It’s summer, dark and quiet up here. Imagine the heat, the lights, the sounds—and the girl, curled up on the black wooden chair, chin propped on her knees, gazing absently over the city. I bend over the table to pick up the pack of cigarettes and take one out. I’d ask her to sit with me, but I am in no hurry to get her to talk. 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 you can only find in someone’s eyes, or sadness, or intensity. I look at her and it’s everywhere. It’s second nature to me to watch people when they are outside their comfort zone. That’s how I get a feel for my stories. But with her, the more I try to capture that something and put it on paper, the more I get caught up in that something else. What something else? Je ne sais quoi, to be honest. As for the strange…
Strange, because she said on the phone that she can’t think clearly during the day, so we agreed to do the interview at night. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I try not to think about how deeply unprofessional it must look.
As I turn on the light and lean over the balcony railing, she lets out a heavy sigh.
‘You know, Jax,’ she says in a soft, melodic voice, ‘if I can make people pause while they read me, go back a few lines, and go over it again, it means I did my job, in a sense. I’m happy.’
‘Of course,’ I nod. Who wouldn’t be…’
‘But if I can get them to grab a cigarette after they put the book down, fill their lungs with smoke, and stare into space for five minutes, trying to process what I’ve said and how it relates to their feelings… Well, that means the world to me. It means that 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, because she’s already making me nervous.
‘Don’t you do your best every time?’ I try.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ she laughs. ‘You are a journalist, Jax. You should ask better questions.’
I want to reassure her, for the hundredth time since I entered her flat, 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 casting her in a bad light. But my question came across as if I was indeed trying to catch her on the wrong foot, and now I need to apologise without revealing how difficult it is for me to think clearly in her presence.
‘All right,’ I say. ‘You got me, that was a bad question. I think it would be best if we got to know each other first, so I know how to speak your language. One look at you tells me you do not like formality either. And look at me smoking my interlocutor’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 while.
‘You are right, you certainly do not,’ she says in a firm voice and stares into the distance again.
For a moment I wanted to believe I’d bridged that gap, but sooner than I expected she was back to herself, and I am cluelessly enjoying my cigarette again. Well, hers.
She doesn’t look like the kind of girl you can read through the lines in a night, and that’s disappointing to the journalist in me and refreshing and fascinating to the man I am.
I lay my head back and let summer drip down my fingers. The sound he makes as he moves slowly around the room, careful not to make too loud a noise, amuses me.
I’ve seen the best and the worst of 1 am, and this is definitely among the best. Sure, not the driving on open highways and sticking my head out the window kind of best, not the hiding under the covers with someone I love and breaking down all my walls kind either. Being close to him tonight doesn’t give me an adrenaline rush or a heavenly love, but it gives me the gentle goodness that lies in between. Like when I dip my toes in the water and know the sea will keep me safe. I know the night will keep me safe. I trust myself in the night, even when I’m talking to a stranger whose job is to rewrite me the next morning.
When the sun is up I always find it hard to tell my story. There’s something about sunlight, especially in July—it’s constant, enslaving. It has this quality of renewal, of vibrancy, of vitality, and it doesn’t give the mind time to slow down. Some mornings I find myself being alive and not knowing what to do with it. That’s why I spend most summer days losing myself in words, sinking, swimming.
Down here I find my solid gold, pure magic, and the conviction that people out there, on the surface of the imagination, are even crazier than this. They leave scratch marks on everything they touch, screaming 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 would not 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 have thunder in my heartbeat. I am out of line. The substance flowing through my veins isn’t hot blood, it’s quicksilver.
The inner world I dive into blanks out the time of day and sends shivers down my spine as I find it, ready to sift through my fevered imagination. This 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 the balcony is fine, she’s not a fan of closed spaces. I try to keep that in mind until I have a chance to take notes and ask her what she is a fan of.
Her face brightens and her lips curl into a smile as she begins counting happy makers on her fingers. I follow the subtle movements in the air and wish I could follow trace the twists and turns of her thoughts just the same.
You know when you turn eighteen and forget what seventeen feels like? That’s how I feel when I see her. My friends would ask me why, and I could not tell them. They would laugh at me the way one laughs at a fool almost in love. Readers would ask the same question—what is so special about this girl with the hazel eyes and good sense of words that could make me describe her out of this world? She’s just a girl, after all.
I find myself smiling. I can not wait for her to start talking. I’ll think about how to formulate my impressions later.
Suddenly it strikes me that I have not read a single page of her book. I promise myself that as soon as I wake up, I’ll run to the nearest bookstore, buy it, and spend the rest of tomorrow reading. Only then will I put together my article.
‘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 knows how to be still. There is an aura of calmness about her. She’s in no hurry 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.
‘All right,’ 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 quite content.
I know this is a good time to start taking notes, and I hastily search my bag for a pen and paper.
‘Speed leaves no time to be shy or play it safe. In some ways, driving on the open road at full speed must be similar to writing, don’t you think?’
I stop looking for a pen and paper. I want to hear this.
‘Just imagine, having fire in your prose and poetry and lips and fingertips, but it doesn’t burn. Instead, it fuels you. I love writing, but I love life so much more.’
I don’t know if I envy her inner fire or just want to get off at the next stop and write a short blog post about food and architecture.
‘And the open road is simply the modernised promise of maybe reaching the end of the rainbow or having a blank 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 image of a white canvas is supposed to elicit an emotion—but it doesn’t, so I just stand there looking stupid. She gives me a look before making sure to show her disgust. I’m annoyed with myself, but I can’t for the life of me force an emotion.
‘Come on, what’s the catch?’ I ask annoyed.
‘You fool,’ she says. ‘You may work in the industry, but you’ll never be a good writer.’
‘What?’ I exclaim indignantly. ‘Where did that come from?
‘You may be good with words, but you’re certainly not good with ideas. You mix like oil and water.’
‘Hey now. Don’t change the subject. What was that about the white canvas that…’
But while she keeps to herself, my mind starts to process her words, and before I know it, I’m not really angry anymore. The truth is, maybe she’s right. I never claimed to be a good writer. In fact, I write because I’m forced to as a journalist. 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 put the pieces back together, no. She creates them. I can’t help feeling a little jealous at the thought of someone being able to work with their mind like that.
And at that moment, I think I know what she loves about a white canvas.
‘A white canvas,’ she finally interrupts my thoughts, ‘is the place where things haven’t happened yet, where you still have to choose the outcome. A white canvas is the place of all possibilities, where everything you can imagine is real. On a white canvas, you can still create the world you want to live in and put yourself in the middle of it.’
I understand that tonight, I’m a hint of warmth, and she is warmth. Her book will probably leave me speechless in the morning.
I guess I gave away a secret when I told him what my definition of eternal happiness is—the constant thrill of the new start. And it’s funny, because I know what I am doing. I am drawing a whole new me in front of him, the one we both love the most. I know this because I see him falling in love with the girl he thinks I am. The most selfish part of me wants to follow the lines he’s traced and fill in the shapes with his favourite colours to make sure he falls in love for good.
If only he knew that I don’t take new beginnings with my coffee in the morning, but I make them later in the afternoon, between my stories. If only he knew that I write to feel, because if I allowed myself to feel the way 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 stand up. He puts his hands on my shoulders and looks me in the eye. I know that look. I have seen it before. It is hungry and unreliable. It is the look of a man whose vibes and chances would go up or down a level, depending on mine. It is the look in the eyes of a man I could read a grocery list to before spitting out ‘I love you too’ one day. He is the man who would end up telling me that he wishes I spoke to him the way I write, that he wants to date the other version of me, that I am 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 is the look of a man I could both love and hate without being able to find even a hint of difference between one and the other. A man who would drive me insane, not metaphorically, but in real bloody life, who would change me so much 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 in the sky and turn pink as the sun sets. But I underestimated the storm that was forming in my blood cells, because I was the calm before the apocalypse. And when it came, it did not ask anyone. It hit me hard, like I deserved it. It showed me what writing could do for me, that no man on earth could.
Writing made me tick like nothing else ever did. When I started, my demons stopped talking about me. Writing took me by the hand and led me to those monsters, made them come alive and walk to my rhythm. Once I decided what that beat would be, the monsters stopped tormenting me and instead morphed into strong characters and wilder chapters. I got to raise the hell in me and wear it proudly on my sleeve. My hell. My rich and vivid imagination, like a rainforest with carnivorous flowers and soft, hypnotic music in the background, which I used to dread like the longest, darkest hours of the nights when I couldn’t find sleep. My imagination, I decided, I was going to use it until it bled and screamed that it needed rest, and then I’d keep using it some more.
Because despite everything, watching my imagination unfold is like watching God at work—the best part of me, doing 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 about how I’ll take this 2 am and turn it into vivid dreams tomorrow. But tonight—snap and I’m myself again, whoever that may 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 abandons him. That man’s free will is like any other muscle in the body—if it’s not used, it atrophies. That sometimes the full is empty, and sometimes the empty is full.
A wool blanket covers her lap. We’ve left the balcony door wide open. I take notes on the big sofa next to it. The night air is stronger now and my back feels cold, so I slowly lose focus. Finally, I interrupt her.
‘Do you believe in what you’re saying?’ I ask.
She breaks 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, then discovered they’d some mutual friends and decided to see each other again; but she’s the one who can’t live without writing and keeps clinging to it. Writing is happy just sitting at the table in complete 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 actually quite easy to find it. You just look for the one that looks clear. All the other paths have road signs.’
‘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 come to a crossroads and don’t know what to choose. Your heart is giving you the silent treatment, because so did you. At some point, you ask your friends for advice and have debates over things that don’t mean anything to you, and you wonder how boring life got as you got older,’ she laughs. ‘Your path is clear, and it’s yours alone. That’s how you recognise it. You walk down the street whistling, and every once in a while you let out a “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 I decide not to ask her.
‘I suppose the more you write about something, the greater the desire to live it, right?’
She looks at me as if wondering if I’m trying to figure out her greatest secret—the secret of her aliveness—but soon rolls her eyes.
‘Bullshit. Great writing comes from great living. That’s why you don’t know how to write.’
I’m caught off guard and all I can do is pause and stare at her stretched out on the floor, smoking and smiling.
‘Because you lack intensity,’ she continues, knowing 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 boring life 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 says that sadness isn’t beautiful?’
‘How in the world can sadness be beautiful?’ I ask, confused by her ability to lionise everything I run away from.
She rolls over, gets up and sits down next to me, on the arm of the sofa.
‘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’s a bit of a puppet, but he’s also the puppeteer.
I haven’t read his work. He has not read mine either, I can tell. He avoids any conversation about my book and tries to portray me as the strong-willed, crazy girl he thinks he sees behind this pose. Whatever makes me want to live and write and then live some more, with the depth and density he imagines, that’s what interests him. What makes me human, where my faith comes from, what I base my decisions on—in fiction or in life, which at second glance are one and the same.
There is good in this. We are strangers who seem to be trapped in space and time. This room, this 3 am is all we have, and we both know it.
So we cheat and lie to pass the time, wondering 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.
Right now, his breath smells like coffee and smoke. Mine is heavy.
I keep him guessing, and he pulls me closer.
He asks me what it is that I do not want the world to see, and asks me to show him. I say it’s everything, smile, and remain evasive, ambiguous.
He thinks I’m fresh and fantastic. I think he’s kind and gentle and I take my cigarette back for one last nervous drag from between his fingers.
Soon, I’ll put my drink down and turn on the light. I’ll wash my glass in the sink, hoping to avoid any eye contact for a while.
It will take him some time to realise that nothing inside is as exciting as he thinks. I am like a veil through which any light can shine, but which exists only in the dark. In his light, I am bright orange, feverish, delirious, and silky. But sometimes I am opaque black, like a crust over a world that has 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 walking down the street in broad daylight, because I’d never really paid any attention to her.
He thinks I am a beautiful mystery.
I think that’s a half-truth no matter how you look at it.
‘I believe in miracles when I create them for myself, right here,’ she says, pointing to all four corners of the room.
‘You really need to stop fooling around and tell me how you do your work.’
‘Why? You don’t know anything about my work. You’ve been staring at my face and body all night.’
I laugh, and it comes out nervously. She stands up and starts walking in circles.
‘Because, unfortunately, this article can’t be about your face and body. Please tell me where you get your inspiration. Is there a man in your life that 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 someone she doesn’t get to be in this lifetime.
But my God, she says all this with her hands on my clenched fist, looking me straight in the eye.
How am I supposed to tell my readers about this moment without sounding like a poetic idiot? How am I supposed to 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 of her. I laugh at the idea and ask her about it, because I know the audience would love such an imaginative answer coming from a young artist. I desperately need something to write about that is not just 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 into the game and say that sounds exhausting.
But the truth is, sometimes there is a certain sadness in her eyes. I tell her I have noticed that. She shrugs it off. I assume it comes from what her imagination leaves behind. She likes the thought and agrees that I can quote her on it.
I put my pen down on the table and watch her. I can not imagine her being anything other than the goddess role she’s playing tonight. I want to come back and fill myself up, again and again, with the beauty of her charisma. Not as a journalist, no. Never again as a journalist.
If I could, I would forbid her to ever write again, no matter how good her writing. I would isolate that part of her mind to protect her from herself. She’s is magnificent and I must be right in thinking she burns twice as bright but only half as long. But I know that if I did that, she would wither. Take away her demons, and her angels would leave her too.
Instinctively, I grab her head with both hands and pull her towards 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 yet.
‘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 forward.
There was one piece of advice that I always liked. It starts with the fact that whatever you’re running after… is running away from you. So how do you get to the things you’re running after? You find out what kind of person has what you want, and you become that person, and what you want will come to you. The secret isn’t to have, but to be. That’s how you get the things you want. You become what they want.
I am the writer the world will know about starting tomorrow. I’m the girl with the open roads, the white canvas, and the rich imagination that has the power to give people the thrill they’re looking for. They don’t want to dive deep and get it for 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 want what I have. They all want what I’ve become.
Maybe someday I’ll stop writing and admit to myself—and the rest of the world—that I’m lost, that I never took the time 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 still too early.
I’m still too young.
Jax looks at the notes. I look over his shoulder. He asks me if I think this is wrong. Well, as I always like to say, people get what they want and usually hate it after. But that only happens when they have to choose one thing over another. As for me, I don’t want to have to choose between life and prose anymore, not now. I don’t want to hate myself for making the wrong choice, 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 have some questions for him, too.
I told him too, his are really boring.
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.
At least his answers aren’t bad.