I am slitting city guides with a kitchen knife. I am cutting out pictures of my hometown, Valencia (Latin valentia, meaning strength, courage). The photographs of my selection depict a reality of beauty: beach side restaurants, the inside of a gentleman’s hat store, town square in the summer. They lie in piles on the counter top, bizarrely lifeless beside the rectangular boxes of children’s cereal and bowls of plums. The margins and letterheads of the guide entries (“quaint hole-in-the-wall bookstore”, “Baroque style tapestry”, “portrait of Charles IV of Spain in hotel lobby”) fall away with the flick of the blade, the peelings and pith of a life so beautifully constructed thousands of tourists arrive yearly just to admire it.
Later on, I will fix these photographs to my bedroom wall with adhesive tape. They are not the first to colonize that surface: they will join cut-outs of physics articles (“The Geometric Theory of Everything”), pencil drawings gifted to me by my classmates, a two-page spread of a cheetah mid-run, the surface of Mars, a sketch of a cell from a mammal’s stomach wall, maps of every continent in the world, the molecular model of a protein, two poems by Pablo Neruda and one by Amichai, snapshots of an ultrasound, the aurora, storybook art from a retelling of “David and Goliath”, the broken stem of a glass flower.
To be honest, there is not much space left. I compulsively cover up all the wall that remains with no real objective in mind – my mother hates it (“this is like the room of a serial killer”), so it is not in the subconscious name of maternal approbation that I do this. If I do this, I do it for myself, for my well-being. It feels nice to enter a room and see all these things, all these things that I love, up on a wall, only for my careful examination. I feel as though I am a naturalist cataloging poisonous insect species in the heart of the jungle. I feel like I have left the fearful explorer’s silver plane behind.
In the middle of the collage is a photograph I adore above all other things. I can describe it perfectly from memory. It was taken before my birth, in Kent in the springtime. In the foreground my parents are sitting in lawn chairs, heads together. They are young and dressed in thick linen, arms pressed to their chests. My mother’s expression is vague but happy, and my father is smiling. Behind them wet green grass extends for miles.
This photograph is the only possession on my wall that serves to remind me. It has never caused me pain, as I imagine it might have caused other children in my same situation. Even before my mother’s relapse in 2009, I had lived with the knowledge that our family had, if not an expiration date, a sort of fade-out quietly date. I hear that divorce sometimes warps offspring, leaving them dazed and psychotic. I too feel as they do. I am no hero. I bitterly survive, but always accompanied with the knowledge that I couldn’t run as fast as our house could fall.
I may seem a little morose but I’m not sad, honest. My beautiful mother’s manic depressive episodes and my father’s miserable degeneration – I’m not a stranger to that feeling of hopelessness that now has become characteristic of their lives. I want to free them from the horror of these days, as quickly and cleanly as I can. I don’t feel the need to be cruel, though I know I could be. Am I growing stronger, more courageous? No, it’s not that. It’s enough: this, what I have had. Even in the dead of night, when I am awake and lost, I can honestly say: I will give it up. I fully accept that I will cry, this day and during the many days that come. But despite what has happened, or perhaps because of it, I have found joy. In philosophy classes, in the northern lights, in novels and poems of great bravery and kindness and in the pit of my own gut (finally, oh finally) I have discovered it – joy.
I own dozens of family albums. A hand in my heart is cutting through the plastic binding now, slicing the protective coverings on the negatives, around pictures of childhood birthday parties, movie outings, afternoons on the lawn. But I will keep these photographs, proof of a life I knew and had, for however short a while, and I will carry them with me forever. When you ask me where I have been, I will take one out and show you, pressing it flat against a table, and, pointing at first the morning greenery, then the faces of these people, these people that I cherish deeply, I will say: I am so proud to have been here.