Through my window, I see mothers who are desperate about their children, driving cars to the swimming club before the airport or taking a stroll toward the beach. I sometimes see fathers as well, but fathers do not seem to care or, at least, they don't lose it so easily. They make me think how different women and men are in all senses, specially where kids are concerned. Georgia and me, we used to scorn families who were too soft and couldn't keep their little ones under control in places such as bank offices and particularly, in restaurants. It was not difficult to find us sitting at our table at night, a noisy brat running around pulling at chairs, skirts, pants; we would shoot a disdainful look at the beast and then scan the room for those guilty of having brought them to this world without the slightest notion of appropriateness. We did get angry, almost furious. The scene could very well ruin our meal. Georgia shook her head and sighed: "why cannot they be kept in their chairs?" or also "a kick in the butt is what they need". We thought all of them incapable. Not only those near us, but parents in general, people who had decided to have offspring. But then again, we also looked down on couples who sat together and never exchanged a single word. You know who I mean. He looks at his cell phone, probably checking the results of his latest baseball game while she glimpses around, a sad atmosphere hanging about her as if she were wondering wherever they went amiss.
I have seen a dog in the street today, while I was at my office window smoking. You know the park opposite our building, right? People usually take their kids and pets there, three times a day for the latter. You see them alone, they never get together or make big groups to chat or kill time until their little beasts find relief, which is quite surprising, actually.
In any case, this dog was sitting by its owner, wagging its tail against her ankles. Perfectly at ease. For a brief second I thought I'd like to be a dog myself. Their life is fully structured, there are no surprises. Sniff-Eat-Poo-Sleep, that's all. Of course they are curious, there is always a certain amount of the unexpected just around the corner: a smell you do not recognize, new passers-by, a boy who comes and pats your head in delight. You go back home and you can rest assured you'll wake up to feel as cared for, loved and protected as you were the day before. No bills to pay, no job to keep, no sentimental crises, no existential doubts. Suddenly, my mind went to those that get abandoned every summer. Your owners put you in the back of the car, open the door after a while, let you out, close it again, vanish. They take to you to a place you've never been to before so that you won't be able to find your way back, they believe. And then, there is no home at night, no food, no comfort. Other dogs approach you, bite you, show their teeth and grunt. You don't have anywhere to turn to. You curl up in a corner and wish to die. Plus, you miss those humans so badly! Why did they ever dump you? What did you do wrong? Even dogs go through pleasant or unpleasant change they don't have any power over. Even they experience uncertainty. They don't know, and neither do we. Wait, it's life's turn to make a move.
Carnival is already in town. I can see half of the biggest Ferris Wheel in the region from my kitchen as I cook. It will open its doors on Saturday evening, and kids will be lining up to try rides they have used over and over through the years. It's the time to be merry. A whole week when stores and offices will only open from 9 to 14. Then people forget about work and gather for a quick dirty lunch in the center, among the crowd, before they head toward the music, the bright lights. Everybody should be happy. I am not. Or perhaps I am, for I love watching trailers driving pink and blue bumper cars around the roundabout on the corner of our street, but not to the same extent as others. They say I have a hard time experiencing joy, that I always find the dark spot in every sunlit room; they might be right, I am not sure. All I can think about as I smoke at the open window is that there's only one more week to go before we start all over again. I think about the beginning of our summers, so full of expectation. I close my eyes and I recall the sweet ecstasy of a vacation opening its arms to greet me. Time flies. And then I open them again and it's all in the past. I cannot tell where my minutes go, what have I done with them? I simply know that there are seven days ahead, and that I will be bleeding each one of them, like a kid planting his feet on the ground when refusing to let his mother pull him forward. "I don't want to, I don't want to", says that voice inside. I do not verbalize the words, I stay put. I smoke.
When I was barely 16 or 17, I dreamt of becoming a belly dancer. I dreamt of taking lessons and discovering I was so talented my teachers would put me on stage right away. Then, I would dance in a troupe, in cafés, restaurants and theaters. I thought there could be no better life but that of an artist. I would sleep all day, perform all night. I would permanently smell of musk and take daily baths in hammams.
Last year I had the chance to put my dream to the test. We were nothing but a bunch of first grade students in an oriental academy, yet, our teacher wanted us to take a look at what it all meant. We sure did. Constant rehearsals, counting steps, worrying about clothes and beating each other up for every tiny mistake we made. As I said to my therapist afterward: "yeah, I tasted a spoonful of that ambition and now I can see it for what it is, a teenage fantasy I was not made for".
I was made to be a writer. That's what I believed. A week ago I was offered a chance to have some of my work reviewed by a publisher. I was not promised anything. Actually, I only wanted to check whether they thought I was good enough. That simple: "yeah, there's potential here". For days on end I worked to make an old novel I had discarded in the past read nicely. I am exhausted. I cannot look at my characters with the same eyes. I am beginning to wonder: is this what writing is all about? Do I write for pleasure? And if so, is this deep sense of sadness and loss I am experiencing at present the real meaning of my life?
Do not sit there, eyes clenched and body tight in fear. Do not stretch your hands out so as to prevent the blow. There's nothing you can do. And the harder you rack your brains trying to find a way to escape it, the more deadly the poison of its bite. Yeah, I know it's scary. Yeah, nobody likes darkness approaching and closing down on them. I know what you are thinking: you must do something, anything, to protect yourself. Yet, it won't do you any good, and you already know. It's happened before. You know the feeling when it stings you. You run around in panic, shaking your legs, but that only makes the disease spread faster. And you already know, too, what you should be doing. What is it they say about encountering wild beasts? Exactly. Stay as still as you might. Don't make a move. Let it come to you and sniff you; let it touch you with its paw to check whether you're alive or dead. Let yourself be one with it for a second. Bullshit. I would run away as speedily as my feet would allow. Just remember that you played that trick before and it worked, you cannot tell how, but it did anyway. So now that this wild beast you call fear is facing you, don't take another step. Remain clam. Breathe. Open your arms. Perhaps it will whisper a couple of wise words in your ear. Chances are it will come so near you, you'll feel like you're dying, and you won't. If you push it away with all your strength, it will turn solid, burden your heart and actually smother everything you have built so far. Whereas if you allow it to pass through you, caress you with its whiskers, it will evaporate sooner or later. You will then look around and won't find it anywhere. You will be able to proceed. You won't lose yourself. So take a deep breath, stand up, stay put.
I am a writer. It's so comic. I can barely utter the words: I-am-a-writer, with a long shaky pause in between them, as if I wasn't going to make it to the next. I am a writer, and immediately after I say that, someone inside of me bursts out laughing, like: "yeah, fool yourself!" But I am!, I shout. I want to convince her and all those others so that I can convince myself in turn, that this is not only make-believe. I once heard the story of a man who had started building model boats when he was a tiny child. He went to school, did his homework, crafted model boats, had his college degree, found a job, moved on to recreational sailing ships. Just for fun, but he did. And then one day, he opened his eyes and his hobby had turned into a profession. It was not voluntary, although it really was. I mean, it was not premeditated. He simply got one commission, then another one, and before he knew what had hit him, he was a boat maker. What would you say of him? Would you call him a clerk, a doctor, a salesman? Because all I could think was that he had always been a boat maker, ever since his birth. He didn't know at the beginning, or perhaps he did. This is how i am a writer, how those others say I am a writer. I started out as soon as I could scribble two letters together. Even prior to that, when my Spanish teacher asked her class who would dare do a "line dictation" and I was the first to put my hand up. It seemed only logical, a natural step for me. The another boy followed. I remember it was the two of us sitting at our desks, listening and transcribing intently, while the rest of the 20 stood around us. It was not so much about getting it right as it was to be there.
Have you realized how time passes? Of course you have. You have probably been in one of those situations where you are so bored you look at your watch and the needles do not move at all, the day is never going to end. Then again, you've probably stood at your window smoking before, trying to remember if it was yesterday that the summer started, only to discover it's well past the 29th of July and there's only one more month to finish everything you started. fast, slow, that's not the point. The point is is that time actually passes. Yeah, I know it's a silly affirmation, but I do sometimes forget that it does. Sometimes I am so stuck that I cannot for the life of me remind myself this too shall be over. I forget that, whatever I do, no matter how hard I try or how complicated it all seems, one day I will wake up in the morning and I won't be there any longer. Then, I will look back and think about that period in kind of a fog, as if it were only a dream I had not really lived but existed in my imagination alone. It must be true what they say, that the past is nothing and the future is just a second away. Hard to believe, hard to see it from that perspective. In any case, do try to hold that past in your hands. Open them. They are empty. Time does not have a physical body. It does leave you with a thousand pictures you took so as never to let it go. But hey, are you that one smiling from before that sunset? Were you even there in reality? It's all smoke bound to be blown away when you next breathe deep.
He had enjoyed ten years of being totally irresponsible. And I guess now you are expecting me to say that the time had come for him to forsake his old habits and settle down, right? A good job, a nice wife, children, and a mortgage, right? Well, that's not exactly what I had in mind. Actually, I don't care that much for whatever it is that you call adult life. And yeah, you won't be the first one to bring it up, either. The Peter Pan complex, or something of the kind, right? Might be so, I am not adamantly opposed to the idea. But take a moment to think about it. Really? Do you honestly believe that this is the only way to live once you reach the "past-thirty" stage? Not only that, but, is this what you want your life to look like? Not me. Yeah, he had ten long years for himself, so what? That's what happens when you are 20, and it's kind of socially sanctioned. And now, he should stop because when you're 30 the playful part in you dies or something? Fair enough. I am not for ever lasting brainlessness, don't get me wrong. Not taking anything seriously just doesn't work right when bills start piling up on your kitchen table. But really?
She felt for the lock in the dark; there it was, a few inches down. Now, the problem was the key. There was none, whatsoever. She looked up again, darkness seemed to dissolve in a way, and she could suddenly make out shapes: that of a corner in the far end, that of a window. She did not have the impression that her eyes were growing accustomed to dim light, no way. It was more like waking up after a sound sleep, when your eyelids slowly rise and at first you are lost and you know where you are just because you remember where you went off to bed the previous night. But hey, you know, sometimes dreams are so profound that they erase any sort of memory. Then, as you come round, you seem to catch the side of a painting hanging on the wall, and you get extremely anxious because you can't recall there was a painting on the wall. Or perhaps the side of the frame takes an unexpected physical form and you can't tell what it is but it scares the hell out of you. You gather your wits soon afterward. You breath deep and are relieved to find yourself in the usual atmosphere of your bedroom. Everything's fine again.
That's what happened to her. She recognized the corridor. She had been there many times before, when the day came to its end. Of course, back then it was just her imagination. It was real now. She had invented this place as a way to give her fears and frustrations some kind of actuality. A corridor, full of locked doors, meaning how stuck she was somewhere, unable to proceed. That was not a machination any more. Her body was there, in the middle of the long passage, at a door she could touch but still could not unlock. What might have seemed an interesting intellectual exercise had turned into a life-or-death experience. If she did not find a way to cross, she would starve to death in there. It was no longer a game. It was a fight for her life.
There is something bizarre about Lisa. Something that makes you wonder how people, the most diverse, manage to get married after all. It's not that she is ugly, or that her empty eyes lost in the distance where no one can follow, show any trace of minor intelligence. No. It's simply a twist in her expression, somewhere around her nose or the corners of her mouth; something quite unnoticeable, making her apparent beauty a mock. As though she were uneasy or disgusted at all those around her, which is peculiar, for there is no other in this world as mild-tempered as she is. Nothing seems to have any impact on her mood or behavior, not even harsh words or inconveniences. She takes everything with half a smile and then casts it away, say it were unimportant, unworthy of upsetting her state. How a man such as Prince Dorogulkin might have chosen her as his life-long companion is an unraveled mystery. He fits more with strong-willed, temperamental ladies. He is decisive himself, scientific, down to earth, straightforward, disinclined to superficiality. Lisa cannot seem to keep up with him. She speaks little, even when surrounded by safe company she has a hard time speaking her mind. Today, she is entertaining guests, "open Thursday" as she calls it, in her house at 23 Tverskaya Street. Why do they keep coming when she's such a poor host? She lets others take the lead, only participates when directly addressed; as for instance, when her French tutor asks her a seemingly naive question for fear she gets bored. She then turns her head, gazes at hi and does not manage to put a whole sentence together. She fails to make sense, even in her own language.
He wanted to tell him how much he loved him, but it was too late. He had already packed his bags and was toying with his keychain, trying to get the keys to the house out so that he could leave them right where he first found them: all tied with a purple ribbon on the small table at the entrance where they used to throw unwanted mail, mobile phones, loose coins as soon as they arrived home. He wanted to tell him how much he loved him right from the moment he moved in, and now he was about to set off forever, to a foreign land. Chances were they would never meet again. Fine, they would keep in touch over Facebook, or any other online trick they could find; but then, their friendship would cool down, he would meet new people wherever it was that he was going, and one day he would catch himself sitting at his office desk in his colorless cubicle, checking his inbox folder every five minutes and there would be absolutely nothing. Worst thing was that he would forget about him; best case scenario, he would recall he once had a friend he shared a flat with, but would not be able to tell the color of his eyes, nor describe his smile. Worst thing was that it meant absolutely nothing to him, just another necessary step in life. He would never know. And all those feelings, all that energy, so much effort put into it would go to waste. Unspoken words would be swept away by the morning breeze. There would be one more secret lost to the world. It would turn into a dark, black, shadow that would hunt him forever, coming back at him unexpectedly at his dying bed. Long before that.
She clung on to the piece of driftwood, praying for daylight. Yet, she was unsure whether that would make any difference whatsoever. How many days had passed already? One, two, a week? Perhaps a month, or even a year. No, if it had been a month, she would be dead by now, and she was definitely not. She could still think, still feel. She had even been able to swim from her sinking rubber boat towards the pieces still afloat around her. At the very beginning, she thought it unlikely that any rescue team would spot her there, in the midst of this damp nowhere. Unlikely but still somehow possible. She had a little food, a little fresh water. Of course it was both unlikely and impossible. They had set off in the middle of the night, having notified no one. With no maps and no itinerary. Nobody came to the rescue.
For long periods of light and even longer ones of utter darkness she prayed, something she had never done before, as she felt her body weakening fast. Then, night came once again, an even deeper one, when her mind was no longer capable of telling truth from falsehood. Suddenly, she realized she had stopped breathing altogether and yet, it was easier for her limbs to shake and her head to turn. She was far lighter, far more flexible; she could have flown away had she tried to. That was exactly the moment when a tiny wave hit the side of her boat, water splashed all over her left arm, cool and soothing. Her body slid softly towards the sea and on to the driftwood. She was already gone.
It was a small cat, all black except for one white forepaw. It walked very slowly along the decaying walls of the temple, under the scorching morning sun. "It must be very hot, the poor thing," she said to herself from her shelter in the shade of a Banian tree. They were both alone. Strangely enough, there were signs of no other animals or human beings: no monkeys, no birds, no men or women approaching the river for their ablutions. Everything was wrapped in eternal, mystical silence. The cat stopped suddenly, as if it had heard some sort of threatening noise. It turned its head right and left. There he gazed at the trees, beyond the trees. Convinced there was absolutely nothing to fear, it sat down, licked its white paw and then vanished through a tiny opening in between the plain, uncarved stones. That made her think there had to be a way in for people too. Nobody had ever tried before, partly because it was rumored and believed the spot was under a heavy spell. Also because there was nothing but four long, tall walls, without gates or entrances, and it had been abandoned eons before. So what good could it do to climb those surfaces and cross over to the other side? It was sure empty and depleted. They were not even invited inside by the promise of gold or wealth. Had there been any, they were surely looted when it first became deserted. Now it was just another lonesome, ruined construction in the middle of the jungle.