1A – Coffee And Apricots

Anja loves the surprise of travel.  She seeks the waking moment when one has no idea where one is, nor how one landed there.  The world is the stranger then and all is new.  She once switched beds between friends and foe alike in Dresden to stimulate the sensation.  Now as she rolls over, disentangling stray hair strands from a sheet, her arm coiled around a pillow, she cannot grasp where she is and that feeling awakes.  May it last forever! Then she spots him, curled up on the floor in a shabby studio apartment. Dried blood and rooftop filth spot his sleep-innocent face and morning shadow.  It’s creepy how fast hair grows at night.  How fast did her nails grow?  Selective amnesia lets her regard him in a fog, and absently touch his soggy trouser cuff.  His pants too cling.  Nor has he pulled off hers.  Good sign.  Anja explores her stale, damp jumpsuit beneath the sheets and she muffles a cough.  She peruses photos on a shelf: an artsy woman with tinted, orange hair smiles with noir friends, all with blazoned faces, one with flashbulb-red devil eyes, a pair of obligatory parents, an arm-n-arm art opening, trendy party shots. A scraggy pigeon lands on the closed window ledge, flutters up.  It’s an April morning inside a New York shoebox sublet.  The owner must be vacationing in Majorca or Cannes.  One never summers in New York.  My!

Anja will not wake the stranger but she will test the shower, scavenge dry clothes, and later, accept a frothy cup of café au lait.  Slowly, stealthily, she zips down her jumpsuit, slithers out her legs, molts her socks, peels off and steps from her panties, until she’s stark naked, a hapless dove swathed in pink sheets.  Tra, la, fuck’n la!  Anja studies the sleeping man’s eye movements beneath his lids to see if he is dreaming, or scheming.  They swim from shore to shore.  Which could mean he is awake — they’re not wildly revolving, dazzled with nightmares — or pretending to sleep, which is insidious.  No.  She will not be paralyzed by second-guesses only to wake to the mercy of a maniac!  The shower must be in the bathroom — if there is one.  He’ll stir if she trips.  She peels down her sheets and peeks at her navel and the yellow tuft of hair, her little canary, as her first boy called it.  A memory makes her shiver.  No, she will remember nothing.  Not last night, last year, rein, nada, nicht. She’s just been traveling.  Sailed in from a Greek isle last night, Naxos, after sunning on a golden beach.  She places one toe on the floorboard, then listens for a creak.  A plank groans: a trifling but tolerable plaint.  If he looks up as she steps over him he’ll get an eyeful for sure.  Not good.  But she must make for that shower, and a pee.

She slips into the bathroom, slowly, deliberately, closes the door and sits down on a clean seat, rises, decides not to flush, snoops through the medicine cabinet examining jars of skin cream and pain killers.  None of the stuff looks his but one toothbrush, a plastic razor and a travel-size toothpaste tube resting on a damp washcloth.  A real Stoic.  Then she glances against her will into the mirror and cannot recognize herself.  Another being stares blankly from the mirror while she’s slipping out back between its silver grains.  A paralysis of self-hatred nails her attention while a stranger with puff lips, smooth brow, long, near transparent eyelashes and violet eyes (with a tiny yellow Oriental fan striating from pupil blacks) occupies her space.  Her consciousness like dry ice or perfume evaporates, riveting her to an image which spells in visual hieroglyph, her absence.  She escapes into the shower, blasts the water despite the racket, first Arctic cold, then scalding hot kicks in, blowing billows of steam, blessing her head, then, wearily, she adjusts the knobs, until she stands firm ready to worship cleanliness as Commies once worshipped vodka.  Each water bead, a rosary, the scented soap bar, well, maybe its her old country, her past, the 20th century, melting in her hand?

As Anja dries off then cleans her teeth, she sniffs fresh coffee through the door.  Why does he bother?  Guilt?  He drove her from her tower.  He both saved her life (why?) and exiled her.  He’s either an accomplice — which she doesn’t need nor trust — or an enemy ready to exercise a right, eager to stake a claim, cash in.  Want my first born?  My secret file?  She’ll drink the coffee but not emerge naked from the shower.  She finds a robe — a vintage-clothing, fancy East Village concoction of cheap silk with a flaked print of a Minotaur. How artsy!  She emerges from the bathroom, slowly.  The young clone glances sideways, warily, wearing a cautious half-smile, like a mask.

“There’s coffee if you drink it and breakfast if you eat it,”  he offers.

“Only if you never talk!”

“Deal,” he surrenders and pours her a cup of black coffee, silently offers  up cream and sugar, slides an egg carton from the fridge so that she can nod yes or no, displays sausage, bacon (Anja points to the sausage), pulls out two varieties of bread — Anja pokes the rye — lights the stove with a long match and sets to cooking.  Anja drums her fingers, not lifting her eyes, but delights in the rich coffee fumes.  He walks to the one dresser in the apartment while the smell of frying sausage fills the studio, rummages for a pack of cigarettes and drops it with a lighter close to her wrist, then resumes cooking.  She regards the sunlit window and wonders when he’ll reveal his true self.  If he has one.  He must be thinking she’ll break down and tearfully thank him.  Boy, he’s barking up the wrong tree!  She hesitates and watches her fingers walk to the cigarettes.  It’s been ages.  She might get hooked again.  Her hand slides across the table.  Bringing one to her lips, her fingers (not her) light the cigarette, lungs inhale, and she nearly faints.  Dancing, silvery stars crowd her brow.  She’ll cool out on smoking — for now, oh!

He sets down the breakfast and she tries hard not to act hungry, but she’ll devour those sausages now, damn all vegetarians!  Damn Hitler!  She never looks up and he leaves her be, opening a window to the street, letting cooler city air waft in, smoking, politely facing the light, pretending to be interested in a pedestrian on the sidewalk.  After five minutes, he rifles a trunk in an open closet, extracts a small blackboard, smiles, then, with some effort, discovers a fragment of chalk, steps back to the table, and prints the name “Eric” on it then slides it near her plate.

“Clever.” Anja picks up the blackboard with her fingertips.  Eric doesn’t answer.  Anja doesn’t care.  “I am not deaf and dumb, you know!”

“Uh, Eric.”  He mimics being stupid.

“Snoop!”  She jots down, drawing an arrow to his name.

He walks back to the far window, not prepared to offer himself up to abuse.  A long silence drops like a shadow across the table, which finally irks Anja.

“Who did you tell about me?”

“No one.”

“Liar!”

“You just woke me up!  I had no time.”

“You will tell a friend.”

“What friends?”

“If you have no friends then you are a pervert.”

“Maybe that’s why my best friends betray me.”

“Whose apartment is this?”

“A woman whom I barely know.  I’m subletting it.”

“Are you beneath her?”

Eric wants to shout “homeless snob!” but he has lost his voice.  “Look … “  He cannot sustain an argument.  Too troubled, too weary to challenge or be challenged he slumps down in the only other chair in the room, then remembers pulling her back from the ledge and interrupting her suicide.  She senses this and it irritates her further.

“You want me to thank and honor you.  You want me to kneel and beg.  Maybe give you — blow job?  Mmmm?”

“Blow job?”

“You think you can save me?’

“From what?”

“From myself.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Right you are.  I piss on you and all self-righteousness!”

“I’ve been pissed on before.  Join the world.”

“Damn the world … ” Letting her eyes blur, with a float to her movements, Anja rises to her feet then brushes her lips across Eric’s then plants there a progressively deepening, luxurious kiss.  Anja just cleaned her teeth using her forefinger and toothpaste so her mouth tastes minty but her lips are pliant, soft, flowery, light as a dandelion puff, yet moist, like an apricot.  Eric’s breath smells of smoke and he is careful to accept rather than intend the kiss, but the contrast between this artless gentility and her brusque insults sets Eric back in his chair.  As she is still bending over him he follows the slope of her exposed breast, then guiltily blinks as she straightens up.

“Looking for something?”

“I’ve closed my eyes.”

“Just in time.  Hush now and never tell me I am beautiful.”

“Fine.  I won’t say you are beautiful.”

“You watch it.” Anja winks, “You never touch me.  I touch you, maybe.”

“Can I touch myself?”

“Not when I am around!”  Anja snorts, “Naturally, you do not own a clothes drier.”

“Me?  Own?  There’s one over there.”

“Throw my jumpsuit in.”

“Yes, boss.”  Eric sloughs off with the jumpsuit gingerly between his fingers.

“Boss?  Never say that to me!”  Anja’s eyes flash.

“O.K.”

“Now give me something that fits from the bitch who lives here so I can check my tower.”  Anja orders.

“She’s left, well, her leftovers.  I’m not sure anything will fit.”

“Just bring something.”

“Just jumping.”

“Good.”

While Eric rummages in a box of clothes left in the bottom of the closet and recovers a pair of baggy kakhi pants and a loose fitting blouse, Anja inspects the door with a lock and a key buried in it which can seal the door from the inside, noisily tests and secures the lock then pockets the key in her borrowed robe.  Eric watches, incredulously, as she strides across the apartment then yanks the phone wire and jack from the wall.  Eric starts and nearly strikes Anja.  Built, agile, he could surely wrest the phone and key from her hand.  She glares back with steely defiance.  Eric, baffled, struggles against his rage, searching her eyes for a reason, or an apology, for her cruelty.  Her eyes fix on his with a hint of mischief, pretending it natural, after a man feeds you to lock him out from his own apartment.  A boombox loudly thumps rap on the street. A bus swishes by.  The frayed, generic curtains flutter fitfully with a spring zephyr, and they both, tensely, just stand there.

“I saved you last night! Shut up! I know you didn’t ask me!  I offer you a shower, food, a robe and you want to lock me in my own apartment and rip out my phone!”

“It is not your phone and not your apartment!”

“Give me the fuck’n key and phone or I take ‘em back!”

“No.  You make a deal.”

“Why should I tolerate this shit?”

“You can beat, rape me, if you wish.  A helpless foreigner.  Attack!  Kill me!”

“That’s right!  If I saved your life I can take it!”

“Now we see the real you!”

“What makes you think I even like you?  Or want you?”

“What makes you think I want to steal from you?”

“My fucking key in your pocket and my fucking phone in your hand.”

“Why do Americans always swear when they do not know how to say?  I speak English better than you.”

“You, bitch! I don’t know what to say.”  Eric drags his hands down his face, flopping down on the dusty, subletted couch.  Everything in Eric deflates, not because he is weak, nor stupid, but he retains a Midwestern flaw, call it the myth of original innocence, which can be activated by generosity, or largesse. He never wised-up in New York.  No matter how hip he looked or dressed, he could not clarify nor sharpen his self-interest.  He “unconsciously” blew up friendships before they reached fruition.  He secretly cultivates being conned or defrauded.  He knows monsters exist, cruel, addled from birth, yet even those gnarled by resentment have a trace of humanity, or so he wishes.  Anja loathes sentimentality, though she fears that it could be read as German (re: cliché-Nazi) cruelty, it is not in her nature, nor her past, to project anything worthy onto anyone.  Not herself, not family, not strangers.  Certainly not Mister Nice Guys.  Pity is a strategy — another ruse.  How many bullshitters could she list?  It would take a global census!  No.  She’s committed to building above crime and guilt, in scaling heights above the trash of instinct and sham morality, all mere animality anyway, and finally making her own, deluded way, to Oz.

“Good, you grow calm.  First: I protect my tower.  I need one day to move.  Now you know me, I must leave.  No one but you, if I can trust you, and I trust no one, knows I live in my tower.  I need one day to vanish.”  With this, rather melodramatically, she walks to the table and erases the blackboard with her sleeve.

“Live up there.  I’ll keep your secret.  You can shower here.  Have a coffee, eat an apricot.”

“Apricot?”

“Especially if you get off my own back and let me study.”

“Get off your back?”

“Listen, lady, I’ve messed my life up and now I’m trying to repair it.  I’m a probationary grad student at Princeton and I’m doing research.”

“It sounds pathetic.”

“You’ve no idea!”

“O yes, I do.  You can visit it, me, at dusk, never before.”

“You’ll not kick me down the stairs?  Can I then ask for my own keys back?  What a deal!  Wow!”

“I give you keys.  I allow you out.  To buy wine. Listen: French dry red, not Californian, not German; brie; black olives; a half pound of thin sliced ham, two salads from the Korean deli, you know: tomatoes, crutons, tuna fish, and for me, Italian dressing.  Bucket of ice.  And, and …  there is a place on Third Avenue near 10th street for cheap, good cheese and sliced Virginia ham. You have money?”

“I know you don’t.”

“Wait for the light to fall.  Forget clocks!  Come at dusk.  I’ll be at my tower. Do not appear on the roof to get the keys.  I hand them, so.” She teases him by mock-handing him the keys, “When you return go very slim against the stairwell door, comme ça, until I signal and guide you. I will return your keys in exchange for food and silence.  Sound reasonable?”

“Not at all.”

“Good.  See ya tonight.”  Anja laughs, swinging the keys.

With this, Anja opens up the drier and grabs her jumpsuit, bundles up the keys and phone, pushes past Eric, and as he just scoots out, and locks his apartment, behind them both.