The cemetery where she meets him after work is both vertiginous and claustrophobic. The graves are crowded closely together, like huddled children cowering from punishment, then there is a short stretch of lawn tilting to the cliff’s edge, and beyond that a sickening void she imagines rushing out to meet her. Why would it occur to someone to build a cemetery on a steep escarpment above the Pacific Ocean? The weed-hemmed tombstones are cracked and bleached. No one has been buried here for ages; they’re all in the fashionable new cemetery out near the airport. The paths are strewn with shards of glass, the torn petals of sad plastic flowers, scraps of trash, and shriveled cigarette butts, and the whole thing might have an air of tawdriness if not for that view: blinding blue sky sliced horizontally by the cliff edge, the wild ocean below. The audacious, swaggering drama of it.
Maths 1 lesson, seated between girls — a school prefect and a sports champ. He liked both of them, but didn’t think they liked him much. In fact, he was pretty sure they thought he was a bit of a joke — not a real male and nothing to admire but okay at his schoolwork but so what. Those days his brother kept chooks that were being treated for stickfast fleas.
On our first date he took me to a bar disguised as an apartment. Down a narrow alley (they call them laneways there), up a step, through a door marked “1A.” The room was small and nearly empty, all dark wood and white walls. A fire did its quiet work in one corner, its light gleaming on the unlabeled bottles that lined the shelves. He knew everyone, and the beautiful, tattooed bartenders spoke to me like family.
On the walk to Central Station I struggled to obey simple gravity. My limbs felt weightless, my feet didn’t feel at all. With each step, I had to remind myself to touch pavement again, as if in a moment’s forgetfulness I might slip the earth’s magnetic pull and go pinwheeling over Sydney Harbor and out to sea.
Almost every child takes an object of particular affection—a stuffed animal or a blanket that they sleep with and drag around behind them in a state of increasing filth and dissolution, the way Christopher Robin drags Pooh. I’ve always wondered about the fates of other people’s beloved creatures: surely nobody is heartless enough to throw them away? When something—someone!—has been so loved, how can you ever stop loving them entirely? I’ve always had a tendency to anthropomorphize things—houses, cars, teddy bears—and retain a sentimental compassion for others who do so.
When I flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town and drove to Misty Cliffs, which Google described as a little village that lies on the mountain and on the beach, divided only by Main Road, between Kommetjie and Scarborough, roughly an hour from Cape Town, I had no idea what lay ahead. I was insulated in pain from a break up. Ten days of the sea, walking, and writing healed me. This mountaintop lounge, where I wrote “Sad whale-speak at Misty Cliffs” to keep this dream of a place alive, has been my best writing room, so far.
I had a career, I tanked it good. They’d sent me to middle of nowhere, Australia, which was, quite possibly, the most desolate place on earth. Eight hours a day listening to the North Koreans. Most tracking stations are remote for the obvious reasons of privacy and uncluttered air space, but what really matters is being within the footprint of a satellite’s broadcast range. Hence: Nowhere, Australia, under Intelsat 2 stationed over the Pacific Ocean and handling the equivalent of about a million pages of text per second. It was grueling work and peculiar for its mix of boredom and anxiety, both of which verged on the unbearable. Rumors about the global listening system called Echelon abound, so let’s just dispense with the mystery and say yes: It exists. The UK countries listen in on what Americans are doing and then pass on the information, which loopholes that nasty proscription against spying on our own.