James Baldwin said that the most vital things for the writer to describe are the habitual ways in which we imprison ourselves and relinquish our own freedom - quoted in The Marginalian.
Lois lives next to the sea. Her lover lives in a valley. A mountain range and a river lie between them. It's a forty minute drive in traffic but he rides a pushbike. Every Saturday afternoon, after completing his work in the māra, he pedals down the motorway into a sharp southerly headwind and then up the steep ravine known as Ngāuranga. It takes him an hour in jandals.
Lois asked him one day what it meant - the gorge, not the gesture - assuming it had something to do with the gnawing and gnashing of teeth ("ngau") and rising up from the roots ("ranga") which sounded sweaty and mildly romantic. She could imagine his teeth grinding through the pain of each revolution, the look of commitment burning behind his eyes. But he said nah, Ngāuranga means the place where the waka landed. Ngā ūranga.
In the bathroom, his toothbrush stands in the cup holder, as straight and utilitarian as any, except it's bamboo. Some nights Lois catches herself staring at it while standing in front of the mirror, her own electric toothbrush zizzing in the silence. A toothbrush is such a powerful symbol of ordinariness. Evidence of quotidian rituals. The banality of plaque.
Every spring since her brother died, which corresponds to the exact length of time the bamboo toothbrush has stood in the cup, he plants sunflower seeds in the garden. Three so far. Seasons not sunflowers. The first didn't take, perhaps planted too eagerly, before the frost had passed. The second summer, a single stalk emerged from the pot next to the glasshouse, but she was so busy with this or that she didn't see the solitary bloom until it was burnt-out and hungover with regret, wilting in the shade of neglect. This year, she made sure to pay attention. The formula is simple: distance divided by speed.
In her inbox one day, a writing prompt lands: what would happen if you were truly free? For the privileged, white, cis, straight, able-bodied, know-where-I’m-cleaning-my-teeth-tonight, such questions belong to the intellectual sport of provocation. A second prompt probes for specificity: what would you write if you weren't afraid?
Lois takes both questions to the sea. Next to the reporters wearing press vests in Gaza, her answers embarrass her. The truth is, the stories she loves the most are those in which nothing happens and everyone is ordinary. Stories refracted through the quotidian.
If Lois were free, she’d write about the domestic. About the messiness of her unremarkable divorce and ordinary survival. She’d write about the gamble of staying. The risk of departure. The reward of living to write the tale.
She'd write about the women who went before her. The girl in the ice-cream cart with "all you need is love" tattooed on her inner forearm. The AA insurance lady who said honey, indecision is a burden heavier than the judgment of others, before charging her card $125 to insure the car she had to borrow money to buy. She'd write about the mechanic who offered her a tissue and a cup of tea and wondered if loneliness, like the vast uncharted territory beside her in bed at night, through another prism could represent possibility.
She'd write about the guilt she never felt. The regret that never came. The wonder instead of the breadth of her own wingspan and the discovery that liberation is as simple and as hard-earned as a single unobstructed breath.
If Lois were unafraid, she would not need permission to publish the things she wrote in secret. She wouldn't need Renée standing over her every Wednesday telling her to stop fucking about and get on with it, a deal's a deal and not everyone likes what a busker plays. The only question that matters is, do you like what you play?
If Lois were free, she wouldn't be embarrassed to be so fucking earnest. A closet romantic. You can't get lost if you follow your heart! scribbled in pencil in her most private journal. Hallmark aspirations. Pablo Neruda winces in his eternal sleep. "Awk" writes an editor in the margin of one particular unpublished essay. Meaning awkward.
Yet even cynics cannot deny that distance divided by speed means you’ve only got now. This one single moment to take hold of the person in front of you and declare all that you know to be true:
I love you. I love you. I breathe and I know that I love you. I know it because of love's former absence, which means I must love the other too, for what he forced me to risk.
This is the terror and the gift. The thing all the other women promised: You'll never regret the gamble and no future moment is guaranteed. Only the next season.
So maybe then Lois would write about the way the jandalled-man props his bike up in the garage, removes the expensive helmet she obliged him to buy since he insists on riding his pushbike from the valley to the sea all through the depths of winter's hail. She’d describe the joy of his returning, the front door code accessed not more than once a week, and the bustling reception of three generations of women revelling in the brief company of a non-violent man.
If Lois were truly free, she’d admit the funny joke that she was the last to recognise this as love until it was standing tall in her garden, upright in the cup in her bathroom. She would not need to write stories about herself in the third person.
"You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all." James Baldwin