The Silver Glow
in: european beauty (part 1)
by Berti M.
I was playing the piano, a sonata by Scarlatti, K213. The piece begins beautifully, it really does. The notes come – chasing one another, separate, yet not entirely separated, recongizing each other, the way one recongizes another through translucent glass.
Immersed in such play, I didn’t hear the phone ring, my father picked it up briskly, downstairs. Strange that instead, it was the conversation that caught my ear.
My father was always a calm and discreet gentleman. Yet on that evening, with that call, his voice seemed to falter. It changed enough for me to lower my finger again, primed to strike D flat. I listened. My father was telling someone not to cry. There was no doubt on my mind. He was telling Anna not to cry.
It started the way many voyages start and end for me these days, on the train. Although I had only met her after arrival – a day later, actually – the train ride belonged to the encounter as much as anything else. My stare out into the flocks of passing trees was reflected faintly by the double-layered safety glass. The train was a long corridor – a no man’s land I felt comfortable in.
I arrived saturday evening, to an empty room in a dorm near the station. I was only going to stay one night. The room was designed for the handicapped, with a perversely long, narrow, tiled, windowless bathroom. A solitary toilet was installed at the very end. It was really about two meters by five. It was so bizzare, I couldn’t help laughing.
Sunday it rained, and the grey that greeted me from outside the window stayed well into the afternoon. I went to the student’s conference, in a brick building nearby. There was no one I knew, so I talked to the people I thought to be most open. The Asian students. One from Bhutan. A short guy who talked and talked. About his home. The unpaved streets, nonexistent infrastructure. About buses touching peripheral villages, once a week. Not in our category of the human development index, his friend kept reminding. I nodded and stared at his foreign, yet strangely delicate complexion. Then I nodded and thought nothing. Nothing at all.
In the second segment, a lively debate took place between Chinese students defending their government, and a manager from Argentina who was decrying the human rights abuses. You were never there, said the Chinese students. I was there last month, countered the Argentinian. A black student dressed in colourful robes brought up Africa. Some people took notes on the notepads that had been distributed. At the luncheon, an American girl whose parents must have come from India sat at our table. Said she was appalled at her country’s polititians. The guy from Bhutan insisted to give me his business card, and then hugged the indian girl for a photograph. I moved down the marble stairs to the patio, to smoke a cigarillo in the rain. It was dark already, but many were still chatting outside. I moved from one cluster to another, then back into the main hall, touching on groups of people without speaking to them, without even bothering to burrow myself into the circles they had formed. I went to the bathroom to check my stare. When I saw that there was already someone standing at the mirrors, I pretended to urinate into a nearby pissoir until he left.
Later, on the way out, the thank-you packages for those who had provided councel for incoming students were distributed. A mid-price-range digital camera. Also, a plush bear with a little t-shirt, saying something in the local dialect, the meaning of which I could only guess at. Then, on the dark street glistening with rain, Greg, the guy I had councelled, caught up with me. I had lost him in the fray. He asked me to take him to a local bar. And he introduced me to Anna. From Austria.
I think back to my time in Austria. My hotel in Salzburg had been labelled Fremdenkammer on the outside. Foreigner chamber. The people had been alright though, were pretty open. I also saw many mixed couples on the streets: blacks with östereicherinnen. Strange then, that I myself had never fit in.
For instance among 7 local students, all of them men, at a bar, with beer. The guy next to me had had a piercing, and kept talking about the army. A first-year student opposite me was irritated, feeling ignored by the rest. They joked at him for his petulance, once they noticed. My own words – perhaps my accent – seemed so out of place. Eventually, I faded out of the conversation, and was, in turn, happily ignored.
Anna, from Austria. In the rain, the black raincoat tracing her lovable proportions. Her head, well sheltered in the hood hugging it, eyed and smiled at me. Her cheeks reminded me, on that gray day, of healthy apples, two apple-red flames sprouting on both sides of her bouncing smiling grin. Eyebrows pulled high on a very oval face. Some strands of curly, brownish-blonde hair (I got a better look, later) bursting loose from underneath the tightly-pulled hood. And a smile. Anna.
She shivered as she extended her fingertips from under her raincoat. I shook her hand. Told her I was pleased to meet someone like her on such a miserable evening. I really was.
I could now describe the next two days in meticulous detail, including the extra day I decided to stay, telling my parents that I had to clean up at the guesthouse. But perhaps it would end up being too long, missing the point. Important is that I was taken by surprise: by the way she smiled so often, by how I could get her to laugh with the things I said.
So we connected, in a way. Not initially – it took a few drinks to ease off the differences, but we ended up finding things in common.
I knew from relatively early on that she would never comprehend me – but our stories, they connected. And she watched me talking about things. Art, miscellaneous experience, travel. I had extended a day, she knew it was because of her. We went to see a movie, ditching Greg. You’d accuse me of making all this up if I told you the title, so let’s just say that it was about an American actor in Japan. You know the one I mean. Funny thing is, she didn’t really get the movie. She found the ending stupid because nothing happens between the two protagonists. Well, that’s an ending, too, I thought. One I knew well. I felt like explaining my opinion to her, though then decided not to, fearing she wouldn’t understand.
That night, in front of the guesthouse. The curtain of rain illuminated by streetlights. I said bye at the entrance. She wanted to come in. At my door, looking her in the eyes, I said thank you for the great time and couldn’t help but stroke that hair of hers. She looked up at me. She said lets go inside. I said I have to leave the next day. She said you can call your parents again. I told her I really, positively had to be back tomorrow. So she smiled and said she would call them. We went inside. So I kissed her then, knowing what it meant. The rain was going outside, apart from that, the whole building was silent.
She had been wearing such a delicate blouse, with these white frills by the collar. It had touched me at the bar, when she had taken off her raincoat. So much, that I had written in my journal that previous night:
I saw such beauty in the frills of that blouse –
like the strange treasure that a moment represents
but perhaps most importantly, what I recognized in it
was a genuinely human hope – this trying to please,
this deeply creationist gesture – of trying to Be.
So now the blouse made way for her round breasts, which I fondled with my lifted fingers. It should have been awkward, but it wasn’t. The room should have been ill fit: strange, built for handicaps, not young lovers. The TV had been dumped on a little trolley which had sunk into the dirty grey carpet. The window was one giant glass from floor to ceiling. The whole place had had this kind of unpleasant silver glow. It shouldn’t have worked. Everything spoke against it. Yet it did, because of her red cheeks, and her hair, and her voice, which seemed closer now. Very close to me, her breathing was, until deep into the night, when we lay in bed.
I had gotten the palm of my hand caught underneath her head as she slept, her hair rolling over and under and around my fingers, like a silky stream. During the course of the night, I awoke several times, but couldn’t get my hands from underneath her. Slowly, my body had drifted away from hers, I was at arm’s length, but she slept motionless, head straight.
I’m not one for being timely; in fact, I have been know to miss trains. But that morning, it was clear to me which train I had to catch. The one at quarter to eight. Three-hour journey back. I slipped my hand from underneath her head, but she slept on. I gave her a last kiss (a peck), adjusted the cover, closed the door quietly. Left her to check the keys. Made the train on time – in fact, I was early. It lingered at the station as I looked out the window, with the familiar face reflecing back at me. Happier? Sadder? I had told her that I had to go. That it was a misunderstanding, I had even whispered. I arrived at my parents place late in the afternoon. Told them some things. Not much about Anna.
And now, she was calling. “I’ll call your parents” she had said, smiling. Or had it been “I’ll tell your parents?” She was doing the second. She was very smart. She had figured the whole thing out and now, she was telling them. This is what your son is… Ultimately, however, it was a message to me. This is what you are. Hopeless. Homeless.
I could hear my father pleading she not cry as I watched my tears start playing the keys.