Being Presently Absent
By Ellie Fazan
(This goes backwards.)
I want to lie with my head in my mother’s armpit while she kisses my closed eyes, and my closed mouth, and kisses me back into being. I want to slip back into her so I can feel her presence in me. It is unbelievable to think that I came from her. I want to lick her Nivea’d cheek and smell her smell and be swallowed again by her. I want to be fed cookies and milk, straight from the nipple. I like my milk warm and sweet.
Home equals childhood, which can be good or bad.
I met a man in a shop who recognised my accent and said “oh you’re British”. “Hey, so I’m from royal ancestry you know? The Martin family married to Henry V”. “Really?”, I said, a bit bored by now of this conversation. “Yes, and part Cherokee of course”. I met a woman who is the third cousin of a geriatric English rock star. “Do you know Bill from Manchester?” On every house a flag to remind me where I am, but not quite who.
My obsessions: staying here, going home, my Mum’s (also Mom’s) Sunday roast, burritos and dollar burgers, do not add up to a very great list.
The weather, hot blue. I hold my hand above my face with my fingers spread wide, and squint into the sun, letting my hand make a shadow on my face. A television is on somewhere.
Sounds that I try to ignore:
* The road.
* Tinkling music that sounds like ice cream van music. When I was young our next-door neighbour (pervert and maths teacher) told us that the ice cream van only sung to warn children that it had run out of ice cream. My Mum (Mom) never corrected him.
* The chattering of an elderly couple (American). They’re talking about putting the woman’s mother into a residential project. She can live in the community as an able person until she becomes disabled and then the nurses can look after her while they move into a retirement community of their own. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to think about my Mum in that way.
* And the noisy crashing of the war that battled in my head. A bloody demonstration of how terrible reality TV can be.
She sees the back of some troops and their dusty helmets. They are lying against sand banks and shooting into the desert. The city in front of her she can recognise, but she doesn’t think she’s been there so maybe she knows it from the telly. A bomb explodes in the city and shakes the room. Unable to recognise herself with the things that she wished she was thinking and doing about this terrible situation in the world of war, she dismisses it as just another TV show and flicks.
Before I left, in the last weeks, I felt myself slipping into the body of The Almost Gone Girl. I knew I was going and everyone knew I was going and everything I did was tainted with an almost gone-ness, so that I felt like an invisible person—the girl who used to be here. When I finally did leave it felt like there was no point in saying goodbye because I had already been thinking it for so long. My friend left me a note. “I can’t believe you’re finally going”. I had been saying goodbye for too long.
Now I am scared shitless that I am going to go home and get the things I think I want and not want any of them. That my Mum will draw me to her but her bubble of Nivea and ice cream will freeze me and leave an acid blood metal taste in my mouth, that I will drown in a fluid of bloody placenta. She phoned jokingly and said “why don’t you compile a list of things you’d like to eat when you get home, I’ll cook your favourite meal, tell me tell me.” But I couldn’t remember apart from milk. Because where I come from milk comes in a glass bottle with a silver top. But I don’t mean this milk, I mean my mother’s milk. But what if she forces her nipple in my mouth and I choke? And will the boy I used to pass on my to work be walking to work at the same time as I pass him? Will the same doormen be on the same doors?
I can feel myself slipping, with a falling over feeling, back into the girl who’s almost gone. The girl who used to be here. And soon the only thing left will be this American Dream.
She dreamed about America. About long endless roads she imagined herself driving on. She found them, but no answers. That is the problem with roads and with dreams. She came somewhere looking for a solution. She followed the promise, an offer of adventure. A journey to find herself in which she encountered Native Americans and sailors, monsters and poets, strippers and grizzly bears, dollar burgers and burritos. And she got what she wanted (was almost exactly what she wanted it to be,) but also it was not that different from home and she realised something about wanting and wishing and life and herself that wasn’t what she thought it would be.
She dreamed about America because, well, it’s The Land of Dreams, of opportunity, and she found that to be true. She dreamed about America, of endless days and endless nights and endless roads. Of sun and sunsets. The sun does set. She dreamed of home. And sometimes she cried, because there’s something about monsters and poets, strippers and sailors, dollar burgers and grizzly bears that has a particular attraction, that she couldn’t bear to leave behind. She didn’t want to go.
She dreams that she is in the passenger seat of a truck that is on a long dusty road. The windows are rolled down and a breeze blows through. She doesn’t know the driver but he offers her a cigarette and she takes it and they smoke in silence. A pen is licking part of the surface. She feels it on her elbow and upper arm. Her neck is wet where it has been. It draws her and erases her and redraws her. She struggles to think of what she would say.
In a coffee shop with a latte she meets the ghost of her father (although he isn’t yet dead). He’s reading The Times and doing the crossword on the back.
“Dad, I’m trying to tell a story about myself, where shall I begin?”
I was born on the 21st August
“Or maybe that is too far away. Maybe you should start with death.”
“But death is the end.”
“Not always,” he smiled back at her and turned back to his crossword.
“Three down, nine letters. Begins with ‘E’. Not forming part of or properly part of a thing. From the outside of a part, but acting on the part. Any ideas?”
She thought hard.
“No. Well, I’ll leave it here with you. Put it in later.”
The man she had been talking to stood up to leave. It was not her father, nor the ghost of her father. He wasn’t even English.
“It was nice talking. I have to go now. Shoot, I’m late. I’m meeting my daughter for coffee,” he explained.
She sat there starring into her latte and wished she could smoke inside. Three down, nine letters begins with ‘E’. She had no idea but knew her Dad might. Later she tried to phone him several times, but there wasn’t any answer. That night she died while sleeping naked underneath an open window. Her soul drifted out and was taken by a pink salmon that swam upstream. She died every night and woke up every morning.
The sky here is huge. It is almost enough to drain a person alive. It’s the biggest sky I ever saw. In the desert on New Year’s Day we stopped the car off the road in the dust, still trying to think of New Year’s resolutions, and watched three hundred and sixty degrees of sun set. Every colour in America (this is glorious digital Technicolor) was in the sky and it shifted round us like a kaleidoscope. We put our hands out and spun round and round with our heads thrown back until we fell over in the dirt and laughed like children. It was like being in a snow globe and seeing out on every side.
In Vegas I saw a woman (thousands of women) with a cottage cheese arse dripping down the side of her stool, feverishly putting coins from plastic pots into the machine, ever waiting for the elusive CHING CHING CHING. The machine greedily gobbles the money and can be heard laughing as he chugs it down. As the cottage cheese woman yanked her lever back, I swear I saw dollar signs reflected in her piggy eyes. I ended up in some cheesy strip joint on my own at the bar knocking back JD (canyabelieveit?) while my guy mates (who tricked me there it the first place) fucked off with some strippers for lap dances. It didn’t look sexually enticing in any way. What is the fuss all about? They couldn’t even pick their own birds, so I picked for them, and had to ask and everything.
“Excuse me, urrr, my friend…”
Pinkie genuinely misunderstood me and tenderly touched my arm and began to lead me off.
“Is this for you Sweetie? Don’t be shy.”
Word of my presence in The Crazy Horse soon spread, in the flash of a tit I was surrounded by naked-apart-from-thong-clad oiled girls calling me Cutie and Doll. I was in the very bosom of their clan when they whisked me off to the loo for some coke and then on a tour of their dressing rooms. Ocean was my best friend and even told me her real name (Chantelle.)
“All I wanna do is save money and travel the world,” she said, and cried when I left blinking into the day.
The boys had gone without me.
Why did I come here anyway? To find myself? To loose myself (more like it.)
I have just got back from the bank. It doesn’t get any easier being a foreigner. It’s just as hard in the supermarket, at the post office and gas station (garage). I’m an idiot for not understanding the easiest things. Today the teller (and I mean, what the fuck is a “teller”) couldn’t understand me and got his manager and the manager asked with massive hand movements "Do you speak English?" As it happens, I do. But once they had decided I was foreign there was nothing they could do to help. At the post office it costs $50 to post something home and the supermarket’s impossible. Everything in giant-size, too big to carry home. At the gas station I regularly pump the wrong type of gas into my car. Now it is stranded there and I walk. I get home, so angry that I hate all Americans, America and everything American. That’s the way it goes.
Maybe life is made up of moments. Of good and bad and confusion. Narrative ebbs in and out as it feels, with moments of pure and clear perfection. There was a day when from the car window I looked out and the sea was blue and the sky was blue and I strained to see the point where they met. The point where they did meet seemed higher than it should be and was marked by a thin silver line that ran along the horizon for as far as I could see. It seemed to be a vanishing point—a magic point.
In these moments of perfection I suppose I should stop and say, “yes this is perfect.” These perfect moments are life, this is living. So I have been living all along. It’s hard though to acknowledge that this is what life is. Perfection in confusion, struggle, lost-ness. Instead, full of lust, longing, a burning miserable desire for something else.
My brother, the photographer, came to stay. He photographed the wires and the poles that rise from the houses by the sea. In the picture I look at now, the house looks like a boat with a huge mast and electrical rigging, about to sail across the road. He photographed the road that cut through the green, that cut through the desert, that cut through the cliffs high above the sea. The road that went from south to north that is beautiful. And from the road he photographed the sea, which that day was rough and grey. The rain poured so hard that the rest of us sat in the car. He photographed.
Things he brought me from England:
* Cadbury’s chocolate
* Heinz Baked Beans
* Walker’s crisps (salt and vinegar)
* Earl Grey tea
(I am a consumer.)
On the way to San Francisco the car broke down three times. In Santa Cruz a hippy called Colin helped us push start it, and we gave him a ride to San Fran. He let us stay in his house and looked after us all weekend. He took us to Golden Gate Park and showed us which type of leaves we could eat (and when we left gave me a book called Edible Nature.)
Colin and his friend Skylar fed us from a huge vat of lentils and took us to the San Francisco Brewing Company where we drank litres of pale ale and smoked rollies. We solved the world and everything and more, and talked about this beautiful place in New Zealand where you can follow the road until after the road ends. It twists and twists and twists down into a soft green bowl that is moist and dark. And where the road ends, it doesn’t end. There’s a Coca Cola signpost that you follow (because this is what you call a traveller’s myth) to the edge of the bowl and then round and down and at the bottom—further than you think you can go—is a clearing and water and somewhere where someone used to live. A hermit, a loner, alone. In the summer months when the river is dry, lumps of jade bigger than a human foot can be found. When we were there, there was no cola sign and when we got to where we thought we should be, the river was high, flowing fast. But Colin and Skylar knew of people who had gone and found jade everywhere. Some small gleaming green stones and some huge blocks the size of bricks that were dusty and mud coloured. They took a piece the size of my hand with smooth cool sides and sold it for a thousand bucks. On our walk home it rained.
We spent the next day hung over at the art museum. I spent most of my time leaning out over the multicoloured wall and looking down it to see how dizzy I could make myself without being sick. My brother became obsessed with an installation in a room the size of a phone box and kept going back in to photograph it. A queue began to form outside. I think because of this people started to get really keen and enthusiastic and impatient, as if something special was waiting inside. The crowd began to buzz and tug and push. But I had been in and there was nothing. Only just enough room for two and some cardboard cut-out green trees. It’s a concept, but one I didn’t understand.
My brother finally came out.
“It’s art,” he said, “and it’s rubbish.”
He’s an artist, so he should know.
On the way back we took Route 1, which is the coast road and is gorgeous. And it rained, and by this I mean RAIN. The windscreen wipers could hardly go fast enough, I couldn’t see out of the windscreen, but my brother, he insists we stop again and again so we can photograph. When we stopped for lunch in this desolate café I didn’t turn the ignition right off, in case it wouldn’t go on again, so we watched the car from the café window as we munched down our fries and Diet Cokes.
Later we ran out of gas. I’ve run out of petrol a lot since I’ve been here. Compared to home. Well, it’s never happened to me at home. Not as much road I guess.
Vegas again. Five of them set off together. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of nothing, with a fake plastic town at the end. They got more and more drunk and the girl fell over and grazed her knee and it bled. She took her shoes off and lost them. At ten o’clock the next morning they realised they can never go home. At midday they realised there were only four left and don’t know when or where the other went. They stayed for two more days and then left. They drove for five hours towards the Grand Canyon and realised that they may have got the scale of the map wrong and that they may never make it and go back and end up in Vegas again. The same people at the same machines from the first time around. A money-grabbing sign flashing messages of capitalist consumption. Take-out and take-away as long as you take-and-consume. Breast augmentation. A billboard nation. Newcastle Brown on billboards everywhere but really only Bud Light, big cars, big roads, big dreams. Total freedom, reckless abandon, part of the fantastical dream. It’s imaginary and sometimes there’s something to be said for that. To seal it was the sunset. When the car broke down (a running theme) they got the alternator fixed in a town called Rainbow.A Funny Story About How I Killed My Grandmother
For Christmas I sent my Dad these super hot pickled chillies from Vons (the superstore, but the packaging made them look like the real thing, authentic from Mexico.) I sent him a food parcel of hot sauce and dried chillies and Jesus candles from the Mexican food section of the mega-mart. My semi-blind, ninety-two year old grandmother thought the super hot pickled chillies were pickled onions and popped one whole into her mouth. Inevitability this killed her. She went red, choked, her heart seized and her head blew off. Well shit now.
I would like to say I felt guilty but I didn’t feel anything. I almost went home to stand by the graveside in black, in the cold, in the winter, but I didn’t. I couldn’t face the sour-faced recriminations, “She blew her grandmother’s head off. And if that isn’t bad enough, now she’s living in America.” They could never see the funny side. The misery of England in January. Those perfectly vile winter days (which perversely I’ve been dreaming about.) I could have gone home and made a quick dash to see my friends, but I didn’t.
I spent Thanksgiving—which we don’t celebrate in England—with an American family, friends of friends, of friends. Also quite mad. The grandmother is a roving missionary and every year makes it back to Oceanside in her caravan to cook for all. They hire a church hall to squish the family into and feast on turkey and ham and green beans and potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows. Before the meal everyone Gives Thanks, and since I’m the guest of honour, I have to go first. But I have no clue what to say, couldn’t really judge the sort of things the others might say, there is no pacesetter. As panic sets in, I hit on it. Thank God. Hurray! I thank God for allowing me to be in America, and all America has to give to little old me. Whoops and cheering—they all adore me. I have said the right thing. Then they thank God for letting me be here. For God’s sake.
Our next-door neighbour took us a little bit north of here for breakfast and the beaches looked amazing and I showed some vague interest in surfing and he said he’d take me surfing and another time he did—on a really hot day in October—before I forgot to remember that hot days in October are amazing and that I am lucky. He did try to teach me and it was fun falling for a while, but mostly we just bobbed around at the back and talked about nothing. Where the sun touched the sea it was gold. While we were floating there, behind the other surfers, these dolphins appeared and began to swim around our legs and under our boards and I reached out to touch one and it let me. They spoke to us about nothing. Afterwards we got burgers and went to his friend’s house who has a balcony over the sea and drank Corona and even watched The Game, though I couldn’t tell you which game and I don’t care. It’s so easy to be American. Then we sat on the balcony and watched the sunset and sat in the dark when it had set. It was good and perfect.
I have twisted these parts into not quite a whole. I am here inside-out in front of you now. Fading quickly as I chew my Biro, ink that looks like blood (my own blood?) drips onto the keys of my computer. My computer flicks. It is not stable, does not solidly signify me. When I put the pen that I was chewing into my mouth the ink leaked out and now my mouth is black on the inside and my fingers and my hand are black. I wipe them on my jeans.
In Newport Beach I thought I saw my father again, but when I got close, I realised it was another man. On the same day I made a friend.
She lay naked in a pool of words, searching again for the beginning or the end or anything at all. Somewhere the surface caught the pen. Gradually it came to her. It crept into her fingers and through her left hand and up her left arm and settled in her left shoulder near her heart (but not quite in her heart.) And she realised the beginning was the end. She awoke alone and cold on the landing. The hallway light was on, with the crossword puzzle answer on her lips. “Extrinsic!” She said the word out loud to herself. Also accidental, adventitious, incidental, immaterial, impertinent, inapplicable, inapposite, irrelative, unessential, unrelated, alien, foreign, pointless. It bled from her.
I walked along this long road lined with the tallest palm trees ever and with the promise of sea at the end. The sky bleached white promised nothing, no return and as I kept walking, the sun lowered and began to blind me. I couldn’t really walk on, into this blinding light, into somewhere I didn’t know at all, so I stopped and turned around and walked back. I walked far before I realised I had passed my house, my home, because I couldn’t recognise it, because all the houses looked the same.
The girl who arrived was tired and confused. Until too late she didn’t realise that she had filled out the wrong form (green not white) and when she got to the front of the line they sent her to the back to fill out the right one (white not green.) She waited again, hopefully, but she had apparently forgotten to have some vital bit of information processed and they sent her back again and eventually, begrudgingly, they stamped the word “ALIEN” in her passport and sent her out into a place she didn’t know at all.
In the lounge round and round her luggage goes alone.
At first she spent a lot of time on the bus, mostly the wrong bus, going backwards and forward, getting off and getting on and getting lost.