Under the Sun
The ninth form is used to express the acquisition of some colour or quality, which may be either desirable or not. It is characterised by the fact that in the perfect 3 pers. masc. sing. it has only one vowel which is always long. In Arabic there are two forms of similar use, and the Maltese ninth corresponds to the eleventh of classical Arabic.
—Edmund Sutcliffe, Grammar of the Maltese Language
He had to skip backwards and forwards a few times because he kept overshooting it, that brief moment when her newly- bleached hair was just off his stomach, falling down to her neck like a pair of stiff curtains, and through the parting he could see his glans, her mouth, her left eye looking straight at him, at the glass bump on the back of his phone where she knew the camera was, straight at him here, now. He paused the video and took a screenshot of that frozen frame, opened the file and zoomed in. The camera on his phone at that time, four years ago, was good enough so that the picture was still sharp at twice, even four times the size. He dragged the image around and inspected the bottom of his stomach, but the angle was awkward and he couldn’t see much. Sometimes he thought he did and zoomed in further, but found himself diving into a sea of colour swatches and everything around him was a Minecraft underworld of pixelated skin tones, a petrified forest of pubic hair.
…………He turned to another video. From the filename he could tell it had been shot the evening before the other one. Ammi was wearing her vintage sportswear. That day it had been a sort of tennis dress with green piping and matching sports socks, the kind of clothes she would never wear outdoors but liked to put on when they met. Across the back of the dress, in red, machine-embroidered capital letters, it said, ST THOMAS AQUINAS. She’d bring these clothes with her in a bag as if she were going to the gym and put them on as soon as she arrived, while he opened the wine that she’d also bring. Every time she came back into the room after ten minutes or so in the bathroom, as he handed her a glass and said something nice about the wine, his eyes would be surprised all over again. She always looked glamorous in his kitchen, which she never did at work. Sort of too tall for his modestly proportioned flat. When she wore heels or platform shoes with her sports socks, which she often did, her head seemed to be no more than a couple of precarious inches below the ceiling. She’d make warm, cheerful, small talk about how her week was going and take a drag of his cigarette, just long enough to redden the filter with her lipstick, clearly uninterested in the smoke. She dismissed his rhapsodic flattery with a sad little laugh. She seemed to think it was in lieu of telling her something else, his way of deflecting intimacy. As if his declarations were not about what she meant here, in this flat, on this bed, against this mirror, to him, but outside in the world, in general. Benevolent opinions that cost him nothing. As if he were trying to palm her off with self-love, but if that was all she wanted she could have stayed home, in her own bed. Or was he simply assuming all that? Ammi, for her part, showed a form of complete devotion to him. She always had time for him, never mentioned anyone else, but she never complimented him, neither explicitly nor implicitly. She never gave any indication of what it was in him that she thought was so worthy of devotion, so worthy of this elaborate mise-en-scène on a weeknight.
…………In the video she was resting her forearms against the mirror, the white dress pulled up around her waist. He was entering her from behind, his black jeans were still halfway down his legs. With one hand he was grasping her waist and with the other he was holding the phone. At first she was almost standing, aiming her eye at the camera. Who was she looking at when she looked at the camera like that? It didn’t seem to be him, not the person who was there with her in the room, the person she was fucking. Maybe it was him now because she knew already. She knew already that he would be here one day looking for evidence, because she knew already then that it would be like this. She was holding herself against the mirror with both hands, using the friction to hold herself up, her fingers splayed open against the glass, pressed hard over their own reflection. She shifted her gaze and lowered her head, her long torso dipped below the horizontal and without pausing the video he took several screenshots in quick succession, like a blackmailer catching himself in flagrante delicto.
In another window he brought up a website, a sort of spotter’s guide to freckles gone rogue. Moles that start out as mere clouds, tentative shadings, and then grow into thick, encrusted, suppurating cankers. Moles red in the face, with hairs sprouting, like a twin that had vanished in the womb. These were the obvious ones, fecund, angry, the ones that couldn’t help disclosing their intentions, that couldn’t take it anymore. But there were subtler ones, those that were merely pearly white knobs of tissue, or translucent or waxy. Others were still little more than spots, but scaly to the touch, or misshapen, or two-tone, with a darker ghost moving inside a beige aura. When you zoomed into the images of these asymmetrical, variegated moles, these jumped-up blemishes, you never knew which way they would go. Some became denser, darker, like stones lodged under the surface of your skin. Others became more evanescent, like those giant gas clouds from which stars will one day form, and – enlarged like that, taking up the entire screen – they looked like you could fly into them and see the light change and enter new dimensions where other laws of physics held sway and time worked differently and things came back or disappeared before even coming around for the first time.
…………He had thought he would be able to get a better glimpse of how things had been four years ago, but most of the videos had been shot late at night, under bedside lamps and street lighting that came in through the uncurtained windows of his flat, and desk lights angled out of shape to illuminate their bodies. They rarely met in broad daylight except to go sunbathing, so the images he had were mostly grainy, a fog of amber and yellow and orange MPEG dust shimmered over their limbs; inexplicable puddles of colour formed around the two bodies like ectoplasm bending and reforming from frame to frame, like the shape of their body could not hold.
…………With the white flash that accompanied each screenshot, his laptop went through the motions of being a detective’s camera in a movie from the seventies, a telephoto from a parked car across the road, parroting the sounds of whirring gears, of a leaf shutter snapping open and shut, a mirror lifting to allow the light through for a fraction of a second, and the sudden flash of white that fills the screen and freezes those few stroboscopic moments from the years they’ve known each other, catching the expression on her face, tender, grimacing every now and then, in pleasure or pain or performance. He tried to look at himself but he could only see her, the domesticating effect of the athletic shorts and tank tops, the running joke, the premeditated flow of their evenings together.
…………He opened one of the several images he’d saved – his kompromat, what he had on himself – and inspected the tableau the two of them formed, following her long spine into her hair and then into the mirror, along her spine again, over the crumpled letters THO and AQUI and the white synthetic fabric of her tennis dress bunched around her waist, between the dimples on her lower back and up to his stomach, he could see it, right there, a brownish circle just a shade darker than the rest of his skin, or maybe lighter. Or maybe not another hue at all, just a different texture that caught the light another way. It was hard to see clearly, to determine its shape or even size, the way it was covered with wisps of hair. When he zoomed in, instead of becoming clearer, it merged into the background.
…………At the clinic he had stood bare-chested, pointing out each suspect blemish – the one on his left shoulder, the one at the base of his neck, the one on his waist that might actually have been a bruise. He’d drawn up a shortlist the night before, locked in the bathroom. The doctor inspected each one with the help of a loupe that had its own source of illumination and shook his head lightly at each one. Encircled by the diadem of little lights around the lens, each spot resembled an archaeological artefact of disputed significance. Not a single one of them had turned out to be interesting. They were mere discolourations, probably without malicious intent. The doctor was on the phone the whole time he was doing his rounds across his chest. It didn’t seem like a work call, he just pretended it was, making uhms and ahs but the voice on the other side was tearful. He hung up just before the end of the five-minute consultation, in time to ask him if the one at the base of his stomach had changed recently or had it always been like that? Maybe he should wait another year or so and see if it changes shape or size or colour. The doctor seemed to be saying this as if to compensate for his lack of engagement during the inspection.
…………Ammi had known that he was going to the doctor, he had mentioned it, but she’d not mentioned any marks he should have checked out. Maybe that would have suggested a certain subscription to his body that he knew she’d think unwelcome. After all, in principle, there may have been others to tell him about the various marks on his body. Instead, whenever she came across one of them while she was kissing him or licking him or running her cheek against his skin, she would stop dead and stare at it for a second and then move on as if she’d been unable to help herself. When he had decided to go and have them checked out, he’d tried to remember every time she’d done this. He tried to conjure up in his memory her journeys across his body, around his thighs and torso while he stood before her, across his chest and shoulders as she hovered above him or pinned him down. He tried to remember the stops she made, every time he had seen her probing with her eyes and tongue and lips, leaving traces of lipstick and saliva where she found anything interesting, like a scout, for the follow-up team to investigate.
…………The website he was consulting tried to keep everything professional, it showed you pictures and avoided inferring anything from these various markings on your skin, or making any judgments on how you spent your time, or drawing any conclusions about whether you have been favoured or not. It spoke drily – itchily, flakily, and also bleedingly, oozingly – of nodular, superficial, squamous and non-squamous basal cells and lentigo maligna and red, irritable patches that become very thick and occasionally look like small horns or spikes.
…………It simply told you how to spot these reddenings, these sudden enlargements, these encroachments on the skin, these causal paths that have always run inside you and are now coaxed to the surface by time and chance and can be read as easily as entrails right there on the surface of your skin. The text was clearly holding back, biting its lip like his doctor had been, trying very hard not to say that every single one of these nameless intrusions, these malformations, these eruptions, these slow apparitions, the ones that grew from nothing over many months, the ones that rapidly acquired an unplaceable quality, each one of them was a heavy-handed metaphor, a judgment.
The click and whirr of the laptop when he took the screenshots recalled a time when a finger’s press was not immediately wicked away into the ether, when buttons yielded to pressure and in turn pushed levers that released loaded springs and caused cog-wheels to turn, when things rubbed against one another uneasily and made a racket. This nostalgic sound now came through his headphones, which were on the other side of the room, attenuated but still loud enough to rouse Ammi from her sleep. Not completely, but to a level closer to wakefulness, and he knew she could stay in this state for hours, as she would for entire afternoons when they went sunbathing together, lolling this way and that, buffeted by fragments of dreams and ambient sounds incorporated into her dreams. He’d never got used to sunbathing in the park. Without the licence of a large body of water nearby, undressing felt exhibitionistic. The pond, with its fountain and duckhouse, was not enough. He was mostly fine lying down in his trunks, but as soon as he stood up, he was just a half-naked man in the park. Nor could he take the northern sun seriously, even in the summer months. Ammi took it seriously. She applied sunscreen as soon as they got there, methodically, in a ritual she must have known since childhood. First one arm, then the other, then her legs, keeping them straight and bending at the hips rather than the knees. She did both at once, first running her hands along the outside, beginning at the hips, then from her inner thighs to her toes. Then her waist and her shoulder blades with one elbow in the air, then the other side. She would quickly run her fingers under the straps of her bikini and just inside her top, her bottom, tilting herself one way then another. Then she would wink at him and hand over the sticky plastic bottle pressed by the neck between thumb and forefinger, while the other three long fingers were fanned extravagantly. He would do the small of her back, while she used another, more expensive-looking little bottle for her face and neck. Once she was certain her body was completely shrouded from the ultraviolet, she would lie down and descend into a state that was more like an addled trance than actual sleep.
…………With only the sun as witness, there in Victoria Park, behind the pond, they lay side by side. She slept fitfully while he watched formations of birds, folding and unfolding against the sky; but it was hard to read what they meant. Her skin scratched as she writhed against the fabric of the picnic blanket. It brought blood to the surface of her skin and reddened her more effectively than the sun. The moist breath of the earth beneath him only made him more restless, the vexation of his limbs exhausted him. He squinted to see the birds, tried to use his eyelashes as blinds, but a glint of direct sunlight would slip through and drown his vision in the full, purple force of noon. He would be blinded and dizzy for minutes at a time, and it was the closest he got to sleep.
Joe Gatt was born and grew up in Malta. As a young adult, he moved to London, where he worked as a writer and editor for various magazines. He now lives in Brussels. More of his work can be found at joegatt.net
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