He wanted to meet all her girlfriends, size up all her men, peer into all her acquaintances’ eyes, hug all the boxers and duke it out with all the wrestlers in town, challenge all the bartenders to knife fights, and trounce all the valets at dice. He wanted to hear from her girlfriends what they said to her before she went to bed with them, what arguments they presented, and what they promised. He wanted to hear from her men about how she looked before she got that boyish haircut — what her natural hair color was, what she looked like in the morning — untouched by all that black makeup — what she said in her sleep after everything that had transpired the night before, how she spoke when she was drained by exertion and silence. He wanted to sit down with her teachers, he wanted them to tell him about her accomplishments, about her good behavior, about her passion for chemistry and sports, about the color and cut of her school uniform. He wanted to have a drink with her shop teacher and bond with her history teacher, gaze deeply into her assistant principal’s eyes and smother her homeroom teacher with kisses, he wanted to be in her life, be next to her, close enough to feel the blood flowing under her skin. He wanted to be privy to all her secrets and all the riddles she had tucked away in the depths of her memory, know all of her countless stories word perfect, correct her mistakes, dispel her doubts, become part of the action, explore her life like a suitcase found in the attic of someone else’s house, sit there and sift through precious evidence of other people’s emotions, other people’s laughter. He wanted to manage it all, he wanted to be involved in everything.

They popped into all the burrows and basements she could possibly think of — paid the Arabs a visit, of course, stopped by the Vietnamese joint, naturally, became best buddies with the guys who worked at the McDonald’s (they were used to this kind of thing by now), enjoyed a few rounds, arms intertwined, with the staff of the TB clinic, tried to order some champagne at Health, the local sauna, though their efforts were thwarted, reminisced about their respective childhoods in a dark basement across from the synagogue, and looked for escorts at a family restaurant where they were cleaning up the aftermath of a children’s birthday party — he spilled a milkshake on his lap and kept trying to scrub the stains out with herbal liqueur. He asked for written directions at the pizzeria, and caught some cognac fumes back at the Georgian joint, because every other place was closed by then. They had live music, and he performed some Irish folk dances, getting in the waiters’ way and driving her into a joyful frenzy.

He wrapped things up by holding forth about precious suitcases in other people’s houses, demanding that they be brought to him without delay — he just couldn’t give it a rest with those suitcases, discoursing on them with laughter and anxiety. He went on and on, thinking, “Just don’t look back. Just don’t stop talking. She’ll gravitate toward my laughter as long as I keep walking and talking; she’ll be forced to listen as long as I have something to say. She’ll get to the end, she’ll hear me out, and she’ll stay with me tonight. After all, she has to know how this is gonna go; she has to wait for this night’s culmination. Just keep talking and don’t stop.”

“My princess,” went my song of praise the next morning as I lay there staring sullenly at the ceiling in my wrinkled jeans and stale shirt. “Why must you break my heart? Why must you toss it to the pigeons in the square? They play with it, perched up on the city’s TV antennas, and I weep, my princess, while you paint your own portrait with only the most vibrant colors. Why do you keep me in these silver chains? Why do you put this black, suffocating collar around my neck and keep me from telling you all my thoughts about love and cruelty? My princess, where do you run off to every morning? In what burrows do you hide from me, you lovely fox? Why don’t you return and let me go? Why do you hold me captive? Why don’t you ever call me by name?”

I sang and sang as the street outside the window awakened, I sang as the building came to life, and I went on singing, not even trying to get out of bed. “I guess now I know what it means to be unhappy in love,” I thought, despairing. “It can be painful, and it can put you in a rotten mood. Who would have thought? Who could have foreseen it?” Meanwhile, there was more and more sun, and the voices were getting more and more grating — the building was filling up with them, so I simply didn’t have any more time for my suffering. I liked this building. It was like an electric organ. In the mornings, I’d wake to the workers stretching a cable along the cold, damp asphalt and connecting it to the blue waves of electrical current running through the apartment block. The doors were always open, and cold drafts pooled in the hallways, swaying like seaweed as soon as anyone ran inside. After midnight, when everyone was already asleep, if you listened closely enough, you could catch the chittering of mechanical alarm clocks, the dripping of water in the kitchens, the whispering of drowsy pigeons on the roof, and the women sighing quietly in their sleep, as though somebody was tuning all the cords and antennas, preparing for a concert staged to celebrate a holiday. In the early morning, the building would be set in motion and the first sounds would emerge — brisk air would whip through the windows and rooms like breath through woodwinds, the floors would creak, perky radio voices would echo, knives, frying pans, razors, and hair dryers would chime in as well as some toasters, irons, and loud ringtones, anchormen would deliver the latest news in their sweet, reassuring voices; you could hear dishes, you could hear water, kisses and whispers, people humming marches and reciting prayers, running giddily down the stairs, which finally woke all the balconies and hallways from their slumber — now it sounded like a piano was scraping across the floor, and you were inside it, in the midst of the deepest sounds, in between the most disquieting notes, listening to the wood and tin, iron and cement, glass and skin that held the floors and ceilings together. When children ran into the building around lunchtime, their high-pitched voices made invisible microphones screech, and booming sound ricocheted off the walls, and this music persisted — wistfully in the afternoon, adamantly at dusk, ecstatically at night — never slackening, never pausing, just going on and on. The music made me want to die.

I got right down to it.

© Serhiy Zhadan

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