This Time Last Year: Dear Friend

Dear Friend,

I’ve decided this is what I’m calling you now, though you know you’re not, and I know you’re not, and we’re both OK with it.

But they tell me everybody needs a name, and everybody needs a friend, so I guess I’m just killing two birds with one stone.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a little while, but I hadn’t yet decided what to call you, and you need to at least know that when you start a letter. So I didn’t. And then last week Facebook said you had a birthday coming.

So here it is, my birthday gift for you. A name and things you never knew. Read the full post here →

We Have No Past

I bought a cactus today.

No bigger than a lime fruit, and barely rooted into a spoonful of  compost and what looks like a plastic shot glass. But now that I’ve temporarily made room for it among the piles and piles of crap on my desk, I find myself glancing at it and feeling plain old happy. And I’m glad I’ve reached this point where I need so little to brighten up my day. It must mean it’s not too dim to begin with.

Meanwhile, it rains. It rains and rains and I don’t mind it, despite it meaning it doesn’t feel like winter yet. On the inside, winter’s already here, and I’m slowly trying to find my bearings, as always slightly overwhelmed but secretly giddy with excitement.

I miss C.

Autumn has always been our season, and when I find myself thinking of him most often, but this year autumn’s been such a mess that I didn’t get my chance. So now he’s sipping into my winter, my darling friend C and the version of myself I was when I knew him.

It’s strange, how I imagined I’d grow out of it. Troubled friendships, a million little dramas, forgetting, misunderstanding in every possible way, acting up, giving up. I thought as an adult, things would be simple. People would just get along. We’d be too busy working at piling up our extraordinary futures to waste even a second of our precious time doubting and hurting one another.

And now, life is not a line. Or mine isn’t. It wriggles and spirals and I find myself revisiting mistakes and feelings I thought I’d outgrown, when really, I’m not too old or too wise for anything.

C would take photos of everything. This was before the time of digital cameras, when my parents kept our old Leica M3 in a green shoe box behind a rack of suits and raincoats, and we only took it out once a year, on the eve of our seaside trip, when Dad would spend the evening dusting and polishing it to perfection, then placing it in its leather holder, a soft folded towel and on the bottom of his most trusted suitcase, safe from bumps and scratches and stray fingerprints.

But C, he had a camera of his own.

There must be tens of thousands of photos of me on these discs. Years of focusing, zooming and clicking, printing, then later scanning every print to write on CDs, some of which I’m sure I’ve misplaced in time and still, I’m left with enough to browse through for days. For an entire winter maybe, no sleep, no drinks, no liking Facebook statuses, just breathing in and out and staring into our past.

There’s a closeup under very bright lights, my cheek covered in cake frosting. A friend’s 18th birthday party and I’m sheepishly smiling, trying to pick icing out of my eyelashes, someone’s hand resting on my shoulder. Then I’ve got my back to the camera, looking towards the sea, my hair tangled in a messy knot, footprints in the sand. I’m in our classroom, sitting at a desk, going through a stack of crumpled papers. In the park, leaning against a bench, friends kicking a balled up t-shirt down the alley in front of me.

A few are of the two of us together. You can tell they’re not taken by the same hand, and that we’re aware of the lens being there. We look right into it, shoulders straight, hardly aware of one another. We’re children. Sure, I’m wearing mascara, he’s cleanly shaved, but we’re clearly new at this game we’re playing. We’ve lived through what we’re certain must be the most difficult times of our lives, and together. We’ve shared fears and secrets, and now we wait. For things to fall into place, I suppose. Backs straight! Say cheese! Click.

I like this story. I think about it, not just in autumn. I loved this person. There was once a person I loved, and there’s mountains of photographic proof of it. A cinema adapted version of this narrative would have us walk into the sunset together in the end. Perfectly happy, slowly blending into the background, and you’d know we’d be just fine.

In real life though, things sometimes fall into place in unexpected, new patterns.

*

Plans of carrying my baby cactus home during rush hour crazies suddenly break my train of thought. I find myself drifting to other subjects, present and of little consequence. Like what pot I’m going to transfer the poor thing into. What ledge I’ll be placing it on. Our badminton game tonight, the first in many months, and the prospect of sleeping at last, rain falling against our windows, a favored pastime these days.

It’s meant to be Wordless Wednesday today, and I smile. Another pattern broken.

This is Water

It’s been crazy, these days.

It feels like the natural ending of the above phrase is “but it’s fine now”. It’s been bad but we’re getting there. Hell on earth it’s been, but it’s quiet now. That’s what’s expected, from a sentence beginning rather badly, isn’t it? Some hope, a peaceful conclusion.

Oh well, it’s been crazy, these days, and it still is.

We’re not getting there, or if we are, we’re crawling at such a slow pace, like continents floating towards each other a hundredth of an inch a year. And it’s not quiet. It’s most definitely not quiet. It’s never been as unquiet before. It’s like every mouth and every engine and every car horn and, well, every object and every creature and every weather phenomenon capable of noise have made a deal to gather all their decibels in these couple of breaths of air where we kill our time. So no, it’s not quiet. We’re pretty much sleeping, sipping and breathing in the main hall of this factory running at maximum capacity. We hardly produce anything, but all the pieces of machinery huff and puff and rub blocks of metal together.

I’ve been sleepwalking through the week, struggling with my English, my hand to mouth coordination and remembering people’s names. And I’ve been thinking, this not-getting-enough-sleep thing has been with me for pretty much all of my adult life now, yet I still have hope it will go away at some point. When in fact I should probably just accept it as part of me by now, a part of my body I won’t manage to change without invasive surgery procedures, if at all. Like my freckles.

This is what I’ve grown into, a tired person with a spotted face, and it’s forever.

I carry my exhaustion across various London postcodes to the office. It makes sense. Being tired at home, hopelessly wide-eyed in your own bed, is pretty boring stuff, but forever yawning while leaning your exhaustion against a dusty keyboard makes you seem really cool. Like things, interesting things, ones that go on late into the night, happen to you. Like you’d have stories to tell, if only you weren’t too sleepy to form simple words.

My project is on hold so I’m spending my days turning it into this thing which will soon be able to land rockets on the Moon or something. Hours upon hours, headphones on, typing a million lines of code that end up making it half a millisecond or so faster, or fixing a bug no one’s able to reproduce but me, and only when the planets align in a certain way. I do it because work is among the few things I don’t feel anxious about these days, where I know every problem’s got a solution, and one no more than a few key presses away. It’s good to have things like that in life, that you can manage, so I guess I’m among the lucky ones.

Everything else is beyond my control. My now, my a minute from now, my tomorrow. I’ve started reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest a couple of days back, and I remembered one of his essays I’d read a few years ago. It begins jokingly…

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

…and goes on to describe a million annoying, tiresome, end-of-the-world-feeling things grownup life is made of, to then conclude:

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

 

Every hour or so, the guy sitting next to me, also safely sealed in his own music bubble, yanks his headphones off, stands, stretches and walks out for a smoke. I crave for these breaks of his, I get few distractions in this place. When he gets back, he carries with him a couple of healthy breaths of hand rolled cigarette flavour. I breathe them in. I haven’t touched one in years, and I don’t miss it, but the smell reminds me of a million nights and a million stories and a million people I’ve loved inside and out. A country and time I know for sure don’t exist anymore, what with all of us taking religious care of our bodies these days, and less of each other.

It may seem like it, but I’m really not nostalgic or depressed, or no more than usually. I guess it’s just the sleepwalking. It makes colors blur, shapes bleed into each other. Past, present, lived, imagined, they’re all part of the same foggy sky. Which reminds me.

I’ve got a window now. At work. I’ve got a real, three meters wide, dark framed window to stare into when there’s nothing interesting to look at through the tiny windows on my screen. I can’t believe I forgot to mention it, a window really is the most extraordinary thing, isn’t it? This one overlooks a slice of the parking lot, a yellow bricked office building and four trees. I look at them. The leaves are the size of sunflower seeds from where I sit, which I guess is close enough. They flutter. It will rain later, someone says, and that’s fine, what’s a little rain when it’s Friday the 13th and there have been no limb shattering tragedies and no heart breaks, and you’ve got trees to rest your eyes on, real trees, and the promise of sleep.

Rain’s just water anyway.

 


Writing Soundtrack: Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men

All About My Mother

For me, life began when I was in my twenties.

I remember it clearly, the moment the membrane cracked and I pushed my finger out. The kitchen table, mother’s hands pressing it down like it was just about to take off and start floating around us, complicating things even more. Every shadow on the walls, every speck of dust in the air, every word. I stood up, half expecting everything around me, chairs, pots, kitchen appliances, to open mouths I never knew they had, and bite at me.

Nothing happened really. No earth trembling, no tentacles reaching out from under the counters to tie my ankles down in a million sticky knots. I took one step, then another. She was still yelling by the time I reached the door. I didn’t slam it, but it felt like I did. It felt like I punched and kicked it and smashed it to bits, and the violence of the thought scared me. Perhaps there really was something wrong with me, I thought, but that possibility frightened me even more, so I quickly blinked it away, checked my watch again, and left. 14:06, a Sunday. Life begins.

My mother is a wonderful woman. Funny, well read, a brilliant doctor. She grows roses and has a beautiful singing voice. She cooks the best lasagnas and bakes the best ginger bread cookies. She has friends who love her and colleagues who admire her. She’s survived several life threatening episodes, a difficult marriage, and my teen years. I love her. I love her in a complicated way, and that’s fine, because I’m told all families are complicated, and all loves are complicated, and I’ve never pretended to be special in any way.

I’ve never written anything about her. I’ve rarely talked about her, in fact, so even my closest friends know very little about what growing up was like. Does that make me dishonest? I suppose so. But in all honesty now, though I have a million hopes and dreams and want countless new things from my life every day, there’s nothing I want more than being friends with my mother, and that makes me sad.

For the longest time, I didn’t want to have children. I’d launch myself head first into arguments on the subject, I’d serve my female friends and various boyfriends the speeches I’d rehearsed countless times before, I’d be relentless and perfectly convinced of the validity of my reasoning. It took me years to realize it wasn’t that I didn’t want, like, need children, but that I was terrified, obsessed, certain that I wouldn’t be a good mother.

I had no idea what being a good mother meant, of course. I’d only known one mother and I knew I didn’t want to be like her.

Seeing these words typed in a line here sure makes me feel like a horrible human being. Ungrateful. Guilty.

I mean, my mother was an amazing mother in so many ways. She never left my side. She watched over me during my many convalescences, she kept me clothed and fed, she bought me toys and books. She put me through my studies, she sent me on holidays. She taught me how to tie my laces, walk in high heels, cook, use a map. She taught me I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t funny. Hardworking enough, smart enough. Anything enough, really. I’d never have friends, success, a lover. I’d end up alone. Homeless. Begging for her help.

My mother taught me not to smile too much. My teeth were not my best feature. Not to talk too much. Girls like me would better know their place. Not to wear what I thought looked good on me. My “good” was everybody else’s “slutty”. Not to trust anybody. No reason why anyone would like me, surely they had some hidden agenda if they wanted to hang out with me. Not to hope, dare, try, want. They were for other people, these things. For prettier, bubblier, wife material girls who never slouched and never frowned and always listened to their mothers. All I could do was work hard in school. Get a job. Be grateful for her guidance.

I’m almost 30.

I no longer spend every waking moment wondering about everything. Second guessing every other decision, imagining hidden scenarios, looming dangers everywhere. I can look at myself in the mirror and be OK with not just the face, but the person looking back at me, and that’s a little miracle in itself. I’ve learned how to talk to people, how to say what I want, how to not burst into tears every time someone tells me I’ve done a good job. I’ve tried everything I’ve wanted to try. I say everything I want to say. I’ve turned into someone. An imperfect someone, of course. A someone my mother would have to knead into the right, perfect shape, if I was to make anything of myself in this world.

I took away her last chance to mold me into perfection when I moved to London.

Months later, she’d still be calling me in the middle of the night, crying. I’ll die, she’d say. I’ll die if you don’t come back right now. They’ll find me dead on the kitchen floor and you’ll learn of it over the phone, from a stranger. You’ll be happy then, won’t you. You’ll finally have killed me.

I’d hardly ever say anything. My cheek would sweat against the screen of the phone. When we’d hang up, I’d just sit there for a while. Sometimes V. would come and hold me, though it would be late, and we’d both be really tired and he’d have thought she’d have stopped calling a long time before anyway, but she hadn’t. I wouldn’t cry, I wouldn’t even blink. Maybe something really was wrong with me, I’d think, afraid I didn’t know how to even begin to live this life.

Pastel

We were 12, the girls and I. We’d squeezed together on a bench by the tracks. It was painted green and the paint was cracked, like all paints those days. The dust, brick red, and the runners advancing closely together, like they weren’t even competing. More like a group of equally vulnerable strangers fleeing en masse from some blockbuster natural disaster.

We had different colours. Patricia was the darkest. She was “fit”, they said, and turned their heads to watch her go when she walked down the halls in tight Lotus jeans and bright sleeveless tops. Everything looked bright on her skin.

Averything about Cristina was caramel themed. Her tan, her sweaters, her chapstick flavor. She was the brightest of our lot and knew it, she could figure out all the equations in record time and always had her hand up in class. Now she was dangling her feet and rubbing her left eye with a paper tissue. The dust was troubling her she said, but we knew. She’d started using mascara for a week or two and was still poking herself in the eye with the brush every morning. Patricia giggled, she didn’t need mascara, her eyelashes were as dark as they got.

We wouldn’t try it for another year, we’d decided, Iulia and I. She was untangling a piece of red string holding her keys together. Her fingers were long and pale, her nails unpolished. She was just right. She never yelled and never blushed and never said or did anything embarrassing, all the teachers liked her and all the boys loved her, even Patricia knew she was going to get all the marriage proposals in a couple of years, and she wasn’t even that fit, she was skinny and almost transparent and never managed to smile properly in any of our yearbook photos.

We’d been fighting. Almost like we were hating each other. And not even properly, out in the open honestly hating our guts but in secret, keeping our hates in our tiny pockets and tiny purses like lady fire arms, all shiny and new and toy like, but equally deadly. If only we could race it off, I thought. If only we did the running on the dusty track that day, not a bunch of sweaty high school boys who didn’t know we existed but who’d managed to get us out in the sun and together, peacefully together after so many spite filled episodes.

“We’re mean to each other.” – I whispered, swallowing loudly. There was hot dust in the air. Patricia was biting her tomato red fingernails, watching the race without blinking. The poplar trees were turning yellow in the sun. Several years later, they cut them all down and there was no place left to hide from everything.

Iulia was the first to get married. There’s a photo of the two of us on her wedding day, we’re both standing next to the men who loved us at the time, our backs straight and our curls perfect, and she’s smiling. Patricia had a son. He’s so amazing I bet all the pig-tailed girls in his kindergarten class think he’s fit. Cristina is an engineer. She is beautiful. She wears her hair shorter and her skin tanned and no makeup. I think she still keeps her hate in a pocket, and rubs it shiny with a soft cloth every time we meet. We seldom see each other. Things change after a race.

Iulia was tying the red string around her finger. “We’re only growing up.” – she said, just loud enough to be heard in the craziness that followed. Someone had won and was jumping around in a cloud of bloody dust, his fellow runners patting his back. Patricia leaped up screaming, clapping her tiny tomato painted hands. The paint was cracked. Some of the runners looked our way and smiled.