Fabric

I used to own a green scarf.

I can’t remember if I’ve told you this story before, it was the green of the first grass, bright enough to hurt the eyes. A bitter color, I imagined, one you’d sink your teeth into and feel it seeping through the membrane of every cell, stirring juices around. And I was wearing that scarf, for the first or second time ever. It was winter, and I was very young, or at least that’s what I’d say now. Back then I thought I was old enough for anything and everything.

The city felt like it was growing from me, from a stray seed stuck to the sole of my boot, and not the other way around. I walked the streets like they were of my own making, I faced the endless parade of people and buildings like I’d invented them, I and no other, and they were there for nothing more than morning entertainment on my way to wherever I was going.

By the fountains, I ran into this man I knew.

In retrospect, he was just a boy. We’d met on a bus, if you can believe it. For years we’d been taking the same bus from our home town to the city on Sunday evenings, often sitting together, our elbows touching through layers of fabric.

The lights never worked. On the bus. We’d ride through the snow for a while, leafing through papers or looking out the window, until it got dark and there was nothing left to do but try and sleep or stare into the night and think your life over. We never spoke. We nodded when we ran into each other at the bus stop, and one evening he offered to help as I was trying to push my embarrassing, overstuffed suitcase into the luggage compartment, and introduced himself.

So I knew his name now, and he knew mine, and when we met by the frozen fountains that morning, in full light for the first time ever, me wrapped up in my apple green scarf six times over, cheeks flushed from the cold, his name was right there for the picking like I’d kept it close at hand on purpose. I rolled it expertly in my mouth and said hi.

He said hi back and smiled. Half a second later we were walking past each other in opposite directions, but I knew. Something was beginning.

Remember when every little thing felt like the beginning of something extraordinary? Like anything could happen, and probably would, because you knew, you just knew you were meant for great things.

That’s exactly how I felt as I was walking away from the fountains that day. We’d meet again, I knew it. We’d run into each other a few more times, by fountains and museums and random newspaper stands, my curls perfect in every way each single time and my lips painted his favourite shade of plum. Then we’d finally go out for coffee. I’d be charming, didn’t my mother always say I could be terribly charming when I wanted to? I certainly wanted to now. He’d fall in love with me, of course. We’d be perfect together, one of those couples you feel have got a secret too valuable to share with the rest of the world. “How do they do it?”, people would wonder, sometimes out loud, and we’d just smile and he’d lean in to kiss my cheekbone.

I wore that scarf every day for months, well into the spring. He’d noticed it, I was sure, the sheer greenness of it, and would now see me from a distance. He’d run to meet me, I’d be charming, cheekbone kissing would ensue.

*

My favourite scarf these days is black, white dotted. It’s not a metaphor this, green to black, young to old. They’re just colors, and not meant to mean anything. There’s no lesson to learn.

It works well with my red winter coat, that’s all, the scarf. The most special thing about it is that the moment I saw it in a Mango shop a few months back, it made me think of the sky at night. A proper one, stars and everything, unlike what I normally see in London these days.

From my home town too, you couldn’t see the stars. When we were small, my sister and I spent our summers at our Grandpa‘s house, and I remember I’d fall asleep in the swing every night, out in the open at the edge of the field, despite being grounded for it time and time again. I just wanted to look at the stars. I thought God covered the planet with a large black umbrella at night. And that the stars were nothing but tiny holes in its canvas, worn thin from so many centuries of using, through which sunlight seeped through.

I check myself in the mirror one last time before I’m out for the day. Everything’s in its place, and somehow not really in its place at all. Also it seems that as I grow old, my eyes, if slightly more wrinkled at the edges every time I check, grow bigger. Or maybe the rest of me is getting smaller. I do feel it, sometimes, when I walk the streets of this city. Like I’m the morning entertainment, a tiny one at that, and not the other way around. It doesn’t sadden me, how things have changed. But sometimes I catch myself expertly knotting my scarf in the mirror, my fingers moving of their own accord like they’ve slipped out of my reach and become better at dealing with life than the rest of me is, and it hits me: I was a kid once.

Thoughts for Strangers

There’s this thing called the The Listserve and I’m in it.

I’ve never won the email lottery myself, and I wouldn’t know what to write to one million people I’ll never meet anyway (believe it or not, I haven’t got a million readers around here so I’m not used to that kind of audience). I get an email every day though. Some I like, some I don’t. Some I don’t even read, the subject line is enough to tell me they’re not for me.

But then, some are extraordinary.

So last week I replied to one. This girl, this woman had written to us, strangers, about time, love and puppies.

It was four o’clock in the morning. That should more than account for my lack of direction. I was also listening to Ho Hey (The Lumineers) on repeat as I was typing, more than once finding I was humming myself away from my train of thought.

But I pressed Send anyway. Perhaps this who-knew-I’d-eventually-turn-30 thing comes with a sense of adventure I’ve never known before. Or maybe I just wanted to make a friend. Never a bad idea, they tell me.

I never know how to start these things.

I remember we were in our early teens and this girl from my class brought a love letter to school.

They’d mistakenly delivered it to her parents’ mailbox, at a time when strangers’ secrets were something she craved touching. It changes as you grow up, of course, wanting to have anything to do with other people’s secrets. But she was still at an age when she wanted to get her fingers dirty. So she brought the letter to school, and a bunch of us opened it together during recess.

“dragul meu dragul meu”*, it began, no uppercase letters or punctuation marks, and if I ever found myself someone to write to, I decided, that’s how I would begin my letters, like they weren’t even letters. Like we were just sitting somewhere, looking at something, a field, a street, a TV screen, and all of a sudden, I’d find myself talking.

draga mea draga mea**

I don’t know how this works.

I guess you’ve been getting emails from people. You must have. I imagine them, those who write you back. People who have lost loved ones, people who miss their younger selves, people who liked your writing, people who have their own stories to tell. People like me.

I haven’t lost a parent. I’ve lost friends. A grandmother who’s never had her photograph taken but whom I remember combing her hair in a tall, foggy mirror that no longer exists. Past, outgrown versions of myself I never really managed to become friends with.

I too believe it’s the stories that matter, though I’m hardly much of a story teller. I carry them around all the time though, a million secret histories no one really wants to get their hands dirty with these days, because we’re not schoolgirls anymore, and we’ve outgrown curiosity.

I walk around, pockets full of memories on the inside, and miss everything. It’s fine, too. The things I miss are what define me as a what I like to think is a somewhat fully formed human being.

I turn 30 next week.

I grew up studying math and computers, so I should probably look at 30 as what it is. A number. A solution to some equation my future depended on once, in a badly lit exam room. But it’s not just that, you know. It’s a bunch of numbers instead, so many of them that it’s easier to just call it infinity, underline it a couple of times and turn the paper in.

It’s how many times I’ve tested my smile in the mirror before running off towards what would be another love story, another end of the world.

It’s how many dreams I’ve changed for other people’s dreams for me.

It’s how many times I knew what I wanted and how many times I stumbled.

It’s how many times I’ve reached for another person’s skin, and how many times the shade of my own skin gave away my true feelings.

It’s how many times I’ve caught myself smiling, stopped whatever it was I was doing and marked the moment by knowingly thinking to myself: it must be happiness, this.

draga mea draga mea**

The sun’s just rising here. I’m never up at this hour, so I guess today’s something special. I hear birds chirping outside my bedroom window, a miracle in itself in this city. I’ll be making myself a cup of cocoa in a bit, and walk around the flat barefoot, moving things from one surface to another. Then I’ll go for a run. A million fractions of moments to remember will crowd this morning. Time, it really is something.

Oh, and puppies are great too.

*dragul meu dragul meu: [Romanian] my dear my dear (m)
**draga mea draga mea: [Romanian] my dear my dear (f)

Cien Años de Soledad

By the time I got my hands on my first Marquez book, everybody I knew had already read them all.

I was halfway through my first year at Uni and was traveling to my hometown after an exam. It had been snowing for days and the city looked brand new for once, though I knew it wouldn’t be for long. Snow is never snow in a big city. It feels like it just ended there by mistake, like a lost piece of luggage in the wrong airport. I was awfully tired, I’d pulled another all nighter and was looking forward to a good sleep on the train. But then there were the books.

I’d bought the new hardcover editions of Love in the Time of Cholera and A Hundred Years of Solitude the day before, from a street vendor who’d opened shop under an overhanging roof on University Street. I never could resist a snow covered book. And there was always such a flow of interesting people on that street, tall, handsome, mysterious students walking back and forth from one faculty building to the next. Buying those books everybody who was anybody was talking about felt only natural, carrying them against my chest through the snowstorm, in plain sight, made me feel sophisticated and like I was finally fitting in somewhere.

It makes me smile now. My relationship with Garcia Marquez was built upon superficial dreams of finding myself an intellectual looking boyfriend, in the middle of a crowded, snow covered street.

Sunk in my seat in the overheated train car, I took Love in the Time of Cholera out of my bag and started reading. Just for a little while, I thought, then I’d let it fall in my lap, the title conveniently visible just in case some well read, attractive young stranger looking for a meaningful relationship happened to walk by. Then I’d finally fall asleep. White, endless fields were running past the windows and it was slowly getting dark. This kid was falling in love with a beautiful girl, in a steamy, decaying port city by the Caribbean Sea.

By the time I got home, I was more than halfway through the book and hadn’t slept at all.

Dad picked me up from the train station. In our small town, a hundred miles closer to the mountains, the night was frozen and the snow looked like it was there to stay. Ladder climbing people were hanging tiny yellow Christmas lights along the street as we drove by. There was pop music and talk of road closures on the radio, and in a faraway cholera infested town, people were falling in love for life.

Is it strange that I remember the how, when and where of every Marquez book I ever read? Does it say things about me, this? That I never can keep track of friends’ birthdays or favourite colours, but I remember that the title was slightly embossed on the A Hundred Years of Solitude dust cover, and it was catching the light in a certain way?

Years later, I read Living to Tell the Tale in between fancy dinners, romantic walks and breakfasts in bed along this man I’d found. I’d dyed my hair a brave strawberry blonde, I’d gotten a job, I finally had an intellectual, mysterious beau of my own, things were good. As I was reading this book, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe and as scary and completely insane as it sounded, what I really wanted to do was to write. Somewhere along the way, perhaps precisely because I’d read Marquez later than everybody else, I’d taken a wrong turn, and here I was now, this person with a story to tell and no means to tell it. Now of course, I wouldn’t be a writer, I told myself, like a proper, responsible grownup. But I could be. If I wanted. I could try, even if I failed. In fact, I could try that, and another thing, like Impressionist finger painting, or learning Japanese, at the same time. I could do more than change the colour of my hair and eat toast in bed. Months later, I left my job, my country and my beloved collection of Marquez books, and moved to London.

When I learned he’d passed away last night, I was folding laundry. My phone blinked with the news from the Guardian app, and I jumped to look at it, forever worried about the Ukraine crisis, flight MH370 and the rise in London property prices.

Marquez died, I told V, phone still in hand above the mountain of unfolded t-shirts, and he must have known it was something big, though I doubt the name sounded even in the least familiar to him.

I read all his books, I said. He came and gave me a hug as I just stood there, because he knows me, and knows there’ll always be things he won’t understand about me. Pain caused by the death of a stranger whose made-up stories I read once when there was nothing good on TV. You’ll find another writer to love, he said, and I said yes, because how could I have explained it to him, when I wasn’t a teller of tales myself, and I had no Marquez books in this country, not even one, to hold tight against my chest and feel like I finally belonged.

On Writing

“I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar.”

Stephen King

*

The first time I ever wrote anything, I was eight.

The teacher had given us this big deal, read-in-front-of-the-class assignment, a page long composition about spring. I was terrified. The other kids had all come up with these pretty-word descriptions of snow melting and fields turning green in the sun, while I’d made up this crazy story about a snowdrop being picked and torn away from his family by a florist’s apprentice, and his adventures across town as he tries to escape and make his way back to the woods.

She’d fail me, I knew it. She’d grab me by the shoulder like you grab a pot off the hob, she’d lead me to the Principal’s office and sit me down in one of those chairs where your feet dangle half a meter above the floor, then they’d both make me listen to everything that was wrong about me. It would take hours. I wouldn’t make it home in time for dinner, of course. Mother and Father would find out, then the neighbours, the bus driver, people in the streets. They’d point their fingers at me, whispering bad whispers behind my back.

They published my snowdrop adventure in the local paper on Mother’s Day. Father gave me his fountain pen, the red one with the gold plated tip. This was something I could do, I figured. Writing. It was something. I mean sure, it wasn’t like doing six cartwheels in a row or climbing to the top of the monkey bars with your eyes closed, but it was something.

*

I was thirteen when I entered the Regional Romanian Literature competition. Mother walked me to the venue, this strange school with smaller windows and narrower, darker corridors than what I was used to. As we were waiting outside the entrance, a bunch of kids and grownups thrown unacceptably close together in what could only have been a very cruel game, Mother leaned to whisper something into my ear.

Don’t let me down.

The title said composition on the topic of your choice, and I blinked. I’d never known so much freedom.

I chose to describe the moment I knew I was no longer a child. Three hours later, I walked out of the stuffy classroom and the windowless little school, more exhausted than I’d ever felt in my life. It was tough, this writing about yourself business.

It had snowed throughout the exam and now the snow reached up to my knees, which almost never happened in our town anymore. I made my way home on my own, breathing in the cold and the snowflakes, feeling like a cheat. Who did I think I was kidding? I was still very much a child, my essay had been nothing but a shameless lie. A no-longer-a-child person would not feel so intimidated by their own mother, nor would they find so much joy in leaping through the snow.

I won first prize but I never forgot nor forgave myself the lie, and I wasn’t too keen on writing competitions from then onwards. Plus, High School was starting. The plan was to be good at High School, to be really, six-cartwheels-in-a-row good at High School, and writing lies upon lies no one cared about wasn’t going to help me achieve it.

*

On the eve of our graduation, my closest friend C was going through a really difficult patch. I’d been thinking about this for a while, how maybe I really wasn’t built to be someone’s friend, because I didn’t always know what or when to say to make the pain go away. When faced with other people’s tragedies, I’d just sit there, staring blankly, waiting for them to somehow fill the silence, to talk or cry themselves out of it. I’d think about C countless times a day, I’d go to sleep with him on my mind, I’d come up with a million different plans to fix all his problems and then, when we were finally together, I was mute and helpless and drowning in guilt.

So one night I wrote him a story. In truly characteristic, crazy fashion, I wrote him an entire notebook of a story, more than a hundred pages of my messy handwriting by now more used to handling differential calculus and organic chemistry reactions than endless made up histories. It wasn’t even about him, or at least something to entertain him and take his mind off things, but more the story of my life since I’d met him. I would always be a self centred writer, it seemed.

I remember finishing, shutting the notebook closed, scribbling “a gift is a gift” on the front cover, blowing it dry, and throwing it into my backpack to give it to C the next day. I wish I knew why the “gift” thing, but it’s been almost 11 years since, and though you’d think we never really forget the most important things in our lives, it’s not always true.

*

I’m doing the Blogging 201 Daily Assignments these days. I must say, blogging events aren’t the kind of stuff I normally get involved in (if one should even generalize like this after only eight months of on and off blogging business), but I’ve entered this particular one hoping it will be the impulse I need to come up with more and better writing. It’s supposed to teach me how to bring relevant content to my readers and grow my online presence, and I must admit these are intimidating sounding things that I’ve not given any thought whatsoever to since I started this writing for strangers adventure.

So anyway. Today’s assignment is meant to have us think about why we write, what we want to achieve through it, and what we can do to make it better.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and I wish I had an absolutely extraordinary answer to why I write and how I plan to develop this space. But as I was cracking my brains to come up with something super duper inspiring, all I could think about was this Antonio Machado quote I recently came across on someone’s Facebook page. I know, until not long ago I used to be at least as outraged as you are now that I’m apparently getting all of my daily inspiration off of people’s Facebook walls, but I have since made my peace with it.

Anyway, I digress. Machado wrote: Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. – and I think it very much applies to how I feel about this blog and writing on it. 

I write for the writing. I have no idea where it will take me, or if there’s even a destination in sight. It’s not particularly funny, informative, insightful, hell, it’s nothing but salami writing, really. But it’s something, it really is something, isn’t it?

642 Things to Write About #3 – Back to the Future

Write your own Back to the Future moment: Describe how your parents met and how those tiny details set the stage for their relationship and your existence.

She’d picked the curtains herself. They didn’t have many fabrics to choose from, and she’d have liked something classy, something in a colour with an exciting name. Ecru. Fallow. Metallic Sunburst. I simply adore your curtains, her girlfriends from the hospital would exclaim the moment they’d walk in and she’d reply, a hint of a smile on her lips: Oh, those old things? Just some Fallow velvet I had lying around.

There was no velvet on stock anywhere. Nothing Ecru either. So she settled for four meters of light pink, white heart patterned cotton. More fit for a doll’s house, she thought, checking and rechecking the fabric parcel in her carrier bag after she’d left the shop, testing its softness with the tip of her index finger as she was waiting for the lights to turn green, picturing the folds she’d meticulously arrange every morning as she’d draw the curtains open, unwilling to settle for anything less than the perfect amount of sunlight, perfectly falling on her perfectly dusted new shelves.

She sew them and hung them up the same day. Hours later, nestled in her only armchair, a dusty flowered tapestry affair she’d inherited from her parents, she was sipping her afternoon coffee, a bullet sized orange crayon scratching away at the Microbiology course book in her lap. Every so often, her eyes would slip away from the page, only to rest on the pink curtains again. This was it. This was her home. She’d finally fled the nest and was really alone now, absolutely alone, but the world was brand new and shiny and she wasn’t afraid.

They met that very evening, the thump of his fist on her door frightening her to the bone. The world was a dangerous place really, and even more so for a young woman like herself hardly prepared for a life on her own, she thought, silently making her way down the corridor to spy through the peep-hole. A young man, his eyebrows plunged into a dreadful frown. Treacherous creatures, she reflected, determined to pretend she wasn’t in and get back to her reading.

For a moment there, it seemed like her life would go on along its safe, pink curtained path. She could almost see herself doing just fine, growing old there in her hand me down armchair, filtered rosy light digging wrinkles into the skin around her eyes.

Open up, I know you’re in there!

Now she was scared. He meant business, this man. He’d kick the door down and burst into her home, grab her by her shoulders and shake her. Her mind flashed back to course book anatomy prints. Everything meant to protect her seemed so uselessly fragile when up against this man’s fists and nails. What difference could a couple of ribs and layers of bloody tissue make in the face of a man’s wrath? He’d just reach inside her chest cavity and pull her heart out, there was nothing to it really.

I’ve got water pouring down my walls, do you hear? Open the hell up!

Water? What on earth was he talking about, this savage, violent killer of women, who’d picked her of all people to rip apart. And then she remembered. She’d planned a long, cinnamon scented bath in celebration of her new curtains. She’d even poured the salts in the tub, a pinch more than she normally allowed herself, but it was a special day, it really was. She’d turned the tap on and it was probably still running, a couple of hours later, dripping cinnamon scented bubbles down the walls of this dangerous man.

She opened the door, her heart thumping like a bird in a cage. The sudden draft made the curtains flutter, messing up their perfect folds. Steaming water was slowly flowing from under the bathroom door, spreading down the hall like a badly kept secret. Years later, I’d be cutting up the heart patterned fabric into a million Barbie doll summer dresses.


642 Things to Write About is a book of writing prompts lovely V got me a couple of years back.