I trust you are making it safely. As I sit down to write this, I realize that to date, much of what I have written you has to do with tasting things, and coffee, because I am always taking a break between sentences. Like just now, I made myself a cup of earl grey tea (we are out of coffee) – black, (because I have no more oat milk.) My instinct, as soon as my mind runs dry, is to reach for something wet, something to dip my pen into, that when I twist back and forth, it decomposes into segments, bits of wordplay I’d later choose to omit from our correspondence. It feels like cheating. Surely there is a fairer way to go about things, a way to write you which doesn’t allow me such meticulous outlaying of a premise, such constant dependency on the immediate. When I presented you a piece of writing about love, later a story about my worst fear, and began the one by retelling my weekend, the other with a metaphor about strawberry jam, you must have thought I have very little consideration for your time. I don’t, but maybe you felt that way. Maybe you are tired of being led through hills and valleys, and can’t I just get to the fucking point? I will, in just a moment. But first, I need us to come to an understanding about what this is: a game of cat and mouse – wherein I put my thoughts on paper, and you read them after me. A brief chase ensues, this time with you in the lead, as I take note of how your thoughts read better. Yes, I have to make sure we are on the same page, that you are prepared to write in the margins, before I begin to consider what to disclose, how to approach the topic at hand.
I spent all of Friday reading Another Country. It was heartbreaking, just as you warned, and most difficult to stomach. I picture Baldwin at his study: he glances out the window towards the streets of Istanbul every so often and pretends as if they were of Harlem, borrows from them in tone and texture so his manuscript could read like gospel and feel like the callus on his left thumb; how they are both rough. “Show me a Baldwin text,” I remember you saying, “and I will show you indigestion spreading in your lap – demystified necromancy: Behold the bottom feeder.” My hunger now satiated, I find it reasonable that you should have first pick at what’s left over, as in, my thoughts which could neither settle nor spoil, until I released them into the echo chamber of our likeminded hearts.
I’ll be honest: when I think of you having been in Montreal all summer without coming down to Ottawa, my throat tightens and my heart sinks. Whoever said distance adds fondness to the heart mustn’t have known this does not apply to borderlines, those of us that grow in melancholy and disdain with every degree of separation from our friends. (Good thing we are slow to forget our fancies and quick to regain what was abandoned on a whim!) I can see you already in my head, eight weeks from now in uniform flying above our heads, you and your fellow attendants taking orders while the pilot commands flight; my throat softens and my heart soars. I wonder – did Eric feel this way about Rufus before – and after – he died? No, Rufus had been his only friend among them. Rufus had made him suffer, but Rufus had dared to know him. And when Eric’s pain had faded, and Rufus was far away, Eric remembered only the joy that they had sometimes shared, and the timbre of Rufus’ voice, his half-beat, loping, cocky walk, his smile, the way he held a cigarette, the way he threw back his head when he laughed.
It was lunchtime today, when I realized I was avoiding social media because I am a little bit scared for myself and you. A sudden tension in my arms made me ask what does it feel like? What good is having all these networks if we are seldom granted any closure? There I sat and I was eating, outside — because we are what we eat and I wanted to be in good company. By sundown, I knew that it was love which made me afraid; death leads by opening wounds. Because we are lead – and what hurts has a tendency to last – it could be days, months, years even if it is true that bullets are for killing time. Let’s not forget that a wrinkle in it only leads to more wrinkles, how age penetrates one foot forward before killing ten toes down. Where skin hollows and seconds pool, the clock, once drowned and tick tock-ing no more, cannot keep track of which had broken first; was it my penchant for being stone-laden, or the sound of your footbeds kissing stone? You must accept, though I cannot speak to what end, I walk this path together with you, very much knowing it is going to kill – not because we are particularly masochistic, nor have we the intent, through dying, of uncovering dark secrets (chicken or the egg?). Put simply, we were condemned by this queer livelihood, and now overgrown, I would like us to interrogate the matter, wishing this could grant us passage beyond earthly plains. Had he known where that day would lead him, would he have writhed as he did, in such an anguished joy, beneath the great weight of his fire lover?
bell hooks once described queerness as “not being about who you’re having sex with – that can be a dimension of it – but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it, and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” By this definition, there are two prominent dimensions to being queer. The one, at face value, insists on being antagonistic – it provokes the status quo merely by being immune to subjugation (some will comply, but no, they cannot, for they are too headstrong and obtuse and limp-wristed to be brought truly to their knees.) The other dimension exists due to the conditions created by its predecessor: where one is at odds with his environment, he cannot wonder why the clouds wander pitch white. Rather, he decides that it is only to mirror the harsh fog within his bosom, that when the clouds grow reckless and stormy, it is to foreshadow his own blame-spotted tears. In the novel, I suspect Eric knew this, of course, when he prepared to depart for New York leaving Yves behind in Paris: One lies about the body but the body does not lie about itself; it cannot lie about the force which drives it. This isn’t to say that we – whatever we are – will fail, quite the opposite. Distance begets longing, joy begets joy, and lovers must lead love astray. Our motions will forever be united like dual tones belted over a wounded bridge. What’s more, as we are traveling mouths agape (myself mapping sensations here in Ottawa and you flying solo in Montreal), you cannot blame me for suckling nectar or even sourcing it where it lies on your tongue. Likewise, I cannot blame you for putting a finger on mine, and another, until I am full of the hand that feeds, that when your red-stained palm emerges from our juices, quiet as it’s kept, bitemarks soon hollow where I’ve teethed.
There is a moment after Eric reaches New York and reunites with Cass, where he accepts what he must do for her in spite of their misalignment and beyond his commitment to Yves: “… I’m not very placed to defend – conventional morality.” And he smiled. “Something is happening between us which I don’t really understand, but I’m willing to trust it. I have the feeling, somehow, that I must trust it.” How does one know a feeling from a curse? “But I have a lover too, Cass; a boy, a French boy, and he’s supposed to be coming to New York in a few weeks.” This had me thinking about my periodic flings with Kainene and the incessant nature of her joy. Did she trust me with it only because she knew you’d join us someday, or had she tolerated our indiscretions to distract herself temporarily from uncovering her laughter as hysteria? Like children, with that very same joy and trembling, they undressed and uncovered and gazed on each other; and she felt herself carried back to an unremembered, unimaginable time and state when she had not been Cass, as she was now, but the plain, wild, arrogant, waiting Clarissa, when she had not been weary, when love was on the road but not yet at the gates. And, what to make of Ida or Vivaldo? Our elusive spade and her notorious cracker, synced in their passion yet dissimilar everywhere else – And something in him was breaking; he was, briefly and horribly, in a region, where there were no definitions of any kind, neither of color, nor of male and female. That evening, when Vivaldo searched for Ida in every borough but her own, paranoid, there was only the leap and the rending and the terror and the surrender. Is that why he nearly surrendered to Harold, later that night? He was surprised by the intensity in Harold’s eyes. But he could not bear it; he turned his face away; then he put the weight of Harold’s head on his chest. “Please man,” he told him after a moment, “don’t bother. It’s not worth it, nothing will happen. It’s been too long.”
You uttered something along those lines to me once. I believe it was the second time I had been vulnerable with you. Good thing you were tender; I would not have handled it well had you been careless and maladroit. No, instead you were gentle, though not wholly honest and perhaps a bit speculative, like when Eric and Cass could no longer be intimate and Vivaldo said about the affair, “I might just as easily envy you. You can make it with both men and women and sometimes I’ve wished I could do that, I really have.” Do you recall this conversation? I think it happened over the phone when we were nineteen or twenty. Come the end of it, the dial tones resounded our connection with a bitter tangent: on one side there was my voice trailing off, there you stood by the other – both of us defensive of the loose change in our pockets. For a moment the phone line dangled and threatened to drop, like strange fruit. “… How’s one going to get through it all? How can you live if you can’t love? And how can you live if you do?” Before hanging up, I said I’d write to you, my bittersweet. To you and about you, for you remind me there is music which feels like love and also love which feels like music. As two lips do – one being a grunt, and the other, a whistle – mine parted with a voice ringing like jumbled keys, just before your mood could sour. Eric was watching him with a small half-smile, a troubled smile, and this smile caused Vivaldo to realize that Eric loved him. Eric really loved him and would be proud to give Vivaldo anything Vivaldo needed.
In the absence of rhyme and melody, love shines, made bold by our knowing that to the pure, all things are pure; if I am a songbird then you, the nightingale, whose timbre rings like brass. Was Eric, now, silently sobbing and praying, as he, over Ida, silently sobbed and prayed? Though I was not fully conscious of it, (just like Vivaldo wasn’t fully conscious of what was happening between himself and Eric) I was beginning to write for you a True Love Song:
one thing I’m gon do
is give you a mango, if I love you
I will give you the fruit of my existence
in the shape of yellow flesh. in it you will
taste that we are sweeter together
that yes, it was a little flirtatious when I wrote you a story
and that maybe you savoured it because you are a little
one thing I’m gon do
is give you a mango, if I love you
will skin it
will lay it bare
I do hope you will write back, Fitness.
All the best,
Your dear friend,
About the author:
Yannick Mutombo is a lyrical prose writer pursuing opportunities in journalism and digital storytelling. Based in Ottawa, Canada, he has written for the likes of TRAD Magazine, PITCH Magazine and ByBlacks, and is currently completing a fact-checking internship at Maisonneuve. Instagram: @thenotoriousself