I saw her for the first time when I went with Samuel to pick up his little boy from school. He begged me to come with him. I couldn’t understand why. I kept asking him but he just kept on laughing like a snake with a cold, avoiding the subject, waving his hand like a pigeon’s broken wing, not saying anything, not even a simple “you’ll see.” I disliked schools and I was loathe to visit any school of any breed. I remember my school being like a Vatican dungeon, full of boys that proved Darwin’s monkey-theory correct and with teachers that would not be afraid to spank Mrs. Thatcher.
And yes, I am a man, I generalize, if one school is like a prison, then they all are! And all the education I received in my life I received in spite of school. It was my art teacher that inspired me with his insipidness. He possessed the kind of aggression you could never defeat, for it was self-perpetuating. He hated his students because he hated his wife, her cat, his son, his mother – and his painting. There were times when he used to come in class happy, we’d notice, because he’d be whistling an old Tarantella, and on those occasions, he used to actually talk to us. But the rest of the time, he would sit on his desk with his head in his hands while we drew, and God help us if we dared interrupt him. I did, once, to ask him about a still-life I was doing. He got up from his chair slowly with eyes like a silverback gorilla’s; he grabbed me from my collar and told me, his spittle raining down on my clean-shaven face: “if you have to ask me how to do a damned still-life, then leave my class right now.”
I never asked him again. I went on to become an art critic and now he has finally found happiness in the peace and quiet of the grave.
Even so, when I went with Samuel to pick up his boy from school, I expected to find a dribbling, fuming Mr. Cardona waiting for me at the school gates. But it was impossible to stay thinking too long when you’re with Samuel.
“You’re going to thank me for bringing you here, man.” He said with a forced whisper – he found it innately unnatural to lower his bumble-bee, bumbling voice. He scratched his stubble to counterpoint his silence, trying to make noise, always trying to make noise.
“I hate schools.”
“To hell with that, you’ve spent your life in a school.”
“That’s university, that’s different.”
“If it’s got classrooms, students and teachers, it’s a fucking school. So don’t be a hypocrite. You’re just pissed off at our school because no teacher ever tickled you under the desk.” He said unable to hold back his booming laugh that sounded like a bull being branded.
“But forget about that,” he continued putting his hand on my shoulder, his eyes looking around us as if he were a chameleon. “You know what I always tell you about women, right?”
“I try not to remember.”
“But you do, you can’t forget, because I’m right. The female species is a species designed for fun. Women want nothing more than to have fun in life. They know what it’s like to be a mother, yeah, they know the pain of childbirth, and periods – they need to have fun, if they didn’t, they would kill themselves. Have they killed themselves yet? No, so I’m right. Even if I’m wrong, I’m right.”
“What’s your point?”
I noticed that our animated conversation was attracting attention. We were two of a handful of men standing at the school-gates. The rest were women huddling in groups, dressed in whatever they were wearing in their interrupted, non-maternal lives. Like victims of Pompeii trapped in the clothes of their previous lives. Samuel was wrong of course. But he was right too. At least, he needed to be. Whenever I look at women, at least the women of my age, I see only seriousness, careers and determination. This century has given women their emancipation and what have they done with it: they found a new bondage. But it’s a bondage of their own making, so I guess that’s fine.
The children started coming out.
“Now, any minute now, she’ll come, she always comes late.” He said looking around him, his tall frame reminding me of a giraffe at a watering-hole.
“Who comes late?”
“There, there she is!”
“Samuel!” I called out to him as he dashed away from me. He turned around with a frustrated grimace.
“Your son, Zach, he’s here!”
He hurried back towards us. Zach, a slender, green-eyed eight-year-old, came running out of the gates with the same eagerness I used to have when the school day finished. He had a Spider-man bag on and his uniform with the orange sweater and elastic tie was as neat as it had been in the morning. He ran up to his tall father and hugged his leg. It made me think of dog in heat. Samuel took the bag from him, put it on his shoulder, took his hand and gestured to me to follow him. On the way he waved to the American principal with the curly-hair like a flabbergasted Mrs. Bucket.
“There, just there, you see her, the one in the green dress with the blonde little girl. That’s Alex, oh Mamma Mia, Alex, angel of this shit-beaten earth, and temptress of even the stubbornest chastity. Alex, my friend. Look at her well.”
And so I did. I didn’t know why exactly Samuel had brought me to the threshold of trauma to see her, I could never make out his unpredictable intentions – but by God was I glad he had dragged me along. There was a particular beauty about Alex that you could not describe, only feel. She was a patchwork of separate islands of wonder which didn’t quite come together. Her pale white skin like Botticelli’s Venus, her green-grey eyes so small and seductive, and her body sharp and curvy, fragmented like one of Picasso’s Demoiselles. But why could I not put my finger on it. All my diction and my academia let me down. I just wanted to love her. To be her protector, her saving grace.
I reprimanded myself for being such a lazy misogynist. Women don’t need protecting anymore, don’t need saving or grace. I was being lazy and clichéd – the latest crimes women were being forced to endure from the male species. But if they didn’t want protecting, what did they want?
“The same thing you want, nay, need: fun!” Samuel said patting me on the back as he pointed her out. She was being shown something by her little girl. We could see that her daughter possessed the same colour eyes and paleness of skin. “Damn, you know a woman’s attractive when even her kid daughter is a stunner.” He said laughing out loud, fully aware of the discomfort he caused in me when he said that. But he thrived on making people uncomfortable. He needed it like Casanova needed syphilis.
“I’m friends with you isn’t that enough fun.” I sighed as I felt his nails digging into my shoulders.
“But that’s second-hand fun, man. You don’t want to be the bridesmaid all the time do you, you have to be a bride every now and then, and to do that, you have to grab life by the balls, like all good brides.”
“They only do that on their honeymoon.”
“Stop pissing around, man. You know what the secret of great living is?”
I shrugged like a passive bit-player.
“It’s not knowing what it is and punching in the face anyone who tells you they know it! There is no secret and if there is lock it up well I don’t want to know. If I knew what the secret of living well was then I would become like a Roman Emperor, reclining on a chez lounge having slaves fanning me and feeding me grapes. I will take my doubt with me to the grave, I will shout it out, I don’t know anything about life, I don’t know anything about death, and I wouldn’t want to know – let me find out for myself! And how will I find out what the secret of life is? By finding out what it’s not.”
Whilst he soliloquized his son Zach was getting anxious. He didn’t like being in the sun too long and he wanted to go home. As Samuel spoke he gestured with arms larger than the entire universe and he almost forgot he was a father or a son or anything. Only an explorer. And I admit I thought he was full of it, but like any speech delivered motivationally enough it lifted me high on the wings of testosterone.
“So what do you want me to do about it?” I said as I took out my phone to look at the time.
He took it from my hands with the nimbleness of a thief that had nothing to lose. “Stop thinking about the damn future and carpe the (he said this in a whisper: fucking) diem. I’ve spoken to Alex before, she is an absolute party animal.”
“But she looks so elegant.” I interrupted as I studied her. Her smile was fitting for the portrait of any fabled queen.
“The two are not mutually exclusive, my friend. Just because she’s elegant, and classy, and homely and as uptight as a dry paintbrush – it doesn’t disprove the fact that all she wants to do is have fun. On the contrary, it proves it all the more. Look at her now, isn’t she just the perfect woman, with her daughter, her car, her independence, her perfect make-up, her expensive phone. But that’s not a woman! That’s only her shadow. It’s all bullshit. She is a woman when she’s off her head dancing on an alcohol-soaked bar flashing her under-sized thongs to a hypnotized under-age crowd. And just think about it man, you could be at the front of that crowd. I give you now that opportunity. Think of me as the Archangel, and I am announcing that the chosen one is going to be delivered to thee. Thank me with stories. And ideally, pictures.”
“Forget it, I’m not going up to a perfect stranger and ask her – while she’s holding her daughter no less – to party with me.”
“Then I’ll do it.” He said as he began walking over to her.
“No! Wait, how will you?” I said confusing my questions in the panic and excitement of the moment.
“How? She’s not dead and I’m not dead, so how can I not?”
Alex did agree to join us for a drink at a nearby bar that night. Samuel told her there was going to be a live band playing he had heard were excellent (he had done his research: she was a great fan of live bands and Samuel had told me her daughter must “must!” have been a groupie child).
I left Samuel and I went for a drive. I felt like being alone. I went down to the beach and stayed in the car watching the waves surfing over the still sand and I saw people walking their dog in the shadows of their own silhouettes. I watched the sea with admiration and wondered what to make of it. If I close my eyes the sea becomes just the sound of the waves. If I close my ears it becomes a dark blue mass. If I close my thoughts it becomes everything it can be. How is a man to keep on reasoning whilst ceasing to think? It was something I was trying to master for the sake of my art criticism. To just see the paintings as a hummingbird would see them, and to reason out their existence the way Socrates would. I guess the key must be down to what Samuel was talking about before – not knowing. To assume ignorance of all things and then simply to ask all sorts of questions with the freshness of a child.
To admit you know nothing is to have an entire universe to discover.
A couple of teenagers walked past me holding a smartphone that played pounding, shrill music. They weren’t dancing to it, hardly even listening, it was just background; maybe they were using it to block out their own thoughts, making themselves ignorant. Or maybe they just are ignorant. More likely, wouldn’t you say, child? As they passed me by I felt the anxiety a poet feels before embarking on an epic project. Tonight, there will be music, won’t there? Why must all courting today take place in the halls of music? The music played in clubs and bars creates gladiatorial arenas wherever you go. Everyone must be a gladiator when DJ’s and bands make their noise. There are many roads open to you; fighting, submission, cowardice, bravery: but whatever you do you will be judged. I don’t like being judged on how well I interacted with music. Can’t I be judged for my intelligence, my kindness, my face God damn it! What does music have to do with sex!
I started feeling tense, as if I were going for a hospital appointment with my hypochondriac mother. My bowels were knotted – and I do so hate thinking of beautiful women when I needed to go. It feels dirty and not at all in the good way.
When I arrived at the bar Samuel was already there talking to some friends, texting and managing a pint. He looked like a many-armed Shiva of the drinking-class. The bar was like an undecided voter: half in half out. Outside it had high wooden tables blocking the pavement of the Strand, a popular shopping street along the waterfront. It was early, only nine o’clock, but it was busy. Inside it was dark and wooden, like the interior of a ship, there were more fans and televisions than healthy livers – most of the clientele were regulars that could not regulate their pint-drinking. It was large and spacious, the bar armed to the teeth and the stage still empty.
“Is she here?” I asked Samuel as I saw him. His friends told him they were off, they were going to a party further up. As they left I smiled to their backs.
“Not yet man. Chill out, women are always late. It’s part of their charm, it makes us think they’re worth waiting for. It’s a common trick, politicians do it all the time.”
“More likely she’s arranging a baby sitter for her daughter.”
“How I do love that rational mind of yours.” He said patting me on the cheeks. “Really I do. But tonight, do me a favour: leave it in the toilet! Go a bit crazy, won’t you, have some fun, be anything but yourself.”
I stopped the tall Slavic waitress and asked her for a pint.
“Hey, have I made you angry?” He said with his arms wide open as if he were going to embrace the Fat Lady of prehistory. “Loosen up. I didn’t mean anything by it. None of us should be ourselves all the time. That’s why nature gave us empathy, isn’t it? So we can throw off our skin and put on someone else’s. It’s not being hypocritical it’s confronting a basic, fundamental truth: none of us know who we are, we won’t know until we’re old and wrinkly. So in the meantime, it’s not cheating, just be whoever the hell you want to be!”
“I’ll be… damned if I’m being you tonight.” He laughed a broad laugh. “I don’t reckon Alex will go for that ‘skin’.”
“You don’t reckon so, do you?” He said leaning his elbows on the high table.
“No, Alex looks a classy woman. She might be a party animal but only because she doesn’t know anything else.”
Samuel slammed the table, spilling some of his point. “You talk about partying as if it was some disease to be cured! Alright alright it’s not a religion – at least not a perfect one (which one is?) but it’s no sickness, for God’s sake. But don’t take my word for it. Take hers.” He gestured behind me and I saw Alex coming.
She was dressed in a black dress with lace patterns and that generated a high cleavage. Her jet-black hair hung delicately over her shoulders and her eyes glistened brighter than every man’s envy as she came up to us. She reminded me of Baroque art and its fixation with symmetry. Looking at her perfectly positioned face and the tantalizing, near-perfect curves and valleys of her body I imagined her something out of Caravaggio’s mad genius. What would it be like to sleep with her, I found myself thinking? Would it be like sleeping with any other woman – a woman is a woman and a vagina a vagina after all. But I guess, sleeping with her would be whatever I wanted it to be. And I would want it – and yes, I am a man, I did want it – to be like bedding the most beautiful piece of art I had ever set eyes on. Now, truly, I was a nervous wreck. Maybe the answer was to be crazy – but how the hell does one draw from the well of craziness if the well is dry? And had always been dry!
“There she is, the Beauty of the Night.” Samuel said as he kissed Alex on the cheek. She then came over to me and I could smell the perfume that wasn’t her but was an extension of her mind.
“How do you stand being friends with this bullshitter?” She asked me as she smiled, putting her hands on her protruding hips. I shrugged casually.
“I may be a bullshitter, but you’ll still let me get you a drink.” He said blinking effeminately like a coquettish little boy.
“Bullshit away my friend.” She laughed. “Listen, shall we go inside, I want to get a good view of the band later.”
“As you command, we follow.”
“I’m not Jesus!” She said with a twisted smile full of deceit and irony. “Although, with my ass, I’m quite confident I could at least half-walk on water.”
We went inside and found a table in front of the still-empty stage. There were no people dancing yet and the music was not too loud. We all raised a toast to the night and Alex downed half of her glittering cocktail in one leviathan gulp. Samuel looked tantalizingly impressed.
He kept steering the conversation towards me and I felt put out by his obvious match-making. I answered as coyly and as crazily as I could, but he who is born square will not die a triangle.
“The man’s as well-traveled as they come.” Samuel said from behind his pint. “It’s your dream to be a travel writer isn’t it?”
I nodded meekly. “You only live once.”
“Oh I disagree.” Alex said laughing, still sucking at her straw, her cocktail disappearing like an old glacier. “You live at least half that if you have children. Believe me,” her voice was already sounding hoarse, but her eyes were still smooth and oceanic. “Once you have children you’re finished.” She laughed guiltily.
“I thought people said they re-live their childhood when they have children.” Samuel said consolingly.
“You do, oh you do. But after your first childhood you get to be a teenager. After your second childhood you get to be an old woman with breasts so drooping you could play football with them.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get old.” Samuel said remarkably composed, his elbow leaning on the edge of the table.
“Because you won’t have children?” She asked.
“No, no, even if I do, I won’t get old. It comes down to an all-important mantra.” He was talking now as if he were the Dalai Lama. “You’re only as old as the woman you feel.”
“Stay away from me then, I’ll age you faster than working in a coal-mine.” She laughed, but as she did, I noticed her looking fixedly at Samuel. Her stare was full of intent and her lips were parted, carefully, attentively. And Samuel noticed it from the corner of his eye. And in the corner of her eye… there I lingered.
As the night wore on, the band began setting up the stage and Alex and Samuel became engaged in a series of drinking games that got both of them as tipsy as a rainbow. Alex more than Samuel, I could be sure, Samuel was built like an ox. I could see what he meant about Alex and women having fun. Not for one second did she stop laughing, joking, flirting, singing. And the more I fell in love with her the more I hated myself. It seemed necessary. Samuel was right. Damn it he was right again!
There I was again, a critic, an observer, a damn visitor at the zoo of life, never inside the cage, always outside, watching. I am a perpetual masturbator. I watch and excite myself, I excite myself, I orgasm, but I can tell no one about it, I’m ashamed because it’s pitiful, I shout to myself there is nothing immoral about it, but it is pitiful. I was falling in love with Alex because she was everything I wasn’t. She was the crowd I had always been excluded from. She was the wing I was always too heavy to climb atop. She was the temple I was too base to enter. I had to challenge myself, I had to, yes, be someone I wasn’t. How hard can it be? Very hard, almost impossible, but worth the challenge all the more.
“Samuel, listen.” I shouted over the music which was growing louder by the second. He came over to me and I spoke in his ear: “how do I dance with her?”
“Good try my friend, you’re being crazy, but if you’re really crazy, you don’t ask you just do.” And he patted me on the back and directed me towards Alex.
I put my arm around her dove-white shoulders and when she looked at me I gestured towards the dance-floor. They were playing something as fast as flight and as pulsing as crashing. I didn’t mind. Alex didn’t mind – though I wondered, what music did she really like? I took her arm twirled it and myself so I was now standing behind her my arm around her neck our waists touching grinding. Samuel was clapping as he watched. She was smiling and I could feel her smile. She moved away from me and began dancing, shaking her head from side to side, her hair flowing like a raven, and she moved closer to me, put her hands around my neck as I put mine on her waist, hip, thighs. We were the only two dancing and the only two people that would ever be dancing. Then she waved Samuel over. With a look of false reluctance, he joined.
He caressed her from the back. Next to him she looked short and demure like a hippo calf next to a male. I loathed his presence then, for he introduced competition onto the dance-floor, and to compete in an arena of pleasure is to be a masochist. I didn’t want that. As Alex turned to face him I motioned to him with my head to get out, to move away, but he shrugged smiling, looking down at her saying: “what can I do?” It was a challenge that was not in my power to take up. Frustrated, I sat back down. I played the sulking card. I felt like a priest preaching in parliament: I hoped everyone would look at me and take pity on me, after all, I was worth that much, wasn’t I?
But they kept on dancing. If I were a priest then Samuel and Alex were Adam and Eve proving me right. And once you grant the sulker his right to sulk you deprive him of his power. So I walked out.
I didn’t leave but I just stood outside for some fresh air – in the smoking area! I looked inside and saw Alex still dancing, her naked arms like a volcano’s ravenous arms pirouetting into the sky and her eyes like pearls at the bottom of the saddest ocean. I felt overwhelmingly drawn towards her. I didn’t need her I didn’t even want her. It was as though my soul felt I already had her, she was mine, had always been mine, even in a multitude of past lives, and to watch her dance now with another man filled me with the envy of a cuckold. For a moment I wished we were living in some Decalogue theocracy and Samuel would be severely punished for coveting. But then, that could never happen, and the last commandment sets up a rule that is impossible to follow: I am human therefore I covet. I am a man and God damn it I will covet. And I could see the same thought process occurring in Samuel’s mind right now.
I left the bar early without saying goodbye to them. What happened next I know because Samuel told me about a week afterwards when the coldness between us thawed sufficiently and we met up again.
He told me nothing new. But he spoke with the tone of a humble simpleton who had just witnessed a miracle.
After a night of drinking and dancing Alex invited Samuel over to her apartment. It wasn’t far; he drove her car and within five minutes they were there. The apartment, he said, was rich but decorated poorly. The terrace gave out onto a quiet residential street and the back rooms were blocked by the Berlin Wall of local property booming. They walked past her daughter’s bedroom and he waited for her as she went to check up on her. And that was when the first tear fell from the statue of the Virgin. This was the analogy Samuel used. It was the first miracle that came to his mind, that of the inanimate statue of the Virgin crying real, human tears. His heart, as he saw her kissing her daughter on the forehead, wept the first tear. He shook it off as if it were a clowning mosquito and returned idyllically to his manhood. She came out and they went to her bedroom.
“She was like a puppy, man, you know how they look when’re panting and their mouths look like they’re smiling. Like that, I don’t know, she wasn’t a woman she was a puppy, a seal calf, a kitten. I didn’t know what to make of it.”
She undressed in a mock striptease. Samuel continued to tell me that her every gesture, her every move was erupting with comedy, irrupting with kindness, booming with tenderness and verging on maddening silence. He couldn’t stop laughing – “she raped me!” – he said with a stunned look. “How?” I asked quite naturally bemused. “She made me into a little boy and then she had her way with me.” “My heart bleeds for you, Sammy.” I said not without bitterness.
Even as he was inside her she kept on looking at him with a mischievous radiance. Her emerald eyes were serious and profane and inimitable and hypnotizing. But her lips kept on smiling her petite dentures flirting like a girl’s ponytail, and the way she moved her body – oh yes it was heavenly – but her nails scratched his backside as if she were a cat scratching on a post. Why did this throw Samuel off so much?
It had the effect of making him “feel so completely at ease, so utterly and entirely myself.”
“God help her.” I shook my head.
“I’m not joking, man. You know how it is with women. Sex and love are like politics and religion. Before you find God you need to win the election that gets you there. Sex is campaigning, canvassing, diplomacy, bullshitting and mass meetings. If the election is won then politics becomes religion. You’ve found God, made your peace, you know. Although, even then, you have to be careful not to commit any thought-crime.
But with Alex none of that happened. As soon as we were alone everything that we had ever been, all the masks we put on ourselves, just melted away; by the time we took off our clothes we had already been naked.”
“What are you saying? You’re in love?” I said smiling smugly as I took a sip from my pint.
“Oh don’t give me that. Love, what the hell does love matter? To love someone is to impose on them. It’s to make them something that they’re not. What do people call their lovers: goddess, princess, pet, sweetheart. Gives me tumours just thinking about it.”
“I bet Alex can’t wait to see your romantic side.”
“I am romantic man, think about it, why would I want my woman be a goddess if gods don’t exist? Why a princess when princesses are corrupt tunnel-fodder? And pet – I hate pets and slaves in equal measure. Sweetheart? We’re too old to have sweethearts! No, hell, I don’t want to love Alex, I want to live with her, be with her, just play – be as us as is naturally possible.”
“Have you seen her since that night?”
“No but we’ve been in touch. And you know, it’s like that night never happened. The girl’s a bloody amnesiac and I love it! Every time you’re with her, I bet, it’s like a first date. If I get to have sex with her 72 times it’ll be like having sex with 72 virgins. Bliss!” He laughed for the first time as he realized he had gotten over his shock and that he was ready for an exciting future.
“I’m happy for you, boss.”
“Hey, man, don’t be bitter, come on, I’m sorry I rained on your parade. It just happens, how can I help what just happens? I’ll find you someone else, come on.”
I didn’t want anyone else. I wanted Alex. Oh it’s not that I wanted Alex, either. I wanted what Samuel had and never thought he’d wanted. As I listened to him talking I found myself agreeing, as always, with everything he said. I don’t want a lover, my life is fine. I don’t want to change my life, I don’t want a revolution. I want to keep on living the same life I’m living now but with a like-minded, beautiful companion by my side.
But how can I find someone like that if I keep on living the hermetic life I’m living now? I had come so close with Alex, so close to finding the artwork that reflected my soul wherever it went. But it wasn’t meant to happen.
It was years until I spoke to Samuel again.