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You are on a train now, sleeping, on your way to Vienna. You will spend the week there, then travel on to Berlin. You’ve booked a hotel room for two, in both our names. I will arrive at reception and ask for the key. What is the best way for us to meet? Should I come earlier than you, undress, and slip under the crisp white duvet cover? Or should I sit in a corner with my knees drawn up to my chin?

An email from V. arrived in my inbox last night, and I sat at my desk and gazed at his name in a fog of befuddled senses. A first name, a last name, the mere sight of which made my heart beat faster only a year ago, still familiar, but distant now in a nearly amnesiac way. I see it, recognize it, yet I feel nothing—and at the same time my skin prickles at the fact that I feel nothing; I mistrust it, suspect that this name could all of a sudden act in some unexpected way and catch me by surprise, lash out and sting me when my back is turned. Between his mail and your mail is a message from another friend; I’m glad the two are not touching, that W. has wedged himself in between.

V. wants to know how L. is doing. I thought it was okay to write to you about this, he adds. I’d told him I no longer wished to hear from him, then broke the silence a few months later by asking him for information on behalf of L., a friend who was suffering from a dangerous and unpredictable illness. L. is as powerfully anchored to life as any one of us, yet I still found myself consciously refraining from the concerned looks and philosophical platitudes, the “any one of us could just as easily get hit by a car tomorrow” nonsense people resort to when they can’t wrap their minds around the fact that the person they are talking to has looked oblivion square in the eye and stared it down, determined to live. I stayed up entire nights researching alternative treatment methods, learned the medical names, was able to rattle off the procedural strategies; I held onto them fiercely, like strong, well-secured ropes dangling from the side of a cliff I could hoist the two of us up on, to safety. There was promising research being done in Canada, a generic drug that somehow switches off the aberrant mechanism in the tumor cell that prevents it from destroying itself, as it does when the body is functioning properly. How elegant: somewhere, in a parallel universe, cancer is something that self-destructs by virtue of its own corruption. The idea sounds pre-Biblical; I catch myself wondering, like a child, why all the evil in the world can’t self-destruct by virtue of its own corruption. There must be some way to get her into a clinical trial there. Would the insurance matter if they could see the important work she’s been doing, read her remarkable words? I could charter a Cessna and fly her there myself, through a blizzard if necessary.

But I didn’t write to V. about my ineffectual fantasies: what it felt like all those months to live with a death sentence that was not my own. L. was condemned and I was not—how are two people supposed to negotiate that divide? Like speaking to one another through a glass partition in a prison, or in quarantine, fingertips pressed against two sides of a transparent wall, aligned at the fingertips, but with an unbridgeable gap in between. I’d spoken to L. about V. one afternoon, walking up Tenth Avenue after seeing her exhibition in Chelsea. She knew the feelings one can have for a man incapable of embracing emotion himself in all its intensity and dizzying confusion and basic, unshakable knowledge—but how can you reach a person like that, tell him all the things you see, unravel the puzzle and hand him the key? In the end, you can’t tell him that it’s not the emotion, but the idea of a life he’s been clinging to that is the illusion; that the only thing real beyond the fear and the guilt is the inopportune, irksome fact that he loves you.

L. waited for years for her lover to come back, endured a communication by proxy, learned to read the signs he put out into the world for her, oblique answers in the form of a Facebook post or analogies in articles he published that he knew she’d understand; in this way they kept up a kind of dialogue with one another, a secret language that was strong enough to retain a hold over her, that prevented her from opening herself up to anyone else. But then her illness cast everything in a stark and burning brilliance, and she used this shocking new clarity to separate light from shadow, and her heart became a sacred place again, a place called Miraculous Remission, where one enters in reverent silence and with bowed countenance, where there’s no room for her lover lout, her boorish brute and churlish cad, for the shoes he plodded in with that he’d forgotten to take off and leave at the door every time. I was in a different place, but I didn’t wait for V. to trample in on me again, I could see where it would lead and I ended it, but it led me there anyway, I who have not yet learned to stop in time, who always carries things to conclusion.

This name: how it branded itself on my mind in such a way that any name beginning with the same two initials made me look twice, any pair of words beginning with the initials leaped out at me from the page. And now, an automatism that is already fading: how quickly it happens, just when you think you’re lost forever. I think of him, someone on whose account I nearly went mad, and draw a blank, like a form of amnesia. Perhaps the mind is protecting itself from the memory, which I feel quivering just beyond that skin-thin, unbridgeable divide.

Now in the January 2013 issue of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics

“Every lover of Bernhard’s writing becomes, at some point, a missionary. We want to convert people to his circular logic, infect them with the bruised beauty of his mordantly comic rant; we want everyone to comprehend that Bernhard is not only dark, but deeply human and irresistibly funny; that he’s not a pessimist, a cynic, or a misanthrope, but a relentless observer whose tender heart is encased in a prickly shell of invective: against hypocrisy, against stupidity, against duplicity in all its forms. We zealous lovers of Bernhard want to tell you all about the hypnotic pull of a passionate mind navigating whirlpools of obsessive repetition as it revolves around and around what cannot be expressed in words; we want to describe to you, in detail, how this mind finally succeeds in articulating the most elusive and elementary truths of the human condition. How the syntactical force of his prose conjures the compulsive patterns — evasion, self-deception, internalization, projection, idealization — thought undergoes as it seeks to conceal from itself what it already, all too well, knows.”

 

Bernhard

Follow the link to issue 7–1 of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. 

Senior Editors: Andrea Scrima and Carole Viers-Andronico.

http://contramundum.net/2016/02/27/hyperion-vol-7-1/

Scroll to page 358 or open the PDF: Hyperion Bernhard 2013

 

 

 

 

Like him, you appeared out of nowhere, polite and well-behaved, quietly insistent, self-deprecatingly funny. Like him, you began confiding your story, a barbed web of lost love, obligation, compromise. Like him, you began inserting little hints into your messages, playful asides and double-entendres I blithely overlooked. And, like him, you were suddenly troubled by your receding hairline, aware of the extra poundage; you peered in the mirror and wondered whether the man staring back at you still had the power to make a woman look twice.

Unlike him in every other way, you hold out your hand and show me the magic sign inscribed in your palm that perfectly matches mine. Not a blind date with a stranger who has answered a lonely-hearts ad, responded to its taxonomy of attributes, projections, and yearnings, but imagine what that must be like: I attach the bait to a hook and cast out my line; fifty responses arrive in the mail addressed to a self-described workaholic capable of experiencing moments of luminous intensity. The first letter will contain a photograph of a young man with his hair carefully parted to the side, wearing a V-neck sweater with a blue and green zigzag pattern over a white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Dear Lonely Unknown Woman, the letter will begin. I will lay it carefully on the table in front of me and place his photograph on top. Then I will open another, and a picture of a dark-haired man sitting spread-eagle on a sauna bench and holding his cock in his fist will slip out. Dear Hysterical, the letter will begin, and I will lay it down next to the first and place Sauna Man on top of it.

Who are we searching for, and how do we know? In the end there’s never more than a handful of possibilities, but what do we have to go on, really? Narrowing down my options, I spread seven letters out on the table; six photographs (and a letter from someone named K. who explained that he didn’t like the idea of relinquishing his anonymity before I was ready to relinquish mine) stare back at me. I like K.’s quirky handwriting, his concern for symmetry, his insistence that we should both be seeing each other for the first time when we meet. A week later I am leaving the subway station to meet him. As I walk down the street in nervous anticipation, I gradually slow down until I finally come to a dismayed halt. Passersby stream past on both sides as I finally decide to wait at a newspaper kiosk where I can watch people enter the café and study them through the plate glass window. A dark-haired man in a woolen coat stops in front of the café, peers up at the sign, walks in uncertainly, and stands in the middle of the room, looking around with an air of indecision. His profile is finely chiseled, but when he glances in my direction, I see a different expression altogether, one whose lines will eventually engrave themselves into his face. That’s him, I think, but then a woman comes up from behind and slips her arm around his waist and his eyes grow warm as his expression softens into a smile. It’s strange how much more attractive he instantly becomes the moment I realize I can’t have him—and already I begin to mourn this first lost K.

Enter K. Numbers Two and Three: a large man with graying hair and a small dog on a leash walks in, glances around, and spies an empty table; immediately afterwards, a muscular type in a leather jacket appears, pulls up a stool at the bar, and perches himself squarely on it, facing into the room. K. Number Two rummages through a bag, pulls out a slightly crumpled newspaper, and begins reading as the dog lies down at his feet. That’s not a man anxious to make a first impression on a woman, I decide. For a moment my view is blocked; a few people are leaving the café now, and K. Number Three moves to a table by the window, not far from K. Number Two. A little while later, a woman in tight pants and high heels is standing in front of him; she points to her wrist and smiles. K. Number Two glances up at her distractedly and returns to his newspaper as K. Number Three checks his watch, mouths something I can’t hear, and with a jerk of the head towards an empty chair indicates that she should sit down and join him. The woman points to the bar, where two of her friends are waiting, dips to one side apologetically, and walks away again, clack-clack-clack. Not K. either, unless he thought for a moment that she might have been me.

I know that I’m conjuring up clichés; nonetheless, I try to imagine being the woman in the tight pants and high heels, and for a moment, I can almost see how she’d be interested in K. Number Three. How much of our lives do we waste with strangers? You with your Juliette, your Kathleen, your Jennifer. Your airline stewardess and your Severin; me with my litany of equally mismatched stories. But then, a few minutes later, a hectic-looking man with curly brown hair will stride to the café door, fling it open, and rush headlong inside; when he arrives in the middle of the room, he will screech to a halt, and in a flash, something in the handwriting, something in the way the penned curves pinch up into a kind of frenetic point will remind me of the movement of his limbs, and I will know it’s him. K. will look around expectantly, smoothen his jacket, and finally, in a gesture reminiscent of a rubber tire having a little bit of its air let out—he will shrink slightly, take a seat, and resign himself to waiting, his head cocked to one side.

Each time a woman enters the café, K. will look up expectantly: sometimes with an air of disapproval, and sometimes with eyes widening, ready to forgive the tardiness. I will watch his features fall each time the woman walks past him to meet someone else; in between, he will tap his middle finger on the table, now and again throwing an impatient glance out the window. Gradually, I start to understand what kind of women K. is interested in; I start to like him a little, the way his hair curls over his ears and the collar of his jacket. A half hour goes by in this way, and while I wonder how much longer he can hold out, all at once he stands up and pays for his beer. When K. finally arrives outside, I approach him on an impulse and ask him if he can give me change for a euro as the voice inside me asks incredulously, are you serious? I’ve forgotten my cell phone and need to make a telephone call, I explain, searching his face in glaring contradiction to my instinct. No, he answers, I don’t have any change, sorry. Apparently, even K. has his magical sign, has put out his antennae to search for its mirror image, and can see in a flash that I do not fit his bill. He turns to go, and I notice for the first time that he has little blond highlights applied to the tips of his brown curls. I remain there, on the broad Berlin sidewalk, and shut my eyes tightly, listening to the sound of the traffic from the square and considering how far things have come that I nearly set myself up to be rejected by this yuppie twerp.

I close my eyes and whisper into the crackling ether of my mind: but who were you, K. Number Two? Could you put down your newspaper for a moment and look at me? The dog’s tail is wagging now, its mouth trembling; it snorts and shakes it head once, then it sits, immobile, with its gaze fixed on K. Number Two’s croissant. One paw appears on K. Number Two’s knee. K. Number Two can no longer concentrate on reading; he puts down the newspaper and gives the dog a morsel, which the dog snaps at and wolfs down, snorting and wagging its tail happily. Then a paw appears on K. Number Two’s knee once again. Would you bruise yourself on what’s gone all brambly about me and love me for as long as it takes to open my shriveled soul? Can you cry over this shrunken heart long enough, laugh over it, drench it with the flood of your own being long enough to bring it miraculously back to life, like a Jericho rose? How long will I have to wait, and what if I don’t know it’s you?

andrea scrima

And what about that almost violent urge to be alone, to have all one’s things about one, and not someone else’s, no one else’s socks on the floor, or clothes draped over chairs, an urge experienced only by those who have stayed too long, or those too long alone. It haunts me still, follows me into my dreams, and again I am sifting through things, finding shirts that do not belong to me and resolutely placing them in a pile with all of the other things that do not belong to me for the purpose of being hauled away. A reminder to maintain vigilance, a warning not to glance backwards and tumble down the slope before I’ve reached the other side.

How hard it is to separate: like prying apart magnets. How two people grow into one another over time, bring about a blurring of boundaries, a force field of…

View original post 355 more words

And what about that almost violent urge to be alone, to have all one’s things about one, and not someone else’s, no one else’s socks on the floor, or clothes draped over chairs, an urge experienced only by those who have stayed too long, or those too long alone. It haunts me still, follows me into my dreams, and again I am sifting through things, finding shirts that do not belong to me and resolutely placing them in a pile with all of the other things that do not belong to me for the purpose of being hauled away. A reminder to maintain vigilance, a warning not to glance backwards and tumble down the slope before I’ve reached the other side.

How hard it is to separate: like prying apart magnets. How two people grow into one another over time, bring about a blurring of boundaries, a force field of shared atomic particles buzzing between them. And despite that, a current of resistance, too, or a river of molten movement churning beneath the surface. And then, one day, you look in a mirror and see a stranger looking back, and all at once you know it’s over.

For months, V. described in exacting detail why he had to leave. He had thought it over with scientific precision. I challenged him, reasoned that he might have lost sight of the person he loved the most. The reasons were legion, he countered, it would take all of Google’s memory to list them. Her lack of interest in people outside the family; lack of interest in politics; lack of interest in sex, lack of interest in traveling, lack of interest and curiosity in film, lack of interest, curiosity, and general knowledge in art or literature or anything, for that matter, that was intellectually challenging. Life with her was like being locked inside a box, he said; he felt coiled as tight as a spring, waiting for an opportunity to escape and afraid it would never come. And then it did, and like an animal locked too long in a cage, he stared at the open door, transfixed by the promise of freedom and unable to make a move until the door to his cage was safely shut and locked again.

I remember standing and staring at a bookshelf for an hour in a compulsive state of imagining it cleared of the things it contained—his things—and replaced by others. I remember my mind fixating on objects: the way a pair of shoes was left sprawled on the floor, recalling the exact gesture of one foot prying a shoe off the other; telephone numbers and other notations scrawled in the margins of papers I wanted to file away telephone-numberless, notationless. Small things that become unbearable: the sound of a wooden cooking ladle against a pot, tap tap tap; a certain phrase repeated incessantly, inappropriately. You, on the other hand, were asked to leave. Can you read this without having to wince at my cruelty, you who never stopped loving her?

andrea scrima

You are faintly indignant at the superhero image. You offer an alternative: you wouldn’t crash through the hotel window in a superhero suit, but enter through the door with a pass key and cross over to the armchair where V. threw his clothes. Just as he begins shouting for you to get out, you’d pick up his clothes, regard them with an air of amusement, turn around to allow him to finish yelling, and then you’d unbutton your jacket to show him a Saville Row label stitched over the inside pocket. “Shaddap,” you’d say.  “This is what I call a tailor-made suit. What’s that stuff you wear?”  And then you’d walk over to the bed, grab his ear lobe, pull him out from under the sheets, stuff his rolled-up clothes in his arms while he’s wincing in pain, and, still pinching his ear, you’d lead him slowly but firmly out…

View original post 320 more words

You are faintly indignant at the superhero image. You offer an alternative: you wouldn’t crash through the hotel window in a superhero suit, but enter through the door with a pass key and cross over to the armchair where V. threw his clothes. Just as he begins shouting for you to get out, you’d pick up his clothes, regard them with an air of amusement, turn around to allow him to finish yelling, and then you’d unbutton your jacket to show him a Saville Row label stitched over the inside pocket. “Shaddap,” you’d say.  “This is what I call a tailor-made suit. What’s that stuff you wear?”  And then you’d walk over to the bed, grab his ear lobe, pull him out from under the sheets, stuff his rolled-up clothes in his arms while he’s wincing in pain, and, still pinching his ear, you’d lead him slowly but firmly out the door.

We now speak to each other on the phone nearly every day now; what you don’t see is that I am smiling throughout. All I want to do is laugh with you, laugh at everything: your mother; the neurological details of transsexual orgasm; the Swiss; the way you gallantly beat up on all my old boyfriends, in retrospect, to teach them a lesson; the scientific demystification of déjà vu as an anomaly of the memory apparatus; literary fans; the French; the size of my feet. I have drawn you into my book, which is not quite like dropping a live creature into a bubbling pot, but is sticky nonetheless, would scare any sensible person away. Yet you play along; you’ve pulled up the chair opposite mine and laid your elbows on the table and we’ve settled down into a very serious match of—what can we call it? Ludic love? Who was it that wrote of Huizinga’s Homo ludens that play is similar to aesthetics in that it is essentially irreducible? This is not about something; it is the thing.

I return to the work at hand, my English translations of the German writer Rainald Goetz, fragments that address the limitations of language: “The mission of writing is to walk away from it. To lead a life, namely in the best way and as rich in everything as possible, one that breaks open the isolationism inherent in writing, debunks it, makes it impossible, but at the same time retains it in the stillness of the texts as a longing for a true life, a better life, thus inducing one to move in this direction over and over again. The experiment ‘to live and to write’ is meant as an absurd, lifelong attempt with an ongoing succession of texts to remain subjected to both, to maintain one’s attention to both and not let oneself be torn between these conflicting powers.”

Mother: Let me see?

Me:         Careful, it’s fragile. She said to put it in water for a while.

Mother:  What is it? Isn’t that too much water?

Me:         No, it should be OK. There. I don’t know what it is. It’s dry, brittle.

(sniffs)

No smell. It doesn’t seem to be bleeding in the water either… we’ll see.

Mother:  What are those?

Me:         Those are Jerusalem artichokes, and a small carton of soy cream. She sent them because I couldn’t find them here. They’re for that third recipe she gave me, a sauce for pasta. Here, smell one.

Mother:  Smells nice, fresh. I’ve seen them in the Arab stores. They get them sometimes. Artichokes from Israel?

Me:        Jerusalem. They’re just called that, for their taste, they’re not really artichokes. They are fresh. She wrapped them in damp paper towel. I have to purée them, mix in the soy cream, plus salt and pepper.

Mother: That sounds good! What else is in the box?

Me:        A book she made — it reads both ways, look. One sentence goes over all the pages this way, right to the end. Another sentence is upside down on the top, and it reads the other way — see? You have to turn the book to finish it. It’s fun, for the child in us — my thoughts down here, a cat’s thoughts up there, both streamed from watching water swirling down the same shower drain on each page, with each image different and unexpected.

Mother:  Oh.

Me:          She signed it in the back. In pencil. Her handwriting is elegant, distilled, spaced. That’s her signature, look.

(holds up book; mother remains silent)

It’s affirmed, omnipresent, swift — no going back.  It reminds me of Bonaparte’s.  Yish… I hope she’ll be indulgent with me.

Mother:  What did she write?

Me:         To me, dash, with love, period.

Mother:  Oh… Okay.

Me:         It also means this book’s mine, and you can’t touch it without white cotton gloves.

Mother:  Look at the plant — it’s opening up, it’s reviving!

Me:         Ah, damn it — I wish I knew what it was. She never said, she wants me to guess, it’s bugging me now. Amazing how it’s changing. It looks like some kind of flat circular moss. It’s beautiful. Should I taste it, in case it’s an herb?

Mother:  Don’t you put that in your mouth! What if it’s poison? Can’t you see? Stop trying to find out. It’s a message. She sent it as a message, that’s all it is.

Me:         What?

Mother:  It’s simple. First it’s all dry and grey and curled into a ball on itself. Now it’s unfurling, getting all big and green and alive again. She’s telling you your mind is going to expand again. You’re going to resurrect. It also means I’m making that Israeli puree tomorrow, because you’re still a blockhead and you’d just ruin it.

panta rhei 5

I receive an email from you that my package has arrived. Your mother steamed and puréed the Jerusalem artichokes with soy cream and served it over pasta; as instructed, you laid the Selaginella lepidophylla in a bowl of water and watched its desiccated spikemoss leaves unfurl.

We speak on the telephone for three hours. You ask me how many I’ve written so far, and how many I’m still planning to do, and when I say “Seventy, maybe eighty,” you sigh with relief. “So we’re only a quarter of a way there.” Your fear is that my interest in you will end with the completion of a book; mine is that a seduction has taken place purely through words, and that my person can only be an awkward disappointment. But you’ve found some part of yourself in me, and I in you, and for the first time I realize how wrong I was about V., now that I know what it means to be heard, what it’s like for someone to remember the things I’ve told him and to fit the pieces together, to care enough to do that. V. deleted each of my messages for fear of being discovered: imagine that! What could be worse than erasing a writer’s words?

Where were you the day he and I met in Soho for a late breakfast with a hotel reservation hanging in the air between us, the things we’d said we would do to one another? Had you come soaring through the window in a full-body leotard and cape and landed in the hotel room with a dapper swoop, would I have allowed you to stop me? I can still see him lying on his back, slick with sweat; I was kissing his chest softly, we were whispering to one another, and all of a sudden he asked, Why are we whispering? and we both laughed. And at that very moment, the very moment we had become most tender with one another, he checked his watch, cleared his throat, and said it was time to go. Time to what? After telling so many lies, was he unable to make up a story, explain to his wife that he’d run into a high school friend and had decided to stay in the city a few more hours, drink a beer or two to catch up?

If I could make a film, this is what you would see:

(Pennsylvania Station, just outside the Eighth Avenue entrance on the corner of 34th Street)

1. A woman, no longer young, but more beautiful than she’s looked in a long time because a man she once knew as a cocky kid who’d moved into her cousin’s old house has made her feel absolutely gorgeous;

2. A man standing next to her, glancing around fretfully, afraid, no doubt, that someone might recognize him and blow his carefully constructed cover.

A last kiss, and then another, and then she watches him enter the building with his backpack slung over his shoulder, step onto the escalator, and disappear from view. He doesn’t look back: this should tell her everything she needs to know, but for some reason her mind doesn’t go “ding.” A moment ago they were licking the salt off each other’s skin, and the next thing she knows, her lover has transformed from a reverent troubadour into an emotionless automaton with a forward-slanting, harried gait, a button-punching robot.

(She doesn’t know what to do with herself; she wanders toward the corner crossing in a daze. Suddenly, she turns around, struggles with a violent urge to run after him, and then feels herself go limp, like a doll.)

She surveys the lights and advertisements around her as though she were seeing them for the first time; she enters a stream of people headed downtown, picks up her pace, and is quickly carried away as electronics stores and fast-food joints blur by. She is in love, or at least she thinks she is; she should be happy, but she feels she is about to cry out. She walks faster, she will walk all the way down to Tribeca, anything to keep the feeling of loss, of fear and dread from overtaking her.

At one point she stops to sit on a bench; she can’t quite understand where she is, or why. They should be nibbling softly at one another now, groggy from the day’s intoxication, their thoughts drifting to food, to restaurants, a dinner of pungent, interesting tastes. Instead, he is crammed into a seat on a crowded Amtrak train, pulls out his iPhone, and texts his wife that he’ll be home in an hour and fifteen minutes. Because he is a chronic worrier, he double-checks MoMA’s website and bolts upright when he discovers that the museum isn’t open on Tuesdays—to think that he could have blown it over something so obvious! Luckily, he has enough time to fabricate a new alibi. To him, it is a misdemeanor that will cause him an occasional twinge of guilt: a minor infraction he will get away with. To her, it is like a movie scene in which all of a sudden a knock comes at the door and police or gangsters burst in and wrench one of two lovers away, hauling him off shouting, arms and legs flailing, leaving the other behind with a bedsheet pulled up to her chin, shivering uncontrollably. It should have told her everything, everything there was to know about their story, but for some reason, her mind didn’t go “ding”—and she would go on imagining, month after month, for a long time.

 

Unwrapped

Mother: You left your email open, you went to the kitchen. I didn’t “read your email.” 

Me:         And you just happened to walk by??

Mother:  It’s my living room, I go as I please.

(Pause)

Mother:  She’s really got you pinned down, hasn’t she?

Me:         You can’t be reading my emails. You can’t do this.

Mother:  I’ve been thinking the same for years. She took the words out of my mouth.

Me:         Good, now you can call back Ilse and gossip some more about this “souls meeting in thin air” business. You think it’s amusing, don’t you?

Mother:  That woman you married, I’ll never forgive her for what she did to you.

Me:          Is that all you got out of it? What are you really telling me?

Mother:  I’m telling you that you never should have allowed it.

Me:          I put up with things I can’t change. Look how I’ve been putting up with you!

Mother: “Remember who you are…” How can she know you like this? She’s never met you.

Me:          You know, I think you need to be told a thing or two.  Maybe I should unleash Andrea on you, she’ll say it better.

Mother:   Andrea—what a good, lovely name.

Me:         Remember it. She fights with her fists.

Mother:  She supports you two hundred percent. It’s amazing.

Me:         She wears jackboots!

Mother:  I like boots.

Me:         Not that kind you won’t.  She’ll kick you right across the Thames with them.

Mother:  I’ve been trying to dislike her.  Very hard. But I can’t.

Me:         I can’t believe this!

Mother:  What?

Me:         What you just said, that you’ve been trying to dislike her.

Mother:  I’m even starting to love her.

Me:         I’m so happy for you! Just don’t read my email anymore, OK?

Your friends are reading over your shoulder now, hello B., hello D.—will it change things? Is it time to introduce a seduction scene? My tongue sliding down your chest to your waist, my cheek brushing against your body hair, nibbling at it as I inhale the smell of your skin. I unbutton your pants slowly, nudge my tongue into the opening and tug at the elastic waistband with my teeth; I pull them down enough to lick the inside of your thigh where it meets the groin, and a soft moan escapes from your moist lips. But that’s not what this is about, at least not principally. How to explain?

Did I find you, or did you find me? I’ve done so many things wrong in my life, I’ve fallen in love with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and I’m skeptical now, a skeptical dented can on a shelf, a skeptical perpetrator, but of what? I don’t trust it, or myself, don’t understand what we’re doing, whether it’s strange, or beautiful, or just an excuse for me to write again—fervently, irresponsibly, staying up all night and sleeping away the day and giving myself over to the task completely, to the near exclusion of all else. A chance to make up a story and live inside it, to escape reality, all the obligations piled up on my desk, deadlines that hound me in my sleep: the editorial work, the essays, the translations, the reviews.

Running shoes that make squeaking sounds on hallway floors; socks that fall down awkwardly every ten steps: that’s what’s missing, everything that goes along with having a body, or rather being a body—why is it that neither of these verbs applies? What are we, really, when we distill our existence down to mind and soul? A voice. I want to press my cheek against your chest, hear your heartbeat, and although I am allergic to every perfume in existence and am still not quite sure if you understand the larger implications of this, I want to breathe in the smell of your body—and while my head swoons as I feel the warmth of your skin against my own, I will wonder if you’ll notice the hives swell up on my face and neck, recognize the symptoms of anaphylactic shock, and rush me to the nearest hospital before I, gazing at you adoringly, die pale and lovely in your arms? Or will you have saved me just in time? We have an entire repertoire of movies and fairy-tales to create our imaginary world.

Last night, you walked down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street, through an excited Saturday-night feast teeming in all directions. The broad sidewalks were jammed with people, everyone was dressed up and on the prowl, some of them prancing and preening, some ruing their bitter reality out loud for everyone to hear. A twenty-something couple in the throes of an argument, she a bleached blonde storming ahead, shouting like a fishmonger: “I can’t do it any more! Yew’ve gone too far!,” he trying to catch up with his shorter legs and his black hair waxed up into a pointy crest on his head, pleading: “Look, Oy’ve been troying! Yew could at least give me that!” And I, opening my mail and reading it the next morning, laughing out loud, delighted at the thought of you carrying me with you through nighttime London. I am afraid of this evaporating into thin air the moment we meet—poof! there it goes, the illusion you have of me, that I have of you, but no, that’s not all, surely there’s got to be something more? The part of you that hears me, understands me, picks up the faintest of signals; that sees everything, registers everything, forgets nothing, how can that be?

It’s not possible, it’s not possible. When I leave this room and close the door behind me, turn the key in the lock with precisely the same movements as I would normally employ, switch on the hall light and walk down the steps to the outside door and then out of the building in exactly the same manner as any other day, when I walk down the sidewalk in a gait typical of anyone with an errand to run or an acquaintance to meet, careful to maintain this perfect camouflage and thinking all the while of you, concentrating on nothing else but you, seeing all the while an image of you before me as I guard my features in order not to betray you, how can it be, if I direct my entire concentration toward this impending moment, when the door to a particular building is bound to open the very second I am passing by, how can it be that you do not in this moment appear, emerging from this doorway? Where else could you possibly be, than at the locus of all this attention?

Was it you that that happened to, or was it me? Does it matter? I too looked into a mirror once and saw two eyes that resembled the eyes you drew from your own reflection. I had taken a fall, hard on my skull, from a storage loft in my Brooklyn studio. I was on my knees, crawling backwards after getting the last of the framed photographs up and out of the way in order to sublet the space; I was feeling for the top of the ladder with my foot, and I missed. The next thing I knew I was sprawled on my back on the cement floor nine feet below, and my lungs felt as flat as pancakes, and I was unable to breathe. Slowly, methodically, with the mechanical will that kicks in when your survival instinct shoves you aside and takes over, I turned myself around, a quarter-inch at a time, dragged my hands in toward my body, and eventually maneuvered myself onto all fours, like a wounded animal. Blood was dripping from both sides of my head, it was running into my ears, but I had no time to think about that now, I had to direct all my attention toward making my lungs work again, toward inhaling. It felt like trying to blow up one of those impossible balloons, but in reverse, and it was only on the third or fourth attempt that I succeeded. Slowly, steadily, I breathed in, breathed out, pursued this for some time—inhaling, exhaling—until I was sure I could trust my body to continue breathing on its own, and then I struggled to my knees and felt for the back of my head, which was sticky with blood.

F. came running from across the hall; she’d heard a loud thud, burst in through the door, and soon E. and U. were there as well. U. stopped the bleeding, passed his hand back and forth before my eyes, asking how many fingers, and what was my name, and then he instructed me to count to ten, I believe I was able to perform these simple tasks, but my scalp had to be stitched and U. recalled that it could be dangerous for me to fall asleep, to lose consciousness without knowing if there had been any injury to the brain, and all at once it was decided that I had to go to the emergency room. So we all piled into E.’s car and drove over the bridge and uptown to NYU Medical Center as I reflected that not an hour before I was getting the studio ready to sublet so that I could return to Berlin a month early to try and save my relationship with T., who’d just fallen head over heels for Y.

After the tests were done and the MRI and X-ray came back and the scalp was stitched and it was agreed that I’d been lucky, that I had not incurred any further damage from the fall beyond a few broken ribs and a coin-sized hole in my scalp that would remain bald to this day, I found myself washing my hands at a small porcelain sink in the corner. Even the slightest movement was extremely painful. When I finished and looked up and saw my reflection in the stainless-steel-rimmed mirror, I was met by the face of a stranger whose eyes had the look of a dog that had been kicked too many times. And when, a moment later, I understood that these plaintive eyes, these pain-widened, piteous eyes were mine, I was shocked to see how pathetic I’d become, how far I’d allowed myself to fall.

I see these things, see you standing there in your mother’s kitchen with tears streaming down your cheeks. An odd feeling takes hold of you: something inside of you sensed it, you thought—something inside of you felt it coming.

— I’m sorry… I’m sorry.

Somehow you knew it was coming, didn’t you?

A shudder went through you when you heard the quiet click at the other end. You bore down on the receiver and hastily pressed the sequence of buttons that would bring her back to life again: the international code, the country code, your home phone number. Your fingers were trembling; you made a mistake, had to hang up and start again. This time, the connection went through; you shut your eyes tightly and listened to the faraway sound of the phone ringing at the other end. Answer, you thought. Please. But she didn’t respond; she didn’t want to talk to you anymore.

It was a strange new concept, an idea you were unable to grasp. She doesn’t love me anymore, she loves someone else: you repeated this to yourself over and over like a sentence in a foreign language, the vowels rolling over your tongue like a mouthful of pebbles sucked smooth by the tides of incessant use. Yet the content of the words had become indecipherable; you could only utter them phonetically, could only guess at their meaning. But then you noticed a tightening in your stomach, a leaden weight in your gut. Slowly, deliberately, you picked up a chair and smashed it against the wall, smashed it again and again until the legs cracked off and the rest of it went flying across the room. You sank to the floor, closed your eyes, and felt your stomach contract; you struggled to inhale and discovered that your breathing had grown dangerously shallow, that the amount of air your lungs were able to absorb was diminishing rapidly. You felt your heart falter, felt the blood in your veins and arteries congeal, its flow begin to labor. A dim thought dropped anchor in your mind: you will not survive this; she no longer loves you, and there is nothing more that you can do to change that.

You sent me a jpeg of a drawing you made several years ago, a self-portrait sketched in pencil during a difficult time. The forehead and hair, nose and ears are all laid out in expert, economic strokes on lightly textured paper, the eyebrows a bit darker, with overlapping lines none of which, however, was reconsidered. The eyes alone were a struggle; it’s difficult to see if you smudged them with a finger, or if their darkness derives from erasure. A conflict emanates from them. You and your mirror image: it wasn’t enough to capture a likeness; you searched for something in those eyes, stared into them until everything around them began to blur. You gazed, waiting for the familiarity of your face to gradually dissolve into something else, waiting for the eyes to reveal themselves, these eyes that gaze and do not gaze, look back at their observer as though in some ontological loop. You appealed to them as to another: see me, give me a sign of recognition, but they met you with a blank stare until slowly, slowly you began to see a flicker of something in them, and what you saw was the look of a wounded animal.

You dialed her number—your number—but she didn’t answer, she let the machine pick up instead; you hung up and dialed again. Answer this time—answer, verdammte Scheisse. The phone rang, and rang, and then the machine came on. You pictured her standing next to the phone, staring at it in horror, unable to move. The sound of her recorded voice filled your ear, softening the hard edges inside you; you held your breath and waited for the tone.

— It’s me again. Please pick up.

You waited.

— Liebchen, please. I have to talk to you.

All at once, there came the sound of a sharp beep, followed by a busy signal: the machine had cut you off, and the line had become disconnected. You must have been speaking too softly, you thought; you hung up and dialed again, waited through the message, twisted the phone cord around your wrist. You closed your eyes: you’d always loved this voice, it had always been so familiar, so intimate. And then your heart contracted: this is the sound of her voice recorded in another time, you thought, a time that no longer exists: her voice, recorded in the time before she fell in love with someone else. And then came the beep, and again, you pleaded with her to pick up, trying to speak a little more loudly this time, a little more clearly, trying not to shout into the receiver. Once again, the machine beeped and the connection was lost; there must have been a disturbance with the international lines. You held onto the kitchen counter to keep yourself from crying out; you hung up and dialed again. When you heard the sound of her recorded voice repeating the outgoing message yet again, you had to stop yourself from flinging the telephone across the room.

You close your eyes and turn away. When you open them again, you see a curtain billowing slightly behind you. You look out the window and see a faint yellow glow spread over the façade of the building next door: a reflection of the light in the western sky. The sun will be setting soon, you tell yourself, and then you wonder what part of your mind understands that it’s light, and what part senses the darkness hiding just behind it. Your body aches, all its muscles are tense in unanimous rigidity: she doesn’t love you anymore, she loves someone else; she doesn’t love you anymore, love you anymore, love you anymore. You can no longer breathe; your lungs have made their decision. They want no more movement, they choose stillness, cessation. Your blood agrees, has stopped in its tracks, and all the winding veins and arteries have stiffened into a complex of interwoven iron rods and wires, like the skeleton of a taxidermist’s specimen, sealing your entrapment, rendering you immobile, and out of this prison, this hardened shell, you hear your mind cry out: my God, I’m dying, I’m turning into stone.

 

Ready!

 

On a whim, I sent you a recipe for cauliflower and fennel in a coconut curry sauce; you diligently shopped for the ingredients and prepared a perfect meal. Tonight it was turnip and green beans, grated carrot and chicken with turmeric over which your mother voiced her enthusiastic approval. I am not trying to win her over, but she is under the mistaken impression that these recipes are for her, and so she is slowly beginning to like me.

I wake up early; there are so many things I still need to understand. We’ve been playing the game of where-were-you-when: where was I when you were in Athens? In Saudi Arabia? In Paris? When you returned to New York, I was checking coats uptown, waiting to hear whether or not I would be moving to Berlin to do graduate work, waiting to hear my fate. It’s not impossible that you had lunch there one day, a small midtown restaurant for the martini lunch crowd consisting almost exclusively of men in suits. They’d arrive in a bluster of back-patting joviality and hand over their coats, which had cost them the equivalent of six months’ rent on my railroad apartment; they’d inquire after the book I was reading, and sometimes, rarely, there would be a glint of recognition in someone’s eye, something beyond a patronizing expression of approval or amused surprise that a young thing like me could be tackling the likes of Dostoyevsky—some sign of recognition, of yearning.

I used to freeze in that booth because it was next to the outside entrance, separated from the restaurant by a swinging door. After my shift was over, I was allowed to come inside and eat a meal. I remember a waitress there, a woman several years older than myself; she had been an aspiring actress, like all the girls who worked there, but then she’d gotten pregnant and had the child, a little girl, strange that I’ve forgotten their names, but I still remember visiting them somewhere in an apartment tower on the upper West Side, still remember the tiny bed with the frilly pink bedspread and my friend explaining that she’d changed, saw everything differently now that she had someone to take care of. She’d found new meaning in life, no longer needed to chase after the next role, and she pitied the girls at the restaurant checking their make-up every fifteen minutes and striking poses for the customers in the hopes of making an impression on a director or producer. While I could sympathize, I wasn’t ready to give up yet; I was just starting out, I had places to go, languages to learn, paintings to paint. The other waitresses treated her like an outsider, although she wasn’t yet thirty. Weeks turn into years / how quick they pass / and all the stars that never were / are parking cars and pumping gas: when I hear this song I think of her. Time was a currency in this business, and you had to be quick: auditions and dance lessons and photo sessions for promotion shots, it all cost money, and more than once I saw them run after a departing group of men too drunk to remember to leave a tip. Was there something wrong with the service, the worried girls would inquire tactfully, waiting for the men’s glazed eyes to focus in realization. And when they did, it wasn’t embarrassment they revealed, but a kind of fatherly indulgence: of course, of course, they’d say as they pulled out their wallets, there you are, Sweetheart, this is for you, and they’d press a crisp bill in her hand and close her fingers over it and hover several inches too close with both hands clasped over hers, and she would smile brightly, hoping it was a twenty.

I’d always found the act of accepting cash—of holding out your hand to have someone else place money in it—to be unbearably vulgar. I imagine myself standing in that coat check booth, with a little basket of dollar bills resting on a shelf below the dividing wall. I imagine you coming in with someone, in the middle of a conversation, perhaps; I imagine myself slipping a bookmark into a dog-eared paperback and taking your coats. There is no way for us to recognize each other, our trajectories are still too far apart, yet we will smile and then, for a moment, our eyes will lock, and all at once there will be that invisible tunnel between us that shuts everything else out, and the person accompanying you will hold the door open and chuckle, because he will think you’re flirting with the coat check girl, but it won’t be flirting, it will be something else entirely: it will be the look of someone who understands in some distant part of his disembodied consciousness that he is looking into the eyes of a woman whom, twenty-nine years and countless appointments and disappointments later, he is destined to meet again.