I’m tired of making meaning. Every bus sashays by like it wishes it was the one I want, but none of them is. Through the chain link fence behind the bus shelter, in a brief gap between sheaves of green fabric hung to hide the game, I can see the white stadium lights shine on the empty soccer pitch. The lights reminds me of coming around the second curve in a high school track meet, unpursued and unpursuing as I remember it but still racing, somehow, with someone or something I can’t see, the clop of my spikes and thin soles against the rubber lonelier than ever in the brightly lit night shot through with the distant hum of the stands in the straightaway ahead. The 400 is less than sixty seconds, but you think you’ll never finish. Ten seconds after you’re done, you notice you have more left in you and wonder why it’s still there. The showered soccer players file past the bus shelter with big navy blue bags over their shoulders. A tour bus pulls up to collect the other team. Seven hours ago, when we gurgled into Comino’s fabled Blue Lagoon, I was overawed to see that the water was in fact a shrill, magnetic blue. An electric aqua. Like lights through a filter, impossibly natural. I expressed my surprise.
What did I expect? asked B.
I expected that the lagoon’s glow was exaggerated and that there was beauty, but that it couldn’t look like I imagined. But it did look like I imagined, with the addition of sandwich stands bright against the rocks and roaming tourists highlighted by hundreds of colors of bathing suits, and I was forced to acknowledge that some beauties are difficult to forge, though they can be besmirched. At the top of a cliff above the arch of the cave across the lagoon, I found two sheets of crumpled toilet paper clinging precariously to a ledge. I hung my feet off the cliff and scanned the horizon and everything was doing its part: the endless ocean, the rocks, the fall, the toilet paper. The shouts of families in the waves. Boats breaking the surf.
The bus comes and this time it’s my bus. I get on and try for a while to tap into a feeling I got hold of a few days ago: a wonder at the fact that so many strangers are trapped in the same metal and glass box, speeding through the same space, waiting with the same squashed eagerness for the same (or a similar) arrival. But that kind of wonder comes only when it’s ready. Now I’m only tired, and the miracle is another inconvenience, the way most miracles are.
Remember: This is fine; I am alive even to the boredom, the waiting. A mother snaps at her playing child. A man with a finely groomed goatee pecks the woman he’s with on the lips. Two girls share a set of earbuds, nodding lightly to the music. The empty night welcomes what little we have to give it.
Or: Letters for the Hon. Mr. Justice Frank R. Camilleri pile up on top of the mailbox on the ground floor of my apartment building. Medium-sized manila envelope. Small manila envelope. Even smaller white envelope with the dignified name hand-cursived.
Checking my mail has become synonymous with checking on the Hon. Mr. Justice Frank R. Camilleri and I can tell you that he’s still missing. Prone in his apartment, the grey-haired black-robed judge stares solemnly at the ceiling with still glass eyes. Or he was buried long ago, his family too distraught to read his letters, or too busy to pick them up. His legacy is a short stack beside the much larger stack of junk mail. Below them, in the mailboxes themselves, are cans of cat food stacked like K-rations. Whenever I see one of my neighbors, we acknowledge each other with the fervent hope that neither of us will introduce ourselves—that we will remain able to go about our lives as if the people below us and across from us were specters, as honorary and invisible as the missing man.
Or: The cold water that drips out of the bus ceiling onto my head on the way back from the long, long, infinitely long day.
Or: The baby across from me screaming.
Or: The old man who V. and I give up our seats for, who barely hears his daughter yell at him to come and sit. His sun darkened skin, his firm but narrow lower jaw, his curling ears.
Or: The trio of guys I sit among in four facing seats after the bus empties a little, all of whom look even more tired and overwhelmed than me. I feel suddenly communal in my mind’s slow, exhausted jolts forward with the bus through the dark.
Or: The story S. and D. tell me when I get home, of a boy and a girl and another girl whose role is to procure the boy for the girl, but of course that girl ends up accidentally procuring the boy for herself, and confusion ensues, and what is S. supposed to do? We calculate, hem, haw, we’re in the halls of the high school gossipping, we hold the drama by the hair, we laugh, the walls open outward, we’re flying.
Or: I wake up five minutes before my alarm and I’m in love again. I know it was a dream, those days are far away, but I take a few extra minutes eating my cereal, and I walk slowly toward work, and the world feels curiously in place, however intently I study its uneven, impossible gears, however warily I look for and through its windows. Something went right while the night passed. I am just barely open to the possibility that it had nothing to do with me.
Or: The woman at the ID center is nice about rejecting my application, about telling me that a boarding pass and reference letters and Maltese health insurance are required, but she’s firm too, there’s no way in hell I’m going to get my ID card today or, it feels like, ever, and I want to cry. My nerves are trembling. My eyes get wide. I thank her and escape from the building before I snap at somebody or lose my mind. Then I march headlong up the cobblestone street, sending the energy out my feet, Valletta’s ancient stone buildings shrugging to my right and left, and when I get on the bus it leaves immediately, and goes directly to the university, and I get off and pound to the International Office, and M. can’t believe it, and A. can’t believe it, and I can’t believe they rejected my application either but suddenly the energy and anger passes from me to them, my heart slows, and I still can’t believe it but am now watching the way the anger transforms A.
It’s silent, a pressure building inside the skull. Thin face muscles tighten. Eyes grow. The air smells like tin, like a chemical fire.
Back in Valletta, lines of people are being told that they need something else, some other piece of paper, if they are to be allowed to stay. Otherwise—go home. But where is your home? If it’s not here, where you are, it’s nowhere.
Fort St. Elmo hunches silently at the tip of the capital city. Stopped-up cannons point at the cruise ships that tiptoe by.
Or: Waves crash into the rocks like cars, spraying glass everywhere, water filling the standing pools like blood. I’ve never seen the waves this big before; I try to explain to A. and A. that in the day, people swim here. In the blackness, our phones lighting the rocks in front of us and the moon highlighting the tops of the whitecaps, it seems as if the scene was made for us. I don’t know if it’s an optical illusion or if I’m losing my mind, but I swear to you the black ocean looks as if it’s is rolling down to us from an infinite, gradual hill.
The water advances. We move inland, because we’re unashamedly scared of the giant, dark waves, and it’s a good thing we do. A few minutes later a crash subsumes the promontory from which we’d gazed down before. We can easily imagine death. We talk about what we’d do if one of us went in. The water’s so strong, it’d have to be nothing.
Then we follow the light—to another shoreline, but a safer one, where three men sit side by side on a washed-up bench beside the waves. Now I am certain of it: the ocean is canted upward on the horizon, downward at us, and the waves are rolling in like an avalanche. That we aren’t enveloped by them amazes me, despite what I know of physics and geography. Tonight is the kind of night where such a thing is possible. We are talking about books, and about writing, and about our lives, and to me the world is less real than our words. It can become a fantasy with less trouble.
When we stand to go, a snail has glommed onto the mesh on the side my backpack. I pull it off and place it chest-high in a tree on the shore. The snail sucks to the leaf. I hope this is where it wants to be.
Or: I get out of the suffocating bus and walk alongside it with a long stride, keeping an even pace with its lurches through the traffic. I sling my blazer over my shoulder like a lawyer, but then decide I want to wear it since it’s the first blazer I’ve ever bought so I pull my arms through the sleeves and veer through the unlighted park to the torn up road beside the marina and walk along it, watching the boats bob in the black water, until I arrive at a jury-rigged ramp that leads from the road to a jury-rigged dock that leads between more boats into the middle of the water. I check the time. I’ve got fifteen minutes to kill. So I descend onto the floating plastic capsules, which feel like they could capsize any minute, and proceed onto the slightly firmer plastic dock beyond them. I stride down it with my hands in my pockets as if I own one of the ships. A tiny, inflatable jetski. An ostentatious yacht that’s as wide as it is long, lit with blue lights. A line of modest sailboats. And where the dock ends in a T, a wooden almost-pirate ship.
I take a right. This leads me to the real end of the dock, where a waist-high black plastic block is lashed in order to serve some indispensable and at once inscrutable purpose. Unable to go any further, I stand there. I gaze at Valletta, yellow in the distance. The offensively titanic yachts docked off of Ta’ Xbiex. The black water drowning everything. The boats around me squeak in turns.
I pee three times. Though two or three of the boats nearby are occupied, I’m sure none of them can see me, and I’m nervous: We’re going to the Ambassador’s house tonight, and I don’t yet have any idea how nice she’ll be, and how fluidly I’ll somehow manage to move among the many attendees I don’t know, and how I’ll experience actual unselfconscious awe at her impeccably manicured backyard. I know only that I’ve got on new shoes and a new blazer and nonetheless am certain that I’ll be woefully underdressed, and so my bladder wants badly to be empty. I pee three times and after the last I turn and walk decisively back from the end of the dock, between the silent ships, and just before the narrow, swaying ramp that leads to solid land a man with long gray hair and a long gray beard walks by, surely on the way to the boat he owns even though not an iota of him looks like a boat owner.
He says hello to me and it’s a sign, it’s a sign, everything’s a sign.
I pace in front of A.’s house for another fifteen minutes, since I’ve forgotten which was hers.
We drive to the lightless center of Malta. People with guns guard the door.
Then we’re in, and I am underdressed, but the Ambassador compliments my shirt anyway. It’s pink, and my tie is blue and purple and pink madras.
Two months ago, I tried on the same shirt and tie in front of the hall tree in our kitchen in Cincinnati. My dad exclaimed that the combination was dynamite, so the tie went in the suitcase with the shirt.
The nights are getting cold, but I’m surprised to find that I like the chill, viscerally, in a way I’ve never felt before. It feels unequivocally like home.
Or: I finish Moby Dick in the inner office of the Department of Citizenship and Expatriates. I flip my e-reader shut and stare up, finally unmoored, at the windowless white basement room. In front of me two guys who seem like they’ve known each other since gradeschool peer into a single computer monitor. The bearded one cracks open an off-brand Red Bull and takes a sip. The handsome one—we’re talking piercing green eyes, movie star eyes—leans over him and clicks the mouse, then seems to give up and leans back in his seat. That’s it, the bearded one says. Problem with the system. Everyone out. Come next Friday.
For a second I believe him. The residence permit saga stretches. I imagine standing, walking outside to a country that I am still only provisionally allowed to be in, and in which I will soon be residing illegally. The walls of Valletta practically crumble.
But no ones stands or moves. He’s kidding. Of course he’s kidding—and they tell me to slide in front of the camera again, take my picture again, and then the handsome one presses my finger to a fingerprint machine with his own index finger, holds it there for a terrifyingly intimate minute, and then I sign something, and sign two more things, and pay my €27.50, and the handsome one hands me a blue piece of paper. That’s it? I say. He barely hears me. I get the permit in six weeks? I say. He barely nods. So I stand and walk outside and the first thing I see—the great white whale vanquished, though I’ve just seen Ahab meet his end in the cold sea—is a sign on a building that says MALTA BOOK FAIR 2015. As if now, saga over, I get not only peace of mind but every other thing I want.
Inside, the convention hall is packed with schoolchildren. They yell and linger in the too-small aisle and walk like they are drunk, but in the Italian embassy’s booth I find two beautifully designed novelettes by people I have never heard of but love instantly.
I don’t buy them. I let myself be free.
Or: Near St. Paul’s Bay, eight kilometers at least from my apartment, I see another runner padding along the four-lane highway. There’s barely a margin on his side of the road; the cars zip past him; I can tell from his short blue shorts and calm stride that he’s in for some serious mileage. He raises his hand to me—above his head, a big wave so I can see it. I wave back. Then he’s gone, or I’m gone, and it’s just the road again, its curves holding patiently to the juts in the rocky coast. Beside the highway, the salt flats are drying. The sky has given up on trying to rain.
This is the fifth 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.