Hunger was practical for me in those first months alone after the end of my relationship. It wasn’t just that desire took me out of myself for brief periods; the banked fire of years of sexual frustration kept my body warm. Afraid of falling asleep with the heater on so close to the bed—the landlord almost never ran central heating, so all I had were two electric heaters—I would drift into a blissful hour of feeling the heat between my thighs, conjuring up faceless dream lovers or past real ones while my fingers slid between swelling folds, grown slippery with fantasy. Slowly, the burden of life during waking hours fell away, my body radiating warmth stronger than any fire or heater, legs stretching out gratefully for the cold corners of the bed now that I didn’t need to worry about waking anyone. Sometimes in the dark I would moan at my peak—knowing I couldn’t be heard—feeling another kind of relief at hearing my voice form a word or a name. Finally, shaking and sticky with orgasm, I would throw back the covers and stand by the window, the cold now welcomed rather than dreaded; panties haphazardly pulled up around my hips, the scent of cunt rising up like steam—I could see my breath, and was always surprised to not see plumes of heat emanating from the still-quivering triangle below. Then I would jump back into bed—the hot glow of hunger saturating the linen—and fall asleep enveloped in the comforting smell of pleasure; finally swallowed by safe exhaustion.
I didn’t watch that much pornography, in spite of living on my own—but then I had no standard to measure by—preferring most of the time to fantasise with just memories and images in my head. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in my previous life I had always liked to whenever the mood struck, and I was alone often enough to satisfy it. But I was quite specific and preferred vintage porn to more modern fare—the latter’s tendency for women who either looked underage or stripped of pubic hair and possessing almost painfully large and gravity-defying augmented breasts not to my taste. But when I did, I liked the joyful but slightly aloof insatiability of 60s to 80s French porn—at times the actresses looked almost lazy in their lust; the kind of sleepy laziness of someone who becomes more and more aroused. It was important to me that they looked like they were enjoying themselves—another complaint of mine was that in spite of realising porn is acted pleasure, the vast amount of recent work tended to look simply like the process of getting from A to B as fast as possible for the man—and often what seemed as painfully for the woman. But (French vintage) porn was not without humour at times; I found myself laughing out loud—fingers wet with honey suspended at mid-stroke—at scenes where the actress was mopping a floor gleefully while masturbating and fucking herself lightly with the handle at the same time; a bizarre one where another actress was being fucked by a mime—naturally he made no noise but pulled a lot of faces.
There is one movie with Brigitte Lahaie, famous from a particular era of French porn, where she plays a maid in a château: the most memorable scene is where she is fucked over a kitchen table by another servant. In her ecstasy, she reaches for a bowl of what looks like cooked kidneys—rognons—and eats them, a fistful, with relish. At the time I rewound that scene sticky-fingered and incredulous, in awe at the choice of food, so thoroughly French in its gastro-pornographic nationalism. Someone involved in the production of that film decided on offal, and that she should be ravenous in her eating of it, just as much as the man fucking her is ecstatic in his appetite; although now I like to think she did it spontaneously. It struck me that it was a kind of strange but welcome liberation: a woman is always fucked, but does not necessarily get to display her hunger; here she was doing both with a joie de vivre that was itself arousing, independently of any man. The playful nod to the literal as a symbol of its sexual twin still lingers in my memory, and when I see rognons on a menu in Paris, I smile and another kind of craving possesses me.
I would drift into a blissful hour of feeling the heat between my thighs, conjuring up faceless dream lovers or past real ones while my fingers slid between swelling folds, grown slippery with fantasy.
Pleasure and laughter were things I desperately required to feel normal on my own.
We forget that pleasure, too, can be overly serious—it needs the lightening balance of the ridiculous at times, lest we start to think of it only as a goal to be attained.
But even as I laughed, I felt the chill of that strange and sad combination reverberating in the lonely annexe; it can feel like nothing more than an echo when there is no one there to share its warmth. In The Temptation to Exist Cioran says ‘[f]or some, happiness is a sensation so unaccustomed that once they experience it they grow frightened and interrogate themselves about their new condition; nothing of the kind is to be found in their past: it is the first time they have emerged from the security of the worst.’ Laughter in total emptiness is much the same—for a moment, you forget what you’ve learned, that it’s supposed to express joy. For that long moment when your mind is lost, it could just as well be the sound of fear.
There is a now I am not speaking of, because even when we reveal ourselves, some parts of us still remain private; I look at these spaces—silences—and think of the poet Sappho. Whatever I am writing here, there is also a story in-between; but I have already said that I write myself in fragments, because there are things I do not or cannot voice. Fragments within fragments, because once the self is divided, you cannot help but leave parts of it wherever you go—and perhaps that is deliberate, as if I were leaving a trail of crumbs that leads to myself. After all, I hardly know who I am at times, and this story is as much for me as it is for anyone else.
When I read Sappho’s fragments they make my heart ache; the sheer weight of blank space that you can fill with your own story—a confessional in which I have poured out secret after secret in between her remaining scraps of words. The space between who I was and who I could be, the Ma, the interval, where we all exist, but have not yet become; waiting for and willing those unrevealed words to appear. She is a prompt for every voice that we keep silent; I have leaned over her pages and whispered all that I kept locked up for so long. I naively thought that when there was finally someone to speak to, there would be no more fragments, no blank spaces. I forgot that the only way there can be no space is to reveal yourself entirely; I cannot as I do not yet—and may never—know myself completely. Do I want a self with no Ma, no remaining possibility, all questions answered? I now think those fragments shrouded in the unspoken and unknown are not just for me; that I am rewritten, rediscovered with every person who enters those spaces. XY started with a single word in the vastness of white space. He and I then wrote in, around, over each other, more and more. For every space filled there appeared another, each word written given equal freedom to be erased; to unbecome is just as vital in creating ourselves, to return to the Ma and sleep, to dream of possible lives.
When I started to write to XY, I looked between his words and found a space where I could be comfortable. When I sat in the safety of that blankness I began to write my story to him in fragments, words dropped here and there to see if he, too, would read between, beyond the pleasantries of work and reading. When he answered in the same way I began to see that those silent spaces, as much as words, were what bound us together. I think we then started to pay attention to the dark and light contrasts of each other’s responses; letters within letters. I was often startled at how well he read my fragments, for what I received in response was not sympathy but a stillness that allowed me to write to him freely, without prying, without demands and the need for lurid detail. Most of all, it told me what I thought and wrote was a truth belonging and owed to no one but myself. Sometimes we long not just to speak, but to be heard in such a way that the reader’s ear is placed not just to our fingertips or our mouth, but to the inner chambers of the heart: each beat of words travelling through their body, then the faint sound of another beat not your own, a flowing message. Blood and words only flow if their means to do so are unblocked, unchallenged. If it was a confessional—and to a degree, what is email between strangers if not that—I was not seeking absolution, only sanctuary; he, knowing he was there as a receiver of silences. He would write destroy my concentration, and I would think, read me again. He spoke of the blood rushing through his body and a swelling of emotion, and all I wished was for him to organise my words—arrange them from the puzzle pieces they were, into my own story.
Read me again, and again, and again.
If you ask me if I am satisfied now, my response is that I will always be torn in some way.
Difficulty is something that some of us need; perverse as it may seem, feeling the resistance of life is a way of knowing that you are alive. If this seems contradictory given my lost years, I only say it because I know happiness is the opposite of misery, but it can also share a lack of awareness of the world or a hyperawareness that is only focused on itself. Neither have the intimacy and self-reflection that is present in contentment and melancholy, things so necessary for balance.
We sometimes think that hunger in women cannot be paired with reflection of any sort, much less the nuances of intimacy or empathy—as if to say appetite is purely male or, if female, then animal and therefore less enlightened; certainly not civilised, definitely not truthful. The assumption is if I hunger more or less constantly, then I cannot control it or function in a recognisable manner; that I cannot expect others to control themselves around me. But I understand hunger as part of my symmetry now; what I understood as a child was innate but still required development and definition in the language of adults. My hunger is not a flaw nor something that excuses someone else’s uncontrollable reactions because they expect or anticipate certain behaviours from me. But that symmetry means sometimes hunger can only be paired with loneliness until it is recognised as part of a whole and not a feral thing unrelated to the rest of me.
All stories have stories in-between; to be read again and again, understood in different ways at different times—the old ones become new, and the new seem somehow to be part of an older narrative. Part of my story is about hunger; what it means to be distanced from it while its song still fills your body. Another is that of place and identity, trying so hard to find somewhere, somehow, to be, in stillness—like the women in Rhys’ and Antonioni’s works, away from the cafés with their fines and uncertainty, away from the closed curtains,trying to remember myself amongst the objects. To navigate a map is so much easier than to do the same with one’s body and mind, in what feels like absolute darkness, under that eclipse; I had to find my way in the dark and if at first I was alone, XY appeared, then my partner, and finally others—there were voices, songs I listened to alongside mine, until I discovered what I recognized as my own nature again; found myself in the light. All experiences, thoughts and words led to this place, these pages. I read these pages back to myself and think, was this—is this me? I am not just writing myself, I am discovering the history of a person both familiar and unfamiliar.
We sometimes think that hunger in women cannot be paired with reflection of any sort, much less the nuances of intimacy or empathy—as if to say appetite is purely male or, if female, then animal and therefore less enlightened; certainly not civilised, definitely not truthful.
There is still an I don’t know that is always with me—but I am no longer afraid of it, just as I am no longer afraid of being part of an equation that may never have a solution. It is not just that I have found a place for myself; I have found one for my hunger, now that there is a path where I am not following but leading—even if I do not know what the end will be. But for hunger to be, to be paradoxically still while it devours, is to be in a place of satisfaction. I do not think I wish for an answer because I need to continue to feel the edge of life: the sharpness of its cut and the blood that tells me that life and words are now unblocked, unchallenged; the reminder that I don’t know motivates us to go out in the world and find each other—for better or worse—to create new illusions, stories, lives; to feed others and be fed; to hear the next song; to not be afraid when the next eclipse comes; to know that hunger, whatever for, is normal. Hunger is finally normal—and what is the dream of life if not the hunger for hope; the hope of hunger?
Fine, Fin. I draw a line through it because this is not an ending. But it is not a beginning either—simply an interrupted conversation that I have now returned to, one that I had the luck to continue instead of becoming irrevocably mute. To return was like drinking after a prolonged thirst, words spilling out of my mind and down my body, drenching my skin. The flood does not come after me—it is me; if it seems chaotic then at least I am finally still, within the deluge.
Do I exist outside of these words, or even within them? Unlike the plea of Nabokov’s characters to ‘… imagine us …’, I know that I will always waver in and out of existence: both seen and unseen, in truth and its opposite. Our shadow is part of us—in the same way, depending on the light of thought, writing draws out the character within and casts it outwards for us to see. If I exist, it is because some fragment of me that I write about is a fragment that belongs to some of you as well—a shard in the kaleidoscope that changes one pattern into another, the space in which we pass through each other’s lives.
During the years of starvation, I dreamed of skin and heat. I listened to the silence of orgasms with no body to call to, none to respond; hoped that silence would become voice, and voice become flesh. The dream, overpowered by the senses, coming back to life.
Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in in Lapsus Lima, Empty Mirror, Berfrois, 3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She is co-editor (with Andrew Gallix and C.D. Rose) of Love Bites: Fiction inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat
Art by Yanina Spizzirri.