Void and Universe
I watched the wakes from a yacht far away stagger in and slap the bow of the boat crossing the channel. No one was out on deck at two in the morning except a tired seagull playing with a plastic sandwich wrapper. The horizon had a blue surging glow and tiny bits of land floated drunk in tattered cloth as the strong wind set my hair waving like grass on a Normand winter morning. My eyes were wet with tears and ocean mist. I counted the tick marks of the nights I couldn’t fall asleep in California in my notebook—felt like years since I had slept. That wouldn’t be the last time I tried to go back to what I grew up calling home, though it became less and less often and more and more difficult. I felt the effects of how time makes things hard and jaded, and I went to look at the bags under my eyes in the bathroom.
As the ferry cut through waves I tried to sleep on the deck with my back on the bench and my face towards the sky. I had visions of children, dogs, and houses. Was that future gone now? Things had really gone to shit, I’ve no better way to say it. The night churned into a sluggish morning and my head was pulsating. That faint blue horizon light became so harsh it now gave me a headache.
On the bus, I thought about the flashbacks I was having in California. Years ago, Misty and I painted a giant flower mural in the backyard of my family’s house. I would touch the texture of the brush strokes on the wall and remember recording our first album. She used to paint while I played guitar riffs. Then once the song was ready for her voice, she’d take a break from painting and go into the garage to sing, and I’d paint. I felt sick. The bus dropped me off in the Madeleine Quarter in Paris. It looked different since that day Melanie was learning to drive with her father, no one was out at the cafés. I dragged my luggage through the metro. I stepped aboard the train after an hour of watching people play the piano in the middle of the Gare de Paris St. Lazare.
I asked for water from my usual croissant stand by the Normandie departure wing. On the train I washed my face and armpits and brushed my teeth. I changed my clothes for the first time in two days. All the possibilities were equally difficult to imagine.
I made it to Rouen early in the morning. Exhausted and nervous I took the final bus from the Gare to the Hotel de Ville near the apartment. Rue Eau de Robec: the most beautiful street in all of Normandy. The half-timbered buildings, the bars, the trees, the little stream running through, the little walkway bridges, and the flowers. Unreal.
I got to the building and pressed a few buttons on the intercom. Someone picked up and said, “Ouiii?”
I said, “I forgot my keys. Can you open? They buzzed me in, and I put my bags in a secret closet hidden in the ancient wall of the half-timbered apartment building. I sat in front of the flat’s door and waited for Misty to come back from wherever she was. I slept for a while on the staircase. Our upstairs neighbour was walking by me in the spiral stairway, and I talked to him for the first time. “Hey, so you’re the musician I hear all the time?” I said.
“Yeah, you too, no? You sound really good,” he said.
I thought about asking if he had heard any guitar coming from our flat since I’ve been gone, but I just said thanks and he continued down the stairs. I began to smell odors seeping through our door. It smelt like Vietnamese food. I knocked on the door. “Hey! I can smell the food.” No one replied. I imagined a man in there, keeping quiet.
I stopped into Café Interlude at the end of Rue Eau de Robec. An old man just walked in and ordered a café serré and unlocked the ball in the blocked pinball machine. First order of business, he said. Next, he announced that he had lost all three of his wives. He had a full long beard, with a permanently lost raspy voice. He said that he loved his last wife the most. She recently passed away. The other wives left him because he drank a bottle of whisky every day after almost killing a motorist in a drunk driving accident.
A grandfather clock was in the corner. The pendulum distracted me as an engineer drinking Porto explained how he operates the levers. How the pulleys turn gears or something. Why which whistles blow at certain times, and the buttons in the control room that make it all work. He asked if I was in love. I saw myself posing for pictures in the sun with Misty around my arms beside the summer grass. The old whistle sounded as the train arrived. Everyone in our group seemed to hesitate to board but we didn't seem to have a choice. I thought of those strong winds that sometimes blew unfixed tents across the whole village. I don’t know if I'm in love, I replied.
That question led me down a strange path in my mind. I saw myself shove my guitar case above a seat on a train and I sat down to watch the hillsides blur out of focus as it picked up speed. There was Misty taking pictures outside in the Village. I was on the picnic tables now by the sureau tree that I got stuck in. That must have been the first time I ever saw her and it feels like the only visual memory of her that remains. I remember sounds better. Patrick and Ty were singing Édith Piaf. "Non, je ne regrette rien!" they harmonized and laughed. I still hear them out of tune warbling the overly exaggerated vibrato.
“Those must be the new volunteers, ey?” Patrick said, in his Irish accent.
I felt the urge to go up and introduce myself, but I figured that she wouldn’t want to talk to me. She wore purple sunglasses and checkered blue shorts, with a flower-patterned shirt. Brown hair tied up. She was constantly moving to take pictures.
But my gaze crawled out of the brown blur of the landscape through the train window and back to Café Interlude in Rouen. I was quite drunk and the engineer was now playing on the pinball machine.
I went back to the apartment, wishing I had my set of keys. I went down the spiral stairs and tried to look into the window from the courtyard, but all I could see was new decorations hanging on the wooden rafters. Lyric quotes from my favourite band painted on a giant banner of paper. I wanted to ask a construction worker who was on an adjacent roof if he could see anyone in the apartment. I needed sleep. But first I needed to eat. I walked around the corner and ordered a tikka chicken wrap from a place that Misty and I ate at a while back before seeing a movie about a man who biked around the world. It was unbearable to be sitting at the same table with no one in front of me, so I took my wrap and sat on the opposite side of our narrow street with my back against the wall. There was an old woman-head carved in the huge medieval wooden blue door of the apartment building. I called the old woman in the doorknob Madame Bovary. A man was painting next to me. He had a portable wooden isle and painted there for hours a day for a week. I recognized him from that movie. It was the man who biked around the world. It was a local cinema after all, I thought, it could really be him. I asked him if he was in love and he said,
Je suis infiniment fou d'amour.
I finished my wrap and washed my hands in the little stream Robec and went back to squatting against the building and out of the random passer-bys, Misty appeared, walking with her new colourful blue hippie pants, burgundy red shirt, and blue backpack. She stopped in disbelief when she saw me.
“Whaaaaat! No way, it’s not possible. You’re crazy!” she said. And we hugged for half a minute.
I wasn’t sure if she was happy or terrified.
After our embrace we walked towards the blue door, I asked her if I could come in and take a shower. She opened the door; I grabbed my hidden bags from the secret wall closet and told her a little about my journey. The smell that I smelled earlier was still there by the doorframe of the apartment, but only as if it always had been and I had forgotten. I took a shower and then sat on the couch.
We exchanged small talk and fell asleep for a while. Being in her presence (despite the almost certain horrible news about to come) made me relaxed and in control, even if it was only an illusion. I asked her to go with me for a beer and for a brief moment I saw tears in her eyes. I felt for a second that everything was going to be alright.
I thought about when we swerved in and out of people. Running with backpacks loaded with years’ worth of clothes and trinkets trying to make your train connection, then in a moment like a click, I noticed my left arm was carrying nothing. I realized I had forgotten my guitar case. I stopped. No! No! Shit, I have to go back. And I ran all the way from the metro stop back. I didn't care if they locked the doors behind me, I’d ride the train to its end of the line. To Portugal. I frantically pushed the giant green buttons that opened the doors between wagons and made it to our seats where just ten minutes earlier we were discussing the best summer of our lives. I peered my head above the seat to inspect the little shelf I threw my guitar case on earlier. Gone, gone. I put my head down and started to cry. That first guitar had something special about it, not that I couldn’t get a better one, but I’d never get one quite like that one again. Cheap smiley face stickers, cigarette burn marks, paper maché birds at the headstock. Scratches like tree rings. The trains screeched beside me as they seemed to claw out of the grand overhang of the Gare Du Nord. I had to let that go.
The lab was examining this layer of memory at the visa office in an attempt to calculate the statistics for divorce and why I failed at becoming French. I vaguely heard the question being asked: “Have you ever fallen asleep feeling like you expressed yourself during a fight to the best of your abilities?” I don’t know what that’s like, I said.
I laid in bed as if everything was normal and I wasn’t hearing lab techs, they said, She went to work. You didn’t hear from her all day. They asked me to pinpoint when things fell apart, I said I didn’t know, think harder they said. Fine! It was here maybe:
It was a permaculture job with a shady boss. Do go on. We had twelve people including Jeremy, a kind-hearted guy who loved to drink. He was also the one to drive us to and from work. One morning he said, “I had a wild night last night. Got blackout drunk after twelve shots of rum, two pints of beer and a mystery flask.” He’s not getting to the point. Get to the point.
“Well, just watch the road,” I remember saying.
Apparently, he started an argument with a man about football at a pub and slapped the waiter for trying to break it up. “I’m not saying sorry for something I don’t remember doing,” he said looking at me for a quick second, wanting some confirmation in that belief.
“After that shit storm I fell and hit my head on the cobble stones walking home, by your Rue de Robec I think, with that little creek.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
He said his girlfriend made dinner for him, and I could see he was holding back tears. He found spaghetti this morning splattered on the kitchen floor. She wrote a note that read I’m gone for good. He apologized in a text and showed me his phone and said he was done with the drinking life and wanted to treat her better. He looked at me and smiled and laughed, his teeth so coffee stained they looked like little post-its. "Seven years," he said, “and it ended on a Wednesday.”
He took a swig of Cherry Coke, tapped my shoulder and said, “Man! I’ll be ready to hit the pubs tonight after that!”
It was bad weather. The forecast didn’t help. I remember it said sunny, but it turned out to be one of the coldest and rainiest days of the month. Weather and date check out, mark it in the record. I can hear you; do you want me to stop? Sorry, please. Well anyway, that charred meat smell was in the air and the Village BBQs with all the helpers snapping twigs and laughing about the American Dream seemed so long ago. I was living some strange French fantasy, some Normande reverie. I was warming my hands by the makeshift fire pit they made during a lull in the rain.
Misty was looking at catalogues of garden designs in the break room and I went outside, we were fighting again. Organic Bob asked to bring stuff for a barbeque, but we decided we would save our money. Next to me talking was a coworker named Clement, from the French island Reunion. He wanted to move back there for the laid-back lifestyle. Missed the sun. He said they just harpoon tropical fish for lunch and cook them right on the beach. Sounded like a dream.
He told me he owned property on an island in the Caribbean, said you can buy some land there cheap. Especially in the volcanic evacuation zones.
“I own some acres out there that the Beatles used to vacation on. There’s a small country home with a swimming pool and everything. When the volcano erupted that place went from being a five-star-hotel-area to an abandoned mango grove—there’s no one living there now, except the mystic rhum makers.”
Two guys from a different association came over. One wore a cheap Rasta beanie, the other a Paris Saint Germaine F.C. Their ripped raincoats were dripping. One had giant leather shoes on and a bruised eye. The guy in the Rasta beanie said, “Why didn’t we get an invite?”
“What happened to your eye man,” Clement said.
“Got in a fight.”
“With who? Your mother?” the guy in the PSG beanie said.
“Hey, shut up, we came over to socialize.”
Jeremy, with his third Cherry Coke of the day, came up from behind and placed his hand over the shoulder of the guy with the Rasta beanie. He flinched and lowered his back to get out and turn around to see who it was.
“Merde alors! Ne me touchez pas! I don’t know you,” he said. The two guys stared Jeremy down like trouble was going to happen, but they stepped back and walked away towards their building. We finished eating our sausages in the rain and talked more about the five-star hotel-land that Clement owned.
He continued where he left off, “When I went to clean out the property to prepare for my family to live there, there were pamphlets of cruises and restaurants and theater productions, concerts and art exhibits, everything. It was like Casablanca or someplace in Malta with those fancy casinos and chandeliers. If you were high class and could afford to travel there for the grey winters here in Europe, you had it made. The winters in the Caribbean have the most pleasant weather anyone will ever experience, it’s like all the perfect feelings of summer, the warmth, the energy, the lighting and sunsets, and at the same time, cool breezes float in. You can spend half your day in the water looking at fish, some don’t even need goggles, their eyes are so used to salt water, they can spend minutes walking on the ocean floor like an octopus. My happiest moments in life were looking at those fish in the coral reefs and seeing orange and blue and pink completely fill my vision in the water with shapes that our minds cannot even begin to personify. The curves and porousness of coral make different faces in their shadows than we are used to with rock. The camouflage of fish are indecipherable spirals. I’d watch the whole scene change for hours and not feel the need to go anywhere else. When I’d start to come out of the water, I’d feel this transition of space: part air and water and part earth and fire—all the elements combined in a moment. I simultaneously sensed the sand in my toes and the embodiment of the sun. It all happened just long enough for the light to make everything orange and pink again when I shut my eyes.”
The day dragged but finally it came time to leave. As our group was waiting outside to get in the car to go home, the boss of the other group claxons the minivan hard five times. I covered my ears. He yelled with his window shut, “We are trying to get home! We actually work. Move the car, putain!”
Then Jeremy said, “Ne nous parle pas comme des chiens. You know you can open up your window and just ask us nicely.” The boss opened up his car door as if it was at the bottom of a lake and sprinted out of the car directly to Jeremy. He pressed up against him. Touching brows, they both yelled literally into each other's faces, a spectacle that resembled insects kissing.
“All day you do la merde.”
“Ah ouais? C’est comme ça alors”
“Call yourselves perma farmers, ha, you just make barbeques, never even a head nod to us!” The enraged goateed man then proceeded to run to our car that was blocking the courtyard. He opened the door and pulled the emergency brake off and sat down. He poked his head out of the car and yelled to his group, who were still in the minivan, “Hey come over here and help me destroy their car!” No one did. He got out (because there were no keys in the ignition) and started to push the car with bursts of all his effort. It started rolling down the driveway.
Several people yelled. The loudest voice said, “What the hell are you doing!? Stop, you'll hit the other cars!”
“Everyone get in your cars and get out of here!” Organic Bob said.
“I don’t think I can drive right now. I almost shit my pants,” Jeremy said.
“You have to get us the fuck out of here!”
Jeremy looked at Organic Bob, shaking, eyes saying—alright, I’ll do it, but you owe me.
“Well, have a super day!” Jeremy said to Goatee with a big smile and started the car.
The man ran into the masonry workshop and grabbed a mallet. He came out and waved it around in the air like he was going to smash a carnival strength game as he walked up to our car window. He said, “I don’t know you! You can’t tell me to have a super day.” I stared at the mallet in horror as he pulled back to swing. Jeremy sped the tires in the gravel and we drove off. As we turned a corner I looked out the back window and saw the same model car that Gillem had, that little white Renault and I got a flash of seeing his car burning in the gully in the Village with the window smashed in and at the same time imagined us playing music in the Caribbean in Clement’s villa and at the same time how my relationship was probably going to end soon and at the same time I was starting to understand the multiplicity and seemingly randomness of life and at the same time. . .
It’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that. . .
The lab techs don’t see how any of this is relevant. Well, the whole crew went to the Irish pub later to “calm the nerves” after what happened that day, but I was in no mood to socialize. But Misty went. She came home acting strange when I asked about the pub. Later in life after much of the details are gone, I’ll write a play about the ceaseless absence in romantic love and learn to act and maybe and maybe and maybe, one could only hope that I could better understand love through a dissection of its symbols and engrained societal roles.
I was in the laundry mat when Misty called. She came and grabbed her keys. Where was the other pair? I wondered. She looked tired and empty.
What I was doing at the laverie with her clothes I didn’t know. What was I doing in Rouen anymore? But at the same time, it felt obvious. I was bound by marriage through thick and thin. I put the clothes in the wash machine and began to watch them turn in a psychedelic burst of color.
A woman in a green sweater vest with spiraling eyes was sitting in the next chair, also staring into her wash. She seemed fixated in the same awful dream.
“It’s hypnotic looking into the wash huh?”
She made a slight jump and laughed while taking out her earphones and said, “Yeah, I do that a lot. It’s like a fun little void of color where I can zone out, you know?”
“The void is a strange place.”
“So is the laundromat,” she said and looked at some of the kids running around blasting cartoons on their phones and we both laughed.
“Who was it that talked about the void?” I said, in a pathetic attempt to sound smart.
“Nietzsche. He’s over quoted don’t you think? As if every time you say that word, it’s like he owns it. I don’t want to think about some dead German guy every time I say the word void.”
I could faintly hear classical music. She went on:
“That’s interesting that when we both were in a hypnotic state, looking at the clothes in the wash, I mentioned the word void and then you instantly related to that, right? Like I brought the fun color void to your attention. And then—here, let me look up the etymology of void.” We waited for the page to load, and she motioned me to move closer to read along:
1610s, "a fun place," from good times (adj.). Meaning "absolute riot, hurrah" from 1727.
c. 1300, "especially entertaining," from Anglo-French and Old French wow, viude "empty, vast, wide, hollow, waste, uncultivated, fallow," as a noun, "pleasurably disconnected," from Latin vocivos “cruise of a lifetime," related to vacare "be cool in the pool," extended form of root *ceuel in zeh peuel- "to party endlessly, abandon all inhibitions, give out to fondness." Meaning "Wanting" (good times) is recorded from early 15c. Meaning "A great epic space, without fail" is attested from mid-15c.
“Etymologies, histories of words, are just a series of noticings. The word latches onto evolving noticings and associations. But what if I had said something like: watching the wash is like a fun color universe, you would have thought of a whole different series of images and feelings, these are what people call metonyms. Words contain the trains of shifting thoughts riding the generations of any given language. And they permeate from language to language and generation to generation in wild chaos and intentional order.
Metonyms make up who we think we are and are based on what we are told and what we say to ourselves. Let me look universe up, hang on, sorry.
1580s, "the whole shebang, cosmos, the totality of existing existents," from Old French univers (12c.), from Latin universum "all the everybodies, all peoples of the whole worlds," noun use of neuter of adjective universus "all ensembles in one, the entire entity relating to allness," literally "turned all somethings into one everything," from unus "uno" (from PIE root *oh-no! "chique") + versus, past participle of vertere "no turning back now, don’t be fooled but do; convert, transform, translate; be changed (or not if you’re already ceuel in zeh peuel know what I’m saying?)"
late 14c., "pertaining holes of some specified whole; occurring everyplace imaginable," from Old French universel “void?" (12c.), from Latin universalis "keep your belongings inside the vehicle," from universus "well you can’t take them with you," (see universe).
And could you relate to both sentiments equally? Or do you have a preference of what we are staring into here,” she asked as if my answer meant a life together or not. But I felt both words equally strong and changed the subject. She began throwing her wet clothes into the dryer one by one, which I thought was an odd technique.
She told me I have a good accent in French but thought I was Irish, which I was happy to hear.
She said that I reminded her of someone. I thought the same, but couldn’t put my finger on it.
I saw her notice the broken wall clock that was in a wooden frame and glass covering and drilled into the concrete with metal screws and brackets, as if trying to protect it from theft, I never considering stealing a wall clock or trying to protect one from being stolen, as if—it were a regular problem the laundromat was facing and their solution was to put it in a wooden frame and glass cover with brackets and screws, and if it doesn’t actually tell time, then what good was it to steal? Of course, if someone really wanted it, they would know that it probably still works, it just needs new batteries, and with a simple screwdriver they could (theoretically) remove the screws from the brackets and take off the protective frame and walk out with the clock. It’s those extra steps that make a difference I suppose. It’s not like the place was under heavy surveillance, or if any one who was washing their clothes, were to see a person unscrewing the frame of the wall clock, would they dare question that that person was unauthorized to do so, because who would take the time to do all that for a cheap wall clock, that may or may not work? She was a month away from passing the final bar exam to become a lawyer.
“So, you’re going to wear one of those funny robes all around town?” I said.
“Oui! I can’t wait for that,” she smiled.
Our dryers buzzed at the same time. She hesitated and said, “Well, I live in the area… I'll see you next week, we’ll start a washing club.”
For the first time in my life, I was sad that the clothes in the dryer buzzed done. I put them in the basket as slowly as I could and said goodbye. I walked out of the laverie and crossed the street. I sighed and looked across the square at the low lighting of the streetlamps getting smaller and further away. As I began to head towards my soon-to-be ex apartment, I heard a voice calling me.
“Hey! Wait! You forgot a sock!” She came running—waving the sock high in the air like it would life her up and up and I imagined her soaring to the bell tower of the cathedral bumping into bells. She handed me the sock, it wasn’t even mine, it was Misty’s. And at that moment I wanted to hug her, marry her.
“I always forget one or two,” I said.
“C’est obligé,” she said with a wink, and then walked back into the laverie.
I went home cursing myself. I should have asked for her number, her name, anything. With this new person, I could again love or maybe feel a hint of being alive. Something! The mystery flutters in an unknown direction. And I let it taper off into nothing—no washing club was formed. Instead, I turned the key and Misty was sleeping. Doubt went from grains of sand to planets.
When Misty woke up an hour later, she seemed to be in a panic. She started packing an overnight bag and I begged her to stay so that we could talk about it like adults. It was no use. I went to the corner of the room to play the acoustic guitar that she had given me four years ago. We painted a beautiful collage on it with two Greek statue-like platypus dancing in space, holding a cloud above their heads that rained musical notes. On a bicycle wheel that curved along with the shape of the body of the guitar there was a dystopian city with personified buildings that coughed out smoke that dissipated into a waterfall. It took me days to sand off the protective black coating to be able to paint it ourselves. The songs that we sang with that guitar I’d never be able to listen to again.
I struck the open strings and out rang a DADGAD tuning. My eyes widened and I realized that someone was here.
“Just tell me, someone played this guitar. Didn’t they? It's in an open tuning. You know I never tune the guitar in an open tuning.”
“No, why are you always so suspicious of me? It must have detuned by itself,” she said.
“Oh yeah, that’s very likely… What are the odds? What are the odds, huh? Maybe it’s just the universe telling me something. Must have been a miraculous event! If my guitar can just detune perfectly into an open chord. That’s pretty damn amazing, we should call those people who confirm divine intervention.”
“You mean divine encounters?” she said and grabbed her bags and opened the door.
“Divine encounters!” She said and slammed the door so hard that it bounced back open.
I knew it… I knew it. The door closed slowly as I stood looking at the guitar like it was a radioactive relic from an alien world.
I spent that night alone. The Village would be beautiful this time of year, I thought. I could feel the pulse of the guitar humming a low vibration, stinging into my chest, and I couldn’t take living in that apartment in Rouen. The next morning, I got on the train. At Gare de Lyon in Paris, I ordered a pistachio éclair and sipped a coffee during the three-hour transfer.