My sunglasses snap on the hill up the Citadel. I’ve put them in my back pocket for a second and the whole tight jeans thing, the whole scaling hills in the name of tourism thing, collects in a single fatal pressure against the cheap plastic. The wind blows cement dust from the restorations through the air and I grab the sunglasses so that I can protect my eyes and though I see that they’re folded weird I try to unfold them a little too quickly and they break.
Three years ago in a Mexican bar in Boulder I had to beg a Grand Marnier representative for those sunglasses. She and two other women in sexy red dresses had helped us drink Grand Marnier out of a snow ski with shot glasses glued to it and had given all the girls bright red, too-big-for-your-face, Ray-Ban imitation sunglasses. I wanted sunglasses too. So I asked. She rolled her eyes and gave me a pair.
Then I moved to Oregon. I wore the sunglasses for the rain instead of the sun, because when I sped downhill on my bike I’d have to close my eyes against the drops if there wasn’t something protecting them. Plus the sunglasses held back my hair. When I wore them, I could pretend I wasn’t living under an eternally gray sky.
After that, I moved to Malta. I wanted to bring the sunglasses full circle, maybe move back to Colorado and let the sunglasses die a leisurely death in their homeland. There was something heroic about them, being so cheap and hanging in there for so long, and I wanted to commemorate that. Then they broke on the hill to the Citadel in Gozo, as if they had been meaning to break all along but hadn’t gotten the chance.
There are metaphors everywhere, but I don’t know what they mean. The next day, I throw the sunglasses in the recycling bin. I don’t know if they’ll actually get recycled—composite materials, that kind of thing—but I feel better knowing I don’t have to make the call.
Or: I’m heavy into my bad mood by the time the bus gets going again. Everything is shit, why does it take forty-five minutes to go six miles, nobody ever explains anything and I’m perpetually on a bus stopped at the side of the road with no information about why we’re stopped or when we’ll start again. I’m aware of my negative attitude, aware that it doesn’t suit my luck and privilege and the fact that I live in a country with the best climate in the world, and I’m aware that I should want to change my thinking. But I don’t want to; I am sullen and stubborn enough to want to savor it. When the bus gets going again, I’m still not happy. I tuck my head into Anna Karenina and try to get through the ride. Then, halfway up the hill through Ta’ Xbiex, I turn the digital page and see: THE END.
The book finishes with a monologue from Levin, the character who is said to represent Tolstoy himself:
…but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!
I stare out the window. The day is bright. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’ve got a bouquet of flowers on the seat next to me, and I’ve even got reservations at a restaurant that will turn out to be closed but the restaurant next door will be open and will be nicer than the original would have been. I feel good suddenly, the same nameless good I get whenever I finish a book. I savor this as the bus jerks to F.’s stop.
The irony is not lost on me. I wouldn’t have had the joy of finishing the book if the bus hadn’t inexplicably halted. I would have piddled through the last couple pages before bed some night, wondering why I’d stopped reading just before the end. I’m as chastened as ever: The bad turns to good in an instant. Levin’s exuberance grates on me, but it’s better than feeling like hell.
Now I get off the bus. I am walking along the side of the road, past traffic I hope won’t kill me. I am pacing past the Curly Wurly. I am at the rotunda where I have to take a right, which I always forget until the moment I see it appear at the top of the hill.
I take a right. I hold the flowers like a torch.
Or: The sky is a uniform grey, but a near grey that seems fake. The tops of the buildings line up against it like they’ve been photoshopped in by a kid; you could swear someone waved the smudge tool across the sky. I’m on the roof stretching—right hamstring, untie the laces, left hamstring, untie the laces, quads, calves—and I feel strangely not-bad. God knows why, but the grey invokes a clarity, an honestness you don’t get with the sun.
Then the birds come. In a churning sheet, a wavering, flapping, twisting panel of black wings and cylindrical bodies, the seen-it-in-a-million-movies-but-it-never-gets-old miracle of nature organizing itself like an iTunes visualizer, birds making beauty out of their flight without knowing what beauty is. They wing in maddening circles. They dip below the tops of buildings and resurface in the free air. Twice they arc near enough to me that it’s as if they’re showing off their bellies, a twirling snowboarder flashing the bottom of her board to the crowd gathered along the halfpipe.
Whatever. Forget the similes, commoditized versions of wonder, mystery reduced to a screen. What is amazing to me is that you can watch a cliché born over and over again and it can still speak with a voice that’s as clear as if it had never said a word before. Birds.
I go inside because it’s getting cold out, because my sweat has dried on me and I’m getting goosebumps from the wind, but there’s that feeling of not wanting to leave the sight. The feeling you get when you’re looking at a sublime landscape you know you’ll never see again.
But you walk away from it anyway. Because you know you too have your role to play in life.
Or: The headache reduces my world to a patch of brain two inches in diameter between my right eye and my hairline. It reduces my body to prone, motionless in my bed. It reduces me to staring at the underside of my desk and knowing that I should get up, I have to get up if I want to get food and shower and brush my teeth so that I can get back in bed and sleep and get a good start on the next day, a good start on being a human being again, but now I’m not a human being. I’m a single pulsing eye noticing for the first time how sloppily the long plane of my desk is glued to the cabinets beneath it. Noticing the dots along the dried glue like spider eggs. A place no one besides the haphazed gluer has ever seen, I can almost promise, unless the same headache froze some other foreigner in the same spot on some other windy afternoon at the beginning of some other year. An impossible past and an impossible future. Things are simple when there is pain. Unfortunately there is much that exists outside of the pain, even when the pain seems to encompass everything. The headache is a threat that will not be carried out: You will never feel good again.
Finally, the pain stands. It sprouts legs and walks—to the Asian fusion place, to the kebab shop, to get meals for the next day. Then it returns to bed. It wakes up in the morning amazed at its own persistence. For inhabiting a body so weak, it is strong. The pain is a little pleased at this. It doesn’t know how to do anything but hurt, and that is its strongest point.
But its weak point is that it strays, it forgets. The pain does not commit. The night is long and placeless and after enough dark hours, the body wakes up wondering where the pain has gone.
The body doesn’t want the pain back, but it forgets what it felt like before the pain.
The spine creaks and pinches and straightens. It holds up a human being again, and the human wonders where he’s so suddenly appeared from.
Or: The moment when I ditch Chekhov for Shanghai Noon dubbed into Italian is the moment when I know I’ve begun to relax. There’s this idea of chewing my food before I swallow it; there’s repopulating my intestinal flora; there’s quinoa and cucumbers and tomatoes instead of the curry and rice I’ve had nearly every night since I arrived; but more than any of that there’s the fact that I’ve finally allowed myself to give up. I sat around the house for four days feeling terrible. I woke up late today and had some cereal. Then I meditated for the first time since I left the U.S., worked on a short story that may turn out to be just-for-fun, thought about going for a run, didn’t go for a run, and instead went out and ate a burger and fries at the diner down the street.
Watching Jackie Chain leap across trains, slap Owen Wilson with his ponytail, and smoke the peace pipe is as close as I have gotten to having a spiritual experience in six months. I laugh. I add too much parmesan to my quinoa. I make my roommate A. try the quinoa and she says it’s terrible, and we laugh about that too.
I make tea. I return to my room. I get an email from my sister: The man who created R2D2 is dead.
He lived in Malta.
He laughed a lot, the obituaries say. He was 68.
The tea is good. Salty with the taste of the tap water, but good. Like warm rain.
Or: I literally can’t get up. The floor is black rubber mats that interlock like puzzle pieces, covered with dog hair, smelling like sweat; Disturbed growls from the stereo; around me bodies are lifting and pushing and pulling against gravity and there is a feeling in the air of exuberant exhaustion and tiny droplets of sweat are flying past me and exploding on the floor; this exhaustion feels as close to home as I’ve gotten in a long time; still, I can’t get up. They call these burpees, and they shouldn’t be that hard. Get on your stomach, stand up and jump, get on your stomach, stand up and jump again. What’s the problem? I feel like I am a hundred years old. I feel like all my limbs have given up and walked away.
The instructor has been yelling all along, but now she finally yells, One minute left! I hear her pause, see her bend down to look at me. Come on! she says. Just get up and do something for sixty seconds!
Finally, I’m able to stand. I’m able to pick up a kettlebell and swing it wildly. My hands are slick and I imagine the weight flying out of my hands and beaning the woman across the gym from me, but I manage to hold on. Three more seconds! the instructor says. One more time I heave the weight into the air, watch it stop in front of me, hover there, give up on its heaviness. I’ll be so sore I can barely get out of bed for the next three days, but I’ll remember that this is what it feels like to be alive. The kettlebell comes down. Good morning.
Or: Today there’s a fence in the middle of the dirt yard where they keep the horses. I stand there every day waiting for J. to pick me up and take me to work, and every day I say hello to the horses as I walk by, but now there are three cinder block posts and three long PVC pipes strung between them that divide the already tiny triangle of dirt in half. I don’t like it. The horses don’t like it either. Dusty cars rip by on the highway just beyond the yard, people honk, traffic lights change, and the horses stand with their necks hooked over the top of the PVC pipe like kids with their chins on the kitchen table who have seven green beans left to eat.
Never together, though. One horse retreats to a corner, then rushes at the fence. For a second I think he’s going to jump it, but he finally slows. The other horse sees this and leaps back. They snort at each other, charge and shy away. There’s no one to be angry with for separating them, so they’re angry with each other.
For the first time the terror of their confinement occurs to me: Their world is such a small world. It is not at all theirs. They have madras sheets draped over their backs and velcro’d under their necks, and the sheets have stupid advertisements on them.
One horse drops to the dirt and rolls in it.
The other stands by the yard’s dusty tree.
Overhead, eleven cranes wave their long arms. They lift things and let them down.
This is the twelfth in a series in which I live in Malta for a year. Find the rest of the series here.
This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.