Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part I

I moved to Montreal on a hot day in May. I felt summer in the air, saw it on the streets. Gorgeous women in sundresses. Blocks of Boulevard St. Laurent closed to traffic so food carts, funky clothing vendors, and DJ booths could set up on the sidewalk.

I didn’t know anyone.

The first Friday night that came around, I met Eric at Sona. I danced all night, emerging from the club in the wee hours, sweaty and satisfied. My calves got the workout they longed for; my muscles were raw, ripe for soreness.

As we said goodbye outside, I learned that Eric was a waiter at a restaurant in Old Montreal. I agreed to meet him again. The next time I saw him, we drank and played pool at Bar St. Sulpice. A professional pool player, he pretty much kicked my ass, but let me win a few games. Another night, we explored parts of the Latin Quarter I had not yet seen, then hung out at his apartment, watching his roommates play video games and looking through old photographs in his room. He was French; he told me about where he was from, and chatted about his ex-girlfriend when photo booth pictures surfaced. I shared my stories, too—I had ended my first relationship the year before, and had been dating someone that spring.

And now I was in Montreal. I was 22.

A few weeks had passed, and I acclimated to dorm life on the McGill campus—the university rented rooms to long-term travelers over the summer. On another night, Eric took me to the movies; we watched Star Wars: Episode II. He admitted he had never watched the Star Wars films, so I said we should see something else. But he noticed I really wanted to watch it, so he said it was fine. Charming, he was.

As the night progressed, I sensed a magnetism—sitting next to one another in the theater, hands awkwardly not touching, then sort of touching, then not touching. When the movie was over, we walked to the metro station, stopping at the escalator leading to the platform. He looked at me, and I knew.

I remember his face, his accent. He looked young, but his voice was mature and deep. When he said my name, I had to stop myself from giggling. A Frenchman calling me cherie? Really, Cheri. This is too much.

I knew he was about to say something that would end our summer before it even started.

“I would really like to kiss you,” he said. He inched closer.

“I like you,” I answered. “But can we hang out as friends?”

He looked disappointed. “I don’t know if I can do that, Cheri. When I look at you, I just want to kiss you.”

Couples walked past, heading down to the train. His eyes locked on me. I looked away, staring down the street, to Rue Sherbrooke—toward my dormitory, my escape.

“I really just got here,” I said. “I’ve got my French classes, then when those are done I’ll start my other program. I like you, but can’t we just be friends?”

He took my hand and kissed it. “I cannot just be friends with you.” He smiled, kissed my cheek, and stepped onto the escalator. He didn’t look back.

And so I walked home. Part of me had wanted to say I did yearn for a summer love affair. But if I was to have a true love affair, it was going to be with Montreal, not a man.

* * *

I was leaving for Thailand in several weeks.

I met him one night, after-party style, chilling at my friend Jesse’s house in Hayes Valley. There was a computer in the room, so we logged onto Friendster and showed each other our profiles. First name, last name. Noted.

He was an artist—a famous one, I was told. A Google search the next morning confirmed this. The first night we met on our own, we drank at an art gallery in downtown San Francisco. Another night, we met at a dive on Polk and played a bit of pool. On yet another evening, we wandered in North Beach; he wanted to show me a few spots—up the Peter Macchiarini Steps off Broadway, then to a random peephole in a wall that, when looked through, had a cool view of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Another time, he presented me with a tiny canvas: a painting of me, wispy bangs and black-rimmed glasses and all, morphed into one of his signature characters with closed eyes and enlarged hands. I had told him I used to play the violin, so he painted me playing one.

We hung out for less than a month, but I got an ample dose of his intriguing, impulsive life: parties, shows, painting, mingling. Nights out with him let the endorphins loose. Even though we were in San Francisco, his spontaneity made it seem as if we were somewhere else: somewhere unfamiliar, someplace whimsical. In those weeks, anything was possible.

And then I moved to Southeast Asia.

* * *

I have a complex relationship with Lost in Translation.

How beautiful, I think—a film about a girl, coming of age, finding her place in the world, understanding how to be with another. How wonderful, I think—a story of a woman in Tokyo, exploration at her fingertips, with all the time in the world to wander in Shibuya, to contemplate at shrines, to learn the precise art of Ikebana, to get blissfully lost. How sweet, I think—a tale of a young woman and an older man at very different points in their lives, who bond over karaoke with new Japanese friends, over vintage films and sake in a swanky high-rise hotel, over random evenings in the electric landscape of Shinjuku. Two people who connect in a foreign country, who understand each other despite the absence of context, of anything concrete.

How poetic the final scene is, I think, when Bill Murray hops out of a cab to say goodbye to Scarlett Johansson on a crowded street, to whisper in her ear that he adores the young woman he sees before him, that he wishes her only the best, that they will always have this time in Tokyo in their memory.

Precious. Whimsy. That’s what I thought about the film.

And then I entered the world of adult relationships.

How harsh, I begin to think—this poor girl stuck in a hotel room, ditched every day by her hipster photographer husband, locked in an emotional prison where staring off is the easiest way to pass time. How horrible, I begin to think—a bright woman who is lost career-wise, married too young, too cynical for her age. How sad, I begin to think—two people have found each other amid the chaos and elusiveness of an unfamiliar culture, stuck in stagnant marriages, making sense together in a place where everything else is lost in translation—and knowing “they” will dissolve as soon as one leaves.

They can run away and start a jazz band, she says. Yet how unfair that such thoughts, once uttered aloud, lose their magic.

How lustful, I begin to think—this weathered middle-aged man jumps out of a cab to lose himself in a kiss with a naive girl he met on a business trip.

I used to love the fleetingness of Charlotte and Bob’s situation—the creation of something solid, pure, and solely theirs in a lapse with no real beginning and no end. My encounters with the Frenchman and the artist were swift and sweet—woven from thin air and pure adventure.

Today, my response to these ephemeral connections grows increasingly fickle, even sour. At some point, I realize something won’t last for whatever reason—two unsynched wavelengths, an issue of geography, an ill-timed encounter—and Sophia Coppola isn’t there to soften the experience with her rose-colored lens.

These aren’t romantic, poetic connections, are they? Take away the fanciful cinematographer, and all that is left is a harsh reality.

Parts II and III:

A Triptych on Hieronymus Bosch, Love, and Madrid

Part I: Bosch

Over the years, I have relied on Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights to explain my writing process, and also to hint at how I see the world. This early 1500s painting is a triptych (composed of three panels): the left depicts Eden; the center displays a whimsical orgy of nude figures, creatures, and surrealist iconography; and the right panel, dark and moody, depicts hell.

Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights, via Wikipedia.

Separately, Bosch’s characters, scenes, and iconography are nonsensical. The canvas is made up of fragments, all quite powerful, and without them—even the absurd ones—the piece won’t work. As a whole, The Garden of Earthly Delights is cohesive: the chaos, ultimately, makes sense. The first time I looked at it, in my art history class in high school, I was perplexed—even uneasy. Since then, this painting has become a metaphor for how I put things together, as a memoirist and thinker.

How I read this painting is how I write: moments, scenes, even entire chapters of a narrative don’t quite make sense during the writing process. Inspired by nonlinear scripts—The Usual Suspects, Memento—I write in fragments, hoping to see light pushing through the cracks in the deep, dark cave that is my mind; betting that these narrative threads connect in the end.

But this rarely happens, and I leave my threads hanging. To date, my arsenal of unfinished pieces is my greatest accomplishment. And so, I thrive on writing story fragments; I rarely craft endings. I recognize and am comforted by themes that guide my life—from juxtaposition to unreliable memory—but don’t understand why they’re significant.

Part II: Love (Or, At Least Fragments of It)

And in regard to love, I’ve figured out that I won’t ever figure things out. My closest friends are pairing off, falling in love—true, honest, romantic love—and agree to support one another for a lifetime. I don’t think this type of love exists for everyone, and while I’ve been in love before, long long ago, I have yet to find a partner today who complements me.

The colors of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Fragments create my world.
The colors of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Fragments create my world.

As time passes, I am increasingly drawn to modesty—to a quiet, strong confidence. Not many people impress me, but when I come upon someone who does, they usually don’t hit me in the face with it; I peel their layers as I go, with every encounter, and in return, I allow this person to do the same to me. In the past, the more I’ve peeled, the uglier we both get.

Still, I accept my flaws. My search for the “perfect” person is more a search for an individual with imperfections I can handle, and with leftover fragments that can be stored with my own in harmony—in a big glass jar that we can shake to create a haphazard, eclectic mix that works. While this is not love in the conventional sense, it makes perfect sense to me.

Part III: Madrid

My slowly developed love for Madrid—10 years in the making—reflects this search for a lifelong mate. I first wandered Madrid when I was 20, in the spring of 2000. Aside from the quiet, intense moments between me and The Garden of Earthly Delights inside the Prado Museum, Madrid was forgettable.

That spring, I also wandered the streets of Barcelona, Florence, Interlaken, London, Paris, and other cities, and while I’d filed clear snapshots of La Pedrera, the Florence Cathedral, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and other landmarks in my mental photo gallery, I could not recall anything concrete about Madrid after my trip other than Bosch’s surreal, chaotic landscape. I know I walked around and saw massive monuments, but the city was a blur. For a decade, Madrid was a blotch in my mind.

My trip to Madrid this past August, then, was surprising. I fell in love with it. I lingered a lot, spending hours in its plazas sipping wine, nibbling on tapas, and talking about life with my dear friend Ben and his sister Nicole. I wandered quieter streets of La Latina, studying the mundane and the crumbling facades; I sat on benches on a tree-lined street to watch sellers of El Rastro market set up their booths. I lingered at fountains; I explored the city’s parks. I returned to my favorite plazas, sitting for longer, sipping more wine, indulging on more plates of food.

Friday Night Plaza Bustle, Madrid.

I wondered why I didn’t experience this 10 years before, and I realize I have absorbed Madrid differently than other cities. When I was 20, I was attracted to the obvious beauty and grandness of cities like Barcelona, but on this recent trip, Barcelona felt superficial—the city was fleeting, but not in a pleasurable way. I could not identify with or grasp anything in Barcelona. Gaudi’s monuments were jaw-dropping, of course, but I couldn’t scratch the surface of the city. I left unfulfilled.

But Madrid’s beauty is unassuming. It simmers just under the surface. And it’s not that Madrid lacks iconic symbols to hold onto, but rather the city reeled me in and captured my heart in a quiet, gradual way. It’s a mature, sophisticated love: despite its flaws, and even though it’s not postcard-perfect, I love it all the same.

And that’s how people generally win me over. Love has never bonked me over the head with a hammer: it creeps up on me, it lingers…it pulls me closer bit by bit, moment to moment. It takes many pieces, and a good amount of time, for me to feel. For me to create something whole.