Extract from : The Apartment
It’s the middle of December, and everything is frozen over. I arrived six weeks ago with an old, worn-out pair of brown leather shoes. One night I walked around the city with a girl I’d met, and the next day I bought myself some lined, warm, waterproof boots. I threw the brown shoes away. I would have kept them for the spring, but I ruined them by heating them on the radiator at night.
I’m from the desert – a town with a small population. When I was seventeen, I left the town in the desert for a city in the desert. There were three million people in that city. There were a lot of straight, wide roads, and there weren’t many sidewalks. Though I lived and worked elsewhere more than I lived and worked in that city, I always returned – each time for a different reason. When I left six weeks ago, I didn’t tell anybody I was leaving. I just went to the airport one morning and got on a flight. I didn’t even really pack. I had a few books and half a dozen shirts and toiletries and some other things. I wanted to live in a cold city. I couldn’t say precisely why I picked this one.
I bought an ugly winter coat and found a cheap room at a place called Hotel Rus: this is where I’m living now. There is a toilet in the corridor that our floor shares, and a bathroom with a tiny but very deep tub I’m not sure how to use – am I supposed to stand or squat or sit in it? My room has green carpeting and white walls. It has a little sink and a mirror, a wardrobe, a little chest of drawers, and a small single bed. My feet dangle off the edge, and the duvet is too small. There’s no TV, and that’s fine with me. Sometimes I catch a bit of TV in a bar, and it looks pretty depressing. And I haven’t come all this way to watch TV. The man and woman who run the place are nice, Mr and Mrs Pyz. One night they asked why I’d come and I said I didn’t know. How long was I staying? I didn’t have any plans to leave, I told them. But I was American, they said; I had to leave. I had a second passport, I told them. That’s an old story.
A guy I knew from college had come here – he went to Europe and I went to the Navy. I had a number and an address, twenty years old. I’m sure he left nineteen years ago and went back home, and I don’t remember liking him anyway. But on my first morning I bought a map and I walked many hours in the rain and fog to get to where my friend used to live. I needed an excuse to go somewhere specific. I could have got a bus or a streetcar or the underground, but I wanted to walk, and I suppose I was a bit frightened I’d get on the wrong train, the wrong bus, not have the right change, not know how to use the machines, be asked for directions, and I didn’t want to look like a tourist. So I walked. It took a long time and my feet were sore. I thought about getting some new shoes the next day, but it wasn’t until the day after the night I met Saskia and we stood around on cobblestones listening to musicians in the city centre – it was a street festival – that I set out looking for a shoe shop. I passed an outdoor adventure place and saw a lot of boots in the windows. I looked around and realized just about everybody on the slushy street was wearing boots. So I went inside and bought the most expensive pair they had: tall, black aqua combats – that’s what they were called, aqua combats. I’m glad I waited. Had I bought them after that first walk, I might have got cheap ones. I wouldn’t have considered the possibility that good shoes were essential: in the city I came from, shoes are never essential. Every week you buy a new pair of flip-flops at a drugstore for a dollar ninety- nine. I can step in a puddle with the ones I bought here. I can stand in a puddle for as long as I like. Every time I lace them up in the mornings, I’m glad I spent the extra money.
I wake up, usually around seven, and go and get a few papers, even though I can’t read them, and a pack of cigarettes. I go back to the hotel and sit at the bar, or sometimes I go to a little café down on the corner where a nice Italian kid waits tables, and he speaks English with me. He asks what I’m reading. He doesn’t have the language either, not well enough to read it, so we both take guesses. He’s into mobile phones and sunglasses, but he’s a nice kid. He got me a free phone that I top up whenever I want to make a call. I spend about an hour with the papers. Then I go to the bakery next door to the café and get some sandwiches on nice bread, pack them into a little backpack, and start walking around the city. I tell myself it’s been six weeks; perhaps it’s been a little longer. Time is losing shape. Sometimes I watch my cigarette smoke rise above me in my hotel room and disperse across the ceiling, and this is what is happening to time. I am trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints.
Saskia telephones from the front of the hotel. My phone rings on the little nightstand. I’m supposed to be ready. I’ve been up, thinking these things, about boots and the desert and ice, for hours, smoking and thinking. I had no idea it was so late, that I’d been lying here so long. I will take a shower quickly, I say to her. Come up to the room. She comes up and sits on my bed and stares at the wall. Saskia is twenty-five. She has dark black hair and brown eyes. She is small and a bit stocky. I come back from the shower and she sits patiently while I shave, brush my teeth, and dress. There is a moment when we both realize that I am getting dressed right in front of her, and I move a little toward one corner and she turns her head a little toward the opposite corner until I am finished. She has a newspaper with her, and has circled a dozen ads for apartments. Hotel Rus is a nice place, but it’s still a hotel. I’d like a kitchen and a balcony, and my own bathroom. To get an apartment I’ll need a bank statement, which I have – I opened up an account soon after I arrived, and wired myself money from the US – but I don’t have any references, which means I’ll get asked for a hefty deposit. So I put on a money belt that goes under my shirt, and stuff a lot of cash into it. Saskia is wearing a grey skirt over black tights and tall black boots, and a thick black sweater. She’s always well-dressed, but not always in the same way. Today she looks conservative. How many places are we going to see? I ask. We’ll go to a café and make some phone calls, she says. You look tired, I say. She yawns. I am tired, she says. Saskia takes a lot of pills and goes to gigs and attends parties that last three days. She can’t sleep. Her heart races and she wakes up in the middle of the night and goes for a run in the city. Is that dangerous? I asked once. I don’t know, she said. I met her in a museum – in the National Gallery. She goes there for her lunch breaks. She works at an economics research institute; she expends a lot of energy e very day on this and talks about it only if I ask her a direct question. She likes art and books and music, and that’s what she wants to talk about. She has a small collection of paintings in her bedroom that she’s told me about. Each one has an interesting history.
Propped up on the chest of drawers in my hotel room is a small painting that we bought together, and Saskia stares curiously at it. It’s called Untitled 14. I bought it at an opening in the city centre about a week after Saskia and I first met. Saskia goes to openings all the time. She drinks free wine, talks with the artists, and imagines an alternative life in which she is rich enough to become a collector. The artist we had seen that night was a woman on the verge of fame, said Saskia, which meant that her works were unaffordable, or affordable only to the wealthy. After we had walked around the gallery, silently, for about fifteen minutes, Saskia asked me what I thought. I thought the paintings were magnificent, I said, but I had a hard time explaining why. Which is your favourite? she asked. Which is yours? I asked. She pointed to the painting that is now in my hotel room. Mine too, I said. I asked her if she’d let me buy it for her. Absolutely not, she said. It’s too expensive. It’s not that expensive, I said. She suggested that I buy it for myself and my new apartment, when I found an apartment, and she would come over often to admire it. I agreed. Saskia handled the transaction, and we had a long conversation with the artist, which I did not understand at all, but I smiled and nodded when the artist looked at me. I put down a sizeable cash deposit and agreed to come by the next day to settle up. That evening, after the opening, when Saskia and I went for a drink at a hotel bar that overlooked, from five storeys up, a busy intersection, she asked what I did for a living. I said I did nothing. Is that the truth? she asked. I do nothing now, I said. She asked what I did before I did nothing and I told her I’d been in the Navy. She seemed to accept that I didn’t want to say anything else, so she asked no more questions that night. A few days later I came back from a day’s walking and found Mr and Mrs Pyz looking very happily at the painting, which had been delivered to the hotel, though it was still packed in brown paper.
Do you still like it? I ask, meaning the painting. Yes, very much, says Saskia. She smiles and rubs her knees. It’s strange, since we only met a little while ago, to be in a hotel room together, getting ready to search for apartments like we are old friends. We act as though we ought to have things to talk about, but we don’t have those things. We have fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance. Sitting together on the bed now as I lace up my boots it occurs to me how easily this intimacy could evaporate. Our relationship probably could not bear any conflict at all. The force that stabilizes the intimacy is politeness. She is always polite, and I am always polite. Will we go now? she asks. Would you like to? She looks out the window. It’s pretty nasty outside. The snow is wet and grey, and there’s a strong breeze, so strong that when it blows, my window rattles. I like to walk around in the snow because I’m still not used to it, but she grew up with it, so to her it’s a nuisance. Yes, she says, let’s go.