Apr/May 2015 Travel

Falling Backward

by Melissa Wiley

Photograph by Rus Bowden

Photograph by Rus Bowden

There are people in love everywhere, you can't help but notice. Beautiful people, too, so many it leaves you breathless. Both happen largely by accident, though some irradiate their hair with debris from flailing comets. Why they take so much care with their appearance I cannot begin to guess. Unless it is to attract a lover, here in central London, where each person is lovelier than the next. Because beautiful people can be as lonely as those who are uglier.

I say this as an American who wears too little mascara perhaps. Beauty has never been a factor in my life at all, I can say with confidence. Then I have hardly had the time for it while love consumes almost all my waking hours. With those remaining from all the love I give, most of it to strangers, I have had to buy groceries, then feed myself afterward.

When daylight savings time began, I went to London, four days before I met my husband in Lisbon. There are no Bibles in the hotels in England, in addition to cream that's clotted for scones tasting sweeter than muffins. Opening all the drawers and confronting only an emptiness, I felt the skin on my face begin to loosen, to unwrap itself from my skull like insect legs from a stamen with all its nectar eaten. The missing Bibles were not the cause, if still a comfort. It was more the feeling of eroticism they engendered. It's the only way I can explain why we bother to unravel, to look each year uglier and uglier as our skin grows looser. To meet any lover, I've heard, is to open all your drawers. To let someone you hardly know empty one after the other.

Americans must go abroad to feel at home and have done so for ages. Had Benjamin Franklin not taken a boat to Paris, we would not fall backward for an hour each morning every autumn. We would stand straighter, yes, but miss the pleasure of the collapse onto the carpet. Sometimes falling backward is as much a luxury as eating cake beneath a blanket. Because fall and you just might fall into someone's arms, even if they're anonymous. Franklin liked to air his wit in public, and so he was not long in Paris when he wrote that residents could economize on candles if they rose an hour earlier once the sun slept longer. He was only joking of course, though candles have no sense of humor. And so the world soon adopted a system similar to that used by the Romans, who deployed different clocks made of water for different seasons so the daylight would seem longer. Who agreed that men and women should take public baths together. Who thought gods and goddesses sometimes slept with humans, so best perfume yourself with oils distilling the essence of herbs or flowers.

I spent very little time in the Tate Modern, though it was one of the reasons I'd cited to my husband for flying first to London. This while he worked inside his office with his fingers numb from typing. I spent far more time inside the gift shop than the actual museum, where I bought a print of a nude woman painted by Picasso—a painting, though, I saw first in person. The woman lies supine aside a plate of apples while the bust of a man looks down on her, impassive. Her body is blushing the color of a strawberry sheathed in vernix while she is bound by two wide, black straps—perhaps they are leather?—one around her neck, the other below breasts dangling like pears with no skin upon them, the only feature of hers you see clearly besides a skein of yellow hair and the crack of her vagina, a slit without any darker hair layered over. Feminists might say Picasso rendered her abject and powerless, an object of desire bound by the man's gaze above her and the straps that seem to bind her ribs, keeping her from breathing as freely as she might have. Only, the man is made of marble, remember. He doesn't exist below the neck and has no phallus. No real eyes, either. He is equally naked as the woman, just less vital, with his hard chin resting on a pedestal.

Later, a man at a café gave me a free lunch in exchange for my smile, which he said was too honest to charge me for the meat pie I'd ordered with mashed potatoes. "I don't love you," the smile said, "I know you, which is better," as if I were the marble statue and he the woman naked upon the floor. Then I leaned back so that he could study my proportions. Had I tilted any farther backward, I would have hurt my spinal column I'm sure, because I can only fall back so far. However much we may like to stretch backward, then slump alternatively forward with clocks bending with the earth's rotation about a star, the body is designed for the blood to drain from the head earthward. Fall backward at your peril unless you are a woman in a crowded room men want to hump their legs over.

I only wasted the money the waiter saved me buying myself chocolates, then a bouquet of flowers at Harrods an hour or so later. I put $90 on my credit card I would not pay off, not ever. The woman who sold me the flowers asked if I wanted them wrapped, and I said yes, because I thought a plastic, shivering sheath would protect them from who knew what dangers, the more so as a ribbon was also wound round their stems to keep them from straying into another garden. And on Regent Street where the Christmas lights were as yet unlit, the crowds were so dense I quickly realized the flowers—mostly irises, named for the eye color on your driver's license—were trembling and nervous. Rather than shielding, the plastic bag frightened them. But then I understand the fear of suffocation, how you can start breathing shallowly while there's still plenty of oxygen. So I soon untied the ribbon, then held them closer to my chest, when even the drumming of my pulse I saw made them twitch. And I realized the plastic bag needed discarding altogether, though I saw no trash receptacles. So I freed the irises the color of no eyes that were human and unwrapped them from their innocuous prison while pretending briefly to chase the plastic into traffic, until a family of too many bright blonde children prevented me from being hit by an ambulance.

So with the plastic protective covering forever forsaken, I hugged the irises mixed with baby's breath of no babies close to my breasts. I cradled them on the Tube as if they were waiting to feed at my nipples, which were milkless. And by the time I reached the station nearest my hotel and walked past a passel of men selling soap made from beeswax, the irises were staring blankly, wondering about the etiology, then the purpose, of all this. The pupils were lightless while fixed on my profile, as if in blame for picking them in the first place. We were suddenly enemies.

My hotel room had only one trash can, beneath my bathroom sink. It was filled with cardboard tubes bloodied with the refuse of an expelled ovary, and to those I added the colored parts of the eyeballs of no one who could ever see.

I realized then I should have bought something more lasting, something that would grow dusty and fade with the sun that also bleaches our furniture, and which I could display for company. I might as well have stayed home for Thanksgiving rather than wasting all my money coming to Europe where the daylight ends so early.

All my possessions I have amassed indiscriminately and with no system of arrangement or labeling. I have collected nothing of things more or less the same. The best thing to have collected, of course, would have been the teeth of babies, if only to build a maw large enough to say everything that needs saying. And because I also know there is no tooth fairy. As it is, the baby teeth are decaying somewhere secretly, chewing no food, keeping no one from lisping.

The truth is I collect sunlight only, which looks all the same—it's only the clouds that change. Only I cannot keep it past dusk if that late. I have to surrender the whole of my collection at the end of each day, which comes earlier thanks to Ben Franklin's need to regale the Paris literati. Had I collected teeth or even buttons in place of photons streaming from a star just far enough away not to boil all the skin off my face, I might have seen more value in saving certain pleasures for later dates.

There is very little pleasure to be had, however, while traversing oceans aerially, thinking happiness lies on another continent you will have to leave by month's end anyway.

After I had dispatched the withered bouquet, I examined my face in the mirror above the sink. I saw a large pimple below my lower lip, bulging with white pus pure beyond trusting. Only my bones could ever match its sterling quality. Then I remembered baby teeth might compete and give the pimple a run for its money. I never do get pimples except when traveling to other countries. Also, the window of my hotel room was left open by the maid, ushering in a chill that only made the pimple harden while I closed the curtains and watched the moon begin to wane. Because I didn't want to undress in front of my neighbors, though American women are known for taking sexual license when crossing continents. I have never been so deliciously cool in autumn, however. The sky is dark here by four o'clock. I almost wish it were sooner.

Any place you travel, even to your own home after a day of labor, is all by way of answering this one question: Just who are you, you sweet human? You're a very messy person who might be messier yet, is always my answer. Your pimples are cleaner than the rest of you, too, is common. This isn't quite what I want to hear, so I keep asking. Any answer that comes is always insufficient, too meager for so much drawer space when the word of God has left me free of all restrictions. But no answer could be big enough to account for all these thoughts and feelings, always boiling like water to cook something, yet still leaving me hungry. So I keep traveling, to places farther and unseen. Though this is my fourth time in London, no more than three days each stint, and now I've eaten twice in the same Indian restaurant, of which there must be thousands.

I knew it was the same by the narrowness of the corridor through which even one wide person could not easily fit, through which I had to turn sideways to avoid bumping into those tables nearest the doorframe. The waiter was different, I was fairly certain, from the time before, though almost as unsympathetic if not quite hostile to me as the waiter before. I looked prettier when I came in with my husband four years earlier. I must have, because I was younger. The first time the service was curt, we both noticed, while a woman in a headdress sitting across from me had the widest pupils I'd ever witnessed, and she had no irises—not flowers or the colored parts of her eye, either—the easier for her to swallow me with those wells of darkness that still swallowed light nevertheless. But she did not appear again, which would have been too much coincidence not to seem ridiculous. Maybe I was just too foreign. And knowing I had made a mistake by walking inside again, I ordered only an appetizer, which the waiter told me would be insufficient. Of this, I told him, I was already certain.

What do you call the inside of your elbow? That part that usually lies in shadow but when you extend your arm its whole length looks like a bow strung with an arrow? Whatever its name, mine is beautiful. Its inner veins are patchworked close to the surface so that they look to me like a daedal brooch you might inherit if you're rich. Perhaps the waiter in the Indian restaurant didn't notice them, though. Had he seen my elbows' interiors, shocking in their delicacy, like a species of coral, he might have given me water when I said that I was thirsty. It is a beauty, though, people don't expect to see. Sometimes it astonishes even me. Even I forget to look for it, which is perhaps a blessing, similar to a Bible missing.

The museums in London are largely free; you only have to pay for special exhibits, those they take more time to curate and whose paintings they print on umbrellas and plates. The William Morris was among them, and I like his drawings as well as furniture from what I've seen on documentaries. Only I didn't know the exhibit was a special one—everything looks so splendid to me—so when I smiled to the security guard standing beside the entrance, he asked for my ticket, please. I told him I didn't know I needed to buy one, then whispered I was sorry. At which he rolled his eyes extravagantly, because I spoke with an American accent, which made me sound even less intelligent. Because I was not beautiful enough to face directly, and so his eyes rolled back inside his head, where he would no longer have to see me and could stare at his own brain.

So I walked upstairs to the main collection and stared at the only extant portrait of the Bronte sisters, with their brother smudged into an ocher vapor behind them. A man beside me explained to a woman standing to his left that their cheeks were flushed from tuberculosis. He acted as if this were a photograph, not allowing the painter to take any visual license. He also sounded erudite, at the very least confident. Charlotte, the one with the most rubicund complexion and to my eye the prettiest, died in childbirth, though, I thought I remembered from Victorian literature class. I dared to offer this to the man still speaking to his companion, but he said the cause was TB, madam, then turned to a portrait of William Thackeray and after that Dickens.

The man was wrong, though I was wronger. Charlotte didn't die of tuberculosis or of childbirth either one. She died of typhus while pregnant, and her unborn child died with her. Please excuse my poor grammar, however. Some things, however, are more wrong than others, though some people say there's no such thing as wrong anything. So long as you are still breathing. So long as you can make a living. Some people think money is everything, but I say dying. Were I immortal, I'd waste far more time adding to my sunlight collection.

And outside the museum, men were levitating. I walked round and round them and couldn't fathom how they had risen several feet and didn't succumb to gravity. Though their legs were long beneath longer robes, all of them, as if while hovering they had also been shrinking, shorter at an alarming rate. And when I later described them to my husband, he said I must have missed the platform that connected supportive tubing through their costume. The platform must be fairly large, though, and I saw no such thing, I told him. There was, he said, laughing. It must have been painted to match the sidewalk, he added, when I felt as if I were the one sinking. I only hoped the floating men were comfortable, though, looking down on everyone, hanging like precipitation that never lands. When I walked past them and the lions of Trafalgar Square on which children were climbing, the walk was slicked with rain.

Walking past a family in Mayfair next morning, I heard a mother say to her young son that maybe next lifetime he would be an animal rather than a human being. A salamander, I hope, I offered in passing. The woman glanced at me strangely, squinting her eyes like Anne Bronte in the portrait at the gallery, olive and rueful to the point she began flushing and I feared she might be dying, but the boy looked hopeful. His skin shone with oil that looked less than human already. His face was dripping with it in the London chill, and he had no acne.

Salamanders never wear clothes, I'm sure you know already. They copulate in the open air or under leaves for privacy. Amphibians, they live half their life subaqueously. They are the only vertebrates to regenerate limbs lost or eaten by a predator—like starfish in that respect, only more free roaming. If you dip their bodies in fruit juice that's fermenting, you'll begin to hallucinate, which is the point, I'm guessing. Some indigenous peoples, in the Andes in particular, quaff brandy infused with the skin of salamanders for aphrodisiac reasons. Meaning they could hallucinate to the point they'd make an ugly person so beautiful they would want to conjoin with them. Because desire itself is desirable, sometimes more so than its object. These are people who trust their intuitions, people we revere for ancient wisdom and whom colonial populations have all but decimated with guns and sexual diseases. No such men would have to drink juice made from the blood of salamanders to find the inside of my elbows almost too beautiful to witness. It is a wonder more people besides myself don't notice them. Sometimes we look for beauty in the oddest places.

I could have been a good tribeswoman were I born in a remote South American village, I feel quite certain. Instead, I am here alone in London, waiting to spend Thanksgiving with my husband in Lisbon, where the holiday goes unnoticed.

Walking to Paddington to take the train to Heathrow and fly from there to Lisbon, I saw a man talking to a manhole just opened. The hole was talking back and with a cockney brogue, lilting into a laugh. For the last two days I had spoken to no one except waiters and museum guards and was glad to know sewer systems were still convivial.

And while Americans everywhere ate Thanksgiving dinner with their families, falling asleep from mild tryptophan poisoning, my husband and I paced Lisbon's Museu da Marioneta, where I stood rapt watching a video of Hanoi puppetry. The puppets perform ancient stories staged on water when the rice fields flood traditionally, and as the video played on and fishermen jerked their jointless arms covered in silk thimbles, I stood waiting for the puppets to drown, though they kept afloat while rain deluged the museum grounds. There in Lisbon where the ants are smaller than they are in Chicago, and so I didn't mind them marauding through our bathroom. My husband suspected they had crawled inside our sheets and pillow slips, though I denied it when I saw them scaling the mattress, knowing that without his glasses they would blur into invisibility for him. When he saw some crawling on the sheet in the morning, I said they were only crumbs of chocolate I had brought from Westminster Abbey. I also tried not to look at them too closely.

Two out of three evenings in Lisbon we ate in the same tavern. We sat across from a fireplace with no fire, only charcoal, because the nights were not yet cool. All the lights in the room were glass turtles. At every table except ours the turtles were blue, while ours was tinted greener and looked quite natural, though it never moved. Electricity flew across a fraying filament beneath its shell mottled with iron webbing, and while we waited for our meal, I covered it with my palm, eclipsing the light while warming my hand a little. And no matter how tightly I held my fingers together, green light escaped between them, so that the turtle's shell was one carapace over another one, both fairly colorless because my skin is largely pallid. Beneath all, what luminescence, almost too much for me to witness. Like grass that glowed.

Then in Madrid two days before we flew back home, I saw a bearded woman in the Prado. It was the only painting I really noticed, though my husband walked right past her, breezing toward more Titian Venuses. I stood before the face of a man who looked elderly with a forehead deeply furrowed, but from his robes bulged a breast at which he was feeding a baby red as an apple. The man was a woman, though, I read, on the placard just left of the painting. The woman wasn't much older than me.

I have noticed my face falling, though. Farther toward the ground, as if it were reaching for sleep and had begun to dream of solemn things. For have you not noticed that when you are tired, you feel a stronger pull of gravity? No wonder the waiter in the Indian restaurant treated me as if he wanted to make sure I didn't return to his same establishment four years from now, though I now have no plans of returning to the United Kingdom—it costs too much money. The special exhibits were all too special for me, and there was no bringing back Charlotte Bronte.

After flying home and falling to sleep eight hours later than I had been doing, I saw a man waiting for the elevator in my apartment building whom I hadn't seen in what he said had been longer than he could even remember—I know because he asked me how long it had been. He lives two doors down and beside the bin where we throw our rubbish, and I had always assumed that he was married, because his daughter wears a purple jacket and whose eyelashes look wet to the point of never drying. He asked what I had been doing, and I told him I had just flown back from Spain, where I had eaten tapas awash in so much olive oil they were practically drowning. When he asked me what city specifically, I told him Barcelona, as if there had been no London, no Lisbon, and no Madrid with its bearded woman, she who might be me if I only grew a goatee. Then I found myself blushing, for the lie that I had told for no good reason—God, how I loved Gaudi, I told him, while the elevator shot several floors higher, like a street performer rising within his robes—yet after I waved goodbye to him I knew the lie had been spoken for another purpose. None of Gaudi's buildings had any corners. When time falls back an hour, you look for a softer landing.

And when I mentioned Barcelona, his eyes lit up with phosphenes darting antically through them. He said that of all the places in Europe he had visited in his 20s, that was his favorite, the one to which he would return could he only afford it. Only he was bound to stay in Chicago, at least until his daughter graduated high school. His wife was moving out of state. A judge had awarded him custody.

In Spain, though, I added, caring nothing for his daughter and all her travel restrictions, it had rained in torrents. And then rather than the pig's ear I had eaten along with the octopus on Thanksgiving, I would have preferred turkey with dressing. Perhaps he would as well if given the chance to be so selfish. Perhaps he had eaten nothing but spaghetti, because he looked thinner to me. Then there was no reason to keep talking. In truth I am only marginally friendly.

After we each closed our doors, I took off my coat and started scratching. Something had started biting me. Three raised red sores were on my chin looking like pimples, but there was no popping them—something other than pus white as the bone in which our blood is made was inflaming them, with fire that only spread as I itched. The Lisbon ants, I knew, were different. Instead of harmless, they were virulent. The placement of our bed had displaced their nests. They were carpenters bent on rebuilding and had punished us for creating distance between their home and place of business. Our bodies had so many bulges on them it made their walk into a pilgrimage. The human body is the best of all continents to travel for insects.

And taking off my shoes, not bothering to unlace them while yanking each off from the heel layered with a dried gum exoskeleton, I palpated the three inflamed sores upon my chin that had not shrunk in some few days. Sensation is its own intelligence, I told myself while resisting the urge to scratch. I will not tell it what to say. And feeling is easier when the sky grows blacker, when my eyes are resting from too many dazzling specters. At 4:30 the sky was black, while any stars were smeared by the city lights beyond glimpsing. Daylight was receding, and still I was falling, waking with the sunlight though still missing something. I knew myself only a little, a little less every day.


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