by Carmen Firan [USA]
translated from Romanian by Martin Potter & Silvia Bratu [MTTLC student]
edited by Robert Fenhagen
Then one day it hit me all of a sudden like a lightning bolt, in the form of a vivid mental image. Suddenly I could see in my mind’s eye that the world I saw around me, including the picture of myself sitting in my chair, was merely an image generated inside my head, and therefore it could not be out in the world. In other words, out beyond the walls and floor and ceiling of the room I saw around me, was the inner surface of my true physical skull, and beyond that skull was an inconceivably immense remote external world, of which this world that was in my experience was merely a miniature virtual-reality replica.
With his old red baseball hat, which sat slightly askew atop his balding pate, Sam appeared not to be aware of very much, even when Fred had come bursting into the place, with a loud, “Hello!”
Feigning expansive happiness, far more than he felt, Fred was immediately concerned, but today, he was not used to anything. He found Sam sitting on a small, uncomfortable looking red chair staring blankly ahead.
Normally, Sam knew how to counter Fred’s seriousness and grumbling; for instance, instructing him in his rather dour way of ideas such as the importance of failure to gaining and keeping of knowledge–Sam assumed that poor Fred never truly understood the idea, but it often side-tracked Fred’s seriousness—lightening things up, even if Fred didn’t understand. On many occasions, Sam didn’t understand, but it seemed to work, and Sam did care for Fred terribly.
Thin, bony Sam never knew of the bouts of solitude and loneliness that jowly Fred kept from him. With his occasional histrionics, Fred did a masterful job of hiding those parts of himself that he found objectionable, not only to himself, but, he feared, to others On another occasion, Sam listened as Fred droned on, then rejoined:
“We are not cut out for doing things, but for having ideas. You know, thinking is infinitely more important than acting on one’s thoughts. All brainless people eventually do things, which doesn’t mean that this can change a thing or leave a mark–here, in the head” (Sam tapped his bald spot with a long, bony finger; his fingers those of an amateur pianist) “here is where everything happens; the place everything originates, and where, eventually, everything will come to a halt– the rest is disarray. The masses must be convinced so that the world’s mechanism will regularly keep turning its wheels. We use our heads, and carry the world on our shoulders”, Sam had said, smiling sadly and helplessly, as if “Forgive me, but I am only the messenger, not the message”.
Fred smiled at his friend, and camaraderie was re-established.
“It’s books that I should have left as my mark. Books, Sam. Books should have been the meaning of my life,” Fred murmured later, at the same time filling his pipe just in order to keep his eyes lowered. “Tell me, Sam, what have I written since coming to America? I haven’t written a great book or at least a book that the people here are interested in.”
“You’ve written them, but you’ve written them in your head. It’s the same thing; it’s even better – much better. They are neither dated, nor covered with dust, and anachronistic. You can write them again, any time you wish; you can change or save them. I mean, what is the spoken, or written word?” Sam went on, now with his eyes closed, overwhelmed by his own spontaneity and enthusiasm.
“Finite, consumed, dead energy, that’s what; once spoken, a word will abide by external laws; it will allow itself to be interpreted, perverted, manipulated, and vulgarized….I don’t know what is worse– for it to be understood, therefore, lose its mystery, or, not be understood and become a weapon for the insane. In either case, the word will lessen its power if spoken, or written. The spoken word will go to Heaven, or to wherever it will, while the written word will linger agonizingly on the library shelves, or on the nightstand. It will die a slow, methodical death, used as a sleeping pill by some hairdresser. That’s not what we want, is it?! We’re not interested in confrontation, or, other mediocre sides of a two-penny ego, nor, are we preoccupied with immortality, but with… the truth.”
“Yes!” Replied Fred, not at all sure, if he understood enough to agree.
“The truth, however, remains locked tightly in its shell– well guarded by invisible forces– that higher entities controlling everything; keeping us long enough in chains, so that we won’t lose our sanity, should we get too close. This world is ruled, My God, how it is ruled!” (Sam made expansive gestures with his thin arms, which appeared grotesque, but which Fred found wonderful) “By maintaining limitations.”
Upon saying that, Sam clenched and twisted his fists as if strangling a dove. “Limitations! Think about it. We would be immortal without them, exposed to chaos and freedom, yet, subject to world disorder. And more, what exactly is our purpose in life? I’ll tell you, it is to foil our limitations, to overcome them, that is to disintegrate using evolution and progress as excuses. Luckily, our subconscious is more intelligent than our reason, which protects us from useless, potentially destructive, supposedly heroic actions. How else could you explain collapse, failure, illusory happiness, diseases, death?” It is all well-arranged. An admirably designed back-up system. There is no salvation.”
Sam was a brilliant analyst of minute, day to day ideas and a hysterical optimist, who would make something out of anything, and then soften even the most raw, most unsavoury material with his voluptuous tones– a choleric man who loved vodka, exaggerations and speculations, much like a corrupt political– supposed utopian system trying to convince itself of its own legitimacy.
Sam had been born in Prague, to a thrifty banker, who was married to an older woman, who was also a photographer– although she could have been a model, beautiful as she was. She went about with her head in the clouds, later turning her thoughts into practical, beautiful photographs.
His father, who had provided enough so that the two of them could lead a carefree life, had died when Sam was twelve, and afterwards his mother took him to Israel, where she lived with various men, all of them older and well-off, and who died one by one time, each leaving her comfortably.
Following the death of his first stepfather, Sam had money to go out into the wide world. So, he came to America, got a doctorate in art history in New York, and married a Protestant, who was five years his elder– the sort of woman for whom marriage is both a goal and a protection from the pressure of having to have a career. Then, he was offered a teaching position at a college in Ohio, which was not a terrific prospect for someone who had been touched by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of big cities, as well as by their devouring energy hindered by his intellectual hysteria. He did this by getting lost in anonymity, while taking pleasure in ransacking its entrails, fascinated by the idea of the immigrant’s identity, supposedly defined in his mind by the natives, as they count their stock exchange assets, boast about their pension funds, and life insurance policies, facing no dilemma in belonging to two worlds or more, as was his case. Hence, his friendship with Fred, another wanderer in search of the Golden Fleece.
It so happened that, when Sam moved to Ohio, he met Fanny and finally start being in control of a well-functioning, correctly sized universe (New York always a useless appendix to her, one that was connected to Long Island, her birthplace, and a place that she had never left until meeting Sam, and marrying him.)
“What can I do? Fanny is part of my destiny,” Sam would say. “It was the first time in her life she had ever had coffee on Madison Avenue. I was touched by her naivety and by the way that she rolled her eyes; trying to appear expressive and interesting, along with projecting a small-town girl manner, with her curvy lines. I thought I could shape that silly little girl who was older than I was– which was also extremely appealing to me, I might add.”
Fred gave Sam a sharp look, but then nodded.
“Unlike your Mimi” Continued Sam, unabashedly, “Fanny resisted everything, and once she became a wife, no longer wished for anything…. For a while, I was flattered, and I would have rewarded her with the children she had been dreaming of since I’d met her, but, alas, in time, she became almost an unrecognized presence around the house– how can I say this – some thing, no, someone that you can’t leave behind, or, throw away; an odd fondness forbid such deposal-.”
Unfortunately, Fanny had been unable to have children, and Sam had opposed her persistent pleas for adopting one from some disadvantaged country, so they were growing old alone, and while she was bored and withdrawn, he was indifferent towards her—even her periodic reproaches. When her youth had shown the first signs of fading, Fanny could no longer keep up with her husband’s cynical humour, nor with the flexibility of his mind hungrily searching through corners unreachable by her intellect, so she abandoned this game of alertness for an apathy that in Ohio was nurtured by eating sweets, playing cards and volunteering in the church choir.
Ten years earlier, Sam had discovered that he had inherited a two-room apartment in Manhattan– a heaven-sent property.
Following the death of his third stepfather, (whom his mother had convinced– since he had no children of his own– to leave the apartment to her son, Samuel). Sam, was struggling to realize an American dream from his position as an immigrant professor trying unenthusiastically to join the middle class in one of the’ lesser’ American states. He forced Fanny to move to Midtown, to which she never adapted, or, adapted much less than an immigrant who had come to start all over again. The only good thing about it was that she was close to her mother again – it was a two-hour drive – so she would go to Long Island every week, or every time she felt like it, hanging around in the back garden drinking cocktails, constantly chewing something, and stating that she was finally relaxed while being away from Sam’s phantasmagorias, who, in turn, enjoyed his aloneness quite well.
Unfortunately, Sam had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the same year that he had come into that inheritance, and had decided to move back to Manhattan. She tried to convince him that for every tragedy, there is a blessing, but he would have none of it.
The disease had started violently, with a few severe episodes that had made the doctors recommend early retirement, so, for once, Sam followed directions.
“The way that nature arranges things– I told you, it all comes from here!” Said Sam loudly, tapping his bold spot with theatrical glee. “You would think that I provoked my disease in order to escape work, but, at least, I am not going to die. With these seizures, I feel as if I have just now become stuck into a different aspect of life. I have lots to do around here. To understand a thing or two, to keep sabotaging what everybody is under the impression of having figured out, that’s a good hobby; to perfect my philosophical system; look, I finally have time to do it, plus, New York suits my investigations; what more can I want?! And I am more inspired than ever!”
He suddenly understood why Fanny had disappeared into the background. Here was this demanding man, who needed help, plus was a raging ego-maniac. She must have wanted to run far away at times.
Only now he realized what a toll the teaching years have taken on him and what a waste of time all the cookie-cutter students were – little robots with no interest in anything other than their career, and the mall from which they drew their upbringing, as well as their general cultural sense.
Sam was quiet this afternoon. He sat crouched on the little chair, with a gloomy look on his face. Fred gently ran his fingers through his beard, just as he would every time he was faced with a heavier situation. Sitting on the edge of the sofa in front of Sam, he was tempted to caress the old man’s head. For the first time, Sam seemed to be shorter, older, and more miserable than he was. Fred and Sam were almost the same age.
“What’s the matter with you?” Asked Fred finally.
“My mother died. They called me from Israel last night,” He extended his long neck, which looked painful, putting his nose up as if he were sniffing reality, but stayed sitting, of course, with his hands on his knees.
‘So… are you going?’ Asked Fred.
“How do you expect me to get there, from this end of the world?” Replied Sam, hanging his head and moving it from side to side as if it were a pendulum. “And my feet won’t help me either. The Filipino woman who took care of her told me that the funeral would take place tomorrow. The woman is going to take care of everything. My mother left her some money.”
The image of a defeated Sam sitting on the little red chair disturbed Fred. The splitting headache came back, along with the image of his own mother breathing her last breath, with an extraordinary effort. He hadn’t held her hand. Someone had told him that people should be left to die in peace, that it was bad for them not to be let go, and that, in order for them to pass away peacefully, any connection to this world should be cut, especially a connection through the desperate, hot, sweaty, and shivering hand of a son.
Fred had come at a bad time, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
“I’m so sorry. May God rest her soul; how old was she?”
‘Ninety-six. She was in perfect health.”
“Yes, people will die healthy nowadays. “
“Get some vodka and forget about it,” murmured Sam, torn between sadness and a temptation to begin a conversation. What a subject: death! His favorite topic: death—for me, a long, fat immeasurable worm.
‘I see you are sitting shiva.’ Fred indicated the little chair that Sam was sitting on in his shorts, crouched like a deformed child who has been punished.
“Of course I’m sitting shiva. Only, if I were to do it the right way, I should have been sitting on the floor for seven days.”
“Better than sitting on that little chair.” Fred tried to lighten the mood, but, again, Sam would have none of it.
‘What’s wrong with this chair?”
“I don’t know. It’s funny. Where did you find it?”
“The cat sits on it.”
“And you think what you’re doing is good…?”
“Look, Fred,’ – Sam sighed and changed his approach – “forget about the details: I’ll order some food from the Turkish restaurant across the street. I’ll even go to the synagogue…
“Now?” Fred frowned. “Since when do you go to the synagogue?”
“I have to; I’ll be back in less than half an hour. It’s the evening prayer. I should go, at least today, but don’t worry, women are allowed too in this synagogue. There will be ten of us, no more, so the prayers should finish quickly. You wait for the food to be delivered. I’ll be back before the Turk comes.”
“I don’t feel like staying here alone.”
“Whyyyyy?’ Sam replied, as long and tightly as the right shoelace that he tied as tightly as he could. (That shoelace would always be the one to become untied.)
“I’ve had enough of being alone.”
“Well, that’s something I never thought I’d hear you say; have you gone mad?”
“Why would you ask if I’ve gone mad?” Fred snapped angrily. Sam could be insufferably insensitive.
As he was speaking, Fred’s face had turned red, and he could feel blood pumping in his temples and his eyes burning, but he would never get annoyed; anger—almost a helpless revolt, which would only soften his muscles, and make him speak in a soft but heavy voice; his voice would go deeper within his body, where the true cry was and where he would boil on the inside, stew in his flesh, a web of nerves. Sam allowed him a distracted look.
‘Are you in a bad mood? Since when has loneliness been bad for you? Isn’t it our most precious possession?’ Sam grinned, pulling his hat onto his head. ‘Isn’t it the reason why we have fought and sacrificed everything – well, all the things that weren’t worth having in our lives, anyway, but still sacrifices, if we consider the human level? Women, children, children, women, jobs, money – a waste of time in a world in which thousands of books and ideas will remain unknown to us or, even worse, will survive us! It’s not easy to become an awkward cynic, a sophisticated and cultivated arrogant person, a snobbish elitist, a superior person, not abiding by the rules. We did work for it quite a lot, don’t you think?! Cynicism needs to be nourished, and arrogance maintained, and those around must be subjugated by their own limitations and kept at a distance. What greater triumph than being uncomprehended and detested! It’s the least culture can do for you – isolate you, alienate you, make you stand out, dismember and dehumanize you – oh, brother, that does sound wonderful!’
‘And you sound like the Russians you’re intoxicating yourself with now, so don’t you trick me into joining you in this! My purpose was never that of destroying anything around me, but being able to understand and build something solid inside me. I wanted to get to the essence, by myself, you know? Because I know how dangerous it is to be close to the truth. And I cannot expose anyone dear to me to an experience that eventually turns out to be destructive. I haven’t chosen loneliness as a means of domination or humiliation, nor have I chosen it as a means of self-torture; I have chosen it because it was the only way of devoting myself to gaining knowledge while sacrificing – as you call it – the joy related to human contact, that is the beneficent simplicity that could somehow make this hell bearable. Have I failed? Perhaps. Don’t you connect me to your elitist speculations that feed your fake energies and your daily venom. I am far from being a fan of this type of sect-like cultural resistance.’
‘Resistance? On the contrary, my dear man, this is about conceding. We have chosen to surrender before even starting the fight. We have settled for studying techniques, tactics, strategies and methods, we’ve shown them how a real battle should look, and then we’ve climbed up a tower to watch them killing each other, or how they kill themselves. We have shown them the way, and this is enough – who says we have to go that way ourselves as well?’
‘Stop it, Sam! You’d better go to the Synagogue. Your theories make me sick.’
‘Don’t play at being crazy!’
‘I’m not crazy!’ Fred moaned, and his voice sounded once again as if coming from his stomach. He watched Sam with a frightened look on his face. “I’m not crazy,” he repeated, and avoided looking into Sam’s eyes, staring instead at the surrealist painting on the wall, in an attempt to hide his embarrassment. “Choosing to be lonely is one thing, but imposed loneliness drives me crazy. Even so, you don’t have time for me – you have to perform your ritual now.’
“Today of all days? My mother has died, Fred.”
“That’s exactly why it no longer matters what you do. Listen to me: I’ve been through this. A part of you will disintegrate, now that your mother has died. Chaos rules where there are no landmarks. We’ve had a large piece of our hearts amputated. We are orphans. The age when it happens doesn’t matter. Our umbilical cord, an immaterial one this time, our invisible connection to the originating matrix, is cut for the second time. There is no one to be either happy for us or worried about us; we have no one to prove who we are and no one to care what becomes of us. Strangely, however, only after leaving my mother and moving to this country did my relationship with her become stronger. Leaving your mother, your country, and your mother tongue – yes, these separations do have something in common. We, emigrants, know that. We’re just like seeds the wind blows away from their protective shells – too tired to germinate again, in a different soil.’
“You’re both deep and pathetic, which is a strange blend. Some call it sensitivity, but it is useless if it’s not supported by brains. You’re a true artist, Fred, my dear, and this is what causes all of your problems. We need to talk about it again.”
Sam suddenly stood up from the little chair that seemed to have held him captive, put on a pair of long trousers, passed by the large mirror covered with a sheet, put a big bottle of vodka on the table and took a piece of cheese out of the refrigerator. He looked at Fred with encouraging eyes.
“Come on, have a drink! The Talmud says that one is not allowed to indulge in pleasures for a month after the death of either of one’s parents. So I’ll drown my sorrows when I get back. Without enjoying it. As for the other pleasures, I believe the Talmud does not refer to one’s wife.” Sam attempted to smile, but the pain in his bones, which tormented him daily, prevented him from doing anything more than grinning. “It’s a good thing she went to her mother over the weekend. They’ll be eating cookies, getting terribly fat, and gossiping about me. Be patient, we’ll talk about what’s on your mind more when I get back. Sonny’s is open late. What did you say the problem was this time? Oh, yes, loneliness– dear old loneliness! I can’t wait to write an ode to it. Such a gift God has given us!”
How was Fred to know that those were to be Sam’s last words? They took him straight to the emergency room from the synagogue; they tried everything that there was to try, and then took him to the morgue, with a white tag hanging from the big toe on his left foot with his name, diagnosis and time of death. Fred, suspecting nothing, waited for him back, until it became late.
Suddenly restless, Sam’s old fat, pitch black cat had started to rome about the house. At some point, it came and got on the little red chair, meowing pathetically. Overwhelmed by a splitting headache, and realizing that he didn’t have his medicine with him, Fred decided not to wait any longer. He could postpone the discussion until the following day. He left setting the lock and slamming the door behind him.
When he got home, his wife Mimi hadn’t come back from the party yet. Hardly had he turned on the light when his mobile phone started vibrating in his chest pocket. It was Fanny. He could hear her babbling and sobbing. She wanted to break some news to him, but all she could do was to babble incoherently, and cry.
There is something surreal about news. It begins noisily, but soon an opaque silence falls. It stops time and reason for a few seconds, interrupts the usual order of things, and sends it off playing by new rules. The shock that follows the breaking of news be it good or bad, comes from the effort of understanding reality changing, accepting a new order and adjusting the mechanism to a different appearance of things. Fred knew all this, he had written about it, but nothing is real before it happens to you. He stayed in the dark there, paralyzed, until Mimi came. She gently helped him get undressed and lie in bed, covered him with two blankets, but, as he continued to shiver, she held him in her arms, as if he were a baby.