Resting my forehead on the tiny, wheezing fan in my 38°C apartment, I watch sunlight dapple and blur through its bars and make white the yellow and perhaps someday this city will quieten. Maybe it was the heat then, too. Maybe it was this glimmering tongue of a city that I was so sure would swallow me whole. But somehow, they all knew it long before I did. I was losing it a little that summer. Painting every surface of my rented apartment yellow, convinced it was the only way to let the light in. Letting days pass around my greying sheets and the blank TV and, all the while, my eyes wide open, or perhaps closed but seeming wide open, watching nothing move an inch. Friends told me I was losing weight. They caught sight of my yawning ribcage, or dresses that used to fit draping limp from my clothes-hanger collarbones like membrane. So, one by one, I began to pretend that I didn’t know any of them and never had. It was cruel, but I didn’t feel anything of it at the time. I still feel very little of everything.
All I feel right now, in the aftermath, is that I have made my home a yellow wall and I am very alone in all this.
When I was younger and got like this, restless in a way that felt like sipping water, my grandfather would put his hands on my shoulders and sit me down opposite him at the kitchen table and tell me to open my eyes. At the time, this was one of the worries. Thoughts would get caught, get stuck in my head, repeat until I listened to them and then keep repeating. Even when trying to unthink the catching thoughts, in a way, I was still thinking them. The point is: it was not light that I wanted then, but darkness, to make the world stop spinning. The point is: he would sit there with his hands on my shoulders telling me to open my eyes, saying I know it is scary for you right now, but I will not let you go till you feel okay, alright? My fears must have been overwhelming. It took us hours like this for him to talk me out of it, but he did not break his promise. He would stay there with me, before announcing We’re going for a drive. In those moments, I felt I could breathe again. The world would fall away so quickly. People from school smoking weed outside charity shops, maple trees purpling, the empty block of offices stacked high onto Crawley train station, and eventually the M23 where nothing mattered to Grandad or me but driving fast and away from all these familiar things.
Halfway through those drives, Grandad would stop at a petrol station, fill up, head in to pay and walk out with two ice teas and a pack of cigarettes. He would park somewhere away from the fumes, open his window a crack, then light up. The end would glow in the dark like a secret. We’d sit in silence in the smell of peach and ash. Abuela was, at the time, trying to extend his life. I want you to eat healthy, she would snap at him on the verge of tears as she threw his cigarette packets in the bin, and quit smoking, for God’s sake. I will not be living in this apartment on my own. Sometimes I wanted to tell Abuela that I lived there too. But she already knew that. Sometimes I wanted to tell her about the smoking before she found out from the pockets of his jumpers. In the end, I stayed silent.
I don’t have a car now. I am alone in Berlin. I peel myself away from the fan that is just moving heat around, lift myself off the chair and open the windows as far as they go. I think of jumping, though I do not want to die. I step into my tiny kitchen and open the fridge. Placing my mouth under the sink, I drink till I feel almost swollen. It reminds me of her freckled face lying on the table in the flat we shared. How her cheek ballooned and seemed, seen through the lipstick rimmed glass of water in front of her, distorted. As she shifted the glass, turning it absentmindedly with her slender fingers, her eye now grew far bigger than the left half of her face. I watched it blink a few times in this way and tried to hold back my laughter. I push her, with some effort, from my mind.
It takes me a few moments to remember where I am. Standing in my kitchen. The fridge door is open. Cold, I shift my left foot onto my right instep and balance there for a few moments. The fridge door is closed. Still, a cool breeze from somewhere. I step out of the kitchen. I close the windows. What time is it? I crawl into bed. Where did that damn ticking clock go? My eyes are shutting before I tell them to. Still, as though they are wide open, as if everything is once again wide and open, the windows and the fridge door and the catching thoughts, I remember—
I wake, in the blue time between light and dark, to a wasp bumping its nose, persistently, against the window. Eventually it falls quiet. Something has taken its interest. Another wasp lies dead beside it. The first one nudges and pushes at the body. Then begins to drag it out of the upward stretching light from the street below into a corner of shadow. Later I will google if wasps grieve. Then, if wasps come back for their dead. But whether it be undertaker wasps or food for its queen I wonder at the horror that it is to be a bug in the world. I wonder if she were here now, would she be taking me away, or apart?
Something is seriously wrong with you, she had said to my back, as I turned away in a way I have learned makes me feel less trapped. Can you even hear me, and her hand is on my back, and I feel for an instant that I want to hiss but I hold it down and turn around to look at her. Something is wrong with you, in here. She knocks on her head as though knocking on a door. Knock, knock, I imagine her saying to my forehead, who’s there? To which I would have to say, no one. Absolutely nobody is here. Absolutely nothing can help with this.
I stood silent, very still and of course very silent, imagining those drives with Grandad. Trying to push the catching thought out of my head. I found that my eyes had shifted away from her anger-creased face – anger that I had put there, anger that I would lie in the dark thinking about and knowing that I had put there – to the bubbles rising in her mineral water. The ice is melting, I said. The ice in your drink is—
God dammit! she shouted, bashing the flat palm of her hand into the front door.
But I couldn’t stop thinking. When the drink gets cold there is no warming it, there is no warming anything if you lack heat and when you lack heat you must do something about it, when a body gets cold it does something about it, its blood vessels constrict, too cold and it goes into a state of shock, have you ever imagined yourself as something frozen, wanting to go go go go go go but just waiting patiently for the ice to melt, can we turn our backs on all this when there is no help, when there is absolutely no help in it, when the ice is melting— Can we go for a drive? I asked.
She let out a long, low hum holding her numbing hand which I thought, and almost unhelpfully said, could probably use some ice if it weren’t all melting. Yes, okay, good idea. I’ll go get the car.
And by the time she was saying this her voice had softened, but she still slammed the door. And I’ve known for a long time now that silence is only ever pause, not peace. But I laid myself down on her side of the bed while I waited and could smell a mix of toothpaste and conditioner on the pillow, a mix of mint and coconut that I did not mind, that I did not mind at all, and hoped that in another other close-fitting room somewhere there was surrender. Some giving way, or giving in. Some hand on the shoulder that slows the thoughts and turns everyone’s backs to the walls. I hoped that I could go from laying here to laying out a tune with her tomorrow, in the studio down the road, and sing in the way we had at the start. And then we were in the car and the ignition was starting and her eyes were on me and I did not know then what would happen till it did, but perhaps cities are not built to quieten.
Have you ever been in a car, in a car so fast, tongue on the roof of your mouth kind of fast, that you felt you had to hold your breath to stay calm? There’s no time for thinking and, in a way, isn’t this exactly what you wanted? But it’s okay, this is okay, you’re in the fast lane, surely this is what it’s for, here in the fast lane, here in the passenger seat with no control, breathe deeply now—
Have you ever looked around to see if anyone has noticed, but no, the sky is an ordinary black, the road is silver with rain, and everyone else seem secure at their wheels? Everyone driving at their own speed and paying no mind and how dare they and don’t wish no harm on strangers and free will and all that and all that and all can be nothing so quickly. And maybe in the time you took to think about it and decide that surrender was the way out, she took time to think about it and chose anger all over again. You make me want to die, you know that? She is screaming, and perhaps she will say nothing more and perhaps the car will slow and perhaps the city lights stretching beautifully into lines as we drive will shrink back to their usual size. You try to count stars, but you strain your eyes and only find one. Have you ever thought briefly of death though you did not want it? She’s driving fast enough for it, says she wants it, there it is again, that star, everything becomes very real and physical, or is it a plane, you curl your fingers around the edge of your seat and hold on, she watches what you want to believe is a wish, you clench your jaw, she is not screaming anymore, she takes care to keep her voice extra quiet when she says Do you find this funny or something?
You take care to keep your voice extra quiet when you say No, and I’m not fucking laughing.
And eventually her anger cools and she stops the car outside a petrol station and Alanis Morrisette is blasting out from the store and she comes back with two coffees and apologises that there was no milk, and you say it’s fine. For the rest of the drive home, you notice she goes deliberately slow. Under a tunnel you open the window and stick your head out like a dog. When you get home, you really do feel fine, shaky but fine, and you both sleep side by side like nothing has happened. Have you ever remembered and gone on remembering? I waste days doing it, following these things all the way down.
Abuela was always rooting up old smiles to find joy.
I feel so far away now. Nowehered. But I did it to myself. I lied to everyone I knew here; asked them to believe I was never here. And this is the country I was born in, but I don’t speak its language. My family are from so many places, I can only just understand them. As long as I have lived here, all I have found myself able to read is people’s kindness. Just yesterday, a father holding his daughter’s hand on the steps, helping her small feet step safely onto ground. Right this moment, a young girl delays in the doorway of a bus so an elderly woman can make it onboard. Last summer, when she made coffee, not knowing what else to do I think, while we sat at a distance staring at the packed bags.
She had started to cry. I sat on the floor leaning against her drawers cross-legged and feeling small in her baggy cardigan. She had started to cry, to apologise.
I set down the coffee in front of me. I sat quiet and waited. It’s okay, I said once she too fell quiet. I haven’t been here much lately.
You have been here, she said. You’re right here, right now, aren’t you?
And I just smiled at her. Not really, I said, shaking my head. I just can’t seem to keep my mind to it.
It goes back so much further than we know, these ways of being. It will go on further yet, beyond us. There is possibly always some small thing waltzing round the kitchen on their grandfather’s feet. Right now, I am sitting here in yesterday’s clothes on the edge of the bed squeezing my eyes closed as tight as they can go. When I open them, without fear, my vision is patchy with highlighter pink and green and when it clears the room is still that deep blue. The room is still a lot more yellow than where it started.
I force myself up. I force myself to plug my phone in for the first time in weeks. I turn on the bedside light, and it guides me to the spider plant. I water it, despite it being unrecoverably brown. I make coffee, not knowing what else to do, I think. But the world beyond my window is still moving. Still, as in motionless. Moving, as in motion. The trains of Berlin are always travelling the same routes, the same faces appear at the same windows each morning to make the same patterns move, I watch the same mother washing dishes at her sink while I pile them up in mine. I synced my meals with her family’s, to make me feel joined to something. The world beyond my window is still moving. Still, as in, continuing. Moving, as in, travelling onward. Two words oppositely meaning only one thing. The world beyond my window is saying, gently this time, move with us. But freeze this city at any given moment and their bodies won’t go into a state of shock; they are exactly where they should be, where they planned to be at this particular o’clock. Move with us and be still. Move, as in struggle. Still, as in calm. I start collecting cups from around the apartment and piling them in the sink.
She’s there now, the mother. Her child sits next to her on the kitchen surface and she’s chatting, leaning forward, pushing her toy giraffe’s face into her mother’s cheek. I begin to wash dishes, as the mother smiles and pulls on her yellow gloves. I feel, for the first time in a year, that I am ordinary. But then the daughter looks out at the street, down toward the café, then up to the windows. To my window. Before our eyes can meet, I make myself, to her, a twitch of a curtain. I stand, a shadow behind the linen, and hope that I am hidden.
When a body feels cold there is some warming it, the body itself will try a few tricks, your blood vessels will constrict, the hair on your limbs will stand, too cold and you will enter a state of shock, a state of shock puts you at risk of heart attacks, respiratory system failure, and sometimes death, but feeling cold is not the same as being cold, haven’t we all felt cold, asked around, found ourselves to be the one who’s feverish? Truth is, when she dragged my suitcase out from under the bed the next morning and said I need you to go, I felt relief.
Someday I would like to ask everyone I have ever loved or known: do you know what it is to be disowned? Do you have hands for beautiful feeling? Have you left all your peaceful thoughts in the gutter? Did you gasp, did you cry, when the city lights looked like nothing you had ever seen – looked like the behind space of your eyes when they are tightly closed? Have you been patient, have you waited for something, anything, to happen? Did it give you the relief you hoped for? When you travelled to the city did it fix everything? Just to know that I am ordinary. Just to hear someone say, it fixed everything.
I’ve finished the washing up now and, across the road, so has she. I set down the sponge and wash stray soap suds down the sink. Then I reach for the phone and turn it on.
The screen blinks for a few minutes with missed calls and missed messages that have gradually collected. Some concerned friends, some colleagues, even a call from her. I don’t look at these. I look at the missed calls from Abuela. One for each day I have been unreachable, blinking stubbornly there for me.
I click on today’s voicemail, left just fifteen minutes ago and spoken in a mix of rapid Spanish and English, spoken, as always, as though I am there with her on the phone. Hola, poco pájaro, I am sitting here with Grandad and we thinking of you. She says we and though I know Grandad is most likely asleep in his clothes on the sofa, I know this to be true. You okay? I imagine her lasagne in the oven, the muted game show on TV. Got a boyfriend yet? No? Better that way, child, los hombres son demasiado problema. She has set the phone down on the table with a dull thud, her voice is across the room when she asks: You eat well? So far away now, poco pájaro, I worry. I can hear cutlery as she lays it down around the kitchen table. Then she picks up the phone again and is still. When you come back? Would love to see you. I drag my legs up to my chest, lay my cheek on my knees. Look out for the moon tonight. The world is at right angles beyond my window. You’ll see. I imagine wings, broad and beautiful, unfolding from my back. Oh, y pájaro?
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