My last month in Malta is curiously vacant. Most of my friends are gone and most of my commitments have finished so while the island fills with tourists I suddenly have much less to do, and what does happen is like a punctuation mark on a blank page. This is emotionally difficult but I tell myself that the situation is an opportunity for my own perception: There’s nothing between me and the world. I get to consider the void. To flesh out the notion that grows to seem more and more incontrovertible—that form is emptiness. That emptiness is form.
Or: the edges of what happens are what happens. They shape the space outside of them and in them. With so much space in my life, I can now reach and touch the beginning of one event, keep hold of the end of the other, and in the middle I am standing on air.
The day after F. leaves I go to the gym. I work out hard. I sweat and feel exhilarated afterward, as I always do, but this exhilaration is accompanied by an unsettling awareness that I have become completely aimless overnight. I do an extra several rounds of pull-ups. But the instructor, L., is trying to close the gym.
Sorry, I say, and she says, No problem, what are you doing the rest of the day?, and I say, Nothing at all, and she says, Me too, nobody wants to hang out, and I misinterpret this to mean that she wants company. Listen, I say, I’m literally just going to the beach by myself to look at the ocean. So if you want to go, why don’t we go?
Instantly I see in her face that I’ve done something wrong. I shouldn’t have asked. She furrows her brow and nods. She keeps saying, I’ll let you know.
I want to tell her: I’m not trying to hit on you. I feel dirty and sorry and confused. But I sense that there is no purpose in making myself understood, because denial is the surest sign of guilt. I let the thing lie. As quickly as I can I go.
A couple days later, my landlord calls me. He says he wants to return my deposit. I am shocked by this, and in my heart I don’t want to go. But I decide two hundred Euros is worth it and when I arrive at my former apartment, where my landlord now lives, I find the bills folded crisply on a little porcelain plate on the bureau by the door. The lock is broken, the air is nothing but smoke, and The Tuxedo plays quietly on the far-off TV. My landlord offers me Fanta. I take him up on it. Contrary to my plan, I sit on the couch and watch Jackie Chan with him while we both pretend that nothing ever happened between us. He talks about his arthritis and his hopes for interpersonal peace. It’s too bad, we both say. We both nod. It sure is, we say.
When I decide it is time to leave, after more than an hour with my landlord, he stands and holds his hand out and I take it in my hand and then his big body presses toward mine and we hug.
It’s nice to meet you, he says, as if we only met a few minutes ago.
I say something like, See you later. And I disappear down the apartment stairs.
A couple days later, I am so sick that I cannot sleep. I have been in bed for hours with my eyes pressed shut but my coughs keep shaking me awake, so finally I say fuck it and get up and take my book outside and sit on the balcony and let the mosquitoes bite me. At least I can breathe out here. The night is air and quiet and that is what I need.
I can feel that there is something both sacred and perverse in what I am doing. I should not be here, now, in the dark, sick, thinking and reading. Even the night doesn’t know what to do with me. But I feel a little power in forcing it to acknowledge that even now, I exist. No one can see me. But they can hear my coughs scraping across the courtyards and rooftop terraces. I feel weak and only half-alive. Fine. Still, I am here.
A couple days later, when I am trying to revive my body with a long walk to the sea, I see a man bent over the foundation of one of the old buildings that the British army built then razed but not completely. At first I think he is sick too, or crazy, a speck of pale skin and faded cloth in the desert of Pembroke’s rocky shore. Then I see that one hand clings to a small translucent plastic bag. In the bottom of it are a few blackberries. The man’s other hand rustles in the spare green bush jammed in the crack between the foundation and the ground. Slowly, slowly, he finds the fruit. His back stays bent.
A couple days later, I press my eyes to the thin black curtain between me and The Sound of Music. I catch snippets, songs, broad strokes of plot. A hard man entrusts his children to a colorful nanny and she teaches them how to sing. Otherwise, all I see is my students dressed in nuns’ habits and Nazi uniforms filing on and off stage. Before they go on, they set their faces in an image of panicked stone.
Later that night, my colleagues and I dance. I flash in and out of awareness, but a feeling that subsumes everything tells me I am doing the right thing in this moment, and that is why I am granted some freedom from awareness of it. I find myself in bed no earlier than six AM. I set my alarm for nine thirty.
By eleven, I am holding a weight. I’ve never done snatches with this particular weight, but the timer beeps on and everyone else starts doing snatches, so I start too. Hey, it’s not so hard. Hey, it’s a little hard but I can do this. After three minutes, a piece of my palm has come off and is bleeding on the handle of the kettlebell, but I am not going to stop. Eighty repetitions, four minutes: now I am elated, and done, and I stare at my palm, which is like a little red trophy.
A couple days later, A. and I miss the bus in Bugibba. It pulls away the second we walk up to it, so we turn around and traipse across the peninsula’s derelict fields in the general direction of the highway, where the buses pass more often. The buildings loom around us like cruel, ignorant people. The neighborhood seems to extend infinitely away from the sea. Finally there is a fence at the end of a field which must be hopped, there is no other way around it, along with a sort of moat. We hop it.
I get a profound satisfaction from this, as if I am now on the other side of something I was never meant to cross, in a land I was never meant to reach. Soon we come to a playground that A. recognizes, and this takes us to the highway, and we wait beside it until my bus comes. I am so tired. I watch the coast peel away like sleep.
A couple days later, and a couple days after that, I sit in the movie theater alone. This is normal for me, and I am happy with it. A full circle: the aloneness of my first days here and the aloneness of these last vacant weeks, with the frenzy in the middle ringing like an echo. The theater always plays the same songs before the previews begin. Work work work work work. More than diamonds more than gold. Then this ad for a local gym that ends with a girl sprawled beside a hot tub taking a selfie. By the end of the movie, I have to choke back tears. Eddie the Eagle soars into the longest jump of his career in front of an Olympic crowd that now knows him by name. Two Turkish sisters fleeing from their oppressive uncle arrive in Istanbul, at the apartment of their beloved teacher. Even the worst movies seem to stand in for the emotions I don’t let myself have. They know how to do the music just right. They make you believe that your life could be meaningful too, if only you arrived. Where? At the place where you are going.
I stay for the credits. I always do. It’s hard to pull myself away.
When I exit, there is a short depressed looking woman standing ready to shut the theater doors behind me. Both of us studiously avoid eye contact as I walk past her. We both know that when two people who are alone look at each other, they reflect each other like the most unflattering mirrors.
Now my former university student S. brings out two huge plates: one has cous-cous and chickpea chutney and a chunk of beef; the other has stuffed peppers and meatballs and lettuce wraps and a thick leg of chicken. I don’t know how I’ll eat it. S.’s son, A., grips a copy of the Quran that I’ve just learned I shouldn’t touch. Her other son, T., tells me that he usually begins with the cous-cous. And so I begin with it too.
On the way home from S.’s the bus is packed, and I am suddenly pressed tight against my former roommate. Oh my God, I didn’t see you, she says in Italian, and for twenty or thirty stops we catch up on our lives after the terror of our former shared apartment. I allow myself some amazement at the fact that I can still speak enough Italian to get along. The fantasy that I am a man of the world. The fantasy that the world is not a bus that rattles my bones and some days breaks me. When my former roommate’s stop comes, we kiss each other’s cheeks and she gets off without saying another word.
Now I sit on the rocks of what some people call the beach reading The Man Without Qualities. In front of me an old man arrives and strips his shirt off and squats on a high rock and lets his big stomach hang between his legs. He seems like the type of man who comes to this place every day. For a while I think that’s sad.
But the next day I’m back in the same spot, with the same cheap beach towel under me and the same gradually emptying bottle of SPF 20 leaning against the rock my head is resting on. After only two days, this already feels like a routine. The man is back too. I don’t judge him so much today.
Especially after he stands and shifts and sits again near a lone sunbathing woman. They get to talking. I watch them stare into the sea, together.
Now N., one of my brightest students, gives me a drawing of a cat. I use cats for every example in class, so this drawing is merited and, to my delight, it is good. On the back is a heartbreaking note, something I cannot represent here because I know it wouldn’t mean enough to you. With a hundred words N. tells me why I teach. From now on when I ask myself if teaching is worth it, I will think of these words. N. lingers as I hold the paper and read the note and exclaim in appreciation. She lingers more. I look at her, smiling. Thank you, thank you, I keep saying, and eventually I say thank you one last time, with finality, and she says she has to go to class. She goes. I hold the paper like it is an injured animal. I hold it like it will crumble in my hands.
Now the Drop In is open again. “Open” being a relative term, given the circumstances, which are three brand new volunteers sitting on the couch listening to me explain what we do. All momentum disappeared a month ago. And so what we are left with is five long empty hours without a single client, which we try to fill with conversations first about what we’re doing here, then about what is wrong in the world. It turns out irony can be found even in the reckless search for salvation. We talk about mopping the floors, fixing the leaning bookshelves. Our eyes wander after every body that passes the open doors. After five hours, we close them.
Now I am standing, giving a speech to a table of my colleagues at a farewell lunch in my honor, and I talk myself into a corner: I know how difficult it is to have a strange person come into your midst, I say, and they all shake their heads and tut. But I know I’m strange, I say, and I feel at once that it is an odd thing to say, self-pitying on an occasion that should be full of grace and gratefulness. How on earth do I resolve this, I’m thinking, and then I say, But you’re all strange too! And everybody cracks up. It was both the right and the wrong thing to say: I feel that I’ve stepped over the line, but also that the possibility of a person stepping over the line is a major part of why we request speeches in the first place. This catharsis having passed, I sit down, even as I continue to speak. I couldn’t have been luckier, I say. You all are wonderful, I mumble. Thank you, I whisper. Yes.
Or: I am in R.’s basement, surrounding by trains. One whole wall is covered by a long flat glass case behind which the engines crouch, ready to pull. Wooden shelves overhead hold thousands of traincars. R. shows me the diesel engine and the steam engine, all their sounds recorded from real life, and sends them around the track-in-progress and toots the whistle for me. He has been telling me about his trains for so long and I am still shocked to find that they are real.
Then he pulls out the model cars. 1:87, just like the trains, to suit time periods from 1920 to today. To line the tracks like worshippers, lesser mechanical beings. I used to have cars like these. They are all in a box somewhere, capped off along with the awed part of myself. But now I am awed again. I am a child. I pick up the little cars and spin their plastic wheels.
Or: I am in the post office down the street from my house, and a lady is screaming at the postal worker. I ordered it on one day mail! she says. It’s been two days and where is it! Are you joking! The postal worker flinches and talks hurriedly into the phone. She tries to appease the screaming woman but the screaming woman only shouts louder, mercilessly. Finally it is clear to her that nothing can be done. The lady throw up her hands and shuffles away from the thick service window in her platform sandals. She wells up for one last insult. Your service is…abysmal!
When she has left, the attendant steps out of her glass box to breathe. I love Saturdays, she says. I just love Saturdays.
But by the time it is my turn, she is almost calm again. Did you see that woman? she says. I wanted to tackle her and drag her outside, I say. The postal worker lifts up her stapler. I wanted to put a staple in her forehead, she says.
Or: I am at the starting line of the Color Run. There is no music, no organizer on the microphone, and the sun is getting hot. Start time came and went forty-five minutes ago. People are getting restless. Finally L., who is tired of this shit, says, I’m going. You’re going? we say. I’m going, he says, and he jogs around the crowd to the front of the race. We look at each other, shrug, and follow him. He breaks into a run. He leaps the pale green caution tape between us and the front. Then we follow him and hold our hands up and start hooting. Behind us, the thousand people waiting start hooting too. Then they begin to run too, a slow wave of relief. They actually follow us. After a couple hundred yards we come to a fork in the road. Left or right? we say between breaths. Uh, L. says. Uh, the other guys at the front say. We choose left. The thousand people coil to the left behind us.
Or: I am in the schoolyard outside of the National Sports School. My last day is finished. I head toward the gate. But what if—? Did I say a good enough goodbye to—? I should really say goodbye again— So I turn back toward the school. But I already said goodbye— If I came back, they’d ask why I was here— So I turn to the gate again. I turn back to the building. I turn back to the gate. I pace like a frantic, confused bug. Finally it becomes clear to me even if all is not closed there comes a time when you must pretend that it is, so I pretend. I keep on toward the gate.
When I have almost reached the exit, a soccer ball comes bouncing toward me from a pickup game the Form 4s are playing. I am thinking that I will have to stop it and kick it back: one more opportunity to do this thing right. But a kid appears from nowhere and stops the ball. He does a little trick and kicks it back to his friends. I act like I haven’t seen him or it.
Toward the gate, I repeat to myself. I’m almost there.
On the other side is a void. A tangible one now, something that strikes me like a virus, that runs its nails down the inside of my throat. If there was the emptiness before, this emptiness is much emptier. I feel as if I have lived a life and now I have to bury it. You only realize how complete you were when the person or thing or circumstances that completed you are gone.
But then the hole they’ve left behind takes on its own substance. It starts to breathe and bleed.
And so you don’t notice that what you call emptiness is actually a peculiar brand of fullness, until that emptiness ends. Afterward, a different emptiness—a different fullness—takes over.
This one feels like the huge, heaving muscles of time.
Or: You move aside to another window. The scratches and smudges change a little, the perspective is off, but you’re still seeing the same view, which is the window itself. How can this be? Isn’t there something beyond the glass that you look through? Sure there is. Colors and shapes and smells. Cars and people coughing. The sun burning everything white.
But as moments fracture, as they atomize, as they become as autonomous as people and take up separate flags and march in different directions, they come to seem even more similar. They are all blown from the same nearly-transparent glass. You can press your face against them. They are cool. Their materiality is self-assured and their usefulness is implicit. But you can’t quite reach through them to touch the thing you are looking at. Because the thing is your distance from it. Or nearness to it. Or the way a mouth moaning at the sky in mourning rakes across your skin.
There is no essence on the other side of the window. What seems is what is. That’s it.
On my last night in town, I go to the kebab shop where I always go, just down the street from my old apartment. There is a series of gestures that we do: I ask for a large salad plate, they ask whether it’s for here or takeaway, I point at six different salads, they load it on the plate, I eat, I pay, I say thanks, I leave. These poor guys deal with tourists all day. But they know me and we have gotten to the point where they just say, Here or takeaway? and they smile a little and I try not to be an asshole, because I know how it is.
But today a soccer game is on the two televisions on the wall and the men have a boyish energy about them. The main guy, tall and in charge, rocks against the usual rhythm of our talk. His eyes are alive, and he seems to really want to know what I want. This feels like a renewal, the embodiment of some hope toward change. Does he know that tomorrow I leave? Of course not. But this energy… I eat and half-read, half-watch the game. It’s exciting. A couple times the players almost score, but the ball whips just outside of the goal post and the players fall to their backs as if divinely wronged.
I’ll correct myself: What seems is what is, as long as you’re paying really close attention. I don’t know if it is possible to pay close enough attention to actually ascertain the way things are. But I feel happy in that inexplicable energy that pervades the kebab shop precisely because it is inexplicable. There is something about it that says: Here we are.
This is the fifteenth 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.