One part of you is catching fire*
The sentence “time gained with words is time lost writing them” began in 2011.
It was written by a girl in her late twenties though it wasn’t her sentence. She must have read it somewhere, in a book or on a billboard. Between 2011 and today, the girl said many other things, things one says to get by in life: “How much for this bottle of milk?” “Nice to meet you” “No, not now” or “I have never visited Japan”. But none of these sentences were recorded or written down. Only one survived. The girl is still writing it.
She types the pronoun “it.” She types slowly and seems oblivious to my presence. I sit next to her and she asks me to leave, to come back in a year. “A year? The publisher expects the sentence today.” “I’m slow,” she says, “I write with my mind, not my hands.”
I leave the girl to her slothful exploration, go back to my room, and stand by the window. A crane is hoisting a rod bundle. An old apartment is being torn down. “Tahet!” a worker shouts at the crane. The person operating the machine can’t hear him. “Tahet!” he repeats. The din of digging, of drilling three construction sites confine my apartment to an island. I walk back to the living room, trudging. Writing persists, it is ahead of me.
I light up a cigarette without smoking it. I quit smoking two years ago. Is the girl sitting next to me a smoker? Is she younger than me? I must be older than her sentence. We’re different. Her sadness changes from very easy to very desperate. I observe her, take notes of her habits, mindful not to encroach on her privacy. I want to believe in her ability to convey in language the violence of the city I have failed.
I live on an island, on the third floor, above the second floor on which Lamine, the drug dealer, used to live. Through the elevator cage I would hear him snorting cocaine in the morning. I also suspect that someone other than Lamine lived on the second floor, someone who would howl in pain at night. One day, Lamine was arrested. I wonder if the girl in the living room is writing a story about Lamine with her mind. Was she the person howling while the city slept?
Was I asleep? The girl lights a cigarette. Her hands are flat, her gaze soft. Dust covers her shoulders. She must have been sitting on the balcony, drinking tea and watching cars drive by the way I do. “Are you done?” I ask. “Almost,” she says, taking a long drag. She exhales. From the autonomy of her movements. the way each appears like a sculpture, I can tell she is free. I light up a cigarette. Instead of beginning a new sentence I masturbate to the drilling of a power hammer. The noise persists after I come. The girl watches me. She says she is writing.
I pretend not to see the editor’s email lingering in my mailbox. Procrastinating, I begin listening to a podcast called “Exploring the mind” in which a Buddhist scholar talks about his meditation journey. He describes a brief moment of revelation in which he once felt that he was both a random person in the room as much as he was himself. “Do you think that he was both because he was a man?” asks the girl. “I don’t know.” “Could someone be someone else in a car accident?”
If the city was made of people who aren’t themselves, who is digging the holes in which towers are erected? She pauses after “towers are erected,” stands up and walks to the bathroom. She looks at herself in the mirror and notices tiny marks on the side of her lips: wrinkles had formed. She writes, “Time lost writing words is time gained.”
The din has ceased. Heavy blocs attached to the crane’s counter jib hang above a pit. I wanted to thank the girl for her sentence but she was no longer in the living room. I check the bedroom. She had left a note, “ Dec. 7, Merve, call me back as soon as you read this love Merve.” My number is busy. I hang up.
Now that the sentence was written she couldn’t get herself to send it. Outside, there was city. “Outside the sentence there was a city” was the last thing she wrote.
Mirene Arsanios is a writer and curator based in Beirut. She co-founded 98weeks project space and edits the online magazine, Makhzin.
* from: Lisa Robertson, Cinema of The Present