It’s summer, dark and quiet up here. Imagine the heat, the lights, the noises – and the girl, curled up on the black wooden chair, chin on her knees, absently looking out over the city.
I bend over the table for the pack of cigarettes and take one out. I’d ask her to join me, but I’m not in a rush to get her talking. I know we have all night, which is strange and exciting all at once.
Exciting because she has that je ne sais quoi that can only be found in someone’s eyes, or sadness, or intensity. I look at her and it’s everywhere. It is my second nature to watch people when they’re out of their comfort zone; that’s how I get a feel for my stories. But with her, the more I try to catch that something to put on paper, the more I end up caught in that something else. What something else? Je ne sais quoi, honestly.
Strange because she said over the phone than she can’t think straight during the day, so we agreed on doing the interview after midnight. I have never done this before, so I’m trying hard not to think about how deeply unprofessional it must look like.
As I light up and lean over the balcony, she lets out a heavy sigh.
“You know, Jax,” she says, her voice soft and melodic, “if I can make you take pauses while you read me, go back a few lines and take my words in all over again, I’m happy.”
“Of course,” I nod. “Who wouldn’t be –”
“But if I can make you look for a cigarette after you put the book down, fill your lungs with smoke and spend five minutes on cloud nine, that means that I did my absolute best. That means the world to me, you know?”
I turn my head over my shoulder and look her up and down. She looks dreamy. I do not know how I will unlock her thoughts later.
“Don’t you do your best every time?” I try, hoping to at least catch her on the wrong foot.
“Don’t be stupid.” she laughs.
“You are a journalist, Jax. You are supposed to ask better questions.”
Again I want to reassure her, for the hundredth time since I entered her apartment, that my questions will be reasonable and her answers can, eventually, be turned around a bit. After all, the public knows her as a good upcoming writer and I have no intention of making her look a mess.
“Alright,” I say. “You got me, that was a bad question, but it wasn’t part of the interview. I think it would be best to get to know each other first. One look at you and I can tell you don’t like formal either. And look at me,” I point at my ridiculous attire, “smoking my interviewee’s cigarettes here at one in the morning. I can’t look like a serious journalist to you,” I laugh, nervously. “So why can’t we just have a conversation?”
She moves her head in my direction, lifts her eyes up and stares at me blankly for a little while.
“You are right, you definitely don’t,” she says in a firm voice, then goes back to staring into the distance.
For a minute, I wanted to believe that I had built a bridge there, but sooner than I expected she went back to her passivity and oblivion and I, as clueless as before, back to enjoying my cigarette. Well, hers.
She doesn’t look like the kind of girl that can be read through the lines in one night, and that’s disappointing for the journalist in me, and refreshing and intriguing for the man I am.
I lay my head back and let summer drip down my fingers.
Oh, how I love bad timing! – and the sound of him, moving slowly across the room, careful not to make a noise and break the spell.
I’ve seen the best and worst of 1am, and this is definitely among the best. Sure, not the driving down highways with my head out the window kind of best, nor the hiding under covers with someone I love and pulling down all my walls one. Being close to him tonight doesn’t give me an adrenaline rush or a love underlined, but it gives me the soft good in between. You know, like a sense of self so strong, like digging my toes into the shoreline and knowing that the sea will keep me safe. I know the night will keep me safe. I trust myself at night, even with talking to a stranger whose job is to rewrite me in the morning.
When the sun is up I always find it hard to tell my story. There is something about sunlight, especially in August – it is consistent, enslaving. It has that quality of renewal, of vibrancy, of vitality. It leaves no time for the mind to slow down. Some mornings I find myself alive and don’t know what to do about it. It’s why I spend most summer days lost in words, sucked in, swimming. This is serenity to me, the rare substance that melts my walls and lets me dive into the depths.
Down there I find my solid gold, straight magic and the conviction that the people out here, at the surface of the imagination, are wrong. They leave claw marks onto everything they touch and cry out their wild desire to be chainless. When they ask me if I ever write about them I nod my head, absently. I write about myself, in infinite shapes and sizes. In my ideal world, they wouldn’t make good characters. All my stories are about the girl I’ll never be, the girl I almost am; even the ones about other people.
Rain taps gently on their skin. I’ve got thunder in my heartbeats.
I am out of line. The substance flowing through my veins isn’t hot blood, it’s quicksilver.
The inner world I plunge in blots out the time of day and sends shivers down my spine when I capture its essence, ready to sift it through my fevered imagination. That is the moment of spiritual fire. That is the hallmark of a writing rockstar. I am going that way, all engines burning.
I ask her if she wants to go inside. She says that the balcony is just fine, that she’s not a fan of closed spaces. I try to keep that in mind until I get the chance to take some notes, and ask her what she is a fan of.
Her face lightens up and her lips curl into a smile as she starts counting happy makers on her fingers. I follow the subtle moves up in the air, wishing I could track the twists and turns of her thoughts just the same.
You know when you turn eighteen and forget what seventeen felt like? That’s how the sight of her makes me feel.
Friends would ask me why and I couldn’t tell them. They would laugh at me like you’d laugh at a fool almost in love. Readers would ask themselves the same question – what is so special about this girl with hazel eyes and a nice feel for words that makes me describe her as out of this world? She’s just a writer girl, after all.
But I’d write the palpable truth only, that she is young and beautiful and witty, someone worth looking at for years to come. I find myself smiling. Her expression is promising, inviting. I know it’s a lie, but I can’t wait for her to start talking.
Suddenly it hits me that I haven’t read one page of her book. I make a promise to myself that as soon as I wake up I’ll run to the nearest bookshop, buy her book and spend the rest of tomorrow reading it. Only then I’ll put my article together.
“Speed!” she says without blinking, turning to me. “Yes, I love speed.”
“You love speed?” I ask, choking on my words, on my thoughts.
I had my mind made up about her – she likes to take her time, she breathes easily, she chews on her food, she’s got a good mastery of peace and quiet – spicy as she might look like. There is an aura or calmness around her. She is not in a rush to become her better self, like the rest of us. She is already there.
She shakes her head and looks excited.
“Alright,” I say, seemingly cheerful, “what is it about speed that –”
“It’s wonderful!” she says and leans back again, crossing her arms behind her head, feet on the coffee table, looking all satisfied with her choice.
I know this is a good time to start taking notes, and hurriedly look for pen and paper in my pocket.
“Speed is like this carousel of ferry lights, laughy voices, common sense, heartbreak and wild dreams, all mixing up and blurring together into days worth dying for. It leaves no time to be too shy or too safe. I love that!”
I stop looking for pen and paper.
“Speed, in life, is like having written a masterpiece for writers. Imagine having fire in your prose and poetry, and lips, and fingertips, blowing over you like winds and waves. Ah I love writing, but I love life so much more.”
I can’t tell if I envy her inner flames or just want to get off at the next stop and write a short blog post about the food and the architecture.
“I love the open road. It’s the modernised promise of perhaps getting to the end of the rainbow. I love white! Imagine a white canvas in front of you – a blank, white canvas.”
“Ok,” I say. “What about it?”
“You tell me. What does it make you feel?”
I scratch my head, nervously, as I realise that the mental image of a white canvas is supposed to trigger some emotion – but it doesn’t, and so I just stand there, looking stupid. She takes one good look at me before making sure she shows her disgust. I get angry with my own self.
“Come on, what’s the catch?” I ask, annoyed.
“You fool,” she mumbles, “you might be working in the industry, but you’ll never be a good writer.”
“What?” I shout, outraged. “Where did this come from?”
“You might be good with words, but definitely not with ideas. You mix together like oil and water.”
“Hey now. Don’t change the subject. What was it about that white canvas that…”
But as she keeps to herself, my mind starts unwrapping her words and before I realise, I’m not really angry.
The truth is that she might be right. I never claimed to be a good writer. In fact I write because, as a journalist, I must. I’d much rather talk to people and listen to their stories than make the puzzle back at the office. She, on the other hand, looks like someone who writes stories to send herself to sleep. And she doesn’t just fit the pieces back together, no. She creates them.
I can’t help a hint of jealousy at the thought of someone being able to draw their mind like that.
This is when I think I know what she loves about a white canvas.
“A white canvas,” she eventually interrupts my thoughts, “is where things are yet to happen, so you are still to choose the outcome. A white canvas is the place of all possibilities, where anything you can imagine is real. A white canvas is airy and light and lets you move free and live loud. A white canvas is my definition of the happy ending, I guess, because endings too start at the beginning.”
I understand that tonight, I am a hint of warmth, and she is warmth. Her book will probably leave me speechless in the morning.
I suppose that I let a secret bit of myself slip out when I told him what my definition of everlasting happiness is – the constant thrill of the new start. And it’s funny, because I realise what I’m doing. I’m contouring a whole new self in front of him, the self we both seem to like best. I know that, because I can see him falling for the girl he thinks I am. The most selfish of me wants to go along those lines he traces and fill them up in his favourite colour, to make sure he falls for good.
If only he knew that I don’t take new starts with my coffee in the morning, but I make them later in the afternoon, in between my stories.
If only he knew that I write so I can feel, because if I allowed myself to feel like I write, it would mean setting myself on fire and watching my years burn.
Suddenly, he comes at my end of the table and shows me to get up. He puts his hands on my shoulders and locks eyes with me. I know that gaze. I have seen it before. It’s hungry and unreliable. It’s the gaze of a man whose vibrations and chances would go up or down a level, depending on mine. It’s the look in the eyes of a man I could read off a grocery list before spitting out “I love you too” one day. He is the man who would end up telling me that he wishes I’d speak to him as I write, that he wants to date the other version of me, that I’m less than I advertise. The man who would end up coordinating my movements, my heartbeats, my weather report, who would crawl into my veins and replace my lava with his perfume, who would pull my eyelids up at night and refuse to let me go back to sleep. It’s the gaze of a man I could both love and hate and I’d be unable to find a shade of difference between one and the other. A man who would drive me insane, not metaphorically, but in real bloody life, who would alter me so badly that he would end up being the one to scribble my last artistically viable words and seal the letter.
There is a saying about the calm before the storm. I had always thought of myself as the calm before the calm storm, or the calm before the drizzle. Or the calm before two white, fluffy clouds appear on the sky and turn pink with the sunset. But I underestimated the storm forming in my blood cells, because I was the calm before the apocalypse. And when it came, it asked no one. It hit me hard, like I deserved it. It showed me what writing can do for me, that no man on Earth could.
Writing made me tick like nothing ever did. When I began, my demons stopped speaking over me. Writing took my hand and walked me to those monsters, and made them come alive and walk to my beat. As soon as I decided what that beat would be, the monsters stopped torturing me and turned into strong characters and wilder chapters instead. I got to raise the hell within me and wear it proudly on a sleeve. My hell. My rich and alive imagination, like a rainforest with carnivore flowers and mellow, hypnotic music in the background that I used to dread like the longest, darkest hours of the nights when I couldn’t get any sleep. My imagination, I decided, I was going to use it until it bled and shouted that it needed rest, and then I was going to use it some more. Because, despite all, watching my imagination unfolding is like watching God at work – the best part of me, giving its best. Heavenly.
That’s when I decided I like the storm, the speed, and the chaos the most.
I look at him and think of how I’ll take this 2am. and turn it into vivid dreams tomorrow. But tonight – snap and I’m back to myself, whoever that might be – and that’s the beauty of it.
After all, it’s not flesh and bones I want from life, but words. Words, to still my monsters and make me be the best that I can be. The ability to ask people to listen to this page I’m writing in my head as we speak, as we move, as we live.
She’s lying on the carpet with a cigarette in her hand, twisting her hair on her fingers. She tells me that nature creates man and then it abandons him. That people’s free will is like every other muscle in the body – left unused, it atrophies in time. That sometimes, the full is empty, and other times, the empty is full.
A wool blanket covers her lap. We left the balcony door wide open. I’m taking notes on the large sofa next to it. The night air is stronger now and my back feels cold, so I’m starting to lose focus. I end up interrupting her.
“Do you believe in what you’re saying?” I ask.
She bursts into a very feminine laughter. “Yeah right now, but not that often…”
She hands me her cigarette and I ask about her writing. She tells me that they are like two almost lovers who first met in a bar many years ago, discovered they have a few friends in common and decided to see each other again; but she’s the one who can’t live without writing, and clings to it all the time. Writing is happy to just sip from a cup of tea at the table, in perfect stillness.
“This is the path I’ve chosen,” she tells me. “And I know it was the right one.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s easy to find, really. You just look for the one that looks clear. All the other paths have road signs all over.”
“Road signs?” I laugh.
“Yes, road signs, don’t laugh.”
“And what do these road signs say?”
“Just the usual: right – wrong, failure – success, happiness – fear. It’s confusing as hell. You’re being told to slow down and speed up all the time. The real fun beings when you get to crossroads and never know what to choose. Your heart is giving you the silent treatment, because so did you. Eventually, you turn to your friends for advice and have debates over things that mean nothing to you, and wonder at how boring life got as you aged,” she laughs. “Your path is clear, and it’s all yours. That’s how you recognise it. You walk down the street whistling, and every now and then you let out your first This is one on one, you and me, God! And it’s going great!”
I wonder what it means when I feel that I failed as a writer, but decide not to ask her. After all, all roads get bumpy here and there.
“I suppose the more you write about something, the biggest the desire to live it.”
She looks at me as if wondering if I’m trying to find out her biggest secret – the secret of her aliveness. But rolls her eyes soon after.
“Bullshit. Great writing comes from great living. This is why you don’t know how to write.”
I’m caught off-guard, and all I can do is pause and stare at her, stretching on the floor, smoking, smiling.
“Because you lack intensity,” she continues, knowing that I was waiting for an explanation, “because you don’t love your life, so life can’t love you back. You can’t turn such a dull existence into poetry. You can only make art out of beauty.”
This goes against everything I thought I knew about art. Stupefied, I ask, “But what about sadness?”
“Who said sadness isn’t beautiful?”
“How in the world is sadness beautiful?” I shout, confused at her ability to lionise everything I run from.
She rolls over, gets up and comes sit on the sofa’s arm, next to me.
“Take a good look at me,” she says softly.
But when I take a good look at him, I realise that I can’t scare him. Not for long, anyway. The man’s got edge, but he’s a lonely soul. He must have a lot of time to question himself. He is a bit of a puppet, but he is also the puppeteer.
I haven’t read his work. He hasn’t read mine either, I can tell. He avoids all talk about my book and tries to crayon me as the strong-minded, crazy girl he sees behind this pose. Whatever makes me live, and write, and then live some more with the depth and density he thinks he sees, that’s what he is interested in. What makes me human, where my second hand hope comes from, what I make my decisions based upon – in fiction or live autobiography, which, on a second look, are one and the same.
There is good in this. It’s like a mind game at a first date, no preconceptions.
We’re strangers who seem to have been trapped in space and time – this room, this 3am is all we have.
So we cheat and we lie to pass the time, and wonder which one of us will give up first, who will be the first to take advantage of whom, who will be the first to tell the truth and nothing but the truth all the way.
For now, his breath smells like coffee and smoke. Mine is heavy.
I keep him guessing, and he draws me closer.
He asks me what is it that I don’t want to show the world, and begs me to show it to him.
I say that it’s everything, smile and remain evasive, ambiguous.
He thinks I’m fresh and fantastic.
I think he is kind and gentle and take my cigarette back from between his fingers for a nervous last drag.
Soon, I’ll put my drink down and turn the lights on. I’ll wash my glass in the sink and hope to avoid all eye contact for a while.
It’ll take time until he figures that there is nothing on the inside as exciting as he thinks. I am like a veil that any light can shine through, but merely exists in the dark. In his light, I am bright orange, feverish, delirious and silky. But at times, I am opaque black.
I didn’t contour a fixed personality. I don’t know what my definitions and status quos are. I can answer his every question about my soul, but I couldn’t tell him a thing about the girl who walks down the street in mere daylight, because I’ve never paid any attention to her.
He thinks I am a beautiful mystery.
I think that is a half-truth in any way you take it.
“I believe in miracles when I create them for myself,” she says and points at all four corners of the room.
“I really need you to stop fooling around and tell me how you do your work,” I mutter out loud.
“Why? You don’t know a thing about my work. You’ve been looking at my face and my body all night.”
I laugh, and it comes out nervously. She gets up and starts walking in circles around the room.
“Because, as much as it pains me to say, this article won’t be about your face and your body, Mia. Tell me where you find your inspiration – is there a man in your life you write about?”
“I don’t write about my present, I live it,” she shouts from across the room, where I can hear water running.
“That doesn’t answer my question, you know?”
“All right, then let me rephrase it. Who are your characters?”
After a while, she finally says something about how every character she creates is somebody she doesn’t get to be in this lifetime. But my God, she says all of this with her hands on my clenched fist, looking me straight in the eyes.
How do I tell my readers about this moment without sounding like a poetic idiot?
How do I tell them anything at all, when all there is to say about this girl is that she embodies a place where magic exists?
She tells me that she is raising a baby Phoenix inside her head. I laugh at the idea and ask her about it, knowing that the public would love such an imaginative answer coming from a young artist. I desperately need something to write about that is not merely my opinion. She says she feeds it with violent feelings, then releases it into the story and cleans up the ashes it leaves behind. I get caught in the game and say this sounds exhausting.
But the truth is that there is a certain sadness in her eyes at times. I tell her that I’ve noticed it. She shrugs it off. I assume that it must come out of what her imagination leaves behind. She likes the idea and agrees that I can quote her on that.
I put my pen down on the table and clench my other fist under my chin. I can’t think of her as anything less than the goddess role she is playing tonight, and I’m praying that this isn’t just a charade. I want to come back and fill myself up, again and again, with the beauty of her vibes. Not as a journalist, no; never again as a journalist.
If I could, I’d forbid her to ever write again, no matter how good her writings are. I’d isolate that part of her mind, to protect her from herself. She is magnificent and this tells me that I’m right when I think she burns twice as bright, yet half as long. But I know she’d wilt then. Take away her demons and her angels would leave her too.
Instinctually, I grab her head with both hands and drag her next to me.
“I wish other people could see what I see,” I whisper.
“What is that?”
Life outside suddenly seems dull and empty. I smell her hair and think of everything that hasn’t happened, but would be the most ecstatic short breath of life I can imagine tonight.
She leans forth.
There was one piece of advice I’ve always liked. It starts by saying that whatever you run to, it runs from you. So how do you get your hands onto the things you’re after? You find out what kind of person is the one who’s got what you want and you become that person, and what you want will come to you. The secret isn’t to have, it’s to be. That’s how you get the things you’re after. You become what they’re after.
I am the writer the world will know about as of tomorrow. I am the girl with the open roads, the white canvas, and the rich imagination that has the power to give people the thrills they’re searching for. They don’t want to dive deep and grab it and make it their own, but I do. It’s painful, but I don’t know many people whose souls reborn every time they put it on the paper either, so they’ll want me. Because they’re after what I have. They’re all looking for what I have become.
Maybe one day I will stop writing and admit to myself – and the rest of the world, for that matter – that I am lost, that I never took the time to get to know my stable self, that the mornings that keep the streets empty for me and the midnight walks and the places I can always call home can’t seem to do the trick anymore.
But for now, I don’t want to wake up from this dream.
It’s too early.
I’m too young.
Jax is looking over the notes. I look from over his shoulder. He asks me if I think this is wrong. Well, like I always say, people get what they want and usually hate if after. But that only happens when they have to choose one thing over another. As for me, I don’t want to choose between life and prose anymore, not now. I don’t want to hate myself for choosing wrong, and I don’t want to choose. I just want to live, and write to tell the stories.
And I’ve got a question to ask him.
I told him too, his are really dull.
So I learn forth, and ask softly, “What do you lose, if you get everything you want?”
And Jax, Jax looks up at me, and finally kisses me. I hold my breath for a second, then remember to let go and let it be. I don’t need to know.