I found myself getting up each morning scared of the state in which I would return to bed at night. Straitening the covers and kissing my stuffed animal goodbye became some sort of ritual, a prayer maybe, for God to bring me back safe, as if I was embarking on a monthlong sea journey every time I left. Somewhere during my stay, the day had become more frightening than the night. Perhaps this is why I flooded many of them with music and vodka and careless kisses from strange men I didn’t find attractive. After those nights, I would return home walking with the first rays of sunshine on my back, feeling tired and full. I would sleep before my head touched the pillow and I would sleep till noon. Then I would get up and wash the night of my face, relieved, feeling like I dodged a bullet.
It was in that period my mother died. I hadn’t seen or talked to her since I left for the islands and her death didn’t cause any particular distress. Not wanting to be a cold-blooded daughter however, I did try crying a couple of times. But I could never shake the feeling that these tears were meant for others, that the woman who gave birth to me and raised me with infinite effort was only a minor character in the story of my life. While others left me feeling shattered, her death felt more like an inconvenience. And in the end I could not even feel ashamed about my indifference.
The news was brought by letter, as all news was. The envelope that The Institutions had sent had one of those plastic windows through which I could read my name and address printed on the letter itself. Sending mail was easier that way. The letter contained a brief report of an accident which had resulted in two deaths, one of which was my mother. At the bottom there was a strip of paper that could be torn of and sent back to my father and sister, who lived with her at the time. Printed on it was the text “Our deepest condolences!” with also a small empty box where you could fill in an amount of money you would wish to donate to the grieving family. There was also a picture of a white lily on it. I remember staring at it, I think I smiled for a moment but it has been too long to be sure. Two days later, the letter from my father came. I could tell it had taken him a long time to write, even though it wasn’t even half a page long. I could also tell he was sad but even more lost, rudderless without the compass that my mother had always been. He didn’t talk about my sister, nor how she felt. Could be he hadn’t noticed yet that there were others sharing his grief. He sometimes believed to be the only one capable of great suffering. Maybe he was. I remember the feeling of my heart dropping, not while reading the letter, but imagining him writing it, sitting alone at his desk, his face lit blue by the screen of the computer, not even sure he knew how to hold a pencil now that there was no one there anymore to ask, if he ever would be in doubt. I kept the letter laying on the kitchen table for a couple of days, without trying to write an answer. I wasn’t even sure he expected one. A week later another letter came, where he asked me to read something at the funeral that would be held two days later. He already sounded more business-like, still hurt but functioning yet again. After having sat with the paper in my hands for a couple of minutes I tore of the strip from the first letter that had come and wrote the number twenty-five in the empty box. Then I went out and bought a medium sized bag of chocolate coated peanuts. With the strip stapled to the bag, I left them both at the local post office. This was the only answer I ever gave to both letters. I imagined my father sitting in his chair at night, watching an old war documentary, eating the peanuts straight from the bag, the paper with the lily on it lying next to him. I knew he loved chocolate covered peanuts.
I could have gone to the funeral, travel was allowed for circumstances like that. But for some reason not many people actually took advantage of this privilege. We liked to stay put at that time. So I didn’t go. My father never spoke about it afterwards, but I didn’t feel like he was feeling sad or disappointed about my absence. His letters became longer and plane again, as before, he said he wasn’t happy but never that he was unhappy. As before. I remembered hoping he would chose to move away, as I did, finally discovering that being unhappy wasn’t a character trait you were born with. But then again, maybe he was.
I never regretted my choice of moving to the islands, which was the place where most extraverted chose to go, with small apartments and large gardens where exorbitant parties were held that sometimes lasted for days, swallowing and spitting out people that were all smiles and fancy dresses. We all drank too much. And we all denied it. During the day we greeted each other, on street corners and in bars, there was always energy to spare. It floated in the air and pooled in our minds, I felt like if everything here ever went silent we would hear the crackling sound of electricity. Everything on the islands was always loaded, stretched out, ready for whatever life would throw at you. I remember moments I felt like a flower, opening under the sun, and others of feeling like a crushing weight rested on my shoulders. These last feelings weren’t desirable on the islands, and would get me exiled if I expressed them too much, so when they came I stayed home, afraid someone would read unhappiness in my steps or the way I styled my hair that day. I would stay in and sit on the floor, sometimes for days, accepting the suffering in his greatness and groundlessness. It was unbearable but somehow bearable. And after some time the feelings would pass, more or less, and I would go about my days, and nights, as before, restlessly chasing the happiness that felt like it always dangled right in front of me but never came any closer. I felt like we all did that on the islands. Fluttering like moths to a flame, only to get burned before we reached the magic that was the light.
A couple of months after my mother died the rain came. It hardly ever rained and it felt like it was the end of something. Without the sunlight to highlight it all, our permanent ecstasy didn’t feel in place anymore and we found ourselves slowed down. Plants turned greener and grew higher and the rivers swelled to sizes we never saw before. The world inflated like a balloon. I remember taking long walks, passing bridges across the river that was close to my home, as to prove that even though it got bigger, I still could reach its other side. I would return home with wet hair and sore legs, smelling like the rain. A smell that would linger in my apartment for hours after I had returned. Sometimes friends came over and we talked and drank and sang and listened to the water pouring down on the roof. We knew that this would pass, that after, there would be sun again, more than we could ever need. But still, for the first time I could distinguish some kind of agony on people’s faces from time to time. Like a glitch. It would flicker in their eyes for a couple of seconds, matting out the sparkle, before they would retain themselves. Laugh extra hard at the next joke that was told. Refill their crystal glasses with bourbon. Time passed. And our youth pooled in the gutters like leftover confetti.
Doreen came to see me more often during those rainy months. I don’t know if she was worried about me. I didn’t like it when people worried about me, it made me feel as if I was someone people should worry about and I had worked very hard to not be someone people should worry about. Doreen was my friend, I would even call her my best friend but I wasn’t sure she would describe me as such. We met at a party or in a bar, I forgot the exact occasion, a year after I moved. I only remembered our eyes meeting and her smiling, her face like the moon. That night I returned home euphoric, singing and skipping, feeling like if I took a deep breath I could swallow the world hole. After that night we saw each other every week, sometimes every day, eating strawberries in parks or gossiping while doing laundry. She had a way of making any activity exciting. In the morning she would spent hours picking out clothes and making up her face to go buy apples or drop something off at the post office or pick up her dry cleaning. And then she would call me and tell me about it, as if her life had just been changed forever doing groceries. I always listened, smiling, picturing her lying on the fluffy carpet that occupied the whole floor of her studio, with her legs crossed, playing with the phone wire, clipping the phone between her ear and shoulder. I had never loved someone like that before.
One day Doreen came storming in, sighing and vigorously shaking water from a large black umbrella. She stopped herself in the middle of my room, dripping on the wooden floors, like a clock that ticked slower with each droplet. “What are we going to do?” she asked in the most dramatic manner and she raised her arms up as if trying to grasp an answer in thin air. Her words floated around the room for a while, I wasn’t sure if she expected a lunch suggestion or a life altering proposition of some sort. She looked at me and tilted her head “Did you change your hair?”. After that, we went out for coffee, holding each other’s hand reassuringly, and she smiled when she looked at me and we felt safe. The water had dropped something down on her, on us, but just as swiftly washed it away, and she never asked me that question again.
The rain didn’t go. Not for a whole year. We were getting nervous. It became more difficult to smile, everything felt slightly heavier. The Institutions sent us cards with funny images and inspirational quotes, which we were to hang on our fridge’s doors. I didn’t talk about the rain in my letters to my father, I knew he would not understand the distress the never ending water caused. Where he lived it was always cold. I didn’t miss that. In fact I didn’t miss a single thing about my former home. I wasn’t even sure I missed my father but I knew I loved him all the more. I loved him from a far, as you love a character from a book or an animal in the zoo. In my mind he worked in the garden and called friends and drank beer with his dinner and it was like I was with him and that was enough for me. He never smiled. I was happy he never smiled. I thought that if he did, his absence would actually become too painful and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I could never not be with my smiling father. We never talked about our nervousness of course. The islands were for happy times. The parties kept going, the liquor kept flowing, we kept on laughing and dancing and our skirts waved to music and hasty paces as they ever had before. But a certain distance grew between us all. Like a crack in ice restlessness spread through our lives, ominous and uncontrollable. In the pauses between conversations I could see people’s eyes flashing back and forth. We became haunted.
Emigrations were not allowed. They used to be, under special circumstances, but it wasn’t really done before. Whenever Doreen slept over, she would sometimes whisper about it to me, lying on her back with her eyes wide open in the darkness of the room. That she wanted out, that she wasn’t who they wanted her to be. I could feel her disappointment about that. I reassured her that she was, even though I didn’t really know who she thought they wanted her to be. She would move uneasily when I said that to her, as if the mould I had made of her literally didn’t fit. And when she fell asleep I would lie awake next to her, feeling a heaviness pressing me into the matrass, wondering about what would become of us, now that the foundations on which we were supposed to be building our identities had become infirmed by endless rain.
About two months into the rain I went to the white shores. It was hotter there and busier. Gulliver, a friend I met at a pottery workshop someday, had an apartment there overlooking the coast line which he wanted to show me. He had invited me over the phone, enthusiastically boasting about the salty breezes and exotic-looking flowers. He had kept on talking for hours, making me almost forget about his invitation when he eventually hung up and I had to write down the date because it felt more like another story of his than an actual invitation. When I arrived I saw there were others as well, a lot of them, standing in front of windows or lying on the beflowered couches that were randomly placed in the living room. A tall man was carving ice from a one meter by one meter block with a letter opener. He was sweating and his cheeks had a rosy red colour, making him look younger than I thought he was. I felt drawn to him, like when you are drawn to a book in the library, its cover convincing even though there might as well be nothing inside. I looked at him for hours, letting my eyes flutter over to him while he was having conversations or carving more ice and I felt restless. Rain flew in through the open windows but we didn’t care. We drank. Gulliver gave me a blue coloured pill, which I took whole. It made the evening flow, like a river, and everything seemed to change shape underneath my daze. I loved it. I threw myself on one of the sofas and let my head rest on it, staring at the shadows that danced on the ceiling. They were watching over us like angels. The tall man came sitting next to me and I felt a warmth coming from him that was different from the humid evening heat. I liked him even more when he looked at me. We talked for hours, blowing words to the ceiling like exhaled smoke. And when the first morning light came, he put his arms around me and pulled me to him and I imprinted myself onto him like a stamp. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought about him since that moment. The rest of our stay we were together. Every time I looked at him I felt at ease, as if there was a world between us that was only ours, and I imagined telling someone about it and them not believing me, because it was just too wonderful. When we left the shores he kissed me and said that he would leave the islands as soon as he could. He held my hand while he said that and I knew that I had given him all of me and he had known. He had let me. And I couldn’t bring myself to be heartbroken over him, as he was just anyone. It had been my love that had made him special and I decided in that moment that there were better things to give than love. When I got off the train that evening I walked home and left my soaked clothes lying on the bathroom floor for a week. I had to throw them out eventually, to get rid of the smell.
Afterwards I wondered if the whole thing had just been a dream, an illusion my drugged mind made up after taking whatever it was that Gulliver gave to me. I told Doreen about it and she said that men like that always were an illusion, whether they were imagined or real. She said it like it was a mathematical certainty and I laughed and she kissed my forehead. I wondered what experiences Doreen might have had that made her think this way but I didn’t ask about it. Doreen was my perfect little doll, dressed in excitement and wit. I didn’t want to see whatever it was that was hiding underneath.
New worries had settled into us, like maggots. They crawled in our eroded bodies. There was no way out for them, as there was no way out for us. Whenever Doreen wasn’t with me or I with her, we would talk on the phone, for hours on end, having conversations that would turn in circles, until one of us eventually got sick and had to hang up. The phone became the centre of gravity of my room, as Doreen had once been when I met her that first night, but now there was nothing uplifting about her enormous presence. Whenever the phone rang, the room grew smaller and I grew more estranged. The same conversations didn’t feel familiar. I wanted to talk to my father. There was no way, phones were only connected inside regions. I stopped writing him letters, it seemed pointless. Sometimes I imagined him on the other side of the line, whenever I was talking to Doreen or some other friend, but my imagination never reached far enough to actually satisfy my cravings. I felt totally empty, a balloon let loose and swiftly exhaling every last bit of air that it had held a moment ago. I drifted through time and space, weightless, and wondered if there would ever be someone to pull me back down, as I could not imagine being able to myself.
And then the rain stopped. We didn’t notice at first, it was night and we were drunk. I had fallen asleep on the couch of someone I had met the night before but I didn’t know his name. I hadn’t asked. There was music playing in the back. Light was falling on my face from somewhere above, I had slept all morning. An open door let in a cool breeze, making the curtains that hung in front of it languidly sway back and forth. I could hear people running about in the garden, flirty giggles floated in the air like dandelions. I felt lighter when I got op, as if a part of me had dissolved during the night, leaving less body to resist my movements. The curtains felt warm when I moved them aside, heated by the afternoon sun and I knew the rain was finally over. The garden was a warren of movement and sound, I could feel the vibrations of excitement tingling at my fingertips. Time was ours again, to do with as we pleased and I felt as if the last limits to our euphoria had washed away with the last drops that fell from the sky that night.
I found Doreen sitting with two men by the side of the garden lake. She was moving her feet in and out of the water, occasionally splashing water on one of them and laughing theatrically as she did. I hesitated before I decided to join her, not sure if the script she was playing included me. She smiled at me as I sat down beside her and I felt like I was the only person in the world she could smile to like that, joy spreading over her face like freshly spilled coffee. We did not mention the rain. We just laughed and talked, our faces lifted to the sky until the sun had burned our noses and cheeks. And when we went home deep into the night, with dry mouths and stinging faces, we felt like the last problem in the world had been resolved. I remember this strange feeling, of being a part of a finished puzzle, not knowing what the image looked like. That maybe all I was, I was for others and in that moment I didn’t know what to do with myself.
And now the rains are over. We do not sleep anymore, celebrating each night like mad men. I stay in strangers houses, my bed doesn’t feel safe anymore. Doreen’s whispers of despair still lie crumpled up in the sheets. In the night, I tell these strangers the most intimate secrets and then I kiss them goodbye in the morning, relieved I will never see them again. They stroke my cheek or chin when I lie next to them and stare into my eyes when I tell them about my father or Doreen, they want me to know they understand. I make them good people and they love it. But I know there is no truth between us, only act. And when I leave they will tear off the sheets of their beds and go to lunch with their friends, and come home having forgotten everything.
Nights feel like days and days feel like dreams. I can’t bear to be alone anymore. The series of parties has become one never-ending party, spitting garlands and champagne like cherry pits. I dance and run, others do it with me and we breathe lungs full of ecstasy. They love me, all of them. And with them, I do too. And tomorrow I know I can be different, if I wanted to, if they wanted me to. I would be happier, prettier, wittier. I would jump of mountains and cross rivers and smile as if there was no place I would rather be than with you. And you would love yourself because you know I do, and that would make all the difference.
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