Stuck In Myself

I’ve been trying to figure it all out. I know that’s not how life works, that you don’t magically get all the answers you’re looking for. In fact, most of the time, you don’t get any answers at all. Still, I sat down to think, I sat down to cry, I sat down to listen and to talk. Nothing worked. Some people get stuck in routines, in jobs, in relationships. But I got stuck in myself.

Imagining that tomorrow will be a new day and then wake up and realize that, yes, it is a new day, but shit, it’s still the old you can be dispiriting. So when I went back to Berlin, I didn’t really want to go. Because last year, I was running away from my life, but this year, I was running away from myself. And I knew that Berlin wasn’t far enough to leave myself behind.

I wonder what Berlin has over me. It’s not the city, I realized. The first person I saw when coming out of the U-Bahn, was an elderly lady screaming that she was possessed by the devil. Berlin is alive, vibrant, and exhilarating. But it’s not a pretty, nor is it a clean city.

Somehow, though, the atmosphere in Berlin seems to attract the people I’m looking for. Last year, I needed someone to take care of me. This year, I needed someone to help me let go. Because I was tired of looking for answers and I had given up on finding them. So I could just as well enjoy a little bit.

I have met so many travelers, who were all interesting in their own ways. A Belgian girl who hadn’t been home in two years, an Irish guy looking for a new life in Germany, a teacher from London who had sex with an American on the dorm bed next to mine. I didn’t mind, though. I was almost asleep anyway.

I changed hostels once because one of them was highly recommended to me by a friend. My high expectations were exceeded when I met the Dutch and the Australian girls who were going to be my roommates.

I noticed that the tourists in Berlin aren’t ever really tourists. Or at least not the ones I meet. They always push me into their small world of dreaming, dancing, and not caring. And it’s so easy to catch on. They even got me to go to the Kit Kat Club, where a 40-year-old German invited me to come back on Tuesday. Tuesdays and Thursdays are latex nights.

On my last night, I was very upset. Because I had to go home, because I couldn’t run anymore, and because although I thought I had left my problems behind, I was still going over them in my mind. At Sunflower, my hostel, they kept the happy hour going for five more minutes, to let me buy enough cocktails to get me through the night. After a couple of hours, I asked them for their guitar, and after a couple of hours more, I found myself at Suicide Circus. When I found myself at the airport, I realized I had only slept for one hour and I felt like shit.

But upon returning, I didn’t regret not sleeping. Because every second spent awake with the people I had met there was worth it. They taught me that I wasn’t stuck in myself. They taught me that I was just hanging out with myself. One of them even called me cool. That’s why I’m alright being stuck now. No use running, anyway.

Portraits

“As your best friend, I’m obliged to tell you that this is fucking crazy,” Hannah said. She was sitting on a chair in front of the canvas, studying her friend’s work.

It was that same man again. Short black hair, brown eyes, dark skin. This time, Jane had only painted his upper body – his broad shoulders and his eyes looking right at you, through you. The man was not at all remarkable – only the mole above his upper lip distinguished him from an ordinary passerby. “It’s been three months and you’re still painting him. You had only talked to him for like five seconds,” Hannah continued.

“I know, but… Maybe it was his energy, his aura or something,” Jane tried to explain, fumbling with her brushes.

“I thought you didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.” Jane took off her apron, her painting now finished. She examined it once again – she always used sober coloring when drawing him. She didn’t want anything to take away the focus from his face, not even occasional splashes of color.

“I didn’t. But experiencing something like this makes you wonder.” Hannah sighed in response.

“Experiencing what exactly? He held the door open for you at the metro. That was it.”

“You don’t understand,” Jane said. Hannah stood up from her chair, making for the door. She had better things to do than listening to her friend obsess over a stranger. But then Jane said: “I decided to exhibit all my paintings of him.”

“What? Why?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Jane asked innocently. “They’re good, aren’t they?”

They were, Hannah admitted. Entrenched with melancholy, ambivalence, and intensity.  “But that’s not the reason you want to display them. I know you better than that.”

“He’ll see them. My paintings. An exhibit about only one man, that will be publicized. He’ll hear of me. Of us,” Jane said.

“God help me. You’re mental.”

After Hannah left, Jane took her place in the chair, inspecting the white gaps, planted like snowflakes in her painting. Maybe her friend was right and this obsession was getting out of hand. But she couldn’t help herself. Every action, every thought was infused with his memory. Since the moment he held the door for her and told her to have a nice day.

Jane never called herself an artist but an observer. Walking on the streets, she scouted her surroundings for interesting faces, radiating personalities, and entrancing color pallets. She remembered all the faces, all the people she met. She never used models. Only her mind’s eye. She was never fully present because to see, she had to remain unseen herself. Maybe that was why she hadn’t replied the man. And now, she was in love with that stranger, without even having had a conversation with him.

 

“You want to exhibit what?” the gallery owner asked. Madeleine Richmond owned one of the most highbrow galleries in Newport, one where Jane had exhibited her work several times before.

“Portraits of a man,” she replied. The hand in which she held the cell phone was clammy from sweat.

“Just one man?”

“Yes.”

“That’s weird.” Madeleine never shied away from honesty, a trait Jane both admired and loathed. Jane was one of those people who rather sugarcoated the truth, afraid to hurt others’ feelings.

“Maybe a little bit. But the drawings are good. You’ll like them.” When talking to galleries, she always tried to come across as more confident than she was. Although she knew that Madeleine liked her style and approved of most of her work, she still had her doubts about whether Madeleine would enjoy these paintings.

“You have to come up with a concept, though. There has to be some theme.”

“There is one.” Her story.

“I want to see the paintings before I make any promises. I’ll come over tomorrow,” she promised and hung up.

Continue reading “Portraits”

Writer’s Retreat

I don’t know what I should be writing about. I don’t even know why I’m still pretending to be a writer. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? Sarah cursed herself for ever letting her mother persuade her into applying for this writer’s retreat.

26, single, and unemployed, she felt that she was failing not only herself but also everybody around her. She used to waltz through life with confidence but now seemed at a total loss for it. When she was 18, she wrote a letter to her 25-year-old self, promising to become a successful, and happy adult. She found the letter in her bedroom closet when she moved back in with her parents three months ago.

 

Five years ago, she quit college, despite all the efforts her parents had put into persuading her of doing otherwise. “I can’t live my authentic life if I’m being inhibited by social constructs!” she had shouted then, sweeping her purple hair back with a dramatic gesture. She vaguely remembered that during that same monolog, she swore that she would become a bestselling writer that same year, and prove them all wrong. There was only one problem. To become a writer, she had to write a book.

That’s why her mother thought it would be good for her to ‘immerse herself’ in the writing atmosphere. To ‘get inspired’. She brought it up when Sarah was inspecting the pimple above her upper lip in the reflection of her smartphone. Distracted, Sarah agreed. For a month, her mom looked through leaflets and magazines and even tried looking on the internet – although that plan quickly fell through – to find a writer’s retreat ‘suitable for her daughter’s needs’. What exactly her mother had meant by that, Sarah didn’t know.

Her father was less enthusiastic about the idea. “Janie, she hadn’t written anything for the past four years. She just isn’t going to be a writer.”

“All she needs is some encouragement,” she overheard her parents say during pillow talk in the adjacent bedroom.

Her father was right, of course. But it’s not that she hadn’t tried.

Eventually, they settled on the Walden Woods retreat, which had nothing to do with neither woods nor Thoreau. However, it was the cheapest option, and pretty much the only one her parents could afford since Sarah got fired from her checkout job for always coming in late.

Her mother insisted on driving her, and Sarah didn’t have the guts to tell her no. It made her feel like she was 15 again, on her way to school. But her mother was the one who had arranged it, after all.

 

That’s how she found herself in a room full of strangers, every one of them probably hoping to turn out an undiscovered writing prodigy. It was the first workshop and Sarah was twenty minutes late because she couldn’t find the right room. The retreat took place in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, together with an AA convention and a gathering of Jehova’s witnesses. By accident, she had first followed the sign to the meeting titled ‘Letting go of disappointment and anger’, which she thought meant something. She only realized that she was at the wrong place when the man sitting next to her asked her how long she had been sober for.

When she came into her writing class, all eyes turned on her. A woman with silver-gray hair handed her a pillow to sit on, and made room for her in the ‘circle of creativity’. “Let all your creative energy pass through you and into this circle,” the woman said. “This circle is where we will share our ideas and initiate a fearless flow of stories. All of you have the magic of storytelling. Now is the time for it to get out.” After the speech, some people clapped, but the applause quickly died out. Most of the people stayed silent and just watched the woman skeptically.

“Let’s dive in!” she cried cheerfully, not paying attention to the doubtful looks. She pointed to the man in front of her, and the gesture was accompanied by the clanking sound of the metal bracelets on her arm. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“I’m Jonah.” Jonah was a white male in his early forties and had ginger hair that was covered up by his baseball cap.

“Well, Jonah, tell me, what do you want to write about?”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, and Sarah smirked.

“I sense some negativity here. Don’t you believe in your writing talent? The only thing you have to do is believe.”

“Then I wish they would have told me before I had paid a thousand bucks to be here.”

“Now, now. Let’s start again. Everybody has their own writing method. Maybe yours is more structured than mine. To me, writing comes like a wave, just as sudden, just as uncontrollable. But you, I see, are different. Try to let go. You’re blocking yourself. What about you?” she asked the woman sitting next to Jonah.

Continue reading “Writer’s Retreat”

Affection

We all crave for some form of affection. We all want somebody to accept us the way we are – to realize our faults and put that realization away in the darkest corner of their mind. We all want somebody to make us feel as if we’re enough, and not too much. If we’re too much, even this big world might explode with the effort of keeping us.

She wanted that too. She craved for passion more than I crave for ice cream at two AM. She pretended to be skeptical of affection, to not need it, but she was just fooling herself. Only people who believe in love post pictures of waterfalls and starry skies on Instagram.

 

Once, an acquaintance, someone I barely knew, came to my gig and stood lonely by the entrance. He had friends but claimed that none of them had been able to make it. He was funny and easygoing, so I liked him, even though he put gel in his hair (always a bad sign). She was there too, always supportive of my music. She sat at the table in front of the stage, humming along and smiling.

After the show, my friends suggested we’d go somewhere for a drink. I invited the guy because it seemed impolite to brush him off after he’d come to my show. She started talking to him in that cheerful, too innocent to be flirty way of hers. They stuck together the whole night. In the bar where we listened to a rock concert, during a walk through town, and while sitting in the grass in the park.

“Goodbye guys, see you later!” I called as I was leaving, but they barely answered. They were too absorbed in their own conversation. She had already forgotten his name, so he was pretending to be mad. When I saw them there that night, I realized they would soon have sex.

 

“It was so romantic,” my friend recalled. “We were standing by the river, with the moonlight shining. He grabbed the belt loops of my jeans, lifted me up to my tiptoes and kissed me.”

“I thought you didn’t do romantic. I thought you said you were taking a break from guys,” I said. We were sitting on my bed, with our legs propped up.

“I know. But he’s so cute. And we’re not in a relationship anyway.”

“What do you mean? You see each other all the time.”

“He has second thoughts because I’m so much younger. And to be honest, I’m not really in love with him either.”

“So it’s just sex.”

“It is.”

 

I’m sure that everybody gives in at some point in their lives. We just can’t deal without affection. Sometimes waiting for the somebody becomes so tiring that we settle for a somebody. And she did too. She talked about him every time we met. He was boring, or shallow, or prudish. Why did she keep on seeing him then? I always asked. Sex, she said. Or sometimes she just shrugged her shoulders.

One night I got a text, saying:

he just called us ‘friends with affection’

She thought it was funny because she thought he was too uptight to admit that they were sex buddies. At the time, I thought she was right. But now, I think that maybe he didn’t call her that just because he was conventional. Maybe it was because he knew that the reason they were keeping in touch wasn’t purely physical. He understood that they both craved for love more than anything else.

Eventually, they have stopped talking. They were unsuited despite their mutual needs, a fact they had both realized at the very start. Even the darkest corners of their minds couldn’t blind them enough for each other’s shortcomings. But now my friend, and thanks to her, I, know that the need for affection can’t be satisfied by just anyone. So I won’t just settle. And neither will she.

Roots

“Every flower stands for a person I’ve lost,” she explained, pointing to the tattooed daisies on her shoulder. We were sitting on a stained, pink couch in my brother’s living room, drinking tonic and gin. With her red hair, pierced nose, and torn up jeans, she looked like a wild child.

 

The night before, my brother and I had been sitting in folding chairs, eating pasta. My brother was studying at the film academy in Brussels and I was considering studying in the capital next year too, so he invited me to stay with him for a week. Actually, I pretty much invited myself. But we’re family, so it’s allowed.

“I just don’t want to leave my friends,” I said. We were talking about my plans and how I was still not sure whether to stay in Ghent or go someplace new.

“You’ll make new ones,” he answered. “It’s not that your friends are the only people you will ever get along with.”

“They are the first ones, though.”

“Look, tomorrow, I’ll invite my friends over, and you’ll see that it is possible to start a new friend group in college.”

 

Now we were tomorrow, and I was studying the girl’s tattoo. Next to her, sat this couple that had been together for six years. The girlfriend was flashing a cute, dimply smile, while her boyfriend was showing off the jazz guitar on his forearm. It still had the pink glow of a newly inked tattoo. Then there was the girl that took dancing lessons with my brother. Her hair was dyed black and her makeup was done in that Golden Era style.

“There is still room for more flowers,” the girl with the daisies said. “Should anyone else I know die.” I didn’t know how to react, so I smiled awkwardly.

After a drinking game, we headed out to Madame Moustache – a jazz club at walking distance. The tattooed boyfriend brought his harmonica. While he played, the girl with the black hair made up lyrics. “It’s raining. I hope we’ll get there soon. But we won’t stay long. Tomorrow we have to go to school.” When we got there, we were all soaking wet. All the girls had to wring out their hair. But then they just rushed to the dance floor.

Later that night, my brother tried to teach me salsa but failed miserably. We danced, drank beer, danced some more, and a bit later, we all went home. Exhausted, I collapsed on my brother’s couch and fell asleep.

 

In the morning, I woke up and realized that I was feeling too comfortable. I loved my friends. But I realized that I wanted what my brother had too. I wanted excitement and not knowing exactly what I’d be doing that night. I wanted to feel in extremes. To cry harder and laugh louder. To dance salsa and sing on the streets. And maybe Ghent wasn’t the place. Maybe I felt too rooted there to ever truly feel free. And even though I will always come back, I can’t stay. Because being home feels so good that I might never leave again. And there’s a whole world out there to see.

Making Friends in Liverpool

“I can see someone who is dying to burst out of herself,” he texted me yesterday. Half a year later, I still can’t believe we became so close.

It was almost midnight when my mom and I arrived in Liverpool. Even though I had a GPS, my mom and I kept fighting over what street to take. After an exhaustive search, we finally arrived at our Airbnb.

The guy who welcomed us was a typical hipster in his forties – he had a long beard and when using the bathroom, I noticed all kinds of oils he used to groom it. He made us tea with milk and invited us into the living room. While we were nestling in on his couch, he started telling us about himself – how he used to be a cop but was now a nurse, how his dog died a couple of years ago and he missed it terribly, and how he was gay. My mother and I were taken aback by his openness and friendliness, but when we went to sleep, we weren’t fighting anymore. It was all good.

The next day was spent doing the usual touristic sightseeing. England is freakishly expensive, so we had lunch at McDonald’s. When we came back, we were tired and just wanted to sleep. Before going to bed, I went to the living room to say goodnight to our host.

He sat on the couch with a glass of red wine and a vape pen. “Come sit with me,” he said. And I did. He poured me a glass of wine and started talking. First, he told me about how it wouldn’t work out with his boyfriend. Then he told me about all his previous relationships. He told me everything – from love to sex to detachment. He asked me about my love life and I told him about Prague. We sat there together until two AM, talking as if it was all we had ever done. My mother was asleep, so she wasn’t aware of the start of this new friendship.

The evening after, my mother and I were talking to him and he showed us his CD collection. He had albums of Mumford and Sons, The Killers, Fleet Foxes, and all things good in the world. When my mom had gone to bed, we drank wine and listened to all our favorites. He introduced me to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Jesus Jones. We didn’t talk much that night. We didn’t really have to.

We spent all our nights like this – talking and listening to music. On our last night, I discovered his guilty pleasures – one of them being Vanessa Carlton. Before going to bed, we sang along to A Thousand Miles. It was the perfect goodbye.

We stayed in touch. When he wants to get something off his chest, I’m always there, and he does the same for me. When I told him I was feeling lost, he understood what I meant. He said I reminded him of Sarah from Labyrinth and that he was like Ludo, the big hairy idiot who could summon rocks to protect his friends. He texted me: “Remember, fair maiden, should you ever need us.”

Self-Love

I remember how I came back after those four days. I was a different person. So much happier, so much more confident, so much more myself. To be honest, I thought that feeling would never go away. It was as deeply rooted in me as my love for you. But somehow, in losing you, I also lost myself. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around.

When I have one of those weak moments – thinking whether I should let you know I’m still alive – I check your Instagram or scroll through your pictures on Facebook. We live in an age when missing someone becomes an obsession. And you are mine. But I can’t possibly take you seriously – your meditation, your journaling… It all seems so fake, as if you want to be inspirational. But if I go back to August, I remember that you were.

Without you, loving myself is harder. Because even though I have read Huffington Post’s articles about how you should love yourself no matter what, I keep wanting to have you to reassure me that it’s the right thing to do. I have one of your quotes written in capital letters in my diary: “Never change. You are amazing.” And it doesn’t mean that much, but you were the first person to ever tell me that (besides my parents, and aren’t they supposed to do that)?

You told me that I would remember the songs we listened to. Sometimes I cry when I hear I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons. But lately, I started wondering who I’m crying for –  you or me. You also said that only I could make myself happy. But the things you said always made me feel better. But maybe it was not you. Maybe it was the loving and being loved.