The Heart of the Labyrinth
Romantic foreigner or cunning linguist? Throw yourself into the labyrinth and find out. But be warned: you might tumble out the other end feeling regretful and used.
We met in a dive bar flooded in soft magenta light. I was taking part in an arts event that night and, suddenly besieged with the realization that I’d be the first reader to grace the stage, I sipped several six-dollar spritzers and chatted to a dancer friend to calm my nerves. One pineapple and rum, one photogenic concoction of pomegranate and vodka, and a free glass of red wine sunk into my veins so that my knees buckled under the weight. I stumbled over to a stray barstool towards the pinball machine and picked it up before noticing that a man nearby was staring at me like I’d stolen his first born.
”Oh,” I said, a bit embarrassed. “I’m sorry, is this yours?”
”No, no,” he replied with a smile. “You’re all good.”
It was then that I noticed a vague accent lingering on his voice and turned to find a boy named Maruch, tall and lean yet a tad pyknic in nature. He had shoulder-length bleached hair with deep brown roots showing and the remnants of a beard. There was something exotic about him, as there always is when a foreign tongue is involved. I pounced on him immediately and said, “You have an accent!”
He said he was a Hopkins student from Germany studying a vague academic field having to do with semiotics or linguistics or literature or all of the above. I don’t recall – I was drunk.
We spoke only briefly before I went back to my friend. As I walked away, I saw a woman with dark roots and dark lipstick greet him. She was, presumably, the reason he was there in the first place. They only stayed at the bar chatting away for ten or so more minutes; when my turn on-stage arrived, they’d gone. This would’ve been the end of it had I not noticed him sneaking glances at me when it was her turn to speak in the short interval between her arrival and their departure. At about 2:00 am, a new name with one mutual friend appeared in the “People You May Know” section of Facebook. I sent a friend request, went to sleep, and the next day I woke up to a new message:
”Dear you, what a pleasant surprise in the morning.”
It was a greeting with the same charm I’d heard in his voice the night before. By this point I’d become accustomed either to college boys without urbane conversational skills or 20-something men tailoring their ways of speaking to match mine. I’d gotten used to “wyd,” “what’re you into,” “u single” texts, normal banalities of dating in the digital age. Maruch, on the other hand, did not. He’d learned my language through books, building a little library, brick by brick, on his tongue.
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we think in the same manner in which we speak. The structure and rhythms of our languages dictate our thoughts, and our inner voice is unshakably bound to our outer voice. Most humans think in a linear mode because they speak in sentences. (Or vice-versa? I’m not a linguist.) Maruch, however, spoke in a labyrinthine fashion, his voice lined with lush poetics and fog, leading me on a dark, confounding footpath until I stumbled upon the point, having retraced my steps hours later. Perhaps this is the manner in which he thinks – misleading and elusive, speckled with rhetorical flora and fauna that only serve to lead him to dead-ends. This was the trick of labyrinths: they’re constructed to soothe the eye and distract from the budding headache you get from navigating one. A man with a way with words is deadlier than a man with a chiseled jawline – they give off a tenderness, that which most men try to repress, and its presence can be so jarring that we forget to question if it’s genuine. Perhaps this is why he didn’t realize he had a girlfriend.
We spoke for hours a day, for several days during the week before he was to ship off to Europe for the holiday. I waxed melancholic in my friends’ arms during the 36 hours between our conversations. They rolled their eyes. He settled in France and we spoke again.
He had a peculiar way of making the smallest parts of me seem significant, the way rubbing a pebble enough can make it shimmer. I showed him my Tumblr and he said, ”You’re building a fascinating chronology of your interaction with cultural artifacts.” He read my tweets and declared, “You’re putting a mess into a form, so it’s an oeuvre.” He messaged me late one night with a cold open, the day after I’d sent him a letter spritzed with Egyptian Musk: “Kaila,” he said, “I am paralyzed. Whatever you want from me, you can get by indicating it or simply asking.”
We exchanged sweet nothings for weeks and I soon found myself infatuated. I sketched the image in my mind of a fashionable love, the kind of love that’s defined by cappuccinos and low-lit Indian buffets, foreign films and work dates, drugs, wine, psychedelic rock and jazz. This was the next frontier as his exoticism out-balanced my own, rendering him as the German Boyfriend and I, for once, less of the Black Girlfriend. What can I say? In America, black skin is in while black personhood is not. I’d become used to being shown off by white hipsters to flex their cool bona fides. This is my black girlfriend, look at her haircut, look at her tattoos, look at the fat ass in her high-waisted shorts and the books she keeps in her backpack, hear her tales of being an island girl, hear the slang she tosses into intellectual conversation as delicately as winter’s first snowfall, feel her skin, she uses cocoa butter, feel her hair, she uses coconut oil, this is my black girlfriend, look at the contrast between us, I can find her attractive because I am so vastly different from you. This time would be different; this time I could bend my boyfriend over and let the sun sink into his honey-brown hair to show off the lack of an undercut. Look at him, he is German, he grows his hair like Fabio, listen to his accent, he used to work with Bjork’s boyfriend, look at his eyes, they’re so clear and green, like the Seine.
This was supposed to be a straightforward venture – we go on some dates, change our relationship statuses on Facebook, and maybe run away to Paris by the end of the year – but instead it all began to feel off-kilter and wrong. I’d fallen into a pattern: his manner of speaking was so roundabout that after each conversation I was forced to reread and analyze his messages as if I were back in high school. I’d trace his words with my finger to find the center which held the truth, despite the honesty surrounding it.
I began to notice references to a “French girl” he was visiting. To be fair, he was honest about it – surprisingly honest. He first discussed her as a “lovely woman” he’d met last summer in Paris, and from then on referred to her as a “friend” or “belle madame.” So he was honest, at least. But “omission isn’t honesty,” according to a friend.
It wasn’t until the end of January that the labyrinth began to wither away.
The week before his return, we discussed our first “date”. He wanted to walk me from a bar to some satellite location so we could read to one another and, presumably, fuck in “a space that was ours alone,” he said. I just wanted to go to dinner, get to know one another and maybe go back to his place. The proposal was confusing and arbitrary, as though he wanted to keep me a secret, but I took the bait because he was cute.
During his final days in Europe, he told me the French girl would be moving to Baltimore to live and work with him. I found this confession to arrive remarkably late, considering how long it takes to acquire a working visa. He greeted me with radio silence once he returned, and so I was the one to carry on our flirtation, wondering just how European could I allow myself to be, wondering where the center of the labyrinth was and where it would let me out. He allowed our steady stream of love letters to peter away into nothing.
I found the French girl on Facebook after she’d left a nice comment on his profile pic. She was thin and pale with short black hair cut into a bob and was, very visibly, not the girl he was with on the night he met me.
Our last encounter was, admittedly, my idea. I sent him a flyer for an art opening with the message, “Hope to see you there!” and let it ferment until the actual event. Once there, I had a few glasses of wine throughout the night. What better time to light into someone? We had a brief argument in which he admitted that the presence of his French girl complicated things. “I don’t yet know what that all means for myself,” he said. I told him to be honest with me. He said he was never dishonest.
Last weekend we ran into each other at my favorite coffee shop. As my friend walked out, he walked in and I froze, we froze, as our eyes locked, before our lips curled into sweet smiles and he greeted me like an old lover.
“I’m so glad to see you,” he said. “Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you lately.” He hadn’t noticed that we weren’t friends anymore. I didn’t bring it up.
We sat and talked for three hours – mostly of politics, the differences between american and European culture, our futures – and soon I forced myself to leave, as I’d come to the shop to get work done and had only succeeded in getting sucked into conversation with an old apparition.
When I got up to say goodbye, he pulled into a hug with his hand around my waist, kissed my cheek, squeezed my hand and looked into my eyes. “I truly hope to see you again soon,” he said.
Maruch turned out to be quite the cunning linguist. He’d led me onto a wounding, weedy path with only passing glances at the heart of the labyrinth. The journey was fun but in the end I’ve just come out disoriented and a bit dirty, so maybe it wasn’t worth the trip. I can’t tell you whether the journey is worth it. Sometimes, I imagine, it can lead to some center that’s as indescribable as the center of the universe, but sometimes you tumble right back from where you came, sweaty and disheveled, confused and lost, wondering whether it was even worth the exercise.
I finally unfriended him. We haven’t talked since.