I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4am I wake. Thinking
of the man who
left in September.
Ellen isn’t her real name, but the meaning is similar and I am finding it hard to live in the world of the literal. These days it is easier to make sense of things through screens and mirrors. Unmediated, light is stark and brittle, but passed through other glass, reflected, I find a kind of clarity. My world has been turned upside-down. What else is poetry for?
We meet under heavy concrete on Mondays at noon. Time is short, but usually I tell her about the things I’ve been reading this week. For my last term at university I have chosen a class on the life and work of the Brontë sisters, and one on black writing in North America. Extraordinary, really, Dr Stirrup said in our first seminar, What that dividing line does. None of us were confident in answering whether Canada had slavery or not. It only takes that hour to realise that I understand an entire country solely in relation to its neighbour. The Brontës are more reliable in adhering to my expectations: Jane still reminds me of another little girl I know, still loses her potency with the word Resurgam, and Emily’s poetry chafes with emotion incorrectly described. Last week I read Wuthering Heights as I rode the bus between Canterbury and Margate. I haven’t visited since September. Everything about that day hurt.
Memory is a bruise still tender, I tell Ellen early on, and she just nods. Much of our conversation is characterised by this one-way exchange. Usually I tell her about the things I’ve been reading because there seems no easy way to step cleanly into what comes later. One particularly bad Monday I get myself in a state before it is even twelve-fifteen and, turning to the table, two things become apparent: firstly, that she is recording today, and secondly, that – who lets these things happen? – there are no more tissues left in the box.
My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.
Humiliated, I flare up like a match. I say, You know after we’re done here I go home – I go home because I have to cry. I have work to do, but I just cry for hours, every week. Is this how it’s supposed to be?
Ellen looks at me coolly and says, This is a process.
My life is patched with holes. My calendar is blank. My phone is silent. My camera is still. All music is unbearable. There is a gaping emptiness in place of the red pit that beat my chest with promises. I start to understand: vacant spaces do not hold nothing. Every absence is a presence of loss.
And what does not recall her? I cannot look down at this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, caught by glimpses in every object, by day I am surrounded with her image! The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!
Ellen will have grief-counselled others over the loss of a boy, but I wonder sometimes, sitting across from her in a carefully cupped silence, whether she has grief-counselled anyone over the loss of a country? I had a life across an ocean from which I have now been exiled. I am still having trouble understanding that I did not go back at Christmas. But didn’t we drive the 101?
For months now I have lived my life imprisoned in the trace of another existence. I have no way of explaining this until, just around the hologram of mid-February, we are set Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’ for my Brontë class. On Monday, I quote Ellen a passage.
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
I can feel that day running underneath this one
like an old videotape – here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows
of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.
The April heat, the hill, my left hand. These lines repeat again and again in my head for days. ‘The Glass Essay’ is a mirror, a window pain. I press my fingertips against the hard smooth plane of its phrases, leave my mark.
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
I can feel that day running underneath this one
A dreadful collection of memoranda.
She likes to tell me that I am angry by posing it as a question. You’re angry, aren’t you? She is probably right – she has the degree, after all, and in something more solid than “English Literature” – but I can’t touch that welt yet. Why irritate an open wound? No, I tell her, just sad. Shrouded in sad, thick with sad.
In the days and months after Law left
I felt as if the sky was torn off my life.
I had no home in goodness anymore.
He still loves me, I tell her every week, but the words hang in a silence so hollow that the echo, if there was one, is lost in the void.
And yet, there is a part of me. A mad, bad part, a little raw part. I want Justice. I want An Explanation. I want My Future Back. How could they do this to me? How could they take me away from my life? Look at me. Look at me.
Look at me. I’m wrecked. Somewhere in the Atlantic you’ll find splintered wood leaning against rock: wide curved ribs split open to the sea, its treasure looted or sunk, a tall clean masthead snapped straight at the thinnest point of the neck. I split open on Mondays at noon when she says, I can see you carry this with you.
I have photographed almost nothing since I left in July, and I have not picked up my camera since he returned in September. But now I have been awarded a prestigious mentorship in London, and these mornings I find myself waking, like I used to, before dawn. I carry my bag and my tripod under a chill fragment of moon to a deserted platform or bus station or petrol garage, somewhere in the city, and make a photograph, and then return to bed where I will inevitably sleep late and wake too fast. This is my routine for a month.
Is this when you experience the dreams? Ellen asks, so I tell her about REM cycles and how, during this period of sleep, the brain functions almost identically to its waking state. Although the body is physically paralysed, during REM the rate of glucose and oxygen metabolism in the brain equals or even exceeds the rate of metabolism during waking periods; the brain exerts less energy running a marathon, or driving a bus, or sitting an exam than it does when it imagines us into our dreams. So when I wake damp and late every morning and believe I must have missed a Facetime call, or that I am in the apartment on Anderson Road, or – a real favourite – that I am late for my flight to LAX, is it truly surprising that the realisation none of this is right hits me with physical strength like a punch in the gut? I wake to this/the soaked bed/the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I start to find bruises, too. I wonder what this hated, hateful body does to itself when I vacate it for a while each night. It is not used to sleeping alone.
One day Aida appears, half-formed, in the space between my chair and Ellen’s. I don’t know how she got out. We’re talking about being scared. Well, I’m talking. Ellen is watching. I mean, when I was younger – and she – I guess, I guess it was like a useful tool I suppose, being able to make myself into someone else sometimes, you know. Just watching, and telling me things in the shape of questions, sometimes. I mean I’m a literature student right I like stories, stories are how I understand things. Aida is investigating the telephone which sits on the floor in the corner, plugged into the wall. I don’t know why it isn’t on a desk, why they don’t buy an extension lead. Why would you need a telephone in this room, anyway? Then Ellen says her name back to me and she disappears, like a soap bubble watched too closely.
I stop wearing make-up but men still make themselves known. Old acquaintances wait a suitable period before striking up conversation, out of the blue, on Facebook. A stranger at a bus stop on campus, late one Thursday night, follows up with a text for coffee. Feeling guilty, I tell Ellen. (I blow it anyway, holding the conversation for too long on our campus’s inadequate response to sexual assault and laughing a little too forcefully at the notion of becoming a war photographer. Who am I really trying to impress?)
Do you think it would be a good idea to enter a new relationship now? Ellen asks when I tell her. She’s rarely so transparent.
Well, I deadpan, it was either find someone new or go into therapy.
The morning after I find out, I wake with blood all over my face. A Sunday morning close to my birthday: I was late to brunch with a friend. After this the nosebleeds continue for three nights. I never remember the ghost that comes, fist clenched, who has escalated his nightly violence from the mysterious bruises found late and unsuspecting in the shower to this painless fresh crimson graffiti. I sit up and look in the mirror for a long time, marvelling at the perfect awfulness. It could be red hair dye, but for the way it congeals at the cupid’s bow of my lips.
What a legacy, I tell Ellen on Monday, and she says, Does it hurt?
The pain bursts like blood from my mouth. I turn grotesque in the middle of domestic, every day scenes. Cooking pasta on the hob, alone in the kitchen. At the self-service in Tesco, red and fumbling. Once, brushing my teeth in the bathroom at midnight. It hurts so much I can hardly catch my breath, so much I am open-mouthed and silent, crouched now on the floor with one hand clutching the smooth rim of the sink and the menthol spit burning the roof of my mouth, mixing with the bitter red taste.
I am still not sure what stabs me in these moments. Is it the thought of them together? Is it the long betrayal? Or is it grief for a life lost, for the place which inhabits me and to which I cannot return?
The toothbrush buzzes in my right hand. I have given myself over to total agony – just for this moment, this moment alone – but out of the blank pain space a part of me realises the toothbrush is still buzzing, and my thumb turns it off.
I put my forehead on the cool ceramic bowl, drop my hand from the rim. Everything is tight. I hurt. These are not moments in which I am able to grip anger or dredge useful, practical hate. I cannot scream or shoot or hurt or kill. In these moments, all I can think of is how she will not be writing his deadlines on the whiteboard, in different colours, on the first of the month.
I want to wound.
There’s the anger, Ellen says, a proud tint in the intonation.
I want to do harm. I want to find the Amiri in me – I want poems that kill. Dagger-words that damage, indiscriminate. Both of them. Her more. Now him. Let there be no love poems written/until love can exists freely and/cleanly. This is not clean. All bets are off. There are truths I could write out here, words which have spilt from his mouth which tell how he felt then and how he feels, still: words which would hurt the people I want to hurt. If I were to do it, that’s how it would be done – eye to eye, with my own fist and my own weight behind it. No long slow game, cowered in the shadows between phone calls. No dagger in the back in the dead of night. Look at my face, meet me soul to soul, and do what you want to do. That’s the test. That’s how I’d do it, if I were to do it.
If I were to do it.
the mind limps to its tribal/impulses.
Let’s at least admit we mean each other harm.
What comes after confession? No deity has ever reached down to touch a forehead and proclaim, Child, I have heard you, and you are forgiven. Prayer is met with silence.
(I should know. December, desperate, I went to the cathedral and too self-consciously begged for divine interruption. I humbly demanded they give him wisdom and courage to Do The Right Thing. Who can prove that outcome, either way? I let them off the hook easy on that one.)
If I expect some kind of revelation, I am disappointed. There is nothing except to continue.
I lived my life
which felt like a switched-off TV.
It is April, and I keep forgetting to dip my hand into the hot grey swirl – though it is there, underneath everything I do. I write my final essay on Wuthering Heights and Derrida’s concept of trace. My grandmother is dying. There are other things on my mind.
Please, Ellen, it is late and I can’t sleep. Permit me this, just once more.
We are driving the 5 after sundown. We’ve stopped at Kettleman to refuel and get coffee, and now ahead there lies another two hours or so of straight, flat road and the snake of taillights before the Grapevine. I am about to meet his family for the first time, and I am keeping us awake by trying to learn Farsi.
It’s “kh”, he says, “Khhh”. You have to feel it at the back of your throat.
Khoda hafez? I try again.
We smile at one another. That’s it, I say, Please and thank you and hello and goodbye. What else do I need? And he says, Nothing, they’ll love you. But even so we carry on, and at some point that night I learn the phrase jat khali.
My grandma likes that one, he says, It means I miss you. In English, the literal translation is, Your seat is empty.
I still have not learnt to say goodbye. A part of me yet expects to arrive red-eyed and stumble over the security guard’s question, are you carrying any baggage? Perhaps this has been an attempt at an amputation. Let me try once more.
Khoda hafez, azizam. The seat is empty, but I have filled it with those things which have no presence – no weight, no sound, no way of being photographed – and yet which I feel still. I have made the empty seat into a small, dark box, and folded it against my ribcage where it pulses a two-tone beat, like the sound of a shutter I hear only when I remember it is there.
The telephone sits loudly in the corner of the room.
We’re done for today, Ellen says.