This slender narrative has no pretensions to the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me by one of the humblest of the actors concerned: nor will I spin out a circumstance interesting principally from its singularity and truth, but narrate, as concisely as I can, how I was surprised on visiting what seemed a ruined tower, crowning a bleak promontory overhanging the sea, that flows between Wales and Ireland, to find that though the exterior preserved all the savage rudeness that betokened many a war with the elements, the interior was fitted up somewhat in the guise of a summer-house, for it was too small to deserve any other name. It consisted but of the ground-floor, which served as an entrance, and one room above, which was reached by a staircase made out of the thickness of the wall. This chamber was floored and carpeted, decorated with elegant furniture; and, above all, to attract the attention and excite curiosity, there hung over the chimney-piece – for to preserve the apartment from damp a fire-place had been built evidently since it had assumed a guise so dissimilar to the object of its construction – a picture simply painted in water-colours, which seemed more than any part of the adornments of the room to be at war with the rudeness of the building, the solitude in which it was placed, and the desolation of the surrounding scenery. This drawing represented a lovely girl in the very pride and bloom of youth; her dress was simple, in the fashion of the day – (remember, reader, I write at the beginning of the eighteenth century), her countenance was embellished by a look of mingled innocence and intelligence, to which was added the imprint of serenity of soul and natural cheerfulness. She was reading one of those folio romances which have so long been the delight of the enthusiastic and young; her mandoline was at her feet – her parroquet perched on a huge mirror near her; the arrangement of furniture and hangings gave token of a luxurious dwelling, and her attire also evidently that of home and privacy, yet bore with it an appearance of ease and girlish ornament, as if she wished to please. Beneath this picture was inscribed in golden letters, “The Invisible Girl.”
Rambling about a country nearly uninhabited, having lost my way, and being overtaken by a shower, I had lighted on this dreary looking tenement, which seemed to rock in the blast, and to be hung up there as the very symbol of desolation. I was gazing wistfully and cursing inwardly my stars which led me to a ruin that could afford no shelter, though the storm began to pelt more seriously than before, when I saw an old woman’s head popped out from a kind of loophole, and as suddenly withdrawn:–a minute after a feminine voice called to me from within, and penetrating a little brambly maze that skreened a door, which I had not before observed, so skilfully had the planter succeeded in concealing art with nature I found the good dame standing on the threshold and inviting me to take refuge within. “I had just come up from our cot hard by,” she said, “to look after the things, as I do every day, when the rain came on–will ye walk up till it is over?” I was about to observe that the cot hard by, at the venture of a few rain drops, was better than a ruined tower, and to ask my kind hostess whether “the things” were pigeons or crows that she was come to look after, when the matting of the floor and the carpeting of the staircase struck my eye. I was still more surprised when I saw the room above; and beyond all, the picture and its singular inscription, naming her invisible, whom the painter had coloured forth into very agreeable visibility, awakened my most lively curiosity: the result of this, of my exceeding politeness towards the old woman, and her own natural garrulity, was a kind of garbled narrative which my imagination eked out, and future inquiries rectified, till it assumed the following form.
Some years before in the afternoon of a September day, which, though tolerably fair, gave many tokens of a tempestuous evening, a gentleman arrived at a little coast town about ten miles from this place; he expressed his desire to hire a boat to carry him to the town of about fifteen miles further on the coast. The menaces which the sky held forth made the fishermen loathe to venture, till at length two, one the father of a numerous family, bribed by the bountiful reward the stranger promised–the other, the son of my hostess, induced by youthful daring, agreed to undertake the voyage. The wind was fair, and they hoped to make good way before nightfall, and to get into port ere the rising of the storm. They pushed off with good cheer, at least the fishermen did; as for the stranger, the deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled–as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally; he did not mention his name; but one of the villagers recognised him as Henry Vernon, the son of a baronet who possessed a mansion about three miles distant from the town for which he was bound. This mansion was almost abandoned by the family; but Henry had, in a romantic fit, visited it about three years before, and Sir Peter had been down there during the previous spring for about a couple of months.
The boat did not make so much way as was expected; the breeze failed them as they got out to sea, and they were fain with oar as well as sail, to try to weather the promontory that jutted out between them and the spot they desired to reach. They were yet far distant when the shifting wind began to exert its strength, and to blow with violent though unequal puffs. Night came on pitchy dark, and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury. They were forced to lower every sail, and take to their oars; one man was obliged to bale out the water, and Vernon himself took an oar, and rowing with desperate energy, equalled the force of the more practised boatmen. There had been much talk between the sailors before the tempest came on; now, except a brief command, all were silent. One thought of his wife and children, and silently cursed the caprice of the stranger that endangered in its effects, not only his life, but their welfare; the other feared less, for he was a daring lad, but he worked hard, and had no time for speech; while Vernon bitterly regretting the thoughtlessness which had made him cause others to share a peril, unimportant as far as he himself was concerned, now tried to cheer them with a voice full of animation and courage, and now pulled yet more strongly at the oar he held. The only person who did not seem wholly intent on the work he was about, was the man who baled; every now and then he gazed intently round, as if the sea held afar off, on its tumultuous waste, some object that he strained his eyes to discern. But all was blank, except as the crests of the high waves showed themselves, or far out on the verge of the horizon, a kind of lifting of the clouds betokened greater violence for the blast. At length he exclaimed–”Yes, I see it!–the larboard oar!–now! if we can make yonder light, we are saved!” Both the rowers instinctively turned their heads,–but cheerless darkness answered their gaze.
“You cannot see it,” cried their companion, “but we are nearing it; and, please God, we shall outlive this night.” Soon he took the oar from Vernon’s hand, who, quite exhausted, was failing in his strokes. He rose and looked for the beacon which promised them safety;–it glimmered with so faint a ray, that now he said, “I see it;” and again, “it is nothing:” still, as they made way, it dawned upon his sight, growing more steady and distinct as it beamed across the lurid waters, which themselves be came smoother, so that safety seemed to arise from the bosom of the ocean under the influence of that flickering gleam.
“What beacon is it that helps us at our need?” asked Vernon, as the men, now able to manage their oars with greater ease, found breath to answer his question.
“A fairy one, I believe,” replied the elder sailor, “yet no less a true: it burns in an old tumble-down tower, built on the top of a rock which looks over the sea. We never saw it before this summer; and now each night it is to be seen, at least when it is looked for, for we cannot see it from our village; and it is such an out of the way place that no one has need to go near it, except through a chance like this. Some say it is burnt by witches, some say by smugglers; but this I know, two parties have been to search, and found nothing but the bare walls of the tower.
All is deserted by day, and dark by night; for no light was to be seen while we were there, though it burned sprightly enough when we were out at sea.
“I have heard say,” observed the younger sailor, “it is burnt by the ghost of a maiden who lost her sweetheart in these parts; he being wrecked, and his body found at the foot of the tower: she goes by the name among us of the ‘Invisible Girl.'”
The voyagers had now reached the landing-place at the foot of the tower. Vernon cast a glance upward, the light was still burning. With some difficulty, struggling with the breakers, and blinded by night, they contrived to get their little bark to shore, and to draw her up on the beach: they then scrambled up the precipitous pathway, overgrown by weeds and underwood, and, guided by the more experienced fishermen, they found the entrance to the tower, door or gate there was none, and all was dark as the tomb, and silent and almost as cold as death.
“This will never do,” said Vernon; “surely our hostess will show her light, if not herself, and guide our darkling steps by some sign of life and comfort.”
“We will get to the upper chamber,” said the sailor, “if I can but hit upon the broken down steps: but you will find no trace of the Invisible Girl nor her light either, I warrant.”
“Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,” muttered Vernon, as he stumbled over the unequal ground: “she of the beacon-light must be both ugly and old, or she would not be so peevish and inhospitable.”
With considerable difficulty, and, after divers knocks and bruises, the adventurers at length succeeded in reaching the upper story; but all was blank and bare, and they were fain to stretch themselves on the hard floor, when weariness, both of mind and body, conduced to steep their senses in sleep.
Long and sound were the slumbers of the mariners. Vernon but forgot himself for an hour; then, throwing off drowsiness, and finding his roughcouch uncongenial to repose, he got up and placed himself at the hole that served for a window, for glass there was none, and there being not even a rough bench, he leant his back against the embrasure, as the only rest he could find. He had forgotten his danger, the mysterious beacon, and its invisible guardian: his thoughts were occupied on the horrors of his own fate, and the unspeakable wretchedness that sat like a night-mare on his heart.
It would require a good-sized volume to relate the causes which had changed the once happy Vernon into the most woeful mourner that ever clung to the outer trappings of grief, as slight though cherished symbols of the wretchedness within. Henry was the only child of Sir Peter Vernon, and as much spoiled by his father’s idolatry as the old baronet’s violent and tyrannical temper would permit. A young orphan was educated in his father’s house, who in the same way was treated with generosity and kindness, and yet who lived in deep awe of Sir Peter’s authority, who was a widower; and these two children were all he had to exert his power over, or to whom to extend his affection. Rosina was a cheerful-tempered girl, a little timid, and careful to avoid displeasing her protector; but so docile, so kind-hearted, and so affectionate, that she felt even less than Henry the discordant spirit of his parent. It is a tale often told; they were playmates and companions in childhood, and lovers in after days. Rosina was frightened to imagine that this secret affection, and the vows they pledged, might be disapproved of by Sir Peter. But sometimes she consoled herself by thinking that perhaps she was in reality her Henry’s destined bride, brought up with him under the design of their future union; and Henry, while he felt that this was not the case, resolved to wait only until he was of age to declare and accomplish his wishes in making the sweet Rosina his wife. Meanwhile he was careful to avoid premature discovery of his intentions, so to secure his beloved girl from persecution and insult. The old gentleman was very conveniently blind; he lived always in the country, and the lovers spent their lives together, unrebuked and uncontrolled. It was enough that Rosina played on her mandoline, and sang Sir Peter to sleep every day after dinner; she was the sole female in the house above the rank of a servant, and had her own way in the disposal of her time. Even when Sir Peter frowned, her innocent caresses and sweet voice were powerful to smooth the rough current of his temper. If ever human spirit lived in an earthly paradise, Rosina did at this time: her pure love was made happy by Henry’s constant presence; and the confidence they felt in each other, and the security with which they looked forward to the future, rendered their path one of roses under a cloudless sky. Sir Peter was the slight drawback that only rendered their tete-a-tete more delightful, and gave value to the sympathy they each bestowed on the other. All at once an ominous personage made its appearance in Vernon-Place, in the shape of a widow sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof. She too soon detected the attachment of the unsuspicious pair. She made all speed to impart her discovery to her brother, and at once to restrain and inflame his rage. Through her contrivance Henry was suddenly despatched on his travels abroad, that the coast might be clear for the persecution of Rosina; and then the richest of the lovely girl’s many admirers, whom, under Sir Peter’s single reign, she was allowed, nay, almost commanded, to dismiss, so desirous was he of keeping her for his own comfort, was selected, and she was ordered to marry him. The scenes of violence to which she was now exposed, the bitter taunts of the odious Mrs. Bainbridge, and the reckless fury of Sir Peter, were the more frightful and overwhelming from their novelty. To all she could only oppose a silent, tearful, but immutable steadiness of purpose: no threats, no rage could extort from her more than a touching prayer that they would not hate her, because she could not obey.
“There must he something we don’t see under all this,” said Mrs. Bainbridge, “take my word for it, brother,” she corresponds secretly with Henry. “Let us take her down to your seat in Wales, where she will have no pensioned beggars to assist her; and we shall see if her spirit be not bent to our purpose.”
Sir Peter consented, and they all three posted down, to shire, and took up their abode in the solitary and dreary looking house before alluded to as belonging to the family. Here poor Rosina’s sufferings grew intolerable: before, surrounded by well-known scenes, and in perpetual intercourse with kind and familiar faces, she had not despaired in the end of conquering by her patience the cruelty of her persecutors; nor had she written to Henry, for his name had not been mentioned by his relatives, nor their attachment alluded to, and she felt an instinctive wish to escape the dangers about her without his being annoyed, or the sacred secret of her love being laid bare, and wronged by the vulgar abuse of his aunt or the bitter curses of his father. But when she was taken to Wales, and made a prisoner in her apartment, when the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail. The only attendant permitted to approach her was Mrs. Bainbridge’s maid; and under the tutelage of her fiend-like mistress, this woman was used as a decoy to entice the poor prisoner into confidence, and then to be betrayed. The simple, kind-hearted Rosina was a facile dupe, and at last, in the excess of her despair, wrote to Henry, and gave the letter to this woman to be forwarded. The letter in itself would have softened marble; it did not speak of their mutual vows, it but asked him to intercede with his father, that he would restore her to the kind place she had formerly held in his affections, and cease from a cruelty that would destroy her. “For I may die,” wrote the hapless girl, “but marry another – never!” That single word, indeed, had sufficed to betray her secret, had it not been already discovered; as it was, it gave increased fury to Sir Peter, as his sister triumphantly pointed it out to him, for it need hardly be said that while the ink of the address was yet wet, and the seal still warm, Rosina’s letter was carried to this lady. The culprit was summoned before them; what ensued none could tell; for their own sakes the cruel pair tried to palliate their part. Voices were high, and the soft murmur of Rosina’s tone was lost in the howling of Sir Peter and the snarling of his sister. “Out of doors you shall go,” roared the old man; “under my roof you shall not spend another night.” And the words “infamous seductress,” and worse, such as had never met the poor girl’s ear before, were caught by listening servants; and to each angry speech of the baronet, Mrs. Bainbridge added an envenomed point worse than all.
More dead than alive, Rosina was at last dismissed. Whether guided by despair, whether she took Sir Peter’s threats literally, or whether his sister’s orders were more decisive, none knew, but Rosina left the house; a servant saw her cross the park, weeping, and wringing her hands as she went. What became of her none could tell; her disappearance was not disclosed to Sir Peter till the following day, and then he showed by his anxiety to trace her steps and to find her, that his words had been but idle threats. The truth was, that though Sir Peter went to frightful lengths to prevent the marriage of the heir of his house with the portionless orphan, the object of his charity, yet in his heart he loved Rosina, and half his violence to her rose from anger at himself for treating her so ill. Now remorse began to sting him, as messenger after messenger came back without tidings of his victim; he dared not confess his worst fears to himself; and when his inhuman sister, trying to harden her conscience by angry words, cried, “The vile hussy has too surely made away with herself out of revenge to us;” an oath, the most tremendous, and a look sufficient to make even her tremble, commanded her silence. Her conjecture, however, appeared too true: a dark and rushing stream that flowed at the extremity of the park had doubtless received the lovely form, and quenched the life of this unfortunate girl. Sir Peter, when his endeavours to find her proved fruitless, returned to town, haunted by the image of his victim, and forced to acknowledge in his own heart that he would willingly lay down his life, could he see her again, even though it were as the bride of his son – his son, before whose questioning he quailed like the veriest coward; for when Henry was told of the death of Rosina, he suddenly returned from abroad to ask the cause – to visit her grave, and mourn her loss in the groves and valleys which had been the scenes of their mutual happiness. He made a thousand inquiries, and an ominous silence alone replied. Growing more earnest and more anxious, at length he drew from servants and dependants, and his odious aunt herself, the whole dreadful truth. From that moment despair struck his heart, and misery named him her own. He fled from his father’s presence; and the recollection that one whom he ought to revere was guilty of so dark a crime, haunted him, as of old the Eumenides tormented the souls of men given up to their torturings.
His first, his only wish, was to visit Wales, and to learn if any new discovery had been made, and whether it were possible to recover the mortal remains of the lost Rosina, so to satisfy the unquiet longings of his miserable heart. On this expedition was he bound, when he made his appearance at the village before named; and now in the deserted tower, his thoughts were busy with images of despair and death, and what his beloved one had suffered before her gentle nature had been goaded to such a deed of woe.
While immersed in gloomy reverie, to which the monotonous roaring of the sea made fit accompaniment, hours flew on, and Vernon was at last aware that the light of morning was creeping from out its eastern retreat, and dawning over the wild ocean, which still broke in furious tumult on the rocky beach. His companions now roused themselves, and prepared to depart. The food they had brought with them was damaged by sea water, and their hunger, after hard labour and many hours fasting, had become ravenous. It was impossible to put to sea in their shattered boat; but there stood a fisher’s cot about two miles off, in a recess in the bay, of which the promontory on which the tower stood formed one side, and to this they hastened to repair; they did not spend a second thought on the light which had saved them, nor its cause, but left the ruin in search of a more hospitable asylum. Vernon cast his eves round as he quitted it, but no vestige of an inhabitant met his eye, and he began to persuade himself that the beacon had been a creation of fancy merely. Arriving at the cottage in question, which was inhabited by a fisherman and his family, they made a homely breakfast, and then prepared to return to the tower, to refit their boat, and if possible bring her round. Vernon accompanied them, together with their host and his son. Several questions were asked concerning the Invisible Girl and her light, each agreeing that the apparition was novel, and not one being able to give even an explanation of how the name had become affixed to the unknown cause of this singular appearance; though both of the men of the cottage affirmed that once or twice they had seen a female figure in the adjacent wood, and that now and then a stranger girl made her appearance at another cot a mile off, on the other side of the promontory, and bought bread; they suspected both these to be the same, but could not tell. The inhabitants of the cot, indeed, appeared too stupid even to feel curiosity, and had never made any attempt at discovery. The whole day was spent by the sailors in repairing the boat; and the sound of hammers, and the voices of the men at work, resounded along the coast, mingled with the dashing of the waves. This was no time to explore the ruin for one who whether human or supernatural so evidently withdrew herself from intercourse with every living being. Vernon, however, went over the tower, and searched every nook in vain; the dingy bare walls bore no token of serving as a shelter; and even a little recess in the wall of the staircase, which he had not before observed, was equally empty and desolate.
Quitting the tower, he wandered in the pine wood that surrounded it, and giving up all thought of solving the mystery, was soon engrossed by thoughts that touched his heart more nearly, when suddenly there appeared on the ground at his feet the vision of a slipper. Since Cinderella so tiny a slipper had never been seen; as plain as shoe could speak, it told a tale of elegance, loveliness, and youth. Vernon picked it up; he had often admired Rosina’s singularly small foot, and his first thought was a question whether this little slipper would have fitted it. It was very strange! – it must belong to the Invisible Girl. Then there was a fairy form that kindled that light, a form of such material substance, that its foot needed to be shod; and yet how shod? – with kid so fine, and of shape so exquisite, that it exactly resembled such as Rosina wore! Again the recurrence of the image of the beloved dead came forcibly across him; and a thousand home-felt associations, childish yet sweet, and lover-like though trifling, so filled Vernon’s heart, that he threw himself his length on the ground, and wept more bitterly than ever the miserable fate of the sweet orphan.
In the evening the men quitted their work, and Vernon returned with them to the cot where they were to sleep, intending to pursue their voyage, weather permitting, the following morning.
Vernon said nothing of his slipper, but returned with his rough associates. Often he looked back; but the tower rose darkly over the dim waves, and no light appeared. Preparations had been made in the cot for their accommodation, and the only bed in it was offered Vernon; but he refused to deprive his hostess, and spreading his cloak on a heap of dry leaves, endeavoured to give himself up to repose. He slept for some hours; and when he awoke, all was still, save that the hard breathing of the sleepers in the same room with him interrupted the silence. He rose, and going to the window, looked out over the now placid sea towards the mystic tower; the light burning there, sending its slender rays across the waves. Congratulating himself on a circumstance he had not anticipated, Vernon softly left the cottage, and, wrapping his cloak round him, walked with a swift pace round the bay towards the tower. He reached it; still the light was burning. To enter and restore the maiden her shoe, would be but an act of courtesy; and Vernon intended to do this with such caution, as to come unaware, before its wearer could, with her accustomed arts, withdraw herself from his eyes; but, unluckily, while yet making his way up the narrow pathway, his foot dislodged a loose fragment, that fell with crash and sound down the precipice. He sprung forward, on this, to retrieve by speed the advantage he had lost by this unlucky accident. He reached the door; he entered: all was silent, but also all was dark. He paused in the room below; he felt sure that a slight sound met his ear. He ascended the steps, and entered the upper chamber; but blank obscurity met his penetrating gaze, the starless night admitted not even a twilight glimmer through the only aperture. He closed his eyes, to try, on opening them again, to be able to catch some faint, wandering ray on the visual nerve; but it was in vain. He groped round the room: he stood still, and held his breath; and then, listening intently, he felt sure that another occupied the chamber with him, and that its atmosphere was slightly agitated by an-other’s respiration. He remembered the recess in the staircase; but, before he approached it, he spoke: he hesitated a moment what to say. “I must believe,” he said, “that misfortune alone can cause your seclusion; and if the assistance of a man – of a gentleman…”
An exclamation interrupted him; a voice from the grave spoke his name – the accents of Rosina syllabled, “Henry! – is it indeed Henry whom I hear?”
He rushed forward, directed by the sound, and clasped in his arms the living form of his own lamented girl – his own Invisible Girl he called her; for even yet, as he felt her heart beat near his, and as he entwined her waist with his arm, supporting her as she almost sank to the ground with agitation, he could not see her; and, as her sobs prevented her speech, no sense, but the instinctive one that filled his heart with tumultuous gladness, told him that the slender, wasted form he pressed so fondly was the living shadow of the Hebe beauty he had adored.
The morning saw this pair thus strangely restored to each other on the tranquil sea, sailing with a fair wind for L–, whence they were to proceed to Sir Peter’s seat, which, three months before, Rosina had quitted in such agony and terror. The morning light dispelled the shadows that had veiled her, and disclosed the fair person of the Invisible Girl. Altered indeed she was by suffering and woe, but still the same sweet smile played on her lips, and the tender light of her soft blue eyes were all her own. Vernon drew out the slipper, and shoved the cause that had occasioned him to resolve to discover the guardian of the mystic beacon; even now he dared not inquire how she had existed in that desolate spot, or wherefore she had so sedulously avoided observation, when the right thing to have been done was, to have sought him immediately, under whose care, protected by whose love, no danger need be feared. But Rosina shrunk from him as he spoke, and a death-like pallor came over her cheek, as she faintly whispered, “Your father’s curse – your father’s dreadful threats!” It appeared, indeed, that Sir Peter’s violence, and the cruelty of Mrs. Bainbridge, had succeeded in impressing Rosina with wild and unvanquishable terror. She had fled from their house without plan or forethought, driven by frantic horror and overwhelming fear, she had left it with scarcely any money, and there seemed to her no possibility of either returning or proceeding onward. She had no friend except Henry in the wide world; whither could she go? – to have sought Henry would have sealed their fates to misery; for, with an oath, Sir Peter had declared he would rather see them both in their coffins than married. After wandering about, hiding by day, and only venturing forth at night, she had come to this deserted tower, which seemed a place of refuge. I low she had lived since then she could hardly tell; she had lingered in the woods by day, or slept in the vault of the tower, an asylum none were acquainted with or had discovered: by night she burned the pine-cones of the wood, and night was her dearest time; for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness. She was unaware that Sir Peter had left that part of the country, and was terrified lest her hiding-place should be revealed to him. Her only hope was that Henry would return – that Henry would never rest till he had found her. She confessed that the long interval and the approach of winter had visited her with dismay; she feared that, as her strength was failing, and her form wasting to a skeleton, that she might die, and never see her own Henry more.
An illness, indeed, in spite of all his care, followed her restoration to security and the comforts of civilized life; many months went by before the bloom revisiting her cheeks, and her limbs regaining their roundness, she resembled once more the picture drawn of her in her days of bliss, before any visitation of sorrow. It was a copy of this portrait that decorated the tower, the scene of her suffering, in which I had found shelter. Sir Peter, overjoyed to be relieved from the pangs of remorse, and delighted again to see his orphan-ward, whom he really loved, was now as eager as before he had been averse to bless her union with his son: Mrs. Bainbridge they never saw again. But each year they spent a few months in their Welch mansion, the scene of their early wedded happiness, and the spot where again poor Rosina had awoke to life and joy after her cruel persecutions. Henry’s fond care had fitted up the tower, and decorated it as I saw; and often did he come over, with his “Invisible Girl,” to renew, in the very scene of its occurrence, the remembrance of all the incidents which had led to their meeting again, during the shades of night, in that sequestered ruin.
When I pulled Teresa’s postcard from the mailbox it was three in the afternoon. I didn’t read it at first, just glanced at it quickly as I stepped into the house, the card still clutched in my free hand. I tossed the little bag I was carrying onto the table in the center of the sitting room and went straight into the bath. The day was unusually warm. As I do on such days, I turned on the cold water and began to fill the tub. Rapidly stripping off my clothes, I slipped into the water while it was still running – after first laying my wristwatch and the post card next to the magazines and letters that cluttered the little chair that I left within easy reach.
I scrubbed my head for a moment, then shook it, spraying water over the papers nearby. I grabbed a towel and dried my dripping hand, then picked up Teresa’s card with shaking fingers. I saw a picture of an old tavern, with antique style wood furnishings and blue tables. Among them stood a handsome, dark skinned man. Strands of white lent a magical air to his wispy hair. “Hemingway Bar in Havana,” it said in Spanish on the back of the card. Also on the back, Teresa had faintly scrawled a message in a style a bit like Hemingway’s own: “Roamer of worlds and words – you sailor on terra firma – don’t be surprised by this card. I was going to send it from Havana but suddenly went to Madrid. Expect me at 7:00 on 16 June at the station near the Cafe Regreso. Wear a white suit and shoes and a Panama hat. My heart is still your home.” She added a postscript, “I hope you’ve forgotten the war. But you’re right-which war?” Nor did she forget to append a joke as well. “No doubt this card will reach you the same day I do.”
She knows that my life is nothing but a string of strange coincidences. At any rate, I had only four hours to get to the station where I’d be meeting Teresa. Yet those four hours, which on a normal day would go by in a flash, today seemed like an unbearable torment. I couldn’t believe that she was coming after all this time. I surely needed more than four hours to grasp the idea that we’d be seeing each other again. Of course, I could have just torn up the card, or acted like I’d never received it. But how could I face the way she looked at me when she opened the door and found me here?
I’d known Teresa for five years, since my first visit to Madrid, before my recent transfer to Lisbon. We’d loved each other violently, and hated each other with the same intensity. We’d broken up with each other at least five times, but come back to each other with the same ardor as before, to resume our quarrels with renewed passion. And when I say that we broke up often, I don’t mean the kind of breakups that last a night or two, that we all experience hundreds of times in our love stories, but the sort of separations that last a long time. Which is what happened the last time. I didn’t throw out her things, or put them out of sight, but kept them as they were, just the way she left them – her clothes in the bedroom closet, her beauty aids in the bathroom: a collection by Yves Saint Laurent; perfume by Cartier Must, Coco Chanel, and Paloma Picasso; a bottle of Body Shop shampoo with Brazil nut and honey; containers of white liquid soap scented with musk and essence of plums. On the bathroom windowsill stood the milky white lotion that she used to massage into her body, that after accidentally breaking its original container I wound up keeping in an empty can of Nescafe. I can still remember her laughter when she saw what I’d done with the lotion on the day before she left. I caught her inspecting it, turning it end over end in her hand, and when she noticed me watching her she giggled, saying that she would leave me the stuff so I could use it myself.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days had passed since. that afternoon when – hearing the doorbell ring – she left the house with her little bag. At that moment I stuck my head out the window and saw a strange man waiting for her downstairs. I followed her as she went outside, without her noticing, until she reached the port. There she strode arm-in-arm with the man toward a waiting steamer, over which flew a Cuban flag.
I felt no jealousy. I wasn’t angry that she’d left with another man. Rather, despite my pain at what had happened between us, and not because I am a “modern, liberal” man but because of my sympathy for the sailors of the world, I had made peace with myself, in a way.
Why not? You are the cause, I told myself, and despite your bragging – in your early days with her – about being a “sailor on terra firma,” only travel competes with your love for her. She was the one who was willing to give up her job as a journalist, though haunted by the love of departure. She was the creature for which you were searching, so you could wander with her to perdition over the face of this. globe, while both of you made your country wherever your feet trod the ground. Except that you yourself, since the day you met her, have stayed where you were. In Madrid you were making up excuses, saying, “If only this city were on the sea, I would voyage every day.” Once she asked, “Where would you like to live?” And you answered, “In Lisbon.” “Why?” Teresa wondered. So you told her, quoting a verse by Rafael Al-berti, who had referred to Rome instead, “Lisbon is a danger to wanderers.” Then you followed with, “I love harbors, the way I love Basra.” She didn’t commit herself at the time, but after twenty four days had passed, she asked you to pack your bags and go to Lisbon. She’d asked the newspaper for which she worked to transfer her there, though she hadn’t told you about it. So you went to Lisbon together. Three months and ten days later, she showed you that you had lied, that you didn’t really move the way you did before. “Maybe you’ve aged,” she said. When you denied it, this time by making an excuse about the “ruins of Basra” for after Basra, it’s hard for you to love any harbor – she remarked, “Then it’s war that still paralyzes you?” War? Which war did she mean? The first? The second? Or the third that might yet happen? Or is it the war that rages perpetually there? Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about what she said too seriously if she hadn’t run off with the Cuban seaman.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days later and I’m thinking about my situation. I’m trying to organize my life without her. Of course, I’ve endured a lot of pain. More than once I’ve wept over her departure. I have thought that her absence would last forever. All during our relationship her desire to cross the Atlantic never abated. Many times she told me about her grandparents, who lived in the Andalusian city of Cadiz before they made their way to Cuba. She was a child in those days, and her mother would show her photos of her family that had moved to “La Habana” after the Spanish Civil War. Her mother later joined them, leaving behind her father, who hated nothing in life more than travel. Twenty five years had gone by since he asked her, “Why did she leave Cadiz for Havana?”
Since her childhood she had dreamed of going to Cuba herself. “What about you?” she asked me. “Yes, we’ll go together,” I told her. “But be careful,” I cautioned, “for no sooner will I fly there than I’ll come back here.” So she wondered, “What is it that binds you to this part of the earth?” When I failed to speak, she answered for me, “I know, you’ll say, Basra. But now there’s no such place as Basra: now there’s only the war.” The war, the war-but which war? Teresa isn’t the first one to say this to me, while I too think that I’m haunted by the war. More than five years and I hadn’t tired of recounting the war’s events to her. No matter the occasion, whether we were sitting in front of the television, or seeing soldiers in the city, or even listening to tapes of music – everything reminded me of the war.
From her side, Teresa forgot none of this, for she described it in a letter she wrote to me before going away – despite the fact that we were living together at the time. The letter was stuck in a sheaf of her old missives, along with some from my brother and sister and friends, which I’d put – as I’ve always done – close to my bath to pull one or more of them out each time I filled the tub. (She hated this habit and told me, “I’m not surprised that you haven’t forgotten the war, for is there one of these letters that doesn’t talk about it, or its miseries?”)
She didn’t know that I put her letters there, too, perhaps because I used to deliberately shove them to the bottom of the pile. I tell you, that letter, which I was reading for the twentieth time, reminded me of all these details. Particularly that I insisted on listening to the music of Boney M (“The Imbeciles,” as Teresa called them), along with “Waltzing Matilda” by Tom Waits (because of my friend Mulhem’s love for it, and which I have liked since the first war, and still do-but which war?).
Even my friends’ complaints about it reminded me of it. “All he cares about is the war,” they’d say, “like a curse that never ceases pursuing him.” She hadn’t forgotten the story of the white suit, the white shoes, and the Panama hat that the tavern owner Matilda had given me as a gift before I left Basra.
In those days, when Teresa heard I’d lost it, she surprised me by buying a white suit and Panama hat and white shoes during one of our trips to Florence. (Yet what would I say to her if she saw me sitting among you, wearing the Caribbean clothes once again, but without the white shoes?)
That day she asked, as she handed me the suit, “Do you know why Matilda gave you this outfit?”
“What do you mean?” I replied defiantly.
“You don’t understand, my dear, that it’s to drag you out of the hell of the war,” she laughed.
“What is the war to me now?” I demanded.
“Enough of this curse that stalks you,” she swore.
The war, the war – but which war? How much have I longed for liberation from it, and to forget the day that it broke out. Yet it seems that destiny has been pursuing me, from the moment I left my country until today. The letters that have come to me through those years are heavy with all that has happened because of it.
The war – how long since it ignited? Fifteen years, nine months, and two days? Or five years, eleven months, three weeks, and three days? Or has it been all our lives? Didn’t it break out when you or I came into the world, in that country which now not only seems so far away on the map but also because of what is happening to it, and what is happening to us, hundreds of light years distant? That country, which I am not the first to forget nor the only one to not think of at all, except for the war.
Teresa used to say to me, “The war is between you and that country!” Not an inappropriate observation, but one that offered me scant consolation. And now, as I tell this story to you, I try to remember other things from it – for example, my friends, my childhood haunts, my first love, my first sexual experience, my first drink – but it’s all futile. All that comes to me is the war. Even if sometimes I succeed in chasing it away, it weighs upon me like the plagues of Egypt, hurtling down upon me like the curse of Yahweh, like the rains of revenge with which He pulverized offending cities at the dawn of the world.
That afternoon in Lisbon, after I finished my bath, and with a headache that had overwhelmed me for hours on end, I decided to put paid to the war completely. I threw away the tape by Boney M and the one with “Waltzing Matilda” on it and put on the white Caribbean suit with the Panama hat. Unfortunately, the shoes were black – in the chaos of my house, I couldn’t find the white ones. Yet I fulfilled Teresa’s wish.
On that midday, I also realized that I loved this woman to the point of worship. My pride would not avail me; my life would be made no easier by giving her up, or even by forgetting her. Never mind that she left me or went out with whichever man she wanted, I still loved her. I’d do whatever she wanted me to do.
Strange how we go around and around; we meet a lot of women, until we get to know one in particular – one who will be the center of the world. No matter who she is or what she does; no matter the wars, both declared and undeclared, that raged between us, there’s only her – and salaam, that’s it. Did I say “salaam“? Was Teresa the alternative to war? Was she peace? I don’t know.
Rather than that question, there were others demanding answers in my head as I drove my car toward the Lisbon train station. I didn’t even notice the distance between my house and Rua dos Douradores until I entered the underground garage at the station. I paid no attention to the time until I came to the platform and the great clock loomed before me: 6: 10 P. M. I still had a lot of time, then – so I went to the newspaper kiosk and bought the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, plus the Spanish paper, El Pais, and the Portuguese paper, Publico, and the Italian one, La Repubblica, and the German Sud-deutsche Zeitung, the British Guardian, and the New York Times. (This is what I normally do when I travel by train or wait in a cafe, to get a kick out of people’s curiosity when they see me reading all those languages!) Then I walked over to the big cafe at the station, the Regreso, where she’d asked me to wait for her at 7:00.
Truly happy I was, and sure that I would surprise Teresa with the white suit and Panama hat, and with the decision that I’d arrived at in my bath that day. I’d tell her that we’d move to the Spanish countryside, or maybe to Tuscany, or, if she wanted, to Paraguay, and raise cattle there. And there we’d live together, forever. I wouldn’t ask her about the Cuban sailor, or about her other men either. Rather, I would just love her more, and I’d forget the war absolutely. And we would have children.
As far as I can recall, it was on a Sunday in summer, on 16 June 1996, to be exact. I was cutting through the station to the Cafe Regreso nearby. After I had scanned the newspapers and tucked them under my arm, I heard someone calling out in Spanish, “Campos, Campos!”
At first I thought that the young man, decked out in a naval uniform, was addressing someone else. Yet when I saw him approach me, then throw his arms around me, I was sure he’d meant me.
“Campos, you obstinate man, how is my Doppelganger doing?” he said.
After I’d broken free of his grip and taken a step back, I realized that we indeed did look alike. Yet I told him, “I’d like you to look me over carefully, and perhaps you’ll realize that you’re overdoing it – for I’m from Basra.”
But he laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Strange that you’ve abandoned your dreams – you were always dreaming of Sinbad and Basra.”
I said nothing, but smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Why not, I thought. I still have fifty minutes ahead of me, and it’s a beautiful story.
I remembered that, since we must make up a story when writing one, then why not do the same when telling one? So I’m inventing the tale as I go along, in order to tell the truth, more or less.
I felt an old longing for the sailor’s uniform I had worn for six months in the late Seventies, when I worked as an interpreter for two East German admirals at the naval base in Basra. Those were my golden days in the service. The married woman who lived next to my grandfather’s house would wait for me with passion, and she would insist that I wear sailor’s clothes whenever we met.
And I still remember, when my employment at the athletic department in the navy ended, and I transferred to al-Mahawil Base near Babylon, how an officer in the artillery battery to which I was assigned screamed at me, “Get rid of those woman’s clothes, you jerk!”
Not satisfied with that, he punished me by making me march up and down the length of the parade ground as he shouted in my ear, “I’m going to show you the real meaning of ‘military,’ and then how we’re going to liberate Palestine!”
“Tell me,” I started to say, when he jumped in.
“Alejandro.” He told me his name before I could ask, as we sat in the Regreso.
“Alejandro, tell me,” I began again, “is the naval service as hated among the other military branches in your country as well?”
He laughed as he pulled two cigarettes out of a pack, offering me one, which I took – despite the fact that I’d quit smoking a long time ago.
“Hombre,” he said, “your favorite Cuban brand.”
“Campos,” he asked as he lit it for me, “how did you forget that?” Then he added as he blew out smoke, “Don’t you remember the infantry officer, Zein al-Abidin, who made us stand in the sun for two days in Buenos Aires when we were coming back on the double?”
“Coming back?” I blurted. “Alejandro, where were we coming back from?”
His face tightened as he looked at me searchingly, then he called to the waiter to bring us two cappuccinos.
“You were always very smart, Campos, always playing different parts,” he said. “Now the deaf man, now the blind man, now the dumb man. How I envy you.”
He paused for a moment to watch my reaction. Then he resumed talking, only this time without looking at me, just inspecting his cigarette that was more than half smoked.
“You’re the guy with the glib, cultured tongue,” Alejandro upbraided me, “who didn’t say anything, not a word, to the officer who punished us in the barracks at Buenos Aires. He abused us because we belonged to the navy – he believed that the naval forces had betrayed the army during the Falklands War, because they had British training.”
I said nothing. The waiter brought us our cappuccinos. Draining his cup completely in one gulp, Alejandro stopped the waiter to ask for another. Then he tossed the stub of his cigarette on the floor.
“You used to say that we had it coming,” he went on, “because we had been there, even though you knew we weren’t in the fighting.”
Pushing my cup toward him, I told him that I’d wait for the one that was coming.
Alejandro took a big swallow. “I used to ask you who was right – us or the English? And you always had the clever answer.”
He stopped again and took another draught. He lit another cigarette, then switched voices.
“I know that if the English are routed,” he imitated me, “the rule of the generals will go on.”
Halting, he added, “Despite the fact that you didn’t back the British.”
The waiter arrived with the third cappuccino, and I began to sip it calmly. We sat together like this for nearly forty minutes. I don’t remember how many cigarettes we smoked or cups of cappuccino we drank, one after the other. Alejandro told story after story about life over there, in the Falklands. I didn’t try to interrupt or contradict him.
And why should I? The young man recited his story with a totally confident demeanor, though I was perplexed by what he was saying. The important thing, of course, wasn’t whether I was convinced by what he said but whether I was convinced by the way he was saying it. I could have stopped him and waved my identity card in front of him, but how could I persuade him of my German nationality when I’d told him in the beginning that I was born in Basra? And when I’d spoken to the waiter in Portuguese? And how could I explain my proficiency in Spanish (though he’d consider my failure to speak with him in his Argentine dialect as being linked to my flight from that country a shrewd attempt on my part to disguise my identity)?
But what is logic to a man who tells a story the way he does (isn’t it possible to make up the tale as we go along? For Alejandro didn’t conjure the past merely in its details) until I felt I’d been with him then myself, as well as in the present. I asked him what he was doing in Lisbon, and he told me about their steamer coming from Argentina. They were on a quick trip to exchange military experience.
“I didn’t go with the others,” he said. “There was something calling out to me, saying, ‘Campos, your double that you lost after the war in Buenos Aires was not killed but escaped to seek harbor in the ports of our Lord.’ The voice said he was the only one who escaped our fate – which is either to be buried, or imprisoned, or exiled.”
Should I have thought the same way as my friend Mulhem, the POW? At the time, I seriously thought – however absurdly – of objecting to what Alejandro was saying.
“Do you see, my friend, Sinbad doesn’t die,” Alejandro said, his mouth stretched in a grin. “I see you as you always describe yourself, a sailor on terra firma.”
After this sentence came out of his mouth, carrying the sound of that beautiful Latin phrase, he added, while pointing at my white suit and Panama, “You’re a Caribbean man – the only thing you lack is a lady dolphin!”
“A lady what?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember the story that the woman who owned the bar told us, about the men from the Amazon in the city of Macondo?”
When I remained silent, he went on. ‘”When a group of these men sees some female dolphins playing,’ she said, ‘they carry them to the land, play with them, then sleep with them the whole night long.'”
Alejandro giggled, winking his eyes. “You know that they grant you a special power.”
His hand didn’t cease playing with the brim of his sailor’s hat, while the smile never left his lips. “And you – where’s your dolphin?” he taunted.
“She left with a Cuban seaman,” I told him. “Do you know that you look just like him?”
He laughed as he asked me, “You won’t forget, naturally.”
I shook my head.
“Amazing,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of truth in what you say. We go around and around and around and always wind up with one woman. It doesn’t matter who she is or what she does to us.”
Agreeing, I queried him, “What do you think is the cure then?”
Alejandro looked at me for a long while, until I felt that everything had come to a halt: the beating of my heart, the hubbub of the cafe’s patrons, the smoke wafting in the air.
“Only death will free you from her,” he declared.
“But I don’t feel like dying,” I retorted.
He crushed perhaps his tenth cigarette beneath his foot. “I know this is why you slipped out of the war,” said Alejandro. Then he went quiet for a moment.
“Do you have any dolphin oil?” he asked me suddenly.
“What kind of oil?” I asked, astonished again.
“Campos,” he answered, “you have forgotten a lot in these last years. Didn’t you tell me the story of your trip to the city of Macondo?”
When I didn’t react, he launched in excitedly, “Who but you would wander around the military sites when we were entombed in our trenches there and would tell us one story after another – your stories were like manna from heaven in that hell.”
In that instant it seemed I was once again inspired, and I found myself saying to him, “Do you mean that evening when I landed on the outskirts of the town of Macondo?”
“Yes,” he said eagerly, and then again, as if he didn’t believe it himself, “yes, yes.”
Before opening my mouth again, I consumed the cold, thick dregs of my cappuccino and said, “In the evening, just before sunset, I was meandering down by the river, at the edge of Macondo. The long tables of the smugglers groaned with all the scarcest goods from every comer of the earth: musk oil from the Himalayas, carpets from Samarkand, perfumed soaps by Vichy of Paris, Royal Lavender body lotion from London, clotted cream from Dublin, wild-beast hides from Marrakesh, bottles of tequila from Mexico with small serpents inside, rare birds from the Amazon, ful beans grown by the blacks of the Sudan, little wooden drums from Basra, and aromatic water from Suq al-Shuyukh in southern Iraq.
“In a corner of the market I met a woman selling herbs that cure boils on the skin and tree roots that cleanse the body. Behind pyramids of leaves there were rows of bottles of Johnnie Walker filled with a milky white liquid. I asked her what this was: she explained that it was the ‘essence of female dolphins’ tears.’
“‘If you take some drops of it and put them in your eyes, and rub them on your face and your hands,’ she promised, ‘then the person who loves you will never, ever leave you!'”
At this point, Alejandro stopped me.
“Did you buy a bottle of this stuff?” he drilled me, evidently forgetting that he had just told me he already knew the story. But we both knew that every time we tell a tale, its course always changes.
“Naturally, I tried it,” I assured him, “and it was a wonderful time. There wasn’t a single woman I failed to attract like a magnet-until I met Teresa, for whom I had been looking for a very long time. I didn’t want to spend just a fleeting moment with her – I wanted to spend eternity with her.”
Here I paused, and he waited quietly for me to resume. He seemed drugged by what I was telling him. Slowly. I picked up the thread again.
“My bad luck was that during my absence she began to use the oil on herself, even though I’d hidden it in an empty can of Nescafe. The next day, a strange man appeared at the door. Soon another man appeared, and then another, until one rang the bell and called for Teresa by name. Quickly she came down with her bag without even saying goodbye to me. I followed them to the port – and the man was a Cuban sailor!”
Lighting another cigarette, Alejandro offered me one, but I refused it.
“What are your plans now?” he wanted to know.
“I’ll try to persuade her to come back and live with me in the country,” I said. “I’m sick of the city, and besides, I want to have children with her – it’s better to have them out there.”
“You don’t have to go to the country to have children,” he retorted. “They spring up like weeds wherever you are – even in heaps of garbage. How could you get her back?”
Neither of us spoke for a while, as though we both accepted the way the story ended. Just as one knows that all stories must have an ending, and must end the same way that they began. One part of each story is hollow and turns around and around on itself, until we wind up sitting there not knowing who is telling it. Is it really us, or a voice from inside ourselves? Or is the tale telling us? Roles are swapped in the recounting, and then who is setting a trap for whom? The reality is that we – Alejandro and I – had both forgotten our current business for a while. Thus I forgot simultaneously about my newspapers and the time, and entered into a conversation with him as though we were making up the story ourselves, and living it ourselves, alone.
“What about you, Alejandro?” This time, it was me asking him about his future. “Haven’t you thought about deserting from the army yourself?”
His face brightened, as though he had been waiting for me to ask this question.
“Of course I have,” he said, “and because of this book that I was always telling you about.”
He wasn’t satisfied when I nodded my head, pretending to understand what he meant.
“I want to write a book on Existentialism and the military – but a curse on the army,” he continued. “I just can’t escape. I have four children – they popped up like weeds.”
I was truly saddened. I didn’t know what to say. We both fell silent, and my mind wandered for a long time. An image of myself in naval uniform floated before my eyes. Was it fate that had sent Alejandro to make me long once again to wear those clothes? Were not all the years that I lived through during the war – with all its fire – nor all the time that had passed while I dwelt in these new cities, nor all the women I had known – not even the return of Teresa – able to change what destiny had decreed for me? Nothing, that is, but the appearance of this Argentine man, from out of those wars in distant lands? So many questions rained down upon my head, I was no longer really there – until his voice brought me back.
“What do you want to do now?” he demanded.
I stared at him in confusion, as one waking from a long sleep. I looked up at the big clock that hung over the station platform that I could see from my seat. I saw him smiling as he watched me.
Without warning, I found myself asking, “Alejandro, you know my fondness for sailor suits?”
He nodded. “And you love the Caribbean,” I went on, “and you want to get out of the military, as well I know.”
There was no doubt that he agreed with me; he nodded his head again.
“So what do you think if we traded clothes?”
He gaped at me in shock. “Now?” he stuttered.
“Yes, now,” I said as I stood up. Alejandro wanted to take out his wallet and pay the bill, but I told him not to do it, because we would be coming back. I knew where the WC was, and when I started to walk toward it, he followed me.
Entering two adjoining stalls, we handed each other our clothes over the low concrete wall between them. “You go out before me,” I told him as we were leaving. “I’ll catch up with you.”
“Campos,” he declared, “your genius cannot be stilled.” Then I heard him close the door behind him and climb the stairs that led to the cafe.
Two minutes later, I followed him. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered that I had left my identity card and cash in my suit pockets. But I didn’t go to Alejandro, who had returned to the place where we’d been sitting. Instead, I made for the rear door, facing the WC, so that he wouldn’t see me. In seconds I reached the station’s platform.
Glancing up at the huge dial over, head, I saw that the time was exactly 7:00 P.M. Yet there was no need to consult it. The brakes of Teresa’s train as it pulled to a stop screeched in my ears, and I turned away and marched to the station’s exit.
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.
“In the year 17__, having for some time determined on a journey through countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers, I set out, accompanied by a friend, whom I shall designate by the name of Augustus Darvell. He was a few years my elder, and a man of considerable fortune and ancient family: advantages which an extensive capacity prevented him alike from undervaluing or overrating. Some peculiar circumstances in his private history had rendered him to me an object of attention, of interest, and even of regard, which neither the reserve of his manners, nor occasional indications of an inquietude at times nearly approaching to alienation of mind, could extinguish.
“I was yet young in life, which I had begun early; but my intimacy with him was of a recent date: we had been educated at the same schools and university; but his progress through these had preceded mine, and he had been deeply initiated into what is called the world, while I was yet in my novitiate. While thus engaged, I heard much both of his past and present life; and, although in these accounts there were many and irreconcilable contradictions, I could still gather from the whole that he was a being of no common order, and one who, whatever pains he might take to avoid remark, would still be remarkable. I had cultivated his acquaintance subsequently, and endeavoured to obtain his friendship, but this last appeared to be unattainable; whatever affections he might have possessed seemed now, some to have been extinguished, and others to be concentred: that his feeling were acute, I had sufficient opportunities of observing; for, although he could control, he could not altogether disguise them: still he had a power of giving to one passion the appearance of another, in such a manner that it was difficult to define the nature of what was working within him; and the expressions of his features would vary so rapidly, though slightly, that it was useless to trace them to their sources. It was evident that he was a prey to some cureless disquiet; but whether it arose from ambition, love, remorse, grief, from one or all of these, or merely from a morbid temperament akin to disease, I could not discover: there were circumstances alleged which might have justified the application to each of these causes; but, as I have before said, these were so contradictory and contradicted, that none could be fixed upon with accuracy. Where there is mystery, it is generally supposed that there must also be evil: I know not how this may be, but in him there certainly was the one, though I could not ascertain the extent of the other – and felt loth, as far as regarded himself, to believe in its existence. My advances were received with sufficient coldness: but I was young, and not easily discouraged, and at length succeeded in obtaining, to a certain degree, that common-place intercourse and moderate confidence of common and every-day concerns, created and cemented by similarity of pursuit and frequency of meeting, which is called intimacy, or friendship, according to the ideas of him who uses those words to express them.
“Darvell had already travelled extensively; and to him I had applied for information with regard to the conduct of my intended journey. It was my secret wish that he might be prevailed on to accompany me; it was also a probable hope, founded upon the shadowy restlessness which I observed in him, and to which the animation which he appeared to feel on such subjects, and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately surrounded, gave fresh strength. This which I first hinted, and then expressed: his answer, though I had partly expected it, gave me all the pleasure of surprise – he consented; and, after the requisite arrangement, we commenced our voyages. After journeying through various countries of the south of Europe, our attention was turned towards the East, according to our original destination; and it was in my progress through these regions that the incident occurred upon which will turn what I may have to relate.
“The constitution of Darvell, which must from his appearance have been in early life more than usually robust, had been for some time gradually giving away, without the intervention of any apparent disease: he had neither cough nor hectic, yet he became daily more enfeebled; his habits were temperate, and he neither declined nor complained of fatigue; yet he was evidently wasting away: he became more and more silent and sleepless, and at length so seriously altered, that my alarm grew proportionate to what I conceived to be his danger.
“We had determined, on our arrival at Smyrna on an excursion to the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis, from which I endeavoured to dissuade him in his present state of indisposition – but in vain: there appeared to be an oppression on his mind, and a solemnity in his manner, which ill corresponded with his eagerness to proceed on what I regarded as a mere party of pleasure little suited to a valetudinarian; but I opposed him no longer – and in a few days we set off together, accompanied only by a serrugee and a single janizary.
“We had passed halfway towards the remains of Ephesus, leaving behind us the more fertile environs of Smyrna, and were entering upon that wild and tenantless tract through the marshes and defiles which lead to the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana – the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques – when the sudden and rapid illness of my companion obliged us to halt at a Turkish cemetery, the turbaned tombstones of which were the sole indication that human life had ever been a sojourner in the wilderness. The only caravansera we had seen was left some hours behind us, not a vestige of a town or even cottage was within sight or hope, and this ‘city of the dead’ appeared to be the sole refuge of my unfortunate friend, who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.
“In this situation, I looked round for a place where he might most conveniently repose: – contrary to the usual aspect of Mahometan burial-grounds, the cypresses were in this few in number, and these thinly scattered over its extent; the tombstones were mostly fallen, and worn with age: – upon one of the most considerable of these, and beneath one of the most spreading trees, Darvell supported himself, in a half-reclining posture, with great difficulty. He asked for water. I had some doubts of our being able to find any, and prepared to go in search of it with hesitating despondency: but he desired me to remain; and turning to Suleiman, our janizary, who stood by us smoking with great tranquility, he said, ‘Suleiman, verbana su,’ (i.e. ‘Bring some water,’) and went on describing the spot where it was to be found with great minuteness, at a small well for camels, a few hundred yards to the right: the janizary obeyed. I said to Darvell, ‘How did you know this?’ – He replied, ‘From our situation; you must perceive that this place was once inhabited, and could not have been so without springs: I have also been here before.’
“‘You have been here before! – How came you never to mention this to me? and what could you be doing in a place where no one would remain a moment longer than they could help it?’
“To this question I received no answer. In the mean time Suleiman returned with the water, leaving the serrugee and the horses at the fountain. The quenching of his thirst had the appearance of reviving him for a moment; and I conceived hopes of his being able to proceed, or at least to return, and I urged the attempt. He was silent – and appeared to be collecting his spirits for an effort to speak. He began –
“‘This is the end of my journey, and of my life; – I came here to die; but I have a request to make, a command – for such my last words must be. – You will observe it?’
“‘Most certainly; but I have better hopes.’
“‘I have no hopes, nor wishes, but this – conceal my death from every human being.’
“‘I hope there will be no occasion; that you will recover, and –’
“‘Peace! – it must be so: promise this.’
“‘Swear it, by all that –’ He here dictated an oath of great solemnity.
“‘There is no occasion for this. I will observe your request; and to doubt me is –-‘
“‘It cannot be helped, – you must swear.’
“I took the oath, it appeared to relieve him. He removed a seal ring from his finger, on which were some Arabic characters, and presented it to me. He proceeded –
“‘On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis; the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour.’
“‘You will see.’
“‘The ninth day of the month, you say?’
“As I observed that the present was the ninth day of the month, his countenance changed, and he paused. As he sat, evidently becoming more feeble, a stork, with a snake in her beak, perched upon a tombstone near us; and, without devouring her prey, appeared to be steadfastly regarding us. I know not what impelled me to drive it away, but the attempt was useless; she made a few circles in the air, and returned exactly to the same spot. Darvell pointed to it, and smiled – he spoke – I know not whether to himself or to me – but the words were only, ”Tis well!’
“‘What is well? What do you mean?’
“‘No matter; you must bury me here this evening, and exactly where that bird is now perched. You know the rest of my injunctions.’
“He then proceeded to give me several directions as to the manner in which his death might be best concealed. After these were finished, he exclaimed, ‘You perceive that bird?’
“‘And the serpent writhing in her beak?’
“‘Doubtless: there is nothing uncommon in it; it is her natural prey. But it is odd that she does not devour it.’
“He smiled in a ghastly manner, and said faintly, ‘It is not yet time!’ As he spoke, the stork flew away. My eyes followed it for a moment – it could hardly be longer than ten might be counted. I felt Darvell’s weight, as it were, increase upon my shoulder, and, turning to look upon his face, perceived that he was dead!
“I was shocked with the sudden certainty which could not be mistaken – his countenance in a few minutes became nearly black. I should have attributed so rapid a change to poison, had I not been aware that he had no opportunity of receiving it unperceived. The day was declining, the body was rapidly altering, and nothing remained but to fulfil his request. With the aid of Suleiman’s ataghan and my own sabre, we scooped a shallow grave upon the spot which Darvell had indicated: the earth easily gave way, having already received some Mahometan tenant. We dug as deeply as the time permitted us, and throwing the dry earth upon all that remained of the singular being so lately departed, we cut a few sods of greener turf from the less withered soil around us, and laid them upon his sepulchre.
“Between astonishment and grief, I was tearless.”
June 17, 1816.
I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
There often used to be two of us. Three of us. Four, five, or six. I had brothers, sisters, a tarantula. Parents, yes, them too.
Plus there was my Uncle Nikolai and the guy from the neighbourhood with the pom-pom gloves. We laughed, sometimes cried. The pigeons in the town park choked on our cookie crumbs. Then winter came, then summer again, and my cousin Sonya showed me all kinds of shapes in Playgirl. Later, it must have been fall or spring, I went on the big wheel with my cousin Arseniy and we looked through Playboy – that was nice too.
My brother Yevgeny ate the last slice of cheese pizza. My brother Yevgeny wrote Idiot on my forehead in lipstick. Yevgeny skates down the street on my brand-new roller skates. I close my eyes and see Yevgeny skating towards a giant pit, or at least a nuclear waste disposal site. And perhaps it would be good if everyone really was dead. Or at least gone.
Then school starts again and I’m good at maths. I think about other things and sometimes drink schnapps through a funnel. Later I accidentally touch a girl’s elbow and we go away together to Miami for spring break. I say no to heroin, I say no to heroin, I really would never try heroin.
Then it’s October, and later it’s another year, the leaves are falling and I have really never understood Halloween. I dress up as the velociraptor from Jurassic Park and kiss a girl. I kiss a boy. I kiss my maths teacher. I sleep with him. More often, I kiss a girl who dressed up as Alf from the TV series Alf. We watch Home Improvement together and for a little while we’re very happy.
Later I go to college and meet a good-looking economic geologist. We take weekend trips to the following cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Jacksonville. I give papers and place LSD tabs on my tongue. Although we don’t intend to, we fall in love with each other, but when I tell him I’ve always wanted to travel around Europe, he laughs at me and calls me conservative, which kind of annoys me and I think at that moment something between us snaps. Shame, when we could have been so happy.
The flight to Montreal really is outrageously cheap, and when I get to the airport, I decide to stop smoking, buy a cycle helmet, or at least become a better person. I spend the first few days surfing the internet and avoid going outside, but when I realize I’ve just read the same article on theguardian.com that I read on theguardian.com yesterday, I decide to get off the internet and make a firm resolution to start a Canadian indie rock band called IntercityExperimental or Monsieur Brown Bear. Canada, this country seems incredibly liberal to me.
Before fall comes, I finish my degree at NYU and reward myself with a road trip to Venezuela. In Caracas there may be no functioning health system or any police officers who are acquainted with the concepts of law and order, but there are parties and a great sensual naivety, which I find extremely charming and inspiring. I buy myself a keyboard and start an electro-jazz trio with Juan and that seriously cute kid Ignacio. But Juan soon turns out to be a ridiculously bad bassist, and after a while Ignacio’s cousins steal all our instruments, our money, and my passport, but I’m totally okay with that. In any case, I’ve never been robbed in a third-world country before and this experience makes me more grown up and spiritually mature, no doubt about that.
I make a snap decision to do a master’s in philosophy in Göttingen, and buy a complete annotated works of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I race through the first volume, but then in the last paragraph my eye falls on a crass error of reasoning and I turn away from Fichte in disappointment. Later I develop genuine feelings for my housemate Susanne, but her job as a model and all the traveling it involves make a genuine romance impossible, at least for me, and when I say this to Susanne she makes a fairly serious attempt to kill herself, which of course fails, but then I knew it would.
I go to the carnival in Cologne and dress up as the triceratops from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I kiss an altar boy, I kiss a female pastor, I kiss a priest. Cologne, this city seems incredibly liberal to me. When I finally wake up on a sofa-bed in Düsseldorf, I realise that my money and my passport are gone. And it feels kind of cool not to own anything anymore. The apartment I’m in belongs to a very young theatre directing student, Annika, and is insanely minimalist. She says she didn’t do it deliberately, but I don’t believe her.
I ask my father to send me some money and I fly to the following cities: Prague, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Venice. For some reason I’m into city trips. A few days later, on the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, I see a man jump into the water, incessantly shouting Ciao, ciao! Be good! I love you all! Ciao! And at once I am very quiet and terribly happy, and I believe everyone standing next to me feels the same: all at once everyone is very quiet and terribly happy and kind of one with each other.
And then I decide – probably on a whim – to visit the place where Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein. But then of course it isn’t a house, just a run-of-the-mill hospital, what else would it be, and during my stay in Idar-Oberstein I sleep with the following people: Malte and Doctor Inga Jansen. That’s all, but then I wasn’t there for very long.
I go into rehab for a little while in Tibet, and my father is mad because I quit my philosophy degree. In Shenyang, which is a Chinese mega-city that no one knows about, I walk through a marketplace and realize that maybe God really is dead. I scrabble my way through the crowds in Delhi. The pedestrian zone in Braunschweig. Carnival in Rio. I am dressed up as the flying dinosaur from Jurassic Park III. Sometimes I wish everyone was dead. Or at least gone.
I go to a spa, I relax, I drive out into the countryside. Then I sleep with the farmer. After that there are more city trips, druggy trips, splendid travels. I imagine shooting the chief executive of Google Maps in the face at close range, but quickly dismiss the thought because the chances of being immediately arrested seem pretty high. I go into rehab for a little while at home in Key West and for a short time I am very happy, watching Who’s the Boss? on the clinic’s little TV. Then I escape, steal my father’s diplomatic passport, and wake up three weeks later in Mainz, on Shrove Tuesday. Strangely I have dressed up as Chris Pratt from Jurassic World.
Sometimes I could really throttle you, my mother says on the phone, sometimes I would just like to smash your soft little head into the sink. And she’s probably right, she probably could really throttle me, I don’t want to rule out that possibility. Maybe it’s true, maybe I really am a ridiculously bad person who deserves such things, but then again maybe it isn’t and it’s actually all my mother’s fault.
On the spur of the moment, my new roommate Sven and I decide to write a manifesto, and it goes like this: our enemies are opticians and parents, men and women, our enemies are carbohydrates and nation states, times of day and the internet and train station toilets you have to pay for, our enemies are Bahncard 25 holders and those bastards at Google Maps, our enemies are right-handed scissors and German foreign ministers, our enemies are—
But unfortunately we don’t get any further, because we have to stop writing in order to do some serious kissing and then some serious making out and then some serious fucking, and that all takes so long that afterwards we can’t remember what we actually wanted to write.
And so I decide to breed sea monkeys and generally become a good person. But no matter what I do, the damn sea monkeys always go and die on me after a few days. Sometimes I wish all humans would just die as well. I throw the window open and holler: Just die! It would be so nice if you were gone. Or at least dead. Then it’s October and I wake up on a pull-out couch in Wiesbaden. My money and my passport are gone, and so is my roommate Sven. Shame, we could have been so happy.
When evening falls and I take a stroll along the Rhine, I am overcome by a great longing or sadness, and I secretly wish I was earning my money in the Korean StarCraft league or selling hot chestnuts on the Rue Royale in Brussels or was wanted for murder or was wanted for hijacking a plane or at least was wanted for something, but then I decide to finally be sensible after all and start an Icelandic fashion label with my brother Yevgeny.
The tax laws in Reykjavik are really incredibly liberal, and with a bit of luck and some clever tactics we sell the label after just six months, making us moderately rich in a short space of time, and we spend our time producing pop songs and financing diversity projects in Kinshasa. And without really noticing, we blow all our savings on cocaine and long-haul flights.
I arrive in Saarbrücken totally burned out, and secretly wishing to become a private detective, though I really have no idea why. But I soon realize that this wish is based on entirely false expectations, and also connected is with the fact that my father was never there for me when I needed him. During my short stay in Saarbrücken, then, I think a lot about connections and I buy a soft-serve ice cream and a bumper pack of Marlboro Menthols and think that these are also somehow connected.
I win 200 Euro in a betting shop for correctly predicting the results of three games in the Turkish league, and with the money I buy an intercity ticket to Zurich. I know no one in Zurich and have no idea at all what I am doing here, so I really do become a private detective, for nearly two weeks in any case, because the whole thing is actually quite tedious, and underpaid as well. Then I meet my former roommate Sven at a rave in Lucerne and he says he’s sorry about everything that happened, but he thanks me for my beautiful eyes and my reliability and my beautiful ass, thank you.
I ride down to the South of France on a scooter and take a two-week holiday in a luxury hotel in Nice to forget this whole fucked-up thing with Sven, and because it’s low season there it’s also outrageously cheap. I catch myself no longer wishing that everyone was dead or at least gone, and wonder whether I have now become a good person. I walk the steppes of Africa. I walk the steppes of Brandenburg. I wonder how my parents are doing and what my brother Yevgeny is doing and where he’s got to this time.
And just as I think that and take a drag on my electronic cigarette, I look out of the window of my hotel room and everything is on fire, no matter where I look, it burns all morning and all afternoon. And it keeps burning the next day and the day after, the houses are on fire, the roofs and the people and the galaxies burn for what must be weeks and months and there’s no end and no mercy and no darkness anymore; everything is just dazzling and crude and bright.
And then, some time later, I am sitting on a bus from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and thinking about masculine things. I think about DIY stores, razors, heart attacks. And then some time later, it must be spring or fall, I’m sitting on a train from Memphis to Phoenix and thinking about feminine things. I think about ermine, robots, earlobes. And then, some time after that, I’m sitting on a streetcar in San Francisco and suddenly I sense this great feeling within me, a feeling of purity, the feeling of shooting a machine gun into a crowd of people, and of eating the moon and being someone who knows what’s what, who is there for other people, who has the courage to admit his feelings and not be someone like my father, but someone who knows the score, who knows, for instance, that love is more important than Europe. I would like to be someone like that. I feel it and it’s the truth.
Video: from The Rules of Attraction (2002), Roger Avary.
A Turkish philosopher from Istanbul once visited me in Berlin. He was only there for a few days. He looked at the street and said quietly, ‘I don’t think I could live here.’
Not the summer planes but the winter planes brought many people who were crying from Europe to Istanbul, crying because their fathers or mothers had died in Turkey. Three years ago, I was on a winter plane. Suddenly, a woman got up from her seat, threw herself on the floor of the plane and started wailing. All the people stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’
Two of the woman’s children had died in a car accident in Istanbul, and she had to go to the funeral. The stewardesses put her back in her seat, held her hand. The woman wailed, ‘Open the door. Throw me out. I want to look for them in heaven.’ She kept looking out of the window, as though she could see the dead in the sky.
‘Open the door.’
Then she looked at the other passengers behind her, as though she wanted them all to walk into the sky with her to look for her dead. She wanted the plane to move around like a car, left, right, back, forward, and look for the dead. But the plane flew straight ahead, as though pulled across the sky along a rail…
Back when I still lived in Istanbul, twenty-five years ago, I got on a ship one summer night, and it took me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea-sellers brought people tea, small change jingling in their pockets. The moon was huge, as though it lived only in the Istanbul sky, loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city. Wherever it looked, all doors would instantly open to let the moon wax in. Wherever you touched, you touched the moon too. Everyone held a piece of moon in their hands. Now the moon lit up two faces next to me on the ship. A boy, a girl. He said, ‘So, you gave Mustafa your key too. I’m leaving. Goodbye.’ He leapt from the ship’s deck into the sea and dived into the moonlight. The ship was exactly mid-way between Asia and Europe. Not saying anything, the girl stayed in her seat in the moonshine. All the other people dashed to the ship’s rail, the boat leaned with the crowd, and the tea glasses also slid towards the rail on their saucers. The tea-seller shouted, ‘Tea money. Tea money.’ I asked the girl, ‘Is he a good swimmer?’ She nodded. The crew threw two lifebelts after the boy but he didn’t want a lifebelt. The ship turned and sailed after the boy, a rescue boat pulled him out of the sea. The moon watched everything that happened, and when the boy had to go to the captain with wet clothes and wet hair, the moon lit him up with a circle of light like a clown in the circus. The ship turned back towards the Asian side, the tea-sellers found their customers and collected up the change. The moon shone on the empty tea glasses, but suddenly the ship turned back for the European side, because it had left the lifebelts behind in the sea. And the moon was always there above Europe and Asia.
At the Istanbul airport, the people waited, a long corridor of people, some of them crying.
How many doors were there now in Istanbul? Twelve million people, how many doors did they open? And can the moonshine wax in under all the doors? Can the moon manage that?
When I was a child, four hundred thousand people lived in Istanbul.
Our neighbour Madame Atina (‘Athena’), one of Istanbul’s Greeks, used to pull back her aged cheeks and tape them in place behind her ears. I was supposed to help her with it. She told me, ‘I’m a Byzantine like the Hagia Sophia church, which was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, 326 A.D., a basilica with stone walls and a wooden roof. In the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines believed they were closer to God than anywhere else, and I too believe I’m closer to the moon in Constantinople than anywhere else in the world.’ With the tape behind her ears, Madame Atina would go to the greengrocer’s. I’d go with her. She looked young with her cheeks pulled back so I walked quickly. She wanted to walk as quickly as me and sometimes she fell down on the street. The greengrocer was a Muslim, and he’d joke with Madame Atina, ‘Madame, a Muslim angel came, he put his finger in a hole in a pillar and turned the Hagia Sophia to face Mecca.’ I loved the Hagia Sophia; its floor was uneven and the walls sported frescoes of Christ without a cross, a muezzin sang the ezan from the minaret, and in the night the moon shone on Christ’s face and on the face of the muezzin.
One day, Madame Atina took the ship with me to the Asian part. I was seven years old. My mother said, ‘Look, the Greeks of Istanbul are the city’s salt and sugar.’ And Madame Atina showed me her own Istanbul. ‘Look at that little tower by the sea. The Byzantine emperor, who had received a prophecy that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and killed, had this Tower of Leandros (Maiden’s Tower) built and hid his daughter inside it. One day, the maiden longed for figs, so a basket of figs was brought to her from the city. She was bitten by a snake that had hidden in the basket, and she died.’ Madame Atina cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘My girl, with those beautiful eyes you’ll burn many men’s hearts.’ The sun lit up her red-painted fingernails, behind which I saw the Maiden’s Tower by the sea.
Then Madame Atina walked with me across the Bridge of the Golden Horn. As I walked across the low bridge that moved with the waves, I didn’t yet know that Leonardo da Vinci – the Ottomans called him Lecardo – had once written a letter to the sultan, on the 3rd of July 1503. The sultan wanted him to build a bridge across the Golden Horn, and Leonardo sent the sultan his suggestions in that letter. Another suggestion came from Michelangelo in 1504. But Michelangelo had a question: ‘If I were to build this bridge, would the sultan demand that I adopt the Muslim faith?’ The Franciscan abbot who discussed the sultan’s suggestion with Michelangelo said, ‘No, my son, I know Istanbul as well as Rome. I don’t know which city holds more sinners. The Ottoman sultan will never demand such a thing of you.’ Michelangelo couldn’t build the bridge in the end, though, because the pope threatened to excommunicate him. For centuries, the Ottomans didn’t build a bridge between the two European parts of Istanbul because Muslims lived in one and Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the other. Only fishing boats ferried the people to and fro. It was Sultan Mahmut II (1808–1836) who wanted to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together at last in Istanbul and had the famous bridge built. Once it was finished, the fishermen beat at the bridge with sticks because it had taken away their work. The bridge became a stage: Jews, Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Europeans, Persians, Circassians, women, men, horses, donkeys, cows, hens, camels, they all walked across the bridge. One day there were two crazies, a woman and a man, both of them naked. The man stood at one end of the bridge, the woman at the other. She shouted, ‘From here on, Istanbul is mine.’ He shouted, ‘From here on, Constantinople is mine.’
At the airport, I took a taxi. Since Istanbul had become a city of twelve million, the taxi drivers would no longer find the addresses and they’d lose their tempers. ‘Madame, if you don’t know where you want to be driven, why did you get in my car?’ I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I no longer had a father and a mother to go to first.
Years ago, I had come to Istanbul once before on a winter plane to bury my parents, who had died three days apart. My mother was the first to go. My father had sat in his chair, the opposite chair empty. He took out a pair of false teeth with sheep’s cheese still stuck to them, and said, ‘Here, your mother’s false teeth.’ Two days later he died too, and his coffin stood on a raised stone slab for the dead in the mosque’s courtyard. There were two other coffins on the other slabs, and the mosque got the coffins mixed up. They didn’t know which dead man belonged to which family. At the cemetery, the gravediggers took the corpses, wrapped in shrouds, out of the coffins, and a man from each family – the women weren’t allowed to stand near the graves – had to see which of the dead belonged to them. My brother looked at the three dead men’s faces and said, ‘That’s our father.’
In the taxi, I now drove past the cemetery where my parents were buried. I couldn’t remember which grave was my father’s. All I knew was that you could see the sea from his grave. Since Istanbul has become a city of twelve million, the cemetery management has demanded that relatives buy up the graves, otherwise new dead are laid on top of the dead. At the time, my brother called me in Germany: ‘What shall we do? Buy the grave or let him get lost between the other dead?’
‘What do you think?’
‘We can let him lie with the other dead, that suits him better.’
As no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, we didn’t mind where the dead would lie. The cemeteries are empty, the only quiet places in the city. As a young girl, I sometimes used to go to the cemeteries with a poet. He had written down what it said on the gravestones. He said, ‘These are people’s last words. There are no lies.’ He wanted to use those words in his poems.
Although no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, every cemetery has its own crazy. They wander between the gravestones, and cats wander after them because they give the cats cheese and bread. At my parents’ cemetery, there were two crazies who lived there for years. One of them would always give the other a lira. One day, he gave him three lira instead of one. The other man got angry and said, ‘Why are you giving me three lira, I only want one lira.’
‘My son, have you not heard of inflation? Three lira is one lira now.’
The other man started to cry; his friend gave him a handkerchief.
The taxi driver couldn’t find my friend’s address and he broke out in a sweat. I gave him a paper tissue and said, ‘Drive me to the city centre.’ Thirty years ago, there was a film producer in Istanbul who only filmed sad stories. He knew all the viewers would cry, so he had handkerchiefs made out of the finest cotton. He stood outside the cinema himself and handed the handkerchiefs to the moviegoers. He laughed all the while. In those days, there was a famous cinema crazy in Istanbul, who especially admired a particular Turkish actor. Because that actor was killed in a film role, the crazy came to the cinema with a gun one evening and tried to kill the murderer before he could shoot – and fired six shots at the screen. Istanbul loves its crazies. The city gives them its breast and suckles them. It has been ruled by several crazy sultans. When a crazy comes along, Istanbul gives him a place.
I got out of the taxi right outside the cinema where the crazy once shot at the screen. Before I left for Berlin twenty-two years ago, I would often stand outside that cinema waiting for my friends.
Now I’m standing here again, looking at the faces of the people walking past. It looks like films from all different countries are being screened one over another. Humphrey Bogart is speaking to an Arabic woman, asking her the time. A Russian whore is speaking to a man who moves like Woody Allen.
I look for my friends from back then in these people’s faces, but I’m looking for them in the young faces of today, as though my friends hadn’t got older over these twenty-two years, as though they’d waited for me with their faces from back then. As though Istanbul had frozen to a photo at the moment I left for Europe, to wait for me – with all its baths, churches, mosques, sultans’ palaces, fountains, towers, Byzantine walls, bazaars, wooden houses, steel lanes, bridges, fig trees, slum houses, street cats, street dogs, lice, donkeys, wind, sea, seven hills, ships, crazies, dead, living, whores, poets, porters. As though Istanbul had waited for me with its millions of shoes, all waiting for morning in the houses, with its millions of combs left below mirrors spotted with shaving soap.
I’m here, so now all the windows will open. The women will call out to their friends from window to window. The basil plants in the flowerpots will give off their scent. The children of the poor will throw themselves into the Marmara Sea in their long cotton underpants to wash. All the ships between Asia and Europe will sound their horns. The cats will yowl for love on the roofs. The seven hills of Istanbul will awaken. The gypsy women will pick flowers there to sell in the city centre later on. The children will climb the fig trees. The birds will peck at the figs.
‘Mother, do you make fig jam from the male or the female fig trees?’
‘The male ones. Look, their figs are small and hard.’
In the tulip gardens at the sultan’s palace, the tortoises will walk around with lit candles on their shells, the tulips will bend their heads towards the sea in the wind, the tortoises’ candle lights will flicker in the same direction. The wind will push the ships along today and make them sail faster, the passengers will arrive home sooner. When the men are at home, the lights will go on across the seven hills. The fathers will wash their hands. Sounds of water. ‘My daughter, will you pass me a towel?’
Opposite the cinema were a few shops. Some of the shopkeepers recognized me and said hello; they all had white hair and white eyebrows.
Next to the cinema stood a poor man, perhaps a farmer, trying to photograph the people passing by with a Polaroid camera.
‘Photo souvenir of Istanbul, photo souvenir of Istanbul!’
I let him take my photo; the picture was blurred. ‘Take another picture.’
‘I haven’t any more film.’
A beggar woman took the photo out of my hand and said to the photographer, ‘You’re the artist, aren’t you, why didn’t you photograph this lady in front of McDonald’s?’
She looked closely at the photo and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how beautiful my treasure is, how beautiful.’
I thought she meant me, but there was a cat on the wall behind me in the photo. I was blurred but the cat was in focus.
Then I called the Turkish philosopher who didn’t want to live in Berlin.
‘Where are you?’
I took the ship over to him, to the Asian part of Istanbul. Sailing alongside the ship sailed a fishing boat transporting two horses. The moon shone on the faces of the horses, which were perfectly calm. I dipped my hands in the sea to touch a little moonshine; the moon looked suddenly like it had in my childhood – as though it lived only ever here in the Istanbul sky, as though it loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city.
*This story is taken from: Der Hof im Spiegel by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. © Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
Someone, probably the ticket inspector, told him that his was the only suitcase. No one else was going to Alquila today. There’s no way it can get lost. But Hernández insisted on taking it with him. I like to keep an eye on my things.
On the platform Hernández ate a few biscuits, bought a bottle of water and nervously smoked his way through two or three cigarettes. Then the door to the bus opened, and he rushed inside even though he was the only one waiting. I need to keep it with me, he explained to the driver as he climbed the narrow steps. I have my medicine in here. The driver nodded without looking around, gripping his steering-wheel more tightly.
A superstitious man, Padilla was afraid that something would happen to his bus if he spoke before starting off, just as he never spoke before getting to the mountains to make sure that nothing happened to his passengers.
By then, Hernández had taken over a row of seats and put his suitcase in the aisle. He was excited to be the only one taking the bus to Alquila that day.
Don’t block the aisle, Padilla said as the bus went around a bend. Surprised, Hernández sat up to look at the driver in the mirror. Smiling, he asked, Are you serious?
It’s dangerous for the other passengers, Padilla answered, looking back at Hernández. Rules are rules, he added without revealing the real reason: if he allowed something to block the aisle they’d have an accident or, at best, be delayed.
Pointing to the seats around him, Hernández was ready to argue the point, but Padilla was an experienced driver, and he quickly looked away from the mirror and turned up the volume on the radio. Shaking his head, Hernández decided to ignore him and lay back down.
A few minutes later, while the driver fumed in his seat, Hernández took a map out from his jacket pocket. He had ordered it by mail. Now, he excitedly but carefully unfolded it and examined it for a long time. He was finally going to see her.
Hernández had met Romina three weeks before at a Faculty of Architecture party that had almost ended up with the two of them in bed. I’d love to see you in Alquila, she’d told him in the foyer of his block of flats. Whenever you like.
Since then it had been all Hernández could think about. At twenty years old he was the only one of his friends who was still a virgin – and Romina was his only viable option for getting rid of a label under which he had suffered for too long.
He was so nervous he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get any rest on the trip, even though it would last all night. What if I come too soon? Hernández agonized in silence. What if I don’t last a minute? What if I come as soon as I see her naked?
Hernández folded up the map and put it away then reached for his suitcase, took out a bag and checked that he had everything he needed: four packets of condoms (Who knows how many I’ll waste out of nerves?), a box of Viagra (In case I get stage fright) and sleeping pills for the trip, which had been recommended by another customer in the pharmacy.
Although the box said that two would be enough, Hernández, who couldn’t get the image of Romina’s body or his fears about the potential failings of his own body out of his head, decided to take four. There’s plenty of time after all, he murmured before taking a swig from his bottle and lying back down, hoping that the effects would be immediate.
Just then the driver lowered the ten screens that had thus far been hidden, and a stewardess’ voice started to play very loud. You’re really getting on my nerves, Hernández exclaimed, sitting up with a jolt. Then he raised his voice. I don’t want to watch the movie! But Padilla pretended not to hear, and as soon as the advert for the coach company that paid his salary had finished he turned the speakers up as high as they would go. Covering his ears and clenching his jaw, Hernández realized the absurd situation he was in. He got up and walked down the aisle to Padilla. Please, can you turn it off? I assure you that no one is going to watch the movie, he added a few moments later, tugging the corners of his mouth into the most unconvincing smile imaginable.
That’s not possible, Padilla replied after another brief silence. It’s the rules. And although you may not respect them, I follow them to the letter. He turned to look at his passenger. Hernández’s smile faded from his face. Go back to your seat. You can’t stand here. It’s not allowed.
Fighting the urge to swear at him, Hernández bit back his frustration, turned around and started to walk back down the aisle. Then he quietly asked, Can’t you at least lower the volume a little?
Impossible, Padilla said, accelerating in an attempt to throw his passenger to the ground. I can’t touch the volume. Regulations.
Hernández kept his balance and hurried back to his seat, smiling again, this time out of impotence rather than condescension. He shook his head in anger, mumbled a couple of words that not even he understood and went back to his four seats with his tail firmly between his legs. Fortunately, the pills were already beginning to take effect. Now nothing, not the noise and glare from the television screens or Padilla’s jerky driving, would bother Hernández. As soon as he lay down his mind went blank.
Hernández slept so deeply and was so oblivious to the world that he wasn’t aware of anything more until they got to Alquila. Padilla, who had done all he could to make the journey a waking nightmare, shook his arm saying Come on, you bastard, we’re here. Get up. It’s not my job to wake you up. Then he pushed Hernández’s legs with the sole of his shoe. And I don’t have to wait for you either. Get yourself out, or I’ll do it for you, the driver threatened, kicking Hernández again. Feeling his heels on the ground, the passenger woke up. Fine, fine, I heard you. I’m going. After wiping the drool from his chin and rubbing his face with his hands, Hernández stood up, registered that he was still a little dizzy, picked up the suitcase as best he could and followed the driver, who was mumbling, I hope this place treats you the way you deserve.
Out in the street, fighting the dizziness the pills had left behind, Hernández rubbed his face and shook his head again before looking around. The sun was just coming up, and he couldn’t believe that Alquila was even uglier than it had looked in Romina’s photos.
Moments later someone, maybe the driver who would take charge of the bus after Padilla, told him how to get to the plaza – Not that there’s much point. There’s nothing to see here. Paying no attention to the stranger’s last words, Hernández set out and soon covered the six or seven blocks that separated him from his destination. Around him, light was flooding across the ground.
It’s too early to call her, Hernández said to himself, hugging his bag. He sat down on a bench and went on, I’m not going to wake her up just now and definitely not her parents. But he was just making excuses. He was a bundle of nerves. What the hell am I going to say to her when she answers? I’d better not call her. What if she doesn’t want to…? What if she’s changed her mind? he said as the plaza filled with people hurrying to and fro. He looked up and saw the sun appear behind the green church steeple. Then he raised his voice, trying to conquer his fears, What the hell am I thinking? Of course I’m going to call her.
Why would she have changed her mind? He exclaimed even louder, getting up. She would have told me. But I’ll have breakfast first to give her a little more time, he added, setting off across the plaza in search of somewhere to have breakfast, oblivious to the fact that this was just another pretext. Neither did he notice how unusual it was for people to be hurrying around so urgently at that hour.
Then someone, maybe the man at the newspaper kiosk, told him that the best place for breakfast was the restaurant run by Doña Eumelia, The one on the other side of the plaza, next to the stationer’s. But hurry up, you don’t have much time. I don’t think it’ll be open for much longer. But Hernández was already walking off, so he didn’t hear the warning. As he went into the restaurant, Hernández smiled, thinking to himself that he’d solved a couple of problems in one: he could eat something and pass the time and also buy some paper in which to wrap up Romina’s present. If she has changed her mind, the present might change it back again, he thought as he ordered eggs. Then he sat down, looking at the window display of the stationer’s, examining the different rolls of wrapping paper. Eventually, Hernández opted for a blue roll and went over to the counter to ask the shop girl, Doña Eumelia’s niece and first cousin, who was staring fixedly at the television, Can I have a metre of this one?
No, the shop girl answered, barely looking at Hernández. That paper is for children. Also, I’m watching the news. And you’re not from around here. I don’t like to deal with strangers, the shop girl said rudely without taking her eyes off the television. Just for children. Damn, Hernández said, smiling. Strangers… then give me a metre of that one.
I can’t, I already told you, the shop girl said irritably, looking at Hernández for the first time.
What if I get a child to buy it for me? Hernández asked, turning to the plaza with an incredulous smile as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Who would use it? You or the child? The shop girl asked, coming over to the counter but still staring at the television, where a local news presenter was saying, It’s going to be another difficult day.
It’s for me not the child. I was just making a joke, Hernández explained. I need to wrap a present –
Then stop asking, liar, the shop girl interrupted him. People come from outside and bring their bad manners with them, she added, turning around and going back to her seat. I’m not going to sell you anything. Too incredulous to be upset, Hernández considered trying again, but the shop girl got up from her seat, hurried back to the counter, pushed past him and poked her head into the other side of the premises where the restaurant was. They’re coming back.
Defeated, Hernández walked back to his table, just as Doña Eumelia was serving him his eggs, which would never be eaten.
Now they’re saying, said the shop girl behind Hernández, who watched Doña Eumelia walk to the threshold and look out at the street, that they’re already here. A couple of seconds later the shop girl and Doña Eumelia had lowered the shutters of the premises they shared, turned off the lights, hurried over to Hernández, picked him up and, saying We’re sorry but you can’t stay here, violently dragged him out back and thrown him out onto the street.
Someone, maybe one of the men running across the plaza, said to Hernández, Why are you just standing there? And someone else added, Run, they’re coming… they’re down here already, they’re everywhere.
Utterly confused, Hernández started to run after the men who’d spoken to him. A couple of blocks later, he heard the first explosions and the rattling of machine-gun fire. Gripped by fear, he felt his joints begin to creak and freeze up.
Romina, thought Hernández, still running. I have to call her. He took out his telephone in the middle of the street and hid in a doorway ready to dial, but someone, maybe a woman running along with two children in her arms, said, Don’t stop. They cut off the service. Utterly bewildered, Hernández put away his telephone, took out the map on which Romina had written her address and started to run in a daze, hearing the shots and explosions get closer and closer. A few paces further on, the woman tripped on a crack in the road and fell to the ground, sending her children tumbling.
Hernández helped her back up, picked up one of her children and ran as he’d never run before. He asked the woman if she knew how to get to Arteaga 17. You’re in luck… we’re close by… Just go around the corner and keep going straight on… It’s five, no, it must be four blocks. Or come with me and help my boy… You can hide at my house.
I’m sorry… really, said Hernández, stopping for a second to look at the woman and the child on the ground. He had no way of knowing that the decision he was taking would end up being the most important of his life. But he wanted to get to Romina’s house. The machine-gun fire and explosions continued in the distance. Turning at the corner the woman had pointed out to him, Hernández moved his legs impossibly fast. His chest felt as though it might burst at any moment, but he found strength he never knew he had. And so he arrived at the house he was looking for and started desperately banging on the door, shouting Romina’s name over and over again.
But no one came to answer. He couldn’t hear a thing behind the door, not a murmur. Romina’s family was hiding in the bathroom, and, although they heard the racket Hernández was making, the head of the family warned them, Don’t make a sound. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. I don’t even want to hear you breathe. We don’t know who’s out there, who’s wandering the streets. Romina’s father stared hard at Romina, who was crying in silence. The more noise Hernández made, the deeper she burrowed her head into her arms. Maybe if we knew who it was, the head of the family whispered, but we don’t know him. We can’t take the risk.
When he had finally accepted the fact that the door he was kicking and thumping wouldn’t be opened, Hernández remembered the woman and the two children he’d abandoned. Lost and scared, he ran back the way he had come, but someone, maybe a woman on the roof, shouted out to him, The other way… run the other way… They’re coming that way.
Before Hernández had absorbed this piece of advice, a man cried out, and the people who were terrorizing the town came around the corner. Turning around, Hernández started to get his legs moving in the other direction, but then he stopped. They were at the other corner, too.
He froze and felt his bladder begin to fail. Hernández waited for the men to come towards him. When they finally arrived, he tried to say something, but someone, maybe the man who smashed in his jaw with the butt of the rifle, pre-empted him.
Before his eyes closed and he lost consciousness, Hernández saw the man who had hit him walk away and then heard the giggling of a pair of small boys, who were also armed.
Clinging on to the world by a thin thread of amazement, Hernández heard a woman’s voice giving orders. Load him up with his things… He must be an outsider.
Hernández felt nothing as they dragged him away, tied up his hands and feet and threw him into the back of a truck.
He came to a couple of hours later when someone, maybe one of the children who had laughed before, poured a bucket of water over his head. But when he finally opened his eyes, no one was there.
All he could see was a mess. They’d emptied out his suitcase in the back yard where he was lying. He looked up at the sun for a moment and felt a prickling across his entire body. He found that his T-shirt had been removed, his shoes taken off and his wrists and ankles throbbed with pain.
A couple of minutes later the woman who had ordered that he be brought with them appeared. Spitting out tangerine seeds, she stepped around the clothes and bent down next to Hernández. In a quiet voice she murmured, You’re not from around here. Then she moved around behind him and cut the ropes with which he had been tied up.
Stand up and follow me, she ordered, and it was then, hearing her voice, that Hernández realized that it reminded him of someone else. He’d heard it before. Maybe it was that woman, he thought. No, it was just like Romina’s voice. Or her mother’s.
Before he could continue with the nonsensical, absurd line of thought to which he clung so as not to have to think about anything else, to get away from where he was, Hernández found himself in a room. He and the woman he was following were met by a dozen adults and three or four children.
Hernández was hit again in the solar plexus and bent over before falling to his knees. Scratching at the earth, he tried to regain his breath, choke back the saliva running out from his mouth and dry his wet eyes. Around him people were laughing.
Someone, maybe the man who appeared to be the boss in that dark room, said, So you’ve come to fuck our wives. Surprised and terrified, Hernández thought, without knowing why or making any attempt to explain it now, that he also knew the voice that was talking to him. He’d heard it before, too.
Maybe it’s the man who hit me in the street, Hernández said to himself, as the laughter around him slowly faded away. No… it’s the driver… the one who brought me… Or, no… it’s Romina’s father, he thought to himself in silence. I heard him on the phone.
I’m talking to you, you son of a bitch! shouted the voice, and this time, instead of hitting Hernández, the man lifted up his head and waved several packets of condoms and a pack of Viagra in his face. You’ve come to fuck our girls, haven’t you?
Before Hernández managed to say anything, the man slapped him a couple of times. Well, as you can see, that’s not going to happen! The rules are different here! he added, hitting him again but this time with his fists. We’re in charge!
And do you know what I’m going to order now? asked the man, finally letting Hernández’s face go and looking around at the others who were there. For someone to be the first to volunteer.
Someone, maybe the one who had tied up Hernández, spoke up before the others.
And the other people there left the room, one by one.
Our small room in Motel 6 smells like depressing sex that someone tried to scrub off with lots bleach. Gershon and I sit on the bed and start scribbling calculations on a napkin. We jot down all the odd sums of money in our possession, including money we’re supposed to get throughout the year; scholarships, gifts from our parents and emergency savings. Then we calculate how much life in America is going to cost us in 2016. The white napkin fills with numbers and we reach the conclusion that we have five thousand dollars to spend on a car, not a penny more. We moved to LA two days ago and immediately realized there was no other way to get around.
“If we’re already buying one it has to be a convertible. Please, Gershi! A convertible is so cool, and we’re in California now.” Gershi immediately agrees.
“Even if we don’t have a lot of money, we can’t compromise on style,” I say, making sure it’s a done deal.
Gershi looks at me with his diamond blue eyes and signals let’s get to it. We log onto Motel 6’s Wi-Fi ($3.99, prepaid), and start looking for used cars. I instantly find an old BMW convertible for $4,599.
“Man, now that’s what I call beginner’s luck,” Gershi says, brushes his lips against mine and calls to make an appointment with the seller.
“We’re going to buy a car!” I slam the door of our dinky rental car, trying to imagine how it would feel to own such a large and expensive object.
We drive to the lot downtown. At every turn, we’re chased by orange signs with the word Sale.
Gershi struts like a prince through the lot, snaking his way between the cars, peeking through a window, under a wheel. He’s a biologist by training but also an engineer, so he understands mechanics and engines. I don’t know the first thing about cars, but I spotted our BMW and the wheels in my head immediately started spinning with visions of the convertible resting in the parking lot of the arts department, or below my studio, my new friends looking at me with envy, thinking: that one, she has style.
The salesman emerges from his booth, a receiver pressed against his ear; he signals to us that it will take a few more minutes.
In the meantime the sun is blazing above us as if it has never blazed before. Even in the hottest days in Israel it doesn’t blaze like this. Did we actually travel half way across the world to get pummeled by the same sun? I don’t say a word to Gershi, he likes summer. I call him to come check out the BMW, and he approaches in confident strides. He knows he can’t be duped, not even by a seasoned American car salesman, and the Americans do like their seasoning.
After a few long moments the salesman appears with a wide smile, his teeth a cream cheese white. His tailored pants have been washed too many times, and the soles of his shoes are worn. I see how his skin is scorched from the sun and immediately determine he’s broke.
“We came to see the BMW, the 2000 model?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He opens the car door and stares at me with brown, marshy eyes.
“Not too shabby, and in general, no one makes cars like the Germans,” he says, smiling directly at Gershi.
“Can you lift the hood?” Gershi asks.
“Sure, of course.” The hood pops open and the rod is latched into place.
Gershi brushes his fingers through his chestnut hair and sticks his beautiful head into the BMW’s intestines. I see him checking the oil tube, opening all sorts of lids and sniffing around. I look at him with pride, which to an outsider might even verge on worship. The salesman realizes it’s a no-go, Gershi knows too much.
“Where are you guys from?” he asks and lights a cigarette. What is it to him?
“Israel,” I answer.
“Him, too?” He points at Gershi’s lower back.
“Uh-huh.” I nod, swallowing a tsk.
“We’re neighbors,” he says and almost pats me on the shoulder, but pulls away at the last moment. We’re in America now, after all.
“Where are you from?” I ask out of politeness.
“Ramallah, twenty-two years in America.”
“No way, what a coincidence,” I reply with a small smile at the corner of my mouth. Deep down I’m bummed out – did I actually come all the way to America to associate with car salesmen from Ramallah under the blazing sun?
We pass on the BMW without thinking twice, without even taking it for a test drive. Gershi says there’s a problem with the battery, that there’s no point.
“Let’s go to a different lot. There are tons of car dealers in this area.” He points at the garages in the distance, all crammed together, targeting innocent buyers like me and even tough ones like Gershi, the dealers trying to pocket their commission, to justify their existence in the universe of used engines.
$$$, USED CARZ FOR SALE, YOUR NEXT CAR IS WAITING HERE
“Wait, look at this,” I say, pulling Gershi towards an old, shiny red car.
“What exactly are you looking for?” the salesman asks. He looks at me just a little longer than appropriate, I can feel it on my skin. He doesn’t stare at Gershi; maybe his diamond eyes intimidate him.
“We just moved here, I’m starting a master’s in visual arts. We want a cheap car, but it has to be a convertible.” I smile at him for the first time, trying to see how he reacts to ‘convertible’.
“I’m Azi, by the way, nice to meet you,” he says, and pats the hood of a Toyota Solara.
The red convertible has a black top, beige leather seats bursting at the shoulder pads and long horizontal scratches on the doors. Gershi’s eyes light up. Azi doesn’t say a word, he lets us take it all in, waiting patiently until we finish our meticulous evaluation. Gershi lifts the hood again, peering at the entrails, rummaging through the gut, then squeezes under the wheels, sprawling out on the asphalt in his white T-shirt.
Azi leans against the car and throws me a polished Cheshire-cat smile.
“Can I take it for a spin?” Gershi asks. Azi nods and the three of us hop into the car. Gershi is driving, Azi by his side and me in the back seat. Azi slides the top down, the sky unfolds above us, the palm trees whistle in our ears as we bathe in the blue air.
Azi cranes his neck and says, “You know, this is the second time I’ve been in a car with someone from Israel. The first time was with an Israeli soldier in Jenin. He was alone in a jeep, got lost. God, that was one scared man.” He laughs. “I guided him back to the checkpoint.”
I crack a small smile. Luckily the dark lenses of my sunglasses shield my feelings. Gershi doesn’t say anything. “How much does it cost?”
“Six grand, final offer. And I’m telling you it’s a bargain.”
Gershi makes a show of pursing his lips and I follow suit; we don’t say a single word the whole ride back.
In the lot, Gershi pulls me aside and whispers in my ear that he needs my cooperation.
“Why are you whispering? They don’t understand Hebrew.”
“Just listen for a moment. I read online about this negotiation method for buying a used car.” He looks at me like a Mossad agent.
“Sounds suspicious, Gershi.” My eyes start to roll, but at the last moment I manage to restrain myself.
“There’s this thing called rack and pinion, it has to do with the car’s steering mechanics. It’s always difficult to assess its condition. You understand? It could bring down the price even by a thousand dollars.” He winks at me, trying to melt my heart.
“Gershi, I don’t – ” Out of the corner of my eye I see Azi approaching us. He walks tall, but his eagerness to sell us the Toyota is oozing onto the asphalt.
“Just follow my lead, okay?” Gershi shoots me the look of a drill sergeant in boot camp. And I, probably because I’ve never served a day in my life, agree without asking questions.
“Gershon, nice to meet you.” We’ve been with him for half an hour and only now he remembers to introduce himself. “I’m named after my grandfather, may he rest in peace. It’s an ancient biblical name,” he explains to Azi, and once again my eyes start to roll. This time I can’t stop it so I lower my head, pretending to look for something in the dark abyss of my bag.
“Listen, we want the red Solara. My girlfriend really wants it. She’s been dreaming about a convertible. I’m willing to go along with it.” He laughs. Azi looks at him without saying a word, as do I.
“But there’s a problem with the rack and pinion, it’s just that I studied engineering. So, this is what I’m suggesting, you knock a thousand off the price and we have a deal.”
“No, no. No chance,” Azi replies. He explains to us that he checked the Solara himself, that it was a gem, that anyone who wouldn’t take it for that price was an idiot who was only interested in appearances. Gershi gets himself all riled up, it only makes him want the Solara even more, but he has to defeat him, he has to get the better price, if he doesn’t, the transaction won’t happen.
They continue to dance around hinges and wheels and all in English terms that my virginal ears hear for the first time. Gershi insists that the rack and pinion is either leaking or broken. Azi explains to him that he’s wrong, that it’s nothing, that it’s simply how a ten-year-old rack and pinion looks.
“Look, Azi, we’re new in America, we got here two days ago and we have no idea how things work here. We want something we can drive to the university every day. Now listen, we have a rental until tomorrow morning and five thousand dollars in my pocket. If you agree, I’ll give you the whole thing in cash and we’ll drive out of here with your Solara.” Azi looks at me, and I try to understand why he’s seeking my approval.
“No need for a receipt,” Gershi adds and pats him on the shoulder.
And I, all I’m thinking about is the sun and the palm trees, about Ramallah, about America. And about the fantasies that always play out so differently in real life, and how it shocks me each time anew.
“What do you say?” Gershi asks in his gentlest voice.
“I say okay, but – ” Gershi doesn’t wait to catch the rest of the sentence, he shakes Azi’s hand and turns to me. “Well, what do think? I just got us a convertible, what my grandmother would call a vilde metziah!”
“But wait,” Azi says, “let me talk to my boss.” He walks away, disappearing into the staircase above the garage and leaving us with our new car.
When we’re alone I can’t hold back any longer, and break into a graceful little dance around the red Toyota.
“I can’t believe it worked.” Gershi grabs me and kisses me on both cheeks. “It said in the forum that the method only worked 78 percent of the time.”
We sit down on the curb and Gershi lights a cigarette.
“Do you realize that gorgeous car is going to be waiting for me outside my studio every day?”
“Just you wait, I’m going to pick you up with the top rolled down. You’ll jump in, throw your bag on the back seat,” Gershi says and smiles his beautiful smile at me, his eyes stretching, hiding the diamond. I kiss his pink cheeks, the soft lips that made this deal happen.
“What’s taking him so long?” With a half cigarette dangling between his lips, he stretches his legs on the asphalt and takes out his phone from the pocket of his jeans. “It’s already been ten minutes.”
“Maybe we should go up there?” I suggest, and we both stand up, All Stars to All Stars, heading towards the office like a bride and groom on their way to the chuppah.
I knock softly on the open door and peek inside.
“Where did you dig up these people?” Azi’s boss bangs his fists on the table. The swing of anger sends a wave through his long black hair.
“These are the clients you bring me? This is what I’m paying you for?” The boss gets up and approaches Azi, and even though he’s at least a head shorter than him he seems infinitely more threatening.
Azi stands with his legs crossed. His arms are folded behind his back, brushing up against the cold wall. His gaze is glued to the floor.
“I’m here to sell cars, not to fuck around. You knocked a thousand dollars off the price? I’ll knock off your head!” he yells and swings his hand in his direction. Azi ducks on instinct. For a moment my eyes catch his, brown mixing with brown.
“Hi, may we come in please?” I ask, apparently having acquired American manners.
“It’s about the red Toyota Solara, we want to close.”
Azi stands there long-faced like a dog that’s been tied to its house with a metal chain, every inch of him betraying surrender and servility.
The boss sits in an elegant office chair several sizes too big for him. The chair is the most expensive item in the room; the rest of the office is falling apart. The boss projects unequivocal ownership of the territory; his shiny hair reaches his shoulders. I determine he has Indian blood.
Azi approaches him, and I see the fear spreading to his knees. The boss isn’t moving. He’s staring at an indistinct point in space, his hand latching onto a plastic box with blue Post-its perched on the edge of the table. I fear that in a second he’ll hurl it towards Azi’s forehead, and Azi, slow in body and mind, will stand there, blood dripping down his forehead and humiliation soaking his shirt. I look at Azi and can barely hold back the tears of pity, seeing him stand so near to him just to close the deal, to get rid of the miserable car.
“Idiot, you really are an idiot.” He lifts the plastic box into the air.
“Leave him alone!” I shout, and all the blue Post-its scatter on the floor, creating an office mosaic.
“Listen, it’s not his fault. We pressured him,” I say, getting an ice-cold glare from Gershi in return.
“Business is just business, people are more important. I don’t want Azi, just because he agreed to give us a discount, to lose his job. So let’s simply forget about it, okay?”
“Who the hell do you people think you are?” He walks towards me, the spit cascading from his shout and landing on my lips. And then Gershi interferes, pushes him away from me and knocks him back into his chair.
Get the fuck out!
We run out, trying not to trip down the stairs, my heart racing like in the movies. Gershi pulls me towards our rental as I cry and cry, sobbing like a rag doll. At the very last moment, a second before we’re out of there, I glance towards the office above the garage and see two black silhouettes swimming in a square of yellow light.
* * *
Professor Michael Wright enters the classroom, places his leather briefcase on the chair beside him, slams his black Ray-Bans on the desk and laughs. “Art students are always scared shitless in their first philosophy seminar,” he says, looking at us and bursting into laughter. “By the fourth week you’ll realize it’s all bullshit and stop shaking like kindergarteners.”
Mikey is sixty years old and looks both good and bad for his age. On the one hand he has a big potbelly and is missing a lower tooth, and his gray shock of hair is thinning. On the other hand, you instantly realize this was once a truly beautiful man. It’s easy to imagine how even a year ago he still had the features of a boy. But in hindsight, I suppose it was his charisma that was so attractive. As well as the New York accent, the smell of alcohol on his breath, his endless criticism of America and the way he spoke German.
I just happened to enroll in his seminar on the Frankfurt School. We were advised to take one philosophy and one literature course during our freshman year and I decided to get it over with my first semester.
Mikey spoke of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse as if they were his buddies. Other than that, all that interested him was fascism in America. In every phenomenon, object and man he saw nothing but the embodiment of fascism in America.
He walked around LA like a refugee who had washed up on the shores of the Pacific, never from here, always slouched and surly in his black wool coat and a cigarette in his mouth. Mikey always struck me as someone who could only be in New York; surrounded by the foreign, the poor, the ill-tempered. Releasing his breath into the frozen air. But here he was destined to wander among gym-manufactured muscles, whitened teeth and infinite smiles. He called it “California’s happy consciousness,” and couldn’t bear it. I pictured him returning home each night and sitting in front of his computer with a bottle of wine, tearing through half a pack of Marlboro Reds while browsing at photos of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
The thing I liked most about Mikey’s seminar (apart from how he showered me with attention, constantly praised my observations and smiled gushingly when I confused subconscious with unconscious) was the way he read us Adorno. The group of arrogant artists was instantly transformed into a circle of mesmerized babies during story-time, drooling over the pages. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves on our breaks, suddenly the mental activity died down, the world seemed so despairing that we could barely bite into a sandwich. And only Mikey would be sitting under the eucalyptus tree happily puffing away, the only person at UCLA who was allowed to smoke on campus. They let him because of his charisma but also because he was finished, because he had become an alcoholic after his kid died in a car crash.
The rumor around the art department was that he liked fat women, that he actually had said as much to his students in one of his seminars on Marx, and they joked that despite being an ardent Marxist, in the communist food lines he would have had no one to fuck. At first I thought I wanted to sleep with Mikey, I thought I wanted him to fuck me in his office, in a restaurant bathroom, in a bed. In the beginning I thought I wanted to sleep with Mikey badly, and I also believed that as a student and artist it was my full right to sleep with the philosophy professor.
The day he appeared in class in pointed toe shoes like a shady Italian, like a Puerto Rican with hair gel, like a philosophy professor, I knew Mikey and I had to go away to Mexico together. I said: we’ll take your BMW and cross the border to Tijuana, it’s just a two-and-a-half hour drive. You’ll pack a bag at your house, I’ll pack one at mine and we’ll set out after class. I think Mikey hesitated at first; he was scared of losing his job, and rightfully so. Gone were the days when you could sleep with a student with peace of mind. I promised him that if there was one student in the entire universe he could feel safe with, that student was me. And that I actually had no interest in him apart from the desire for a good story about the brief affair I had with my philosophy professor in Mexico. Mikey found my answer hilarious, and then popped a mint into his mouth and agreed. His smile was so beautiful, his eyes sparkled like marbles. When he smiled I saw his missing tooth again and was gripped by a terrible fear, but in his infinite wisdom he immediately closed his mouth and said that class was about to begin. We left his office together and returned to the classroom.
He continued to read us sections from Adorno’s Minima Moralia for half an hour after class had ended; it was so good that no one dared to get up, not even those who had another class to go to, not even those who were supposed to be off for Mexico.
After all the students had dispersed, Mikey and I went down to the parking lot and got into his BMW, which gave off the smell of bourbon. Settling behind the wheel, Mikey took out a mint from the tin and turned up the radio:
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
He let out his deep, grainy laugh and looked at me.
“I don’t know, I don’t believe in coincidences,” I said and shrugged.
He gave me that gushing subconscious-unconscious smile and immediately my cheeks got hot and my entire body didn’t know what to do, how to sit or buckle my seatbelt, and Mikey by my side pouted and stared at me. He didn’t know what to do either, how to start the engine or put the car into reverse. Finally he managed and we left the parking lot, and then the campus.
I thought about things I could tell Mikey, exotic things, funny things, things that people from the other side of the world say. But to me Mikey himself was a person from the other side of the world, so exotic that I could barely consider him a human being. We spent the entire ride in strange silence, not awkward, but not comfortable, either. An existing silence. For a few fleeting moments I felt I was about to cry, but then I looked at Mikey and swallowed my tears back to where they belonged.
Mikey lit a cigarette and offered me one. Even though I have asthma and a single cigarette can ruin an entire trip, I couldn’t resist.
“I could die, I have asthma, pretty severe. We might not make it to the border.” I took a deep drag of the Marlboro into my feeble lungs.
“It’s still worth it.” He winked at me.
I stuck my head out the window, letting the wind wash over me and releasing the cigarette onto the freeway. Mikey didn’t notice, he was going too fast, desperate to cross the border to Mexico. Where there were no wars and no rules.
“You must have noticed by now that in California people wear their cars,” he said, and mercilessly cut off a Honda station wagon. I thought about the red Toyota Solara that had almost been ours, feeling totally sad and then embarrassed that we ended up settling for a 2006 Mazda 6.
Mikey asked me to tell him about my family, and I told him about my parents and my brother. I made sure to include the most boring and mundane details and he still seemed utterly riveted, fed me more and more questions and repeated the ends of my sentences. Later I asked him to tell me about his family and he told me about the high school his parents ran in the Bronx, his father was the principal and his mother an English teacher. And about his brother who they could tell even from a young age would become a steadfast conservative, and about his older sister who rented her own flat in Manhattan when she was eighteen, and this was in the fifties, yes? He sought my admiration and readily received it.
“What would you have for dinner?” I asked.
“Hotdogs, potatoes, green beans, and steamed carrots, which I hated,” he replied.
We carried on with the mundane and boring details until we reached the San Diego-Tijuana border, the most crowded border crossing in the world.
Mikey left his BMW in a parking lot on the American side and we crossed the border by foot; the Mexican officials didn’t ask us a thing. We hailed a taxi.
“The Lucerna Hotel, please,” he told the driver.
“What, you know the area?” I asked.
“I’ve been here a few times, I like that hotel,” he said while staring out the window of the front seat through his black Ray-Bans.
“Same generic shit like all the other hotels that don’t cost a thousand bucks a night, and those are just as generic.” He turned his head to me for a moment and then went back to staring out the window, not saying a word, not to the driver and not to me. I wondered whether to say anything but my head was empty of thoughts and my mouth empty of words. Only my eyes darted after the colors around me, I didn’t dare tell Mikey it was my first time in Mexico.
The Lucerna truly was a generic hotel. Every room in the building was decorated with a round balcony fenced in by golden iron. Mikey booked us a room for the night, they gave us the Superior. Everything was done quietly and officially. I had imagined Mikey would talk and joke around with everyone, that everyone would love him and laugh at his jokes. But he didn’t speak to anyone; not to the guard at the border crossing, not to the taxi driver, not to the hotel receptionists, barely to me.
The room’s interior was also generic, but big and clean and therefore to my liking. Mikey had gone to take a shower and I lay on the bed and turned on the TV; all kinds of people were shouting in Spanish, others clapped enthusiastically, a pretty woman smiled. Suddenly I remembered that Mikey hated TV: “Television is the messenger of totalitarianism,” he had told us in one of the classes. “Everything is agitprop, even what you think is critical, is agitprop.” I turned off the TV and went out to the round balcony with the gilded cage to gaze at a Tijuana afternoon. The air was gray, as were the shops and people’s complexions.
Mikey emerged from the shower clean and shaven in a pair of jeans, a dress shirt and a black velvet jacket. He even had his pointed shoes already on. He said he was going down to the bar to get a drink and that I should join him after I got ready myself.
When he closed the door behind him I wondered who this stranger was that I was sharing a hotel room with in Tijuana, but I had no answer. All I knew was that he wasn’t the Professor Michael Wright that I had wanted to go to Mexico with.
After a shower, I found Mikey downstairs at the hotel bar. He had had two drinks and by now was looking a lot more like the Professor Michael Wright I had wanted to go to Mexico with. He was flirting with the bartender and seemed very happy to see me. I felt that everything was natural and non-sexual, and at the same time foreign and fantasy-like, as if I was spending the weekend with Ernest Hemingway.
“How was the shower?” he asked as I took a seat beside him at the bar.
“Magnificent, really,” I answered, peeking into his empty glass. He laughed.
“What was so magnificent about it?”
“I don’t know, boiling water and the smell of bleach? Oh, and I didn’t feel bad one bit about wasting water.”
“A good enough reason to vacation in Mexico,” he said, this time making himself laugh.
I ordered a frozen margarita and was served an alcoholic slushy with a yellow umbrella. I asked Mikey if he thought it was embarrassing to order a margarita in Mexico, if it was, like, a total tourist cliché. He barely responded but then said no, not at all, but I think he didn’t understand my question.
We went to dinner at a fish restaurant he knew and slurped down oysters with great relish. Mikey didn’t expose his missing tooth during the meal even once. We downed more and more glasses of white wine with the food, and got – to put it delicately – pretty hammered. With the drunkenness came interesting conversations, gossip about professors in the department, illicit sex with students, LSD experiences and more stories about sex, not illicit, but just as thrilling. For instance, in the back seat of a car, in the university bathroom stalls, outdoors, etc. I was happy that Mikey was talking and this time I fed him questions and repeated the ends of his sentences.
After two glasses of Bénédictine, Mikey asked for the check. He barely looked at our waiter, a skinny fifteen or sixteen-year-old Mexican, but I did, trying to give him a sympathetic smile, to project solidarity. I couldn’t catch his eye.
I suggested we go for a short walk, to digest the food, but Mikey said he wasn’t feeling well and we took a taxi straight back to the hotel. As the taxi approached the hotel, waves of fear and dread rippled through me. What was going to happen in the room? What were we going to do in the room? What’s going on with Mikey? Who is Mikey? When we reached the entrance of the Lucerna, I knew I couldn’t keep down all the oysters crowding my stomach. The driver pulled over and we got out of the taxi. I don’t know what Mikey was doing while I was puking in the bathroom, but when I came out I found him lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. The room, which had felt so large when I first entered it, was now shrunk to the size of a raisin. I sat down in the armchair by the TV and looked at him. I had nothing to say, and I guess he didn’t either. He smoked and smoked until the whole room was one big cloud. After an hour of staring and sitting in the armchair I gave up and moved to the bed, to lie next to him.
Everything okay? Yes, everything okay.
Unable to bear the silence any longer, or the stillness on the bed, I suddenly got up the courage to ask him how his son died. Mikey turned to me, his stomach rolling in my direction.
“Car accident. He was seventeen and driving drunk with his girlfriend, Taylor. Their car flipped on Intersection 5. She came out of it alive but with her legs shot. She’s in a wheelchair today. I call her sometimes but I can hear in her voice that she doesn’t like it. She had long blond hair, blue eyes, the face of an American angel, you know. She always wore military jackets. Linda and I loved her, they used to hang out at our house all the time. And then Joel got drunk one night, and that was it.”
Mikey turned around and curled up like a fetus. Suddenly his body weighed heavy on the bed, and he lay there like a two ton rock. I was scared he was going to sink through the mattress and get stuck in the wooden beams and I wouldn’t be able to get him out. I think I heard him crying, but maybe he was just wheezing from all those cigarettes. I carefully lay my head on his shoulder and promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone.
* * *
Gershi and the First Day I Was Happy in America
At first we weren’t aware of the fact that we were poor, but since coming to America we had become poor. Not that in Tel Aviv we had been rich, but here our money slipped through our fingers in no time. From Israel we had brought ten thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills in a pouch strapped to my diaphragm. It was our immigration money that we planned to use to buy a car, pay rent, and for basic expenses. But what ended up happening was that we reached into the diaphragm pocket every single day.
We spent weeks in motels and diners until we settled into our new lives. We were already exhausted from sleeping on sinking mattresses, moldy showers and junk food. I dissolved into fits of crying, thinking we’d never manage. But Gershi didn’t lose it a single time, it was clear that all the roaming and rambling didn’t affect him. He said we’d manage, and that even if we didn’t, failure was always an option.
“We can always go back to Tel Aviv,” he would say whenever I despaired.
“We’re never going back to Tel Aviv!” I shouted as a prelude to an argument.
But Gershi wouldn’t bite, he retreated into himself and ignored me, continuing to drive calmly or watch TV. A moment later I would extend my hand, and we would kiss and make up, happy again like two goldfish with no memory.
After we bought the Mazda 6 we set our sights on finding a home. The apartment we saw on Dove Street was a dream, with hardwood floors and windows wherever you looked. We both instantly fell in love with it. And because we wanted to be done with the motels we decided to rent above our means, at the asking price.
“Yes, we’ll take it,” we told the realtor.
We may have miscalculated, or were simply too dazzled by the property, but in hindsight that’s definitely what finished us. Ninety percent of our money went toward rent and the rest we planned to put into food and gas. We furnished the apartment for next to nothing with things we found on the street or bought at yard sales. Every dollar we spent was like pulling a tooth. Just when the cash was getting comfortable at the bottom of the pocket, our sticky fingers would yank it out and give it to its next guardian.
We stopped eating out, no cappuccino touched our lips. We did our food shopping in a Mexican supermarket downtown, a forty-minute drive from our house, which sold food in bulk, and cheap. It was a giant inferno of chicken wings in packs of a hundred, and mayo in buckets. We took a shopping cart at the entrance and walked hand-in-hand down the aisles, mesmerized by all the imported goodness of the great continent; but no item was tossed into our cart before its absolute necessity was discussed. After choosing a giant plastic jar of instant coffee and a twenty-pound sack of rice, we kissed by the produce display.
“This isn’t Paris,” Gershi said.
“It’s better than Paris,” I replied.
We paid $92.80 at the register and left with overflowing bags and gleaming eyes. We planned on eating everything together, we planned on becoming full.
“This is our sustenance,” Gershi said, pointing to the giant sack of rice.
School had already started and I spent most of my days at the university. Gershi still hadn’t found a job and in the meantime wasn’t looking for one either, these were his vacation months. He spent his days languidly, the sun less scorching by now, and walked around with a book under his arm and a cup of instant coffee within reach. He cooked us dinner every evening, making use of every product in the pantry down to the last crumb. We didn’t go out at all, not to restaurants, not to bars; we didn’t go to the movies even once. We also decided to terminate our internet connection at home, at least for the time being. Since we were still new to the continent we had no friends. It was only me and Gershi, no money, no internet. We went on long walks, we read books in bed, we baked ourselves cakes. We had date nights at the supermarket. In the supermarket up the street, which was too expensive for our new status, there was a clearance display, all kinds of products whose packaging was damaged: dented cans, slightly torn packs of flour. Every night we rummaged through the display, the bargains falling into our laps one after the other: white wine, coconut chocolate, a six-pack of beer and vanilla pudding. Every night we returned home with a different deal, feasting on decadent meals for a few cents.
But on the day we curled up on the couch, checked our bank account and saw we had only $380 left – we realized we were truly finished, what you would call totally broke.
I was in a complete panic, scared that my previous life was over, that I would never dine out again, never wear pretty clothes, that I’d only think about money, about pennies. Gershi was moderate in his response, he kept reminding me that however we looked at it, we were actually rich. It’s just the liquid cash that wasn’t so liquid right now. But my body and brain went into survival mode and I couldn’t control it. I envied Gershi’s composure, his assured presence in the world. He was the real survivor here. Nothing threatened him, neither natural disasters nor financial crises.
“Go with the flow, trust Gershi,” I told myself, repeating it like a mantra. I clung to him and tried to absorb his calm, but the fear flowed through my veins. Suddenly I wanted to burn bills, to buy leather boots, to drink mocha lattes and gorge on gruyere. After a while my unsettled state seemed to rub off on Gershi too, who no longer read with pleasure but paced the house in circles, only stopping to scrub the kitchen burners.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked Gershi with tears in my eyes. “All I think about is money, I just want to buy more and more things. I’ve never been like this in my entire life,” I confessed, hoping he wouldn’t judge me.
“It’s just because we don’t have money right now. It’s the forbidden fruit, you don’t actually want these things, it’s an illusion,” he said.
“I know. But the illusion is so strong that I believe it.”
“Let’s see if there’s anything new in the clearance display,” he said, smiling.
“No, I don’t feel like it. You go,” I said.
I got into bed early in PJs and a bad mood, while Gershi went to the supermarket to scour for a few evening delights. He returned with the bags and I asked him to show me the loot: a bottle of red wine and an avocado. Then he took three five-dollar bills out of his wallet.
“I won it,” he said. “I bought a scratch ticket for a buck and won fifteen dollars!” With bright eyes, he handed me the bills.
I looked at these beautiful bills, which I would have wanted to press between the pages of my journal like dried petals.
Half the semester had already gone by and the days I spent working at the studio grew longer. Some days I didn’t eat anything but an apple or a tangerine Gershi had thrown into my bag, or a slice of pizza handed out for free on campus. One night I came home completely starving, Gershi said he was really hungry too. I went to the kitchen to look for leftovers for dinner. When I returned with two sunny-side-ups and a tomato, I found Gershi in the living room making all sorts of calculations on his phone. Even from that angle he was one of the most beautiful people I’d ever met.
“I went to the supermarket this morning, the one up the road. I asked them about work. I filled out a form for a shelf-stocker position,” he said, and I gave him a rib-crushing hug.
Two days later, Gershi started working at the supermarket. He underwent a quick training and was given a red apron and tag with his name on it – GERSHON. He worked nightshifts that started at six and ended at midnight. I came to visit him every night, pretending to be a customer with a shopping cart while he stacked wine bottles on the shelves, or dairy products in the fridge. He got a thirty-minute break and a free coffee. He’d bring me one too and we’d sit on the bench outside, eating sandwiches from home and talking about the stacking techniques he was experimenting with.
The job paid $12.02 an hour and we made endless calculations to figure out what his paycheck would be at the end of the month. The final figure we reached was $1,370.28, and the fantasies about the check kept igniting our imagination. We wouldn’t buy a thing with the money, but continue living like this until our bank account exploded, we joked. Gershi returned to his shift, and I went back home.
One night, as I was reading a book in bed, he texted me to come to the supermarket with our reusable tote bag and meet him down at the parking lot. I found him standing there with a cartful of boxes.
“Come on, walk with me to the dumpster.” He grabbed my hand.
I stood beside him while he removed blocks of yellow cheese from the boxes. “It expires tomorrow. They told me to throw it away. It’s provolone,” he said.
“Why are they getting rid of it?” I asked.
“They’re not allowed to sell it after today. So I’m throwing these away, and you can take one.” He looked at me with big eyes, making sure he had a partner in crime.
“I can also take two, and make a quiche,” I suggested. Gershi smiled and continued throwing away cheese. I placed two blocks of provolone in the tote bag and strolled out of the parking lot.
When I got home I immediately went to work on the quiche. When Gershi returned at midnight we stuffed our faces.
“What else do you throw away over there?” I asked.
“All sorts of expired things. I saw chocolate chip cookies, once they threw away chicken thighs. It’s good stuff, fresh. The expiration date isn’t accurate, it’s a safety date. You can eat those things for weeks after,” he said.
“Yeah?” I squinted.
“Sure, they just don’t want to risk it. The cheese we took? We’ll eat it next week too. You’ll see, I’ll make a lasagna, nothing will happen to us.” He smiled and continued to wolf down the quiche.
I trusted him, after all he was a biologist and understood a thing or two about bacteria. Over the next few days I stopped visiting Gershi while he stacked shelves. Instead we met by the dumpster, me with the tote bag and him with a cartful of expired products: salamis, chickens, cheese, blackened bananas, soft sweet potatoes, everything you could imagine and more. I would load the bag and go home to cook; dinners became full-fat midnight feasts.
One evening, Gershi was about to throw out trays of dough; he texted to ask if I was interested. I turned on the oven and made it to the supermarket in three minutes. I had always dreamt about baking my own bread. When I got home I discovered we were out of eggs, and I wanted the bread to be shiny so I returned to the supermarket, this time to buy a carton of eggs.
Gershi was stacking milk cartons, and he walked me to the egg section, because he wanted to defrost after standing next to the refrigerators.
“Put it in the bag,” he said when I picked up the eggs.
“What, here?” I asked.
He nodded confidently.
“I’ll walk you out,” he said and straightened a few wayward cartons.
“Then wait, I need sesame seeds too. And oil,” I said, and switched the regular eggs for organic.
Gershi’s diamond pupils dilated, his eyebrows arched. I went to get the items. That first time I was still afraid, and had to make do with organic eggs, sesame seeds, oil and black olives. My heart was racing at the exit but Gershi walked with me and gave me such a smooch before I left that no one suspected, no one even looked at me.
From that day on, I stopped meeting Gershi by the dumpster in the parking lot; instead I’d come visit him by the shelves around ten. There weren’t many customers by then and the deli and bakery employees were already gone. The tote bag would fill up with the most expensive organic products I could find: almond oil, Amarena cherries, Parmigiano Reggiano, Dr. Bronner’s soap, Lindt chocolate. Once I even lifted an electric toothbrush. I never crammed the tote with more than what a normal woman’s bag could hold.
Before Gershi returned home I’d arrange the stolen goods on the table, and we’d calculate the prices together. How we laughed, Lübeck marzipan for $24.99! Pure almond oil, $23.33! Brie de Meaux, $21.42!
The day Gershi was fired, our loot totaled $1,323.15. They agreed not to go to the police, but wouldn’t give him his last paycheck. I can’t say we were sad; I don’t even think we were afraid. He went back to hand in his red apron and his nametag; I waited for him down the road. He even returned with two cups of coffee.
“A souvenir,” he said.
We walked home holding hands, sipping the hot coffee. We didn’t talk during that walk, but not because we were busy soul searching or anything; quiet had descended upon us. At home we opened all the kitchen cupboards; there were coffee beans from Sumatra, black and red lentils, a large assortment of curly pasta. The best French cheeses and Italian cold cuts rested in the fridge. Our beloved sorbet stood in the freezer; mango, passion fruit and Sicilian lemon. The space under the sink was crowded with natural cleaning supplies for the bathroom, kitchen, for polishing the wooden floor. We were happy, we were rich.