He raised the blinds, and his wife turned her back to the late sun slanting into the room. He paused a moment, registering the ginger hair partially hidden beneath the collar of the bathrobe, the hand elegantly holding the glass of red wine, the bottle in the middle of the table. He sat down across from her and picked up the newspaper.
“I think I wouldn’t mind having a mirror in the elevator,” he said.
She lifted her eyebrows. “What on earth for?”
“You often see them in elevators. A mirror makes it seem less cramped and oppressive inside, because there’s the illusion of a window. Besides, it lessens the feeling of being at the mercy of technology.”
“We’re at the mercy of technology all day long. Doesn’t bother me, I can’t imagine how else we’d manage.”
He spread out the newspaper. “It’s even more oppressive with other people in the elevator. Sometimes I just don’t know where to look.”
“I don’t want to see myself in mirrors all the time. How old I look, I’ll think whenever I take the elevator—my face has gone all weird.”
“But there’s the mirror in the bathroom, and the one by the hallstand—you see yourself in those, don’t you? You can even see yourself in the toaster.”
“What makes you think I would look in the toaster? Is that what you do, Theo? Look at yourself in the toaster?”
“It’s an automatic thing. It’s shiny, that’s all. Like catching your reflection in a window when it’s dark outside.”
He stared at a picture showing a group of oriental girls in bright-green work clothes. He tried to guess whether they were happy or sad.
“I didn’t know you were so vain.”
“It just happens, like in the evenings when you go over to the window to close the curtains and you see the room reflected in the glass, with you yourself drawing near.”
“Not me; I don’t look.”
“You mean you don’t take any notice, but neither do I, not deliberately anyway. I just see it, whether I like it or not.”
The caption said the girls were Chinese workers at a factory producing ski and mountaineering wear in Bucharest.
“From what you said just now it’s obvious that you do notice yourself. Which means that you’re vain.”
“Oh.” He read that the girls preferred working six days a week instead of five.
“I don’t notice myself,” she went on, “I just don’t see my reflection.”
“Like a vampire.”
“What was that? Vampire? I heard you all right. So now you’re comparing me to a vampire.” She sniffed audibly, tightening the belt on her bathrobe.
“No, I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I was thinking of those stories about vampires.”
“What stories? What are you getting at?”
“Oh, you know. Stuff about vampires not having reflections.”
“How odd to discover after all these years that you’re vain. It explains a lot. People who are vain have eyes only for themselves. It also explains why you don’t see me.”
“Why do you say that? Of course I see you, I’m talking to you.”
“Not talking, really. We never talk, we just go through the motions. For a time I thought that we did talk, I thought you listened to what I had to say, but you always manage to twist things around so it’s all about you. Like now. You didn’t respond when I said I didn’t want to see myself in mirrors because it’ll make me think I’m old and ugly. You didn’t even register what I said. Either you agree about me being old and ugly, or you’re not listening, but either way you don’t care. You want to rabbit on about mirrors and elevators, you won’t admit that you’re vain, you just want to score points. But I do listen to you, I smile, I’m supposed to be understanding and sympathetic about everything: the bad feelings at the office, or your latest craze, whether it be for green olives, a black car, or a custom-made dress shirt.
“You shouldn’t exaggerate so.”
“Your shiftiness. Your unfaithfulness. I think that’s what really gets me: that you were unfaithful.”
He pressed his knees together, spread them again, said, “Don’t go down that road, please. We’d agreed that it wouldn’t happen again.”
“I can’t help being reminded. Being unfaithful has to do with vanity, too. It was your own fault, it’s the way you behave.”
“What’s wrong with my behavior? I spend all day at work and then I come home again, like millions of other people.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean,” he said gruffly. “I thought we’d agreed that it was all nonsense and that we wouldn’t talk about it anymore.”
“It keeps coming back. I can’t help it.”
“But it was ages ago—must be about a year, I think, and anyway, I wasn’t unfaithful to you.”
“Hey, you left something out,” she said, jerking her head up. “Normally you always say ‘not really, I wasn’t really unfaithful to you.’”
“Stop it, Gemma.” He stood up, took a bottle of water from the fridge. “Want some? Better than all that wine, anyway. How many glasses has it been? I gather there is no dinner in the works? Never mind, I’ll go out for some takeaway, you might feel like a tortilla, or pasta, or some of those corn rolls. Whatever.”
“So how did it go, then? Tell me. That is, if you don’t want me ever to think of it again, ever to mention it again. It’s up to you. Help me to get it out of my mind for good.”
“Why bring it up then? Why be so hard on yourself?”
“Tell me the truth. I don’t think you’ve been completely honest about it, or rather, I think you’ve been hiding things from me, for whatever reason, like not finding the right words or something. Why else would it keep coming back to me?” She rapped her knuckles on the side of her forehead. “It’s horrible, and lately it’s been getting worse, goodness knows why. When you get home later than usual with some excuse I can’t bring myself to believe you, or when you suddenly go off in the middle of the weekend to pick something up from the office, least of all when you come back with a batch of papers. Just tell me once more what happened. Perhaps by now you can talk about it with a bit more detachment, and you’ll be able to find the right words. Then it’ll be clearer, something that’s over and done with, so I can at least let it rest. There are still a lot of blanks, and I can’t help filling them in, picturing you and her in that house, in all sorts of rooms I’ve never seen, in bed together. Perhaps I get too carried away by my imagination, but I can’t stop it . . . I’ll tell you what I know. She had some job in your office, she was a young widow, younger than me, and she had a child. I expect she pretended to be lonely, thinking she could reel you in with a sob story. You went over to her house to put up some shelving. Tell me why you had to fix those shelves and why it took such a long time, why you kept going back. All I know is what you’ve told me, and that isn’t much. That time you came home with a blue thumb, a big bruise where you’d smashed your thumb with a hammer—did you do that on purpose, to make it look like you’d really been doing carpentry? Because that’s what I suspect. I think those shelves had nothing to do with it. And I don’t want to think like that, I don’t want to get all tangled up. I want to get the story straight, I want to round it off, as something small and insignificant. I wish you’d help me do that.”
She sat as though transfixed, but in her green eyes he thought he could see the tears building up, and even a tangle of dark threads.
“Stop tormenting yourself,” he said calmly. “Nothing happened for you to worry about. I don’t feel like raking it all up again, I probably wouldn’t even remember everything exactly any more. I never even think about it. As far as I’m concerned it’s gone, faded into the background, like an evening out or a dinner with so-and-so.”
Leaning against the sink, he gazed out of the window. The apartment block across the way had balconies of gray-blue glass. On the balcony directly across, a woman stood smoking a cigarette. Each block in the new suburb was based on a different concept; the architects had indulged themselves. A groundbreaking project, harmonious, idealistic, challenging: a waterside adventure. Successful, too: none of the flats were ever vacant for long.
“I want to know. I must.”
“All right then, if you think it’ll help. Just one last time . . . She had heard about me lending people a hand, like Arno and Peter, remember?”
“Why don’t you just say her name?” she broke in. “Her name’s Lucy. Go on, call her Lucy, I don’t mind.”
“Lucy” he said, and he felt a flicker of something spreading through his body. “I can’t see why you want this, but if you think it’s necessary, so be it. She, Lucy, had a part-time job as a receptionist. She greeted visitors, answered the telephone, put people through. In her kind of position you get to know all the staff pretty quickly, and she was talkative by nature. One day she must have said something about needing a bookcase, and that it had to be made to fit, as she lived in an old house with uneven floors. She wanted the shelves to extend across the whole wall.”
“So she had a lot of books, did she?”
“I don’t know. She said she had boxes and boxes filled with books, which bothered her because it felt as if they were dead and buried.”
“Trying to be funny I suppose.”
“She might have been serious.”
”Serious type, was she?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what she was like.”
“Did you help her put the books on the shelves?”
“You never mentioned that before.”
“I probably thought it wasn’t relevant.”
“What kind of books did she have?”
“What kind of books . . .? Most of them were her husband’s, I assume. Graham Greene, I remember, and a bunch of travel guides and photography books, including one about the First World War and one about pygmies. Rather interesting.”
“You just said you didn’t know if she had a lot of books.”
“I didn’t. I didn’t see them all. What difference does it make?”
“You keep saying ‘she’ and ‘her.’ You’ve stopped saying her name. Not that I want to hear you say it again—the way you pronounce it, oh it makes me cringe.”
The woman on the balcony flung away her cigarette and leaned over to follow its fall with her eyes, or she might have been looking down for the return of her husband, a balding man invariably dressed in black and to be seen on Saturdays carrying a sports bag with a tennis racket sticking out.
“Tell me about the little boy.”
“How old was he?”
“Eight or nine, wasn’t he? So he’ll probably be ten by now. Nice kid, was he?”
He took a sip of water and said: “I hardly saw him, so I wouldn’t know what he was like.”
The flood of recriminations that was about to ensue would be too much to bear in the kitchen, or in the entire flat for that matter. He detached himself from the sink, took a step forward.
“There you go, running away again. You always run away.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Do you know how I feel?”
“You’re drunk,” he said. “I’m not in the mood for this.”
She refilled her glass. “And you’re vain. So how do you think I feel?”
“I’ll go and have a bite to eat somewhere, leave you to it.”
“Like this,” she said, and promptly poured her wine glass over the front of her bathrobe, causing a stain shaped like a bleeding heart. “This is how I feel.”
He stopped on the way to buy a couple of sandwiches. Caprese. Tuna with capers. With the two brown paper bags beside him he drove to the sea. He pulled up at the far end of the boulevard by the pier, switched the headlights off, left the radio on without listening to it, and downed his first sandwich. Wiping his mouth with the provided paper napkin, he realized that he hadn’t tasted anything. As though he were in a world of his own, as they say. But he wasn’t, it was more like being sucked into a void, cut off from all sensory perception.
The moon hung like a small hook in the sky, and the sea was still lined with a thin stripe of red. Behind him, a little to the side, a man in a white apron was closing down a snack bar. It was the end of the season, most of the beach cafés had already been dismantled. A few parking spaces along stood a delivery van, gray or beige. On the boulevard he saw a walking couple and a man with two Labradors. The dashboard indicated 68.9 degrees inside, and 48.2 outside, which was one degree down from when he set off. As he took a bite of his second sandwich, registering the taste of fish and capers, he noticed someone running from the pier in his direction, waving his arms. The man tapped on the car window and put his face up to the glass. A dark, frizzy lock of hair hung over his forehead. Brown, round eyes, not unfriendly. Could you help? He wasn’t sure if he’d actually heard the man or if he’d read his lips.
“What’s wrong?” he mouthed, with a questioning shrug.
The man tapped harder on the glass, pointing to the beach with his other hand.
He switched the radio off, lowered the window a hand’s breadth.
“It’s my dog.” said the man. “He was with me a moment ago, and then he suddenly took off. He’s very young, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Labrador? No, much smaller than that, a Jack Russell, very frisky. If I head off in one direction I’m afraid he’s gone in the other, and vice versa. Could you possibly help me? Because I don’t think he can be far away. I’m at a complete loss. Do you have a dog yourself? Do you understand the position I’m in?”
“No, I don’t have any pets, but I do understand how you feel.”
“Some people would say don’t worry, it’s only an animal, but I’m not like that. And there’s my wife, too, and the kids . . . Christ, I can’t go home without him, you see.”
“I haven’t got a coat with me, but I’ll drive along the boulevard to take a look.”
“Thanks a lot.”
The man retraced his steps and waited twenty-odd meters away beneath a street lantern. He was lanky, but not thin. He wore a leather jacket, a black scarf, and baggy jeans almost obscuring his white running shoes.
“I really appreciate your help. If you knew what I was in for if I came home saying I’d lost him . . . She wouldn’t believe me, either. And then the children, they’ll all start bawling, I can already hear them now. Oh Bennie, Bennie. They’ll insist on coming out with me to hunt for him, with their coats on over their pajamas.”
“Your dog’s called Bennie?”
“The dog? Yes, his name is Bennie. Didn’t you hear me call him just now? I’ve shouted myself hoarse. By the way, I’m John.”
“Theo.” He was used to introducing himself with his first name at work, but felt uncomfortable doing so now. He turned up the collar of his jacket, held the lapels together at the neck.
“You’re a good sort, Theo.”
It sounded too familiar somehow, almost embarrassingly so. He would avoid addressing the man as John.
The man faced the sea, shouting “Bennie! Bennie!” He cupped his hand to his ear and shook his head. Slowly he walked on.
“It’s very dark though, isn’t it? Not much of a moon I mean. You can hardly see a thing, except when the lighthouse bothers to flash its beam. Bennie!” The man halted, pointing to the right. “Hey, I think I can see him.”
He stared, saw nothing but the pale swirling of the surf. “In the water?”
“No, Bennie’s mad about paddling in the sea in the summer, but it’s too chilly for him now. We’d better take a look down on the beach in case he’s still there, and can’t hear me calling him because of the waves.” He unwound his wool scarf. “Here, take this, Theo, or you’ll catch cold.”
They went down the path veering away from the bank of basalt blocks. He thought of the sand getting blisteringly hot on sunny days when he was a boy. All those times he had kicked off his sandals and put them on again on the way back, making sure there was no sand sticking to his bare feet. He was glad not to be going barefoot on the beach in this weather, but worried about sand getting into his shoes along the tops and the laces.
It was even darker on the shore.
“God, where can he be,” said the man. “I’m sure I caught a glimpse of him just now.”
“Shall we each go in opposite directions?” he suggested, meaning to turn left himself so he would only have the short distance to the pier to go. He couldn’t wait to discard the itchy, matted scarf.
“I’ve been there already. I think we need to go in the other direction. If we keep roughly to the middle, one of us can keep looking to the left and the other to the right, that way we can cover the ground together.”
“I don’t have very much time.”
“I suppose they’re waiting for you at home too?”
“Yes, that too.”
“Wait a minute . . . Bennie! I thought I heard him. Let’s stop a moment.”
They halted. The man held his hand behind his ear again, then pointed to something in the dark which looked like a shed. Close to it there turned out to be a mound of stacked panels, windows, and planks covered by a tarpaulin.
“There, at the back, I can hear him whimpering, very softly, can you? He must be somewhere behind there. Bennie?” The man vanished behind the tarpaulin. “Jesus! Look at this! I think they’ve tied him up.”
Now he caught the sound of whimpering, too, and went round to the back.
“Is it bad?” he asked anxiously, leaning forward to peer over the leather shoulders of the man crouching down.
“Depends . . .” The man sprang up and jabbed both his elbows back.
The searing pain in his belly made him double up. He gagged on the taste of fish and bile in his mouth, swallowed a soggy lump, gasped for air.
“Depends on what you call bad,” said the man, swinging for the next blow.
The fist hit him on the jaw and neck, and the next thing he knew he was grabbed by his hair, forcing his head down.
“Don’t move, Theo. I’ve got a knife.”
He staggered, flailing his arms for support.
“Hands off. I told you I had a knife, want to see it? Or do you want to feel it?”
His contorted position sparked the old backache he thought he’d got rid of after all that physiotherapy last winter and spring. He sank to his knees.
“That’s better. Now you can see Bennie for yourself. Drop your arms. Don’t move. The only one moving here is me. And Bennie of course.”
The man pulled his head toward him, he felt the denim against his forehead, the open zipper.
“You’re going to give Bennie a good time. Here he is. Smell him? Feel him?” Whimpering faintly like a puppy, the man brushed his cock along Theo’s cheek, his nose, his lips. “I told you he doesn’t like the cold. Bennie wants to go inside. Bennie’s mad about fucking and that’s what he’s going to do, yeah, he’s going to fuck you, but first he wants to be nice and warm and wet. He needs love, you gotta give him love, gotta give him a whole lotta love, you know why? Because you think I’m black.”
“No, that’s not what I thought,” he said.
The man laughed. “Listen honey, that’s what they all say, but they don’t mean it. And I am black, that’s to say, my father was black. My mother was blonde, blacks like them, though I’m not so keen on them myself. I prefer Latinos, so in that respect I’m not black but more like my mother, who fancied a bit of color. Do you follow me? You’re not saying much, which is just as well, because Bennie isn’t one for chitchat right under his nose, and he’s getting cold and wants to go in. Open your mouth. Bennie’s crazy about white guys, and he thinks you’re cute. Put your hands down, or keep them behind your back. I said open your mouth, you shit, if you don’t I’ll slice it right open for you . . . There, that’s better, that’s what Bennie likes. One two, one two . . . no spitting now, no messing around, just let Bennie get on with it, that’s all . . . What’s the matter with you, you won’t suffocate—nobody does, at least not in my experience. Bennie’s having a bit of fun, he’s swelling up with it, that’s what . . . Good, that’s good . . . one two, one two . . . And now you can use your hands to take your shoes off and drop your trousers. Just the shoes and the trousers, mind, go on then, you can start with the trousers so Bennie can see your pale little dick, maybe they’ll want to play together, no, that would be too cold for Bennie. Hurry up with those trousers. I bet you thought to yourself: just let the black guy come in my mouth and that’ll be the end of it, but no way, Theo. Bennie wants the real McCoy, this was just a starter. Tonight I’m a big, strong black guy . . . One shoe off is enough. Down with the rest of your trousers, whitey. Turn around, I tell you, turn around, gimme that saggy white ass of yours.”
A stinging blow to his ear, a shove to his back. He lost his balance, felt something scratch over his thigh, a fingernail or the point of a blade, he couldn’t tell which. Now and then the beam of the lighthouse swept past, but no one could see them in the shadows behind the tarpaulin.
“Now bend over, hold on to those planks, legs wide, but not too much now, or Bennie can’t reach . . . Virgin eh? If you shout I’ll cut your throat. That would be a shame, and unnecessary. You know what? Put that scarf over your mouth, go on… First I’ll soap you up some, you tight-assed shit.”
The scarf smelled of ash. He heard the man clear his throat, he felt the wetness slide down between his buttocks, felt the cold air, the touch of a leather jacket on his skin, a hand gripping his hip. The man panted, breathing obscenities, but from the moment he was split open and a rasping pain filled his lower body he no longer heard the words.
He fixed his eyes on the shoe and sock he stood in, and pictured himself walking along the sea, leaving footprints that would fill with water, one after the other in a long trail, dozens of footsteps; he imagined the spaces in between, the shells, wisps of plastic, seagull feathers, but most of all the sand, here and there in ridged banks interspersed with long pools which he skirted around. On and on he went, past the pier, to the next stretch of shore, past beach huts, through dunes overgrown with marram grass. He found himself in a friend’s garden, where a birthday party was going on. A warm evening, women with bare arms and legs. He had been tipsy, in a combative mood. One of the women had laughed and shaken her head at him, saying he was like a schoolboy, and he had felt attractively boyish, with a casual smile that would never fade. That night he had made love like a boy, too, carried away by the swift vigor of his loins, and Lucy had flashed into his mind, and a sister of one of his friends, young, sweet, unreachable. Afterward Gemma had dug her nails into his shoulder.
The pain had become narcosis, his back a rigid right-angle, legs dangling underneath.
He unscrewed the showerhead from the pipe and, crouching down in the shower stall, tried to hose himself as best he could. There was a little blood, too little to tinge the water round his feet, but in a wave of panic he thought: I might be infected. And then, with calm indifference: so what.
After his shower, he realized that the glass door had been ajar. He mopped up the puddle with a towel from the laundry basket and wrung it out over the tub in which Gemma had left her bathrobe to soak. The fire in his behind had returned and he dabbed himself with one of Gemma’s face creams, which felt greasy although it promised hydration. He rinsed out his socks until all the sand was gone, and stuffed them along with his underwear into the laundry. His jaw was red, he had bruises on his legs, there was a gash at the base of his left thumb, must have got caught on a nail or a splinter. He tipped it with disinfectant, but the skin was already sealed and he felt nothing. He took a sleeping pill: six hours of respite.
Gemma lay on her side. He switched off the bedside lamp, which she had left on with the shade turned away so the light didn’t shine in her eyes. He slid between the covers beside her, lay still on his back. His breathing was shallow.
“Why did you take a shower? You always shower in the morning.” Her voice sounded soft, but not sleepy. “Been with her, have you?”
He laid his hands on his chest and slid them down to his belly. The soreness there resembled muscle ache. He said: “What?”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “Not funny, sorry. I was so upset when you left. Where have you been? I thought you’d walked out on me, and I could see why—nobody would put up with me when I’m like this. And I think you’re right about having a mirror in the elevator, it’s bound to be an improvement. I’ve been crying my eyes out, I look a mess. I don’t know why I brought up the subject at all, why I get in such a state, about her, about the child, I get so miserable, and then I want to leave you, but I’m scared of losing you and I just don’t know what I want anymore. It’s strange, I thought people who don’t have children were extra close.”
“I drove to the shore,” he said. “I went for a walk on the beach.”
“I thought you hated the sand. Is that why you showered? I’d quite like to have gone with you, actually. Fresh air. I won’t drink anymore, not during the day anyway. I’ll stop, I promise.”
The room seemed to become airless; the panic returned: I’ve been infected. It’s nestled itself deep inside me, spreading already. He said: “Say ‘no.’”
“How do you mean, ‘no’”?
“Please Gemma, say ‘no.’”
“’No.’ But what for? Oh how horrible all this is, life can be so cruel. I know, I know, we should never have moved here. It was a mistake, I want to live on the ground floor. It’s so windy up here. The whole building sways to and fro at night, as if it wants to rock us to sleep, but I don’t want to be rocked to sleep all the way up here, it scares me to death. What are we to do, for goodness’ sake?”
“Not now,” he said. “I fell, you see, and I’m feeling a little shaky. I want to sleep, I’ve taken a sleeping pill.”
“There was a man who’d lost his dog. I went looking for it with him, and I tripped over something, don’t know what, and fell against a stack of wood. A dismantled beach pavilion, I think it was.”
She touched his arm and his entire body grew tense.
“Even that hurts?” she fumbled for the light switch on her side of the bed.
“No light, please,” he said. “I’m almost asleep.”
She lay back, waited a moment, then said: “Theo? That dog, was it found?”
He could hear that she was close to tears.
“Yes, it was found.”
“Thank goodness for that,” she sighed. “I’ll say ‘no’ again for you, if you want. No.”
He reached for her hand. For a long time they lay side by side, staring up in the dark, as though some revelation were in the offing . . .
“Zand” © Mensje van Keulen. By arrangement with Atlas. Translation © 2014 Ina Rilke. All rights reserved.