‘And while we’re talking about him, have you ever seen his Portrait of Journalist J.’? said the art critic, jumping in boisterously and trying to fire up the conversation. ‘Supposedly the journalist got really close to one of the ministers during our presidency of the European Union, and the minister then came to an agreement with the painter to cover his tracks, which unfortunately was of no help to the journalist’s career’.
These days I only suffered discussions of artistic oeuvres because of my marriage to an art historian whose need for socializing had yet to be permanently satisfied. Not only that: With our relocation to a comfy suburban home, her need for what she, in her acquired bourgeois pompousness, termed ‘professional networking’ or ‘keeping in contact with the field’ had only grown stronger. How right are those who claim that bourgeois mannerisms can be acquired by just about anybody who, deservedly or not, arrives at a comfortable position in their life, with ‘comfortable’ usually meaning that they now lack any goals other than those sanctioned by their chosen environment.
I rarely joined in on such conversations, vainly saving my fastidiousness for more noble purposes, such as those related to my current creative pursuits, and being quite reserved with regard to things that had already happened anyway and had definitely done so without my participation. Of course, when one imposes such limitations on oneself, one cheats oneself out of a significant part of social life, people in their discussions tending to stick to opinions about things that they consider external, general and final enough to absolve them from the questionable logic of their own actions.
I wouldn’t have minded if that were the case this time, when I – not for the first time altogether, but for the first time as more than just as a friendly gesture – butted into a conversation between my wife’s colleagues, whom I decided to inform that I knew about the painting in question and that I believed I’d once been touched by at least a part of its aura, regardless of whether it was the original or perhaps just a copy. Of course my comment, although uttered without any expert pretentions, did not go unheard: Professional discussions tended to fire up at the mere mention of the original, and now here was somebody who was openly considering other possibilities, as well.
Faking disinterest, I took a sip of wine so that I could fully appreciate the moment when I’d have to pay for my recklessness. It was like if, taking an alcohol breath test that I’d almost certainly fail, I’d negotiated for myself a delay of a couple of minutes and used it to blast my favourite song.
‘You certainly must tell us more about it’. The professional tentacles of the people I’d found myself talking now sought me. They were used to wrapping their need for gossip in a foil of professional discussions and intellectual curiosity.
‘You’ll probably find this strange and be disappointed in the end, but I’m far from certain whether I truly saw the painting or not. That is, this was a time in my life that today seems to me no more clear or verifiable than a dream that one has grown tired of trying to interpret, but is still not ready to let go of, as it’s their own dream and had perhaps even helped them become who they are today’.
‘Yeah, we know, philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways’, said one of them, to appreciative giggling. She was trying to keep me confined, in spite of my involvement in their conversation, to the category of those weirdos who, like Plato in Raphael’s painting, point their fingers at the sky and argue for a privileged status for everything incorporeal.
‘Should I take it that you’d only be bored by my story’? I replied, conspicuously spinning my almost empty wine glass and glancing over my shoulder, as if wanting to rouse an orchestra of invisible supporters who’d just entered the room.
‘On the contrary’, reluctantly grunted the critic who had started the conversation about the journalist who had, unfortunately, not become history because of her uncompromising reporting, but tried to interfere with it before it had even started. ‘Let me top you up. You know what they say: Nobody has ever written a full stop with dry ink, and that’s what we’re expecting of you – to dispel the question mark that’s hanging above our heads’.
It would have been wrong, if I had tried to wave my unreliable memory and the possibility of distorted experiences away just by saying that this was a time when I was almost never sober. This was soon after I’d moved, following my divorce, when I’d shacked up at an old friend of mine’s who’d been the only one willing to accept me at the time. Of course, I had to repay his favour by adapting to his life, which at the time included female visits every Tuesday and Thursday and every other Saturday. As my friend was one of those people with whom you never know whether they’re being ironic or indifferent, I didn’t know how to interpret his suggestion that, during these visits, I should retire to a bar where I could write undisturbed. That is, it’s true that I had, at the time, having lost a well-paying job and having just separated from my wife, returned to writing. However, it’s also true that my frequent flights from home, which I’d long excused as searches for inspiration and involvement in ‘real life’, were precisely the reason for me finding myself, after all these years, back at the beginning, and not just in terms of my literary career, but in a much broader sense, as well. My decision to return to writing was not only a daily reminder that my current reality was far from the result of my choices, but also robbed me of the comfort of routine, pushing me, as it did, towards either of the extremes which, in love as in everything where success cannot be measured by material value, are the only ones that count – fulfilment or despair.
Be that as it may: On those days, I became a regular visitor at the Gallery, the lunchroom of which was the preferred watering hole of everybody involved with the arts – painters, gallerists, collectors, critics. My choice of place was far from coincidental, as I’d always preferred to hang out in environments with a recurring clientele, environments where a newcomer’s arrival does nothing to make the patrons set aside their chumminess and their ritual pissing contests, but rather poses a further challenge to the modicum of control that such people have over themselves, and results in them bending over themselves to make an impression on the unknown willing listener. I could hardly have wished for an environment better suited to my uninspired self and more conductive to my work than such places. In the life that I’d gotten used to calling my ‘previous’, I’d spent hours hanging around gyms and dive bars, filled at all times with tradesmen and undeclared workers, exchanged polite greetings with the regulars and never really talked to anybody, as the onus of initiating a conversation would have always been on me, the lone newcomer. The yellow glow of the bar lights and the inaccessibility of sunlight gave my writing the privilege of existing in a time capsule, which was never possible in a more familiar environment.
For a long time, I thus observed, listened and, out of a sense of decency, hid under a cloak of being immersed in my work, which mostly consisted of the editing and copying of parts of my old texts, interspersed here and there a jotted down conversation or verbal posturing I’d overheard. Other guests of the lunchroom, whom I’d taken to thinking of as ‘natives’, got used to my presence, as one gets used to unannounced roadworks – when they first saw me, they probably asked themselves ‘why’ and ‘until when’, but I soon became part of their social charts which, in addition to frequently and occasionally utilized roads, also included inaccessible and unexplored areas. After all, understanding life means, among other things, tolerating uncontrollable presences.
However, toleration sometimes seems like too high a price to pay for understanding. We should be thankful for the fickleness of memory that winds down unending roads to unexpectedly bring us back to early childhood and to a naïve faith in miracles as the only thing that can save us from suffering in old age, for never allowing us to wholly give ourselves over to understanding, because there’s no redemption there. The only two things that can redeem us are experience, to which reason is constantly indebted, and miracle, which doesn’t care for reason’s IOUs.
I’d be lying if I said that she came into my life as a miracle, but it would only have been a partial lie, because I’d never really seen her coming. It would have been more precise to say that she hit me, hit me with a punch that I – at the time living only a single story, and one wasn’t even truly mine but chosen for me by others – needed more than the whole truth. When I first glimpsed her over the sickening whiteness of the computer screen, it was as if an invisible bird took off, darting with full force towards the ceiling and disappearing from view, then coming down right in front of me, spreading its majestic wings. The look in her eyes was so unique and elusive that it seemed as if she were using it to disintegrate every concept and emotion that anyone had ever used to describe the power of a gaze. In her case, the piercing immobility of her eyes, which in anyone else would have hinted at immersion in thought or inaccessibility, seemed soft and peaceful, as if slowly and patiently covering distance to a mark visible only to her, while the rest of the world was doing nothing but humbly positioning itself between her gaze and its object. This absence caressed and calmed me, even liberated me, allowing me to put aside all forms of decency and give myself wholly to her. I lost track of time, though actually everything simply became timeless for a moment and only continued to exist as a space encompassed by the wings of her field of vision. If, at that moment, I could have given up everything, if it meant I could remain forever tied to her gaze, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment. It would have been like putting myself at the mercy of someone who had saved my life. The gaze allowed me total sincerity of emotion, in a way and to an extent that I’d never known before.
Just as I didn’t see her come in on that first day, I didn’t see her leave, either. I considered asking other patrons or personnel about her, but I was afraid they’d notice I was under her spell and then want to partake of it as well, or take away my exclusive right to something they might have been waiting for a long time, but which has now happened to me instead of them. In that moment, everything else that I’d experienced before became so insignificant that I was wholly unable to even imagine anyone experiencing what I had experienced and returning to their previous life without a fight.
I cherished every thought that held the promise that what had happened might not have happened for the first and last time. Even if this were mere coincidence, there had to be at least a chance of a recurrence, and that’s what I decided to patiently wait and faithfully stand by for, all the time, irrespective of the schedule my friend had imposed on me.
The second time was already completely different. The wings that she’d previously used to take off so forcefully and then land, a landing that seemed to have only been meant for myself, a landing that obscured for me the rest of the world, now fluttered nervously behind her back. It seemed that, in the meantime, an invisible partition was broken through, a partition on which both our gazes could rest without being disturbed. I continually searched for her eyes and waited for her to return my glances, but it just didn’t seem to happen. I worried that she had interpreted my staring the first time as too lusty and had considered me an open book since then, that she might have been one of those women who only flirt with men until their true intentions become clear, one of those who are only ready to share their extraordinary magic until satisfied by obvious excitement. That she might have been one of those people who simply take what they consider theirs and then, once they get it, cold-bloodedly doom the admirer to a fruitless search for the reasons for their sudden indifference. That she couldn’t be admired and had, at the same time and that in order, to get her attention, one would first have to rid oneself of all symptoms of admiration.
I thought about approaching her, risking it all and revealing to her in detail what had happened to me the previous time but, in addition to everything else, I worried that this might result in me losing even that intangible attention that she’d granted me in the form of her indifference on this second occasion. I accepted everything she was still ready to offer, so that I wouldn’t lose hope for something more, much more afraid of loss and final repudiation than of eventual rejection.
Next time, she wasn’t alone. I watched her mercilessly tease the man she was talking to, backing him into the corner where he would, like me, sooner or later have to come to terms with his role of a humble onlooker. She wielded her power casually yet underlined it with her every move. It was evident in her every gesture, and everything she did flowed seamlessly from her previous actions and was confirmed by those that followed. Her confidence serving only to increase her self-assurance, it wasn’t aggressive, however, it was obvious that she was accustomed to using it to get what she wanted. She was like a warrior at whose feet others would drop their weapons prompted merely by the sense of her power, without her ever having to show her skills, perhaps her only skill being in the projection of this image.
Every crossing of her legs was announced by a slow hike of her skirt, which traced a sign, visible only to the devoted onlooker and was then followed by a sharp move of her foot, as if she wanted her heel to place the punctuation mark after her statement, again a mark visible only to her devotees. When she lit her cigarette, she always used her free hand to brush aside her hair, and when she blew out the first cloud of smoke, she gently drew the little finger of her cigarette-holding hand across her lower lip. It was as if she were using every gesture to underline that her every move was part of a plan, like in a game of chess, as if her body held the answers to all possible desires of her admirers – though not answers that would satisfy them, but rather ones that would expose these desires in all their predictable banality. Her body was like a well-prepared opening that she was accustomed to using to sweep the chessboard of all who dared to challenge her.
Late-afternoon rays that seeped through the barred windows of the lunchroom that day cast a web of light on the exposed part of her skin and fixed my gaze on her birthmarks which, on the lacework of light and dark skin, resembled a bird’s eye view of the victorious pieces, remaining alone on the almost empty chessboard after the game. I wondered what shape I’d see if I drew lines between them, as in Connect the Dots. Or where the road would take me as a traveller, if I followed her marks like geographical labels for major settlements, cities and capitals. What would happen if I gave up myself as a pilgrim on a clear night to her constellation…
I kept seeing her with men afterwards, or perhaps always with the same man, I can’t say for certain, as I’d retained no memory of their, or his, tangible presence, beyond the most general signifiers of gender. It was as if, in my mind, I wanted to erase any tangible trace that could bring me to the point where my ideas of her would have to be forever replaced by actual events. I’d spent too much time kneeling before an abstract visage to be able to simply get up, rub my knees and continue on my merry way. And in any case, by then there was no way for me that wasn’t lit by the glow of her gaze. The gaze that, when I first saw it, shook and blinded me so much that all I ever wanted to do was exist in its reach, even though it now avoided me with merciless persistence.
What I was unable to do had to happen by itself. It had been dragging on for too long to continue any further. My visits to the Gallery had long since ceased to be tied to the scheduled days, and my episodes of field writing turned into days spent waiting for her arrival. My obsessive stalking had also become financially untenable, so it was simply a matter of time when my host would start seeing me as a burden. ‘I’m afraid I have to ask you to choose a different bar for your work’, the owner said one day, surprising me as I stepped inside. ‘We’d turn a blind eye if it were just your financial troubles, as our bar tries to accommodate poor lost souls of the artistic persuasion, but your shameless stalking and staring is driving away our business. I don’t think I have to mention that this is mostly directed at women, but you should know well enough what I’m talking about, in any case’.
‘I don’t know why you’re talking about women when it’s quite clear that it’s about a single woman. I’m sure I’m not the first to fall so deeply enamoured of a woman, and probably not the first to fall for this one in particular…’
‘Well, I think I know pretty well what I’m talking about. In light of your current condition, I’d venture as far as to say I know it better than you do. It’s definitely not a single case; no woman has lately been able to avoid your insufferable staring, and this is particularly bothersome, because we’d like to attract more women into our midst, which is why we don’t want the place to be considered a dive bar where one can’t have a coffee in peace’.
‘But…’ I stuttered, still not believing him. ‘She was, you know, she’s the only one I’m interested in, there’s no other…’ I stumbled in opposition, as if defending myself against an acquaintance of my wife’s with an exact diagram of my shady movements and of the reasons for my absence from home, who now wanted to exploit my fear of being found out.
I tried to convince him with saccharine, literary descriptions of the time I first met her, of my deep fascination, my incredible susceptibility to her beauty which, it’s true, might have gotten a bit unhinged lately, but who hasn’t had that happen to them.
‘There’s only one person fitting your description that I, let’s say, know, but to your and, I have to admit, my regret as well, she was never a patron of this place. About a year ago, a painter who’s a regular here was commissioned to paint her. The painting, I think it wasn’t finished yet, did hang on our wall for a while, but we were then compelled to remove it at the request of a very influential gentleman. I’m not aware if the painting that you’re describing ever returned to us, as I’m not aware of any copies existing. For your own good…’
‘Are you trying to say…’, interrupted the art critic who was, as I noted, immediately ready to take the gallerist’s side and was quick to relegate my observations to the realm of hallucination which, in light of my introduction, I guess I couldn’t really blame him for.
‘All I’m trying to say is that you’re probably quite right when you say that the author’s painting existed and was removed on request’, I said, trying to bring the conversation to a close. ‘But I didn’t tell you all this just to reinforce the cliché of hallucinating literary drunks. You know how it ended and you can see that I’m no worse for wear today. Journalist J., as you and the painter called her, used to be my wife. I only wanted to show her to you as something besides a notorious model. If I’d succeeded in that and if you hadn’t realised that from my story, that means a flicker of a writer’s spark might still be burning within me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve taken up enough of your time, as you have probably taken enough of mine’.
Translated from Slovene by Jernej Županič
The problem with belonging is that our conceptions of it are often too crude
The problem with belonging is that our conceptions of it are often too crude