What have I lost here?
Some tired days, some days when I had been out partying the night before and had gone to work on two hours sleep, still partially drunk, I would raise my head from my arms on the workbench and wonder what I was turning into. Outside the shop windows loomed the dark giant forms of mountains. These mountains seemed to exert a malevolent forcefield around the town where I lived and around my life, making me feel trapped. At other times looking at them made me feel like I might explode from an uncontainable painful joy, as though I had a slow gas leak in me and was waiting for a flame.
Schopenhauer categorised our responses to the sublime from the weakest—a response to mere beauty in which we gain pleasure from an object that cannot hurt the observer—to the fullest feeling of sublime in which we observe the immensity of the universe’s extent. For Schopenhauer the sublime was always turbulent. In a finely balanced paradox it would seem that we derive our pleasure from what we might think of as the sublime’s overwhelming aspect, its horror and capacity for destruction. It is this paradox that generates the feeling of awe—the painful gas leak, the expectation of a spectacular, deadly explosion. Awe is a complex feeling that overwhelms thought. Awe holds us in a steely grip, we open our mouths but no sound comes out, we are rendered speechless.
On top of a mountain above Queenstown is where I experienced the deepest silence. It lurked in the uninhabitable craggy valleys between the ranges of the Southern Alps and it felt infinite and empty, a soundless howl, a voiceless, ancient ghost. Here, standing at the top of one of the smallest peaks after a five-hour climb, I was awestruck.
It was on a windblown autumn day when I was 21 that Nino wandered into the clothing shop where I worked. I think I was feeling aggressive that day or maybe just overactive. Maybe I’d just eaten some sugar. I was working the late shift and probably hadn’t eaten anything. I tended not to eat so much back then. I was skinny. My boss had given me a pair of denim flares she’d worn in the 70s. Bootlegs were in, but these jeans were the real thing: tiny, brilliant. I had to keep up a routine of semi-starvation to fit them.
Nino walked in and pushed his hair back off his forehead and looked at me. He had the air of a young Elvis, a constant flickering between cool and vulnerable. He styled himself like the rockabilly he wanted to be. He wore a leather jacket, a white teeshirt underneath and some blue jeans that wrapped his thighs tight. His hair and eyes were dark.
‘Hi,’ I said.
‘Hey,’ he said. Beat. ‘Can you tell me where a good bar is?’ His accent was working-class English. He had nose like Ingrid Bergman. Perfect.
I knew all the bars in town. My life was folding tops and tidying coathangers and drinking in bars.
‘Depends what you’re looking for,’ I said. ‘Drink, pool or dancing?’
‘Dancing,’ he said. He winked at me. He actually winked. ‘Definitely dancing.’
I told him a couple of places.
‘Not house music though.’ Those eyes, that nose. ‘I like 30s to 60s dirty jazz and rock and roll. Or 70s Elvis.’
‘70s Elvis? ‘ I said.
What planet did this guy live on? House was all anyone had played for the last five years. Drum and bass was the way of the future.
‘Like “Suspicious Minds”?’ I said.
I’d recently broken up with Aaron. He also lived on an alternative music planet where any Elvis past the Sun recordings was rubbish. Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, 60s Davis. I’d absorbed that music and those opinions so this guy in front of me represented an affront to the universe of cool I’d subscribed to with Aaron.
Nino nodded. ‘You know the song “Steamroller Blues”?’
I shook my head, no. I couldn’t work this guy out. He was good-looking but I didn’t understand his style, his rock and roll thing. His hip was nothing that I thought hip. He looked old-fashioned in his leather jacket and white tee and yet he carried himself with confidence and looked as if he knew where it was at.
‘This is Queenstown,’ I said. I wanted to show my sophisticated boredom. I had a broad Kiwi accent, but I knew there were better places than this. ‘It’s mainly house or drum and bass. There’s no choice here. You’re either into extreme outdoor sports or extreme partying. There’s no in-between.’
He gave me a long look and touched the leather jacket hanging on a rack for sale. ‘Can I try this on?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
I led him over to the changing room mirror where he took off his own leather jacket and put on the shop’s one. He turned from one side to the other, sizing himself up in the mirror.
‘What do you think?’ he said.
What I thought was how fine he looked, how handsome. It had nothing to do with the jacket. I was too shy to say anything close to this though. I could see he was flirting with me in a way that a New Zealand male never would, but I couldn’t flirt back, not in an overt way. Something in me—my culture, my upbringing, my lack of esteem in my own sexuality—wouldn’t let me.
I stood behind him and shut one eye, the way I still do when I’m analysing an outfit.
‘I like your own one better,’ I said.
I couldn’t flirt, but I knew what looked good on people. If I wasn’t born with an overt confidence, I was born with an innate sense of style.
He looked at me in the mirror. ‘You’re right, and I can’t afford this anyway.’
He took the jacket off and handed it to me. It was warm from 2 3
his body. I let my hands stay inside the jacket for a few seconds before I put it back on the hanger.
‘I’m going to try that bar you mentioned.’
‘It’s the one upstairs,’ I said. ‘It’s grotty, but they have a jukebox.’
‘I don’t mind grotty,’ he said.
I watched him walk down the shop’s ramp and out into the icy street. Some invisible force left with him. I hadn’t consciously known it was there until he took it away. How does one person do that? The room was filled with his absence and my longing. My body swung towards that familiar hollow ache: loneliness. Questions about the existence I was living. I turned away from them. I busied myself with what I had to do in the next half hour. Vacuum the floor, lock the doors, and count the takings.
I danced around the racks a bit, re-folding the sweatshirts, using my fingers to make even spaces between the metal hooks of the coathangers. There was possibility inside of me, a wedge of light. People. There were people in the world that could do that to you. In rare moments, in a few moments you can add up on one hand, you meet one of them.
Twenty minutes later he walked in again. His Bergman nose was red from the cold. His dark eyes sought me out. They were shiny, reflecting the shop lights.
‘Hello again,’ I said. ‘Did you find it?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But I wondered, do you want to go out tomorrow night after work? I’d like to take you dancing.’
Dancing? It was as if he was speaking a language I only half understood. No one had ever said that to me before—I’d like to take you dancing. I danced whenever I got the chance, but not with anyone. Nobody danced with anyone anymore. Dancing was something you did in groups or alone. There was a crowd and you were a part of it. We took e, or the mix of speed and acid we were sold as e, and we danced with our loved-up selves in a happy group. ‘Come together as one,’ sang Bobby Gillespie, and we did.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I’d love to.’
He smiled and it was impossible not to smile back. ‘What time do you finish?’
‘I’ll pick you up at nine then.’
Even that—I’ll pick you up at nine. There was something unusual about it. The guys I knew didn’t talk like that. They’d say, I’ll meet you there. They’d say, Shall I meet you here and we can walk together? They would never use such overtly sexual phrases: I will pick you up. I’d like to take you dancing.
When he smiled I saw his teeth were slightly stained, but perfectly spaced. It reminded me not to open my own mouth when I smiled. My teeth were white, but crooked from thumb sucking as a child, overcrowding. He was beautiful.
‘My name’s Nino,’ he said.
I thought he was making it up.
Nino. He was over from London visiting his sister who was living with an Australian in Queenstown. That was a typical story. Hardly anyone comes from Queenstown. Most people only stay a season and then they’re gone. It was my second winter. I was almost a local. Nino was here for a few weeks until his money had run out; he’d been travelling around a bit. He was here for a good time.
Nino’s parents were Italian and owned some shoe stores in London. He did a bit of this and a bit of that. Played some clubs, bought and sold stuff. He could cut hair. He could cut my hair if I liked. He had very nice shoes—polished tan Italian brogues. I had never been out with a man who wore brogues or even decently made shoes, but I had limits. I once dumped a guy I was seeing for picking me up from work in his Ugg Boots. If a man can’t dress well, I told my best friend on the phone, it’s never going to work. Nino knew how to dress. He spent a long time in the shower, he shaved, his combed his hair, he splashed some musky tonic on his face, he shined his shoes. And he could dance.
He led me out onto the dance floor. I don’t remember what the song was but it could have been anything with a beat. He held me to him, the way I held a hundred jerseys against my chest to fold them, and he showed me what to do.
After the first few steps he spoke closely in my ear. ‘Let me lead.’
‘I am,’ I said.
‘I’m an eldest child.’
He laughed. ‘You’ll have to learn to let go then.’
‘Because you don’t know what you’re doing yet.’
In my experience what Nino was doing for me was so rare, it took me some time to work out that he was doing it not just out of sexual desire but out of joy, out of his own love of dance. You could view dance as performance foreplay—the spreading of the peacock’s glorious tail, the strut around the courtyard. However, this was not a drunken dance on a crowded dancefloor with a guy who’d rather not but can see that it is in his best interests to, no matter how awkward he looks. This was play for its own joyous sake done by someone who had grown up but had never stopped playing. Next to organised sports games, dance is one of the few forms of physical public play that most adults still get to engage in. So yes, all of this was leading to sex, but what a way to get there. There’s a natural high that comes from moving in time to music, a lightness of heart, a pleasure taken in the body’s kinesis. Pure joy.
Nino led me on the dance floor and through his own movement taught me where I should place my feet, hands, body. He led so that the moves we made together were clear to me, as well as elegant to the people watching. Nino always looked good on the dance floor, but he never tried to outshine his partner, and because he was so good, he made his partner look good also. People stopped dancing and moved aside to watch us. I’ve never feared an audience, and Nino loved one. The song came to an end. They clapped.
Nino looked around him and smiled. He lifted my hand up in triumph and kissed it.
A few days later we were having coffee, making plans for the fortnight he had left in New Zealand.
‘What you gonna do with your life, McDougall?’
The question was one I thought about a lot. It was one I avoided answering with any clarity. ‘Um, I want to travel. I want to be a writer.’ These were my default answers. I wanted to do both these things, I just had no idea how to go about it.
He nodded. ‘Will that make you happy?’
Happy? Who in world was happy?
Nino was. Nino knew happiness could be found on the dancefloor. Out there he lived in the present tense.
He wrote his address down for me. Back then, I hadn’t even heard of email and phone calls were expensive. I was a keen letter writer. Apart from a diary, it was about the only form of writing I approached with any confidence.
I read it out: ‘N, I, I.’
He laughed at me. ‘Sort it out,’ he said. ‘It’s not I, I. It’s N eleven. You should know that.’
I felt ridiculous. I was so naive. I was trying to save money to go overseas, but it was almost impossible to pay rent, buy food, go out and party and save money on my pathetic hourly rate. Most weeks I was lucky if I had $2.75 left the day before payday. How on earth would I learn the London postcodes on $2.75?
‘Why did you pick me up like that, in the shop?’ I said.
I said N I I. I was poor and my future was bleak. What did anyone see in me?
‘You looked like the sort of woman who knew how to enjoy herself,’ he said.
I have never met another person who knew how to have a good time as much as Nino did. He walked in the room and the atmosphere instantly lifted. When he arrived the party started. He was kind and stylish and enormous fun, and, I came to realise, slightly hopeless in the way of all dreamers, in the way of people who live for the moment.
I hadn’t thought about Nino for years until I began to write this, and then I thought to look him up. He wasn’t a man I was ‘in love’ with. I loved him the way I love many people in my life, because they make me happy and are fun to be with.
The internet makes finding people so easy. I typed his name into the search box and a few seconds later there was an image of him in sepia tones. In this photo he’s on the dance floor at some club in London, face in concentration. I do a double take, certain it’s him, but he looks so young. Then I read the date—sometime in the 80s. This photo was taken years before we met.
Jump forward to the news, the old news. Jump back. Nino died in June 2013, age 49.
There is a hollow space through which I’m falling; a valley into a deep silenced howl.
I find his Facebook page. He had a wife, a beautiful Japanese woman, as stylish and photogenic as he was. He worked as a DJ and had opened his own retro club playing jazz and blues from the 30s–60s. He looked good, older of course, less vulnerable, greying hair and a manicured beard, darker circles under his eyes, but he looked good. His page is crowded with tributes to his life, friends posting pictures of him at his club—Nino behind the turntable, Nino with a wide smile, Nino dancing.
Why did I never think to friend him on Facebook? Why is it only now, a year after his death, that I’ve thought to look for him?
For the next 24 hours I obsessively Google his name and search YouTube for clips of him. I try to find out how he died. I find a podcast where he’s playing favourite tunes, talking about the scene in London. I know what I’m trying to do is impossible and slightly gross. I am a stalker, a cheap private eye with an obsession. The internet can make a Dr Frankenstein out of anyone with an hour to spare. Image by image, status update by status update; I’m trying to piece him back to life. I cannot understand that what I’ve written down here is all that is left. I cannot reconcile the then and the now. Seventeen years in between them. I don’t understand it—that void. The past comes so close I can almost smell it, and then it swings away again.
What has passed has been pulled into a black hole; it is irretrievable. It leaves an echo; cosmic microwave background in the form of longing, pleasure, regret.
Remember, though, you could look away from all of this; you could focus your thoughts on the task in front of you. You could turn up a song and dance.
There’s an ache in me for all the time in my life I have lost and some days it is almost unbearable. I drink, work, eat, run, and sleep to avoid feeling it, but it follows me and in the quiet moments when I sit alone with no phone or laptop, no book to read, it comes to me. It’s patient and it sits just there behind me, lightly touching my shoulder. There are days when I can’t feel it. Not because it’s not there, but because I’ve made myself inaccessible, successfully closed myself off from my own cosmic noise. What I’ve lost here is time, and I’m frantically cupping my hands together while it leaks out, not like gas at all, but like icy cold water.
I go back to the sublime. To awe and fear, to dread and wonder. I’d like to make an argument that there is an element of the sublime in the contemplation of our own past, in our own dreaming of what we had and what we lost, what we are aware of constantly losing. Rilke:
Oh longing for places that were not
cherished enough in that fleeting hour
how I long to make good from far
The forgotten gesture, the additional act.
To write of myself at that young age, to bring Nino alive on the page is pleasurable; it’s an indulgence, a dream in which I can pretend I’ve spent nothing yet. The future is still ahead of me, not quite ripe, but it’s coming, it’s coming.
Nino in my life for those few brief weeks represents a burgeoning self, a self that lives apart from me now; she belongs to the lost past. To gather in that time, to capture a part of it in writing and then to know that what I’m writing towards is irrecoverable, except in a dream, except in rereading, fills me with dread. It creates in me an insatiable appetite. I have to keep moving, not thinking, clicking, looking and not thinking. I click, link, stalk images and content in an impossible attempt to remain in the dream. In an attempt to understand this thing, I write. I write to ‘make good from far’, as if it were possible to double back and hold time still, to relive those experiences and understand them for what they were. But then it would be a dead thing. Time is never still.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t choose my former self over my current life, the self I am now. But I am greedy and what I want for a few hours is the then and the now. I want to hold the past and the present in my hand.
It is usual that the sublime is associated with mountains. I started out talking about mountains, which are a most obvious visual metaphor for the sublime and for beauty and have been put to good use and reuse by writers and philosophers for centuries. There is nothing lofty about my own past or my present. My sublime may seem small to you, ordinary even. It is my conception of time; of the time my life is negotiating that is becoming more and more incomprehensible to me, in the same way that the beauty and immensity of a mountain is incomprehensible. There is horror in the time we are constantly losing (which we might also view as a horror and fear of death) and there is beauty in the finite piece of time we have been given to occupy. It seems to me that the whole experience is reduced if we lose one of these two elements. Pleasure and dread in one small human hand.