During a wakeful moment in the middle of the night, I hear the sound of fabric tearing. In the morning I see that my blue and white striped bedsheet has a half-foot rip clear through its middle. I should take the sheet off the mattress, make some kind of effort to curtail the damage, but I don’t. Instead I leave it on the bed and night after night, after some thrash or dream, I wake myself up with the sound of the rift ripping further through the sheet. My foot gets tangled in the hole. The sheet becomes two sheets, united by a common few inches of fabric at its head and foot. By now, what has been done cannot be undone. I will take this sheet to the limit. I commit to giving up on it only when nothing to give up on remains.
Or: Suddenly the bar employees are setting the benches on their sides and we’re the only ones left on the terrace, the night around us abandoned, three-story apartment buildings hanging overhead with sleeping people just on the other side of the darkened windows. One of the employees tells us: Something happened. Someone fell, or something broke, and there was blood in Paceville. A fight that escalated or a crane that crashed down on the night’s throng. True to the gossip, ambulances whistle down the main street a block away.
What they thought and we thought: First there was Paris, now this.
In the morning we will learn that a couple bouncers cleared out a club with pepper spray to stop a fight, not an uncommon thing in Paceville, and in the exodus down the club’s stairs a railing broke and seventy people (the papers say) were injured, including a 13 year-old girl. The prime minister asks publicly, What is a 13 year-old girl doing in a nightclub? But underage kids packing the party center of the island is not news to anyone. Only the blood and one person in critical condition are news, and soon clusters of police will dot the wet cobblestone streets between the clubs, hovering around the scene of the crime, which will be taped off for weeks.
But tonight we take the hint from the guys setting the benches on end and leave, wandering down the street to a corner bar that advertises—I kid you not—60 shots for 21 Euros. At the table adjacent to ours, two boys with twelve shots in front of each of them sweat and grip the table like it’s life itself and throw down drink after drink. Some feats, like this, are miracles. Also the fact of how near day it is. That the world keeps spinning and that every night, whether I’m here or not, this tiny bar is open, and people come to it, and they can get so lost and wake up in the morning still alive.
Or F. asks me to tell her a story, so I tell her this one: A catfish named Felipe swam the sea far far from his home. He was very lost, but soon he found himself among a pod of whales and one of the whales, named Johnston, offered selflessly to help Felipe find his home. With absolute gratefulness, the catfish accepted the offer and sucked onto the whale’s back with his little mouth.
The pair swam for hours, days, weeks, then finally months, in search of Felipe’s lost family. But they had no success and the whale’s stomach began to grumble, since he hadn’t stopped for food since the search began. He tried not to complain because Felipe had enough to worry about, but finally when he was afraid he could not go on Johnston confessed his starvation to Felipe. Do you mind, he said, if we stop by my feeding ground nearby?
Felipe was dismayed that the whale hadn’t mentioned his hunger before. Yes, of course we should go for food! he said, so the whale took off to the north, covering hundreds of miles in a single day to find this feeding ground. When he got there he whipped about in a frenzy, ate every lifeform he saw, took whole schools of fish and jellyfish and krill into his mouth at once. Felipe remained silent as he clung to the whale’s swaying back, but during the turmoil he began to realize that he recognized the place. It was his home, the home of his family, which he had lost so many months ago.
When the whale was sated, Felipe spoke up. I recognize this place, he said. I’ll be right back. Then he swam to a shelter of rocks stacked in a pyramid from the ocean floor, his family’s home.
He darted in and out of the rocks, but he found no one there. In fact, this part of the ocean was completely clear of fish after Johnston’s feast and it dawned on Felipe, as he had not allowed it to dawn on him before, that Johnston had eaten his family, his friends, everyone he had loved and hated and known.
He emerged from the stack of rocks and stared up at Johnston’s giant, benign face. He hesitated for a moment, an orphan alone in the sea, and imagined running away and never returning. Then he shook his head and swam to Johnston and sucked onto his back again. I was wrong—I don’t recognize this place at all, Felipe said.
So Johnston took off and they resumed their search. They swam the sea that way for the rest of their lives, and Felipe never said a word. Only he knew that his family, the one Johnston still believed they searched for, was all the time inside the whale.
Or: The cat is dead in the road, and I only see this after I’ve made kissing noises at it, told it hello, welcomed it to the neighborhood. One front leg is canted impossibly outward and its mouth is just a little red with blood. Beside it are crumpled cans, bags of trash. Its fur is whiter and blacker than most street cats, as if it walked out of a groomer’s only hours ago. It shines with life. Except for the fact that it is dead, it is impossible to believe it is dead.
I can’t pull myself away from it, but I pull myself away from it. I was up so late last night that this grey afternoon is a morning. And nothing is as bright as that fur.
The next day the Miglior Gatto van, Best Cat in Italian, is parked in the space where the cat was the day before. A huge decal on its side shows a sea of canned and bagged cat food. An ecstatic cat is rolling in it. Under the van, the real cat is gone.
Or: I spend at least fifteen minutes in the laundry detergent aisle, staring at the multicolored shelves. I need detergent. This is a fact. Other facts: All the labels are in Italian. I read Italian, but I’m not well versed enough to know the codes applying to laundry. I don’t even know them in English. Should you use a product made to stop colors from running even if your colors don’t run? Can you use something that’s for darks or whites on everything? Is it bad to buy a detergent that provoca grave irritazione oculare? Is that toxic? Does it kill fish? And ammorbidente—I think this means fabric softener. Although I have the suspicion that fabric softener is different than detergent, the two formulas are so intermingled on the shelves that it’s hard to say. Half the bright plastic bottles don’t say detergent or fabric softener. They only say some variation of This one is really good and You’re gonna like it.
The longer I stand there the more I feel I need to buy the right product in order to account for all the time I’ve spent in this aisle, and the harder it thereby gets to choose. I really don’t want to destroy my clothes. So I finally settle on the plastic jug with a stick figure in a white shirt spreading his arms over a logo that says Omino Bianco. This milky greenish liquid has Estratti di Aloe Vera and has been Derma Tested. It Pulisce in profonditá e rispetta i tessuti.
I get home and look it up: I’m right about fabric softener. Not the same as detergent. I knew it. I promise you I’ve been doing laundry for years.
Later on that evening I pull out the laundry liquid I’ve been using since I arrived in Malta. It’s not detergent. It’s fabric softener. I promise myself I’m doing the best that I can.
Or: Thanksgiving Day at the American Ambassador’s house. I’m wearing a tie and suit jacket and the ceilings are eighty feet high and I’m sitting across from the Chinese Ambassador who’s going to meet the Queen of England after this, but otherwise it’s just like home. The waiters in their black vests and bow ties tong turkey onto our plates and in the middle of the table they place cornbread and stuffing and sweet potatoes and halved cobs of corn and saucers of cranberry sauce and gravy. No one wants to be the one to begin because we’re polite and none of us knows each other, but eventually the bowls get passed around and we fill our plates with a modest serving. We eat. We talk a little bit. I save the corn for last because there’s no way to eat it in such company without making a scene. For this exact reason no one else has even taken any, but because I’ve taken it I’ve got to eat it. So I give up and hoist the half corn cob to my mouth, slobbering and driving strands of corn skin between my teeth. The woman across the table, one of the few other Americans at the lunch, says kindly, Someone had to do it.
To reward myself for eating the corn, I take more stuffing. It’s my favorite Thanksgiving food. I dig in, fantasizing about servings three and four, but the next thing I know the waiters are clearing the plates, the silverware, everything, and my plate is the only thing left on the table and everyone is politely not looking at me. I keep eating, because I have no other choice, but now I’m nervous and rushed. I finish like a trash compactor and push my plate away from me as if I have never seen it before.
Then we go into the Ambassador’s living room and play Apples to Apples, which I played on the floor of my freshman dorm one of the first nights that I slept there. This time everyone is of a more literal generation than me, and I don’t win a single round. Except for the last one, when the card I play is: Cockroaches.
Or: I take F.’s advice and call off work, which I normally hate to do. But who needs me? My muscles ache and my head hurts and I know if I spoke I would only cough and I badly need this—to lay in bed and be useless. Sickness is always a revelation. It’s no different today: I walk into the kebab shop down the street and for the first time in the three months I’ve been going there, the guy who serves me smiles. “Everybody Hurts” is playing on the radio. A hearth fire flickers on the TV screen.
Yeah, I think, sitting down with my Large Salad Plate. Everybody does hurt. And for about thirty seconds, the kebab shop feels like a window to me, through the Malta I know, through the pollution that has been making me sick since my throat went sore and through the rush of the buses outside. The kebab shop guys laugh and joke. It seems like a special day for them, who knows why. On my plate potatoes and tomatoes and cole slaw and rice and Spanish beans and, on top, hummus and hot sauce. Again I eat.
It’s like this: I am a hole in the humming landscape, and the kebab shop is a hole with me. Some pain and joy are splitting the routine.
Then the hole closes up. I pay and walk outside and squeeze by the tourists that are always standing at the bus stop. They’re always different tourists. Always I see someone I think I might have known somewhere, a long time ago.
Or: They finally replace the sun bleached banner that’s been slouching from the billboard across the street. The new colors are brown and red and bold and the models are dressed for winter. I give thanks for the built environment. Somebody besides me saw the old banner’s faded people in their summer clothes and decided it was wrong. Me and that person are together, somewhere. A long time ago.
This is the seventh 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.