Alicja Gescinska – A Kind of Love
A difficult awakening
It started with a hangover and another man, as quite a few of my days did around then. It was November 1990. I was twenty-two and a long way from home; a study grant had brought me across the Atlantic. I could go even further back in time, but I don’t think anything that happened before that night had any direct influence on what took place afterwards and what seems to have been taking place in my head continually ever since. I need to make myself dig everything up and remember it so I can forget it as accurately as possible.
I woke to see narrow shafts of daylight falling in through the closed curtains, just enough to restore vague outlines to the dark room. I was unable to open my eyes more than a crack, and even then the limited influx of light caused pain, which spread back over my skull and seemed to prick into my head like the tips of microscopic bodkins. The exhaustion had settled too deeply into my body to allow me to do anything but go on lying there.
I tried to look straight across at the unfamiliar kitchen counter, to work out whose bed I was in. An unusual amount of time passed between the emergence of the first germ of that thought and its full articulation. Oddly, I also wondered again for a moment which side of the ocean I was on. It was a confusion that had dogged me in my first few weeks in the US, when I would wake and the white ceiling failed to tell me immediately where I was, but after three months I’d shaken it off.
My eyes took a long time to adjust to the dim light. I still didn’t recognize the sink, the washing-up liquid or the striped tea towels. I wasn’t at home in Belgium, nor in my room on the university campus, nor at any place I’d been to before. I didn’t know this room at all. I tried to turn my head a little to see more of it without having to change my position too much. The slightest movement cost me a immense effort.
A wooden chair with some clothes on it. My own jumbled up with someone else’s. I continued to stare at that still life of a night just past, and the thoughts that followed formed as slowly as the first had done. It was strange to see my clothes lying on a chair. I usually just flung them on the floor before getting into bed naked. I’d already stopped believing in pyjamas. It was the middle of summer and oppressively hot when I arrived in Amherst and I took several weeks to get used to the high humidity. On the first night I was woken by my own stickiness. I pulled off my pyjamas never to put them on again and slept better naked than I ever had before.
Might he have picked my clothes up off the floor and laid them on a chair? That seemed at any rate more likely than that I’d taken the trouble to put them on a chair myself, especially given the amount of drink that must still have been coursing through me. He must have done, I persisted in thinking with some surprise. But what kind of man, fully aroused just before making love, stops for a moment to gather clothes from the floor? Maybe he tidied up afterwards, although the idea seemed less than plausible. At that point the poor creatures fall asleep straight away, don’t they?
I recognized my blouse and slip and believed I could make out an unknown pair of brown trousers. Or was it a skirt? Surely whoever I’d slept with was a man? That thought startled me a little, even though I had recently slept with a woman. Since leaving Belgium I’d been happy to act as the personification of free love. For years up to then I’d been an exemplary student. Too exemplary. Always top of the class. Always friendly. Always helpful. In the final year of my German degree in Leuven I felt it was gradually becoming too much for me – the daily pressure of an unblemished existence. I needed to leave. I needed to break loose from my environment in order to break loose from myself. The goodness everyone felt they could detect in me, for which I was endlessly praised, especially by my parents, seemed more a matter of routine and habit than a free and deliberate choice. And what is goodness if it’s not consciously chosen? What is goodness worth if it happens on automatic pilot, a mere gold-leaf of human morality, a thin shiny layer over grey human deficiency?
Sometimes I no longer knew whether I really was a good person or whether I behaved well simply because I’d never done otherwise. Was it goodness that led me to carry on visiting my grandmother for coffee, even when she was incontinent and the smell of urine followed her like a shadow, or was it the fact that my weekly cup of coffee with her had become a longstanding habit? At thirteen, when my classmates were lighting their first cigarettes and drinking their first beers with concealed distaste, I began drinking coffee. Always black, without sugar. Did I share my notes with fellow students out of kindness, or because it brought me a semblance of friendship? Perhaps I was simply opportunistic – and can goodness ever be based on opportunism? There are those who say people’s motives are irrelevant, as long as their acts or at least the consequences of those acts are good, but that wasn’t how it felt to me.
I had to get away. A long way away. The grant that enabled me to study for a year at the University of Massachusetts seemed to offer a unique chance to work out who I really was. Professor Claes, with whom I’d written my Master’s thesis about faith and doubt in nineteenth-century American literature, had a colleague in the United States who might be able to help me prepare for the dissertation I planned to write the following year. I still wasn’t sure exactly what research I wanted to do, but I did know I’d become caught in the web of words that is Emily Dickinson’s poetry. For my thesis I’d absorbed myself in her poems. God is a recluse, she wrote, but she also said that God is an invention of humankind rather than the other way round. At first I wasn’t even particularly enthusiastic, but slowly I developed a fondness for the capriciously disciplined nature of her poems and ideas. Without giving it too much thought I responded to every proposal coming my way that made my year in America possible. Where could be better for such research than Amherst itself, the small town where the reclusive poet spent her entire life? Perhaps her solitary existence was an attempt to achieve something divine.
That was how I ended up in Pioneer Valley, in Massachusetts, where as well as UMass four other colleges were located and where it was still very quiet in early August and for the first few weeks after my arrival, because the academic year had yet to begin. A delightful deceptive calm emanated from the unspoilt lawns and trees that lavishly adorned the university and colleges. In the mornings I often went to the UMass library, and on the twenty-third floor of the W. E. B. Du Bois building I would enjoy the ever-changing view of the town as I drank my coffee. No two mornings were alike. In glorious weather the horizon and the rolling hills seemed endless. Some mornings fog would gather in the valley and I could see no further than the red tower of the town hall and the white tower of Johnson Chapel. In low cloud it seemed as if the world stopped at those two towers, as if beyond them was nothing but a grey, misty emptiness. Slowly the fog lifted and the world re-emerged from behind the curtain of cloud. The only constant in the ever-changing view was the peace that rose from it. It was hard to imagine that amid that lush and serene vegetation, through which you had to search to find buildings and people, a whole world would come to life when the students poured into town and the studying began.
People who live in a valley develop habits of self-reliance, and the students of the Five College Area were particularly self-reliant in their own pleasure. I was happy to be swept up in the nocturnal student life, and I willingly embraced the illusion that in its current I would flow closer to myself, simply because it seemed to be carrying me further away from my former self. The great beauty of those days was the ease with which you could curl your legs around a new warm body to feel the surrender of a man and lose control over yourself for a moment, without having to justify it afterwards. Like a freed criminal, you could leave the room at dawn without looking back, knowing you wouldn’t be held to account for the cries in his ear, for the faces twisted by rapture and the marks gouged by your fingernails in his skin.
I tried to detect another person’s breathing, but the silence kept its lips firmly shut to avoid breaking itself. I slowly turned over and stretched out my hand to the other half of the bed. It felt cold and empty. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there alone. For a moment I thought perhaps he’d simply laid me in bed and then left, but his clothes on the chair made me suspect he must still be close.
I tried to recall the previous evening and night, but not a single memory surfaced. My efforts were impeded by the stabs of pain in my head, which thinking intensified. I closed my eyes and tried to empty my mind. The smell of cigarettes mixed with my evaporated perfume lingered in my hair, from which I deduced that I must have been in one of the local bars – I smoked only when I went to a bar. Smoking was another of those small acts of rebellion against my old self. But as yet I didn’t know which bar it was, how late I’d stayed or who I’d been with.
In my mind I saw myself pick up the perfume from my dressing table and apply it all over my body and clothes according to my established ritual. It was always the final step before leaving my student room. Five sprays: one behind each ear, then centrally between my breasts, between my legs if I was wearing trousers and otherwise somewhere in that vicinity, rounding off with one on the inside of my left wrist, after which I covered the same spot with my right and used a small circular motion to warm the perfume and spread it across both wrists.
I’d once read that you should perfume the places you most want to be kissed. Ever since I’d got through a bottle an average of every two months. To have enough money for the next bottle of L’Air du Temps I abandoned my daily breakfast and sometimes even passed up dinner, especially in weeks when I was in danger of running particularly short of cash. I saw that large bite out of my meagre student budget as an investment in my future: people who don’t smell good stand in the way of their own success. That belief served as a justification and I would leave the shop already smiling. the perfume that made the bottle famous, an old advert for the scent declared in block capitals, but it made me famous rather than the bottle. Not that I was well known, that’s not what I mean, but I was recognized by the smell and soon seemed to be identified with it. My friends always knew I’d arrived at a party – they could smell me before they saw me. The scent did my seducing for me. Often it opened the conversation. I barely needed to move to enjoy what my bait brought my way.
I’d been aware for some years of the power of that scent – my scent, although it was only now that I took advantage of it. During my first batch of exams at the University of Leuven a student came up to me, almost desperate, to ask me to stop using it when I came to study in the central library. He said the entire building and even the Ladeuzeplein outside reeked of me and it was preventing him from concentrating on the material he had yet to absorb. I did as the young man asked and the next time we ran into each other he nodded shyly, almost embarrassed, but we never exchanged another word. The little bottle of perfume was the first thing I flung into my suitcase for the US.
Lying there in an empty bed in that unknown room I thought of the bottle on my dressing table, the stopper of matt glass in the shape of a white dove, wings spread. A bird in free fall. That was exactly how I felt: in free fall. My head was spinning. When I thought about the previous night I saw black specks floating back and forth, and the staircase in the house where I rented a room. Then nothing more.
Shivering with cold I tried to pull the cover up so that only my nose stuck out above it but without exposing my feet. I wanted to go back to sleep, not to think about yesterday, today or tomorrow, but the spinning sensation and the cold were preventing me from relaxing. I heard someone flush a toilet and tried to raise my head to see exactly where the sound was coming from. I could see light shining in from a neighbouring room through the gap around the door. At that moment the door opened and a young man walked towards me. The light was behind him and the rest of the room remained dark, so I couldn’t see his face very well. I hoped he wouldn’t be too young; I no longer wanted to get into bed with a freshman.
‘Have I woken you? You don’t need to get up. I’m just getting ready to go to a lecture,’ he said in a gentle voice.
I cleared my throat after a first attempt to speak ran aground in a few barely audible noises.
‘I’m off right away, sorry. I’ll get up too.’ And I felt how hard it would be to do what my words were promising.
‘Oh there’s no need for that. It’s still very early and we went to bed late. I’ve got a class from eight thirty to ten and I’ll be back around eleven with breakfast. Just sleep on for a bit.’
I felt relief at the prospect of being allowed to go on lying there – an unwanted relief, because I’d have preferred to be in my own bed. My body was now visibly trembling and my teeth were chattering softly. I asked for a blanket.
‘Are you really that cold? Maybe you’re coming down with something.’ As he was saying it, he laid his hand on my forehead.
Not since childhood had anyone laid a concerned hand on my forehead, and my mother always did so with a stern look. The deep furrow that would form between her eyebrows as she felt my temperature left me with a guilty feeling, as if I were the cause of my own illness. But the young man didn’t frown and his smooth, unwrinkled face showed no sign of anything I could interpret as a reproach. He quietly drew breath, pressed his lips together and nodded with approval. He had found what he expected to find.
‘You’ve got a fever. I’ll see if I have something for it, but I’m afraid I probably don’t. I can fold the cover in two, if you like. I haven’t got a spare blanket.’ He stood up, took the duvet off the bed and flapped it in the air before laying it over me again folded double. For one second I moaned at the cold wind it created. The young man blushed a little at the sight of my naked body. ‘Sorry,’ he said in a timid voice. ‘You’ll be much warmer now.’
I said nothing, merely smiled rather shyly, not because of my nakedness but because I felt so helpless.
‘I’ve run out of pills to bring down a fever. Just try to drink this glass of water.’ He picked up our clothes, laid them on his desk and slid the chair towards me, then put the glass on it. ‘Is it okay if I leave now? I’ll be back around eleven.’
‘Thanks. Yes, I’ll be fine.’ I took a sip of water. ‘What’s your name, actually?’ I asked, when he was already in the doorway.
‘Bernard,’ he answered with a broad smile. ‘Just try to rest a little now, Nina,’ and he closed the door behind him.
Nina? Typical of me. With that thought I laid my head back on the pillow and drifted into a deep sleep.
Translated by Liz Waters