She told me she had no time for flowers and prayers, and I knew there was something wrong. We went on one more date and I ended it there. I went straight home, no strolling, no purchases, no distractions. I made coffee and set down on the kitchen floor. The pace of things had to change. Raindrops falling falling falling on my roof. I am a water sign. I could just go out there and float in my raincoat where the grey of the street meets the grey of the sky. They call it city horizon – but I don’t feel like it anymore. Ultimately this is the problem, my relationship to water and the temptation to float aimlessly. But now it was possible for things to change. I had just gotten my papers to legally stay in this country. I started leaving people and jobs that were making me feel dizzy, unsure, not in control of things in a bad way. First I made a list of things, people and places to leave. Then I left them. On the kitchen floor, hot coffee warming my hands, I added: Flora – who does not like flowers and doesn’t get my jokes – to the list. Tick. Weight lifting, weight shifting. It seemed easy right then but before the letter came, returning my passport, telling me I could stay, even telling me that from now on I had rights it was only possible to float. I had no edges and swam along the city concrete waves from one low wage job to another. In between jobs I lost lovers, I lost weight. I also lost thoughts, which meant that I had to read the news obsessively. Now I started to reduce my news intake to only once a day and began to give some room for thoughts, which was scary. At first I mainly produced lists, like the leaving list but also shopping lists, repair lists and lists of things to do and learn. The last one caused me anxiety, so I decided to leave it empty for a while.
Their user-name was water8crystal and we met five years ago somewhere real but not in person. Water didn’t like their gender. This is a common problem. Eat, sleep, work. Eat, sleep, work but in a gendered way. Welcome to humanity. I hadn’t thought about gender much until then. I had other problems, but – coming to this country – I knew that bodies were the site of a problem and I could see what was wrong. Talking to water was interesting. “Sometimes, when I can’t sleep,” water told me, “I shout ‘Be this gender for me’ at the stars.” “Does it work?”, I wanted to know. “No.” Water was thinking. “The stars don’t care, and I am not yet sure about nature as such, but I am investigating. I’ll let you know.” “Ok.” I thought about it. “Does nature care,” I typed into Google and Google suggested “what does careful nature mean in pokemon”. Also, a good question. I was late. I said goodbye to water, shut my laptop and went to work. No breakfast, only a banana on the way. When I met water, I traded eggs on toast for conversations. It was too good to talk. It gave my day purpose. Morning chats provided me with daydreams which got me through my cleaning job, but which cost me my nannying job – I was too distracted, didn’t watch the youngest of three kids climb up a tree and fall. Though he didn’t hurt himself too badly, I was considered a risk for his life – not worth the money, not worth the time. It was ok. I found a café job a week later. We chatted in the evenings too. In the first week, I started to forget to make dinner, which became a problem. I set myself a rule to make dinner first and only then chat. My meals were simple. I came up with dishes that would not take much time to prepare and maximum one pot to cook.
We chatted for months. We spoke in English with each other, but I knew this wasn’t their first language. Water repeatedly made small mistakes that had a pattern like my own but different. I asked water what their day job was. They replied: “I work with water.” I rolled my eyes. It turned out that water was an ocean biologist specialising in specific coral formations that look like crystals. Sometimes they teach at the university, sometimes they are on sea, sometimes in a lab. You think the internet or at least chat forums are mysterious but really they are not. There is still an everyday behind every activity. I got to know water’s logic. I told water about my various jobs. Complaining day after day about shitty bosses and shitty pay, water asked me if I didn’t want to consider going to college. I told them that I didn’t have a proper residency permit.
Back then, water encouraged me to do my residency application. They were good at online forms and helped me find and collect the right documents. It took years. It took longer than water and I. That thought still makes me sad. I remember one day. “It’s all gendered!”, I exclaimed, “Becoming a citizen is gendered. Filling out online forms, they all want to know your gender, define your gender, mark it, hold it, collect it for research purposes. How do you like online forms?”, I complained. “Ever heard of the ‘prefer not to say’ option?” Water typed. “I can’t believe I am dating an idiot!” I smiled. “To be fair, often that option doesn’t exist.” We are dating! Did you hear that? Did you read that? Who cared about the rest! I felt warm inside and like dancing. I played music and poured myself a glass of wine. In the shower at night, after our chat, I touched my body slowly, exploring all parts, drawing my own contours, not sure for what reason exactly. It felt good. I existed. I touched myself. Water running. I came.
A year past and we talked almost every day. Some days went missing because of holidays, over work, power cuts and bad connections. In that year, I saw water naked many times. We did things to each other. I think if water would have asked to marry me then I would have said yes. This is weird because I don’t believe in marriage and the state doesn’t like either me, an immigrant, nor water, who doesn’t have a clear gender. Also, we don’t live in the same place. I learned a lot from water. Many secrets about the ocean and about the internet, about state bureaucracies and gender. One day it was over, and it broke my heart. They left their gender in cyberspace and called it day. I thought it was the end of me. It is difficult to explain to people the loss of a lover who only has a username and no gender. I tried to laugh about the situation, but the pain was real. It was bodily. Even though the problem was my missing body. “You are fighting for your right to live in this country and I am elsewhere, and I can’t leave my mother.” Their mother was ill. I knew all about it, had send an herb mix and some tea leaves. Water continued, “and so there will only be two bodies touching online but that’s it and that is ultimately not enough. I need to move on somehow. I need to build a live somehow.” I was still. They said: “We are meant for each other but not meant to be.” I was furious. I hate this romantic bullshit, but I also fall for it. Maybe this is the problem of water signs. My thoughts were all rage and my fingers punched the key board hoping that each letter would first break in half and then many splinters. I cried for days. I didn’t eat. I called in sick for the first time. I punched a wall and then I got over it – not over water but over crying, over the hunger, over not functioning. I started making eggs on toast again, read the news and went to work. I knew people wouldn’t understand so I stayed quiet. But this was real. And I knew water had loved me and I have love poems and naked pics to prove it.
One of my colleagues from the cleaning job had a friend who had a sister who had a house by the sea. I looked sad and broken and so they asked me if I wanted to join them for a weekend, get out, breathe other air. I thought about it. The sea was not where my thoughts wanted to go right then but my body needed a break from everything, and I remembered weekends by the sea with my family when I was a kid. Back then my mother told me that everyone belongs to a sea, one they understand. Then and now, this made sense to me. I told Rachel, my colleague, who also agreed. “Why do people ask for your star sign, moon sign, and all of that but not your sea?”, Rachel contemplated. We exchanged sea secrets, which was the closest we would ever get. I told Rachel that I like the Atlantic Ocean, which takes the ground from underneath you. “The sea that saw the slave trade”, Rachel thought out loud. I nodded. “Covering 20% of the earth’s surface, mighty, salty, strong. But it’s not my sea, home sea” I sighed. My thoughts wondered. I wanted to know water’s sea because it would have revealed so many secrets – the flow, the movements, the dangers and their relationship to land. “Even if covered by water, the ground is still there”, Rachel said out of nowhere. We thought about it, talked about it. We formed a bond over the sea after what had been a quiet weekend. I read a novel, Rachel a magazine. I made eggs on toast; Rachel tried to find the perfect mix of milk and cornflakes, the cornflakes should neither be too soggy nor too dry. As I watched, I could tell that this was a delicate balance. We went for walks along the sea line. One real chat, otherwise a bit of talking. Family, lovers, future plans. We gave away some information, but we didn’t give away our hearts. It was a nice weekend.
On return, I dusted my two-room apartment, every surface, every shelf. I came across my copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I used to carry that book around everywhere, like a protective charm even though I had never read it from cover to cover. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in its content. I was captivated by its title. Something about the imperative, the calling. I remember telling water when I first met them, knowing that they would understand my attraction to the sea. It became our protective charm: the sea, the sea, which was between us, pulling us together rather than apart. We read chapters out aloud together, discussing. I haven’t touched the book since. I got over protective charms and instead started protecting myself. I took a self-defence class on Monday nights. Mother Theresa, Saint Catherine – they are there, but they don’t do the work for you. I write to water, the first message since our breakup: “you are not the sea, you are not the sea.” I can see that they have read the message, but they don’t reply. This is fine, as there is nothing they could possibly say. I decided on my next trip.
He told me that mountains don’t care if you are gay or not. “Neither does the sea,” I added. We had met some years ago at a talk and afterparty in the city’s art centre. We chatted and it was nice. Water had interrupted our casual chats. Before I decided to go see him, I told him that I wasn’t interested in sleeping with him. Just to get that out of the way. No false expectations. Only mountains. He reacted matter of fact, not offended. I liked that. He only wanted company. I booked my train tickets. It had been a difficult summer, I was hard-broken and sad. He could tell immediately; I saw it on his face. But he didn’t say anything or ask anything. I was hurting and he was still. I wanted to stop feeling any emotions; he finally wanted to feel something. We needed each other in this particular way. “Straight couples look stupid in the mountains,” he said. I looked at him frowning. “How so?” “Their logic,” he shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly, “I don’t know. It doesn’t work. Up hear, it’s awkward, silly, a bit embarrassing. As an observer, you don’t want to be part of it. It’s like a broken spell.” I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument but also not against it. Moreover, I am not a mountain person – so what do I know? “What about queer people?”, I asked instead. “What about them?” I rolled my eyes. “You know, in the mountains, what happens to their logic?” He thought about it for a second. “They can make out behind the tress. Many good spots.” I laughed. It was nice to laugh. “They don’t need logic anymore, I suppose,” he added thoughtfully but with a smile on his face. He had made me laugh and he was aware of his achievement. Different context, different world. I closed my eyes and thought about tree raves, mountain raves and branches dancing. He thought about rocks and shapes and the revolution.
He was a politics and history graduate who had specialised on the Spanish civil war. “If you really fight for a different world, you will be imprisoned or killed,” he told me. We were lying down on a patch of grass, after hiking, one body next to another. Between us blades of grass, some of them touching. Underneath us earth and entangled tree roots that had been holding the rocks together for centuries. He talked but not about the mountains. And yet, although he never said it, I could tell that he had been here many times, probably on his own having thoughts. Now these thoughts were coming out. Falling opinions like leaves. All of them, in little rants piling up on the ground. I enjoyed listening to him. It was perfect at a time when I couldn’t bear any of mine own thoughts – water, water – better to avoid it all.
I have to admit that when I first met him, I thought he was just a nice guy, straight and maybe a bit shy. But I had liked something in him, mountain tops, that were hard to define. You never know someone until you walk with them was what I realized. I learned that he was gay and scared of the police. He wanted radical change but also to live, peacefully as a queer person, as someone whose skin colour was not a perfect white. To live without fear. He wanted an anti-fascist, anti-capitalist world, he told me. We talked for a long time. I started speaking. I started sharing some thoughts, which I hadn’t planned on doing. Shit happens. “All this is impossible,” he sighed, “without a fight.” I agreed.
I knew it was his mountains because of the way he moved. He didn’t only know the way; the mountains were in his bones. They moved him. Yet, he never spoke of any childhood memories. He never took me to his home town, didn’t tell me any family stories or stories of neighbours. He never mentioned knowledge gained from living in a place for a certain amount of time. When I left, I didn’t know any information about him. I didn’t know if he had a partner, lover(s), friends. I didn’t know where he came from or what job he took after graduating, but I knew him, the mountain in his bones. Maybe I had made a friend. Maybe I met a mountain person.
I think water has kids now. I have a feeling like that. I hope they are ok, growing, whatever genders they are. If I had kids, though, I would tell them not to break a lover’s heart. I have started a new list. It’s called: ‘How she ended up there’ and it’s a memoir but not an obsessive one and not a story but a list. I still think about gender a lot, but I try to leave water out of it. Instead I email firstname.lastname@example.org discuss whatever political matter comes to my mind. He knows more than me, is more knowledgeable in the history of public struggles and organizing but he can’t bear city life and so I update him on what’s happing on concrete streets. I mainly know gossip.
Gossip understands the body in territory and the body as territory and thus is one of the highest knowledges. This is my personal opinion. Online I found others who migrated to this city, who were strangers, navigating the streets. I made maps of places and people who came here with the intent to stay. Gossip maps. “What does it mean to stay?”, I wondered. I desired water, water, strong tides, constant movement, waves. I had to fight my own demons, fear of staying, fear of building and I was keen to learn from others. The point was that there were people who didn’t want me to stay, who only wanted their own people. This was the real fight, no matter my desire to be taken by waves.
After I broke up with Flora, I quit another job. I texted my boss from the pizza delivery. He was the next on the “To Leave” list. I told my boss I wasn’t up for the job anymore and that he should exploit someone else. I deleted the last bit and wrote instead “stop exploiting people” in all caps. He wrote back: “Go fuck yourself.” He didn’t pay me my last pay check – too bad but not a disaster. I stayed in the café for a year longer. I went full time for a while and then when I had saved up some money started college again. Part time work, part time college was ok. The class was good, and I felt some sense of purpose returning. Life had a pace that made sense, that wasn’t entirely against me.
Isabell Dahms is interested in speculation as a concept, has a PhD in philosophy and researches the history of gynaecology and gender.