The Last Short StoryBy Edy Poppy
February 24, 2022
translated from the Norwegian by May-Brit Akerholt
I know you’re waiting for my last short story but, unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. It’s taken me more than five years to write this collection, but now that it’s soon finished, I’m wondering if I should throw this shit in the bin and start something new. A novel.
I feel I haven’t been honest enough in my short stories. Not courageous enough either. I’ve tried to write about people coming apart in all sorts of different ways, a kind or encyclopaedia of misery, if you like. But I’ve just touched the surface, without ever really meeting my own gaze, or the gaze of the reader, for that matter. I’ve seen myself crying in the mirror. I thought it was genuine. That it was literature.
“The truth is just a seed from which fiction can grow,” I’ve told journalists. Or, “Only through lies can you reach the truth.” It’s just a conceit, all of it. I’ve hidden behind the language, behind lovely formulations. Now I’m longing for an ugly, unpretentious form of writing. Sentences you don’t know how to adhere to.
When I wrote Anatomy. Monotony., I wanted Ragnhild to be a sympathetic character, I wanted the reader to like her, because she represented me. Of course I gave her a few flaws, but I didn’t go far enough by a long shot. I was vain, chickened out. Now I want to write until I blush. Because I believe that’s where the most interesting writing, the most challenging formulations, are hiding; in the total degradation.
I don’t want to write about Ragnhild anymore. She doesn’t represent me any longer, perhaps she never has. Not to mention all the other characters in this collection of short stories. I want to call people by their proper names. I believe my writing needs it, this honesty, this resistance, this courage. I am Vår. Lou is Lou. Not Cyril, as he’s called in “Rain Divide.”
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at my old desk in my homestead in Bø. The drawers are full of archived feelings. One of them is called Lou and Oscar, Kyoto 2007. A few days ago, I opened the drawer and reread all the emails they sent me when I was in Japan. And that’s when it dawned on me how much more ruthless I am than Ragnhild. You can’t trust reality, they say. But I’m willing to take that risk.
Because this situation between the three of us has, unhappily, lasted for several years already. Neither Lou nor Oscar was able to pull out of the triangle. They lost their pride and therefore had nothing to lose. I was doubly loved. And I actually think I enjoyed that, in all its simple cruelty. So it ended as it always does, they pushed me into a corner and asked me to choose. My answer was to travel far away, didn’t give a damn how far, to the other side of the world. Where I could wake up in the morning safe in my knowledge that it was bedtime in Europe. I told them both that I needed to be alone for a while. But the truth is that I needed time to hatch a new plan.
I’ve changed during the last few years, for the worse. I learned to lie from Lou, to deceive; to take risks, while he learned honesty and trust from me. Oscar taught me to seek freedom, while I chained him to me with stronger and stronger bonds. Lou once said about me that he’d created a monster. And that made me smile. As if it was a triumph. Because during my childhood, I was kind to a fault.
I wandered the streets of Kyoto with a new kind of self-confidence: blonde, blue-eyed and with chubby cheeks. I collected stamps from Zen gardens in a little book I’d bought. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’ve never had a particular interest in rocks, raked gravel, or moss. I collected the stamps simply because I liked the idea of filling out the pages in a book. Besides, I had to prove to Lou and Oscar that I spent my time on something useful.
The only garden I really enjoyed was Ryōan-ji, the temple of the peaceful dragon. The dry landscape was created sometime in the 15th century and consists of fifteen rocks, but no matter where you stand, you can only see fourteen at a time. They say that only one who achieves enlightenment can see all fifteen rocks at once. I’m telling you this because I believe it is from this dead angle I want to write my novel, that this is where my rottenness is hiding.
I remember Ryōan-ji so well, not because of the garden itself, but what happened afterwards. I hadn’t checked my email for a long time. I was scared. Scared that Lou and Oscar had talked with each other. I’d promised them both that I wouldn’t see the other before my departure. Still, I made love to them both, in secret, of course.
Apart from Ryōan-ji, I remember the internet café most of all. It was on the seventh floor, just above a karaoke bar. Computers and colourful one-armed bandits in rows in a small room that must’ve once been a storeroom or something like that. I remember closed windows, a damp, stuffy atmosphere. I was nervous when I opened my inbox, and with good reason. It was full of emails from Lou and Oscar. Emails I later printed out, collected in a folder and classified. They are the transcripts I’ve got on my desk now.
What surprises me when I look through these emails, is how similar and full of longing they are, as if they were written by the same person. Only the word choices vary, different kinds of phrasing. But the content is more or less identical. In retrospect I’ve been thinking about the comedy, or tragedy, of it all, that in the same situation, people usually become the same.
I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I find it to be an exciting topic for a novel. Both Lou and Oscar were eagerly waiting for me to make the final decision and leave the other. They were trying to give me courage by inundating me with their love, both so cocksure. Oscar even sent me a photo I could use to masturbate.
I had to make a choice, that became very clear as I sat there shivering. Because how long could I continue like that, walking around in Kyoto, alone, without feeling lonely? My book was already filled with stamps from the Zen gardens, I had criss-crossed the city until my heels were full of blisters, I had taken hot baths with old women in the traditional onsen, I had seen geishas disappearing behind street corners and into cars, I had eaten an abundance of sushi, I’d been a tourist, and now I was longing to go home. But to whom?
I have to admit that I did something pretty banal. I made two lists. One for Lou and one for Oscar. Beneath each name, I wrote what I liked and what I disliked, awarded points. I jotted it down on a used serviette. It’s here on my desk right now, with soya-stained edges. When I divided it all up, Lou topped both the positive and the negative lists. I’ve always wanted to have too much rather than too little, no matter what it’s about, so the choice was clear. I just needed the courage to go through with my decision.
I remember logging out of my email and going down to the karaoke bar. I sat there for a while drinking sake and listening to a man in a suit sing French love songs in a strong Japanese accent. The words weren’t clear, but the message was impossible to miss. It was as if he were singing to me. Lou is French, as you know. I took it as a sign. Sometimes the world really is synchronized. Things just fit. I gulped down the rest of the sake and went up to the café again, opened my email once more and wrote to Lou, almost in a trance.
My darling Lou, I wrote. I want you to know that I’m tired of this emotional chaos. I long for something simple. Because it’s you who are my king. I love you more than ever. – Your Vår. PS: I promise to break it off with Oscar. And I finished with this quote from Thomas Merton: One’s spiritual life consists of loving. You don’t love because you want to do what’s good, or to help, or to protect someone. If that’s how we act, we see our neighbor as an object and nothing else, and we experience ourselves as generous and wise people. This has nothing to do with love. I’ve no idea where I got this quotation.
I felt nauseous the minute I sent the email.
I took a taxi back to the hotel, ran up to my room and threw myself over the toilet. I spent the whole night with my head in my own shit, so to speak. All I could think of was what I’d chosen to lose. I reminisced over my time with Oscar until tears filled my eyes. Thought of things I should’ve added to his list.
It’s strange to sit here in my nursery in Bø and think about this. It’s only now, this many years later, that I feel I have distance enough to touch this material without compassion, or sympathy, without this incessant understanding of myself. Without always longing for the poetry of language. Because it didn’t stop there. After a few hours hanging over the toilet bowl, I suddenly got an idea. I had a shower, washed away all this repulsiveness, combed my hair, dressed in Lou’s dark-brown suit and his light-yellow skirt with horses—the one that used to make me feel so safe—and then I jumped into another taxi.
It was four o’clock in the morning. The karaoke bar was still full of people. A toothless teenager stood on the stage singing The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” If I’d taken the time to listen for signs this time as well, perhaps I’d have stopped there and not continued up the stairs.
There was hardly anyone in the room, but it felt even more confined than before, as if there wasn’t enough oxygen in there. But as I said, I didn’t listen to any of the signs. Neither did I think. I just found the email I’d sent Lou, copied it, changed the names and sent it to Oscar. I remember that when I walked out of the internet café, it was with a feeling of triumph. Then I went straight to a really expensive restaurant and filled my empty stomach with Kobe steak. I celebrated my deception. As if I’d done something honorable, liberated myself from all forms of female sentimentalism.
That’s what I want to explore in my next novel. This total blindness for oneself, for a situation, for others. The lack of compassion as well, of course. Lack of compassion in my writing.
I don’t remember so much of the days that followed, apart from walking in and out of shops, buying gifts to take home; for Lou, and for Oscar. I checked my emails several times a day. But my inbox remained painfully empty.
Finally their emails arrived. Once more it struck me how similar their writing was. But their tone was totally different from last time. And the font was bigger, with large spaces between the words. As if, in their minds, the distance between Europe and Japan had become more than geographical. Liar, cheat, hypocrite. Cold, crass, cynical. Lou and Oscar had obviously talked on the phone. I was exposed.
I can really imagine that I could write a whole novel about this, about this lie that unraveled like a cheap pair of nylons. Perhaps it’d be exciting to change perspective as well. Follow Lou walking along the canals in Berlin, looking at how the trees are being cut down, one by one. Or Oscar, who locks himself in his room in London, trying to console himself with junk food and porn. But I don’t think so. I think I’ll stick with my own perspective. The suffering of others has probably never been my field.
Today my skin is beginning to peel. I’m sitting here on my homestead in Bø, in my nursery, tearing off thin layers of dead skin, dead hide. As if I’d been protected by something almost invisible, been covered in Glad wrap.
I sat outside in the sun a few days ago, just here at the back of the house. But I didn’t manage to stop in time, vanity took over and I became sunburnt. Bright red nose tip. And now my skin is peeling, and I don’t think it’s accidental. It’s the superfluous words that are being deleted from my writing, that’s how I see it. I’m thinking that this is where I have to start my next novel. From this fragile place.
My best wishes,
photograph by Ina Damli
Edy Poppy (b. 1975), grew up on a farm in Bø, Telemark, Norway. She moved to Montpellier when she was 17, and spent several years in France, then London, where she worked with art, fashion, film and writing. In 2005 she published her first novel Anatomy.Monotony., which was translated into Italian, Finnish, German, Polish and English. It won the contest for best love story by Gyldendal. After seven years in London, Poppy moved to Berlin and later on spent several months in Buenos Aires, Lipari, Reykjavik and Rio. In 2011 she published the short story collection Coming.Apart. Its opening story, “Dungeness” was selected by the American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press (also the publisher of her novel), to be part of their prestigious and widely distributed anthology Best European Fiction 2015. They will also be publishing Poppy’s short story collection soon. Edy Poppy is now based in Oslo and Kristiansand, working on several theatre plays and her next novel.
Dr May-Brit Akerholt is a professional dramaturg and translator. Her English versions of classic and contemporary playwrights have been produced by many of Australia’s main theatre companies, and some overseas theatres. Many of her translations of drama, prose and poetry have been published.
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