Written by Sam Vaknin
Losing my mind in a bed-sitter. Pipes crackling in the kitchenette, spewing fecal water in the bathroom, only the urinal a tolerable translucence. The cramped space is consumed by a rough-hewn timber bed, prickly wool blankets strewn. The sheets a crumpled ball, spotted with ageing spittle stains. The window looks onto another window. Mine is a corporate apartment in Geneva, a menacing physical presence of solitude and silence crystallized.
On weekend mornings I promenade at length: along the lake shores, traverse the foothills, the sumptuous mansions of the rich, back through the marina and the slums, behind the "Noga-Hilton".
On my return, the flat contracts, the standard issue table, the single chair, my scattered clothing, the metered rotary dial phone, the French and German television channels I cannot understand.
Once weekly, on Monday morns, a woman comes to clean. Her legs are cast in limpid stockings, I smell her cleanser perspiration. A coarse elastic reins her stonewashed hair. She is not bejeweled. She wears a pair of twisted wire-rims. Her husband sometimes tags along, buried under her scrubbing implements.
She hardly ever acknowledges my cornered and abashed existence, like a besuited mummy with gleaming imitation leather shoes. She does my laundry and my ironing, too.
I did not want to die. I sought refuge in numbers, solace in propinquity. I thought I'd join the Jesuits.
I strolled to the United Nations building and met a senior bureaucrat, a member of the order. His angled modest office overlooked a busy "work-in-progress" intersection, but he renounced this distraction. He listened to my well-rehearsed oration and referred me to a monastery at the other end of town.
Ambling along the waterfront, I scrutinized the flower beds, the tourists, and the spout. Even at dusk, I found this city languid.
All shops were closed.
I had a dinner date with a Londoner, a naturalized Iranian oil trader. Throughout the meal he kept rebuking me:
"You sound like someone whose life is long behind him. It is not true! You are so young!"
I drove my shrimps amongst the Thousand Islands in my bowl.
"You are observant, Sir," - I said - "but wrong. I may be possessed of past, but not of future." - I gauged the impact of my harsh pronouncement - "Not necessarily a thing to mourn" - I added.
He rearranged the remnants of his dinner on his soiled plate. I gathered that he was far too experienced to be optimistic.
I visited the friary next morning. A young monk, clad in sportswear eyed me with surprise. I mentioned my referrer and was instantly admitted. We occupied a metal bench amidst a bustling corridor.
He told me about the order. They study several years, embark on charitable missions in far-flung countries, and then take vows.
I reassured him I was celibate and he pretended to believe me.
Gene called and invited me to his bookstore to inspect a new shipment. I used to spend all weekends there, reading, socializing, and devouring unwholesome food in the adjacent restaurant. Shoppers came and went. Gene would register the day's meager intake in his books and lock the entrance door. Sometimes we would proceed to patronize an Old City coffeehouse. But usually I would return to my alcove and wait for Monday.
That day, when I arrived, Gene offered me a cup of lukewarm coffee and said: "Stay with me, please, this evening."
The last client having departed, he bolted the iron shutters and we proceeded uptown, to get drunk. It was a farewell sacrament, Gene having lost his savings and a lot of other people's funds.
He climbed to my apartment and wept throughout the night of his intoxicated desperation. I woke to find him gone.
Thus, my world narrowed. The weather chilled. I couldn't pierce the stubborn rainfall that swathed my windowpanes. Arrayed in heavy overcoat, I sat, a patchwork quilt of light and shade. Or fully dressed, prostrated, the blankets heaped, on my Procrustean bed.
People from Israel stayed at my place. They ate my food and slept and showered. Then they moved off. I traveled back there on vacation. A journalist who did my profile years ago, refused to interview me. He said: "Dead horses do not make a story." My nightmares swelled with equine carcasses discharging jets of ink-black blood.
Come winter, I called on the priory again.
"You must first see the light, see Jesus" - my youthful guide insisted but, ready with a riposte, I rejoined:
"There are many paths to one's salvation and one's savior."
Savoring my worn platitude, he promised to arrange for an interview in Zurich, the regional headquarters.
So many years have passed since then.
Perhaps a dream, perhaps a motion picture snippet, perhaps I am overwhelmed by one of my confabulations. I remember descending from a train, ankle-high in rustling snow, treading uncharted tracks towards an illuminated building, a boarding school. The manageress conducts a prideful tour of speckless premises. Toddlers in flowery pajamas amuse themselves with ligneous cubes and plastic toys.
I can't remember if I have never been there.
That morning, in Zurich, I climbed up a hill, next to the colossal railway, and rang an ornate bell at the gate of an unassuming office building. I was let into an antechamber and led into the quarters of the abbot. He had a kind face, without a trace of gullibility. His desk was neatly organized, framed by heaving bookcases and shafts of graying light.
I was being examined, oblivious to the rules. "Why do you wish to join us?" - he enquired, then - "Follow me". We climbed down to the dormitories of the fresh initiates. He mutely pointed at the crooked berths, the metal chests, the hanging hair shirts. "We fast a lot. We pray from dawn till midnight."
He introduced me to the novices. "They look so happy and resilient" - I noted. He smiled. Echoes of clerical exertion from above rebounded in the cellar.
"We've got some guests" - he clarified, and suddenly awakening - "Have you already eaten?"
We crossed a lengthy passage veined with piping, thrusting agape the heavy oak doors at its end. I entered first, he followed, to face a purple multitude of churchmen. They rose in noiseless unison and waited.
My host declaimed:
"We have a Jewish guest, from Israel today" - he hesitated - "He will say grace for us. In Hebrew."
The hall reverberated. My host impelled me forward. A sea of crimson skullcaps as they rested foreheads on locked, diaphanous digits. I uttered the Jewish prayer slowly, improvising some. The alien phrases recoiled from the masonry, bounced among the massive trestle-tops, ricocheted from the clay utensils, the crude-carved cutlery, the cotton tablecloths. A towering Jesus bled into a candled recess.
The abbot led me to a chair and placed a bowl of nebulous soup in front. He stuck a wooden spoon right in the swirling liquid and went away. I ate, head bowed, maintaining silence, conforming to the crowd's ostentatious decorum. The repast over, I joined the abbot and his guests in the procession to his office. He recounted proudly the tale of my most imminent conversion.
They looked aghast. One of them enquired how I found Jesus. I said I hadn't yet. The abbot smiled contentedly. "He is not a liar" - he averred - "He doesn't lie even when lying leads to profit". "Perhaps the profitable thing to do is to be truthful in this case" - one bitterly commented.
The train back to Geneva crisscrossed a radiant medley, deserted streets spanned by forlorn bridges, and spectral streetlamps. I exited into the ceilinged station, to the ascending roads and winding paths and broader avenues, on to my flat. Immersed in shadows to emerge in light, I gazed at curtained windows tightly shut. I window-shopped and kicked some gravel.
At the entrance to my building I didn't turn on the light. I couldn't face the immaculate stairwell, the doormats, the planted pots of crucible steel. But darkness meant a lethal fall or stepping in the wrong apartment, intruding on the astonished life of someone else (the keys were all identical, I suspected). I couldn't cope even with mine.
I turned around, into the public park, across the inner yard, down to the looping street that bordered on the water. The lake was silver struck and boats bobbed up and down abstracted waves. Moon, cleaved by stooping branches, hills vaporizing into mist. I circumvented them, resting on soggy benches, the stations of my pilgrimage.
The lake and road diverged and I arrested at the slopes. I dithered momentarily and then proceeded to ascend the footpath, liberally dotted with fallen leaves and broken twigs. Submerged in muddy soil, the rich substrate of foliar death, I kicked the ripeness of dispersing acorns.
I stopped in front of Dudley's home - a medieval French chateau - to study yet again its contumacious contours. Inside, behind the gate, Dudley constructed a tiny summer house atop a brook. We oft debated topics there we both knew little of. I never came there unannounced or uninvited.
Moonlight transforms brickwork chateaux into the stuff of magic. They take your breath away and hurl it back at you until it splinters. A canine wail, how apt, as though directed. Ripples of wholeness, happy containment, perfect abundance.
I went back the way I came, booting the same pebbles, hard on my heels, ethereal presence. The night inflamed. I arrived at my apartment, the stacks of documents and books, a glass of opaque water, the stale exhaling carpet, talk shows unfolding in a thick Bavarian accent. I half expect an angry neighbor to tap his wall - our wall - with naked palms. Or, worse, the cleaning lady.
At home, it's almost dawn, a blue horizon. I slit a tidy envelope and draw its innards.
The abbot advises me to prepare to visit Boston in the following week. I am expected there for an in-depth interview. I made a good impression. "Your motives look sincere". In Christ.
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