Something snaps inside of me, all sensations suddenly get obliterated, and like a ball of fluff, I am sucked into a vortex and start drowning, drowning, drowning.
I wake up, as if time were standing still, surrounded by a very bright haze. Words stretch out like a roll of licorice, then spiral around my neck and a whiff of expensive French perfume hits me, but it’s so volatile I wonder if it ever existed. Words, are luscious like the curves of a beautiful woman stalking Fifth Avenue. Words which against the act of love-making become irrelevant. Words so vacuous or, on the contrary, so terribly dense, that one loses one’s bearings. Spectral shapes, or is it a mirage, boding ill, boding the irreversible? for, through the mist, death is grinning at you. But there are also words that elicit a smile … do I hear, reverberating in the distance, the echo of your laughter? All those words, I dedicate them to you, Fabio, to you who has inhabited my being, ever since I laid my eyes on your angelic face, in that attic where Uncle Ludwig showered you with affection, but you did sense, in spite of your young age, that his was a twisted and perverted love, whereas I would realize it only many years later. How long were we together? Twenty, twenty-five minutes, at the most, a time so short that a cocktail party seems an eternity in comparison. But those moments have congealed in my heart and in my mind, with the same intensity and permanence the astronauts felt the instant they set foot on the moon. Yes, I dedicate them to you, MY GOOD, MY UNKNOWN, MY EVER SO MYSTERIOUS, MY INDEFECTIBLE FRIEND. To you when I won’t be able to cope with life, to him – your nemesis -, when, in revenge, I will want to fight against my nightmares.
Aren’t they so terribly arrogant and so presumptuous that they should want to reflect this century of ours, fraught with incalculable dangers? When I will have gathered enough strength in me, I shall bend and even tear them to pieces, for too often we let ourselves be enslaved by those petty, ridiculous assemblages of letters. After all, who invented the alphabet, who translated our thoughts into words, into phrases and expressions?
We, humans, all too often suffer from amnesia, ending up being our own worst enemies.
My head will light up like a gigantic firework and, instead of dying out, those burning flashes will fall on my hands, one by one, like so many flickering gems, each one of them, bearing a name, showing a sign.
The hands of my wristwatch zigzag as if suddenly animated: a tear has splashed over its smoked glass face, then two tears, then three; now there is a pool drowning the digits. A ray of light wraps itself around the bed leg, as if in search of solace, ghostly fingers twang the strings of a harp, ever so lightly.
Sleep, as elusive as the wind brushing a paved staircase in Central Park, the rumbles of the human jungle below steal into my stuffy room perched on the thirty-eighth floor of this Broadway hotel. The stained carpet stinks of cigarette smoke and alcohol.
4.30 a.m., five o’clock. The shriek of a siren suddenly rends the dull beat of the metropolis, until its disturbing wail fades into the distance.
Anguish grips me, to a point of suffocation. America, the dreamland of my youth, is suddenly mixed with the stench of mildew that surrounds me, and outside, just opposite my window, there’s that giant mug being alternately emptied and replenished with Schlitz beer, enacting its nerve-racking neon comedy, ad infinitum.
A gong rings out in my skull, sending shivers along my spine; one by one, my limbs get numb, till the first hues of dawn envelop me like a sheet of gauze … a soft rainbow settles on my eyelids, then the long-awaited sleep finally engulfs me.
When I wake up, the specked curtain billows with intermittent raps, letting in the room a violent shaft of light. I have to blink, for my eyes can barely stand that unwelcome intrusion of day, and I stagger up from my bed … without transition, I pass from a blinding expanse of sand to the dark-blue tinge of the ocean bed.
It’s early in the afternoon, and I feel a pang of hunger. There’s a big cafeteria at the corner of the street. I push the revolving door, haltingly, and hear the person behind me mutter something to the effect that I have no muscles, just mush, then, annoyed, he almost shoves me into the place, but once inside, he greets me with a smirk, then winks:
«It’s ok, buddy. I’m a bit pressed, that’s all.»
The lights are so bright, I feel as if I have just entered an outsized incubator. Having settled myself on a high stool around the aluminum counter, with three customers to my left, all busy with their food, I flip through a dog-eared menu. I need help, it is the first time that I am confronted with a list of American dishes that includes black bean soup, bagel with cream cheese and lox, hash brown potatoes, chicken casserole, clam chowder, meat pies, French dips, brisket, etc., as well as the huge variety of hero, chopped chicken liver, double- and triple decked-sandwiches, not to mention all the cakes and desserts with which I shall acquaint myself, but none of my neighbors looks up.
The waitress, a bubbly brunette, addresses me, with a slight Spanish accent – later I will recognize that drawl as belonging to the city’s large Puerto Rican folk:
«So, honey, what will you have today?»
I hesitate, then mumble the first thing that comes to my mind:
«Two fried eggs, please.»
«Sunny side up or sunny side down?» she asks, holding a pencil pointed at her order book.
I blush, for I don’t know what she means. «Err … err … up!» I throw in, not to keep her waiting.
«What kind of bread with it, dear?» she inquires, «Rye, white or toast?»
Five minutes later she brings my order, along with a big glass of water, filled with ice cubes. I was going to tell her that I hadn’t asked for any water, but she is already attending to another customer.
So, here I am, out in the open, facing the metropolis that calls itself Gotham, the center of the world, the city that never sleeps, in its mindboggling diversity, with two suitcases, one in each hand, clasping them so tightly my knuckles hurt. When I look up, I feel overpowered, out of breath, I’m a mere cog tucked at the base of those skyscrapers that look like colossal arrows made of concrete, steel and glass which, in their arrogance, seem to defy the heavens like the knights of the apocalypse. After a tremendous effort of concentration, I resume some of my composure and thread my way through the human conveyor belt that moves without respite along the pavement. I cross a myriad eyes looking, not at me, but inward – so many destinies that will probably never meet. A whiff of roasted almonds mixed with licorice and the pungent smell of sweat hits me, it’s intoxicating and unsettling, at the same time, because it is so foreign to what I have been used to. I watch, mesmerized, the incessant flow of private cars amid which a flotilla of yellow cabs and busses find their way.
«Stop being melancholic, Hans, there’s no space for such triviality» I hear like a murmur behind my back. Without realizing it, I’ve initiated the irreversible process of blending into anonymity, that impostor who will accompany me from now on, but who will forever remain a stranger, whereas he will do everything he can to hold me in his clutches, plunging me into ineffable solitude, and I shall be just one tiny spot among that crowded world of solitudes.»
Another Hans, at once apprehensive and fascinated, is taking place in me. I want to halt the whirlwind, so I put down the two suitcases on the pavement and stand still for a while, in order to familiarize myself with that new life which has so brutally engulfed me in such an unexpected manner. The conveyor belt keeps flowing, to and fro, and I sense that if I don’t move on soon, I will create an incident, for immobility doesn’t seem to be an acceptable option here. This is where I understand the meaning of time being enslaved to money. Strange how the mind works, never giving you images that fit the actual situation. The metropolis I saw in countless films back in Germany, has so little in common with the city I am now confronted with. Even the fears I thought I would experience are so very different. I don’t see any gangsters roaming around or hiding in back alleys, nor do I see car jackings or hear shootouts. My main fear now is to get lost within myself amid this huge octopus that is New York. Why it is called the Big Apple mystifies me. Indeed, everything is mystifying, until you discover the reality.
How I would have wanted you to be by my side, Fabio, among these strangers, in this strangest of all cities that can swallow you live before you even realize you are tossed in its entrails along with the thousands of other prey sharing the same fate in spite of their being all so different from you. We would be sucked together into the vortex glued to each other, and our combined fears would turn into mutual consolation, like the screaming pairs in a rollercoaster who zip on the edge of life, so unprepared to take the ultimate plunge. God, do I think of you, Fabio, so much more intensely than when I was still at home, in Germany. Your absence is awful, it is harrowing.
Except for the more ancient parts of the city and some green patches here and there, you are hemmed in between implacably straight avenues crisscrossed by dozens of streets, which all look interchangeable. In this grid of mastodon fortresses, I feel like a prisoner encased in a mobile cell, surrounded by countless other cells, clinking, aimlessly, with each other. Even the air here feels tamed, smelling like the fetid breath of a dragon. But as soon as I resurface and catch sight of a bridge in the distance, I have to rub my eyes. For I had completely forgotten that Manhattan was an island.
After the parenthesis of the East River I am thrust again in the midst of grey and brick-lined buildings, but this time, they are no higher than three stories tall. Those old Brooklyn brownstones, elbowing each other, have a sobering, almost human quality about them, and seem to be on the lookout for potential danger. And if you stare at them a bit too insistently, you might be greeted by a smirking window.
Then, out of the blue, towering over this environment of rust and decay, stands a tall structure, shining like a stray iceberg. So, that’s where I shall be lodging from now on, in one of those glass cubes! A long esplanade, framed by clusters of shrubs and paved with beige slabs leads to the building. There’s a row of benches along the way, interspersed with patches of grass over which students, clad in jeans and sweaters, some still in bermudas, lounge about, sitting or supine, offering their tanned complexion to the fall’s gentle sun rays.
I wait at the reception desk and am announced. Five minutes later, a big woman appears, dressed in a polka-dotted frock and wearing stocky brown shoes, as well as a pair of eyeglasses with a contrastingly delicate frame – if I had been a mere onlooker, say, across a café, I would have found it rather comical in a lady with such a strong build, as if she had butterflies ready to fly away at the slightest gesture. She comes to me and asks whether I am Hans v. B. She is the manager, there is no doubt about that, and welcomes me with a manly handshake. After the initial exchange of courtesies, she gives me a sum-up of the rules and regulations of the establishment and hands me a printed list of do’s and don’ts, then summons an employee – he looks no older than the students I saw earlier lying in the grass – and tells him to show me to my room, on the eleventh floor. «Welcome and good luck, young man!» she finally says, with a perfunctory nod.
I’m alone now and, with a knot in my stomach, start inspecting the room I’ve been allotted. It is of a good size and quite bright, for the window, in front of which two desks are disposed of, runs its full length. On each side of the wall there is a washbasin, a built-in closet and a bed with a metal frame. I never expected that a student lodging could be so spacious and modern. This is indeed the country of superlatives and of great expanses, both in its verticality and horizontality.
As I am about to tidy up my clothes in the drawers on my side of the room – a whiff of fresh sawdust tickles my nostrils -, a burly redhead, with short-cropped hair, rushes in without knocking. He’s at least half a head taller than me, and I’m not that small. Wearing frayed bermudas that hug the bulge of his muscular calves, and huge dust-covered sneakers, he sizes me up, while I dare only focus my gaze on his freckled face.
Though I have read Shakespeare in the original and speak English, if not fluently, at least intelligibly enough, albeit, with an accent, I have to strain myself to understand my roommate.
«So you’re German, huh! We gave you the boot in World War II, fucking Krauts!» He hurls at me as an introduction, then he rambles on about himself in a strong nasal drawl – I miss half of the words he is blabbering. But in between, I manage to get some of his facts. He came here, to LIU (Long Island University), on a baseball scholarship. He mentions motorcycling, wrestling, kayaking, and some other sport I didn’t quite catch, as his favorite hobbies, alongside his major. I’m stunned to learn that you can be admitted to university here on the basis of physical prowess.
«Gosh,» I think to myself, «what an odd pair we form! Will there be anything in shared interest we will be able to talk about?» And that prospect suddenly makes me shudder. Without any warning, he turns around, leaving me open-mouthed and not a little unsettled, then goes to his desk and riffles through the pages of a textbook. «Shucks!» he exclaims, disgusted, pushes the book to the edge of the desk and whizzes out of the room without a parting word.
For a minute or so, I keep mum, look through the window, staring in the void, then I feel a lump in my throat; it grows and stiffens to the point of gagging me. I want to cry but my eyes remain dry. «Fabio,» I mutter, «don’t let me down, where have I landed?» Then, as if in response to the echo of his voice, I grit my teeth with rage, close my fists as hard as I can, and start shadowboxing, in a reversal of attitude.
I hear myself swear, which is not my wont: «Damn it, damn it, and burning hell!» and resume the chore of emptying bag and suitcase, folding my clothes, then arranging them in the wardrobe, after which, I go for my desk. The only things I recognize in this alien world are my belongings and the small pile of books I set between the two shelves of my bedside table. I pick up the one at the top and hold it against my bosom as if for dear life, it’s ‘The Prophet’, by Kahkil Gibran. I open it and begin to turn the pages, slowly, not to read the verses – I never tire of articulating them, even though I know the words by heart -, but to admire, for the umpteenth time, the poet’s own beautiful and appeasing drawings. I feel a sense of relief, remembering, from his biography, that Gibran too was a self-imposed exile, having left his native Lebanon to settle in America. I let out a long sigh, put the book on my bed, and walk to the washbasin. I look at myself in the mirror. Am I the same fellow who left Germany a mere thirty hours ago? The bodily envelope appears to be unchanged, except for the bags under my eyes, for I haven’t recuperated, but something strange, uncanny, is churning behind my skin, something that I cannot yet fathom. Is a double of Hans being engendered secretly, that will lead to some inner confrontation? Is it going to play tricks on me, turning me into an American Jekyll and, back, into the German Hyde, alternately and … without warning?
Emotionally drained, and physically exhausted, I slip into my pajamas and let my cheek hug the pillow for solace. Although it smells of starch and of industrial dry-cleaning, a well of emotions suddenly bursts out of my heart, but I’m too tired to even shed a tear, and I fall asleep, as the last shades of twilight blend into the night.
Laughter, the snapping of fingers, am I still in the subway? Jolted out of what I believe was a dream, I rub my eyes and, recognizing the room, I am at first reassured, but very soon, realizing what woke me up, I bite my lip, and start boiling inside. Opposite me, under a halo of smoke, three pairs of hands pass each other cards, after which I hear the clinking of chips. Someone muffles a curse, then as if in cue, his neighbor barks the same cussword, in an effort to shut him up. I let a long minute pass before I compose myself and ask Don and his pals if they could please lower their voices.
«Crappy Jeezzus!» my roommate exclaims, with daggers in his eyes «Here I do what I want and no fucking sausage gobbler will give me any orders. Get laid!»
I turn my head towards the wall and stifle a moan, squeezing my pillow with rage.
«If you were here in the flesh, Fabio,» I whisper, «you would have defended me against this brute; no, not with your fists, Fabio, for you are not the type to use violence – how you have been mistreated and humiliated and … enough, enough, lest I … – no, you would have responded with the disarming kindness of your words.
A humanist with roots in Central, Southern Africa, and the Mediterranean, Albert Russo writes in both English and French. An award-winning author and photographer, he has published over 35 books of prose and poetry and 55 photobooks. His work has been translated into 15 languages and has been acclaimed by James Baldwin, Edmund White, Chinua Achebe, Joseph Kessel and Pierre Emmanuel (both of the Académie Française), among others. His main books are AFRICAN QUATUOR, THE CROWDED WORLD OF SOLITUDE, vol. 1 (stories and essays spanning 40 years), which received an Honorable Mention from the 2005 Writer’s Digest International Book Awards, THE CROWDED WORLD OF SOLITUDE, vol. 2 (his poems spanning 40 years). His definitive biography, UNDER THE SHIRTTAILS OF ALBERT RUSSO was penned by the Norwegian African-American writer, poet and artist Adam Donaldson Powell. He was also a member of the 1996 jury for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which often leads to the Nobel Prize. His photos have been exhibited in the Louvre Museum, at the Espace Pierre Cardin, both in Paris, in Times Square, New York, at the Museum of Photography in Lausanne, Switzerland, in Art Berlin, in Tokyo, in Moscow, etc. The former Mayor of the Big Apple, Mr. Bloomberg, has lauded his two photobooks on Paris and New York.