Pseudonym

Lana solicitously offers Vladimir some of her edamame guacamole to soothe his throat. He claimed to be a vegetarian who loves spicy food, but she has learned never to take white people’s word for it on spice tolerance. A scant few minutes after his bold claims, the old man is practically heaving over a tiny slice of red chili.

She’s not surprised. She’s seen this a thousand times back in Malaysia. So she calmly chows down on little pieces of teriyaki chicken, turmeric cauliflower, and a radish while gazing at the kids falling and getting back up and rolling on in the skate park by the Waterloo Bridge. She’d love to light another cigarette to make this moment a perfect one, but smoking is not allowed in London restaurants. She’ll have to feel content about the blue sky, and the soup, and the kids falling and getting back up, falling and getting back up, a cheap metaphor for her own life. She’ll wait until Vladimir’s face fades to a less inflamed tone to rip the silence away, but for now she’s enjoying the noisy tranquility of the city.

They are in the middle of talking about Albert Camus, after Lana nonchalantly mentioned a quote of his she had stumbled upon in an art exhibition the other day, “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” They’ve been chatting over lunch about philosophy, Leninism, Beauvoir, communism, Butler, and Chomsky. Why not discuss another light topic like mental illness?

They haven’t limited themselves to such impersonal matters though. He’s told her about his efforts to avoid going stir-crazy by keeping himself occupied, which is why he’s been focusing on photography, about his deep loneliness during the pandemic, about how his whole family is back in Slovakia, and he barely talks to them.

She tells him she also has a complicated relationship with her family but opts not to go into detail. She leaves unmentioned the part where they wanted her not to be herself because of what the neighbors would think, the part where they disavowed and disowned her, the part where her mom recently called her “Lana” for the first time… while contacting her to ask for money, the part where she has given up caring what happens to her mom. Her mom… There’s a Malay saying — “Look at your mother’s face, and you’ll see heaven.” Deep inside, Lana longs to be able to feel that again. Instead, she just adds without any real context: “Sometimes you help someone who hurt you deeply because life is about being the bigger person, right? And that brings some closure.”

She does feel better since she sent the money back to her family in Malaysia. It is almost as if she paid them off for her escape, and she can now completely walk away from them and from the country that birthed her and then punished her for who she is, that vilifies people like her, that throws them into prison. Because of her status as a political refugee, she won’t be able to go back for at least three more years, but that’s fine with her, because England has been her home now for a couple of years — it has given her the chance to be herself, and what’s more home than freely inhabiting your own body? All this inspired her to volunteer for a housing shelter — she wants to help other asylum seekers and refugees to also feel like themselves here. She knows how important it is for one’s body to become one’s home.

Vladimir’s kind, but he probably wouldn’t understand all this. And he’s not keen on the arts of psychology. He seems to believe in the darkness of the mind about as much as he does in spicy food, and, not knowing how much the woman in front of him has been suffering, he replies to Camus’s quote with a somewhat scornful joke about suicide.

Lana doesn’t take it personally because she’s proud of the progress she’s made with her healing. If anything, she feels sorry for people who are so unaware of their own minds and their harmful patterns, oblivious of others and themselves. Also, she reads him and concludes he is devoid of any hostility or malice. However, just to see how he would react, because sometimes she kind of enjoys pushing limits, Lana considered replying to his jokes by telling him about the thirty-six Paracetamol pills she lined up, about her desperate call to the suicide line, about the cops who have entered her place twice to check on her, about the mental wards, about the diazepam to help her calm down, about her various suicide attempts spurred by pandemic isolation. But then he ate that stupid chili, and now Lana feels like she shouldn’t make him even redder than he already looks.

Immersed in the lack of conversation, Lana transports herself to the first morning she woke up in the mental ward, when the snow was coming down heavily, something she’d never seen before, tropical creature that she is. A sudden desperate need to feel the snow on her face overcame her. But by the time the doctors had finished their evaluations and given her permission to go out, the snow had stopped, and only a trace of dirty brown ice remained on the road and pavement. Just her fucking luck. Never mind — she ran and ran and ran like a child until she was exhausted. When she finally came to a rest, she decided this time would be different. Eight months later, that longing for snow lingers with visceral clarity.

Vladimir seems calmer now. His gray messy hair, his squinty brown eyes, his well-trimmed beard — all of it seems calmer now. Lana won’t tell him anything about her suicide attempts. Everybody else in her life knows she’s struggling, but not Vladimir. She wants him to see her at her lightest, at her wittiest, to see that part of her untouched by borderline personality disorder. As the kids fall and get up again, fall and get up again at the edge of her vision, she thinks of Camus’ quote — “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” —, and then chuckles and remarks as Vladimir takes another gulp of his water: “Since we ran out of milk, I guess killing myself is the better option.”

Vladimir looks at her slightly bemused, then laughs, but she can tell he doesn’t quite follow. Then they are both laughing. There’s mutual understanding between them. It’s almost like father-daughter complicity, but she doesn’t want to see it that way, because she recognizes her pattern of eternally trying to find a healthy paternal figure, and then she’d confront once again that this is something she never had from her own dad and never will.

“I like you, girl, your bluntness, your deep voice, your knowledge of philosophy,” he states. “What was your name again?”

She now feels over the moon. She’s glowing. He definitely hasn’t misgendered her! She’s been on hormone replacement therapy for over four years, and she sometimes still doesn’t pass. But Vlad — I can call you Vlad, right? — just assumed she was a she, and, girl, that feels like heaven. She wants to scream, “Hello, customer service, is this what gender euphoria looks like? ‘Cuz I want moarrr of it! Can I make a bulk order, plz?” But she would give herself away, so she just replies, “My name is Lana Isa”.

These small things are so huge. So huge. And she values them even more since she had an out-of-body experience not too long ago after smoking some pot. That trip changed how she feels about life forever. Her soul got sucked in into a vacuum at an atomic level, hurled into a different realm, and she kept getting sucked in, traveling at the speed of light. Terrified, she realized how small she was, an entity of particles like any other, and she felt the meaninglessness of her existence on the earth. Somehow, feeling so tiny made her feel enormous, and she became a totally different person, valuing all of these small things in life that mean nothing but mean so much.

“Listen, Lana. I’m also a painter. I’d love to paint a portrait of you reading Camus. Would you let me paint you?”

She looks at him, shining in his green sweater, with that kind little mouth of his, and decides not to answer that question. She asks for the check and wants to pay, because it was her idea to have lunch together in the first place, but Vlad insists and insists, and she eventually just gives in. After all, she’s used to men paying for things. Recently she’s been revealing to people that she’s been living a double life as a sex worker for years, because doing it hush-hush has done her mental-health no good whatsoever, and because she’s so fucking talented, but she won’t confess this to Vlad either. Lana keeps it to herself because she doesn’t think she and Vlad are at that point yet, even if this is part of who she is and of her present life. The pandemic didn’t stop her from making extra cash — all these platforms offering video services saved her ass. She’s now putting the sex money away to fund her gender affirmation surgery, because her salary as a programmer is just not enough. This city is damn expensive, girl.

She’s not ready to say goodbye, and she takes him to her favorite alternative gift shop, a place she normally never shares with anyone, because it is her own Hidden Gem in London for buying unconventional gifts. She thinks it is funny how she’s told all of her friends now about her more dramatic experiences but not about this gift shop, but in Vlad’s case, it is the other way around. Today she’s another version of herself. Why did she always keep this store such a secret, but now suddenly she takes this guy? Maybe because she feels sorry for Vlad’s loneliness — she knows that feeling very well. Or is it because they have bonded for real? Or because he laughed at her Camus comment?

After all, they met only six cigarettes ago. She had been taking a stroll by Southbank along the Thames, heading west towards the National Theater, enjoying this increasingly rare warm and sunny day, most certainly one of the last of the year. The sun was just bright enough that she could close her eyes facing straight into it and feel a warm breeze through her eyelids.

She was taking deep breaths to soak it all in and listening to music when a man in his sixties asked her if he could take her picture holding her cigarette with a backdrop of St Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames. She asked why. He replied that he liked taking pictures of strangers. She wondered if he liked to take pictures of sad strangers, if he could even see her sadness, or if she hid it well.

She had actually woken up feeling very sexy. Maybe that was it. Sexy is photogenic. She left her studio after renaming her plants with female and queer names because men are trash: Miss Lolita, Adura, Rapunzel, August, Lil-Cupcake, Farina, Lily, Durjana and Sembilu. She put on a gray over-the-knee skirt and matching jacket with a hot pink top underneath, wearing her hair down and wild. This walk would be her first time venturing out of her apartment after that wanker broke her heart four days ago.

She left the studio where she was supposed to live with the previous wanker (are they trash or whaAaAat?) with no destination in mind, determined only to leave the house so as not to fall into a spiral of depression again. Now that she has finished her master’s degree and is taking some time off from her day job to focus on therapy and recovery, she has more free time to wander around the city. That randomness gave her the room to meet Vlad and agree to pose for him, and to have lunch together.

And now they don’t want to say goodbye, because they have both felt damned lonely during the multiple lockdowns, and this warmth was a big deal. It’s been a hell of a day. She’s so glad she wasn’t afraid to talk to a stranger. She tells him, grabbing his arm, “You know, we are so focused on ourselves that we forget the humanity of strangers that we come across in our everyday lives.”

Lana is choosing to be sassy and cheerful and not to tell him all the horrors she’s been through. It suddenly hits her: what has he been through? We all go through shit, and he’s old-ish — he must have been through shitshitshit. Does he also have self destructive patterns? Has he lost someone he loves? What happened to his relationship with his family? What is it, Vlad? Let’s be honest. Or not. Maybe another day. Let’s enjoy each other’s company without digging up our traumas. If only for today, Vlad, let’s keep being strangers, let’s keep talking about Tolstoy and Wollstonecraft, let’s keep it simple, Vlad, let’s look at trinkets, let’s ignore all the shitshishit to create an illusion of perfection only for today.

She’s determined not to ask him about his shitshishit, nor tell him about hers, so she holds a figurine of the Queen and admires how well it is made. The small things, you know? After describing it thoughtfully, she tells him, just in case he’s never thought about it — and because she often needs to convince herself — “Don’t these little details make life worth living?”

Vlad smiles back at her. He seems so serene and good-natured. She wouldn’t like to spoil what they have right now. She thinks maybe it would be better to part forever, to keep it small, to remain eternal strangers, to crystallize this idealized encounter for good. Or would it? This damn pandemic has been so harsh for both of them, their solitudes will retreat at least once more if he paints her portrait. Plus, that would give her yet another reason to stick around here one more day. With Elizabeth II still in her hand, she says, looking directly into his eyes: “I want to wear this exact same outfit when you paint me.”

{Painting credit: @morganico_com}

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

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