Death on a pale horse by J. M. W. Turner, 1825
It was the end of the world - again. The moon had just risen over the mountain. It was a cold winter moon that was sweating the sky an eerie Prussian blue. The light poured into my bedside window: over the nightstand, swirling along the silver rim of my bedside tumbler. It made every breath as brittle as the November frost that bordered the panes. It said to me, “there’s an irreparable tragedy within you, within everybody”, and it told me that there is no remedy for it: that love can only go so far. Kisses can’t fare well against war.
As the moon flooded that quiet, nocturnal marsh, it whispered a life to me, a life I’d known at best in the fractures of a story. It was a story that wasn’t too different from the others, in the way that it talks about the inevitable defeat bequeathed upon all humanity. The same defeat that stiffened my lungs that night as I stood by the blue window, the now almost bare chestnut frames along the old circuit house road.
I do not know how to write a story: I can’t seem to weave worlds or move hearts with words, but I believe I could write a letter to this life I speak of. Perhaps it will be easier if I imagine you here, sitting with your knees pressed together, your gaze steady at your feet, eliding all that could break your vision of reality.
Our childhood was spent chasing butterflies, we’d come to find a loose sense of camaraderie as both of us were, in the most conventional sense of the word, loners. We carried upon our backs a thorny carcass of this word, unwillingly, owing to a vile hatred for the self. It made us stand out, well, that is so long as they were interested. But soon enough, as our bodies and minds flitted through the prepubescent haze of innocence, we became less noticeable. The world fancies tears that are veiled in childhood innocence more than it does adolescent angst. We became one with the world in appearances. You were told that once you started to bleed, you weren’t allowed to make mistakes. I was told not to question what the blue liquid in sanitary pad commercials was. Diktats were professed from sentry posts of morality and honour, smoothening skirts while taking a seat, opening doors in chivalry. They regarded our flesh with careful scrutiny, each dell and cusp was appropriated. But they were far from noticing that we had already succumbed to the wounds our self-loathing had gifted us, the wounds that bled to consecrate our adolescent rebellions in silence. And it was in this silence that I regarded you for the first time.
You were trying to listen to some strange music amidst the usual cafe chatter. It was strange indeed, Some of these days, you’ll miss me honey… Your fingers were tied in dull satin ribbons, as if you’d wished your digits shut into sallow flesh mittens. They caught the light, your hands, in an unusual way - sun starved and pale against the shimmering grey. The great murderous confusion was upon us, more obvious than ever in that closed, glass panelled space - one of those moments when, out of pure whim, it chooses to show itself to us unannounced. The air was stiff with it, congealed, rather, and it was across rows of green marble tabletops that our eyes met for an embarrassing flicker. Nobody else wore this panic in their eyes: they had resigned their senses to the background. In that warm, yellow light we were truly alone.
You undid your ribbons, as if all at once conscious of your isolation, unintentionally subjecting your strangle-marks to the common sight. The common sight, I say, but nobody cared enough to look, really. I guess nobody ever looks - in it’s careless hurry, the world has outgrown the courtesy of attention. It seemed then, at that moment, that we had managed to pierce through the crowd and melt into the low-hanging tungsten warmth for as briefly as we could. But soon enough, the chatter found us once more, tricking us out of this intimate corridor that we shared. Word by word, it embrittled the air between us, until talks of weekend shopping trips and politics took over. Perhaps that was as far as that starched, white-washed, flaky evening could take us amidst the good natured, sensual normalcy that all the world is so crazy about.
Vera, the well-oiled world continues to run along its routine all the same: with you, without you, it goes on just as it did. Separation, divorce, death, even the happier things are but goose pimples upon its pallid porcelain face. Even on that November night by my window, streaks of red and warm yellow along the river highway below blurred my quietude. And it reminded me of something you had once said (I think we were walking for the sick, sugary brownies that you ate cold at Luc’s on Sunday evenings), that heaven must be really, really empty. I had smiled at the thought back then, but you were quite serious about it, you had probably meditated over the idea a million times over in your head.
My hands grew clammy that night as I remembered this. Do you know that they still serve terrible desserts there? I eat there every Sunday, but is it in your memory that I do it? I do not know. Nobody seems to notice anything irregular. You aren’t missed, Vera. Blood, I have realised, doesn’t trickle loud enough.
I do not know what to say further. I am in half my mind to write about the time when we walked in the rain because you wanted to catch a cold, or the day when we walked drunk through the narrows, lane after lane looking for art galleries in the dirt, talking of all the horizontal lines in Sher-Gil’s paintings.
I feel that the more one lives, the more it is about the cycle of becoming and un-becoming. We were, I guess, too tired to become or un-become, and we resorted to the endless search for something constant; it could have been anything, something as torn as an occasional half-embrace to get us through the night, or a dead promise being held and kissed in hopeful mourning. We were desperate for a simulacrum of intimacy, so much so that we often went out of our ways just to live the illusion. Your lovers and friends left you waiting on riverside benches, soaked in the icy November rain while you poured acid into every wishful stencil that framed your mind. You wrote poems about these men who walked all over you, you wished hell upon them, and yet you never ceased to love your oppressors, sending them Christmas cards with naked pictures of yourself year after year in the spirit of loneliness.
I almost loved you that way, in waiting, in that narrow space that connected us sometimes, where arms were just arms and waists were nothing else but bright girdles bound in shame and skin. In this space, we were what we were, there wasn’t any name for it, no designation to this bond. It perhaps never required one. Were you my friend, Vera?
You gave this world several chances, gave yourself life afterlife but it tore through gradually until you were a ragged, pale sheet of your own abuse and regurgitation. Like your poetry, or Farhad’s drunk refuge of Behitsun - chiselled day after day until your own faces (the many that you wore) wept through the rock. But nobody can go on this way for long (you went on for twenty-seven good Christmases). Sometimes I wish I could wear my heart on my sleeve like you did, sprawled upon the futon against your laptop on a Friday night, dreaming through bottles of the cheap rosé you loved.
I once ran into a lover of yours, I don’t remember his name. After all, what is a memory after all? A laceration fading away from time? He was dressed fancy, in a nice Cashmere coat, the sort that is soft to touch and is warm enough to ward off cold winds. The sort that I couldn’t even afford to put around your shoulders and tell you that the world would be kinder. He was buying groceries, canned pineapples, pepperoni, and a six-pack of dark ale. He seemed okay, we talked about the weather. And then I broke it to him, “Vera killed herself.” He seemed devastated, he cupped his face in his palms and dropped his grocery basket, as if it were the end of his world. And then it was his turn to get billed, so he left. The grocery clerk returned his smile on the way out.
Vera, perhaps it was us, and those thorny cadavers upon our backs. I do not know how to make a story out of this letter. I could have steered into how delicate our sense of loneliness was, I could have segued into how your beautiful heart bled through gauze and dressings that always came undone before it could heal. I could have not spiralled into this wild verbal bloodshed, but now I feel I am standing in your hotel room once more, as I did the morning you killed yourself, away from the house you grew up in, where you didn’t have the freedom to take your own life.
I find myself in the grey morning light once more and I see your pale face looking at me, sculpted marble strafed with blue veins growing stiff with your freezing blood. I see your benign hip tilted askew in a scarlet pool. The warm tungsten glow can’t light your face anymore, Vera.
In this moment, you are as you were meant to be - immune from the world, immune from all that purpled your life.
It is the end of the world, again. When I walk into that dessert shop, when the patron takes my order, when the waitress brings me the cold brownies with a side of bad macchiato.
All my love,