“This isn’t the one,” she said, laying her hand on my arm. As if she was really sorry.
“Stick a fork in me. I’m done,” I said.
“No. You’re just upset. You thought this was the one.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“It’s only one house. Maybe the next one.”
“It’s seventy-three houses,” I said.
“But we’ve come so far. You can’t stop now. Absolutely not.”
I thought if I banged her head against the concrete steps, her skull would not break. That’s how hard she was. No one could win against her. Certainly not me. Certainly not her partner, who stood quietly in the corner, eyes cast upward.
The houses they did not buy: the contemporary with too much sunlight, the Dutch Colonial with a garage that was too small, the totally renovated rancher with an ugly view, the three-story Victorian with too much carpeting, the lakeside condo with not enough kitchen, the octagon house with too much personality, and the corner property with too many trees were some of the houses they did not buy.
Seventy-three houses they did not buy. Seventy-three houses I showed them and I knew this game. I knew how to play this game. But she was winning.
“I quit,” I said.
She laughed. “We’ll take a few days off.”
I just won’t return her calls, I thought. “Great idea,” I said. To her partner, I whispered, “I’m so sorry for you.”
I could see that made the partner mad. But she was the long-suffering type, even with me.
“Not at all,” her partner said. She held her head up high.
They were so beautiful, these two. Concrete Skull was a tall and crispy blond, with a gorgeous, wide smile and sharp, blue miss-nothing eyes. Long Suffering was short and olive-skinned, with a full bottom lip and a way of standing that showed off her large breasts. Her eyes were as patient as an animal watching for its turn at the watering hole.
I liked lesbians, made a specialty of selling houses to lesbian couples. There were tons of resales on those couples. A lot of them broke up after four or five years and then they put their houses back on the market and bought new ones with other women. I especially liked couples like this one, with their matching black Mercedes, big bank accounts, and high-salaried corporate jobs.
I liked lesbians, but I hated these two. They were realtor cock-teasers. Okay, I am a woman too and do not have a cock to tease, but you take my point. They showed you what they had, stroked you until you were so ready you could scream, then pulled back with a perfectly good reason that was totally bogus because the real reason they did not buy any of the seventy-three houses I showed them was because they were sizing each other up.
It had nothing to do with me. They were watching each other, waiting for the house that made one of them pant and scream. Then one of them would have the upper hand. The one who wanted it the most was the one who would have to grovel for as long as they lived in that house.
I know power struggles. I can smell them in the air after twenty-three years in the business and four marriages of my own. The smell is unmistakable, like a rotting carcass by the side of a road.
“The truth is I don’t think there’s anything special enough for you two on the market these days,” I said. “I know you are busy women with highly responsible jobs and I feel just terrible wasting your time like this. We’ll have to wait it out. Maybe in a few months, the market will improve. You two deserve something spectacular.”
Concrete Skull didn’t even show the flicker of interest that a cat has watching a chipmunk run by. Her blue eyes were steady beams.
“Next week,” she said. “Set it up.”
Long Suffering walked out to the Mercedes and leaned against it, staring intently into her mobile phone. She licked her lips slowly.
Concrete Skull whispered, “The truth is, I don’t know if I should be buying a house with her. Look at her. She looks incredibly sexy, doesn’t she? But she isn’t.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I feel so close to you. You feel like a friend after spending all this time with me.” She beamed her big smile my way and it was like the sun coming out on my face. Okay, I am straight but I was not immune to her.
“If you’re that unsure, you should wait before you look at houses.” “I operate on instinct. My gut tells me to keep looking. The right house will grab me. The house will say, come on in, you two. She’ll relax in this bedroom. She’ll attack me in this living room.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“A house doesn’t fix anything. Definitely not a sex problem.” “Who says? Maybe a house could fix something. Maybe no one lets it.” She reached out and put both her hands over my hand. Her hands were warm. “Help me.”
“For a smart woman, you’re stupid,” I said.
I thought if I insulted her, she’d go away and leave me alone. But she laughed.
“You’re a cockteaser,” I said.
“So I’ve been told. By better women than you.” Her smile stayed fixed on her face, but she let go of me.
Good, I thought. I’m finally getting to her.
“So next week, then. Set it up for Saturday,” she said.
Instead, I volunteered to work at an open house on Saturday. I was top agent in my office. I didn’t have to work things like this. It was a sad, tiny little house with a persistent moldy smell. The owners were old. They didn’t want to spend any money fixing up something that they were selling. So the window shades were stained and yellow, the kitchen faucets dripped, the closets were dark and crammed full of crap, and the one and only bathroom had cracked vinyl flooring and a hole in the wall. The neighborhood was going seriously downhill. There was a meth lab one block over. No one cut their grass regularly. Next door, someone had propped two stained mattresses against their house.
The best I could do was burn vanilla candles for the smell and insist that the owners leave so they wouldn’t hover anxiously over people trooping through. I didn’t care. I was happy to be there. Anywhere but trapped with Concrete Skull and her little gal pal.
Only one couple ventured in during the first hour. I put on my honest, earnest face.
“It needs work, I won’t lie to you. A little paint, new rugs. You can see for yourself. But this neighborhood is going through the roof in the next year. All signs point straight up for appreciation in value. If you bought this now and fixed it up a little, you’d have a hell of an investment.”
The man had the hungry look. He didn’t want to be poor all his life. His wife looked afraid. She didn’t want to make a mistake.
I don’t count what I said as lying because you never know. No one knows. The neighborhood could take an upturn. And a husband who wanders could stop, just like that. Sure. It could happen.
After they left, it was quiet for a long time. I turned up the volume on the smooth jazz CD, my music for selling shitty houses, and leaned back in my chair. I wondered who the lesbian couple was torturing this weekend, instead of me.
The door opened. They walked in. Long Suffering wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes scanned the room like one of those searchlights that stores set up in their parking lots during closeout sales. Concrete Skull leaned in.
“We found you,” she said.
“I thought we were taking a break.”
“Break’s over.” Her voice was flinty, like the game we used to play when we were kids, hitting rocks with rocks to see what colors were inside.
“Don’t you ever give up?”
“Never,” she said. Her partner snorted.
Now, we’ll get into it, I thought. Come on, Long Suffering, make your move. Get in there. Speak up. But she just turned, walked back to the car and got in, holding her elegant, round rump out on display for an extra second before it vanished into the Mercedes.
“Why me?” I asked. “Why don’t you get a nice lesbian realtor? Maybe she’ll do better for you. And she can come to your house-warming party, too.”
“You know why I want you? Lesbian realtors think they don’t have to work hard for me. Like just because I’m gay, I’ll roll over and buy whatever they show me. Like it’s about loyalty to the team instead of being about me and my money. Wrong. You’re smarter than that. It’s all about the deal.”
I liked beating out lesbian realtors. I pictured them trotting out secret weapons with her little lesbian in-jokes, little lesbian friends in common. And still I won. I admit I melted a little, flattered.
So we went on to the seventy-fourth house. It was a spectacularly ugly McMansion, huge, poorly designed and shoddily built, overpriced, on a barren lot on a busy street of a brand new development built over a landfill. But it was new, full of glitzy features like a master bathroom big enough to hold a party in and a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement, features that distract your eyes from the particle board walls and the cheap thin paint.
“Honey, this is it. This is the one,” said Concrete Skull. She smiled her gorgeous beaming smile, charming as a kitten. It didn’t sound convincing even to me. This is a test. This is only a test. In the event of a real urge to buy a house, the voice is eager, excited, scared. So disregard this test. It is only a test.
“No way,” Long Suffering said. “I loathe the smell of this house. You’ve got to be kidding me. No freaking way.”
“I was kidding. I hate it too,” Concrete Skull said. “See, honey, we really are getting close. We both hate this one. So that’s a good sign.”
They both turned to me, waiting for my applause. “Seventy-five,” I said. “That’s my limit. I warn you.” They both chuckled, like I was making a small, dumb joke.
I hate you both, I thought. You are the bad smell.
It was the seventy-ninth house where something changed. When we walked into the house, an elegant Colonial in the best neighborhood, fully updated and gorgeously decorated, I felt it. Somebody wanted this one, but I couldn’t tell who. I felt like a squirrel on the curb, twitching at oncoming cars and deciding when to run. I studied one and then the other. Who was it?
I tried all my realtor tricks. I vanished into other rooms so they could talk privately. I acted nonchalant so they wouldn’t feel pressure from me. I studied the seller’s information sheet with just the right amount of scrutiny and indifference.
“It’s quite old,” Concrete Skull said finally. “It’s an old house. They are asking a lot for such an old house.”
Aha, I thought. She wants it.
“Honey, what do you think?” she asked. Her voice was a cat slinking along a high ledge. I didn’t remember her asking that question in any of the seventy-eight previous houses.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Long Suffering said. She sounded bored but she was paying close attention, her brown eyes flickering madly. “Let’s go on to the next.”
I wanted to hit them with an ax and leave them bleeding to death on the Persian rug.
“I feel a very sexy vibe here,” I said. “Classy, subtle, but very sexy. This is a house where you will have swank parties. I see gorgeous women in slinky dresses holding martini glasses.”
“We met at a cocktail party just like that,” said Concrete Skull. “You pinned me to the wall,” smirked her gal pal.
“After you practically pushed them in my mouth.” “You wanted me to.”
“You wanted it worse.”
I watched them like they were a nature channel show where all the animals are frolicking happily in the wilderness and you know there’s trouble in the air, you are just waiting for the predator to pounce, for blood to be spilled. You know it will end badly and you can’t tear yourself away.
“Let’s write it up, girls. You can sign the agreement right now,” I said. And they did.
When the radon test came back, Concrete Skull came to my office and cried. Her partner was on her way. We were supposed to wait for her, but Concrete Skull insisted on reading the report before she got there.
“We are the perfect couple,” she cried, circling around the office, bumping into chairs and walls and cabinets, knocking over the waste basket.
“Everyone, everyone, everyone says so. But we can’t do this one simple thing. I’ve done it with other women. It’s no big deal. Go look at a few houses and buy one. What is happening? Why is this happening to me? I can’t stand it. I’m being punished.”
“It’s only radon. Easily remediated,” I said. “Punished for what?” “I stole her from another woman. They have a baby. I’m mean to my mother. I hate my father. I’ve cheated on every woman I’ve ever been with. Is that enough?” She was really wailing now, working herself up.
“It’s only radon,” I said. I was enjoying myself immensely. “I’m forty-one years old. I can’t make any more mistakes.” “Everyone has some radon around here. This house is just a tad over the limit,” I said. “You don’t understand. I am not everyone. I can’t have it.” “Put a vent in the basement and we’re good to go,” I said. “It’s poison gas in the basement of our house. We’ll be poisoned from below. What chance do we have to make it? Do you have any idea how many failed relationships I’ve had? This is my last chance. I’m not wasting it on her.”
“It’s not that bad. You’re getting all carried away.” I thought of Husband Number Three. I thought he was my last chance too, but along came Four. There were an infinite number of husbands out there, I found. I could have kept it up my whole life. Hello Five. Hello Six. Hello Seven.
Long Suffering showed up. “Do you still want it?” “No,” Concrete Skull sobbed. “It’s a poison house.” “We’ll keep looking then,” her partner said, shrugging.
“It’s our last chance. We’ll never find another house as good as this one. This was the one. And it’s ruined.”
“So we’ll buy it and fix it.”
You fool, I thought. You don’t see that there is no way to win with her. The house is nothing. The house is a quicksand bog full of small dead things.
“I’m sick of this,” Concrete Skull cried. “I’m done.”
“You’re done. With looking?” Long Suffering stood in the door-way, legs planted wide. Slowly her face began to change. “With me? In front of her?”
“Just ignore me,” I said. “Do what you have to do.” You couldn’t have pried me out of there with a crowbar.
I waited for Long Suffering to scream, curse, throw things. But she stood there silently for the longest time. And then she crumpled to the floor, making this odd squeezy sound, like a sharp beak was tearing at her lungs. She lay flat out, on her stomach, her arms around the base of my filing cabinet, and she kept making the squeezy sound. It was the most terrible sight I’d ever seen in my life. It was like watching somebody die.
I got down on the floor beside her, first sitting, then lying flat on my belly next to her. I felt my tenderest organs protected by the plush rug under me, then deeper to the wood floor and the concrete underpinnings. I was safe there. I rubbed her back. I patted her hair. I whispered in her ear, “You’re okay. You will be. You’re not going to die.” It didn’t help at all. Nothing does. Her back stayed stiff and the wrenching unbearable noise continued as Concrete Skull stepped over us both and left.
We waited, breathing in little tiny puffs, to see if she would circle back. We waited a long time until we felt the currents in the air settle down to normal rhythms and heard the birds outside in the trees begin to sing.
*Kathy Anderson, “You Are the Bad Smell” from Bull and other stories. Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction, came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic; he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention—but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window; they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall-door, the gravel-drive, and the front gate were dimly-noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid an imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window; “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
I remember it was almost summer, and I called from my office, between patients, to make the appointment. Paz had recommended a beauty salon that happened to be near my parents’ house. I made an appointment for that very afternoon. I hung up and stared out the window at a cloud that was approaching very slowly. But the white mass was taking too long, so I told the nurse to send in the next one on the list. A tiny Chinese woman came in, pregnant up to her ears. Her body was all swollen belly and the fetus inside. I asked her a few questions, but she barely spoke the language. I’m not sure she understood me. There was no one with her. All I could do was lie her down on the examination table and, in lieu of the pertinent information I always give new mothers, I silently wrote in her chart as I listened to the background music.
That afternoon, when I entered the salon, I was greeted by a very old woman, heavily made up. She crossed my name off in a book as soon as I had given it to her and then hung my jacket on a hanger.
“Would you like coffee?”
The place was not very elegant; there were bottles of polish jumbled on the shelves, and the woman’s mannerisms suddenly seemed old-fashioned. I looked at her hips, so narrow, as I followed her down a hallway to the waxing room. I wondered if she’d had kids, and, if so, how the babies had been able to escape out of that narrow space.
I got undressed in a kind of changing room lit up by a blinking fluorescent light. I left my purse on the bench and hung my clothes from a rack nailed to the wall. The woman with the narrow hips had handed me a robe to put on. I had the same feeling I get when I’m about to enter the operating theater, but this time I wasn’t the one in control. I went into the room. I sat on the white table. It was covered in paper that crunched under my weight. I waited.
Then she appeared. We recognized each other immediately, and we both stared for a long second, recovering from all those sudden memories: her waiting with her friends to beat me up, me trying unsuccessfully to flee between the columns of the schoolyard. I would’ve liked to pretend I was someone else, fake a French accent, like when I met Diego, or run out of there with the excuse that the place didn’t meet my hygiene standards.
But then she called me by my name and said without any trace of aggression, “How have you been?”
After my parents finally decided to move me to another school, I never saw Sonia or her gang again. I finished lower school at a place where I didn’t even have time to make friends. High school was a different story. Later on, I studied medicine five hundred kilometers from home and did my residency another five hundred kilometers away. I got used to not going home very often. My life was elsewhere.
Sonia tied on her smock.
“What are you having done?”
When I remained silent, she said, “It’s your first time here, isn’t it?”
But I was unable to respond. I lay back on the table and stared at her as she began to melt the wax in a bowl. I thought about her past arrogance. I thought about what we’ve become. She left the room and after a minute came back in. I just lay there; I hadn’t moved a millimeter.
“Mari Carmen tells me you asked for underarms and bikini.”
Then she picked up the bowl of melted wax and stirred the thick substance with a wooden stick.
I felt a sudden urge to curse her and throw the wax in her eyes. I didn’t do anything. Finally, I opened my mouth. I answered yes, that those were the parts I wanted to be waxed. I was about to add that I had sensitive skin so she should be careful not to hurt me. I immediately realized that it was too late; the damage had been done all those years ago.
She started working on my right underarm. I could tell that she was pretty embarrassed and didn’t dare look at me. I imagined her with other clients, chatting comfortably about the benefits of massage for weight loss or how to get rid of ingrown hairs, but with me, she didn’t say a word. Maybe she was just concentrating. As she spread the wax, I knew she couldn’t see me, and I took the opportunity to scrutinize her face up close. Those eyes that I remembered full of flames now lacked even a spark. She had a piercing in her bottom lip and another in her eyebrow, and her hair was short with blonde highlights. The more I looked at her, the less I saw of the Sonia who used to punch and kick me every chance she got.
She finished with my underarms more quickly than I’d expected. Her movements were concise. It burned for a second, but then she spread a green gel on my skin that smelled very refreshing and instantly numbed the entire area. Then she moved to my bikini line.
When the time came she asked, “Want me to do more?”
I told her that it wasn’t necessary, that it was enough. She’d made my life miserable in school, but the girl who used to bully me was still in our hometown doing bikini waxes. I smiled slightly as Sonia did her work down below. When it was over, I paid and left without thanking her or the lady with the narrow hips.
The next day, as I was doing a mammogram on a woman with only one breast, my cell phone rang. I’d forgotten to turn the sound off. The woman didn’t say anything, but she seemed annoyed throughout the entire examination. Her skin was soft and brown, and her wrinkles reminded me of my mother when she wears a bathing suit. Before leaving she told me angrily that she knew the cancer was eating her up and that all of us doctors were useless. She said this in front of the nurse. Then she left. I was sure that as soon as she closed the door the nurse would rush to recount the entire scene to the girls in reception.
I looked at my phone as the next patient got undressed.
“Remove everything from the waist down and lie on the table when you’re ready.”
I made her wait a while. The previous patient had shaken me up.
For a second I thought that the call might’ve been from Sonia. I’d given them my cell when I made the appointment. She had access to my number. In the end, it was nothing so dramatic. I looked at the screen. Diego had left me a voicemail. I noticed the patient squirming on the table, and I searched for the cloud from the day before, but the sky was totally clear. The woman faked a cough, but what she really wanted was to get my attention so I’d examine her right away. I could spot her type a mile off. I got up, gave her a cursory examination, and wrote out a prescription for birth control, which was the only reason she’d come.
The following Saturday I met with Paz. We had dinner at a Thai restaurant that had recently opened. The waiter was very cute and smiled non-stop. Paz was mesmerized; she couldn’t stop repeating how great the restaurant was, but to me, it seemed like any other greasy Chinese place, only with a bit of a facelift. I asked Paz how sales were going at the real-estate agency, and she made a face that expressed tragedy. I feigned interest in problems that I wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep over, such as the price of bricks and the fluctuations in the residential market. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I knew it made her feel better to vent. I guess she didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it except her co-workers, who never discussed anything else. Paz, however, never asked me about my practice, for which I was almost thankful.
Throughout the entire dinner, I was tempted to tell her who I’d run into at the beauty salon she’d recommended, but I didn’t. Paz and I had only been friends for three years, and I don’t think she would have understood my shock at seeing Sonia or how brutally the girl she’d been had treated the girl I’d been.
When it came time for dessert, we were full. Paz leaned back in her chair, her long legs stretched out, and stared off into space. She swore she was about to burst and couldn’t eat another bite, but then we shared a green-tea ice cream and accepted the shots the waiter offered us on the house. I was now convinced it was just a Chinese restaurant with green tablecloths. We toasted to summer, our upcoming vacations, my escape from the pregnant women, and Paz’s escape from the Euribor, and, when we clinked our ice cream bowls, Paz asked, “How was your waxing?”
I looked at her, made a gesture that said, Give me a minute, I’m swallowing, and then I told her that it hadn’t been so bad. Paz agreed that Sonia was very professional and was also a super sweet girl, only she didn’t say Sonia, she said the girl with the piercings, and I smiled, changed the subject, and asked for the check.
When I got home, I felt like talking to someone, and I called Diego. He didn’t pick up. I took off my make-up in the bathroom. A little while later my phone rang. It was him.
“What’s going on?” I asked him. “Were you undressing some cardiologist, so you couldn’t answer when I called?”
“I’ve got five of them waiting for me in bed,” he answered.
After joking around for a while, we stopped playing at being adults, and I asked him about the conference. He told me that it was afternoon there and that Boston was full of huge trees. I didn’t know if he meant the university campus where the conference was being held or the rest of the city. He found the talks interesting, and he’d been going out with the American doctors to gorge on gigantic hamburgers and Southern-style fried chicken while they talked about cholesterol and cardiac catheterization. The group from his hospital had presented that morning.
“At first I was nervous, but then I got over it.” He paused. “Because of my English, you know, but then I got over it,” he repeated.
Then he described the places they’d visited with some doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital.
“They offered to show us around,” he said. “We hit it off, and they offered to show us around.”
I didn’t understand why he had to repeat everything. Maybe he was tired. I imagined myself thousands of miles from my apartment, from Paz’s neuroses, from Sonia, now haggard but who in other times had pulled my ponytail until I cried. Suddenly Diego didn’t want to talk any more. He explained that the call was being paid for by the hospital, and he didn’t want to abuse the privilege. Anyway, I could tell I was boring him or he’d rather be watching a basketball game and just didn’t want to be rude.
When I hung up, I got on the internet. I read about Boston on Wikipedia. The city’s economy is based on higher education, research, health, banking, and technology, especially biotech. It has the second-most-important fine-arts museum in the country, a huge estuary, and their basketball team is called the Celtics. I looked at some photos of skyscrapers crowned in white clouds. Then I entered a forum about school bullying, where the victims, parents, and teachers talked about their experiences. They blamed each other or gave terrifying testimonies, but I couldn’t tell which ones were real and which ones had been made up to shock people or as a creative outlet for pent-up cruelty. I got sleepy, turned off the computer, and went to bed.
The next day was Sunday. I’d wasted the morning and was feeling lonely, so I went to lunch at my parents’ house. As I helped my mom with the dishes, I told her that I’d bumped into Sonia nearby. My mother immediately knew who I was talking about.
“She works in a beauty salon,” she said, “the one next to the butcher’s shop.”
I didn’t need details, and I didn’t want her to ask me for any, so I didn’t tell her that I’d been Sonia’s unwitting client. For a second I wanted to ask if she’d seen her on the street or if someone had told her or if she’d gone in for a manicure and come face to face with those piercings. My mother dried the dishes and set them on the kitchen table for me to put into the cupboards.
It started to rain. The drops splashed the window at regular intervals. My mother rushed to close the shutters so that the glass wouldn’t get dirty. I didn’t feel like walking home in the rain, so I decided to stay, at least until the storm let up. I looked out the window. There was no movement, just the dense and silent rain. My parents were in the living room. A movie was about to start, but they changed the channel. I got bored. I didn’t have much to do.
I went into my old room. I opened drawers, most of them empty. My mother had hung her winter clothes in one of the wardrobes, which smelled strongly of mothballs. In the other, among various useless objects, were my old hair straighteners, a badminton racket, a scroll saw wrapped in brown paper. I don’t know why they hadn’t gotten rid of all that junk. Maybe they were hoping I’d take it to my apartment. There was a red folder lying on top of the loose racket strings. It was filled with the articles I’d written for the school paper and some snapshots of parties. I couldn’t bear to think that it was really me under that ridiculous party dress and huge bangs. I suddenly knew I would come across a certain clipping and quickly found it. It was a photo of the fifth-grade class. We’d gone on a field trip to the local newspaper. Sonia looked just like I remembered her, with her hair curled around her ears, smiling defiantly into the camera and putting bunny ears on the girl in front of her. I was in the opposite corner, to the right of the teacher, who had a plump, protective arm around my shoulders. I don’t remember the field trip or who took the picture, just that it was impossible to keep us still and that my parents bought the paper the next day for the sole purpose of cutting out the photo.
I put the yellowed piece of newspaper in my bag and closed the folder. I went to say goodbye to my parents. They were watching two seals diving for food in a frozen ocean. My father was half asleep with his feet resting on the coffee table and one shoe hanging off. My mother got up and walked me out. She asked me how Diego was doing.
“Fine,” I said.
I didn’t mention that he was in Boston. Then I started down the stairs with my eyes fixed on the floor. My mother kept shouting to me over the railing until I was two floors down. I wanted to say Mama, get inside, will you, but I didn’t want the neighbors to know my mother still came out on the landing to say goodbye, like when I was a little girl on my way to school.
Before going back to my apartment, I went into the convenience store that was always open, and the Pakistani owners sold me a bag of ham-flavored potato chips, a pack of gum, and a beer. That was my Sunday dinner. I looked at a few patients’ charts. I was part of a research team at the hospital. We had our patients sign consent forms, we dug around in their medical records, and then we prepared presentations and got invited to conferences and dinners. That’s what’s expected of you when you’re a doctor and your practice bores you.
Two months went by. Diego and I went to Istanbul for a week on vacation. I brought my mother back a thimble with a picture of the Blue Mosque on it. She collected them. Then we went back to our jobs. My research team met frequently. We needed to get a hundred subjects, but we only had around ninety, and the deadline was fast approaching. We were running out of time. There were fewer births than in the spring and the number of patients had decreased too. People tended to neglect their health in summer, just like they did the gym and language classes. Occasionally I remembered Sonia and the wax job because my skin had never been smoother. I went out for drinks with Paz in the evenings. Diego and I started making plans to move in together without a hint of romance, as if it were something that was bound to happen sooner or later, and so, at some point in August, we agreed that I’d rent my apartment and move into his, which had an extra bedroom. Every once in a while we’d go shopping to pick out throw pillows or a toaster.
One day in early September, Sonia walked into my office accompanied by the nurse, and once again I felt like I’d seen a ghost. Her hair was longer, and her highlights were auburn instead of blonde. I gestured to the chair. She sat down. She was calm and didn’t seem surprised. I didn’t look at her right away, instead I searched for a fake chart on my computer and pretended to take notes on a piece of paper. I needed to buy some time to decide how I was going to handle the situation, but then she spoke.
“I said I was your friend and got an appointment with you because I didn’t want to see a stranger.”
I asked the nurse to leave, saying I could handle it on my own. She left, annoyed, muttering something and closing the door loudly behind her.
Sonia got undressed as I looked out the window for some dense cloud that might offer some advice, but all I saw were wispy cirrus clouds, long thin filaments that didn’t mean anything. Sonia lay down on the table. She stared up at the fluorescent light. I’d done this hundreds of times, but I didn’t know where to start the examination. When I asked her what had brought her in, she said her periods were long and painful. I wanted to know how she’d found me, but in this tiny city, there were endless possibilities. I asked her to move to the end of the bed, and I examined her.
“I turn thirty-two today,” she said.
I didn’t say happy birthday. I continued doing what I was doing. I inserted a long device into her and started to look at the images that appeared on the screen.
“Dani and I want to have kids, but as much as we try I can’t get pregnant.”
Then there was a silence.
“I’m all dried up.”
I kept looking with fascination at the curved shapes inside her, black and white, like summer storm clouds about to burst, then I told her I was done, that she could get dressed.
When she reappeared from behind the screen, I asked her a few questions that confirmed my diagnosis. I ordered some blood tests. I didn’t expect them to tell me anything I didn’t already know. Sonia didn’t seem worried, she was just a little sad, and she listened carefully as I explained the possible causes of her infertility. She looked at me and slowly twirled a tarnished ring around her finger. I noticed her nails: ugly, bitten-down, yellowed. Suddenly she seemed like a defenseless specimen, a rare flower, sick from a tumor that deformed her from the inside. I talked to her about surgery, which I could do myself, but my explanation was cold, and the memories of the past began to dissolve little by little.
Before closing her chart, I remembered that we needed subjects for our study, and I asked her if she wanted to participate. I assured her that she wouldn’t have to answer any uncomfortable questions; all that would happen was that a group of gynecologists from the hospital, including me, would look at her medical records. She twirled her ring again. For a second I was afraid she’d refuse. I tried to make her see that it was positive, so many experts following her progress, but all I cared about was getting her to sign. I think that even if I hadn’t explained it she wouldn’t have cared. I handed her the consent form and a pen.
“Where?” she asked.
“Here,” I answered, and I pointed to a blank space where she proceeded to stamp her childlike signature.
When she raised her face from the page her eyes were red, and I quickly dismissed her from the office before she could start to cry, doing the math and determining that Sonia and I were finally even.
The tie is doomed, just as the larger Asian elephant is doomed.
8 January 2018
I can’t stand them. I’d burn them in a dirty flame, a diesel flame, no sandalwood or ceremony necessary. Their prints are ridiculous. They combine chickens and unicorns, vines and roses, diamonds and golf clubs. Their linings are always garish: sapphire blue, duckling yellow, pumpkin orange… they represent an era, the glorious 70s and 80s in Spain when the best restaurants were full of smoke, wine, steaks and laughter. My father’s ties are all hugs, jokes, camaraderie and whisky. The male bonding that was so crucial to sealing business deals. Of course, they’re made of Italian silk, stitched at the finest workshops Milan had to offer. Their images make a filigree, infinite symmetries worthy of Escher, sewn by artists well aware of the fine line between the original and the ridiculous. Plain blue ties, the kind I wear, are for men with ice in their souls. Only an idiot like me would seek to broadcast their suffering.
My father loves light and, especially, the spotlight: he likes to run meetings, organize dinners and solve other people’s problems. The latter most of all. Whether you want him to or not, he’ll get you the best radiotherapy for lung cancer, or find your bags for you even if you lost them in New York. In a tornado. And then, of course, he’ll expect your eternal gratitude. A man like that would only ever choose to wear ties that stand out like a castle made exclusively of fireworks. When he turned eighty, he gave up wearing them and now heads to the office in checked shirts and a Barbour jacket, as though he were going duck hunting. So he’s started giving them to me. As with everything he does, he does so in a methodical, orderly fashion: every Monday morning at eight he leaves two on my desk, wrapped carefully in tissue paper. In all, there are two hundred and forty-four, which he accumulated over dozens of Christmases, birthdays and board meetings. Sometimes I imagine their hundreds of drawings and colours stretched out on the floor in an eye-watering mosaic worthy of a museum of horrors.
I can’t wear them. Going to the office in a yellow tie would be like coming in in a tracksuit. An old, grey, baggy tracksuit, I mean. A junkie’s tracksuit, not those skin-tight Nike ones that it’s now apparently perfectly acceptable to wear to breakfast at the Ritz. Of course, an alpha male like him, elderly as he is, can’t help but criticize my cowardice, which he associates with my lack of enterprise.
He’s the founder of our legal firm and its honorary president. A self-made man who rose out of the ashes of the post-war period. I don’t know if he ever went hungry, or if his father wore a tie. Although I’ve been running the business for over ten years now, I’ve never dared to ask for his office. I’m still in my broom cupboard, sharing it with piles of paper that reach right to the ceiling. Meetings are held in the room adjacent to his office, underneath photos of him with two kings, five presidents and the great Alfredo Di Stefano. They aren’t just decorative: clients trust lawyers with genuine pedigree. So far, we’ve managed to get through the economic crisis and keep our clients in the face of savage competition. On average, I work about twelve hours a day. My eyesight is shot and, beyond the odd Christmas card, I’ve lost all my friends but of course, my father takes the credit for our healthy balance sheet.
I’ve decided to hide the ties from my wife. They’re piled up at the back of my wardrobe, Italian silk be damned. I’m not brave enough to just throw them away. If they were cotton I would have but how could I get rid of yards and yards of soft, vintage Italian silk? The ties aren’t just occupying space in my wardrobe, they’ve taken possession of my subconscious as well. I won’t countenance hanging them around my neck, but still, they cause me continuous anxiety in my chest, stomach and lungs already worn thin by tobacco.
12 January 2018
My father didn’t attack immediately, he just observed, waiting for the right moment to pounce, like a feral cat. Today, Friday, at 12 noon, a moment calculated to create a maximum amount of guilt over the weekend, he came into my work space, grabbed my blue tie and, in front of all the employees, asked:
“What? Are you ashamed of your father?”
“No, I’m very proud of you. Why do you ask, dad?”
“No reason, son, none at all. I’ll give my ties to someone who’ll appreciate them, then.”
“It’s just habit, I always wear these. I love yours. They’re very original.”
“Don’t lie to me. You’ve always been a pansy. You’re almost fifty and you couldn’t sell a sandwich to a starving man.”
17 January 2018
As one of my mottos in life has always been to avoid conflict, to try to understand others, I decided to take a couple to the office and put them on before I go in. A couple of the more discreet specimens: yellow polka dots on a blue background and some innocuous steam engines over orange stripes. But this noble intention only served to highlight my lack of character. I got so nervous that I didn’t even think to hide in the bathroom. Right in front of my employees I undid my plain blue tie and put on my father’s one, without doing up my top button or straightening my shirt. It just dangled, like a clown tie. The first day, he just laughed. Today, he called me into his office and, looking me in the eye, said:
“If you don’t like my ties, don’t wear them and accept the consequences, but don’t play me for a fool.”
Meanwhile, my anxiety coursed through my body at the usual rate, spilling out of my mouth and into my lungs until it came to settle in my stomach. I left the office in silence, the black smoke puffing out of the steam engines’ smokestacks ruining their child-like beauty.
18 January 2018
I arrived at midday and gave a couple of ties to old man Tomás, a horrible lawyer who takes naps in the afternoon and is only good for scraping and bowing to clients whose contempt for him grows every day. At least, thank God, he’s stopped kissing women’s hands. I know that, as usual, it’ll do no good. One of the causes of my plight is that I always strive to keep regular habits, not realizing that good intentions mean nothing when faced with the power of a father of biblical proportions.
I’ve just come to a decision. I don’t know if it’s about the past or the future. We always think that we’re making progress; we need to just to go on living. We need to construct an epic about ourselves, to have faith in our advances, even if we’re just stumbling around a void. That step has been to leave the house without a tie – it’s the modern way, I tell my wife and son; in Silicon Valley only squares wear ties – hide one of them in a computer case and put it on in the lift, thus avoiding the embarrassment of walking through my neighbourhood in a tie with a blue daisy print. The employees murmured and giggled the first few days. Or maybe they didn’t, I’ve always been a little paranoid. Probably, they didn’t even look at me. They don’t normally: their boss is the same man he’s always been. They don’t respect me because I pay them at the end of every month. They respect me because I’m his son. Blood of his blood, even if it is more watered down, not quite so scarlet. They even look for his approval when I ask them to do overtime.
5 March 2018
One of the firm’s businesses is the administration of building organizations. Today I went to a meeting that went on until two in the morning. Do you know what it’s like to listen to ten neighbours screaming at each other for eight hours, without pause, unburdening themselves of all the anger they’ve built up with the family, or at work or just because they’re growing old? You don’t, dear readers. Even if you think you might be able to imagine it, you don’t know the true horror. You think that psychopaths are the murderers you see on Netflix, but that’s not it. The real psychopaths are presidents of building associations. My father could smile all the way through them: he knew humanity better than me. He knew that human beings aren’t governed by reason but emotion: leaks aren’t what’s important; it’s the need for compassion and understanding. That’s what his colourful ties and eternal sympathy conveyed. Perfectly kept accounts don’t demonstrate love as well as a sensitively-shared handkerchief swarming with paramecia. I stepped into the cool night, dog tired. I just wanted to get back to bed. I went straight back home, forgetting to take off my tie. This was the first my wife knew of it. My father had been supplying them to me in secret, like a drug dealer.
“What a lovely tie,” she said from the bed, half asleep. She turned on the lamp on the bedside table, got up and started to ask about the meeting; she even made me a mug of warm milk and honey, so I decided to share my secret and showed her the back of my wardrobe, which was full of bright, dust-repellent colours.
“They’re beautiful, works of art. Why did you hide them back there?” she asked as she smoothed them out on the bed. “We’ll iron them tomorrow.”
“Please don’t start. You know that my father and I have different styles…”
“You need to brighten up your life. Wear them: anyone who renounces their father, renounces themselves, she said quietly, looking me in the eyes. “Also, your father is a much better salesman than you. Maybe you’ll learn, honey. It’s about time you took some responsibility and let him enjoy his grandchildren.”
I put on my pyjamas, took a sleeping pill and slept for two, nightmare-strewn hours. The next day, I didn’t go to work. I called my father and told him, with butterflies in the pit of my stomach, that I was sick. I spent the day walking up and down the Gran Via with my head down and my hands in the pockets of my trench coat. There was only one thing on my mind: dad, dad, dad, dad. At five in the afternoon, I went into the Museo del Jamón where I ordered a sandwich and a lemon shandy. I looked at my wrinkled, forty-seven-year-old face in the greasy mirror. I couldn’t go on like this. Either I allowed him in or I quit the firm and maybe went to a Buddhist temple in Nepal: at almost fifty years of age, I couldn’t risk poverty. Suddenly an answer came to me like a lightning bolt from heaven: I am my father, I can’t help that, fighting it made no sense. I am my father, I am my father, I said to myself as I went down the stairs to the metro station, took out my metro card and waited for the train. In the carriage, I decided that I’d wear them every day. Even the yellow one with the blue lilies, the kind that a French prince high on cocaine might wear. You can’t fight your genes.
12 March 2018
It was difficult at first, but everything gets easier with time. My father pretended not to notice initially but when he saw that it was sticking he came into my office and pointed at my tie with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face:
“Lovely, one of my favourites.”
He invited me to lunch with D. Fermín, an aristocrat who owns hunting lodges where partridges are slaughtered with the best shotguns in Spain. Until that moment, he saw me as a kind of manager, lacking the soul one needs to take real decisions. He didn’t say anything about the beautiful purple tie with Christmas baubles I was wearing, even though it was Spring. But he did let me talk, and allowed Fermín to ask me how the firm was doing. Afterwards, he said that I could go to the next lunch on my own. That marked the beginning of the shift. He even started coming into the office less often. He signed up to a painting class and the day before yesterday told me that his office had got too big for him, that he was thinking of making a change. My entire life has improved: I’ve started going back to the gym, my wife fondles me every morning and my son tells me that he loves me every night. Of course, I’m still wearing the ties. Every morning, as I brush my teeth, I repeat the mantra: I am my father and there’s nothing I can do about it. Before they become aware of their powers, superheroes usually go through a period of suffering, a time of resentment, slings and arrows. For me, that period lasted forty-seven years. I’m the first superhero with grey on their temples.
My ties, which are either plain or have sober geometric patterns, are piled up, wrinkled, at the back of the wardrobe. No-one asks about them. One day the maid ironed them and hung them up next to the ones belonging to my father but I shoved them back to the back of the wardrobe. I’d like to give them to my son, but I want him to have my father’s. Even in a post-human world run by robots in eternal polluted twilight, those who accept their past are bound to triumph.
The waiter at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye, Claude, asked me to finish my drink quickly. It was a quarter past two in the morning and he had to close up the café. I walked a few paces and sat down in Place Furstenberg. This was where I ‘cleared’ my mind every day. Opposite me was the house in which the famous painter Delacroix had spent his last years, and which was now a museum. I started to smoke a cigarette. I thought of walking to Austerlitz, but I couldn’t sleep now, I was in such a troubled mood.
‘How long will the French go on repeating this tedious drama?’ I shouted loudly as if addressing the great painter.
I meant those enormous military parades that they put on every year. Thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, rockets, and artillery, scores of planes circling in the sky, and everywhere thronged with people, with traffic policemen closing the main roads leading to the heart of Paris. All this led to complete chaos that lasted the whole day. The television channels broadcast these parades live. We could see the same pictures on the screens of hundreds of thousands of television sets displayed in the windows of electrical shops. I love France, but I never liked this day they call ‘Quatorze Juillet’ (14 July), when they celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution.
I left Place Furstenberg and decided to take a stroll around Saint-Sulpice church, waiting for dawn to break so that I could go into the first café I found open. At the end of Rue Bonaparte, where it meets Rue Vieux Colombiers, I noticed an attractive woman walking in a way that caught my attention. She was wearing white shorts that allowed one to see her sturdy legs. I guessed that she was nearing fifty. As the distance between us narrowed, I thought she looked sad. Without expecting any reply, I asked her, ‘Why are you sad, madame?’ I was drunk, and it was nearly three in the morning.
The woman stopped. ‘Yes, I am very sad, monsieur,’ she said, trying to put on a little smile.
‘I am very sorry, madame,’ I said.
‘I lost my little dog on quatorze juillet, monsieur,’ she explained. ‘Isn’t that sad?’ she added in a coquettish way, licking her lips and pouting.
‘And I lost my country on quatorze juillet, madame, isn’t that sad?’ I said sarcastically.
She laughed and closed her eyes flirtatiously, ‘And how did that happen?’ she asked.
‘It’s a long story, madame.’
The woman remained silent for a moment, then said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a drink with me? I know a place that stays open till dawn.’
We crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain and walked on past the church. ‘I live on this boulevard,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it wonderful for someone to live in this quarter?’
‘It’s just a dream, as far as I’m concerned,’ I replied.
‘For me too,’ she said cheerfully, then added, ‘Think how wonderful it would be if we were to find my dog now!’
‘We’ll find it, madame, believe me. I feel it,’ I said.
She stopped and looked at me. ‘You are kind,’ she said. ‘You make me feel I’ve found a friend. You said, “We’ll find it”. That’s very kind of you.’
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t know what to reply.
‘Yes, you are kind,’ she repeated.
When we went into the Café Conti I was greeted by Damien, the manager, who shook hands with me.
‘It seems you are famous,’ said the woman.
‘Only in bars,’ I replied.
She laughed loudly.
I asked for red wine and she asked for a Kir Royale. I noticed Damien leaving the bar, and knew that he would be going to the storeroom behind it, near the toilet. I immediately made for the toilet and waited for a few moments for him to come out of the storeroom, then said, ‘Damien, please, if we have to drink a lot, can I settle the bill tomorrow? I only met this woman today.’
‘Certainly,’ said Damien. He added, ‘She’s only been living in Paris for two weeks. She was in California before.’
‘You know her?’
‘She comes in for a drink in the evening. She lives only a few steps away from here.’
The woman said that her name was Micheline, and asked me my name, about my life and what had happened to my country. I told her that I was working at the moment in a translation and printing company and that my ambition was to be a film director. About my country, I told her that on Quatorze Juillet 1958 a group of wicked officers had carried out a bloody military coup that had done away with the monarchy in Iraq and that since then the Iraqi people had been living under the rule of the loutish military.
‘Are you a royalist?’ she asked me.
Yes, I’m a royalist. I believe that the monarchy in my country was better for us.’
She nodded her head in an understanding way. ‘I lived more than fifteen years in California. I had a big restaurant there, specialising in French cuisine. OK, it was owned by myself and my husband. I separated from him a month ago.’ As she ordered another drink, she added, ‘I’m a professional chef. I thought of opening a restaurant here in Paris, but I decided to test the waters first, so I took a job as a chef in a well-known restaurant behind the Palais de Justice. My customers are among the best-known judges in Paris.’
After a moment’s silence, she asked, ‘Where do you live?’
‘A little while ago, I left the place I was living in near here, and I’m now living in a small studio near the press where I work. Near the Bourse de Paris.’
‘A nice area, but it’s a long way away from here,’ she said.
We went on drinking until the café closed its doors. She invited me to continue drinking in her house, ‘It’s only a few steps away, come with me.’
In the morning, Micheline appeared out of the bathroom while I was still in bed. She said good morning and bent down to kiss me, so I pulled her back into bed.
‘You know, I’m a royalist as well,’ she said. ‘I’m a chef, and chefs have to be royalists, don’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, pulling the large towel from her body.
Micheline went to work and left me to sleep. When she came back, I was in the bathroom taking a shower, singing Charles Aznavour’s song ‘Dans tes bras’ with vigour. She started singing with me as she took off her clothes and got under the shower.
‘I know Charles Aznavour personally,’ said Micheline as we ate some wonderful French food she had brought from the restaurant. ‘I was the personal chef of the pop singer Lionel Richie.’
‘Wow, I like Lionel Richie a lot,’ I told her.
‘Me too,’ said Micheline. ‘I was his favourite chef for several years. Once, Charles Aznavour was one of Lionel Richie’s guests and I was in charge of the cooking. Lionel Richie said to me, ‘Micheline, please pay even more attention to the food than usual. Charles Aznavour is our guest. He’s a stickler, he puts his nose into everything in the kitchen, big or small. Please, I don’t want him to complain!’ And when Aznavour came, he did indeed meddle in every detail concerning the food. He’s very fussy and demanding.’
‘Is Lionel Richie a nice man?’ I asked Micheline.
‘Very,’ replied Micheline enthusiastically. Then she asked me whether I had contacted the translation company to tell them I wouldn’t be going in. I told her that they were used to my habits. ‘Don’t forget that yesterday was quatorze juillet,’ I reminded her.
‘Quatorze juillet, that reminds me, we should go out and look for my dog. Perhaps we’ll find him where I lost him.’
‘In Place Saint-Sulpice?’
‘Yes, near Catherine Deneuve’s house, the actress, do you know about her?’
‘Who doesn’t know about Catherine Deneuve?’
‘True. Yesterday you said something to me about the movies.’
‘I’d like to be a film director.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’
We went to the police station opposite Saint-Sulpice church and Micheline handed in details of her lost dog. Then we spent the afternoon wandering around the streets near the church. We drank a few glasses of white wine in a café in Rue Lobineau. Then she told me she had to go back home and afterward go to work. She suggested I go with her so that she could give me a spare house key.
‘I have a feeling I’ve begun to fall in love with you,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
Before she left for work, we went to bed. Then Micheline took a shower and went out. I got up and put a small table by the window overlooking Boulevard Saint-Germain. I brought the bottle of bourbon and began to drink. Since the apartment was immediately above the Old Navy Café, which I was forbidden to enter as a result of an argument with the café owner, I imagined myself sitting on the upstairs floor of the café to spite him.
So far as work was concerned, I still had no steady job. There was just a small company undertaking translation and publishing work, run by a Lebanese called Jean, who needed me occasionally for typesetting a few pages in Arabic. Luckily, a week before I met Micheline, Jean had told me he had signed a contract with a French company, well known in the arms manufacturing trade, to translate some catalogs of arms that the company had sold recently to a number of Gulf states. The Arab states were making it a condition that the catalogs should be in Arabic. Jean was happy that day, inviting me to have a few drinks with him as he gave me the news of the deal. He told me that he would need me ‘for two months at least’, then gave me a sum of money on account.
Before Micheline came back from work, the telephone rang. There was a young Frenchman on the line who asked for Micheline and said that on quatorze juillet he had been in a café with his girlfriend when a small dog had come up and sat beside them. When they left the café at dawn, they had taken the dog with them ‘because we realised it was lost’. Then he explained that he had seen an American telephone number on its collar. He had called the number and a man speaking English with a French accent answered and told him that the dog belonged to his former wife who was now living in Paris. Then the man had given him Micheline’s telephone number.
I thanked the young man, asked for his telephone number, and told him that as soon as Micheline came back from work she would call him.
‘Didn’t I tell you we would find him?’ I shouted at the top of my voice as I lifted her up, along with the bags she was carrying.
‘Be careful, be careful, there are bottles of white wine!’ said Micheline, then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at me. ‘I can smell bourbon, please don’t play games with me.’
‘I’m not playing games, Micheline, we’ve found your dog.’
‘Where? Did the police get in touch?’
I shook my head and told her the story. She took the telephone number and started to dial it, while I occupied myself with emptying the bags and putting the food and wine in the fridge.
‘We have to celebrate this news,’ Micheline shrieked. ‘It’s a big celebration!’
She had satisfied herself that the news was correct, and started dancing, hugging me and pulling me towards the bed. Before taking off our clothes, she asked me to open a bottle of white wine and leave it beside the bed.
I never did like Micheline’s dog. It was ugly. She kissed it all the time. From the moment it was there with us, it started to annoy me. When Micheline was at home, it would bark the whole time in protest at my being there. When Micheline went to work and it was left with me, it never opened its mouth at all. It would disappear from my sight and hide away, in God only knows what corner of the apartment. It stayed there until suddenly it would run out, come up to me, look at me in an impudent way, and begin barking in my face. At that precise moment, the door would open and Micheline would come in.
Despite the petty arguments between us, the result of differences in temperament and mood, Micheline started to feel comfortable with me and buy me clothes, especially shirts with designer labels. She particularly liked the Agnes B brand. And because I had some experience in printing and publishing, she bought a computer and a colour printer.
She said that she was going to write a book about French cooking, that we would supervise the technical production of it together, and ‘you can use the computer to write your script. It’s better than a typewriter’.
We never missed a chance to go to bed. Before leaving home, when we returned, after a meal, after a shower. One day, on the way back from work, she said that she was inviting me to a fancy Mexican restaurant. In the restaurant, she put to me the idea that ‘we should live together permanently’.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘But we are together, Micheline,’ I replied.
‘True, but so far we haven’t talked about some important details.’
‘Let’s leave it until another time,’ I said offhandedly, clinking my glass against hers.
‘As you wish,’ she scowled.
This ‘As you wish’ didn’t come from her heart, though. As soon as we had left the restaurant and taken a few steps, she started to shout, ‘You all take advantage of my good nature in the same way. I take you out for a first-rate supper to talk about our relationship and all you can do is answer coldly, “Let’s leave it until another time”. What other time? Eh? Tell me. At the moment you just want to drink and fuck, isn’t that the truth, you bum?’
She opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared at me as she said ‘you bum’. I looked at her in astonishment.
‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘I asked about you. They told me that you lived on movie fantasies and slept on the streets. Despite that, I put up with you, even invite you to one of the best restaurants.’
She continued her tirade, which was attracting the attention of some passers-by, ‘You all take advantage of me in the same way. My husband cheated on me with my closest friend while all the time I was working for him.’
‘And you were also fucking a young Mexican boy while your husband was taking his siesta. You told me the story yourself!’
‘That’s none of your business,’ she said, then fell silent.
We walked on a few paces. She turned to me and said, ‘Give me the key to the apartment, please. Come tomorrow and get your things. I’m sorry, I’m not going back home now, I’m finishing my evening entertainment.’
I gave her the key as we stood there in the middle of the street. She went to finish off her evening in the bars of Rue Princesse. I headed for my favourite place, Au Chai de l’Abbaye, where I stayed drinking until two o’clock. A few minutes before the bar closed, Micheline came in and ordered a drink. Majid and Claude were astonished to see her standing beside me without talking to me.
I put my hand in my pocket and was about to pay my bill. I hesitated for a moment and thought of paying hers, but I was afraid of her reaction. I was conscious of the fact that I was wearing a shirt she had bought me. Who could guarantee that she wouldn’t demand it back in front of the customers? I was in a dilemma.
A Japanese customer, a regular, was standing at the bar. He was an eccentric fellow. He would go for days refusing to speak to any of the other customers, then on another day he would come and talk to everyone. He had a habit when he was talking to one customer, of withdrawing in the middle of a discussion and going to talk to another.
The Japanese man went up to Micheline and asked her if she’d like a drink. They started having a cheerful conversation and Micheline’s loud laughter could be heard throughout the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out. Not for a moment did I think that she would follow me and actually lure me in so that I would end up seeing in the dawn in a police station.
At first, I thought of getting away from the quarter, especially as the cafés that I drank in were all closed – Danton, Le Relais Odéon, Tennessee, Atlas, Bonaparte. I was reluctant to go to the Opera or Montparnasse quarters. I went to Café Conti. It was only a few moments before Micheline came in, with her arms around the Japanese man.
She came up to me and said calmly, ‘Take this key, please. Go and collect your things. My Japanese friend and I have decided to get married, and I don’t want any hassle.’
‘OK,’ I said and took the key, while she began to kiss her Japanese boyfriend.
‘Oh, my love, my Japanese love.’
Some customers were looking at us and smiling, some of them were regulars who knew that she was supposed to be my girlfriend. As the apartment was only two hundred metres away from the Conti, I went at once and began to gather my things together. The dog looked at me from its corner, trembling. I smiled at it. It carried on panting and staring at me. Before putting the bottle of Jack Daniels in the bag, I thought of having a drink. Micheline wouldn’t come back before five, or so I thought. But no sooner had I started to drink than the dog began to bark and Micheline came in with her Japanese friend. She patted the dog, then flew into a rage when she saw me sitting with the glass in my hand.
‘My apartment’s not a bar, do you understand?’ She tried to snatch the glass from my hand, so I pushed her hard towards the sofa. The dog began to bark, and I saw the Japanese man undo his flies and go into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
‘You hit me!’ she shouted.
‘You’re a bitch,’ I told her angrily, grabbing hold of her.
She took the telephone and dialed the police. She wouldn’t let me leave the apartment until the policemen had arrived and she had told them that I was a violent man and was refusing to leave.
‘You’re a lying bitch, Micheline, and you know it,’ I said as I left with the police. The Japanese man was still in the bathroom, and the dog seemed happy in her lap.
In the car, one policeman asked me, ‘Did you buy a new dog?’
I looked at him in astonishment. He said that he had seen us when we came to the station to report the loss of the dog. I told him how we had found the ‘ugly’ dog. The policeman laughed. Then he told me politely that they were obliged to detain me until eight in the morning. I asked him whether it was possible to stay until eleven as I wanted to sleep a little.
‘I don’t think so,’ said the policeman, adding, ‘Actually, my shift ends at nine so I won’t wake you before then.’
But the policeman and I had both forgotten that it was Sunday and the bells of Saint-Sulpice church wouldn’t let anyone sleep.
After that incident, Micheline began to look for me in the bars and to call my office. Two or three days later, she found me sitting in Place Furstenberg. She told me she had been drunk and stupid and that she was sorry, and she blamed herself for her tactless behaviour.
Then she repeated her account of her hard time with her former husband. ‘Oh, you don’t know how cruel he was to me in that foreign country!’
She lit a cigarette and went on: ‘I was a foreigner like you. America wasn’t my country and I was afraid my husband would throw me onto the street and I’d become exactly like you, a vagabond or a refugee.’ And she added, ‘What does it mean for someone to become homeless? Anyone of us could become homeless at any moment.’
She concluded, with a reference to the two famous cemeteries, ‘There is no stability in this life except in Montparnasse or Père Lachaise.’
I listened, nodding.
‘He would come at night and throw himself onto the bed and keep on snoring until morning. Of course, I knew he was sleeping with the Mexican maids in the afternoon.’
‘But, Micheline, you told me about your own adventures with the Mexicans as well!’
‘One adventure, with a good-looking guy,’ she said teasingly.
I remember, one evening we were lying on the bed and Micheline had told me this story: ‘We had a large villa about seven kilometres away from the restaurant. My husband preferred to take his siesta at the restaurant, while I would go home as soon as lunch was over. Until that is, the young man who worked as a dishwasher told me that my husband used to stay at the restaurant in order to spend his siesta sleeping with the waitresses. I broached the subject with him and we argued about it a lot but to no avail. I had to do the same, in the end, I’m not stupid. Especially as I knew that the dishwasher, who was a strapping young man, dreamed, like any Mexican, of sleeping with blonde women. I used to notice his glances in my direction as he worked in the kitchen.
‘One day, I went up to the young man, told him I had left the car trunk open and asked him to get inside it, then shut it behind him. After work I opened the trunk and found the young man stretched out, dripping with sweat. I closed it again and headed home, where we, too, began to take a siesta every afternoon. After a bit, my husband found out, fired the young man and began to keep watch on me until he turned my life into hell.’
I agreed to go back to Micheline to get away from the hell of the street. The period I had spent with her, as a resident of Boulevard Saint-Germain, was a happy one. It helped me escape from the vagabond life I had led for nearly ten years. I had persuaded myself that the best way of staying with her was to go out every morning as if I was an employee going off to work and to come back in the evening to spend time with her like any couple.
But this plan only worked for a few days. I began to pine for the streets and cafés again and drinking with friends. Whenever I went to meet friends, Micheline would end up spending the evening with us. She’d search every café until she found me. Sometimes she made trouble between me and my friends, and on many occasions, she said to me, ‘You go home, I’ll follow later.’ We had several arguments, and I had to leave the apartment more than once, but then we’d makeup and I’d go back.
One morning, an official holiday, the sun had been slipping through our window since the early hours of dawn. I woke up in a cheerful mood and began to caress Micheline, who was rousing slowly, responding to my caresses with a considerable appetite. Afterward, I suggested to her that we should go to spend the day at Versailles.
‘Aren’t we royalists, after all?’ I asked her.
‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘To Versailles. That would be really nice.’
We made an assortment of sandwiches, and I took two bottles of Muscadet from the fridge. Then we took the train to Versailles. We wandered around among hundreds of tourists. I took lots of pictures of Micheline at the palace gate, in the fascinating palace grounds, then Micheline asked a Japanese tourist to take a picture of us together wearing sunglasses. And we found a cozy spot under a tree where we finished off the sandwiches and Muscadet and lay down.
When sunset approached, I said to Micheline, ‘I’ll hire a rowing boat so we can spend the sunset on the lake.’ Micheline smiled and seemed very happy.
‘You’ll see the strength of my arms,’ I added, making rowing motions.
No sooner had we got into the boat than Micheline, looking left and right, said, ‘But almost everyone has gone.’
‘The tourists like to look at the rooms inside the palace,’ I replied.
‘The place is so beautiful,’ said Micheline in a gentle voice. ‘Imagine, after all these years the Palace of Versailles is still like paradise. Admittedly, at the time of Louis XVI, it was far better.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘You’re right, I feel proud to be a royalist,’ she said, massaging my outstretched feet between hers. Micheline was talking as I guided the boat towards the far end of the lake, to a place where overgrown trees touched the water, until we were in a secluded, almost completely shaded spot.
I started to look left and right, then at Micheline, smiling. She got her camera out and took a picture of me.
‘Why don’t you speak?’ she asked.
I was smiling as I looked into her eyes for a moment, then at my own arms as they worked the oars in the water of Lake Versailles in that enticing sunset.
‘Won’t you say something?’
I looked left and right and pulled on the oars vigorously to steer the boat into an even more shaded area.
‘Say something,’ said Micheline loudly.
I didn’t reply but continued to stare at her.
‘What are you thinking about? Come on, what are you thinking about? Say something, please! Tell me what’s going round in your head!’
I looked into her eyes and said nothing.
She took out a cigarette and began smoking. ‘But say something! Come on, what are you thinking about, come on, tell me what you’re thinking about.’
‘I’m thinking about Hitchcock, I’m thinking about a movie of Hitchcock’s, Micheline.’
She looked at me and said in a pleading tone, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not what you’re thinking. But you did tell me you wanted to be a film director, didn’t you?’ Micheline began to look left and right, while her face turned completely red. I felt that she was about to lose her power of speech completely. Finally, she said, ‘Don’t scare me, please, you’re too nice.’
‘You too,’ I said to her, smiling, then asked her to light me a cigarette.
‘Right away,’ she said, sighing. She lit the cigarette and added, ‘Now it’s my turn to row.’
She began to row quickly. ‘Don’t you think that we’d better go back?’ she said, out of breath.
I nodded agreement.
She rowed like mad – as if she were trying to escape drowning. I was smoking my cigarette and looking at her. A big smile came over her face whenever our eyes met. When we reached the jetty, Micheline became confused. ‘I have to go home quickly, yes, quickly, I’m very tired,’ she said.
We didn’t talk at all on the train. Micheline quickly opened the door to the apartment. She made for the telephone, which she carried into the room overlooking the street. She shut the door from the inside and spoke to me through the large glass window that separated the two rooms.
‘Please take your things and leave me to myself. Our relationship is over, over, over.’
‘Au revoir, Micheline.’
I took my things and went out, without hearing any reply.
That night I wandered from café to café and carried on drinking until dawn, without Micheline appearing. She didn’t appear the following day either, or the next one. I didn’t see her for more than a month, and then one day I heard she had left Paris and gone off with a Moroccan dishwasher, who had been working with her, to another city where she had decided to open a restaurant of her own.
They are nomads. They grace only Paris with their presence for months and are niggardly to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid, and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home; for them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which can be gazed on through the lowered curtains of grand-hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until they are convinced that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch sight of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. They sleep until lunch. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards, she is a great beauty, but she has never been beautiful. Don’t believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: white face, rouge, eye shadow, and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage, she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend their luncheons, which are given in her honor or which she occasionally gives before leaving one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first glance; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, silver or bloodlines. These luncheons are not boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. Their poses are rather informal: neck turned one way, head the other and one elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to hers. They are almost all drunk, and their behavior is quite forward as if they’ve known her forever. If they had just a bit more to drink, they’d be cheeky. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (never forgetting to say “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and apparently are not afraid of making fools of themselves. Some gallantly heave themselves over the table to kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smiling beatifically and drinking only red wine, which is often especially good at the luncheons.
She, queen of the table, is dressed in a wardrobe that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears massive, smooth bracelets on both wrists. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. Her face glows as she bestows a wide smile on all her fellow diners. She has the ability to smile at everyone all at once, to speak with everyone, to nod her head sweetly; her head nods are for each person at the table. If you look at her face, you’d think that she is sitting with a group of her closest and most beloved friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. On the back, right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but her poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you forget for a long time how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? He sits, le mari d’elle, five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot and eats a lot, and is silent a lot, and rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. As you look at this figure, you feel that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with streaks of bald spots across the top of his head. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have furrowed his face, leaving deep wrinkles. He is about 35 years old, no more, but he looks older. His face seems to have been soaked in kvass. His eyes are fine but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe, for some reason, he got the nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat, he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners do not notice him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought and keeps these two people together.
When you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the entrepreneurs, contracts, and agreements. She only associates with her adoring public and does not deign to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. Therefore, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a considerable salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, he robs her together with the maid, throws away her money, carouses recklessly and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that because they can’t get to the heart of the matter, so they judge by appearances. They regard her as a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman is really not worthy of love. And she isn’t worthy of hatred. She ought to be shown no attention and her very existence should be ignored. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, she has two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, she had two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinary agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, in all of her form there is one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that, I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with a crude manner: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks her whole body back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example of this: she tosses together clean underclothes with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a dirty mess. Or why tell you about it? Just look at her at noon when she wakes up and lazily crawls out from under the covers, and you would never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes sleepy and puffy, in a nightgown with torn shoulders, barefoot, hunched over surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least no worse. She lost half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll lose the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. Unless it is praise, she doesn’t like it when people tell the truth about her. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is not trained. Her brain lost its elasticity long ago. It is covered with fat and is asleep.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not in money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because she has developed the conviction that there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland, she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A wicked woman, thousand times over!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her and, I beg, you, look carefully. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, those crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly about the air when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the theater shakes with applause.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep, we sleep until morning and wake up to curse one another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions, I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German dotted with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
“You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. For what? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. Judge for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he grouses and gets into fights. He even hits me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a thing.
He’s always very shabby although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I will never attempt to monitor him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He is disdainful of women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all he does.
He never graduated from school. He was expelled from the university for insolence in his first year.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness, that is, I’m acting up, he stomps around like a corpse and makes fists.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my life. It took place in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to drink. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a company. On one spree as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests got very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered that he be served wine. It turns out that this temperance worker drinks wine very well indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence by marrying him.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. He says this word with a deep voice deep, with a catch in his throat and a facial tick. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — regardless of who it is — says a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says:
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — coincides with his utterance of that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I guess a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost male handwriting. You won’t find a single grammatical error in it.
I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:
“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”
My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,
“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”
I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.
THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE
“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.
“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.
“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.
“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.
“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.
“The eternal night-it surely seemed eternal to us-wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.
“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.
“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.
“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.
“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.
“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’
“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’
“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’
“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’
“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’
“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.
“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’
“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’
“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘
“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘
“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’
“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.
“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.
“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘
“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’
“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’
“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]
“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.
“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.
“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.
“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.
“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”
“Do you mean to tell me that–“
“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”
“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”
“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–“
“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”
He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!
I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”
“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”
I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.
“I’m a romantic, you brutes, and I adore Nizar Qabbani!”
This was Karim’s only reply to people’s accusations and taunts. And it was on the basis of this reply that the camp residents had added the epithet “the Romantic” to his name. Whenever I saw Karim the Romantic coming back to the camp along the same road other people used, I’d shout from a distance, “Hey, Karim, get off the road! People will get mad and hurt you.”
As a result, Karim found routes of his own back to his house in the camp. It was a solution he and other camp residents seemed to have resigned themselves to. If somebody from the camp happened to lose his way and went down Karim’s paths by mistake, he would yell out a warning from a distance, shouting, “Hey there boy, this is Karim the Romantic, bather of the dead. Get away! Get away!” This was his way of avoiding people’s disgust and fearful reaction to him.
Other times, either out of forgetfulness, or because he was just fed up with the situation, Karim would join us on our paths, and when that happened, people would go berserk. Frightened, they would yell at him and chase him from some ways off. Then Karim would scurry away, cursing the camp, his relatives, dead bodies and Palestine, and threatening them with a grisly fate.
At this point, scared to death and not knowing what to do, people would consult with each other: Should they make peace with Karim to keep him from mutilating their and their relatives’ corpses? Or should they complaint to the police? People knew Karim was the only person who washed corpses at the city hospital, and that next of kin weren’t allowed to come in when he was working, which gave Karim quite a winning card in the camp residents’ war against him. After all, nobody knew exactly what Karim did with the dead bodies he washed. Did he steal parts from them as rumor had it? Did he stuff their orifices with foreign objects as a creative way of insulting them? Did he spit on them, slap them, kick them, stab them? Whatever the case, Karim left people at the mercy of their imaginations, and the suspicions his threats had planted in their heads.
The horror stories revolving around Karim started with a rumor set loose by a young man from the camp who’d been undergoing treatment at the hospital. He told somebody, “I saw him carrying a human head down the hospital corridors, and people were running away from him!”
“You saw him with your own eyes?”
A few days after the rumor started, Karim the Romantic boarded the camp’s yellow Ford transit with a black plastic bag full of unidentified objects slung over his shoulder. Only the Lord Himself and Karim knew what was in there. Well, it so happened that one of the passengers was the guy who’d seen Karim with the human head. The minute Karim stepped on, the fellow let out a scream so loud that it shook the vehicle. “I swear I saw him holding somebody’s head!” he wailed. At that, everybody on board, the driver included, jumped out of their seats and scrambled off the van. They ran up to a traffic policeman and brought him back to the vehicle, pointing at Karim, who sat there alone, bewildered over what had happened. The policeman was as confused and frightened as everybody else.
Nobody in the camp liked Karim or wanted to talk to him because, simply put, he was a scary person. He lived in the camp with his wife and three children, but the windows to his house were closed most of the time, and his kids played alone in a back yard surrounded by a concrete wall. The rumors about Karim had evolved to the point where, as the story went, he would cut certain parts out of the bodies he washed and sell them to the Jews. The war against him had reached epic proportions, since introduction of the word “Jews” into the mix made the rumor that much more sensitive and added new tensions.
Intrigued by Karim’s drama with dead bodies and the people of the camp, I decided to walk down the paths he took and knock on his door. I wanted to find out what was really going on with him and write about it.
“Hi Karim,” I said to him one day. “I sympathize with your plight. And I love Nizar Qabbani just like you do. I’d like us to walk together and talk. And I’d like to write about you.”
“You’re crazy, then. Why would you want to go against everybody else? I stink, I’ve got human body parts in my pockets, and you’ll probably get sick if you come too close. Isn’t that what the rumors say? You’re better off going with the crowd.”
I’d been spurned. I saw Karim move away and stand by the side of the road, where an ambulance picked him up every morning to take him to the hospital. He’d tried to get there by taxi, but all the taxi drivers had refused to pick him up.
But one evening, much to the neighbors’ astonishment, I knocked on Karim’s door laden with a cardboard box full of books by Nizar Qabbani. I heard a woman say to her neighbor, “That man must trade in corpses with him. See the box in his hands?”
Karim opened the door and awkwardly welcomed me inside.
“Hello, sir,” he began. “What can I do for you?”
I opened the box while Karim looked on, and out spilled Nizar’s books. Beside himself with delight, he ushered me all the way inside and called his children and his wife. The family, likewise delighted with the books, insisted that I have dinner with them. I ended up spending the entire night as Karim’s honored guest. He lavished me with fruits, helba, mixed nuts and tea, while I lavished him with anecdotes and stories about Nizar and his life. I also read him some poems he’d never read before. I saw tears in Karim’s eyes.
Then suddenly he hugged me. “Sir,” he said, “would it make any sense for somebody who loves Nizar to cut parts out of people’s dead bodies and sell them, or walk around holding a human head?”
“Of course not, Karim,” I said, “it wouldn’t make any sense at all. I was never convinced of those rumors in the first place. If I had been, I wouldn’t be spending the evening at your house.”
As I got ready to leave Karim’s house the next morning, he saw me to the door. Happy and at ease, he embraced me and whispered in my ear, “Rest assured, sir: I’ll show her the utmost respect. I’ll wash her well, and I’ll recite poems by Nizar that I love over her.”
“Who is that you’re going to respect and wash, dear Karim? I don’t understand.”
“Your wonderful corpse, sir!”