The guppies flap in the yellow water. Their mouths suck at the surface. They suffocate. Too many fish, too small of a bowl, even though it was beautiful at first like the Platonic ideal of a fish bowl. They make waste and there’s nowhere for their waste to go and so by the time the weekend has come and gone they are ready to die, I can feel it when I look at them, the guppies’ shit baked by the sun, their little lung equivalents screaming for oxygen and finally, sometime tonight, their gills closing up shop and their bodies smaller than a fingernail floating side-up to the surface. I want to believe my suffering on their behalf makes me more Buddhist, but really it comes from an anger that nobody cares about what gets destroyed or who dies. Sidewalks painted with dog shit. Piss in the alley on the way to the beach. An entire island of people drinking their water only out of bottles because the water out of the tap is undrinkable or, well, it’s technically drinkable but it tastes and looks like ocean.
The next morning, yes: One of the guppies is dead. But you wouldn’t know unless you asked. The body is gone. The water is clear again. The remaining fish are happy and the shells lining the bottom of the bowl are as close as they’re going to get to a home, but none of the guppies even goes near them.
Or, a white sticker on my chest with all-caps script in black marker: AUTHOR. I take it off when I leave the event but the heart part of me doesn’t want to take it off. I don’t get emotional about stickers. But all the people at the event—dancers, choreographers, painters, writers, INTERESTED IN THE ARTS, an animation engineer, some dude designing an AI program that can paint paintings autonomously—are still in the bar chatting and I am walking away so I can get sleep but I want to retain a part of them and not lose this dripping part of me. The part that talks about art with other people who are talking about art. The part of me that admits to writing poems.
Now I am crossing the gates out of Valletta. Now I am next to the buses and a man in a trench coat is kicking an uncapped marker around the sloped sidewalk in a sad circle. I reach in my backpack to install the AUTHOR sticker safely against the inside of a pocket. I notice at once that I’ve forgotten my hat.
So it’s back to the gathering. Through the gates, along old broad Republic Street, down into the alley where the crowd is still bursting like a bubble from the bar. It is the same warm crowd but I see it as an outsider now and it is somehow easier to be cynical, to say to myself, Oh, a bunch of people at a bar. I weave toward my hat and believe for a moment that I will pass through unnoticed, a ghost.
But on my way out C. sees me and says, Are you leaving? I grin and shake his hand.
Hey, C. I already left.
Or: The first room is Indiana Jones, a staircase overgrown with ivy that leads to a crumbling walkway around a spooky courtyard. The next room is a cold grey hall with a skylight burning blue in the middle of the ceiling. The next room isn’t a room; it’s a corridor that extends much farther than either of us are willing to walk. But we peek into the first doorway off of the corridor and it’s more like a cell, dusty and abandoned and random, a bathtub sitting in the middle of the room at an inhuman angle. We flee into the next room, which is not a room either but a courtyard. We peek through the grated holes in the floor into the forlorn rooms below. Then we see the bricks on the west side of the courtyard, where ornate letters are carved. They look old. Old old. I’m seeing dates in the 1800s. Then 1700s. Then one from 1600 and something. It’s a joke. It has to be a joke. We thought the building was a hundred years old at most. We wondered in through a broken fence because it was the end of a dead end road and we wanted to get to the other side. One of the bricks looks like it was chipped out and carried away.
Later we find out that brick was Lord Byron’s signature. Somebody stole it years ago.
We also find out that the place was a lazzaretto—where they used to quarantine every crew that arrived on the island.
And so the feeling of ghosts is not so strange. When the wind bangs a loose steel door against its frame, we run away from the noise and the ancientness and we feel as if we are being chased.
Or: I’ve just gotten myself situated underneath the five blankets on my bed. I’ve just pulled my legs into the cross-legged position. I’ve just opened up my document and begun to write when the first raindrops streak the window and I squint at them, not believing at first, waiting for the rain either to stop or to ruin my day. I’ve just begun to believe that it’ll stop when I start to hear the drops, meaning it’s a proper rain, meaning I throw the covers off and leap out of bed and run upstairs to pull my clothes off the line but by the time I arrive on the roof, the rain is a sheet. I watch the dry clothes get soaked. I watch the dull sky spit and I turn back to the indoor landing and start to curse at Malta, to call it terrible names and tell it to do terrible things to itself. I am so unhappy. I pace and wait and look again at the rain and then decide Fuck it, whereafter I storm through the storm and rip my clothes off the line and stuff them into the plastic bag I have in my hand. I stupidly yell into the air. I yell at a whole country. I fantasize that I am just inches away from doing something violent, something stupid. I’m not. I’m only wondering with an incredible agitation when the day will arrive that will be effortless and at the same time I am knowing, as I have always known, that this day will not be ever.
I spend a quarter hour hanging the clothes from the indoor line, where I considered hanging them before due to the possibility of rain but didn’t. Clothes take days to dry in the stairwell. It is nearly as humid here as in the ocean itself. But the chore must be done. I do it. My veins are heavy and righteous with blood. There is no object for my anger, but I badly badly want one.
When I return to the landing the next day, there’s a gap in the clothes. T-shirt sized, or maybe underwear sized, but I’m sure I hung the line end to end and the gap means something fell three stories to the ground floor, where my gray-haired neighbor who accuses me of not picking up my mail probably grabbed it and said something snarky about me to his wife and threw the article of clothing away. But what was the article of clothing? What was in that place?
When I return to my room to fold the clothes, I go over everything to see what’s missing. At first I hope it’s only the purple boxers with shamrocks and beer. But I find those. Then I’m sure it’s the Ohio shirt. The one that says HOME, but the O is the shape of my state.
Of course, I say, of course, my Ohio shirt that was so soft, the only piece of my home. I still have so much anger, and if I could be angry at this thing…
Then I find the Ohio shirt hiding beneath a sweatshirt in my half-worn clothes pile. I am both relieved and mutely upset. What do I have to be angry at now?
I still don’t know what was in that gap.
Or: By now the premonitions are almost constant. When I open this door I will find my long-awaited residence permit. When I refresh Gmail I will receive a prestigious writing fellowship. When I check Submittable, I will find that someone wants to publish my book. I always say to myself, I can feel it.
So when I feel it today, just outside my apartment door, I can’t tell if it’s a fake premonition or the real premonition. The feeling is strong; it is strange and sudden in a way that I don’t think the other premonitions are, but maybe that’s just in retrospect because when I open the door I find a flat white envelope stamped by the DEPARTMENT FOR CITIZENSHIP & EXPATRIATE AFFAIRS EVANS BUILDING VALLETTA MALTA. I can’t believe it. Four and a half months in, I’m finally allowed to stay here.
And I felt it. A theory rapidly develops. Events are splashes in time that send ripples both backward and forward; I felt a ripple. And it was good.
The following Wednesday, I walk into the Evans building and hand the employee that white envelope, my passport, and the original receipt. He looks cursorily at each of them, disappears, and returns with a huge folder of papers and a card. He keeps the huge folder. He gives me the card. That’s it? I say. Are you a first time applicant? Yeah, I say. He nods. Then that’s it.
You don’t know how difficult it was to get this card. I check that it’s safely in my wallet twice before I leave the building. Then I’m back in the streets of Valletta and the deep expectation that I had of total change, total flexibility, total opportunity to leave the country whenever I wanted and see Europe, seems kind of remote. I walk up the hill toward the city center, underneath huge fabric hangings in honor of St. Paul’s impending feast day. I try not to look around. Strangely, I’m still here.
Or: By the time I arrive at the bench where C. is to pick me up, I am in a state of near panic. I’m hungry and uncertain about my future and I feel pressed in on both sides by social commitments I’ve made and the traffic is roaring past me like it always does, an asteroid field stinking of fuel.
Then C. pulls up. He stops traffic and I jump in.
Then we drive to a road I never knew existed and it’s lonely and beautiful and we park and get out and now here’s the sea and the rocky landscape. We meet a couple others. We walk into the brush.
We climb through abandoned buildings. We step over rocks. A bunch of guys in camo playing with airsoft guns scream Cease fire! when they see us and soon we’re past them and we’re climbing up into the abandoned building, ours, the one that’s to be our canvas.
Then I am drawing in permanent marker on the walls. I try poetry but poetry feels dumb on the broken tile of the bathroom, the scarred dust of the closet. So it’s abstract shapes. Numbers. Words divorced from context. And now just lines across the wall. I draw them like they are holding up the building. My drawing hand flies like they are holding up me.
Or: I’m trying to move around the classroom more. Now I’m sitting on my desk, now I’m leaning over M.’s practice exam, now I’m perched on the desk behind J. who is working assiduously and I suddenly feel the momentary but very certain urge to kick him in the back. J., my own student, a funny and energetic kid. Why? Suddenly it comes back to me. Band class. Sixth grade. Will Kennedy (it had to be Will Kennedy, or if it wasn’t it was another of a hundred likenesses of him) kicks me in the back. I turn angrily. He is laughing. The band director counts off, we play a song, and when the song ends Will kicks me in the back again. I turn around again and now I’m done for. He kicks me in the back. He kicks me in the back. I turn around again, or I ignore it, or I scoot up in my chair to get out of reach of his little useless hateful foot. Doesn’t matter. He kicks me again. By the end of band class I’m almost crying.
Why now? I like teaching kids this age because it reminds me of how human I am, how I went through everything they’re going through and only after a lot of mistakes and misjudgments and sheer time did I come to be even barely acceptable as an adult. But there’s a lot of fear in being reminded of this process too.
I don’t kick J. in the back, of course. But thinking of it and knowing I can with impunity is more pleasurable than I want it to be. I am in power now.
The next day, Tuesday, is bullying day. They have a kid recount his story of being terrorized by other kids and I miss the assembly where the kids speaks, but I hear about it secondhand. They say he said, I go home and I am depressed. I just do nothing. I feel terrible.
I forgot that you can feel that way even when you are twelve.
Then I remember.
This is the tenth 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.