Then, all at once, the epiphanies arrive. Like circles and arrows in chalk on a window. Like windows in a window, quadrilaterals cut out of the transparent surface to reveal with definitive clarity what is on the other side. Or like little mirrors, reflecting my features—nose, tooth, mole—back to me through punctures in the landscape. For two weeks, the universe pretends to resolve.
I stand in my kitchen eating Greek salad out of a too-big Pyrex bowl. Everything is the same as it has always been—better even, because with the help of regular trips to the gym and the perspective of my friends, the yellow refrigerator and the tower of dishes next to the sink and the pink rubber gloves that always seem to migrate from shelf to counter to windowsill have lost the toxic energy invested in them by my roommate troubles and my landlord’s constant threats and now exist only as objects, as visual platitudes in the time-worn space. I take these items so much for granted. I have never really looked at them, and have never so much as considered looking at the space trapped invisibly between their colored and discolored planes.
Suddenly, with the silence of a breeze, an awareness runs through me: of each object in the kitchen, of the space not occupied by those objects, and of the profound distance between myself and them. I have hungered for aloneness during these busy months, and now I seem to have found it in the sudden deflation of my certainty that I am bound to the things I can only see. I am infinitely far away from that chair, that wicker shelf, those irritating rubber gloves. But I also recognize that space is an object, and that with it clothing me I can never be alone. The items in the kitchen seem to have become both human and stone dead; the idea that “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form” makes an abrupt, visceral sort of sense and I wonder, against my better instincts, if this is what satori feels like. Finally feeling as if I see.
The collapse of whatever peace I have achieved comes in the middle of another languid day at work, when I receive the email from my landlord in which he threatens to kick us out for the tenth time, threatens to sleep on the couch to make certain we aren’t abusing the property, threatens to move into the apartment that he illegally rents to us in order to manipulate us with a more sensitive hand. Now my heart is running. I can’t focus or think or teach. I’m searching every apartment finder site that I know and I’m sneaking into a classroom to use one of the few computers that lets Facebook through and now I’m setting up a meeting directly after work with A., the first and so far only person to respond to me. She gives me directions; she says look for the white Range Rover. After school I find the flat. I wonder through its halls, amazed by the well-adjusted stillness of it, its whiteness, A’s certainty that no sudden destruction will come to pass. The room itself is small but I’ve lived in smaller and my mind, hauling forward like a sinking ship heading for land, asks for three hours to decide.
I return to my rapidly fading apartment. I even view one other flat, a place buried beneath a fine layer of dust with flies buzzing in the kitchen and an oversized couch sitting in the hangar of a living room like a corpse. Once I have left it I immediately call A., terrified that someone else will have taken the room. But she says: No problem. You can come tonight if you like. Yes, I say immediately. I’ll take a cab, I say, sometime around nine o’clock tonight, and she says OK and I say thank you, thank God, and we hang up and I arrive home (“home”!) and begin to pack my life.
While I am packing, I get a call from D., A.’s boyfriend. Listen, he says. Instead of taking a cab, why don’t I just come and pick you up?
I want to cry. Guilt and shame and gratefulness run through me, and I cannot believe, I almost don’t want to believe, that such generosity exists in the world. Who am I? What do they know of me? Surely not how fully I am fracturing, and what this call means to me. Yes, yes, please, I can’t believe it, I say, and he says, It’s not a problem at all.
The second epiphany is learning, after conditioning myself to forget it for purposes of survival, that a stranger is capable of such a thing. That people destroy you, but it is also people who assemble you again.
The third epiphany comes on the bus. Place of fear and loathing, place of festive tourists chattering and staring at maps, of upright bodies pressed tight against each other while the bus rocks violently as if the road beneath means to do away with you. Because of the location of my new apartment, I have to ride longer to get downtown, but I also have a better chance at getting a seat. Today I sit in the back. I stare as the flip-flopped travelers file on and smile the bus into a happy hell, and without warning a clarity breaks through the usual loathing: Everything is fine.
I dismiss the sentiment at first but no, really, everything is. In a frantic night, I was able to pack my belongings and leave my apartment for A. and D.’s flat. In the frantic preceding week, my plans for the future, which have also racked me, were confirmed. Soon F. will leave and V. will leave and the Drop In where I volunteer will close and the things that make my life hum will have vacated Malta, but at present I am taking this swaying bus toward F. and tonight we will eat dinner together and everything will be, is, fine.
The epiphany is both my new and unreal sense that everything is OK, and the accompanying awareness of how long it has been since I have felt that way. The epiphany is short, as they all are. I nearly fall off the uneven curb on the way from the bus stop to F.’s. I begin to cough uncontrollably at the week’s accumulation of car exhaust. I still live in Malta, and as soon as I’m gone I’ll live in some other imperfect world.
I am drunk, but it is the kind of night where a stubborn clarity stays piercing through the drunken haze. So when Cotton Eye Joe comes on in the tiny wood paneled bar halfway up the narrow stairs of Paceville amid a chaos of necking teens and predatory men and flashes of impossible young hope, I can’t help but think back to that night in Ben Schwartz’s backyard when we celebrated graduating from seventh grade and I realized the joy of dancing to a song that had a dance specific to it, a dance that even the worst dancer could master, spinning in a circle on one leg with my arms flapping while everyone around me did the same. It was the last night I saw C.; we slow-danced and acted as sad as two seventh graders who have never kissed can act, and the next week she moved to Italy. I didn’t see her again until both of us had grown up. Well, grown up some.
That night feels infinitely far away. Not only in place, but in the consciousness that remains crystallized in that moment. I can’t believe my consciousness could have developed from his. Even more strange, given its distance, is the ease with which I return to that night. In seconds I am spinning beneath that white canopy in not-quite-suburban Cincinnati, the leaves green and the school year over and the fear of being out of love again the only thing afflicting me. Reality is the tiny bar’s sticky floor, my friends and strangers guessing at the dance, drinks’ drops splashing into the air and hanging there like bombs of abandon, of fun, of memories lost to the blaring present. Too lucidly I see the past, too easily I inhabit it, and though I wish to believe that I am only what I am now, I am forced to admit that there is so much more to me than that. So much of me resides in the past.
And so much of me resides in the future. More of me, these days, than resides in the present. Later in the week I walk past a pair of students speaking English with the inimitable Maltese accent, one you could mistake for Italian if you weren’t familiar with it but which is far more ingrained and far more confident than that, since English is a national language and the accent has come to settle in it. This iteration hits me with a rush of nostalgia: I hear it as if I’m hearing it after being away from Malta for years. I know that cadence… But of course I should. I am still here.
It doesn’t feel like I am, for those few seconds. It feels as if the sidewalk between the bus stop and my classroom is unfolding in my memory and I’m a fuzzy character shambling through it. I remember my present self the way I remembered my young self dancing to Cotton Eye Joe. But I am still here…
I realize that I am living in a sort of past. A past of the future. Such clarity is not normal for me, but I know exactly where I am and where I will be after I depart and how I will see this time when I look back, even though I have yet to pass through it. What a terrible way to think about life. But the epiphanies stack up like a pyramid and the point is hello, you are here, except the point is far above the ground and the sides of the pyramid are smooth and I can’t climb up them. The more aware I allow myself to feel, the more abstract I become.
Then two things happen that strip away the ideas. The idea of images, the images of ideas, the words that I wrap around the feelings of awareness and gratitude and well-being and nostalgia and ennui. The first thing is when we close the Drop In, a holy place, the cold room where once a week I work with people who really need it, people displaced from their countries by war and terror. There won’t be enough volunteers once F. and V. leave so we put a paper sign that says INDEFINITELY CLOSED on the purple door in English and Arabic and Tigrinya. We shut the door. The last four volunteers, two with flights booked for tomorrow, walk up the uneven cobblestone road for the last time.
We take a right. The old route back to the buses. Silent, stupid with sadness.
Until from up ahead we hear a droning. The droning gets louder. It is a voice.
At Republic Street, we usually take a left. We usually walk in the center of the road because the sidewalks between the cars and the buildings are too narrow, and then the road spreads into a plaza that connects to a wide pedestrian thoroughfare sprinkled with the day’s last tourists and sometimes a garbage truck. Today, yes, we will walk that route again—but not yet. Two men in religious frocks lead the procession. Then a priest holding a microphone and repeating some unintelligible, long-standing sentence. Then four boys sharing a load like a coffin, but it is not a coffin. It is a painting propped upright on a wooden platform with four handles, each on a boy’s shoulder. A saint, or an ancestor, or a body that has disappeared into paint. Behind the boys, the retinue. Old people, family and friends, devotees of the incomprehensible sentence—incomprehensible to me.
The procession is small, almost comically so, and it is past in a minute. The rest of the volunteers continue on now, take our left, lean into the hill, but for some seconds I am frozen there. The concept world is behind me, and I don’t know what is ahead.
One day later I am a few hundred steps up the hill. It is F.’s final night in Malta and we have just had dinner, the last of many months of dinners. And many months of much else. Too much to tell you now. Only to say that as our feet rise and fall on the last bricks of St. George’s Square, the only even bricks Valletta, a piercing orchestra starts up in the low, grand building across from the palace.
We stop. What does it mean? They’re mourning your departure, I say.
And now it’s the fountains. Small geysers shooting out of the ground. Trying to spurt in time to the toots and shrieks of strings, but because of water pressure or engineering or lack of maintenance, failing. The lights too: colored lights and white lights embedded in the ground dance to the song, which must be the song of the city closing down.
We watch this spectacle for long enough to be underwhelmed by it. Tonight we are not giving the benefit of the doubt. So, too soon, we turn and leave the city.
I take these two signs to mean that epiphanies change very little besides your perception, if they even change that. They inspire you with a momentary certainty and then, POOF.
But this mysterious procession, this half-hearted dance of water and tone—I cannot hope to put their meaning into words.
This is what I mean by seeing clearly.
We leave the city, and it disappears.
This is the fourteenth 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.