first chapter ‘The art of disappearing’

Sarah Domogala

On living fast and falling deep

‘Stories are medicine. Each one pays tribute to the human spirit.’

Clarissa Pinkola Estés


The wet streets of London rave with sound and light, my eyes can’t find anything to hold on to. ‘Raven is the trickster!’, the cab driver calls in a heavy London accent. ‘It steals the Light and brings it to humans.’ My body is trembling with fatigue and I can barely keep up with him. ‘Look, look! There it goes!’, he laughs out loud as he punches the wheel.
The whole street is shimmering and I see no bird at all. An hour and a half ago, my plane from Copenhagen landed. I changed in the cab, put on my new boots and slapped on mascara. The driver keeps talking while he checks me out in his mirror. I pretend I don’t see him until the car stops. I have arrived. At the LP-release of a New York rapper in a secret club in Soho. The doorman ticks my name on his list. Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home, a shiny brass panel reads at the entrance. I am alone. No one to leave behind in my home. There are floor lights on the steps of the stairs to the first floor. With every step, my dress crawls up a little. Tiny metal beads, woven tightly like feathers, run down my arms, the rough silk hugs my skin softly. When I enter the hall, a camera flashes harshly at my face. Once. Twice. Three times. For a moment, I see nothing, just white light. I smile. My long hair falls down my shoulders, as I look around. Eyes stuck to me. I see them looking. In this scene, everyone knows who I am. Skateboarders, directors, artists, and musicians. I create short films, video clips, commercials, and documentaries. Next week, I’m premiering my new film, I haven’t been home in two weeks, and my voicemail is full of neglected messages. I go in and am being hugged. ‘You look amazing, girl! How are you?!’. In this dark space, the hands of the suit-clad cocktail shakers are the only things lit by the small spotlights. Everybody looks up. What are they whispering about? How could this documentary about me start?

She provided the glamour, you see, the glitter…

Excited hands move up, faces break free into warm smiles, my long hair glides down my naked back. I am being kissed, welcomed, picked up, introduced to David Bowie. The evening begins. My producer comes towards me, he has contributed to the rapper’s album cover. ‘Great you made it!’
‘Of course,’ I say with a wink. ‘When are you flying back?’
‘I’ll stay the weekend, Iris is coming tomorrow. You?’, he yells in my ear.
‘I have a flight to Paris at seven. I have to shoot there tomorrow.’
‘Wow, hardcore as ever.’ He shakes his head.
I laugh. What else? The photographer taps on our shoulders and we pose. On a popular blog tomorrow.

On my left, someone hands me a martini with extra gin. On my right, I get a super-slim cigarette and a fire. The girl who isn’t scared of anything. Always a good story and well-received anywhere.

My third drink slides past on a tray with red cocktails.

Someone pulls me into a dark booth. The mahogany table is only being lit by the little spot on the wall. ‘Hey Girl,’ a Swedish skateboarder hugs me tightly. He introduces me to a DJ and another director, who are enveloped in a discussion on the mix of digital and analogous images within videoclips. ‘It’s just done too much now! Let’s do something new. Something awesome!’, one of them shouts in my ear. Nobody lets the other speak and the conversation is hard to follow through the noise of the evening. The director accidently throws a swish of vodka over my left breast and the sudden cold send a chill up my spine. I go quiet and put my glass on the table. Then a fuzzy feeling passes through my fingers, into my arms. It shoots up to my head, or is it the booze? A strange taste at the back of my tongue. With a deep sigh, I try to recover, but I can’t. All that noise. Another sip of martini. My diaphragm seems locked, my mouth contracts dryly, as though it is being crumpled. I laugh, laughing relaxes, it tells your body everything is fine. I laugh louder. It doesn’t help. The people around me are too close, I feel smothered. There are too many people here. When did I last eat?

My thoughts whirls into a fast spiral of images back to how I got here. The ground trembles underneath my feet. Why did I need to come here? I long for my bed. For something of my own. I can barely keep my eyes open. The ground starts to move. I can’t hold on to anything. I watch the director’s talking lips. His fat accent makes me wonder whether I’m watching tv or not. All of a sudden, all that pretentious rubbish is hateful to me, I hate my own pretentious rubbish. Fuck London and fuck all these allegedly important people. What had been my raison d’être just a moment ago, is now a prison. I want to escape, want to curl up into a little ball somewhere. With two hands I grab the thick wooden table. My hair, that had fallen so sexily over my naked shoulder, now feels too warm and too heavy. I pull it together with one hand. ‘I’m off to the bathroom’, I tell the others and get up.

Shall I join you?’ the skateboarder asks me, assuming I am off to do drugs. ‘No thanks, I just need to pee’, I hear myself laughing, for a second, I am myself again. But as soon as I turn away from him, I stumble uncontrollably onto the dance floor. How far to the door? Can I get away unnoticed? Where is the exit? In my head, I draw lines through the city, ways out, graphic lines of light. An anchor. Straight through the flickering disco lights and the raving crowd, I search for the lines in the room, on the walls, the plinths, to fix my eyes on them. Not here, please don’t let it happen here. I hold my breath and push through the wild mass of movement, colours, and sound. So many piercing eyes, calling voices. ‘You never know who she is or who she’s with, the only thing you know was she was there, and then she was not’.

It’s getting colder and colder. More and more grey. Almost black. For a moment, I see nothing. Then, just in time, I hold my phone up and the strict doorman nods. I squeeze myself through the crack between door and wall into the night. Invisible.

A few doors down, I sink down into a deep doorway, breathing heavily. The street is crowded. Party people, beautiful people, drunk people, busy people. No one looks in my direction. I disappear further into the dark. Sweat is running down my back. My scraping, superficial breathing and the ringing in my ears scare me. Subjected to my mad head. Why on earth did I come here alone? Why hadn’t I just stayed in Copenhagen and gone to bed early? Why am I such an idiot? I swear at myself silently, while I push my fingers into my hair and pull hard. Like a desperate mother pulls at her child, past any sort of reasoning.

My boot starts to shake. I try to extract my phone from the shaft with my sweaty fingers, but the shoe is too narrow and my fingers are too wet. I pull the boot off angrily and my phone falls down the steps and lands among the pedestrians. Like a wild animal, I rush down the stairs and grab it from between the hasty feet. A couple looks down in surprise. ‘Filthy junk’, I hear him saying in a heavy English accent. Crazed, I retire back into the dark of the entrance. The phone continues to ring. It’s my father.

Miles away. If I picked up, I would hear my father’s voice for a moment. That sweet voice of home. French. But I don’t pick up. If I picked up, I would zoom out to a map of the world and would see myself sitting here in a dark London street and him behind his desk in Southern Germany, his house in France, a hotel room in Singapore, or wherever he may be. Miles apart. Further than ever. And everything would feel cold and far away and hopeless, and the loneliness would tear me apart. If I heard his voice, I would fall down the stairs like an opened bag of marbles and be trampled by a hundred angry feet. The loser behind the façade, for all to see.

This glamour girl that I am not, that I try to make myself into, I keep her upright like a heavy doll. The alternative is to be nobody. To roam without a goal. To disappear. I shiver, the stone under my bum is so cold, but inside I burn with frenzy. I try to relax in all sorts of ways. I try to slip over, under, past, to be someone. But fear sleeps in the innermost part of me, which I can’t reach myself, and burns like the fire of hell when it wakes.

I am the girl who isn’t afraid of anything. I am the quiet girl from Southern Limburg, with plaited pigtails, fairies in her garden, and a father who builds airplanes. I am the starving wolf, ordering socialites around with her chest raised. I am both.

My phone rings again. My father’s laughing face, while photographing giraffes in Africa, appears on the screen. Wolves, giraffes. I am cold. My eyes keep closing from fatigue. Don’t slip away, not here. My heart contracts. A new wave of panic runs through my body. The big nothing that lifts me up. No ground underneath my feet, vertigo without end. Not my heart. I am twenty-three.

I look at my father’s smiling face on my phone screen again. God, how I love that man. I wish I was where he is. His warm hand on my forehead. I want to cry. I have no idea where he is. He used to colour the countries he had been to red on a map. There weren’t many empty spots on it. Everybody is scared of something. Running from something. What is it my father could be scared of? Empty spaces on a map? When he was eighteen, he walked through the streets of London on his own, on slippers, to find the Beatles and the promised new freedom of the sixties. When he ran out of money, he ate out of restaurant dumpsters. He has two cars in his garage now, two sports cars, a motorbike, a couple of expensive bicycles. He has his own helicopter and a villa in a German forest. How I long for that house. For the safety of all these things, the fire place, the large sofa. His strong hands, that picked me up countless times when childhood was too much for me to handle. Now I have to stand on my own two feet, there’s no one to hold me.

My phone vibrates again. Now I see the skateboarder’s name on the screen. At the table, he tried to put his hand on my leg. I put one leg over the other to push his hand off, like I always do.

Someone walks past with a jacket potato. My stomach twists, I feel starved. The comfort of a hot potato. My father grew up with his grandmother in the French countryside. With a hand-made catapult, he shot sparrows out of trees. His grandmother plucked their feathers, scraped out a big potato and shoved the naked bird inside. Poor people’s food. I long for the warmth, the taste of meat, the comfort. But I stopped eating meat years ago. I stopped eating anything years ago.

I squeeze myself further into the doorway when I see my producer coming out. He stops on the pavement, waiting for the doorman to hail him a cab. I could get up now. I could walk towards him and surrender. He would put his arms around me. And if not, his girlfriend would, when she gets here tomorrow. Maybe they would understand. Hold me and comfort me and take me back to Amsterdam, recognise how much I need their help. But the black cab arrives and he gets in. My only shot at safety is driving down the street.

As a child, I felt deeply connected to the world around me. I was at home among the trees and animals. I want that experience back. I want to feel human again.

From my dark hiding place, I see another cab pulling up. A group that I met in Brussels gets out and rings the bell of the club. Perfect Facebook people, being seen and non-existent at the same time.

The skateboarder calls again. Of course, he wants to make sure I don’t leave. Not without him. That hand was as much an invitation as a reservation. And I would give a lot for a strong male arm now. A warm body pressed against mine. Sex to forget everything. To share a bed. To be picked up. But the conversation, the small talk before, having to go back inside and being seen – it’s too big a price to pay. I look at the feet rushing past.

My panic recedes slowly. Once it seems calm, I walk up to the door and ask the doorman to get my coat and bag. He nods and helps me into a cab without being seen. Relieved, I slide onto the smooth leather of the Mercedes. The restless city flashes past, ‘California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day’ by The Mamas and The Papas plays softly on the radio. Everything has blown out of proportion. A fun-house mirror. According to my plan, I should have lived in New York by now, an Oscar on my mantelpiece. Instead, I spiral down at fast speed.

When we arrive at the once-elegant hotel, the driver gets my bag from the trunk.
Are you okay, ma’am’ He asks. He looks at me quizzically.
Yes, yes, I’m fine, thank you.’ Without looking up, I take the bag.
He touches my arm briefly. I see his black fingers and pink nails on my wrist. The shade of pink is so soft, so innocent, something melts inside me.
I know,’ I say softly, just to say something.
Take good care of yourself, lady.’ And the black Mercedes with the smooth leather shoots back into the night.

In the harsh light of the hotel name, I see traces of make-up on my hands, the worn-out carpet of the entrance under my feet. Tangible facts of life. Familiar and eerie at once. In my head, I pray for one mote friendly face, one more smile, something human from someone without expectations. But the receptionists are even younger and paler than me and mess about nervously on their computers. They don’t look at me, while they hand me the keys. On the elevator to the third floor, the fluorescent light shows me my exhausted face. My skin is transparent, I can see the veins on my throat and my irises are greener than ever. They stare at me like a deer in the headlights. The elevator makes a sudden stop and I see that the hall to my room is empty. I pull off my boots and drag my bag behind me over the floor up to my door. Too tired to behave any longer.

In my room, I throw off my clothes and take two Serestas with a bottle of water from the minibar. I slide in between the clean cotton and try not to think of anything. It’s useless, I’m alone and no one can help me and I will have to make sure that I continue to exist all by myself, so that I don’t disappear into the cracks of the dark tonight. I am holding on to the last pieces of reality I can find within myself. Don’t go crazy now, please not now.

When I wake up a few hours later, I see the first stripes of light in the sky. It’s five in the morning. My room is at the top of the hotel and the first seagulls silently float past my window. I’ve survived, is my first thought. I stay as still as possible in order not to disturb this intense peace. Just one more moment. Between the seagulls and the clean sheets. An endless new horizon is waiting for me. The wolf stretches out.

As soon as I get up, the adrenaline starts to flow. Wired, I get into the shower, get dressed, and grab my stuff. I do my make-up, brush my hair. Get out. The door slams behind me, my bag falls out my hands, make-up, pens, a bottle of water and deodorant roll down the hall ahead of me. My knees grow weak through lack of control and I snatch my things up like a maniac. I hear the voice-over again: ‘Maybe it was the accident waiting to happen that everyone was so fascinated about.’

Downstairs at the reception I check out with as much composure as I can manage. The doormen are as indifferent as the night before – no breakfast, thank you – and I give my bag to the cab driver. I briefly touch his hand deliberately and calmness spreads through my fingers. No one notices anything about me, nothing more than a woman with brushed hair and pretty new shoes. I sink onto the back seat. Take that woman away. ‘To Heathrow, please.’

They think they know who she is, her father, her mother, her friends, because she tells stories about herself every day to sell herself to others. So that they will like her and judge her kindly. Maybe someday, they will see who she is, her essence, and perhaps someone will be able to love her.

Live life fearlessly, the bumper sticker on the car ahead reads. Motherfucker.