My other brilliant friend
Good things happening to good people, and memories of Beijing.
One more revolution around the sun. The rats marked the occasion by sneaking into my chest of drawers and leaving a pile of dried cranberries in one of my bras.
The freedom-loving rat mom in me is slowly becoming replaced by a more sobre version hankering after not only a semblance of order but also some modicum of respect. This is especially the case given the troubling new habit of Kotti’s to climb up onto my lap when I am working and pee on me. I am assuming this is a gesture of dominance. I am not OK with it.
Suddenly my mother’s frustrations with raising me feel a bit more justified. “You just never did what you were told. I would tell you to do something and you’d just do the exact opposite. Every time”.
Maybe, in a past life, I was actually a rat and this whole experience is the real homecoming I was after all along. Maybe, overidentifying with rats is some new regressive activity of mine that I should work on keeping in check. Who knows. *pees on keyboard*.
Ronja of Sandessjoen
Two major, wonderful things happened this week. One of my favourite people in the world finally got into grad school after years of trying, and my niece was born in a tiny town in the northern Norwegian wilderness. So it’s been a great week, despite the rat-agro (ragro?). Oh, and the fact that my mother got harassed by a rampaging black grouse that ambushed her and which she had to beat away with a stick. I have promised that on my return to Trondheim, she will be avenged.
I would tell you more about my niece, Ronja, but I don’t really know her yet. From the photos I see that she is very small and that her skin has a rubbery, pinkish-white texture to it.
She has been named after an adventurous Astrid Lindgren character in a coming-of-age story about a girl raised by a family of thieves. Ronja Rövardotter ventures into the troll-addled wilderness and thereby discovers her own way and her own moral code. The VHS my brother and I watched terrified us when we were little, in a way that was quite instructive.
Now, on mountain hikes (and by hikes I mean actual hikes -- not whatever it is citydwellers say they do when they find a country trail and a handful of trees) -- I always know to watch out for troublesome roots that might have a family of elves living underneath them. I also check overhead for rolling trolls and by that I mean rolling boulders.
Ronja’s own education will be just on her doorstep. Her only neighbour will be a roaming elk, her best friend a little black cat with gawking yellow eyes. Seven white peaks will make up her skyline and the air she breathes will always taste faintly of seaweed and pine trees.
Hoedowns in Beijing
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in dusty and sweltering Houston, my best friend received a phone call she’d been dreaming of for years. She then called me up, at 1am here. I was glad to pick the phone to what turned out to be great news, not a catastrophe. I texted her the next day with the line “Marathon Maria always makes it to her finish line”.
I’ve known Marathon Maria for just over a decade now. We couldn’t be more different, and more alike. She’s the strongest and kindest person I know. She also kind of looks like Eva Mendes, and says things like “yoga every damn day” but will headbutt a can of beer to open it if appropriately goaded.
She grew up helping her mum sell snow cones and clean houses in her free time. Two years ago, while working with the US census department in running door-to-door surveys in Houston’s Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, she had a gun pulled on her.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I said ‘Sir, put your gun down’. And he did,” she replied.
We met in Beijing as part of the same cohort of booze-addled English teachers in a city that felt a little bit like a Wild West to us, all the more so because its watering holes most often served up a “fake” alcohol that went to your head a bit quicker and more aggressively than the real stuff.
It was the year Xi Jinping rose to power. A strange year to be surrounded by a bunch of people who just wanted to party and capitalise on their native-English-speaker privilege as anti-foreigner rhetoric bubbled in the background.
I would join in on the fun and come home to my little place in Andingmen hutong to write at times despondent and at times acerbic notes in my journal. I would also write for a magazine about bars and gigs and even ended up interviewing a friend of a friend who turned out to have a disturbing Hitler-fetish. That story got me into J-school.
Notes from my journal:
We have our own frat boys. As suspected, the group is a little bit too American to function. Funny how old school inclinations resurface when cliques start to form. “He noticed me!” ffs. Fleeting though, and followed by feeling repulsed by myself. Will be living by myself. Maybe I’ll finally start writing more. Maybe I’ll become a hermit in a cloak. Hermits look good in cloaks.
Westerners overheard in a hutong cafe:
“Do you think we’re, like, obliged to do things for people we don’t know? What about people we do know? What about ourselves?”
Phantom nosebleeds and the Beijing shakes. City sprawls like Guangzhou. Girl crying in front of McDonalds.
Elegant, swish, black and white floor
Gin+tonic 35, shisha pipes
Soul music/ house
Not overly Xmas decorated.
Modest dance floor, bronze pillars
Justin Bieber/ catwalks on 2 flatscreen TV
Coaster: “sealing your memories here”
Lone wolf makes a lifelong friend
As a hangover from the obsession with Decadence poetry that had marked my final year at Oxford, I was reading a lot of woozy depressing stuff by a writer called Remy de Gourmont, chain smoking and finding black goo in my nose from all the smog. None of this was very healthy.
Maria was the quiet one in our cohort. Everyone else was so loud and eager to draw attention to themselves. She’d watch us all with the steady eyes of a cat. And, cheesy as it sounds, some people just have a really strong aura of love about them. She is one of those people.
She got into a tight spot when her roommate failed to cough up her side of the deposit they needed for their flat, having already contributed her share. She lost that deposit. I offered to put her up in my studio for as long as she needed, reiterating the point enough times that a person like her, i.e. quite proud and unwilling to accept help even when it’s really needed, couldn’t really say no.
She ended up staying for a month, and we’ve been fiercely loyal to each other ever since. She’d come with me on my lone nightlife writing expeditions and have these funny and fresh quips that would help neutralise my always teetering on pompous prose. She’d talk me down from the panics I’d sometimes get when I’d drunk too much of the ethanol-cut stuff and had wound up sitting in the corner of a club scribbling manically into a notebook.
And a couple years after we’d both left Beijing and had reunited for a holiday in Bali, she threatened to throw my laptop in the swimming pool while I was editing something during what was basically my first holiday in three years.
“Stop worrying about your career and sort your life out,” she said. My arms and legs, at the time, were pockmarked with hundreds of inflamed mosquito bite scars that refused to heal that I could never be bothered to get checked out, and my brain was so fried I could barely tell my left from my right. I was doing good work, but she was right, everything else was in tatters.
Our friendship, which has unfolded more on Facebook Messenger and now Whatsapp than face-to-face, grew even stronger through the pandemic, where the unconditional rooting for one another through all the stagnation and uncertainty has provided us both a lifeline. The thing that always astonishes and inspires me about her is her resilience and chipperness in the face of some really unfair odds. I’ve witnessed her apply and reapply, growing more disheartened with every year, but never giving up.
I honestly can’t think of anyone else in this world who deserves to make it to their finish line other than Marathon Maria. I hope she rules the world someday.
P.S. Maria has run at least four marathons.
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A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.