AN INTRODUCTION BY DANIËL VAN DER MEER
For people without any knowledge of Dutch topography (99.99% of the world population, including people from The Netherlands): there is no sea in Tilburg. Not even close to the city. Yet in Goldfish and Concrete there is. The story’s author, Maartje Wortel (1982), was expelled from the School of Journalism for making up too much. It is something she has continued to do: it has resulted in two award-winning novels, two short story collections, and this novella. Wortel was lauded as “literary talent of the year” (de Volkskrant), “the best contemporary writer of short stories” (Humo) and “the figurehead of a whole generation of young Dutch writers” (Psychologies). As the New York-based Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg said: “If writing is finding the right tone of voice, Maartje Wortel found the right one. Maybe the best.”
Goldfish and Concrete is a novella in 29 bullets. It is a story about grief, love, Clarice Lispector, Anish Kapoor, and the curtains that divide the writer from the reader, a daughter from her mother, the protagonist from her lover.
Maartje Wortel wrote the story when she was Writer-in-Residence in Tilburg, in the spring of 2016. Or as she later declared in an interview: “I met an illustrator in Tilburg. I fell in love with her. I wrote a story, she made illustrations and now we have this small book.”
“Goldfish and Concrete” is Maartje Wortel at her best: a never-ending story, a dazzling ballad, a pamphlet-like contemplation, a holistic chain.
This way of understating one’s choices is something Maartje Wortel shares with the lives of “her” parents in the novella: “My father says he ended up in Tilburg because he got into a car one day. It’s one way of telling your life story.” And about her mother she writes: “When she met my father she was married to a pastry chef from Oisterwijk. He named a cookie after her, but aside from that wasn’t very passionate.”
Goldfish and Concrete is Maartje Wortel at her best: a never-ending story, a dazzling ballad, a pamphlet-like contemplation, a holistic chain. It’s a story you can’t actually explain. And you don’t need to. You just have to dive in. Dive into the sea in Tilburg.
Daniël van der Meer
Publisher, Das Mag, Amsterdam
A Story About the Infinite Depths of a Father’s Lies
“Goldfish and Concrete”
by Maartje Wortel
– What’s the story about?
– That’s not entirely clear yet.
– Tilburg is at the heart of the story. It’s what everything revolves around.
– There’s no sea in Tilburg.
– The sea is everywhere, even in Tilburg
– I don’t really get that, I guess.
– You don’t have to. You just have to go with it, with the story and the sea.
– Alright. Alright.
– Just go with it, do you promise?
– I promise.
– Otherwise you won’t understand any of it.
– Because there isn’t a sea in Tilburg?
– The sea is everywhere and especially in Tilburg. Especially there.
– Let’s go.
– We’re going.
(NO) GOLDFISH AND CONCRETE
1. My father says he ended up in Tilburg because he got into a car one day. It’s one way of telling your life story. ‘Your life doesn’t begin until you have a home,’ he says. ‘That applies to everybody, not just me. Everything that happens before that doesn’t count.’
Nonsense, I think. And you do too, probably. You know just as well as I do that life can also end (yes, that too) with a feeling of finding a home, but let’s agree with my father for now. There’s no need to start off by complicating things unnecessarily. Who he was before he ended up in Tilburg doesn’t matter for the sake of this story.
This is the beginning. (I can tell you this much already: the beginning lasts the longest, it’s the run up. The end is just a full stop, a period. It’s always just a full stop. But if you look carefully, that full stop is an opening, a little hole you can go through. Behind it, a beginning that takes much longer is waiting for you. If you want, it never ends.) I still owe you the moment when I politely introduce myself to you; that will come later. Sometimes you’ll talk with someone at a party for a couple of hours: you stand there, leaning against the kitchen units, clutching bottles of beer, you watch a stranger’s hands peeling off the label and then picking at the sticky white remains of the paper on the bottle, you just say anything until you’ve settled on a topic you’re both happy to talk about and it isn’t until you’re saying goodbye that you ask: do you mind if I ask your name? Even though it’s more often: what was your name again? — and, sorry, sorry, sorry, only to forget it again afterwards. The answer doesn’t matter and means everything all at once — Irene, Eva, Omar, Karel, Jenneke, Sophie, Soundos, Jan — that name too stands for an ending or a beginning, then it’s like a label, a skin, the first layer. I promise you: my name will be the beginning.
First this, back to where I come from.
‘I got into my car,’ my father says, ‘and I drove around a bit as usual. I drove along the highway as long and as fast as I could. I took the exit at Tilburg.’ (He forgets to tell me where he was coming from, what kind of car it was, what color it was, whether it had a diesel or petrol engine, what the car smelled like. He forgets to tell me what music he was listening to and whether he was thinking about anything or anyone, whether it was cloudy that day and whether the sun was to his left or right and how high it was in the sky. In particular, he forgets to tell me if he was looking for anything specific, that made him get into the car, and whether he was happy. All of this he omits to tell me.)
What I can tell you is how it must have gone, more or less. At least, this is what I’ve heard my father say about three hundred times to about three hundred different people: an invisible hand guided him towards the Tilburg exit that day. My father doesn’t believe in God but he does believe in good stories. If you give him the chance, he turns all the decisions he ever made into stories, often in his own inimitable way. I don’t think there are invisible hands pushing us. They’re our own hands. Perhaps we don’t know why we do what we do, but we move, even though we generally don’t know where we are going or why. My father sees things differently. He wants to add that his driving about was rather random anyway; he often just went for a drive, the car was ‘a mobile living room’ in which he felt comfortable. ‘And you can steer things a bit,’ he said — but the exit taken at Tilburg wasn’t random at all, he says.
You should know that my father’s a holist. For a long time I thought a holist was a person who believed in emptiness, in hollowing things out, a hole, a cavity, the space between buildings, fingers, between yourself and others. I pictured a duvet that a warm body had just emerged from underneath. It wasn’t about the body but the duvet, open and abandoned, leaving the warmth and the shape of a person behind. It turned out this was my own belief. A holist is convinced that everything is inseparably connected to everything else, like all the seas and oceans have their own intrinsic variability and complexity yet consist of the same water, even though those seas each have their own name. According to my father, everything is a chain reaction, a series of linked events (and then he invariably comes up with the story of the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil causing a tornado in Texas). You can never see things separately from each other. That’s why I’m starting with my father, since without him, I wouldn’t even know you. In a way it’s pointless thinking about stuff like this, since it’s a completely logical fact: if you take away all the people, all of space, all of time, all the invisible hands, of course there is nothing left. Nothing exists in isolation. And neither do we.
‘No,’ my father says. ‘There is something left, even in that case. There’s always something left; it just takes a different form.’ (I wasn’t so far wrong then, with my belief in the duvet.) He doesn’t want to simplify life by allowing all events and meetings to depend upon coincidence. My father says some things are inevitable and closed off to fate; one truth flows from another truth like the ebb and flow of tides. Truth (he pronounces that word unusually loudly) and fate aren’t even in the same room as far as he’s concerned.
What is true, or (as far as I’m concerned) coincidence:
He’d already allowed dozens of signs with place names to go past and now some kind of voice inside him decided: this is where I (or ‘you’ — how does that kind of voice address you?) need to leave the road. He moved into the exit lane and the indicator flashed rhythmically, familiarly, like the cursor in an empty Word document; something new was about to happen. My father said this to me time and time again as he plucked at my hair as though pulling off chunks of candy floss. ‘Something very new, kiddo. I felt it.’ When I was young I thought about the invisible hand and sometimes I thought that maybe I had been it, that force. I’d had my father take that exit to find a place for me. He could also have ended up in Helmond, for example, or Leiden, Groningen or IJlst. Or on an industrial estate. Not all exits lead to residential areas.
My father drove into the city past a mosque, a few apartment blocks, a museum and the Wilhelmina Park. That’s where he parked his car. In the park, he lay down on his back in the grass to look at the treetops and listen to the birds singing. He thought: other people have lain here and laughed, cried, made love, dreamed, drunk, smoked, exercised, reflected. Here relationships were broken off or began, ducks were fed, unspoken words written down in diaries, people took each other’s hands, shared secrets, picked flowers, they fell down here, stood up again, cheated on their partners, they pulled up blades of grass, peed in the bushes, hid things, they lost money here, became ill, spat on the ground, played guitar, stamped, danced. They were here. My father didn’t want go past this moment in time like he’d gone past so many other things before. He recognized it and made a promise to himself: I won’t leave here before I’ve done all those things. My father took a deep breath, pulled up blades of grass, dusted off his trousers and went into the pub on the park corner. When he opened the door, he saw that it was empty, bar a couple of customers. It reminded him of himself: an empty space ready to be filled. All of the customers looked at the door, and in doing so at my father, as though they’d been sitting there waiting for him. They said so too: ‘Someone’s here at last.’ It was exactly how my father felt. It was all about him. The long awaited. He sat down at the table with the men and did what he was good at: talking. His voice echoed through the pub; his words, precisely there, precisely then, formed the new link that connected everything that was already in movement and also gave them a new twist, from a still unknown place. (Me, you. 2–2.)
My father in turn, who has a natural talent for drama (he calls it being a romantic himself), said to those folks with a sigh: ‘Finally, the sea.’
2. What if you don’t think: I’m coming home. Is your home still your home then? What if you don’t know what to do with a stopover? All those stations in between. Is a journey still a journey then?
What I want to say to you in a cold, dark station (you can drive past it if you like): if I can’t be with you, I look for a form and my form, my shape is language. (This too turns out to be a chain, time after time.) I can be everywhere, just like the water. And particularly in Tilburg; the city like a duvet you’ve just emerged from under. (Form/Content).
3. My father drank more jonge jenever than was good for him and told me that he’d met a couple of kindred spirits there in that pub on the park whom he never wanted to let go. To be entirely truthful, I must add that in my father’s story the bartender was playing ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work and that song didn’t even exist yet, any more than I did. What’s more, my father considered everyone alive a kindred spirit, because ‘We’re all alive.’
One of the men in the bar apparently didn’t want my father to disappear from his life either and said, after eight glasses of jenever and three different strong beers, that he had a house for him. He’d been wanting to go to Spain for a while because he’d met a woman.
‘Do you really have to go all the way to Spain for that?’ my father asked. And do you know what the man said to him? He said, ‘An invisible hand guided me towards her.’
My father swallowed. And again. It didn’t help, the tears came. He’s always been sensitive to kindred spirits. To everyone. He’s a very sensitive man. He knows this himself because he says it all the time. Sometimes he says he can’t take the smell of spring, soccer matches, the way the men sweat and play together, kicking up clumps of grass, or the way certain women step onto their bicycles, a little awkwardly. Then he’ll say: ‘I’m a mollusk. I almost can’t take this.’ I think he’s right. While my mother was a mammoth (she was big and strong, plucked everything bare, stomped through life), my father is a mollusk. He’s open to the whole world, everything goes in, as though he were an infinite landscape where everyone’s welcome, a hole everything falls through. But anyway. So he’s the reason I’m living here. In a house next to the railroad. I didn’t have much choice in the matter. My father began to drive one day and took an exit. And I’m here (just like you).
4. Behind the curtains, I tell you this. Because we haven’t got that far yet (visible) you only listen down the telephone, which becomes hot and glowing which in turn makes your ear warm and glowing and I want to see what kind of red your ear has gone. Since I can’t see you at the moment, I imagine you. Not just your ear but also your feet, your hair, your hands, your eyes and your smell. You don’t have to be shy. I can make things exist that you can’t see, like (I’m not going to repeat this a lot, but it does come back a couple of times) the sea in Tilburg. You don’t have to believe it, but I know that it’s there. Like we are there.
You listen. Your silence is all-encompassing. I talk — not as easily as my father does, but I am talking. We can choose. 1. We see each other. Or 2. We talk about it. I say: it’s a pain that makes my heart hum at night. I used to think that a heart could only beat, but a heart can do so much more. There’s a chamber you inhabit and it’s buzzing in there, I imagine a broken striplight, like in a film. I’d like to play the sound to you. You’d listen to it with your naked ear, no stethoscope, this kind of listening has got nothing to do with illness. My heart buzzes like an insect, as though it wants to drown itself out in vibrations. Or worse, like a device with a battery that’s going flat. Insects are useful creatures, and that’s the way I like to see my heart too. I think about the movements a bee’s wings make. How clever that those creatures can bear their own weight. I don’t know if people are capable of that. I’m not, at any rate.
I once read that bees belong to a superfamily that bears the name Apoidea. In that same article, I also read that there are solitary bees, thank God. They live according to my father’s principles. All of them together contribute not just to the survival of their own species; they also contribute to life in general. The only difference between a bee’s life and my father’s life philosophy is that there’s only one female among the bees. And that female is also brilliant, inimitable, superior, strong and sovereign. If she wants to reproduce, the queen bee takes to the wing one day. She leaves the hive. She flies away. Off she goes. All the males fly after her. At first it goes well. There’s a beautiful and at the same time terrifying cloud of bees in the air. A concentration of buzzing movement, from a distance you could put your hands around it, but close up the space between your hands is meaningless, from close up it’s too big, even dangerous. The female flies ahead of all the bees for days on end. The cloud thins, becoming a trail, a line, and afterwards: dots, an ellipsis in the air. More and more males fall away. They are weak, exhausted. They can’t cope with the journey and aren’t worthy of the female. When there are just a few bees left, the queen stops flying. Now only the strongest bees are left, the ones that are allowed to possess her, just for a moment. No one knows in advance which place the queen will choose in which to reproduce. Maybe she doesn’t know it herself, maybe the place is chosen before there’s even a choice. At the end of this story she flies back home again, completely alone, to her hive, and shortly after that everything starts all over again. Everything always starts all over again.
5. In the night, you and I swim across the ocean. Nothing has to start over again there. There is no end. Just water. We meet each other at the bottom, our eyes open, above us the waves, but we’ve gone in search of silence. We’re not like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s story. We can never get like that. The fish in the story forget what water is because they are in the water. (What is water?) We don’t. We’re in it and we know it only too well. We don’t have to wonder. The sea comes to our door every night. It streams through the cracks, along the walls. In the morning I wake up in my own bed, soaked. My hair is stringy, the salt stings, my scalp feels tight, my duvet presses on my clammy body and my eyes have to get used to the daylight, to the dry city air, to the ocean now lying between us. Reassuringly, we both know how to swim, how to push aside the water, the way it closes behind us, like another curtain. And we go through it. We always go through it.
6. When I was old enough, my mother not yet dead and the tunnel under the station not yet built, I moved from one side of the tracks (a train driving past sounds like a kettle just before it boils) to the other, the rails forming a fault line between the past and present. My father had hired a big green removals van. As we drove to Statenlaan in Tilburg-West, where I’d found a place to live thanks to an ad I’d pinned up in the supermarket, he’d hit the curb from time to time. Steering was difficult: both of his hands were bandaged. He’d conducted yet another pointless experiment. My father was one of the best when it came to conducting pointless experiments. (I can list more than a hundred of them — if you want to hear them, you have to come to mine. We can make an evening of it.) That afternoon, he’d seen a fire department practice. A group of firefighters had set a car on fire on the square, and then extinguished it as a demonstration. They weren’t just practicing, they wanted to show people what they were capable of, that they could guarantee safety when the situation called for it. The spectators clapped when the fire had been put out. (Really, people like that exist.) My father hadn’t been able to get the fire and the smell of burning rubber out of his head and once he was home, he decided he had to figure out the best way to escape the house if it was on fire. He hung a rope out the window and slid down on it into the front garden. He did this too quickly — he’d been drinking whiskey and beer — and didn’t have any control over his actions. Strictly speaking, he had willingly fallen out of the window using the rope. Nevertheless, he had clutched the rope overly anxiously and his hands were now covered in burns. I couldn’t think of a more fitting image to sum up his personality: my father was able to burn his hands without a fire. When he came back from the hospital and showed me his wrists he said, ‘666’. Every time something went totally wrong, he acted as though he’d sealed a pact with the devil. My mother didn’t like it and in retrospect, I also think he should have been more careful with that; he himself may have been immune to that sequence of random numbers, but it could have caused my mother’s death. But my mother’s accident was the one thing my father said was probably chance. And I thought: people need to place traumatic events outside of their own reality somehow. (Me having you live behind a curtain, inside my head doesn’t mean that you’re a traumatic event. It’s everything else, the daily reality that approaches trauma. All of this stuff that I’m telling you for the first time.)
After my dad had parked the green van in front of my new home and I’d carried everything to the second floor (number 205), aside from a few small things my dad clutched in his burned fists, he left me behind in a house full of dirty boys, as he said so himself. Later, he said that he’d cried as he drove back to his side of the tracks and that he’d laughed too, because he was a crying man in a green rental van with both his hands bandaged who had left his daughter behind in a bare apartment with boys who clearly didn’t know what to do with themselves and therefore really couldn’t know what to do with me. But he also said, ‘Dirty boys go with the territory. I can’t prevent that as a dad.’
There were five boys and they did nothing but watch obscure films (VHS), drink beer and talk about what they called life but in practice was just girls. I liked girls too, but not just randomly, not often, and the girls who wandered into those boys’ lives were mainly a youthful addition to the world, a bit of cheerfulness on a bicycle, nothing more. I usually sat in my own room reading books and sketching. I often drew foxes. Once I saw a fox at night in a parking lot. The animal ran in between the vehicles and it made me cry. I’ve never drawn a good fox, for that matter, things that are hard to know are hard to draw.
7. Are you still there?
You shouldn’t suddenly disappear.
Come back. Even though you’ve become a thin line.
8. We’re going this way (yes, of course, into the woods).
9. In the woodland park behind my house, I met a boy who said he was a Buddhist. We got talking because we were both looking at a couple of small red turtles swimming in the pond. They must have been released in the woods because someone had exchanged their ardent desire for a few turtles with a desire for independence. There’s a big difference between really wanting something and thinking it. I mean: thinking that you want it. If you think you want it, the wanting stops the moment you feel like getting it. If you really want something, the wanting begins at the moment you feel like getting it. It always multiplies terrifyingly fast. It rushes through your body. You want it and you want more. But anyhow, those turtles weren’t bought by a person with self-knowledge. Now they were swimming in the pond in the woods, far from where they belonged, and also far from where they didn’t belong.
‘People treat all living things like that,’ the boy said. ‘They bring them inside. They throw them away.’ He also said, ‘An unhappy person, just like a happy person, is an egoist.’
I thought the turtles might have been better off here than in a bath or a sink. But I didn’t dare to say it because there was something authoritarian about the boy and I’d left my flat to go for a simple walk and look at the trees, not to end up in an argument. In the end, I did become interested in him. How exactly it came about that the conversation moved from turtles to vases, I don’t know, but it happened. The boy had recently heard an archeologist say that he’d rather find a broken vase than an intact one. The cracks could tell him far more about the past. Those vases and cracks piqued my interest, so I took him back to where I lived with those dirty boys. We could have started kissing or worse. But while the boy drank tea on the bottom half of my bunkbed, the first plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers. My father called me, all he said was to turn on the TV. I watched the news for the entire night together with the Buddhist.
When he left my house the next morning with red eyes, he hugged me longer than anyone had ever hugged me before and said, ‘You have to pluck inspiration out of the air, it’s infinite.’
I don’t believe in inspiration, but for a while I could think of nothing but that infinite sky, how it could be that everything that matters always comes down to infinity. I’ve forgotten the Buddhist’s face. But these things will remain of him, for always: the turtles, the vases, the Twin Towers, the infinite sky and afterwards: my mother’s death.
10. My father loved my mother. It’s the thing I’m most certain of. When they met each other they both had somebody else. My father said they’d had to let go of a lot of things so that they could hold each other’s hands. (Time, effort, stories, past, a piece of themselves.) And that it had all been worth it. He’d rather fall down with the right one than stand up straight with the wrong one. And of course my mother felt welcome, just like all the others did. She had to go with him, she could do little about it. When she met my father she was married to a pastry chef from Oisterwijk. He named a cookie after her, but aside from that wasn’t very passionate. She worked in a bookshop and because she grew tired of that closed world of words, she took the train to Tilburg every Saturday to go dancing. Her dancing looked more like waving her arms around. And my father fell for that waving because he thought she was greeting him with wildly enthusiastic determination. They both have different interpretations of what happened next, but the pastry chef took his cookies off the market and my mother became my mother. As I already said, my father really loved her. You could see it clearly in his body, the way he looked at her and even the way he argued with her. He said, ‘You have to take care of the people you love. And be careful with them. At least, as careful as possible. Alright, not too careful because that’s not good either.’ Being careful or not too careful with someone turned out to be a relative term, because my father often took other women home. He considered it a waste to live just one life, purely and simply because of the fact that you only have one life. ‘If you get the chance you must multiply. Preferably by an uneven number.’ (This is probably the reason I remained an only child.)
My father made sure my mother didn’t have to see the other women and if she didn’t want to know, she didn’t have to, because you only know those kinds of things once you’ve seen them. My father was less careful towards me. I saw many women arrive. I almost never said anything about it, I only thought I should pay close attention to how the game worked. I paid close attention and understood little. The only time I cautiously asked whether mum was alright about the other women coming round, my father started to tell a story about strawberries.
‘It can’t be the idea to stop someone from eating strawberries, can it? Smashing things to smithereens, bursting into tears or walking out because the person you love ate strawberries? That’s not normal, do you see? If that’s love, it’s not the way to treat each other.’
I thought strawberries were quite different from women, but to be honest, I couldn’t explain why.
11. Maybe you’re thinking: where have I got to (in terms of visibility)? I’m thinking exactly the same thing. You are allowed to be present from now on. You’re coming. Or more accurately, I’m coming. We have to both want it at the same time, and independently of that, we have to (whatever, just say something) dare at the same time. I’ll come get you in the car. I won’t toot the horn, I won’t make a sound. It’ll be deafening nonetheless. I will stand under a street light. I’m hoping for orange light. You have to look out for a blue Peugeot. A small one. I know you’ll take off your shoes when you’re sitting next to me. We know so much before it becomes true. I’ll make us exist alongside everything that already existed.
You ask, ‘What do you like so much about me?’
I say, ‘Your strength.’ I ask, ‘What do you like so much about me?’
You say, ‘Your height.’
I will make myself bigger, infinitely bigger. But first I smile at that reply.
I came across the actual reply, the reply that cancels out all possible answers, in a book by Clarice Lispector. She had bandaged hands too; her hands had been burned by a real fire because she was smoking a cigarette in bed and the duvet caught fire. I hope that you’re ready for someone else’s words explaining how I see it, but sometimes you need another person’s words to be able to express yourself better. ‘I saw something. Really something. It was ten at night and the taxi was driving at full speed along the Praҫa Tiradentes when I saw a street I will never again forget. I’m not going to describe it: it’s my street. The only thing I can say is that it was deserted and it was ten at night. Nothing else. But I was awakened.’
12. Have a rest now. The fish in the sea know how you feel.
13. First rate.
14. I love hands shuffling cards.
15. I’m afraid of fortune tellers. I think that everything they say can come true. The truth isn’t necessarily always what you were hoping for. Maybe it never is. Who wants truth? I don’t. Kind, she is not. She is always a woman, dressed in black. And then I’m not talking about a pair of black trousers and a black blouse (there’s nothing sexier than that in my eyes), but a straight long black dress, down to the ankles. Like the ones you never see anymore.
16. Someone could have told me that my mother would die and I would have believed it but not understood it. But first this (a person can say it ad infinitum and it will always make sense): before I tell you about my mother’s death, I’d like to keep her alive for a moment.
The most alive thing I can tell you about her and something my father loved so much was that my mother believed she’d been hit by lightning. I said, ‘Mum, that’s impossible. People who get hit by lightning die.’ (Perhaps the answer was right there, the beginning of the end.) According to my mother, you didn’t have to die from a lightning strike. ‘Those are extreme cases,’ she said. She said that only her personality had been changed by it, that she’d become gentler, more open. Her old self had been uncoupled to make space for her new self. I didn’t notice any of this myself — my mum was simply my mum — but if she said she’d been hit by lightning, it must have been true. Being hit, being touched can take so many forms. Perhaps death is the last and most tender touch. Compared to that, human hands are a joke. My mother has been to a place I still have to go to. And that’s how it should be, with mothers. She went the same way my father came, by the highway. Near the Drunen Dunes.
It wasn’t even her fault, someone had driven the wrong way down the highway. He had a head-on collision with my mother and the people who were there didn’t even have to look to see if she was still alive. She was thrown out of the car, thrown out of time, like a broken elastic band. And just like the day my father took the exit, a new sequence of events was set off again. (Me, you. Part 2.)
17. If you take vases out of the kiln too quickly, the glaze on the porcelain cracks. All those cracks, all those fault lines, leave a sound behind. Something breaks but you get something else in its place, even if it’s just a modest sound, movement. It’s called craquelure. The sound of broken vases turns up at random moments. It comes when you’re not expecting it. A presence. It’s the same with absence, there’s a void and at the same time, there’s consolation. Naturally it didn’t go very well at the start, daily life. Buying bread and saying hello to people. During the daytime I was numb and at night I couldn’t sleep. I lost handfuls of hair each night. When I went to the hair salon in Nieuwlandstraat (even the street name hurt, “New land street”), the guy said he could see the sorrow in my hair. ‘Chop it out,’ I said. He said he’d be honest with me: ‘My dear, it needs time and nutrition.’
I wondered how something that was dead could still be sorrowful? I hoped that my mother wasn’t sorrowful. That seemed to me the only positive thing about being dead as opposed to alive: you got out of all the sadness for good. I bought a packet of fortune cookies to hear something nice. The first note I read said: ‘This will be a prosperous year/ Cette année sera une année de prospérité. / Dieses Jahr wird ein gutes Jahr.’ I ate all the cookies and read all the messages; what a stupid idea that was, since not all of the predictions could be true, even if they were written in three languages. If your mother’s just died, you should eat regular cookies.
My father said, ‘If you’re sad, art can help. Because you can see — no, feel — more in a painting sometimes than in a face, more even than in a pair of kind eyes, that someone has understood you.’ I was so ripped apart, so wounded, that I listened to everyone who turned up with good advice. So I listened to my father as well. What’s more, he’d lost someone too. How can it be a law that when you lose someone you also lose yourself right away? — I don’t want to go with you, I don’t want to! Now I know: no resistance.
It is like when a wild animal grabs you, or a strong current: feign ignorance. Don’t be a hero.
18. There I stood in the Museum De Pont in front of a piece by Anish Kapoor, the black circle, the black hole painted on the floor. I thought about how I’d cried for hours in the past because there was a hole in my sandwich that all the chocolate sprinkles fell though. It wasn’t about the chocolate sprinkles but the hole. My father told me not to be a baby, that the sandwich would be gone anyway after I’d eaten it; hole or no hole. He could tell me that, but it wasn’t the point. What it was about was that there was a hole in my sandwich and it hurt me. Now there I was with the same pain, even though I knew that a sandwich and my mother had nothing at all to do with each other.
I went back to that artwork like others return to a house or a loved one. Again and again I was drawn to that hole. The way space and time disappeared into it, as though it were a secret opening. I stood behind the rope looking at it and I was clearly present and capable of disappearing at the same time. Like the trick you know as a kid, you only have to close your eyes to become invisible.
And after God knows how many years (how often could we have stood next to each other there? I might have been a woman already), after God knows how many kissed lips, you stood next to me — it was a Sunday. We looked at the suction effect of that hole together. I didn’t look at you. You didn’t look at me. We both looked at the hole and I knew you were the first person to see exactly the same as me. Above all, that you were the first person to not see exactly the same as me. We stood there next to each other for an eternity. And then, what did you do then? You dared to do it; you trusted in the moment, in yourself, in everything that could be undone perhaps, and did what no one would ever do in real life just like that: you took my hand. And very quietly you said something you must have often thought about. You said, ‘There is a hole / painted on the ground / into which you’d like to drop everything / that’s left behind.’ I didn’t understand what these lines meant and at the same time I understood them at once. Like me, you needed to be relieved of something.
And then you looked at me. I knew at once that like my mother and father had done, I wanted to drop everything and go with you. Nothing should be left behind. (However wonderful it was.)
I said to you, ‘You fix the time, I’ll figure out the logistics.’
And the next thing I know is that I was coming to get you in the car.
(Behind the curtains then. We could just get through them.)
19. I’ve never met anyone who is so careless and yet has to be treated with such care.
20. There’s a network of tree roots under the ground. All those trees stand there alone, have their own core, their own bark, their own crown and leaves and growth. But under the ground they are all connected to each other. They hold onto the soil and each other, like hands searching for safety. On occasion, one of them topples in a storm. When there’s a more serious storm, the city looks like a cemetery of trees. I wonder what that looks like under the ground — if it’s as much of a mess there as on the street, and who is going to tidy it up. Cleverer animals. The network will repair itself, just like I do. Or in time, it will tell a story we know little about as yet, like a broken vase.
Recently I was sitting on Café Spaarbank’s terrace next to a boy who was playing a computer game in which you could build worlds. I asked him, ‘How far does it go? Does it ever stop?’ Just like the Buddhist, this little boy said, ‘No, this world is infinite.’ He slid across the screen like a little god, the king of his own kingdom. He asked me whether I wanted to see how deep it was and I nodded and said, ‘Yes please, show me how deep.’ He tapped on the screen many times in a row and there we went, from the lightest black to the blackest black.
I’d like to draw a map of my friends and loved ones (or actually, of you), how deep you go. I’m hoping for eternity.
In computer games the depth is infinite. I don’t want it to be/seem/become true, that reality stops at the same point where the imagination stops. Who says that the imagination is infinite? That’s believing in your own ability. I want to reach out my arms and know that what I’m measuring, but especially that what I’m not measuring, is equal to the way the world works. That the space between my arms is a place the world fits into. That I displace air with every step. That you slip through there somewhere. I want you to form a link, not far from me. But better still: for you to be the end, and at the same time be the beginning. We’ll start off the chain. We won’t fall. (If we do fall, it’ll be quiet.)
21. Time and time again you turn out to be the opposite of things. Enough reason to ask you, ‘Shall we go?’
22. I told you to close your eyes, and after that I finally brought you to the sea. What I can say about it is that we went for a drive that night. There was almost no one else on the roads. I guided our room through the country. ‘Where would you like to go?’ I asked.
You didn’t reply. You only smiled.
I said, ‘We’ll do that then.’
When we were there you cried. I kissed your wet eyes and said, ‘Let’s go for a swim.’ We took off our clothes and didn’t know whether to run or whether it was a moment we should make last. I think we decided to run. You can’t only wait. We ran and you kept on crying, even under water, and everything was so painfully beautiful for a few seconds, exactly as it should be. It was so close and everything we’d made big became small in the sweetest possible way, like something we could put our hands around, something we could easily keep. I was awakened. All those things I thought and said. And you wanted to say something, too.
23. You called me early in the morning. I heard your voice, so quiet that I pictured the sound as something tangible I could have stroked. I closed my eyes and you said, ‘I didn’t plan this beforehand.’
‘Isn’t it time for not everything to go as planned?’ I asked.
After that it seemed as though everything would take its own course. It just took its course.
You read a story about a tree and a boy and I heard your voice break like a twig. If there’s one truth that was it. As far as soulmates are concerned, I’m the opposite of my dad. At times I thought I’d found someone, we spoke the same language for a while, but in the end there was nothing left but goldfish and concrete, which sounds really nice but you should see how something like that turns out in the end.
I put a goldfish on the concrete next to the railway track. A small, orange, living fish on the hard grey ground. I love concrete. It’s got one clear defining feature and that is: concrete. I looked at the fish. I’d expected it to thrash about, that I’d have to 1. save it (i.e. put it back in the water), 2. put it out of its misery (i.e. a fast death as opposed to a slow battle). But the goldfish didn’t move. It lay there on the concrete and accepted its fate. I looked at it and I thought of you. I have seen life and I have seen death. I thought of water around the fish. I thought: water! But the fish was already too far gone.
24. So: no goldfish and concrete. Instead: waves, foxes in parking lots, birdsong, treetops, lava.
25. OK, even with the goldfish and concrete, we’d be able to manage it. Why not? We order sushi and say, ‘Forget the damn fire.’
26. You see, there is so much left when something is lost. You walk through the park. Let’s make it the Wilhelmina Park. That park is so old the trees have started to understand each other. We can walk and lie down on the grass like my dad did the day he arrived. We can laugh, cry, make love, dream, drink, smoke, exercise, reflect, feed the ducks, write words in diaries, take each other’s hands, share secrets, pick flowers, fall, get up, cheat on our partners, pull up blades of grass, pee in the bushes, hide things, lose money, get sick, spit on the ground, play guitar, stamp, dance. We can have been there.
We will truly sense that everything that was there, will always be there. I will reveal my belief to you: it is infinite. An infinite moment of recognition. I have recognized it (you). I get up, pull up some grass if necessary, brush the dirt from my trousers and take your hand. (I’m really not going to add that it’s such a soft hand; that the hand too is sweeter than it appears.)
I run my fingers across your knuckles.
‘What are you thinking about?’ I ask.
I don’t know everything. But we both know the same things.
27. I don’t leave you behind. We raise the flag. When we’re done, we send postcards. Greetings from Tilburg on Sea.
– Wait. You still have to introduce yourself to me. That’s what you said, at the beginning.
– It’s too late for that now.
– Who are you then?
– It’s me.
– Is it really you?
– If you believe it is.
– Don’t leave then. Never leave.
– Of course I’m not going to leave. No one is saying ‘Bye’ inside my head.
– Yeah. Hi, then.
Now that we’re here anyway, what shall we say? Maybe this: if you ask astronauts why they want to go into space, you expect a long, complicated answer, but usually they just say, ‘Because it’s possible.’
We do stuff because it’s possible.
If you ask me why I want to drive around with you and stop the car in an empty meadow to look at the moon, I’ll say, ‘Because we’re alive.’ We ended up here because we once got into a little blue car.
So here we are. We look through the windshield. I’ve turned off the engine. We don’t know what will happen but we’re here, we exist, we move.
29. No rules.
(Alright, one rule: no even numbers. Infinite, infinite.)