He said he was going to write a story about us. I took it seriously. Later I found out that it was. I was thrilled to hear that we could inspire someone to turn us into literature, even if no one would ever read it. Maybe some stories aren’t meant to be read.
The man didn’t even have a name. I asked, because I wanted to find him on the way back. He laughed at my plan and said we should come back to the village and ask for the craftsman; that’s what people called him. I turned to Kevin, but he wasn’t paying attention.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, irritated.
‘Going through the man’s stuff, what do you think I’m doing? Do you want something?’
‘Yes, I want you to hear this.’
‘Hear what, Ava?’
‘That he plans to write about us.’
Kevin finally glanced at the craftsman, laughed for a few seconds, and then turned back to the small wooden sculptures for sale. The craftsman’s eyes laughed as well. I was embarrassed, but he showed me that I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t imagine him laughing from the bottom of his heart, I thought. He just smiled and looked all peaceful and wise.
I was dying to hear about his idea, even if he’d forget it the moment Kevin and I returned to the van and drove on into the mountains. We were heading north for no reason. I said I wanted to get away from the city, and he pointed north. Soon we were on the road, and Kevin’s face looked happy for the first time in months.
Kevin looked at the abstract sculptures with genuine interest, but I knew he wouldn’t buy anything. I also thought I knew him inside and out at this point. His patience bought me more time to talk to the craftsman. Short of breath and excited at the thought of being seen through someone else’s eyes, I asked him what it would be.
‘Sharp prose,’ he replied.
I’d never heard of sharp prose. Again I turned to Kevin, but he still paid me no attention.
‘Leave him,’ said the craftsman.
‘Not like that, silly girl. Let him look.’
The craftsman winked at me, and I thought I knew why, but I wasn’t going to confirm it until later.
‘What’s sharp prose?’
‘Ah, I was waiting for you to ask that. Everyone wants to know.’
Everyone? His remark instantly dampened my enthusiasm.
‘It’s the kind of prose that cuts you like a knife to the flesh.’
‘Oh. Wonderful. When you read it or when you write it?’
‘What’s the difference?’ he smiled.
Kevin suddenly said we were going—of course.
‘What’s so inspiring about us?’ I asked, a little confused, mostly to myself.
I looked around, trying to clear my head and think of a better question. But there was no better question. We were the only ones who could know why stories should be written about us. Our wildest moments, followed by our longing for a safe place, with a glass in one hand and the world in the other; life and all the scraps of life that couldn’t inspire anyone because they were like treasures buried on a remote island, while this man had only ever seen the water.
We didn’t speak to each other, we didn’t even look at each other. Kevin was still playing with the little figurines, I was still angry with him for not being quite the mirror that a lover is said to be. How could that be inspiring? How could that say anything about the richness of our time together, about the gaps in our lives, about the length and the depth of our story?
I turned to the strange old man and looked him up and down. He’d write, no doubt, but would it be any good? Sharp prose suddenly didn’t sound interesting to me anymore. It couldn’t be true, even if it was good. It couldn’t be about us, really.
I went back to the van.
Days before, I woke up and opened my eyes as the sun shone through the blinds. The guys were talking next to me; she was laughing at his every joke. I closed them again.
I don’t like other people, I thought, they take too long. If it weren’t for them, I’d be in the mountains by now.
‘I knew you were awake,’ the other guy said. ‘I saw you.’
‘Wonderful. Thank you for waking me up for good.’
‘We have to go,’ Kevin called from the front of the van.
I lifted my head and looked at him, sharing a drink with the girl. She liked him, no doubt about it. You don’t share a drink with a guy if you don’t like him and want him to know it. As for Kevin, well…
‘What’s your girlfriend’s name?’ I whispered to the other guy.
He smiled and looked at her. His face was in the sunlight, and I couldn’t stop staring at his skin, his jaw, his lips.
‘She’s not my girlfriend,’ he whispered back.
He had his own music and insisted on playing it. It sounded good and put me in a good mood. Soon we were on our way again. I sat with her in the back seat. She told me they were going nowhere when her car broke down halfway. He turned and smiled at us. I understood exactly what that meant. I told them that Kevin and I had been there, and that this was our great escape from it. They both laughed and nodded their heads.
It was still early when we went into the coffee shop. Kevin asked me a question and I agreed. It turned out that I’d agreed to the first stop of the day. We went in for breakfast and the other girl sat down next to him. I didn’t mind at all.
At first I didn’t know their names and wanted to ask, but as time went on I became more and more embarrassed. When Kevin agreed to take them, I paid no attention to what they said. They were strangers joining our road trip, and I could only hope they’d leave us alone soon. Kevin laughed at my worried face and said we had left to have fun and this was exactly what we were doing. Strangers, however, weren’t my idea of fun. He told me to loosen up. I locked myself in my head and threw the key out the window.
But the next morning, our travel companions seemed to have found it. I felt more and more attracted to him while my Kevin and his almost-lover were also chatting away. To this day, I’ve no idea what they ever talked about.
I’ll call him R. I found out later what his name was, but it’s not relevant to the story. In my mind, he’ll always be a black smudge with a white R in the middle, like a landmark on the road.
R was friendly, charming, and smelled of newness, of rain on the roof and instant coffee and freshly cut grass. My quest for perfection stopped at him for a while. He told us he didn’t want to be anywhere but on the open road. He longed for the pure feeling that only being away from what hurts can bring. I wanted to know what hurt, but he said it was different for everyone, and I could quietly think about my story for a while; in the end it would feel just the same.
He had a story he didn’t want to tell, and while his girl and Kevin were fine with that, it made me curious and impatient. R laughed at me and said that mind wandering wasn’t the same as travelling. This mind wandering would eventually tie my arms and legs together and force me to live inside, and that was what scared him the most. I frowned at his fear and thought to myself that although he was wonderful from afar, up close he was stubborn, unapproachable and difficult to love.
‘I think I’d like to know who you are,’ I said to him.
‘Then get to know me,’ he said. ‘I don’t need to tell you stories. Look at me, and you’ll see everything you need. The rest are just that: stories. Fractured realities with a touch of fantasy.’
I tried to sleep that night, but nothing; and then everything, all at once. I turned over, and R was sleeping peacefully next to the girl on my left. Kevin was further back, fidgeting in his sleep. I, on the other hand, was awake no matter what, so I grabbed my jumper and headed outside.
The air was stronger up there. I lay in the grass, counting the stars and thinking about the trip. I must’ve spent hours in the back of my mind, with an imaginary bottle of red wine and dark sunglasses, while the stampede of what-ifs had its fun in front of me.
R was different from me, in a way I couldn’t understand. He didn’t want to accept the burden of definitions that life had given him, while I couldn’t help thinking otherwise. He began where I ended, and the fine line between us were the boundaries we couldn’t live with, or without.
That night my head was spinning for hours. I liked R and wanted to figure out how to show him that. But eventually, I came to the conclusion that I only liked him because I wanted to be more like him. Kevin was too much like me, and he’d been with me too long. The intruder was fresh and exciting, but he didn’t remind me of myself in any way, which meant that hating him would have been harder—but loving him would have been even harder.
The next morning, after we’d breakfast, R and the girl told us they wanted to be alone again. We were in the craftsmen’s village when they asked us to stop. They wanted to spend the night there and continue the next day. I asked them what their next stop would be; they both said they were still going nowhere, and laughed together.
Kevin and I looked at each other and knew it wasn’t real. She didn’t have a crush on him, just like he didn’t have a crush on me. They were just a glimpse into another world, and it was fascinating to watch and fantasise a little. But longing for the new is often pointless, for the new is rarely new, and it almost never stays that way for long. Kevin and I saw an illusion moving away from us, and quietly decided not to mention it again.
‘What would the main theme be?’ I asked him.
I got bored of sitting in the van all by myself. Kevin, as predicted, was not ready to go. He said so, then changed his mind and kept looking. And then, of course, he still would not buy anything.
‘Alienation,’ he said, without even blinking. ‘I am glad you came back. I have already thought about what the first paragraph should be.’
I rolled my eyes.
A few more minutes passed before I grabbed Kevin and told him it was already late and dark outside. I could not wait to finally enjoy our trip the way we should have from the beginning. The man waved goodbye and reminded me to visit him again. I, on the other hand, was determined not to and thanked him but said I was not interested.
‘You should be,’ he told me. ‘After all, it is a story about you.’
‘You mean about us,’ I said, pointing to Kevin, who was standing next to me, still looking at the figures.
‘No, I said I’d write about you. Look me when you get back, will you?’
Kevin laughed at the strange man and so did I, but then—wait. Not only was he going to write a story about me and only me, but he had also kind of already started it. I asked him if he could write it on the spot. Unsurprisingly, I think, he smiled and said he’d be right back, then went inside.
Kevin and I had a quick lunch in the van, keeping an eye on the little house. Finally, about twenty minutes later, the craftsman came out with a folded note in his hand and handed it to me. He told me to read it and come by on the way back and say hello to him. He would try to write something else. I was a different kind of muse, he said.
‘Different how?’ I asked, putting the note in my pocket.
‘You’ll read everything I have figured out so far. The rest will come to me, dear girl,’ he ended and waved goodbye while still close to me.
‘There are two strangers in front of my house. They are strangers to each other. One is Ava, the one who doesn’t belong. She doesn’t want to be here, in the north, in her body. She doesn’t want to be in the presence of someone else. She sits next to her lover, a man she is not herself around. Ava is quiet and evasive. She has many secrets left in places she has now forgotten. They are all inside her, she just can’t remember how to get to them. Ava is irrational and seductive, like a blurred vision of a promised land. She is not the promised land; she is the blur.
Ava doesn’t know she is a stranger; she thinks she is her lover’s lover. But she is running after herself, and away from him. Her lover doesn’t know how much of a stranger Ava is to him, after all. I tried to capture her soul, and when I could not, I thought I’d lost my ability to look beyond the surface and write about what matters. Ava is dust floating through the air in the sunlight. She is so soft, so light, so lost. She can’t be grabbed by the heart and put on paper. She has run out of essence. She is a stranger to herself, too.
But I like Ava, and I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t. She is light and beautiful. I can see her at a jazz concert, her brown, thin fingers around a beer bottle, her presence opening doors to another world. She moves slowly through the aquarium of emotions in which she is caught, to the rhythm of the music. Men try to buy her another drink as she dances on alone. Soon she is one with the night, oblivious to the others. This is how I see Ava reunited with herself—burning on the inside, icy cold on the outside. A stranger to all but the lost and found self she moves further and further into before they can know her again.
As the water cools down, she starts laughing with the others at the bar, but her heart is still beating fast, still steaming. This is Ava at her best: lovable, with no boundaries other than the ones she sets for herself. At her worst, she has no roots and no substance. She is her lover’s lover without loving herself first and him second. A light presence that has a hard time being present in her world, her time, her self. A mixture of unrefined particles carried from here to there by their own storms, like snow carried up into the air in wintertime.’
Suddenly I felt Kevin’s touch on my shoulder.
‘Well, what is it?’
‘I… it’s sharp prose.’
‘What now?’ he asked, amused.
‘It’s the kind of prose that cuts you like a knife to the flesh.’
‘When you read it, when you write it, and when you live it,’ I muttered to myself.
I lifted my head and he was looking at me as if I had lost my mind while reading.
‘Give me that,’ he said, but I tore the paper in half and threw it away. ‘Why did you do that?’
I put my head out the car window to take a deep breath and cool down. The wind was even stronger. Kevin’s hand was on my back, pulling me inside.
‘Do you want to go back?’ he asked in a serious voice.
I thought that, no matter what the craftsman thought he saw in me an hour ago, the last thing I wanted was for Ava and Kevin to be strangers. He had undoubtedly gotten a few things right. But stories are not static, and I was not just that. And if I learned anything at all from our new friends, it’s that stories are fractured realities with just a hint of fantasy. You can never take them too seriously, and you can not mistake them for the whole truth. Look at me and you’ll see everything you need to, I told myself, watching my smile grow in the rearview mirror; and Kevin, sitting next to me, focused on the road.
‘Never,’ I said.
‘Then I’ll just keep driving and close the window when it gets too cold. And tell me what the old man wrote about, will you?
‘Never,’ I said again and laughed.
‘Then I’ll have to go back and get my own story,’ he smiled.
‘I’ll take care of yours,’ I said. ‘I’ll make it even better. And maybe a little less sharp.’