Daniël Samkalden – Nova
I know the bars that aren’t too quiet but are not packed either. Where the men aren’t senile but neither are they cocky. The door swings open, I unbutton my coat, one drink is enough. The men are always willing. Always. You don’t have to complicate things. You don’t need any special chat-up lines. Nor a military campaign. They all just come along like pet ducks. Perhaps it’s sad. But mainly it’s comforting. I don’t know what I’d do without their perpetual zeal.
I like my solitary passage through the evening. When the rhythm speeds up and time seems to stretch out. The sluggish concentration. But on evenings like these I cannot be alone. Everything is made of cardboard. My belongings bare their teeth at me like vicious dogs. Eyes shut so I don’t scream. And then open again, breathe! Keep moving, don’t think too much. Each second can reveal new depths. Just like that. CRACK. Then I no longer know what’s up and what’s down. I float away. CRACK. CRACK. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I wouldn’t be able find my way back.
I lead them by the hand, through the dust, up the foul-smelling staircase. Upstairs I open the door, turn on the light and then I let go. They enter my home. Look around. My sofa, my books, my clothes. Try to place me. Wonder what kind of person they’re dealing with. Like detectives they search for clues about me.
This is how I slowly re-find myself. They rebuild me with their first impressions. With their questions. With their awkward jokes. With their raging feelings of guilt. I see things as they are in their eyes. I want to believe that I do. Then the echoing stops. Then I can relax my muscles again. Sit on the sofa. Drink wine or whatever else I have. I don’t really care whether they’re quiet or clumsy. Or don’t stop talking about themselves. Or try to ask canny questions to get to the bottom of me. I don’t discriminate. I ask them to fetch glasses from the kitchen. To check their email on my computer. To take a shower in my bathroom. Brush their teeth with my toothbrush. I want them everywhere with their simple gaze, with their dog’s eyes. If they aren’t too big, they can wear my dressing gown. They accept everything. They should know, the sheep. It’s pure provision of care. An exorcism.
And then me, myself. Don’t forget me, because that’s what you came for. Look at my complete person. Naked and in the light please. Tell me who I am and bring me to life again. Fast. Slow. Absent. Awkward. Everything’s OK. I can’t get enough of being the direct object.
And then finally, in silence, they keep watch. Even if they’ve fallen asleep. Their heavy, shapeless bodies still on me. One hand on my hip. A lost hand next to my head. Their penetrating odour. Sweat. Our moistures mixed. Stale deodorant. Their hip bones. A shoulder poking into my armpit…. Context, context, context, my tranquillizer.
Even when they can’t sleep and try to relax and fail. When I feel the way the mattress folds towards another restless centre of gravity beside me.
His name is Samuel, which is too weighty a name for his role, I think. Samuel had folded up his clothes on the chair at the foot of the bed. An impeccable pile I’ve never seen from a man before. The sheet had to stay wrapped around his waist while he politely brought me to orgasm. He tied two neat knots in the condom and went to the toilet to wrap it up in toilet paper and put it in the pedal bin. He planted a kiss on my forehead as though we’d been married for fifteen years, and then turned his cheek.
I could think again after that. Samuel burrowed his shoulder into the sheet. The moon framed itself in the window. Old tormentor. A heavenly body that comes from the gaping depths of the silent night to shed light on your belongings and ridicule your grasp on them. That’s why I chose this career. To let simple numbers loose on all that immeasurable meaninglessness. Calculations, black on white. Formulas that human brains can understand. So that you can stay calm as you close the curtains a little more neatly. Even though you know this doesn’t solve anything, because that’s the deal. We’re working on a hypothetical model. Super symmetry. An elegant theory that has taken us a long way but it’s not real, reality isn’t symmetrical. Somewhere, once upon a time, symmetry broke, spontaneously, but we’re not interested in that. We move in a safe, abstract mathematical world. We take precise steps along a path without a destination. At least that’s what I thought. I imagined myself following in the footsteps of Dirac, Fermi, ‘t Hooft. How as it possible I was the only person to have had this idea?
When I looked up from my book, I’d seen the dust shining in the sky. You can see that occasionally – that the sky is full of dust. When there’s bright sunlight and you look from the right angle. Luminous flares floating around in space. A hidden world. I followed one speck of dust downward, toward me. Then it stopped. Perhaps for a whole minute. And then, like a conjuring trick, it divided into two. All of a sudden two particles of dust. It fell apart in front of my eyes. Or had there been two specks of dust moving together from the start? One shot up in a gust of air, the other continued to float down in my direction. It sailed slowly toward me. Then I’d picked up my pencil.
An old travel clock that belonged to my father stands next to my bed. It rests against a black leather box in which it can be stowed away. It’s made of heavy gold-plated metal and has florescent hands. After twenty-four hours it gets five minutes ahead and I have to wind it up every four days. It was next to my bed during our summers in France. Our winters in the Alps. Our journey through the Middle East. Early memories.
It was ten to two when Samuel got out of bed. He must have thought I was asleep because he tried not to make a sound. He slid his leg out of the bed incredibly slowly in a concatenation of clashing nano movements. He put his hands on the mattress and pushed himself up so slowly his muscles must have been screaming. I saw him drift to the chair, his tall bent-over silhouette. He picked up the pile of clothes. If you don’t want to be noticed, you have to keep moving with some speed, stay in the flow; you have to act as though your noise is part of things, like the rumbling of the wind. If you slow down too much, it plops into the ear of the person you’re trying to avoid like a tumbling stone. The creak of my wooden floor. The drawn-out grating sound of the old door hinges. Then the latch, closing in its housing with a loud click. The stairs being lightly tapped by stockinged feet. The outside air being sucked up the staircase, causing my door to shake in its joints.
In any case, only one night, maximum two, is possible. After that they think they can take anything: my toothbrush or a bottle from the cupboard; that they can touch me whenever they want; that I want them to be themselves. Then it becomes exhausting and painful. I don’t want to inflict that on anyone. So I’m the last person who will become sentimental or ask you to stay with me, but don’t go away before I’ve fallen asleep. You can’t do that to me, Samuel.
The buzzing of something I can’t place. The sensation of falling out of bed, while I’m lying motionlessly in the middle, under the sheets. The complete meaninglessness of the moment.
There are memories like lighthouses above a raging sea. My mother with her back to me. Bent toward the light shining on her book. Her hair combed back and gathered in an elastic. Smelling of lotion. An intoxicating cloud of cleansing, hydrating, moisturizing. Normally, before I go to sleep, I wrestle my way from breath to breath, but beside her they came without having to think about it. Unfinished sums that usually shoot through my head like projectiles, at her side, they dissolved. I stopped counting, counting the accumulation of seconds, the dripping of the bathroom tap. My eyelids slid shut. I fell asleep noiselessly.
You don’t want to be alone but to be gently stroked – with boundless patience – until you fall asleep.
That longing hasn’t suddenly disappeared. That doesn’t change. Circumstances change. You don’t ask for it. It just happens. At first anything is possible. When you’re in pain, others are more worried than you are. They magic it away for you with a caress, a kiss. But later, at some indefinite time, the pain starts to be part of you. Like a unique code. More and more difficult to decipher. More and more deeply rooted. It eclipses you. There’s increasingly less left to reassure yourself with. It will be alright. You mustn’t dwell. Thank God I was too tired for that. The exhaustion wiped out my mind.
I was born with thick, dark hair. The proof is in my photo albums. Dark brown, curly. When I was three it came down to my shoulders and I’ve had it in the same style right up to today. My eyes were green with a brown garland around the pupils. When I was fifteen something changed. It started in the summer when my hair became lighter and I suddenly started getting burned, like a lobster in hot water. It felt different when I rubbed my hands together. My skin flaked. It took two years. Then I was blond. My skin fair. My eyes bright blue. My hair sandy white and straight. Totally bleached. My mother took me to all kinds of doctors and hospitals but they just shrugged. No pigment or autoimmune disease. Not a vitamin deficiency or skin condition. Anthroposophists and acupuncturists. Couldn’t find anything, nothing wrong. Just that I was blond now. I had to be more careful in the sun. Good luck with that. People thought it was pretty. They looked at me differently. At night I felt my heart thundering in my chest. As though I was lying there open. As though I’d lost my shield. I’m still amazed each time I look in the mirror.
Translated by Michele Hutchison