I really fucked up you guys.
Like a week ago, I was counting down the days until he’d be leaving, and I thought that day was going to be two days ago. But here we are, still draped on each other like nothing is about to happen because much like myself, he’s still in Albania.
I know, you guys. I know I let this go on for way too long, and I know that what feels identical to happiness is actually more akin to some kind of complacency.
And I know that even though I was planning on asking him to join me, I know that I’m leaving in the morning and I will not be extending that invitation.
I’m not leaving Tirana; I’m going to stay here until Misha, whom I first met in Skopje, comes back to town. But I’m going to pack up all of my things and head across the neighborhood to a different place where I can be free of all of these men that are here that have controlled me in all of these different ways.
Because here’s the thing.
I’ve dated people who needed me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m doing that right now. And I get it: it’s not “me” that they need but rather it’s someone.
But I don’t need someone. Ever. And I’m pretty sure that this particular someone is fucking up the way I’d prefer to live my life.
You see, for the past couple weeks, instead of maintaining my practice I have completely fucked off most of my writing in exchange for what I once described as a “brief hormonal freedom.” And like, the thing is that I actually like it way too fucking much.
It isn’t even so much the man that’s intoxicating, although he oddly is, but rather it’s the leisure. He cares not for the pressures of the world around, there’s no ladder here in Albania he’s trying to climb. And so instead he lets his days unfold into long hours spent lounging on the couch or maybe a trip to the park or the farmers market. And while yes, I am fucking enjoying myself, I know that, for me, this is merely a vacation.
He offered me residency in Italy. He told me how easy it is. “I tell them you’re my girlfriend and that’s it,” he said, and I said something noncommittal while my heart raced because even hearing someone use the word girlfriend to describe me – even if it’s just for papers (which, to be clear is not entirely true in his head) – is fucking absolutely terrifying.
I get asked every once in a while how I navigate these types of relationships while I’m out in the wide world, like, how do you have a partner when you’re always moving? And the answer is I don’t. I do not have those. It’s an occupational hazard, yes, but know that it’s one that I embrace way too eagerly.
Some days ago, when Dy and Misha and I went to Dajiti, I told everyone that I had no clue how to get out of this web I’ve woven around myself. Like, usually these things last a night, maybe two. They do not span over a week wherin I get called someone’s girlfriend more than once.
And maybe that’s why I let another fucking straight girl kiss me while he slept last night, barely outside our bedroom door, because I felt like I had to prove to myself that I am nobodies fucking girlfriend.
I mean, obviously I’m not. But more obviously, I didn’t even want to kiss her save for all the wrong reasons.
And look, I’m not going to talk about the assault here, except to mention that it happened. I’ve already gone over and over it with my friends and honestly, I’m tired of talking about it.
But it did make me realize all the ways I’ve let myself be manipulated lately, and I just cannot let it happen anymore.
So as it would seem, I’ve returned to being the exact same person I was all those years ago when I mused on the value and nature of Cake, while I lamented my well-earned moniker as a heartbreaker. And while I’ve since embraced the term, it’s been largely in jest; I’ve actually actively tried not to treat hearts like they’re sport since then. But now I’m looking around at what I’ve created, and completely fucking regardless of what he thinks I know that none of this is me, that there was just something missing that I tried to fix with a man I already know can’t fix me.
“One fucking bartender in my bed,” I wrote in Cake back in like 2006, “and he’s pushed to tears, to us fighting, to me constantly defending myself with no platform to stand on. ‘Heartbreaker’ implies a certain will, a purpose; ‘Heartbreaker’ implies that via whatever act, that it is the only thing you sought to do.”
But like, what the fuck have I been trying to do?
Years ago, back when I had my old blog, I wrote an essay called Cake. Here’s an excerpt:
“It’s our glass houses, our floor plans, our gods, our cake. It’s our real cake, our metaphorical cake, it’s the vanilla and chocolate and yellow cakes that we have or have not or eat them or discard them. And what the fuck? where is all this goddamned cake and what the fuck does it look like? And why am I constantly longing after the preservative-filled-pre-packaged-twinkie-type cakes offered this world, and why am I satisfied with eating only this one crappy variety? I want Tiramisu. I want German Chocolate. I may not even have to eat it, but one day goddamnit I’ll at least recognize it. May cake help us all.”
And look, I’m just saying that maybe somewhere in all the countries between my old apartment in San Francisco and now I’ve just lost that desire to even look for that Cake. You know, like the real kind.
There are two stories here.
One is about how just a few days ago as I wiped the sleep from my eyes I was asked “quieres postres por desayuno?” and I nodded a yes while mumbling “quieres juevos tambien?” And I’m telling you that within a half an hour I was dipping a fork into a gooey, rich slice of artisan chocolate cake and feeling the twinge of my eyes rolling too far into the back of my head as it hit my tongue.
And there’s another story here about how I am absolutely sure that the other cake in this story isn’t even the one I want, but it feels so much like it, and all of my love-starved skin is drinking it in like a drug.
And I don’t even know which story it is, but yesterday was Valentine’s day, and while I was busy posting missives to a woman half-way around the world, I actually fell asleep with my legs entwined between someone’s whom I barely know.
So yes, I am basically telling you that I both ate and have my Cake.
And look, I know that this isn’t real, and I know that I’m not even really entirely comfortable wrapping myself with this man, but I also know that although it’s been 20 years since my time in Trastevere that I have clearly mythologized that time in my head, because here I am just simply fucking melting beneath a few whispered bellas while the skin of my naked neck is pinched ever so slightly between his teeth. It just all comes together into this tapestry that feels so destined, so reminiscent of another time in such a particular way that it makes me feel like I owe my life now to whom I was way back then.
May Cake help us all.
There’s a telescope on my balcony.
And I’m sitting out here drinking an exquisite half-glass of red wine that was made by the very family that owns the pensione I’m staying in.
And there is woodsmoke rising gently from all of the chimneys around.
And there are so many stars.
I’m in Vevčani; it’s a tiny town in the mountains in Macedonia, and it’s so perfect here, and so quiet that I can hear all of the thoughts in my head again.
This place used to be it’s own country; much like the water protectors in the continent that I myself am from, the people here once rebelled against their Yugoslavian overlords, briefly declaring themselves their own country to protect their natural springs, replete with passports and currency.
And it’s so cool to me to sit here and think, after everything that happened back home last year, that such a small group of people held so fiercely to such a fucking crazy idea.
While Vevčani isn’t its own country anymore, it still is its own municipality, the smallest one in Macedonia if I’m remembering correctly. When the nation finally declared its independence, the work of the regions’ water protectors was not forgotten, and the legacy of their revolt lives on in the existence of its own, tiny administrative district.
And I’ve thought so much in the last year about where I belong, and about where home is, and even about whether or not I’ll ever really have a home ever again. But I do know that I think I will, because I’ve come here specifically to add to a collection of currency I have, wherein I have a single bill from every country I’ve been to since the beginning of 2018.
Except Japan. I’m missing that one, but that’s another story.
But just as I was telling Никола a little over a week ago, these bills that I collect, in my minds eye, belong framed neatly on a wall. And I’m telling you this because if this is my own fantasy then there’s somewhere inside of that fantasy wherein I believe that I will secure that wall for myself at some point, and I will feel stable enough to invest the time and money into decorating that wall in a manner that belies that I intend to stay for a while.
And yeah, I have no clue where that’s going to be let alone when, and I’m not even sure that it’s a goal. But I know that I’m headed to Albania tomorrow for the first time, and I know that they use the LEK there, and i know that at some point during my stay I will take a 200L bill from my bag where I keep the rest of my cash and stow it away in the clear envelope I use for my collection, and in my minds eye I will see again what that wall might look like when I’m “done.”
And much like the the Ličnič, which is the now only ceremonial currency in Vevčani, that wall, wherever it ends up being, will be my reminder of a life I fought so goddamned hard to get; one that hopefully I will be able to say that I kept until I didn’t need it anymore.
Back when I was still in Istanbul, way back when I was on my way to Egypt, I met an Egyptian, an Alexandrian if I remember correctly, that warned me against Cairo. “If you stay more than one day, you will be lost,” he told me. But the thing is, when you’re never going anywhere, you’re never really lost. Are you?
I love big cities, I always have. And I was as sure that I would love Cairo before I had ever been as I am now having fallen so hard for it. To me, Cairo is a perfect city.
It’s exactly the right amount filthy; there’s just enough grime and garbage that I trust it and respect it, and the train reminds me much more of the MTA than the spotlessly clean Metro in Istanbul.
Skopje is objectively small; it’s the small capital of what is maybe the most overlooked nation in the region, but fuck me. It’s really gorgeous here.
And while I thought before I came that I couldn’t last more than a week in Macedonia, I’ve been here almost three so far, and I have more than half a mind to go check out a few more cities before I head to Albania.
I don’t know what’s happened to me here but I’m having the exact same feeling I had upon arriving in Istanbul and Cairo, where I feel like I’ve woken up just a little bit more, as if the flight or the change of scenery or whatever has just jarred me even further from the trauma I endured during all of those months in South Africa.
And it’s so crazy because every time this happens I think to myself how I had already thought I had basically fully recovered, and yet I still find myself capable of reaching this new plateau. It’s almost as if that’s how depression works: that thing where it convinces you so thoroughly that it’s not hanging around anymore so that you believe all the nonsense your head is screaming at you.
But then you wake up a little more, and that person you just were that you thought was fine seems insane compared to the person you are now.
And with this brand new and ever-evolving clarity maybe you indulged in your favorite vice, one that didn’t exactly go as planned when you came out of a pandemic-induced retirement just a few weeks before. And maybe, though you so value all of this clarity, let some basketball player put his hands all over you because they made you forget what we are all living through.
And maybe you just kept inviting yourself over because even though half of the conversation is in Macedonian, it feels just like any of your friends’ couches you might find yourself perched on anywhere, just shooting the shit and smoking way too many cigarettes.
And maybe despite how pretty and kind he is, you’re now desperate to leave because you’ve finally put the pieces together and know that everywhere new you go, the fog that’s taken up residence in your mind for the better part of a year seems to clear a little more.
It’s been over a year, and I still can’t believe I let you leave without asking for a way to get a hold of you. I still think of our nights in the desert, the endless stars, the inky black night wherein we traded our dreams.
I’m back in China now and all of those dreams seem so far away. I made it to Istanbul, and then Serbia, and to Ukraine, but soon it was March, and I had to decide so quickly: do I stay out in the wide world, or do I go home?
I probably should have stayed. I didn’t have much to come home to save my family’s apartment and the same job I’ve always had. There’s a lot here I love and had missed, but I’m so desperate to return to the sands of the Sahara which I have such a hard time extricating from my memories of being with you. Sometimes, at night when I’m alone in my tiny bed, with the muffled traffic sounds coming in from the window, I can close my eyes and still feel your fingertips on my neck like they were when we said goodbye all those months ago.
It’s so funny, Shaoudan. It’s funny what captures you in the end. When I left home I had designs on seeing all the worlds wonders – the Colosseum in Rome and the Pyramids of Giza – but now that I’m back at home I’m still hung on the empty, wide expanse of the sand in Morocco in this way that makes me wish I could snatch it back. I wasn’t scared to leave home and venture out alone, but I was terrified to tell you everything I wanted to, your face the one wonder I wasn’t prepared for.
Remember Casablanca? Did you feel, as I did, like we were tethered to each other, like an invisible, unbreakable filament connected our eyes? I remember the bazaar when you grabbed my hand and I felt the electric pang of your skin on mine for the first time, and I wish I could tell the person I was then that I’d be writing this, that I’d be sending this out into the world hoping it would somehow snag you; I wish I could tell myself, back in that bazaar, that I would be the one to sever that tie with my silence.
I’m so sorry, Shaoudan. I’m sorry for a lot, now, but mostly because maybe everything could be different: maybe if I hadn’t kept quiet we could be back there in the shifting dunes together, mapping out a life where the world unfolds just for us. But instead I’m passing the cold night under a heap of familiar blankets, typing this into a void where I’m fairly sure that you aren’t.
I don’t think this will find you, but if it does, maybe we could find a brand new place to start, a place we both know but have never been together; maybe after I’ve passed this time when so many borders are closed with my family in Tianjin we can meet back where the east meets the west, where the Bosphorus splits my continent from yours. Maybe there in Istanbul we can save each other, and we can find a way to redraw all those lines that we broke. Or maybe we can break new lines that we invent together, our designs forged from months of distance, created without the fear of needing to mend everything we break because we will have all the time the world can give us to make new things every day.
I miss you, Shaoudan.
[I myself traded Istanbul for Skopje. I can’t go back for three months, so I hope I haven’t left too much behind.]
Look, there’s not a ton to say here that someone else hasn’t already said. And I should know because I’ve been doomscrolling for days now; I’ve been procrastinating on work by combing through The Atlantic and Vox and the Washington Post and Slate and the New York Fucking Times and all of those other American news outlets. I’ve watched hours of live broadcasts and hot takes and punditry and even a bunch of those news/comedy hybrid guys (because let’s be honest, they’re mostly guys.) And I’ve done this to stay informed, yes, but there’s something so weird about watching all this from afar that makes me feel like it’s more than a compulsion, it’s a responsibility.
I don’t know why I feel that way.
We’re getting off track, here.
Here’s the thing: I’ve watched, for YEARS, as BLM activists and Antifascists have been called terrorists, and then I watched as actual domestic terrorists stormed the US capitol building with near impunity. They recorded it all on TikTok and Facebook and Instagram live with uncovered faces because they have no fear, at all, of any kind of repudiation. And they don’t fear it because they won’t get it.
Look, this isn’t new. The US was built on and still reveres white supremacy, this isn’t a fucking secret.
But what kills me, and please hear that this is literally the thing that makes me frequently feel that this is a lost cause, is that these people believe that their completely unfounded claims based on literally zero statistical evidence bears equal weight to the cries of Black Americans about the untenable effects of systemic racism.
On one hand, you have a group of internet-radicalized conspiracy theorists who believe that the 2020 election was stolen by democrats. There is zero evidence of this despite all of the recounts, audits, and poll watchers accounts that were, according to them, supposed to prove it.
On the other hand, we have 400 years denoting a clear and deliberate subjugation of Black people that can be easily proven by empirical evidence. And coupled with that, there is additional resounding, overwhelming evidence, compiled over hundreds of years, that proves absolutely the privileges that white people garner in the US to which, in a moral and legal sense, they are not entitled.
And even I’m beginning to wonder if I’m being brainwashed by the far-right – their ideology has been legitimized by the inherently ecumenical internet, in particular by social media, to the point where even the Democratic party has experienced a dramatic shift to the right. The incoming Biden administration is such a far and sad cry from, say, the Carter administration, who was still barely in power when I was born, and even I find myself questioning what it is exactly that I believe because I never see anyone representing “me” condemning these forces with the same vehemence that I, myself, feel.
I’m not exactly shocked or surprised, but I feel fucking blindsided every time something like the Capitol Riots happen and, with what little optimism I have left, I let myself believe that maybe this will be the time that the government, police, FBI, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, literally anyone will approach it with the same vitriol and force that they do protesters literally fighting for their lives. But it never happens.
A militia occupied the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon for 24 fucking days in 2016 citing the “tyranny” of the US government. In addition to having no clear policy nor demands, they expected the “return” of government-owned lands for white ranchers and loggers that, in fact, belong to indigenous people.
I mean fuck, armed white supremacists operating under some vague anti-mask agenda stormed the Michigan State Capitol last May, and though they were armed (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that firearms are somehow legal to carry inside the Capitol in Michigan, however) they were escorted inside the building and were only barred from entering the State Senate chamber.
Look, these are just a couple of examples. And I’m running out of patience for trying to explain to a group of people that their whims and a vague idea of “freedom” that they fight so vehemently for has been afforded to them precisely because of the subjugation of BIPOC people. There is no sense in wasting time telling them anymore. If they don’t know that by now, they don’t want to.
But the worst part, and know that I mean for me, specifically, is the gaslighting. It’s this para-social gaslighting that makes me question who’s in the right, here. And while I know so much of this struggle is fought in our own minds, wherein we try every day to strengthen our resolve and carefully hone our arguments, most days I am unsure how much fight I have left.
I’m torn because on one hand, I left. I’m not in the States, and so much of what occurs there cannot harm me in the same way it can when I’m out in the American streets, brandishing a bull-horn or marching, arm-banded, with comrades. But there’s already been so much damage done that here I am, scrolling through another news cycle proving that my own home country deems me illegitimate, very much harmed despite the miles I’ve put between us.
And it’s crazy because I can’t even imagine a life without this harm, and that’s what pisses me off the fucking most.
I had drinks with that dude Suphi a few nights ago, and he tried to tell me that I’d definitely go “home” one day. He told me that people feel tied to the land they were born on like it was some kind of undeniable, universal fact. I do not have this in the States, I told him. I’m Black.
Is it so insane to want a place to go home to?
Congratulations, we made it to 2021.
To celebrate, I thought I’d share this piece I wrote back in March when I was so goddamned sure that last year would kill me.
A huge part of my identity is wrapped up in traveling; it’s both who I am and what I do, and I’m literally a travel writer, so it’s also how I eat. It’s the one thing I’ve ever really wanted, and now, though I’ve spent years traipsing about the fucking world proud of myself for creating nothing of importance, now, as coronavirus sweeps through the world getting closer to my little perch in South Africa, now I’ve finally fucking realized for the very first time that it might be the thing that kills me.
Maybe it won’t be this year, but also: maybe it will.
Today is Tuesday, March 17th. My visa expires in eleven days, and at some point I will have to board a plane. I’ll have to sit in a dirty seat in coach and with a shaky hand, rub an alcohol wipe over my tray table like a prayer to a god I don’t believe in. And then I’ll land in Dubai or Istanbul or Kigali or Bangkok or any city that will take me, because the only thing that I’m sure of right now is that I’m even more likely to die if I go back to the States.
I’m in New Doornfontein, Johannesburg, and out the window is the neon-topped Ponte that I had dreamed of seeing in real life ever since I was a little kid though I was always so scared I would never make it here.
But I did, make it here. And I’ve made it to the Sydney Opera House and Ipanema Beach and the Bund, and just like the orphans in the musical I loved as a child, I made it to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, too.
But if I have done nothing else I’ve lived a huge, unbelievable life, and I’ve searched my brain trying to find a thing that I would change: if I could remove one airplane, one country, one lover, one friend. And I’m drawing a blank. I just can’t imagine having done it another way.
So if you’re reading this months after I’ve expired in Tbilisi or Kuala Lumpur, please don’t be sad for me. It was by chance, yes, but it was a product of exactly how I purposely, though often rashly, designed my life.
I love y’all. I really, really do.
At the time, well pre-covid and pre-American revolution, the sheer fucking prophecy it was to watch an Angela Davis lecture my first afternoon back in Johannesburg was easily lost on me. That was a year ago in two days time, but a year ago today was the day I left Chicago.
And I haven’t been back to the States since.
This is the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent away, and necessity has pressed me to leave all of my other careers behind. In South Africa, and in Turkey and Egypt, it’s not like I can just take my foreign passport to a bar and get a job, so when I let my plane take off without me last February I was making a commitment I didn’t know yet if I could uphold.
But here we are. It’s been a year. And I’ve written thousands and thousands of words and some of those words I’m even proud of, but I think the part most jarring is this thing that happens when people ask me what I do, and I say that I’m a writer.
But it’s sad because I’ve already been a writer for, let’s say, fifteen years, but it’s only now somehow legitimized in my mind because I don’t do another thing.
Two years ago, in December, I did my first show at Second City. I read a piece called The Privilege of Faith that accomplished a few things:
One, it marked my debut as a humor writer. I never thought I was one before because I let a man tell me I wasn’t, which leads me to…
Two, it was a piece that included that man. And reading it made me feel like I had finally shelved my relationship to him wherein – well beyond any other relationship we ever had – I hung all of my hopes of my work on his validation because I had told myself so long ago that his opinion was worth so much. Spoiler: I know now that his opinion is worth nothing. Literally.
And finally three, I remember the venerable Patrick Gill introducing me that night, saying something like, “Miranda Moure is a writer and my friend,” and it shocked me to hear, especially said so declaratively by someone who’s work I admire and I deem so legitimate.
It’s just crazy that it took this long, all of these years, but maybe especially that one – that one year in between hearing myself described on the microphone as a writer and when I let that plane take off without me thus making that decision for me – for me to believe it.
I’m not usually one for New Years resolutions. I generally make resolutions at Basel, when, awash in both the sun and sand of my former home, Miami Beach, and the veritable sea of creatives that Art Week attracts, I tend to get reinvigorated, re-inspired, and ready to make new plans.
Two years ago I left for Basel the morning after that show.
And I arrived triumphantly, because for the first year in so many years I had something recent to relate to folks I met that I was proud of: my debut at Second City.
Before that show I hadn’t been on the mic in over ten years, since San Francisco when I had a small circuit of events that I read at regularly. But as we remember, I fucked that all up by dating and surreptitiously dumping a colleague, and his skill left everyone’s allegiances with him instead of myself.
Seriously, he was damn good. That’s why I liked him.
We’re getting off track, here.
The mic. I loved it once, and when I stepped back in front of it it felt like something that had betrayed me before, and also like something I already knew so intimately, and also brand fucking new.
So back then, back when I was performing at least twice a week and every bartender already knew I wanted a Maker’s rocks, I had it so securely in my head that I wanted to wrote a book. As if there was no other option, like it was just a thing I would do because that’s what people like me do.
But then, I let a man convince me that I couldn’t. And goddamnit it was the same goddamned man that I read about on the mic at Second City.
Let me be clear: he never once told me, “Miranda, you cannot write a book,” but it seemed like I couldn’t when he slammed the first draft of his manuscript down on the bar table in front of me, and inside of that dull thud was all of the things that divided me from him and all of the insecurities I had, and all of the ways that I so naively assumed he was more qualified than I am.
So. This year.
In this horrendous fucking year that some of us were lucky enough to survive I have become, definitively, the thing that I always wanted. But the best part, beyond what I feel I can now call myself, is that I have now become absolutely, positively sure of one undeniable fact.
I am a better writer than he is.
So back to Angela. After like a day and a half of travel I finally arrived back in Johannesburg late-late the night before the festival started. And though I only slept a few hours, I was up like a light at 8, and by one I was sitting in a conference room at Constitution Hill listening to Angela Davis speak on the struggle, Blackness, the intersections of these things with our collective femaleness.
And it’s crazy because in a year so tumultuous you would think that all of the things that describe privileges I don’t have wouldn’t be the thing to offer so much comfort.
But I think, as I begin to pen these essays, those are precisely the things that will propel me.
So in an attempt to regain some sanity – and some pounds – I’ve gone back and tried to remember some of the greatest romantic gestures of my life.
And please know that I mean ‘gone back’ literally. I scanned my archives for some mentions of a particular spring I flew to Seattle with a mission. I was 27 years old, living in San Francisco, and right before I left to return home I wrote this:
“And I miss that Miranda. That Miranda—that one that says things she shouldn’t, that loves too too fucking hard and can’t rationalize why, that fears regret so much that she does extraordinary things—that barely glances at a calendar or considers the health of her cat before purchasing air travel.”
God. Remember when I had a cat?
What’s funny is that the person I wrote this about, because there was “a person” at the time, was Ben, who is still in my inbox frequently these days. It’s not every day, but I don’t think a month has gone by this year that I haven’t heard from him at least a time or two. And of that whole group of people, for me, he’s pretty much the only one left.
And it’s weird to think of all of those old allegiances because I used to hang all of my experiences within my hometown upon them.
Like, I don’t even talk to Ben’s brother anymore. But I mean, how many rapists do I really speak to?
We’re getting off track, here.
My point is that a lot of my friends here, not that there are as many as say, ten years ago in my fair hometown, keep telling me that I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, that mine wasn’t such a grave misstep. But the thing is that I hold myself to a higher bar than many because of so many of the things that I saw and did way back then.
It’s all a little messy in my head now, like, I’m not sure of the exact timeline of everything, but I remember deciding from the repose of my apartment in San Francisco that I was going to fly to Seattle to tell Ben…something. And the years have made what happened on that trip – or even exactly which trip it was – kind of shaky and nebulous, but regardless I know that I never, ever did. Up until late in the summer the following year when I climbed out of his bed for the last time.
In New York, maybe the summer of 2012, I heard from him for the first time in a while, maybe a year or more. Someone had given him my new NY number, the one I still have, and he had texted me asking to spend the winter with him in Argentina. I agreed. Obviously, we didn’t go, but in all of the years after that I think that whole exchange just got recharacterized as one between mere friends, and we’ve behaved that way ever since.
So okay, there are two stories here:
One is, why did I never say anything? I have made several full-on admissions of love over the years, twice in 2012 alone. Many of them were unrequited or maybe even unwarranted; outcome has never played much of a factor in my decision to reveal this. So what made this one different?
And the other story here is, are we still friends precisely because I never said anything? And yeah, I’m asking you this because as fond as I was and am of Ben, none of this has anything to do with him, because aside from his frequent messages in my inbox this year it is not his that I wait so impatiently for, and not his that sent my head careening down memory lane yesterday.
They started coming in all at once.
I don’t really know why you kept this all this time
You could have let this out and we could have talked
The thing is, that I don’t really know what to say
But the thing is like yeah, now neither do I, because while I thought I did this whole thing to try and save something I thought I wanted, now it feels like a chapter is closed instead.
So I’m not really sure what my next message should say now.
You know that thing where you’re sad, and maybe you’re lonely, and for whatever reason you would do anything to feel something, anything, different?
I’m so jealous of people that have other things to put on top of it, like a vice or an obsession, but besides caffeine and cigarettes I don’t really have any.
The last time this happened this ferociously I tried drugs. Nothing insane: a few pills, I did some molly a couple of times, smoked some weed every other day or so. Honestly my coming out of retirement with drugs was underwhelming at best and only lasted a few weeks. And that was years ago.
This time I really fucked up.
I fucked up in Egypt, yes. But maybe more importantly, I was still fucked up enough in the head to not have braced myself against the fallout of leaving, and it happened in my head so differently than I did when I got here that I don’t know how I could have prepared anyway.
Like I usually do when I leave some place – wait, let’s be honest: when I flee some place – I tend to wrap that country up in a package in my head, seal the edges, and it can exist anyway I’d like it to. It doesn’t have to be opened or evaluated or revisited at all if that’s how I need it to be, and I assumed I could do it again.
But there were, instead, things in my inbox I couldn’t ignore, and my inbox made all that stuff in my head seem even more important rather than less.
So I put the exact wrong thing on top of it.
Back in Cairo, my friend Eri asked me, while I was describing what I was inside of in Cairo and what I’d be returning to in Istanbul, what exactly the nature of my relationships were here. And I swore up and down that none of that could possibly occur, because I thought it was absolutely true.
Until I got back to Istanbul.
Because, you see, the issue was never a single man. The issue is that this year has left me love-starved in a way I can’t seem to reconcile on my own, and rather than sit with that feeling I’m ready to turn anything into it.
And maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe this year gives us all a pass to put anything on top of anything.
But maybe it actually represents a bigger responsibility to be better to each other, and maybe that’s a responsibility I failed at miserably.
Miserably save that one brief escape.
So it’s time, I guess to clean house. None of this is working. I’m down friends, dollars, pounds; the latter especially has become increasingly troubling. Not that I know how many pounds I weighed before, but I’m pretty sure I’ve lost about ten of them, and it reminds me that the thing I used to put on top of stuff like this was nothing at all.
When I was a teenager, and 20 in Portland, and when I first moved to Miami, and all those other times throughout all of these years when I’ve watched day after day pass on the calendar while my ribs begin to poke through my skin and food feels more and more weird inside my mouth.
Like that winter in New York when I finally emerged from my cavernous apartment and placed myself across the table from a couple of my SF besties at a bar off the Graham stop and felt one leg fold over the other like a puzzle piece because my legs were so thin.
And this is becoming like that winter – I’m not sure my jeans fit anymore and I’ve been avoiding looking in the mirror – and fucking my best friend isn’t the thing that’s going to solve it. Any of it.
So in lieu of a vice or an obsession, I’m putting something drastic on top of all of this by turning my inbox into an outbox.
Look, I’m not exactly sure when it was, but with some distance between us I can safely narrow it down to two specific times that where I remember feeling like I was being shaken from any stability I managed to regain over the summer.
They were both over beers, as our times seem to frequently be, and the first, though not so definitive as the latter, was so shocking and off-putting that I wasn’t sure what happened. But we were seated at the Greek Club, against the wall, and everything seemed normal until it wasn’t.
You were explaining to me a short film you had made, and I was listening in rapt attention because just like I do, you have this way of wrapping a story around a memory. And just like it was that night, when we’re very lucky, that story is punctuated by a couple of words so simple and poignant that they stick around to ache in your body.
I want to see you when I wake up in the morning, you said, I want you to see me. And it wasn’t me, that was understood: the you here is this general you: the one that’s so rare in countries like your own where unmarried women are relegated to waking up alone. Seeing no one.
But I so naively assumed that I was shaken by your story rather than your words, so I was unprepared when the other time came.
Remember that time you texted me, you were like hey, I’m going for a quick beer at Cap D’or, do you want to join? And I answered in the affirmative, with an exclamation point, even, if I remember correctly. And everything was perfectly normal save, memory serving, I was stuck on some thing I was writing and spent at least half a beer complaining about it.
It’s weird because I’ve waited my whole ass life for my job to be to write stories, yet still I find myself still writing all the important ones, like this, for free. Because in some ways now is no different from being in my 20s when I would write all these things down and expect them to perform some kind of a spell, like if I could just get a couple hundred words out of my body then all of the ideas behind them would fail to have power over me anymore.
But I could write down a hundred times about that time we left the bar and were headed in different directions. I could type out thousands of words about that time you said it was so nice to see you as we parted on the street. But none of them would matter because none of them are taking away that time immediately afterwards when I clutched my chest and thought this is it, it’s happening as I walked home alone.
I’m so fragile lately, aren’t we all? I don’t know who’s thriving in 2020 but I’m sure I’m not one of them, and I’ve been taking the easiest possible route through the tail end of this year lest I threaten the shaky progress I’ve made inside my head since I left Johannesburg. But now that I’m back in Istanbul, and all those times in Egypt don’t feel so close anymore it’s hard to know how real they all were, like the way I used to melt into you when you touched me feels as ephemeral and unreal as all the things I tried to say.
But if you’ll excuse me, my bestie here has just returned from the suburbs. We spent some times together over the summer that now all look like postcards in my minds eye, and now we’re going to spend some hours reliving those times like we can snatch them back, like it’s not cold outside, like it’s before Jordan and before Egypt. Like we can have summer right now, and like neither of us has to feel fragile anymore.
Maybe it’s easier in places like this, Places like Cairo, to believe that you can engage with art. Even for laypeople there are so many examples of work so familiar, work that we’ve learned references for since we were children, that it’s so easy to live among it and engage. To comment.
As kids we all learn about Hieroglyphics, we learn the names of the three biggest pyramids even if we can’t recite them later. Most of us can name a pharaoh or two, maybe all of us can at least recall Cleopatra, and probably some vague idea of her artful accoutrements.
If you’re me then you sat in more than one lecture hall at more than one art school learning about the Egyptian canon: a series of measurements and rules that delineated the ideal depiction of the human form. As precise and unchanging as a fractal, the canon was so immutable that even spanning hundreds of years there are few examples that deter from it: a hand is always in the same proportion to a face is always in the same proportion to an arm, etcetera.
One odd side affect of this is that without a historical record, it makes it really difficult to know what Egyptians actually looked like. The canon erased impurities, deformities, any physical personality that individual humans might have; the canon makes clone-gods of people, replacing them with a version of perfection that’s endlessly trapped in profile.
But most artistic records don’t follow a path quite so rigid. By definition it’s the expression of culture so it’s easy to see styles change, zeitgeists morph: there’s a fluidity to it that follows the slow march of time.
And yeah, personally? I love this. I love complex, constantly changing art, but I’ve had all of this jargon on my tongue since before I got my period. I never knew exactly how it would happen, nor in what media, but I was definitely younger than ten when I knew – and I mean knew – that I was going to be some kind of artist. So for me, who could delineate between abstract expressionism and abstract minimalism before I started high school, engaging with art has never felt challenging.
Part of this, and to this day I think the most important part, is that I never much cared how I was engaging with art. I just wanted all of it, all the time: books and museums and galleries and posters for punk bands on telephone poles and even all of those wear-worn sketchbooks that I’ve flipped through that were owned by all those patchouli-scented pot heads that hung out at Gasworks and on the Ave back in the 90’s.
A while back, back when I was in Istanbul, a friend of mine posted a photo of a piece by Reed van Brunschot on Instagram, a piece called Thank You Bags (Giant) from the Guerrilla Girls’ 2017 Miami Art Week show called FAIR (get it?). Accompanying a photo of the work, which is two giant t-shirt bags bearing classic Thank You messages in red, he wrote: “brb, doing fine art by making big garbage,” and it was so goddamned clever that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
So much art is fucking garbage, that’s just one reason it’s been so easy for me to stay here, in Cairo, where there’s 4000 year old art and 4 day old art that laypeople and creatives alike are welcome to peruse. And if you’re as lucky as me then you’ve been privy to a cool cohort of Cairo creatives that drink cool beers on cool patios in cool jackets and talk about film and photography and writing, albeit half of it is in Arabic.
But just as I told my friend about his insight into that van Brunschot piece weeks ago, “I don’t wear my fine art hat too often these days,” and it’s true, I don’t. But here, where I’ve had the opportunity to flex all those long atrophied muscles, I shocked myself with how easily my hand came back in. Just in time for me to miss Miami Art Week 2020.
I haven’t bought a ticket yet, but I have to leave. I have to go back to Istanbul where Zai and Lovage are patiently waiting for me. But I will miss this–this weird little trap that I’ve fallen into here where we all do the same things. And because we do all the same things, so many things go without saying.
And so many things have gone unsaid.
But in my head is so permanently stamped an ideal hand, a face, an arm. And I guess those are the things I’ll take with me, because it never occurred to me to release him from the canon while I was here. But maybe that’s how it should be: that instead of reverting to an actual human being, that he stays god-like in my mind, some personification of a perfect profile that I wrote for him with all of my wishes.
So we went to Cap D’or last night.
I went with a couple women who are staying at my hostel and one of their friends, whom they met while working in Kuwait, joined us for a spell.
I’ve been there once before, I met Essam there a couple weeks ago, and it’s so lovely like a spot in Brooklyn might be: like with an old oak bar-top and enough bar snacks to keep you there.
So the woman who joined us, a resident but not a local Cairene in the traditional respect, is named Madeline and she lives in Maadi where a lot of them live.
And of course I mean ex-pats.
Now Madeline is a goddamned delight. Don’t get me wrong. Seriously, believe me when I tell you that she is the real goddamned deal. But I cannot fucking stand ex-pat culture, particularly when they’re all grouped together in some big, dirty, “foreign” city like Cairo. And as I contemplate whether or not I’m going to leave, looking at the classifieds and finding out that all the short-term rentals are either in Maadi or New Cairo or Zemelek or the new developments on the west side of Giza, I’m not enthused about my options.
Because why would I hole up in Cairo only to be surrounded by a bunch of Americans? I might as well go just go back to the States.
Even the word itself is so goddamned insidious. Like, you can’t suffer admitting you’re an immigrant because you know how horrendously your home country treats immigrants, so you call yourself an ex-pat to distinguish yourself from the rest of ‘them’.
And yeah, I hear you. This word connotes more than simple neo-colonialism, it connotes a certain temporal quality, like you could repatriate at any time. But that’s exactly the thing, though: the option to go home is a privilege so few ex-pats realize for what it is.
I mentioned that Madeline is dope though, right?
I mean, I guess I keep saying that because by and large, in my own extremely anecdotal experience, though Madeline is not, ex-pats are the goddamned worst. Somehow, even though they’ve managed to venture out into the wide world, they’re too frequently even less woke than the folks you might encounter in their home countries. It’s like they’ve left home with the express purpose of fleeing something rather than finding something new, and that thing they’re fleeing is, more often than not, scrutiny.
I’m saying that too many of them couldn’t hack it back in the States or the UK or Australia.
And this is often because they are closed minded, uneducated people who fumbled their way into a degree, yet have routinely failed to learn anything of true importance, particularly when it comes to navigating the people of this world.
And then, AND THEN, they move to some new place where no one asks too many questions, and they’re all shoved into these insular, western neighborhoods where everyone else is in the same boat. And since they never peer through the glass of their little bubble of a life, they never have to question why everyone else who resides there live in a way so disparate from how they do.
Cairo is home to some of the most abject poverty in the whole of the world. And I’m not saying that I’m out engaging with it all the time, but you can’t walk around without seeing it. It’s everywhere. I can see it downtown, which is relatively sterile. In other neighborhoods it’s even more obvious.
So what kind of life are you living there if you can ignore it for years on end? Who the fuck does that make you?
[The answer is a colonizer.]
Today I was rereading a short essay Jamaica Kincaid published in the New Yorker recently. It’s called The Disturbances of the Garden, and is about, put excruciatingly simply, how the garden is less this tranquil space that colonizer mentality would teach us, it is a place where you can see so elegantly the power and terror that humans can wield over the natural world.
Kincaid’s work was some that inspired my wanderlust early; I read A Small Place as a teenager and the feeling I got after reading it was what I imagine white Americans have been feeling this year, as in: how can this thing that I love so much be so bad?
Granted, when I was 14 or 15, or however old I was when I first read this slim work, I had never been anywhere. But my ever-growing wanderlust was reaching a fever-pitch at my private school while I watched all my classmates fly around the world every spring, if not more.
But seriously, A Small Place really fucking broke my brain for a minute there. It raises some pretty confusing questions for a teenager, even the genius kind like I once was myself: is simply going somewhere…a bad thing?
For a while, until I was about 20 or so, I didn’t know how else to reconcile it save “I’ll never go to Antigua,” but even when I would say it I knew it was an empty answer. Because within that essay is this pervasive idea of dominion and the things that drive it, and even then I knew all those powers could exist anywhere.
So reading this new essay of hers in the New Yorker brought up all of these same old feelings of struggling to justify my ability to exist in another country without holistically engaging with the ways that my presence supports all the things I despise.
It’s been 25 years, and I’m still constantly evaluating my relationship to other places, but it’s always through this rubric of like: hey, how can I keep doing what I’m doing and still sleep at night?
There’s a phrase I use for myself and people like me, who are blessed to have citizenship somewhere, anywhere, but the ideals or culture of that nation do not reflect us: culturally stateless. And yeah, I get it. There are real stateless people in this world. So maybe this tagline needs a revamp, but I have yet nothing else to call it.
But just because your home country doesn’t want you back doesn’t mean that your responsibilities to any other country end, specifically when your physical body is located there.
But maybe for the first time, particularly here on this weird little block that I share with some of the other people that this city rejects like the elderly and disabled and the myriad of different sex workers that populate my little neighborhood, it been so much easier to plant the seeds of a manifesto.
Maybe manifesto is a bit hyperbolic.
But everyone seeks dominion over something, and I think my absolute lust for turning words into bewitchments has been a rather healthy one as far as colonizing tendencies go. And in a perfect world I’d like to use these words to cast a spell over anyone that reads them, not just myself for having written them.
It’s ironic because more than any other piece of travel writing I’ve ever read [is that what A Small Place is? Do not quote me on this] it made me want to go to the place described the most, yet Antigua was immediately slapped with my own version of a Level 4 Travel Advisory because of the same, exact words therein. It was one that I granted to that place out of ignorance, I literally didn’t know how else to proceed in my mind, but there was something delightful I came across in Garden that relieved some of the guilt I’ve felt all of these years from not properly addressing the concerns I first had as a teenager.
“It was in his writing that I found the distance between the garden I was looking at and the garden in the wilderness, the garden cast out of its Eden which created a longing in me, the notion of “to go and to see.” Go see!”
In my adulthood I know that Kincaid herself is quite the traveler, though I will admit I’ve never read her work about trekking the Himalayas collecting and documenting plants. But reading these words felt like drinking an antidote, some potion carefully crafted with things she describes in the piece maybe, and I feel released from a long-held guilt that she gave to me so many years ago in the same manner.
But now, rather than wallow in unearned complacency, it’s time to work. Because we have new gardens to grow and new spells to compose.