notes from the united states

Dear readers,

The last time we spoke (unless you’ve been following my exploits on social media), I had just finished my first 7000-word paper of term. In the month since, in a narrative that is by now familiar to all who know me well, I chaired a roundtable on narratives of migration, flew to California to visit Stanford University, flew back to Oxford to co-run a conference on prison and exile in Early Modern Europe, flew back to California to visit the University of California at Berkeley, somehow wrote another 7000-word paper in that time, flew to Washington D.C. to stay with a dear friend and his family, travelled up to New York to visit Columbia University, came back to D.C., and will return to the UK imminently. I can safely say that it’s not an experience I’m at all keen to repeat (apart from the D.C. part; that can stay), but I did begin to write again after finishing the second paper.

In order to really enjoy the renewed time to write, I decided to create a series of entries much like the ones that usually appear here, but that are a) linked and b) framed around a set of four words, namely loveadventuremadness, and comfort. I wrote these at various places and times around the United States, and other things besides, but those won’t be included here. It was interesting attempting to create something a little more consistent than usual, and certainly meant I had to pay a little more attention while writing this time around.


monday. march 20, 2017. oakland. 9.36pm.

I cannot speak of you and yet I must because you are too big for my chest. This room, onto which the rain is beating its many fists, is ten times higher than I am and still it would not contain you. You are too large and I cannot hold you.

You sit heavy in my lungs as the fog here sits uneasily on the hills. I gasp and struggle to breathe through your tightness and the care for you that fills my throat. I scale the hills here and climb ever steeper in a bid to abandon the vibrant spectre of you behind me, to leave it downtown and let myself move far upwards and far away. I walk and walk but you are still the clasp on my necklace, the button that does not close, the point where my fingernails join my fingertips, the every time I touch my face and run my hand through my hair. I become more aware of my incompleteness every day that I know you, my half a heart and hollow breast, gutted out by the physical truth of your very thorough completeness, which I feel as one would a sharp nail in the stomach. Would that the face in your mind and the name on your lips every day when you awaken were mine!

But the parts are not right and the set does not fit; I, insufficient, unfeminine, dark and rough and always bleeding; you, sprawling, sloping like the Table Mountain, perfect, perfect. Nothing was spared in your making, and when you—for the briefest of seconds—are so moved by love (this I will never fathom nor believe) to fold yourself over onto me, I am no longer myself through the sudden bursting of all my cells with an intensity that would only be insulted if I were to call it joy. I dream one day to clasp that beloved face under my hands and bring those mobile lips to mine, and the soft pale spot above your left hipbone fills my thoughts nightly.

I am transfixed by the way you bend over the page: your eyes narrow so slightly when you read. The repeated echo of your fingers absently pulling your hair behind your ear. Did even Laura’s hair shine so bright or fly so far? Sometimes I think that books must have been made for you alone.

I had already made my peace with your disappearance, like the way you find acceptance after losing your grandmother’s treasured ring. Perhaps, indeed, to escape you would be wise: when it is known that I love you, I am rightly pitied for my folly. Their eyes widen, or it is a dark-haired girl at the bar saying “You’re so fascinating,” fascinating only for how I push at my collar when I inevitably speak of you, the San Franciscan fog, and my voice is caught by the unmistakeable needles of one who will never be fulfilled. I had already made my peace, but now to have to entertain the absurd and impossible notion of your continued presence for however long I must indulge you before it is confirmed that the promise of a future was yet another unfeeling trick—it is worse than an earthquake to lose you; it is the shock of the strike and the daily task of then stitching together the life I always knew I was going to have without you, because why would I deserve to enjoy that delight? I, with emboldened fingers spinning a sugar castle for us both, only for your ardent and cruel mind to move there where it was always going to, and for my hands to stick and the structure to crumble as it was always going to. I am left poorer: the worse for having known you and the worse for having lost you, a cheerful participant in my own misery.

I care about this game because you told me to; I mirror your art and ways; I count the fraught, precious days until your expected Nichtdasein. I know you will not be with me: it is unnatural even to speak of it. I can only rest my face on my knee and listen to the unending storm on the factory roof, my constant state of living despair that you both are and are not—here.


sunday. march 26, 2017. dc –> ny. 10.15am.

Have you considered that I am Olimpia, Coppelia? Have you considered that you and your reluctant delight in life are my animus? It is your reach, the dancing light behind your otherwise steady eyes, the way you move as if to seize something invisible to the rest of us when an idea rushes through you, where you need no chemical stimulus or worldly prompt to animate yourself and begin another adventure.

For you do not know it, but all that you do is another adventure, for all that you are is an adventure. You, the movement through your lovely arms when your mind takes flight, the ridiculous ease and readiness with which you seek to turn yourself unnoticeable, folding yourself up in your seat or on the floor, utterly ridiculous because you are always remarkable. You are an adventure and I cannot help but be swept away, to grab your outstretched hand and abandon any reserve that anyone could conceivably have with you, to run and run until I fear my legs will collapse and my heart will stop. It does and it doesn’t: I have run with you, after you, for you, beyond the lengths that any one person should for another, my heart a beaten, bruised mess, but it beats and it thrives because it is so delighted to be so completely in use. I resent you and I adore you: you have moved so totally into my life that every spare corner of my mind, every even slightly empty gap in every cell of mine has been filled by you and the way you—when it occasionally happens the way it must and ought to—gaze at me. You are an adventure because there was never any question, because I had become Carthage the day that I met you, and my own fall only began to show its outline to me in the months thereafter, as I began to love you through time and across oceans, and even now has not explained itself fully. All I know it that the door through which I can escape is not only at an unconquerable distance, it is now so small that there is no way all of me could ever fit through. Thus—even, if I ever left, or, more likely, when the day comes on which you tell me of your intent to finally leave—some, even much, of me may crawl away, but much of me will remain, even when you are gone.

It is madness, and worse still—it is folly. My heart is evidently worth so little to me that it cost me nothing to lay it and the rest of my very self at your unconcerned feet. You cannot and you will not stay, and all that I try to be blameless and upright, to fear God and shun evil, I am still faced with the prospect of the greatest trial I have ever been commanded to withstand: the very near materiality of that which is us together, still when I know that it will not and cannot be.

It is all the worse because of how warm-hearted you are, how deftly and readily you do pull me in and in turn begin to lift the lid from the crevices of your life, although I am sure I am not the first. You believe you are everything when really you are nothing; you think you are nothing when to me you are everything, and nothing you can ever give me will ever be enough when what I want is everything, from the touch of your fingertips to the deepest recesses of your soul that even you fear to acknowledge. Now I am here, having lost everything as I have, I refuse to leave, and will silently and painfully desire that everything until the day I no longer see you.

Stay. Do. This isn’t over—we should not be over as we know it—stay, darling, do. I will wait for you, and if you should say that fateful, affirmative word, there is nothing that could ever make me happier.


monday. march 27, 2017. manhattan. 11.16pm.

it’s taking a lot out of me, loving you — MUNA

It is many things.

It is the way that you unfailingly draw everything around you into your hurricane, your vortex. I detest this and resent this, and I am the worst culprit for quickening at your every move even so. You have slowly, gradually, reached into my mind and plucked every thought not concerning you from my consciousness, like poor Gloucester’s eyes.

It is how absolutely your exquisite form holds my sight hostage, leaving me at risk of falling onto the tracks because I am beyond captivated by you.

It is the nearlys and the maybes; I laugh and it masks, poorly.

It is the genuine-100%-bona fide physical pain when you are not here. I do not care for where you are, because it is not here.

It is wanting to be your skin, the jewellery that wraps itself around you, how I love you, I love you.

It is the erosion of my mind from the outermost corners, the slow but unrelenting caving in of the edges and roof of my consciousness, the blackness that encroaches, that means I cannot speak.

It is when I cannot speak.

It is when I fear for the sanctity of my mind, the very existence of my thoughts. They are cut loose, one by one, like kite strings into the nothing. My mind closes down.

It is mutely crying out like an animal, like Gloucester in static pursuit of the edges of my mind, the pins of stability. My mind is gone and I miss it because it has my thoughts.

It is how I begin to shake when you vanish, how your name makes me shudder with an unhealthy delight.

It is the scissors that drive themselves up under my ribcage when you tell me—as I knew you would and knew you would and it still didn’t help me—that you will not stay. That the glittering, shivering, sparkling story of you and me now struggles and strains under the calendar you have unceremoniously strapped onto it, its quicksilver dance through the next giddy years hampered, slowed, solidified, until it stumbles to a premature collapse.

It is the rising disgust that I feel with my surroundings as my yet chaste burning dreams leak and pour onto the ground. I must leave. I must. I walk and walk until my soles and heels are worn out and my feet hurt too much to stand. Once again I scale hills and cover miles, block after block after block, to leave you behind.

It is loving this place. That, with an ardour I cannot vocalise: it is truly madness still to feel that this is the place where anything can happen, even now, to dance down the street in a total embrace of all that is great. I must run, into crowds, into forests, through cities and across countries in order to escape you. It is yet possible: you are not this place, this giant and inscrutable haven that still protects me with its magnitude; you are a place I have perhaps approached but never been, Holland, Versailles,—San Francisco.

It is knowing you, blithely and pathetically attempting to survive you, as if leaving you or being left intact by you were ever a possibility. It is living at the mercy of your moods and expecting to win, when anyone can see that all that I can do now is attempt to crawl away while my heart is still beating.

It is knowing that I must escape you if I am to survive, to live. When you are gone for long enough my vision clears and my tattered self returns, and I taste the air again. I must escape you. I must.

It is surprisingly not the Verlust, but the Verlustsbewältigung. It is not the fall, but the shock of the fall. It is the painful days of feigned smiles until you finally abandon me and I can finally escape. Perhaps this is why you were never going to stay, because I am and will be better off having escaped you. I am almost ready for you to let me go. I am almost there.

It is knowing that I must escape you and being ready at a moment’s notice to scream at your retreating back and beg you, from the dusty floor, to stay.


tuesday. march 28, 2017. ny –> dc. 6pm.

My self existed before you, and will continue to do so when you leave. I am smart and I am valuable and I am those things on my own. Yes, my heart hurts; yes, there is a great part of me that still lives and dies for your approval and your affection, your attention. Will I ever not? You have transformed who I am and how I think, and I can never undo those things.

Human relationships are complex, but their outcomes are surprisingly simple. You are either here or you are not. You will not be, and I will live. My guardian angels rush to assure me that I will—I know I will. Of that I have little doubt. They do not realise that it is not the fall, but the shock of the fall; I know I will stand and walk again, but is learning to do so that will put me in so much pain, as it did the first time.

Now that our time is limited, it would be natural to suppose that I want nothing more than to spend every moment of mine at the feet of my immovable idol. It is not so. When we are apart I can already discern the faint scent of my awaiting freedom that hangs impatiently in the air, and I blankly dread the return to you and the unbreathable hold you have over me. The return to the loss of my self, as I transform once again into one of your many satellites, and where my every thought is how to please you. It is a miserable love, an exhausting love, and one that only serves to reduce me to a dog, a horse, a worshipful slave. To return to you is to wilfully sacrifice my mind.

I seek comfort in the crowd, in the masses, this changeable and changing city, the streets that run and run and open up for me, to draw me away from you. I am not afraid of places that tower and threaten, where I am less than a thought: am I not with you? The streets, cars, corners, lights, ladders—it is for me. I move, I fly through the vastness, and the parts of what was us fall away from my mind like rocket debris. You are no longer needed.

I will fly, too, to arms that want me, that have memorised my shape, that do not ask me to try or to shrink myself, that want me and take me just as I am. It is the soft greenness and steady arches beside great storm clouds, black rivers and sharp forests. I must escape you.

I don’t know how long it will take for me to forget you—I do know you will struggle to recall my name long before your face has faded from my mind. I don’t know if it ever will. But I know that—when the break finally, horribly comes—while I may still be prostrate for the months thereafter, the day will come when I can stand again without you.

2 thoughts on “notes from the united states

  1. Taskeen Nawab says:

    This is beyond incredible, Chiara! I read it in a daze, and somewhere towards the end, I realised that you were/ could well have been talking TO Oxford itself. It was a magnificent read! Thank you 🙂


    • carambalache says:

      I am so sorry that it’s taken me so long to reply to this wonderful comment, but: thank you. This is why I continue to put my collections of words into the void every so often, because people read them and think about them and have differing opinions on them, and that means more to me than I can say.


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