While he was waiting for his gas tank to be filled at one of the many stations found at the beginning of the Cassia road, on the way out of Florence, attorney Adami kept looking at the girl in the blue tank top and jeans, standing on the edge of the road, a little further up. She was quite tall and slim, with loose washed-blond hair, and she had a large backpack at her feet. She must be a foreigner, possibly Nordic, one of those who hitchhike around Europe. But she must have been shy, or otherwise incredibly lazy, because she let cars go past without signaling them to stop. She didn’t signal attorney Adami either, but he, moved by some sort of indulgent concern, stopped his car anyway and, opening the door to invite her in, asked:
Maybe the girl was neither shy nor lazy, but just cautious: she looked at him with a pair of very light eyes, the color of the sea on windless days, and studied him with great seriousness, before deciding to note her consent. She then gathered herself on the seat, as far as possible from him, and seemed to become even smaller, with her tiny face, that, to be honest, seemed also not very expressive, as it is often the case with Nordic women, and her skinny arms, reddened by the sun.
Attorney Adami was no Don Juan, no seducer with little conscience. However, as he was sure he had been one in his youth, he was left with the calm awareness that, in the case of need, he would not lack the charm, nor the experience, needed to win a woman over. Naturally, the idea of using charm and experience with the girl he just picked up didn’t even remotely occur to him, and in fact, with great rectitude, he was thinking mostly of his daughter, and what she would be like when she grew up. This girl seemed to be fourteen or fifteen, she was pretty and delicate. In fact, he would not have minded at all if his daughter, in ten years’ time, would be like this girl, as pretty and delicate, but he would certainly not allow her to travel the world on her own, risking her falling into the hand of some villain. It wasn’t without any personal complacency, relating to his own virtue, that he thought he could be a villain himself if, faced by this very young and seemingly very pure girl, he wasn’t stopped by a sense of responsibility that could even be defined as fatherly.
The attorney was therefore feeling exceptionally well with his conscience, but it was this very sense of his cleanliness and appropriateness that made him feel he would appreciate it if the girl would show more trust, for example, by smiling back at him when he turned to smile at her. But instead, she remained enclosed and contained in her corner, and did not seem to be inclined to show any trust, to the point that it could even appear offensive, in the sense that it was possible to interpret it as an expression of doubt and suspicion that he, at the end of the day, did not deserve.
At San Casciano, at the café that is right at the top of the hill, he stopped for a moment to buy a bag of sweets. Sometimes children are won over this way, with small things, and indeed she finally smiled, when he put sweets in her hand, but immediately afterwards she returned to her corner, only that now she was munching on the sweets. The road was descending from the hills of San Casciano, one turn after the other, and on the trees the cicadas were singing in the air warmed by the sun. The valley ahead was wide, with a multitude of shades of green and yellow and farmhouses scattered on the hills, each with its own tassels of cypresses, and the attorney, who was feeling almost moved by all this beauty, was sorry that the girl from the north was not aware of it, it seemed. “Do you speak English?” he asked.
“Yes”, she replied with great calm.
The attorney gestured vaguely to the valley. “Beautiful Italy”, he said.
The girl confirmed with a nod, to show that she agreed. It wasn’t much to encourage a conversation, but the attorney thought that this was a start and explained to her that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella. He also started to say that he would not mind at all if his daughter, when she grew up, would be like her, but this concept was too complicated for his English and he was soon stuck, and then asked her, in French, if she could speak French and she replied yes, of course. So he started explaining to her, in French, that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella, and that he would not mind at all, etc. etc., but his French also failed him with this difficult concept, even ambiguous, that he could not explain, and she watched him as he struggled with foreign languages, and her face was no longer blank, but impertinent and amused, and in the end she said, in an Italian that was slightly softer than ours, that he could speak Italian to her, if he preferred, because she was a student in a college in Florence and understood Italian very well.
The attorney had the feeling, not entirely unfounded, that the girl was making fun of him, with the issue of foreign languages, and he resented that, not very much, but enough to encourage him to imagine treating her with less consideration than he had done to that point. Indeed, just because of that push, that the hidden resentment gave him, as he approached Poggibonsi, he thought: if that little flirt was a few years older, now, instead of heading for Rome, I would turn right and take her to San Gimignano, which is a place foreigners like and could lead to something. A few years older? Well, to be honest, the age issue was indeed a touchy one. He liked young girls, very young, in fact, but due to his legal profession, he was not the type to compromise himself with a young girl of fifteen, although, if he really looked closely, she was probably easily sixteen or even seventeen. Dear God, what if she was seventeen? With Nordic girls, you never know: they develop late and keep their virginal look even long after they lose their virginity. If she was seventeen, the situation would be different, reversed even. But she could not be that old. At seventeen, a girl, next to a man that, although he is a bit over forty, is certainly not unattractive, does not behave like that, in that disconnected, calm seriousness that the girl was displaying, while still munching on sweets. The attorney concluded that the temptation to turn right, to San Gimignano, a place favored by lovers, was nothing but bizarre fantasy, it was not right to act on such desires in contrast with the penal code, and indeed, when he reached Poggibonsi, he bravely remained on Cassia, and the road, having left the village, was again surrounded by vines and olive trees, with many twists and turns. The attorney was now satisfied, as one who just did what is usually defined as a good act, but, unfortunately, he was not one of those people who achieve perfect satisfaction from exercising virtue, and deep inside, he regretted missing San Gimignano, with that special timeless atmosphere, allowing us release from prejudice in our time. The attorney had no doubt that it was prejudice and stupid moralistic fancy. Who, at the time of Boccaccio, or, say, the Arezzo man — and those were, now we know this for sure, very civil times — who would hold back when facing such an adventure as the one that he had been offered? At the time, much worse used to happen, without anyone expressing any surprise, or causing inconvenience due to this penal code.
“At what time will we reach Rome?” the girl asked unexpectedly.
It was a standard question, maybe the most natural one could ask, under the circumstances, but it was asked just as the attorney, caught by nostalgia of what he could have done had he been born in any period preceding the Counter Reformation, was feeling rather touchy. “Why?” he asked. “Is anyone expecting you?”
She looked at him with an expression that was almost aggressive, funny in her tiny face, and persevered with her questions. “What about you? Don’t you have anyone?”
The attorney felt like laughing. “My daughter”, he replied.
“If there is a daughter, surely she has a mother”, the girl observed. “In Italy there is no divorce”.
Well, why did she care if there was divorce or not? What did she want from him, was she trying to provoke him? As far as she was concerned, he would have been equally separated, a bigamist or even a widower. For a moment, he wanted to make her believe he was, indeed, a widower, but then he preferred to behave like a gentleman. “Yes, I also have a wife”, he answered proudly. And then he added, less proudly, “Unfortunately”.
The girl was quick to react to the last word: “Why unfortunately? All Italians say that.”
This time, the attorney was truly annoyed. “I am not responsible for other Italians”, he retorted dryly. “I am an anarchist, an individualist, I say unfortunately and I mean it. I haven’t been getting along with my wife for years, if I could turn back…” He stopped himself because he was too miserable. A married man can lie like that, and usually he does, only when there is a concrete advantage, that is when there is a need to use emotional arguments to knock down remaining objections of a woman who is about to fall. But there, with that girl, saved, physically, and especially being legally underage, what advantage could there be? He felt malice toward her, as if she was to blame for that small fall of idle hypocrisy, and in a sense, she was, because no one authorized her to be indiscreet and even provocative, and the least one could think of her is that she had a bad education, despite the college.
But he could not remain angry, and on the other hand, could her apparently insolent questions and comments be, after all, the proof of a growing interest in him? Young pubescent girls are particularly susceptible to the charm of men in their forties, he knew it both in theory and in practice, as the daughter of the concierge at his building, a fifteen year old girl, but unlike this one, even somewhat over developed, tended to blush in his presence, get confused and make a thousand faces, in other words, she was showing in many ways her secret crush for him. Of course, this girl was not he concierge’s daughter, yet, in itself, nothing prevented her from falling in love with him, and it would be wonderful, even though, naturally, he would not take advantage of it in any way, not even to stroke her neck and kiss her closed mouthed. He would respect her in any case, even if, for example, at some point she would offer herself to him spontaneously, a possibility that was quite improbable, as the girl, after that indiscreet explosion of interest for his marital status, returned to her corner, where she was again consuming sweets with detached, melancholy seriousness. Could she be hungry? The attorney was pleased with this thought as it detracted him, at least to an extent, from the guilty and equally morbid fantasies that occupied his mind in the last kilometers, and because he was approaching Siena, he decided to offer her a cappuccino and pastries.
He drove to the piazza and parked next to the café across from Palazzo della Signoria. The sun was burning hot and there were people only in the shade, with the exception of tourists who were walking in the heat with their cameras and straw hats they just bought, admiring the monuments. They sat under the café’s canopy, where it felt less hot, and the attorney, despite being behind schedule, was happy to have brought her here, to this magnificent piazza, and looked like he had built it all himself. When the waiter arrived, she ordered a bottle of German beer. “Won’t it be bad for you?” he asked her.
“Bad?” she replied with a shrug, then politely excusing herself and went inside the café. Before she was back, the waiter brought her beer and the coffee ordered by the attorney. He waited for a little while, but then decided to drink his coffee before it became too cold, and she was yet to return. The attorney thought, irritably, how he would not reach Rome at breakfast time, as he had promised his wife, and thought that if it wasn’t for the girl’s backpack in the car, he would have left her there, in Siena, as she deserved. After all, picking her up was just a careless act, nothing good was going to come out of it, it wasn’t at all an exaggeration to say that he regretted it, as it always happens with good acts that are completed without any prospect of profit. But then, when she finally reappeared, everything he was thinking was suddenly erased to give space for something that could also be called enchantment: she had put lipstick on, she put her hair up in a bun on top of her head, and, with her tank top tucked into her jeans, she displayed a thin waist, slim hips and in addition, tenderly, what little breast she had. “Tell me the truth”, he asked her once he was able to talk. “How old are you?”
She took a long sip of her beer, then turned toward him, with eyes shining with malice. “Almost twenty”, she answered.
After Siena, the Cassia road roams around the chalky scenery, going down into the valleys and back up again to the hills on the other side, apparently without much need, like narrow and often complicated turns, which the attorney reached before even realizing it, as he was driving quite nervously. The issue was that the adventure with the girl, that became suddenly possible and even probable, took him by surprise, he was unprepared for it, and in a way it even scared him, for a number of reasons. The first, and biggest question, he wasn’t hiding that from himself, was the following: was it worth cheating on his wife, the mother of his daughter, with a girl he happened to meet and for whom he could not yet have any real, deep affection? Well, to be honest, he had to answer yes, it was worth it, and not so much for the basic comparison between the girl and his wife, which would be extremely ungenerous and also not entirely justified, but for the more general consideration that for a man of forty, even if blessed by more charm than average, it doesn’t happen every day to have a twenty-year-old girl, beautiful, fresh, with breasts barely outlined, but undoubtedly moving, and so unusually blond. When something like this happens to him, usually a man does not let it go, and indeed, the lawyer didn’t intend to let her go, but in some secret fold of his conscience he still feels some vague discomfort about the idea of marital infidelity, and mostly, he attributed this discomfort to the fact that, even though the conquest appeared to be easy, he had no idea where to begin. Naturally, it wasn’t that he was afraid of having a technical deficiency, but that fact was that now, imagining any contact with the girl, even the most simple, made him feel confused, and probably even more inhibited than before, when he thought she was just a young girl. It was as if he was facing a woman he had known as a little girl, and that suddenly appeared all grown up, but not changed enough to allow him to forget her as a child, and in conclusion, he could not let go of the fear and respect towards childish innocence, and he was almost sorry that she grew up, as he was full of guilt, but also full of anger for the guilt that appeared at the most inconvenient moment. It was this confusion of emotions that made him take the turns so badly.
The girl let him drive as he wished for many kilometers, but then, on the climb to Radicofani, the road became dangerous, and she asked: “Why are you driving so fast? Are you in a rush to get to Rome?”
“No. And you?” The lawyer asked, finding it difficult to address her informally.
“I just need to get there before midnight.”
“Why before midnight?”
“At eleven fifty the train for Calabria leaves.”
“Are you going to Calabria?”
“No, with a guy.”
“Someone from your country?”
“No, a guy from Naples. Last year we traveled to Sicily. This year we are going to Calabria. They say it is even more beautiful.”
The lawyer was hurt by that answer more than it was expected, but, as he almost rightly understood when analyzing his own state of mind, it wasn’t jealousy, at least not the usual kind of jealousy, but the regret that he could not put himself in the place of the Neapolitan young man that was going to Calabria with her, he could not even put himself there in his fantasy, because he was married already, and youth for him had gone away, life came upon him with a suffocating weight of responsibility and concerns, not leaving space for love outside the limits of a rushed and enclosed adventure. These were the things, ultimately, more than the years, that marked a man’s decline.
It was with that feeling of self-pity that lawyer Adami, feeling in some way authorized to catch in his garden all the flowers that it was still possible to pick, reached the conclusion that any further hesitation on his part would be out of place, and in other words, that he would be a beast if he let that girl, who dropped on him from the sky, get away.
At Acquapendente, even though there was no need for it, he stopped to refuel, and in the meantime, from a nearby hotel, he called his wife and told her that one of his clients from Florence asked him to negotiate the purchase of a fund, so he would not arrive for breakfast, and maybe not even for lunch, but she should not worry about it, because he would certainly be home by midnight.
Once he removed the main psychological obstacles that stood in the way of his adventure, lawyer Adami found himself facing what bullfighting experts call the moment of truth, when the bullfighter faces the bull face to face, but as he had no doubt as to the balance of power between him and his victim, he felt very calm, and indeed, he was no longer driving dangerously, but with lively and optimistic elegance. The road descended from the heights of Acquapendente to enter that kind of funnel at the bottom of which is Lake Bolsena, and it was approximately one o’clock. The summer sun was tiring everyone and everything, with exception of the cicadas that with unparalleled ardor screeched on every tree. The girl, maybe because of the heat, stayed in her corner where the wind from the window was better, and generally seemed inattentive, in other words, not suspicious or at least indifferent, of what could happen to her before the evening. Nordic women, the lawyer knew just like anyone else, are like that: peaceful, reserved, maybe a bit cold, but at the right time they give themselves with great simplicity, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and actually nothing was ever said to claim that it wasn’t.
The lawyer did not have reason to worry about the girl’s apparent reserve, but was instead thinking of the logistical difficulties of the matter, that could not be neglected, also because the girl was not yet twenty-one, which certainly was a complication. Ruling out a decent hotel, where would it happen: in the country behind a bush, in a wood, in a room of a dubious guest house or on the beach? At this moment, everything was possible, even the beach. Rome was less than 100 kilometers away, so they would reach it around three, and in another hour he could reach Tor San Lorenzo, where a painter friend of his owned a hut on the beach, used for these purposes exactly. The only inconvenience would be not to find the painter at home, because of the key, but other than that, the beach was not only the safest solution, but also the best in absolute terms, and the girl, in a bathing suit, would undoubtedly look stunning, with her long adolescent body, firm and contained. “Do you have your bathing suit?” He asked.
Called back from her distraction, the girl smiled at the question. “Of course I have one. In Calabria I want to go to the beach a lot. I always went to the beach in Sicily, too.”
A little annoyed by this unintentional hint at a past and a future in which he had no part at all, the lawyer replied forcefully, “I’ll also take you to the sea”. And because she was looking at him surprised and vaguely wondering, he explained, “We will get to Rome first, then go to the beach. Do you mind?”
“It would be wonderful,” she smiled with her usual simplicity.
Now the lawyer was imagining the adventure in all its magnificence, and it wasn’t difficult, looking at the girl, to imagine her as she would look in a bathing suit, or even without it, also because the wind that was coming through the window, was pressing on her tank top and was accentuating her breasts, that appeared to be of acceptable size, such as would inspire tenderness and other feelings. And because there is nothing like fantasizing about love for causing impatience to reach the desired conclusion, or at least to receive a reasonable advance, the lawyer started looking at the road for a convenient place to stop.
When the car stopped on the side of the road, where a part of a lake was visible between the oak trees, the girl, instead of looking at the view, hanged her head down as if she was already aware, and allowed him to put his arm around her, pull her close and kiss her on the neck that was left bare now that her hair was tied up. She didn’t resist later, when he lifted her face and started kissing her mouth, but she didn’t take part in any way, leaving him quite unsatisfied at the end of the long kiss, even resentful. On her part, she did not appear to be in a better mood, indeed, she immediately hung her head down, without doing or saying anything.
“Didn’t you like it?” he asked her.
And she asked, “Why did you do it, because you love me?”.
The question, even accounting for the girl’s possible inexperience, was without a doubt inappropriate, and in fact, everyone knows that for a kiss it is not essential to have binding and powerful emotions like love. Now, the lawyer didn’t want to think he had kissed her simply for pleasure or to try and win her, in fact, at the moment, nobody, not even him, could claim that he wasn’t already in love with her, at least a little bit, but talking about love before they even started was a bit too risky. In any case, if pursuing the adventure depended on a little lie, the lawyer was more than willing to say it. “I love you”, he confirmed with as much sincerity as he could show.
“All Italians say that”, the girl replied, without raising her head.
Offended in his effort to be honest, the lawyer was about to retort, when he noticed drops dripping on her trousers, that due to their position and other circumstances, could have only been tears. “Are you crying?” he asked, somewhat stupidly. “What is there to cry about?”
“You are just like the others”, she replied, pulling her nose. “But this is not why I’m crying. I am crying because I am like the others, the foreigners that come to Italy to make love with Italians.” She started crying harder. “I’m not like the others”, she said.
He pulled her to cry on his shoulder, and was stroking her hair, sweetly, then said, “You shouldn’t cry, the two of us are different”, but as much as he tried, he could not think of a reason to complete and explain his statement. However now, and not only because of a sense of satisfied pride, he started to feel that he and the girl were indeed different than other people, he felt that there was something inexpressible creeping into his soul, and that if it wasn’t love, it certainly was similar to it, but this complicated the issue greatly, both because he could not forget he had a wife at home, and because he knew that the sentimental way is not the shortest path to reach certain results, and here there certainly was not time to lose. Maybe a few glasses of Orvieto or Montefiascone wine would be enough to bring the adventure back to the easy and careless tracks that befitted it. “Are you hungry?” he asked the girl who was still crying.
She replied yes with ease, like a child.
“Let’s go then. We will stop at the first restaurant.”
“No, I’d rather get to Rome” she replied.
A little less than an hour later they were sitting, very close to each other, under the canopy of one of the little restaurants along the Cassia road, in the outer suburbs of Rome, and the lawyer could observe how accurate was his prevision that a little wine would be enough to do away with any melancholy. He felt at his best physically and mentally, and as for the girl, she was completely transformed. She was twisting, with amusing incompetence her fettuccine with sauce around the fork, and was laughing, continuously laughing, asking him, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”, but without expecting any seriousness in his reply, like in a game.
And he swore he loved her, and again he poured her a drink, and she begged him not to, not to make her drink too much, because she loved him and therefore did not want to get drunk, and she pressed herself to him, with her small, warm and slim body, and they were kissing, they could do it because there were no other patrons at that time under the pergola, and the waiter did not mind them, numb with the heat and the hope of a good tip. “What will we do afterwards?” she was asking.
“I’ll take you to the beach, to a place called Tor San Lorenzo. There’s a hut there…”
“Two hearts and a hut”, she interrupted him beautifully, because she already drank a bit too much.
“It’s an outdoors hut”, he explained. “But inside it’s very well arranged. There’s a shower, a small kitchen with a fridge, and there is a big bed, with a flower print blanket…”
“A big bed”, she repeated with disconcerting malice, and he felt all confused, and they went back to kissing. And then, with a damp mouth, dazed by the kiss, she asked, “And the key, do you have the key?”
“No, but I will call my friend…”
“Didn’t you call him already?”
“Yes, but he was sleeping. He will wake at four thirty. I will call him again at four thirty.”
“At four thirty”, she repeated, suddenly melancholic, as if the wait weighed on her, or for who know what reason. “What time is it?”
“Almost four”, she said, becoming even more melancholic, until unpredictably she started laughing and said, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”.
And he, despite understanding that all this was nothing but a generous game, replied that he loved her, my God, did he love her so much, and while he was saying that, he didn’t understand anymore if he crossed the boundaries of the game, because in fact he felt like he truly loved her, everything about her enchanted him, her youth, her beauty, her freshness, and especially her splendid ability to do the most ill-matched things, deviled chicken and kisses, tears and happiness, the immodesty with which she looked at him when they talked of what they would do in the beach cabin, and the childish innocence that bloomed again in her as soon as she was distracted by something of her own, looking at a cat searching for food, or playing with the remains of the bread on the tablecloth. “What time is it?” she asked.
She asked again for the time six or seven times, before it was finally four thirty, and she laughed less and less, as if her merriment was being suffocated by the impatience of arriving to the beach, but when, when it was finally four thirty, she didn’t want him to make the call anymore. “Wait a little”, she said. “A little longer.”
“But if I wait, he may go out, and then we won’t find the key anymore.”
“Please, a little bit longer”, she kept repeating with painful sadness, it was possible that she found herself in a moment of such acute love that she preferred the rest of the adventure to fall through rather than being away from him at the particular time, and without a doubt it was a beautiful and moving feeling, but the lawyer did not forget the rest of the adventure was what counted most, and that on the other hand, she was the one teasing him with the constant questions about what they would do at the hut, so it was not clear how come she now wanted to hold him back, risking losing out on the best. And all things considered, although he still thought that she was the most extraordinary and amazing girl he ever met, partly because of her unpredictable changes of tone and mood, he was also starting to wonder if it wasn’t better if he had met a less complicated girl.
At four forty five, although she kept begging him to wait a little longer, he did not listen to her and went into the restaurant, where the telephone was.
His painter friend was still asleep, but he asked his housekeeper to wake him, which she did, and the painter, having been woken up in the middle of a muggy afternoon, came to the phone in a bad mood and pique. He began by demanding to know exactly who the girl was. The lawyer could only tell him her name was Inge and she was Swedish, not from Stockholm, but from Lulea, a town near the North Pole, apparently. Then the painter asked him where he found her, and also wanted him to describe her, and the lawyer, despite being annoyed at the wasted time, described her, feeling justifiably complacent, because at the end of the day, she made him look good. He told his friend she was not even twenty yet and was divine, slim, but not too slim, unimaginably blond, and yes, the legs were also perfect and the breasts were this way and that, but suited her, she could not have had different breasts. After describing her well, with all the necessary abundance of details, the painter said he also wanted to come to Tor San Lorenzo, and the lawyer had to work hard to make him understand this was not appropriate, this is a good girl, a college girl, and that if things were not conducted with full discretion, everything may be ruined, and as much as he hated to mention the past, the painter should not forget the many favors he owed him, he even defended him in court a few times without asking for anything in return, and if he didn’t give him the key now, he wasn’t a friend. The painter answered that it was the lawyer himself who was not behaving as a friend should, because true friends share everything, especially girls, but in the end, he was persuaded to give him the key, but he asked him to at least let him see the magnificent Swede, when he came to pick up the key.
The lawyer went back out and didn’t see the girl in her place. Maybe she went to the bathroom to touch up her makeup after eating. In the meantime, he asked for the bill, and while waiting, he sat down, and naturally he kept fantasizing about the girl at the sea and the hut and of what would be the best adventure of his life, but the girl did not return, could it be that she felt unwell in the bathroom, because she truly did drink too much, and that would really be a drag. “Did you see the young lady who was with me?” he asked the waiter who brought him the bill.
With calm, that considering the occasion could even be considered insolent, the waiter gestured toward the road. “She left”, he said.
The lawyer felt his heart contract. Left? Where? And why, more importantly? As the waiter would not be able to answer these questions, the lawyer hurried to the road, or to the car he left parked in the yard, he wasn’t even sure himself, but the waiter held his arm respectfully, “The bill, sir.”
More than right. But it was this trivial request that caused the lawyer his second, and not less painful, contraction of his heart, as he could not find his wallet in the back pocket of his trousers, where he usually kept it, or in any other pocket of his suit. Now, at least to all outward appearances, the wonderful and sole adventure, so longed for and planned, was reduced to a theft, a pickpocketing, something painful and ridiculous at the same time, but as at present he was unable to see the funny aspect, the lawyer was caught by rage.
While he was recklessly driving down the last and quite difficult part of Cassia Vecchia road, on the way to the Ponte Milvio, at the entrance to Rome, lawyer Adami was completely dominated by the desire to strangle the girl, and not only because of the 70,000 or more Lira that he had in his wallet, but for the actual fact that she was so unprecedentedly evil. This powerful impulse was quite natural, not to say legitimate, but he understood that, to act on it, it was first necessary to get the hold of the girl. Now, there were two options: either she stopped a passing car to take her God knows where in the city, or she took the 201 bus that went along the Cassia Vecchia, ending at Ponte Milvio. If lawyer Adami was driving so recklessly down a dangerous road and with many speed limit signs, it was not so much to release the overwhelming storm in his mind, but mostly to try to overtake one of these buses. He succeeded in doing so, and stopped at the terminal, ready to pounce on the girl the moment she appeared. But she didn’t come off that bus or the next one, and the lawyer’s fury, rather than subside, increased, as was his pigheaded determination to find her again, however unreasonable it was. He would look for her all over Rome and at any event, at ten to midnight he would catch her at the train leaving for Calabria, although, coming to think of it, the Calabria story could also be one of the many lies the girl told him, and in fact it was almost absurd that a delinquent of this kind, for whom the skill of stealing was a real profession, would have given him the correct information to help him catch her. No, he could only look for her in Rome, and with this clear purpose the lawyer started the car again and drove into the city of two million inhabitants, hot like an oven at the end of a summer day.
The assumption, in the lawyer’s way of thinking, was not easy, but neither was it so senselessly difficult as it may have appeared to those less expert than him. In fact, the search could be, by following common sense, restricted to ten or a few more places that foreigners visit in Rome. Assuming that criminal was a foreigner, the lawyer thought bitterly, actually, anything was possible, she could even be from Milan or from Venice, but no, Italy does not produce hair so blond or eyes so light, and in conclusion, he was certainly the first Italian victim of a Swedish pickpocket in his own country. She had to be caught, even from the point of view of national pride.
Following a clear plan, the lawyer explored first the area of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica, he then climbed Mount Gianicolo, then went down to the Colosseum and the Imperial Fora and then climbed another hill, the Campidoglio. In every place he stopped to look with a wild-eyed look for a girl in jeans, slim and blond, with the false look of a good girl. From the Campidoglio he went down to Piazza Venezia, and then, progressively discouraged, he drove along many roads and piazzas in the center, now full of cars and of people who came out to enjoy the relatively cool evening. He also drove past the Central Post, which, although it was not a beautiful monument, is one of the places that foreigners visit most. He then returned to a more touristic itinerary, visiting Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, until, when the sun was almost down, he thought that the little thief could be on the Pincio terrace, where sunsets are enjoyed, and where a pickpocket can always find some work.
Pincio was so busy it seemed like a fair, it was especially full of girls, but none of them was in jeans, and mainly, none of them was slim and blond and with a sweet face full of childish innocence, so sweet in his memory, that the lawyer found himself missing her sharply, against his will, whoever she was, with her dark soul. He only wondered how come God had allowed such a terrible mixture of physical beauty and moral depravation. And by appealing to God, in some ways he cleared her of at least part of her sins, and he felt that now, if he happened to find her, he would not strangle her or drag her to the first police station, but would simply try to understand why she was so perverse, and once he understood this, he would let her go, maybe even with the sixty or more thousands of Lira. Everything had become bitter for him, in the evening that was so sweetly descending, and not only because of her, as after all, she was just a symbol of the too many things in the world that are wrong, and that one is not quite sure why they are wrong.
Totally pervaded by this desolate thought on life and the whole universe, the lawyer got back into his car, drove aimlessly for a while through the alleys of Villa Borghese, sensing the sharp smells of the lime trees like metaphysical bile, seeing even the children playing with dogs on the grass as decaying mortals, and finally, especially in order to escape the disappointment that even nature seemed to give him, he drove to Porta Pinciana and entered Via Veneto, that at the time was shining with lights and signboards, clogged with cars and full of people walking like in a procession along the two sidewalks crowded with coffee shop tables. And it was right there, in the middle of the crowd, between two newsstands, that he, having stopped thinking of her as a natural being, saw her, or rather, noticed a blond head, and from the turmoil of conflicting feelings that caught him all of the sudden, he felt immediately sure it was her. Without thinking twice, he jumped out of the car, pushing through the crowd, progressing like a lunatic until, before even reaching her he realized that her blond head was not hers, the blond did not even remotely resemble hers, but in the meantime he already caused quite a lot of trouble as half of Via Veneto was honking horns and an angry policeman was whistling his whistle like the God Aeolus whistling up a storm at the reckless driver who left his car in the middle of the road during rush hour.
The lawyer complied with the command to move his car to a side road and there, furiously aware of the risk of ending up in prison for verbal assault of a policeman, he prepared to start an argument with the policeman, not so much because he thought he was even slightly in the right, but because this incident, happening at the highest point of a particularly baleful day, truly exceeded the daily amount of bad luck that a man can reasonably tolerate. Therefore, when the policeman began by asking if he wasn’t by any chance crazy, he exploded, shouting that he, a respectable professional, did not allow anyone to doubt his mental stability, and that the policeman needed to learn to respect tax paying citizens, and do his duty, if he cared about it, without making a fuss, because he had no time to lose. The policeman, with that superior smile that only people in a position of power have, did all he could to waste his time as much as possible, and started by asking him to show his documents: his logbook and driver’s license.
The lawyer, who due to his profession had a good understanding of the law, understood that he managed to get himself into big trouble, because he suddenly remembered that his license was in the wallet and he no longer had possession of his wallet. He also could not say his wallet had been stolen between three and four in the afternoon because, aside for the trouble with his wife, once she learned of certain details of the story, his duty would have been to report the theft as soon as possible and without prompting.
The lawyer, after a very quick mental analysis of the situation, reached the conclusion that in order to get out of the situation in the best possible way, he had better put on an act. With a confident gesture, he brought his right hand to the back pocket of his trousers to pull out his wallet, and immediately made an angry face, but mostly confused, as if he was surprised not to find it. Then, with professional ability, he changed his expression slightly, adding a touch of lost look, and in the meantime saying to himself, but loudly enough so the policeman could hear him, “Strange, I can’t find my wallet… A little time ago I had it… I really don’t understand… I hope I didn’t lose it, my license was inside…”.
The policeman sneered in triumph, and it was even possible that he thought he was dealing not with a lawyer but with a car thief. “Try to look for it better”, he said, without even trying to hide the irony in his voice. “Maybe you will find it.”
The lawyer was now trapped in an absurd situation that he caused himself. Dramatically, with growing agitation, he searched all his pockets, sighed and shook his head, even smiled at the policeman, trying desperately to defuse the malevolence, but he continued to say, with an increasingly nasty expression, “Look for it, look for it better”.
Then, the lawyer, feeling like a clown, and worse than a worm, left the car, took off his jackets, showing he was hoping the wallet would miraculously appear from somewhere, and because the policeman still did not seem satisfied, he started looking also inside the car, between the seat and the backrest, and then even under the seat, and there, not even hidden, he found the wallet that he evidently dropped after paying for gas at Acquapendente, and inside there was everything, his license and over seventy thousand Lira.
Hidden behind one of the pillars supporting the roof of platform 7 at Termini Station in Rome, the lawyer saw, at a quarter to midnight, the slim and blond girl arriving, preceded by a porter carrying her large back pack. She got on the train for Reggio Calabria, and almost immediately looked out of the window and remained there for a full five minutes until the train left. Looking melancholic and maybe a little worried, as if she was waiting, but without much hope, for someone to come to say goodbye to her.
The lawyer waited behind the pillar until the train left, then left the station, got into his car and drove home, to his wife and daughter and his destiny, and he was also feeling a little melancholic, but with that right amount of melancholy that every human cannot refuse to carry. Now he knew that the girl was truly wonderful, as he thought she was, and if she escaped in that strange way it was because for her, for her too, that adventure that started almost like a joke, had crossed the boundaries allowed for an adventure and it was not right to complete it, having to remain one of the things that don’t happen, and that therefore remain perfect in a way that things that happened cannot have.
© Giuseppe Berto Estate. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with The Italian Literary Agency, Milano, Italy.
As I was sitting in a taxi stuck in a queue of cars at the Atara Israeli army checkpoint, heading to Nablus to meet a beautiful widow I’d got to know on Facebook, it struck me that the timing of my trip to Nablus that day was unfortunate – there had been a martyrdom operation at the Atara checkpoint and some settlers had been killed.
There were extra checkpoints on the roads and the settlers were fuming. But being impetuous and impatient by nature, I still longed to meet the widow who had written that she wanted to tell me her life story so that I could turn it into a novel. She wanted to spare me the trouble of imagining surreal scenes, because her life was one long surrealist episode. “You just write it down,” she said. “The crazy events are already there. All they need from you is a little reworking and structure, and a bit of polish here and there.”
I was eager to meet her. Not to hear her stories, as it might have seemed from my reply to her: “Every month, I get dozens of messages from women I don’t know, who write telling me about their lives that would make perfect material for a novel,” but at the prospect of having her. Such deceptive backstories were often an avenue to wild sex.
The taxi inched forward. Over the shoulders of the passengers in front of me I could see Israeli soldiers slapping some young guys. I checked my wallet to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my ID card.
I trembled in shame and fear in front of the soldiers when they asked me to lift up my shirt so they could make sure I didn’t have explosives strapped around my waist. I politely refused. They asked to drop my trousers a little below the waist. I was so appalled, I almost fell over. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey soldier, I am a Palestinian man who writes short stories.”
The soldier gazed at my face: “But I don’t like short stories, I like long ones. It’s not your lucky day.”
The situation was excruciating. Behind me were hundreds of vehicles with their drivers and passengers, all staring at what was happening up ahead. I could practically hear them saying the same thing, “Disgraceful!”
A soldier, who didn’t like short stories, holding a truncheon, boredom already in his eyes and who thought he knew it all, was in my face. He asked me again to drop my trousers, to be extra certain of my innocence. At that point, I nearly fell over in terror. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey solider, have you read the book The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God by Etgar Keret?”
“What did you say? Etgar Keret? Have you really read Etgar Keret? Ooh, you like him then. That’s good enough. Off you go! Go on!”
That’s how I got away thanks to Etgar Keret, the famous Israeli writer, some of whose stories I had read in Arabic translation. I decided to use the same ploy at every Israeli army checkpoint to escape being humiliated by the soldiers. The taxi continued slowly on its way behind hundreds of other cars until Uyun al-Haramiya checkpoint where I took out my ID in readiness for further humiliation.
The solider was very tall and very blond. He looked to be in his thirties. In his blue eyes I could see he had read dozens of stories by Etgar Keret. I could hear voices telling me he had been influenced and astonished by Keret’s fictional world.
“Where are you going?”
“Who exactly are you going to see?”
“I’m going to see a beautiful widow.”
“What are you going to talk about?”
“About our lives, about literature, and maybe about sex.”
“We’re going to discuss the stories of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.”
Having said that, I expected to be let go or his face to show skepticism, but he carried on with his high-handed questions about my trip to Nablus. It dawned on me that Etgar Keret wasn’t going to save me this time. The soldier told me to go back to the cars and tell the drivers to turn off their engines.
That was the height of contempt for a short story writer who preferred death rather than carry out such an order. My blood started to boil.
“Hey soldier, I can’t carry out your order. I’m a short story writer, and short story writers don’t carry out soldiers’ orders.”
Blows and kicks rained down. From down below and up above, dozens of soldiers’ feet and fists pounded my face, my back and my stomach with kicks and punches… I came to in the arms of Palestinian passengers who picked me up and took me to a car whose driver had volunteered to take me to the nearest hospital.
At the entrance to Ramallah Hospital, occupation soldiers were setting up a checkpoint to search people going in and out. They pointed their guns at my head, which was bleeding.
“Where are you going?”
“To get treatment.”
“Who hit you?”
“Haters of the short story who haven’t read Etgar Keret.”
“Etgar Keret? Ooh, we like that writer. But how come you know him?”
“That’s a long story! Let me go in so they can stop my head bleeding.”
Inside the hospital in another bed near mine, lay a beautiful woman. She too had cuts to her head.
“Where are you from, Madam, and how did you get those cuts to your head?”
“The soldiers at the Atara checkpoint split my head open because I refused an intrusive search, one demeaning to a widow going to meet a famous writer who volunteered to turn her fascinating life story into a surrealist novel.”
“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.
Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf had been a Communist at university. After the fall of the Soviet Union he gave up on Communism for good. Or perhaps this was a rumour close friends spread about him. Nuru was then free to work as a Physics teacher and to concern himself with his family. But nobody could doubt the man’s love of Russia. He used to make trips of a few days to cities there – he and a group of his friends among whom was their leader, Salah ‘Amir, whom they used to call Capo, meaning “Chief” or “the Boss” in Italian. Capo was a man in his sixties who had never married and had spent his life as a hippy. He had a ring in his nose and the tattoo of a dragon on his arm. He tied his white hair back in a pony-tail, and allowed his beard to hang loose. He was into rock music, drugs and snake charming.
The trips they made to the Land of the Great White Bear were not normal tourist trips, like those when people visit museums, art galleries, ancient sites and the other usual travel clichés. Rather, their trips consisted of hanging out in a city other than Tunis. The funny things that happened to them there were enough to provide material for subsequent evenings, with the arguments and mockery, both of themselves and other people, which that demanded. For example, on their last trip, they looked for a restaurant that prepared Tunisian cuisine in St Petersburg and they got to know the chef who was a native of the country. Soon the man, who brought them plates of couscous with beef, became the butt of jokes. The word “country” in colloquial Russian meant “whore”, and Capo would thank him with the words, “a true son of the ‘country’”. The man would go along with a smile and his face would go red. He had doubts about what was intended, especially when he observed that the group were silent and not one of them laughed. They did it deliberately, so as not to spoil Capo’s joke. After the son of the country left to go to his kitchen, they doubled up in hysterical laughter, but not Capo. He made some comments on the side, which made them laugh all the more.
One year, Nur al-Din and Capo decided to go to Moscow – just the two of them, as the rest of their friends had other things to do. They spent their first evening at a nightclub, drinking vodka and watching Russian girls doing the striptease. As they were going back to the hotel in a rented car, Capo told Nur al-Din that they should go together the following day to a health spa where there would be beautiful Russian girls who gave an excellent massage for only forty roubles. After the massage session he would feel enormously refreshed and released from weariness and tension. Nuru agreed to the idea.
The following day Capo was at the steering wheel telling his friend again about the health spa, which he had been to many times in the past. He was silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, they don’t just do massage.”
Nur al-Din turned towards him. “Meaning what?” he asked.
“The lot, my dear friend, the lot,” Capo said with a smile.
Nuru struck his forehead in a high spirited way. “You’re a disaster, Capo,” he said.
“You have to give them an extra twenty roubles. You’ll see how things are done.”
At the health spa they each entered a warm jacuzzi, staying there for about half an hour. They got out, put on a bath robe and headed to the massage parlour where the masseuses were dressed in white coats waiting for their customers. The place was not crowded that day. They stretched out on their stomachs on massage tables leaving the masseuses to do their job. Capo flirted with his masseuse. First he asked her name. “Evrena,” she said. His Russian was good, and she laughed as he chatted with her. She asked him to place his head on the table and relax. Nur al-Din knew some words, but did not have Capo’s fluency in the language, and he smiled as he listened and felt the masseuse’s gentle hands passing over his back. Capo asked them to leave him alone with his friend for a moment. Nur al-Din was surprised at this; the masseuses moved towards the door and he whispered to Capo, “Why did you do that?”
“It was a sign,” he replied, and pointing his thumb behind him added, “It takes place in the bathroom.” He held his palm out towards Nur al-Din: “Have you got forty roubles on you?”
“Didn’t you say they only wanted twenty?”
“Yes. I mean for you and me. You’re paying.”
Nur al-Din laughed and grabbed his head with both hands. “Yes I’ve got the money,” he said.
“Go and get them, then.”
They both got off the massage tables, and went to collect their clothes. Nur al-Din took out his wallet and Capo took a packet of pills from his coat pocket. He took one out and gave it to his friend.
“What’s this?” asked Nuru.
“It’ll help you.”
“Screwing, of course.”
“Do you reckon I need it like you?”
“Just take it, man. You won’t regret it.”
Nur al-Din handled the pill with some hesitation, then swallowed it and tossed his head back. Then Capo said, “Follow me.”
Nur al-Din followed him and found the two masseuses really were waiting for them in the bathroom. Capo went in with Afrina after giving her the twenty roubles. Nur al-Din went in with his masseuse after giving her the same amount. She said her name was Oksana while she was licking his penis and gazing at him with her green eyes. When they were done, they got dressed and left. Nur al-Din was glowering. They got into the car and Capo was in a good mood. When he noticed that all was not right with his friend, he said, “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“Speak man, what’s the matter with you?”
“No . . . the pill . . .”
“The sex pill?”
“Has it made you ill?”
“It had no effect.”
“Just as I told you.”
Capo smiled. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
“Most likely, the blonde girl drained you dry.. Their woman aren’t like our women, Nuru, my good friend. One pill has an effect on our women but for their women we need a whole factory.”
“Do you really think so?”
They returned to the hotel. Nur al-Din had a shot of whisky which he drank from miniature he took out of the fridge. After nearly an hour he started feeling a pain in his penis. It had started to swell after he had slept with that girl Oksana and now began to grow erect. Capo was sitting there smiling and they talked about their programme for the evening. Nur al-Din suddenly began to fidget, got up and began to pace the room, his hands on his crotch.
Holding back his laughter, Capo said, “What’s the matter with you?”
“My prick, Capo. . .”
“What about it?”
Nur al-Din was moving with difficulty with pain etched on his face. Capo burst out laughing, gaining the attention of his friend. Capo had never in his whole life laughed as he was laughing at that moment. Nuru looked at him and felt that he had been victim of a trick.
“It’s the pill, isn’t it?” he said.
Capo nodded his head, his face red from so much laughter. He said with an effort, “The pill takes effect after an hour.”
“You knew that from the beginning, huh?”
Capo nodded in agreement. Nuru took a pillow and hit him hard with it, shouting, “Goddamn you, you rotten bastard.”
Capo tried to get his breath back. “Keep calm, it’s nothing serious,” he said. “Have another drink, and it will soon sort itself out.” He started laughing again.
After this incident, many of those who knew Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf began to debate the date he gave up on Communism.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
The sands lolled and swam in the sun’s blazing rays all day, then when darkness fell, they patiently waited for the sun to rise. As far as the eye could see, the sands swelled in every direction, wild and silent. It even felt like they were stealthily watching us. Everyone except the leader and I slept like the dead. We had walked barefoot the whole day, but the journey ahead was still long. The sun had hollowed faces and etched deep lines; lips were painted the color of ash.
Life became nothing but a dark tunnel. The mothers’ milk had dried out, none of them had eaten since yesterday. Emaciated and pallid, hunger shone from their vacant eyes. Returning home was a forlorn hope because home was gone. Chased by fatigue, thirst and hunger, we fled amid the growing clamor of children crying. I heard fear in their panicked screams, perhaps alarm at a threat not visible to us, the adults. Their ribs clearly defined, the children wept with tearless eyes and pinched faces anything but childlike. Hunger and the strong rays of the sun had robbed them of their vitality during the arduous journey.
The boundless sands merged with the horizon to make the desert in front of us unending. No hint of clouds absorbed the blazing heat. The drought had invaded valleys where mirages shimmered. Drought and war had crushed even the most resilient desert plants.
The leader was a tall imposing man who watched the group closely as they walked. He was silent and fearless but helpful to all and with respect for everyone. Now he spoke of fortitude, his voice kind and gentle. “Now, we eat. Then we must continue marching.”
Then the leader went to pray. In a clear voice, he recited his prayers and asked Allah to ease the sufferings of the journey, bless the children and provide solace to anyone mourning the loss of their home. Then he made his own lengthy and mournful supplication.
We resumed our journey across the sands. Our group included fifty women, ten children and a pregnant woman about to give birth.
Time passed so slowly, every minute felt an eternity. We walked a long way until, in the middle of the wasteland, we reached a village. Engulfed by sand and barely visible from a distance, the village stood alone against the hellish winds of the desert. Half a dozen families inhabited the village, and they came out of their huts to welcome us. Dressed in filthy garments damp with sweat and gritty with sand, they had rifles over their shoulders. Their faces were blistered as if they had emerged from the underworld. Even more wretched than us, they had nothing to offer. Their thatched huts were the height of a man with entrances just above the dirt. There was no place for us to rest. With the emptiness still ahead, we continued crossing the vast expanse of sand. The sun crawled toward its final abode, its rays still flaming.
Our guide said to me, “Beyond that tongue of sand is the border, but first we have to pass the village of Turayba just before the border.”
We walked in silence, even the children’s screaming died out. The donkey’s hooves the only sound. The calm was shattered by a woman’s screams. It was her time to give birth.
Quickly, we picked a place to camp and set up a tent for the pregnant woman. Other women sat with her in the tent, while her mother, who said they would need hot water, lit a fire. Shortly, the pregnant woman crawled out of the tent screaming. Other women followed the trail of blood behind her. It seemed she was hemorrhaging and I asked them about her husband. They said he had died in the last attack, the one that had forced us to leave our homes. The pregnant woman was pouring with sweat. The other women gathered around her while I stood back observing the situation to see if they needed me. She gripped her mother’s arm, begging them with her eyes.
One of the women pointed at me. “Dig a hole the height of one and a half men and get a thick branch long enough to rest over the top.”
The guide and I wasted no time in digging. The pregnant woman’s moaning grew more distinct, yet sadder and deeper, and one of the women shouted, “Hurry up or she’s going to die.”
When we had finished, the oldest woman told us to tie a rope to the middle of the branch The other end of the rope was looped around the pregnant woman’s hands, so her body could be suspended inside the hole. It was my first time to see a rope delivery.
Unable to stand, the pregnant woman hemorrhaged blood all over her clothes. Her palms tied together with the rope, I carried her to the hole and lowered her down. The woman who told me to dig the hole also climbed down and sat on the bottom where she undressed the pregnant woman. The other women gathered around the edge to offer encouragement.
The woman in the hole called up to us, “It was a very difficult birth and she is still bleeding.”
Her mother was sobbing loudly, so I went over and stroked her head. “She will be all right. Pray for her.”
“Half of our women bleed to death. She will die,” said her mother.
I didn’t know what to do. My body trembled like a pigeon as our eyes, mine and the women’s, moved to the baby, who moaned softly. She was a tiny girl. Compassion tugging at me, I lifted her in my hands and hugged her as passionately as a real mother who had just given birth. Then I laid her tiny body, newly washed with blood, on a piece of cloth stretched out on the dirt inside the tent. The girl child was long and a native desert-brown color. Minutes passed like centuries, and I wished I could stay with the women inside the tent. Overwhelmed by emotion, I immersed myself in the child. Outside the tent, the new mother continued to bleed. The women tried hard to stop the bleeding with no success. The new mother stared at a point on the horizon where a mirage and false hopes shimmered. Despite the pain, she smiled. She was fifteen years old, her mother told me.
Everyone was distraught except her. Even the leader lost his patience and circled the tent like a millstone. Mute, her earthly body still, the dying woman calmly surrendered her soul to divine salvation and crossed purgatory into the Holy Kingdom. The women loudly mourned her, throwing handfuls of sand over their heads. I mourned too, but with the silence of a Darfurian man already ravaged by disaster that had left him dispossessed of his homeland, robbed of his home, and forced from his village.
Some of the women busied themselves preparing the body, while others ceaselessly wept. Then they noticed that the new-born girl was not moving. A gnarled old woman picked up the motionless child. Largely silent during the trip, she yelled now in a voice bigger than she was, “The child is dead too.”
Everyone drifted along a stream of sadness, their tears falling to the sand before being rapidly absorbed. They wrapped the body of the mother in her own clothes with the baby on her chest. Wailing, we carried the bodies to their last home, lowering them in after praying for them. I could no longer stand as I pushed the dirt into the grave, so I fell to my knees and keened at the edge. The sun had completely vanished, the darkness condensed and hid the expanse of space.
The guide said, “We have to keep marching so we reach the border quickly.”
Huddled together, we walked slowly on. The guide followed the stars, and we used the moonlight to guide our footsteps and keep us safe from the menacing darkness. War had slain the life of the desert, the ancient trees, the hardy thorn bushes that fed the cattle during drought. Everything had gone.
As we fought to resist the aching breath of the desert, the voices of our women mourned the home, the birthplace, they had fled. Everybody was hungry, children and adults alike could not bear it, and we had little food left. When most of the women were unable to keep going, I distributed a handful of dates. Their eyes followed me, speaking the language of misery. Fleeting looks, enough to translate the feelings behind them. Before the hunger could fade, thirst took its place.
We camped and lit a fire to make gruel. Hollowed out by hunger, the women worked steadily until a breathless and horrified voice from the back of the group broke the silence. The leader spun around, tripping over his own feet as he rushed to see what was wrong. I was close behind him.
“Batool!” said the woman standing near a prone body.
“Is she dead?” asked the leader.
Not replying either yes or no, the woman’s eyes overflowed with tears as she stared down at the dirt. There lay Batool on her back, eyes so wide open they were ringed in white. She seemed to be staring at the distant horizon, caught in a futile struggle to see the refugee camp beyond the mirage of the border. Her vacant stare was so strange that fear and horror percolated through me. In her last desperate expression, I saw dignity savaged by the loss of land, farm and home. She gazed at the heavens, at lost hope. Her hands clasped the sand where we buried her in a moment charged with fear and reverence. When the funeral was done, we laid a big stone on her grave.
The leader sat on a low mound staring into the vastness. “My son, most of the sand you see was once spanned by villages. Hundreds of families flourished here.” He sighed deeply and continued, “Now they’ve dissolved into nothing, forever a part of the desert.”
The leader withdrew into the darkness, and I followed him. We sat together under a sky free of clouds as the desert sank into darkness. In the face of the impenetrable silence, nothing could be heard except the sound of faith in Allah the Almighty, silent in His glory.
After midnight and before dawn, the voice calling to the journey summoned us to resume marching across purgatory till we reached salvation.
The waiter at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye, Claude, asked me to finish my drink quickly. It was a quarter past two in the morning and he had to close up the café. I walked a few paces and sat down in Place Furstenberg. This was where I ‘cleared’ my mind every day. Opposite me was the house in which the famous painter Delacroix had spent his last years, and which was now a museum. I started to smoke a cigarette. I thought of walking to Austerlitz, but I couldn’t sleep now, I was in such a troubled mood.
‘How long will the French go on repeating this tedious drama?’ I shouted loudly as if addressing the great painter.
I meant those enormous military parades that they put on every year. Thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, rockets, and artillery, scores of planes circling in the sky, and everywhere thronged with people, with traffic policemen closing the main roads leading to the heart of Paris. All this led to complete chaos that lasted the whole day. The television channels broadcast these parades live. We could see the same pictures on the screens of hundreds of thousands of television sets displayed in the windows of electrical shops. I love France, but I never liked this day they call ‘Quatorze Juillet’ (14 July), when they celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution.
I left Place Furstenberg and decided to take a stroll around Saint-Sulpice church, waiting for dawn to break so that I could go into the first café I found open. At the end of Rue Bonaparte, where it meets Rue Vieux Colombiers, I noticed an attractive woman walking in a way that caught my attention. She was wearing white shorts that allowed one to see her sturdy legs. I guessed that she was nearing fifty. As the distance between us narrowed, I thought she looked sad. Without expecting any reply, I asked her, ‘Why are you sad, madame?’ I was drunk, and it was nearly three in the morning.
The woman stopped. ‘Yes, I am very sad, monsieur,’ she said, trying to put on a little smile.
‘I am very sorry, madame,’ I said.
‘I lost my little dog on quatorze juillet, monsieur,’ she explained. ‘Isn’t that sad?’ she added in a coquettish way, licking her lips and pouting.
‘And I lost my country on quatorze juillet, madame, isn’t that sad?’ I said sarcastically.
She laughed and closed her eyes flirtatiously, ‘And how did that happen?’ she asked.
‘It’s a long story, madame.’
The woman remained silent for a moment, then said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a drink with me? I know a place that stays open till dawn.’
We crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain and walked on past the church. ‘I live on this boulevard,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it wonderful for someone to live in this quarter?’
‘It’s just a dream, as far as I’m concerned,’ I replied.
‘For me too,’ she said cheerfully, then added, ‘Think how wonderful it would be if we were to find my dog now!’
‘We’ll find it, madame, believe me. I feel it,’ I said.
She stopped and looked at me. ‘You are kind,’ she said. ‘You make me feel I’ve found a friend. You said, “We’ll find it”. That’s very kind of you.’
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t know what to reply.
‘Yes, you are kind,’ she repeated.
When we went into the Café Conti I was greeted by Damien, the manager, who shook hands with me.
‘It seems you are famous,’ said the woman.
‘Only in bars,’ I replied.
She laughed loudly.
I asked for red wine and she asked for a Kir Royale. I noticed Damien leaving the bar, and knew that he would be going to the storeroom behind it, near the toilet. I immediately made for the toilet and waited for a few moments for him to come out of the storeroom, then said, ‘Damien, please, if we have to drink a lot, can I settle the bill tomorrow? I only met this woman today.’
‘Certainly,’ said Damien. He added, ‘She’s only been living in Paris for two weeks. She was in California before.’
‘You know her?’
‘She comes in for a drink in the evening. She lives only a few steps away from here.’
The woman said that her name was Micheline, and asked me my name, about my life and what had happened to my country. I told her that I was working at the moment in a translation and printing company and that my ambition was to be a film director. About my country, I told her that on Quatorze Juillet 1958 a group of wicked officers had carried out a bloody military coup that had done away with the monarchy in Iraq and that since then the Iraqi people had been living under the rule of the loutish military.
‘Are you a royalist?’ she asked me.
Yes, I’m a royalist. I believe that the monarchy in my country was better for us.’
She nodded her head in an understanding way. ‘I lived more than fifteen years in California. I had a big restaurant there, specialising in French cuisine. OK, it was owned by myself and my husband. I separated from him a month ago.’ As she ordered another drink, she added, ‘I’m a professional chef. I thought of opening a restaurant here in Paris, but I decided to test the waters first, so I took a job as a chef in a well-known restaurant behind the Palais de Justice. My customers are among the best-known judges in Paris.’
After a moment’s silence, she asked, ‘Where do you live?’
‘A little while ago, I left the place I was living in near here, and I’m now living in a small studio near the press where I work. Near the Bourse de Paris.’
‘A nice area, but it’s a long way away from here,’ she said.
We went on drinking until the café closed its doors. She invited me to continue drinking in her house, ‘It’s only a few steps away, come with me.’
In the morning, Micheline appeared out of the bathroom while I was still in bed. She said good morning and bent down to kiss me, so I pulled her back into bed.
‘You know, I’m a royalist as well,’ she said. ‘I’m a chef, and chefs have to be royalists, don’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, pulling the large towel from her body.
Micheline went to work and left me to sleep. When she came back, I was in the bathroom taking a shower, singing Charles Aznavour’s song ‘Dans tes bras’ with vigour. She started singing with me as she took off her clothes and got under the shower.
‘I know Charles Aznavour personally,’ said Micheline as we ate some wonderful French food she had brought from the restaurant. ‘I was the personal chef of the pop singer Lionel Richie.’
‘Wow, I like Lionel Richie a lot,’ I told her.
‘Me too,’ said Micheline. ‘I was his favourite chef for several years. Once, Charles Aznavour was one of Lionel Richie’s guests and I was in charge of the cooking. Lionel Richie said to me, ‘Micheline, please pay even more attention to the food than usual. Charles Aznavour is our guest. He’s a stickler, he puts his nose into everything in the kitchen, big or small. Please, I don’t want him to complain!’ And when Aznavour came, he did indeed meddle in every detail concerning the food. He’s very fussy and demanding.’
‘Is Lionel Richie a nice man?’ I asked Micheline.
‘Very,’ replied Micheline enthusiastically. Then she asked me whether I had contacted the translation company to tell them I wouldn’t be going in. I told her that they were used to my habits. ‘Don’t forget that yesterday was quatorze juillet,’ I reminded her.
‘Quatorze juillet, that reminds me, we should go out and look for my dog. Perhaps we’ll find him where I lost him.’
‘In Place Saint-Sulpice?’
‘Yes, near Catherine Deneuve’s house, the actress, do you know about her?’
‘Who doesn’t know about Catherine Deneuve?’
‘True. Yesterday you said something to me about the movies.’
‘I’d like to be a film director.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’
We went to the police station opposite Saint-Sulpice church and Micheline handed in details of her lost dog. Then we spent the afternoon wandering around the streets near the church. We drank a few glasses of white wine in a café in Rue Lobineau. Then she told me she had to go back home and afterward go to work. She suggested I go with her so that she could give me a spare house key.
‘I have a feeling I’ve begun to fall in love with you,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
Before she left for work, we went to bed. Then Micheline took a shower and went out. I got up and put a small table by the window overlooking Boulevard Saint-Germain. I brought the bottle of bourbon and began to drink. Since the apartment was immediately above the Old Navy Café, which I was forbidden to enter as a result of an argument with the café owner, I imagined myself sitting on the upstairs floor of the café to spite him.
So far as work was concerned, I still had no steady job. There was just a small company undertaking translation and publishing work, run by a Lebanese called Jean, who needed me occasionally for typesetting a few pages in Arabic. Luckily, a week before I met Micheline, Jean had told me he had signed a contract with a French company, well known in the arms manufacturing trade, to translate some catalogs of arms that the company had sold recently to a number of Gulf states. The Arab states were making it a condition that the catalogs should be in Arabic. Jean was happy that day, inviting me to have a few drinks with him as he gave me the news of the deal. He told me that he would need me ‘for two months at least’, then gave me a sum of money on account.
Before Micheline came back from work, the telephone rang. There was a young Frenchman on the line who asked for Micheline and said that on quatorze juillet he had been in a café with his girlfriend when a small dog had come up and sat beside them. When they left the café at dawn, they had taken the dog with them ‘because we realised it was lost’. Then he explained that he had seen an American telephone number on its collar. He had called the number and a man speaking English with a French accent answered and told him that the dog belonged to his former wife who was now living in Paris. Then the man had given him Micheline’s telephone number.
I thanked the young man, asked for his telephone number, and told him that as soon as Micheline came back from work she would call him.
‘Didn’t I tell you we would find him?’ I shouted at the top of my voice as I lifted her up, along with the bags she was carrying.
‘Be careful, be careful, there are bottles of white wine!’ said Micheline, then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at me. ‘I can smell bourbon, please don’t play games with me.’
‘I’m not playing games, Micheline, we’ve found your dog.’
‘Where? Did the police get in touch?’
I shook my head and told her the story. She took the telephone number and started to dial it, while I occupied myself with emptying the bags and putting the food and wine in the fridge.
‘We have to celebrate this news,’ Micheline shrieked. ‘It’s a big celebration!’
She had satisfied herself that the news was correct, and started dancing, hugging me and pulling me towards the bed. Before taking off our clothes, she asked me to open a bottle of white wine and leave it beside the bed.
I never did like Micheline’s dog. It was ugly. She kissed it all the time. From the moment it was there with us, it started to annoy me. When Micheline was at home, it would bark the whole time in protest at my being there. When Micheline went to work and it was left with me, it never opened its mouth at all. It would disappear from my sight and hide away, in God only knows what corner of the apartment. It stayed there until suddenly it would run out, come up to me, look at me in an impudent way, and begin barking in my face. At that precise moment, the door would open and Micheline would come in.
Despite the petty arguments between us, the result of differences in temperament and mood, Micheline started to feel comfortable with me and buy me clothes, especially shirts with designer labels. She particularly liked the Agnes B brand. And because I had some experience in printing and publishing, she bought a computer and a colour printer.
She said that she was going to write a book about French cooking, that we would supervise the technical production of it together, and ‘you can use the computer to write your script. It’s better than a typewriter’.
We never missed a chance to go to bed. Before leaving home, when we returned, after a meal, after a shower. One day, on the way back from work, she said that she was inviting me to a fancy Mexican restaurant. In the restaurant, she put to me the idea that ‘we should live together permanently’.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘But we are together, Micheline,’ I replied.
‘True, but so far we haven’t talked about some important details.’
‘Let’s leave it until another time,’ I said offhandedly, clinking my glass against hers.
‘As you wish,’ she scowled.
This ‘As you wish’ didn’t come from her heart, though. As soon as we had left the restaurant and taken a few steps, she started to shout, ‘You all take advantage of my good nature in the same way. I take you out for a first-rate supper to talk about our relationship and all you can do is answer coldly, “Let’s leave it until another time”. What other time? Eh? Tell me. At the moment you just want to drink and fuck, isn’t that the truth, you bum?’
She opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared at me as she said ‘you bum’. I looked at her in astonishment.
‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘I asked about you. They told me that you lived on movie fantasies and slept on the streets. Despite that, I put up with you, even invite you to one of the best restaurants.’
She continued her tirade, which was attracting the attention of some passers-by, ‘You all take advantage of me in the same way. My husband cheated on me with my closest friend while all the time I was working for him.’
‘And you were also fucking a young Mexican boy while your husband was taking his siesta. You told me the story yourself!’
‘That’s none of your business,’ she said, then fell silent.
We walked on a few paces. She turned to me and said, ‘Give me the key to the apartment, please. Come tomorrow and get your things. I’m sorry, I’m not going back home now, I’m finishing my evening entertainment.’
I gave her the key as we stood there in the middle of the street. She went to finish off her evening in the bars of Rue Princesse. I headed for my favourite place, Au Chai de l’Abbaye, where I stayed drinking until two o’clock. A few minutes before the bar closed, Micheline came in and ordered a drink. Majid and Claude were astonished to see her standing beside me without talking to me.
I put my hand in my pocket and was about to pay my bill. I hesitated for a moment and thought of paying hers, but I was afraid of her reaction. I was conscious of the fact that I was wearing a shirt she had bought me. Who could guarantee that she wouldn’t demand it back in front of the customers? I was in a dilemma.
A Japanese customer, a regular, was standing at the bar. He was an eccentric fellow. He would go for days refusing to speak to any of the other customers, then on another day he would come and talk to everyone. He had a habit when he was talking to one customer, of withdrawing in the middle of a discussion and going to talk to another.
The Japanese man went up to Micheline and asked her if she’d like a drink. They started having a cheerful conversation and Micheline’s loud laughter could be heard throughout the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out. Not for a moment did I think that she would follow me and actually lure me in so that I would end up seeing in the dawn in a police station.
At first, I thought of getting away from the quarter, especially as the cafés that I drank in were all closed – Danton, Le Relais Odéon, Tennessee, Atlas, Bonaparte. I was reluctant to go to the Opera or Montparnasse quarters. I went to Café Conti. It was only a few moments before Micheline came in, with her arms around the Japanese man.
She came up to me and said calmly, ‘Take this key, please. Go and collect your things. My Japanese friend and I have decided to get married, and I don’t want any hassle.’
‘OK,’ I said and took the key, while she began to kiss her Japanese boyfriend.
‘Oh, my love, my Japanese love.’
Some customers were looking at us and smiling, some of them were regulars who knew that she was supposed to be my girlfriend. As the apartment was only two hundred metres away from the Conti, I went at once and began to gather my things together. The dog looked at me from its corner, trembling. I smiled at it. It carried on panting and staring at me. Before putting the bottle of Jack Daniels in the bag, I thought of having a drink. Micheline wouldn’t come back before five, or so I thought. But no sooner had I started to drink than the dog began to bark and Micheline came in with her Japanese friend. She patted the dog, then flew into a rage when she saw me sitting with the glass in my hand.
‘My apartment’s not a bar, do you understand?’ She tried to snatch the glass from my hand, so I pushed her hard towards the sofa. The dog began to bark, and I saw the Japanese man undo his flies and go into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
‘You hit me!’ she shouted.
‘You’re a bitch,’ I told her angrily, grabbing hold of her.
She took the telephone and dialed the police. She wouldn’t let me leave the apartment until the policemen had arrived and she had told them that I was a violent man and was refusing to leave.
‘You’re a lying bitch, Micheline, and you know it,’ I said as I left with the police. The Japanese man was still in the bathroom, and the dog seemed happy in her lap.
In the car, one policeman asked me, ‘Did you buy a new dog?’
I looked at him in astonishment. He said that he had seen us when we came to the station to report the loss of the dog. I told him how we had found the ‘ugly’ dog. The policeman laughed. Then he told me politely that they were obliged to detain me until eight in the morning. I asked him whether it was possible to stay until eleven as I wanted to sleep a little.
‘I don’t think so,’ said the policeman, adding, ‘Actually, my shift ends at nine so I won’t wake you before then.’
But the policeman and I had both forgotten that it was Sunday and the bells of Saint-Sulpice church wouldn’t let anyone sleep.
After that incident, Micheline began to look for me in the bars and to call my office. Two or three days later, she found me sitting in Place Furstenberg. She told me she had been drunk and stupid and that she was sorry, and she blamed herself for her tactless behaviour.
Then she repeated her account of her hard time with her former husband. ‘Oh, you don’t know how cruel he was to me in that foreign country!’
She lit a cigarette and went on: ‘I was a foreigner like you. America wasn’t my country and I was afraid my husband would throw me onto the street and I’d become exactly like you, a vagabond or a refugee.’ And she added, ‘What does it mean for someone to become homeless? Anyone of us could become homeless at any moment.’
She concluded, with a reference to the two famous cemeteries, ‘There is no stability in this life except in Montparnasse or Père Lachaise.’
I listened, nodding.
‘He would come at night and throw himself onto the bed and keep on snoring until morning. Of course, I knew he was sleeping with the Mexican maids in the afternoon.’
‘But, Micheline, you told me about your own adventures with the Mexicans as well!’
‘One adventure, with a good-looking guy,’ she said teasingly.
I remember, one evening we were lying on the bed and Micheline had told me this story: ‘We had a large villa about seven kilometres away from the restaurant. My husband preferred to take his siesta at the restaurant, while I would go home as soon as lunch was over. Until that is, the young man who worked as a dishwasher told me that my husband used to stay at the restaurant in order to spend his siesta sleeping with the waitresses. I broached the subject with him and we argued about it a lot but to no avail. I had to do the same, in the end, I’m not stupid. Especially as I knew that the dishwasher, who was a strapping young man, dreamed, like any Mexican, of sleeping with blonde women. I used to notice his glances in my direction as he worked in the kitchen.
‘One day, I went up to the young man, told him I had left the car trunk open and asked him to get inside it, then shut it behind him. After work I opened the trunk and found the young man stretched out, dripping with sweat. I closed it again and headed home, where we, too, began to take a siesta every afternoon. After a bit, my husband found out, fired the young man and began to keep watch on me until he turned my life into hell.’
I agreed to go back to Micheline to get away from the hell of the street. The period I had spent with her, as a resident of Boulevard Saint-Germain, was a happy one. It helped me escape from the vagabond life I had led for nearly ten years. I had persuaded myself that the best way of staying with her was to go out every morning as if I was an employee going off to work and to come back in the evening to spend time with her like any couple.
But this plan only worked for a few days. I began to pine for the streets and cafés again and drinking with friends. Whenever I went to meet friends, Micheline would end up spending the evening with us. She’d search every café until she found me. Sometimes she made trouble between me and my friends, and on many occasions, she said to me, ‘You go home, I’ll follow later.’ We had several arguments, and I had to leave the apartment more than once, but then we’d makeup and I’d go back.
One morning, an official holiday, the sun had been slipping through our window since the early hours of dawn. I woke up in a cheerful mood and began to caress Micheline, who was rousing slowly, responding to my caresses with a considerable appetite. Afterward, I suggested to her that we should go to spend the day at Versailles.
‘Aren’t we royalists, after all?’ I asked her.
‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘To Versailles. That would be really nice.’
We made an assortment of sandwiches, and I took two bottles of Muscadet from the fridge. Then we took the train to Versailles. We wandered around among hundreds of tourists. I took lots of pictures of Micheline at the palace gate, in the fascinating palace grounds, then Micheline asked a Japanese tourist to take a picture of us together wearing sunglasses. And we found a cozy spot under a tree where we finished off the sandwiches and Muscadet and lay down.
When sunset approached, I said to Micheline, ‘I’ll hire a rowing boat so we can spend the sunset on the lake.’ Micheline smiled and seemed very happy.
‘You’ll see the strength of my arms,’ I added, making rowing motions.
No sooner had we got into the boat than Micheline, looking left and right, said, ‘But almost everyone has gone.’
‘The tourists like to look at the rooms inside the palace,’ I replied.
‘The place is so beautiful,’ said Micheline in a gentle voice. ‘Imagine, after all these years the Palace of Versailles is still like paradise. Admittedly, at the time of Louis XVI, it was far better.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘You’re right, I feel proud to be a royalist,’ she said, massaging my outstretched feet between hers. Micheline was talking as I guided the boat towards the far end of the lake, to a place where overgrown trees touched the water, until we were in a secluded, almost completely shaded spot.
I started to look left and right, then at Micheline, smiling. She got her camera out and took a picture of me.
‘Why don’t you speak?’ she asked.
I was smiling as I looked into her eyes for a moment, then at my own arms as they worked the oars in the water of Lake Versailles in that enticing sunset.
‘Won’t you say something?’
I looked left and right and pulled on the oars vigorously to steer the boat into an even more shaded area.
‘Say something,’ said Micheline loudly.
I didn’t reply but continued to stare at her.
‘What are you thinking about? Come on, what are you thinking about? Say something, please! Tell me what’s going round in your head!’
I looked into her eyes and said nothing.
She took out a cigarette and began smoking. ‘But say something! Come on, what are you thinking about, come on, tell me what you’re thinking about.’
‘I’m thinking about Hitchcock, I’m thinking about a movie of Hitchcock’s, Micheline.’
She looked at me and said in a pleading tone, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not what you’re thinking. But you did tell me you wanted to be a film director, didn’t you?’ Micheline began to look left and right, while her face turned completely red. I felt that she was about to lose her power of speech completely. Finally, she said, ‘Don’t scare me, please, you’re too nice.’
‘You too,’ I said to her, smiling, then asked her to light me a cigarette.
‘Right away,’ she said, sighing. She lit the cigarette and added, ‘Now it’s my turn to row.’
She began to row quickly. ‘Don’t you think that we’d better go back?’ she said, out of breath.
I nodded agreement.
She rowed like mad – as if she were trying to escape drowning. I was smoking my cigarette and looking at her. A big smile came over her face whenever our eyes met. When we reached the jetty, Micheline became confused. ‘I have to go home quickly, yes, quickly, I’m very tired,’ she said.
We didn’t talk at all on the train. Micheline quickly opened the door to the apartment. She made for the telephone, which she carried into the room overlooking the street. She shut the door from the inside and spoke to me through the large glass window that separated the two rooms.
‘Please take your things and leave me to myself. Our relationship is over, over, over.’
‘Au revoir, Micheline.’
I took my things and went out, without hearing any reply.
That night I wandered from café to café and carried on drinking until dawn, without Micheline appearing. She didn’t appear the following day either, or the next one. I didn’t see her for more than a month, and then one day I heard she had left Paris and gone off with a Moroccan dishwasher, who had been working with her, to another city where she had decided to open a restaurant of her own.
Mom gave me a block of cheddar cheese and a sleeve of Fig Newtons when I left home for California in August of 1983. Apparently back then, when crossing the country alone in an unreliable foreign car, it wasn’t money, a map or even an old blanket, but foodstuffs from home rolled up in a paper bag that really said you care.
The Fiat station wagon with the fake wood side panels rattled like a rusty birdcage as I deposited the last of my albums inside and slammed the hatchback. Mom was waiting for me on the sidewalk in her faded yellow zip-up robe, arms crossed at her stomach. She hunched a bit like she ate something bad. To her credit she had dragged herself out of bed at dawn for my farewell to Michigan, an undeniable feat for someone who raised eight kids and liked to stay up late smoking Kents, drinking red wine and writing letters to cousins in Wisconsin.
Despite being just over five feet tall, my mother was a warrior, a fighter you didn’t cross. She once killed a snake with one whack of a hoe while balancing a child on her hip. She could deliver sermons worthy of any Catholic priest from the Kalamazoo diocese and for twice as long. She could hold a grudge for years, if not decades. But now Mom’s eyes, normally narrowed in skepticism, were wide and watery as a baby seal’s. She was weeping for me, her sixth child, the quiet daughter, the untalented one, the one for whom no expectations were ever expected by anyone. Even me.
I could have left already. The sun was rising through the neighbor’s maple tree, the one Mom hated, the one with leaves as big as plates. I was politely standing before the woman who tortured me for the past three months about my meager plans to leave for LA. The woman who railed about my quitting the radio station. The woman who would not let me forget that the Fiat was really her car even though she sold it to me for four hundred dollars the year before.
Our family did not embrace physical affection, especially back in the ‘80s, before people coast to coast started hugging each other like Mafiosi. Growing up, any affection from Mom stopped when my little sister Kitty arrived home from the hospital. I was seven then and didn’t get much more than a pat on the back after that. So when I left home there were no hugs or kisses expected. Mom stood still. I shifted around.
“Someone from WHFB called the house yesterday asking for you,” she said. “He said there is a job opening. You could live at home and work right in town.”
Much was wrong with that horrifying suggestion, but instead of insisting I’d never want to live at home again, I flailed my arms in the direction of the stuffed yellow car. “But I’m all packed.”
She took a step forward and concocted another argument. “But Mims Dear, what will you do at Christmas? All alone?”
“I’m not worried about it Mom,” I said, slowly inching to the car.
Now following me down the driveway, she gave it another try. Desperation gripped her face. “But what if you fail?”
I wanted to laugh it was so absurd. “Would that be so terrible?”
Seeing my mother in tears was unusual but the idea of failure was not. Failure I have known since 7th-grade gym, 8th-grade gym, high school gym entirely, 10th-grade geometry, college boys from Bay City, Econ 101 and the teaching assistant from English Comp 167. Failure was my normal. I expected it. To Mom it was unacceptable. Failure could ruin social standings, job opportunities, dating prospects, marriage proposals, and God forbid, your reputation. Avoiding failure was so important to both my parents they legally changed my name from Martine to Miriam on the advice of Dad’s hot-shot boss who came to dinner one night in 1960. I was six months old. The family had just moved to Michigan for Dad’s new job. He must have been under a lot of pressure. The unfortunate name change was not meant to bolster a child into life, but to spare me a lifetime of Dean Martin martini jokes and spare them the debilitation of having a daughter who might be called Tina.
Instead of enjoying the je ne sais quoi of a French name, I grew up with one so Biblical no one in the family used it. By the time I was in first grade at Brown School, I still had no idea I was anyone but Mimi. One day Mrs. Cleveland said “Write your real name on your paper. Mimi is not your real name.” Confusion buzzed my brain and lit my cheeks on fire. How did old Mrs. Cleveland know my name and I didn’t?
Running home from the bus stop I imagined a name like Cathy or Susie, regular 1965 stuff. I was excited. My sisters had pretty girl names: Mary, Michelle, Elisa, Catherine and Christiane. That afternoon Mom sat me down at the kitchen counter and told me the genesis of the name Miriam, from historic Bible story to fateful dinner party. It was a heavy name for someone just six years old. Why was I being punished?
Mom taught me how to spell Miriam and produced an official green replacement birth certificate from the county courthouse which I immediately hid in my dresser drawer under my anklets. No cute birth certificate with footprints for me. The entire miserable experience fueled my adoption fantasy for years in which I’m the only child of rich, loving parents who buy me pretty clothes, give me my own bedroom with a canopy bed and call me Candy.
One day after school I was shuffling through eighth grade when my record player had just crackled through my favorite John Denver album for the millionth time and I realized I could not live another day without music ruling my life. I strode to the kitchen, boosted by thirteen-year-old girl hormones and the power of pop music. Standing next to the stove I confided to Mom my dream of being the female version of John Denver, complete with guitar and mountain cabin.
Without looking up from the spaghetti she was breaking into boiling water, she imploded. “Do not even think about becoming a musician. Besides, you have no talent.”
I backed away and slid down the hall to the tiny blue bedroom I shared with Elisa, swishing as quietly as I could in my pink corduroy bell bottoms, the ones I bought with babysitting money, the ones that matched the purple heart I drew on my right cheek in honor of Elton John and Glitter Rock. The subject never came up again.
After that, I practiced my flute and suffered through piano lessons, but for no purpose beyond satisfying my parents and keeping the peace. For a few years, there was a rebellious dream of learning sound-mixing and going on the road with a rock band. This idea I lifted from an advertisement in the Whole Earth Catalog. It coincided nicely with my plan to run away to San Francisco, get my own apartment with a porch and hang some glass Chinese wind chimes, the kind they sold at the dime store.
My senior year in high school my parents suddenly took an interest in my life, sharing with me their ideas for my so-called career. Dad suggested I become a stewardess. “They look like they’re having fun!” Mom thought the Navy was perfect for her listless daughter. She was a WAVE in Pensacola during WWII and apparently had the time of her life despite the war. “It will give your life some structure.”
Neither of them suggested going away to college but pushed the community college instead.
Both were surprised when the University of Michigan sent me an admittance letter. “Must be because your sisters and brother already go there,” said Mom as she explained away the academic anomaly. Maybe it was true. I didn’t care. Then Michigan State also sent an admittance letter, but I decided against it because it has a huge campus and would require more walking.
The summer after my freshman year, Dad invited me along on a short business trip to Champaign. He graduated from the University of Illinois and got his start in advertising down there and still knew plenty of large farming businesses around the state.
“Put a dress on,” he said standing in the bedroom door. “You’re coming with me today.”
I didn’t own a dress. I was in college. So I zipped myself into a tight blue corduroy skirt and was pulling up some coordinated knee socks when Dad appeared in the doorway, appalled. “For God’s sake, put on some nylons!” I didn’t own nylons. I was in college.
Four hours later we were peering over Reuben sandwiches the size of footballs at a dinner with Dad’s client, a sweat-braised farmer who brought along his tall, blond son who would someday inherit the family chicken farm. “This is my son Bobby,” the farmer says, laying a baseball mitt of a hand on his boy’s shoulder. “He just graduated from the University of Illinois.” Bobby tilted his head in polite embarrassment and fluttered sun bleached eyelashes. In an instant, I knew what was going on. And it explained the nylons. This trip was not part of a plan to show Mimi a side of the advertising business. It was my parents’ plan to marry off their drifting daughter to a rich farmer.
The ride home was long and quiet as my anger turned to sadness. Cornfields threaded the prairie together into hours and miles of monotony. Then the blue sky turned a shade of orangey-pink, my favorite. As the sun drooped down I distracted myself with its beauty before we turned east to round Lake Michigan and head toward home.
A year later I chose my college major: Broadcasting/Film. Since my parents wouldn’t pay for music school I opted for the thrill of seeing my name scrawled across the big screen for producing the adaptation of my poignant best-selling book, the one that pushed my young readers to sob into their pillows for days. It would have to do. After graduation and a year of working on the radio, I decided to move to LA.
If it had been fifteen years earlier I would be driving an orange VW van to San Francisco for some acid and a Grateful Dead concert. In comparison, how could I not be way ahead? LA’s famous greed was in full swing and jobs were plentiful. If anything was going to fail it would be the car, but I had $800 and a can of Fix-A-Flat. I was prepared. Failure would have to wait.
Two days later I was crawling across Nebraska in 112-degree heat, slugging lemonade and bringing in the sweat pooling under my legs. My co-pilot, the block of cheese, had separated and curdled on the seat next to me. Five hours later we slid off the prairie and into an avalanche of green clouds that barreled down I-70 from the foothills above Denver.
A few miles east of the Continental Divide in the roiling guts of the storm, the little yellow car grew weary. It was something about rolling the wheels, running the wipers and driving uphill at the same time. My student-driver pace of 55 miles an hour slipped to 35, then 25 and then — nothing. If only we had made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel I could have floated all the way to Grand Junction on a river of rain.
While I waited at the side of the road, the temperature dropped at least 30 degrees. I shimmied into a pair of Levi’s, fully expecting a cop or trucker to stop at any moment. But there I sat with blinkers on as the car shuddered with each stampede of semi trucks that whizzed by. No one stopped. Bullets of rain hit the roof for an hour and a half before I realized I had to do something.
Hitchhiking was a heart-pounding success. Within a minute of sticking my thumb out a burly Ford Bronco roared up, handsome mountain man at the wheel. “You need a lift? I’m going as far as Silverthorne.”
As luck would have it, I was going anywhere he was going. I peeked into his car. There was a mug on the dashboard and whiskey on his breath. A confident commuter. He made me miss the farm boys I left behind in Michigan who could maneuver a car the size of a corn combine through a foot of snow at 70 miles an hour with a beer between their legs and a dead deer strapped to the roof. If this guy could drink and drive in this rain he must be a pretty good driver. I hopped in, relaxing deep into the seat which exhaled a perfume of cigarettes and aftershave.
The feeling of actual horsepower is comforting to us Fiat owners. We roared up the mountain, through the tunnel and into the next town, achieving in minutes what my car had been trying to do all afternoon. The mountain man offered to put me up for the night. Tempting, but after driving all day I had no energy left in case I had to fight him off. “Oh no thanks, I’ll just get a room,” I said in a tone I hadn’t heard myself use before, as if I had gotten many rooms many times before from travels with a temperamental vehicle.
He deposited me at the gas station next to the Super 8 motel and drove off with a casual hand out the window. “Don’t leave,” I whispered to myself. If only I was brave enough to let him help me more.
The green wooden bench outside the gas station was wet where the paint had peeled away, but I sat there anyway, feeling it soak through my jeans. The clouds broke apart and the sun began melting the events of the day from my thoughts. Water dripped from gushing gutters into a puddle in the gravel parking lot. The station guy droned in the background as he called around for a tow truck. Traffic from down the street echoed in the wetness. Life was resuming after the storm and with a cool mountain evening approaching, I felt fall waiting in the pines.
The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.
There was hardly a night the summer through when the old cow could be found waiting at the pasture bars; on the contrary, it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring. So Sylvia had to hunt for her until she found her, and call Co’ ! Co’ ! with never an answering Moo, until her childish patience was quite spent. If the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed very different to her owners. Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was, and very little use to make of it. Sometimes in pleasant weather it was a consolation to look upon the cow’s pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek, and as the child had no playmates she lent herself to this amusement with a good deal of zest. Though this chase had been so long that the wary animal herself had given an unusual signal of her whereabouts, Sylvia had only laughed when she came upon Mistress Moolly at the swamp-side, and urged her affectionately homeward with a twig of birch leaves. The old cow was not inclined to wander farther, she even turned in the right direction for once as they left the pasture, and stepped along the road at a good pace. She was quite ready to be milked now, and seldom stopped to browse. Sylvia wondered what her grandmother would say because they were so late. It was a great while since she had left home at half-past five o’clock, but everybody knew the difficulty of making this errand a short one. Mrs. Tilley had chased the hornéd torment too many summer evenings herself to blame any one else for lingering, and was only thankful as she waited that she had Sylvia, nowadays, to give such valuable assistance. The good woman suspected that Sylvia loitered occasionally on her own account; there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made! Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. She thought often with wistful compassion of a wretched geranium that belonged to a town neighbor. “‘Afraid of folks,'” old Mrs. Tilley said to herself, with a smile, after she had made the unlikely choice of Sylvia from her daughter’s houseful of children, and was returning to the farm. “‘Afraid of folks,’ they said! I guess she won’t be troubled no great with ’em up to the old place!” When they reached the door of the lonely house and stopped to unlock it, and the cat came to purr loudly, and rub against them, a deserted pussy, indeed, but fat with young robins, Sylvia whispered that this was a beautiful place to live in, and she never should wish to go home.
The companions followed the shady wood-road, the cow taking slow steps and the child very fast ones. The cow stopped long at the brook to drink, as if the pasture were not half a swamp, and Sylvia stood still and waited, letting her bare feet cool themselves in the shoal water, while the great twilight moths struck softly against her. She waded on through the brook as the cow moved away, and listened to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure. There was a stirring in the great boughs overhead. They were full of little birds and beasts that seemed to be wide awake, and going about their world, or else saying good-night to each other in sleepy twitters. Sylvia herself felt sleepy as she walked along. However, it was not much farther to the house, and the air was soft and sweet. She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. She was just thinking how long it seemed since she first came to the farm a year ago, and wondering if everything went on in the noisy town just the same as when she was there, the thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees.
Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird’s-whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive. Sylvia left the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her, and called out in a very cheerful and persuasive tone, “Halloa, little girl, how far is it to the road?” and trembling Sylvia answered almost inaudibly, “A good ways.”
She did not dare to look boldly at the tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder, but she came out of her bush and again followed the cow, while he walked alongside.
“I have been hunting for some birds,” the stranger said kindly, “and I have lost my way, and need a friend very much. Don’t be afraid,” he added gallantly. “Speak up and tell me what your name is, and whether you think I can spend the night at your house, and go out gunning early in the morning.”
Sylvia was more alarmed than before. Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame? But who could have foreseen such an accident as this? It did not seem to be her fault, and she hung her head as if the stem of it were broken, but managed to answer “Sylvy,” with much effort when her companion again asked her name.
Mrs. Tilley was standing in the doorway when the trio came into view. The cow gave a loud moo by way of explanation.
“Yes, you’d better speak up for yourself, you old trial! Where’d she tucked herself away this time, Sylvy?” But Sylvia kept an awed silence; she knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. She must be mistaking the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region.
The young man stood his gun beside the door, and dropped a lumpy game-bag beside it; then he bade Mrs. Tilley good-evening, and repeated his wayfarer’s story, and asked if he could have a night’s lodging.
“Put me anywhere you like,” he said. “I must be off early in the morning, before day; but I am very hungry, indeed. You can give me some milk at any rate, that’s plain.”
“Dear sakes, yes,” responded the hostess, whose long slumbering hospitality seemed to be easily awakened. “You might fare better if you went out to the main road a mile or so, but you’re welcome to what we’ve got. I’ll milk right off, and you make yourself at home. You can sleep on husks or feathers,” she proffered graciously. “I raised them all myself. There’s good pasturing for geese just below here towards the ma’sh. Now step round and set a plate for the gentleman, Sylvy!” And Sylvia promptly stepped. She was glad to have something to do, and she was hungry herself.
It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known the horrors of its most primitive housekeeping, and the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens. This was the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on such a small scale that it seemed like a hermitage. He listened eagerly to the old woman’s quaint talk, he watched Sylvia’s pale face and shining gray eyes with ever growing enthusiasm, and insisted that this was the best supper he had eaten for a month, and afterward the new-made friends sat down in the door-way together while the moon came up.
Soon it would be berry-time, and Sylvia was a great help at picking. The cow was a good milker, though a plaguy thing to keep track of, the hostess gossiped frankly, adding presently that she had buried four children, so Sylvia’s mother, and a son (who might be dead) in California were all the children she had left. “Dan, my boy, was a great hand to go gunning,” she explained sadly. “I never wanted for pa’tridges or gray squer’ls while he was to home. He’s been a great wand’rer, I expect, and he’s no hand to write letters. There, I don’t blame him, I’d ha’ seen the world myself if it had been so I could.
“Sylvy takes after him,” the grandmother continued affectionately, after a minute’s pause. “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds. Last winter she got the jay-birds to bangeing here, and I believe she’d ‘a’ scanted herself of her own meals to have plenty to throw out amongst ’em, if I hadn’t kep’ watch. Anything but crows, I tell her, I’m willin’ to help support — though Dan he had a tamed one o’ them that did seem to have reason same as folks. It was round here a good spell after he went away. Dan an’ his father they didn’t hitch, — but he never held up his head ag’in after Dan had dared him an’ gone off.”
The guest did not notice this hint of family sorrows in his eager interest in something else.
“So Sylvy knows all about birds, does she?” he exclaimed, as he looked round at the little girl who sat, very demure but increasingly sleepy, in the moonlight. “I am making a collection of birds myself. I have been at it ever since I was a boy.” (Mrs. Tilley smiled.) “There are two or three very rare ones I have been hunting for these five years. I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found.”
“Do you cage ’em up?” asked Mrs. Tilley doubtfully, in response to this enthusiastic announcement.
“Oh no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” said the ornithologist, “and I have shot or snared every one myself. I caught a glimpse of a white heron a few miles from here on Saturday, and I have followed it in this direction. They have never been found in this district at all. The little white heron, it is,” and he turned again to look at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances.
But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.
“You would know the heron if you saw it,” the stranger continued eagerly. “A queer tall white bird with soft feathers and long thin legs. And it would have a nest perhaps in the top of a high tree, made of sticks, something like a hawk’s nest.”
Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. Not far beyond were the salt marshes just this side the sea itself, which Sylvia wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen, whose great voice could sometimes be heard above the noise of the woods on stormy nights.
“I can’t think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron’s nest,” the handsome stranger was saying. “I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me,” he added desperately, “and I mean to spend my whole vacation hunting for it if need be. Perhaps it was only migrating, or had been chased out of its own region by some bird of prey.”
Mrs. Tilley gave amazed attention to all this, but Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the door-step, and was much hindered by the unusual spectators at that hour of the evening. No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy.
The next day the young sportsman hovered about the woods, and Sylvia kept him company, having lost her first fear of the friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic. He told her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves. And he gave her a jack-knife, which she thought as great a treasure as if she were a desert-islander. All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough. Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young creatures who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. They stopped to listen to a bird’s song; they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches — speaking to each other rarely and in whispers; the young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated, a few steps behind, with her gray eyes dark with excitement.
She grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her — it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that. At last evening began to fall, and they drove the cow home together, and Sylvia smiled with pleasure when they came to the place where she heard the whistle and was afraid only the night before.
Half a mile from home, at the farther edge of the woods, where the land was highest, a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation. Whether it was left for a boundary mark, or for what reason, no one could say; the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago, and a whole forest of sturdy trees, pines and oaks and maples, had grown again. But the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away. Sylvia knew it well. She had always believed that whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean; and the little girl had often laid her hand on the great rough trunk and looked up wistfully at those dark boughs that the wind always stirred, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover from whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest?
What a spirit of adventure, what wild ambition! What fancied triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret! It was almost too real and too great for the childish heart to bear.
All night the door of the little house stood open and the whippoorwills came and sang upon the very step. The young sportsman and his old hostess were sound asleep, but Sylvia’s great design kept her broad awake and watching. She forgot to think of sleep. The short summer night seemed as long as the winter darkness, and at last when the whippoorwills ceased, and she was afraid the morning would after all come too soon, she stole out of the house and followed the pasture path through the woods, hastening toward the open ground beyond, listening with a sense of comfort and companionship to the drowsy twitter of a half-awakened bird, whose perch she had jarred in passing. Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!
There was the huge tree asleep yet in the paling moonlight, and small and silly Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself. First she must mount the white oak tree that grew alongside, where she was almost lost among the dark branches and the green leaves heavy and wet with dew; a bird fluttered off its nest, and a red squirrel ran to and fro and scolded pettishly at the harmless housebreaker. Sylvia felt her way easily. She had often climbed there, and knew that higher still one of the oak’s upper branches chafed against the pine trunk, just where its lower boughs were set close together. There, when she made the dangerous pass from one tree to the other, the great enterprise would really begin.
She crept out along the swaying oak limb at last, and took the daring step across into the old pine-tree. The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree’s great stem, higher and higher upward. The sparrows and robins in the woods below were beginning to wake and twitter to the dawn, yet it seemed much lighter there aloft in the pine-tree, and the child knew she must hurry if her project were to be of any use.
The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and frowned away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east.
Sylvia’s face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground, when the last thorny bough was past, and she stood trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top. Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. How low they looked in the air from that height when one had only seen them before far up, and dark against the blue sky. Their gray feathers were as soft as moths; they seemed only a little way from the tree, and Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages, truly it was a vast and awesome world
The birds sang louder and louder. At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest and plumes his feathers for the new day!
The child gives a long sigh a minute later when a company of shouting cat-birds comes also to the tree, and vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness the solemn heron goes away. She knows his secret now, the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath. Then Sylvia, well satisfied, makes her perilous way down again, not daring to look far below the branch she stands on, ready to cry sometimes because her fingers ache and her lamed feet slip. Wondering over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron’s nest.
“Sylvy, Sylvy!” called the busy old grandmother again and again, but nobody answered, and the small husk bed was empty and Sylvia had disappeared.
The guest waked from a dream, and remembering his day’s pleasure hurried to dress himself that it might sooner begin. He was sure from the way the shy little girl looked once or twice yesterday that she had at least seen the white heron, and now she must really be made to tell. Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch. The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her, and the splendid moment has come to speak of the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh.
But Sylvia does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her, and the young man’s kind, appealing eyes are looking straight in her own. He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell.
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake? The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away.
Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day, that could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves! Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. She forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood. Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, — who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!
They are nomads. Only Paris is graced with their presence for months; they are stingy to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home. For them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which is best seen through the lowered curtains of grand hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until someone persuades them that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch a glimpse of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. The sleep until lunchtime. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards she is a great beauty, although she has never been beautiful. Do not believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: White face, rouge, eye shadow and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend a luncheon given in her honor or occasionally given by her before they depart from one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen few include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, their silver or their bloodlines. These luncheons are not at all boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. They are informal: neck turned one way, head the other and an elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to her. They are almost all drunk, and they take too many liberties, acting as if they’ve known her forever. Just a bit more to drink, and they’d step out of line. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (always with a “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and don’t seem to care if they make fools of themselves. Some of them lever themselves across the table with great courtesy and kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smile beatifically and drink only red wine, which is often quite good at the luncheons.
She, the queen of the table, is dressed in attire that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears a massive, smooth bracelet on each wrist. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. She beams at all her fellow diners. She can smile at each person, speak with everyone, nod her head sweetly at each person at the table. If you look at her expression, you’d think that she is sitting with some of her closest and dearest friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. Right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient on the back and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you can forget for a while how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? Le mari d’elle, he sits five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot, eats a lot, is silent a lot, rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. You look at him and think that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with bald streaks. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have taken a toll on his face and left deep wrinkles in their wake. He is not even 35 years old but looks older. His face seems to have been pickled in kvass. His eyes are fine, but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe they gave him the odd nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners pay no attention to him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought these them together and keeps them together.
After you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the theater owners, contracts, and agreements. She only spends time with her adoring public and does not stoop to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. So, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a substantial salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, together with the maid he robs her, fritters away her money, goes on wild benders, and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that since they can’t get to the heart of their relationship and can only judge by appearances. To them, she is a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman truly is not worthy of love. And neither is she worthy of hatred. You shouldn’t pay a whit of attention to her. You ought to ignore her very existence. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, there are two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, there are two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinarily agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, her figure has one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with bad manners: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example: she throws clean underclothes in with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a filthy mess. But why tell you about it? Just look at her when she wakes up at noon and lazily crawls out from under the covers. You’d never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes puffy with sleep, in a nightgown torn at the shoulders, barefoot, hunched over and surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least as good. She ruined half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll ruin the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer, and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. She doesn’t like to hear the truth about herself unless it is praise. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is untrained. Her brain, flabby and torpid, lost its plasticity long ago.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland; she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A thoroughly wicked woman!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her; look carefully, I beg you. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, the crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly through the air, when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the applause nearly brings the theater down.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep. We sleep until morning and wake up to curse each another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German peppered with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. Why? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. See for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he is ill-tempered and gets into fights. He hits even me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a word.
He always dresses very shabbily although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I’ll never check up on him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He looks down on women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all.
He never graduated from school. In his first year, he was expelled from the university for insolence.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like the German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness — that is, if I’m acting up — he stomps around, clenching his fists and looking like death.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my past. It was in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to sing. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a group. On one spree, as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests became very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered him wine. It turned out that this worker from the temperance society enjoys wine very much indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence with marriage.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. When he uses a chest voice to say this word, it catches in his throat and his cheek twitches. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — it doesn’t matter who — tells a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says: “Untrue!”
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — is when he utters that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I suspect a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost masculine handwriting — and without a single grammatical error.