Robb’s Last Tape (Take Seventeen)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Soon, I might tell myself ominously.

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

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

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


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


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

And that’s okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Don’t mind me, just passing through.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more hour without food.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Nothing can stop you now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Soon, I will disappear into the wall.

“Soon, I will be light as gas.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I want never to see the scale again.

“I need to be protected.

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

“I want not to own a mirror.

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Sixteen (Architectural Design)

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

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

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

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

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

Robb’s Last Tape (Take Sixteen)


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.

Architectural Design (Prologue, One, Two & Four)

Architectural Desing Cover (Final)


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.


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.


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.




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)

FullSizeRender 4

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.

Thank you for reading. If you’ve enjoyed this post please consider making a donation to support The Doubtful Recluse by using the simple payments button above. 

The Genderless Egg (Deluxe Edition)

CoverSecond Edition

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

Download for free here: TheGenderlessEgg(II)



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.



If you enjoyed this post, please consider making a donation to support "The Doubtful Recluse".