Kate FELD Pasaje ESTRELLA
The state of being alone is something which (though paradoxically)
always implies that someone else is there
It’s on the seventh floor and it faces the sea. The balcony is big enough for a wicker couch with thick, striped cushions that look inviting and it was why I chose this flat, the thought of whiling away the hours there reading a book and periodically resting my eyes on the water. But today when I step through the door the idea of throwing myself off the balcony is waiting out there for me.
I stop, just over the threshold, and peer forward. To throw myself off this balcony I would have to get over the railing and when I imagine myself continuing to walk up to the railing—measuring with my eye where the top rail likely falls on my body; calculating if the bar across the bottom would be high enough to boost me over, yes, I think it would—I feel something froth up inside. A slick dread made of too many kinds of movement grating against each other.
The wind toys with a curtain. I step back into the room and slide the door to. And the sea goes back to whatever it was doing.
I am perfectly safe, though I am alone. If I go out and begin to climb over the balcony railing there is no one to stop me. But it’s all right. I have come here to go out of my mind, and look: we’ve arrived.
I draw the curtains.
I’ve been to this town before, with a friend. It’s the kind of place you can just book and go. The last time I came it was sunny every day, so hot I had to pick up a cheap sundress and sandals in a tourist trap. This winter it’s cold. It’s cold and the sea has been like a piece of slate for three days. Three of the bin-end days between Christmas and New Year’s when everyone in this country is at home with their families, eating the rich and shiny cakes of this time.
Meanwhile, the pale town settles around the hill with its stucco towers, switchback turnings, gap-toothed stairs, and my lane. A tiled passageway roofed by the enormous trees which grow in the gardens of the villas on either side. You can’t see the lane from above, the trees hide it, and even if you were walking by you might miss the opening. A sign next to the archway says Pasaje Estrella.
Yesterday I spent a long time in there, standing before the white walls watching leaf shadows shift and moult like smoke rising from a fire. Then I walked on through the lane and across the road and into the sea to wash the breath of a bad year off me. A year of people I loved telling me they no longer wanted to be alive.
I have never, I want to say—I have never. It is very important to understand how much I want to live.
A few steps past the archway that marks the entrance of the Pasaje Estrella, the neck of the lane widens out, giving onto a room full of moving light. Here, a floor of blue paving stones makes a grid littered with leaves. This room has a different feeling depending on the time of day, the quality of the light, the temperature, the arrangement of dead leaves, the disposition of my mind—and the interaction between these things. It can turn on the most minor contingency. I have started to keep a record of it, all of it.
Every time I go through the archway I spook one of the neighbourhood’s motley congregation of cats, sending it running along the tops of the walls. One cat is shy and runs away, looking back every few steps to see if I am still advancing. One cat doesn’t stir when I pass, puffed dozing on the crooked line of tiles. This stripy cat has to be woken up to look at me, and doesn’t narrow its eyes in hello.
I could stay in my flat, or go to a bar and talk to strangers. See a bit more of the place. There are many places in this town I could see more of but I like it here in this lane, where birdsong carries through the air with a particular chiming resonance. The tree from which the biggest leaves fall is a whole world in itself. I can see that its graciously arched boughs make a series of echelons rising to the bottom of the sky, a succession of artfully lit settings where birds flit and alight. There is a refuge in that tree, but not for me.
cat sleeps on the wall
bird hops to a higher branch
leaf falls to the blue stone with a soft scratch
What we try to do is encourage the caller to talk until they say their worst thing, the thought they are most terrified to speak aloud. That’s what my friend who volunteers for the suicide hotline told me. Once they’ve said it, the thought loses its power, and you can let them talk themselves out. The danger has passed, for that day at least.
But where does the power of the worst thing go? That’s what I want to know. Because it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it? And do you think can it leap from one host to another? Yes, that is what I’m asking: is there a possibility that this idea of wanting to end one’s life is contagious?
The first time I approached the pasaje after dark I was surprised to find lights in the little room it contains—but of course, they are streetlights. For though I think of it so familiarly I must admit that it remains a kind of street, and it would be a dark one without them. The accumulation of light within its walls deepens the sense of interiority about the place which is contained and open at the same time, holding above and below in its hand.
night: softly glowing interior light
birds quieter or different songs from evening birds
scuttle of wingbeat settling
in the morning: little mirrorball scraps of light spinning
round in the bottom of a bottle
Another evening, even later this time, I found that the light in that room possessed the exact pitch and amplitude of the bedside lamp I had as a little girl. This lamp, which I loved dearly, was made of milk glass and shone with a pearly light. Before she kissed me goodnight my mother would turn off the top lamp with its frilled and dotted glass shade but leave lit the lower chamber, which took a small bulb like the ones on strings of Christmas tree lights. That was how each day closed: my mother turned a metal key in the side of the lamp and the room bowed its head. The soft light shone all night.
I sink down against the wall and let myself still and slow into the lamplight. There’s nothing for me to do but observe my shadows and where they fall on the blue grid, or admire the curl of my small hand on the pillow. There is my mother bending her dark head low to kiss me again, the white sheets, the cracked white wall which is golden at night and rose blue all afternoon. It is a long time since she was alive but in this light I can look with my mother’s eyes at this body, leaning against the wall in a city where I don’t know a soul.
People walk into the lane, passing through my room, but they do not enter the place where I am. I’m apart from the thinking town, the dreaming beach; neither here nor there. In reverie. A scooter revving up a hill, a car idling past the washing of the sea, all sounds proceed across the air, the hours; all sounds are carried through my long ago bedroom window, which has been left open a crack to the bluing night.
The first person I saw in the pasaje was a boy who lives in my building. He recognised me from the time I held the terrace gate open for him. His ola plucked a clear, high note.
It must be hard to sit by a phone waiting for it to ring, knowing that when you pick it up the person on the other end will be desperate. And knowing this call might be their last act of self-preservation—their last chance to live. I suppose it helps that you know it’s coming, so you have time to prepare, to load hearing words into the chambers of your mouth and reinforce the walls of your emotional fortitude, taking care to allow a small pasaje between your feelings and those of the caller.
When my phone rang I never had time to prepare. It happened, once, and then again until I ate the food of it happening and drank the water of it happening and slept fitfully, each night, in the arms of it happening. Of course you must live differently in a year like that. When the calls came from a succession of desperate scenes around the city I made the adjustment with such dispatch and economy of movement that even I didn’t notice.
Then I was a body conducting practical conversations at the hospital while being, at the same time, a skimmed thing. A body which sat at the edge of the abyss and rolled one terrible cigarette after another, lining them up on the table and obliging with the lighter. A body which listened and spoke, performed actions and made arrangements.
Yet all the while whatever it was that burned inside had been simply put out. Like a lamp softly extinguished or a cat, put out for the night.
All the cats who have been put out for the night go sleep on the pasaje.
All the cats who have been put out for the night run and play along the tops of the walls, and dance under the stars upon the blue stones of Pasaje Estrella.
When your wayward self comes scratching at the door one morning you may not recognise the ragged thing. But as it approaches an unknown tenderness, a great and terrible compassion, swells and fills the body until it spills its pearly light upon everything. On the dead leaves and the blue stones. On the figure of a woman loitering in an alleyway near the beach in a resort town, making her observations
inscrutable banks of cloud over the sea, sun shoved in a pocket
bundles of trees hang like laundry left out overnight
quality of light teeters all morning
Kate FELD is a writer who grew up in the U.S. state of Vermont and now lives outside Manchester, UK. She writes poetry, short fiction, essays and prose that sits between forms. Her writing explores the natural world, mythology and the unconscious, often taking the form of lyric narratives that interrogate experience and map the psychological landscapes of everyday life. Her work has been published widely in journals and anthologies including The Stinging Fly, The Letters Page, Hotel and Entropy. She is the founding editor of UK creative nonfiction journal and reading series The Real Story, and lectures in journalism at the University of Salford.