I feel like my heart is being squeezed.
I am feeling a lot of things.
/I feel like Stéphane, snuggled on the mattress, holding Stéphanie’s hand, quietly drifting into lucid dreaming world, in Science of Sleep.
/I feel like Theodore, sitting in bed, half-clad in pyjamas, playing The Moon Song on the Ukelele, singing a duet with Samantha, in Her.
/I feel like Joel, laying on the ice, staring into Clementine, tearing from his eyes, relishing in her glow, before they part once more, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It is October 2016. We are on the upper deck of Ballhaus Berlin. It is dark and seedy and loud. The telephone boxes amuse us. Someone fetches the table glasses and glasses of champagne. We see J downstairs and prank call her table asking to speak to “the internet”. Someone brings us more plates of foods. Our vegetarian friends lament their options. We spot our cute friends at various tables and ring them up with raunchy solicitations. People eyeball the room to identify their mystery callers. We link eyes and solve the puzzle and burst into embarrassing whoohoos. The deejay refuses to play Rihanna. P says he has bad taste. We boo him and break out into deliriously incoherent laughter. Nothing is really all that funny but it is the last night of the conference and we are tired from posturing and comfortable in each other’s embrace and basking in the glow of friendship and feeling extremely safe in good company and getting high on pockets of amusement.
I am so happy and my heart is so full. I decide my sister must know about this moment. I whip out my phone and open up WhatsApp. I am scrolling pretty far down the list to locate our chatlog. I am scrolling and scrolling but she is not there. My brain is not registering the reality. Seconds later I suddenly remembered it has been five months since we last text. It has been five months since she died. I am caught off guard at my cognitive slip and my whole body registers an overwhelming pain. My head hurts. My face hurts. My stomach hurts. My arms hurt. B walks back to our table with more drinks on hand. I go up to him to tell him I miss my sister. He asked if I missed my partner. I told him I forgot my sister died and I wanted to text her but am unable to. He pulls me into his chest and I burst into tears, crying into his shirt. I ask him if he can fix the internet for me. I ask him if he can install wifi in heaven. I need to text my sister. B said that if he could, he would. I cry some more.
There is snot running down my chin. I pull away from B and tell him I am going to be okay. S walks up with even more drinks on hand. They see my face and immediately walk towards me. They cup my face between both hands and tell me it is okay to cry, whatever I am crying over. I ask S if they have the phone number for heaven. They immediately know why I am distraught. They remind me that my sister is in a better place, and that one day soon enough I will see her again. They wipe the snot and tears off my face with their bare hands, and pull me into their arms. I try to stop crying.
N runs up after her adventures on the dance floor to announce that the photobooth is open. We all decide we should challenge physics and fit as many people as possible into the claustrophobic space. We go downstairs to wait in line. There is a lady with the most impossible fur headpiece on her shoulder-length, straight, blonde hair. I stroke the fur and tell her she is beautiful. She says thank you. Someone whispers in my ear that she is the superstar scholar Z. I internally giggle at my unawareness of gravitas.
It is our turn at the photobooth. B and P and S and T and T and the gang are in here. We pose and make whoohoo sounds and cause an Australian ruckus. I whip out my phone intending to photograph these magical moments. The screen unlocks into WhatsApp and my eyes register the sight and my whole body is jolted and reminded that I have not text my sister. The pain makes me want to throw up. I feel my face warming up. T spots me in the back of the cubicle and asks if I am going to throw up. I say no. We take a dozen more photographs. I try not to cry again. I try very hard not to cry. But my whole body hurts.
I extract myself from the photobooth and run towards the stairs. I know S has spotted me. I hurry up the awfully narrow winding stairs and head straight to the toilet. I lock myself in a cubicle and cry into my hands. My heart hurts and my stomach hurts and I forget why I am still alive. I lean over the bowl and puke. I have barely eaten nor drunk anything and wonder what my body is ejecting. Will all the puking make all the pain go away? I feel sorry for myself and decide I must be more resilient than this. I clean up myself, unlock the cubicle, and walk towards the sink. K is already standing there. I let the tap run and rinse my face. K holds up my hair and soothes me by patting my back. I burst into tears once more. K grabs a bunch of tissues and dries my face. A random lady from the conference enters the toilet. She sees me distressed and asks if she can do any thing to help. I have no idea who she is. I look at her and tell her I forgot my sister died and am so angry that a room full of internet research scholars are unable to tell me how to call to heaven. Her face softens and she mutters “oh honey”. K begins to cry. I apologize for making her sad. She turns to the random lady from the conference and shares her loss in a few sentences. The random lady from the conference waits a beat and tells us that she lost a parent earlier this year and has been spending the whole conference trying to hold herself together. The three of us are standing in the toilet and tearing. I feel very silly and very loved in this protective bubble.
We emerge from the toilet and S is standing there. They come to give me a hug. I am avoiding eye contact with them. They ask K if I am alright. K mutters something but my ears are not registering sound. I weave my body through the crowd and make my way back to our cozy table in the corner. P and B are both there. They ask if I am okay. I tell them I need to sit down and drink ten hundred drinks. I sit down and whip out my phone and continue scrolling until I locate my WhatsApp conversation with my sister. I read our last few texts to myself and decide I need to be more resilient than this. I lean back on the chair and hang my legs along the ledge. Everything hurts. One of the boys returns to our table with food and drinks. I am tired and now leaning on the table. T happens to wander up and asks me if I have fused into the table and become furniture. I said I am the furniture. He looks bemused and giggles. It is a beautiful sound even if the deejay is playing awful music.
It is October 2017. I am on the longass bus ride from Tallinn to Tartu. Despite traveling alone non-stop since July, I suddenly feel so safe because my body knows it is among friends. People are tired and falling ill and speeding out work, but people are also passing out tissues and medicines and junk food and conversational lubricants. And just as we explode into roaring revelries, or gather communally to offer mutual support during lulls, we also seamlessly transit into our individual lifeworlds on our devices and in our quiet thoughts, all while inhabiting the same shared space. We are negotiators of intimacy across time and space and place and flesh. This is my job and these people are my colleagues.
I am in a shopping mall in Tallinn. K is launching her book this afternoon. She is effortlessly eloquent and elegant as usual. P and I comprehend none of the Estonian but want to share in the moment and radiate support with our presence. K gives a long talk about intelligent things. D and N and A understand none of it but are here in the audience too. People break into a queue for K to autograph their copies. I sneak in to congratulate her and to bring her wine. The moment she gets a beat to take a breath, she hugs me and thanks me for coming. She holds my hand and tells me she is sorry to hear about my recent mishap. We had texted about it weeks ago. This day is her day and she is basking in the glow and glamour of a successful career, but on her mind and on her lips are words of comfort for me for a situation that happened so far away some time ago. My colleagues are also my friends and know how to do human.
I am in the Maiuspala HQ hanging out with my housemates. K tells us about the fruit bag he has had since he was a child. He tells us his mother hand sewed his name onto the fabric. I ask if we can see it. He fishes it out from his bag pack and shows it to us. P giggles at the inconsistent font and decides that K’s mom must have gotten tired from sewing. I ask if I can touch the lettering. K says to go ahead. I run my fingertips along the stitching. This is a precious thing. I am on the cusp of tears.
I am in the lunch area at the conference venue. It is tricky navigating lunch queues while trying to spot my friends in the crowd. I see A from across the room. We move towards each other and hug. A is looking really amazing, confident and firm and stoic as usual. But I know their heart is hurting from love at a distance. We exchange words about our favourite tiny humans and how life has been since we last met. I am so impressed by their composure and resilience. A tells me my recent writing about love at a distance moved their heart. We exchange brief adages about temporality and geography and affects. These mutterings register inside my body. It feels as if A’s strength is rubbing off onto me in a micro-transaction.
We are at a fancypants museum for the conference closing night. Multiple people are hurting at various times from different things. They are running off into a corner to be alone but we run along to share in their space and fleshiness as they unravel themselves. We lock arms, then lock in an embrace, then release tears, then move our bodies from side into side in a mock slow dance to wash the bad feelings away. They are swiftly returning to our table to recount an unpleasant experience and wishing to go home. We wrap our arms around them and let them talk, then move our bodies into a circle to form a protective bubble around them until the unpleasant object is moved away. We are intimate and generous and involved and protective with each other.
We are grown up humans, intellectual academics, agentic persons in semi-professional settings engaging in tactility and intimacy to bridge across physical space and imprint the fleshliness of our presence on each others’ bodies, to go inside of each other and share in a space when one of us feels lonely or stuck inside, to transmit and lend strength and resilience to each other in rotation like a Kula Ring in circulation.
The rhythms of affects at conferences are so puzzling. We have been friends for three years or three days or three hours. We deposit intensities of intimacies into each others’ bodies and squeeze each others’ hearts and form irreversible but purposefully transient emotional exchanges with each other. These feelings form repositories inside of people and in truncated spatialities and geographies and temporalities over three days, and then we part from each other and go away to unravel and housekeep and transit back into Life As Usual, alone and apart.
How lucky are we to have a people and a place for whom we pine so hard?
I cannot wait for October 2018.