I woke up with a hard-on and the feeling of a new literary idea wandering through my head. I had to pee, and struggled with my looming inspiration for a few minutes; the cold water running in the sink dramatically improved my body’s functions. I made a black coffee “frappe” with five ice cubes, and sat in front of the TV in just my shorts.
Drinking coffee was the way I initiated proceedings in such cases. Morning inspirations were not an unusual thing for me; as a matter of fact, I felt that as the years went by morning inspirations were becoming more and more frequent (while morning hard-ons followed the opposite course). The ritual begins with a review of which activities might have aroused this inspiration. I turned on the TV and switched it to a random channel while I clinked the ice cubes in the glass by stirring them with a straw (the noise helped me refresh my memory).
It wasn’t hard to settle on a theme. The previous evening, Tonya had been watching a documentary in my living room while I sat next to her, trying to seduce her. Unfortunately for my libido, the documentary was about a photographer travelling through thirdworld countries doing photo shoots and charity work (my erotic seduction couldn’t compete). Eventually we screwed, but right up to the end of the documentary I was obliged to watch the fascinating adventures of a seagull in its starring role.
“The seagull dies in the end,” I told Tonya all of a sudden.
“How do you know?”
“It’s what I do. I write stories.”
The seagull appearing in the documentary died eventually from having eaten an infected fish in Senegal. Before the unfortunate bird died, Tonya crossed her leg over my supine body, and while pushing herself across my chest and belly, she began biting and kissing my lips. Sometimes I think that she hangs out with me – a broke, aspiring writer who’s ten years older than she is – out of charitable feelings and an artistic curiosity, the kind you develop if you’re interested in the arts (photography, in her case). She really appreciated my little aphorisms, and she let me know as much. Some oil-slick cormorants died along with the seagull. I peeked while we were still in the living room.
Once I had a theme to work with, the next step was to focus on the subject. This is always the most difficult part. Like a shadow that appears in your field of vision when you’re looking into a bright background, the more you try to focus on some flies, the more distant they seem. This stage required nicotine, and was a perfect excuse to smoke the rest of a cigarette I had cut in half and left the day before yesterday, when I swore I would quit smoking. In service to my addiction, I throw my cigarettes in the bin, which I empty once a week, so I’m always finding slashed rehabilitation attempts whenever I need them. In order to tease the addiction even more, I’ve been smoking unfiltered cigarettes for the past few months, so as to not waste the other filtered halves. My lungs are being sacrificed for the sake of artistic creation.
After three and a half cigarettes, and a second “frappe” with only three ice cubes so I could finish it faster, I outlined my new story. In technical terms, it would be a 2500-word narrative to send to a themed competition in Barcelona. My idea was to write about the unjust distribution of wealth and unequal economic development caused by a worldwide, greedy elite that left poverty and disastrous environmental conditions in its wake. Something along those lines. The subject was not unfamiliar to me: I often referred to it in texts that included testimonies from victims of this situation. I felt victimized by this situation myself, having spent months without a job, unable to pay the rent and depending on the financial support of Tonya. Yet it would be the first time I’d try writing on the negative aspects of capitalism as a main subject. Through association, I recalled many aphorisms from my politicized student years.
I went to see Tonya to discuss my ideas. I trusted her judgment because she was able to apply her photographer’s point of view to a literary framework. With her knowledge of a photograph’s focal point, she was able to imagine the scenes of a narrative. I’d been discussing my ideas with her ever since we first met, when she still was a friend of the girlfriend I’d been with for three years. The two of them had met at a photography seminar, and the three of us went for a coffee once: me, Tonya, and Aggeliki, who loved photography as well. I had a good time that evening talking with Tonya about a story I was writing and (unintentionally) ignoring killer glares from Aggeliki, who was watching us without saying a word. Aggeliki never spoke to Tonya again after that day, and she let me know that she’d been glaring at me for “drooling” over and ogling her now “ex-friend” Tonya. We broke up exactly two months later. A factor that probably contributed to Aggeliki’s decision to leave me was the appearance in my new story of a young French photographer named Aynot, who stole the author’s heart. In any case, for six whole months after Aggeliki left me, I was drinking, smoking, barely eating, and writing poems about people who committed suicide.
Then I ran into Tonya again. We met by chance on the street and she recognized me, despite the signs of Aggeliki’s abandonment being evident on my face. We literally introduced ourselves all over again, since associations such as “Aggeliki’s friend” or “Aggeliki’s boyfriend” meant nothing anymore. She suggested we go for a coffee, and I told her that I was writing poems about people who cut their veins. She shuddered and urged me to write about “something big, something important”. I told her she was right, then kept on writing about people who couldn’t bear life’s hardships. This lasted for a couple of weeks, until I started an affair with her, when my writing became more optimistic.
Tonya was pleased to have inspired me. She worked as a volunteer for an NGO assisting victims of the economic crisis in Greece. On mornings when she didn’t have class, she wandered around the streets of Athens taking photographs of people in need, people living in slums, and some evenings she helped distribute food and medicine. My texts began to reflect her influence, and gradually characters with financial difficulties began to appear in them: people who were unemployed or were living in impoverished regions and forgotten towns. Still, this was merely a part of my writing, and not the main subject. Tonya constantly insisted that I write about “something big”, “something important”; that I deal with “injustice”, “poverty”, “the pursuit of profit”, and “environmental degradation”. She reminded me of aphorisms that I had renounced years ago because I’d regarded them as hypocritical. I considered it hypocritical to write about societal injustice while doing nothing to fight against it. She got upset when I talked to her like that, and insisted that even if it was only one person who was made more aware after reading one of my texts, it would be the world’s gain. Believing that she had finally persuaded me, she was pleased when I told her about my literary concerns from that morning.
I was sincere in explaining to her that I hadn’t overcome my reticence regarding hypocrisy. Inspired by the cormorants covered in oil, I thought I might like to write about environmental degradation being a consequence of the pursuit of profit, but I realized that a story like that wouldn’t make as much of an impact as a poem about a woman who hanged herself. Tonya smiled.
“The last poem you read to me was wonderful. You have to do your best to make your new text is as good as that poem.”
“Will you help me?”
“I could be the main character, if you’d like,” she said, and spun around.
“I’ll think about it,” I answered, trying to look as serious as I could.
She looked sad. I guessed she was pretending, but I was never sure whether she was or not. When it came to her feelings, and her orgasms as well, she had the ability to draw a colorful curtain across herself and not let anything pass through, unless she tugged at the edges herself. “I’m teasing you, my love,” I assured her.
“I know! I’m not really upset, baby. I know that I’m the only character starring in your texts.”
I had told her several times that, for me, writing and life were two completely separate things. I could write about some random girl I’d seen on the street or met at work, but that didn’t mean I wanted to fuck her. I pointed out that after our first meeting and while I was still involved with Aggeliki, I’d written a story whose main character very much resembled her, and that I’d given the girl in my story Tonya’s name, written in reverse. She let me know that she didn’t like to be told those kinds of things, so I never told her anything like that again. At least she didn’t get jealous of any female protagonists who committed suicide.
“Could I have some of your photos? I remember you did a series on pollution. It would also be helpful if you could show me some places in Athens with signs of major degradation. You know the city better than I do.”
Right then she took some photos from her folders and gave them to me. The list of places she started to name was so long that I stopped her after the first ten.
“Let me visit some of these places first and then we will see.”
“Would you like me to go along with you?”
“It would be better if I went for a few walks by myself. You know it helps me.”
She nodded in agreement and gave me a see-you-in-the-evening kiss. When I left her house, I felt optimistic again. Maybe if I visited some of the places she suggested, if I studied her photos, if I tried to get inside the mind, soul or life of a shark – the kind that swim or the financial kind –, if I managed to deconstruct and reshape the perception of profit, maybe then I could write something related to the idea that had woken me up in the morning. As I tried to look at them, the shadows began drawing away, but this is something that will never change.
The closest place Tonya suggested I visit was an abandoned beach I could get to in an hour by bus. I’d been there once, years before, when it had been a clean beach, one that had been very popular with people wanting a place to swim that was easy to get to. Since then, debris from nearby construction sites, wastewater from nearby businesses, and trash tossed by passers-by had accumulated and, because tolerance turns into complicity, it led to the creation of a beach-dump. I picked my way past the trash and sat on a rock by the sea. A sense of futility in regard to my own efforts returned. How could my story help? Would it persuade an innkeeper to stop emptying his garbage into the sea? Would it persuade a truck driver to journey double the distance to throw his trash elsewhere? As these thoughts went through my head, I kept picking up pieces of plastic from below and hurling them back.
I took some photos out of my backpack and looked through them. The shots Tonya took in the streets of Athens were used by the NGO she was working for to raise people’s awareness. The effort seemed to be paying off, since they’d managed to organize the distribution of food and medicine solely through the volunteer work of ordinary people. Maybe these efforts weren’t in vain after all. My thoughts went from warm to cold and back again, right along with the weather, which switched constantly between warm and sunny to cold and windy.
I started outlining the story in my mind, taking notes. My main characters would be seagulls living on a beach like this one. They would live quiet, pleasant lives, eating fish from the sea and soaring above the waves. One day a factory would be built next to the beach, and its debris would be dumped in the sea. The seagulls would decide to do something about it by attacking the construction workers, pecking them and assailing them with droppings. The seagulls would win and, instead of the factory, a school would be built.
I knew I was writing nonsense. I crossed out everything I’d written and stopped for a while. A dropping landed on my notebook; I saw a seagull flying over my head and without thinking I threw my pen at it. The seagull fell in front me a moment later, the pen sticking out of its belly.
I examined the dead bird, pulling my pen out to reveal a deep wound by its tail. A sudden impulse made me stick my pen back into its belly and drag it towards its neck, making a ragged incision in the bird. It was something I hadn’t mean to do but couldn’t help, like an annoying hiccup that won’t stop even when you hold your breath. I did hold my breath because of the intense stink that emerged from seagull’s stomach, reminding me of my kitchen after I’d cleaned fish and left the garbage for three days. From its stomach I extracted three hooks, a piece of a can and a ribbed condom. I rolled the condom over two of my fingers and turned them around. I figured the seagull would have died anyway, since its diet was obviously screwing with its health.
The seagull was killed by my pen. Even if it hadn’t been killed by my pen, it would have died from the trash it’d been eating. It could’ve been killed by the can, something that many starving regions lack. It could’ve died from sexual stimulation. It could’ve been killed by a trap set for a fish. Some people have too many things; some don’t have anything; and for others, all that is left is trash. I tore out my page of notes and headed towards the bus stop to get back. I might write a poem about a seagull that committed suicide, or a cormorant that cut its veins. Surely I wouldn’t write a story to send to the competition in Barcelona.