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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