Erik Jan Harmens
Hello Wall (Hallo muur)
An excerpt of 5 chapters, translated by Jonathan Reeder
Hello wall. You look just the same as yesterday. Not me, I’ve changed. I’m wearing different clothes, I see things differently. I also feel different.
Yesterday I could cope with the world. I put on my brown boots and walked through the shopping center like it was a pasture. I bumped into someone I don’t know very well, but kissed on the cheek anyway. He let me.
The first avocado I took from the rack at the supermarket was quite ripe, but certainly not rotten. The second one was not ripe yet, but almost. This way I had one avocado for today and one for tomorrow. I did not weigh them, because they’re sold by the piece. Weight didn’t matter. So the cashier didn’t have to swivel around on her stool to put a price sticker on the fruit.
At home I put the not-yet-ripe avocado away, the other one I sliced in half, down to the pit. It separated at once, the pit flicked out all by itself. I poured expensive olive oil onto both halves and did not slosh any. A sprinkle of salt and pepper. Then I began cutting the flesh into pieces with the side of my egg spoon, and after that I ate the avocado and it tasted good. The peels went into the washing-up tub to be thrown into the compost bin later. I wiped off the counter with a cloth. Then I lay down on the sofa for about ten minutes to muse.
That was yesterday.
This morning I cut open the other avocado, but this one seemed harder than yesterday, as though it had petrified. The pit resisted, the peel clung to the flesh. With a bit of muscle I managed in the end, but the taste was vapid; I overdid the olive oil and was far too generous with the salt. I did eat it, but without the slightest trace of yesterday’s divine victory.
I cleaned up and walked to the shopping center, this time wearing the expensive, too-small sneakers that pinch both my big toes, causing dark patches to appear under the nails, which will not go away anytime soon. Someone greeted me and I greeted them back, but a few meters further it hit me who it was and I realized I’d said hello way too enthusiastically. The other person must have wondered: what’s with that guy, is he drunk?
I haven’t drunk in a year and a half, wall. This is true, although it could also be just for show, and in reality I sneak out to the shed every night to put a bottle of Bacardi to my lips. Maybe I even do it unconsciously, sleepwalking, although it does raise the question of who keeps refilling the Bacardi that’s supposedly there.
Ever since I made the decision to stay sober, I meet lots of people who no longer drink. Were they always there, and in my drunkenness I didn’t notice them? I don’t know; I don’t have that much to say to them, nor they to me. Sometimes we exchange a tip about what to do when you feel like drinking. Then the other one nods a bit, like with a joke he’s heard before.
One tip is that it helps to drink water. Drinking alcohol-free beer does not help, but jogging is good. Sex helps too; really sober, focused sex, although afterwards I still always want to smoke.
Essentially, abstinence is a sign of weakness. I believe that a strong person should have a sense of moderation. At the end of the day he ponders on his trials and tribulations with a glass. With dinner, while mulling things over, he drinks another glass. After that he muses by the fireside with a nightcap. Then he goes to sleep.
I am not that kind of person. I am a large-scale consumer. You say glass, and I think: bottle. If I had drunk in the past year and a half and never went to the bottle bank, there would now be five hundred empty wine bottles in my shed, and two thousand empty Westmalle Triples. Assuming you can carry fifty empty bottles at a time, this would mean I’d have to walk back and forth fifty times to the bottle bank and the deposit-bottle machine at the Jumbo.
I think that by not drinking I’ve saved ten thousand euros these last eighteen months. Where’s that money gone to? If it’s not here, it must be somewhere.
Hello wall. From a distance you look smooth and flawless, but from close by I can see the pockmarks. Once, when I tried to pop a balloon with a knife, I slipped and jabbed a hole in you. At the hardware store I bought some instant spackling paste and a putty knife. Now the hole is gone, but you can see exactly where it was.
I’m going to tell you a story. About how, for a while, things didn’t go so well with me, how I started drinking and drinking until it got so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and how, much later, it got light again, after I stopped drinking.
The story ends well, although where I’m standing the light is pretty bright. Oftentimes the glare makes my eyes hurt something awful, and then I miss the Westmalle Triple, which dims the light and dampens the sound and makes everything softer, including the caressing hand of a woman.
My books don’t sell all that well. They say it’s because no one reads a book anymore. But a friend of mine who also writes has sold 100,000 copies, so people do read.
If people ask how much of my poetry I’ve sold, I always reply as nonchalantly as possible: ‘Not much, a few thousand copies.’ But in reality it’s a few hundred.
Sometimes people compliment me on my column in de Volkskrant. ‘I always read it,’ they say. I don’t tell them I stopped writing columns for de Volkskrant six months ago.
I say I could write a book that sells a hundred thousand copies, but that I don’t want to. Because then I’d really have to write a book with a story, with a plot (at the word ‘plot’ I make a face), whereas my books are more literary, which is all about innovative language, avant-garde, capturing the zeitgeist.
I say so much. Words just keep rolling out of my mouth. Words, words, words. How many per day? Thousands. Words directed at someone or at no one. There it goes again, my mouth, opening like a garage door. A tenth of a second later come the first sounds. I start talking. The first word will probably be ‘I’.
I get a lava lamp for my birthday. The giver says it’s one of those gadgets people really notice when they come to your house. After an hour the wax starts to ooze upwards and when it cools off it sinks back down. I put on ‘Ring My Bell’ by Anita Ward and move my hips to the music. I imagine a much-too-young girl in baggy boxers, who makes movements that men aren’t able to make. And shouldn’t want to be able to make.
When the song is over I look into the light of the lava lamp. Because I feel lonely, I put on ‘Hello Walls’ by Willy Nelson. ‘Hello walls, how’d things go for you today?’
I check my smartphone, but I have no emails, no apps, no updates. Have people forgotten me? Do I actually still matter? This aloneness is starting to make my throat clench.
Sometimes, wall, I’m afraid no one knows me anymore. That I call my best friend and he repeats my first name a few times out loud, but says it doesn’t ring a bell. That there’s no trace of me in the bookstore, nor can I be ordered. ‘Erik Jan Harmens, with a ‘k’, did you say, and no hyphen? No, never heard of him, do you maybe have an ISBN for me?’
In the past, when I felt like this I would drink a few glasses of Belgian beer and then I could wallow in it instead of suffering, but now I don’t drink anymore and everything comes without anesthetic.
I set up a profile on Tinder, but then delete it, because I can’t bear the thought that someone will look at my profile photo and then bring her index finger to the glass and swipe to the left. I want them to at least click on the ‘i’, for more information. Then they’ll read my bio, where it says I’m not desperately looking.
We have each other
One evening, after the rice with curry sauce, and yogurt with sprinkles for dessert, my brother, my sister and I each get handed a form.
‘You need to sign this,’ my mother says. ‘It says you’ll be living with me from now on.’
That’s not actually what it says. The court asks us, via the form, where we want to live, with our father or with our mother. My brother checks the box ‘with my mother’ and signs it. My sister does the same. I waver, consider my options, consider whether I have options.
‘Just sign it,’ my brother says, as though it’s a done deal. But the tip of my ballpoint pen hovers above the paper.
‘We’ll manage,’ my mother says. ‘Together. We’ll do this together.’ And then she adds: ‘We have each other.’
I lie on my bed and feel the mosquitos land on my skin and I let them bite me. I see on my clock radio that it’s eleven o’clock, fall asleep, wake up, look again and it’s ten after eleven. It feels like I’ve slept for a long time, I’m ready for a new day. People are constantly going to the bathroom. It strikes me how often people in our house go to the bathroom at night. Sometimes really to pee, but mostly just to be on the safe side. You hear a few drops and then the toilet flushes again.
To avoid a confrontation with my mother I leave for school while she’s still showering. There’s nobody in the schoolyard yet, so I go to the basketball court, where time drags, because I don’t have a ball with me. Just to have something to do, I stick my arms in the air and spin around in circles.
On the way home from school I fantasize that our house has caught fire. The blaze has driven my mother, my brother and my sister into a corner. They don’t stand a chance, and huddle close together, awaiting unimaginable pain. They try to inhale smoke, just to lose consciousness. Their skin scorches like roast chicken.
I slow down, so I can think about how to react when I get home. If I’m unfazed by the sight of my burnt-out house, that might make me a suspect. So it’s important to do what other people do when they learn that their entire family has been burned alive: deny it has happened, get angry about what has happened, grieve for what has happened, and finally: acceptance.
At home, my mother pours hot water in a glass. She dips a used tea bag in it, which makes the water change color. She gives me a square cookie to dunk in the tea.
‘Of course you can go live with Papa. If that’s what you want,’ she says.
‘I don’t want to live with Papa,’ I say. ‘I just don’t want it to be decided for me.’
‘You’re right. But where do you want to live?’
‘Do I have to decide right now?’ I ask.
‘Look at the date at the bottom of the letter,’ my mother says, pointing to a day in the month that is about to begin.
I check the box ‘with my mother’.
An average build
When I was eight I had a potbelly and my mother called me ‘little burgomaster’. When I was eighteen I was skinny, and when I was thirty-two I had a potbelly again. And a fat head. My cheeks were permanently flushed, my eyes watery and bloodshot. If I wanted to see my dick I had to bend forward to negotiate the angle.
Now I’m forty-four and I’m neither skinny nor fat. If I were to commit a crime and be spotted by eyewitnesses, they would say: ‘The man had an average build.’
Sometimes I have a potbelly and sometimes I don’t; it varies. Sometimes I wake up with a potbelly, but by lunchtime it’s suddenly gone.
I am alone, wall, I’ve stopped drinking and I’ve stopped smoking. I’m on the right track and I’m alone. If I meet a woman I fancy, so much desire in me gets released that it scares her off. Even before I’ve had the chance to articulate my possible intentions, she says she values our friendship. And then I think: friendship, friendship. Because in my mind I’m already kissing her and the fantasy feels so real that it’s like we really did kiss. So I can’t understand why she keeps looking at me with that same friendly face.
I am alone, wall. Sometimes my children are with me, sometimes not. If they’re not, it feels kind of hollow inside. I used to fill that hollow with drink; I don’t anymore, so it stays hollow.
Yesterday I met a woman and she is so beautiful, but so young. Even before we introduced ourselves, I had fast-forwarded the tape to the moment when we announce our engagement: the girl with the pigtails and the man with the greying temples.
On weekends she dances in clubs until the time I’m already letting out the dog in the park, ambling along paths with pictogram signs of a Dobermann taking a shit. By the time she’s slept off her hangover I’m already yawning.
She is so sweet and her name rolls over my tongue and if only she were here, here, here. But maybe I should start by making my feelings known to her, instead of just fast-forwarding the tape, and then rewinding it back to the present, and then fast-forwarding again to later, to: what to do, what to do, what to do.
But I gag at the word ‘feelings’ anyway and I do not want to make them known, those feelings, because then she’ll say she values our friendship. And then I’ll think: friendship, friendship.
So the heck with those ‘feelings’. I’m going to look for someone my own age. But women my age tend to have sworn to their girlfriends that now it’s their turn and they’ll never let someone else walk all over them again: never again! So then I do something, for instance pay the bill in a restaurant, and then they go at it like a guard dog: ‘I’m paying half, I’m paying half!’
I could also find a man. Then at the first light of day I’d feel his morning hard-on poke against my tailbone. When we danced, my boyfriend and I, we would tongue each other without our lips touching, so that everyone can see, and we wouldn’t care, and we would rest our hands on each other’s butt, because it feels good and because they have to rest somewhere.
I am alone, wall. Alone, alone, alone. I could masturbate, but I could also just leave it, and instead lie in bed with a full sack and listen to late-night radio.
We have a fully translated manuscript of Hello Wall available upon request. For more information about Erik Jan Harmens and Hello Wall, please visit the Lebowski Agency website.
Erik Jan Harmens (1970) is an author, poet and performer, and a couple of days per week, he works as a Corporate Writer for multinational corporations. His widely-praised poetry collections and novels have been nominated for various prizes.