Several times that night I forgot her name and she had to repeat it to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. The reason her name kept slipping my mind was because I had to pay such close attention to what she was saying in order not to get tripped up by her string of rapid questions. She was excited, but not over-the-top. She didn’t linger on any one subject but just kept moving forward nonstop, hopscotching from one important topic to the next.
The pub we were in was dark and smoky and her bare arms in her sleeveless dress looked unbelievably white. Like they were absorbing light and re-releasing it through a velvety filter of white. In those French novels of yours, they called arms like that alabaster. She didn’t even try to pretend that she sat next to me just by accident. Why not? That’s the first thing I don’t understand. When I realized she was interested in me, given how unlikely that was, my first thought was maybe she was confusing me with somebody else. There were a lot of people there, including men who were younger and more attractive than I am. There were plenty of chairs free, she could have sat wherever she wanted. Just to explain: Tomáš had invited me to a private screening of a short film I had acted in. Are you laughing? I’m exaggerating when I say “acted.” More like “stood around.”
Tomáš is still the same guy you knew, faithful to his artistic principles. He shot me from behind, standing in front of a window. My hunched back, shadowed in black, framed by the bright rectangle of the window, emanated loneliness. Maybe that’s what attracted her? A somber figure in a room with a high ceiling and cold walls. Is existentialism back in fashion? I’m not sure. Maybe it wasn’t me she was interested in, but conversation as such, the activity known as talking.
She moved closer to me over the course of the evening, turning her chair, leaning in, touching me with her hand and her dull-stockinged knee.
She left her phone number on the table when she left.
I can tell you’re laughing again. There’s only one thing on your mind, obviously, and you don’t understand my hesitation and awkwardness. But do you still remember the days when we—you, me, and our friends—considered conversation an activity it was worth getting together for? The exchange of words was vitally important to us. When we talked we had the feeling we were making great discoveries. Could it be possible that this girl wants to see me just so we can keep talking?
Alabaster Lucie burst into my life with her questions and found me unprepared. I had to hold back my sneers, my laughter, my sarcasm, so I could be as serious as she was. But it made me feel awkward and shy. While she threw herself fully into her words, I was always hiding something.
It was after midnight when I left the pub. I decided to walk home. Shadows flickered along the walls and the sidewalks, clouds scudded across the moon. I remembered how you used to love windy nights like this and that it had been exactly a year. I started to talk to you.
Having a conversation with a young, intelligent girl is both refreshing and depressing, I said. Because there’s no way she could ever really understand me without finding me disgusting. That isn’t just my insecurities talking—you know me. I don’t think I’m any worse than anybody else, I just mean that once we get to a certain age, unless we’re really careful, we’re all lame in the eyes of the young, bright, beautiful people. The older you are, the less exposure you can tolerate.
Disguise and manipulation, then, were the only way I could keep having conversations with Lucie, feeding off her youth while only sharing the parts of myself that I consider appropriate. She might not figure it out, but wouldn’t that take too much work? Yes, work!
I’m sure she sees it differently. If I don’t call her after tonight, she’ll think it’s because I’m afraid of what might happen. When the truth is, I’m afraid the only thing that might happen is nothing.
“Still, it’s worth a try, though, isn’t it?”
I asked myself as if I were you. I do that pretty often when I’m drunk.
“Don’t you get it? I’m afraid she won’t want to sleep with me.”
There’s one thing I wanted to ask you about:
Do you remember when you, me, and the rest of our friends stopped talking seriously? At what point did we start making light of everything, including ourselves? Since when did we stop being able to use certain words without irony? I attempted to do it tonight, sincerely, in spite of how awkward it felt. Then I noticed that Lucie was paying excessively close attention to me. As if I were an alien from some other planet and she was trying to understand me because she might learn something from it, do you know what I mean? Her open mouth and inclined torso, every inch of her matte white body expressed the effort she was making. I felt very alone.
I thought of you.
Of how it was this time last year that you walked out of the flat and locked the door behind you. Started down that familiar staircase, but at one point, on the landing, instead of continuing on your way, you opened the window and jumped.
I like to imagine that the window was already open. That it was low and big, so you could step through it easily, like a door. I’d like to see your death as a spontaneous act. But does anything happen as straightforwardly as a thought?
First you had to set your worn leather satchel down on the ground. Then turn the handle and yank it with all your strength. You had to climb onto the sill, which was rotting. Maybe your foot slipped and you had to try again. Did you take off your glasses? I’m sure you at least considered it.
You know, I realize now, those bumps, bends, and snags, and the weariness that comes with them, those are what I hid from Lucie.
“Vloni touhle dobou,” from the short story cycle Recyklovaný muž © 2008 by Magdaléna Platzová. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Alex Zucker. All rights reserved.