Loving by Numbers

By Frances Orrok

Featured Art: by Nick Fewings

my dog, climbing trees, apples, my sister
On two separate car journeys, one with my mother, one with my father, I ask each of them to choose the last thing they’d give up. At ten, my questions take this form with some regularity: exaggerated parameters, carefully explained rules. “It can be food or water or something solid, but it doesn’t have to be. You only have twenty-four hours to live.” Both ask if they can think about it. Both remember to answer by the end of the journey (a hastily added rule).

My father: “the capacity to love.”
My mother: “to know I am loved.”

anywhere outside the classroom; mud, cold, leaves, not sports, lists
I start smoking in ditches. I ask my father if he’d still love me if I went to prison. “Of course.” He doesn’t hesitate or ask what crime I will have committed. I think about this and watch the back of him digging. I don’t doubt his words but I am curious. “What if I joined the IRA?” There is a long pause and he straightens out for it. The Irish Republican Army is in the news a lot. They drive fear into every school child, make public transport and Saturdays anxious. There are no longer bins on the streets, litter blows frightened of b-o-m-b-s. “There will always be things you could do to make loving you harder. That’s not the same as not loving you. Difficult doesn’t mean no.”

rooftops, chimneys, rivers, hay
People collect posters of film stars, and colorful magazines describe parts of the body I didn’t know I had. I think they are dumb. The people, the posters, the problem pages. Slippery. Mostly I’m outside making something. Love feels like climbing a tree with a book. Children of the New Forest, a Victorian novel set in the 1640s during the English Civil War, brings hot tears on the way to visit my grandmother. The dog is tossed by a bull, saving the children but lying lifeless on the page. My mother pulls off the road and encourages me to read my way out of crisis. The dog survives, albeit with broken ribs. Later I am amazed to discover that my mother has not read the book herself. How did she know it would be okay? There were no guarantees. But if love demands faith and time, she offered it.

elaborate escape plans, Nirvana
I’m learning that dens and corduroy trousers, tree-climbing and toast are not as cool as I thought they were. I want to be cool. Being cool is like being loved. I am given a penknife and Doc Martin boots for my birthday and I buy my first piece of unsupervised clothing on a solo trip to town—a patchwork skirt for £12 from a shop called Morgana that smells of incense sticks. I love its black lining, the tatty hem, the oranges and reds. It also makes me feel slightly sick. Grunge will do that. Sunny days are full of guilt, like I cannot afford to waste a second, but the woods and fields are losing their magic and my bones are lethargic. A fog seeps into the simplest pleasures and there is doom in the air when spring appears.

playing with words: automatic, autumn attic, autumn a tick,
            aw Tom a tick . . . tock
My foray into caring about image ends early. I am given some dungarees and live in them, my boots, and some of my sister’s hand-me-downs for the next couple of years. I spend any money I find on music and books. I discover I have a problem: I tolerate everyone around me but I don’t really like anyone, let alone love. This pleases me. By now I know that problems are interesting. Girls are stupid, I decide. I hate gossip; I hate hair, nails, clothes, diet talk. I am thin and I can’t get enough food. Everyone else has given it up. I refuse to wear shoes. I look forward to digging the garden with my dad. I get drunk in the woods, pierce my own ears.

woods, dark libraries, old churches, a violin
There are boys in the holidays. I decide I prefer their company and hang around in a big group, not counting myself as different but listening to what they say about girls with some curiosity. I understand my sister is a beauty. I love some if not all of them. They love me less when they realize how poor my camouflage is in a crowd. My hair is easily spotted by teachers and remembered on illicit trips into town. I am trouble to take along. I start wearing an over-sized hoodie at all times. I chew the sleeves, change my accent. I never want to be attractive but still I hate my hair for the attention it draws. I am learning that red hair is ugly, that no boy would risk being seen to bend that law. I grow it long—my bane and my shield. Still, I have my uses. Give me five minutes with make-up samples in The Body Shop and I can transform from fifteen to eighteen. I buy French cigarettes and wring Bacardi from bartenders.

woods, bike sheds, the underneaths of things
He plays the violin and is in love with a cellist called Annie who fancies his best friend Ben. I get in the middle of it all and somehow feel needed, listening to the angst and envy. I marvel at how people talk about this stuff. My love is too deep, too wide, too much to put into any words. He has brown eyes. My mother opens a box in the attic and it’s full of skinny 1970s tops and sleek velvet flares. They feel like a uniform against the world, a cocoon of calm that’s already out of this thing called fashion which seems to me so obviously set to trip us. I can’t understand why nobody can see anything the way I do. I no longer think it is other girls’ stupidity: I know it is my own misfortune. I spend Saturdays rolling cigarettes into an old margarine box.

anything harder, larger, or taller than I am.
On Vancouver Island I meet the land of my grandfather, feel more rooted and sadder than ever in the trees, the mist, by a new ocean. My father describes the cedar air as smelling of pencils. Now, still, a sharpened pencil can evoke the smell of that fog. Life feels huge and impossible. The sea in the straits is black and slick and makes me think of obsidian, a word that peppers all my poems.  I secretly hope my heart is made of it. I move to London and while I am kissing a Catholic physicist who doesn’t believe in anything else before marriage I am safe to develop a frenziedly innocent crush on a bald Welshman who kisses me hello on the lips in the library and pisses in the street while I am holding his hand. That feels a lot like intimacy, even if it doesn’t feel wonderful. Love hurts, they say. He chain-smokes, the winter catches in his lungs and I soothe him through the fever until his girlfriend staggers in late one night and tells me to get the fuck out.

no lists, life is listless.
It is love. This one has eyes the color of mud and moss, a goldfish called Ravi Shankar, and feet that run beside me through the night as we duck into smoky Soho basements and jazz bars. His hands hold mine, okay my quiet. He kisses me halfway through a song he’s written, guitar between us. Seeing us from the kitchen, his friend Lucinda storms into the night. Later she tells him I’m a smack-head. I assume that is someone who smacks her head a lot and feel surprised or embarrassed or both. It is metaphorically all I ever do, I just didn’t know it was such a terrible thing or that it was obvious. He introduces me to Pink Floyd and his Lomo camera. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are on repeat on the jukebox. Nobody has cell phones yet—we haunt a few corners and rely on bumping into people. We remind ourselves how big the city is so that whenever we find each other it feels like destiny. This love will inhabit me for the next seven years. Despite other distractions, his name alone can make me flare, dissolve.

eucalyptus, saline, desert drums
It is love and we go to Morocco where he leaves me and I spend four weeks traveling into trouble alone while waiting for a flight home that I can’t afford to change. My naiveté knows no bounds and, caught up in a brawl on a bored night in the hills, I am smuggled out of a café where two old men are arguing over who has won me for the night by a Polish Buddhist who tells me I’m an idiot for being here. If I don’t take the lift he’s arranged with a long-distance truckdriver to take me via ferry to Spain the next morning, he will track me down. The truckdriver eyes me and smells of meat. I am learning that heroes can be demons: “Everyone will know to look for the girl with thelong red hair,” the Polish Buddhist says. Not a girl, not long red hair. The girl, the hair. I spend the night awake watching cockroaches fight over a toenail, then tiptoe to the bus station at 4 a.m. After a seven-hour journey to the Atlantic coast, I realize this country is too narrow for hiding. I cut off my hair with my penknife.

black and white
In unrequited misery I acquiesce to a drunken photographer nine years my senior. Alcohol makes him invincible. Seeing his friends in akebab shop, he misses the door and survives the falling plate glass when he walks through the window instead. He gets into fights with homeless men until I kiss him calm and I think I am doing the world a favor. One late London night he tells me to get off the bus because I look like I’m going to throw up. I do and I do. He stays on the bus as it pulls out behind me. At the end of summer, watching the dawn rise over chimneys from a rooftop in Camden, my friend Nick asks if he can kiss me. I want him to but his question renders me shy. I tell him I don’t want to catch his cough and look up at the pink sky, hoping he’ll do it anyway. We sleep.

ocean, chill
I move to an island off the west coast of Scotland and every bachelor has a go until I say okay to my South African colleague who laughs when I say thank you to each box of champagne he passes up from the cellar as though it’s for me. My friend Nick has been killed by a carand my skin is sensitive. I wear polite like a cloak and it keeps me safe enough for now. Although I do not love the barman, I accept his declarations. It’s less tiring this way and easier for everyone else to understand “no.” Despite my polite I break his heart repeatedly. He says I have a devil inside me, that I need baptizing, and that he knows I have bewitched him. He thinks he is doing the world a favor. My happiest times are spent swimming far out into the loch and waiting for seals to approach. They snort and sleep with their noses in the air. I envy their blubber. My bones are cold.

he had a gun called Madeleine
We live in a car in South Africa for three months. It is not a smart thing to do but the moonlight is lovely.

My breath is taken by an Edinburgh boy with a woolen hat and a brown jumper full of holes. I write my address on a postcard of Saint B—and for years we will communicate that way, he from archaeological sites in Syria and Jordan, me from anywhere else. We write so much we tape sheets together and send them rolled up like scrolls.

bamboo, rice paddy green, coffee, handlebars
I am working in Cambodia. One rainy-season morning, my motorbike skids off a clay path on the way to work. My bike lands sideways, spraying orange ditchwater, but momentum shoots me under a fence-wire and I duck low to let it happen painlessly. When my eyes open all they see is a red square with a white skull and crossbones. Landmines. My body relaxes and I remain where I lie, on my back, eight feet from the wire, in the overgrowth. I’d been going too fast. I remove my helmet to feel the rain and I am surprised to find the sky looksbeige. I remember the slowness of snowflakes and lie still in the heat. I don’t want to move, tell myself I don’t have to. I also don’t want to stay, but I do, for a while longer than I care to recall. Eventually some children run by on the road, satchels and exercise books covering their heads and, their pristine uniforms breaking my sorrow, I feel too foolish to remain there any longer. Nevertheless, I wait for them to pass and check for stragglers in case my rising should cause more fright than I wish to give them.

steam, a house on stilts
Cambodia—I am concentrating. I write letters to my grandmothers that speak of
bougainvillea and cows while my mind wrestles with poverty and post-conflict.
This job demands love but I have too many questions to give it with any grace.

steps, borderlands, Hare Krishna food

London and I’m back at school. I meet up with the moss-colored eyes and tell him I love him. It’s the only way to make it stop, and the minute the words are out of my mouth they cease to be true. Limerence is a grave disease, fueled by silence, deflated by words. A stranger asks when my last relationship was and laughs with an American accent when he hears my answer: “Four years.” I don’t know that this is a long time for someone young. I don’t know that I am young. “Why are you wasting your talents?” he asks, and I wonder if this could in any way be a compliment.

theories of violence, terror and pain; a parrot
I continue to waste my talents. I study my questions and live with a parrot named BP who shrieks through the months I spend writing essays on torture and fear.

icicles, ferries, otters
New Year’s Eve, a frosty glen in the middle of Scotland where everything and nothing always happens. My favorite friend. We look up at shooting stars from snow and heather and decide how our years will go. This year I decide to give up the word no. It is easier than I’d imagined. I say yes to a future in aid work. I say yes to mountains and men. Camping on a northern island I meet one on an empty beach. Seven weeks later when he asks me to marry him, you know what I say.

fires, broken promises
There are four more proposals of marriage, each slightly louder in volume. It’s not that I’ve changed my mind so much as I can’t remember how I’ve got here. I ask him why he wants a wife: “Because you agreed.” This doesn’t seem reasonable. My doubt offends him, but I am tired of the word yes and have grown out of the habit of no. I work on a remote island farm, spend my days lambing and sowing vegetables alone and happy, noticing how much colder steel toe-caps feel in a spring thaw. Love feels a little similar although I cannot quite say how. On my birthday I hurry south to perform a pagan self-baptism in amongst the fallen bridge-stones of the river Dart. I promise I’ll stay this age until I am ready. The water grants my risky vow without drowning me. I say yes to South Sudan.

mud, blood
Distance hurts him. When I ring from R&R in Nairobi he answers, “Hello can I help you?” and my voice breaks. He has a child while I’m away and marries its mother. I discover this late in the game, through a friend, and I try hard not to feel foolish or guilty or anything at all. I don’t return to those silver islands and I miss the things that I left there: my toecaps, the bones of a poisoned hedgehog, vast swaths of beauty. In the dark and heat of a cricket-filled night I deliberate for too long over which empty medicine box to use as coffin for an amputated foot. I consider a container that once held clotrimazole pessaries, a treatment for vaginal thrush, but that seems somehow disrespectful. It is a strong, male foot. Mid-day, forty degrees and it is my job to persuade a mother to bury her new baby. The other women are threatening to burn it. They are yet to deliver their own children and this one is making them vomit. She comes with me to an empty tent that’s waiting for an emergency and we lay him in blankets and whisper his name. Afterward I am told this was not what that tent stands empty for. Mass casualties, cholera. A dead baby is not an emergency. I know this. I also know that it is.

dogs, weeping
In a refugee camp in South Sudan my heart fragments while failing to follow two hundred thousand individual stories. A virus has broken my clockwork, a fever that makes things hazy and syncopated. On discovering that no doctor’s machine or education can tell me if my new rhythm will carry me past the age of thirty-two, I decide I should learn to surf. I find kindness in the eyes of surf-instructors and lifeguards, who watch my feebleness in the Atlantic’s grip. I find a pale blue flower, Spring Squill, on the cliffs and make a garden to remember what I saw.

My body heals. My mind remains arrhythmic. My heart is excellent—breaking every day but running in its pieces, every scrap a copy of the whole. It’s the best realization I’ve had yet—it functions. So long as I don’t lose track. Work takes me back to South Sudan’s third anniversary of independence, to the swelter of Myanmar, to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where Chinese-made machetes have replaced wooden clubs and the strong die daily, unused to steel combat. When a man or woman is “chopped,” the body must first be placed in a fast-flowing river. The spirit is cleansed as the water runs red. My surgeon-friends ask me how to address this with the families. They ask if we can stop  it. It makes their jobs impossible. Surgeons are trained to save lives, not spirits.

whiskey, border crossings
I live past thirty-two, though I continue to think of myself as an indentured, riverine twenty-nine, a darling of Atlantic tides. There is a man who meets me gently. He is in no hurry. We toe the edges of different countries but slowly our momentums incline. We move and feel movement. From an Ethiopian desert we make crackling Sunday calls and endure the stutter and pause of a long-distance connection. He reads aloud from a New Haven brunch menu to add color to my lentils, sends a bottle of single malt that arrives with no note, packaged up amongst the tinned vegetables and rice. There is everyday horror. He knows it. That bottle helps us dance.

sleep, walking
From the Somali border I return, too light. Something has shifted and now I am testing gravity. I eat American meals, reload my ballast with sweet and salt. It’s no good. I remain unearthed inside, an unfinished yawn. I hear of a colleague’s death and want to be anywhere but in New York. But I have gravitated toward this man who is kind enough to wait without telling me he’s waiting. It doesn’t feel possible to navigate a life removed from the daily urgencies of field hospitals, outbreaks, camps. But I must face a new reality: Emergencies will not stop, but for now I choose to. In this work, my capacity to love seems infinite, easy— there is no obvious end. In this life, to know I am loved is something altogether more mysterious—there is no clear beginning.

His hand feels for mine in the dark, finds fist curled to eye pressed to pillow. 
Wet. I hold my breath—it is all I can hold. He holds my fist—it is all that I offer.

Frances Orrok lives and writes between Scotland and Cornwall. She is currently working on a novel.

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