DAY (Begin Reading)
THE ACCIDENT occurred on an evening in July, right in the heart of New York, as Kathleen and I were crossing the street to go to see the movie The Brothers Karamazov.
The heat was heavy, suffocating: it penetrated your bones, your veins, your lungs. It was difficult to speak, even to breathe. Everything was covered with an enormous, wet sheet of air. The heat stuck to your skin, like a curse.
People walked clumsily, looking haggard, their mouths dry like the mouths of old men watching the decay of their existence; old men hoping to take leave of their own beings so as not to go mad. Their bodies filled them with disgust.
I was tired. I had just finished my work: a five-hundred-word cable. Five hundred words to say nothing. To cover up another empty day. It was one of those quiet and monotonous Sundays that leave no mark on time. Washington: nothing. United Nations: nothing. New York: nothing. Even Hollywood said: nothing. The movie stars had deserted the news.
It wasn’t easy to use five hundred words to say that there was nothing to say. After two hours of hard work, I was exhausted.
“What shall we do now?” Kathleen asked.
“Whatever you like,” I answered.
We were on the corner of Forty-fifth Street, right in front of the Sheraton-Astor. I felt stunned, heavy, a thick fog in my head. The slightest gesture was like trying to lift a planet. There was lead in my arms, in my legs.
To my right I could see the human whirlwind on Times Square. People go there as they go to the sea: neither to fight boredom nor the anguish of a room filled with blighted dreams, but to feel less alone, or more alone.
The world turned in slow motion under the weight of the heat. The picture seemed unreal. Beneath the colorful neon carnival, people went back and forth, laughing, singing, shouting, insulting one another, all of this with an exasperating slowness.
Three sailors had come out of the hotel. When they saw Kathleen they stopped short and, in unison, gave a long admiring whistle.
“Let’s go,” Kathleen said, pulling me by the arm. She was obviously annoyed.
“What do you have against them?” I asked. “They think you’re beautiful.”
“I don’t like them to whistle like that.”
I said, in a professorial tone, “It’s their way of looking at a woman: they see her with their mouths and not with their eyes. Sailors keep their eyes for the sea: when they are on land, they leave their eyes behind as tokens of love.”
The three admirers had already been gone for quite some time.
“And you?” Kathleen asked. “How do you look at me?”
She liked to relate everything to us. We were always the center of her universe. For her, other mortals lived only to be used as comparisons.
“I? I don’t look at you,” I answered, slightly annoyed. There was a silence. I was biting my tongue. “But I love you. You know that.”
“You love me, but you don’t look at me?” she asked gloomily. “Thanks for the compliment.”
“You don’t understand,” I went right on. “One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other. You can love God, but you can’t look at Him.”
She seemed satisfied with this comparison. I would have to practice lying.
“Whom do you look at when you love God?” she asked after a moment of silence.
“Yourself. If man could contemplate the face of God, he would stop loving him. God needs love; he does not need understanding.”
For Kathleen, even God was not so much a subject for discussion as a way to bring the conversation back to us.
“I too,” I lied. “I too, I need your love.”
We were still in the same spot. Why hadn’t we moved? I don’t know. Perhaps we were waiting for the accident.
I’ll have to learn to lie, I kept thinking. Even for the short time I have left. To lie well. Without blushing. Until then I had been lying much too badly. I was awkward, my face would betray me and I would start blushing.
“What are we waiting for?” Kathleen was getting impatient.
“Nothing,” I said.
I was lying without knowing it: we were waiting for the accident.
“You still aren’t hungry?”
“No,” I answered.
“But you haven’t eaten anything all day,” she said reproachfully.
“How long do you think you can hold out? You’re slowly killing yourself…”
There was a small restaurant nearby. We went in. All right, I told myself. I’ll also have to learn to eat. And to love. You can learn anything.
Ten or twelve people, sitting on high red stools, were eating silently at the counter. Kathleen now found herself in the crossfire of their stares. She was beautiful. Her face, especially around the lips, showed the first signs of a fear that was waiting for a chance to turn into live suffering. I would have liked to tell her once more that I loved her.
We ordered two hamburgers and two glasses of grapefruit juice.
“Eat,” Kathleen said, and she looked up at me pleadingly.
I cut off a piece and lifted it to my mouth. The smell of blood turned my stomach. I felt like throwing up. Once I had seen a man eating with great appetite a slice of meat without bread. Starving, I watched him for a long time. As if hypnotized, I followed the motion of his fingers and jaws. I was hoping that if he saw me there, in front of him, he would throw me a piece. He didn’t look up. The next day he was hanged by those who shared his barracks: he had been eating human flesh. To defend himself he had screamed, “I didn’t do any harm: he was already dead…” When I saw his body swinging in the latrine, I wondered, “What if he had seen me?”
“Eat,” Kathleen said.
I swallowed some juice.
“I’m not hungry,” I said with an effort.
A few hours later the doctors told Kathleen, “He’s lucky. He’ll suffer less because his stomach is empty. He won’t vomit so much.”
“Let’s go,” I told Kathleen as I turned to leave.
I could feel it: another minute there and I’d faint.
I paid for the hamburgers and we left. Times Square hadn’t changed. False lights, artificial shadows. The same anonymous crowd twisting and untwisting. In the bars and in the stores, the same rock-’n’-roll tunes hitting away at your temples with thousands of invisible little hammers. The neon signs still announced that to drink this or that was good for your health, for happiness, for the peace of the world, of the soul, and of I don’t know what else.
“Where would you like to go?” Kathleen inquired.
She pretended not to have noticed how pale I was. Who knows, I thought. She too perhaps will learn how to lie.
“Far,” I answered. “Very far.”
“I’ll go with you,” she declared.
The sadness and bitterness of her voice filled me with pity. Kathleen has changed, I told myself. She, who believed in defiance, in fighting, in hatred, had now chosen to submit. She, who refused to follow any call that didn’t come from herself, now recognized defeat. I knew that our suffering changes us. But I didn’t know that it could also destroy others.
“Of course,” I said. “I won’t go without you.”
I was thinking: to go far away, where the roads leading to simplicity are known not merely to a select group, but to all; where love, laughter, songs, and prayers carry with them neither anger nor shame; where I can think about myself without anguish, without contempt; where the wine, Kathleen, is pure and not mixed with the spit of corpses; where the dead live in cemeteries and not in the hearts and memories of men.
“Well?” Kathleen asked, pursuing her idea. “Where shall we go? We can’t stand here all night.”
“Let’s go to the movies,” I said.
It was still the best place. We wouldn’t be alone. We would think about something else. We would be somewhere else.
Kathleen agreed. She would have preferred to go back to my place or to hers, but she understood my objection: it would be too hot, while the movie would be air-conditioned. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so hard to lie.
“What shall we see?”
Kathleen looked around her, at the theaters that surround Times Square. Then she exclaimed excitedly, “The Brothers Karamazov! Let’s see The Brothers Karamazov.”
It was playing on the other side of the square. We would have to cross two avenues. An ocean of cars and noises separated us from the movie.
“I’d rather see some other picture,” I said. “I like Dostoyevski too much.”
Kathleen insisted: it was a good, great, extraordinary movie. Yul Brynner as Dmitri. It was a picture one had to see.
“I’d rather see an ordinary mystery,” I said. “Something without philosophy, without metaphysics. It’s too hot for intellectual exercises. Look, Murder in Rio is playing on this side. Let’s go to that. I’d love to know how they commit murders in Brazil.”
Kathleen was stubborn. Once again, she wanted to test our love. If Dostoyevski won, I loved her; otherwise I didn’t. I glanced at her. Still the fear around her lips, the fear that was going to become suffering. Kathleen was beautiful when she suffered; her eyes were deeper, her voice warmer, fuller; her dark beauty was simpler and more human. Her suffering had a quality of saintliness. It was her way of offering herself. I ...