Only with difficulty did I adjust to my life here. For every negative interaction with my boss or humiliation at work, I developed a strange defense: inside my head I would begin to shriek. The sound was one that I had never made and had never heard before, even in my head. But once I moved here, I heard it. The walls of my narrow bedroom curve slightly at the top, like a subway tunnel, and soon they echoed with my own unborn screams as I clattered down the tracks toward sleep.
Initially I didn’t have much human contact outside of work, though I can’t say for certain that it was workplace humiliation alone that provoked the screaming. Anyway, soon it stopped. In its place I developed a fantasy: I imagined impaling myself on a sword, roughly at the navel. I found great relief in this idea, and at times I noticed myself making a gesture, drawing my fists toward my abdomen while grasping an imaginary sword, a gesture not unlike masturbation but with two hands and at the navel.
Shortly after I arrived here, I read that an unidentified man started a fire in the foyer of a nearby apartment building where sixty-six people, including seven children, were sleeping. No one was injured. I went for a walk there just to see, and indeed, the stone above the entryway was blackened. Lighting baby strollers on fire is apparently something people do in this city.
I imagined impaling myself on a sword. I found great relief in this idea.
Another man stopped on the sidewalk next to me and observed the ash-streaked tenement. He had a familiar type of face and, not yet aware that striking up a conversation with a fellow stranger was unthinkable here, I asked him if he lived nearby. “Oh yes,” he said, and he named the very intersection where I live. He responded to my surprise with easy charm and suggested we would be seeing each other sooner or later at the corner bar.
I nodded, then said, “Nobody injured,” gesturing at the blackened portal.
“Some would call it a miracle,” he answered, then bade me goodbye.
The encounter gave me the courage to go to the corner bar alone, where I imagined receiving a friendly clap on the back from him. Of course, he wasn’t there. The bar’s counter was made of an amber-colored resin with marine-themed objects trapped inside it. I recall tracing my finger around a starfish to the wail of a popular song. It resembled another sound that I’ve never heard but have often imagined, which is the wailing in Greek tragedies when people beat their breasts and put out their eyes.
• • •
Hoping to ease my professional stress, I’ve taken up swimming. In the mornings I go to a municipal pool on Holzmarktstraße normally reserved for schools and clubs, open to the public from the hours of six to eight. Everything inside reflects the sadism common to institutions created for children. The small lockers say, “The world is as it is and you must simply force yourself to fit into it.” And their keys with little cloth wrist straps say, “We don’t expect much of you and we don’t want you to tell us otherwise.” And the shallow hooks in the shower say, “Nothing is really for you, you’re merely tolerated here, like everywhere else.” The hall itself is hot and dark, more or less like swimming in hell, but I live to see the tangled webs of light convulsing across the blue paint of the bottom. I complete my forty lengths and exit through the turnstile after scanning my card.
When we want to celebrate a major success in our department, we gather in a corner of our office and our manager comes from his office in the next room. In the corner, there’s a small round table with a gray laminate top. Next to it is a cabinet. Someone gets a bottle of sparkling wine from the refrigerator, and someone else gets small plastic champagne flutes from the cabinet. I like to stand with my back to my desk so it isn’t in my line of sight. I enjoy standing up for awhile.
At one of these celebrations I said something stupid. I normally don’t say much, so it was notable that I said anything at all. A silence had descended around the table. I said something to fill it. I’d wanted to say something general and agreeable but not so completely uninteresting that it would be impossible to respond to it. So I said something about the city, where we all live, after all. The silence continued for a moment after I had spoken, and then a colleague with whom I’d never had any interaction began to laugh. It was a loud, hyena-type laughter, the kind meant to entertain some at the expense of another. It was not the kind of laughter sometimes associated with joy, for example. And it went on for a long time. The colleague has dark hair and dark horn-rimmed glasses and both of these quivered as he laughed. I had said something very naïve about the city, something only someone from the country would say. But I didn’t say any more after that. I just nodded, even at him as he laughed.
The small lockers say, “The world is as it is and you must simply force yourself to fit into it.”
I work at a business that makes books, that is, a publishing house. In my experience, the people who work at publishing houses are the city’s most typical people. The morphology of the local subspecies finds its most homogenous and characteristic expression in the people sitting at the desks in my office. I, of course, am not from here, and my presence leads to a sort of polymorphism in the population, a mutation. I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that the people I get along with best are often also not from around here. Though I have to be careful—often the people who aren’t from here are just like the ones who are.
• • •
For a long time I was hopeful that I would meet someone, a partner, perhaps. The thought now seems foolish, though also faded and worn, as if it were both too new and too old. Occasionally though it still arouses my mind so thoroughly that I venture again to the corner bar. These outings are the basest and most abject moments of my life in this city, moments when my fear gives birth to a desperate, strangling hope. For something, anything, an encounter. The last time I went, after my office humiliation, my hope had been so compacted that I could sense its white-hot contours liquefying something inside of me.
I had nearly forgotten the man from the arson scene. But there he was, in a dark jacket with dark hair and green eyes and black fingernail polish. He was drinking what may have been a vodka tonic. He remembered me, clapping me on the shoulder as he invited me to sit down. He was an art dealer, he said in answer to my question, on his way to Moscow, eventually. “You could say that the people here are my people,” he said, “though I have family everywhere.” The shades of the hanging lamps were made of the thin, waxy shells of primitive marine creatures, and the mottled orange light that fell on the man’s face could have come from a fire on the seafloor.
“Was it so unforgivable,” I asked, “the thing that I said at the office celebration?”
He nodded as if he knew what I was talking about and stared into the small, cold world of his drink, which seemed to glow from within. “Forgiveness,” he said with contempt that somehow did not seem directed at me.
“It was stupid, I know. But so unforgivable as to deserve that reaction?”
“Is it really forgiveness you’re asking for?”
I now know that a meeting like this one is essentially inevitable for those who live long enough in the city. The man dipped his hand into his pocket and scooped out what looked to be iron filings. He sprinkled some into his drink, dampening the carbonation with a hiss. Then he made his hand into a funnel and sifted some into my beer. I found myself unable either to ask what they were or to answer his question.
“I once knew a woman who kept a snake as a pet,” he began after some seconds, turning to look at me. “A python. It had a gentle disposition and it was free to roam the apartment when she was at home. One day it stopped taking the food she offered it. And at night it started sleeping in her bed, stretched along her side. At that point she took it to the vet, because she thought it might be sick. And when she explained all of this to the vet, he said, ‘You idiot,’ and he really did call her an idiot to her face. ‘You idiot,’ he said, ‘it’s waiting until it’s good and hungry and measuring itself against you to see if you’ll fit. It’s getting ready to eat you.’”
A query or protest died on my lips. I tried to pick up my beer, which was amber like the bar, but it was too heavy to lift.
‘Is it really forgiveness you’re asking for?’
After a silence, he began again: “Perhaps that wasn’t the right story. I’ll try another: when my grandmother died, I traveled to her village near Banská Bystrica in the Kremnica Mountains. She had been housebound for two decades, living with the assistance of a caretaker. No one in the parish really remembered her. Everyone who had known her well was dead. But the priest felt it was his duty to say something. And so he told a parable about a little boy. And at first I thought, perhaps the little boy is my grandmother. And the little boy learns to carve things and I thought, perhaps his knife is my grandmother. And the little boy makes a boat, and indeed the boat was my grandmother because the little boy releases it on a lake, and one day, battered and worn, the boy finds it on a beach. It has returned to its maker. It’s a story that could have been told about anyone, anywhere, at any time. And that’s when I understood that the priest and I were in league, and I stopped despising him.”
I struggled to keep up with him; I was still processing the previous story. “What happened to the snake?” I asked.
He paused to recall what I was referring to. “The snake. The woman loved the snake and hated it. She couldn’t kill it and she couldn’t keep it. And so she carried it into the cellar of her building, which was little more than a series of catacombs, dirt tunnels shored up with bricks, branching into various storage compartments. And she let it go. The cellars in this city are often linked, so if you have the key, you can walk between one and the next, down a whole city block without setting foot on the surface. Useful for a maintenance man, no? But being so shoddily built, there are plenty of ways for a snake to squeeze its way between them even with the doors locked. Unlike Paris or Budapest, this city is known for being largely free of cockroaches and rats. But really it’s simply that the labyrinth of cellars offers them such an optimal home that they have no reason to come above ground. The cellars teem with them and the woman’s snake gorged itself in the darkness and grew and grew until it stretched all the way around a series of buildings abutting a single courtyard. And then it ate its tail, and kept going round and round, grinding a trench deeper and deeper into the earth.” He chuckled into his glass. “Such a homily I’ve subjected you to!”
“I think I understand,” I said, this time able to lift my beer. I took a swig. “Everyone knows you’re the snake,” I ventured. “But you’re also the lake the boat drifts on.”
“Ha!” said the man, and began to laugh, and I laughed with him. There was a pause. “You came here hoping to meet someone. . . .”
“Yes,” I said slowly. For a moment the semblance of a beautiful woman flickered across his face. I squinted to see less but also more. “Though that’s not what I want anymore. I think it was actually you I was hoping to meet. Without knowing it.” Waves of smoke rolled through our cone of light. There came a roaring in my ears and my eyes stung with tears. “I know what you want of me, and I’ve been wondering what to ask of you in return. You’re right. It isn’t forgiveness. But what about mercy?”
“No one gets that from me, though it may be what you’re looking for.”
“I’d thought maybe not.” I rested my fingers on the seascape, which now looked scorched. “Then I guess I want to be like the people here,” I said slowly but with determination. “I’d like to be one of your people.”
“That’ll do,” he said, not unkindly, and snuffed out the light in his glass.