We learn about Paris on the bus north from Valletta. A speaker crackles apocalyptically from the plastic trimming overhead, trying desperately to announce the stops but sounding instead like a badly distorted version of the distress signal in the only episode of Lost I’ve seen. I. holds her phone up and though the article she is reading is in Dutch I see Paris and in the photo is fire so I know something’s wrong. S. speaks in Italian with a coworker of hers that we’ve run into on the bus. They tell me then that ISIS has killed sixty people in Paris—these are the early reports. I. is from the Netherlands; S. is from Italy; S.’s coworker and the people he is with are from mainland Europe too and they seem invisibly bound by this sudden and unexplained tragedy, although we stop talking about it almost immediately and chat instead about something frivolous, who knows what, though it’s always interrupted by the disconcerting crack of the speaker above us.
When we get off the bus the kebab shop shows on a big screen through its plate glass windows the word Paris and some other words in Maltese and in shots from airplanes things burn in the dark and maybe I don’t see it right, maybe all the fires have been put out by now, but in these brief flashes of the city red glows against black and to me it looks like fire.
In our apartment I. and S. and I stay awake under the living room’s harsh light fixtures even though we are fall-down exhausted. Nineteen hostages. Now two terrorists are dead. Now S. makes chamomile tea. Now I need to write this and I write this. People I know, not well, mark themselves safe on Facebook. The three of us sit and talk. We are as tired as the world and still none of us goes to bed.
Before this, opening night at the gin and tapas bar that B.’s roommates have built from scratch in a narrow room on Strait Street in Valletta. A French 75 like K. made me back in Oregon. Tapas in a cardboard carton, soft carrots, peas, cuttlefish black with its own ink. An Australian pilot who tells me she can’t go back to Australia. Why? I joke. Did you kill somebody?
Before this, a cold night in paradise.
Before this, bands I won’t admit I still listen to blare in a high treble from my computer speakers. I’m seventeen again, torching gas in my parents’ Jeep Liberty, accelerating through suburbs I’ve never seen before because I don’t know where to go but only know that I need to go somewhere. I’m twenty-seven again, and all my friends are married or doctors or wear nice shoes and my pink room is a limestone box on the tourist edge of a water-bound limestone country. Now I’m thirty-seven, everything is perfect, I’ve published books, I’m a part of people’s lives and they are a part of mine and we all believe we will have something to do with the future. Now I’m forty-seven and I’ve published another few books, but the world is on fire and books don’t matter anymore. Well. It was only a matter of time.
Before this, overdressed Maltese men walk alone across the empty firing range on the coast, their cars parked at the rocks that break the waves. If this passes for solitude, I am sorry for them.
Before this, in his car on the way to work, N. tells me that despite the ever swelling responsibilities of his life, he is happy. Between work and family and his other work and his dogs and the rest of his family he sleeps less than I can imagine sleeping, but if he didn’t love doing all of it it, he says, he’d stop. I am in awe of such clarity at seven o’clock in the morning. Of N.’s vision about his own life even while he’s hurtling through it like a thing unstoppable. It makes me realize how empty my life is, relatively speaking, and that although I am happy now the times when I have felt the least self-conscious and the most alive are the times when I have been nearly as busy as N., nearly as stressed, like the world was falling in on me. I want the world to fall in on me.
Before this, I give a lesson in which I ask the students what computers will be able to do in the future. J. can’t help but stand to give his answer. Instead of using buttons to play FIFA, he says, you’ll use your body. A goal—like this. And a celebration—like this. He kicks. He raises a knee and throws a fist in the air.
But J., I say. That’s not a video game anymore. That’s actually playing soccer.
Like this, he says, and celebrates again.
But J.— I say.
But we have to move it. It’s a short class, like all of them, in the middle of a long day, like all of them. Half the things the students predict that computers will one day be able to do are already possible: a living house, a computer that speaks to you like a human being.
Before this, the sun begs me to rise with it. Leaps through the windows like a child who has never intentionally known sleep.
All night I dream that what happened in Paris has happened in the U.S., but that the killers flee into the woods. The authorities strap GoPros to their heads for maximum media coverage and follow the killers on four wheelers and in helicopters. They shoot at whatever moves. Until too much moves: We see the chaos of the woods resolve into a small army of vigilantes pounding through the woods on foot, wearing blue and orange sweatsuits like my students wear, carrying long brown rifles over their shoulders like one of the men I saw walking along the coast yesterday afternoon. Some of the men crumple under fire from the authorities before the authorities realize they are shooting at their friends. Then a general feeling of pursuit takes over, and we are all speeding through the woods after something or someone that may very likely have ceased to exist.
At six thirty I wake up from this and I can’t help that my first thought is to write the dream. Today you can hold history in your hand. But if you make history out of tragedy too quickly, real sadness decays. Your grieving is secretly thrilled at the drama the world is capable of.
This is why I should be quiet. I should say and write nothing. But I’m afraid you can’t blame people, and I ask you not to blame me. I am alive, awake. I have to do something.
Or: When I wake up the second time the trash in the kitchen smells like a raccoon that died a month ago. I throw two notebooks and an apple into my backpack and walk to the bus stop. I’m the last one on before the driver waves his hand against the tourists behind me—Full up, full up, he says. The doors shut. We jerk forward. Ventilation, man! says the second-last person in, a Maltese man with a cheery gut. The bus driver explains: The A/C is on, or it’s broken, or who knows what the hell’s going on. The Maltese man laughs. Like: Of course regardless of precautions we will suffer. He leaves the bus two stops later and I place my hand where his was, on the pale yellow bar running floor to ceiling. It’s hot, not just warm, hotter than I could make it with my hand if I left it there for years.
In Valletta again, twelve hours after I left last night, I skirt the city wall and descend into a long park that overlooks the harbor and the Three Cities, the same view that I had from the Upper Barakka Gardens on what I think of my first real day in this place. I’ve never seen this lower park, never knew it existed. The sky is a painting. I’m always calculating: Forty-five minutes on the bus for two hours in Valletta, plus forty-five minutes back. As I walk I consider that one moment under this sky would be worth a lifetime on the bus, and this idea expands. Centuries of war for an ice cream cone. Billions of years of darkness for a planet wrapped, for a few blinks of an eye, in crashing, caressing water.
The path through the park appears to end on an elevated terrace, where a black dumpster stands piled with black trash bags against an old iron fence. But according to C. I should keep walking. So I do and find, after all, a gap in the fence to the left of the trash. The steps down from the terrace are ancient, curved and sloped in the middle with the press of thousands of feet, and at the bottom of them there is C. He is bent over a window—a white sketch pad where the same staircase takes shape in pencil. Instead of the dumpster, the Queen of England leans over the fence. C. and E., who is staring out at the bay drawing, are silent. Birds and the engines of buses on the street above. The way the day pauses if you are willing to pause with it.
I sit between C. and E. and write and write. Finally, when I’m done commenting on the world, I explore it. On a slope beside one of the walls protecting the city, I find a staircase overgrown with weeds. It ends in an old yellow archway bricked closed, its base scattered with hypodermic needles and smashed water bottles and green broken glass. A metal rod sticks out from between two of the huge bricks that fill the archway—as if one of the users, one day, tried to burrow to the other side of the arch. He got some of the mortar out; two of the bricks began to part slightly with the rod between them. But night interrupted him, or a pair of tourists curious to find an unseen corner of the city. In the end, there was no reason to burrow to nothing. On the other side was just more air.
I argue with this: I say, burrow. I say you have to keep going, because the alternative is admitting how small you are and how immovable the wall.
This is the sixth 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.