Sometimes people just want to share things
We three, salt haired and sun striped, leaning against the wall of the moto rental shop across from the bus station that does not consider mid-day to be an appropriate hour of operation. The occasional pedestrian and the not-closed cafe prove that this is not, in fact, a ghost town. It’s just hot.
His nondescript grey sedan rolls up to us — our mutual anonymity irrelevant. Who else would he be? Who else would we be?
“I am looking for three beautiful women.” An arm constricted by the short sleeve of an XL cotton polo rests, beached whale-like, on the window ledge. An extra chin and receding hairline frame a squint-eyed grin.
“You must be Desmond.”
Messages have been exchanged, online profiles swapped, logistics coordinated, times and dates confirmed, an unspoken digital handshake has been shaken with Desmond, our once-virtual-now-extremely-real-life “Friend” and host in Gozo. Anna, Amy and I find ourselves at the very top of a situational waterslide. We have crawled out of the pool, waited in the line, climbed the ladder, stepped in the hold, the lifeguard is nodding and the plastic beneath our feet is very slippery.
The rush and dread of there’s-no-turning-backness.
Next Scene: The four of us, in a nondescript grey sedan, driving. We (Amy, Anna, me) are masking an overwhelming sense of unease at our host’s unexpected creepiness with saccharine American politeness (“So, do you have any siblings?” “Is it always this hot here?”) and he, ever upping the bizarro ante with droopy-eye comments about uncomfortably specific details of my profile pictures.
I happen to be experienced in weirdos and Anna has been through her fair share of awkward situations. Amy, on the other hand, has seen many horror films which feature series of events bearing an uncanny resemblance to the scenes we are living. Her jaw visibly tightens at the closing of each door behind us — the car door, the garage door, the apartment building door, and finally, the door to Desmond’s flat.
The antique shop odor of the apartment — the smell of hoarding symptomatic of the chronically lonely — did not help. Dusty china stacked in glass displays, disconnected cables coiled atop functionless furniture, miscellaneous things filling space, nostalgic of something or nothing. A video camera on a tripod in the corner is not unnoticed (Amy’s jaw tightens).
A smaller side table, with a single chair and an open laptop in the middle, is positioned between the window and the refrigerator. I think of the sun rising and setting, slowly and incessantly through the view of that window, but the thought is too heavy.
We attempt to persevere with idle chatter. (“Nice paintings.” “Wow, you must really like Coca-Cola.”)
“So who is sleeping with me tonight?”
“You come with me.” Desmond takes Anna’s hand and leads her down the hallway. Amy and I wait for what feels like the right amount of time to not convey overt paranoia (approximately 60 seconds) and then follow the sounds of their voices. We find them in the back room. Anna is sweeping the floor where Desmond is pointing.
Hollow laughter. The camera collection in the hutch does not go unnoticed (Amy’s Jaw).
“What are you so nervous about?” Desmond shuffles towards Amy, whale arm outstretched, and goes in for the least comforting side hug squeeze in the history of side hug squeezes.
Hollow laugh increases one half octave. “I’m not nervous!” she says in the least convincing tone in the history of obvious lies.
“So if no one is going to sleep with me, two of you will sleep here and one on the couch in the living room.”
He places a fleshy hand on the wall bookcase which, I am only now noticing, is bordered by a tiny crack of light. Amy is silently confirming the progression of her movie script, anticipating the reveal of a hidden room collection of leather and metal instruments.
The bookcase does, indeed, shift when Desmond leans his weight into it. The wall does, indeed, swivel on an axis, haunted house style. It is unclear whether or not there are sundry fetish and torture paraphernalia in the hidden room because he rotates the wall a full 180 degrees and pulls down the murphy bed installed on the back side.
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It is later discovered, by pulling on the antique painting, that the back room is filled with old computers, CDs and office supplies.[/caption]
“I had a Chinese girl stay with me. She was very tiny. I told her she must call me father and she would be my daughter. She was very light. When she left I hugged her and she was crying.” (AJTs.)
Amy has been silent since the side hug. On our metaphorical waterslide, her eyes are closed, breath held, all available skin pressed to the bottom in futile effort to halt the hellish joyride. Anna and I take on the the art of negotiating closeness with our keeper. We are accepting his offers to drive us to the beach, declining his offer for dinner and a massage, playing along with his innuendoed humor, and inviting him to join us for a drink later, in a public place. Despite Desmond’s oddities, there is something tragic about him that we cannot bring ourselves to ignore. We feel bad for him.
He drops us off at the oft postcarded Azure Window to watch the sunset after kindly offering us one of the extra bikinis he has in a box in the back room (“I donate them to the communities in Peru and the Amazon. When National Geographic goes to the Amazon to photograph the naked women, they will find them wearing my bikinis!”)
When we’re on our own, Anna and I manage to convince Amy that staying the night with Desmond is not worse than wandering the streets of Gozo until dawn. I volunteer to sleep alone on the couch in the living room. After dark, we head back to the moto shop by the bus station and the now-closed cafe. We three are now the only proof that this is not a ghost town.
Desmond picks us up. I ask about his evening and immediately regret it. It’s not fair for people who live infinitely variable lives — lives that are seen, clichéd, commented on, lives whose tragedies are mourned in international news, lives which are chronicled in every conceivable medium, and which are, by every societal indicator, validated and heralded and deemed special and worthy — to ask “And how was your day?” to people on the other side of the lens — the side of the watchers, the invisible, the side of unchronicled days, days that are long and slow and incessant.
There is a parade in the town centre (explaining the ghostliness of the bus station). What must be 100% of the island’s population proceed down the road behind a wheezy marching band and a larger-than-life Jesus hoisted on slightly lopsided shoulder-bourne beams. String lights zigzag overhead across the street and kids chuck fistfulls of paper confetti from balconies.
Desmond chats with the local sculptor, the police, a few mothers and other shopkeepers. Maltese sounds like Arabic. The greetings are fanfareless and have the tone of sentences in the middle of a conversation. Presumably there is no need to start or finish conversations on the island, the way you do in places where two conversators might not bump into each other again.
Desmond’s English accent defies category. It has the essence of a dripping tap, slow and steady, without emphasis on any particular syllable. Gozo is “Go Zoe.” Photo is “Foe Toe.”
After Jesus makes his final ascent to the top of a mini pyramid the the churchyard, we buy beers at the parish house (as in, beer was being sold inside the parish house like rosaries) and sat in the plaza. Desmond tells us about being disowned by his family when he left the priesthood, his three-week marriage to a Sri Lankan woman he met (mail ordered?) online, his idea for a check-deposit app (yes, even creepy old men in Malta have app ideas), and his theory that children under the age of 7 should not be taught in schools because teachers these days turn kids into robots by forcing them to “download” abstract information.
The parish priest — identifiable by his collar, though unbuttoned — exchanges a few mid-conversation words with Desmond and they switch to English when he gestures to us. The priest supposedly lived in Jersey for 27 years of his adult life before moving back to Gozo a decade ago, but the man, toupeed, thick lashed and undoubtedly a closet homosexual, doesn’t look a day older than 50.
“What do you think priest? I told them no but they keep asking if they can sleep all three with me in my bed. Do we have your permission?”
When we get back home, Desmond tells us not to snore and tucks himself in bed. I tuck Amy and Anna in the back room and tiptoe past Desmond’s room to the living room couch. Everyone sleeps, unmolested, to the sound of the rattly fans blowing hot air.
In the morning Desmond serves us instant coffee and Maltese pastizzi. “You know pastizzi is also the word for vagina?” Our laughter isn’t hollow anymore. Now that Amy has survived the night, even she can appreciate a few dirty jokes.
He drove us around to see a few more sites on the islands, occasionally offering other tourists to have their photos taken with us for a small fee. He dropped us off at another beach and came back just as we were sitting down to lunch.
“You’re not going to eat all of that are you?” his eyebrows raised at our pizzas. We each passed him a slice.
Desmond has money. He could have ordered his own pizza. But he is old and lonely and would rather give his time to strangers in exchange for miscellaneous gifts that gather dust in his cabinets and the occasional slice of pizza.
But sometimes people just want to share things.