It must have been in one of the
months, about forty-two or forty-three years ago.
I am sure, because Fall had started in our
hemisphere. The deciduous trees had turned brown and shed half of
their leaves. It was at that time of the year when it may still be
reasonably warm during the day, but when the nights are getting
longer and chillier. On the old calendar the month was called
am not mistaken.
I was free for three days and had not gone out for quite a
while. So i decided to go to an after-hours disco late at night,
or rather early in the morning.
I was not very well off and used to spend little money on clothes.
On that particular night, however, i wore an
expensive coat made of suede. The coat was not mine
I had never bought it. The funny thing was that i had not stolen it
either, nor borrowed it. I had not even found it somewhere.
Never mind its ownership: i looked really good in it.
When i was young i was quite attractive, and even when
i grew older i kept my hair. Yet, i hardly ever had contact with
someone at a bar or disco when going out alone. If i got to talk
to someone, it would rather be on the way back home.
There were several reasons for my lack of success in bars
and discos, if 'lack of success' is the right way of putting
First of all, i did not smoke --i never did--
and i hated the foul smell of exhaled clouds of tobacco.
There were already other people who did not smoke or had quit smoking,
but somehow the great majority of the visitors of
bars and discos seemed to be incurable smokers. Nowadays no-one
believes me anymore when i tell them that when i was young bars,
discos, restaurants, trains, all public places, were
practically monopolized by poison puffers.
The second reason i almost never made friends at a
disco is that i had an ambivalent feeling towards the music
they usually played in those days. I liked dancing very much,
and despite my old frame now, i would still enjoy it. But most
of the music you had to endure in discos was more or less dreadful.
Since it did not seem to profit by any rime or rhythm,
it was not to my taste whatsoever. As a rule you had to wait
an hour before something hit your ear that would take you to the
dancefloor. I remember someone asking me halfway the night why
i did not dance like everybody else. My answer that i was waiting
for the music to start was the end of that conversation.
Why, then, you might wonder, would someone like me go to
a disco at all? But, as i said, they did play danceable music
once in a while, and i desperately wanted to dance now and then.
Moreover, and more importantly, i used to experience the
nightlife in my relatively small but cosmopolitan hometown as
something of a movie. During those early hours of the morning
i was looking at the townscape and the human beings that peopled
it from a distance, as if somehow i was not part of it myself.
Often i even completely forgot that this way of experiencing the
nightlife did not have the safety of watching a movie at home
or in the cinema. I tended to forget that i myself was in the
movie, that i too, could get into a fight, be robbed, or --the
better side of the coin-- find a friend, perhaps, a lover.
On that autumnal night, i left the disco again without having
met someone nice or nasty, but with my eyes still smarting from
the heavy smoke. As usual i was on foot, because i liked the
exercise and, altho quite cold, it was dry outside. You know, the
slower one's mode of transport the less one sees, perhaps, of the
whole, but the more one sees of the details -- that is still true nowadays.
On leaving the disco i first ran into the ever present
male and female sex workers, drug traffickers and bike dealers
(that is, sellers of bicycles which had been stolen).
"Hi honey!" "Some hash?" "Wanna buy a bike?" The simplest and
fastest answer was always no answer. Altho I'm waiting for the
music to start might have been equally effective.
And the music did start. No sooner had i left the
pushers and their lot behind me than i passed a singer,
someone who was singing in the street! There were indeed still
parts of the world where i had traveled and encountered locals
singing in streets and on busses, but in the area where i used
to live people had generally developed a taste for
consuming music, for turning up the volume of their radios
and for going to concerts, while merely a select few had
remained to produce it, usually for money.
The beautiful song that reached my ear sounded very
melodic, slightly melancholy, and was composed with words in a
language i did not understand. I could not even roughly pin down
to what region of the global map it belonged.
Being pleasantly surprised i smiled at the singer and asked
was singing in. The singer, in turn
pleasantly surprised by my genuine interest, mentioned a
language entirely unknown to me, even tho i had seen much of
this planet then already. To my question what 'er name was
'e replied: "Cyrus".
When i was born parents did not name their children.
It was their boys that were given boys' names, and their
girls that were given girls' names. When you told someone
your surname you were Mr Such-And-So or Mrs
Such-And-So, dependent on the shape of your genitals
or your chromosomes -- i forget. When you felt close enough to
use a given name, you gave a typically male or a typically female
one, even in contexts that had no bearing on sexual matters
whatsoever. There was no sex-transcending way of addressing
people in those days. (Or, of referring to them with the
contemporary singular third-person pronouns 'e, 'im
and 'er.) There were a few names that happened to be names
of both men and women, but they were still not names of
people. So, when Cyrus introduced 'imself as 'Cyrus', and
i myself as 'Manfred', there was not any implication of erotic
interest on either part, even tho nowadays i would, of course,
have used my sex-neutral personal name instead in such a
As we walked on together Cyrus turned out to be a jovial
person who had a great deal to tell about the country 'e
came from. 'E also told me that 'e planned to settle in what
was my country then, that 'e did not have official permission
yet, but that 'er prospects were very good. Altho the clothes
Cyrus was wearing were quite colorful, they could not hide
'er poverty and indeed, because 'e possessed very little money,
'e was staying with friends and trying to sell some of 'er
paintings (of which 'e showed me a few pictures). However poor
Cyrus may have been, what 'e had to tell me displayed a
wealth of experiences and ideas in 'er mind.
After having spoken about 'er country and 'imself for quite a while,
Cyrus, who seemed to highly appreciate my interest, changed
the subject to his girlfriend, and now showed some more
interest in me too. He asked me about my wife or
girlfriend. I told him i had none. I hated the question because
somehow it implied that i had to have a wife or girlfriend
or woman of some sort. In itself i cared little about the
obtrusiveness of the assumption, but it painfully reminded me
of my own discontent with myself in this respect.
The last time i had had sex with a woman had been in the
summer, on one of those very rare sultry nights in Early Southeast
-- "July" or "August" as it was called at the time.
Far away from the urban hustle and bustle, a mixed couple had invited me
to join them in their love play. The guy did not appeal to me
physically, but the girl was attractive and eager enough. She was
neither too fat nor too thin, and it had been a delight to fondle
You know, i can be turned on by the flat-breasted body of a
man and i can be turned on by the full-bosomed body of a woman,
while i do not at all feel attracted to men with breasts as big
as a woman's or by women with breasts as small as a man's.
I hate the sight of a man with a belly as large as that of a
pregnant woman, whereas the pregnant woman herself is in my eyes
as pretty as a picture. Do you think i am an exclusivist?
And, if so, can i blame my past?
It is not always moral for a man to enter someone else's body,
and when it is not immoral, it is not always prudent to do so.
But semen is thicker than water, and i had but too willingly
given the girl what she had been panting for, and what
i myself had been badly in need of. Like her
i had felt very satisfied afterwards. Unlike her i had been
determined to get together with a woman again within a few weeks,
that is, a single woman to make it feel even better and to make it
last much longer. But i had not found the right woman, i had met
a young man instead.
Mario was a visitor with whom it was easy to get along,
socially, intellectually and sexually. My physical contact
with him had left little to be desired so far as such contact with
men is concerned, but just as women miss something that men have,
so men miss something that women have.
Mario could not help it --he had gorgeous
buttocks-- but for weeks or months i had not been with
a girl or woman anymore, and that is what displeased me.
(I certainly did not fit into the society of those critters who
naively or arrogantly assumed that there is some Law of Nature
ruling that human beings that like bananas shall not like peaches,
and vice versa.)
A wife or girlfriend not being a common subject Cyrus and i
continued to talk about countries and cultures until we had to
part, because our ways back home led in different directions.
We stopped and agreed to meet in a downtown restaurant for lunch
at 1.30 p.m.. I had an invitation to attend the opening of my friend
Margareth's exhibition at half past three, in a gallery not far from
the restaurant. I thought it might be an idea to take Cyrus with me
after lunch, because 'e was an artist too. However, i did not
tell 'im about my invitation yet.
As it was almost 4 o'clock in the morning by then and i still
had to go to bed, meeting for lunch felt psychologically like
meeting the next day, even tho from an astronomical or some such
perspective it was just the same day. Cyrus arrived at the
restaurant half an hour late. 'E had first had to make some
copies of papers for the immigration authorities, 'e said.
At the beginning our conversation
was still as lively as it had been about eleven hours earlier,
when we had met. Yet, what was getting more and more on my
nerves was Cyrus' lack of interest in the country 'e was visiting
and even intended to stay in. Most of the time 'e was only
telling me about 'er home country, not afraid of pointing at the
superior qualities of that country vis-à-vis other
countries and of 'er own ethnic group vis-à-vis other
ethnic groups in that country. First i was eager to learn about
a part of the world i had never visited, but as Cyrus went on
i felt i was learning more about 'er nationalism and
ethnocentrism than about 'er country and people. At the same time
i started to realize that Cyrus' amateurish paintings were not in
any way comparable with Margareth's professional work. Judging by
the pictures 'e had shown me 'er technique was poor and 'er
subjects, in spite of their local flavor, parochial.
Cyrus finished 'er lunch before me and lighted a cigaret
without even asking me whether i minded. It did not assuage my
irritation that 'e made me pay for the lunch as if it
were something self-evident. (I despised those fellows who never
had enough money for the necessities of life but always enough
for buying drugs or other needless things.) 'E looked surprised
and a little bit sad when i told 'im on the way out of the
restaurant that i had to go to an appointment somewhere at 3.30.
'E suggested, almost implored me, to meet later in the day again,
but i killed that illusion with some cheap excuses and left 'im
with a quasi-amiable smile.
Margareth was a real friend; a lot older than i was, but
then in art so much more talented. 'E had been married to a
carpenter turned architect. When 'er husband was still alive
Margareth had never touched a paintbrush, and had kept 'imself
busy, or rather was kept busy, with 'er children and
chores. I should say "her children and chores", because
they were considered the business not of parents, but of
mothers, who in Margareth's early days seldom had a paid job.
Nonetheless, after 'er husband's death, and with 'er children
grown up, Margareth had taken up painting and become quite
good at it and successful as well.
'E had had several exhibitions before, altho
never in such a front-rank gallery as on that Fall day.
The gallery was situated in a narrow street along one of
the town's picturesque, centuries-old canals. When i got there,
the first thing Margareth said was: "Oh, Manfred, did you buy a
new coat? How chic you look!" By laughing loud and
enthusiastically i escaped the need to answer 'er spontaneous
question, and we gave each other two ardent kisses, one on each
cheek. 'Er friend Amy was standing behind 'er. Amy was with 'er
partner Leo, and i kissed them too.
This may sound entirely uninteresting or obvious to you,
but in those days men and women kissed each other thrice, and
women kissed each other thrice, whereas men did not even kiss
each other once. I hated the sexism in that convention (and
to a lesser degree the asymmetry in the three kisses). If you
did not want to participate in the ritual you could only do
one of two things: kiss the whole bunch or kiss no-one.
Kissing everyone, boys and men included, was pretty risky,
because many XY types who would not in the least assume that a
woman kissing another woman was seducing instead of greeting
her would precisely assume that of a man kissing another man.
And kissing no-one made you look afraid of intimacy, if not of
women (because they only saw a man not kissing the
women). At the time i had to live with that. So i kissed
Margareth, who was without a man, and i kissed Amy, who was
with a man who expected or at least did not mind to be kissed
too, and i only shook hands with Margareth's cousin Joanna,
since she was with a male specimen that would already have
fainted if i had merely blown him a kiss.
There was no painting at the gallery which i had
not seen before or which i did not remember from my visits to
Margareth's apartment. 'Er paintings were colorful and if
they were figurative in any sense, then only in the most
abstract of ways. It was remarkable that in spite of the
bright colors they were often quite somber. 'Er Autumn
Morning, for instance, was wild and fantastic. It did
not show anything naturalistic, and yet you saw the brown-red
leaves flying around in a heavy storm, and you felt life
drawing to its pitch-dark eerie end. Sensitive visitors could
descry a painter who lived in the autumn of 'er own life. But
only few of them knew that Margareth had reached that autumn
after the death of 'er spouse, with whom 'e had shared so
many profound experiences, both in 'er family and in art.
Hardly a year later, when i was on a trip abroad, the sad
message reached me that Margareth had died of cancer. I felt
very depressed and i pitied Margareth intensely, but i didn't cry.
On my return Amy and Leo related the tragic circumstances of
Margareth's death to me. Margareth was living on the top floor
of a block of flats, because that 'flat', as such an apartment
was locally called, had an attic where 'e could paint. But when
it was discovered that 'e was seriously ill Margareth decided
to move to an apartment on the ground floor somewhere in
another neighborhood, since the building in which 'e lived had
no elevator and 'e would not be able to walk all those stairs
anymore. Margareth, who had already become bedridden, then died,
during the removal, in 'er new home when it was still empty;
only 'er bed was there, the rest of 'er personal belongings and
furniture were to follow later that day. While listening to Amy
and Leo's story, which had some more poignant details, i began
to cry. It was the first time i cried since the death of my
father, a chain-smoker, when i was seventeen years old.
Sometimes something happens in real life that you would
never read about in a book, in a published manuscript, that is.
The serious reader might find it too melodramatic (or the
delicate reader too upsetting, even obscene); the established
publisher might find it too farfetched (if not
controversial); and the author who wants 'er work to be published
would already have censored 'imself by making the events more
probable (and acceptable).
You know, reality has so much more freedom than a writer.
Little by little the art-lovers were leaving Margareth and
the gallery. Joanna offered me a ride back home with the two of
them, as they had to go in the same direction. I appreciated
'er friendly offer and first did not want to offend 'er and 'er
partner by declining it, but i felt much more like having a
drink somewhere downtown before going back home. I knew that as
soon as i was alone again, i would have to face the
aftereffects of my disappointing encounter with Cyrus, and i
did not want that yet. So i did decline Joanna's offer
in the politest of words, got my coat from the little cloakroom
and left after having wished Margareth lots of luck and buyers.
I wandered about for a while and then thought of the
singalong bar which Mario used to frequent and which i had never
heard of until 'e told me about it. (It happens more often that
tourists have been to a place you have never visited yourself.)
Meanwhile the sun had disappeared and it was getting cloudy, but
the bar was not hard to find.
I had not been in the bar for more than five or ten minutes
when i noticed that someone was looking in my direction as if 'e
knew me or as if he wanted me. I wondered what fueled 'er
interest at this time of the day. I did not know 'im myself, but
somehow 'e looked familiar to me. He was athletically built, with
nice hair and pleasing features, and i looked back. Neither of
us taking any further initiative yet, he got a packet of
cigarets out of his back pocket and lighted one. All his potential
health and handsomeness immediately evaporated, and i looked
away from 'im, towards a boy and girl who were merrily joining in
with the music emanating from the loudspeakers.
Nevertheless 'e suddenly came up to me and said,
tapping on my shoulder: "Excuse me, are you Manfred by any
chance?" I was utterly surprised, yet could not but admit that i
was. "Then that's my coat!" 'e exclaimed with a mixture of joy
and anger. "Your coat!?" i replied, on the fringe of
getting mad myself. "Yes, I'm Sylvester, Mario's brother!"
That explained everything. The last time Mario had visited
me we had gone to the beach together. 'E had arrived with a
suede coat and left it at my home as there was no need
to wear it during the day. The two of us were going to return
the same evening, but before we got back Mario was called by
'er sib with a request to help 'im with a job that was in
urgent need of being done. Mario was to see me the next day again
but the work 'e had to finish took much longer and on top of
that 'e suddenly had to leave for 'er home country for a couple
of months. When i asked 'im on the phone about 'er coat 'e had
told me that the coat actually belonged to 'er sib Sylvester
(who was a legal immigrant) and that 'e had borrowed it from 'im.
Sylvester was going to drop by to fetch it.
But weeks had passed and Sylvester had never come, while
the coat was just hanging there in my closet. That is when i
thought: "Well, i myself don't wear such fancy stuff, and since
i've been providing shelter for it for such a long time now,
i might as well put it on for one day and look smart."
As i had only a shirt with short sleeves on and as it was
getting rather chilly outside i suggested to Sylvester that i
would leave 'er coat at the store where 'e worked a few days
later. No, Sylvester insisted on having 'er coat back there and
then. I kind of reproached Sylvester for not having shown up
at my home as Mario had promised. Sylvester riposted, however,
that it was i who should have brought 'er coat back weeks ago,
and we were getting into a kind of a row. Even my reference to
the relatively cold weather for the time of the year did not
help. Then i did not want any more of it. After all, Sylvester
was the rightful owner of the coat. I gave it to 'im and left
the bar immediately.
To make matters worse it had started to rain. I realized
i could not possibly make it back home on foot. It would take
me three quarters of an hour or so in weather which was getting
worse and worse. Having no bike with me either, there was no
other choice left than to take a streetcar or 'tram', something
that i seldom did, because i disliked the public transport in
my town too much. Meanwhile it was raining cats and dogs, and
i ran to the closest tram stop as fast as i could. When i got
there i just saw the back of a tram going in the direction of the
area where i lived. "Crisis!", i said to myself, "Crisis!".
About sixteen minutes later another tram showed
up. It had the appearance of a traveling tin of sardines. With
much difficulty i finally found a place to stand. By then i
was soaking wet and terribly cold in my short-sleeved shirt.
A cute young woman about my age stood close
beside me, dressed in a long crimson coat with which her purple
lips matched exquisitely. Below her neck, where she had left her
coat a teasingly little bit open, i could discern the
beginning of a cleavage between two firm breasts.
She observed me with a mixture of surprise and pity. "Why
aren't you wearing a coat in this foul weather?" she asked.