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.”

My Own Teacher

I have recently started working two jobs. My first job I have had for quite a while – cleaning rooms at a hostel, run only by women. But now I have a second one – doing the dishes at a bistro, run only by men. The difference between the two workplaces is almost enough to make me laugh. And cry.

The women I work with at the hostel have only recently started opening up to me. Even though they’re friendly and never shy away from a conversation, I have never had a heart-to-heart with any of them. To be fair, that’s not unreasonable, seeing how they’re also my superiors. When I make a mistake, they will be the ones to tell me I was wrong. And it’s always a bit awkward to tell friends that they have fucked up. I understand why they want to keep the distance.

On my first day at the bistro, however, keeping the distance was not an option.

 

I came into an almost empty restaurant. It was only five PM, too early for the usual Friday night crowds. I was standing in the middle of the room, looking a bit lost because the staff was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, a guy in his twenties called down to me from the floor up.

“I’m coming!” he shouted.

After I introduced myself, he ushered me to a dressing room and gave me a t-shirt with no further explanation. The t-shirt was white with blue stripes, carrying out the French theme of the bistro. When I started changing, a young man walked in. He quickly started undressing, and although I tried not to look, I couldn’t help but notice his tattoo. While putting on his uniform, he started telling me about himself. Where he lived, what he did, etc. The distance and the order I was so used to at the hostel, was gone. Everything here felt chaotic but familiar.

 

Just as I started getting used to this new place, my male coworkers left me alone in a small, damp room to do the dishes. However much I love privacy, that was a place I would rather not be in by myself. It felt as if I was missing out on all the fun. I heard the French chansons playing at the bar, my new colleagues poking fun at each other in the kitchen, and the conversation of the customers. And there I was, wiping off hot wine glasses on my own.

Each time I carried the clean dishes to the kitchen, I was greeted by Michael Jackson songs and laughter. “Do you only have one CD?” I asked after hearing Heal the World for the third time.

“Don’t you like it?” the guy with the tattoo asked. He was the chef.

“I do, but a bit of change wouldn’t hurt.”

“What music do you listen to?”

“I like indie. And jazz.”

“Well, we wouldn’t be able to stay awake here listening to jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I like jazz too. But Michael Jackson drowns out that French music perfectly.” To me, Jacques Dutronc playing at the bar sounded wonderful, but they were all sick and tired of hearing the same songs all the time.

“I’ve heard you’re a singer-songwriter,” another guy said that had just come in. “I am too. Maybe we could write some songs together.” He was short and had a black ponytail. I knew his girlfriend.

“Sure. What kind of music do you write?” I asked.

“Mainly blues, that kind of thing,” he answered.

“Oh, I barely know any blues chords.”

“That’s cool, I can teach you,” he said and then announced, addressing the tattoo/Michael Jackson guy: “Did you hear that? We’re both songwriters!”

 

From now on, every time I came down, the boys would start singing some pop song, just to work on my nerves. It ranged from Let Her Go to A Thousand Miles. Sometimes, they started dancing too. I laughed a lot, though sometimes I just laughed because I didn’t want to seem cold. But then I noticed something.

Whatever I was doing, they would inevitably tell me how to do it. All of them. If I was washing a cup, they’d want to show me how to wash it. If I was squeezing lime juice, they would all tell me how to do it faster. No matter what I was doing, I was doing it wrong. But it was okay because it was my first day and they would help me out.

Until I realized there was nothing to help me out with. I was making mistakes, for sure, but their help was not always needed, let alone wanted. They were just very eager to teach. “Has anyone shown Erika how to clear the tables yet?” “Has anyone told Erika how to switch off the dishwasher?” “Does Erika know where to put the plates?”

In How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti said something that now rang true to me. They were a bunch of men trying to teach me something.

I enjoyed my evening, but at the same time, I left feeling drained.

 

The next day, I went to work at the hostel. And for the first time, I knew to appreciate the distance between me and the other women working there. Because it was peaceful, and it was calm. And when I came home from work, nobody had tried to teach me. I was still my own teacher.

House Call

I had spent the whole of the previous night sweating, shuddering, and throwing up. The stomach flu had stricken again. On one hand, I felt like crap. On the other, I remembered Emily Blunt remarking in The Devil Wears Prada: “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” And upon thinking this, I immediately felt guilty. Sorry, confident women all over the world, for this moment of weakness.

In the morning, I tried getting out of bed. But my legs wouldn’t even take me to the bathroom across the hall to brush my teeth. I fainted before I got to the door. Unsurprisingly, my mother panicked and called the doctor.

 

My GP is a strange man. I remember my first visit and how he was being friendly and stern at the same time. His handshake was not just firm, it was relentless. Somehow, it made trusting him easier.

Upon every visit, he would have a long conversation with me about school, friends, my life decisions. Not as an impartial bystander because he would not just offer advice. He would make his advice sound as an order.

If I would come in only to get a note for school, he would get mad because I wasn’t ill enough to stay at home. He could be sympathetic, but he could also be disciplinary and tough. Sometimes I liked him, and sometimes he scared me.

 

At two PM I woke up because I heard his footsteps on the stairs. I wondered whether he’d get mad because I didn’t look sick enough for a house call, although I couldn’t even stand up. I tried making myself look more pathetic and wondered where that fear of not living up to someone’s expectations had come from. Especially a doctor’s.

“Hello! How are you?” he asked upon coming in. He wasn’t asking it in a patient-doctor way. It was as if he was just paying me a casual visit. He sat down next to me on my bed.

“Well…” I faltered, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t exactly fine, was I?

“Your mom told me you had the stomach flu. Tell me more.” I tried to explain what had happened the night before, how many times I had thrown up etc. and noticed that he had already stopped listening. “Is that your guitar?” he asked, pointing at the acoustic guitar in the corner of my room. I nodded. He didn’t even comment on the symptoms I had described. “That’s a Martin!” he exclaimed. It was an expensive guitar that my dad had bought me, saying that he would rather buy his daughter an expensive guitar than an iPad. I had never asked for an iPad and he was kind of proud of that.

“It is,” I agreed, not really in the mood. I was wishing he would leave because I wanted to go back to sleep.

He jumped up and made his way across the room to the instrument. He reached out to take it but halted. “May I?” I nodded, tired but astonished.

He sat down on my bed again, this time holding the Martin guitar. At that moment, my mom walked in, looking just as shocked as I was. The GP didn’t even look up. He just started playing the chords of what I recognized to be Blackbird by The Beatles. “You have to work this guitar. Your plectrum is too thin for these strings.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I’m in a band,” he said. “What about you?”

“I’m a singer-songwriter,” I replied, to which my mom said: “Play something, Erika!”, as if I was bursting with energy, and not being nauseated and feverish. Nonetheless, when the GP handed me the guitar, I took it.

He liked the song, said that I had a strong voice. I was at the end of my abilities, hoping the visit would come to its end as soon as possible. Then the doctor finally remembered what he had come for in the first place and said: “About the flu: you should just fast for a couple of days. It will figure itself out,” and then stood up. “I really enjoyed this visit.”

I was left there with the guitar in my bed, while my mother accompanied the GP to the door. That’s when I realized that he was even stranger than I had initially thought him to be.

A Quiet Passion: The Hardships of Being an Extra

A Quiet Passion: The Hardships of Being an Extra

It was five in the morning and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. I already regretted everything. Not just my decision to be an extra in a movie about Emily Dickinson – oh no – at five in the morning I regretted life. Because that’s how existential I get when I don’t get my eight hours of sleep.

With my eyes still shut, I turned on the shower. The hot water streamed down my face and I nearly choked when I forgot to hold my breath and thus inhaled all the water.

When I got out of the shower, I quickly put together an outfit – sweater and jeans – not paying much attention to how I looked. Once I would get to the set, I would have to change anyway. Emily Dickinson lived in the nineteenth century, so without a corset and a dress, I would look a bit out of place.

I had a cup of coffee and hopped in the car. Well, I wasn’t driving. My dad was. And he was as much of a morning person as me. We were both in for one hell of a drive. And then there was my mother, who also decided to come along. God knows why. (After reading this story, she told me that it had been her birthday.)

 

After an hour and a half, we arrived at a castle near Brussels. It looked huge and kind of reminded me of the castle from Jane Eyre. I was half expecting to see Michael Fassbender walking through the gate. But the illusion was shattered when I noticed all the trailers, all the staff with their walkie-talkies and the tired extras standing in the garden in front of the building.

One of the staff members showed me the way, a woman in her twenties, obviously still not used to early mornings. “You have to get dressed and get your makeup done, but afterward, you can grab something to eat here,” she said, entering what looked like a GP’s waiting room. The girls that were already dressed, were sitting in unfolded, plastic chairs, not saying a word. They were all wearing bathrobes over their dresses, what added to my impression of them as patients. Hunger was an emotion that prevailed in everybody’s eyes. Yes, it is an emotion, when it’s six AM and you have only apples and stale chocolate cookies to choose from.

I dropped my bag under one of the chairs and followed the woman out. She led me to another room packed with tired girls and handed me over to another twentysomething. “Here’s your outfit,” the other woman said. “Go undress and then call me. I’ll help you with the corset.”

I nodded, dreading that fearful moment. I remembered the corset from the fitting day. It was so tight I could barely breathe. Wearing it was torture and I could not, for the love of God, figure out why women had ever bothered.

After half an hour of desperate clumsiness, I was dressed. Watching Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley running around in Jane Austen movies had not prepared me for this. I didn’t look like a gorgeous, fragile heroine. There was nothing dramatic about me. I was dressed as decorum, not meant to be noticed by the future audience. Although even decorum had to suffer the asphyxiation caused by the tight, Victorian clothes.

Another woman applied some makeup to try to conceal an enormous zit on my forehead. She failed. My hair got done too, put up with rubber bands and so much hair spray that it made my eyes tear. There I was, ready to step into the nineteenth century.

 

The same woman that had talked to me earlier, sent me back to the waiting room, while the rest of the girls got their breasts crushed by their bodices.

I walked in, expecting nothing but the deadly silence from minutes before. But now, the place was filled with laughter. The cause was the girl in the middle of the room. She was talking about Downton Abbey, laughing with the characters and making others laugh with her impressions. Her sarcasm was the cure for our sleep deprivation.

 

After two hours, maybe more, another woman came to get us. This was our moment. Unfortunately, the set looked even more unremarkable than the dresses we were wearing. The room we were standing in was empty. As I had mentioned earlier, we were the decorum. I just hadn’t expected that there would be nothing else.

I was the only one experiencing this disappointment. The other extras were too taken by Terence Davies sitting in the corner of the room. They were all whispering and pointing at him, not realizing how they were being everything but subtle. But he was just as excited to see us as we were to see him. He jumped up and started exclaiming things like ‘You look wonderful!’ and ‘I’m so glad I get to work with all of you!’ as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was probably just bullshit, but it made me like the guy anyway. He was old and short, and full of energy. He made me want to be good.

Emma Bell was there too, being all ginger and lovely. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see Cynthia Nixon or Jennifer Ehle, but I guess it was foolish to have hoped that I would anyway.

Davies told us to form a group around Emma, and we did. At first, I was standing in the front, but some actress-to-be pushed me away. I had overheard her talking about bleaching her teeth and doing commercials for H&M. She was ambitious about her career. However, her plan hadn’t worked. An assistant director came over and placed her at the back. Justice had been done. I was in the front again.

It took forty minutes to explain us in what way we had to walk back and forth during the scene. Somehow, it hadn’t been long enough because most figurants still walked in the wrong direction.

Suddenly, we heard a girl in the back gasp for breath. When I looked backward, she was already sitting down. The assistant director walked up to her and tried to get her to tell him what was wrong. All she could manage was one single word: “Corset.”

But all in all, we had done a fine job. If you ever see the movie, I’m in the scene where Emma Bell is being rebellious at school.

 

When the work was done, we could finally eat. In our bathrobes, we stalked off to the tables placed in front of one of the trailers in the garden. Big containers with rice and chicken curry were beckoning from afar. All the girls took huge heaps of food, all of them hungry because nobody had had a proper breakfast. All the girls had forgotten that they were still wearing corsets, not having been allowed to change yet.

The food was delicious, but we could not bring ourselves to eat the whole plate. Every bite got stuck somewhere between the gullet and the stomach and the more we ate, the more we realized that we shouldn’t. Somebody came to take the food away.

 

Finally, the woman that had welcomed us in the morning, came into the room to tell us we could get our makeup and our dresses off, followed by a sigh of relief from everybody. Nonetheless, we took a group picture first.

My parents picked me up, after having spent the day walking around the neighboring town. I fell asleep in the car, hungry, but too exhausted to pay attention to the sandwiches my mom had brought along. When I got home, I went straight to bed.

 

After more than a year, my mom went to the premiere of A Quiet Passion at our local movie theater. I was in school at the time of the screening, so I couldn’t join her. She said I looked pretty during the thirty seconds on screen. I’m sure I just looked tired.

Christmas

“How are you?” I asked my Polish coworker. It was the day after Christmas, so for some reason, I expected everyone to be happy and nice.

“I’m tired and sick of working here,” she answered annoyed.

“How come?” That was probably the stupidest question to ask ever, considering how she had worked in the hostel for fourteen years, doing the exact same thing. Who wouldn’t get sick of that?

“I had to work on Christmas Day, can you believe it?” she asked.

“That’s terrible!” Although I wasn’t religious and the birth of Christ wasn’t really that big a cause for celebration to me, I understood where she was coming from. After all, Christmas is the day you should spend with your family, and, most importantly, not have to go to work.

“Times have changed,” she continued. “People used to go to church on Christmas instead of going abroad. People got a day off work.” I nodded. I didn’t agree that going to church was much better than going to work. At least you got paid to go to work.

I’m not the kind of atheist who hates church. I’m not. But after having suffered through going to Orthodox masses with my mother, I had decided that I just lacked the commitment and most importantly, the faith to go through with it. But Izolda didn’t have to know that fact. It was difficult to get her to like you as it is and now that I had finally succeeded, I wasn’t going to lose that privilege because of a religious argument.

“Nobody has faith anymore.” She was right about that. Although Islam is still going strong, I don’t really know that many Christians. “That’s why people just go around killing each other. There’s no compassion anymore. We forget that we are all just the same.” I don’t know whether religion is the cause, but the world has indeed become pretty fucked up. But maybe it has always been twisted, only in a different way.

“That’s true.”

“And all these abortions! How can people kill their own children?” she asked me, hopefully not expecting an actual answer. She took me by surprise with that remark, so I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t seen our conversation – though I wasn’t really saying anything, so I guess it was more of a monologue – going that way.

“Well, euhm…”

“If abortion was prohibited, I wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Day!” I laughed. “I’m not joking,” she said.