Bridge to Global Literature

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Dwelling – Mia Lecomte

Feb 13, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Italian by Johanna Bishop

Home is where the heart is
a tin can tied to a stray dog

 Ingrid De Kok

It’s all form, that’s all, an empty vessel. I’ve always chosen based on form, because that’s where everything lies, in the contours, the edges, the ring of the skillfully struck vessel. I remember when my mother was still alive lots of people would come to our house. They all made mistakes, always. They would ruin the evenings with their crassness, sloppiness. A tie that clashed with the upholstery on the armchair, a hairdo at odds with the painting it half hid from view. Words poorly aligned, out of place. Time beat out its rhythm, tam, tam, a different rhythm depending on the light, the number of people there, the season. But no one seemed able to hear it and voices and gestures came in random succession, racking up, creating chasms. And they would brutally violate proportions: that big horsy woman next to a slender Venetian table, a quasi-dwarf standing on tiptoe to peruse the volumes on the walnut bookcase, crushed by the authority of solid wood and vellum. It was hard on a man, to watch them paw my things and tread so heavily on the terracotta and glass floor, the mosaic, swaying on high heels, in the garden, half sunk in the damp grass.

When my mother died I started to fight back. Before that I knew it would upset her. But after I stopped caring what anyone thought. I no longer entertained but still got invitations, out of pity I think. So I rebelled: God, how satisfying it was! Stop, everybody, stop… They all turned to me in shock, glasses in mid-air. You, yes, you in the back, with those thick ankles, wear a longer skirt next time, and stay seated or it’s even worse and truly hard on the eyes. You, get up, I said get up! Can’t you see that you’re so scrawny you’re vanishing into that leather armchair? Let the lady with no ankles sit down, so at least there’s some logic to the picture: the knob-footed armchair, the meaty leather, and the column of lady on her pedestal. And as for you, move next to that vase, the one for a single bud. Come on, don’t stand there gaping. And you people, over there, if you want to talk don’t stay bunched up like that, try to form a pattern. There, tilted a little this way… What were you saying?! Try at least to harmonize your voices, anything can be said, but do be conscious of your words. They aren’t spittle to be hawked into the void, at random, so round them out, savor them, and then guide them along. Not now, when the time’s right, it’s a matter of timing, it’s all a matter of timing. You idiot!

They never forgave me for that one: I’d slapped the host, but he was just begging for it… thwock… a full-bodied sound on those smooth, plump cheeks, pomade in his hair. I went home. On my own I could manage, everything was perfect. I would sit down lightly on the very edge of the sofa, to avoid creasing the cushions, and look around: the objects courted each other, embraced each other, extended into each other. They blended together, chimed together, wafted their scents together… I even fired the cleaning lady, who after thirty years still hadn’t learned to put things back in place, so each time I had the chore of recalibrating them. At long last I was totally alone. But then it all kept getting worse: I could no longer work, I wasn’t earning a cent. I decided to leave. I would live somewhere else, anywhere, and be free.

The first train I chose with my eyes shut, literally. I closed my eyes, pointed somewhere at random, opened them and went in that direction. I’d equipped myself with an open ticket. I had all the time in the world, I could decide at leisure. And I haven’t gotten off yet.

Constant travel keeps me more relaxed. Living in transit in places that have no implications for me, for any part of my life, allows me to dodge the insults, limit the trauma. That’s why I left, why I keep leaving. The clashes, the conflicts, are still there, but they take place in the open field, a continual elsewhere. And then there’s always the option of getting off, interrupting the journey. The course of your life, and choosing another. Rapidly and without consequence. With the bare necessities in an anonymous container, the essence of me always with me. If, for whatever reason, the situation becomes intolerable, I just change trains. And start over.

When I get on a train, go into a compartment, the first thing I do is study the travelers’ faces. And decide, insofar as I can, where to sit. I don’t always get my first choice, I may have to make do with the second, third, or even worse. Sometimes I stay standing, if that’s feasible near the person I’ve singled out. Before getting settled, I try to fix things up as best I can: I straighten the suitcases overhead, often taking them down and putting them back up in the proper sequence of color and proportion, I hang coats, jackets, and sweaters on the hooks, stack magazines and newspapers, close handbags and put them next to the armrests, empty wastebaskets and all containers used for a similar purpose and if the windows aren’t sealed shut I crack them open. Sometimes my range of action extends for several yards, past partitions and sliding doors, other barriers. It’s quite an effort, and ephemeral. At each stop, each time the harmony of the group, of the whole, is disrupted, someone gets off or on, settles in, you have to start over again, leap to correct the swerve into chaos. Let alone when it’s children who get on. I’ve always seen children as an agonizing oxymoron, a tender agglomeration of conflicting thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, save extremely rare exceptions, I find them unwittingly endowed with a delicate creole equilibrium, an indeterminate beauty that will melt away at the first heat of puberty, while on the other everything they say, and especially do, is excessive, abnormal, unpredictable. If they just soiled and broke things like the young of other species, it wouldn’t be so bad; but they soil, break, upset them with deliberate cruelty, with the systematic aim of laying out a level desert for their future gallop through the years. I can sense this determination, this generational plan of attack, and I’m crushed, defeated from the start. And then there’s all the paraphernalia that shows up along with them, accompanying them, on their bodies or in their mothers’ bags, gewgaws, doodads and devices of all kinds, which are meant to guide their growth but instead pile up in heavy heaps—plastic, colorful, grotesque—on the already overburdened lives of others, of adults.

I’ve spent much of my life throwing things away, freeing others and myself. Emptying the spaces that everyone kept thoughtlessly filling up. Everyone. Poor people, who revel in the kitschy mishmash that mushrooms out of their unfulfilled ambitions; and rich people, who make a kitschy mishmash out of even the most sophisticated beauty, who lose their souls in a labyrinth of the worst, or maybe just crudest, intentions.

Whereas the silence that eliminated objects leave behind, the cool air of the silent place they have ceased to occupy, is the most relaxing thing one can savor in this world. Cool, silent. Emptiness.

If I keep leaving, and leaving, it may be to truly trace, now that I can, the interplay of these communicating vessels, the sequence of full and empty spaces in the ever-changing places where I dwell, renewed in waves.

I found it while smoothing the upholstery of an orange velour seat, a seat with irreparable burns, from a cigarette maybe, that I could unfortunately do nothing about. Stuck between two cushions, the pale pink scrap of paper was a tonal, emotional challenge to the uniformity of those perfectly normal seats. I’m not a curious person, curiosity always invites bad surprises, sudden gusts ruffling the aesthetically reassuring predictability of the days I desire, but there was something personal about this forgotten note, it was meant for me, as if it had been there waiting. I unfolded it slowly, smoothed it out on my lap and started to read. Nothing special, a predictable, saccharine adolescent confession, written in bubble script, rough circles instead of dots on every i, turquoise ink. Quite brief, an average, faceless name at the bottom, a date of no significance. I am definitely not the intended recipient of the syrupy love-yous that crop up in every line, with crooked little hearts in the margin. I can’t be, for all kinds of reasons. Too late for such naive ardor, just as it’s always been too late. I’ve never let myself be swept away by a feeling with so many unforeseeable consequences for the routine beauty of creation. Yet I feel implicated, there’s something unquestionably mine about the piece of paper in my hands, which I can’t bring myself to fold up and return to its proper place, or scrunch up and throw into the wastebasket I’ll later empty. It’s familiar to me somehow. It was written by that high-school sweetheart I never had: some dizzy girl, with tight pants and lip gloss, who locks her diary at night. My daughter, the one I never had, whose ingenuity troubles me but you have to make allowances, she’s so young; my only daughter, the child of a significant relationship, who gave my life its whole meaning, who despite all appearances is so similar to me and her, together. It was written by my mother, at an age where we didn’t know each other yet, before she was my mother, while she was still unconsciously learning to become her. With that note, this note of mine.

And suddenly I’m reminded of a stocking with a run in it that bothered me for days and days. It was on the leg of a woman of unknown age who was sleeping sprawled out, face down, in a dark compartment. All I could see was her long disheveled hair, a tangle of layered clothing, and a leg that emerged from the fabric and indecently extended toward the half-open door where I had stopped to peer in. It was an opaque stocking and the tear was spreading complicitly upwards, in a widening rent that followed the growing circumference of her thigh. Why hasn’t anyone invented a stocking material that won’t run, for God’s sake, is it really so hard? Why have women’s stockings been getting runs for centuries now, and always at the worst possible times? I was watching her sleep, gazing at her outstretched leg, at that river fanning out toward the estuary, which suddenly, against my staunchest will, I imagined forging, wading, sailing up. I stood helpless, paralyzed by the door of her compartment, in the current of her waters, spilling away. If I was the man I thought I was I would have woken her up, called her attention to the stocking, redressed this mockery, this challenge, and everything would have slipped serenely back into a composed, normal balance. But all I could do was stand there looking at her and tracing the path up her leg, the breach it had opened for me. Luckily we were almost at the next stop, where with a superhuman effort I managed to shake the spell and jump off the train. On the platform I soon caught my breath, got my heart rate down to normal; over time I put it all behind me, and gradually forgot. Until now. This note in my hands, which I must bring myself to let go, seeking shelter elsewhere, bares my flesh with the same intensity, penetrates it, just as anonymously.

It was written by her. That woman with her face buried in the cushions, in her indifferent slumber. My little girlfriend, my only daughter, my young mother. That woman. The life that, by dwelling carefully, I’ve managed to avoid. Disarray, it’s her.

 

 

Mia Lecomte

Mia Lecomte

Mia Lecomte is an Italian poet and writer of French origin. Author of many publications, her poems have been translated into several languages and appear in Italy as well as abroad in magazines and collections. A translator from French, Mia Lecomte is especially known as critic and editor in the field of transnational literature, to which she dedicated essays and anthologies. Among others, she is on the editorial board of the anglo-french poetry festival review La traductière and is a contributor to Italian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. She is the founder and a member of the Compagnia delle poete (www.compagniadellepoete.com) and of Linguafranca (www.linguafrancaonline.org).

Photo by Dino Ignani

Johanna Bishop

Johanna Bishop

Johanna Bishop (johannabishop.net ) is an American freelance translator from Italian. Her translations of poetry and fiction have appeared in the bilingual review The FLR and in journals and anthologies such as Oomph!, Your Impossible Voice, Italian Literature in Translation, and Italian Contemporary Poets; recent books include Tamam Shud, a novel by visual artist Alex Cecchetti. She lives in Tuscany.

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