Thursday, 20 January 2011
Saint Petersburg, a further recollection
An over-echoing music slurred its notes in the staircase which wound, corner by corner, to the fifth floor of the hostel. I have no idea what was on the other floors. Outside the door of the third there was always a collectivity of three or four middle-aged woman, one of them very fat, sitting there and smoking cigarettes and speaking in Russian.
It was late as I walked back in, perhaps past two. The girl at the impromptu reception greeted me and I smiled at her. I took my coat off and, in passing, I said hello to the cat, whose name was Zeus (pronounced 'Zois' in Russian - the cat was the one living thing in Petersburg with whom I was not embarrassed to try the language). Noiselessly I stepped into my dormitory, pulled out my laptop from the locker, and took it to the kitchen. It was a modest place, this, which is the reason I could afford staying there for an entire month. White tiles covered the pavement like a grid and were continuously sullied by the boots of incoming residents (the girls at the reception were charged with swiping it with a mop when this happened, and they were at it all the time). A single wooden table ran the length of the kitchen, and there were no hobs to cook with, only a fridge and the cutlery. I opened my laptop on the table as I sat.
Idling about on the web, my facebook window popped with a new chat message. Ella was online. I was surprised - I'd expected her to be asleep - and I said hi. She'd been ill that day and she couldn't come out. I chatted with her about that a little. She seemed determined to come out the next day even though I urged her against it, on account of how she may fall back. She's as obstinate as she's pretty, that girl. I also wonder if it mayn't be a Russian thing - like, the impassive attitude towards cold-related illnesses, which I've already encountered in their literature and which I figure makes sense in a country where your piss can freeze into a y=x2 graph.
We came onto the subject of seduction. I joked with her, I don't remember how, that I don't like being approached by a girl who is drunk. I also told her that I'd never seen her drunk. She told me that I had, but that I hadn't realised. I asked her when. And suddenly it became clear that she had been drunk when she had been with me, in the brief window of tenderness which we'd been allowed. Forget it, she said, realising her mistake.
This isn't real, I told her, Both nights? She retracted, hastily. I was mentally inert for a moment, wondering whether to press on or not. The truth is, I didn't know what words to look for. My hands hovered over the keyboard for as long as it took me to, well, say nothing. I told her I was going to sleep. She asked me to chat a little longer, and then I left.
I folded down the laptop, then I stood up, feeling for the packet of cigarettes in my pocket, and I walked out. I passed the reception and in a few strides reached and pulled open the grey iron door. I was on the staircase again. I walked to the corner, where two chairs and a cylindrical ash-tray had been placed, and I sat.
It was the one moment when I felt truly miserable. And yet it was a quaint, self-searching misery - I didn't fully understand what had happened. I had crystallised my failure into a narrative, so far - I'd seen that I was not the prince come to claim his lady but the fool, and that my role indeed was that of the comic relief, with the function of undergoing hopeless ventures to assert, by inverse demonstration, the value of everyday life. I understood (and appreciated) myself as that figure whose comic shape was determined by the illegitimacy of his aspirations, and whose numerous tumblings consequently failed to displace sympathy from the real protagonists. Here I had come, in faith by a false promise, lured by words, and only to find that the girl whose property was all my affection had indeed not the slightest sentiment for me, had a legitimate life and flow and order of her own where I had no place nor could hope to find one. It seemed fitting, too, as I'd been convinced from the first that such a girl as that was not made for me, that it was like a Liszt piece played to peasants, and that indeed she was not part of my destiny in the first place, so why grieve if I lost her? It was such a splendid tale of imbecillity, that I wanted to write a farce about it. A cautionary comedy, perhaps. One deserves to be laughed at, at times.
But now the very substance of my equations had been taken away from me. I had so far been allowed to believe that those two open nights on Deck 8 of the MSC Opera, where the moon burned by night the same way that sunshine did by day, had been a parenthesis of fable happiness in what was otherwise a twenty-five year-old parable of incorruptible realism. I love strange countries, the blue seas which flourish with islands. Upon them I had found more treasure than ever there rested below them. And now it was all reduced to nothing, evaporated, as it were, by the peripeteia of her numb drunkenness. I was not even allowed my story. I had never made love to her, and she had felt nothing, known nothing, cared nothing. There was no syntony: we were like two radio transmissions on different wave-lengths.
It was more to my merit, naturally, because if I was mistaken about her it meant that I could not reprise my projected role as an imbecile. If there was no ideal romance to be fooled about, no heaven to provide a moral order, then there could be no tragic mistake, no story in the first place for the good or for the bad, and therefore I was no fool - not in the literary sense, anyway. And somehow the idea did not console me. How could I have been so misguided? A judgment I'd made on a person had proved not just solecistic by whichever margin but the negative of itself, the exact opposite to how things truly were.
My life has been strafed by the permutations of the heart three times to date and there shall no doubt be space for more. The first of these periods came in adolescence and was defined by its colour: it was black. The sentiment was not original and so its expression wasn't either. Everything I touched went black, everything I saw, thought or heard came reduced to charcoal, and smeared me in turn with its patterns. The second of these times was defined by weight, or lack thereof: I felt ever so very light. Even as I came to pits of unhappiness which I have perhaps not matched before and never again since, it seemed to me as though I were entirely composed of mere electrons, floating elliptically without a nucleus. More, it seemed as though everything around me were weightless, too, as though the cups, the folders, the granules on my table were at any moment to detach themselves from the desk and rise into the spaces of my room. The third time here in Russia was defined by substance. There was something cloudy about it, like a sand-storm flying somewhere over my emotional geography, though I could not have placed exactly where. I wouldn't have called it smoke, because it was not merely gaseous, but all my days were made of some friable matter which nonetheless reproduced itself to the point that its constitution never suffered any damage, and so that all of the blows I took were instantly healed and rationalised, and I knew where else to take my djinn away from the sand-storm. This time alone was painless. Even at the height of my disappointment I could not be scathed in my love for the present moment and for the things around me, not when I saw her kissing another man nor when she refused my touch, and besides, I knew the prospects from the beginning. I knew it could have turned out unfruitfully when I set off, indeed I was certain of its improbability, and I was not afraid of a failure nor of the pains that it could imply. But this - this was the only night in which I was profoundly unhappy, for not the future but the memory had been disloyally washed out, and for this I was not prepared.
I was not the imbecile. Indeed, I was nothing. Zero wounds more than negative numbers, I have to remark. I finished my cigarette and did my best to go to sleep, later on. I knew I had a lot of work to do, and I needed to be well-rested. The reconstruction of my good mood would have to start first thing tomorrow morning.