Rest assured, I have been happy.
Why am I saying this? I should cross it out, start over. I should say I have been well—no major calamities. Let you know I survived, that’s all.
But I see the innuendo. The subtext was ‘without you’. ‘Rest assured, I’ve been happy in spite of your absence.’ Which is simply untrue.
I have survived.
On the pretext that his last name was misspelled, they have kept him at reception for hours. How inappropriate a term for this antechamber of hell. They have sat him on a bench by the door. Hours have passed, the first one the hardest. For the first hour he can’t bear the helplessness. He can’t just sit and wait. He stands up, tries to pace. There’s no room for pacing. They have him sit again. The-one-behind-the-desk lifts an eyebrow, scoops his chin—one quick motion. The-one-by-the-door shoves him down with a steady push on both shoulders. Ten cold fingers dig into his flesh like prongs, nearly piercing holes in his muscles. They are aching with tension and fear.
Don’t say fear. He is not afraid yet. Doesn’t know he is.
His hand rushes to the breast pocket of his shirt, seeking his cigarettes. They have taken them. And his cellphone. How darn frightening is the empty pocket… the entire world has vanished.
Don’t say frightening, I said.
He stands up, wanting to walk outside, smoke a cigarette—only way he could think. He needs to. They won’t let him. The-one-behind-the-desk chain-smokes—half cig hanging from his beak, half cig burning on the side of the ashtray. The air is foggy and thick in this antechamber of hell.
I remember the restaurant.
Not the ones we went to with others. Always interesting folks, true. Most of them your something—friends, acquaintances. Some mine—I also had a life. We enjoyed people.
But I am recalling the place where we went alone. You can’t possibly… it was in a rush. You were hurrying from somewhere to somewhere when you chanced upon me, in the plaza. And you said, “Let’s have a quick bite, I’ll treat you”.
We didn’t stay long. Was it less than one hour? The longest we had, the two of us. Could you have sat for one hour? You must have stood in between, sought your cigarettes, smoked half, crushed the rest away—mindlessly reaching for your packet again. I must have watched the crease on your brow get deeper. Must have guessed your impatience.
But I do remember ten minutes of calm. Happiness, or a decent imitation of it. As when we discussed the menu, and we got an entrée to save time. Lots of dips, pita bread—it would be plenty. No wine. Spicy smells filled the upstairs room. Tree canopies brushed the window—like a carpet of green. Underneath peered benches, streetlights, people, pets. We usually indulged in that kind of spectacle—sharp observers, with a kin streak of humor.
But that day I turned my back to the window, focusing on your face only. It was rarely that well-lit—we used to meet in late afternoon, evening, night. In dark places, at least dim. There you were, painted out in full color. I did not mind you seeing me as a silhouette, as a shadow. You could see outside around me, behind me. I thought you could see through me.
Beirut, I fell in love. I mean with the town. We had eaten Lebanese before… you had shared memories while we tasted the food. That day Beirut came into the room. It washed in, and the midday light became golden. Then the gold began to wear out. The joint was half empty, for the hour was odd. You were starving. I don’t dare imagine how long you had gone without eating—too busy, forgetting about it. Days? Perhaps.
Service was very prompt. You wolfed up the bread, dipping into generous sauces. Hummus, eggplant puree, tajini, dill yogurt. You were quickly satiated. I munched slowly. I ate little. We finished at the same time.
Meanwhile, I typed on a kind of old-fashioned machine, tough and noisy. In my brain, you of course couldn’t hear. On the contrary, I was deafened by the shrill, mechanical sound. Thus I entirely missed what you said. I hope you don’t mind. Only the word Beirut floats, emerges, returns.
I typed a whole page while we swept those Middle Eastern entrées, then you paid—with cash, always. A whole page of the same three words. Numbers. A date I didn’t want to forget. I haven’t.
There is no misspelling of his last name. The accent seemingly giving them trouble should be there. How could they not know? Don’t the papers match their records? What the fuck is on their records? What is on the screen where the-one-behind-the-desk keeps his eyes glued? Slightly shifting, following lines.
What’s on the screen? How he wishes he knew. But he sees the back of the machine and the stupid face of the officer. Stupid, and mean.
I remember the first night in the apartment—of course, it wasn’t yours. Friends, acquaintances, had lent it to you. You always lived in the place of others. In others’ places I mean.
I know it was a good night—at least stretches of it. I remember your arms. First the mention of them: “I’ll take you into my arms.” Kind of thing you want to hear when you are two, and you have fallen and scratched your knee. Kind of thing a dad would say. You have been climbing the hill, your small hand in his large one. You have been patient and brave but now you are tired. Night is falling. It is past bedtime. Dad has miscalculated. You have missed dinner. By the way, you aren’t going home. Where are you going? “I will take you into my arms,” you wish dad would say.
I remember your arms. And a shirt you gave me to wear, because it was winter, after I came back from the bathroom. “Would you like to shower?” you had said afterwards. “At this time of night it’s delicious.” What an odd remark. And how true. Showering is delicious afterwards, at that time of night, in the apartment of someone you don’t know, in the place of others.
He was brought into something that looked like a kennel. Naked.
The-one-by-the-door had him strip, piece by piece, after the-one-behind-the-desk left the room without turning off the computer. The machine was still flickering. He still couldn’t see the screen.
Then the-one-by-the-door said “shirt” in his language, clumsily, with an accent. He didn’t react fast enough. “Shirt,” the guy repeated with a drier, brisker, more exasperated tone, as if barking. He understood, took it off, put it on the bench, as the other indicated with the motion of his eyes, of his chin. All the rest went as if in a silent movie. The guy pointed and nodded, his face stony, mute. But the concept was clear. Only, he didn’t know where to stop.
Just keep going.
He expected to be given something—a uniform, pajamas, a sack. He was given nothing. The other put his stuff in a duffle bag, crumpling it with contempt. He was wearing a single glove. Not rubber, not surgical—a kind of gardener glove made of cloth. Kind of dirty. He couldn’t fathom the meaning of it—the naked stripping, gloved hand, duffle bag.
Then he was escorted out, a weapon—he thought—pushed against the small of his back. He felt it but he couldn’t see it, of course. He hadn’t noticed that the-one-by-the-door was armed. Was he? He realized that he hadn’t paid attention. He panicked. How could he have missed such a thing?
Don’t say panic.
Outside it was dark. Wasn’t it midday when they took him? He was exiting the front door of the apartment. Someone else’s. Midday, bright, a tinge of happiness uncannily staining the air. Hours have passed, uncountable.
Now outside was drizzling and cold. Few steps, then the escort shoved him on his knees before what looked like a kennel. Pushed him in, after kicking a small door open. Locked the door behind him. He could not stand of course. He could kneel.
Imagine you are on a train. This is a couchette. Squeeze in. Welcome aboard.
This is not a couchette. It’s a casket and he has been buried alive. On the dirt floor there is a sort of rug. In a corner of it a crumpled something—a worn, torn, old T-shirt. Grey, smooth. Slimy. Small. He wears it because he is too cold. He would like to lie on his back, but he needs to bunch up like a fetus. How he misses a hot shower.
Discard this thought, will you? It is stupid. Unfair. Don’t do this to yourself.
He remembers the nights in the desert with the Tuareg, years earlier. And the Yemenite scarf the girl gave him. The Tuareg girl. She explained in Lebanese that it was a Yemenite scarf. The cloth was thin, yet indestructible. Men kept those for their entire lives, passed them to the next generation. They lasted centuries, the girl said. Men always carried them along. How she got it she didn’t say. Who first owned it she didn’t say. He should keep it. Forever.
The scarf was quite large (but so thin it could be bunched up, pocket size). A man could wrap himself in during desert’s nights. Even two people could. It was green—deep, the color of malachite, of some jade. With Arabian motifs, sort of hieroglyphs. Did they mean anything?
He remembers them, now, crystal clear. The intricate design seeps under his brow. He shuts his eyes and he focuses. He manages to fall asleep.
Alexanderplatz. The bus crosses it then shifts to another dimension. East Berlin is a lace—like those I used to dig out of grandma’s closet. How I craved such treasures, no matter how yellowed and torn. They looked… I can’t tell you… They looked as if the fairies had made them. Leaves, birds, flowers. Curls, waves, arabesques. All those intricate patterns. How I craved them.
East Berlin is a lace—torn, frayed, crumbled. I love these maisons delabrees.
At the farmers market I see tons of flowers, stuck in plastic buckets lined up on the sidewalk. Vendors sit on small stools behind them. They don’t need to get up in order to sell—stretch a hand, pull the bunch out, that simple. Roses are pale—cappuccino, faded apricot, nothing more sanguine than that. They are mixed up with something to plump them up—small blooms, kornblumen, gypskraut. Baby breath, dots and dots, an impressionistic daze.
East Berlin is a giant lace. Nothing has been restored besides Alexanderplatz and a few other pomposities. As I walk I see facades badly scarred, ripped and pierced—a myriad of fragments improbably holding together. They were beautiful houses. They will be repaired. But they are still lizard skin, maze of stone—grey, beige, bleeding dust.
I have sat the entire afternoon in a park. The tree canopies are thinning out. Autumn will be gorgeous in a month or so; today it is still timid—a promise. An ice cream truck has come with its carillon. God is this town outdated. Children screech and run. Parents get them by the hand, line them up like soldiers. How orderly, how quiet are the parents. Now the kids as well, their eyes big with longing.
The ice cream truck brings in the tail end of summer. I can feel it linger. The-man-with-an-apron hoists a scoop on each cone with steady precision, hands it down with prefabricated motions. There are several tastes and different colors—variations of tenuous pastels. The scoops are very small, yet the children’s faces are luminous. Ecstatic. Few adults also indulge. I fancy one of those cones. But it feels indecent.
I haven’t reached my destination—the park has sidetracked me. Luckily the Jewish cemetery hasn’t closed. Maybe it never does, the lovely place… Kind of magic, a medieval forest. Tombs look vegetal—stumps, trunks, old trees—though of course they are made of stone.
They are graves, don’t be fooled, they are people passed. I like reading inscriptions—it soothes me. It’s hypnotic, just give it a try. I read names, dates, and history comes alive.
Then it seeps through—the void. There’s a sharp break. I read through a wave of people, a compact tide. Husbands, wives, children, relatives, families at large—a thick tapestry finely wrought. Nice old fashioned names, common ones as well. The dates overlap, then they stop.
In the nineteen-thirties they stop. There are recent ones—few. In the middle a wide gap, as if the ground had opened, swallowing a decade or so. A chasm of impressive magnitude, a black hole. I had not foreseen this. I am choking with sadness. Or is it something else.
Was he soothed by the thought of those who cared, outside? By the certainty that they were thinking of him, doing whatever they could in order to help him. By the feeling that he would never be abandoned by them.
How naïve. How ridiculous. Sorry to disappoint you. He was thinking of no one. No one even existed—as if the ground had opened, gulping everyone, the entire past.
The only thing he could think of was getting to the next hour without other inmates killing him. Even hurting him bad. Hurting him at all. The only thing he could think of was how not to be knifed, choked, kicked in the balls, punched in the gut. Beaten, wounded, maimed. How not to be killed in his sleep.
He tried not to offend anyone. He let others take his food. He let others go ahead and pee before him. He held his pee until his bladder would burst. He let others snatch his soup and his bread. He let others snatch his blankets. He let others call him names and he smiled like an idiot. He could think of nothing other than saving his life.
Not because he cared. Not because he liked life, or wanted to do anything with it. Not because he wanted to see those who loved him again.
He had forgotten about those who loved him. See, they were outside. He wasn’t sure they existed. He had slipped into another dimension. Please don’t try to understand.
I have fallen in love with East Berlin as I had with Beirut before. Not because both towns start with B. I could fall in love with towns A to Z, believe me. They get me. Take me into their arms. It is not truly comforting. Can be smothering. Deadly. I have felt a bit dead, recently.
Restless. Aimless. Maybe I needed a vacation—that is why I came to Budapest. Another B town… where will this madness end? The ghetto is the culprit. I so wanted to see it before it went down. True, those buildings are full of sad memories. But they are stunning, beautiful.
There is something about Budapest’s ghetto… the way it stands like an island? Clasped in the middle of town like a ring stone. I remembered it pink, bricks and stucco the color of flesh. Now it looks redder, more garish—a wound.
The Jewish quarters hug themselves tight, as if in solidarity, though they were a prison, a rat cage, a lethal chamber trapped by walls and barbed wire—no one could escape the siege. Overcrowded—illness spread in them like flames over gasoline. Yet the Budapest Ghetto was beautiful. Most of it was demolished. I don’t know where else I could go to placate this listlessness.
The good thing, after he was released, was not having a place of his own. If he had, it would have felt unsafe. Haunted. It would have been searched, for sure, and he wouldn’t want to return to a violated home. Chaos of open drawers, files and underwear scattered on the floors—he couldn’t even fathom the scene.
If he had had a place of his own, they would have tapped it. They couldn’t have tapped all of his acquaintances’ flats. Though he didn’t truly know how far this had gone, could go. Couldn’t guess. Did not understand.
He was given the duffle bag at the door. He felt uncomfortable touching it. He should find a laundromat, toss the sack and its contents into a machine. Sit in front of it, watch it spin. That would help him think. He wished he could.
Cash? He has forgotten all about it. He must have had some in his pocket, with his keys and ID. Cigarettes and cellphone were in his shirt pocket. They were removed first… He has walked more than a mile in a daze… without looking for his phone. How crazy can that be?
Did they toss everything in the bag? He should shake it…. Opening it feels repugnant. He can’t put his fingers inside. He feels nauseous.
I have kept the scarf since.
The day of the restaurant, I mean. You might not remember. It’s the kind of detail you would obliterate. It came up in the midst of tales about Lebanon, inspired by the food, the décor, the songs in the background.
You always beamed when you were about to tell a good story. You shone when you said you had a rarity I should check out. A preciosity someone gave you. Though you were in a rush you decided not to put it off. We should go find it now. How weird you didn’t postpone… Hadn’t you idled enough in my company?
The flat you were temporarily occupying was also on the plaza. Even in daytime it was dim. Blinds were shut, curtains drawn. When you turned on the light the room still looked drab, don’t know why. The bed was undone. My eyes couldn’t help shifting toward it, and it felt indecent.
To avoid my embarrassment I sat on the edge, focusing on the duffle bag—navy blue—you were digging in. On the floor, tossing out crumpled shirts and other items of clothing. My eyes scanned your personal effects with a kind of aching. I could sense it, and was afraid it would show. I was embarrassed again.
Out finally came a bunched-up-something, green, black, color of wine, with long knotted fringes. Not exactly my style—I like lace, pastel, beads, embroidered roses. But you were so proud, I needed to express admiration. And it was the first present you gave me.
The only one. I ought to be delighted. I was. I know there’s a story connected to this rag. And I apologize, love, I absolutely, infinitely do. You explained it as we were dipping pita in tajini sauce. And my brain was occupied by a noisy typing machine. I was mesmerized by your face, sharply lit by the midday sun—the tree canopies adding a slightly livid shade.
I was exhilarated, and it made me sick. I haven’t heard a word of this cloth’s past adventures. I have no clue.
Those he met during the in-between week remember him being quiet and poised. Way less rushed than usual. Less brilliant, somehow. Those who met him during that week were truly worried. In his calm he sounded slightly delirious. Someone feared for his mental health.
No doubt he had gone through some kind of trauma, acute, yet said nothing about it.
The most striking thing was the motion of his right arm when he sat at the bar. He could not keep it still. Suddenly the thing jerked, elbow stuck to his stomach, fist in front of his throat. Like a cramp, a twitch, a seizure of sorts. Was he afraid someone would grab him sideways? Was he shielding his chest? His heart? Hiding something?
And he didn’t even apologize. Tell a joke. Give an explanation. It was as if he didn’t notice. Was he going insane?
I have never forgiven entirely. I mean your disappearing. Not leaving an address. Doing nothing to remain in touch.
Yes, I knew your plans were urgent and vague—though sometimes I suspected it was a pose. I knew the agency could dispatch you anywhere, any time. Did you have a say? Could you negotiate? I wasn’t sure.
You were happy that way. You didn’t care for stability. You liked brief stays in temporary abodes. You enjoyed change. You had met scores of interesting people, seen endless places.
We had joked about the chances of their sending you to another B town. Bilbao? I’m kidding. Bombay? Very possibly. I wonder if you have found whatever could make you stay, after all. Landed in Bombay. Stranded? I doubt it.
I have not fully forgiven the vanishing, its abruptness. Should I say brutality? But I have been fairly reasonable under the circumstances. I have survived for a few decades after all. Only it seems like yesterday.
Though, once out, he has identified the facility (on arrival he had not), something about the entire thing is so irregular he almost doubts its reality.
He hasn’t contacted a lawyer yet, which is utterly absurd. He hesitates nevertheless. Nothing makes sense in the release papers. They bear the official stamps, seem authentic, yet the contents are gibberish, nil. He has been released a week after capture, with the same abruptness, same lack of sense.
He knows these things happen in most civilized countries. Police slurs. Legal mishaps. Errors. He could sue the authorities. The mistake should be denounced and corrected. He has been grossly mistreated. He has been abused. Lawyers can fix this. The abuse should be denounced and corrected.
Something stops him from proceeding. First he should call the agency, let them know.
It occurs to him… how could they not know? He hasn’t been communicating for days. There should be tons of messages by now, tons of e-mail. Well, of course his phone was tampered with. His e-mail must have been blocked. Does it justify the absence of calls from the agency?
He feels dizzy. More in shock than he admits. He can’t glue the events in a correct sequence. Can’t connect.
His ID was in the duffle bag. He has checked into a small hotel near the airport. He is waiting for something. He has noticed his phone’s acting strange at times. He should contact the agency before he contacts a lawyer, but both things should be done soon. Sooner. He hesitates nevertheless.
Bombay is not a possibility, though I have been quite obsessed with it. Once the thought grabbed me I couldn’t let go. I perceive the insanity of these compulsions. They are stronger than me. Longing for a place I have never been to? But it becomes real, becomes present. Rather I feel absent, displaced, missing from the very spot where I should be, for some crucial reason. But going to Bombay on a whim seems outrageous. Like the story of Death and Samarcanda… it has been this way since you left. I did not plan to tell you.
While in doubt I picked Barcelona. It isn’t too far. Can be quickly done and maybe will do me good.
Besides it is too bright, too lit. Eerie, it is true, and exhilarating—too colorful, lively like a slap in the face. Once again I’ve come to the flower market. Yellow is everywhere… sunflower season… Van Gogh would go nuts. I mean, more. But these sunny guys don’t combine with hotel rooms. They need a real home. Tomorrow I’ll leave.
I remember our last date. I had bought flowers while biding time in the afternoon. It was pleasantly drizzling, the town soaked in soft melancholy. I had bought flowers on impulse—I couldn’t resist those small bunches they only sell for a week, in late April. I had been spying on them every day—an idée fixe, but I’m easily obsessed.
They sure sell, flooding the town momentarily each year. Daisies are tightly packed into a velvety ball. You can’t separate them—they become a compact surface, heart-shaped, bound with bright tissue paper. They are carefully arranged in a progression of red, flesh to burgundy. Very sensual, yet corny. I don’t think I’d love it so much—though the tactile appeal is beguiling—if the forget-me-nots were missing. Here’s the genial touch…daisies flecked with strands of frail, timid blue. Tiny tears.
I bought one of those for you. The occasion felt special. You had not called for a week. That wasn’t unheard of—still long, and still painful. Then a message, a date, and for some reason I was nervous. A presentiment. Something in the tone of your note? Just fear—the usual one—that you might be about to drop the whole thing. The non-thing we had, still drop it. That you might be about to take leave. They had assigned you somewhere I couldn’t possibly go. You had been sent you won’t tell me where.
I waited in the plaza for hours. It wasn’t the first time. Only, all other times you had arrived at some point—that night you did not. It was clear enough. Cruel enough. Calling was embarrassing. I called to no response.
I remember leaving the darn bunch on my desk—no vase and no water. As if it were guilty of something. I forgot about it in spite of the forget-me-not. I dropped into bed and it was a hell of a night.
Shamefully I called again, a week later, still to no response. Clear enough, and passably cruel. I haven’t forgiven yet.
Barcelona got on my nerves. Gaudi’s stuff is extreme. Everything hints at happiness—blunt, sharp-edged, and loud. Now I need to do something with the evening. A bar, then a tango joint. Alone? Not for long. Sex, please. I need it tonight. Give me a break, please. I need it.
The best thing, they said, is to have him removed. Not demoted. Removed for an undetermined time. No worries, just a matter of prudence. Crucial, though. They are inquiring. They have some notions about what might have occurred. There will be explanations at the appropriate moment. The action to be immediately taken is temporary removal.
Yes… that would be suited, of course. It would be far enough, safe enough. For time undetermined.
And I hate you for this sense of guilt I can’t help but feel. This sense of betrayal, each time. How absurd can it be, since you never cared? You were absent, your mind elsewhere. Why should you care now? Still it feels as if you are witnessing, watching. If not blaming me, at least being disappointed.
Or, if I gulp down shame, this sense of unreality. Not progress, not quite. As if whomever I picked were a substitute. As if whatever occurred belonged to another life. The life of another, I mean. Should I have waited more than I did? Course I shouldn’t. Yet whenever I have sex something is out of place. I mean in the place of something else.
I have taken a shower. That fixes me sort of. Weirdly, I never use the hotel’s towels. I always carry this cloth in my case, then wrap it around myself. It is highly absorbent—you wouldn’t tell. And the colors, after so many washes, haven’t faded. This thing is indestructible. You wouldn’t believe it. I am dead tired.
Tango leads straight to Buenos Aires. Argentina next? Kidding.
She could swear she has seen him. Obsessions are like that when they turn insane. You see what you are thinking of, what you want to see, don’t you? It happened more than once. When she came close she saw she was mistaken. Each time.
Yet in Buenos Aires—on the docks—she could have sworn it was him. But then, no. Couldn’t he have changed somehow? Maybe it was him.
He couldn’t have changed that much. And she noticed how weirdly the man smoked. He held his cigarette backward, hidden by his folded fist. The wind?
He looked achingly familiar. But he was someone else.