It isn’t raining. They say there’s a mist coming down. I’m tempted to say things are hidden behind a gauze. It’s as though someone has lowered a veil of threads. They glisten in the headlamps of the passing cars and coalesce as a mist in the distance. Behind this screen of threads, things could go on forever in much the same way as they do in the hundred or so metres around me: an endless metropolis.
I gaze up the glass facade of a building. I wonder what it must be like to look down into the city from up there. I imagine it. In this daydream I’m a woman. I’m holding the handset of a cordless telephone. No-one’s talking. I’m wearing a bathrobe. My feet feel the warmth of a soft, sand-coloured rug. Holding the telephone in one hand I walk over to the window and place the other on the glass. It’s damp. The room’s dark. Everything else is black and gleaming. The mist is luminous. Swathes of it swirl around, neither communicative nor silent. They sing to me.
“Now I know what it is,” I say to my wife.
“What what is?” she asks.
“What it is,” I say.
“What are you talking about?” she asks, visibly perplexed.
“You know; what it is that’s so different here,” I say, and it’s only then I realise that I’m picking up on a conversation we were having before we fell asleep last night. We’d landed at JFK a few hours earlier and got to the hotel with remarkably little hassle. It was late. I popped out to get cheese, tea, and crackers for twenty dollars. The crackers crunched in our mouths and the cheese stuck to the crumbs. The steaming tea filled the hotel room with the scent of chamomile. Paula turned out the lights. We were tired and buzzing with excitement about the trip, about our hotel between Greenwich and the East Village, and we talked about what it was that made it feel so special to be here in spite of everything.
“Oh, right! Now I know what you mean,” said Paula. “So what is it?”
“It’s the constant echoing, like you’re in a forest or a cave,” I said.
She reflected on this for a moment or two.
“And you don’t think it’d be just the same in Shanghai or Tokyo?”
“Perhaps. I don’t know,” I said. “But that sound; that’s different. I’ve only just become aware of it. But perhaps I’m just being stupid.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But perhaps just a bit stupid.”
We walk a few blocks. I want to visit the Strand Book Store, a huge second-hand bookstore with three stories full of books. It smells like New Year’s Eve as we approach. Fire engines are parked in front of the lowered shutters of the store and a police line flutters in the wind. Smoke rises from the manhole covers. There’s a crowd of people standing behind a line of red-and-white tape. I walk over and ask what’s happened. A portly guy holding a laptop case turns to me. He’s wearing tinted glasses and a well-tended moustache. There’s been a gas leak and an explosion on a building site. Some damage to the basement of the bookstore. “Oh no, that’s where I was going,” I think, and thank him.
“Now I can’t get anything to read,” I say.
“Well, we can get you a newspaper instead,” says Paula.
We’re on our way to the Russian and Turkish baths now. Paula buys some water and a newspaper from the nearest bodega. I wait outside, looking up at the sky, observing the blanket of mist.
The baths are half a block away. We go up the ten steps. The smell of birch wood washes over us. The main door opens onto wainscotted walls, plastic chairs, and a linoleum floor with a larch motif. There’s a printed menu in the national colours of the Ukraine: blini, borscht and pelmeni. Fox News is playing on the flat-screen television. There’s a counter to the right, behind it a woman wearing too much makeup and a guy I suppose is her partner. A red-faced older man, he shows no sign of saying anything, even when we look straight at him. He smiles, but mischievously, pointing to the signs that tell us what we need to do: we’re to put our valuables in the metal boxes, which the woman hands over to us, then we’re given keys for the lockers and clean but worn-out towels. The man says nothing. He starts moving his shoulders to the rhythm of a song that’s coming from the little radio on the counter. Then he points to another sign behind us: “Baths downstairs.” Almost in passing, but with a sincere enough smile, the woman tells us to pay later.
A few minutes later Paula and I step into a continuous feed sauna. The steam hisses out of a nozzle the whole time. Dark slats of oak, tiles unchanged for decades, a brownish grey utility light. We can’t handle the third tier and sit on the second level instead. My fingernails are burning. I immerse them in my towel. A woman stretches athletically on the next level. Stress yoga, jokes Paula. We want to talk, but we wait until we’re outside. Impossible to concentrate. It’s as though all my misgivings are being boiled out of my body. After a couple of minutes I get used to it. Even so, I don’t last long and soon have to get out. Cold shower, plunge pool, the smell of chlorine. Then relief on the terrace.
“What time is it?” I ask Paula.
“Four,” she says.
“When do we need to be there?” I ask.
“Seven,” she says.
We do two more rounds before going back to the hotel. My mind is empty.
Paula gets changed. I lie on the bed in our hotel room. Everything here is old. From the way it looks, Paula and I might have just arrived from Denver with fifty dollars, a guitar and a typewriter.
Paula makes a round mouth and applies her lipstick while I leaf through the newspaper and read an article. “Mr. Piaguaje, the radio journalist, said there were so many bodies that there was no one to bury them all: When someone finds a cadaver, they take them to the cemetery and just leave them there.”
“Shall we take a taxi?” asks Paula.
I look up how much it would cost on my phone. Sixteen dollars plus tip.
“Nineteen all in,” I say.
“Okay. We’ll take the subway,” she says.
A short time later we’re swiping our MetroCards through the machines. We walk slowly, almost circumspectly.
The subway rattles as though it might give up the ghost at any moment, the lights go off and on again. At every station the train recites the words: “Stay away from the closing doors.” I look at the people in the carriage. The tired, the sick, tourists, white-collar workers. An old man sits hunched over next to a younger man. They both have the same little ears, sullen lips and curly hair. The older man’s hair is limp and grey, the younger man wears glasses. But he’s hardly young really. He’s about ten years older than me, in his mid-forties, I guess. The older man has a pleasant voice, but it’s intrusive, like he wants to be heard. “I feel as if we’re losing the ability to concentrate. Everyone seems to suffer from a sense that they’re getting dim in their memories.”
Father and son on their way to Prospect Park. The younger man’s delayed response: “I think we’re all suffering from inf-”
Paula gives me a shake.
“We need to get off.” And the rest of the sentence is gone.
We jump out through the closing doors at Delancey Street and stroll on towards our destination. We walk one block and turn into Orchard Street. There are a couple of people standing around in the road. They’re holding little plastic cups of white wine.
I watch a film on a monitor in portrait format. It shows a slender upper arm. A hand in a latex glove comes into view with a tattooing needle. Little by little it inscribes words into the skin: denial, guilt, shame, recognition, reparation. After a few strokes the tattooist washes the blood from the wound. The rattling of the needle is mesmeric. The letters overwrite the veins.
Later on Paula and I spend some time in a bar with a large group of people. Everyone’s talking. Banalities and other things.
“Fukuyama meant entropy. He thought the pressure was decreasing, that we’d entered a phase of tranquillity that he called peace. The next step of civilization. But now it’s disquiet and we pretend to know why, so we load everything into a container, because it seems obvious.”
An oppressive mood darkens an otherwise light-hearted evening. I smoke a cigarette outside and look up at the night sky, but there’s nothing to see. Above the buildings it’s just black. I can’t even see any particulate in the air. I’m surrounded by three groups of people. From behind me I hear someone say: “Look how black the night’s become,” then a “Wow.” I draw on my cigarette and blow the smoke up as hard as I can. Others look up at the sky. Conversations stop. A woman on the other side of the street takes two steps forward as if she’s seen something and hurries back into the bar. I watch a glowing butt fly out of her hand, half smoked. The three groups of people disperse too. I’m alone. I look up again and go back in. It’s quiet in the bar. Quite a few people are looking down at their devices with strained faces. Conversation has subsided at our table too. There’s one woman drinking through a straw, her eyebrows oddly raised. Paula’s looking the other way. I give her a nudge. She looks surprised but glad, and says: “Come on, let’s go. It’s late.”
“Everything alright?” I ask, but the question gets lost because she stands up straight away and reaches for her coat, hanging over the back of the chair. I suppose it is one o’clock already. We want to say good-night to everyone, but they just look up with troubled faces and half-hearted smiles.
“Let’s take a taxi,” says Paula. As luck would have it, there’s one right outside the door. It’s distinctly chilly. We get in the cab.
“The sky’s matt black,” I say.
“And cold,” she says, resting her head on my shoulder.
“Has something happened?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I was dreaming.”
We arrive at the hotel. Paula’s falling asleep on her feet. I get her upstairs quickly.
“I’m just going out for a smoke,” I say. “Alright?”
“No!” she says with a start.
“What do you mean ‘no’?” I ask.
“Don’t go. Please. Come to bed. Let’s go to sleep.” She’s still a bit startled, but her eyes are closing.
“I get the feeling there’s something going on outside—” I say.
“—Please stay with me,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I’m asking you to,” she says.
“Is something wrong?” I ask as I walk over to the bed.
“Yes,” she says.
“What?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Please stay here with me.” She hugs me so tightly that it unsettles me.
I stand next to the bed, taken aback, but somehow I feel I have to get out into this strange night. I look past Paula, through the window and into the back yard. Everything’s black.
“Okay,” I say, “I’ll stay.”
“Thanks!” she says.
She jumps up, puts on her pyjamas and walks out to the toilet in the corridor. I push the window up a little. There’s a droning noise outside, as though there’s some kind of force to be overcome. But not a single siren. I push the window further up and lean my upper body out. It’s dreadfully cold. The sky’s so black you could almost touch it. I stretch out my hand. Just air. I look through a gap onto Sixth Avenue. A few metres of empty asphalt. A billow of smoke wafts past. I’m looking straight down now. There’s a dumpster under a streetlight. It looks like it’s full of soil. I close my eyes and listen. Suddenly I’m electrified and an explosion pierces the night like a hammer blow. My pulse rate shoots up. I hear the echo in the streets. Paula comes back into the room. I’m quite shaken.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Something just exploded,” I say.
“Maybe gas again,” she says, getting into bed.
I go to the toilet, taking my telephone with me, but there’s no mention of it on the news or the networks. I come back and take another look through the window. No change. But I think I can still hear the echo. I lie down in bed next to Paula. She snuggles up to me and listens to my racing heart.
“Let go,” she says. And I fall asleep.
It’s raining hard. I’m half asleep now. Drops of water crash down onto the asphalt and the masonry. My eyes are sealed shut. I try to look out the window. It’s as though we’re submerged, as though everything that needed to had fallen from the sky or welled up through the manhole covers. I look through my glass of water and a page of a book seems to float past. Paula scratches my chest.
From Bäume (unpublished story collection).