The window is bricked up. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.
Jenny starred in my sexual fantasies. And not only in mine.
Images. My head is full of them. And as I grow older their number only increases. I don’t know how to stop them. I took pills for a while but that didn’t help.
People say I chase ghosts. They say I should let go. They are right, but they never show me how to go about it.
And so I find myself back in the alley between the Chinese take-away and the fashion shop. It’s the image of the window that drove me out here. To my surprise the window is bricked up. The house has been turned into a sealed tomb in which my past lies in state.
I had hoped to be able to look inside for old times sake. I pedaled 10 miles into the wind on my bike to visit this house, to get my memories back. And here I am, facing a wall. I’m locked out.
Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Jenny has gone and my visit won’t change that. Not that it was my intention to change anything. I’m at ease, if not at peace, with the fact that she will never return.
But something’s not right here. A tomb without an epitaph belongs to someone who hasn’t gone yet. Or worse: it belongs to someone who never existed. I won’t have that.
Behind the window was a table. Jenny used to sit at it. Studying. Most of the times when I looked inside, she was absorbed in the textbook in front of her. I always tapped on the window to startle her. I did that on purpose. For sheer relief she would welcome me with a kiss on my cheek and a cuddle. I apologized but, naturally, the kiss and the cuddle had been my ulterior motives all along. It was an open and shut case of premeditated love. Love in the first degree.
In those days Jenny starred in my sexual fantasies. And not only in mine. Adam, the amateur cross-country runner who lived on the first floor, confided to me he sometimes ran for miles through sucking mud in heavy boots to free himself from the image of her breasts. There must have been other boys too who went to silly extremes because of Jenny. I doubt I was the first; I’m pretty sure, though, I was the last.
When Jenny stopped eating and lost weight to the point of disquieting skinniness and from there to frightening emaciation, one boy after the other lost interest in her. I did not. I picked up the dreams the other boys had thrown away and kept them. I hoarded dreams.
In the beginning I was driven by a sense of possessiveness. I reasoned: once all dreams are mine, Jenny will be mine. Later, I acted out of anger. How could everybody discard their dreams about Jenny before they had come true? I thought it was downright criminal. Looking back, my motives seem so childish to me now.
Irresolutely I wander up and down the alley. The door is bricked up as well. The rear section of the house has been annexed by the fashion shop as it expanded to create more floor space. Where Jenny used to live, clothes have taken over: respectable jackets, manly shirts, bulge-enhancing trousers. Empty clothes, like cast-off skins.
A Chinese man puts out a garbage can. Through the kitchen door an indiscriminate mixture of smells from the entire take-away menu fills the alley. The man studies me for a few seconds. For a moment his slit eyes narrow even farther to mere lines across his face.
When I greet him with a friendly nod, he turns and goes back into the kitchen. From the corner of my eye I watch the kitchen window. I can’t see much, though. There’s a lot of steam from the cookers. A Chinese woman with long grey hair is talking to the man with agitated, jerky gestures. She’s ticking him off, as far as I can tell. Then she pushes him towards the door. I don’t understand what’s going on and try to decide if it would be best to leave the alley, but the man is already in the doorway.
‘Sirl,’ he says with an R very close to the anecdotal Asian L. ‘Gooday.’ His English is limited. Even in these common words letters are missing. I feel incompetent because I can’t meet him half-way with a few words in his language. All I remember from a Chinese course, which I used to watch on television with dinner on my lap, only because it was on at dinner time, is ni hao. It means how are you? I think. For all I know, with the same words in the wrong intonation I might be calling his mother a twat. One cannot be too careful in these matters.
‘Hello,’ I reply and wait.
He swallows. ‘Please, excuse. I know you.’
I leaf through my picture book of memories, but his portrait is not in it. All these redundant images–scores of them–and now that I finally need one that’s relevant I’m not able to retrieve it. Perhaps it’s not on file. Could it be I sat in the take-away dozens of times, waiting for my order, without once registering his face?
‘You are man of little girl,’ he says, bringing his thumb and index finger close together at the word little, not to indicate height but width.
‘Yes. That’s correct.’
‘Little girl is gone.’
‘Yes. That’s correct,’ I repeat. ‘I’ve come to…’
I don’t know for the life of me why I’ve come. The woman calls out something from the kitchen. The man shushes her and turns to me again.
‘Will you come in? Please?’
With an inviting gesture he stands back to let me into the kitchen.
At the table behind the window Jenny and I used to sit, studying or chatting the afternoon away. Wasting time with her was a lovely way to spend my life. If it had gotten too late for me to go back to campus and have dinner at the refectory, I fetched a meal at the Chinese take-away. We ate it together. Jenny was still eating, then. Everything was hunky-dory.
What went wrong?
For a while I blamed Adam. Sometimes, when I paid him a visit upstairs and had a few beers with him, we engaged in confidential, man-to-man conversations. Adam had three passions: Tchaikovsky, cross-country running, and Jenny’s breasts.
‘Tchaikovsky is the key to ultimate pleasure,’ he revealed to me. ‘For example: you can go cross-country running and then you run cross-country. Period.’
I nodded although I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
‘Things are different,’ he continued, ‘when you put on your headphones and play Tchaikovsky. Then the mud changes into velvet. Velvet, I say.’
He refilled his glass and gazed out the window.
‘Fucking to the Bolero,’ he murmured and blew a raspberry.
‘That’s quite nice too,’ I said.
He cast me a mocking look as if he could tell by my innocent, boyish face I hadn’t been in a position yet to form an opinion on sex, let alone on the musical ambiance.
‘I mean the Bolero,’ I hastened to explain. ‘The Bolero is quite nice too.’
‘Ravel!’ he called out scornfully. ‘Everybody’s raving about Ravel. Everybody’s always going on about fucking to the Bolero.’
Were they? I hadn’t heard anybody mentioning it. To safeguard my reputation, assuming I had one, I decided not to make a case of it.
‘I’ll introduce you to some real music,’ he said, inserting a CD into the player. ‘Listen to this. This is Overture 1812 by Tchaikovsky. Pay attention to the rhythm. That’s Napoleon’s armies marching towards Moscow.’
After just four bars he was so thrown into raptures he got up and started conducting the orchestra with dramatic, grandiose gestures. The music gradually grew louder.
‘Listen carefully, because here come the cannons!’ he said, raising his voice. ‘Mind the rhythm! Now pretend you’re holding Jenny’s breasts in your hands, one in each hand. Can you feel them? Can you feel them? When the cannons fire, you suck on her nipples. Wait for it… Now!’
At that moment he turned a knob on the player and the French artillery exploded in a thunderous roar. I could actually feel the shockwave from the trombones on my skin. The floor vibrated with the drums. The noise was deafening, almost frightening. I could see Adam shouting at me at the top of his voice, but he was drowned out completely. When I put my hands over my ears, he laughed and flipped a switch. The room went quiet as death. Adam drew a deep sigh, intensely satisfied, and said: ‘Who wants to fuck to the Bolero now?’
Although I could easily think of someone, I didn’t reply.
‘What do you say, Steve?’
‘Beautiful,’ I said. But I didn’t find it beautiful at all. The image of Adam fondling Jenny’s breasts had hurt me. I finished my beer and went downstairs.
Jenny was sitting at the table, her long curly hair streaming down her shoulders. My pain melted away. She made such a serene, angelic image.
‘Did he chase you away with that awful music?’ she asked.
‘It was rather loud,’ I confessed; a high-pitched buzz still rang in my left ear.
‘I must have heard that piece a hundred times by now. Sometimes he plays it in the middle of the night.’
Almost I had told her: ‘Does he now? And do you know what he fantasizes about when he puts that on?’ Almost.
‘What are you looking at?’ she asked.
To my horror I realized I was staring down her blouse. I blushed and mumbled a few evasive words. But she had already guessed my thoughts. And that was Adam’s fault.
In the Chinese take-away kitchen the woman clears away a few leeks and wipes the chair with her apron.
‘You sit,’ the man invites or orders. He sits down on a low stool opposite me. ‘Will you excuse?’ he hazards. ‘I want to ask you.’
Then we both pause, he waiting for my permission, I waiting for his question. Eventually the woman breaks the silence with a string of Chinese. The man wrings his hands.
‘Little girl,’ he says at last. ‘Is little girl dead?’
I shake my head. ‘No. She’s still alive. She moved.’
‘Thank you,’ he says and turns to the woman to translate my revelations.
She listens intently and then, suddenly, blurts out to me: ‘Tee?”
Helpless, I turn to the man.
‘Will you tea?’ he translates for me.
‘Tea? Yes, please. I’d love some.’
‘Little girl live there,’ the man says, pointing across the alley at the bricked-up window. ‘She wave. She is sweet little girl.’
‘Yes,’ I confirm flatly. ‘Yes, I know.’
‘Then she get more little. I think, she is poor. She cannot buy eat. Very little she is.’ He now holds his thumb and index finger so close together they almost touch. ‘My wife say little girl is not poor. She is sick. Little girl want no eat.’
‘She has anorexia,’ I explain.
The Chinese face opposite me remains blank.
‘She is sick,’ I say.