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Apr/May 2007 Fiction

Debacles and Rendez-Vous

by Bojan Pavlovic

Artwork by KOB ONE


The first and last time he typed his log-in ID into the red-faced screen, which was but a fancy portal into a world of online dating, sex, all kinds of prohibited and uninhibited activity, and, quite recently (although it seemed to him eternal and unending) a single point of contact for the city's so many eligible, rich, horny bachelors, he felt a pang of excitement, a strong sense of sweet titillation, and he compared it to the tumbling of his bowels at the Ministry of Transport, where he waited to hear, an entire decade ago, the results of his driving test. Between the two points in time which, almost symphonically, compounded a period of three years, he was successful in bedding (he was quite certain for he counted) seventy-four women, and had enjoyed a multitude of other, less committal activities with another thirty-four. He was yelled at, he was cried over, his picture was posted on a number of blogs by some who were roughly scorned and others who had become victims of their own excesses.

He netted three health scares, one related to a pregnancy with a French exchange student at the University of Toronto's Law School, and the other two—each one, really—alarmingly starting with a strange itch on the glans-penis which spread (yes, on two occasions) onto the testicles and once across the pallid left loin. Luckily, each time he was safe: the former was but a false alarm induced most probably by Yvonne's overly emotional spirit and lack of faith in contraceptives (ah, he loved the French), and the latter remained unexplained yet innocuous, unconnected to anything whose name modern medicine had already catalogued among the cornucopia of "shameful" illnesses.

During all this commotion he was certain he had been stalked, followed. The subway lines plotted against him, and shadows moved about in various threatening poses, especially at night. He was neither richer nor poorer for it all, although he had gotten to know Toronto slightly better (for he was already somewhat of a man about town) and a number of other cities just well enough to charm with a flash of a left canine. Somewhat eerily, he thought himself rended at the very omphalos of his being, that slight spot of clarity and purpose which silently drives the perpetual motion of a human body. Yet that last bit was perhaps due to his overwhelmingly dramatic side. He was always partial to theatre.

He had begun this three year anabasis as most single young professionals do: with a heart-tearing break-up from his university sweetheart. Firstly, the entire affair was a mistake, and he knew it. She was no dunce, and she must have at some point realized that two people at the age of eighteen ought not to plan their life together over matching summer internships at Bain and Company. The summer of 1998 was long, it was hot, they worked endless hours and combined their nocturnal PowerPoint sessions with promenades in well-lit, wide squares in the financial district, and he made some ridiculous statements about the nobility of all those lordly sky-scrapers (something he had read in a business magazine, or picked up from an Ayn Rand book—all that literary bombast was de rigueur within his little circle of over-achievers who had just replaced acned faces for expensive ties). He remembered two things from that sultry summer, Julia's irregular breasts and the Gross Domestic Product of a dozen developing countries, including their telecommunication expenditures.

Next year saw them move in together, off campus, into a second story apartment in the Annex (the neighbourhood whose vast array of horrifically gothic pre-war houses had made it a trendy place for the counter-cultured). At no point did he harbour illusions of marriage—he had never considered it. Julia, who was much more fastidious by nature, a Canadian through and through, blonde, blue-eyed, and addicted to early morning coffee, seemed much more invested, but that would be proven wrong in time. And quite certainly, she bought lovely green curtains for the casement windows and a cactus that lorded over the IKEA coffee-table, standing in its geometric centre. She covered the empty walls with all sorts of gaudy art (Van Gogh, that ubiquitious Klimt print of Judith (the mimesis of that wide-eyed Semitic beauty Adele Bloch-Bauer), which she tried to ingratiate to him as a bit of Judaica in their otherwise acultural hearth, and a few more. He didn't care much for any of it, but the apartment smelled of scented candles, she cooked whenever she wasn't the one traveling, and his parents loved her, even though she was a shikse. And no, no one ever called her that, although she would pick it as a jocund topic at Seder, in a juvenile attempt to relate her vacuous, self-admitted lack of ethnicity to his own family's hypertrophied sense of cultural isolation (ah, yes, his mother spoke fluent Yiddish and he understood it, and could utter a few phrases in Hebrew although his colloquialisms hadn't evolved since 1988). She hinted at her willingness to convert. Why would you do that? he would ask, usually with his left hand prodding into his cheek, sitting, as he would, in the arm chair that faced the oak-ringed street.

You are pushing me away. She said that only once, in their last year at university (by then she had decided to pursue a law degree, and he had signed on as a full-time consultant at Bain and Company, a position that promised unending travel and the platitudinous crackling of motel beds). They argued once that year, over the phone, and for the life of him, he could not remember the casus-belli: he had forgotten something, or he was accused of being poised on forgetting, but all that remained was the stench of Alabama in July, the unctuous fries that lay clustered in the paper box, and a smiling donkey, the preposterous mascot of the local burger joint.

They had less sex each time he came back. In August of that year they lay side by side with a window open (it may have been a Saturday, with the clamour of the club-hopping youth, the throbbing laughter of students who partied in their small verandas) and she raised herself by the left arm, propped up her golden head and said: I've been thinking that we should stop this. It's going nowhere really, and we've grown apart as it is. He protested. He rejected rejection violently, because he wasn't ready to experience abandonment in its current form—the depressing outlines of the half-empty apartment, the barren walls, and a cold vastness on the right side of the king-sized bed. She cried a bit, mostly vainly attempting to trace back her emotions for him that now lay hidden and empty. At some point he was blamed for a vacuity that he had never denied. All that would remain was the apartment: his and her piles of things that were measured in pounds and moments, and were worthless. How many ways can you divide a CD collection? She could have kept the art, but she left it all to him. Except for a brief email exchange that suggested his lack of pecuniary wisdom and thus impugned on his right to the $3,000 in their joint savings account, the break-up was surprisingly smooth and fair.

In December, Toronto was covered in thick, brownish snow, brown ground mixed with light flakes; cars had dirty tires and mucous headlights. He had moved to a condominium in the financial district, while she had gone away to the UK. A younger, brow-furled Bush was in power in the U.S. after a suspicious decision by the Supreme Court. His job would take him to Malaysia and Japan, Alabama and Newark.

The first year of living alone, truly alone, was for him an edifying experience comparable to a stint in some military (his grandfather suggested that he should have served in the Tzahal, but that he was too soft, and besides he wouldn't have lasted a month with all the tough boys from Russia and the kibbutzim). He got up early, switched on the lights when his street was shy and dark, dressed in silence, brushed his teeth in silence, moved like a small imp past the secret alleys that exist even in Toronto, opened his laptop to a full Inbox, speed-talked his friends on msn, got on all sorts of quantitatively difficult international assignments that had him working with his American colleagues (easily identified by the almost conspiratorial consistency of their businesswear: blue shirt with a button-down collar, khaki pants and a navy blue blazer, no tie, often a little bit of a white undershirt showing haphazardly).

In Mobile, he grew a strong attachment to a consultant from the Chicago office, an American of Lebanese birth, who still pronounced his swear words with hard, Arabic sibilants when he got excited, tired, or just overwrought. I've had six fokhing Cokes man, six Cokes! Cokes sounded more like Coh-kes, a long o and a hard k that almost inversely palatalized to the h. They seemed an unlikely pair: he was ordered, collected, slow-moving, and quantitatively strong; Samir was loud, exuberant, truculent, and the best bull-shitter the company had thrown at the bedazzled client since the senior partners had concocted a two-day exploratory session a few months back and had flown in, for the occasion, three gurus from New York (one of whom claimed at some point to have invented the word paradigm). In all that southern heat, they became quite good friends, typing wildly in a tiny, windowless room with nothing but two blazing laptop screens and empty Chinese food boxes strewn about like fallen soldiers. They argued loudly about Palestine/Israel and the Lebanese Wars to the point of froth, but neither gave way, and perhaps that even bonded them further. Samir threw at him Zionist conspiracies that made sense only to the senile and the febrile, and he retorted by suggesting that, quite rightly, his people had the capacity to control the world but were too busy complaining about the quality of kosher food in their delis. In Chicago, Samir took him out on the town with his business school buddies, who translated to nothing more than a troupe of virile, moneyed, and loud guys with broad, Chicago shoulders, who somehow could translate an inchoate conversation in a dance club's infernal clamor to sex in equally clamorous back-seats of VWs and Audis.

More at ease discussing Theodore Roszak and Habermas than a small tattoo on a woman's tanned shoulder-blade, he remained quiet in those crazy cabals and kept his distance from most women, even those who longingly stared at him, covering their lips with feminine, oblong martini glasses. Once in a while he'd arrange for a date in Toronto; even his mother worked on his behalf in the community, and there were quite a few cute Jewish girls whom he had known since elementary school and who were now ready to date an eligible man like him. Dates in little condos—they were lawyers, doctors, teachers, sometimes artistes who could not sublimate their few brush strokes from a derivative take on Pollock's later excretions—all of them in these little condos, all of them in a four block radius (conveniently and uncomfortably). He could engage in excellent conversation, yet in sexual matters he remained a novice who had, since high-school, been in one relationship after another. His ability to progress from a casual dinner to a meaningful evening at his place was severely impaired by his schedule, his patience, and his courage. Not surprisingly, some had suspected him of being homosexual and unable to accept it, while others accused him of shallowness that would result in perpetual solitude. With some vexation, Samir criticized his seeming inability to move to that most coveted prize, the sexual encounter.

"Forget about all this dating. It just makes no sense, man. You are barely home, and when you are, you waste your time on stupid chit-chat. Evidently, we need to get you laid. Let me get you online, and once you get the hang of it, you can catalogue pick your way to some hot... " this was the essence of Samir's heartfelt recommendation. He was himself an avid user of a number of sites, including some that served ethnic communities. He chuckled that in certain cities he was Italian, in other he was Jewish. His name changed with his profile, his habits and his preferences changed with the girl he was meeting, while his objective remained steadfastly predatory.

He made a profile on one of the larger sites and taciturnly showed it to Samir, who immediately used the consulting method to analyze and deconstruct its major shortcomings.

He was too honest. He mentioned his failed relationship. He did not emphasize the enviable income that Bain paid him for being a glorified traveling salesman with serious Excel skills. He offered his Jewish background openly, while not on a Jewish site—a mistake that would cost him dearly the attention of many Gentile beauties. Most girls who come online are bitter over something or someone, and they're very tough to please. They don't want to marry you, but they sure want to know that you possess whatever the hell they would want in a guy if they were inclined to marriage. Therefore avoid statements that would suggest religious or any other kind of incompatibility. Be everything to everyone. Buddy, the key to your profile is strong personability with a strong lack of personality. In a sense, you have to be all the essential, good, manly things that a woman desires in Man—the universal, the general, undefined Man who exists only in her mind without constricting it by your own shortcomings, mainly your personality. In other words, lay it on thick, but make sure you're just painting your faŤade.

Samir made sure that he would take a number of photos that showcased both his chiseled features, strong, thick hair, as well as a number of different, expensive business outfits. As the final touch, Samir took a photo of him and his ex-girlfriend and cropped out her face. The picture posted was to showcase that he was, at some undefined time in the past, desirable to a woman whose tanned skin and a blonde main suggested both attractiveness and selectiveness.

Finally, his profile was adjusted to be insistent on his busy schedule... the peripatetic consultant, the wandering poet... so on and so on. His ubiquitous absence was a crucial part, according to his brash swami, it was what would offer his character that lightness of being (as he later redefined), a Kunderan paradox of erotic nonexistence.

In New York, as they worked on an endless business process project, Samir coached him in instant messaging: the art of seducing an invisible, merely suggested person through quick exchanges of witty although quite simple observations. The goal was to obtain phone numbers, which would lead to twenty-minute dates, which would, in turn, open doors (by a selected group of finalists) to dinner and, hopefully, sex.

His first session was an exciting exchange with a few relatively pretty women from across the continent, netting him four numbers and five emails. Successful he was, for this was truly a game of speed and volume. He was a fast learner, naturally, and within a short period under tutelage he had mastered and perhaps outstripped Samir's own average closing time by a precious three minutes (an important indicator, as conversations were paid by the minute). Thus would start his anabasis, his march there and back, through a flickering, innocent world of catalogue and number, of smiling, inviting photos. He marched in pursuit of Artaxerxes, who evaded and evaded until he disappeared into his mountain fastnesses—the return would always be harder thus than previously imagined.

Samir had warned him not to get involved, for then he would betray the very purpose of the tool and bring an unnecessary romance to what was a well-intentioned marketplace of socialization and sex. Online dating is our modern hippie movement; it is our sexual liberation. Women in the 60s burned their bras and let us have sex with them without buying them dinner. Now they've put up their pics and for a price of a Starbucks Americano they'll give you what you both want. Don't spoil it for yourself and for the rest of us by making it what it isn't.

As his dates and conquests grew, with each exchange of business cards after a night of vodka and coitus in a hotel room or a condo (bead chairs, Michael Chabon editions, iPods connected to cheap speakers), he understood lucidly the preposterous nature of Samir's frightened warning. More than preposterous, it was overly complimentary to his ability: neither he nor anyone else could ever change or touch the tortoise shell that protected the ebb and flow of this pulsing, little world. At its edges, certainly, there stood a few hopeless, tired romantics who fished for soul-mates with pathos worthy of Sisyphus' grind. Yet the core remained a circle of ever expanding proportions, carried from day to day, from email box to email box with the single-mindedness of a rolling, howling locomotive. Stop for a second within its path, draw your breath in serious contemplation, and its weight would toss you irrevocably back to the start, to the beginning, to the imaginary "Go!" that signified all such pointless games.

In New York he netted, according to his accounts, over a hundred dates with lawyers, bankers, doctors, single professionals who were keen to take off their stiletti and follow him to his hotel room without much chit-chat. New Yorkers were thus known to be very matter-of-fact and quite advanced in terms of their sexual sovereignty. The women he had met there did not require him to call or email consistently. Many of them even had boyfriends and were online to supplement what they were not maximizing at home. Chicago was a bit tougher, especially with women (most of them, again, in a similar profession as his) who were of Polish or Eastern European origin. Even if they were a few generations American, he quickly picked up on an inborn prickliness that made him work harder for sex, especially if he intended to come back and request more. Flowers were sent, wine bottles, inventive restaurants become places of seduction, and that was the essence of expensive Chicago. Los Angeles was a league of its own, and he seldom had much luck there. The women he met online were rarely in his league (more of a socio-psychological than a esthetic qualification). These were aspiring actresses, singers, poetesses, waitresses, and strippers, with bodies that had been starved and pumped with silicon and thus had a fine, aged-leather quality. He could not relate to their sense of success—Bain and what?—he could not impress, he could not maneuver, nor could he overwhelm with his magnanimity.

Toronto remained the trickiest yet the most fertile soil—the promise of closeness offered some reassurance that even the most promiscuous partners had valued. The fact that he lived at a recognizable intersection gave him a strong sense of authenticity, even though he was never asked to elaborate further on his goals, wishes, aspirations. The other issue with Toronto was that after a while he had dated and slept with so many of his peers that it had become difficult to go out into the city and walk around a trendy street without having to turn and face away from someone he had had sex with just a week earlier. Yet he was quite wrong to think that they, in short, tight skirts, as proud as gazelles, wanted to have anything to do with him. Not a few times he had a distinct feeling that he was being intentionally ignored.

One day, after coming back from his physician with a clean bill of health and a revived sense of potency, he found himself face to face with a young woman, and he was certain that this was love-at-first-sight. He offered to carry her bags, for she had quite a few of them (luckily, they always do), and she refused. However, she did drop a gracious hint of her shopping habits, and this little bit of information he used to his advantage, staking out the corner bakery whenever he could. Always caught by surprise, she blushed, and he pushed his agenda forward with the single-mindedness of that same locomotive. They soon dated. They soon really, truly spent meaningful time together, walking about the streets, pushing each other's clothing tags back into their wooly oblivion, smiling at each other in the morning like two people who shared some wonderful secret that, for some reason, mattered to the rest of the world. A frightfully nauseous turn of events for Samir, who was nonetheless supportive.

He felt a strange itch in his gut, a tickle of butterfly fila. He spoke to her of love, took her to places that he deemed irredeemably schmaltzy yet appropriate, relived the sweetest of moments that he had had with his former girlfriend—but more intensely, or so it seemed. Yet just a few months later, she announced, with tears in her eyes, that she had been accepted to art school in Italy and would be leaving. This was the end, she insisted, as she could neither commit to a long-distance relationship (that endless and importunate attempt at keeping sexual attraction alive through the ancient art of rhetoric and narrative), nor was she ready to shut herself off from new experiences that might come her way abroad.

She was a North American, he thought, through-and-through. He had been to Europe countless times. His parents were born in Europe, so were his grandparents, and so on, and he understood that Europe presented, to its long-tossed children (the colonials that spread from Australia to California) a land as romantic as Neverland, and thus a danger. Italy, her conception of Italy, her misunderstanding of it, he thought, ended what was the most wonderful time of his life. Could he plead? Could he ask for a transfer to the office in Rome or Milan? It was all useless, a battle already lost. Do not forget, he thought, her voyage is her emancipation; it is her liberation; it is, to her, the sense of complete freedom which can only come as one abstracts one's essence from one's image. Italy will build on her narrative, her personability, her sense of otherness... He could not argue against this kind of freedom, absolute and relentless, for he knew its dazzling flicker personally.

 

But he had her all wrong. Some months back she had forgotten to swallow the little contraceptive, and a few weeks thereafter, she was vomiting, doubled-over, into the nacreous toilet bowl, her back arched, pebbled with pearly sweat grains all the way up and down, like a highway patched with ponds after a swift shower; she was at that point scared beyond her teeth, beyond her eyes, beyond anything that could render her image in the mirror whole again. A week had passed, and she did not return his phone calls. She spoke to her girlfriends on the phone, even emailed a long lost friend who had left for Europe and was studying in Italy. Claudia, that was the artist's name, offered her advice. Why are you so restless again? You must simply pick yourself up and come to Italy. You should apply and take up a master's degree.

She cried at the thought of freedom, at the thought of emptiness in her belly, and at the thought of leaving him for Florence, where she had once before felt so nauseous, wandering around in a maze of Renaissance houses.

When she saw him again for dinner, she felt a sense of calm that ended her Calvary. With each bite, she felt she was retaining a sliver of strength needed to tell him what was growing within her: that wonderful little thing that could beget and end all dreams. For the first time she felt that perhaps he had within him more tenderness than she would have wished in a father—father!—what a maddeningly harsh, Germanic dual phoneme, mature and manly and so akin to its opposite in the feminine. She was ready to tell him everything and to cry tears of joy, but by the time they made love, she had changed her mind.

What forced her to end her early pregnancy, in complete silence, and to leave him? Was it some coarse, male quip that enters its form as an ill-fated joke, but is always misinterpreted by the female sensibility? Was it a deep realization that she was not ready to be a mother—mother!—and within that conclusion, as a sequitur, a steadfast resolve to leave her blessed state, and to leave him?

She would ponder these questions well after going through with her doctor's appointment and packing her bags for Italy. One thing remained for certain: he would never know of the few weeks where they were bonded together by more than just tender intentions.

 

After she left, he imagined himself running back to that palpitating world on the screen: a click and a click and a click away, past Go!, there he was again, where he had started, with so many rows of teeth, non-descript and kitschy, smiling back at him—one picture after the next, a catalogue of promises, of flesh and interests—but he also thought of drinking himself to death in a romantic trance. The very weekend of her departure he had cocooned—the protective instinct of a single man, possibly only native to American shores where apartment space is easily available the young and childless. He ordered four pizzas, locked the door, ordered movies on PPV, and ate himself into a state of stupor. He did not shave nor leave the couch, did not pick up the phone as seldom as it rang, refused to relieve himself of the sexual frustration that invariably builds in such relaxed, warm caves, did not respond to Samir's nudges on Messenger (and regardless, these ceased in the evenings). Creating imagined circles on the ceiling, he thought of how easily tamed he was, how unlucky he had been to fall in love with someone so fickle. Was he a bad judge of character? Was he flawed in some way that made her leave him so easily?

He had a dream one night that he was calling his old phone numbers, one after another, as he had now lived in a few places, including the ill-fated home of his first serious relationship. Silence. Nervously, he anticipated nothing at all, the phones rang and rang into an obscurity that was more than just darkness, it was his palpable past. Then, suddenly, as he dialed that most familiar of all combinations (chosen so many years ago, and left, unplugged in a wall crevice, with so many stillborn fantasies), a man's voice answered, angrily, and he realized, in horror, that it was his own voice. Startled, he woke up and drank a cold glass of water.

He had another dream. He was deep underground, in the subway, waiting just at the yellow line that serves as a flourescent, invisible barrier between danger and monotony. As if cracking pebbles under foot, he heard someone approach him carelessly but slowly, yet as much as he tried to turn around and face this would-be assassin (note that he was frightened also of the approaching train that refused to arrive), he could not rotate the space around with his head, and thus he always faced the tracks, the dirty, bottle-strewn precipice, and a salvo of thick light, the on-coming train. Nervously, he waved about, he punched over his shoulder lest the murderer be right there, but there was nothing, nothing more than the ominous pebbles that crackled behind his ear, a faint menace.

He thought of leaving his job and following her to Italy. Showing up at her door with a bouquet of roses (???) or some other flower both expensive and presentable under cellophane. People did it in the movies as usually and rigorously as they hid their bowel movements. Women were supposed to go mad at such romantic offensives. He would be demonstrating spontaneity and courage, the most attractive traits in men.

What the hell is the matter with you? Samir yelled into his cell. Do you know how many people wish they could work at Bain? Regardless, she's a flight-risk as it is. Do you want to have to chase her all the time? Don't be so sad.

One night, returning home from work, he was certain that he heard the same pebble-crunching threat that had once blackened his dreams. He felt his spine contract and shivers run down his back. Without turning, he quickened his step, trouncing on the scattered slush. It was late, and the street seemed lonelier than usual, vast and wet, like a broad-backed hippo. He could swear that someone was at his back, breathing closely on his open neck. He stepped into his building, opening the door swiftly, automatically, making sure that it had closed, clicking the lock as he passed. In the elevator he gaped in fear at the reducing darkness pressed by the shutting door, and he imagined a thin, skeletal hand stopping his escape in the very last moment. God damn doors, so slow! I will die in here! But he made it up to his tenth floor condo, ensuring that the door was locked and bolted and that his alarm was on. Your face is like a billboard. You've had it up there for the world to see, and now someone has finally tracked you down. Perhaps an angry boyfriend, a slighted one-night-stand, a deranged lunatic...

At that moment the entire city was a threatening conundrum, its spires like long, curving nails, its streets unpromising Greek rivers (the ones that split the living from the dead), and he wished he could somehow wash clean the last three years, put them back into an ordered, clean drawer, apt for closing. In his terror he called up his old sweetheart in London, and receiving her answering machine, like some sobbing fool, he left a long, pleading message that went everywhere and absolutely nowhere.

 

When she came back to her apartment the next day she was shocked to find a bumbling cry for help but could not decide what to do. He was to her a distant memory, and her life had changed so drastically that it was impossible to feel drawn, even slightly, to those endless nights of arguments that had somehow prevailed over all other moments she had shared with him. Poor thing, he sounds awful. How can he still be in love with me? It's been over three years. Her roommate, a Japanese-Brit named Shizuka, did not share any of her sentimentality. With a wry sense of humour, ineffably tied to her doubled island heritage (because all islanders, no matter if from Albion or Honshu, share a rapier wit), she dismissed him as a fart from the past—and when she thought about Shizuka's little quip, she laughed not at him, but at how funny Shizuka's soft, British r's had made the word fart. She could not call him back. It was decided. He was obviously terribly in love with her, he had tried hard to get over her, and it was quite clear that even three years of palliative care could not help him bridge the gap that she had left in his life. What would her call do but turn turbid his blackened soul? It was best to remain silent, a figment in his mind.

Her reticence persuaded her not to reach out to him, when all that he wanted to know that his world did not end with and within his solitude.

She dreamed that night that he and she were again together, but not in Toronto, rather in Leads (she had visited that city only once, so it was quite strange that it would assume the foil of her fantasy), and that they had rented a small apartment overlooking the garment district. In the dream, she waited for him at home, and he arrived clad in a gray suit, announcing, I know, I know, I know, repeating this phrase until she begged him to stop. She hadn't a clue what he was speaking of, yet she felt menaced and penetrated. She sobbed on his shoulder, but he couldn't stop repeating those boring words, and the entire spectacle was unbearable. Awake, she ran to Shizuka's room to tell her of her horrible dream, only to find the slim woman perched on top of her computer chair, typing wildly on her keyboard. Quiet. I've got two blokes chatting with me and I really want to get them to ask me for my phone number.

 

His mother was concerned. She suggested he take a long vacation, now that he was single again. His parents gladly paid for a cruise, and off he went. In Trinidad he rented a boat for Tobago, where he was told there were a few places he could kick back and relax. Happy to be able to shake off all the retired and married couples who had accosted him with their university-aged daughters, he got off at Pigeon Point and sat there for three days beside an old, fat German (who was in fact a naturalized Trinidadian, running a boat rental on the smaller island). Juergen was a bit shy of sixty and spoke English with a wonderful mix of German harmony and Caribbean pizzicato. He was quick to admit that he moved to Tobago after his failed marriage in Berlin, some thirty years ago. His ex-wife had cheated on him with his best friend and once caught, she was more than happy to announce that of the two sons they had together, one was likely the other man's. He was not shattered that day, far from it, yet he decided that he needed something new, nothing as trite as a new job or new friends, not even a new place. Salvation lay not in things, he paraphrased Hesse, but in the acceptance of their mutability. He had to come to terms that some people reach a point in their lives when nothing can help them but the acceptance of their own insignificance. In Tobago, he was a nobody, a true nobody, far removed from Europe, where even his name and surname had given him a flag, a certain attitude, and to his interlocutors, a certain expectation of his sensibilities, of his soul. Total freedom was reached on a beach with countless, nameless tourists who seldom spoke to him and happy natives who did not care much for him. Every day, he was more and more himself, so much so that five years ago he had hosted, for the first time since the divorce, his ex-wife, his ex-friend, and his bastard sons. Juergen grew florid when he laughed, his wide belly shaking like a powder-barrel.

One night, back in his room, he turned on his laptop and searched for the old red and white site, where his nickname was still remembered by the portal. He felt excited and renewed, energized and calmed by the fat Juergen to the point of romantic self-denial... death is lighter than a feather, life is fickler than the weather... and he felt, for the first time in so long, invulnerable.

He caught himself typing wildly, inspiringly, into the little, white boxes, following the steady cursor rightwards with his eyes, looking, only once in a while, for reassurance at old Juergen's beach bonfire: a wide, flaming hearth that drew forth like so many moths those who traveled to and those who lived on this lonely rock.

 

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