I was standing at the window in the cafeteria on the top floor of the TU building. I reached for the window handle. There was something very important that I had forgotten, but I didn't care anymore what it was. Then I heard a deep bass voice say, "Entschuldigen Sie, bitte."
I turned around, startled. The cafeteria had been empty, but now a man was sitting at a table just a few steps from where I was. He was so tall that he made the chair seem lower than it really was. He sat with one leg over the other. He reminded me vaguely of someone. His short, full hair was all grey and white, but his face didn't look old, rather ageless. His eyes were grey, too. He wore an elegant grey suit, a white shirt with antiquated silver cuff links, a matching silk tie, and dark grey leather shoes. Everything much too distinguished for the place.
For a moment, he sat so completely motionless that I wondered if he was real, but then he spoke again: "Entschuldigen Sie, darf ich Sie etwas fragen?" His voice was so deep, dark, and melodious that his pale skin surprised me. I knew that voice, but I couldn't tell where from, nor connect it to his face. He rose from his seat and bowed slightly in a way that would have appeared completely natural, had we been in Seoul. He was very tall, indeed. "Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut", I said. "Excuse me", he apologized, bowing again, "May I ask you something?" He gestured toward a chair. "Please, forgive me for interrupting your train of thoughts."
I hesitated. He smiled at me, and his eyes brightened up. Cold, but friendly. I knew those eyes, I was certain. I must know him.
"It's okay", I said, "It's just that… sorry, but have we met before? Mr…", a German name popped up, "Jenke?"
He rose a little from his chair. "Pleased to meet you… please, forgive my discourtesy…"
"Walter, Kim, Kim Walter…"
"AAh… yes, Maurice Molte's child."
"Oh, wow. You know my father?"
"Yes. I met him years ago at Stanford, or perhaps it was Harvard… you were very little. Now you must be… sixteen? Seventeen?" – "Eighteen, soon." – "Ah, yes… time flies." – "It must have been Harvard. He taught at Stanford before I was born, and we spent some time in Harvard when I was little." – "Then it was Harvard. I remember distinctly how he liked to talk about his little child. He was very proud." – "Yeah… yeah, he was… So that's how I know your name, from father… your first name is not German…", my father's voice echoed in my head, "Gervais Jenke?"
He smiled, "I am flattered. Your father and I were not close… Is he here, at the TU? Is there a conference? I thougt the history department had been transferred."
"He's not here and I know nothing about the university. I just walked into the building to come up here, to the top floor."
"I see. Well, but since we are here and indirectly acquainted: may I invite you to a cup of coffee, or tea?"
I hesitated. He continued. "Of course, I do not want to impose."
"No, not at all. Coffee would be nice."
He walked around the counter as if he had permission, served coffee, and laid a banknote on the cashier's plate, always moving with a flowing smoothness that would have made him a dancer, if he hadn't looked so much like a statesman.
When he set my coffee mug before me, I almost felt like raising and bowing slightly, but of course, I just cleared my throat and said: "Thank you."
He nodded once smiling and sat down.
We sipped. 'Uncomfortable silences', I thought. He asked: "Do you like Pulp Fiction?" I stared. Without turning around, he gestured towards a poster that hung on the wall behind his back.
"I thought that you were looking at that."
"Oh… Well, no, I wasn't… but I do like the film, it's one of my favorites. Do you like it?"
"Yes. I wouldn't call it one of my favourites, but I like it." He sipped again and twisted his mouth, then smiled ironically. "No Martin and Lewis, I would say". He put his mug down.
I chuckled, wondering what someone like him might be doing in a cheap cafeteria.
"You must be wondering about what I am doing here", he said, "I am aware that I am overdressed for the place. I decided to come by after a reception at Schloss Bellevue in the spur of a moment, an acquaintance of mine works here, die Gelegenheit war günstig. But then I saw you in the hall and the look on your face caught my eye. You reminded me of someone I saw in Moscow, many years ago. It was a young woman. We crossed paths on Sofiyskaya naberezhnaya and I thought for a split second that she looked at me as if she wanted to say something. But she scurried on, and I didn't stop her. When I opened the newspaper on the next day, I had a reason to regret it."
I remember that I noticed how naturally he had switched between languages, while the thought 'what a strange story' flashed through my mind, instantly displaced by the desire to hear more. He continued. "She drowned herself in the Moskva river. The newspaper told a different story, of course, suicide was not allowed to exist in the Soviet Union. But I knew. She must have been on her way to the river when I saw her. That memory came back when I saw you in the hall, earlier. I thought that you might be heading for the top floor, and you were, indeed." He paused for a moment then finished matter-of-factly. "You reached for the window handle."
I shrugged, averting my eyes. "The windows are all locked up."
"Are they? But then why did you try to open one of them?"
"I just needed fresh air. I hate air conditioning."
"I see. Well, please accept my apology, I was misled."
"Oh, it's okay, forget about it." Something made me look at him again and freeze. His eyes were strange, how could I have not seen it, yet? Plumbic grey surface like a mountain lake in winter, but without the tiniest reflection. Not just cold, lifeless.
"Kim? Walter?", he asked.
I took a deap breath. "I prefer Walter. Look, Mr. Jenke…" – "Just Jenke, please." – "Look, Jenke, it's been nice meeting you and all, but…" I stood up.
He asked: "Are you all right? You have lost all your colour." He stretched a hand out and I couldn't help it, I rushed to the elevator, thinking 'staircase' and 'too high, too long'. "Wait!" He called. I hit the button. His steps came closer. The door opened, I slipped in, hit the ground floor button, then, frantically, the button to close the door. He was almost there.
And of course, his hand stopped the door at the last moment. He came calmly in.
I retreated in a corner, feeling at the same time panicked and ridiculous. He went to the opposite side of the large elevator, as far away from me as possible, and held out my coat.
He smiled apologetically. "You forgot this."
I stepped forward and grabbed the coat, feeling more ridiculous than scared, but retreating swiftly into my corner nevertheless, taxing him. He didn't look muscular, but something about him made you feel small, weak, and at the same time strangely safe. Safe…
He said slowly, matter-of-factly: "You do not have anything to fear from me. But I do owe you an apology. It was not right to approach you like this. You are a minor." – "I am almost eighteen, and I can take care of myself!", I snapped. I couldn't understand my fear anymore. There was nothing eerie about him at all, he just looked like a very distinguished, still young seeming grandpa. You couldn't tell whether he was Caucasian, Asian, or what, and his skin looked strangely colorless, but beyond that, he looked perfectly normal.
The door opened. He let me get out first then followed, still keeping a distance. When I stepped out of the building, I wondered at the gleaming street lights. I glanced at my watch, but the damn thing had stopped again and when I took my cell phone out, I remembered that the battery had run out that morning.
"It is rather late, though", he said, "Would you allow me to see you to the mean of transportation that you want to take to go home?"
That was the moment when it all began, I know that, now, but back then, I only felt irresistibly drawn to him and careless. A little scared, again, but careless at the same time. I shrugged, "Yes, it's gotten late", I said, "Would you mind walking down to Ku'damm station?"
"Not at all!"
We walked down Hardenbergstraße, making small talk mainly about Berlin and the Technical University. We discovered that the old acquaintance he had wanted to visit was a former colleague of my father's. He still kept a distance from me, but not so carefully anymore, and I felt more and more comfortable in his company. By the time we reached Ku'damm station, I didn't really want to catch the train anymore. I wanted to know more about him, spend time with him. I stopped at the top of the stairs. He said: "I do not mean to importunate you… But might I ask if we could have dinner together? I am enjoying our conversation very much, and…"
I interrupted him: "Yes, I would like to have dinner with you."
He flashed a smile at me, looking much younger for a split second. "Wonderful! So where are we going? Italian? Chinese? Greek? Good traditional German fare?"
I hesitated. "Something else?" he inquired.
"No!… No, it's just that… I don't know… I like everything, except the German stuff…"
"But you must have preferences."
"Well…", I hesitated. "I really like Indian food."
He smiled. "Fine! We have quite a choice in the neighborhood. Do you have a favourite restaurant?"
"The only one I know is a few steps back."
"You mean the one by Savignyplatz?"
"The cook is a good acquaintance of mine. Let us go, by all means!"
The cook was a stout, very nice looking older Indian woman who immediately came forward when he had said a few words to the cashier, and even walked around the counter to give him a hug, exchanging greetings in an unknown language. "Bhavjeet is from Lahore", he explained while we took the plates, "but she came to Berlin many years ago. She is not only an excellent cook: on the side, she is one of the greatest experts of graphic novels I know." – "What language was that?" – "Punjabi." – "Awesome!" – "I have spent quite a long time in the far east and still go there, from time to time. It is a long story I may tell you some other time."
While we ate, I started talking books, in order to avoid personal topics, but then I mentioned Jenni, Smith, and Kutscher. He wondered about my knowledge of the Third Reich and I said that I am very well acquainted with my father's work. He asked which of his books I liked best, and I said that I didn't like any of them, and in fact, my father and I had almost broken up lately over political differences. "I know that a lot of people agree with him", I said, "I don't. Do you?"
"He writes well. But our perspectives are different."
"Oh? That's surprising. You look like many who share his view, I mean, you know, expensive suit, cuff-links, silk tie."
Before I started worrying if I had pissed him off, he smiled. "I do not always dress like this. And I appreciate many different authors."
"Different… Like, what about Enki Bilal? Immortal?"
"Interesting name from such a young person. Yes, I like both his graphic novels and his film."
"But do you share the same views?"
"We argue a lot, but there are some things we agree on."
"Hm. What about Bong Joon-ho? Hwang Dong-hyuk?"
He looked puzzled. "More interesting names."
"A friend of mine showed me. I like Squid Game a lot. What do you think of them?"
"I find discussing with them quite amusing and stimulating."
"Wow. So, you actually know Bong Joon-ho and Hwang Dong-hyuk personally?"
"Yes, I do."
"Daebak! And what about… wait a sec… Kendrick Lamar? Do you like him? Share his views?"
"He seeks my opinion, from time to time."
"Holy shit!… So, you're definitely not what I thought you were. Are you in the music business? Literature business?"
"No, I am not. But I would say that music and literature are existentially important to me."
I thought about asking what that meant and what he actually did, but I didn't dare, beginning to fear he might come up with something I wouldn't want to know. Instead, I proposed to grab a cup of coffee to obliterate – I actually used that word, hating myself for trying to impress – the memory of the cafeteria brew. "That would be perfect", he said, "then let me take care of things here, please, and invite me to coffee." I proposed Café Einstein. I was curious to see him in one of Berlin's hip places.
He was at home there, of course, and even more than that. Within a half hour, the chief editor of Germany's biggest tabloid, a former Italian premier's personal adviser, a Nobel prizewinner, two top scientists, and a number of art directors stopped by our table to say hello. He introduced me to everyone, and every single time I could read the question in their eyes before he said my name: "who's that?", and their mental answer after he introduced me: "oh, nobody". So, I was already feeling out of place when, for my sins, none less than Mina Hess came through the door, scanned the room, lightened up seeing him, and glided towards us mermaid style on a wave of admiration that seemed to put the lights out on everything except her. By the time she reached our table, my brain was mush.
Then she sat down and looked at him and at me in a way that sobered me up instantly. I excused myself to the washroom, thinking snobwhite bitch, you can have him if you get him, feeling miserable at the thought but too weak to fight and too proud to stay.
When I came out of the restroom she was still sitting there, facing him. I stopped a few steps away and looked, unnoticed. Something was off. She looked absolutely perfect, radiant, seducing, but also very nervous. Unsteady. She kept making little unconscious gestures, stretching her hand out in his direction, but stopping in the middle of the movement as if she had encountered an invisible wall, bending towards him, then withdrawing abruptly.
I could see it, she was not trying to seduce him; she wanted something from him very badly, and at the same time, she feared him. She was not only afraid of not getting what she wanted from him; she was also afraid of him.
He looked at me, smiled, waved, took her hand, and kissed it. Her smile froze on her perfect lips. When he let her hand go, it fell limply onto her knee. He rose, bowed towards her, took our coats and came up to me.
He asked in a low voice: "Would you mind going somewhere else? This place is too crowded." I just nodded, and he helped me into my coat.
We walked north. He asked: "Are you cold?"
"Not at all, and I need some air. Let's take a walk in the park, I like Tiergarten a lot."
While we walked, I had to tell him what I had seen. I said: "Don't get me wrong, but she was looking at you as if you were a dealer and she absolutely needed a shot, but already owed you too much."
"Sorry… but seriously, if I may ask, what do you do?"
"Of course, you may! I was already wondering why you did not. Primarily, I am a consultant for illusionists."
"You could also say all sorts of magicians."
"Oh, wow! Magicians… I didn't expect that…"
"I have not always been doing this, I am rather versatile. But what you call magic and illusionists have always interested me. That is probably why I spent a couple of years in Toledo, back in… well, a long time ago, I prefer not to remember exactly."
"Magicians… I'd have never guessed that."
"What would you have guessed?"
"Well, to be honest…"
"Something in the line of 'You have that sharp useless look about you – that makes you a lawyer'?"
"Jesus, no! No sharp useless look! It's just that… you are very elegant. You are obviously wealthy, maybe even rich. You are very cultivated, you talk like a book." He seemed amused. I continued. "Well, yes! And you don't talk like someone whose life is about making money, not at all. On the contrary, you… you look like old money. You know, like… a Buddenbrook who wouldn't have turned decadent?… Although… no, you don't look German at all…" I remember distinctly that while I said that, I thought: No. That's not it. What does he look like, though? And again: I couldn't figure it out. "Where are you from?", I asked.
"My origins are unclear. I travel a lot. I think of myself as a cosmopolite."
That sounded quite normal, after all. I sighed. "Yeah, me too. I'm a migrant."
"Yep, that's how my father likes to call it. But we're migrational aristocracy, of course. At least he is. Mom isn't, she's for real."
"Hm… well, I guess that you could call me a migrant, too… but I like cosmopolite better."
"Cosmopolite, then. But where were you born?"
"Well, that is a little embarrassing. I do not know."
"You mean, your parents didn't tell you?!"
"I do not know my parents." – "Oh…" – "A kind woman found me and managed to nurture me, I do not know how, nor do I know her name. Everyone called her just 'old woman', and she told me to call her 'grandmother'. She was very old, indeed, and she died only a few years after taking me in."
"Bummer… and where was that? I'm not asking when because you clearly don't want to tell me your age. Or do you?"
"It was near Karatu, presently in Tanzania."
"In Africa?! You don't strike me as some kinda Tarzan… how'd your parents get there, were they… colonists?" At the same time, he did look like a POC, sometimes… kind of a bleached POC. And then again, he did not.
He smiled as if my guesses were funny, but spoke earnestly: "That is very unlikely. But as I said, I do not know anything about my roots and I have quit thinking about the matter a long time ago. The old woman is still in my thoughts, though, my gratitude for her will probably never fade… after she had died, I moved around a lot, staying with all sorts of people, some of them were very decent, some were even wonderful people, but she remains uniquely important to me."
"That must have been tough, being passed around so much."
"It was not bad. I knew very early what I wanted to be and that was the most important thing to me. Each time, I was given a new name, and I did not mind. None of them mattered so much that I wanted to keep it."
I glanced at him. He was strange, but I didn't want to look more closely at how, or why. Instead, I said: "Hm. Maybe I could invent a name for you that you would want to stick with."
He just smiled briefly.
I added: "I'm sorry about your parents."
"Well, you cannot choose your origins, can you?"
"No. I guess not."
We paused for a moment. Then he asked: "Now, about you. Where were you born?"
"In the library."
"My father worked at Harvard. My mother was… is a school teacher. When she got pregnant, she had been working on her PhD thesis for I don't know how long. Long. And she never finished it… well, whatever. Anyway, she spent a lot of time in the library and, apparently, I was eager to be born right there."
"Yep. I almost ruined a signed edition of The Cider House Rules on my way out."
"Yeah. Father loves to tell it, and people like it a lot."
"Do you not?"
"I don't know. The library, I liked a lot, used to spend plenty of time reading when I was little. The library was more home than home, if you know what I mean."
"I think that I do."
"Where is your home?"
"I do not have a home in the usual sense of the word, but I do have some cities I am fond of. In recent times Rome, Paris, Berlin… Seoul… years ago Moscow, too. But it has changed a lot."
"So, you are kind of homeless, too."
"Well, yes, and no… you could say that I have many places where I feel at home like you feel at home in the library."
"Ah… interesting. What's your birth language?"
"Well, that is complicated because of my origins and of the way I was brought up. Let us say that I have a language gift, and coming around so much, I learned this and that."
"Yeah, I see what you mean. I'm barely first generation myself. I was born in South Korea, but no one spoke Korean at home. My parents spoke French with each other, God knows why, and German, Korean, and sometimes English with me, which is probably why I am semilingual. English is my first language, nanny from Boston, you know what I mean? And what about you? Do you have a family? A girlfriend? Boyfriend?"
He smiled. "No. I have many acquaintances, business partners…"
"It depends on what you mean by 'friends'."
"I mean real friends, real like in flesh and blood… er… genuine, close relations."
"Yes, I have had a few genuine close relations, over the years. Never many. But tell me, I am curious: now that you know what I do, what would be your guess about Mina Hess?"
I had to smile, too: "Well… I would say… I would say that she absolutely wanted you to help her get a guest appearance in Copperfield's next show for PR and you told her 'Oh, honey! Really too bad I didn't know you wanted to be in the show. I'm so sorry! I just got him into bed with your best friend!'" I continued without waiting for his reaction: "Okay, that was lame. I have no clue. What did she really want?"
He sounded amused: "Oh, well, you did not guess that wrong… besides: what do people generally want? Success, fame, beauty, wealth, sex… not much variety, there. But enough about me now. What are you doing in Berlin? Are you here on an exchange program?"
"No, I dropped out of high school and left my parent's house… Hey! That's my bench, there!… I mean: I discovered it on my first day in Berlin and I come here almost every day, it's a kind of a favorite place for me! Would you mind sitting down for a while?"
"Not at all."
As we sat down, I had this feeling that I would want him to put his arm around my shoulders, somehow, but that I would be scared, if he really did. I looked at him from the side. He sat with one leg over the other again, gazing in front of himself, his hands folded on his knee. I thought that he had a peculiar way of sitting, or standing, completely still, like a monument that would have stood forever, but then he turned to look at me and smiled a completely normal, warm smile. I continued: "Actually, I didn't drop out altogether… I'm more sort of taking time off, and I will finish high school, after all. But I definitely don't want to go to college… you know, when your father is such a big shot as mine is, some things tend to become too predictable. On the other hand, thanks to his work about the Third Reich, he is well connected with the German film industry. So, his six degrees of separation became my stepping stones to freedom, I got to Babelsberg and managed to get a job, then another… small jobs, of course, continuity, wiping møøse noses, things like that… but I get paid, which is way more than you can expect. You must have thought that I was a student because I was in the TU building? Well, my father worked there for some time and loves to tell how he climbed every day to the twentieth store and looked eastward, into the heart of History, from the windows of the cafeteria. Heart, yeah, that's my father for you. Nevertheless, I was curious to see that, too, you know? Dad talks a lot about places in Berlin – Alexanderplatz, Museumsinsel… and I was curious to see those places, to be in Berlin… I mean: This is a completely different world… Checkpoint Charlie, Friedrichstraße… I will never be able to see the city the way it was at his time. Even the places that look pretty much the same have changed. But there is still something… some things are even very, very unchanged. Do you know what I mean?… Probably not."
"Perhaps, I do."
"Yeah, well, whatever, enough rambling about me, let's talk about you again. You said that I wasn't that wrong, but my guess doesn't fit. Madam Mina looked much too afraid of you and wanted something from you way too badly. Her body language was completely out of proportion compared to my explanation. No, it doesn't fit. What did she really want from you? Who are you, really?"
While I was talking, my mind went click, click, and click. Everything fell into place. The details that had struck me, the things that kept on reminding me, everything. Everything fitted. Without waiting for him to answer, I whispered: "You… you are the Spirit that denies."
He laughed out so loud that I looked around, but the park was silent and desert. He said: "I like Faust, too. It is not top of my list, I admit. But I like it."
"And… how about The Master and Margarita? The ball?"
"Oh, yes, that is a jewel… but my favourite in terms of hell is still Dante. I tell him, now and then, and he enjoys it very much, purified though he is from the sin of pride."
Oops. Overtaken in the right lane and left behind to eat the dust. I tried sulking – "You are making fun of me, that's not fair!" –, but to no avail. He smiled: "Am I?… Well, perhaps I am, but you are funny, Walter, you must admit it."
I wanted to reply, but he was already continuing: "Let me tell you something I have been thinking about: perhaps we could have a picnic tomorrow by the Landwehrkanal and spirit you away from this world for a while, so to speak." I was so taken aback that I just stared at him while he continued to speak: "You would have to come in clothes you do not care about. We would buy you new things, you would change into them, and we would take your old clothes with us. We would get something fine at old KaDeWe … caviar, champagne, French cheese, Indian fast food, whatever you like… We would have a nice déjeuner sur l'herbe, and when we are done, we would depart, leaving your old clothes on the bank of the canal, neatly folded, along with your identity card, keys, and wallet." He paused. I couldn't believe what he was saying. He went on: "And if you want, you could spend some time with me. I would show you some things and places you do not know yet. You would take some time off-off – a rather short time, of course, and then you would go back to your life. Obviously, you would have to provide some explanations… that might get a little unpleasant, but it could be managed. It is not hard to invent a plausible narrative."
"You are joking."
"I am serious."
A voice in my head said: "You have always wanted this. Sit down and look into his eyes." I did. In his eyes, my doubled reflection gave me a reproachful look, turned away, went to sit down on a small chair in the corner of a room, rocked back and forth for a few moments, crying, then picked up a book from the floor beside the chair and began to read, while the tears kept flowing.
He closed his eyes. I sat there, petrified. He looked at me again. My reflection was gone.
The moon disappeared behind a cloud. The park was completely dark, now. I couldn't see anything at all. In the blackness, his voice sounded even deeper: "I am perfectly serious."
I took a paper tissue out, shook it nervously, and blew my nose.
I snapped at him: "Tell me how you did it!"
"Make me see those things in your eyes!"
"I did not make you see anything, and I cannot know what you see when you look at me."
"Bullshit! Do you really expect me to believe that?!"
"I do", he answered patiently, "because I never lie."
"I do not. With me, you determine what you see, and what you see is very precisely what you get."
He was telling the truth, I felt it. My anger vanished, leaving only confusion behind. "So," I tried, "what I saw was only in my mind?"
"At any rate in your mind and perhaps only in it, only you can know."
The clouds wouldn't set the moon free. Complete blackness surrounded us, making me feel dizzy. I heard my voice say: "I will only consider your offer on one condition."
"That you kiss me now."
A little voice giggled inside my head: "Got 'im!"
After a moment, I felt his lips on my cheek.
I shook my head. "Oh, no. Sorry, but that doesn't count. I want a real kiss."
"Walter, I am old school, no matter who or what you think that I am."
"Well, you do not have to accept my condition."
After a long moment, his lips touched mine. They tasted surprisingly good. I breathed him in. No perfume. But such strange burning freshness, like new grass at dawn and gleaming wood at one time. Kissing him was like diving by a reef, sitting on his lap was like lying on a riverbank in spring, running my fingers through his hair was like writing in desert sand, at noon. The darkness got deeper and deeper, I didn't feel myself anymore.
His voice brought me back.
He asked: "Where are you?"
I tried to joke: "On a ride, I'm afraid."
"I am sorry to contradict you, but as much as I am enjoying this, your body is sitting on my lap. You, however, are not here anymore, and I would like an answer to my question."
That sounded too matter-of-fact to be flattering. I put a good face on the game. "Okay, you are clearly not after my body. Do you want my soul? Is that the reason?" I motioned to rise and he helped me gently back onto the bench. He sighed: "Prejudice. Pride and prejudice. Perhaps, she was not so wrong, at the end of the day, that is really all with humans…" He talked as if I weren't there anymore: "Remarkable, how they manage to be convinced that they are worthless and coveted, all at the same time… how they deny the existence of their soul and assert that the devil wants it…" He spoke to me again: "But enough about general matters. What do you say? I have fulfilled your condition. Do you accept my offer?"
I thought: 'He hasn't answered'. I said: "Yes, I do."
"Good." Suddenly, I felt terribly tired. That brought up the question: "So, where will I be staying after I disappear, messire, Sadowaja 302b?" – "I like young people who know their authors. You will be staying in an old villa in Grunewald. It is vacant because I am too fond of it to rent it, we just have to change the safety lock." I took an inbreath. He continued. "Please. We both want to sleep peacefully. And you will look after the house for me as long as you stay there, all right?" – I exhaled, whistling – "Well, that sounds… wow, old villa in Grunewald, even I know what that means, in terms of money… but where will you be staying?" – "I prefer another accomodation." – "But…" – "Meeting you today and sharing a house with you tomorrow is unconceivable, and having you register in a hotel would be very unwise under the circumstances, so let that be that, please. However, I do not like restaurants so much, so, if you would…" I interrupted him: "Of course! I'll cook for us! I love cooking, but eating alone or in restaurants sucks totally, so I haven't had a decent meal since I landed here!" He laughed cheerfully: "Then it is settled. Wonderful. So, shall I see you home, now?" – "May I see the house, first, do you mind?" – "Of course, but you look very tired." – "I am tired, but I'm more curious. Of course, if you…" – "I am fine, I do not need much rest."
Walking into the hall felt like time traveling. I guessed: "1890?" – "Remarkable." – "Father likes to show off and tell. So? Am I right?" He nodded: "Very close, 1893, built by a merchant whose son got unlucky and passed it on to a Jewish fabricant who bought it for his family in 1929, but had to flee in the thirties, leaving everything behind. The house went to a high rank party member, who bought it for his eldest son." – "Oh." – "Quite. The son did not have the time to enjoy it, though. He joined the SS, was appointed to Poland, could not stomach what he had to do there, and took his own life after a few months." – "And what about his family?" – "The officer was engaged, the villa was to become his new home after the wedding. His parents were planning to renovate it for the young couple when he shot himself. They shut the house down without touching anything, and his mother wanted to sell it as it was, but his father kept on postponing. Eventually, he had to give it away very quickly. He needed money to flee to Argentina. But they never got there, they died in an accident." He gazed in front of himself. I asked: "So… all this belonged to the Jewish family?" He nodded. "Almost everything, I added a few things. None survived, and no-one ever claimed the property." He looked at me, frowning. "Does that bother you?" I thought for a moment, looking around. "No. It is very sad. But everything looks so… like… ready for a nice family to move in. The house feels… unspoiled. I think I'll like it, here, thank you! But seriously, are you sure that you want to stay at a hotel? This place is huge! We wouldn't bother each other at all!"
He shook his head, smiling.
I insisted. "Really, I don't see the point!"
"Walter, please. Let us say that I need my own space. Do me the favour, bring life into this house and let me come to visit."
I sighed. "All right, then."
"Let me show you the rooms upstairs. You are welcome to any of them."
The master bedroom was large and very elegant, but not pompous, just warm and comfortable. You could feel that it was made for a well assorted couple. It made me feel like an intruder. The bedroom right nextdoor had belonged to a boy, obviously the son. The tapestry pattern was playful, circus animals and clowns danced in a parade on the bordure. The shelf was full of antiquated tin soldiers and cars, and the tracks of a toy railroad crossed the floor. The third bedroom must have been the daughter's. The furniture was light, almost fragile, but not girlish, ageless, white varnished wood. The tapestry was white and pale green with small blue fantasy flowers. There was a low bookshelf by the bed, French novels, Rilke, and Kleist. The bedhead was placed against the wall facing a large window. It was dark outside. Standing at the window, I could only see the reflection of the room and some lights in the distance.
Gervais came to stand beside me. He asked: "How do you like the house?"
"Do you know The Murder House?"
"American Horror Story. The house feels creepy to you. You do not have to stay here, I can find something else."
I shook my head, turning around to face him. "No, not at all, I absolutely want to stay! I'm just not sure about these rooms. I do not fit into any of them."
"Hm." He walked to the door. "Let me show you my room. It is downstairs."
It was a large study. The furniture was dark and sober. A huge collection of books, old CDs and DVDs covered two walls, framing the door and two terrace windows, and on the remaining two walls hung all sorts of paintings, drawings, engravings, woodcuts, silk prints, African, European, American, Arabic, Asian, all completely unknown to me and each beautiful in its own way. A grand piano and a black leather living room suite shared the center of the room.
"A private gallery of unknown masterpieces", he said, "I cannot rescue them from neglect, but I can harbor them and show them when the opportunity arises."
I sighed, relieved. "I love it. Can I carry a mattress downstairs and have this room?"
"You do not need a mattress, this is a convertible sofa. Please, be my guest. Here, let me show you how it works, then I will see you to your place."
"Okay. But tell me one thing: you wouldn't sleep in any of the other rooms either, would you?"
He shook his head once. "Here, you just have to release this and pull."
"Yep, thanks. But why do you keep the house as it is, then?"
"I do not change things. I preserve the traces of what people do, or make. Sometimes I contribute to changing people. Very rarely, as a matter of fact. But I never change things directly."
"Hm… so, you don't build anything, and you don't make anything?"
He smiled, "I am a counselor, I told you."
"Illusionists, yes – not only, but especially."
"And you have a piano, or at least, you keep one in your room."
"Yes, but I do not play, only listen. Do you play?"
"I improvise, but only when I want to get on everyone's nerves, you know, dog barks, mother complains, father shouts can't you play Bach or Khachaturian?! I shout back b-o-r-i-n-g! Dad: Soulima Stravinsky! Even something from one of your ghastly games! Ok not so funny, I spare you the rest."
"Well, you can play here, if you want. No-one will listen."
Sitting in the cab I thought sympathy from the devil, giggling inside of my head. Then I must have fallen asleep, because he woke me when we reached my building.
The next thing I remember is standing in front of the bathroom mirror, brushing my teeth, feeling happy.
This moment is mine.
Les couleurs explodent devant mes yeux, lluvia volante, arco di gocce.
Laurent: Bon, ben. Mais moi?
Jetzt spiele ich uns zum Tanz auf.
Laurent: Bah. Mais moi?
Mario: Laurent, espera un poco…
Laurent: Non, laisse-moi demander, hein ?
nous lui écrasons la tête, nous nous levons et nous reprenons notre chemin
Laurent: Mais moi, alors? Et lui?
tu sei stato come mio fratello, muto, cieco, sordo e inutile
Laurent: Encore ! Mais moi? Et lui ? On était en Espagne, on a des choses à raconter aussi!
It is like I told you: time eats you.
Walter: A dream. Tonight, a dream.
Laurent: Oui, naturellement. Mais moi?
Æneas can't sleep peacefully.
Mario: Lo veo.
Laurent: On voit et on se rappelle. Mais alors? Est-ce qu'on va nous écouter?
The wind is so strong, where am I? – You are falling. – Am I? – Do you not know?
Mario: Es como para nosotros, pero morimos hace mucho tiempo.
Laurent: Ouais, c'est ça. Mais je n'ai rien oublié, moi, et je peux te raconter.
le risorse si stavano esaurendo
Laurent: Sans doute, va. Mais alors moi? Hein?
Du musst jetzt die ganze Wahrheit erfahren.
Laurent: Ouais. Regarde-moi.
je végétais dans le seul but de survivre
Laurent: Et moi?
I remember that I was standing at the window.
Walter: Are you two here because of me?
Laurent: Ouais. Pour parler. Nous sommes venus avec celui-là, le chien du vieux.
Mario: Laurent y yo nos conocimos en una aldea olvidada por Dios. Dans la merde. Eso. Una guerra de mierda.
Walter: Oh… And you have come here together?
Laurent: On est toujours ensemble.
Mario: Inseparables. Siempre unidos contra el enemigo.
Laurent: Et vive la mort.
Walter: And you always talk like this? I mean, you speak French, he speaks Spanish…
Laurent: Ah non, il parle pas espagnol lui, quand-même! il parle sa Babèle à soi, hein Mario?
Walter: Well, but what I mean is: you speak your language, and he speaks his, and you understand each other?
Laurent: Ouais, et pourquoi pas? À la guerre on s'comprend, va.
What will come, is already written, Rome has been founded.
Laurent: Ouais. Mais moi?
Mario: Pues, sí. ¡Pero espera un poco, hombre, déjame escuchár! ¿No te gustan las historias?
Laurent: Ah, non, j'aime pas, moi…
Das haben Seher an sich, sie halten jeden für dumm.
Laurent: Surtout, j'aime pas attendre.
Mario: Ya lo se, pero nadie nos invitó, ¿no? ¡Entonces deja de dar el coñazo a Walter y déjame escuchár mientras que esperamos!
In the end, you will have only managed to kill yourself.
Laurent: Ah, les leçons des livres, l'amour de l'art… Ah… mais qu'en sais-tu? Ah, Mario… Qu'en sait-on ?
Mario: ¡Pues, tápate la boca y déjame escuchar, joder!
Ich lande c'est fait I forget allá gár poco importa
Mario: Precioso. Pero díme un poco, tu conoces Buenos Aires?
Laurent: Ah non, hein?! D'abord, si je la ferme, tu la doublefermes! Et ensuite, fiche-moi la paix avec ton Buenos Aires, hein?!
Tes fils sont des monstres, mais moi, je suis le bois dans lequel on taille les barques pour traverser la mer.
Laurent: Et puis enfin, toi? Tu déconnais la Marseillaise?! Espèce d'un…
Mario: Laurent, déjame, por favor. Morimos hace bastante tiempo. ¿Ya está, no?
Je l'écrasai de tout mon poids.
Laurent: Nous, on a pas fait ça.
Mario: ¿Y entonces?
Laurent: Et alors, rien! Rien, ah, ce n'est que vent, du vent qui vient et revient et revient. Et puis bon, va, je te laisse. Va!… Mais va-t'en donc si tu peux, va-t'en !… Tu m'entends ?!
Dieu est un grand peintre.
Laurent: Ah, ce vent suffoquant, chaleur de braise, ce vent qui tourne et retourne les mêmes mots, sable aveuglant. Ô soleil.
Mario: Y jo, despues? Y tu? Pues, déjame. ¿No? Déjame en paz.
Laurent: Mais tu vois que ça marche pas !
Se fosse restato, le cose da noi sarebbero cambiate, perché lui era diverso. Ma non ha voluto.
Mario: Eso es. Y cuando Walter acabe, hablaremos nosotros.
Laurent: Et puis?
Mario: No se, yo.
Laurent: Aah! Mais tu m'énerves! Pourquoi veux-tu écouter, alors?! Pourquoi tu ne me laisses pas parler?!
I whispered: "You did not have to do this." He answered over his shoulder: "Neither did you."
Laurent: Je me rappelle, moi! J'étais là, j'ai vu, et maintenant je suis là pour raconter, pas pour écouter des conneries! Laisse-moi parler, putain! Tu étais bien là avec moi, on était sur le même bâteau, et on est sur le même bâteau ici, tu es des miens, même si ça te va pas!
Vedere il mondo in una goccia di sangue, questa è la nostra arte
Mario: No seas ingenuo, Laurent. No hay nave.
quoniam posuisti tenebras et facta est nox in ipsa moventur omnes bestiae silvae leones rugientes ad praedam
It is like I told you: time eats you.
Walter: Stop fighting. Your book does not tell it as it is. The tower of Babel was built successfully, that is our problem. You built it and left us to live with the consequences. But we do not want to live with the consequences, we can tear the tower down, and we will.
Laurent: Qui, vous? Mario et moi?
Mario: Pues no, hombre, no hay ni tu ni yo. ¿Ya no lo sabes?
Les couleurs explodent devant mes yeux, lluvia volante, arco di gocce.
Laurent: Mais je suis là. Tu es là. Alors on est là, quoi?
Wir sind fast wieder im Lager, und es ist Zeit.
Laurent: Toi et moi, hein ? On s'est damnés ensemble, je crois?!
Walter: Who is that child down there, Jenke? Why doesn't he come forward with the others?
**: He does not want to speak. He probably just wants to take another look at me.
Walter: Oh? Do you know him?
**: Yes. I knew him, once. He is… a peculiar memory…
Walter: Tell me, please.
**: Well… He is one of the very rare children who ever wanted to have something to do with me… I was coming out of a store, when he stepped right in front of me. He was a scrawny three-year-old, so small that I almost stumbled over him, before I saw him. I said "Careful!" He looked up then said "You watch it. You're the grownup." His eyes were hard and cold. He tried to stare me down while I tried in vain to read his face. After a rather long time, I just smiled, offering to speak, if he wanted to; but he turned around and left.
I met him again a few years later. By that time, they called him wonder boy, and indeed, he was extremely intelligent. He graduated from high school when he was barely thirteen and went to MIT. We met again in the library. He took a book out of the shelf, while I was standing on the opposite side. He hadn't changed much, I recognized him at once. I smiled. He looked at me, squinted, and said: "You are just something for jerks" and shoved the book back into my face. But then he walked around the shelf and came to stand in front of me. He was still rather small, but looked much older than he was. I asked: "Can I help you?" – "Of course not. I just wanted a closer look." – "And?" – "It's exactly as I thought. You're a gimp." He turned around and left.
Walter: But on the next day, or so, he came looking for you.
**: Good guess.
Walter: Comes from hanging out with shrinks so much. So? What happened then?
**: He asked me if I could show him some tricks. College bored him to death, he said. I showed him a few things, but he did not like anything. He was – so they called it, and he grinned when he told me – completely negative about everything, all the time. His parents were desperate about it, tried in vain to understand him then sought professional help, but to no avail. When I met him the second time, his third psychiatrist had given him up. He had a nice family, dedicated, intelligent people, a good education… He showed no signs of a mental disorder. Nothing was wrong with him. But even his brothers and sisters avoided him, and the faculty would have kicked him out after a few weeks, if he had not been one of the most brilliant students ever.
After a few weeks, he asked me if I could make up an ID for him. I said that he could certainly do that by himself, if he absolutely wanted to. Indeed, he forged a perfect ID that made him eighteen and volunteered for Vietnam. He was killed within the first month out there, but before he fell, he took as many people down as he could. Even his comrades feared him.
Before he went to the draft, he came to see me, showed me the ID, and said: "See? I don't need you."
At the time I often had business in East Asia. I offered him to come with me. I told him that he could take a look at Vietnam and then decide what he was opting for. He said that if I needed company, I would find plenty of bimbo boys in Bangkok.
Walter: Woah… And what did you say?
**: Nothing. There was no point.
Walter: Well, but you offered your help…
**: I just questioned his will, he made his will clear, and that was that.
Laurent: Et alors merde, quoi?! Mais je m'en fous, moi! Ouais! Tu vois ça? Je m'en contrefous du petit salaud et de toi! Tu vois mes mots?! Tu les entends?! Je suis là! Tu peux rien contre! Et toi, Walter, toi non plus!
schneidet den Strick,
ihr atmet noch,
zerstört die verfluchte Stadt
Laurent: Moi! Ouais! Va te faire foutre, je suis là et j'y reste. Je reste avec toi.
E poi salimmo in cima a un grattacielo,
e tu volasti
fin dentro l'asfalto
Laurent: J'ai vu. J'étais là. Moi. J'étais là au plus beau, au milieu de la melée.
Senza quasi cercare abbiamo scoperto terreni fertili dai fiumi ricchi di nutrimento
Laurent: Avec toutes tes histoires, tu peux pas faire que je sois pas là. Moi, j'existe. Laisse-moi donc raconter, enfin! Pourquoi ne me laisses-tu pas? J'ai vu et je me souviens, que tu le veuilles ou non.
Walter: Der Dürre packt den Hund beim Ohr und zieht ihn hinter sich her. Als er am Kameradentisch vorbeikommt, klopft er dreimal hart auf die Fläche. Du siehst sie. Du hörst, was sie reden. Du schmeckst den Wein, rostig, bitter. Mitgegangen, mitgegangen, mitgegangen.
Laurent: À la bonne heure. C'est notre tour maintenant? Enfin. T'as du feu?… Merci. Bon, ben… alors… Moi aussi, je croyais que ce serait difficile de se comprendre. Eh ben, je me trompais – vrai, Mario?
Mario: Sí. Eben saß ich noch da, in der Taverne. Me acuerdo come se fosse oggi. Ero in Spagna, nell'estate del trentotto. Faceva un caldo tremendo, madosca fossi restato a casa… en Liguria… Genova, soy de Genova… Ah… pues, allora, cuando entré en la taberna estaba tan cansado que casi me pareceba de estar soñando. Era una aldea olvidada de Dios, veinte dias y la guerra no iba ni para atrás ni para adelante, prendíamos y perdíamos la misma calle, la misma casa cuatro, cinco, seis veces en la semana… joder…
Laurent: Ouais, c'était ça, tu sais? Tout à fait ça. Il n'y avait qu'une taverne et encore c'était de la chance.
Laurent: Laisse-moi continuer. Donc, on entre, on se met dans un coin, tous tranquilles.
Mario: sí, pero.
Laurent: Le vin ? Du vinaigre ! Mais avec la soupe bien chaude et les oignons cuits c'est bon, pas vrai, Mario?
Mario: Si, ma lasciami…
Laurent: Les sales gueules de boches dans l'autre coin, on les oublie. Puis ils chantent pas mal, surtout quand ils boivent.
Mario: Si, ma aspetta ! Déjame contár también, pues no ves que Walter no te entiende?
Laurent: Ouais, parce qu'il comprend ta Babèle à toi? Moi au moins je parle une seule langue! Toi tu parles espagnol comme une vache italienne!
Mario: Spiritoso! Io peró so quello che dico! Non mi sono bevuto il cervello come te, faccia di…
Laurent: Pas d'insultes, hein, l'ami?!
Walter: Hey! No! Cut it out, now! Why don't you take turns, eh? Just take turns, okay? Come on!
Laurent: Ben, bon, pour moi ça va.
Mario: Sí, vale vale, a me m'importa di raccontare e di finirla, basta che si continui va bene? Entonces…
Laurent: Ah non, c'est à moi maintenant, hein? Bon. Alors, je disais… On est là, on est à l'aise, si ce n'est pour un vieux, gueule de… j'sais pas moi… hein, Mario? Hein? Arrête de me respirer dans le cou, continue!
Mario: Sí, eso es… y despues entro y los veo sentados en un rincón, mis cumpañeros, con un viejo que teneba una cara de… ¡Una cara de muerto, lo juro, y hablaba con un perro! ¿Y ellos? ¡Nada! ¡Como si nada fuera! ¿¡Comprendes?! Un viejo con una cara de muerto habla con un perro. ¿Y ellos? ¡Nada!
Laurent: Il parlait français le vieux!
Mario: ¿¡Y entonces qué?! ¿¡Solo perché hablaba francese a vosotros vos pareceba normal?! ¿¡Y el perro?! ¿¡El perro también hablaba francés?!
Laurent: Ben, non… le chien parlait espagnol, mais c'était un chien du village, donc…
Mario: ¡Aahh, eso lo explica todo! ¡Si! ¡Evidentemente!
Laurent: Ô, arrête, hein?! Toi, tu n'as rien dit non plus! T'es entré, tu t'es assis juste à côté du vieux, t'as pris un gobelet et une assiette, et mine de rien, quoi ! Puis tu es sorti trop tard et tu n'as réussi qu'à t'faire faire la fête ! Alors qu'est-ce que tu m'veux maintenant ?!
Mario: ¡Ya lo sabes ! ¡Estaba cansado muerto !…Y verdad, me pareceba de estar soñando… Miraba el perro, el viejo, y me decía… no se… no me acuerdo… pensaba… pensaba en muchas cosas.
Laurent: Ouais, va. Et tu trinquais.
Mario: Sí… ¡Sí, bebía! ¿Y entonces qué?
Laurent: Et quand le boche est venu chercher le chien, t'as rien dit, quoi ?!
Mario: ¡Tu tampoco!
Laurent: Non. Moi non plus… Mais c'était autre chose ! Moi je m'en foutais, simplement ! On était là, on mangeait, on buvait… Les boches, on s'en fichait ! Emmerdant d'avoir des salauds comme ceux de ce soir-là de son côté, mais bon, c'est ça la guerre, que veux-tu que je te dise ?! Putain ! On était du même côté et on peut pas choisir ses camarades, surtout dans une merde de guerre comme ça ! Une fois qu'on y est, faut que ça marche, hein ?! Et puis qu'est-ce que tu m'veux, nom d'un nom d'un… ! Et toi, Walter ?! Les yeux écarquillés comme si je te racontais j'sais pas quoi ! Que croyais-tu qu'on raconte, des belles histoires?!
Mario:¡Ma no, espera un momento, joder! Guarda, ¿no ves que está llorando?
Walter: It's okay. Go on, please.
Mario: No. You are tired, now, si vede, y nosotros también. Será para otra vez. ¿Verdad, Laurent?
Laurent: Quant à ça… Ô ! Mais lâche-moi, hein?! J'suis pas une brute, quand-même !
Mario: Sí, sí, disculpa. Pero venga, hombre, vámonos. ¿No?… Ya está… ¿Por qué entristecer Walter? No podemos cambiar lo que fué. ¿Y entonces no ves lo joven que es?
Laurent: T'es un vrai con, Mario. Todo loque quieres… todo loco quieres… Ha ha, rigolo pour de bon, mon ami. Ah, mais merde alors… une fois qu'on y est, on y danse, quoi… Bon ben, allons-y, fils de pute, va…
Mario: Pues sí, mi madre era una puta de primera categoría. Y yo soy un perro, che ci vuoi fare? Un perro común y corriente…
Walter: A dog?
Laurent: Ouais, un chien. Tu connais, n'est-ce pas? Un beau chien andalou? Une belle lune?
Walter: Yes. Yes, I see… But I don't understand what you mean.
Laurent: C'est que tu connais pas la guerre.
Mario: Y no necesita conocerla. Basta, he cambiado de opinión, vámonos, hombre.
Laurent: Mais tu sais bien qu'il y aura une guerre, non? Et alors il faut lui raconter, non ? Il faut préparer les jeunes gens!
Mario: Pero no podemos preparar nada ni a nadie diciendo. Esta será una guerra muy diferente a la nuestra, no sirve en nada sentire le nostre cazzate.
Walter: No, wait, I need to know! What war are you talking about? Please explain!
Mario: Ecco bravo, ya lo has hecho. Hhhhhh… Entonces déjame hablar a mí ahora. We are speaking about a different war, a future war que está empezando.
Laurent: Ah, non! Arrête! Pour qui tu te prends?! On est pas des foutus prophètes, nous ! On est foutus un point c'est tout !
Mario: No, déjame! There will be a war, Walter, and we are here to… para enseñarte…
Walter: To teach me?
Mario: Sí, to teach you things. You can learn but only if we speak right y no como lo estamos haciendo. Escucha, tenemos que hacer una reflexión y volvemos pronto.
Laurent: Mais c'est pas vrai, putain! Y a rien à réfléchir, et que veux-tu qu'on apprenne en écoutant tes prophéties!
Mario: Cállate! Don't listen him, Walter, you can learn, you must learn! You have to change the things! You are… young! And you are… like me, look! But you can talk, you can… you have learned how, mierda come si dice, tu sai parlare come parlano i potenti, coño! Y te van escuchar!
Laurent: Mario! Arrête les conneries, c'est complètement inutile, ça!
Walter: Is that so, Laurent? Is that really what you think?
Laurent: Pas d'offense, mais oui, c'est ce que je pense.
Walter: And yet, you wanted to tell me your story.
Laurent: Ouais, parce que c'est arrivé et parce que je suis là. Une fois qu'on y est, on y danse. Mais c'est inutile, tout ça. Ne me regarde pas comme ça! C'est inutile, je te dis! You do not have the words, anyway, and you are DREAMING!
Walter: Oui, c'est vrai, tu rêves, stai sognando già da troppo tempo, svegliati, è l'ora, despiertate, wake up, wach auf, kriech aus dem Zimmer, auf die Straße, spargiti per tutte le vie sois légion, ti stanno aspettando sarà una festa ho preparato tutto non dovrai che salire sul camion, c'est facile à conduire, you will be fine, Siebenganggetriebe kennst du schon wir haben geübt du musst nur ruhig bleiben nicht anschnallen, wozu auch, sarà come andare in slitta you won't have the time for second thoughts c'est facile und ich werde dich begleiten verras caballos negros pasar y la muerte entrar y salir y salir y entrar de la taberna, gente, por mi vida, gente che volerà in aria poi, non vuoi guardarli va bene non è necessario close your eyes, du musst das Lenkrad nur genau so festhalten, schließ ruhig die Augen, aber nimm den Fuß nicht vom Gas, ne te relâche pas, ce n'est pas encore temps. Vuoi che taccia? Ma non posso, dear, e non voglio, if I stop talking you may start thinking y eso no debe ser, es tarde mi vida, es muy tarde, e dobbiamo spicciarci. Ich weiß, dass ich dich daran hindere, Zeilen zu lesen, die vom Frieden sprechen, von der Freude und von anderen Farben als schwarz und weiß, aber weiß ist die Farbe der Trauer und wir müssen trauern jetzt, mein Herz, wir müssen tief eintauchen in die Seele von einem jungen Menschen, der schon verloren ist, während er noch kämpft, der lügen wird und auf Stimmen hören, die sagen steig ein in den Lastwagen, komm und lass das Anschnallen, non ne vale la pena, und nimm das Steuer you are in control, you can, you will, arriba mon coeur, fonce dessus tu as appris tout ce qu'il faut thou shall pass there is no borderline on the pavement only a bridge over deep, deep running water what is the name of the river you don't remember è il Tevere ou est-ce la Seine, somos en China, cuor mio, or are we on the banks of the river Styx and everybody is calling on the other side, cheering, greeting, you are not a lost soul anymore you have found the way home, ô, the nostalgic melodies che ti accompagnano in quest'ultimo viaggio verso il porto dell'oblio e del silenzio, è una promessa, I will be silent, too, in a moment the sound of my voice will be in the past, you will be in the future, and the present will be free, a sharp, clean slate, edge of the knife, tip of the spear, sangue al sangue, pane al pane, ojo por ojo, y Zahn um Zahn.
After our picnic at Landwehrkanal, Gervais started my private lessons, as he called them. We roamed Berlin from the West to the far East, North, and South. Every day, he showed me new places, new things, new people, and told me stories of all kinds and colors. Then one afternoon, he said: "Enough passive intake, what is it going to be tonight, karaoke or dancing?" – "No singing, please! You don't want to hear that!" – "A club, then?" – "A block party, if you don't mind." – "And thou shalt have it, my young friend."
A volley "Wach! Wach! Schon seit Mittwoch!" hit me from around the corner. He grinned, "Get low, Kiwi". I started towing him by the hand: "Come on, faster!" But then I stopped dead: "Wait! Are you gonna be all right?" – "I will be fine, do not worry about me." – "You are really nice to me. But I mean, there's no way you will fit in, there!" – "Oh, well, try me. And rest assured, I can take care of myself, I have been around long enough." He motioned me into the dancing crowd, smiling.
I had an absolutely wonderful time, dancing, talking, singing along, having such fun that I forgot him completely for a while. When I had to take a break, I suddenly remembered, guilt-stricken. I looked around, afraid that he had left. But he was standing in a corner, leaning against the wall, a beer bottle in his hand, talking to a plain looking Asian guy as if they were best friends. I went over and hugged him around the waist: "Thank you so much!" – "You are welcome. Here, meet Akira, he just enrolled for Computer Sciences at the Technical University, we were talking about pattern recognition." – "I'm Walter." – "Hey."
Akira was a smart and nice guy, but, unlike a Modern History major named Malu who joined us a little later – Gervais had left us, because he had seen an old acquaintance – as uninterested in politics as I was in pattern recognition and the evolution of guerrilla tactics across the centuries. I exchanged cell numbers with both, out of politeness, and went looking for Gervais."
We walked home. It was three a. m., but I refused to take a cab, I was too high from the party. The streets were empty, the city was almost silent.
"You know," I said, "it beats me how you can be so at ease in a place like that."
"You thought that I would not fit in."
"Of course, I did! I mean: just look at your suit!"
"Fitting in is not as important to me as it is to you."
"Hear, hear! Well, wise guru, what if one of them had felt bothered by your presence? What if a leather jacket had walkedup to you and said 'Is' det dein Bier?'. How would you have reacted?"
His arm stiffened: "Well, I am afraid that you are going to become a more eidetic answer to your question than you expect." I looked ahead and saw a guy coming towards us. Gervais took me by the hand and said in a low, calm tone: "When he reaches us, stop. Do not make sudden movements. Do not look at him directly."
Okay. Three o'clock in the morning, desert street, and the guy looked like the drug delinquents I had seen in so many films. So far, so good. But what I wasn't prepared for was how he reeked: aggression, fear, filth, greed. I clutched Gervais' hand. The guy pulled a knife.
Gervais raised his hands in slow motion, holding my right firmly in his left. He spoke very calmly: "You want money. You can have it. My wallet is in the inside pocket of my jacket, left side. Take it."
The man reached into the jacket, pointing the knife at me. I stopped breathing until he stepped back. He glanced into the wallet and gasped.
Gervais said very slowly: "Over a thousand. It is yours. We are going to lie down on the ground, face down. We will not see which way you go."
I couldn't help looking at the guy's face. He grinned at me. He said: "Okay. But it would be safer for me to take a hostage, just in case." I closed my eyes. Then I opened them wide. The walls were speaking. No, Gervais was, but his voice felt like reinforced concrete and granite talking, quashing the pavement around us: "Keep the money. Run. I will not come after you. I promise." The man was gone in a wink.
"Woah", was all I could say. Gervais caught my arm.
"Walter? Are you all right?"
"Yes, just a bit shaky. I'll be fine in a second."
"Take your time, I am here, and that was a bit much."
"No, it's fine! And you know, I have been wanting to tell you for a while, it's cool of you to never treat me like I need to be special cared for, ask if I can do this or that, look purposefully away when I handle things, all that…"
"Well, I should know better than that."
"Everybody could know better than that, but they don't, so thank you."
"You are very welcome."
"You like to be called cool, don't you? Ha! A weakness!"
"Why weakness? I wear praise with pride, do you not?"
"Hm. Actually, no. I immediately get a fit of imposter syndrom."
"Oh, the young. Now, are you steady on your feet?"
"Then let us see you home." He called a taxi. In the car, I thought back. "So that's what you do when someone picks a fight."
"Yes", he said unemotionally, "people always get from me what they want, if it is mine to give, and what they do with it is their business. The money this one took is buying him his golden shot, even as we speak. He will be a rotting corpse by sunrise. I cannot change that." I wanted to ask something, but I couldn't focus anymore. I must have fallen asleep in the car, because I don't remember getting home.
On the next day, during our ritual walk through Tiergarten after breakfast, I tried to joke: "So? What do you do with guys like that one, when they appear before you in the underworld? You welcome them medieval style, with boiling tar and a coupla hard, pipe-hittin' demons who'll go to work on the homes with a pair of pliers and a blow torch?"
He laughed cheerfully: "Well, quoting from the same author, getting medieval on people's asses is not what I do."
"Oh. Isn't it? Because of the whole vengeance is mine, I will repay thing?"
"Because justice really is not mine."
"Hm. Too bad. Well, if I got a chance, I would go for the medieval style."
He shook his head: "You know nothing about the so called Middle Ages. What you like is respect."
We remained silent for a long moment. It didn't feel strange. "I will repay" echoed in my mind.
"You know", I said, finally, "It is strange to hear you say the name of the Lord. I mean… I know better than expecting you to throw a fit, growling and stomping steaming holes into the pavement whenever you hear His name. But I do expect you to sound sarcastic, full of refusal, or something like that… you know…"
"Maybe, you just have to provoke me in the right way. You could try to hold up a crucifix against me."
"You think I'm funny."
"Yes. And I think that you are full of prejudices and half knowledge." He sighed. Then he placed his hands on my shoulders, stooped to look deep into my eyes, and I could see nothing in his except a tiny reflection of myself. But then the image trembled, as if someone had thrown a stone into a lake, sending circular waves from its center to the shores. The water was deep, so deep. A calm, cool lake under a grey winter sky. It would be so nice to plunge, to swim, to let myself go under, stones weighing down the pockets of my heavy coat, sinking into oblivion. He closed his eyes and took his hands away. I startled.
He said calmly: "It is as I told you. With me, what you see is exactly what you get, and you decide. You can jump whenever you want. But why now? Did you not want to visit the National Gallery this morning?"
"Yes… I think… I…"
"Then we should get going. It is such a beautiful day."
He spread his arms out, smiling. "Life is but Life! And Death, but Death! Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!"
I could not join in, nor smile back, but I side hugged him around the waist, shaking my head and tugging him to walk. He put his arm around my shoulder and patted it twice, slowly, calmly. His touch was strange. It was soothing, but incorporeal, reminding of a large, quiet stream. It was not the touch of a person. All the same, leaning into him I felt completely safe.
After a while, I asked: "Is that what you do to people?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I mean: temptation."
"Temptation lures everywhere."
"Don't make fun of me, please!"
"I am not, I am perfectly serious. Almost everything can be a temptation for a given person, at some point… pleasure, violence, wealth, death… the outcome depends on you."
"On whether I resist, or give in?"
"On what you do, in the end. Every deed has consequences."
"Yeah, right, and some things, once you do, they can never be undone, but seriously, now, you do not always close your eyes at that point, do you? You just stand there, and people jump, or dive, or take the pills." He didn't answer. I continued. "Why did you close your eyes this time? Sympathy from the devil?" He sighed, shaking his head. "Sympathy is not a stranger to me… and I like you, Walter, you must know that I do. But that does not mean that I always agree with you, or like what you like."
"Oh-kay?… And what do you disagree about, or not like, for example?"
"Well, for example, I disagree with you if you take Selina Kyle as a role model."
"About the whole no guns thing… I'm not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do."
"Ahhh, yes. Okay, catwoman is not a pacifist and neither am I, you are right, there. But that is how she saves Batman."
"She kills Bane. For Batman, she progresses from thief to murderer."
"Hey, not fair! Kyle's not to blame, Miranda is! And Ras al Ghul! And besides, do you really think that non-violence is a winning strategy in this world?"
"That is not the point. I do not agree with violence, even when violence is a winning strategy."
"Wow. That was unexpected. The Spirit that denies is not exactly supposed to deny violence, as far as I know."
"Well, perhaps you do not know what the Spirit that denies actually denies, do you? But seriously, I have not always denied violence. On the contrary, there has been a time when I embraced it, but that time is very long gone. Perhaps, I have outgrown it. Perhaps you will, too."
"Perhaps I will, but not now, I'm afraid."
He sighed. "So, let us agree to disagree, for the moment."
"You hope to convert me."
He laughed. "You think the Spirit that denies wants to convert you? Seriously? I like you, Walter, I really do."
When he said goodbye at the front door as usual, I tugged at his hand. "This has been such a nice day! Are you sure that you don't want to come inside for a moment?" He smiled: "Yes, I am sure. I meant it, Walter, I like you. But I belong to a different world than yours."
I tried to smile. "To the old world?"
"Very old and very different."
"And in that old and different world of yours, what should one do to make you stay if one was having a wonderful time with you and didn't want the evening to end, yet?"
He looked genuinely amused: "Well, we could sit in the garden for a while."
"Yay! Picnic in the garden! Wait here, don't move!"
I darted inside while he laughed then came back carrying a blanket and a tray: "Voilà! Pane al pane, e vino al vino."
"E salame al salame. All right, let me carry this."
"Thanks. I'll take the bottle."
We talked about random things for a rather long time, carpet squatting under a huge beech tree. Then he leaned against the trunk, stretched his legs out, and crossed his ankles. I asked, gesturing: "May I?…"
I leaned my head against his thigh, and he stroked my hair, smiling. That lent me courage. I looked up: "You do like me."
"And I'm falling in love with you, you know?"
He looked pensive. I continued without waiting for an answer. "And I would like to be with you for longer than just a few days."
He breathed in as if he wanted to speak. I interrupted: "Wait. Let me say my piece, before I lose courage. I would like to be with you for more than days, or months, I would like to be with you indefinitely."
He looked earnest. "I like you very much, Walter, but I am what I am."
"And that means?"
"Well, let us say that you did not guess that wrong when you quoted Faust…"
"Yeah, I know. But so?"
"Think it through: if I am not altogether wrongly described as the Spirit that denies, then I have an existence, but not a life. And being with me means very literally taking some time off-off – as I said: it is just a time off from your life. And how long would you want that time to last? And what would be afterwards?"
I wanted to speak, but he shook his head. "Do not answer now, please. Take your time to think about it. It is very late. Let us continue this conversation over breakfast, tomorrow. All right?"
I just nodded.
After he had left, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth, looked into the mirror and thought: The answer is simple. What is there to think about? I said: "I want this time to last forever." I winced. It sounded off. Phony. I tried again: "I want to be with him forever." Bullshit. You don't know that. I brushed my teeth for a while in silence. For how long, then?
Well, some time. I shrugged "I want to be with him for as long as I want to be with him. Days, months, years… I don't know!…"
I brushed thoroughly, then I spit out and pointed the toothbrush at myself. "Don't give me that look! We've just met! I'm falling in love with him, that's all I know, it's all I am sure of!"
Okay. And then?
"What do you mean?"
I mean: what about afterwards, if this is not going to be "forever"? You take ten days off from your life. You go back to it. No problem – I mean: a little trouble, of course, but nothing special, you've run off before and come back, like a… whatever. Next: You take ten months off. Well, more trouble, but still no huge problem. You go back to your life and that was that. But now let's say that you take ten years off from your life and then go back. Go back to what? To being who?
"Back to my life and to being myself! And this is bullshit anyway! I am alive, and I am living, and time off is nothing but a way to speak, an image, a metaphor!"
Call it whatever you want, dear, it has still consequences.
I spent the rest of the night sitting on the sofa with my arms around my knees, looking at the pictures on the wall, trying in vain to sort things out. At dawn, I fell asleep hoping that I would see more clearly after getting some rest. But that wasn't the case. I woke up much too early, restless and unable to go back to sleep. I splashed my face with cold water, went into the kitchen, and made coffee. But instead of drinking it, I went back into the bathroom and took a very long, hot shower.
While I rubbed myself dry, I muttered angrily at the steamy mirror: "That's all you have in your brain! Haze! Mist! Fog!" And there I froze, remembering.
On the plane to Europe, I had sat next to a guy who was copy editing a coffeetable book about Celtic legends. One of the pictures in the book had caught my eye. It was black and white, or rather: grey in grey. An opaque sea flowing into a foggy sky, and a flock of small boats at anchor in the calm surface. The caption said "Sein Island, fog".
The guy was really deep into the subject. The book seemed to be very important to him. Talking more to himself than to me, he told me a long story about the origins and the history of Île de Sein, Enez-Sun, a small island off the coast of Brittany facing Raz Point. Some of the things he said were really interesting, but he rambled on and on until I couldn't focus anymore. Eventually, I fell asleep while he was murmuring about a bay called Baie des trépassés because of a legend according to which the souls of the dead gathered there to board a ship that brought them to their last resting place, behind the horizon.
That was it.
I ran into the kitchen, gulped down some coffee and cold toast while I got dressed, started the computer, openstreetmap, scrolled to the western coast of France, the western edge of Europe, Pointe du Raz, Baie des trépassés, Ile de Sein. I remembered: Qui voit Sein, voit sa fin.
The route from Berlin, fifteen hours by car. It wasn't so bad, we could take turns. The door bell rang. I darted to open it and called: "Do you know Baie des trépassés?" while Gervais said his usual cheerful: "Hello! What shall we do today?"
He stared. "Pardon me?!"
"Baie des trépassés, do you know it?"
"Well… yes, I do and I am surprised, where do you know it from?"
"A guy on the plane and Osmand. I want to go there. Let's drive there, please! It's only fifteen hours and we can take turns, I can drive a normal automatic car, I don't need a special one!"
I started towing him towards the computer. He held me back.
"Wait a moment! You do not need to show me anything, all I need is to understand why you want to go there. Why do we not just sit down, have breakfast as we planned, and you tell me while we eat?"
"Oh, holy cow, I'm sorry! My schedule is all messed up."
He laughed. "Yes, that is what it looks like. Hm… But there are some eggs and bread in the house, and salad?"
"Perfect. So, I am going to fry a couple of eggs and if you could make toast, and fix the salad…"
Feeling embarrassed and thankful for the practical proposition, I said quickly: "Okay. And coffee's ready."
"Thank you. Then, we will talk."
In the kitchen, I must have moved about pretty erratically, because after a few moments he told me to please sit down and just watch.
He took two eggs, put them into a bowl, heated a pan, and let some butter melt. Meanwhile, he took his jacket off. He said: "Here, let me show you a little something I have learned from one of my clients… Look: one egg in my hand, the second one is in the bowl here. Right?"
"Only two eggs. Nothing in my right hand. Nothing in my left hand. Nothing before me. Nothing behind my back. And as you can see, I am not hiding anything in my sleeves, right?"
"Right. Now, watch."
He took one egg out of the bowl, broke it into the pan and instantly had another one in his hand. I looked at the bowl. There was still an egg in it. Yet, he had one in the pan and an intact one in his hand.
"How'd you do that?!"
"I never reveal a trick. Confidentiality. Do you want one?"
I pointed at the egg in his hand. "I'd like that one."
"I thought so. How would you like it?" – "Sunny side up, please." – "Very well." He flipped the one in the pan around then added mine. Both looked perfectly normal.
After a few moments, he flashed a smile at me. "Voilà!" He let the eggs slide onto two plates. "You have calmed down. I am proud of myself. Coffee?"
"Here you go. Bon appétit."
"Hmm. It's good, the magic egg."
"Thank you. Now, tell me, please."
"Well… it's… like… I have been trying to find an answer to your question. But to no avail. And then…" I told him about the hot shower, the fog, the guy on the plane, the book, the legends, and the pictures, concluding: "That's why I want to go there, you know? It's like Death in Venice! I mean, the old writer travels to Venice to take some time off from his life, and right there, in Venice, he finally finds himself…" Gervais puckered a brow. I continued: "Okay, okay, he dies as a result, but that's just because he's an old crypto-pederast who can't handle the way he is, whereas I… well, I am young and falling in love with a guy who keeps hinting at how extremely long he has been in the world, but whatever: old or not and young or not, I am certainly not going to catch the cholera over you and die watching you stand in the water at Baie des trépassés, pointing towards the horizon…"
"Good for me: I doubt that I could stand very long, considering the climate."
"Right. So, you see: no life danger for anyone involved, in this case. And my point is: in terms of time off from my life, I want the real thing, and Berlin is not it. The places, the history, even this house, everything here is part of my life. Even with you, the time is spend here is not a real time off."
"But Sein Island would be. Going there is like a trip to the underworld to me, you know, to the place where they give you answers, you learn about your destiny, face your problems, all that."
"You may be expecting too much."
"Maybe. But that's no reason not to try. What do you say, are we going?"
"We are." He took out his cell phone. "But we will fly. It is faster and less dangerous."
I grinned: "Fly on what? Brooms? Pegasoi? Black limousine driven by a raven?"
"Aw, come on! How kinky can you be!"
"Very. But not today." He dialed. "Hallo, Alex, hier ist… ja genau, Sie erinnern sich aber noch gut an mich… ja, das ist auch wieder wahr, мы нашли хорошее решение… да… hören Sie, ich bräuchte bitte einen mittelgroßen Gefallen…" As far as I could understand, Alex would fly us. Gervais smiled at me after hanging up. "No eerie flying object, I am sorry, just an ordinary helicopter, and I will bei neither strapping you to the seat, nor flying it myself." – "Too bad." – "Really?" – "Well, no. Not really." – "So I thought. All right, let me arrange a few more things."
He made more phone calls, speaking French with different people. When he was done, I looked at him interrogatively: "You've rented a house? That it?"
He nodded. "On Sein island. It is a small, very plain old house, but I like it a lot. The owners are old acquaintances of mine."
"How long did you rent it for? I couldn't get that."
"In sum, I said that we have not decided yet."
"And the landlord accepted?"
"As I said: the owners are old acquaintances of mine. And it is off season."
"And you also got a boat?"
"Yes, of course, to get there, and to roam the coast – so to speak. I would like to take you around a little bit, the corner is beautiful. But make sure to pack some warm things. It is rather cold there and the wind is mostly rough."
Pointe du Raz was beautiful and inhospitable, indeed. The waves were impressing, the wind was rough, and the sea was plumbic dark. The yacht was so big that it needed a rowboat for boarding and landing in flat waters. Yet, it rocked so much when we got out of the bay that I joked: "You'll save me if we capsize, won't you?"
He answered matter-of-factly: "Unless you want to die."
"If you really wanted to die, I would not prevent you."
He sounded so unemotional and his face was so unreadable that I looked away and changed the subject quickly, chatting about unimportant things. But after a short while he said, perhaps with a trace of apology in his voice: "You look cold. Are you all right?" I glanced at him. He looked a little concerned, maybe. "Actually, I am cold. Can I sit next to you?" – "Of course! Come here!" He put his arm around me. He said: "We will be there, soon. See?" He pointed at the island. I said: "Yes. I'm not worried, you know? I went sailing a lot with my dad, when I was a kid. Of course, at first it was very tough, but I loved it and I'm a very fast learner. A friend of his showed me some tricks and I found ways to handle things. Soon, I was a pretty good mate. Every summer break he rented a boat and off we went, lakes, the East coast…" – "That must have been fun." – "Yeah… sailing was great… What dad called sailor bonding was pretty far from great, though. I hated it so much that at some point, I refused to go. Mom backed me up. She couldn't swim dad quote except in alcohol unquote and hated sailing. That was good for me. There was a big fight, but in the end, dad gave in and started going with friends, students… happy end. I don't miss the trips with him. But I do miss sailing." – "Well, we will sail tomorrow. Today, we will just settle down, then I will show you Baie des trépassés."
The house was, as he had said, very plain and very old, but homely. The rooms were small – all except the surprisingly large kitchen, where a long table, a big stove, and a humongous granite sink from the nineteenth century made it feel almost inappropriate to be only two people. Not surprisingly, my room was under the roof and his room was on the ground floor. The fridge was nicely stocked and there was a welcome note on the kitchen table. We ate something then headed back for Baie des trépassés. "The portal to the other world?", I joked. "One of some portals to other worlds", he said. On the beach, he proposed to light up a bonfire.
"A beacon for souls?"
"Just a fire to keep warm."
"Oh, okay, and is it allowed?"
"I have a special permit."
"More people who owe you?"
"More people who know me."
"Yeah… everybody seems to know you…"
"Well, quite many do. It comes from being around so long."
"But not in social networks, at least I didn't find you anywhere."
"So did I, of course, and I only found homonymes of you." He smiled.
"Did it surprise you?"
"No, considering what your father really does."
"You know what my father really does?"
"Indirectly. For a time we counseled the same president."
"Oh? Like in the Neptunes' remix of Sympathy for the Devil? Which one of you did the president listen to? Okay lame joke, now I'm surprised, I thought you were a consultant for magicians."
"I am especially interested in magicians, but I counsel a very large variety of people, politicians, scientists, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, teachers… priests, sometimes… My advice is rather rarely followed, but very often sought."
"Wow. But you're not some kind of shrink, are you?"
"Some 'shrinks', as you call them, seek my advice precisely because I am not one of them."
"But what do you counsel all those people about, exactly?"
"Oh, this and that, I am quite ressourceful."
"You ain't gonna tell me, are you?"
"Of course not. Confidentiality, remember?"
"Hm. And would you counsel me?"
"I would, gladly, but you would have to specify the matter, or issue, for which you need counsel. I cannot give any advice, otherwise."
I sighed. "I'm not sure I could specify… but whatever, I'm glad you want to spend time with me, I've fallen in love with you, but I also need you… Wow, that was cringy, sorry."
"There is nothing to be sorry or embarrassed about, Walter. Besides, it was I who approached you in Berlin, was it not?"
"Yes, that's true, and I thought… oh, never mind what I thought."
"You thought I was a pederast and I cannot blame you for it."
"Well, not exactly, and I also thought that you looked trustworthy, somehow. I was surprised, you know? And I still wonder, when I think about it. I mean, I wonder why you approached me."
"I would say that our attraction is mutual."
"Yes, except that you keep misinterpreting the nature of our mutual attraction."
"Hm. Well, maybe I do, but I guess we'll see, won't we?"
At dusk, we started the fire then sat by it, with our backs against an upturned boat. The water was very calm, all the birds were gone, and the silence around us and the crackling wood was so deep that I got startled when I heard steps.
It was only a woman who walked slowly towards the waterfront carrying a large, old fashioned brown suitcase and a bulky, black handbag. She stoppet at the water's edge, breathing heavily, put her handbag down, and sat down on the suitcase, gazing at the sea. She looked over fifty, maybe sixty, stout but not strong, worn out. She wore an ordinary grey coat, a black skirt, and white shoes like a nurse.
Gervais looked at her thoughtfully for a while. Then he said: "Excuse me for a moment", got up, and walked over to her.
"Pardon, madame, avez-vous besoin d'aide?"
She answered in a very well educated British English. "I am sorry, Sir, I do not speak French."
"Excuse me, madam, can I help you?"
"Oh… thank you, but no, thank you. I am just waiting…" She eyed him warily for a moment. Then she added, smiling briefly but with an emotionless, detached look in her eyes. "A ship is coming to pick me up. It should be here any moment…" She stood up. "And there it is, thank God…. but… oh…" The ship had stopped about twenty yards from the strand. A man dropped the anchor then stood at the prow, cross-armed. The woman sighed, took her bag, hesitated, sighed again, and put it back down. "I'll have to leave the luggage." She shook her head then straightened up. "Well, it doesn't matter, does it, now?" She looked at Gervais. "May I ask you a favour, Sir?"
"By all means."
She started unbuttoning her coat. "Could you please take my luggage to the hotel over there, so that it can be picked up?"
Gervais stooped to look intently into her eyes. "Madam, if I may: the water is very cold, and the ships can come closer at high tide. You could wait for the next one."
She smiled briefly, holding his gaze. "I appreciate your concern, Sir, thank you. But I do not want to wait any longer. I am meeting my daughter."
He paused for a long moment then straightened up. "I see. Allow me to help you, then."
She looked wary again. "Help me?"
He pointed at our rowboat. "Allow me to take you to the ship."
"Oh… well, thank you!" A bright, warm smile spread on her face. "Thank you very much, Sir!"
He lifted the suitcase and carried it to the rowboat. She followed him. He helped her to get in, turned around, and called towards me: "I will be back!"
Chuckling at the quote, I nodded and waved. The woman looked at me but averted her eyes at once, turning towards Gervais to ask something while she pointed at the ship. He answered shaking his head, and she looked relieved.
Chatting with her, he took his shoes and socks off, rolled his pants up to his knees, pushed the rowboat halfway into the shallow water, helped her board it, pushed further and jumped in. When he stepped past her to sit down and take the rows, he said something that made her laugh out loud. She sounded much less strained now, almost at ease.
The sun set while he rowed. Darkness spread, starless black, around the flames that now looked unhomely, consuming, not warming. I stood up and stepped from one foot to the other on the line between the glare and the shadows, waiting, listening. Eventually, I heard a faint splashing sound that got louder, the scraping of wood on sand, and soon after he was close, calling: "Walter?"
Hastening towards the sound of his voice in the pitch black darkness, I tripped, but he caught me before I fell and held me for a moment, sighing "Well, here you are", sounding almost as if he were relieved, too. I held on to him. He rubbed my back. He asked: "Are you all right?" I answered as lightly as I could: "Yes, fine, just a little nervous because of the darkness." He didn't enquire further. "The moon will be rising very soon. Come sit by the fire", he said.
Indeed, the blistering flames looked friendly again, in his presence. I sat down with my back against the upturned boat and stretched my legs out. He asked gesturing: "May I?…"
He laid his head in my lap and closed his eyes. I waited eagerly, peering into the shadows, but nothing happened. He just got up from time to time to put another log on the fire then lay down again. I looked at his face, wondering, thinking confusedly about the past days, the woman, his question, the night at the club, us sitting under the beech tree. I laid my hand on his chest. He smiled and placed his hand on mine. I could feel his heartbeat, slow and steady, and his peculiar touch, calm and fluid like a large, slow river. Moments, sentences, and images crowded my mind, appearing, interlacing, and dissolving, all but the face of the Englishwoman that looked friendlier and paler with each reappearence, and a whisper that kept crackling in the flames: What's the difference. "I can't feel the difference", I said to the woman. Her face vanished.
"Pardon me?", Gervais asked.
I shook my head. "Well, for one thing, what's the difference between me and you? I mean, seriously, I can't feel the difference between your existence and my life… In fiction it's easy. For example, take Margarita and Woland, Mina Harker and Count Dracula, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen…"
He sounded amused: "Or Ellen Ripley and Alien?" He mimicked a growl. "I have crossed oceans of outer space to have dinner with you." – "Jenke! I'm trying to talk seriously, here! Besides: Alien is a life form and a mother, you are completely beside the point. Now back to the issue. Those are all book and film characters. You can tell them apart because one of them is described as a normal person – well, more or less normal, but you know what I mean – and the other one as supernatural. But essentially, they are all the same. And that's what I'm driving at. You say you have an existence and I have a life. But essentially, we are the same, too!" – "Essentially?" – "Well, what I mean is: your heart beats, your skin is warm! What's the difference between us, pray tell?! There's nothing strange about you! I mean nothing really strange, nothing out of this world! You don't look as old as you say that you are? So, big deal! That happens – especially with rich people, and you obviously have money. You've made a strange proposition to me, that yes. But just strange, normal strange, not reeeally strange! What I feel is: essentially, we are the same. So, we are either both unreal, supernatural, book characters or whatever, or we are both simply real! And in each case, the distinction between your existence and my life is just a way of speaking!"
"But you do not actually think that you are a book character, or a supernatural being, do you?"
"Of course not, are you making fun of me?! What I mean is: you are as real as I am! What's the difference between us?!"
"Well, for one thing, I could be simply the product of your imagination."
"Yeah, tell me about it!"
"I am not joking."
"Right. So I'm just, what, imagining all this?!"
"Why not? You do hear voices and see things."
"Well, yes, I do, sometimes… But are you seriously trying to tell me that you are not real?! That I'm not touching anything?! That your heart doesn't beat and your skin's not warm?!"
"I am trying to tell you that you are beside the point. Whether I am just a product of your imagination or whether I exist in some other sort of way, I am… well, names are treacherous things, but let us say: the Spirit that denies, which means that I have an existence, but not a life, and that this time with me is truly and utterly a time off from your life. That is the point."
"And that is what I am questioning! I can't feel it! I cannot believe it!"
He got up to stir the fire then came to stand in front of me. "Cross your legs, please", he said. I did, puzzled, and he sat down cross-legged, too, facing me. "All right", he continued, "Do you really want to feel the difference between my existence and your life?"
"Yes, I do."
"I can help you. But I fear your reaction, so here are the rules…"
"Huh?! Help me and afraid of my reaction?! Are you gonna turn into a hoofed, horned, and hairy devil, or what?"
He rolled his eyes. "The rules: you do not try to run away and you do not do anything stupid."
"I won't, if you keep your claws off me."
"This is no laughing matter, Kim. We are alone in the middle of no-where, it is dark, the water is deep, and the cliffs are high. Promise."
"Okay, I promise."
"I want a word of honour that you stay put."
"Hey, you are making me nervous, now!"
"Okay, I'll stay put. And I won't go into cardiac arrest, I hope."
He smiled. "No cardiac arrest, you are too young and healthy. The point is: no headless reaction. And I am insisting because that is something you are actually prone to."
"I'll give you that. But okay, seriously, I promise. Word of honor."
He held his hand before my eyes for a moment, and when he took it away, an orangutan was sitting in front of me. It was rather big, but not huge, quite normal except for the grey and white color of its fur. Its face reminded vaguely of his but was unmistakeably an ape's face, and its body was beyond all doubt an ape's.
The orangutan looked at me through detached, but friendly eyes, same color as his, different shape. "I have an existence. You have a life", a voice said in my mind, "you are a living creature. I am what I am."
I stared, unable to speak.
The ape held out a hand and brought mine, as I took it, to its chest. Under the warm fur, I felt its heart beating slowly and steadily. "You and I", said the voice in my mind, "we exist in different ways."
I withdrew my hand and shut my eyes tight. "Please, change back."
I heard Gervais' deep voice. "You can open your eyes."
"Do you look like yourself again?"
"I look like your Gervais Jenke again."
That brought a little smile back on my face. I looked at him. "My Gervais Jenke. That's a nice way to put it." I reached out but stopped in mid-air. "I see why you made me promise." He nodded. I stroked his hair, enjoying the texture. I tried to joke: "Your tailor is rich, eh?"
He smiled. "Quite."
The flames flickered strangely. I asked if we could leave. He replied simply: "Of course, let us go."
When he pushed the boat into the water, I asked if I could row a bit, to warm up. We exchanged places.
Rowing helped, but I still felt uneasy. After a while, I asked: "The Englishwoman was determined to die, wasn't she?"
"Yes." I shivered again. He added calmly: "This is Baie des trépassés, Walter."
I frowned: "You mean that she boarded the ship to the underworld?"
He smiled briefly: "I mean that there is a grain of truth in most legends."
I rowed stronger.
"Anyway, it was compassionate of you to help her."
His face hardened. "You are too kind."
"Hey, I mean it! She would have drowned, that's a terrible death!"
"I helped her to reach her goal, not to change her mind."
I stopped rowing. "But you helped me to change mine, on top of the TU building."
"I did not. You did not really want to jump."
"And if I had really wanted to jump?"
"I would have watched you die. I save no one. The help I give consists only in providing possibilities. At the end of the day, you decide, and your will is my ultimate boundary."
"Hm. But would you grieve over me if I went into the water, now, and really wanted to die?"
"I do not grieve, Walter, I am not a person, as much as you keep forgetting it. I would just watch you drown." He bent forward. "Grow up, love. Enjoy the novels, the films and the songs, by all means, but grow up."
I looked at him: "What did you just say?"
"I said: grow up."
"No, before that. You said 'love', HA!" I shot a fist up in the air. "Got 'im! You wouldn't save me, but you called me 'love'!"
He shook his head laughing. "You are resistant to facts and knowledge, Kim." He sighed. "Well, enough lessons for now. Scoot over. Let us take you home."
In the house he said good-night at the bottom of the staircase. I looked at his skin, so smooth, and at the lines and planes of his face, so familiar. A man's face.
"Do you grow a beard?", I asked.
He smiled, "If I want to."
I shook my head. "But you have a heart."
"I have a pulse", he corrected gently, "Time. Not a heart."
"Time… music is existentially important to you."
"Yes. You remember well."
"It's been only a few days. And one doesn't forget easily what you say… Can you be a plant, too?"
"Of course. Why are you asking?"
"I come to think: You were not leaning against the beech tree in the garden. You were the beech tree."
"You surprise me."
"Well, were you?"
"Perhaps I am really just imagining all this."
"Well, I don't give a shit, I still love you. Good-night, Jenke."
"Sweet dreams, Walter, and good thoughts."
On the following day, we went sailing. The sea wasn't rough, but the wind and the currents kept us very busy, being just two. We started off easy, playing it safe. Nevertheless, I didn't have the time to think about anything else than what was next, because the boat was different from those I sailed on before, bigger, faster, and at the same time a lot more agile. I got used to it pretty quickly, though, and asked if we could kick it up a notch. He answered at once cheerfully: "All right, let us fall off and see how fast she can get!"
At noon, we dropped anchor in a small bay. I was soaked and freezing because I'd been playing with the waves too much. So, having to change anyway, I proposed to go for a short swim before lunch and started undressing. He puckered a brow. "You will come out of the water faster than you dived in." – "Will you bet?" – "Absolutely." – "I win, you dive. I'll make at least four minutes." – "You will be out in less than thirty seconds." – "Deal. Mind your watch. Ready?… Three, two, one, here I go!" The water was so damned cold that I thought I'd pass out. I did my best, but when he called "thirty seconds!' I knew that I had to get out as long as I could still move. I climbed up the ladder and back into the boat as fast as I could, darted below deck, and my hands were so stiff that it took me forever to rub myself dry and to get dressed.
When I came back on deck he looked at my face then grinned: "Purple and blue look lovely on you." I laughed: "Cheap rhyme. And you lost." He laughed back: "You, too… I have an extra sweater, below. Take it, if you want." – "Thanks, and I release you, I can't do CPR." – "You certainly could not bring me to life. Below deck, now, before I have to defrost you."
While I was putting on the sweater, wondering about the fabric and his forever grey and white colors, he called: "Hot goulash ready!"
I climbed back on deck, seeking the warmth of his company, enjoying the thick smell of the soup.
He welcomed me with a glass of rum. "Here. Cheers."
"And now, goulash à la Warholaise… fresh from la boîte. Voilà."
"Merci beaucoup… Hey, it's good!"
"Yeah… that's important… but really, the water was great! You should go for it, too."
"Maybe some other time."
"That's too bad. I would like to see some color on you… speaking of which, don't you ever wear other colors than grey and white?"
"Doesn't it get boring?"
"Not for me. I have other ways with colors. I do not need to wear them."
"Hm. But still, I'd be curious to see you wear something else, some time."
"I do not think that it would work. It never has, so far… but we can try all the same, if you wish."
"Oh yes, please! I'll tell you what: I really need a warmer sweater out here and I've seen a boutique on the island. I liked the window a lot, very nice arrangement. We'll take a look there for you, too."
"All right. I think that I know the store – and if we mean the same one, the owner has a remarkable taste, indeed. However… but never mind, you will see for yourself, I think."
"Walter?", he asked, "What is the matter?"
"Sorry", I straightened up and stepped back from the rail. "I thought I had seen… the Englishwoman in the water, such bullshit…"
"The weather is changing, we should head back. Do you want to take the wheel?"
"No, thanks, I'm too tired, and my head plays tricks on me again."
"Do not worry, I will take it from here, what do we have an engine for?"
When we reached the island, I took him to the boutique I had seen in the morning. The shop was the one he knew, indeed, and the owner had a terrific taste. The sweaters she showed me were all so perfect that I bought two. Then we asked if she had something for Gervais and she pulled out a Norwegian pullover: grey, white, green, and blue. I had some trouble understanding her accent, but I think that she said something about green and blue going well with the color of his eyes. But when he tried the pullover on, she looked astonished for a split second then pinched her lips. I could see why: there was absolutely nothing wrong with the shape, the color, or the style. He should have looked very good in it, but he didn't.He looked totally phony.
While I was wondering at the strange impression he made, the shop owner shook her head and apologized in a suddenly very correct standard French for not having recognized him. He said that it was really no wonder, considering how much time had passed since his last visit, thanked her friendly for helping us, then added something in a dialect I didn't understand. She raised her chin, laughing, and replied in French that it was still a very nice compliment but that she was perfectly happy with her job.
Out on the street, I asked him what he had said. "Well, I repeated what I told her mother when we first met: that a lot of people on Rive Gauche would kill for her eye and judgment."
"Yes, I could see that… When did you meet her?"
"Quite some time ago, she was a little girl. I came into the boutique with a good acquaintance who liked to experiment around with colors and bet against me that he would be able to change my appearance. While her mother helped us, the little girl sat in a corner, doing her homework. After I had tried the first thing on, she muttered that my acquaintance must be blind not to see this would never work. I laughed out loud, her mother apologized, and I told her what I repeated today."
We walked in silence for a while, then he said, "I am afraid that you will have to put up with my grey and white."
"Yeah, I can see, now: you look terrible in alien colors."
"Are you disappointed?"
"No. I like you the way you are, I was really just curious, and now, I am very curious to see your other ways with colors."
"I will show you something tonight."
"Great – after dinner, because right now, I am even more hungry than curious. Listen, can we buy something and eat on the boat? I'd like that much better than the house or a restaurant, right now…"
"With great pleasure! I was going to suggest the same thing!"
"I'm not surprised. You looked so lighthearted on the water. I've never seen you like that before, and I like that look on your face a lot. I want to see some more of it."
He laughed. "You are beginning to read me."
He glanced at his watch. "Now, let us see. It is too late for groceries, but I know a little place where you can take away a sort of local fish and chips."
"Sounds great! And what about cheese? Do you think they'd have that, too?"
"I am sure they will. Come, this way."
We got everything we wanted at the little restaurant. I could only understand a few phrases here and there, because they were constantly switching back and forth between standard French and dialect. It seemed the owner's son had become a successful scriptwriter and Gervais had helped him to get started. I joked after we left: "Another guy who got what he wanted from you?" He smiled. "So it seems." – "And is he going to use it to destroy himself?" – "I do not know. It is up to him. He is been doing fairly well for himself, so far. We will see."
"Those are nice people."
The harbor was empty and silent, colorless in the moonlight. We hardly spoke over dinner. I enjoyed the quiet and he looked completely relaxed. After dinner, we went to sit on the prow side by side, looking out on the water. I put my knees up and wrapped my arms around my legs. I felt tired and at the same time high from the cold salty air and a glass of wine. "Music." I said, "Music would be nice." He took his phone out. "Any suggestions?" – "Let's see… something rhythmic and joyful, something to warm up… you got Ojos de Brujo?" – "Of course, I do. Actually, Rumba Dub Style fits very well with what I want to show you." He chose, put his player down, then covered my eyes with his hands. "Listen and watch… Can you see anything?" – "Of course no-hey, yes!… I see a firework, but it's upside down!" He took his hands away and my mouth fell open while he laughed. There was a firework exploding upside down from the sky into the water, white, blue, green, lilac, orange, purple, flowers and fountains, branches, leaves, and more flowers and fountains of color. I turned towards him. He was looking at the sky, whispering indistinctly, and looked like a child having the fun of his life.
Voices began to called out from the houses surrounding the haven, people gathered, "Des feux! Les feux d'joie!" – "Qu' c'est beau!" – "Ooh!" – "Aah!" The voice of the shop owner rang clear above all others: "Merci, Monsieur!" The firework got stronger – two, three, four, five, six and more explosions danced around one another, flying into the water in more colors than I can tell, slowing down until the color sparkles hung still in mid-air above the waves for a moment, then rained down all at one time.
After a silence, windows and doors shut, everybody left. The shop owner called again: "Merci beaucoup, Monsieur! Bonne nuit!" He called back: "De rien! Bonne nuit, madame!" Then the haven was quiet again.
"That was awesome, can you show me more?", I asked. "What would you like?" "Something quiet, something peaceful." – "Gladly! Look.", he gestured. I saw colors in the water, flowing, intertwining, whirling around one another, shaping a dance of dots, lines, and surfaces, in the middle of which grew strange plants, or creatures I had never imagined. I stood up to have a better look, went to the rail, bent forward, and immediately felt his hand on my shoulder. "No, it's okay", I said. He replied, "I know, but you may still fall". He wiped the water surface with a large gesture, everything vanished in the trail of his hand.
I turned to face him. "That was very nice…"
"It was just nice. Can you also do dark?"
"Of course I can."
"Can you show me, please?"
He gestured towards the vast surface of the sea, which shone black and silver in the moonlight. On the horizon I saw a calamus held by a scrawny hand race with inhuman speed across the waves, leaving a silver trail of unintelligible words behind that turned, slowly sinking, into pale greenish shapes, skulls, scattered bones, ivy ranking around modern ruins, scraggy cattle fleeing before livid flames. Line after line the writing hand approached the shore and the creatures unwinding from the letters that it traced became more and more frightening, while the skin on the fingers around the calamus deteriorated, rotting, cracking open, and oozing a black fluid on which the monstrous creatures began to feed. On the last line, the hand was gone and the monsters assaulted the haven, rolling over one another in a devouring, selfdestroying tangle, but before they reached us, he wiped them into nothingness with a gesture, smoothed the waves, picked something out of thin air, and offered me a beautiful white rose that dissolved when I tried to take it.
"I have many different ways with colors, shapes, and sounds", he said.
"You sure do." I breathed deep. "I want more, but if I may ask: I want to see something real, this time."
"I already gave you an example of my realness, on the beach."
"I would like another."
He thought for a long moment then said: "All right. But we would have to share a room, tonight."
"We would?! Yo, man, fuckin' finally!"
"Oh, Walter, but listen: would you mind sleeping on the boat?"
"Not at all, I would love to! Only let's go to the house and take a shower first, okay?"
"All right. And then there is something that you should know."
"Yeah, sure. You have been putting so many walls between us at night, my guess is you must kind of like hang upside down from the ceiling and wrap batwings around yourself in order to sleep…"
"Your parents should have forbidden Disney when there was still time."
"Maybe, but Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, not Fantasia! Music conquers all!"
He laughed: "All right, let us continue this conversation on our way back to the boat."
On our way back to the haven, he said: "Now, let us talk seriously. Your guesses about batwings were ludicrous, but there is something that you should know if we are going to be so close together. As you can imagine, I do not sleep in the biological sense of the word. However, from time to time, I happen to dream."
"You mean, you don't fall asleep, but you kind of fall adream?"
"Yes, you could call it that."
"Oh, wow! But that means that you have a psyche, a subconscious!"
"Fie! No! Just because your psychology has invented some useful constructs in order to explain how the human mind works, it does not mean that you can reduce dreams and dreaming to those, let alone me!"
"Hmm… yeah, I guess so… Okay, forget psychology. Tell me more about your way of dreaming."
We had reached the boat. He asked: "Do you mind if we sit on deck?"
"Not at all."
He went to fetch a blanket then sat down by my side, leaning against the cabin, looking out on the water. He covered our legs. "Warm? Comfortable?" – "Yes, very nice."
"Well, let me put it this way: my appearance is something I can change at will, you know that. However, when I dream, I seem to become what I am dreaming, not because I intend to, but because it simply happens. In other words: if you would watch me dream, you would very literally find yourself in the company of what I am dreaming."
"Yes. I thought something like that, too, when I first found out, and since then, the reactions of my unwanted and wanted witnesses have rarely been amusing. In very old times it was not such a problem, really. They thought that what they saw was due to some supernatural creature, some deity or the like, and were rather uncomplicated about it. Later, however… one example back in some year of the Lord: yet another plague and another war were running a competition in devastating yet another landmark, and mankind was yet again a sight to behold. Nevertheless, I had a beautiful dream while resting on the edge of a forest, until it was abruptly interrupted by a peasant running away from me, screaming at the top of her lungs: "Help! A dragon! A dragon wants to eat me!". I was actually not dreaming about a dragon at all, but about something that does not exist even in human imagination. She, however, saw in it a dragon… Over the centuries, I have had quite a few accidents of a similar kind. It is remarkable how humans keep seeing menacing monsters when I dream about possible realities. I have often asked myself whether they only see what they expect to see, or whether the possibilities I dream about are monstrous without my knowing it. Either way, during the past few centuries, the reactions to my dreams have been different, but by and large at least unpleasant. For example, I remember a guy who thought I was the owner, or father, of the creature he had seen. He called it a mermaid, shivering with fear and lust… he offered me his money, his house, and his daughter, in exchange for the 'mermaid'. I asked 'what about your wife', he said 'help yourself, but as a man of honor I must warn you, she isn't really worth trading in'. I replied that in that case I would decline the rest, too. I handed him a beautiful illustrated Alain de Lille and told him to look at the pictures instead of going after maids – mer, or not. Then I disappeared as conspicuously as possible, blowing stinking fumes into his nose."
I laughed. "You didn't take him to hell?" – "Ah, Walter, as if things were so simple… Anyway, the private rooms of the industrial age have made my existence a lot easier, in terms of dreaming."
"I can see that… But so, if I happen to look at you while you are dreaming about a… dragon, or a mermaid, or whatever, then…"
"You will find yourself in the company of what I am dreaming."
"Awesome! And would it be really there? I mean: what happens if I touch it… er… you?"
"I guess that depends on what I am dreaming."
"Hm. And what could it be?"
"Woa. But what was it so far, can you give me some examples?"
"Well, we come to a crucial point. No one has ever been able to give me more than phony labels or extremely inadequate descriptions. I must confess that I became curious. I know what dreaming feels like to me. But what do my dreams really look like to your kind? So one day, I asked a painter who wanted something from me to watch and draw what he saw in exchange. It was a major fiasco… he showed me a drawing on the next day – very creepy and really well done, but into-your-face fishy in terms of my dream. I asked him if that was really what he had seen, and he said no, but sorry, that had been absolutely no motive, so, he had made some improvements." – "Uh-oh. And what did you do to him?" – "I asked him to show me what he would have painted had he not made any improvements, and – do you know Balzac's novel about the unknown masterpiece?" – "Yes." – "Well, his drawing looked like that, except the recognizable thing in a corner was not a living foot, but something like a writing claw. He did not kill himself, but he went mad."
I thought for a moment then asked: "Have you…" He interrupted me: "Of course, but all I get out of technical devices is white noise." – "Figures." – "Yes. And writers, oh, my, you would think that descriptions would be their specialty. Well, I have asked quite a few if they would do me the favour to watch and describe." – "And?" – "Some were gone in the morning, some tried to tell me more or less beautiful lies, others ventured to sell substance spawns to me as my own dreams, and again others, more honest artists, declined politely to describe because they would go insane if they tried. Only one of them, quite some years ago – actually, she was the last person I have asked, you might know her as Marguerite Yourcenar, a remarkable artist and person – anyway, Marguerite described to me what she had seen, even in all details. However, what she produced was the longest completely meaningless stream of words I have ever heard. When she was through after about two hours, I knew just as little as before. We laughed heartily about the failed experiment, and my curiosity subsided."
"I'll say… Well, maybe the problem is that those were all artists, you know? But whatever. You are helping me and we have become friends, haven't we?"
"A friendship has developed between us, yes, I would definitely call it so."
"Right, so you got yourself a new eye witness. Are we going below?"
"We are, but please but keep in mind, the purpose of this is for you to get something real, not to describe afterwards. If you can describe, it will be terrific, but if not, it will be completely as expected. And if you scream, I will immediately be your Gervais Jenke again. All right?"
"Copy that. Look and listen, scream if necessary – report if possible."
The bunks were placed opposite each other and screened by curtains which we left open so that I could see him.
I started to unpack, wondering about what he would look like without clothes on, turned away from him for a moment, looked again, and he was already lying down dressed in – "Of course, grey and white." – "Of course." – pajamas. He said "Good-night", while I finished changing, then picked up a heavy book from the floor which I hadn't seen lying there.
I answered hesitantly: "Good-night…"
He asked. "What is it?"
"Nothing, really. Just had this thought… I would really never want to share this space with you if you were a real man."
"I know, but you can do something about that."
"Maybe… maybe I will… I would like to… oh, God, what am I talking about?! I'm not saying that you are just some sort of alternative solution!…"
"I know, Walter, and the reason why I know is that I know I am not a solution at all."
"Hey, no! That's not what I meant! Jesus Christ, I'm so…"
"Ssshhh. Enough, please. Everything is just fine. It has been a long day. Let us rest."
I was tired, indeed, and also embarrassed, but above all I was curious. I lay awake, waiting, watching, while he read the thick, antiquated-looking book. Nothing happened. After a very long time – my watch crept towards one o'clock – he said: "This is not working, Walter, just go to sleep. Your wakeful eye is making me too self-conscious to dream, anyway." – "I am trying to sleep. But it's your fault if I can't! What if I miss everything, or wake up in the middle of the night in the presence of whatever creature and can't tell if it's you inside of it, or if you're inside of it, you know what I mean? On the beach, it was different. I didn't watch you change, but you covered my eyes with your hand and feeling your touch, I knew it was you." He sighed, propped himself up on one elbow, and dropped the book on the floor. "Why do you not come over?"
I got up at once and went to sit on his bedside. "Are you serious? What happened to all your sexual restraints?"
"Walter, I do not have sexual restraints."
"Well, but you pay so much attention to show as little skin as possible in my presence…"
"I also have no skin either."
"Hm. Anyway, I thought for a while that you must be either an excessive prude or some kind of leper."
"You and your guesses."
"But then I thought it's just how you are. Whatever. So? Do you mean it, now?" He lifted the cover, moving closer to the wall to make room. "Come here, please." I snuggled against him, thinking that was it for sleeping, but as soon as he put his arm around me and I felt his peculiar, calm and fluid touch, I drifted off to sleep, so fast that I only heard his "Good night" but couldn't answer.
When I woke up, he was busy in the galley, whistling a merry, crooked tune. I was so disappointed I could have screamed. In spite of sharing a bed with him, I had simply slept, nothing else. He came over with a cup of coffee: "Good morning, sleepyhead!" He handed me the cup with a bow, saying "Thank you very much!"
"Thank you for what", I snapped, "are you making fun of me?"
"Absolutely not! That was a truly unique experience in my long existence! I am still unable to figure out…", he looked at me intently, "You do not remember anything, do you?"
"Oh, my. Wait a moment, please… How do I say this?…"
"Anyway you like but fast!"
"We have been sharing my dreams all night, Walter."
"What the fuck?!"
"You do not remember anything."
"No! Nothing! And I'll really freak out in a second if you don't tell me what there is to remember!"
"Oh, my, oh, my… this is exceptional in every respect… give me a moment, allright? I will tell you over breakfast, as best I can."
"Everything. All dragons, all mermaids, all details."
However, while I was getting dressed I changed my mind. Over breakfast, I told him that I didn't want to hear anything from him yet, but to remember myself. Maybe later, if nothing would come back. He agreed at once. "Actually, I was worried about how to describe things. I think that I understand my poor artists a lot better, now."
We set sail and cruised around all morning. I was very glad that I already knew the boat. The wind was even rougher than the day before and we had to be all over the place. At first, the thought of our forgotten dreams bothered me intermittently, but Gervais's high spirits were so contagious that I couldn't help but feel good and sailing kept me so busy that it left no room for anything else. In the afternoon, the sun was shining, but he frowned checking the sky then called: "We should head back! This is not going to be fun anymore in short! Ready about?" I called: "Ready!", turned around, froze, and the next thing I know is that I was lying under him, he was calling "What was that?! You could have gone overboard!", and I looked at his face while this deep silence spread inside of my head and I really saw him for the first time, and could only say "dotted fish" and his eyes widened and then my face was in his hands and his lips were on mine, and we were rolling over the deck, kissing and cheering for a short, furious moment, before he urged: "Come on, this is dangerous!"
While the sky began getting darker at a frightening speed, we sailed at top speed, laughing and throwing key words like "leaves" and "spirals" at each other in between the commandos and answers.
On the last stretch we had to switch to engine and put on oilskins. The sky was completely black. I didn't want to take the wheel, I was having more and more flashbacks from our dream and couldn't focus anymore. He put his arm around me, and I nestled into his side. We reached the haven in a downpour.
He asked: "Where do you want to sleep?"
"On the boat, please, if you don't mind."
"On the contrary! Besides, the rain will stop in a few moments. But we should go to the house to take a hot shower."
"Yes, that would be good. I also need to change."
"Yes… and maybe we can eat there, too? It's more comfortable."
"How is that possible? That we share dreams?"
"I do not know… maybe it is because you have such a lively imagination?" – I scoffed, he smiled – "Seriously, now. It seems to me that my dreams have always been meant to be shared, except that no one had the idea to share them with me like this, before. Perhaps it is as simple as that."
"Hm… well, whatever. I'll think about it later. Right now, I don't know if I care that much."
"Neither do I, Walter, neither do I."
Lying together in his bunk that night, everything felt exactly right.
"What are we doing tomorrow?", I asked.
"I was thinking: what would you say to seeing another island and a little of the undersea world?"
"You mean, you actually intend to take clothes off in my presence, now that we share dreams?"
"Walter, I am thinking about scuba diving… have you ever done it before?"
"Oh… no, only snorkeling as a kid, but I'd love to! Do you think I can do it?"
"I shall coach you and we will not go anywhere deep, nor take a very long dive."
"Wonderful. Have you ever been to Greece?"
"Greece? No, never…"
"Would you like to go?"
"Then…" He dialed. "Pronto?… Buona sera, Giorgio, sono… grazie, e tu? Come stai?… Ah, congratulazioni! Mi fa veramente piacere!… Grazie, grazie tante ma lascia stare, davvero… Senti, scusa se ti chiamo cosí tardi, avrei una preghiera, vorrei fare una scappata a Siros, ma purtroppo abbiamo poco tempo… si siamo in due… no, non è questo, è complicato da spiegare… Perfetto, grazie! A che ora?… Benissimo, ci saremo… salutami Davide, spero di fare la sua conoscenza, e grazie ancora!…"
"A beautiful island, you will see, but go to sleep, now."
"Yes, yes, in a moment. Why were you speaking Italian? And who is Giorgio? Where do you know him from?"
"We were diving partners. We spent a summer together, not long ago. He is a very interesting person. I met him accidentally. I was in Syros and wanted to go swimming. He was sitting on the beach, musing. When I passed him by, he addressed me in a beautiful Tuscan dialect, as naturally as if everybody all over the world could be expected to speak Tuscan. He told me in a casual tone that his lover had just left him and he could not decide whether he wanted to go get drowned or to get a new haircut. I sat down beside him and said that I would not change my haircut, if I were him. I would lie in the sun and read a good book. He gave me this unbelievably sexy eye and quoted 'The flesh is sad, alas! And I have read all the books… but how about going diving, handsome?' Well, that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship."
"So, he is one of your real friends?"
"Yes. Actually, he made a pass at me that evening, and he is very attractive… old, in your eyes, but you will see what I mean, tomorrow… but after the first kiss he eyed me sharply and said that he was not quite sure of what I was, but that we were certainly not practicing the same religion…" He laughed. "I am very glad to hear that he has found his soulmate. Another stranded Italian, the world is small."
"That's what you congratulated him to?"
"Yes, and he offered to find someone for me, too…"
"He was just prying. Be prepared for embarrassing questions."
I laughed. "We"ll tell him that I'm your flavor of the month."
"He will love you – and therefore, he will give you lots of styling tips. Now, get some sleep, please, because I shall have to wake you up in about four hours, and you should not be too tired tomorrow. I have to arrange a few more things, make some phone calls. All right?"
I kissed him on the cheek. "Good night, sorcerer."
He kissed me on the forehead. "Sweet dreams, apprentice."
Giorgio was even more attractive than I had imagined and as sharp-tongued as I had thought. But Gervais had supposed wrong, he didn't ask any embarrassing questions at all, just looked at us when we met at the airport and hugged me, saying over my shoulder in English: "Handsome, I'm so glad that you finally found someone who is practicing the same religion!… But I haven't seen you in such a long time that I'll be pissed as hell, if you tell me that you two want to go diving alone!" – Gervais answered laughing: "We go together, of course. And it is really not what you think, my friend." – Giorgio grinned: "No, è 'l grande amore." He put his arm around my shoulder and pushed me towards a small airplane. "Come, darling, I'll tell you what we do… but say, what did you do to your skin?! You need prep cream!" I stammered – "We went sailing." – "So? That's no excuse, tsss!… And while we're at it: jeans are fine, but your cleavage is not the Hermitage, my queen, the people should be allowed to see it!" – "Cleavage!", I snorted – "Well, the flatland has its own charm. But more about this later. Now: as soon as we get there, we send him to lie in the sun and read a good book, he loves that, and we take care of your outfit, I am all for the cliché, and I have something perfect for you to go diving. Purple. Hot." – "Are you… in the fashion branch?" – "Darling, no! I'm a retired soldier and leisure musicologist! Didn't he tell you anything about me?!" – "He told me he likes you a lot." – "Then I forgive him."
Forget Enez Sun, diving was the real thing in terms of time off. Gliding underwater surrounded by such a deep, peaceful, and at the same time vibrant silence as I would never had thought possible, I couldn't believe how far away from everything you can get.
Back on the beach after our dive, while Giorgio was catching up on all the talking he hadn't been able to do underwater, Gervais asked if he could go swimming alone for a while, and we had hardly said of course, go ahead, that he darted back into the water without taking his neoprene suit off. I laughed, but a moment later I fell silent because he was flying through the waves as if he were one of them, just faster than the other ones, a swift current which flowed out into the open sea, dissolved for a moment then streamed back to the shore. He rose from a breaking wave as a foamy human shape that became solid again and sprinted towards us cheering while Giorgio laughed, "I told you that Venus being a woman was nothing but prejudice!".
Gervais sat down beside me, laughing, too. Then he stretched out on the sand. "Aahh… it is so good to exist."
Giorgio poked me in the ribs with two fingers: "Close your mouth, dear… aaahh, wonderful blush, I so wish that I could still do that!… But you, my friend, you enjoy your masquerades a lot, don't pretend any different."
"Oh, but I do not deny it! My tailor is rich, as Walter says, and I like it a lot." I laughed, but then I noticed the vast, deep silence that surrounded us. Where were all the sounds of nature? I looked out on the water. The sea was suddenly as calm and flat as a mirror, too calm, too flat, and full of clouds that looked out of place, trapped away from a sky where they were missing, beautiful reflections of a fragile world. "So peaceful", I said, "Too bad peace never lasts for long."
"Doesn't it?", Giorgio said, "Well, I can tell you one thing or two about war and peace, but not now. Listen, do you really have to leave tonight? Davide is coming back tomorrow, and we could have such a nice beach party with local wine, frissons, scandalization of the island and everything! Learning is necessary, but you need enjoyment, too. What about it?"
Gervais shook his head. "Tempting, but we are really not that kind of couple. We just came to dive, to swim with the dolphins, and perhaps to see the cave." – "Dolphins?!", I cut in, "Where?!"
He pointed toward the open sea, and I saw them. "Jesus Effing Christ! A school!" – "Do not get too excited, please", he admonished, "I cannot promise that they will let us come close. I am really just a consultant, not a sorcerer."
"Whatever you say, c'm on, let's go!"
Giorgio grinned. "Well, then… how about a little competition? Freestyle?"
"You got it. Best out of three."
"You should pick someone your size, dear. You do not stand a chance."
"I don't care! I'll race you all the same!"
"Now, that's the spirit.", Gervais said "Very well, then. To the dolphins."
But they were gone. Instead, when we reached the spot where they had been, I heard a deep humming vibration. "Stop! Border guard!", Giorgio called, blocking my way, "We should head back." I had been so busy swimming as fast as I could that I hadn't noticed the patrol boat. "But there is no border, here!", I called. "There is a route", Giorgio said, treading water beside me, "And they watch it."
The boat passed slowly by. The men on deck wore no uniforms, you would have thought them fishermen, until you saw the guns. Giorgio greeted politely. One of the men nodded and signaled to the others that we were all right. The boat speeded up and away.
"You just live with this? In peace?"
"Some would say I got old and wised up, and also that I just saved you from a dangerous mistake."
"Oh, yeah, wised up, that's your excuse for laying back and doing nothing?"
"I moved to Syros when I turned sixty, darling. In fourtysome years from now, you may find yourself on a similar island."
"I definitely will NOT. I'll die fighting."
"You will? Well, let me quote from an oeuvre you would understand: you know nothing about fighting, and you know nothing about death."
"Maybe I don't, but look at yourself and your generation! And at the state you leave the world for us to live in!"
Before Giorgio could retort anything, Gervais said: "Stop, you two. Come, follow me." He put his palms on the surface of a wave that suddenly looked as solid as crystal, heaved himself up to stand on the surface of the sea, stretched his hand out, and helped us climb up to him, one after the other. "Mind your step", he said, "it is slippery", then he moved swiftly ahead.
Before I could even begin to wonder, we stepped ashore on the side of the bay that lay in the shadows, and Gervais lead us to a small cave entrance – a hole, actually, so small we would be only be able to enter on all fours. "The cave itself is large", Giorgio said, "Trust me, I've seen it." I shrugged, moved closer, and saw the tiny carvings, armed creatures all around, walking into the hole. I turned to Gervais. "Troups? And doctors?", I asked. He nodded. "The battle is carved inside." – "Which battle?" – "I cannot tell you, you have to see for yourself. This is a very special cave – not quite unique, but one of very few. In very ancient times, people went inside to gain and to give insight. But then, at some point, the custom was rejected, or lost, in any case forgotten. The Greeks you know of already ignored it. For uncountable years, I have been the only one who takes people here, from time to time. I offered Plato to take him here, but he refused." Giorgio scoffed. Gervais waved a dismissing hand, "He did not think much of me. That happens."
"So, I will see the future, if I go inside?"
"Perhaps you will see what you call the future. You could compare this cave to an accessible black hole. Time has a different quality, inside."
I looked at the hole. "Not very enticing, your comparison", Giorgo muttered deprecatingly. I waved a dismissing hand, "I know, he does not entice. Let me think."
"I refuse", I said after a few moments, "But not because I'm afraid of some black hole. I just don't wanna learn about my future in advance from some obscure whatever, I want to make my future myself."
"Then you, my dear", said Giorgio, "are just yet another disappointment."
"Am I?", I snapped. "Well, I guess that is mutual."
Giorgio ignored me. "Mi dispiace, guarda", he said to Gervais, "ti avrei augurato che le cose andassero diversamente, questa volta."
"It is different in some points, and it is the same in other points."
"Come sempre, e allora lo vedi che non cambierà mai niente in questo mondo."
"No, Giorgio, torniamo sempre allo stesso dissenso. Il mondo non può non cambiare."
He's right, there, I thought, the world cannot not change. But change how? And thanks to who? "But how is the world supposed to change, if we do not make a change? Screw the world being different, or the same! This is about making a difference!"
But then it hit me, finally. "The Greeks… Plato.", I said to Gervais, "You really are unimaginably old." While I was saying it, I felt it: I have not fallen in love with anyone, I have fallen in love with something that is really, literally, and truly not someone.
"You are not a person", I said stupidly, "You aren't."
Gervais nodded. "I am not, Walter", he said, "But I am related to mankind, to this world, to existence. And I do exist. I am really here with you, and I can help, if help is wanted."
"And you should let him help you", Giorgio said. "Believe me." He moved towards me. I stepped back. He raised his hands, palms forward. "I understand your will to fight", he said, "Let there be peace between us", he stretched his hand out. I looked at him, a retired fighter, gone soft. Useless. But also a good person. I shook his hand. "Do listen to an old man", Giorgio said, "mind his advice, he means well."
"I know", I said. "And I don't want a fight with you, either. I like you, Giorgio, but you and I are not on the same page. You can't stay out of battles, these days. You don't go to war anymore, war comes to you."
"That is true, and all the more a reason to avoid headless action! I am not saying 'stay out of battles', I am saying: know thy enemy and thyself, before you take action."
"Forgive me, but those are just words. I know my enemy inside and out. Intus habeo." I turned to Gervais, "Can we go, now? We can go back another time, now is not the time for me to enter that cave. Perhaps another time."
He shook his head, "You cannot go back to that cave any more than you can step twice into the same river. What you did not want to look at, you shall never see. There is only one moment for each thing, as an old friend of mine liked to say, and this chance is gone. But you can get another chance, somewhere else. With me, it is always up to you, Walter. You decide."
"Let's go back to Berlin", I said.
Giorgio frowned. "And then?", he asked.
"And then let's do something about all this!", I called. "Gervais is right about other chances. Can't you see?! Look!", I pointed at the open sea, "Where are the dolphins, Giorgio? And where are those who never reached their destination?! Let's not just peer at the shadows on a cave wall! We have to do something! Winter is coming!"
"And we're all on HBO." Giorgio turned to Gervais. All glamour and humour were gone from his face, he looked almost ugly. "What the hell is wrong with you?!", he shouted, "For the first time, I feel like I don't know you! You are supposed to make people see sense, not to lose it with them!"
"Amico mio", Gervais said calmly, "I appreciate your concern. But you know very well that making some people see what other people consider sense is not what I do and that I am not susceptible to human madness."
Giorgio shook his head. "Still, even you can be affected by it, as it seems. And you", he turned to me, "you can't tell even the difference between art and reality, and you think you can just go ahead, untaught, unguided, and do something? Do what?!"
"I can perfectly tell the difference, and I won't be unguided!", I snapped, "I just will not take as guides your Greek heroes, your Roman emperors, your crusaders, your conquistadores, your followers of freedom, fairtrade, and sharp blades!"
"This is ridiculous."
"Ridiculous! Who stands in the longest tradition of bloodshed, you, or I?! In this world you have contributed to make, it's much better to be ridiculous than to be useless like you!"
"Again, you are fighting", Gervais cut in, sighing, "I have brought you here for insight and end up as the spiritus rector of a verbal fight club."
We both turned towards him, cold showered. "You do not talk about fight club", Giorgio pointed out. "You do not talk about fight club", I backed up, "And Utopia would be more suitable as a plan for the fullness of time." I whistled the first tunes of the main theme.
Gervais smiled, "You do not cease to surprise me", while Giorgio sighed, "More TV shows, more dubious role models. I think I liked the Starks better. But listen, please. Our friend here is the best of guides, but not a parent. I have children and grand-children…" – "You do?!" – "Please. I have raised three children, who are much older than you, now, and my grand-children will be your age, soon enough. If for no other reason, then for this one, listen to me, please, when I say again: mind his advice. Think twice, before you take action."
"I know you are right. And I will", I promised. I was lying, and I think Gervais knew that, but if he did, he said nothing.
We parted from Giorgio in harmony, exchanging big hugs and false promises of seeing each other soon. At the airport, I realized how tired I was. I fell asleep as soon as I hit the plane seat and slept through the flight back to Berlin. The only thing I remember is the command to fasten our seat belts, which I did not obey.
I also have only a few intermittent memories of our last days together in Berlin. I remember that the pictures on the wall of his study started reminding me of our journey, the water, the fireworks, the Englishwoman, and the quarrel with Giorgio. I told Gervais, and he said, "Well, you can touch the pictures that you do not like." I did, and the canvas turned white. "Oh my God, one of your favourites!", I called – "Do not worry", he said, "touch it again."
I did, and the picture reappeared. I tried it two, three, four times with the same picture, then started turning the ones that disturbed me into white canvasses. "What kind of a trick is this?", I asked, when I was through.
"You know that I will not reveal it", he smiled. "All I can tell you is that it is absolutely reliable, no matter how often you change your mind. You can always choose."
"And the pictures never change? I mean, can I also change them?"
"Only by going over them. Otherwise, your only choice is to see, or not to see."
On our last day together, after getting home in the evening, I went into the kitchen to drink a glass of water and he followed me, but didn't take his coat off. I opened the fridge. He handed me a glass out of the cupboard. I said: "Thank you. Do you want to drink something, too?" He said quietly "No, thank you." He leaned against the counter. I knew: that was it.
I emptied the glass, deliberately calmly, put it down then went to stand in front of him. He smiled. I hugged him, leaning my cheek against his shirt. He hugged me tight wrapping me up with him in his coat, kissed the top of my hair then laid his cheek on it.
I said into his shirt: "You are leaving."
He replied quietly: "Yes. It is time."
Strangely, the pain I had feared was not there. Instead, there was only the certainty that my time out was over, and the memory of what had been so important when I had climbed to the top floor of the TU building.
I said: "I'll see you to the door."
On the threshold, he kissed me on the forehead. I said: "No. I want a real good-bye kiss, to remind me of what we are." He took my face in his hands, and feeling his lips on my closed eyelids, on my cheeks, then on my mouth, and his kiss taking me under until I didn't feel myself anymore and his voice had to bring me back sealed the difference between life and our time together.
We both let go and turned away from each other at the same time. I went inside and closed the door while he disappeared on the alley.
But after he had left, I cried, cried, and cried for days on end. I cried in every room of his house. I cried while I lied to the police officer who questioned me, shaking his head. I cried between working hours. I cried between therapy hours. I cried between meetings and practice hours. I cried in the subway, on the bus. Whenever I could, I sat on our bench, crying my eyes out. I cried to Beethoven's Ninth, Come into my world, and the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
I ruined a copy of Master and Margarita with my tears.
I speedran Getting Over It in 43 seconds, posted it, then deleted all my internet accounts and destroyed all my electronic devices.
I watched Hiroshima mon amour for the last time.
Then I forgot my Gervais Jenke.