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The Soul of Things


He knew he was always looking for that one human encounter, but wondered whether if he ever managed to have it he would know how to live it, how to survive if he lost it. He was so worried about these possibilities, that when, finally, at the age of thirty five, this woman came into his solitary life, he found every means he could to convince himself and her that they could not be together.

They met in not entirely unusual circumstances but mildly romantic ones. He was from London and visiting a friend in Buenos Aires; she was from Spain and was still in the city though she had parted from her boyfriend three months previously. She wanted to book a trip home, but lingered, hoping that her ex would leave the mutual friend that he had gone off with. The ex and former friend lived close by and she would sometimes see them walk past the flat she was now staying in, hand in hand. She did not hate him; she knew that it was not love that she had felt but a gnawing desire that women often find hard to extricate themselves from, and had wished to end it and return to Spain. Yet she still yearned for his body, and would often stay awake late into the night feeling its absence. She had already given up a job she had working in a pharmaceutical company near the Modern Museum, and Maria decided she would book a single back to Madrid the day that she met Peter. This particular morning she went into the travel agency and asked them to hold a ticket; she would come in the next day and pay for it.

Peter was a painter whose friend was much more famous, but the Argentinean always said Peter was the better artist. Peter asked why and the friend said that Peter would get into the soul of things; Ernesto would merely, however brilliantly, capture the surface. People could quickly respond to surfaces; but to get into the soul of things, Ernesto said, that very few people can do, and very few people know how to respond to such art.

One early afternoon Peter went over to La Boca. He had been in the city for a week and had another fortnight left. He found much of Buenos Aires bewildering, with its motorway running through the centre, with the cacophony of noise coming from old, worn, wheezing buses whose braking would tear at his nerves. He even found the doors of buildings slightly oppressive; they seemed larger and more ornate than in other cities, as if their entrance led not into houses but into obscure labyrinths. But he also loved wandering around the district of Palermo, with its many book shops and numerous cafes. He also felt safe and happy in San Telmo, where he would sometimes sit at a corner café, drinking a slightly metallic red wine, and reading a book or looking out onto the square, watching in the early evening as it would become busier. He had been to other cities that he loved more, but when he was sitting there listening to the tango playing on the loudspeakers, he felt that the mild sadness would deepen in memory. Some cities he knew could do that; and others not – some cities could get into the soul of you.

But that afternoon was the first time he had been to La Boca. There was an exhibition on the pious and the visceral that he wanted to see, especially so since his friend’s comment a few days earlier. It was there he met Maria. She would often go to galleries on her own when she felt lonely; though she believed she knew little about art, since so much of her years at university were devoted to studying complex chemical formulas. She loved working out mathematical problems or mastering the rudiments of physics; however she hated putting words on paper and believed she expressed herself through her body, and wanted, when she got back to Spain, to take up various activities she had practised in the past, and promised herself she would devote herself to them  in the future. She would sometimes get angry with herself over this procrastination: and especially so in the weeks following her break-up. She shouldn’t have come here and taken another corporate post, another well-paid job that left her empty of feeling and stressed in thought.

That afternoon though she wasn’t angry; she felt relieved that she had provisionally booked her ticket, and happy that she was free to wander around a museum looking at the paintings but not thinking about them. She wanted from them no more than that they assuage her; often finding one or two in any gallery that she could sit and stare at for ten or fifteen minutes. As she looked at one of the spirit and one of flesh, one classical and one modern, she thought that the affair she had recently finished was all flesh and no spirit: her lover had said he loved her on a number of occasions, but he said it with not much more feeling than if he were ordering wine. He seemed to savour her, allowing himself briefly to be intoxicated by her body, but then appeared to have no interest in her at all.

Peter was at the time thinking of no one. He was a man of numerous encounters but no relationships. He had lost his virginity at seventeen, but then didn’t sleep with another woman for ten years. What was he doing during that time? He was putting his soul into things and not people. He painted every day during those ten years, painted as if out of what he produced he could make up for some absence he always believed was in the world. He often looked at couples to see how they interacted. He noticed many sat together, talking very little, smiling occasionally at each other, but he often wondered whether if one of them were replaced with someone else whether the person would much notice. He wondered also whether that was why people got over relationships so easily; that they demand so little intensity from each other that they remain strangers enough for others to come quickly into their lives when another leaves. Peter thought that if he found that human encounter, he might not survive its loss. He would insist on its intensity every day.

Maria had loved few men, but she loved each time with a sense of eternity. When it finished she would try and find the pieces of herself in solitude and it was only in these moments that she wished she were an artist. She didn’t want to talk to anybody, but there was a need in her to express her feelings that settled for the expression of others. She would read far more in this period, watch any film that focused on feelings, listen to music as though to hear the quiverings of her own soul in the chords. And she would go to galleries.

Peter assumed when he first saw her that she might be an artist herself. She was sitting so long looking at one painting that he thought her interest must be professional. He was not someone who could usually talk to a woman who was a stranger, but her interest in the painting seemed to him to make her a friend and so he asked in poor Spanish why she was looking so intently at the picture; was she an artist herself? She replied in much better English that she was not; but paintings talked to her the more she listened.

He smiled, wanting to say something else. but didn’t want to linger. He was always afraid of imposing himself on people; and women especially. He said in English that maybe she was getting into the soul of the thing, or the soul of herself. She looked at him for a moment after he said this and wondered how old he was. The comment seemed both youthful and mature, gauche in its delivery but wise in what he actually said. He was an attractive man, with shortish, dark wavy hair and a light body that suggested he did Yoga, was perhaps vegetarian, possibly a runner. His olive complexion was tanned, and his skin clear. He was attractive, she supposed, but there was nothing in his manner that indicated he was given to seduction.

Later he was sitting reading a book he had bought in the museum bookshop, a work on one of the artist’s exhibited, when she came over to him and asked if he usually talked to strangers in galleries. Only in galleries, he replied, aware that he couldn’t have talked to her in any other context, though he offered it as an ironic comment.  He asked if she wanted to join him, and she said that she would, and an hour later as the café closed they returned together to the city centre. She was staying in Recoleta; Peter in Palermo: districts next to each other. She was sleeping on a friend’s coach after moving out of her ex’s place, and when she mentioned this Peter asked if she wanted to stay with him at his friend’s flat. The friend was away for the weekend; it was late January and he had gone to a beach near Mar del Plata. Peter had been invited but was of course now glad he had decided to stay in the city as Maria said she would love to stay the night. It seemed an invite offered and received without a hint of flirtatiousness, yet both probably knew they would sleep together that evening.

The next day they woke up under a thin sheet which was all that was needed during the hot Buenos Aires night, and Maria said to Peter that she thought she liked him very much, but the tone contained within it a stronger feeling still. Peter was frightened by this; not because he wasn’t falling in love too – he knew he was, but he knew also that where Maria would have the emotional competence to express her feelings so simply; he would not. The feeling was deep and incommunicable, and he replied that he felt very strongly for her too. He knew it came out weakly, and he hoped that he would one day find a way of accessing that contained emotion within him. He was reminded of a couple of comments from writers he admired. One was from a French novelist where a character says “when one truly loves someone, there is no need to tell him so…I never do tell you.”  Another was from Kafka, where, in a letter to Felice, he says that certain words would stick in his throat, and Peter was worried that over time this word love would stick in his whole body. He said he very much liked Maria, but the words came out without the feeling he wanted them to contain.

Nevertheless Maria pushed her leaving date back to the same day as Peter’s, and the rest of their stay they would walk through the streets of Palermo and other parts of the city. Peter wanted very much to hold her hand, to hug her, but he was not used to doing so, and occasionally felt trapped inside himself and his thoughts. He would sometimes hold her hand and he liked the warm feeling it gave him, but he rarely instigated it. He wished she had read Kafka, wished she knew what it felt like to be locked inside oneself, to love yet be able only to show but a small amount of that feeling which was in him.

She seemed able to show all of hers, and most of the lovers he had in the past were fleeting, and were people he knew briefly through the work he did. He had always been a figurative painter, and often used models. Occasionally they become lovers during the period he worked with them, but he never felt very strongly towards any of these models, and he would extract from them only the soul he needed for the work.

One evening shortly before they were both to fly back to Madrid, where he would then get a connecting flight to Edinburgh, they joked that they were hardly making the most of the cuisine in the city, since neither ate meat. As they sat eating Falafels, couscous and humous, he asked her why she was vegetarian. It was a casual question, but he knew in asking it he could open up a space of enquiry that he needed to find if he were to express his feelings. Whenever she had asked him how he felt, he could never answer. He wanted a question that would open up the love in him, as though it wasn’t an easy answer but a long equation. He longed to talk about his childhood, his loneliness, his vulnerability; he wanted to talk about how often he had felt alone, how he would frequently be in the company of people and feel that they were unreal to him, speaking so similarly to other people he knew that they were not fully real themselves. He wanted to talk about the problem of cliché in literature and art, about how she was the only person he had ever met who could use cliché cleanly, with truth.

That evening he did express some of these things to her as she answered that she was vegetarian because she felt the soul of an animal every time she had eaten meat. She recalled when she was a child her mother would insist that there was no fish or meat in the Paella she had been given, but found out months later when her father let slip that her mum would grind the meat down so finely that she couldn’t tell. She was angry with her mother for half a year. She would have been fourteen, and for years afterwards she cooked her own meals, and bought vegetarian sausages and burgers for the barbecues they would sometimes have. She said that for a long time she never quite trusted her family, saw her father and her mother, her brother and her sister, as cannibals, and occasionally woke up out of a nightmare thinking they were eating her. He said he gave up meat when he was twenty one. He wanted to find his own soul by allowing those of others to exist.

They had talked meaningfully during the weeks they had known each other; but for Peter it was this conversation that allowed him later that night to walk home holding hands, hugging, and putting his arm around her. Into the early morning when they made love he couldn’t stop looking into her eyes, where before, at certain moments, he had looked away, unable to believe in the intimacy between them.  He would look at her sometimes and wonder whether any of those past lovers were still on her mind.

When they came to fly back, they talked about when they would next meet, whether either of them could move to the other’s city. It was on this flight she told him that actually the day she met him she still might have been in love with her ex-boyfriend; that meeting him cured her of that feeling.

She offered it as a compliment to his charm, his care, his looks, his ability to so quickly generate in her a strong emotion that cured her of that melancholy. Yet he couldn’t get out of his mind that the moment they had met she was in love with another person; where he was in love with the possibility of meeting someone like her. She was not looking for a human encounter as he was; his mind was a blank slate of possible desire; hers was a mind muddled by the presence of an ex.

At Madrid airport they had a couple of hours before she flew to Barcelona, and every minute of those two hours were loaded with a sense of time’s absolute urgency. It was the opposite of a kettle boiling, each moment passed and they wanted to catch it, hold time for the eternity of the feeling in their bodies.

Yet he knew this feeling was partly because he was very frightened; he was scared that not only this moment was fleeting, but her feelings for him also; that they would pass and leave him utterly lonely, and, even worse, without belief: that his faith in a permanent love with another would go with her. He believed that he was the person she loved at the moment; but he loved her as a religious conversion. He needed to know that she would love him for life. She loved him however as a human being, as someone who could give all a human can without any hope of promising the permanence of her feelings.

She did move to Edinburgh, but he was reluctant to share, still worried that she would leave. So she took a small, cramped room in an apartment on the other side of the city, and they would spend every other night together. He wanted to sleep with her every evening, but he was afraid that if he did, her leaving would be all the more difficult to accept. She would often tell him that she loved him; she said she would melt when she saw him, that he was so very, very important to her. She believed nobody could make her feel that they understood her as he did; that he could ask questions that would open up her mind and her soul. He couldn’t quite say he loved her; he didn’t know what word would express the feelings he had inside his body. And she could never ask that question; could never quite open up his soul so that he could express the centre of himself. What he wanted from her was that she would get into the soul not only of things but of him also. He wanted to cry as she had sometimes managed to cry with him, wanted to talk about his childhood so that he would find the child within. Maria would often say she was chicichita, that she was feeling tender and child-like. He would hug her and she would cry, and he would hold her for minutes waiting for the tears to subside, wishing he could also express his own anguish.

But it seemed he had to be strong. When Maria first arrived in the city, she was anxious about finding a job, worried about her finances (though she had some savings), and was missing family and friends. All the responsibility was on his side; all the commitments made however were hers. She wanted to be with him constantly as she felt very insecure in the city, while Peter knew he needed to time to paint, even if almost all his work in some way reflected his love for Maria.

Yet for Maria all she saw was someone for whom she had left Spain to be with, creating space for himself that excluded her. Occasionally she would ask him why didn’t he leave – wasn’t his work more important than she was? He said it was what he had been doing for twenty years: it was the core of him. He didn’t say to her exactly how he felt about her and was wary of telling her that he could be without her company so often because she was so deeply embedded in his soul. All he really needed to know was that she would never leave him; never leave this vacated space he had created for her inside himself.

One of the things Maria often talked about was the idea of a retreat somewhere. She had savings and he also had some money, and had always been interested in alternative therapies. She did yoga and massage, and would take great care over what she ate. She often talked about this retreat; perhaps near Barcelona, perhaps in the south of Spain. Maybe even in Mexico or Argentina, she said, where land would be cheaper.

He would often think of this idea, but never once shared with her this enthusiasm. It was like his inability to say the words that he loved her. He would never say to her that he often imagined that they could have a hall which could be both a gallery space and also a yoga centre. He could still spend his mornings painting; while in the afternoon he could help with the chores of the retreat. But whenever she mentioned it, he would go quiet, as he would when she said that she loved him. He seemed scared to say anything that would be deemed a promise, though he knew he would never leave her.

She had been in Edinburgh a year, and was very frustrated in the job that she had got after a couple of months in the city (working for a pharmaceutical company), and also staying in the flat she was in with other people, and on the other side of the town. However though she was not happy in her job and in her flat, and though Peter never quite gave her all the affection that she needed, she always felt so safe in his arms and in his bed. She trusted him more than anybody she had ever met, and wished he would trust himself equally. She knew he loved her but couldn’t quite give himself to her. There was too much fear in him.

It was around this time that she started doing some tango classes, an activity a friend once described as a dating agency for hypocrites. He went along with her one day when she was a beginner. He wasn’t a dancer, but he could see that tango was a dance that created a space precise and ritualised. He felt mildly alienated when he saw the dance, but much more so when he went a few months later. He could see that the dance created complicity, a sense that the room was like a chessboard, with the dancers figures controlled by other figures. He had heard that it was a very hierarchical dance, and that good male dancers possessed a lot of power. A woman might spend half her evening sitting waiting for a dance, and so that when a man finally came over and asked her for one, the relief created a wave of feeling that could hardly be justified by the mere three minute tango.

A few months after that, after they had been together almost two years, Peter was passing the pub where the tango took place, when he thought he would go in. He stood by the door and watched as she danced three times in a row with someone who was clearly a good dancer. After the third dance she came over and introduced him to the man she was dancing with. He was thickset and perhaps ugly but not unattractive. He looked from her small, subtle features, her wide-eyes and her eager smile, and then to his heavy, slightly stoned looking gaze. He looked like he didn’t sleep well; and his face seemed to be a mismatch of thick lips, bleary-eyes and misshaped nose. Peter’s own features were always described as regular, and Maria would often say she loved the symmetry of his face.

Now throughout the two years with Maria they would go to galleries, watch films, go for long walks, talk about her feelings, talk about people they knew, and would watch the sun set, even occasionally the moon rise. Yet he always knew that these were moments, and she wanted to find a way in which to join the dots of their intimacy – to create what she called a together. He hoped that eventually he would feel strong enough to share it with her, to risk the rest of his life with someone he knew, deep in his mind, he had committed himself to from the day they met. His reluctance lay chiefly in that comment she made at the airport in Madrid: that she still might have been in love with her ex when they saw each other at the museum..

He knew they had to get into the soul not only of things, but of each other: they needed to create a future for themselves. Peter was aware of this but couldn’t express it, and sometimes he would say to himself that he loved her, but then when he would see her the words wouldn’t come. He became increasingly frightened. He knew she was creating complicity through tango. He didn’t think she was falling in love with anyone there; but the bond with others might be breaking her bond with him.

Though Maria was from Spain and had lived there for many years, her mother when she was fourteen had moved with her new partner to Mexico City. Maria went with them, staying for four years and finished her schooling there, but returned to Barcelona for her degree. She hadn’t been to the city since before she had gone to Argentina, and Maria asked Peter if he would like to go with her and meet her mother: they would go for a month. Though he had met other members of her family when they visited Barcelona together, he believed meeting her mother would be much more revealing, and he hoped that while there he would feel he knew enough about Maria, trust her finally, and commit to being with her. Perhaps he needed a situation where he knew he was utterly reliant on her, and she would be capable of supporting him.

They arrived in Mexico City and her mother and her boyfriend met them at the airport. Her mother hugged him as if she already knew him, and the boyfriend said that he had searched for Peter’s name on the internet and said he really liked his paintings. During the first week Peter felt vulnerable and the tiny amount of Spanish he had made him perhaps more aware of his linguistic inadequacies than if he had no Spanish at all. He was constantly looking for words and failing to find them, constantly looking for the right phrase to express himself and usually creating mixed metaphors that others found amusing. Nobody was being cruel, but he did realise at a certain moment, around ten days into the trip, that Maria was somehow not quite giving him the credence that she would have given him in Edinburgh; that she seemed to mock him more often, laugh at some of the habits he insisted upon following in Mexico City (like trying to get good quality breads, decent muesli). Her own strict diet seemed to have become more relaxed in a city where junk food was the norm.

It was one afternoon halfway through the trip that she said she was going off to meet some friends from school; that he probably wouldn’t enjoy it as they would all be speaking Spanish, and perhaps he would like to do something on his own. That afternoon he went to the anthropological museum; he had been there a week earlier with Maria, but they hadn’t stayed very long. This time he wandered around with a feeling of unease in his body as he felt that from an evolutionary point of view he probably wouldn’t have lasted very long. As he followed man’s development from one age to the next; from one stage of evolution to another, he reckoned he was not much of a homo faber, knowing that he was in some ways no more evolved than a cave dweller painting on walls, expressing the chaos of the world but unable to understand it. He knew so little about the developments of science, so little about how the world worked – as if he had devoted most of his life trying to work out how he worked.

He met Maria around seven o’clock that evening in a cafe in Rosa. She seemed exuberant after her meeting, and Peter asked how many school friends were there; and she mentioned that there were a few, but said it with her eyes looking off into another direction as though she didn’t want to talk about it. The enthusiasm on the one hand, and the reluctance to talk of it on the other, made Peter feel  even more uneasy than he had felt earlier in the day.

During the rest of the trip there were three or four other afternoons where Maria went off to see her friends, and each time Peter wasn’t invited. The first couple of times Peter went to galleries or exhibitions on his own, but on the last occasion Peter went with Maria’s mum and her mother’s boyfriend to the Modern Museum in Chapultepec Park. There was an artist there the boyfriend said Peter should see, someone he believed whose work resembled his own. The works were, like Peter’s, small canvases that seemed to invite the viewer to peer into the work, to find the intimacy of the artist’s thought in the half-detailed figures and half-sketched backgrounds they were placed within. The boyfriend believed that like Peter’s own stuff the artist seemed to want from the person looking at the painting an encounter; that he would leave enough space between things so that the viewer would be forced to see either sketchiness they failed to fill in, or a completeness to which they had contributed. He said it was how love worked: how another person can make us feel the sketchiness in ourselves and complete the picture by contributing their thoughts and feelings to our meagre identity. He put his arm around his partner as he said this, and Peter felt all the more Maria’s absence. Peter asked them what they made of Maria spending so much time with her old school friends, and they shrugged and looked with sympathy, perhaps pity at him.

After the gallery, Maria met the three of them in a cafe in the park. She was again distracted and energised, again Peter felt like she was not close to him. All that evening she chided Peter lightly; laughed at his Spanish pronunciation, and smiled when he tried to tell her, without quite telling her, how much he cared.

He still had never told her he loved her; he would say she should see it in the things he did and not in the things he said. But then she would notice how much time he needed to himself and say was that what he meant by the things he did: the time he would be alone without her? What was she supposed to cling to, to believe in his love she would sometimes say? He never did manage to tell her that if she could look into his soul she would see that all the work that he had done, all the work that he was doing, was about the one human encounter she had provided.

A couple of days later they were to fly back to Britain when Maria said that she had delayed her flight, that she had paid a surcharge and was going to stay another week. At first she didn’t explain why, but he asked again and again; and eventually she admitted that amongst those friends she had met was a person she had gone out with when she was seventeen. The last few occasions that she had said she was out with friends, she had met up with him alone. As she talked, Peter’s anguish increased, but he didn’t want her to stop. He wanted to hear everything, wanted to know how she had betrayed him. She hadn’t slept with this person, she insisted, but maybe she needed to; her feelings were not for Peter at that moment, and she explained how she had left this young man in the past, and how much he remembered of their three months together shortly before she went to university in Europe.

The young man was her first lover, someone for whom her love was not quite as great as her need to search out her own identity, and so she left. He wrote to her frequently when she was in Europe, and for every letter she sent back, he sent her three or four. He wanted to come and visit but couldn’t afford it. She said that she would come back the following summer but didn’t end up doing so: her mother came and visited her in Barcelona instead. After that he stopped writing, and so did she. When she met up with him and some of the others a couple of weeks before, they started talking again and she knew she wanted to see more of him, and so she had met up with him every few days since. Peter asked what about them; hadn’t he come to Mexico to be with her, to understand her past, to meet her mother? Maria said every day when they were younger, and in every letter he sent, Juan had said he was in love. These words hadn’t once come from Peter’s lips. When she met up with Juan he again insisted he still loved her. Juan had never married, as if, he said, waiting for Maria to return.

The next afternoon Maria saw Peter off at the airport; they hugged firmly, and she said she needed time; she didn’t know what she felt. All Peter could say was what he had never said before: that he loved her, he so immensely loved her.

The next week waiting for her to return was of course tortuous, but Peter worked hard, tried to produce a series of works out of this feeling that left him breaking down and crying several times a day. He could talk to no one about how he was feeling, except to Maria, who didn’t want to talk at all. He tried to phone a friend one evening, but the friend couldn’t ask any of the questions Peter was hoping to be asked, and so after fifteen minutes talking he returned to his work. He thought about how if Maria had asked the questions he wanted her to ask, the sort of questions he would ask himself in relation to the work he was doing, he might have been able to say how he felt. Instead he needed her to fall out of love with him; to be possibly in love with another, so that he could recognize a feeling within him.

Over the next few days he waited for her to call, or to send an e-mail, but she never did. He knew what flight she had re-booked for, what time she was supposed to arrive in London, and the night before he impulsively got a cheap flight to Heathrow and waited for her at arrivals. He knew that if she walked through the gate they would forever look into the soul of things. If she didn’t he knew that the one human encounter had evaded him; that he would perhaps instead forever be looking instead into the chasm of his own uncertainties. He imagined how their life would be if she did come through arrivals. He knew that she had always wanted that retreat by some coast line where they would offer yoga, massage, healthy food, meditation, where he would paint and show other artists’ work. They would swim in the sea each day, invite people they knew to visit, and perhaps even have a child. They would find ways to get into the soul of things in all their manifestations. Those few minutes waiting as people came through the gate were the longest of his life, and the absolute reverse of those moments where they waited in Madrid two and a half years before as she waited for the Barcelona flight. But came she did, coming over to him and hugging him so tightly, and crying so profusely, that his tears flowed also and his hug was equally firm.

Yet something in her eyes said that she was coming back not to be with him, but to pick up her stuff and return to Mexico; and yet something in her grasp said that no she was going to stay. He waited for her words; he waited to hear her insist she still loved him as she had waited far longer to hear if he would offer those words to her. But he knew also that she should say that she wouldn’t be returning to live in Scotland; that he could consequently get back to his work aware that while the encounter had eluded him in his life, he could contain it and express it in his art. Was it not only in things where he could find the necessary stillness of the soul, and had he not been in danger of destroying Maria’s in looking for it in her not as the human being she was, but as the object he perhaps wished she could have been?


©Tony McKibbin