THE DEATH AND LIFE OF ROMANCE.
You fall in love with a voice, with a book, a beard, or lack of. You, who feel nothing, who is a wasteland in a woman’s body. You can’t let any of this show on your face, even when he gets into your dreams and sets them on fire, but yes, one day you make a left turn instead of a right, you buy lunch at one café instead of another and you fall like a cliché, a stone into water. You have so much in common! You are academics. You teach classes that connect people with their inner poet. You have a mutual affinity for the second person and patisserie. Let’s split the cake, you say, which roughly translates as: you have my heart forever. He won’t, of course – no-one has anyone’s heart that long. But from this point on you move around the city like an echo. It seems bizarre that natural selection has not stopped humanity loving this way, fatally, inconveniently, but this is how it goes.
You are a romantic who has officially renounced romance but keeps looking for it in hopeless places, the way you’d always have half an eye out for a cat that went missing years ago. It has always stood to reason that one day it was going to saunter in, bristle at your leg, lap milk like it owned the place. This much is probability. Still, you have a home to go to, and an apartment to clean, papers to grade. That much is fact.
ONE OF YOU IS MARRIED.
The winter city at dusk, the hour of sinning lovers. But you are not lovers. You are nounless. Your togetherness indulges no dangerous, expletive verbs, although you use them casually in conversation, sometimes, if not in reference to yourselves. You walk through evening shadows to the U-Bahn, moving from pool of light to lavender pool of light, and there is always a perfect four-inch gap between your hands, your shoulders; your heavy coats do not brush together and so the powder-snow remains untouched on woollen fibres, trembling with your footsteps like jasmine over water.
On one street, synthpop. Bach along another. You pass peeled-paint doors and posters for old operas. Your mind snapshots the shadows of dogs, a diamond necklace behind glass, the warm, grassy scent of horseshit on cobblestone. You catalogue it all with caution; you know what these kind of symbols can do. Yours is a profession that examines the fictional lives of fictional people; their hearts might not actually bleed or melt or commit any of the other atrocities that real ones claim to, but you know the odds aren’t good. You’ve written essays on the subject of manifest yearning. When you teach A Farewell to Arms you have a kind of wild look about you, choreographing all that unquantifiable tragedy into a dance performed with your hands.
When he talks about Maupassant you note, appreciatively, that he too is fluent in the language of wild-gesture, his crazy-dramatic movements rivalling your own. If the universe is providing signs, here is a sign. His hands move the air around like he is operating an engine. It is imperative that an ocean of space rises and falls between you, always, but something in these wild-gestures –
You should have a contest of wild-gestures! A Gesture-Off. It would be more sexy than it sounds. Something faintly threatening, like the Godfather Waltz, would play as you circled each other, faster, faster, hands raised, eyes flashing. He has that whole Byronic thing going on. It’s hotter than Mercury.
When he asks, “What is this?” you do not say propinquity. You wave your hands in the dangerous way that means neither yes nor no, knowledge nor ignorance. He is only in the city for two weeks.
Your Jewish friend would tell you, sometimes the harsh fact of life is that it is what it is. Urban Dictionary has another way to define this.
The train stops and both of you reach for the door at the same time.
THE THINGS THAT TIGERS WANT.
On the terrace of a bar near the Zoologischer Garten you discuss literary beards. Right now, he’s on a Chekhov. Hemingway is out of the question because of the way his neck resists all hair-growth. A pity.
The sounds of the animals in their make-believe worlds of jungles and ice floes, veldt and fynbos float high over the trees. The night moans of the tigers feel centuries old. He tells you he’s leaving tomorrow. You quote Ondaatje because it’s the only thing you can do.
“Damn it,” he says.
“Damn it,” you repeat.
You damn whatever you can get your mouths around. The sour and far-off stench of the wolf enclosure, the fucking cold. Time and the way it moves. Bright pink, rum-soaked cakes with ridiculous names. Students who do not read. Students who think they can sweet-talk you into changing their grades. That you missed a performance of Offenbach at the Zitadelle Spandau by ten days. You miss him and he is right there in front of you.
You tell him about the thing that made you angrier than anything else in the world, the thing you have never quite told anyone else. In the distance tigers bellow and you realise that even when you feel most crazy there is just no danger in anything you ever do.
“Let me see those fists,” he says and you bunch them up. You feel something small and tough, a fierce spirit forming inside you. A fighting spirit. Your breath freezes and flies hard into the night like blue fire djinn.
Somewhere in the dark you sense the tiger turning and pacing, prowling the length of its enclosure. More terrible than the growl is its sudden absence. The tiger’s muscles, built for maximum efficiency in the thick, wet Sumatran heat, shiver and contract against a Mitteleuropean chill. You feel her wasted strength, her nostalgia for sharp jungle grass, the myth of home that, born in captivity, she knows only in her bones, the way eels follow currents blind until they emerge in the Sargasso.
The tiger’s roar breaks free like a running man. It is a sound that is looking for something. The demands of the human heart are no different, you think. Even a tiger feels it. Even a tiger wants more than it already has.
IF YOU HAD READ LESS HEMINGWAY THIS PROBABLY WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED.
“You’re a Modernist,” he says, which explains everything. Only excessive consumption of Hemingway can be behind this violent hunger, the way it’s not enough just to love – you
have to also be broken into little pieces and reassembled with your ears attached to your cheeks or a rose where your mouth used to be. He teases you with fake French. You don’t know how to tell him there are days when all you want is for a person to come along with a daiquiri, some passive-aggressive minimalist prose and a huge fish they just trapped with a net of their own design. This is hard to admit because women burned their bras to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Maybe that makes you a terrible feminist, maybe it doesn’t.
In your defence, at no point in this fantasy do you actually cook that fish. You don’t arrange it on a plate, spoon feed anyone, kiss their feet or suck their cock while they slump in a chair and you slow-dance for their unilateral pleasure. You just want someone to desire you in sentences of terse, heartbreaking simplicity. You suspect this need to tell and untell at the same time is, in fact, more than a little Postmodern, but man, he would whoop your ass if you opened that can of worms. Instead: you go with him to the airport. The howl of ascending Boeings reminds you how much you love to fly, that visceral keening of the plane as it prepares to take off translating inside you as both don’t-leave-the-ground and make-me-soar. Manifest yearning, you think. Who of us can live with it? Something large and expanding pushed deep into a small space like a heart.
By way of goodbye he says, “When I need a Modernist, I’ll call you. In fake French.”
By way of goodbye you say, “Ne me quitte pas.” Your fake French is so good he doesn’t comprehend. He heads for the departure gates, for his real life. At security he gives you the internationally recognised gesture indicating love, unrequited – which is to say, he doesn’t turn around and fix you with a stare that pierces your heart but walks straight on, stopping only for the little see-through cosmetic bag the airlines make you use because if the twenty first century has shown us anything, it’s that it’s possible, always possible, the whole world could at any moment come crashing down because of the simple things we hide in plain sight.
THE ESSENCE OF LONELINESS, OF IN-DER-WELT-SEIN.
Your apartment in Rosenthaler Straße breathes the dark, competing smells of people who don’t belong together. Across the street is a café fronted with bright red geraniums and metal tables. At night the tables disappear and people come to dance milonga where just ten years ago, Soviet military patrols enforced curfews and teenagers kissed in ugly, bullet-pocked stairwells.
He calls to tell you about a book he just read. In English. What this means is: he doesn’t need you yet. You curl the telephone wire around your body like it is soft muslin. You swap anecdotes about work. You talk about seed cake like you are licking at each other’s bodies, then you say goodbye with the awkwardness of strangers who have been forced to share an elevator for a floor too long.
What is this?
You head for the bathroom. You turn on the faucet, find your secret, expensive shampoo. Through orange-scented steam you trace the routes his fingers have never taken along your skin and your body becomes an aria, rising.
When your husband comes home, late, you pretend to be asleep. He smells of yeast and rain – not verdant valley rain but the kind that hits concrete and absorbs all the unwanted smells of the city. You lie very still. The cure for everything – vertigo, a fox outside your burrow – is to lie still, that much our instinct knows. The stillness is a way of repelling all the movement of the world, the moving dust, the moving curtains, even the moving fibres of the rug that bend like grass under his feet. Your husband shoulder-barges the bookshelves and curses, like he does most nights, but still: you do not move until he makes you.
THE LETTER YOU WILL NEVER SEND.
You think about how wild you could be if you chose and realise instead that what you have become is completely motionless. Even the silver-winter sky is moving faster than you. You are outside your body, appraising it, giving it directions like an untrained animal. Like a playwright, heartbroken by the actors’ interpretation of his words, you want to cry for the distance between the thing you intended to be and the thing it turns out that you are.
You want to say to your husband, don’t do it like that. You’re not unblocking a drain. You move your hand in the direction of where he is frantically looking for change, playing a bit of Spanish guitar, what even is it? You move your legs differently, up a bit, back a bit. You imagine gestures of extraordinary wildness that bring another mouth to yours, summon them deep in your prefrontal cortex. Cortex isn’t erotic. You lose it. Your husband sighs, a slow sigh of desire exhausted, so one of you is satisfied. One of you is as good as it gets.
You get up from the bed, sit at your desk and write. You fuck the hell out of your fake-French speaking friend with words you will never send. You try soft words, love-words, sharp syllables that hurt like pebbles under feet, the broken, meandering mountain-path of the first person present continuous. You pour out these feelings like thick cream, filling a jug that flows over and over the tulipwood desk. You take the sheets of paper, fold the words away like gristle into a napkin. Then you stand at the window, open it, cup the folded paper into your palm and set it free. It falls straight to the November slush on the sidewalk. Figures.
The shadows inside the milonga cafe turn fast and the room swells with a sad song of violins and longing. Soon the city will be full of the light it celebrates by leading golden-haired girls down streets paved with gingerbread. Just a little bit Wicker Man, you think. You imagine catching snowflakes on your tongue, or burning inside a giant effigy. You wonder how it is possible that human existence can be so weird, so beautiful, arbitrary, animal, perfect and terrible, so pointless and yet something you would hang on to at all costs, through all suffering, for as long as it takes.
THE THEORY OF THE UNIVERSE IN SILICO, FULL OF SENTIENT BEINGS THAT DO NOT KNOW THEY ARE IN A SIMULATION.
Even a tiger’s heart, you feel, rebels against this.
WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN A HUMAN BEING DIDN’T WANT SOMETHING MORE THAN IT ALREADY HAD?
It’s rushing down fast from the Baltic – winter. You hear its feet. You remember when, years ago, you caught the morning train to Stralsund, from there the ferry to Rügen Island; you stood on deck watching the hull spray diamonds through a drumtight sea. For non-specific reasons that was a day when you thought anything might be possible. It’s not even nostalgia, what you’re feeling. It’s a suspicion that the spotty kid simulating your life in his futuristic garage has got bored, downed a cup of some kind of life-enhancing energy serum and left you on auto while he masturbates to the latest thing in space porn.
The night sky above your apartment prickles with light. You make a wish on the brightest star you can find. Only as you’re closing the windows to shut out the damn milonga do you see the star is in fact a landing aircraft. You don’t retract the wish because – who knows.
The next time he calls, he asks about the tigers in the Zoologischer Garten. You tell him how the tiger enclosure is currently closed because a keeper was mauled to death. That’s a real conversation killer. You are both silent, imagining, maybe, the kind of death that comes from doing something that meant the world to you, once.
“Damn it,” he says.
“Damn it,” you say back.
Everything you cannot say with any of the written alphabets of the known world you translate into wild-gesture. It doesn’t matter that he can’t see you. These are the biological roots of language after all. This is the way humanity says everything it has no words for.
What is this?
It is what it is.
And what if it isn’t?