When Sarah woke up, Thomas was already making coffee and smoking a cigarette. He couldn’t live without fags. He seemed to be anxious to even go to sleep, because this would deprive him of his favourite object of consumption, and he smoked straight after they had sex, like a character in films about prostitutes and their clients. But Sarah did not mind it, even liked it, because cigarettes suited him and after sex she wanted to be left alone. Thomas also liked to eat, and his eyes were always on the best risotto or cherry pie in the city. In the past one would call such a man a bon vivant, but these days this term had an archaic inflection, so in her diary she named him ‘Agent Cooper’. Despite not paying much attention to his health, in his late forties he still looked good. Probably he even looked better in his forties than in his twenties. For her he looked best when he was naked. Most men look ridiculous without their clothes and they try to hide their shrinking muscles, dicks and balls or try to puff them up by this or that means. Instead, he simply liked to spread himself on the bed, as if unaware of the space he occupied or offered his body as a vessel into which she could escape into a different reality.
This was their sixth meeting in fifteen months and, as before, they met in his apartment in Lindau on Bodensee. He had another apartment in Geneva and a house somewhere in Austria, everywhere with a view of a lake. But he claimed that he was not particularly fond of lakes; it was by accident that he ended up in their proximity. He spent most of his life in Geneva because it was where his children lived, and he kept this apartment on Bodensee because he once shared it with his business partner and still liked working there. The house in Austria he inherited from his parents. Lakes were part of his life, but he preferred the sea, because he was into windsurfing and diving. She also used to prefer seas over lakes; the waves crashing on the beach were for her the most beautiful image as they were so dramatic – like Madame Bovary committing her suicide again and again. But these days she did not like drama. Lakes, being quieter, suited her state of mind better. Especially Bodensee; it made her think of an enlarged artery, which is on the verge of breaking, but holds on because it learnt to live in tune with its blood.
They met for the first time in a Budapest hotel, seemingly good, but large and anonymous, where the majority of customers were single people on business trips. The last but one morning before their departure there was a long queue to the breakfast tables and the waiter asked if people wouldn’t mind sharing, to speed up the service. They did not mind and so ended up sitting opposite each other and started to talk. He asked if she wanted him to bring her something from the buffet table, which by this point looked like a fortress under siege. Ten minutes later she learnt that he came to Budapest to work on re-designing some buildings in the centre of the city. He specialised in improving what was built badly and travelled all over the world to re-design university campuses, government buildings, even churches. The matter of fact way he explained his work made her think that he was very good at it. She also noticed that his English was faultless; it was only when he pronounced German names one could guess that he came from a German-speaking country.
‘Architecture – the favoured discipline of Adolf Hitler,’ – she remarked. ‘And the only art which neatly connects the past with the future.’
‘I’m not exactly Albert Speer,’ he replied. ‘To start off with, I’m Austrian, not German and my main aim is to salvage as much as possible from the past. I do not like starting from scratch. I do not even know how to do it. I will never bomb the whole city to build a better one in its place. And what do you do for a living?’ he asked her.
‘I’m an academic. I’m trying to find out how knowledge affects people’s moral choices. One might call me a philosopher if not for the fact that what I do is based on empirical research: mostly interviews.’
‘Whom do you interview?’
‘Mainly people who had to make difficult choices: Holocaust survivors, prisoners, refugees, people who volunteer to endure medical experiments.’
‘And what have you discovered?’
‘That ignorance is bliss,’ she laughed. This was a lie, but it suited her to say it.
‘So, I should not ask you any more questions?’
‘Not today,’ she replied.
But he asked her if she was free that day. She was; it was her only free day in Budapest after several days of work. He cancelled his meeting and they went sightseeing, with him as her guide. He knew the city only vaguely but knew enough about architecture to draw her attention to things, which she would otherwise have ignored. He explained why this bridge was built this way and why this building looked different from another building. He could talk about something specific in neither a superficial nor nerdy way. This was a skill she never mastered herself, therefore never became a public intellectual, despite being highly respected by her peers. Her new acquaintance also knew where to stop off for a coffee, before her feet started to hurt. And from there they returned to the hotel to have sex, as time was in short supply.
He noticed that her room was very messy as for the small number of things she had with her. Her two dresses lay on the bed, rather than hung in the wardrobe, and her remaining two pairs of shoes were distributed evenly between different corners of the room. Several books were lying on the floor, and in one of them her passport served as a book mark. It also looked as if she had some allergy to rubbish bins as orange peel lay near the bed, while an empty bottle stood on the windowsill. She did not apologise for the mess and he found this chaos comforting, as if proof that she would let him go when he wanted to leave. And so it was – they made love and he left for a cigarette. When he returned, she was fast asleep, with her face buried in a pillow. Although Thomas normally respected people’s privacy, he took her passport from the book and opened it to check the date of her birth. He was surprised that she was two years older than him, as she looked quite young, but then realised that these days if people look their true age, they must be either sick or poor. Anyway, he was not bothered about his lovers’ age. He wondered if he should stay with her till the next morning or go to his room, given that the job was done, and his plane was leaving early. He left, packed his things, smoked another cigarette, but then returned to her bed. She clung to his back, sleeping like a child, while he could not fall asleep again, thinking about the cancelled meeting and the calls he needed to make. But mostly he was thinking about the skill with which Sarah handled their bodies; in this she reminded him of his first lover, a Dutch woman almost twenty years older than him, who lived in Vienna at the time. He knew almost nothing about her and she didn’t ask him any questions, because this was a condition of what she described as ‘zipless fuck’. To fuck zipless, people should not know each other, because knowledge spoils the pleasure. Sarah was also an expert in ‘zipless fuck’; no doubt in part thanks to being British. She had to be a posthumous child of the sixties. Austrian and Swiss women could not fuck zipless; for them sex was always a matter of power; they always ‘gave’ when they took off their clothes, so men were always indebted to them, always in the wrong. (All his wives were Austrian or Swiss).
‘Will we meet again?’ he asked Sarah in the morning.
‘Maybe,’ she replied.
‘Then let’s meet,’ he said.
For the meetings she was flexible. She could spend with him a week or so every two or three months, telling at home and at work that she was going on a research trip. She always brought with her a small suitcase with the basics: two sets of clothes suitable to the season, which she never bothered hanging up, two or three books, a small computer, a paper notebook and a small cosmetics bag. What she took, she brought back home. Each of her visits was meant to be a distinct unit. She did not want to leave any traces behind and neither make plans further than the next trip.
During their week together, he tried not to work and have his phone switched off, although she did not mind if he worked, met people or took calls. She herself always did some work, making notes on the margins of her books or tapping at the computer. But still it felt like they had plenty of time, maybe because she did not like to do much. Walking to the lake or the city to buy some food, or to a café for a cake was enough for her. She did not like restaurants as sitting at a table tired her and waiting for meals got on her nerves. As he was happy to cook, she let him do it and never interfered. She’d tried communal cooking in the past, but it had never worked for her. At supper he would tell her his life story in small, shapely instalments and so she learnt that he was three times married and divorced. Not that he was the marrying type; a wedding was for him not so much a proof of commitment, as a way of putting order into the pool of his girlfriends and rewarding those who were so kind as to bring his children into the world – even if he did not ask them for such a lavish gift. He was almost proud of his numerous marriages and affairs, but not because they testified to his popularity among women, but because he believed they taught him how to love. ‘Love is like architecture,’ he said, ‘one can excel in it only after a long period of apprenticeship,’ and he felt like he was finally ready for his Eiffel Tower.
Sarah was laughing, as his idea of love was completely different from hers – his was based on addition; hers was based on subtraction. For her every episode of love meant that her capacity for love got smaller and now there was almost nothing left. This shrinking was reflected in her sleeping habits – after each new romantic disappointment she moved closer to the edge of the bed and curled up like a foetus. Sarah’s husband used to it and actually got annoyed when she tried to move closer to the centre of their bed or when her leg or arm got on his way, but Thomas always moved her close to himself and strengthen her limbs. He did it in such a way that she didn’t notice it.
Once she told him about this concept of ‘homo sacer’: somebody who has only his physical life, zoe, rather than bio, which was a higher form of existence. She wanted to say that when love was concerned, she became homo sacer – there was no life of a higher order left in her. Because of that in her late forties she enjoyed sex like never before. But she didn’t tell him that, as Thomas wouldn’t agree. He had his own theory about her, which he presented once or twice when they laid naked. He touched her breast and said: ‘there is a wound there – we need to heal it,’ before kissing her or putting his head there. There was no wound, only a scar, but there was no point to explain it to him – they were meeting to enjoy themselves, not to make each other miserable by relieving some bad memories.
After supper they would listen to music he chose. Sarah was no longer aware what was fashionable and didn’t even know what genre she liked. In her city there was no longer any shop left selling CDs, while YouTube or Spotify were for her like a maze which was impossible to master. When pressed to choose, she suggested ‘something on the pop side, but minimalistic, like minimalist techno’. Not that it was her favourite style, but she was afraid of content. Songs about love embarrassed and moved her in equal measure and she didn’t want anybody to see it.
He played for her his favourite tracks arranged in personal playlists, as if to convey a certain concept, like a colour, direction or shape. His apartment was full of books about music, and these were not banal biographies of rock stars, but manuals on producing music, and some on Stockhausen and composers she knew nothing about. He said Stockhausen influenced his ideas about architecture and urban design. It also turned out he had a short career as a DJ and one could hazard a guess that if he hadn’t become such a good architect, he would have been a professional musician. He belonged to that type of people who have ‘natural’ talents, although in reality this is to do with having significant capital at the start. Such people, she learnt from her research, had the greatest chance to survive in a concentration camp or after a plane crash.
It was less than two weeks before Christmas and there was a Christmas tree in Thomas’s apartment. Maybe because of this time of the year, the routine of their meetings was disturbed. One day Thomas said that the next time Sarah should come to Geneva and meet his children. The next day he said that he would like her to accompany him to his trip to Delhi – he got a large project there and would stay there for two months. He didn’t go as far as asking her to leave her husband, but he mentioned that there were advantages in exclusivity and commitment and that there is a good sex beyond ‘zipless fuck’ and they have passed this stage anyway. When their last night came he did not rush to the kitchen for his fag, but took her in his arms and whispered:
‘I feel so good with you. I do not want you to go. I want you to stay with me forever.’
‘I feel good too,’ she replied, ‘but now let me sleep.’
In the morning when she packed her things to go to the airport, as usual she made sure that she did not leave even a toothbrush and discreetly left under the Christmas tree the bracelet encrusted with diamonds he gave her the previous day. She did not want him to have extra regrets and she was not into diamonds anyway.
Banner Image: Bodensea, Austria – pixabay.com