I met Olegario and his son William in the town cantina. I’d been on the run for weeks, travelling drunkenly from one place to another. I slept in the car and ate when I was hungry. I didn’t care which town I’d arrive in. Eventually they all came to look the same: a plaza with a newspaper kiosk, a church, a cantina and cobbled streets.
Olegario spoke to me in English. I’m not a gringo, I said. He was about fifty and wore a hat, a Zapata moustache and cowboy boots but also an Oakland Raiders sleeveless vest. Can I buy you a drink? he asked. I told him he could, and he called Labios, a boy of about fifteen with a pink scar that split his mouth and palate in two. Another glass for my friend, he ordered. What are you drinking? he asked. Whatever.
Labios looked over to his boss, a thin old man called Cristino who was playing dominoes in the corner. The old man nodded and noted down my drink on a piece of cardboard he was also using to keep score.
I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but that didn’t discourage Olegario. He told me that he had been born in this town but had gone to California when he was very young. He’d returned to present his first grandson to the Virgin of Talpa. He said that she’d performed a miracle for him. Two miracles, in fact: she’d given him a grandchild and brought his son home safe from Iraq.
Miracles, I thought. Diego, I thought. Then I finished the Cuba Libre and started to chew on the ice.
His son came in a little later. He had a bottle of beer in his hand and was already swaying. I recognized him: he was the kid who’d been chasing girls around the plaza on a motorbike. He drove up onto the benches, charged at them and laughed when they ran away. As though it were funny. This is my Willy, the father said, wrapping his arm around the boy’s head and neck. His son wriggled out of the hug, said, Pleased to meet you, and laughed when he clinked his bottle against my glass and the foam flowed over my hand.
Labios came over immediately to clean up.
Willy had all the tics of a cocaine addict: he wrinkled his nose when he drank, blinked a lot and spoke over other people. When he’d finished his beer he took out fifty dollars and told Labios to serve another round on him. No, his father said, I’ll pay for it, and tucked the bill back into his son’s pocket, but Willy shouted in English, I’ll do what I like with my fucking money. His face was red and one of the veins on his head was throbbing. I earned it, didn’t I?
Labios picked the wrinkled note up from the floor and took it to Cristino. I don’t know how much we drank, I just remember that night fell. And that Cristino climbed up on a chair to turn a lamp around and the room was light, then dark, light, then dark, until it was all lit up and someone, maybe me, kicked over a beer and Labios mopped up. Olegario said, Don’t worry my friend, don’t cry, and everything inside me went dark, the sky was grey and black, and yellow light shone from a taco stall, and all I could think about was Diego …
I can’t remember how much I said, but Olegario told me to trust in the Virgin, She took care of my son in Iraq. I called William and asked him how he’d survived because sons always die on us, and he said that first he went to Australia and then to the African coast and then he came back to the States for two weeks. After that, the shooting began, they went into Baghdad to look for Saddam, and things were easier than they thought because the bastard had gone. So they started to look for him everywhere and killed all the sons of bitches they could find.
Olegario started to get upset about the things that his son was saying and at one point told him not to exaggerate. Will laughed. No, Dad, we were just picking flowers. Then he went for a piss, and Olegario apologized to me. He’s seeing an army psychologist, he told me. It’s normal.
Later, Will asked me if I’d seen YouTube videos made by terrorists when they blow up the American army’s tanks. I said that I had, and he started to talk about the videos, he couldn’t understand how someone could plan something like that and then record it so calm and calculated. He said that the worst thing was the moments immediately beforehand. A tank appeared on screen in a field, and you know what’s going to happen, I’ve seen how it ends, he said with sunken eyes. The tank rumbles on as though it were on a routine patrol, the people inside have no idea that someone’s filming them and especially not that we can see them, no one knows when it’s going to happen. That’s the worst part, he said, and then he made the sound of an explosion that had everyone in the cantina turning to stare at him.
Olegario blushed. He turned to look at everyone else, especially Cristino, who surveyed the scene from his game of dominoes. It’s not good for you to think about it, Willy, his father said. It’s in the past, you did your duty.
You talk like the men in suits, Will shouted. He was dangling his beer bottle from two of his fingers. They try to tell me how to act, but they never get their hands dirty, he shouted. The beer spat out foam and spilled onto Cristino’s wooden floor. What do you know about it, Dad? he said, just a few centimetres from his face. Olegario leaned backwards, more and more embarrassed. Thank God you’re OK, he said. The Virgin protected you. What fucking Virgin? Will shouted, and then he said in Spanish that the Virgin wasn’t worth shit, or Balls to the Virgin, or The Virgin can suck my cock.
Then Cristino, who’d put down his dominoes, said, Have more respect, young man, and William said, Fucking old cripple, stay out of it, and Cristino said, You can’t come here and act like that. Learn some respect. Will started to insult him in English, he said fuck you so much that Cristino had him thrown out. The old man’s dominoes buddies, three fat farm hands, crowded around the soldier, and he smashed a bottle over the heads of one of them.
I found an account by Raymond Cross, another soldier in Iraq, on a blog. The translation is mine:
“After the operation in the terrorists’ training camp, we went on a recon mission. Among the bodies of the bastards who were getting ready to blow up our tanks and planes, and even trains and buses with innocent civilians on them, I recognized a man.
“I nudged him with my boot. He didn’t move. Then I bent down and touched his neck. I’d seen him two or three weeks before, during a mission after the bombardment of a terrorist village. The ground was still smoking and there were small fires everywhere, as well as that white dust you get after bombings. The man appeared in the rubble with a dirty beard and face. He was shouting for someone and tried to come over to Panda, but we pointed our guns at his head and the bastard stopped. Friend, friend, he said with his hands raised. Danny searched him. He was clean. The sergeant came over and started to talk to him in Iraqi. We didn’t understand what he was saying, the translator hadn’t come with us, but he seemed truly desperate. Then he started to cry and pull his hair and said, Boys, boys, several times, in English. He went back off into the rubble and disappeared.
“When the mission was over – there was no one left in the village – and we got back to the armoured car, we saw him again. He was crying over the body of a small child, maybe eight or nine, lying on a cart full of mangled melons that gave off the only sweet scent there was that afternoon. The boy was wearing a Ronaldinho shirt, the one the Barcelona footballer wears, and blue flip-flops dangled from his little toes.
“When he saw us, he started to curse.”
After the funeral, Amalia left with her sister. She locked herself in a dark room and refused to see me. I couldn’t sleep in our bed. I woke up at the usual times – twelve, three and five in the morning – as though I still had to turn Diego over to keep his blood circulating. I went to his room and looked at his empty cot with the rails still up to stop him from falling. Gravity weighed more than his body. In the shadows I saw the chair that Amalia sat in to talk to him even though he couldn’t understand. I saw the harness and swing we used to move him when he got older, the wheelchair, folded up, unmoving, the stand for his drip and the nasogastric tube.
I thought that with time … but Amalia refused to see me. Her sister told me that she refused to eat and cried all day, looking at photographs of Diego. I tried to get her out of the room, to make her eat, but she accused me, from the other side of the door, of not suffering enough. It’s as though you wanted to get rid of him, she said.
For years I had a dream in which Amalia and I went to a beach or a mountain, and we didn’t need to ask anyone for impossible explanations, I dreamed that we could sleep as long as we wanted without fear of death intruding, that we were alone again and she got pregnant. And there I was, crying in the middle of the night in the empty bedroom that still smelled of medicine, afraid that she’d go crazy and not yet realizing that I would never understand who our son, the stranger we’d fussed over for twelve years, was, why he managed to survive for so long and why we so keenly missed someone who never even knew we existed.
I don’t believe in God, but the Bible still has answers. There’s a scene in Genesis, I don’t know if it’s on heaven or earth, when three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah, nomads from the desert. After resting in the shade, drinking goat’s milk and eating curd, a voice that miraculously belongs to both Jehovah and the three men says, Sarah will have a child.
Sarah, who’s listening to the conversation going on behind her, thinks that she’s ninety-nine and has already gone through the menopause. She can only laugh. What are you laughing at, Sarah? Jehovah (or the three guests) asks. I wasn’t laughing, Sarah says, and in the text there is an explanatory parenthesis, one of those parentheses that are like suction pumps: (“She was afraid”).
I find something hurtful about the reticence. Is that all it has to say about a withered old woman discovering that she can finally have a child? As though we didn’t already know that to be a parent is essentially to live in constant fear. What if something happens? What if I die? How will it survive?
The Bible story goes on, and after a short, or long, life of 105 verses, God asks Abraham to kill his son. With a knife. On a mountain top. God asks him to burn the body.
(And all the narrator says is that it took them three days to get there: three days in a few words.)
We know how it ends, because in all good stories, especially good biblical stories, the end is revealed in the first phrase: it was one of God’s tests.
I could say that I have a congenital disease. At first I was unaware, but now we know how it ends: with Diego, my son. Amalia and I did tests, and the doctors said go on, you can get pregnant again, but fifteen weeks in it was confirmed that the baby wasn’t developing properly. One of Jehovah’s tests, the narrator of Genesis would say, but that’s all they’d say. No, I said, looking at my unmoving baby, thinking of my poisoned genes. And after visiting the doctor so he could kill him, Amalia locked herself in a dark room and refused to talk to me.
That was the first time.
I went back to the town three years later. During that period I dreamed I was back in Cristino’s cantina several times. I dreamed of William, most of all I dreamed of his voice. Provocative. Violent. Resentful. His words mingled with my pain, images of cold dunes in the Iraqi desert and Amalia’s silence and a tank being turned into a coffin.
The only hotel in town was occupied by a group of gringos. As I looked for a place to stay, I saw Olegario in a butcher’s. He was with a pair of other men who must have been relatives, trying to cut up a chunk of meat, or a cow liver, pancreas or kidney.
I went over to say hello, and he didn’t recognize me. I reminded him of when we’d met. He smiled for a moment and nodded. How’s Willy? I asked. You remember! he said and then bowed his head. He pressed down on the meat with one hand while the other reached for a huge knife and split it open down the middle. It was vividly red but didn’t bleed.
I thought that he’d have three convictions under his belt for domestic violence and two more for drunk driving, that he suffered from recurring insomnia, that the pills didn’t chase away the shades of his dead friends. Or maybe one night he’d tripped on the stairs in his building and killed his baby, or crashed his motorbike against the wall of a school, or had become a junky, or was awaiting death in a prison in Orange County for smuggling the organs of Guatemalan children.
He went back to Iraq and was killed, said Olegario.
After standing in silence for a while I asked him if I could buy him a beer. We crossed the plaza and went into the cantina. Cristino, sitting in his usual spot, nodded at Olegario. He looked at me but without recognizing me. Then he told the waiter to serve us.
Labios wasn’t there any more.
She had been married for five years – and still nothing. Her relatives felt pity and compassion for her; it was not usual for women to be barren in her large family, where children had always abounded. Every woman on her side and her husband’s side of the family had children. Lots of children! Big-eyed curly-haired boys and girls, in all sizes; they called her auntie, and it made her feel sick. She did not feel any hatred towards them; rather, it was the comments and reproaches of her husband and mother-in-law that had turned her into a taciturn and hardworking woman. She had no interest in chatting with the others on the doorstep. Rózka was big, strong, but nevertheless beautiful. Her hair was fairer than the rest of her kin, her skin was not as dark and her eyes sparkled with gold. This already set her apart from the others.
Rózka was healthy, so she devoted herself to her work, labouring in the fields and in the household until dark. Her husband had not yet come to terms with her not giving him a child, and drank all the more, until his tanned face stopped smiling. They lived in one room with his mother and father, and she would return there from the fields or from the cattle when dusk was falling.
Once when she came home, her mother-in-law and her husband weren’t in and her father-in-law lay drunk on the bed. She asked where the others were – he only muttered unintelligibly to the effect that her husband had taken his mother to town to his sister. Apparently she wasn’t well. Rózka ate her supper and went to lie down.
She was woken by his alcoholic breath and he was crushing her completely with the weight of his body. She couldn’t resist in any way, not even by screaming. He had covered her mouth with his huge hand and helplessly she looked into his crimson face … When he had finished he stood over her and told her she mustn’t tell anyone – anyway, they wouldn’t believe her. He slammed the door shut and she could only hear the clock clanging in time with the beating of her frightened heart.
Her husband came home about an hour later, didn’t even turn the light on, lay down next to her, turned over and soon fell asleep. He did not embrace her or even touch her, as if she were not there at all. She wanted to tell him everything, but had no strength left in her, and she spent the rest of the night staring into the dark; her thoughts, fear and humiliation mingled with the tears that streamed down her cheeks.
The old man continued to ignore her just as he had before, but her mother-in-law looked on with a smile as she threw up in the mornings and as her curves grew nicely. The smile returned to her husband’s dark face and he was kinder and more generous to her. The neighbours finally had something to talk about, while Rózka and her mother-in-law prepared the baby’s outfits and discussed what name to give it.
One month before the birth was due she had a dream. In it she saw her father-in-law and a child that resembled him. In the dream they were very evil and hurting her. When she woke up in terror, she could still hear their fearful laughter. She broke out in a cold sweat; she already knew that she didn’t want the child, that it would bring her damnation all her living days.
She gave birth to a son; they named him Karči, after the father-in-law. Rózka suppressed the strange repulsion she felt towards the baby and took it into her arms. Her son looked at her just like an adult and smirked malignantly as he narrowed his eyes. She quickly laid him back in his crib and shied away. Nobody noticed and everybody milled around and smiled at him; it was only she who saw that he was different from the other newborn babies, and that he was watching her with his coal-black, squinting eyes.
In the night, when everybody was asleep, a noise woke her. She sat up in bed and looked around: she discovered with shock that the boy was standing next to her bed with an eerie sneer on his face. She was surprised to find that he had teeth. He gave a sinister snigger and scampered back to his crib. She screamed until everybody woke up in alarm; they sleepily lit a lamp and asked her what had happened. She told them tearfully what she had seen. Her husband suspected that she had dreamed it, and her mother-in-law rushed to have a look at the baby, who was sleeping innocently. As it started to whimper and then cry, the old woman took it into her arms and comforted it. Then she came over to Rózka and scolded her for not loving her own child and ordered her to breastfeed him – the boy was surely hungry. Rózka was completely confused but took the child and offered her breast. The boy started sucking immediately. Suddenly she felt a sharp pain: the little one had bit her nipple to the flesh, and blood gushed out. She pushed him away onto the blanket at the foot of the bed and complained in tears that the child had bitten her. The mother-in-law picked up the baby and passed her finger over its toothless gums. Her daughter-in-law must be wrong. She chided her and everybody came to the conclusion that Rózka had cut herself on purpose so as not to have to breastfeed. The old woman decided that she would feed the baby cows’ milk and told the young mother that she would look after her grandson herself since his mother had rejected him. The grandmother took the child to bed with her and her husband; and so that night came to a close.
Nobody spoke to Rózka in the morning. The young woman felt miserable. She didn’t know what to do, how to tell them everything that had happened and that the baby was actually a sin about which she had kept silent; that he was actually the devil’s little helper in a child’s disguise.
Barely a week later they found the old woman dead. She lay in bed with her eyes open wide, and the child giggled next to her waving its arms and legs in the air. Rózka knew that it had killed her mother-in-law, and that it would continue to kill. Nobody listened to her; they thought she had gone crazy and was talking nonsense. They assumed the death of the old woman had been caused by a heart attack.
During the following night Rózka decided to stay awake and keep an eye on the child. When it thought everybody was asleep it slowly climbed out of the crib and scuttled over to her husband’s bedside. She pretended she was sleeping but watched the creature through her eyelashes to see what would happen. The child pulled the pillow from under the man’s head and pushed it down on his face. It had such strength that even when the man was kicking and trying to pull the pillow off, it still held him down and the man gradually became weaker. Rózka jumped up and tried to tear the pillow out of the baby’s hands. Its strength was tremendous: it pushed her over and continued to smother her husband. She picked up a chair and hit the baby on the head. It started to squeak and made noises like a goblin.
Suddenly a light came on and the old man and his half-dead son beheld an awful sight. Rózka was on the ground covered in blood: the small child, with bulging eyes and twisted face, was tossing her around and punching her face with its puny fists. Both men rushed to the young woman’s assistance. The goblin attacked them too. The younger man caught it by the legs and smashed it against the wall. It fell to the ground, quickly picked itself up and darted to the door, squealing. It turned around one last time before escaping into the darkness with a blood-chilling screech.
The young man took Rózka into his arms and wiped her face with a cloth. His hands were shaking and he was crying. The woman was barely breathing. The door creaked open and closed and she looked through it apprehensively into the dark night as though she expected the devilish child to return.
*This story was published in: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, Ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
Night has descended on the military headquarters. Darkness veiling the barracks like a dewy tarpaulin. A man’s shadow stretches from the top floor of the Ministry of Defense’s office like a large bird, then vanishes, leaving Yair alone in its calm decampment. ‘Like a killer around the corner,’ Psoriasis had said, while putting on his full pack in the dark. Yair knew how to hide his feelings, and would have given a lot for these moments to last for he loved his new army buddies, his comrades from all sorts of places across the country, all sorts of medical conditions. Among them was even an epileptic guy, as well as three asthmatics, four with ulcers, and two suffering from depression. All had been enlisted for one reason or another, and guarded for one reason or other the state’s most sensitive mastermind – not counting the U.S Embassy, which was guarded by Marine soldiers. Yair enjoyed sitting with them in their rooms, while they got ready for the night watch, and could have even forgiven his father, who forced this enlistment on him, for maybe this was what his father had had in mind, that he would go out a while into the world and make new friends. After all you can’t be caged up at home like a nocturnal reptile not even knowing the names of the kids in class (he knew, he knew, he knew very well, he only told his father that he didn’t know), and yet he will never forgive his father. After all, the joy flooding through him now has nothing to do with his enmity towards that shadow falling from the window, that transient fear like an invisible gust of wind, not fear, but a clear knowledge that he is doomed, and that he must not fear, for nothing will alter the verdict. Not murder, nor madness, nor suicide. Dad sits and watches over him here as well. He is here because of Dad, and Dad is here because of him. And no, not suicide. He would never commit suicide, he is of sensitive skin, and his life is not worth the drama.
He loved his friends from the unit, particularly because they made fun of themselves, called themselves by the names of their medical conditions – even though he was the only man in the platoon who was known by his real name, that is the one given to him by his parents. He too had wanted, hardly dared, but had almost asked to be known by his, but something prevented them from doing so. How very much he longed to be nicknamed like them with contemptuous names, only that his father did not allow him to mock himself, did not sanction this kind of humour, believed that with this kind of humour his son would never get well, that this kind of humour was too Jewish, not Israeli enough. So supposed Yair, for he had never told his father a thing of his friends’ customs and certainly didn’t dare confess that here too he was an alien, an outsider, and yet, on the other hand, here he loved them, a great love he loved them, and was capable of standing up and hugging everyone.
During the day, when they would see an officer marching their way, even if they were walking in a group, they would immediately disperse, and switch to walking in a long line, so that each of them could salute the same officer separately, and keep him saluted in earnest for a long time, with a muscular arm, and back stretched, for, as it’s written in the General Staff Order, an officer must return a salute to every saluting soldier. They did so because they were individualists par excellence, and yet also cultivated a platoon’s pride, a culture of collective memory, in addition to a sense of humour. They called themselves ‘The Swiss Guard, with no colours’. Psoriasis was the cadet on duty, and his roommate’s name was Gastritis. In the neighbouring room lived Bronchitis, and with him also lived Psychosis and Sclerosis. Those who knew nothing about diseases thought that the group in question was a bunch of modern Greek poetry aficionados, and those who knew nothing about modern Greek poetry, thought it had something to do with classical Greek poetry – classical Greek poetry being a heritage that belonged to us all, although Hitler too prided himself on it.
Today is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death and in front of the guard barracks flickers a memorial candle. The soldiers are sitting out in the open by the picture, and saying things about him, some things they had already heard and some completely new. They are stern. In the ‘commemoration corner’ of the Guard Room hangs an enlarged photograph of Bronstein, who was nicknamed ‘Meningitis’. Below the photograph flickers a memorial candle. Above the photograph inscribed in big letters are the dates of his birth and death; at hardly twenty years of age Bronstein-Meningitis had died in the line of service, from Meningitis officially (and in truth from suicide by hanging, once he found out that he was originally not enlisted only because he wasn’t Jewish). The commemoration corner for Private Bronstein was vigorously cared for, only during free time of course, and their own commander, Sergeant Nisim – no official disease, but in secrecy they called him ‘Borderline’ – was extremely proud of the red geranium garden and the nasturtium flowers which, according to him, he nurtured almost single-handedly. Beneath the photograph also lay a large book of commemoration. Once in a while the guards wrote in it in memory of Bronstein, and even urged officers passing through – some of whom were of considerable importance, their contribution to the state’s security invaluable, some even having won the Israel Security Award, or reached such grave heights as the Israel Prize for Literature, or for Social Work, only more confidential – to sign, as a sort of a yearly petition in memory of Bronstein. Many senior officers had written words of praise to the obstinate soldier.
Major General Zalman Zal – whose ass was kissed every two weeks in his own office by Israel’s writers and poets – signed as well, before dashing off to watch the new video for the ‘Ezekiel 4’ tank, which he had only just developed, much to the dismay of those who extolled the next armoured war. ‘Parachuting is dispensable too,’ ruled Major General Zalman, ‘and yet you don’t abdicate parachuting, so what’s it to you if more and more tanks are getting built? Yes, more and more and more.’ And since Zalman Zal did not know how to operate the VCR, and never learned, at his disposal stood one of the soldiers – not Yair, he did not want to go up there, and his friends understood, it not being so bad having to scrounge cookies with cheap chocolate filling, and see all the important people from the bureau telling each other military secrets. Besides, the soldier on duty’s task was simply to freeze, using the remote control, the picture on the screen at precisely the moment when ‘Ezekiel’s’ belly rose up over a deep-water obstacle.
Night after night Major General Zal would watch the video, as well as during lunch breaks. Every viewing he’d roar with pleasure, ‘Now, now,’ just as the tank stopped, rose, and revealed its undercarriage like the belly of a giant crocodile, hungry for pray after a long winter, or however those writers who kissed Zalman’s ass described it, because Zal had studied Philosophy just as they had. Each year a new movie about ‘Ezekiel’ came out. From what’s been said up till now, it should be understood that Israel’s writers also sat and watched the tank lifting its belly like the white marble horses of Piazza Venezia. And as mentioned, the task of pressing pause and serving cookies to the writers and painters was always given to one of the soldiers. When Zal screamed: ‘Where’s the dork?’ the soldier, who’d be waiting in the hall behind the door, would immediately come in, and say: ‘Here, Sir!’
‘Who’s here? What’s here?’
‘The dork’s here, Sir.’
When Yair’s father came to visit, Zalman Zal remembers… a gentle man, very complex, at nights he invented tanks, and in the mornings urged his office manager, Lieutenant Vered, to recite for his friends lines from the greatest poet ever to rise to military commission, Natan Alterman. And Vered would indeed recite: ‘And the land will grow still/ crimson skies dimming, misting/ slowly paling again/ over smoking frontiers,’ and sometimes she’d get the rhymes wrong intentionally (Vered Tsela may have been a big coward, but she loved to provoke danger, danger to be honest aroused her, and instead of ‘dimming’ she’d sometimes say ‘brimming’, or ‘slimming’, but it made no difference, because what mattered was the rhyme and the metre)… Well, only when Yair’s father came for a visit, did Major General Zal remember not to joke like that, because Yair too served under the Chief of Staff Guard, which was the highest up he was allowed, and that too only with Dad’s intervention with the Major General and the Major General’s intervention with another Major General and the intervention of that other Major General with a Colonel and downwards to Sergeant Borderline. Yair’s limited service pained his father. Not that he would have liked to see his son fall in the line of duty. On the other hand, most fighters didn’t fall in the line of duty and why must one always think the worst?
Evening. Yair sat on a prickly mattress covered by a wool blanket (emitting an odour of flee repellent and damp wool), watching the others, as they got ready for their watch. In the neighbouring room someone had forgot to put on his long johns, and everyone burst out laughing at how he’s have to take everything off again, in the dark, the full pack too, only to put on his long johns. Without complaint, they would agree to leave the lights off each night, before going out to their watch, making all their preparations in the dark, even checking the magazines, and Yair loved them for this sacrifice, for him. He was loved in turn, not only because he had brought so much candy from his leave (his father had wanted so very much for him to have friends, and so had, himself, baked abundant cookies and even bought a large quantity of chocolates). It’s possible that Yair’s friends noticed his efforts to endear himself to them, gently, without imposing himself. He would laugh at the drop of a hat. Any talk of theirs provoked his laughter, as if he had never come across unserious people, and now any unserious expression seemed hilarious. He himself did not know how to be funny. Yair was extremely handsome, and any laughter would tear him up like a child awoken from sleep. And if they went into a huddle, he did not squeeze in to listen, nor was he hurt, but assumed it of matters beyond his capacity. Perhaps he did not dare to be angry at them since he was in their debt. After all it was because of him that they were constantly being watched from up there.
Bewilderment would spread across Yair’s face every time he was asked too blunt a question. He never raised his voice. Sometimes he would picture himself with his head tattered, or hung, or both, veins slashed. Ah yes, why did they do it all in the dark? Because of the father’s observations from the window above.
After a four hour patrol around the fences, they would approach parked vehicles and peep, by command, into them, later they’d return to wake the next shift, take off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and through their connections in the next shift, would go out, without permission, from the base, into the city whose electric rashes were as colourful as an eczema. They would sit together in a bar – Yair would not come with them, afraid to run into his father with some woman, literature or film lecturer – speaking quietly, like a national minority, mocking themselves in the ear of the waitress. That’s how they would pass their nights and their days, patrolling, sleeping, taking walks in the city and sleeping again and again patrolling.
Yair did not partake in guard duty. He was exempt, a red written note which said he was prohibited from guarding, because of the night and the fog and the smog. Instead his duties included a weekly roll-call and a talk with the commander. Were his friends hurt by the fact that he did not guard? Not in the least. (Again, for this, he loved them). In their platoon they had plenty of guard soldiers, after all so many parents tried to enlist their sickly sons, and each of them got here thanks to some connection. Perhaps they were not angry with him because he was such a beautiful boy, pale and soft spoken. His gentleness he got thanks to his two older sisters who spoiled him – Yair had grown up without a mother, a son to his father’s old age.
The father’s heart would sink, almost give in to his son’s refusal to enlist, when he heard the boy’s screams at night. ‘I am not Erlking,’ he said to himself in horror, not knowing if his own dream was provoking those screams, or the child’s, and yet, at breakfast, from within the stillness, the boy’s plea fell on deaf ears, because the father knew he was doing this for his son’s sake, or at least he told himself as much, and told his son, and the two girls who wouldn’t dare argue, and Zalman Zal, yes, he said so too to Major General Zalman Zal. One can sympathize with the father. All his life he had wanted to escort a son to the Enlistment Office, and later escort him to the Absorption and Classification Base. All his life he had wanted to attend the Basic Training graduation ceremony, and had wanted to attend the section commander’s course graduation, and the officer’s training course graduation. Very gradually, when the child’s health did not improve, the father let go these dreams. But of an unglamorous military service, a grey service, he did not let go, could not have let go.
At first he would say these things to Yair with a smile, as if the son’s declaration of not going to the army was a sort of a joke. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that the father was a national figure. All fathers are national figures, perhaps the other way around, all national figures are fathers, never mind. For he never said a word to him of the nation and its needs, because in any case Yair did not demand of him what the nation needs, paratrooper officers, for instance, rather it was all about, son – he called him son, his sad smile did not waver – he had a sad smile, the father, and his son hated that sad, photogenic smile – it’s all about, son, the duty bestowed upon you to overcome your ailments and to be like everyone else, after all one day I will not be in the world, and who will take care of you then? The son wanted to say: ‘When you won’t be in the world, I’ll take care of myself just fine,’ but checked himself (was terrified of his father; his father will never know this, because fathers are doomed not to know): ‘Arabs also don’t go to the army’. His father nodded in comprehension and did not reply. He had a deep comprehension of his son’s need to rebel against him. He did not comprehend anything that was not from within himself, as the son’s father, and comprehended the son only as the father’s son.
When Yair had persisted in his refusal to enlist, the father took him to Major General Zal’s office for a conclusive discussion. It was a difficult moment for the father. Up until that day Zalman Zal knew just a small portion of the father’s agony over the son. After all the father had never spoken of the son, always just of the girls. The Major General knew of the older daughter’s marriage and of the other’s doctorate, but even of them they had spoken very little and preferred to engage in nominating laureates for the Israel Prize, the Hebrew Literature, Science of Judaism, Social Work and of course the prestigious National Security Award. Yair, on his part, was not aware that the beautiful walk through the city, and along its beaches, would end in an office overlooking the guard barracks, in which he would be serving in two months time. It was truly a fun day. Dad had never had so much time for him. They went to the movies, later sat in a café, and even though many people approached Dad, Dad was not nice to them at all and insisted on sitting with Yair alone. Later they went to clothes stores, shopped for fragrant oranges at the market, and went to the port. They even tried to sneak onto one of the boats anchoring there, and in short, Yair tried to get his dad to do things that the dad was embarrassed to do, and dad went everywhere Yair led him to, because he was a good father. They stopped by a fishing boat, which had brought up in its net many revolting octopi, and since octopi are not only revolting, but unkosher, they had no buyers. Except for Yair who wanted an octopus. His father bought him one, under the condition that he would not ask him to carry the small bag after fifteen minutes, as had happened with the dog they bought him: Dad had to take him out every night so that he would poop outside and not in the living room, in front of the guests. So, Yair promised and picked the biggest octopus, and off the two walked down the streets, the son carrying a huge octopus in a small plastic bag, the father walking a little ahead, perhaps out of embarrassment, even though the town’s dogs were chasing both of them. A fight between two of the dogs shortly broke out – guessing that soon Yair would throw the octopus, and only one of them would win it – and went on and on, they almost bit one another. And people trailed behind the dogs. Maybe they were the dog owners, maybe they were passers-by who thought this was some sort of street theatre, Holbein or something. A few of the dance macabre participants knew the father, and followed him being dragged by his son holding a stinky octopus and ten dogs, two biting each other, through the city streets, and since Yair had now thrown the octopus to the dogs, the fight between the two big ones stopped, because a small dog, carrying away the small bag in his mouth, had escaped. Dad said something about Manfred Herbst, whose legs had carried him without him knowing where to. ‘Do you know who Manfred Herbst is?’
‘You’ve already told me this so many times and in relation to practically any subject… Is there any other book you know?’
Yair was tired and suspected his father of trying to improve his physical fitness. And it was as if by chance that they arrived at Major General Zalman Zal’s office. At the gate they let the father through without checking his documents, he was a regular bore there and the soldiers did not read anything of his whatsoever; what did they care? Zal was sitting, of course, in front of his VCR. As they arrived he was calling Vered, asking her to turn it off, and return the cassette to the video library, where all had been marked ‘Ezekiel 1’, ‘Ezekiel 2’, ‘Ezekiel 3’, etc.
The father didn’t know how to begin the meeting, after all they had gotten there by chance, as it were, perhaps embarrassed by the thought that the octopus odour had stuck to them. Zal did not stall, saying that he himself had ordered his granddaughter to enlist in the army, despite her being mad, as everyone knew, mad as a hatter, a drug addict and even more so a man-addict (worse than drugs, believe me, I know men), and that to be on the safe side he had ordered Vered to help his granddaughter in all sorts of matters which she could not manage herself, like renewing her driver’s licence, or managing her bank account, or paying her electric bill, because here we are all one big family. Yair too, of course, would be a part of this family, and Zalman Zal launched into stories of his clerks’ devotion, especially Vered Tsela’s, whom he loved like his own granddaughters, which is why she recited rhymes and metres for him, and she of course saw her service here as a great honour. Major General Zalman Zal, let’s be perfectly clear, did not screw any of his clerks. On the contrary. He took care that they would not be harassed by all kinds of males, and took care to make sure the girls kept secret all kinds of love affairs they had, with all kinds of officers, because crazy is the girl who’ll pass up the opportunity to fuck a little in the army, and here everyone is one family, said the Major General. Indeed all the clerks ranking all the way up to Lieutenant-Colonel had to listen to every phone conversation the Major General had, on the amplifier, and on the extensions – a part of their culture being an expansion of the Major General. On this rested their pride, or pleasure, or both.
Yair’s father had thought that his old and admired friend would have a few more convincing arguments, but all Zal’s explications came down to the importance of serving in the army, for the people and for the son of the people. For the people, why? Because the people need an army. For the son of the people, why? Because the son of the people must be a soldier for at least some time during his life, if not throughout his life. Well, Yair already knew all these arguments, and yet, Major General Zalman Zal was not finished. For a long time now he’d been suspecting: the instant coffee that you drank here, gave him gas, therefore he farted. He had no problem with farting. He who sits in a tank all his life, learns not to be shy. All you need to do is lift one side of your behind and let it out. Yair was stunned. He searched for his father’s eyes, but Dad pretended, as if he too farted whenever the need arose, and perhaps he did fart. At home – he didn’t.
‘You probably believe that the paratroopers are the force of the future. Am I right?’
The Major General spoke in a loud voice, looking over at Lieutenant Vered Tsela, whose eyes washed over beautiful Yair in jet streams of light. Ah, how Vered loved boys like Yair. Yair too. And the Major General, with the bitterness of a veteran of the Armoured Corps, spoke, and the son looked at his father, and the father was flooded with admiration for the Major General, or perhaps was flooded with bewilderment, in any case, his dismal and famous smile did not leave his face. ‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ cried the Major General, and waited for Vered to reiterate – she was an outstanding memoriser, but that said, as much as she was taller than Yair, and even older, she could not take her eyes off of him.
‘Nonsense, the next war will be armour vs. armour war. Anyone can see that. Tanks will pound along the deserts from here to Kuwait, and our soldiers of the Armoured Corps will gallop like the Formula Uno drivers, especially in the new tank, ‘Ezekiel 4’, watch the screen. Where’s the dork?’
The smile did not leave the father’s face, like a Chinese diplomat, and the dork came in, froze the screen, grabbed a cookie and left quietly, so all watched the rising tank, like a giant turtle, threatening never to land, ‘Ezekiel 4’, or ‘3’ froze.
‘Why would you volunteer for the Parachute Corps? For the parachuting? This parachuting business doesn’t impress me. I refused to take a parachuting course. I just didn’t want to. Not afraid, no. Because of the hassle. You see?’
Yair nodded. Zal went on, as befits a military leader, noting the slow penetration of his forces into the boy’s mind: ‘What do they do in those famous commandos of theirs? Sit and wait and wait and wait. What are they waiting for? For the day when they will be able to attack missiles bases in Caucasus’ mountains?’ Now he turned to the father, who was trying to say something, but Zal continued: ‘And in the meantime, I ask, in the meantime what do they do? In the meantime they kill people up close, with knives, or guns, in Tunisia, in Beirut. And to keep an entire army for this? Just because one day there will be a commando war?’
When they left – Vered had not dare say a word to them – Yair told himself that everything, this entire wonderful day, was just to get him to this talk with the commander. He’d been deceived all day. His great love for his father had swallowed a fruit, and in it a large pit, bitter, asphyxiating, stinging. He hated his father. They did not speak all the way home. In the cab he was suffocated by the desire to cry. The father was offended. It is unclear to us why, but every so often the father would get offended and would not talk about it – a nightmare for his kids – for hours, and all that they could do was guess what had offended Dad. Go deal with your father’s childhood memories!
Later the son surrendered. What had he gone through from his desire to cry in the cab to this surrender? A great deal. But in the end, he’d been promised that he would serve down there, beneath the office, and ever since his father has come everyday to spy on him from the high window. Every once in a while the father would walk over to the window, and the Major General say to him: ‘Sit, sit, he’ll see you watching him. It’s not good. Let him be a man already.’ And the father, his eyes shrinking involuntarily, as if he carefully selecting his words, would say without turning around: ‘He doesn’t know I am here’. The father knew of course that the son knew. After all the son had asked him during one of his leaves: ‘Why do you even go there so often? To spy on me?’ Yair had wanted to say so much more, wanted to say every night, wanted, since that walk in the city, to say something that swelled and swelled, and turned into something violent, contemptuous, offensive, like ‘I wish you had loved Mom the way you love this fat Major General, I wish you had loved us like you love him, I wish you had loved me like you love yourself, but you are not even in love with him for being him, you are in love with him because he is a Major General, and when you find another Major General, woosh, you will ride off to the other Major General. Why do you love Major Generals so much? You probably want me to become a Major General, that’s why I’m so sick, because you’ve always wanted me to become a Major General.’ He did not say all this balderdash, but once he dreamt that his father was pissing through him, holding him like in an opened-jawed stone fountain, and urinating through his mouth. Sometimes he thought of hanging himself in the guard barracks, in the light, so that his father would see him from up there convulsing, and would rush down to save him, but would be too late, and would only manage to get him down from the ceiling, a corpse. One day Dad will lose it, one day I will wipe that constipated smile off of his face.
Well, today, as mentioned, is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death, may he rest in peace. Everyone respects this anniversary, and as of last year, thanks to the petition, it has become a General Staff event, meaning an event of this base, ours. After a prolonged informatory effort, he is now mentioned, in the basic daily order, which Sergeant Borderline pins up on the cork boards, while two guard soldiers stand to attention by the candle. A soldier on duty asks the passers-by to lay a flower, or put down a few words in the commemoration book for the soldier who fought such a long battle just so the army would enlist him, in spite of his poor health. And here comes a Major General, Moti the moron. Conversing loudly, because that’s how he talks, with a girl soldier, an admirer, who also talks in big voice so that everyone can hear her talking with Moti the moron. Yesterday her father reprimanded her, when she told him how careful she was not to be alone in a room with Major General Moti. He was extremely insulted by this remark, her father. ‘I don’t like your delusions. I never liked your delusions. For as long as I remember you, everyone hits on you. One day you will say the same about me. It’s the fashion now, isn’t it? But Moti is a Major General in the IDF. You can behave like a human being and refrain from implying dirty insinuations.’
And since the guard soldiers had been preaching all day to the passers-by in their barracks to act appropriately, one of them now steps up to Moti as well. To the Major General’s credit, let it be said, he apologises right away, attempts to stretch his sloppy shirt, stands at attention for a moment, and suddenly salutes, sticking out his chest and forcefully stretching his palm to his temple. The soldier with him, being very moved by Moti’s invitation to escort him again to his office, she too salutes, and a button, exactly between her two squished breasts under a pointy bra, snaps. Gastritis, for his part, wants Major General Moti to end his salute, and approaches him cautiously, saluting, taking two measured steps backwards, standing to attention, saluting again – there is probably some kind of order, thinks Major General Moti but he is not familiar with the procedure. It does not cross his mind that he is being mocked here, who would conceive of it? – Later Gastritis says quietly: ‘Major General your honour, asking permission to speak’.
‘Make it short, I’m busy.’
‘Major General, I’ll make it short: we need help.’
The Major General hates requests for help, but Gastritis tells him, that the guard is trying hard to establish an award on behalf of the army in their friend’s name, Bronstein may he rest in peace. The Major General is impatient, although the soldier with him waits. He has already envisioned her in his mind’s eye pacing back and forth in his room, naked, with only the black army shoes and white socks to her feet. ‘Who is this Bronstein?’
‘I’ll make it short. He wasn’t enlisted on account of health problems, insisted on enlisting, and ran a public campaign. His parents turned to the army authorities, and participated in the public campaign for his enlistment, along with his high school friends. The press were also involved in the campaign. We have a bellicose press, like any democracy, and ardent editorial articles spoke of the struggle against this refusal to enter the Israeli army, which should begin with the positive, not the negative. In the end the army surrendered and despite the sensitivity he had been inflicted with as a child, he served in the guard platoon. He died in his uniform, while guarding. Recently we turned to the Base Commander asking him to establish an award for the sick soldier for distinctive service in Bronstein’s name. Our appeals have been to no avail.’
‘But why should someone who could have evaded the army and didn’t take advantage of that be given an award?’
‘Because otherwise life is not the same.’
The Major General looks into the soldier’s sad eyes, and promises to help.
Everything might have gone as planned with the committed soldiers, if it weren’t for the fact that the Major General tended to forget the promises he made, and perhaps his soldier’s naked parade made him forget this one. Luckily for us it was so. In that respect, a Major General’s flawed memory is a source of hope for the entire nation. May there be many such forgetful leaders and commanders. And anyway, it would have been a great embarrassment to us all, if the truth about Bronstein’s life and death were to come out. He did not have a memorial day, because he did not die, because he was not born, because there never was any Bronstein. Because he was the heart of our platoon’s service: we made him up in order to sanctify him and to mock the entire world through him.
When Yair was let in on this comical secret, that was of no interest to anyone, and gave us a strange satisfaction, he’d been explicitly asked not to reveal the secret to his father. He was not offended by the request. On the contrary. He felt very proud to have been given a chance to betray Dad. The idea of betraying Dad, and with this beautiful story of a soldier that never existed to boot, excited him, and he volunteered to tell the life story of the deceased. Yair wrote beautifully. If it wasn’t for his father, he would have really accomplished something through this, but his father did not like his writing, was afraid that he would only be praised because he is his son. ‘Bronstein’s Memoirs’ by Yair was the most touching chapter in the book, because it was written out of rage. No one could believe that the boy made the story up. We will never know what is real with people that do not hesitate to use their tongue.
Evening descended. Lights rose from the guard barracks. The father walked over to the window, but Yair was no longer there. He’d tricked his father again, taken off under the protection of the darkness, and instead of feeling gratification, felt a great sadness, once again seeing himself hung, his veins slashed, as he walked towards the gate. At times he thought of going on watch with his friends, but feared his father would take it as his triumph.
Outside the gate a Major General, Moti the moron, picked him up in his car, and asked: ‘Where are you headed, soldier?’ Yair shrugged and said in his typical impudence in places we have yet to encounter him: ‘Are you checking if I have a pass, or what?’ The Major General said: ‘No, no, I’m just driving to the north of town and thought you wanted a ride’. Yair went with him, and suddenly, just as he was about to get out, not far from the beach, he said: ‘Tell me something, this army really doesn’t bore you?’ The Major looked at him and said: ‘You know what? Now that you ask, I think so, yes. But they need us, don’t they?’ Yair said: ‘No, I don’t think so’. The Major thought a moment, then assumed Yair was joking. Yair looked at the grand night and the lights, and imagined seeing a huge bird flying and taking up with her the entire city.
David Lugasi, I think, never knew how much he really loved the Western Wall until he saw it completely dismantled, stone by stone by stone, and piled onto the three trucks of his hauling and renovations company, A.A. America Hauling and Renovations. Until that moment, the Western Wall had been a place. Just a place. But the Rabin assassination changed everything.
Lugasi is one of those rare types: people born to pray. No wonder he felt at home at the Wall. He wasn’t “religious” to the extent that he could marry the grandchild of a learned rabbi – any learned rabbi – but there are people who, when they pray, are happy. On Friday nights, for example, he’d go to synagogue with his father, return to his parents’ house for kiddush and a festive meal, and then get into his car and drive to a party. In the Lugasi home, that was considered an excellent Sabbath eve.
And that’s why he loved the Western Wall and hated Jerusalem: because the minute you pass Sha’ar Hagai on the road leading to the city, you have to choose. Right wing or left, religious or secular, orthodox or ultra-orthodox – like in a poor neighborhood in Hollywood movies, you have to choose a gang, or else you’ll be alone in a violent and sour city. Lugasi, who hated choosing and loved praying, would come back more and more upset from those visits to his beloved Wall. Until the last time, when he cracked. One night, a week after the assassination, he called me. It was one in the morning.
“You have to come,” he said. “Take a taxi and come to Jerusalem. I need your advice urgently.”
“Advice about what?”
“Where to put it, brother. The Western Wall. I finish loading in an hour. Come, I have no time to talk. The battery in my Nokia is conking out.”
* * *
Half a kilometer away from the square in front of the Western Wall, I came to a barrier put up by the Border Police. A Druze policeman stopped me and said, “No entrance, sir. The Wall is being renovated.”
“Renovated. They’re cleaning it. For Rabin’s shivah, a special operation.”
The policeman waited. I scratched my head.
“Listen,” I said, “I have to go in. I’m on the advisory team.”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.
“You’re the famous Uzi Weill?”
“Famous?” I said. “Famous for what?”
“Why didn’t you say so right away,” the policeman said and tapped me on the shoulder. “The contractor told us to let you in. I want you to know that I’m with you a hundred percent. My people and yours are blood brothers.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
He shouted for his colleague standing next to the barrier to move it, and added, “That’s why, even if I am Druze – I’m for your father.”
“My father?” I said, puzzled.
“A great man,” said the policeman. “Too bad there aren’t more like him. May he rest in peace.”
“My father’s not dead.”
He froze. “Really? Not dead? Begin?”
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled at him politely.
“You don’t say,” the policeman continued, shaking his head in growing amazement. “You don’t say. Begin’s not dead, ah? So – he’s hiding out?”
I shrugged cautiously.
“Good for him,” the policeman said, “he got really good at hiding out when he was in the underground. When’s he coming back?”
I said, “Another year or two.”
“Tell him we’re waiting,” the policeman said. “Even though I’m a Druze, I’m waiting. You know why?”
“Because my people and yours are blood brothers?” I tried.
He looked at me with new respect. “Good for you!” he said. “I see your father taught you well. Good for you! You’re a good family.”
“True,” I said. “Benny turned out a little…”
“Too serious,” the policeman said.
“Oh well…” I shrugged.
“Never mind. A Begin is a Begin. You’re all a good family.”
“I’ll tell my father,” I promised.
He lowered his hand from my car window and I drove in.
The square in front of the Wall was brightly lit, and dozens of workers were dismantling the stones. All that remained of the Wall itself were the two bottom rows of stones. Two workers worked on each stone, and after detaching it, carried it to the huge truck parked at the edge of entrance area. The other twenty-nine trucks were already waiting in line, full of stones, on the street leading away from the Wall.
On the roof of the last truck, which was in the process of being filled, sat David Lugasi. Next to him sat the driver, and they were drinking coffee from a large thermos. I stood rooted in place, stunned. Lugasi saw me.
“Brother!” he called to me and stood up. “Come on up and have something to drink with us.”
I climbed onto the door of the truck, the driver gave me a hand, and I found myself looking down at the workers who had begun destroying the last row. It was a shocking sight. The Western Wall looked like a stone path. I sat in silence.
A few minutes later, Lugasi said, “It’s really something, huh?”
“Tell me…” I began, but couldn’t go on.
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Lugasi said and moved his head very very slightly in the direction of the driver. He didn’t want to share his plan with too many people.
“Good coffee, huh?” asked the driver.
“Terrific. Listen, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a few professional matters to discuss.”
The driver looked at me suspiciously. Then he spilled out the remains of his coffee, stood up and jumped to the ground.
Lugasi watched him move away. “What do you say?” he asked when we were alone.
“What can I say?” I extended my arm. “It’s…”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you could say it was great. You could definitely say that. But why?”
“Those Jerusalemites don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve to have the Wall.”
“Aahh.” I looked around. The workers had started taking apart the last row.
“You tell me,” Lugasi put his hand on his heart. “Tell me if I’m not right: last week, two days after they killed Rabin, may he rest in peace, I went to the Wall to pray. For Rabin, and for the country, and for… I don’t know. My heart, from so much sorrow, became… especially after his funeral. Did you see how his granddaughter cried?”
“Then, do you understand? It was tough. On the way to the Wall, I put on my father’s kipa, may he rest in peace, and there I was, with my beard and all, you know – at least five people grabbed me, told me how good it is that Rabin’s dead.”
I nodded. Lugasi took a deep breath, and shook his head incredulously.
“Then I finished praying,” he went on, “took off the kipa – and on the way back, three other people jumped on me, told me to come to an anti-religious happening, they’re all murderers. So I decided – I, David Lugasi, am moving the Western Wall.
I didn’t know what to say. Under us, the workers were finishing their job. They worked diligently. Another twenty stones, and the Wall might never have been there.
“Some operation, ah?” Lugasi smiled proudly. “A hundred and twenty workers.”
“And where will you put it in Tel Aviv?”
“That’s what you’re here for. Advise me where the best place is. A pretty place, no arguments, no politics, where people will come to pray with goodness in their hearts. A laid back kind of place?”
“The beach?” I suggested. Lugasi smiled.
And that’s how it was.
* * *
Half an hour later, the convoy of trucks began leaving the place that once was the Western Wall, and was now a naked hill. Lugasi and I, in the Peugeot, passed the canvas-covered trucks and the bus carrying the workers, and reached the Border Police post. Lugasi got out and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.
“Finished for the day?” the policeman asked.
“Yes,” said Lugasi. “You can move the barriers. Do you have the permit from the City?”
“Right here,” the policeman said, patting his shirt pocket. “ Do you need it?”
“Keep it,” said Lugasi, “in case they ask any questions.”
He got in and closed the door. “An original permit,” he said, “from the City. From the time I fixed the sewer in the Convention Center. It says: please follow the contractor’s instructions.”
The policeman knocked on the window and waited for me to look at him. He pretended to be locking his lips with a key. I gave him a thumbs-up as a gesture of thanks.
The convoy began to move.
“Tell me,” I said to Lugasi, “aren’t I little young to be Begin’s son?”
He shrugged. “Policemen,” he said.
And so, smiling and serene, Lugasi continued leading his convoy of trucks along the deserted Ayalon Freeway. At three in the morning, we reached Sheraton Beach. We got out to survey the territory. The workers waited in the bus.
“What do you say?” he asked, looking around, hands on hips. “Maybe between Sheraton and the marina?”
I tried to imagine it. “I don’t think so,” I said, “the strip of beach is too narrow. You need enough room for the prayers and for the sunbathers too.”
“You’re right,” Lugasi said. “And it has to be far from the water. So the waves won’t erode the stones in winter.”
We looked around, and all at once, our gaze fell upon the slope leading down from the Hilton, under Atzmaut Park. We shook hands, and Lugasi went to the workers’ bus.
“Ya’allah, let’s go, everybody out,” he told them.
They started whispering to each other in Romanian. One of them got up and acted as interpreter.
“Mister Lugasi, we’re all very tired,” said the chosen leader. “All night work, work,” he said in English.
“Tell them everyone gets another two hundred dollars,” said Lugasi. “They work till morning.”
In a flash, they were all outside, unloading the stones. Some of them began setting up scaffolding on the slope under Atzmaut Park. They worked with astonishing speed, unloading the stones in the exact order they’d been put on the trucks, but despite their diligence, they’d only managed to put up a third of the Wall when the sun rose. Lugasi, who saw in advance what the problem would be, sent them to sleep. At six in the morning, the second shift arrived.
This time, they were Arabs, and Lugasi managed without an interpreter. At seven, we collapsed in the Peugeot. Lugasi turned on the radio. We listened to four news broadcasts, switching from one to the other: none of them mentioned the fact that during the night, someone had stolen the Western Wall.
“Maybe they’re keeping a lid on the investigation,” I said. “Censoring it.”
“They’re censoring the Voice of Cairo too? And the BBC?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Lugasi. “My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say: a man needs to have faith and never to worry, except when he hears the hoo-oh of a police car approaching. Now, let’s go to sleep.”
We nodded off on each other’s shoulder for three hours of fitful sleep. At ten-thirty in the morning, a knock on the window woke us. It was a City inspector. Lugasi lowered the window.
“Are you the contractor?” the inspector scratched his head.
“What is that thing?”
“The wall of peace,” said Lugasi, “in memory of Itzhak Rabin.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “It looks familiar, that wall.”
“There’s one like it in Jerusalem.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “My wife’s from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s why.”
Lugasi called to one of the workers and asked for coffee. The inspector sat and drank with us, and told us how much he earned working for the City. When he left, we turned on the radio again: still, not a word about the Western Wall disappearing.
Lugasi got out and stretched. Then he said, “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He looked at the laboring workers and said, “Wait, we’ll wash our faces and then take off.”
* * *
We reached Jerusalem at noon. We parked not far from what was once the Western Wall, and approached cautiously. Twenty different scenarios passed through our minds, but none of them even came near what we actually saw: everything was going on as usual.
The prayers prayed. Men on the left, women on the right.
Policemen, as usual, guarded the square.
Tourists, as usual, had their pictures taken wearing cardboard kipot on their heads. The only thing different was that the Wall wasn’t there. We walked towards the square. A policeman stood there in his regular place and handed us black kipot.
“Tell me,” – Lugasi asked the policeman – “where’s the Wall?”
“Being renovated,” said the policeman.
“Renovated where? Where are they renovating it?”
The policeman shrugged. “Ask the Rabbi of the Wall, that’s what he said. Are you going in or not?”
We went in. A large group of chassidim was praying very intently, but their attempts to push notes into the dry hill failed utterly. They occasionally looked around in puzzlement, but in general, it seemed that the explanation given by the Rabbi of the Wall satisfied them. We left the square and went to eat at a small place Lugasi knew, not far from there.
Lugasi ate hummus and pita, and drank tea. He looked preoccupied. When he finished, he took out his cell phone.
“Hello,” he said when someone answered him, “is this the office of the Rabbi of the Wall? I wanted to ask something. I was at the Wall just now, and it wasn’t there.”
“That’s impossible,” the clerk replied, “the Rabbi has been here since the morning.”
“Not the Rabbi,” said Lugasi, “not him, it. The Wall. The Wall wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” replied the clerk. “It’s being renovated.”
“You don’t say,” said Lugasi. “Who’s renovating it?”
“The City,” she said. “I don’t know exactly. This morning, the Rabbi spoke to the Border Police, they took the stones away for the renovation. It’s a special operation.”
“The Border Police? Who’s that, the Druze guy at the barrier, you talked to him?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the clerk. She was starting to lose her patience. “It’s from the City, a special operation. In honor of Jerusalem’s three thousandth anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Lugasi replied and hung up. We looked at each other.
He said, “We pulled it off. I think next week, I’ll move the vault from the Leumi Bank.”
* * *
We worked like crazy that whole day and night along with the workers, and the next day – right before sunrise, at the end of the Romanian’s second shift – it was all finished. We stood in the water, the waves lapping at the edges of our rolled-up pants, and looked at the new Western Wall. It looked great.
“The Jewish people’s holiest site,” said Lugasi. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t be cute.”
He paid the workers and they got on the bus and disappeared. We remained standing there, looking at the fruit of our labors. A few minutes later, I started feeling hungry, and remembered that we hadn’t eaten since that humus in Jerusalem. We went up to the Café Regatta, took a table near the window, sat down silently and looked at the beach.
“The Temple Mount is ours,” said Lugasi, like a general after a successful battle.
* * *
At first, everything went smoothly. The beach-goers did show a certain puzzlement, but the wall had yet to be born that would keep them from getting a tan. The tourists, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic. A rich American from Chicago named Joe Rivlin, Chairman and owner of Rivlin & Rivlin Buttons and Zippers, outdid himself, and sent the mayor a letter of congratulations from Milan, enclosing a check in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
“A brilliant way to bring tourism to Tel Aviv and to Israel in general, period,” he wrote, “if only the American government had your courage, we wouldn’t have to travel to Beijing Grand Canyon to see the Beijing Grand Canyon, period.”
The religious public in Tel Aviv received the new Western Wall with mixed feelings, but quickly got used to the idea. First of all, no one said in so many words that it was that Western Wall – The Rabbi of the Wall still insisted that the original was being renovated – and secondly, even if it was that one, what was so terrible if it stayed in Tel Aviv for a few years? Pilgrims came from the four corners of the country and proclaimed that the new location was not only more convenient, it was also a lot safer – considering the security problems Jerusalem’s Old City had been having for years.
Amazingly enough, even the sacred status quo was not damaged, despite the dangerous proximity of the prayers and the sunbathers. The former faced the Wall, the latter faced the sea, and they all met on the number five bus, of which there were now another fifty. Even the homosexuals in Atzmaut Park finally got used to the idea. Many of them, so the city council representative of Meretz, the leftist liberal party, discovered, came from a traditional background, and the proximity of the Western Wall surprisingly improved their sex lives.
The problem began when the mayor realized what he had. After the shock of the first week, when all he did was throw one fax after the other into the waste basket and fire any person who dared suggest that the Western Wall be moved to his jurisdiction, he finally decided to go down to the beach and see what was happening there. When he realized that the people – again, dammit – were right, the trouble started.
First, he declared that the Western Wall was now to be called “The Kings of Israel Wall” – compensation for the Kings of Israel Square, a name which, after the assassination, was taken from them and changed to Rabin Square. The next thing he did was commission Yaacov Agam to paint the Wall in shifting iridescent colors. “Yaacov Agam,” he said at a press conference broadcast live from the seashore – “is an international artist who combines kinetics and Judaism, and he will put the Wall on the map of the next millennium!”
And then a special sound system arrived and was installed next to the Wall. It broadcast commercials from the Municipality and Israeli music twenty-four hours a day.
Before a day had passed, Channel Two announced that it would broadcast live a series of summer performances to be called “Rock ‘n Wall”, direct from the new, revolving, pneumatic stage purchased expressly for that purpose in Germany and flown to the Wall. Dudu Topaz, the TV entertainer, would be the emcee, Dudu Dotan, the comedian, would tell jokes, and Dudu Shmulevitz – head of the city’s electrician’s union – declared that if the City didn’t reach an agreement with the union before the program, the beach would be blacked out.
At that point, Lugasi stopped returning my calls. But he too could take no more when the army championship games were held there, and hundreds of infantry fighters hang-glided down from the Wall. On that day, at four in the afternoon, he called me.
“Did you hear?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “The local newspaper is organizing a squash league on the beach. Guess what they’re using for a wall?”
“One hour, at the Hilton,” he said and hung up. I guessed that he would bring a rotten mood with him, but I never imagined how rotten. When I got there, I saw him from a distance, standing stooped over next to a kiosk on the beach, a cigarette in his hand. That was the first time we had dared approach the Wall since we moved it from Jerusalem, and it did not look good.
On the top of it, along the uppermost row of stones, an electronic sign was flickering: “The Western Wall brought to you by Yediot Aharanot newspapers and Isracard.” And David Lugasi didn’t look any better than his Wall.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. His eyes were red. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
“Maybe people will calm down. Give them time. It’s still new.”
He nodded. We moved closer to the police barricade separating the swimmers from the prayers. At one end of it was a small booth. We took kipot from an old worker wearing an orange uniform with a drawing of the Wall facing the sea on it. The kipa was also orange and had the same drawing, along with the words: “Sunset at the Wall – An Experience!”
We passed the barrier and went inside.
“Wait, wait a minute!” the old man called after us in a Russian accent.
“What?” I turned to him.
“Fifty shekels to go in, please,” said the old man in the orange uniform.
I looked at Lugasi. He returned the look.
“Ten tonight,” he said. “Be ready. I’ll pick you up.”
* * *
That same night, we returned the Wall to Jerusalem. We finished the whole job in eight hours of strenuous labor. The two crews, Romanians and Arabs, worked together and when the sun rose, the Wall was back where it belonged.
Lugasi stood and looked at his Wall. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “We tried,” he said.
The workers were already on the bus, ready to go. The empty trucks left the parking lot one after the other. We were standing quietly when suddenly, from behind us came the sound of the bashful clearing of a throat. It was the Rabbi of the Wall.
He said, “Ah… the renovations are finished, sir?”
We turned to him. His eyes were red, his hair slightly disheveled, and he looked as if he’d aged a hundred years in a single week.
“Finished,” Lugasi said gently. He looked at the old man, and he was filled with great, inexplicable sorrow.
“And… everything’s okay?”
“Everything’s shiny and shipshape, Rabbi. We added screws to strengthen it, poured cement, it’s like new. A cinch to last another three thousand years.”
“Thank God. Thank God!” the Rabbi heaved a huge sigh and was silent. Then he said, “More power to you, young fellow. Just tell them at City Hall that next time, I’d like to know in advance when they do something like this, fahrshteist?”
“There won’t be a next time,” said Lugasi. “If I take it away again – you better believe I won’t bring it back.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
My sister always said that it was much better to have a niece or nephew than your own child. I suppose that my mother agreed with her. My sister said that with a nephew you got to enjoy the good times, all the fun of having a kid without going through any of the trials and tribulations that came with them. Like pregnancy, or labour. Or nappies. Or being woken up in the middle of the night. And when they grow up you don’t have to scold them, or educate them, my sister went on. You avoid all the enigma and bloodshed of their teenage years. You can just spoil them and be loved in return. For instance, you can get them a pair of trousers if you like but you don’t have to get them all their trousers and then keep tabs on them, watching out for when they’re getting frayed or too small. You can watch the children grow, but at a distance, safe from all the conflagrations and black holes. Not to mention the time that passes you by, the sensation that life is slowly slipping away from you like a rudderless boat on the tide. I couldn’t have disagreed more with what my sister was saying, but I didn’t let it show. A rudderless boat is much better than one that speeds all over the place, then springs a leak and sinks. I wanted all the trials and tribulations that my sister was talking about. I wanted to iron clothes, wipe bottoms, take their temperature and bring them to the doctor for check-ups. To lose sleep and never get that pressure off your chest. But it’s always difficult to contradict your older sister.
Laura was my sister’s daughter and thus my niece. A fragile, dreamy girl, just after she turned four she started to stay at my house once a week after school. She was born in October. At first we thought that it would be best if she came on Thursdays to spend Thursday afternoons with me. I remember the afternoon on which Laura, sitting on the sofa, pointed to the hall with an unmistakeable expression of joy on her face, smiling that radiant smile that only children are capable of. It was the second or third afternoon she’d spent with me, my sister hadn’t got back from her session yet and night was already falling, even though we’d only just had tea. I looked where Laura was pointing but there wasn’t anyone or anything there, just my dark, uninteresting hallway. There were crumbs all over the floor. Then she looked straight at me and excitedly exclaimed ‘Didn’t you see it? A ghost just passed by! It was so scared!’ That was the day that I knew I’d won her trust: she felt comfortable making things up with me. She was ready to lie, play jokes or test me. Until then, she’d barely talked at all.
After Christmas, my sister decided that it was better if her daughter came to my house on Fridays instead of Thursdays. My sister was so exhausted after her sessions that it made more sense to have Laura come and sleep over on Fridays. My flat was a one bedroom but we got a fold-out bed, I can’t remember where it came from, maybe we brought it from La Torre. A small cot with a thin, ten centimetre mattress.
On those first Fridays in winter, Laura always slept straight through, exhausted by the games and excitement of spending the night away from home (it was her first time) and maybe also by the mystery of her mother’s semi-clandestine adult activities. It was a few months before she woke up in the middle of the night for the first time, although her mother had told me that she did so regularly at home. One of the happiest moments of my life was the first time that Laura started to scream at three or four in the morning. I was fast asleep in bed when I was awoken by the sound of a crying child and for a few seconds I thought that it was a baby, my baby, a non-existent son or daughter (obviously, I don’t have any children of my own) and in my bewildered disappointment, before I went to console my niece, I cried a little too, from joy, a sense of foreboding and maybe anger. I immersed myself in Laura’s tears, plunging into them in my desperation for an alternative life. Then I went to her bed in the darkness and saw that she was screaming in her sleep with her eyes closed and her lower lip trembling, her red fingers gripping tight to the edge of the duvet. I stroked her hair and, slowly, she calmed down, as though my fingertips dispensed some kind of drug.
These regular sleepovers lasted two years. I bought a toothbrush, a pink pillow with animal pictures on it, pyjamas, toys and biscuits in different shapes and colours. At home she always slept with a teddy bear that Jaime had given her, so I got her a stuffed toy to cling to when she spent her nights with me. I found a cloth duck that I liked right from the beginning. It had the empty gaze of fake or stuffed animals but it wasn’t scary, because it didn’t look real. It was soft, there was something jelly-like in its movements, and it only cost me ten euros. I kept it in the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom and every Friday morning I carefully placed it under my pillow. The first thing Laura did when she came over was run to my bed to find the toy and say hello. She thought that the duck spent all week there, sleeping with me. She was a little sad that the toy didn’t have any children to play with. I suppose that my life seemed boring and predictable to her. Every time Laura saw the duck, she jumped and shrieked with joy, as though she’d spent all week worrying that the duck, or I, wouldn’t be there. We gave it a name, Feldsduck. ‘How are you, Feldsduck? Have you missed me very much?’ Laura said as she stroked its orange beak or kissed its yellow feet, covering it in drool.
I loved spending my Fridays with my niece. I went to pick her up from school in the car and we spent the afternoon listening to music, painting, in the park or at the cinema. We ran races and hid things. We smelled leaves and paints. We put make-up on each other and danced around an imaginary fire playing invisible instruments. In the evening, we made dinner: she liked to sit on a stool and taste each of the ingredients we added to the pizza or salad. Before going to bed, I read her a story. My collection of children’s books grew little by little, taking up more and more space on my bookshelf. Laura made up verbs from nouns: ‘story-ing’, ‘movie-ing’, ‘happy-ing’. She also said ‘blanket-ing’ when she wrapped herself up in the duvet. When I was with her, the world suddenly took on new meaning, it became a wonderful gamut of possibilities.
I lost Feldsduck. One Friday morning, as soon as I’d woken up, I got a strange feeling, an intuition, as though there were a gap in my chest. I immediately saw, or thought I saw, the duck’s indifferent gaze. I looked first in the wardrobe where I usually kept it and then, automatically, under the pillow. Next I searched the flat, wildly and at random initially and then systematically. In my anxious state I searched places I hadn’t explored in years, out of reach corners, under the bed and sofa, in the utility room, in a gigantic cardboard box where I keep old letters and papers, family photographs and my notes from university. As I looked back over my life I was surprised at the person I had been only a few years before. I felt guilty. I remembered that I had put the duck into the wash the previous Sunday, in with Laura’s sheets, and I remembered hanging it up to dry on the terrace, pinning its right wing to the clothesline with a clothes peg. It looked submissive hanging there, like a puppet waiting for a hand to fill it and bring it to life. But I couldn’t be sure that I’d put it back in its place in the wardrobe. Things one does regularly fade in the mind, they pile up like socks and shirts, two by two or three by three until you can’t tell them apart any more. Fortunately, I had plenty of time so I went to the shop where I’d bought the lost duck. They had a few that were just the same, lined up next to each other on the shelf, their feet hanging down lifelessly. Like children waiting their turn. They were all in the same, tired-looking pose, and had the same empty expression.
Before I went to pick Laura up, I put the new duck under the pillow. It looked identical to the other one, you couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe there was a slight difference, the one that I’d lost might have been a little worn, but a four year old girl wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I got into the car and went to the school. It was impossible to find a parking place at that time so I always left the car double-parked. The mothers (they were almost all mothers) formed a semi-circle around the door. The pre-schoolers trooped out one by one and ran to freedom. Laura was usually one of the last to come out. She walked over to me with a smile but didn’t hurry, as though she had a keen sense of dignity.
When we got home, she repeated her weekly ritual and ran to my bed. She lifted up the pillow, picked up the soft toy and looked at it. The joy disappeared from her face. She looked at me and then back to the toy. ‘This isn’t Feldsduck,’ she said. ‘Where’s Feldsduck?’
I had to admit what had happened. I apologized again and again. It’s hard to excuse yourself to a four year old girl. They don’t yet know about not hurting people’s feelings and explanations get tangled up, they sound absurd and pointless. But as I spoke I realized that she was more curious than upset. She didn’t cry. In fact, she didn’t say anything to me at all. Instead of looking at me, she looked at the new stuffed animal. ‘You know what?’ she said eventually, ‘We need to give him another name.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ I answered. ‘He needs a new name.’ I suggested a lot: Ducky, Mathew, Andy, Bart, Juan Carlos. None of them seemed right. ‘He doesn’t look like a Bart,’ she’d say, staring into the duck’s blank eyes. We spent the afternoon like that, staring at a cloth duck. Laura took the naming ceremony very seriously. I had to make an effort not to laugh. How did she know that it was a different stuffed animal? That night, after I’d helped her into her pyjamas, she announced that she’d found the right name. ‘Her name will be Duckological.’ I was left speechless. Where had that name come from? ‘It’s not a boy duck, no, not exactly,’ she said. ‘She’s a girl, a girl duck.’ (She said adverbs in a very funny way: instead of ‘exactly’, she said ‘esastly’.) I told her that in that case we should call it ‘Miss Duckological’. She thought for a moment. ‘Her name is Duckological,’ she decided, bringing the conversation to an end.
That Saturday, when my sister came to pick Laura up, mi niece told her all about the adventures of Duckological the duck. ‘Best of all,’ she said, ‘we have no idea what happened to the other duck. Maybe it flew away?’
On Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. My downstairs neighbour had the original duck, Feldsduck, tucked under her arm. It had apparently fallen off the clothesline onto her terrace. She’d come by a couple of times in the week but I had been out. I thanked her. I put the two ducks next to each other and inspected them for differences. I picked up a black marker and drew an F on the label of the duck my neighbour had brought and a D on the one I’d bought a few days ago.
The following Friday I decided to try an experiment. I put the stuffed toy with an F on the label under the pillow. Then I went to pick Laura up from school and when we got home she ran to my bed, took the toy from under the pillow and started to shout like crazy: ‘Feldsduck’s back! Feldsduck’s back! Where were you Feldsduck?’
Laura said that Feldsduck was a sad toy but Duckological was always happy. She had no trouble telling the difference. After that, I started sleeping with both of them. When I told my sister, she said that I’d always been dopey but also that I had a huge imagination. ‘There must be some distinguishing mark, something that a four year old girl can see but you can’t because you never pay attention.’ I took these words as a kind of reproach but I didn’t want an argument.
A couple of years later, when everything came to an end, Laura went to live with her father in Salamanca. I asked her if she wanted to take the ducks with her as a parting gift, but she didn’t want them. ‘They’re used to living with you,’ she told me. ‘They’d both be very sad in Salamanca, they wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t like cities they don’t know. And I know you’ll take good care of them.’ I had to make a big effort to stop myself from crying in front of her.
A few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though I was drowning. I turned on the television and tried to watch a movie. I ate a tangerine. It was Friday, so I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. It was dawn when I opened the wardrobe door. I took out the two stuffed toys and ran my hand over their cloth tummies. I looked at the labels and realized that the letters I’d scribbled to distinguish them had faded. The D and the F were identical blotches. I wondered whether Laura would still be able to tell them apart and tell me which was which. I remembered my childhood, my sister, our mother and summers in La Torre, when we swam in a big, insect-ridden pond. You’re Duckological aren’t you? I said to one of the ducks. I put the other one back in the wardrobe. I hope I’m right, I thought, as I got into bed. I hugged the toy tight until I fell asleep. When I woke up, eight hours later, the cloth toy was still there. I went to the bathroom, took out my nail scissors, (I‘d often used them to cut Laura’s nails) and went back to bed. I looked at the stuffed toy, then at the label and held it out between my thumb and index finger, but I couldn’t go through with it. What if I was wrong?
There’s been more time to study her since the tribunal, but you can’t do it twenty-four-seven. Some people in this world still have jobs, and Jennifer’s boss would hit high C if she found out you’d been trailing round after her in the ward. Sampling the tablets. Asking dumb questions. Pulling her into the supplies cupboard for a quickie while some war vet was spluttering his last on the other side of the wall. No — once you’re struck off in that business, you’re struck off for life. And not all Jennifer’s ideas are good ones.
So for most of the last three months you’ve limited your study to home hours, entertaining yourself in the flat alone while she’s been out at work. You cooked prawn linguini with chillies the night you were sacked, vegetarian lasagne the next. The whole first week you hoovered and dusted like a demon. Jennifer called you her bitch and you laughed together. She predicted your periods would synchronise soon; she made you pinky-promise to run her a bubble bath whenever she demanded it. That was when you were still buzzing from the freedom and every task was fun — then the role-play started. Now, some nights, when Jennifer’s on duty, all you do is cup your balls inside your trackie bottoms and make plans online, in the darkness. At the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, you mutter to yourself, clicking the mouse with your free hand. At the Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Just thinking about it makes the back of your neck wet. Your mouth dry. When it all gets too much, you revert to mastering FIFA 12.
Whole nights pass this way.
It’s been four months since the management asked Jennifer to cover a couple of night shifts as a favour — one of the new girls was off ill, they said. It was just till she felt better, they said. Probably wouldn’t be more than a week or two. But it’s nearly Christmas now, the ill girl has become the depressed girl, and Jennifer’s still on these nightmare lates with no sign of a pattern change any time soon. You hoped that once you were out of the call centre it might mean a chance to discuss starting again, perhaps somewhere life was cheaper and the sun was more likely to shine. But there’s been no time for that sort of talk. Six times a week she leaves home after sunset and gets back before sunrise. Day is night and night is day. Jennifer says it’s playing with her senses, and it’s affecting yours too. You’re having to adjust your sleep patterns just to coordinate being awake at the same time. On the Apache Trail, overlooked by the majestic Superstition Mountains.
You make sure you’re ready when she gets home from work — lights off, blinds shut — so Jennifer can kid herself it’s night-time. She deserves a proper welcome home but you’ve learned not to bother her at the door. She doesn’t like to be fussed over. What she does for a living, you can’t imagine it. The last moments of ordinary men and women, stripped of themselves. It’s no wonder she needs a few minutes alone. So you lie there in bed, pretending to be asleep, listening to her move in the kitchen, picking from things in packets in the fridge and eating standing up as night becomes morning outside. Then she’ll crawl into bed, kiss you once and fall asleep, sometimes fully clothed. If that happens you undress her slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements, removing her makeup with a face wipe. You put her bra, knickers and tights into the washing basket, and hang her uniform up on the back of the bedroom door ready for the following day. Then you pull the duvet over both your bodies, run your arms round her waist and wait for tiredness to take over. Most times Jennifer sleeps deeply. Sometimes you do too.
Jennifer’s dreams don’t clear her mind, but when she opens her eyes she acts like the world is a shiny new penny she just found on the pavement. Most days she’ll wake up around two, roll over to face you and before you’ve even focused she’ll whisper, Shall we, cowboy? When she’s tired, her pupils look like roulette wheels. When she’s horny, she wraps her short legs around yours, holds you hard and asks you what it’s gonna be today. Barack and Michelle in the Oval Office? Beyoncé and Jay-Z in their LA mansion? Brangelina in their South of France hideaway? Usually you decide together. Then it’s dress-up time, half an hour of what Jennifer calls rock n’roll in the same old holes, and by three you’re both asleep again. You wake around five, crash in front of the TV and grab a sandwich while watching the soaps or a DVD. A couple of hours later it all starts over, and the next ten hours are your own.
Last week you told Jennifer this couldn’t go on anymore. They were taking the piss, these suits, and you advised her to go on strike. It wasn’t practical, this sort of life. You told her that, if it went on till Hogmanay, there were gonna be problems. What were you gonna do for the bells, eh? Sky Plus the whole thing? Watch Big Ben the following afternoon, all lights off, singing Auld Lang Syne and pretending it was a different year? Jennifer wrinkled her nose. The corners of her mouth turned upwards. Then she said, We should get busy during the countdown. Try and co-ordinate. You know, 3, 2, 1… Jennifer’s a real romantic. These past few weeks, you’ve noticed some things you didn’t see back when you had a job and still picked up the phone when it rang. If Jennifer’s sleeping, you concentrate on her breathing, trying to echo it with your own, wondering if she only stays with you because she’s too exhausted to leave. If she’s awake, you pay attention to her tics and habits. Her desires. You still have some uses, right? In the disabled toilets at the Sea Life Aquarium in Tempe. In full Native American costume at the Heard Museum.
From the timings, you know she hardly ever makes a stop on the way home from work. The thin layer of wet mud on her boots proves she always uses same the same shortcut through the park — the route takes around twenty-three minutes, door to door. The played count on her iPod shows she listens to the same albums while she’s en route — full-up Born in the USA on the way to work, empty Nebraska on the way home. (She only listens to Springsteen these days. She says he’s written all the songs she ever needs to hear. On this issue, you disagree.) There aren’t many shops open on that route at 6 a.m. but anyway, even if there were, you doubt she’d stop in anywhere before coming back to her man. Her Daniel. Jennifer’s a pretty regular girl. The numbers speak for themselves.
Give or take a few seconds, Jennifer spends thirty-seven minutes getting ready for work every day — you know this because you have a stopwatch on your phone. That thirty-seven minutes usually includes about eight to get dressed, two of which she spends putting on the jewellery you bought for her birthday, for Valentine’s Day, for last Christmas. It includes six-ish minutes for her daily bowel movement. Three to brush her teeth. Nine minutes to put on a little blusher and eyeliner. Then she usually spends four or five discussing what you plan to do with yourself while she’s feeding, bathing and changing what she calls the drooling zombies of Yorkhill. It’s hard to think back that far — it was when you first got together, two or three years ago now — but when she started at the hospice, Jennifer was softer round the edges.
Back then she talked about doing work that was good for the soul. In company, it gave her a certain glow. Now the two of you don’t socialise, she tries not too think too much, the patients have become the zombies, and at home it’s all dressing up as Hitler and Eva Braun and pretending your flat is the bunker, allied bombs raining down from the outside as you squeeze in one last desperate lay before the pretend suicide pills kick in. From what she’s told you about what goes on in the ward, all these behaviours seem like pretty essential survival tactics. Jennifer says that if you think about it, the fantasies actually improve the quality of care someone’s granny and granddad are getting in their last days on earth. Out there in the world, the fantasies are saving lives. So the least you can do is run the odd bubble bath and make sure you get the outfits for a decent price off eBay.
For a few weeks after the tribunal you indulged in conversations about how you’d go about contributing to costume costs, also to more mundane stuff like the mortgage, the gas and electric; you promised to scan the papers for opportunities. You told Jennifer you’d check the job sites and sign up for email alerts. Sometimes you said you were meeting this or that contact for a pint before last orders — most of the time this was a lie, but Jennifer let it go. She didn’t ask for details, or follow up afterwards if you said you had an interview at O2, or H&M, or wherever. Still, it was obvious you had no desire to re-enter the job market. Barman. Waiter. Shop assistant. When you only get one life, you’ve been thinking, why would you bother with any of that?
Last Tuesday, when Jennifer asked about your plans for the day, you just came out with it: Remember when we talked about putting a pillow over Auntie Joan in Arizona? you said, trying to make out her expression. Taking over her place? Well maybe we don’t need Auntie Joan. Look, I’ve found something. Then you showed her the site: 17 — At the Arizona Science Centre. 18 — Mid-hike, on Squaw Peak, in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. You waited for her to throw something. List the bills she’d been covering since Greg and the guys at Head Office liberated you from The Man. You wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d left the flat and never returned. But Jennifer’s a fucking saint. She’s a naughty girl. She wrapped her arms around your neck, her warmth swimming through the air between your bodies, and she bit your earlobe, once, holding the flesh between her teeth for a few seconds before letting go. Use your imagination, she said. And that’s what you’ve been doing ever since.
Sometimes you wonder about what life would be like if you’d grown up pre-internet. What did people do? Perhaps they just gazed out of windows or down at their shoes all day, sure there was life out there somewhere, unable to prove it. How lucky you are to have access to every wonder of the universe in a millisecond. With more possibilities for the human imagination than ever before, there’s no excuse for boredom. There’s a community out there for everyone. Pigeon Fanciers of the Ex-Yugoslav States. Pumpkin Growers of Yorkshire. Witches and Neo-Paganists of the Deep South. Some people find so much available information overwhelming. They see the world, notice how small they are, and freak out. But you’re one of those who can happily spend the length of an entire hospice shift downloading music for free, watching YouTube videos of hippos dancing, and surfing for unusual places in foreign countries to give the girl you love a good hard seeing to. The universe has its arms open for you both. There’s no reason to be afraid. And, as is proved beyond any reasonable doubt by these magical virtual pages, everyone’s got their thing. The tagline to the website reads: A home from home for open-minded travellers who appreciate natural beauty of all kinds.
Number 23 reads: At dusk, in the remarkable Desert Botanical Gardens.
Number 31 reads: In one of the amazing underground caves at Kartchner Caverns State Park. (Some joker has added a pitch black photo here, captioned ‘Inside a Cave’.)
Below the full list of all 59 ‘Challenge Spots’ are links to a series of photo albums, each showing images of couples who have recorded themselves in various places on the trail. Most people don’t hit more than ten locations. Most of the images are amateurish. It doesn’t matter. One snap, of a couple from Copenhagen, is taken from the perspective of a woman straddling her husband by Lake Havasu. In the picture, you see her knees pressing down onto his arms. He’s on the floor, gazing up. This man’s expression, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before, and when you show it to Jennifer she wonders aloud what he does for a living. Whether he lied to his boss about why he wanted the time off from work, and whether his workmates know all about his holiday. Then she pushes you onto the floor, a slideshow still showing the couple from Copenhagen in a variety of ambitious positions in Canyon de Chelly, then at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park, then at Old Tucson Studios. In one video clip they’re wearing matching Stetsons, running naked from two Park Rangers. Jennifer insists on doggy style, with both of you facing the computer. She pushes back into you hard.
That was three nights ago.
Tonight, as she was leaving for her shift, Jennifer hugged you tight and asked if you had anything to help her through to break time. You thought about it, eyeing her closely as she picked up her keys, put on her coat and walked out the front door. She started down the drive. Then she stopped on the pavement. Looked back. Leaning in the doorway, seeing her as Marilyn Monroe, you as JFK, you said, Number 43 — Inside the vast depths of the Grand Canyon, overlooking the spectacular views of what geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell once called ‘the most sublime spectacle in nature’. Jennifer turned back towards the road, shook her head, smiled. As she was walking away she called out, Someone’s feeling freaky today. Then she was gone, and you watched her go. Your Marilyn. Your Coco Chanel. Your Michelle Obama.
Jennifer always said the first few hours of her shift were the worst, so you made sure she had a text waiting when her first short break finally came round — something to help the second part of the shift pass that bit quicker. It read, On one of the tables at the legendary Pizzeria Bianco (average Trip Advisor Rating 4.0 out of 5). Feeding each other optional. You attached a jpeg of Bob and Sue Hampton from Bournemouth, him in nothing but a chef’s hat, her as a topless waitress, the two of them busy next to a large plate of antipasti. At ten past midnight the reply came through, Looks messy. But tasty! I’m up for it if you are… After that you sent suggestions more regularly. You couldn’t help it.
Option 1: IN THE WILD, WILD WEST — 1880s-style, in the famous Rawhide Wild West Town, taking a ride on the mule-driven Butterfield Stagecoach, which passes through the picturesque Sonoran Desert. (Other options include shotgun wedding — cost $10, inc. souvenir photo. Potential complications: What to do about the guide? Can you hire your own Stagecoach? And would your mother mind if we got married abroad?)
Option 2: AT THE MOVIES — In Monument Valley, dressed as eccentric four-time Academy Award-winning director John Ford & his beloved wife of 59 years, Mary. Suggestions: wear an eye patch, as Ford did; reproduce versions of scenes from Ford’s most revered works. (Possible issues: how to make The Grapes of Wrath sexy? See also: How Green Was My Valley).
Option 3: SAINTS AND SINNERS — At the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson, founded 1692. Dressed as Pastor and enthusiastic member of congregation. (NB: In a supposed miracle witnessed by people from all over the Tucson area, apparently Father Ignacio Joseph Ramirez y Arellano is believed to have continued sweating hours after death. He was later made a Saint. Perhaps he could be incorporated somehow?)
Jennifer didn’t answer any of these suggestions but then, she did prefer dramas where the woman dominated. Or maybe she didn’t reply cos this was stupid and you’d gone too far and she had no time for this sort of thing cos she was busy wiping the backside of some frail, frightened old lady who’d probably have a heart attack right there and then if she heard what you were planning to do with her sweet, kind-hearted nurse. Why didn’t Jennifer reply? Something was wrong. It was, it was. Even though you knew you weren’t supposed to when she was on duty, you had to phone. Her mobile was off. Of course it was off. Instead of leaving a voice message, you texted her one more time: I miss you. I’m really proud of you. Come home safe, okay?
She arrived eleven minutes later than usual so you knew something was wrong before you saw her crying. She ran into your arms in the hallway and hid her head in your shoulder, keeping it there for a long time. When she looked up, her face was all running make-up and fear. She couldn’t breathe. You said, Come on, cowgirl, lifted her off the floor and, waddling along with her raised in front of you, carried her up the stairs. She laughed. You held her softly as she hit you and said, You’re not allowed to go anywhere. Soft kisses turned to hard ones and soon after you were lying on the rug in the bedroom, facing each other, two bodies in the morning light. Get me tissues, Daniel, she said. So you did. Then you went upstairs to run her a bath. As you did this you thought that if you were still working at the call centre, or anywhere, there’d have been no time for this. Jennifer would have gotten home, dried her tears while you slept, not wanting to wake you before your alarm went off. You’d have woken shortly after, showering and getting dressed in a rush, noticing something was wrong but having no time to respond to it, promising the two of you would talk later. You’d have gone to work, fretted about Greg, about targets, about how much the others in the office were selling. By the time you got home Jennifer would have been getting ready to leave for her next shift and wouldn’t want to cause worry, so she would have pretended to be fine, and before you knew it the feeling would have passed. In Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona. Amongst the birds, animals and plants of the southwest at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. In Paradise Valley. No, you never want to work again. You don’t ever want to miss being there for her. The thought of it makes you sick.
But it’s okay because you don’t have a job, you’re here, and you’re free, and you know the way she likes it so you load the bath with two capfuls of bubble potion, run the cold tap a while first. You fill it to just over halfway. Then you lead her up to the bathroom, take off her uniform, laying each piece down, careful not to crease. She says, I’m awake for once. You say, Yes, I know. You kiss her collar bone, behind her ear, bend down and kiss between her toes. She pretends to push you away. You let her. All this time she’s crying. You pick her up again and put her gently into the bath. She turns from pink to white, the bubbles swarming around her, her body disappearing under them. Then you go back downstairs to the fridge, uncork a bottle of white wine and return, laying both bottle and clean glasses on the floor. Do you want me to pour? you ask, and she nods. Do you want to call your mother? you ask. She shakes her head. Later, she says. Then Jennifer touches your arm and tells you to stay.
You pour two half measures.
With a sigh, Jennifer says, I shouldn’t… I mean, it happens all the time but… Victoria died during the night. You answer, I didn’t know you gave them names. Jennifer hits you lightly, laughs, takes a glass and says, They have names when they arrive, dummy. And then she starts crying again.
Between tears she tells you the life story of this woman you’ve never met and Jennifer has never mentioned before. She lived fully, she travelled widely and spoke four languages. She had three children, including one called Samuel that succumbed to cot death. She worked in Polish jazz clubs and once played the piano at the Royal Albert Hall. She lived in Arizona with her second husband for six years before moving back to Glasgow, and told Jennifer stories about her friends and family who settled there after the war. Victoria had seemed fine yesterday, when she complimented Jennifer on looking rosy-cheeked. By which she meant happy. Not that any of it matters now, says Jennifer. Yes it does, you say. You ask her questions about Victoria while you’re on your knees on the bathmat. You run a sponge softly over Jennifer’s arms and legs, then her stomach, then her shoulders, until she seems unable to keep talking. Then you dry her eyes, hold her hand in yours, and take over the talking. You do so quietly.
Here’s the plan, you say. You ready?
Tomorrow night I’ll break into Greg’s car, hotwire it, speed over to the hospital and pick you up, mid-shift. You’ll stab your shift manager with an infected needle right there in the corridor, then burst out of the doors and jump into the car through the window. Then we’ll hit the motorway, making our plans as we go. Number 46 — In the cage with the lions at Phoenix Zoo. Number 49 — On the stairwell of Montezuma Castle, looking through the turrets at the tourists below. Number 53 — Out in the open, on board a boat on Lake Pleasant. You think as you’re talking. Then, at the ferry port, I know a guy, I’ve planned ahead, and as the sun’s coming up I slip him a wad of cash in return for fresh passports. Jennifer says, Where did we get the money? You squeeze her hand to remind her not to ask questions. I become José, you say. You become Rosita. Then we queue with the rest of the passengers, getting onto a luxury cruise liner bound for New York. On the boat we both face the little round windows, the water, the sea. The heat rises off us. In New York we steal another motor and travel the two thousand or so miles to Phoenix. We sleep in the car. We hold up petrol stations on the way with the gun our man gave us at the port. You’re a natural. You threaten the staff and I grab the money from the till. Amazingly, none of these places we rob have CCTV. Jennifer makes a face but lets you continue. Only a few people get a cap in their ass, and it’s okay cos most of these guys are old anyway, or are bad to their wives. Jennifer squeezes your hand back and says, Daniel! You smile. Okay, okay. Anyway. Nobody follows us. It takes two weeks to get to Phoenix but by the time we get there we have a huge surplus of cash. Jennifer says, And then what? You grin. And then we head off on the trail!
Jennifer’s drinking from her glass, then she puts it on the side and lays her head back on the side of the bath, facing the ceiling. Sounds okay, she says, looking at you with those roulette eyes. But what about tickets for this cruise liner? You wave imaginary tickets in front of her. Now. Would I forget something so important? She snatches the air from your fingers, leans forward and kisses. I really want to get out of here, she says, the wobble in her voice returning. I know, you tell her. To stop her crying again you raise your glass and say, To Arizona! — but you clash glasses so hard that Jennifer’s smashes, leaving hundreds of little shards in the bath.
You hold her hand tight and say, Don’t move.
*This story is taken from: LoveSexTravelMusik, Freight Books © Rodge Glass 2013.
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.
Why can’t we try Mike or Robert or Knosi? Because the guys say that Mike and Robert and Knosi are busy today and that we’ve no other choice, so up we go again, back up to Watan’s dump on the tenth floor, where it smells of dog though there is no dog, and where the shutters are always down. It’s grim. He sits at the table, weighing the weed with his weird handheld scales, and then he adds a bit and weighs it once more, and you’re just praying he doesn’t start reciting Persian poems again, but then what difference would it make really? He’s going to talk and talk one way or another. And we know exactly what’s coming, too: that stuff about wood splinters being driven down beneath his uncle’s fingernails, and the other stuff about a hot egg being shoved up his uncle’s backside. And then he nods suddenly as if he’s about to tell us a joke, but instead he just says that his father was a very courageous man, just like he, Watan, is a very courageous man, and he keeps weighing and weighing as he tells us about the pamphlets he had to hand out at school, a story he’s told us a thousand times before. He’s drawn us the symbol with the barbed wire and the carnation a thousand times, too, yet now he asks whether we’d like him to draw us the Communist Party symbol. We ask whether he remembers drawing it for us yesterday, but he’s not listening. He describes the film he was watching when his father was shot, but we already know every last detail: we know about the sudden uneasiness that made him leave the cinema, we know that his father bled to death, and we know that he was a courageous man, as Watan last reminded us barely two minutes ago. We say: We’re on our way to a party, Watan, we don’t have much time.
He asks if we want tea.
And he starts making tea and talking about women, and it would be tempting to think: OK, this is a bit better, except we know exactly where he’s leading us: to his aunts by the Caspian Sea, where he and his dead father lay low for a while, and we know that these women were proper women, these ten fat aunts, all of them beating their heads in grief.
And Watan laughs.
Watan laughs away to himself as he brings the tea, describing yet again how his father, washed and made up, was laid out in the cellar and then buried in the garden. We could write a book about it. We say: Watan, you buried your father, and then you hung around the Caspian Sea, where the women go into the water with their veils on, and then you met little Asfael, who stood out from all the others with her short hair. You followed her through the fields, past the pomegranate trees and dumped fridges, and she was almost like a boy, and she used to sit up on the walls, and her kisses were bites. But do you really think we want to hear it all again, Watan? Do you really think we want to hear about how she vanished, and about how the police came and kicked you in the stomach because they had seen the two of you together? And about how you thought they were going to hang you from a crane in the scrapyard, and about how in the end the police left without hanging you from the crane, and about how Asfael climbed out of a refrigerator and laughed as if she hadn’t been the slightest bit scared? No, Watan, we’d rather not hear it all again, not for the thousandth time, and why are you bringing us stuffed vine leaves now, cracking the same old joke, calling them Eva’s knickers? Just weigh the weed, Watan, weigh the weed.
And Watan silently weighs the weed and says: The war, and we say: No, Watan, less war and more weed, because by now we know everything there is to know about the war, don’t we? We know that you were conscripted and that you ran away and that you were holed up in a cave for three days waiting for the smugglers, don’t we? And we know that Asfael came with you and wanted to get away too, don’t we, and that the smugglers didn’t want to take her, but that they changed their mind when she took the money out of her bag? And that the smugglers all called themselves “Ali”, we know that too, don’t we? We know that you travelled across the mountains on horseback and that there was so much snow you couldn’t see a thing, don’t we? We say: Yes, Watan, we know all about it, we’ve ridden across those mountains with you a thousand times, and we too have wondered a thousand times whether the horse is going backwards or forwards or whether we’re dead already. We’ve seen the bluish snow and the cranes and the barbed wire, none of which was real, and we know that the strongest Ali hit you, Watan, because you were so feeble. We’ve seen the helicopters above the mountain villages and the two of you hiding among the goats and you touching the post on the Turkish border three times to assure yourself you weren’t just imagining it. We could tell the story in our sleep, Watan: There were twenty of you in the lorry, all Iranians, hidden away behind rugs, and your girl’s thumbs started bleeding and you had to kiss them, and all she wanted to hear was how much you loved her, but by then you had no strength left for her. And someone knocked over the canister you’d all pissed into, and it turned out it was the weightlifter from Zahedan, the one you really couldn’t stand because he was always showing off the newspaper article with his photo and loudly going on about all the prizes he’d won, even when you were stopped at service stations, which is the one place it’s important to keep quiet, did you know that? Believe us, Watan, we know it only too well. Asfael held on to you so tightly you could hardly breathe, and then you noticed a hole in the tarpaulin, and you saw houses again for the first time. We can see them before us now, Watan.
I see, says Watan, I see, but how would you like a hot egg? How would you like a hot egg shoved up your backside like they did to my uncle? And he stands up as if he’s about to boil an egg, but then he raises an eyebrow, and he’s obviously trying to be funny, and we all smile. Yes, we all smile, sort of, but we’re not really smiling at all, and we say: Watan, please just weigh the weed. And he weighs the weed, but the words keep pouring out of him; they pour out from his lower lip. Because there’s one thing he’s never told us about, he says: how he got the rash that made him scratch his chest with a fork until it bled. By then they had got to Istanbul, he and Asfael, and they had spent the whole winter in a tiny room there, waiting for passports. And he had to grow a beard, and the plan was to shave off the beard on the day his photo was taken, because then the skin underneath would be pale and smooth and he would look younger, but the rash was in his beard too, and he was itching all over. And then, to make matters worse, Asfael used the wardrobe as firewood even though one of the Alis had warned them not to use the wardrobe as firewood. And they had had a fight, and he wanted to sleep with her, but she would only sleep with him if he loved her, and he wasn’t able to tell her that he loved her. And how, he asks us, is it possible to love someone when the shutters are always down and Ali only occasionally brings bread for you to eat, and when your sole distraction is Turkish TV, which only broadcasts between six and nine, and then it’s only love stories you don’t understand a word of, just rababababab, which probably means I love you. How is it possible to love someone in a place like that, can someone please tell him? When the boss Ali shows up with a photographer and two women, and struts around in his fur coat like a king, when he gropes Asfael’s breasts, even though she hardly has any, and when Asfael keeps smiling politely because she wants fuel for the stove? And when the boss Ali says they don’t use enough lighter fluid, these Iranians don’t know how to get a fire going, and when he then wants to demonstrate how to use the stove. And this is a funny story, isn’t it, asks Watan, funny, right? The way the boss Ali squirted lighter fluid into the stove and threw in a match so there was a bang and a huge cloud of soot turned the whole room black. Though it wasn’t so hilarious when, as punishment for his own stupidity, the boss Ali disappeared again, only returning with the passports six weeks later, but he won’t tell us about that now, he doesn’t want to bore us. Nor will he tell us about how the boss Ali continued to humiliate him, telling him that when he got to the airport, he should say he was brain damaged and travelling to Germany for an operation. Or about how that’s what he actually did say when he got to the airport and flew to Germany as a Turk called Amir Huschang Rahbarsare, though that story really is funny. But he won’t go into that now, nor will he tell us about how the man behind the counter rubbed his fingers over Asfael’s photo and saw that it had been swapped, and that he, Watan, could do nothing to help her and instead just stared at the man’s thumbs and tried to say something about the weather, but by then she had made a run for it and was gone for good. And he won’t tell us about how he suddenly did love her then, not unless we want to hear about it, that is.
And we say: to be honest, not really, Watan, we’ve heard that one a thousand times before too; now weigh the damn weed! And he weighs the weed and says: These scales are acting up, go ahead and take the weed. Hallelujah, we think, and thank him. We get up, but of course just as we’re about to leave, Watan asks if he can come too. And we say: No, Watan, it’s just a small get-together, sorry. And he says it’s okay, but then he comes with us anyway because he needs to go to the corner shop, which is in the same direction, but after we say goodbye to him outside the shop, we notice that he keeps following us. Every time we turn around, he’s lurking in the shadows, and by the time we finally get to the party we’re feeling on edge. The girls we promised we’d bring the weed for are waiting outside the front door, and they throw us a quick glance but don’t pay us much attention; instead, they crane their necks and ask: What’s that behind you?
And we say: That’s Watan. We buy our weed off him.
*© Andreas Stichmann, 2013.
It was the whole matter of the gifts that made her think back to that night. Whenever they fought and he threw her out of the house, he always made her return the gifts he’d given her. The boots, especially, which had been her first birthday present from him. She remembered that time because, before locking himself on the balcony, Iván had thrown one of the boots out the window, and the next morning, when the doorbell rang and he’d thought immigration was coming for him, she’d accepted from a neighbor’s hands a long, red boot that looked like one of those Christmas stockings you hang from the chimney and fill with candy. “Is this yours?” the man had asked, raising the boot he held between two fingers, as if insanity were contagious and he could catch it from her through that minimal contact. She thanked him. She didn’t even remember the moment Iván had opened the living room window. Later, when she went to the supermarket, she found a bra discreetly hung from the building’s fence. A white bra, soaked through by the recent snow.
Not that the blanket she had on the table now was strictly a gift, but still, it made her think back to that night and try to reconstruct the fight they’d had. It always started more or less the same way, though it didn’t end the same. She saw—or heard—herself shouting through the glass door that led to the balcony:
“The last time they saw him he was running naked through the street and throwing himself at cars. He wasn’t trying to kill himself, but he ended up dead. Pneumonia and cardiac arrest. Come on, Iván, get inside. Pneumonia is no joke!”
He brings a finger to his temple and signals to her that she’s crazy. For a moment she thinks it’s true, that there’s no way she can be sane when for months now she’s had a packed suitcase sitting next to the door, when she’s already gone up and down the three flights of stairs countless times carrying that same suitcase that can hold all her belongings (not true: her belongings take up two suitcases; in the second one she has the less important things, the ones she wouldn’t mind leaving behind if he threw her out again, or if, again, he started to break, destroy, and trample everything in his way while screaming that every screw in that house belonged to him, because he’d earned it with his talent. “Talent” is his favorite word. “Talent” and “mediocre.” He has talent, while she is mediocre). She can’t be sane, no, not when she’s already dragged that suitcase countless times down the sidewalk thick with snow, between black streams of mud and grime that spatter the cars. The snow after the snow: what happens when the immaculate is besmirched, exhausted. Is that how everything ends up? Spat out and trampled? Just a week before, she’d gone down the three floors with her suitcase, lugged it to the subway—where there were more stairs—sat down on the metal bench, and let three or four trains go by. The cold of the seat started seeping through her leather jacket and she kept crying, not out of sadness but rage, rage that her eyes looked stubbornly toward the bridge, hoping he would come after her. “I’ll count to ten and I’m gone.” But then she counted to twenty, looked back at the clock with its fluorescent hands and let one more train go by, just one, because it was already getting dark and the freezing wind had made her cheeks go numb.
In the end she always got onto a train. She’d spend the night in a hotel or take a full trip around on the subway—the complete journey took an hour and fifteen minutes—and then she went back home. At first he wouldn’t open the door for her, he’d say “go away” until she got tired of repeating that she had nowhere to go and begging him please. Other times, he was drunk and naked when he opened the door, chopping red chili peppers, the kind that deaden the mouth. If she tried to take the bottle from him he pointed the knife at her, but not the way a criminal would, no, just by accident, moving it distractedly in her direction while he said that it was his house, and in his house he had the right to drink all the whiskey he wanted.
“He’s right, I am crazy.” Then she remembers that he is the one who’s naked on the balcony, and that it’s five below zero outside. She’s on the other side of the glass door holding a down quilt in her hand, showing it to him as if it were an angel’s fluffy wings. He shakes his head no, latches the door, yells:
“I want to catch pneumonia!”
She threatens to leave. She knows he is barefoot on a thin layer of ice, the hardened and slippery snow that won’t melt until spring. When he finally opens the door, she takes the chance to throw the quilt over him as if he were in flames. She wraps him up and he lets himself be guided to the bed. He’s shivering. His skin is red: not white like one would expect, but reddened and dry. “You’re crazy, Iván,” she repeats, while she closes the window and tries to remember how it was that they ended up that way, with him naked on the balcony and her feeling, once again, that she had to protect him. The French writer. Wasn’t that it? He’d told her that bisexuality was a stupid fad. That these days, all the girls thought they were lezzies. His way of speaking annoyed her, and he knew just the right words to use to unleash another fight. Their arguments often started around subtleties of languages. “All feminists are bitter.” Although after a while the attack would turn on her again: “You like to play at being modern, but men and women just aren’t the same.”
And yet, the day had started off well. She came home happy from her walk in the park; he was waiting for her with lunch; they were both moved watching the documentary on Pulqui; they sharpened pencils and set them out on the desk. When it came down to it, what difference did it make if she was right? Why fight so fiercely to change him if they could be happy just like that, eating mangos and Belgian chocolate on the sofa, him shirtless, her resting on his chest, breathing in that acidic smell—unpleasant in a way, but so concrete that it could exist outside of him, like his shoes or his clothes. And yet, she couldn’t stop herself: she cited that French writer, a bisexual woman in 1900. He told her that writer was another idiot. “But have you read her?” No, he didn’t need to read her to know she was an idiot. “Idiotic and mediocre like your ex, and like that friend of yours, the guy who died of pneumonia.” A nd from there to the other thing—broken objects, suitcase down the stairs—it was only a step.
From beneath the quilt Iván asks her to close the curtain. He’s no longer shivering, but his voice is muffled in the pillows.
“Male na, you’re mine, right?”
She says yes and walks over to the window.
“We’re never going to break up because you’re mine, right?”
Before closing the curtain, she pauses a moment and looks out. The sky has that dirty shine of northern winters.
“It’s snowing,” she says, and she stays there, her back to him, her eyes seeking out the weak snowflakes that can only be seen against the light, under the street-lamps.
A baroque church in a public plaza in a provincial city. A plaza like so many others in the south. In the north of the south, she should say. It’s just that now they no longer live on a foreign continent; they don’t even live together. Now she’s on the terrace of a bar, night already fallen, stars teeming behind the church tower, and maybe they’re what makes her think of snow. Because the docile snow of windless nights doesn’t fall, it seems to emerge from the air and hover, just like these summer stars.
Had the waiter looked at her strangely when he took her order? Strangely, or with pity? A woman with a bandaged wrist, her face dry but taut from old sobs, her arm purplish. Had he looked at her because of that, or simply because she was a woman drinking beer alone? Laughter issued from the surrounding tables; someone was talking about a soccer match. From time to time a group rushed past wearing feathered headbands and beating drums. A black, almost funereal car pulled up outside, and three brides got out. Two in white dresses that were as inflated and baroque as the moldings on the church; the third wore a lilac dress. Lilac dress, lilac tiara, lilac, satin-lined shoes. A bride charter, she thought. She wasn’t envious, nor did she feel bad for them. She realized she was thinking what for. Why go to all that trouble? But maybe the thought was only directed at the high-heeled shoes and those ugly dresses, probably rented, and all that squandering on photographs and dreams. She looked at her plate, smeared with white sauce. The beer bottle’s label had gotten wet and could almost be pulled off in one piece. She wanted to order another one, but she was afraid of the waiter. Her arm hurt, too, where Ivan had grabbed her to drag her out of the house. The bruises always surprised her; it could almost be said that they fascinated her. In the moment she didn’t feel pain. Humiliation, yes, and impotence, but not pain. Later she was surprised when she saw them, so large: the blood accumulated under the skin looked like landscapes on the moon.
She was staring outside again. In her worst moments, she felt like life was a kind of video game. Not a movie with an elaborate script, but a Pacman, something absurd that you operated with a joystick and four buttons. The bride in lilac was leaning against a lamppost. The photographer was saying “Big smile, big smile!” How many cherries had she eaten by now? How many lives did she have left?
A boy came over to her table and showed her something, cloth of some kind. She jumped; she’d been absorbed in the sight of the cans tied to the limousine’s bumper, everyday pea cans without labels, now lying mute on the cobblestone street. She didn’t hear what the boy said, but she made an automatic gesture of refusal—not of the skinny kid with the indigenous face or whatever it was he was selling, but rather of an image of herself. A thousand kilometers from her house, staring at brides in front of a church, bruised, idiotic, and too ashamed even to call the waiter over; her last savings spent on a sleeper bus, a dirty hostel, and the most expensive empanadas in the city. That’s how it was: an impulse, a single moment of stupidity, and game over.
What had the boy said to her? “Go tell it to your mother?” that was the first thing she thought she heard. He’d moved a little farther away and was looking at her, leaning over an empty table, with an expression that she interpreted as contempt. Or had he said “fuck your mother?”
“What?” she asked.
“I said, they’re made by my grandmother.”
Only three hours earlier she had risked her life on a motorcycle behind a crazy man without a helmet who shouted into the wind: “You fucking bitch, I hate you, we’re going to kill each other. We’re going to kill each other, you fucking bitch.” Once, she had loved that crazy man, and one time she had even saved him from pneumonia. She’d warmed his back with a hair dryer to relieve the cramping, calculated when he should take his medicine. On the motorcycle, the hot wind whips away the words from his mouth and they pelt her face like hail. She prays a Hail Mary, the white lines shoot past the tires in a nearly continuous line, a pallet truck honks its horn. “Slow down,” she says, and grabs tight to his waist. She’s disgusted by touching him. She doesn’t know him, doesn’t remember him. And he: “Shut up, you fucking bitch, shut up. What are you here for? To fuck up my life?” He was a gentleman; he gave the helmet to her, almost forced her onto the bike with the backpack on her back and the bag between her legs, before dropping her at a bus stop on the highway. And all that for what? To be afraid of a seven-year-old boy holding a brocade quilt?
“Let’s see, come here,” she says. “Show me.”
The boy comes over; he tells her he has other colors.
“It’s very pretty. Show me the others.”
He spreads them out one by one. He does it eagerly, as if he didn’t know what he was going to find inside, as if each blanket were a top hat that something magical was going to emerge from. “Butterflies, flowers,” he says softly.
“There’s a panda one, too.”
He has the cutest smile she’s ever seen, and his eyes very black. She asks him if he’s going to carnival that night. He says no, that he’s never gone to a corso parade. He talks to her about his brothers and sisters who are waiting for him in the plaza; he wants to know when she’s going back to Buenos Aires and how many hours the trip is. In the distance they can hear the beat of drums from another land. Finally she tells him “I’ll take the one with flowers. It’s for the trip, you know?”
“It’ll keep you warm.”
She pays him, and nothing in the world could have made her haggle over the price. She has just decided to buy everything she’s offered from that moment until she takes the bus back the next afternoon. In any case, she no longer has anything: no computer or savings or many other things that have broken over recent years. And she wants to have even less. She wants to get to the bottom of this thing. She’s going to spend everything she has left—including the money for lunch and the towel rental—on gifts. Gifts, she thinks, and that’s when she remembers the boots. The flowered quilt isn’t what interests her, it’s the boy’s smile, the friendly way his eyes light on her. “Thanks,” she says, and he seems to understand something because he offers her another moment, lets her help him fold the quilts, each of them holding two corners and meeting in the middle like in a handkerchief dance.
By now the brides are gone. She didn’t see them get into the car or hear the cans on the cobblestones. The moon had risen, and its light obscured the stars. More things have accumulated on the table: a prayer card with St. Mary of La Rábida, a spoon carved of carob, a bag of candy, a cactus made of matches, a straw of nickel silver. The bar is closing; the chairs turned upside down on the empty tables looked like desert flowers. She calls the waiter over and asks for the check. While she pays, he says that it’s a nice night.
“Nice night, isn’t it?”
Before going back to the hostel, she sat on a bench in the plaza. On the same bench, two girls were talking about a third one who had just sent them a text message. She didn’t want to look at them openly, but she could tell they were very young. Before long they’d be lilac-wearing brides, and maybe they’d even charter the photographer together.
“It’s her own fault,” one of them said. “He was all over her and she let him. She shouldn’t be crying now.”
“Anyway, why does she care?” said the other one. “She’ll never see that guy again.”
For a delirious moment, a video game moment, Malena considered the possibility that the guy was Iván. She looked at the tanned legs of one of the girls, the one in the miniskirt, and she wondered if Iván could sleep with her. Right away she wondered if she could. She was interrupted by a woman selling handmade socks. They exchanged almost no words, but she bought a pair of thick socks made of llama wool.
She went back to the hostel on foot. It was Saturday, and no one was there except for two girls putting on makeup in front of a lighted mirror they’d propped against one of the bunks. Both of them rummaged in the same vanity case full of broken makeup. That it was broken she knew without needing to look inside—she could see the plastic smeared with grey shadow and glitter. From her bed she could smell the crumbled powders, the Maybelline lipstick and the body mist. It was the same smell her mother’s vanity case gave off.
She didn’t worry about locking up the computer—it was broken anyway. Her backpack was marked with Iván’s footprint and some grass stains. She was dirty, and she felt dirty, but she didn’t have the two pesos to rent a towel, and in any case she didn’t want to get her bandage wet. After buying the socks, she’d given the last of her change to a man guarding cars, who also accepted the bag of candy. She only had a peso and twenty cents left for the bus from Retiro to her house, but she had the strange feeling that only now could she start to have something.
The receptionist knocked on the door and invited her to watch a horror movie in the common room. She excused herself. Her fall (that’s what she’d said when they asked about the bandage) and the wait at the hospital had tired her out. Before lying down, though, she checked her email on the hall computer. Five new messages. All from Iván. The last one received at 00:37.
She had a rough night, unable to sleep on her right side as she usually did. Every time she turned over in her sleep, the pain jolted her awake. She had planned to sleep late, but by seven the others were already starting to get up: slamming doors, talking, packing. At nine, she got up for breakfast. The last thing she wanted to see was a bunch of teenage backpackers who had stayed up all night, with their under-eye circles left over from the party and the alcohol, and that chalky exhaustion that follows joy. She felt a hundred years older than them, and she would have gone somewhere else for breakfast if not for the fact that she only had 1.20 pesos.
Coffee, milk, and two croissants with butter and jam. She eats staring blankly into the yard where there’s a foosball table and some clotheslines. She hadn’t put in her contacts and she’s wearing her old glasses, crooked from being sat on so many times. She has her hair pulled sloppily back in a bun she put up without even looking at herself in the mirror. Nor did she wash her face, and she feels sweaty. At the table diagonally across from her, a dark-skinned guy in green Bermudas with a G.I. Joe look is watching her. Watching her, because “looking” is not the right word.
“What happened to your wrist?” he asks seriously; his face is totally clean, his hair perfectly gelled, his eyes penetrating. If he’d danced until six in the morning, no one would know it. He looks cool as a cucumber, and totally wide-awake. Couldn’t he leave her alone? She doesn’t like to talk at breakfast.
“Stupidity,” she says.
She waits a little, takes another sip of coffee, looks at him.
“I put my hand through a window. It was an accident.”
What she had really wanted to do was push the living room window, the one right over Iván’s desk, and knock everything off of it, pens, computer, glasses. What she really wanted was to become Iván, break up for good, to break: abandon all attempt at sanity. But she’d calculated wrong and her hand went effortlessly through the glass, as if sinking into water.
“I didn’t even feel it,” she tells the stranger.
He doesn’t hesitate; there is something so incisive and worldly in his aplomb, his way of pronouncing words, that he seems to be giving orders instead of asking questions.
“You were that angry?”
She smiles, also without wanting to, and that improbable, ill-humored laughter is like a thread that pulls the words from her and makes her tell, for the first time, the truth. She doesn’t remember her exact words. Only the expression on the face of that angular, strong-armed stranger—younger than her—and the way he arched his brows. Quite a confession to hear at nine in the morning at a backpackers’ hostel. And she thinks, she thinks, that at one point she even told him what Iván had said to her once: “I never hit you with my fists. You just bruise so easy.”
They sit talking for a while. He has to check out of the hostel; he’s leaving in two hours for Humahuaca, but she asks him to wait, she wants to show him the gifts she bought the night before. She goes back to her room and takes the opportunity to put in her contacts and let her hair down. Suddenly, an image comes to her: she sees the stranger enter the room and corner her against the wall. He grabs her by her good wrist but doesn’t press his body against hers. He’s going to lick her hand, the soft fold between her fingers. The narrow tongue like a mollusk or warm spoon. The thought scares her. She quickly takes the bag from her backpack, goes back to the common room and spreads the gifts out on the table. “You bought all this?” he asks. They laugh. She looks at his hands as he inspects the wool socks. Is it me, then? Is it ok to desire this pain?
“You can have the socks,” she says suddenly. “So you’ll think of me when you’re in the mountains.”
He goes to his room and comes back carrying a gigantic backpack, almost as tall as he is. She doesn’t feel anything when she finally hugs him, awkwardly, over the straps and the hanging canteens. She waves at him until the last bit of backpack disappears through the door. The hall is emptying, but she waits until she’s alone before sitting down in front of the computer and looking at her email. A new message. From Iván. Don’t you see that this hatred is the size of my love?
She closes her mail but doesn’t get up from the chair. The bag with the gifts, minus the socks, is still on the breakfast table. It’s not even noon, but the sun is already streaming into the rectangle of the inside patio, and its whitewashed walls gleam. When she looks outside she sees something falling from the sky. Slow, white, weightless. What is it? She goes out to the patio, and between the bare clotheslines she looks up at the shining, cloudless sky. A rain of dust, a dry rain. She sweeps her foot over the ground, and it leaves a long track.
“Ash,” she says, and she wishes she could tell someone. Iván, the man on his way to Humahuaca.
She looks around, she looks with surprise at the empty rooms. Then she opens her arms, waits, lets the white specks land softy on her bare shoulders. Ash, no, she thinks. Not ash; snow.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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