The deck of the ferry is a fluorescent white whale in a black night that doesn’t end. Below us the engine hums, the bridge hovers above us, benches that were full on the way to Gozo are empty on the way back because all sensible people are gathered inside the ship for warmth. We are not sensible people. We are looking for stars.
So we walk toward the darkness at the bow, where the deck’s fluorescent lights don’t shine. There’s one other person standing against the railing there, hood up. We linger a few paces away from her and stare first at the black hulk of land that is the island of Malta and its huge ugly halo, a grey light that fills the sky above the island and obscures the stars. But when we look farther to the left, there’s Orion, the only constellation I’ve ever been able to see.
He’s standing over Malta, F. says.
Like he’s guarding it, I say.
This is true: His glittering belt is vertical, the points of his shoulders and feet stretch across the horizon like a warrior who can’t sleep. Stupidly, it makes me feel better. That somebody so big, whom I’ve known for so long, would guard this place.
Then we try to find the big dipper—the big bear, as F. knows it. She can never find him here, and tonight is no exception. He’s either beneath Malta’s cloud of light or hidden by one of the fin-looking things that juts skyward from the ferry’s deck. But we try. We march to the stern, where another silent romantic few are watching Gozo slip away. But here the light from the ship is too much. You can barely see a star.
Then the hum of the ship changes pitch, and the wake turns from a straight line to a curve, and we are pulling into the dock. It makes me sad: In the end, the light obscures the darkness. My last glimpse of night, before descending into the crowd of holidayers jingling keys and jostling below, is only the bare suggestion that somewhere, not here, is infinity.
I remember the impossible, unknowable black water and fathomless sky. But I want to see it one last time.
Or: It really does look like a mini-golf course. A rope-bridge stretches from the geese lake to the sheep pen and families wander across it like they’re on a miniscule, disappointing vacation. But in the sheep pen, there’s real sheep. And in the blacksmith’s house, a morose blacksmith is hammering a real piece of metal against a real anvil, and a real family is leaning against the bunk beds across from him and speaking a language I don’t understand. And up the hill, where the village thickens, a real horse lowers his nose to us. A real donkey rubs his lips against the grate that houses him. And real burlap rags hang stapled to real wooden poles in a real barn through which a line of impatient families stretches so that they can see the real Mary and real Joseph and a real infant, who appears to be really sleeping. People shove cameras in their faces and flash. But the holy family is unflappable in their love for and awe at the sleeping child. Joseph holds Mary. They look unsettlingly benign. And then they’re gone—or I’m gone from them, and it’s two roosters chasing around a hen, and another donkey, and a miniature horse that stretches its neck out in a sassy bid for love.
We return down the hill for a tea and honey and stand around an old barrel and listen to a band of old guys with an accordion and a tambourine and bells play. We eat hazelnuts and linger by the well. But I want to see God again. I don’t believe in Him, but something about Gozo’s famous live nativity scene was otherworldy. Mary and Joseph looked too convincingly in love, their child too convincingly asleep. How can you achieve such peace without drugs or the hand of God? I want to watch them until Jesus wakes up and begins to scream. Then I will believe that they are real.
Or: It turns out the Creative Writing Workshop is a Song Writing Workshop. Then it turns out that the Song Writing Workshop is a Worship Song Writing Workshop, and that everyone in the room is a Christian except for me, and the crucifix wedged into the molding in an upper corner of the rooom takes on a new and frightening life. The Irishman at the front of the room speaks about God speaking through him, quotes songs like “10,000 Reasons” and his own “I Am Redeemed,” says of his musical influences, “James Taylor might not be a Christian, but he writes unbelievable songs.” I should not be terrified but I am terrified. Do these people know what is inside me?
Mostly I am scared of myself. That I could take their positive energy and destroy it so easily, just by saying what I believe.
I spend most of the workshop pretending to scribble notes, when I’m really writing:
wtf am I doing here?
when can I start living my actual life?
am I prepared to really say fuck you to the rest of the world?
The answers are, respectively: I am being part of something, though it’s something different than I thought. As soon as you decide to. And no.
On my way up the abandoned industrial street to the bus stop, S., a professional soccer player who I’d sat next to at the workshop, pulls up next to me in his little car. Where are you going? he asks.
No, no, I protest.
But he’s already leaning over to unlock the passenger’s side door, and what can I say? I was sitting there the whole time, not believing. I write experimental poetry. I’m a fake.
No. I get in, and neither of us know the way back to Valletta. So we just go straight. Which takes us soon enough to familiar territory. Then the city is in sight, and I’m gone.
Or: Cobblestone, cobblestone, then a black sweater and two fingers pointed like a gun at my face and I flail madly away from the body that’s on me now and grabbing me and oh, Jesus, it’s just M., on his way to the Drop In Center that I just left. My body is still shaking. Oh my God, I say. You scared the shit out of me. And I don’t know what I thought: It was a real gun, or it was a real mugger, or suddenly Valletta was closing in on me the way it always seems to threaten to. I laugh, but really I am still scared. Shame, shame. M. laughs; V. laughs too, and A. who scared him. But then M. and A. go on their way and V. and I go on ours and we’re still not sure that we’re not being beaten in the street, and that’s how close the impossible thing is—you can be on the pavement in a second, and all anyone has to decide to do is come at you like a boulder.
Or: My first answer to how I can live without religion was a cop-out. For example, what happens when you die? A. had asked. I shrugged and said nothing happens to me, I’m gone, but my energy disperses into the universe. Ashes fertilize trees. That kind of stuff.
But I’m sufficiently disturbed by my inability to say something original on the subject that I am thinking about it on our way out of the school parking lot, into the bus full of students, across town to St. Julian’s, off the bus, and along the sidewalk to the Millennium Chapel. When I finally answer A. again we are sitting in a bare angular pew five rows back from a humble nativity scene. Our students, in their orange track jackets and navy blue sweatpants, murmur with more reverence than I’ve ever observed in them. From a hidden speaker in the back left corner of the room, seagulls squawk and some other bird twitters. The ceiling is so low you almost have to duck.
I tell A.: I think everything we do is written on the universe like a sheet of paper. So that even though time passes us and seems like it is gone, it is held somewhere and preserved. Everything is eternal. Time may not be navigable to us, but all of it is always there. A. asks me, But how does this affect how you act? For example, if you kill someone?
Well. I pause and look at the floor. I guess if I killed someone it’d be preserved in the universe forever, and that’d make me less likely to do it. I squint. I start again. For me believing this makes me live more in the moment. Because every moment will last forever.
A. nods. I cringe at myself—I’m so far from living in the moment it’s hard to believe. Then the priest, an old man with white hair who’s been sitting at the front right corner of the room the whole time stands and addresses us. He speaks in Maltese. I understand one out of a hundred words.
But A. does me the favor of leaning over and telling me what he’s saying. What’s strange about it is she doesn’t preface her translation. She just says: God loves you. God is a part of your life. God is always watching over you.
The seagulls get louder as the priest goes on. People start glancing around, bothered by the noise. Some machina. Some deus. Then we go bowling and the teachers don’t get to bowl, but the students keep inviting me to take cameo shots. I get a single strike. Theoretically, it last forever.
Or: Some guy stumbles up my street as if he’s injured, elbow braced against the building beside him. I slow the first steps of my run, a movie of heroism flickering in my head—maybe he needs help and I’m the one who can help him. But then I see the friend he’s moving toward: a body on the stoop of my neighbor’s home, out cold.
For Christ’s sake. I pick up the pace. I run through Paceville, as I always must on my way to the coast. Cigarettes and broken glass line a creek of hose water running across the cheap cobblestones. I run down the alley of stairs that smells like piss and, on bad days, human shit. Then I pass the tourist shop, cross the road, and trace the tiny beach until the short steep hill of abandoned buildings. From the top I can see a window that grows and grows: the ocean and the sky always meeting in some ethereal combination of blues. The key is that I do not stop to see it. Moving across the landscape, I grasp it by not looking. And when I finally stop and rest and stare from the peninsula where I’ll turn around, I can only see through the stunning panoramic view—can see the way that even though it is always there it will not always be there for me. Someday I’ll remember this horizon the way I half-remember dreams.
Or, for every moment when you wonder what the hell you’re doing here, there’s another moment when you’re thinking: Wow, I’m taking shots of Jäger in a Thai pub in Malta with a German girl, a Romanian girl, a Swedish girl, a Slovenian guy, and the bartender; the night has escaped us; everyone is alive, and I’m one of everyone. I’m alive too.
A few ciders help. Late at night helps, and the freedom from work for the coming two weeks and the end of the year in sight. These things relax me, dull my constant awareness of how foreign I am here and will always be. But they also accelerate the not-knowing, the sense that I am barreling headlong into dark hours I’ll never know before I see them, and which I’ll barely remember. Falling forward. I’m my best self when I am reminded that, yeah, this moment is eternal, but so is the next one. So get on with it. Wonder into the street, shiver with your friends, and give someone who’s shivering harder than you your hat.
This is the eighth 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.