By Sven Verouden
It smells like gasoline in the mall. I’m sitting in a tightly packed coffee chain, reading the book I’m currently devouring, ignoring the scent of possible danger. I’m thinking that my last day in the city might very well be my last day in my body too. There’s a certain poetry in being splattered all over the shiny floor, which has memorized my footsteps after all these years.
I close my book because I am not enjoying it as much as I should, the pretty words lingering in the air rather than finding a home in my mind. There’s too much noise. I’ve never been able to switch off sounds like a nightlamp before bed. Why are people always so loud? I’m hearing too many voices, when there’s just one I want to hear right now, and that voice belongs to Deborah Levy.
Apparently, she is quite the writer. I had not heard of her, but the royal blue caught my attention and sank its teeth into my bank account. It’s a memoir – the first of three, actually. A trilogy of autobiography. I knew it was good when I opened my laptop and started writing too. I want writing to inspire me, to unleash the butterflies in my stomach that turn to ink when they escape my fingertips, to warm up my body by several degrees like the afternoon sun through a dusty window. Most of all, I want writing to remind me that I am alive.
In the past months, there have been few of these reminders. Two, to be exact. The first happened in a rectangular room at a round table where I shared a poem that had come to me the night before. While I was reading the words out loud, my heart was beating and my blood was pumping and my lips were moving and my soul was dancing. I was holding invisible hands with the poets in the room, closing the circle of salt we had spilt. I felt powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It was glorious.
In that moment, I forgot to feel alone. I knew the loneliness might twist tightly around my body once I had taken off my shoes and locked the door behind me later that afternoon, but right then and there, at the round table in the rectangular room, performing my own writing, I remembered how to feel warm again. Sometimes it’s not enough to read and write and watch.
The second reminder hits me while I’m sitting in the busy coffee chain, which smells like gasoline and tastes like caramel. My legs are folded like an accordion underneath the small table, my bag clamped between my ankles because it’s a Sunday afternoon. The coffee is too sweet and the chair is slightly uncomfortable and the couple next to me is glaring intensely and the stream of people with shopping bags and thundering stories is passing me by and by and by and
Why can it never be quiet in the city? I wish I could be the kind of person who brings a book to a café and orders a chai latte and takes tiny sips and slowly turns page after page, utterly undisturbed by the world around them. I’ve tried, many times. Armored with a pair of heels on my feet and a pair of sunglasses on my nose, I close the tinkling doors and set up my desk of Literary Leisure in the most beautiful corner that is not yet occupied.
Only to be reminded that the truths I dream up are more beautiful than the truths I live out. It usually takes about five minutes for my bubble to burst and for my feet to touch the ground again. Whether the music is playing too loudly, or the people around me are talking too intensely, or the place is too hot, too small, too expensive, too ugly, I finish my coffee, close my book, and leave.
Each time I close the door behind me, the sad smell of defeat makes me long for the garden I grew up in. I want to smell jasmine instead, the pretty white flowers that grew above my head in fragrant vines late in summer, when I used to read never-ending piles of books with my father’s mother sitting next to me, who would flip through her magazines or her thick novels she picked up from the library. We kept each other company on the wooden bench that was almost comfortable, sipping tea in perfect silence until my father came home. Now she’s gone and I only have a balcony to read on. Perhaps I should grow jasmine.
I am only growing annoyed now. It’s getting harder to ignore the alarmingly sweet scent of benzene, to ward off the buzzing voices of strangers around me. I should not be surprised. Did I really think I could peacefully read my way through the hour I had to kill?
I check the time. 27 minutes before Van-Thi arrives, before the two of us celebrate my last day in Utrecht. I thought I would be sad. I’m not. When I took the bus this morning, the city no longer felt like home. Perhaps home is where your reading chair is waiting for you to melt into the fabric, where your laptop is waiting for you to fill a blank page with poetry, where most of all you can be utterly undisturbed.
Sven Verouden (22) is currently finishing a research master in Comparative Literature at Utrecht University. While mainly invested in transgender studies and creative writing, Sven also enjoys thrift stores, period dramas and sharing too many pictures on Instagram.