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 at the same time.
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’s 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 at night. 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 rail, she lets out a heavy sigh.
“You know, Jax,” she says, her voice soft and melodic, “if I can make people pause while they 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 them look for a cigarette after they put the book down, fill their lungs with smoke and spend five minutes staring into space, trying to process what I said and how it goes hand in hand with how they feel… Well, that means the world to me. It means I did my absolute best.”
I turn my head over my shoulder and look at her. She looks dreamy. I don’t know how I will unlock the rest of her thoughts later, for she makes me nervous already.
“Don’t you do your best every time?” I try.
“Don’t be stupid,” she laughs. “You are a journalist, Jax. You are supposed to ask better questions.”
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. But my question came across as trying to catch her on the wrong foot indeed, and I need to apologise without giving away how hard I find it to think straight around her.
“Alright,” I say. “You got me, that was a bad question. I think it would be best to get to know each other first, so I know how to speak your language for this. One look at you and I can tell you don’t like formal either. And look at me, smoking my interviewee’s cigarettes here at one in the morning. I can’t look like a serious journalist to you.”
She moves her head in my direction 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 herself and I, as clueless as before, go 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. The sound of him, moving slowly across the room, careful not to make too loud a noise, amuses me.
I’ve seen the best and worst of 1am, and this is definitely among the best. Sure, not the driving down open 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 love underlined, but it gives me the soft good in between. You know, 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’s something about sunlight, especially in July – 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.
Down here I find my solid gold, straight magic and the conviction that the people out there, at the surface of the imagination, are even crazier than this. They leave claw marks onto everything they touch and cry out their wild desire to be free. When they ask me if I ever write about them I nod my head, absently. I write about myself, in infinite shapes and sizes. 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 it, ready to sift it through my fevered imagination. That is the moment of spiritual fire. 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 trace 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 girl, after all.
I find myself smiling. I can’t wait for her to start talking. I’ll think of how to phrase my impressions later.
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 it and spend the rest of tomorrow reading. Only then I’ll put my article together.
“Speed,” she turns to me. “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. There is an aura or calm around her. She is not in a rush to become her better self, like the rest of us. (She must be, of course, but she would never show it.)
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 leaves no time to be too shy or play too safe. In a way, driving down an open road at full speed must be similar to writing, don’t you think?”
I stop looking for pen and paper. I want to hear this enough to be sure I’ll remember.
“Just imagine, having fire in your prose and poetry and lips and fingertips, but not burning. Instead, it fuels you. Ah, just saying that – 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.
“And the open road is simply the modernised promise of perhaps getting to the end of the rainbow, or having a white canvas in front of you. A blank, white canvas.”
“Ok,” I say. “What about the white canvas?”
A smaller, less abstract object. Maybe there is hope, after all.
“You tell me. How 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 to show her disgust. I get angry with myself but I can’t, for the life of me, force a feeling out.
“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 that 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 anymore. 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.
And 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, where you are yet to choose the outcome. A white canvas is the place of all possibilities, where anything you can imagine is real. On a white canvas you can still create the world you want to live in, and place yourself right in the middle of it.”
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 traced and fill the shapes with his favourite colours, 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 to 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.
She’s lying on the carpet with a cigarette in her hand, running her fingers through her hair. 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. 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 her about 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 sit at the table in perfect silence.
“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 don’t 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.
“I suppose the more you write about something, the biggest the desire to live it, no?”
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 more. “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.
“But what about sadness?”
“Who said sadness isn’t beautiful?”
“How in the world is sadness beautiful?” I ask, 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 thinks he sees behind this pose. Whatever makes me live, and write, and then live some more with the depth and density he thinks he imagines, that’s what he is interested in. What makes me human, where my faith comes from, what I make my decisions based upon – in fiction or in life, which, on a second look, are one and the same.
There is good in this. We’re strangers who seem to have been trapped in space and time. This room, this 3am is all we have and we both know it.
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 it is 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, like a crust over a world that’s stopped shining.
I didn’t contour a fixed personality. I don’t know what my definitions and status quos are. I couldn’t tell him much about the girl who walks down the street in mere daylight, because I’ve never paid any real attention to her.
He thinks I am a beautiful mystery.
I think that is a half-truth any way you take it.
“I believe in miracles when I create them for myself, right here,” 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.”
“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 around in circles.
“Because, unfortunately, this article can’t be about your face and your body. Tell me where you find your inspiration, please. Is there a man in your life you write about?”
“I don’t write about my present, I live it,” she shouts from the kitchen this time.
“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 still exists?
She tells me that she is raising a baby Phoenix inside her. 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. Whatever shapes they make on the page, she gives them character names. 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 thought and agrees that I can quote her on that.
I put my pen down on the table and watch her. 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 may be. I’d isolate that part of her mind to protect her from herself. She is magnificent and I must be 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.
Life outside suddenly seems dull and empty. I smell her hair and think of everything that hasn’t happened.
“They see me,” she laughs. “You’ll take care of that, won’t you?”
I know she knows what I mean, so I just smile and 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 themselves, but I do. It’s painful, but I don’t know many people who live like this, so they’ll want me. Because they’re after what I have. They’re all looking for what I’ve 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 – but I can do that later.
And I’ve got a few question to ask him, too.
I told him too, his are really dull.
I start with –
“What do you lose, if you get everything you want?”
And Jax, Jax looks up at me, and finally kisses me this time.
His answers aren’t all bad, at least.