by Kleitia Vaso

One of last year’s best moments occurred, coincidentally, during one of the gloomiest periods. I wouldn’t call this period dark because it does not quite deserve that extreme of a term; the period in question was just a plain tasteless gray. Coincidentally is not the right term, either: the ephemeral sensation of happiness occurred precisely as a direct consequence of the preceding gloominess.

The moment in question was not special regarding either place or time; on the contrary, I experienced it during a routine bus ride which, despite its regularity, always makes me question the chain of decisions and events that led me to that bus. I was returning home from work on a weekend, which is also not a great portent for the onrush of unexpected happiness. Yet, it came, in the guise of an overwhelming sensory pleasure – the sun rays were slowly engulfing me and creating a semi-sleepy state and, while listening to music and writing a few notes for this essay, I can safely claim that despite the circumstances, not only was I completely happy but also grateful for being alive in my own body. One cannot expect much more than this, I believe; yet, the hope exists that life always reserves some kind of unexpected and previously unknown sensation, for better or worse. What’s important is that something new might be experienced and this suffices to go on.

For me, thus far, happiness has always been precisely this intoxicating sensory satiety, so beautifully rendered in the movie A Single Man by director/designer Tom Ford, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel. Because the film’s representation of this elusive state so faithfully echoes my own, I watch it every time that it happens to be on. Strangely enough, the story depicted has no direct relation to my own; the film opens with an elegant middle-aged man, George, who has just lost his partner, Charley, the death of whom has erased all of George’s taste for life. Actually, the day depicted in the film is to be George’s last day as he is planning to kill himself. I haven’t experienced anything nearly as sad; yet, a few universal feelings and reactions connect us to each other despite differing external circumstances. Precisely during this day, as George awaits the end of his self-imposed last day, everything and everyone that he meets, sees, smells, from the scent of a flower, the harmonious appearance of a secretary, to the pink color of Los Angeles’ sky, a shade created by smog, is experienced by him with all the power of his previously starving and afterward satiated senses. He experiences the world as one always should but can’t. Loss, exaltation, up, down…

The steps which led me to the powerful but temporary sensation experienced on the bus represent a mostly downward slip, shifted by a surprise twist at the end. The initial fatal mistake which marks the official opening of this ugly, several-week period was the misguided reading of the monthly or weekly horoscope. I remember that this specific prediction was catastrophic and, although I don’t really believe in such predictions and forget them as soon as I’ve read them, I’m certain that the self-solicited and self-fulfilling prophecies influence me. And this time, I thought, horrified, if the usually creative and optimistic horoscope writers had not succeeded in making this period sound a little more hopeful, it would really be beyond hope. And, what I intuitively invited came, in the guise of what for me constitutes a cruel punishment, namely, the addition of duties, chores, and formalities and the automatic subtraction of freely chosen activities which bring me pleasure.

My freedom unjustly (perhaps, but does not matter) curtailed by others, usually urges me to overfeed my pretty substantial hedonistic side, which, especially during times of famine, demands to be fed. In this specific case, for each stolen hour, I counterattacked by eating a dessert, buying a magazine, something, anything, which could somewhat compensate for my sudden and unappreciated imprisonment. But, in my gradual suffocation, during a conversation with a close person, I did think up a name for this law which has governed and continues to shape my life: the law of compensation.

Considering that hard sciences are neither a great passion and, therefore, not a strong point of mine, the naming of a law dealing with measures and equilibrium was sufficiently satisfying. I started to grasp that the outside pressure was creating more room inside or, rather, a prisoner’s magnified appreciation for freedom – everything good was acutely felt with heightened senses, each pleasure seized with the alertness of a being that had starved for days.

Usually, none of the things that made me happy during that 2-week period would have sufficed to satisfy me; one fulfilled wish would have only created the need for something else and so on. But, during those days, the usual hunger and overindulgence were balanced by the others’ impositions on my time and being which, in turn, created my frantic need and desire to save myself by increasingly exaggerating the self-determined “reward” in direct proportion to the suffering. And, still my strength was subsiding and I reached the null point when I no longer felt any hostility or rebellion and started to accept anything that was served me, hot or cold, without taste and appetite.

In this precarious point, the only thing that can save us is our relationship with others as it also happens with George. In addition to the care and attention of constant key figures, without whose help I am usually lost, a strange turning point came without warning. The first steps of the ascent came in the form of a spontaneous and irrational desire for something small but which belongs to the sphere of luxury and the fulfillment of this wish by the receiver who, fortunately, sensed my need for a temporary escape. What really changed my aggravated state was a satisfied whim which, beyond serving a concrete purpose, affirmed that in the midst of mind and soul-numbing routine, something surprising could happen, generously given by someone else, which could transport me in the wonderful but fleeting world of no particular place and time, where one can no longer hear the ticking of the minutes and the faces and voices of others around become blurry. The nature of the gift is unimportant; it is the fact of it happening which created the expectation we generally call hope that when you least expect it…In the most vulnerable moment, during descent, this steady privation counterbalanced by a shorter but more intensely-lived episode created the conditions which enabled that moment on the bus and all leading to it to be experienced not heavily and superficially but lightly and deeply, to quote a much beloved character.

by Kleitia Vaso