In this here story, All Burp tells how he almost lost his mind, the poor bloke!

Yeah, he’s the one to the right, with his ears pricking up and his eyes rolling.

 151

 

Brussels in the early 1970’s, in a psychiatric ward, my most trying period

 

PARENTHESIS

 

first appeared in The Midatlantic Review (USA)

 

“How serious was it?”

“They had to break into his compartment on the Milano-Brussels Express … tried with a sharp paper-cutter … married, with a child … just moved to Belgium …”

Either she did it on purpose or thought they were far enough for me not to grasp what they were saying. The boyish-looking man whom she addressed as ‘doctor’ turned around to glance at me with that professional detachment which conceals, among other things, fear and hesitation.

“Eclectic background … lived on three continents … seems to have a good disposition …”

They walked away. It was getting dark and cold, and I felt hungry.

A stout, middle-aged Flemish nurse showed me to my room. It was in the annex, on the first floor, overlooking an orchard. At the other end stood the eighteenth-century mansion turned into a rest home.

“I hope you will feel comfortable here,” said the nurse, rolling her r’s dramatically. As I began to sneeze she proceeded:

“Pricking stuff, isn’t it? We’ve had the place disinfected. I’ll let in some fresh air. Ready? Take a long, deep breath!”

She braced her knees and flung the window wide open. After a few chilling seconds which allowed me to appreciate her brawny calves, she pulled down the shade.

“That’s it. I’m off now,” she added in a matter-of-fact tone. “Ah! If you need anything,

just ring the bell to call the night nurse. I’ve left her instructions for your medicine. Cheerio, see you tomorrow.”

I heard the heavy thump of her steps and counted them as she walked down the staircase. I could still feel her presence lingering about, in an odor of warmed-over potato chips. My lungs became slowly impregnated with it until I got nauseous.

Sat on the corner or the bed. It creaked in response. Got a fright. Eyes then roamed in a cold inspection from one object to another. Desk, empty flower pot, lithograph representing a plowman at work … moth-eaten curtains, wash basin surmounted by a cracked mirror, solid mahogany wardrobe, desk again, ceiling, pink lampshade, desk once more. Drew left wrist close to ear, listened attentively to ticking of watch. Three knocks at the door.

“So, how is our new guest? We seldom have young folks around. It’s a nice change. By the way, are you afraid of ghosts?”

She had a big bony smile and the neck or a giraffe.

“No,” I caught myself answering. “Is it any business of yours?”

“The old lady who preceded you was a sleepwalker, and your next-door neighbor used to come and pay her nightly visits. He still does it sometimes. They had known each other for nine years. But don’t worry, he isn’t dangerous.

I leaped to my feet as if someone had suddenly set the bed afire.

“Well,” I started shouting, “I’ll lock myself in!”

“Calm down! I only wanted to warn you. Anyway, there are no keys here, except for the bathroom.”

I stood still and stared at her for a while, until I finally consented to swallow the pills she handed me with a glass of water.

“That’s better. You should undress and try to sleep. In the meantime, I’ll tidy away your linen in the cupboard.”

I shook my head in a stern no. She didn’t insist and was about to leave the room when I stretched my arms out to her: “Nurse, please, can I take a shower?”

“Of course … call me Yvonne…» She spoke with a strong Walloon drawl (a French dialect spoken in southern Belgium) and followed me right into the bathroom. I was in a fidget. The bottle of shampoo slipped out of my hands, with the towel. Couldn’t she understand? Didn’t they know what privacy meant in this place? Apparently not, for I had to strip naked in front of her, let her rub my back – where was my mother’s gentle touch? – and dry me up as if I were a bundle of carrots.

“That’s a good boy!” She made me blush to the point that I became obsessed with one thought: my body. Body and shame. Not the fears that had brought me here, not the austere walls of my new prison, not even the whining of a moribund patient upstairs seemed to bother me that night.

The bell chimes. We are summoned to the refectory: a wainscoted, creaking dining-room on the ground floor of the mansion. Just ten of us around the table. Presiding at each end, respectively: Mademoiselle Hélène, a gentle forty-ish brunette, and Madame Liliane, her assistant, younger, lean, platinum blonde, more talkative. They seem to get on fairly well. Very seldom hear them argue. Everybody seated except for the wind-broken Monsieur Lazarus and Mademoiselle Hélène who’s helping him to get into his chair. At each meal, the same ritual. Average age among the inmates: seventy-five. ‘Gagagenarian’ atmosphere.

No one crosses him/herself. Religion doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern here. Perhaps they are prudish about it. It is quite disturbing to remind God of one’s existence when skirting death becomes one’s major pastime.

A gust of steamed food sweeps through the refectory as Leila pushes open the kitchen door, carrying a piteously huge tray. Roar of applause, initiated by Mademoiselle Hélène, who pays the bashful servant a generous compliment: “It’ll be a treat, I can assure you, and a pleasant surprise for those of you who’ve never tasted real Algerian couscous!”

Toothless Monsieur Lazarus bursts into a fit of laughter. He almost swallows half of his napkin, chokes and sputters in his plate. Madame Liliane rushes over to the old man, pats him vigorously on the back until he is ready to drink some water.

I can hear Mr. Dupont gnash his teeth, in his own peculiar manner. Lofty and cynical, he suffers from asthma, doesn’t talk much, but when it happens, no interruption is tolerated. He has two ways of approaching people. He either darts a hawkish eye upon you – which means that you are interesting enough, although not necessarily sympathetic – or, he stares fixedly at his own image, reflected and multiplied in the cutlery, as if he were all by himself. Someone is whispering to my left … the ever-moaning and grumbling Countess – Austro-Hungarian, with some Russian blood, if I’m not mistaken. She’s an alcoholic. Her wrinkled cheeks droop like those of an exhausted chubby cocker spaniel:

“Hate that North African stuff! Heaven knows what she’s put in the soup. Ha, soup! Vegetable porridge, yes! And those red peas over there; hot enough to pop your eyes out!”

Half-bent over his plate, Monsieur Lazarus falls asleep, munching a piece of boiled carrot.

Sudden bellowing of an animal in a slaughter house. The poor old man tries to clear his throat, pokes the monumental lady at his right in the ribs; he savagely rubs his Adam’s apple with the other hand. A spoon lands in the plate of one of the inmates. Floundering in his chair, eyes wide open, tongue out, Monsieur Lazarus literally capsizes, head down.

Both Mademoiselle Hélène and her assistant get hold of him and drag the now unconscious mass out of the room. Silence for a while. Not a sign of surprise, not a wink. Monsieur Dupont lifts an eyebrow of contempt. The monumental lady keeps staring – glassy, unperturbed expression of someone who is above such petty physical considerations. Leila’s face has turned livid:

“Anyone for some more couscous”’ she probes in a faint voice.

Her hand trembles as she is ladling out the soup. The Countess glares at Mr. Dupont and mutters:

“How can you even hope to get cured with such pigs around you?” Her lips are rimmed with saliva. Mr. Dupont shrugs it off, then ignores her altogether.

Once the meal is over, most of the inmates retire to the adjoining salon, waiting for their cup of coffee.

The Countess cackles on, apparently indifferent to the fact that the monumental lady opposite her is not listening. In a nervy gesture, Mr. Dupont switches on the radio full blast, then lowers it, but not until the Countess has shut up. An educated man, conscious of his superiority, he imposes the choice of his programs on the others. He always listens to the BBC’s one o’clock news, monopolizing it, for no one else here understands English. Eventually, he lets them enjoy the boring ‘Music-upon-request’ programme. After gulping his tepid beverage, he stands up, moves to the door and bids a vague goodbye.

The Countess, in want of companionship, turns to me:

“Dreary place for a youngster like you, isn’t it? I’m a grandmother, you know. You wouldn’t think so, but I am. They’ve abandoned me, the rascals! Too much of a nuisance at home. That’s why they sent me here. I’d rather be buried in the Pyramids than with these morganatic bums. They look like mummies anyway.”

Ten days of insulin coma therapy. Whirlwind of faces. Always the same trio: my handsome and bespectacled doctor, the fat Flemish nurse, and Yvonne, who is helping me get dressed. I am slowly awakening from that long woolly universe, teeming with shapeless forms – the so-called deep-sleep treatment.

My limbs and I behave like strangers; they seem reluctant to obey whosoever resides under that empty sound box which once contained a mind. Is it still there? If so, I don’t recognize it.

A day or two later, I find myself sitting in the refectory. Total numbness. A vacuum. Then, sudden change when my eyes meet those of the girl who is waiting on us. Olive complexion, lustrous hair dotted with crystal drops; smile so sad that I wonder whether I should call it a smile. The trembling of my hands has ceased. I tentatively regain control of my senses. It hurts. All over. Wounds in the raw. As many needles as I have pores. Can’t stand the sight of the people I am sharing this meal with. Is it the projection of a renewed outbreak of self-hatred? Room reeks of death. I smell it, breathe it, hear it. The perpetual wailings of Monsieur Lazarus. The hoarse, nerve-racking grunt of the Countess. Her new dentures, already black with nicotine – she had all her teeth pulled out a month ago. Mr. Dupont, who’s hissing like a snake ready to strike. And the monumental lady, ever so mute, immovable; for all I know, she might have reached the hereafter a long time ago, unless she’s practicing the language of the dead – sepulchral silence. I wonder if they have such a thing as an absorption center down, or up there, whichever the case may be. Do they apply a form of apartheid – soul segregation, that is? The only one to be spared my harsh judgement is Leila. Why she in particular? Except for the monumental lady, to me, Leila is the most inscrutable character around. There has never been more between us than a laconic exchange of courtesies. A hushed “How are you today?” or an impersonal “Bon appétit!” accompanied by that bleak and somewhat indomitable smile or hers. Maybe it’s the sheen of her iris.

Snow flakes spraying the air. Symphony in white major. First movement. Piano, pianissimo. The trees with their arms outstretched are the soloists of this ageless orchestra. No conductor. Armonia magica. So smooth. Blood-curdling cries. Footsteps. I’m alone in this garden of Hades. I grope in the pocket of my duffle coat for a handkerchief and extract instead a pair of red sunglasses. Which I put on. Horresco referens – I shudder as I relate. The whole atmosphere is bleeding. The wound can’t be spotted. It is omnipresent. Fresh, rich, non-coagulating blood. Beautiful and distressing! Peaceful yet staggering. Have the gods slaughtered each other, washing the earth in an ocean of plasma?

As I approach the mansion, the faces I recognize through the stained-glass window appear as unusual as purple ghosts at a secret gathering. I enter the room, leaving my spectacles on. Red glances. Hostile smiles. Altered sensations. They speak a language I understand. Fragments of conversation – perfectly intelligible – in which I decide not to partake. I feel cloistered in a protective sheath. My lips move. They utter words, yet I can’t

hear them any longer. I’m probably giving the right answers. The Countess-ghost has just nodded at me, while the ghost of Mr. Dupont sneers. Who is he making fun of now?

“Wipe that grin off your face!”

No reaction. Haven’t I just said it? Never mind. The intention was there. Clicking noises. The other ghosts are busy eating. Eating, chewing, swallowing blood. I’m not hungry.

“Have some! It’s fresh, broiled salmon.”

My hands wave a gesture of refusal. Inquisitive looks. They get on my nerves. Someone orders me to take off my glasses. Who the devil does he think he is – he or she? I don’t know. It continues to nag me. I get up, push back my chair and leave the refectory, yelling: “Return to where you came from, bunch of bloody ghosts!”

9:20 pm on my fluorescent watch. It is still snowing. The night resembles a live lacework. Dapple-grey. I’m about to cross the garden, heading towards the annex, when I hear a flutter. I turn around and see Leila shaking a tablecloth on the doorstep of the kitchen. She beckons to me, whispers something I don’t quite get. Disappears for a moment, then comes out dressed in a synthetic fur coat, carrying a straw bag on her left arm.

All the lights of the mansion are out except in the living room, where the only animated object is the television screen. Ghost entertainment in a ghost house.

Again she whispers: “Alexis, Alexis….”

I approach her, hesitantly.

“But why did you keep those sunglasses on during lunch?”

As no answer comes, she adds: “Would you mind accompanying me to the bus station? I’m afraid to go there alone at this hour of the night.”

She’s right. Not a soul around. Shadows. And the thriving, intensifying lacework of the snow. Two street lamps pathetically sustaining the assault of undetectable machine guns. The frenzy of a myriad of tiny white bullets. Sudden whoosh of an empty bus – flash of neon in the darkness. Seconds later a truck wobbles its way up the opposite direction. Then again that pervasive quietness, which is neither silence nor sound. What a grim sight indeed! … eerie beauty. The pavement is wide enough for only one person. Cobblestones covered with slush. I walk at the edge of the road and catch hold of Leila’s sleeve:

“Be careful, you can break your neck on those things!”

She smiles, her gaze flitting now here, now there, and says:

“How thoughtful of you! My husband wouldn’t mind at all if something like that happened to me.”

Before I realize what she means, the trolley picks her up and they vanish in the dark.

Ten weeks already. When will I get out of here? No one has a clue. Yes, the doctor. But we’re not on speaking terms. Madame Liliane and Mademoiselle Hélène won’t talk either. They’ve been instructed not to. So, I barely greet them. Leila shows compassion but can’t do much. As for the other inmates, I’ve lost all patience. That monkey business of smiling and counter smiling is weighing on my jaws. Very soon I won’t be able to utter anything but platitudes. In fact, my vocabulary has shrivelled up like an accordion. The safest thing to do is to entrench myself in that annex room on the first floor, where at least I can make faces at whatever and whomever I wish. Whims, they call it.

Serena came to see me, accompanied by my father. It’s the first family visit since I am here. Initially I wondered why she had to wait for my father to return from Burundi in order for her to leave Milan. Is she too cowardly to face me alone, that she needed his presence? Or am I fantasizing again?

A light rain mixed with melting snow dots the landscape. This mushy weather is the mirror of my soul. The moment I saw them, stepping together towards me, I shed a few tears and immediately tried to buck up, feeling a twinge of remorse. Apparently I have lost the measure of things, confusing genuine sentiment with self-pity.

“Alexis, my dear, you didn’t tell me anything about your intention of getting a divorce.”

My father’s last words echo in my ears like the thud of dead wood. I can’t even remember what he said before. Have I heard right? I bore into Serena’s eyes, but she avoids my gaze.

“Won’t you open your mouth?” I burst out in a low raging voice.

She heaves a sigh then, says, haltingly:

“We … we couldn’t go on like that … you were dragging me down … with your depression.”

“But we didn’t even approach the subject.” I retort, dismayed. Then, as if suddenly stung by a banderilla, I shout, “How foul of you, to await the return of my father to make this kind of announcement, and I’m the last one to know! Everything went so smoothly between us these last seven years. Have you forgotten? We were even considered by friends and family as the ‘ideal couple’, or you don’t remember that either. You didn’t seem unhappy at all, or was it all fake?” I lament then, picking up steam again, I growl, “Will you look at me, damn it!”

“It is true,” so she does admit it, “ we were happy together, but things have changed these last months, taking an ugly turn, and we began to disconnect …”

Calling my father to witness, I snap back, with growing fury:

“She erases the seven fat years with a stroke and can’t bear the slightest hitch. So much said for loyalty! She never really loved me, this is what I’m discovering.”

My nerves are so much on edge that I begin to tremble like an epileptic at the start of a fit.

“Calm down, Alexis, dear. Do you want me to call the doctor?” my father asks, in a panic.

“I don’t need a doctor for this!” I retort, “So that he may trouble me even further, asking more stupid questions? No, you both better get out of here, I’ve heard enough.”

My poor father lowers his gaze and I notice the sadness knitting his brows. He motions Serena towards the door.

I don’t make a gesture to greet them, even though I’m quite aware that my father has nothing to do with this and that he doesn’t deserve such harshness from me. But right now, my heart remains deaf.

The hours go by and my head is streaked with thunderous lightning, whereas the surrounding atmosphere has cleared and the rays of a frosty sun, resembling a giant fossilized egg yolk, lick the crest of the trees. The nightmare persists even during daylight, to the point where I don’t know when it hurts most, while I’m awake or while I’m about to

fall asleep, gliding into that danger-filled limbo induced by the heavy drugs those damn specialists force me to swallow.

On my desk lies a notepad, with a pencil next to it, and all I manage to write on the first leaf is this: my age multiplied by 0 equals 0. I then scribble away, filling page after page, diligently then obsessively, with letters and signs, mostly round signs, but also geometric signs, reminding me of the exercises we were given in first grade during spelling class.

What does that number (my age), multiplied by zero, mean? When I first wrote it, I thought it translated the will to commit suicide, but in hindsight, I believe that there still was a faint spark of hope nestled in the recesses of my soul, for isn’t the zero figure also equivalent to the tabula rasa, that is the desire to erase all memory and start everything anew, on so-called virgin ground? Though the prospect of becoming amnesic might appear terrifying, it is like living some kind of reincarnation. Don’t you have to die first before you resurrect? The wound inflicted by the knowledge of my upcoming divorce, compounded by the professional void created when I decided to hand over my resignation at KBI, can only aggravate my sense of loss. It always amazes me how much suffering a human being can take, and how, like a virus, he becomes ever more resilient as new layers of suffering are added to the former ones, which defies and puts to the test the phrase ‘I can’t bear it anymore’.

It is in this state of limbo, feeling lower than ever, that three days after the visit of my father and Serena, Peter reappears. I honestly thought he’d forgotten about me, that the promise he made in Israel wasn’t serious, even though he was the one to recommend this place. And, for a while I was angry at myself for having listened to him.

I get a slight shock seeing him with that red scarf tied around his neck and the thick worsted pants he wears; he looked somewhat younger when we first met, that was probably because of his shorts and his healthy buttercup tan.  He is tactful enough not to ask how I am. Did he expect to see me so drawn, so lost and haggard? In any case nothing transpires from his attitude and he behaves as if we had just parted the other day. No sooner than I introduce him to my room than he hands me a parcel wrapped in silk paper and tied with a navy blue ribbon.

“If I remember correctly, you did tell me that you enjoyed reading in Spanish, so I thought this might please you.”

I look dazed, almost expressionless, but he goes on in a buoyant tone, as if he hasn’t noticed:

“Well, what are you waiting for, open it!”

I comply and utter a cry of wonder when I discover its contents: a boxed set of books, the collected works of Federico Garcia Lorca, presented in the prestigious leather-bound Aguilar edition.

“My God, this is sheer folly!” I exclaim. “You must have paid a fortune for this.”

“Tut tut!” he says jovially, “There is one condition however, that when you get out of here, which is quite soon, as I understand it, you give me a detailed report on the oeuvre of this major author, for you will realize what a complete artist he was, whether as a poet, as a writer – he also penned a number of important plays – as an illustrator and as a performer.”

It is the first time, since being committed to this institution, that someone broaches a subject other than that of a medical nature or of its collateral effects – the gossip I hear in the living-room, the whims and eccentricities of some of the patients, mixed with the constant wheezing and complaints, as well as the other countless unpleasant occurrences, have pushed me deep into the doldrums, convincing me that this deadly atmosphere would be perpetuated for a long time to come, even when I will no longer be here, a prospect almost impossible to envision in my present state.

My eyes sting, my tongue is parched, then without any forewarning, I burst into a cascade of sobs. The portrait of my beloved Astrid unfurls in my head, as in a movie sequence, at the speed of 24 images per second, and I can’t bear her absence anymore.

When I learned that my father would come, I had the intention of evoking her memory – it was such a burning need – but the moment I saw that he was accompanied by Serena, I dropped the idea, especially after the announcement of my divorce, Astrid couldn’t possibly enter this picture. It was as if they had connived to keep her constricted behind the walls of my childhood memories. Yet, like a boomerang effect, I miss Africa terribly, the smell of the earth, the laterite cracking in the heat of the dry season, the sudden breeze of relief that bores deep into your lungs when the first rains pelt down with the fury of a thousand eagles, the potent odor of sweat of my African brothers, the mouth-watering chicken mwambe, as it simmers in palm oil, amid red beans, pili pili, sour spinach, hibiscus leaves and sweet potatoes, or the whiff of grilled corn, tickling your nostrils. I want my childhood back, I crave for it, with all the nerves and sinews of my body, I need to feel my mother’s warm breath, her cheek resting against mine.

Peter takes my hand and presses it tightly, he half opens his mouth but ultimately remains silent.

Then, recomposing myself, I mutter:

“I have to run away from here, these people are like the living-dead of the horror movies, they will drive me completely crazy.”

I notice a wrinkle of sadness on my visitor’s face, there is also unconcealed compassion. He would like to embrace me, but keeps a certain distance. He doesn’t want me to misinterpret a gesture that could add to my already great confusion, which I understand. When he sees that I have calmed down, he probes:

“Wouldn’t you like me to speak to your doctor or to the head nurse? I honestly think the staff here is very professional and that they take your case seriously.” Then, without, transition, he adds, “How about if I came to visit you every weekend from now on? Would that please you?” His last proposition fills my heart with such glee that I have to refrain myself from jumping on my two feet, lest he thinks that I’ve really become mad.

In a controlled, husky voice, I say:

“You would come all the way from Germany every weekend? That’s too much of a sacrifice, I can’t accept it.”

This time he answers forthrightly, without a trace of hesitation:

“Don’t worry about that. I want to see you regularly from now on, and we shall discuss your future together. We are friends, aren’t we? To reassure you, that train trip takes less than three hours, during which I can work or read a good book. After all, I also need to rest my mind every once and a while.”

What does this guy find in me to show such generosity of feelings, when all he has seen of my personality is the darkest and least attractive side? Isn’t he projecting the childhood love he had for Aldo, the little Jewish pal his nazi uncle had abused, and who disappeared together with the countless victims of Hitler? Something tells me, and I can’t pinpoint what, that it wasn’t a coincidence if we both met in Israel. Is it because I am of mixed blood, half black, half Italian, the son of a Catholic mother and of a Jewish father?         Some of this must fascinate him, for I do represent a symbol, that of the oppressed, whether it started with the Hebrew folk enslaved in Ancient Egypt, or the Blacks wrenched from their land by both the Arab merchants and the European colonialists. But if that’s the case, he then pities me.

Did I speak out this last thought, that he should respond with a trembling voice and hawkish eyes, ready to jump at my throat?

“Who the hell do you suppose I am?” he blurts out. “Yes, you are going through a difficult period in your life, but I won’t allow you to doubt my sincerity. If you prefer that we don’t see each other anymore, I shan’t bother you again.” 1

A shudder courses through my spine and paralyzes me. I realize that I have gone too far, at the risk of breaking the only friendship I now have in this world, even though I still don’t quite grasp all of its elements, for he is genuinely offended.

“Forgive me, Peter,” I whisper, then raising my voice, I say, “It has nothing to do with you, I have lost all faith in myself, and I no longer trust anybody around me. But you are an exception. So, yes, please come back to see me. I shall await your visit eagerly. Do forgive me, I beg you!”

His temples glow with perspiration and the shadow of a smile brushes through his lips, a wounded smile.

I choose not to mention the news that hurts me so much, the divorce which I had not foreseen, for something tells me if do, it could taint our relationship. I shall have to bear that stone in my chest, without any crutches. He might otherwise think that I only attract bad luck, and part of what I said is true, I don’t want him to pity me.

How difficult it is to pick up a conversation after this last incident! I keep quiet, resting the palm of my hand on one of the two volumes of Garcia Lorca’s collected works, stroking the leather cover and feeling its fine grain, as though it were the nape of a young fawn. I then open the book randomly and start reading aloud verses from Poems in New York.

This improvised performance has the advantage of easing the atmosphere, all the while clearing up the mist in which my mind seems to be permanently shrouded, even if my gestures remain somewhat clumsy. At the same time a sense of peace invades me – this hasn’t happened since the start of my breakdown. It then is on such a note that we part. Peter reiterates his promise and we embrace tenderly – nothing sexual is intended, from either side, and it’s just as well, for I couldn’t have stood it to find myself alone again after having made love to him.

My last evening in the rest home. I’ve gotten accustomed to these crinkled, indifferent, cadaverous grins. Even developed a sort of attachment to them. They’re all here in the television room. Except for Monsieur Lazarus. He supposedly left with a relative … Gone to the country, somewhere near the coast. He’s disappeared without saying goodbye. No one has ever commented on his departure, as if it were an accepted thing to vanish like that, overnight. A likeable old chap he was. Obviously, he won’t return. Death doesn’t bother to leave greeting cards behind, at least not here.

I give the place a cursory inspection and, with a boldness which only the spirit affords, I pry into the mind of each inmate. What right do you have? It’s like wire-tapping, or just about. But I can’t resist the temptation. They’ve told me so little about themselves. It’s my way of showing … concern. If only for the silence we’ve shared. I don’t want to leave the party like a scoundrel. They taught me self-restraint, made me conscious of my mortality.

What is Mr. Dupont brooding over again? He’s so straight and stiff in his chair. Never sits on the couch. Oh, no! That’s for the ‘slack buttocks’ of the monumental lady. She’s sneezing, poor creature.

(“Poor, my foot! If you don’t stop this act, I’ll gag you. It wouldn’t make a difference anyway, you dumb fish! Go on … how I’d like to see you crawl in the middle of the desert … and stuff two corks in those alligator nostrils of yours!”)

Their eyes finally meet. His threatening, hers glowering:

(“You’re wasting your energy, nervous brat! I know why you’re so mad at me. You have no clue as to whether I hate you or simply despise you. Keep guessing.”)

Weary of her ‘eternal absence,’ he clears his throat and turns on the television. It howls. He is doing it on purpose. To test the audience’s reaction:

(“Decibels, decibels, until they pierce your eardrums and pound your sclerotic brains.”)

The Countess rubs her forehead in protest, then reels as if to grab something. Tries to get up but wobbles and falls back in a grunt:

(“Drunk again, hey! You clod! You wet blanket!”)

Has Mr. Dupont got the message? Certainly, and that is why he plays with the knob. Lowering, increasing the volume, lowering it again:

(“Blue-blooded goose. You’ve been to America so many times, eh. Why the hell didn’t you stay there? A real pity you missed the Titanic – I would have loved to see you jump into the ocean, wheedled by some cute iceberg.”)

The monumental lady lends her usual deaf ear… and dead eye. As soon as Mademoiselle Hélène enters the room, everybody puts on a demure look. The television announcer speaks in a soft, mellifluous tone, while Mr. Dupont glances through the window, missing nothing of what goes on inside. It is night now and the window makes a perfect mirror.

The Countess, a filter cigarette hanging on her lower lip, fumbles with the table lighter in front of her, striking it nervously. She strikes and strikes, obtaining only jeering sparks. Swears, then hurls it off. Mademoiselle Hélène picks it up and with a firm movement of her thumb, gives her a light. The Countess grumbles an irritated “thank you,” puffs and coughs, continues to puff. Gets into a spattering fit and crushes the long butt in an ashtray.

All quietens down with the appearance of Leila, followed by Madame Litiane. Coffee and tea are served. The Algerian girl does it with great skill, pouring each his habitual dose. She knows exactly who takes milk and who doesn’t. There have never been any complaints about Leila. Except in the very beginning, when an old, bigoted lady almost panicked at her sight: “What, an Arab? God forbid that the Moors invade us again. They’ve wreaked enough havoc in Spain for centuries.”

I’d like her to stay a little longer while all eyes are fastened upon the screen. But she gives me a wink, letting me understand that she isn’t yet through with her work. She expects me to join her afterwards in the kitchen. I probably won’t see her again. A sort of premature nostalgia settles in my chest. I shall miss this unearthly place where the trivial also has its importance.

Since Peter’s visit, Garcia Lorca has accompanied me every moment of the day – I even wonder whether he doesn’t pop up secretly in my dreams – he has become my life buoy. To the point where he follows me, not as my shadow, but rather as my alter ego, and it is a bit frightening, for he becomes addictive and it now appears that I can’t do without him.

I have read the entirety of both volumes in the space of three days … and three nights: the plays, the essays, the poems, all the while admiring his drawings, with the intensity of a Benedictine monk reciting his prayers. I went back several times to the canciones, and to that magnificent romancero gitano, which explodes like a bouquet of flowers painted by Van Gogh, and I savor each word, each syllable, as if my own breath depended on it, and I articulate them, slowly, religiously, until I hear their echo reverberating inside my arteries. Indeed, this osmotic fusion frightens me and I ask myself how I could possibly face the outside world. By tying Garcia Lorca’s books to my neck with a silver chain? Isn’t art the consecration of utopia?

 


 

STRAPPED

worse than in the flesh

which after all is still taut

and of a pleasant milky complexion

it is in her mind that she suffers most

there seems to be a succession of corridors

leading she knows not where

for each time she embarks on one

it appears that she has been there before

but doesn’t recognize the one after it

and the same applies to the innumerable doors

she has to open to pursue the journey

they all have a distinctive mark on them

like a swath of paint that’s been chipped

or a dent caused by a jagged piece of glass

‘weapons’ she never intended to use

but which she did while inebriated

against the many cells her mind encloses

yet it isn’t like a maze in which

she might lose herself indefinitely

no, there are no cul-de-sacs

or revolving doors that bring her back

where she started

it is the routine gestures that have

turned into obsessive rituals

paralyzing her next move or blinding her

to a particular corridor

provoking a missing link

and thus the recurring panic

o how she would have wanted

the prisons within her to collapse

and contemplate just for once

all that beauty strangers say they find in her


 

BREAKDOWN

at times life seems so full

you can hardly keep pace with yourself

you’d need four hands

and thirty-six hour days

and here they’re trying to impose

a thirty-five hour week

it’s your blood sizzling

it’s your sinews twisting

and your jaws chattering

but all that takes place

under your skin

and you barely feel it

it’s the others who meditate

on your output, your dexterity

then you hear them say things like

gee, how can you do it all?

you look the other way

not because you haven’t heard

but because they have no idea

what little time is left for you

to achieve even a tenth of your goals

they have no idea you’re running

counter-clockwise

and neither did you

until you got suddenly struck by that virus

your head began to reel

your muscles started to ache

climbing the steps suddenly seemed

like trying to reach the Everest

when your friends called

they couldn’t recognize your voice

and you cancelled one, then three

then all of your appointments

whatever you did in the past so swiflty

in hindsight you now despised

been here, went there, merry-go-round

yes, round the bend, where you started off

before all that craziness got hold of you

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