a slippery slope.

This summer I met a guy I really liked, and it all seemed to work well between us. We both love books and reading, and so we always had something to talk about, albeit our tastes in literature were diverse. He likes Italo Calvino, while I find him cold and distant at times (though the guy swears that it’s not so). I love Faulkner and other authors he has never read, and probably never will. But that never got in between us. The first time we went out we had drinks at a bar in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and we instantly liked each other. We discussed Camus that time, and in no time we got to touching hands and looking at each other with dreamy eyes. After we had drinks, we bought beers and went to his place and listened to music late into the night. We talked about Virginia Woolf and, of course, we kissed (and…did some other stuff as well; I won’t go into details). Then it was time to go because it was getting late, and he accompanied me downstairs, and we kissed by the main entrance knowing that there were surveillance cameras. We felt rebellious because, I think, we had uncovered something in each other we both liked. I took a rented bike and rushed to the train station all sweaty from the pedaling and the unusually warm night. But I felt happy.

We decided to meet again, and when I went to pick him up from his apartment, I immediately noticed something was off. We had drinks at a different bar, and we grabbed something to eat, and then we took a long walk on the banks of the river Po at night. And we had THE talk. He liked me a lot, but he was unsure about it, because he had felt the same way about his ex, and it was happening all over again, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. He was happy about seeing me, but then he saw me and felt doubt creeping in. I felt humiliated and embarrassed and told him I was going to go because the discussion made me uncomfortable, and it reminded me of other such dates, which had not worked out and they only made me feel bad about myself. Yet, he told me to stay and talk things through. We did discuss things through, and his doubts seemed to recede. My doubts did the same. I have always been of the conviction that whatever issues we might encounter in such cases there was a way out, a compromise that would make things work.

We met, repeatedly, and then he had to go back to the south for the summer holidays. We talked, every day, exchanged ideas about books and writing because he is also a writer in the making. He got jealous when I commented on other guys’ pictures on Facebook, and he told me so. I was happy with that because, finally, there was a guy who likes me the way I am. Then the ominous silences began until I couldn’t take it any longer and demanded an explanation. He told me he changed his mind and gave full swing to his doubts. He was no longer interested in pursuing whatever we had because he never really liked me in the first place. I’m an exciting guy but physically not that attractive, and so he had decided we could stay friends.

I tried crying but couldn’t. Tears never came quickly to me. A friend suggested I took a shower because showers made him cry when the situation required it. I tried writing but couldn’t. I walked around my grandparents’ back garden trying desperately to muster the energy to scream, to be furious, to kick things, punch holes through the walls. I turned the music to full volume hoping that in that way I wouldn’t be able to hear my thoughts. What did I expect? Why had I trusted this guy who was, ultimately, just like everybody else? I should have known better! I tried reading James Baldwin to calm down, but nothing helped. The heaviness in my chest returned, the shortness of breath, the lightheadedness. And all I wanted to do was tell this guy that he was a douchebag. I felt betrayed, sad, and alone, and most of all, I saw my old fears confirmed. My bullies had been right after all.

I didn’t tell the guy any of that stuff. Resorting to negative feelings, I had come to know, was akin to reaching for the pills. A quick way out that would have closed the door behind me forever. And I didn’t want that. Deep down I hoped he would take his words back and we would get back together. So I kept all that resentment to myself. Then, when we met after the summer something was definitely off. He kept squinting at me as if he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. He was overdoing his gestures, he laughed theatrically and somewhat nervously. He was intent on showing me that we had lost whatever spark there was between us. To this day we still exchange texts every once in a while. A couple of days ago he sent me a picture of the cover of a book which had made him think of me, and that makes me happy.

Yet, my initial reaction was to vilify him. I wanted him to sense my resentment and feel sorry for hurting me. I wanted him to feel sorry for himself. And although I thought of him in this way at that time, now I realize that it was only a deviation from how I honestly feel about him. I still experience that warmth in my chest I felt the first day we met when I think of him. He may feel differently about this whole situation, yet I choose to stay true to my feelings. I will most likely never know how he felt. I only hope we worked things out, in the best way, for both of us. Resentment returns, of course, and often when I see him on dating sites, I get jealous and imagine him going out with all those guys. But that feeling is only a feeling that is not mine to have. He made his choices. I made mine.

And that’s that.

I saw his best friend today, on my way to class, and I was reminded of him. The same friend in front of whom he had kissed me once when we met on the street, back when things were still going well, and I was full of hopes, and I couldn’t look at other guys. And a wave of bitterness washed over me. And I took a walk. I often doubt myself, yet I refuse to believe there’s something wrong with me. I’m sure he had his reasons.

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Fourteen)

I used to do drag on stage when I was in high school. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t know how to do elaborate makeup and sew fabulous dresses out of curtains. Doing drag, for me, at that time, wasn’t new at all. When I was little, I used to dress up in my mother’s clothes and put on lipstick and dance in front of the mirror. I thought high heels were just the thing I needed. Pretending to be a woman on stage felt like a natural extension to my daily life: I did the washing up when mother was too busy doing other stuff, and grandpa always added an “a” to my first name, which, in Romanian, is usual for girls’ names, whenever he wanted to be affectionate. I was, throughout my childhood, called all kinds of names and they were all variations of sissy. Or they felt like they were variations of that.

I spent a lot of time with girls because guys naturally excluded me from their group. When I did manage to break through that wall of ice, which rarely happened, they regarded me with suspicion and kept me at arms’ distance. Or they bullied me back to the girls’ side of the room, where I was accepted with the kind of giggle you give a child when it cannot work out how a toy works. I knew I wasn’t one of them, that was kind of obvious, I had the extra thing, but at least I had somebody to hang out with. And that was okay for a while, that is until I was expected to develop a sexual interest in girls. Which is where things started to go amiss. For obvious reasons that were not as obvious at that time as they are today.

My brother did it. His friends did it. My uncle did it. They all spoke about girls with a wink at the end of every sentence as if they had been let in on a secret I was yet to be revealed by actually being with a girl. Often enough, my brother would boast about the fact that he had been taught by my uncle to fuck everything he could get his hands on, no pun intended. As opposed to my brother and his friends, who gathered to watch porn on the same VHS player I used for watching Disney movies (Aladdin is my favorite btw), girls represented a particular class of citizens that, to the eyes of the same group of men, required the implementation of a strategy, an approach. You circled around them, and then you closed in on them.

I was, of course, oblivious to the procedure, and I still am. The first time I went out with a girl, and she held my hand, all I felt was the embarrassment of having trespassed on an act that was not for me to see. She snuggled against me while we were watching a movie at the cinema, and perhaps I knew I was supposed to do something, but I kept watching the film because there were fucking robots and flying drones in it (“only a guy could like such things,” she said). When another girl held my hand, just outside class at university, I felt like disappearing because I was suddenly visible, my interests were revealed to the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel the same about guys. A couple of weeks ago I went out with a guy, whom I really liked, and we held hands and kissed in public. At the bus stop, while waiting for my bus to come, I kept my arm around his shoulders, and a little girl stared at us, and I couldn’t help obsessing over what she might be thinking. Or what the mother, who accompanied the child, might be thinking. I felt the urge to keep my hands to myself, but I also felt the guy didn’t want me to do that, and we sort of met halfway, unconsciously, and decided to enjoy those moments together. That shyness was there, too, yet, it was a shyness overruled by honesty. I wasn’t doing something that betrayed who I was, or who he was. It was the shyness of being awarded a prize of which I was proud.

I felt the same giddiness, though of a different degree when I went to the Pride Parade in Turin this year. I danced in the streets, and there were times when a chastising voice in my head kept reminding me of the fact that I was a university teacher and that a student might see me, inevitably, and think the worst. Or tell his parents who would later storm into my office and point an accusatory finger at me. I found it hard, but I reminded myself that the parade was precisely about that, about being proud of who I was, and that there must be, akin to the lives of famous writers, a separation between the personal and the professional, and that the two do not mix except obliquely and in non-invasive ways. At the end of the parade, my friends and I sat down on the sidewalk in the Vittorio Veneto square, and I felt somewhat empowered and decided to wear the rainbow flag on my backpack. I felt the fatigue one feels at the end of a productive day.

But above all these aspects, there looms an overwhelming fear, which creeps in often enough to make us avoid certain situations and which leads us to long and search for safe spaces. The phrase is often overused in gay-speak, but it defines a place where we are free of the expectations of gender. Where we are not expected to develop a sexual interest in a person of the opposite sex. Where we are able not only to hold hands and kiss with people of the same sex but also where guys can have girl-friends and girls can have boy-friends and not feel the pressure of sexual interest. It’s not necessarily a physical space, akin to those quiet coaches on a train, but it does set boundaries against any type of bullying. It is, quintessentially, a space that makes us less self-conscious.

I’m confident there are people out there, people I know, people you know, who do not see the necessity of these safe spaces. Society nowadays has developed a system of checks and balances that ostracize those who engage in hate speech, and this is, doubtlessly, a positive development. In most European countries today as well as in the United States, gay people are no longer attacked, verbally or physically, for their preferences. But that is not the point. Difference, much like change, is always unsettling mostly because we live in a world that is saturated with the things we trust are normal. When I started sharing my dating life on Facebook by writing short posts in Italian, I did it with the best of intentions and out of the belief and confidence that I should no longer hide. A few days after publishing one of my posts, the father of a friend of mine warned me that I was too naive and that some people, out there, might not be as open-minded as the most of us. He said it was fatherly advice and I accepted it as such, although, for a minute, I had visions of somebody using my words against me. An enraged student, one of my high school classmates, my parents’ friends who might use my homosexuality against them. Since then, I started filtering out, by using Facebook’s privacy settings, those who might pose a threat from that point of view. Friends, except so and so. And that is the point.

You mostly feel the necessity of these safe spaces when you like somebody, and you feel the world is standing between the two of you. It might be something that the guy you’re dating says while you’re waiting to get your movie tickets at the cinema that makes you want to touch his face. But before you take any action, you must always, be aware of your surroundings. The thought process is akin to those habit-breaking techniques they teach you when you’re trying to quit smoking. Take a step back, observe your thinking, and act against it. If you’re straight, you don’t think twice before touching your girl’s face to show affection. We have to think twice. I’ve experienced this a couple of times, but I’ve never felt it so ardently as I did when I met Richard.

[Slight change of tone here. Bear with me.]

Richard lives with his mother, and after meeting me for the first time, she told him that I’m slightly effeminate. He said it casually, over one of our expensive dinners, as if to say that he doesn’t agree with his mother’s first impression. I dismissed this confession with a papal wave of the hand. All first impressions are mistaken, as the saying goes, and to the naked eye of a mother who can only wish the best for her son, I might appear slightly offputting, as all in-laws do. And I might have returned to the thought, perhaps, while I was having sex with her son and she was still in the house one Saturday morning, adding to it, if not scorn, then at least some form of pity. But not the kind of compassion one feels for the unfortunate; instead, it was the sort of sympathy one feels for those who decide to tell you about the latest conspiracy theory they came across on the internet.

The first time I met Richard, which was in front of the Porta Susa train station in Turin, I fell in love with him. Love might be a word too big for what really happened, but I like to think that, finally, and for once, I fell in love with a guy. He speaks English with a proper English accent (not sure about the grammar though), and he dresses like a guy who’s got his own business and likes to look as if he’s never done one hour of work in his life. Which is the cool and slightly-urban-zen-just-out-of-the-gym-and-freshly-showered kind that makes you jealous and fear for your life. The second time we went out for drinks, I was still in love with him and touched his hand while he was showing me a LOTR parody on YouTube. It was also out of love that I decided to tell him the drinks were on me. It didn’t matter that I spent the pocket money I had saved for a week teaching English to a twelve-year-old on two drinks (!!!) as long as it was out of love. We kissed in the car in an underground parking lot, and we kissed when nobody was looking. And when we went out with his friends, I had to pretend I was straight.

Now, acting straight in public should be (and is, presumably) easy, and it’s not really about making comments about girls or talking about how much you like them. It is, in fact, the default label you end up with unless the person observing you has the emotional acumen to detect or understand that you are not straight. I say this from personal experience. A girl I met at the library once told me she had sensed a peculiar sensitivity in me and hence she concluded that I must be gay. A student of mine, a girl, told me she realized I was gay from the way I folded the cable of my earphones. It’s true, I don’t like when it gets all tangled up, but that girl is Sherlock. (Also, she might be reading this.) However, most people don’t have that, and they stick to the default settings: you’re straight, let’s not discuss this further. And Richard wore that label like some people wear their flaws. On his (expensive shirt) sleeve.

We always sat at opposite ends of the table, and if any touching was to be involved, we did it under the table, and only when some heavy tablecloth could cover our trespasses. Richard would always look both ways before doing anything that showed affection towards me. When I asked him whether he came out to his parents, he said yes but that he didn’t really talk about it with them. His friends did not know, and once it happened that one of the girls took an interest in him and he rejected her, not because he was gay, there was no talk of that, but because he was not interested. This created tensions within his group of friends, for obvious reasons, and he kept complaining about the fact that the others sort of avoided him. The problem was, of course, with his friends.

We danced around the topic akin to tribal men around a fire. When I addressed the issue of him coming out to his friends, which, I thought, might have eased the tensions and reinforced the bonds he had with these people, Richard dismissed it and said that he doesn’t want his sexual preferences to define who he is. Which is, rationally, a valid argument. Nobody puts that on their CV for sure, just like nobody goes around telling people, at the bus stop, for instance, that they are gay or straight. Being proud of who you are also implies this, that you can lead a life in which what you do in the bedroom does not affect your daily struggle, that you have a secret life you share only with those who matter. Yet, again, that is not the point.

Coming out is a sensitive topic. When I came out to my parents, I trembled the way I do the moment I’m about to open some blood test results. We all struggle with it, and it is that very struggle that makes the moment crucial, and constructive. Before actually doing it, I practiced everything in my head a thousand times: what I’m going to say, how I’m going to do it, where I’ll keep my hands. Yet I knew that I have to do it because, for a very long time before that, it had started to affect how I acted around my parents. Thinking twice before doing or saying anything in their company became second nature and, for once, I wanted to enjoy the ease of mind and body I could only feel at home. And perhaps that is the point. You come out to the people you care for when you begin to think that what you do in the bedroom stands between you and that ease of mind you experience only when you’re around family and friends. It’s about removing a massive amount of anxiety from your life.

I stopped seeing Richard more than a year ago. We didn’t discuss it over, we just stopped talking to each other. He isn’t much of a talker anyway. I wouldn’t hear from him for months until I would write to him and ask him out. He blocked me on Facebook or deactivated his profile, I do not know for sure. I only know that he disappeared from my life. Searching for reasons would only mean vilifying him, and I don’t want to do that. Then, a few months back, I started to miss him and asked him out again. We had drinks and French fries at this very butch pub in Turin. And by butch I mean that they sell burgers and dozens of different types of beers I cannot tell apart and men go there to watch soccer matches wearing funny hats and flags. We talked, and I was disheartened to notice that he had not changed his mind in the meantime. He no longer goes out with his friends because he feels as if they betrayed him somehow. I asked whether he made any new gay friends and he said he doesn’t need that. I suggested he tried dating apps, we had met, after all, on Tinder, but he told me everyone there has AIDS, and I didn’t broach the subject further.

I was on those dating apps as well. I knew some of those people who supposedly were HIV positive. I saw him again in his pastel-colored suit at my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, but he didn’t stick around for drinks, so we didn’t have the chance to talk that much. I still get that warmth in my chest when I see him, and, perhaps, that feeling will never go away. I hope it doesn’t. And I hope he’ll find what he’s looking for, whatever that is.

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The Genderless Egg (Deluxe Edition)

CoverSecond Edition

The genderless egg revisited. Signed. Now with additional poems.

Download for free here: TheGenderlessEgg(II)

 

NINETY-NINE

When you opened your arms

The grasshoppers hushed

The dogs lowered their ears.

 

It was

akin to seeing a saint

struggling to climb a tree

to see better in the distance.

 

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