by Tomoé Hill
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
Monica Vitti’s repeated utterance in the beginning of L’Eclisse—the automatic, almost somnambulant response of a woman who only knows that what she has is no longer what she wants. What do you want me to do? asks her lover, bewildered at a change he never knew was happening. She doesn’t know either, going back and forth in the modern home—touching a frame and arranging items see looks at through it, idly fingering a cup, a book. She knows she was happy once. Perhaps what she was then has seeped into these mundane objects and turned her into a ghost. She pulls back a curtain as if she is surprised to see the world; as if it ceased to exist during the time she thought she was in love. There must be a reason, says Riccardo to Vittoria, desperate to understand.
“I don’t know.”
There is logic to love and desire, but not the same that we ascribe to the rest of the world. We are happy to lose ourselves in it, the only thing we know for certain is that we are the solution to some great equation. But when we stand there, two figures that no longer equal love or desire—or worse still one but not the other, different to the way we have always been taught to understand them—we try to apply the logic of definite things. Somewhere on our hearts are lines drawn through calculation after calculation; each one ending in I don’t know.
Sometimes there is no closure, a therapist once said to me at a time when my heart too, was nothing but a paper illegible with errors of reckoning. It is almost impossible at first to fight the need to go back and identify what was left out of our figuring when we look at each other one day and realise = is now ≠. I fought the idea that such heartbreaks must be open wounds; no immediate cauterization, no fire-hot iron to sear and seal the pain—nothing but a scar I could trace my finger upon, dimly wondering what it was that lay underneath.
I was terrible at algebra in school—never able to understand b or x or why something equalled what it did; when I sat in those first therapy sessions as a young adult, it felt like maths all over again. In despair, I would think to myself that if only I had tried harder back then, maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here now or that I would be able to fix—solve—the problem of the equation of me. That I was here because I failed to calculate something correctly, and if I learned I could make things the way they used to be—go back to the person and say, everything will be fine now, I just didn’t know how to do this step.
I didn’t know then that sometimes there is no solution or closure, but do I know any better now? The ending of L’Eclisse is deliberately obscured—we don’t know if Vittoria goes on to have a happy ending with Piero the young stockbroker or instead returns to Riccardo, her place amongst the objects suddenly realised and accepted. Maybe she remains in her apartment—alone—translating books and wondering if I don’t know will ever change to I know. All the viewer knows is that she couldn’t bear the evenness of her previous life; that Piero was a way of gambling with fate, in the way her mother gambled at the stock exchange—the rush of the unknown, the thrill of uncertainty. Perhaps Vittoria thought that one day, life would pay out for her too—that if sometimes it was up and at others down, at least she felt she was living, that the world wasn’t closed off by the curtains of a relationship while she remained hidden behind it, just another static household object.
All women who have said I don’t know are waiting for the eclipse. Some of us become afraid of the darkness and return to the lives we had; some run towards another life under cover of those moments; and some of us stay where we are, murmuring I don’t know silently with our fine-marked breath, like the women of Jean Rhys’ books—equally questioning, unknowing—while we hope for the courage to take flight when the blackness comes over us once more. The zinc of the café table under the glass, the darkness that lines the question with an oblivion too easy to sink into. The glass, the eclipse. Swallow and be swallowed. After, what remains?
I stayed under that long eclipse, unable to flee, wrapped in a darkness that encouraged me not to open my eyes, to stay with the evenness of misery. Too scared to run because I was so used to not being able to see the light that meant life anymore. I said I don’t know over and over because I didn’t know if there was anything else in the world except the things that immediately surrounded me; living in a house that was just a memory palace, touching objects as Vittoria touches Riccardo’s. Desperately trying to remember where I was, what I was, amongst them. Wondering if I had ever been happy in the midst of books and tables and objets, or if I was nothing but a thing myself; suddenly come to life, questioning.
But now, do I get to say Fine, “The End”?
Fine and fine. Fine or fine. Is one ending much like another? Swallow and/or be swallowed. / is the path, the choice. I take gasping mouthfuls—not a fine, but a drink that still burns, although it does not cauterise or remove the don’t trapped on my lips.
My glass is empty, the moon is full and bright. I have swallowed; I have left; I have reckoned with the figures that do not equal. What is left but to question—the pleasure of the unknown, the ache of the wound?
I don’t know. My lips form around the words like they have felt the curve of the glass between them. I drink, swallow the fullness of each. I. Don’t. Know.
Tomoé Hill is a senior editor at Minor Literature[s] and is currently working on a sex and identity memoir. Find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat.