The Multipurpose Room stutters with strobe lights and small bodies jumping and dark music from the underworld of American pop. Immediately I’m back in high school: my first mixer, the infinite potential of a dark room full of newly minted teenagers without parents, so loud that speech is impossible. One boy gives another boy a piggy back ride. Packs of girls roam the halls in jeans and sweaters and boots. Teachers dive into the swirling room with plates full of hors d’oeuvres and emerge seconds later, the platters picked cleaned like corpses. Every few seconds a kid emerges from the insanely humid room with his bangs plastered to his forehead and his eyes glowing as if they’ve just glimpsed the future and seen in it parties on the beach and a neon moon and someone with a stereo following you everywhere you go and I know that feeling, the one where you have autonomy for once and only see more of it coming and haven’t yet learned how terrifying it will become.
I can only stand to watch for a few minutes. I’m too close to that age to not want to dance, but I’m too far from it to be able to. I’m the adult, and I’m never the adult. Button-up shirt, khaki pants, brown shoes. Mr. Sweeney. My clothes are a wall. The walls are walls and I’m a well. I don’t want the fun to fall down in me and disappear.
So I retreat to the staff room. These kids don’t need me, I think with worry as I open up my ereader. These kids don’t need me, I think with relief as I turn a digital page.
Or: This is the most fun I’ve had in the last three months. I barrel across the caged field with a palm-sized ball, wing it to the other teachers, stick my tongue out at my students as I guard them with a wide athletic stance like I was taught to do by a thousand baseball and basketball and football coaches when I was my students’ age. The sun is brighter and warmer than it’s been for days, and I’m wearing a red bandana and the red sunglasses I got for free in a bar in Boulder three years ago. The past is one with the present.
Never mind the awkward handshakes that will come after the game, where there’ll be two people coming in to say Thanks, Congrats at the same time and I’ll have to choose one of them and snub the other, which will set off a whole chain reaction of weird handshakes. Never mind that tomorrow I’ll be so sore I’ll barely be able to get out of bed. Never mind even the days that follow—the free ones, the ones without work, two weeks of being able to live my life the way I claim I want to. I’ll get up and write and run and eat and write again and the days will empty themselves out according to my own exhaustion.
But today—this two and a half hours, more specifically, when the teachers war against the students in soccer and handball and volleyball—is as clear as I know how to see through. That’s me on the bright green turf, the one who loves to run like a dog under the sun. I am more myself than ever when I am playing handball against a bunch of twelve year-old kids.
I forgot this part of me existed. It jumps in the air and cocks its arm and fakes a shot but instead of shooting passes. Former Maltese national team footballer P. drills the ball into the goal. I let out a whoop. My legs blur to get back on defense. Like a hawk I watch the ball. That’s all there is.
Or: Maybe it’s fear that’s chased me onto this rock outcrop a five minute walk up the coast from the nightclub where every other teacher on the island is drinking and partying and carrying on. Maybe this fear is irrational; maybe I should bite the bullet and go inside the nightclub and meet people and get a little embarrassed and be on the dance floor by seven o’clock. Or maybe the apprehension makes sense; maybe only a weird American would even consider entering a party like this on his own, hoping to make friends. Either way, the checkerboard pattern of indentations on the stone in front of me is almost certainly man-made, but how? And why? The ocean laps against my little peninsula while parked cars accumulate in a long string along the road behind me. I’m in a suit jacket and new shoes and I’m terrified that the partygoers will walk by on their way to the club and see me dressed this way and think I’m doing exactly what I’m doing, which is hiding. Still—the moon is low in the sky. Along the horizon is a strip of rich blue and above that is orange and above that is a bright cerulean that is fading as the sun goes down. A great peace populates the air, muffling a great sense of expectation. I stand in this place for two hours, maybe more, waiting for B. to arrive. By the time I move my feet are sore.
In the party, no one is dancing. Everyone knows each other. I carry my backpack through the packed crowd like a courier and wait and wait until we can leave. When I get home I am so tired (from what?) that I can barely speak.
Or: From the brick hut in the middle of the cliffside park grows a story.
A man lives there, F. says, who speaks only to the frogs that chirp and fly among the rocks stacked on rocks in this barren place. The man is 150 years old. He has never been seen by anyone—anyone except, she amends, her uncle’s wife’s relation, who arrived here by boat many years ago. Her long-lost relative taught the man English and helped him paint PRIVATE NO ENTRY on his bricks and then let him be. Instead of telling the papers about the man, her relative told no one. The old man is a legend now, like so many old Maltese legends. Only F. knows the secret of his existence, but like her long-lost relative she prefers to leave him alone.
Except she tells me. We pass another shack, open to the breeze and light the way the first wasn’t, adorned by two palm trees in the front. That’s his summer house, she says. He switches back and forth. As you can see, it’s not much of a trip.
She goes on: Although this man is vegetarian he kills wolves in the winter, for their pelts. There are wolves in Malta? I say. She nods credulously. He wastes the meat? The frogs eat it, she says. They’re ferocious frogs, I say. She raises her eyebrows. She gives them a name: huepf-flieg-sprech frosch, which translates to hop-fly-speaking frog. A species unknown by everyone except us, like F.’s story, which flies from our mouths into the wind. Now the park ends and the road begins and we come to a little yellow hatchback. That’s his car, I say.
We laugh and laugh. Why would the man have a car? It’s so silly. The funniest part is pretending that that’s the only silly thing.
Then we come over a rise to a parking lot that overlooks Popeye Village, an isolated cove where the set from the 1980 movie is preserved. Bundles of children mill between the old houses, a merry voice blasts announcements from roof-mounted speakers, some guy takes twelve people at a time on speedboat tours of the bay. Finally a parade begins and three “mascots” appear, real human beings dressed in plush colorful costumes. They dance, and the voice on the speakers warns kids to wait until they are invited to join in. The Macarena and Jingle Bells blur in a sickly sweet mixture above the town.
Somewhere behind us, that old man is telling stories about us now. To his frog, who flies along the coast and twitters like a bird and fools everyone. We know about him too—his name is Franz—but we won’t tell another soul.
Or: Christmas Day. I sit in front of the computer and interrogate my family about what they’ve opened already and what’s still wrapped up. I make them show me the tree and the presents under it and, out the front window, the rainy sixty degree day. It’s almost like being there, except that Skype keeps shorting out during the beautiful moments and I keep cursing and having to call them back. My family’s heads are pixelated and stick in a series of frozen frames. The audio sounds human then robot then human again. It’s a little like staring through a pinhole at the real world, but bodies keep walking by and making everything go black.
They’re in our pink living room in Cincinnati with pink couches, pink walls, pink rug. I’m in my pink bedroom in Malta, pink sheets on the bed. I never realized the coincidence before, that we’re connected by this color. And then we’re connected by something else, something strange. Someone notices an angel floating behind me, in front of my closet door.
Onscreen it’s Gabriel, a long-haired flowing-robed foot-high angel with his hand raised to the air in peace. No kidding. It looks really real.
Then I turn around to look at the angel, not without trepidation. I’m relieved to see that he is only the uncanny combination of my sweaty green running shirt hanging from the closet’s knob and my sweaty orange and black running hat hanging on top of that.
But back on the screen, the image is still a messenger from God.
I wish I were a person who could believe in both at once. For a few minutes, I let myself be that person. My family joins in. He’s protecting me. All that.
Then we say Bye, Bye, Bye, See you later, I love you, Bye, and someone’s hand reaches toward the screen to press the red phone icon. Now it’s Christmas in Malta again. And the angel—even though it was starting to creep me out on the screen, I don’t move it. It doesn’t look like an angel anymore, and it won’t again.
Or: C. gives E. a capsule that says, “Life is full of surprises. Don’t open this if you want to keep it that way.” It’s written in pen on masking tape; the capsule is Minion-colored and -shaped, the type that’s dispensed by those little gumball machines.
Really? E. says. So I shouldn’t open it?
C. grins, shrugs. It’s up to you, he says.
But I don’t know what to do, she says.
C.’s mischievous. He shrugs again.
There is no answer to this thing.
At first I’m overcome with enthusiasm for the idea: I imagine a person wearing such a thing around her neck, a monument to the unknown, a reason to wake up in the morning and step through day after day.
It’s like it’s pulling you into the future, I say. It’s like you’re racing after the possibility of opening it. C. and E. and Y. stare at me.
Really, I say. I describe a shop that sells such unknowns, lockets that aren’t meant to be opened yet or maybe ever. You can give your lover the gift of hope, of possibility. Imagine going through life knowing for sure that there’s something more out there, I insist. And that it’s around your neck.
I flash an entrepreneurial thumbs-up.
Then, all at once, the idea seems terrible. A vicarious panic gets inside me, somehow suitable to the brisk December afternoon and the mint tea in front of me and the pigeons flying around knocking teacups off the bus cart. The anxiety feels exactly like my life here always feels—a perpetual waiting for something, and not knowing what that something is. If I was E. and I could open that future, I realize, I would. If someone gave me that gift I would crack it apart and eat it.
Or: Either nobody has a clock that’s accurate or no one cares, so we just assume it’s the New Year when the fireworks start. There’s virtue in this, being less aware of the passing seconds than normal. We line the ramparts on the west side of Valletta with a few bottles of wine, crinkly plastic cups, our five different languages. One second it’s 2015, one second it’s not.
And the fireworks are low over a weird part of the city, where we didn’t think they’d be.
And the people of the city are quiet with awe, then loud with hugs and kisses.
And it is a warm night, or it seems warm.
And we talk to some people we don’t know. And they talk to us.
And someone sneaks off to pee in the bushes.
And the next time I look at my phone it is 1:30am. But the fireworks… They were only seconds ago…
And now we are stumbling through the city, and moving is effortless. Probably it’s just the alcohol. Probably, but so what. I’m sure I’m alive now and I’m sure that on these streets with this people at this strange hour searching for a bus or a cab or any way to get home at all—I’m sure, and this a rare thing, I’m hardly ever sure of it, that this place is where I want to be.
This is the ninth 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.