Walter had no luck with women. He had tried to write monologues and essays on this subject, and had even pulled off a noteworthy sentence here and there, but on the whole he came up with only commonplaces, of which he later felt ashamed. It occurred to him that he basically did not understand women, that they fascinated and irritated him, and even though he had now and then been lucky enough to be with one, he could not shake the feeling of expecting too much of them. At first things had always worked out and everything, but the more he thought about his relationships with Jessica, Magda, and Nina (it had been those three up to now), the stranger and more unnecessary they seemed to him. Of course, they were generally more peaceful than men, less grotesque, embittered, and tormented by obsessions, but still—the way, for example, that right at the start of a relationship they demanded confessions, nonstop confessions, disclosures and reports, preferably at night, in tears. Only then did they have a feeling of belonging and acceptance, when they had wrested from the man long confessions about his past, for then they could more easily forgive the life he had previously led without them and persuade themselves that they were the first and the only one. All women basically wanted to be the emperor of China, whose name Walter could not remember at the moment, who had had the Great Wall built and all the books in his empire burnt, so that history began with him and there was nothing before him but a chaotic age of forgotten barbarity. And then, when this preliminary work was done, thought Walter, they permitted the man after great emotional preparation to deflower them, and with that too a new age dawned and the bells tolled and they lay still and gazed rapturously at the bedroom ceiling and would probably never be able fall asleep again. And sometimes they called you in the middle of the night and declared how fresh and new everything felt since then: And how is it for you? Please tell me everything, tell me what it was like for you . . . Their vast, perpetually unquenchable curiosity. A life of endless interrogations. What’s on your mind right now. Who do you think about when you. What do I mean to you. What are you thinking about. What do you think about when you’re inside of me and you. When we. When you’re not with me. When you’re all alone in your apartment. How would you feel about a vacation, just the two of us. How long is this going to. Where were you yesterday. Why have you stopped answering my.
Actually you had to be grateful to them for this curiosity, he thought, for there was so much sympathy and trust in it. But at the same time it aroused resistance and aggression. There was nothing you could do about that, it was completely automatic.
One morning, after a strange dream, in which he was tickling the feet of the great Aristotle translator and commentator Averroes with a red feather until he lost his balance, Walter had decided that he would no longer divide his affection equally between the sexes. All the back and forth could not be good in the long run. Since his most intense relationships up to now had been the ones with men, he now wanted to go on in that direction and that same day left Nina, who completely flipped out and threw a telephone book at him. It missed him and smacked against the wall. Nina screamed, her voice cracked, and her face turned red. In desperation Walter lied to her that he was exclusively gay, which pacified her a little. Her fingers formed a grate in front of her face, and she sank to her knees against the wall. Walter thought that he had never before seen a person in such distress. He looked at the tips of his shoes, inside of which were his toes. He moved a shoe, to the left, to the right, as he listened to Nina’s soft weeping. Finally he sat down next to her and stroked her knees with his fingertips. She pulled them away, hid her face against the wall.
—Please, Walter whispered, please understand, I just thought I could maybe, you know, against my nature . . .
The words came in the right tone. Nina calmed down and let him take her by the shoulders. They sat on the floor for a long time. Nina demanded that he tell her everything again in detail, and Walter spoke so deliberately and convincingly that he almost believed himself. He was gay, he had known that for a long time, but he had just wanted to see whether it would work with women too. He had thought that with the right woman, at the right time . . . No, she hadn’t been his guinea pig. A guinea pig means nothing to you. Sure you do. Just not . . . Yeah, exactly. She had to understand. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her. He had only waited so long to tell her because he had been afraid of her reaction and, as he now saw, not without reason—Nina smiled sadly. Yeah, the telephone book. By the way, she had a good arm. They joked a little bit and he ran his fingers along her shoulders, which had already begun to relax. With some annoyance he noticed that her back felt good and that, despite the emotional situation, despite the tears and his feigned confession, he had the desire to pull off her sweater and kiss her skin, to feel it on his cheeks and on his chin, her sharp and familiar smell when she was excited or confused. Women, confused. With them everything had something to do with the moon, he thought. Emotional, changeable, depending on cloud formations and the number of visible stars. Depending on the hour of the day.
These thoughts quelled his bothersome arousal. He stood up. Nina asked him whether this was now the end, but, well, she understood him, and she was sorry, in a way, about this whole thing. And he didn’t want to hurt her, that much was clear to her.
—But just stay for a little while, she said.
Walter left, but he came back the next day. And stayed. Nina made coffee and asked him questions, just as she had always done. Only this time about his homosexuality. What type of man did he like best?
—Don’t be shy, she said bitterly.
He had just come out, she said, so a new age had now dawned, he could at least tell her that. Oh, really? No! She liked that too. And when they were simultaneously clean and dirty, somehow both at the same time. A little bit of both. Yeah, definitely, not too much. And had he felt attracted to her? It’s all right. Sure. A little, but not enough. Of course, that definitely wasn’t enough for a relationship. Yeah, she understood. No one could escape his nature. What type did he prefer, Orlando Bloom or Benicio del Toro?
Walter found the conversation unpleasant at first, and he improvised as well as he could, then he gradually relaxed. He had never thought about things like that before. He had to admit that it didn’t feel false to talk about it. But it also quickly began to bore him. Nina was just getting started when he finally stood up to leave.
She quickly put down her coffee cup on the table and threw her arms around him.
—Please, he said, touching her arm.
She let go of him, wiping around on her face, as if tears were coming out of all her pores. She accompanied him to the apartment door, where she picked up the telephone book from the floor and held it under her arm while she unlocked the door for him.
When Walter was sitting in a café afterward, recovering from the peculiar scene, everything he had said and done struck him as very unreal. Everything had happened much too quickly, in time-lapse, as in really old documentary films in which famous monarchs scurried like water lizards across the world stage.
Getting engaged, getting married, having children, he had put such thoughts out of his head a long time ago. When he imagined himself slowly taking on all those gender roles, hemmed in by cramped, insane, adult, passionless and, at their core, undoubtedly pernicious decisions, he felt sick. What was so great about it? The man comes home in the evening, from the world of open spaces, close combat, survival strategies, responsibilities, judgmental looks, surveillance, leaves his hat, coat and shoes by the front door and enters the world of his wife, loads her up all evening—while she massages his tired office feet—with amusing and instructive anecdotes and impressions from out there, then dreams a little in his rocking chair and speaks with a soft voice into her ear. He looks through the door into the children’s dark room, at the small, breathing bodies under the covers. The beam of a headlight sweeps across the walls and he is content. He sinks with a heavy sigh, which is not in keeping with his age, into his armchair not far from the heater or the fireplace. He beckons his wife. She wipes her hands off on her apron and comes to him. In her presence he becomes for a few moments childlike again, helpless and blind, he makes up stories, true events with a fictitious end, which surprises even him and puts him in a peaceful mood. When it gets late, he allows himself one or two obscene expressions and laughs. He lets his wife confirm for him repeatedly that all this is his home, these walls, this piano, this living-room set, this dusty ancestral portrait, this extinguished fireplace. He smiles at her female ineptitude when she tries to enter a double-digit channel number on the television remote. Then, very late, in the bedroom, he subdues her, when she lets her guard down for a moment. He slaps her buttocks and sniffs his hand excitedly. All night the stripes of car headlights fan out across the wall. In the next room the children are sleeping. His wife too has fallen asleep with exhaustion after he finished with her. But he, a tragic rock of solitude, lies awake for a long time, next to him snores the beloved creature, and he tells himself that he has achieved all this. The next morning he disappears again, shortly before the sun rises. His life is a constant withdrawal from the one into the other world. Hopeless movements of a pendulum. Neither of his hiding places ever conceals him completely. When he thinks about himself, he finds his whole existence tragic. He pats twice the cheeks of his wife, shadowed by the circles under her eyes, and leaves the house. The world of the housewife, on the other hand, is condemned to remain fictional and completely arbitrary. No one sees what she does at home and with what things she is left alone. Her world is one without witnesses. It does not exist, unless her house at some point goes up in flames and neighbors come and look through the burning, crumbling beams into the secret chambers of marriage. Unless she one day drops some sharp object into the cradle in which the child is sleeping. If God exists, nothing will happen to the child, and the next morning the weapon, clean and gleaming, will be next to the healthy baby.
Walter had brushed his teeth. His face very close to the mirror, he looked at the goose bumps on his forearm. He didn’t know anyone else who could produce goose bumps on command. Though only on the arms. He simply imagined himself as a forty-year-old man sitting in a rocking chair in the evening with a plaid blanket over his knees and his wife bringing him the pink baby for a goodnight kiss. Say good night to Daddy.