The View From Here

This is the view from here, here being room 224. The Iowa River, which looks to be flowing north, is actually flowing south. The Deco-green walk bridge leads to a series of old red brick buildings which make up the Art Library. The Art Library has been empty since 2008, when the Iowa broke its banks and gushed in. Now weeds grow through the broken concrete stairs, and squirrels ripple as though boneless through the sculpture garden of flood-rusted artworks that look like strange, beautiful debris. All the better for stretching out in the open air corridor, reading Tirra Lirra By the River.

I’ve been living in this hotel for three weeks now. Each morning at one minute to midday the power plant whistle is blown. It sounds as though a great baleful whale has drifted up the river and become stuck, unable to turn around and swim back to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes Palestine calls, room to room, to offer whisky or to borrow my French press. Grenada knocks at my door, holding a copy of Justin Torres’ We the Animals. I think you’ll like this, she says. It’s your style. Across the hall, Singapore is translating one of China’s short stories from Mandarin to English. Come by for wine later, he texts. Bring a mug.

Of course we are long past the point where the individual is seen as metonymic of whatever country they’ve travelled from – we’ve shared too many drinks for that, too many dinners and cigarettes and stories, slapping our hands on the sticky bar for emphasis. We’ve huddled bleary eyed and pyjama-clad in the street, because someone has pulled the fire alarm, again. We’ve confided about current lovers and ex-lovers and dead parents and living parents, have passed around photographs of our children, compared tattoos, scars and dietary restrictions.

We’ve spent far too much time referring to ourselves in the first person plural.

But that geographical shorthand sneaks in sometimes, during conversations with friends and family. Oh, I ran into Finland at breakfast this morning, I’ll say, and even as I say it I can’t help imagining two people dressed in bulky, cartographically-inspired foam costumes (does Western Australia make my arse look big?), attempting to manœuvre past each other without spilling coffee all over New South Wales or raining cornflakes on Helsinki.

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