I couldn’t fall asleep that night. It was too hot to even wear a shirt, and I felt uncomfortable without the weight of a blanket up to my shoulders. I thought about too many things. Mostly only leniently unpleasant ones, but the thoughts mingled with the heat and the sweat dripping from my nose and the stench emerging from my armpits, nothing of which helped me to delude myself into thinking I was tired. Additionally, for four of five nights already, I had been trying to teach myself lucid dreaming, which had resulted in nothing more than insomnia and nightmares about losing control.
Around four o’clock in the morning, the cat scratched at my door. It wasn’t mine, just some stray that somehow found its way back into my house every other night. She cried, and she knew how heartrending her voice sounded whenever she did it. She wailed for one minute, five, ten. She exaggerated her suffering with every new yelp until I finally got up, opened the door and let her in. One look into the corridor outside my bedroom told me that it was dawning. Thanks to the jalousie, my room was pitch-black. Without them, the street lights and the moon would have lit up the room to a most undesirable level of illumination that would have kept me from falling asleep even more. I found rest in full darkness and full daylight, yet not in Kubin’s twilight zone.
I closed the door and supplied the cat with the affection she demanded. It was the white-pawed one. Two stray tabby cats roamed the neighborhood, only distinguishable through their paw colors: One black, one white. I liked the white-pawed one more solely for her paws – it made her much prettier than the other one, which was more affectionate and less aggressive, but I never was someone to judge people or animals based on their character. No one deserves that.
For a while, I played with the white-pawed one and let her scratch my arm to her heart’s content until I had to acknowledge that this wasn’t going to get me any sleepier. I decided to go search for the black-pawed one who liked to crawl into my bed and sleep on my belly. If I was unable to move, maybe I’d be forced to let go of my consciousness for the remainder of the night without regard to the temperature. Thus I freed my arm from the white-pawed one’s grasp and opened the door again to step into the moonlit corridor. Looking through the skylight above my head, I saw the full moon - and how dirty the window was. I needed to clean it once I found the time, now that I was a person who owned a house with a skylight.
Walking through the corridor, I nearly lost my balance a few times. Probably I was tired, potentially exhausted, and my muscles and sinews knew that, but my brain yet had to realize it.
I heard something plopping and found the culprit in the inhabitant of the little aquarium below the skylight. My turtle had jettisoned herself from its sunbathing (moonbathing?) rock into the water to swim towards me and perpetually hit her head on the glass panel separating us. She had survived fifteen years, four aquariums, all of her other turtle friends and the move into this new place and never would she actually move anywhere but around in her water tank and on the surface of her little rock, and I felt guilty about that every time I saw her. It hadn't been a good idea to get a pet likely to survive for more than a year or two at age twelve. The classical drama of seeing it die early was far outweighed by the absurdist drama I realized I cast it in when I and they reached an age to understand Waiting For Godot – and I strongly believed that every turtle, goldfish and rat in their little tank or cage had a deeper understanding of Beckett than most postgraduate theater scholars.
The white-pawed one groaned at the turtle, then pushed her head against my leg, pressing me to move to the kitchen. Of course she and her, I presume, sister, weren’t so affectionate because they sympathized with me. They might have taken a genuine liking towards me, but my most important feature was my knowledge on how to open a refrigerator.
I prepared some fish I wouldn’t have eaten anyway, put it on a small plate and watched the white-pawed one devour the dish within minutes while I rinsed my fingers with cold water. The touch of dead animals had nauseated me ever since I was a child. It took two and a half minutes for my fingers to feel clean again. That was twenty seconds more than the last time, but five seconds less than my current record. I didn't know yet whether I should consult a doctor about this or just become a vegetarian, albeit vegetarians rarely had fish in their refrigerators, and people without fish in the fridge were less likely to befriend stray cats. In my current situation, I was dependent on cat friendship.
The black-pawed one wasn’t around, so I unlocked the door to the garden and stepped on the wooden patio without catching a splinter. That was a rare occurrence. The irregular but frequent sessions in my bathroom during which I dug into my flesh with a pair of tweezers had become so common that I was surprised I was spared this time. It was either tweezing wood from my feet or wearing shoes, and I didn’t want to wear shoes in my own garden.
My own garden.
One of the thoughts that kept me up at night was how many hours I had wasted being friendly. Had I known that this was about to happen, I could have spent so much time being horrible to people I didn't like.
The white-pawed one followed me outside and jumped on one of the chairs, then started her cleaning routine. I was still on the lookout for the black-pawed one. I hadn’t seen her in a while. Hopefully, she hadn’t been hit by a car. That was always my first assumption when a cat friend didn’t show up anymore, and sometimes I wondered whether it was vain to think it more likely for a cat to die compared to it losing interest in a human.
Another thought was that my life leading up to this had essentially been worthless.
The hardships and my small-time saving up for the future and the negotiations with banks and the arguments with my parents, each and every one of them without merit. None of them had ever mattered. How I had lived my life until now, it was all the same.
As I wandered through the overgrown lawn, my feet got wet from morning dew and damp, warm clumps of dirt stuck to my skin. I stopped in front of the in-floor pool to watch the meadows behind my fence stretch out into the morning mist.
I had an in-floor pool now as well.
I was the most accomplished person among all of my peers, thanks to the passing of distant relatives, a feud over the property that lasted for years until all parties included had also passed on, and left only my mother and me, who had never heard of any of these people. Now I owned a house in the suburbs with a patio and a lawn and an in-floor pool and a sauna, and had enough money to be assured I’d never again lose this house. Meanwhile, my mother toured the world and was not expected to come back for three or four years, if ever.
Good for her.
Four weeks ago, I struggled to pay the rent for my one-room apartment.
Now I struggled to befriend the neighbors because I didn’t speak their language. I don’t mean English, they and I spoke English perfectly well. They just spoke a different English than I was used to. One that included other sentences than “I didn’t swim since high school” and “How do you clean a skylight?” – those things were far too natural for them to consider. They talked about what they did and what they had a lot. Very little about what they thought or felt.
I dunked my finger into the pool’s water. It was warmer than the air. Leftover heat from the day before.
Being middle-class was a weird condition. People didn’t talk about their turtle’s literacy, but they did talk about how rare their turtle was and how expensive the aquarium’s décor had been. They didn’t talk much about movies, but a lot about their home theater.
Back in the city, I was used to being around a mixture of somewhat poor, middle-class and considerably rich people. That’s how it was when you worked at a theater reception – your colleagues were poor, most of the actors were poor, your customers weren’t. They were rich seniors, students, or they came from a middle-class suburb like this. Those were the easiest to spot because they appeared in evening attire – they thought that’s how you do it.
Even though the pool was kidney-shaped, it made me think of a womb.
I always found that endearing, that middle-class people wanted to seem rich so hard when they went to the theatre. Now their attempts of looking cultured frightened me, because while they lacked the code of how to behave rich, I lacked the code of how to even try that. My poor friends and my rich customers never talked about money. Some didn’t because it hurt, others because it didn’t matter. It was my first time in an environment where everybody was wealthy, but not wealthy enough to stop talking about it. I was afraid I might become like that too. Talking about how many gallons of water my pool contained. Using words like decadent as an uber-ironic compliment. Talking about my TV’s resolution and display size as if I knew what any of that meant.
I sat down in front of the pool and noticed steam rising from its surface. I was someone who could sit down in front of their pool at four o’clock in the morning and watch the steam rise, shirtless and nervously sniffling their fingers for residual fish odors.
Did I maybe want to become like that? Wasn’t it arrogant to think of my neighbors’ conversational topics as mundane and trifling? Maybe Beckett and Kubin were only important if you owned nothing else to talk about, or too many things for these things to still be of interest. Maybe Beckett and Kubin were elusions for those who couldn’t talk about how it was to own more things than you need, but not quite enough to not have unfulfillable material wishes.
The white-pawed one sat down next to me and bumped her head into my side. I stroked her silky back.
I had never seen steam rise from a pool into the morning air. It had been a while since I had seen something for the first time.
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