Mal de Mar
by MAUREEN O'BRIEN
Midwest summers in my grandparents house were hot and leaden with the smell of perfumed soaps and car oil. It was summer when Mom told me of her younger brother Ben’s death and handed me a photo from the mantelpiece. It was encased in a frame, and inside was a tiny unfamiliar body with hands smaller than my eight year old mitts. “It was a farming accident. Your grandmother never recovered,” she told me. We didn’t speak of him, or my grandmother, again. Idle after university I began to resist this falling away. I hungered for a history proven elusive with a ferocity that perhaps matched my grandmother’s hunger to disappear.
I imagined my grandparents’ world mirroring the seasoned black and white photos on our mantelpiece. The light hit sternly from above, giving them a ghostly hollow cheeked conviction. My mother rarely told stories of their lives, sound bites not to be elicited like announcements made over an airport loudspeaker. Their history felt fragile to me even as a child.
I followed my grandmother to New York; I imagined Pakistani cab drivers struggling to understand her sharp Norwegian consonants. It was here that I found myself, with a question more profound than its answer: a shoddy apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, trying to piece together an old narrative in a city pulsing with forward momentum. It was 2011; I was broke, aimless and lonely.
I had picked up a job at a bar in the East Village. Our busy season was ending with the dying of summer, as was my patience for sleeveless regulars. It was here I met Sophie. She came in for a job application but was quickly engaged in a fatal shouting match with the owner Lucia. Despite a crumpled resume in her hand, she seemed to be there for the fight. She plopped down in front of me and casually tossed peanuts into her mouth. Pulling me in by the shoulder, she whispered, “Don’t worry, I always carry a gun.” It’s laughably absurd in retrospect, but irony had died with the Bush era, so I said nothing and watched her kick a chair over on her way out.
Much later Sophie told me she dreamt about that day. Throwing back the rest of the peanuts she had taken me by the hand. The back patio opened up into an endless beach and we ran through a landmine field of cruddy drunk kids sprawled on the sand. Together we blew away in an overturned beach umbrella. We shared that desire to take sail; I was searching for something, while she was hoping to lose herself. From that first meeting I recall her tiny hands, fingernails filled with dirt, as though she clawed her way out of bed each morning with orphic desperation. I was not alone in my desire for her. She seemed destined for a great story, the femme fatale caged on the island of sirens.
My love of her was amorphous. I straddled a tightrope of detachment and lonely urges of wanting to belong. I needed her most when New York felt very far from the Midwest. I remember my mother calling me from the road. Her sister had skipped town leaving her five kids in a series of destructive events. She had gone to help out in her absence. I knew she wouldn’t tell those kids the truth. These secrets live behind her smoke colored eyes. “The rain is coming down hard now honey, I’m going to have to let you go,” she said. I knew she was crying. She dropped off the line.
I had forgotten where I was going; I dialed Sophie’s number. Ben’s death seemed to surface like a toxic oil spill. Without a sound, the tragedy had seeped into the drinking water of the whole family.
I chose to stay in New York through what I think of in hindsight as the lonely years. One year became two. I was still on the hunt for my grandmother’s story, imbued by a tragedy I wanted desperately to understand. Sophie and I would walk through her old neighborhood breathing life into corner stores and old shoe repairmen who might have once shared her space. I was unhappy and empty-handed, but Sophie seemed to tolerate my quiet spells, if not feast on my despondency.
We began moving in the same circles, her role in them much more glamorous than mine. My last spring in New York, though I did not know it yet, was anachronistic, marking the end of so many things. On this particular night I found myself at a going away party, an occasion that turned me into a cool spectator of my own sensations. I watched myself make grand plans I knew would never be kept, trips to places like Geneva for jazz, Brazil for some party. Youth afforded us these fantasies; we seemed to have all the time in the world to break them.
Sophie arrived with Martine, her boyfriend du jour. I thought of all her boyfriends this way, a sarcasm truly born from a jealous longing. It was the kind of evening you could feel; change hung in the air like words unsaid. At the time it felt like a beginning, but it is always harder to sense the ends of things.
I had been skirting around the party all night, my third eye on the comedy show Martine and Sophie were putting on. Martine would make a crude joke and Sophie would double over or throw her head back- the mating dance. I hated this party. I lost sight of them and slipped to the bathroom locking the door behind me. I fell against it, closing my eyes against my reflection. I felt suffocated. Every time I retold the narrative of my life, I changed. I was whirling fast, falling away from anything that I knew, from the girl I was when I moved here. Leaving this party was my only option. I opened the door and ran straight into Sophie. Her pupils were dilated and sweat collected on her hairline. She cornered me in the bathroom doorway.
“You’re in love with me,” her lip snarled back in a mock smile. “You are tragically trapped, admit it.” She loved that word, spitting it out: tragic.
I had told her once that she was robbing it of its theatrical qualities. “This isn’t all a fucking act?” she had replied.
In the doorway, Sophie kept speaking, but I felt a strange quiet cloak us. Tiny flecks of dust floated between us, illuminated by the ambient light coming from the open door behind me. The patina warped her voice.
I saw myself, years later recalling this moment, predicting its nostalgic powers. My pretend future self couldn’t remember any of the words she spoke, but through the dust I could acutely see tiny drops of perspiration delicately balanced on her raised collarbone. They were lined up like dominoes, waiting for the impetus to join forces and take the great plunge to the floor.
We stopped speaking after that night. I didn’t feel resentment, and remember that moment as the critical push. I left New York a month later.
A few weeks ago I received a surprisingly early morning phone call from an old New York friend Dan. Sophie had died. “She had leukemia. I thought you should know,” Dan said. There was silence on the line. “She always cared for you.”
We look for a history to call our own; we try and cling to something bigger than the life in front of us. Bigger than pulling on a short skirt for a shift at an East Village bar, bigger than waking up to 6 a.m. to sunlight stealing through the blinds of a stranger’s apartment, bigger than the mingling smell of urine and seaweed salad at the bottom of the subway stairs. We risk forgetting that we are floating through our own story.
Photographs by Thomas Bollier.