Somewhere in Between Part 2. Blank Space
Fucking Åmål is a movie about lesbians. It’s probably one of the only good ones, but it’s directed by a man and so is Blue is the Warmest Color, except that’s a bit shit and absolutely not the reason me and Emma are in a car driving 376 kilometres to a nowhere town in Sweden. We’re going to pay tribute to a signpost in our shared coming-of-age narratives, seven years and a whole hemisphere apart, but experienced pretty much in parallel, because Emma’s young and I’m a late bloomer.
Emma is driving while I try to read out directions I can’t pronounce, printed onto paper from Swedish Google Maps. I’m no good at emulating the melody of pitch accents and long vowels that sound like speaking with an overlarge tongue or delivering the ö’s and å’s in creamy mouthfuls next to softly aspirated consonants.
“Siargatan. Magnus Ladulåsgatan. Rosenlundsgatan. Ringvägen.”
Instead, I’m speaking in awkward, block-y clusters of phonemes borrowed from my impression of a European accent informed by an Australian (me) speaking Polish (my parents’ language), with its own poorly rolled r’s that sound not at all like something Scandinavian.
“Hornsgatan. Vänsterfilen. Liljeholmsbron. Trafikplats.”
Some of these words are names.
When I was growing up in Perth, Fucking Åmål provided a voyeuristic escape from the closeted life of a Polish Catholic on Australia’s west coast, even if the international arthouse industry puritanically insisted on translating the title Fucking Åmål to Show Me Love. The original name represents a town that exists, called Åmål, and the new one is a nod to the back-seat snog scene between Agnes and Elin while they’re trying to hitchhike to Stockholm. In it, Lou Gramm of British-American band Foreigner pushes the title of ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ out of his lungs and through the radio, raspily, with a lot of feeling – probably pain – which in retrospect is significant, because I’ve never been in love until now.
The music that’s playing in a borrowed car, on the E20 (or wherever, we’re lost), is Rihanna’s ‘Stay’. That high-pitched harmonic from the plucking piano chords is burnt into my brain after too much listening from the very first time I heard it, one year after its release, on the Pontchartrain Bridge in New Orleans, while thinking about someone else. It’s really awkward and kind of quiet in the car when it plays and I’m trying not to cry. Google Maps says it should have been about a four-and-a-half-hour drive on the Stockholm-Oslo route, but it’s been longer because I can’t read the printed A4 directions and it’s almost dark, but it also doesn’t matter because for now, we’re still together. Sam Smith is maybe singing about being married, but definitely about having his heart broken in ‘I Know I’m Not the Only One’, while I try to act cool about polyamory and sound out foreign words, but it’s hard.
“… and then… Följ E18… och E45… mot… målet i… Åmål”
(…But when you call me baby…)
(…I know I'm not the only one…)
“I think I just, ha, I just recorded…”
(…I wish this would be over now…)
“I just recorded that whole conversation.”
In Białystok, lying on the kitchen floor, anxious. I’m sending passive-aggressive messages to my one-time lover, by now a stranger, through Skype, site of our arguing, sex and overnight sleeping sessions, while Jan compares gay parenting to abuse. She has a husband and a toddler and uses ‘sensible shoes’ as a euphemism for homo. “If that’s you coming out, then I don’t care”. But mum does and so does grandma, who’s old and has dementia and once loved me, too. ‘Blank Space’ – Taylor Swift’s song, our song – is in my iTunes and I play it on repeat, like torture, to summon the soft quiver of a loss that crosses heartbreaks. The replays feel like shadows that tumble, graceful, fine and layered, on a lifelong fear of the fallout from a truth being realised. Rejection follows clarity follows vulnerability follows intimacy. (You can tell me when it's over/If the high was worth the pain.)
Emma and I really hadn’t thought this trip through. While driving past a chemical plant with an incandescent star on its flue gas stack to celebrate Christmas, I’m restlessly surfing stations on the radio, looking for ‘Shake It Off’, but find the boring earnestness of Lisa Miskovsky singing ‘Silver Shoes’ to an electric guitar with a delay pedal. There’s Swedish news about a far-right politician who’s addicted to online gambling and a song called ‘Girls’. Beatrice Eli’s country grunge is fine for pop, but not that great for me, listening. A group of people, two men, one woman, talk about the facesitting ban in UK porn. Emma translates, they laugh, and keep on saying their sentences in the unmistakable tonal flatline of facetiousness. A man talks about a recent terror attack in Eeyore enunciation that I can’t describe in English. In Polish, I’d call the rhythm kołysa, which in my head I spell as ‘kolisa’ and I’m not even sure I know exactly what it means: something like a slow rocking, as in a sway, but not a lullaby and nothing like rock ’n’ roll.
“You’re the Taylor Swift of the art world,” Ainslie takes the piss via text late one night at the office, as I reveal my thought process for coming up with the concept of bridging the song ‘Blank Space’ with writing a book and feeling horrible. I think I should reference it more explicitly, because for the first time pop songs about emotions (most of them) resonate with me, but I’m going to focus on ‘Shake It Off’ because that time on the way to Åmål it was playing a lot and it’s relevant to the thing I learnt about lying. (That’s what people say/mm-mm.) That is, Emma was a liar who never lied and I guess that’s why I liked her, because lying is a way of life for this closet-teen-gay-cum-adult confessional writer known for her candour. Emma (as in, I) would say words that sound honest but hide the truth in ways that, if written, would soon collapse like the limestone cement of a brick wall being slowly dissolved by sea air; it looks like it’s safe, but in the gaps, it’s falling apart. (Heartbreak is gonna break break break break break /And the fakers gonna fake fake fake fake fake.)
The main reason we’re listening to the radio in the car on the way to Åmål is that Emma’s Samsung smartphone has only one playlist, which gets boring in what turns out to be a 16-hour drive. There’s only so many times you can listen to SW’s simple ‘Beats for Babes’, Swedish Bandcamp kind of trip hop, even though it’s something that I still listen to incessantly. I’m not sure, but I think Rihanna’s taken down her entire catalogue on Spotify, because we can’t find it when we use the wi-fi at Max Hamburgers. So has Taylor Swift. We’re left with SW and Perfume Genius and some other wash-y, SoundCloud-sourced electronica I can’t name to play over and over and over again, on an impulsive drive to Åmål. It’s a weird, gay pilgrimage to the site where Show Me Love was never even filmed, so we could stop in the mid-winter dark of a parking lot and take a photo of a sign that says “ÅMÅL!”
Boys only want love if it's torture (I’ll be the boy)
Don't say I didn't say, I didn't warn ya
Boys only want love if it's torture
Don't say I didn't say, I didn't warn ya
'Cause [you’re] young and we're reckless
We'll take this way too far
It'll leave [me] breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex lovers
They'll tell [me you’re] insane
But I've got a blank space, baby
And I'll write your name
The shit-ness of Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the first things me and Emma talk about while she’s on a date with someone else and I don’t believe she likes girls. It comes up because her hair is blue and she complains that people keep comparing her to Léa Seydoux because of the tint of the hair of the character she plays, who happens to also be gay and called Emma. Maybe I’m wrong. The last time we speak is before Emma – my Emma, or not my Emma, someone else’s Emma, or the Emma that is her own person; the Emma that isn’t Léa Seydoux – leaves London, because I want my Lady Gaga tour t-shirt back and ‘Blank Space’ is playing in the shitty bar we don’t end up sitting in. We both notice, get sad; I take it as a sign of something unspecified, but mostly just a reminder of the dull pain that’s always around, like a film of connective tissue. Thin and easily perforated. ‘Blank Space’ plays at that bar in Limehouse. A cover of ‘Blank Space’ plays at another bar in Shoreditch. ‘Blank Space’ plays as an electric violin version performed by a busker in Lisbon. Choosing a hit pop song as a shared one is a bad idea. Choosing your favourite film about lesbians as a reminder of a shared experience you’d rather forget is worse.
I’m visiting the clairvoyant in the room with the incense, at the back of the rug store in Hackney; there are some seashells on the table that the man is reading while writing in Tamil on paper. He says my boyfriend ‘Amma’ isn’t worth it. “Get rid of this boy. It won't work.” He also tells me I’ll have a car, two properties, three kids and live in three places and die in the third. “You trust people, but people don't trust you because you’re too honest.” At first I’m confused, but now it makes sense because I’m writing about people as if they’re material, performing my feelings to remind myself I have them. I hope I don’t do that forever.
“Oh, E18 to Oslo – it’s off in a thousand metres…”
“Is that the way we’re going?”
“Yeah, to Os-slo, E18…”
“Oslo… Karlskoga… Örebro… flygplats.”
“Yeah, exactly and it says E18 Os-slo in 500 metres.”
“And so then we’ll just be going that way?”
“Yeah, well, I dunno. That’s what you’re saying.”
“Yeah, well, it says Oslo, forward slash, Karlskoga, forward slash…”
“Yeah, that was what it said, right? E18. Right?”
“Vid kors-ningen trafik-plats adolf-s-berg?”
“What was it called? Can you. Say what is it’s c…”
“Vid korslingen… yeah, keep on…”
“One hundred and ten Trafikplats Adolfsberg…”
“So, that’s here! One hundred and ten. So, that’s perfect. That’s why I’m like, ‘can you please read the whole thing so I can…’”
“I feel like you’re screaming at me…”
“Yeah, cos I really want you to read the whole thing, cos like, ‘maybe THAT’S HERE! And you just read, like, Trafikplats is just like, you know, ‘traffic place’. I’m like, ‘yeah, I get it. What traffic place?’ Name or number?!”
“I just didn’t know why you were getting so excited, because we’d already established we were going the right way.”
“Yeah, but no; I just wanted to make super, super sure.”
Photograph by Steph Kretowicz