What Is Freedom?
I thought that the rainbow was from oil, I even said as much to the Australian girl, Elle Lee, whom Michel and I were both infatuated with. But Michel corrected me, and said it was caused by a layer of algae on the surface of the water.
“Well, I see it at this time, in the spring time, and later in the year I don’t see it, and at this time there is all the algae. One plus one equals two eh?”
We both looked to Elle for confirmation of the fact. Not because she knew anything special about oil, or algae, but rather because she was so clearly out intellectual superior.
“Yeah naw. Could be, but also it’s sort of one word against another right? There’s no way to tell who’s right. No way at all. We could ask and ask, stopping people one by one on the street and say “hey do you know why the canals shine like a Beatles song?” and they’d say “no way mate, or if we do we’re not telling ya. Because you’re not German.” Or maybe they would tell us, but it would be in German. Or else, they agree to tell us, but only if we went on a quest to find their son who disappeared in the 70’s wearing only his uncle’s football jersey. Or maybe we’d have stumbled across their big secret, and the road would be full of like, furtive glances and closed doors, and we’d have to change our names to get away from the secret police.” She went on and on, spinning outlandish options for discourse with elderly Hamburgers on their balconies and we laughed, and no one mentioned the elephant in the smartphone.
I think that was what Michel liked so much about Elle. She was untethered from the reality of conversations and social interactions, but not in the way of our usual peers; Michel’s classmates spouting Tolstoy and Kafka -neither of which I had read- through their turtlenecks or those cockroaches I worked with in PWC, twitching and orgasming over the scent of money and blood in the water, confused animal metaphors aside. But Elle wasn’t like that. She was crazy smart- on two occasions I’d seen her calmly and good naturedly obliterate men who condescended to her because of her easy-going manner- and by all accounts she was great at her job, but she would steer a casual conversation down jungle paths that only existed in her mind, and we would weather bumps and potholes and try to cling and enjoy the ride as she satisfied her imagination, wordplay and performance all at once. That, for sure, was what Michel liked so much about her. She engaged him, fascinated him, pulled him in and pushed him out again, left him tangled and confused and desperate for more.
For me, it was much simpler. She’d seen me.
It was in a business conference, one of those things with infrared smoking areas full of cigar smoke and a catering company. Thus far the worst place I’ve ever fallen in love. She was chatting to my boss’s boss’s boss, all casual and charming, changing the tone of their corporate conversation with questions so simply-phased it was easy to ignore how piercing they were. And she’d looked up and seen me, and said “hold on just a tick” to the partner, and walked over and said “Hey! When I go back over there I’m going to pretend that I thought I knew you so that the bigwigs don’t get agro. I don’t know where to find the cool stuff in town, so can you show me around when this thing is over?” And I just stood mouth half open, and she said “ha alright then, I’ll be out the front afterwards pretending to call my grandmother.”
And she was, she ditched the glitzy after-conference party to walk along the canals with me, smoking rolled cigarettes and talking about how we had found ourselves at the conference. Elle was a chemist and mathematician, and had developed some kind of analytical model which the financial institutions lapped up. I was an economics graduate trying to make my folks happy. Afterwards she came to my apartment for tea to warm up, though the weather wasn’t as cold as it would be in the coming weeks. I showed her my paintings. The paintings I hadn’t shown anyone, not even Michel.
She stayed in Hamburg for two weeks after the conference. She had flights booked to Munich, but changed them after Michel and I brought her rock-climbing in a little hall near his place. We got black coffee from the half-broken machine by the door, bought five sandwiches and a packet of nuts from the guy behind the counter, and went to sit on a bench by the nearest canal. She went, “huh, this is a cool place” and took out her phone to change the flights there and then.
“Did you know that Hamburg has more canals Venice?” I asked.
“Ugh, Nein. This is not how you say it”
“What? Am I wrong?”
“Yes. Well no. Maybe. But it’s about the bridges. Hamburg is the city of bridges. It has more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together.”
“Oh. Yeah so probably more canals too.”
Michel asked Elle “have you seen some of the bridges?”
“I mean, some yeah. I didn’t really notice bridges particularly. But then again, I haven’t seen the tourist stuff yet.”
“There are some really nice ones actually. The Köhlbrandbrücke is my favourite. It’s four kilometres long and high enough for ships to pass underneath. Some of the ones connecting the Speicherstadt are also very nice.” Suddenly a city-wide bridge expert.
“Have you seen the port at sunset?”
She hadn’t, and we went. All three of us, in my car which I almost never use. We hopped a fence and climbed up some old steel frame marked for demolition, and the orange backdrop to the spindly cranes and gantries put me in mind of War of the Worlds.
“It’s beautiful” said Elle, and suddenly it was.
That was the start of the most liberated two weeks of any of our lives. Sometimes magic happens, and it happened then.
We did the tourist stuff- the tunnel under the river, a concert in the Philharmonic which Michel and I couldn’t afford but Elle insisted on paying for us, Miniatur Wunderland. Michel was way ahead in his course and hardly had anything to do. I took annual leave. We bouldered at halls around the city. We played board games and smoked weed in Michel’s apartment when the weather got really cold, and read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? together. I was George. Elle read Honey. Michel did Martha and Nick, putting on accents that were more Louisiana than New England while Elle and I broke our sides laughing. He couldn’t contract words, and sang “Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
My therapist said, and many people agree with her, that I have likely altered the memory of those two weeks because of what happened afterwards, making them too perfect in my mind. Maybe I have.
In the end, the night before Elle’s altered flight date, Michel went out to get pizza, wearing his stupid noise-cancelling headphones. A guy had a knife and wanted a wallet, but Michel couldn’t hear him, and when he reached to remove the headphones, he got stabbed in the stomach. Elle and I found him. We called the ambulance. We held him as he died.
Six months later I visited Elle in Melbourne, in the year of travel after I quit my job. She told me might have kissed, that night, if things had been different. I asked her if we still could, and she said maybe. When we did, in the end, it wasn’t good, and we agreed not to do it again.
We still talk. Once a year we do a remembrance by video call, which we kept up for years before the pandemic made it cool. And on snowy nights in Hamburg, when I’m feeling trapped and afraid, I call her, and we talk about those two weeks, and how neither of us has ever felt so free.
In dreams I climb through glassy air in flight
Above my parents’ sycamore I swim
and drift in joyful sunlit lift,
brush leafy canopies. Below, the land –
my parents’ garden, Tom’s house, orchard – pass,
then flowing meadow,
crossed by walls of stone,
the fertile patchwork quilt of grey and green.
Some swallows arc around me in my dream
six or seven starlings rise,
elated murmuration, winding out
in tight formation;
high in halls of light
I soar and sing
and swim through air in flight.
to which the lion’s share conform.
Wanting in fear, conscience and anxiety;
but the greatest dearth is empathy.
He is the psychopath.
Free from ponderous responsibility
shouldered by the likes of you and me.
Brain cracked like a spiderwebbed windscreen;
doped up to the eyeballs blankly serene.
He is the lunatic.
Free from having to remember
events too painful to dismember.
World shrunken to a golden elixir,
self medication the ultimate fixer.
He is the alcoholic.
Free from the weary grind of living
bleak as hell and as unforgiving.
Cold steel kisses him under the chin
a split second before the blowout within.
He is the suicide.
Free to spill imagination’s guts
transcribed on paper as lines and dots.
Words evoke paintings for interpretation.
This flowing outlet the greatest liberation.
I am the poet.