A room is a room, wherever it is. This one has a hole in it: a yawning, man-size window surrounded by jagged brickwork. It frames the city at dusk. Modern terracotta-coloured high-rises overlay the steeples and domes of the historic district as though in a diorama. On the palm-lined street, eight floors below, the tops of heads move through neon pooled on the pavement like tadpoles in pond scum. They buy peaches and lottery tickets and hail taxis.
Nobody down there knows who we are, or what we’re doing. But then, as Tina is now saying,
‘We’re not doing anything. I’d like to do something.’
She is on the bed, wrapped in a white towel, reaching to paint her toenails an egg-yolk yellow. She is still pale despite the months of sun.
‘It’s too hot to do anything’ I say, coming back from the window.
‘I mean in general. In terms of our life.’
We moved here from England in the spring. Soon after we arrived, Tina secured a job teaching English as a foreign language to rich children at an academy in the posh neighbourhood – earning a decent cash-in-hand wage – despite the fact that she had no language teaching experience. Tina is very well spoken, and polite, and holds a first-class degree in English Literature, and – she told me, after her first shift – apparently native English speakers are a rarity here these days.
The academy closed for summer holidays last week. Since then, Tina has been experiencing a crisis of some kind – of purpose, or confidence. Large, dark half-moons have appeared under her eyes, and she is continuously, obsessively picking herself. Picking her cuticles until they bleed, picking at dry skin, at freckles. She is applying this toenail varnish, I’m convinced, just to pick it off again.
‘I’ve gotten fat,’ I say, grabbing two fistfuls of flesh on my bare midriff.
Tina glances up at me, frowning.
‘Too much fried food.’
‘And beer,’ she eventually replies.
I suck in my stomach as far as I can, exhale extravagantly, and play-act falling to the floor. Tina ignores me.
This is the sixth apartment we’ve rented in this city. We find the apartments to rent on Airbnb, spending a generous amount of time surveying the photographs of each listing. This isn’t only to gain a general sense of the accommodation – the objects, furniture and fittings, whether modern or old, shabby or shabby-chic, et cetera – but to read the photographs’ composition, sensing that the codes of lighting, framing and juxtaposition will reveal pertinent information about the apartments’ owners – whether they are cultured or uncultured, liberal or conservative. We assume such things will foretell what kind of atmosphere the place will hold, and that this, in turn, will articulate our experience of living in it, and thereby our experience of each other.
A month ago, we started language lessons with Marta, a middle-aged local woman with pitch-dark eyes. During our first meeting with her, she laughed in our faces when I said that we rent via Airbnb. She called us a word in dialect which, after extensive discussion, we came to translate as something like dupables or exploitables.
Airbnb, Marta said venomously, is rapidly making-hollow the heart of the city. A generation of middle-aged residents have, with the passing of their elderly parents, inherited period apartments in the old district. Rather than living in them, or selling them to locals – as they should, Marta said – they have been renting them out on a permanent basis via Airbnb, making huge sums of money doing so. For most of the year, the old town has become a ‘Disney World’, full, she said, of wealthy Asian, loud American, and drunken English tourists. When her parents pass away, Marta added, and she inherits their apartment in the old town, she’ll die in it before renting it out to tourists, no matter how much money she stands to make otherwise.
Airbnb notwithstanding, the choice of this apartment was an error in judgement. It is cavernous and cracked, and too far above everything. It doesn’t feel lived-in. To make the atmosphere worse, an apartment on the floor below – in fact, the apartment directly beneath ours – has police tape over its front door. We emailed our Airbnb host about it the day we moved in. I spent ages fretting over the phrasing of the question, using Google Translate and even emailing Marta for advice (an email which I also fretted over, for at least an hour), desperate to capture a tone of relaxed inquisitiveness, with just a shade of concern, in their own language.
The host replied swiftly, in English, to say that the tenants of the apartment below were ‘not so good inside the head’ but that there was ‘no problem anymore’ because the police had ‘solved the situation’.
Tina and I debated – outright argued – what ‘not so good inside the head’ meant. Morally bankrupt? Mentally unwell? Or perhaps, I ventured, violent. I’ve resolved to avoid walking past that apartment until the police tape is gone. But Tina maintains I’m being overly sensitive – superstitious, even – and that probably the tenants couldn’t afford rent. Their apparent eviction, she said, is a sad reality which we shouldn’t shy away from, particularly given the bleak levels of unemployment and poverty in this country, of which, she argued, we were now part, and particularly, she underscored, given my own unemployment and historic difficulty in making rent.
Rather than disguising the not-so-good-inside-the-head tenants’ eviction beneath paranoid fantasies of violence and misdeeds, Tina said, we should actively acknowledge the reality by purposefully walking past the apartment with the police tape every time we leave the building. Which is what we do.
Except when I’m alone. When I’m alone I take the lift and avoid the floor altogether.
I get onto my hands and knees and crawl to the bed. I squat, and lean over the frame to bite Tina’s big toe. It doesn’t illicit a reaction from her. I grab the bed frame and jerk the whole thing, with Tina on it, toward me, dragging it across the floor so that it sits by the window.
‘I’d like the breeze when we sleep,’ I say.
‘I’m worried you’re going to fall out the window,’ she says.
‘It won’t happen,’ I say, ‘stop worrying.’
Now, Tina will say about the mosquitos.
‘We’ll attract all the mosquitos in the city, sleeping next to the open window.’
‘They don’t bite you. They only bite me. And I’d rather get eaten by mosquitos than melt.’
The air in the room has been pulled taut. The dopplers of sirens and mopeds ricochet off the facades of buildings. My eyes are locked on an arrogant, kitsch object attached to the bedroom wall: a fake nose and moustache made from porcelain. You’re supposed to place your glasses on top, and hang your keys off the points of the moustache. Lettering printed on the moustache says ‘Funny Face’. I can’t look at Tina at all. God, what is this pressure inside, inside my head, this heavy wet rock . . .
Tina on the bed, with bleached hair, a blur of white in my peripherals. She speaks to me in what I have come to learn is the indicative, a mode that smothers any clue as to her own needs or desires –
‘You want to.’
– and which ensnares me, such that I can only confirm or deny the statement. I look at my stomach, at the red mottled patterns where I grabbed at it. I look further down, to my feet. My dirty, calloused, paddle-like feet. It’s a mannish body, but only the offcuts of a man – excess sloughed from a distant, perfect whole.
In the mornings, before it gets too hot to be outside, Tina often meets Sasha for coffee and biscuits at the market. They sit at a cramped bar separating the fruit vendors from the fishmongers. A whole, dried shark is suspended on hooks and wires above it, eyeless, its jaws fixed open. I joined them once or twice, but disliked how the noise of the crowd forced us to shout our English at each other to be heard.
Sasha is another of Marta’s language students. Marta introduced us all a couple of weeks ago. She’s from California, and has very small teeth and a friendly stoner’s laugh. When I asked her where in California she was from, Sasha replied, ‘the Devil’s Asshole’. It’s a small, Inland Empire city, she said, which has totally ‘dead-ended’. It’s populated by a mix of God-fearing Christians and meth addicts, and summer temperatures regularly climb above 40 degrees centigrade – hence the city’s nickname. If you’re from the Devil’s Asshole, Sasha said, you’ve got two choices: you either stay there forever, or you leave forever. She opted for the latter. At twenty-four, Sasha travelled alone to Europe, leaving her aged parents and her friends – many of whom already had one or two kids, and one or two divorces – behind.
Sasha thinks she has Irish heritage somewhere in her family tree, which gave her cause to spend a few months working at a hostel bar in Dublin, hoping to ‘reconnect with the old world’. One night at the bar, she met Matias – a tall, well-built, thirty-year-old athletics teacher who was on a UK-Ireland excursion with some guy friends. She and Matias immediately hit it off, and spent a week, apparently, in Sasha’s hostel room ‘having non-stop sex’, as Sasha put it, or ‘fucking like pigs’, as Matias described it to me once, in a rare private moment in their apartment, with a sudden widening of his ice blue eyes.
After that week in the hostel, Sasha travelled with Matias back to this city – his home. Like Tina, Sasha found a cash-in-hand job teaching English as a foreign language at another academy in the posh neighbourhood.
Several months later Sasha and Matias were married.
That was all two years ago.
Is the distance between the Devil’s Asshole and the here and now so great that Sasha has rolled up this narrative tight and small, smoothing out its tantalizing roads-not-taken, its utter arbitrariness, ready to unfurl whenever the fear overtakes her? Does she use it to make sense of – and so conquer – the extreme isolation, homesickness and resentment toward this city – and toward Matias – that, according to Tina’s post-coffee reports, she is currently experiencing on the daily?
The first time I met her, underneath that hideous desiccated shark, the first time I spoke to her, I sensed that as she listened she looked right through my skull and saw the cringing figure living there, the figure that keeps guard over all my secret strategies and disguises. She understood that the apparent glut of narrative logic explaining her presence here, in this city, merely stressed the absence of such logic regarding my own. After all, when Sasha, and Marta, and Matias all individually asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I could only reply, ‘It’s just something that we wanted to try. It’s just something that happened.’
When Tina is out, I take the lift down to the lobby and set off for the River Garden – a vast, dried riverbed that arcs over the north of the city. The river was diverted a decade or so ago, Marta told me during a one-to-one language lesson, as it was prone to flooding. As part of a vast ‘Re-Vamp’ fund granted to the city by the government, the dried riverbed was transformed into a lush garden, replete with cafes, tennis courts and football pitches, fountains and orchards, culminating – where its mouth meets the sea – in a grand, neo-futurist Museum of European Culture.
But – so I understood from Marta – the architects, city planners and landscapers were all crooks, involved in backdoor deals with various transnational organized crime groups. As part of the ‘Re-Vamp’, the Museum’s principle architect was simultaneously building a new hospital on the city’s outskirts, for the benefit, it was claimed at the time, of the poorer neighbourhoods. Then, a series of investigative reports revealed that the hospital was being used by the architect and his co-conspirators to skim the cream off vast sums of dodgy money. These revelations coincided with the last major global market crash, and bam! – I remember Marta slapping a palm on her office desk – the whole ‘Re-Vamp’ project, and the city entire, dead-ended, she said, presumably borrowing the phrase from Sasha.
The River Garden was just about finished, but the Museum of European Culture stands empty, an ultra-white domed husk slowly decaying by the shore like the gargantuan corpse of some beached, alien sea creature. Once hailed as a national treasure, the architect is now rarely mentioned in this country without a string of expletives attached to his name.
I walk along the boulevard outside our current building, shortcutting through the outskirts of the old town to pass through an enormous turreted gateway: remnants of the city’s sixteenth century walls. I find my favorite bench, neatly pooled in the shadows of two palms, beside the River Garden wall – a vantage point from which to view a grid of tennis courts in the garden below.
On schedule, a group of boys – sixteen or seventeen years old – run onto the courts. They are led by Matias. He’s wearing the athletics kit with a leopard’s face on the chest, the logo of the city’s municipal sports center. His head is freshly shaved, jarring with the thick carpet of hair on his rigid forearms and calves. The collective excitement of this group hits me like a wave. They are highly-charged, nervous, laughing and shoving each other, waiting for instruction from Matias. I seem to syphon something from their energy, a kind of fuel that wakes me up, makes me feel alert and sustained.
Matias blows hard on a whistle. All the boys fall into line. He points to two boys at a time, flicks his wrist, and they pair off to the courts. When they begin their tennis games, Matias shifts from sideline to sideline, squatting so that his eyes are aligned with the nets, barking orders, encouragement and criticism in the language I don’t understand. He is machine-like in his movements, precise and weighty, cutting across the courts as though following an invisible map that he alone has the physical and psychic intelligence to navigate. I find his presence terrifying and comforting in equal measure.
Some of the boys are limber, ultra-fluid and graceful in their movements. But many are not, moving their arms at jagged angles, offering limp serves and returning shots by heaving themselves toward the ball with little or no motion of the racket at all. They become frustrated, or embarrassed with their inability to pull their bodies into that slipstream of intuitive, exacting movement they had assumed is part of their birthright as boys.
Matias’ attention is fixed on one of them, now. A boy with an ill-fitting, threadbare sports kit – a hand-me-down? – which reveals the contours of his untoned physique. He is attempting to serve, but the ball either hits the net or fails to reach it entirely. He appears on the cusp of tears, as his opponent by turns laughs at and upbraids him. Some of the boys on the adjacent courts have even stopped their games to watch and jeer.
Matias approaches him and I gag, briefly. I think I might even throw up, suddenly aware of the power that Matias’ age, authority and muscularity gives him in this context: he could completely and totally crush this boy, instill him with some lifelong trauma or permanently warp his character, all with a single bad-faith criticism or reproach.
Matias first holds a palm up to the boy’s opponent, quieting him. Then, reaching the boy, he fits his fingers around the wrist of his serving arm and slides his other hand around his waist, moving behind and overlapping him. The boy is unsure at first, tensing-up with a grim expression. But Matias grips him tighter, pulls him so that they begin to form a singular shape, and the boy slowly relents. Matias guides the boy’s arm and body through the motions of a serve, talking into his ear. They are intently focused on this gentle, easy act of mimicry, which soon becomes an act of simultaneity. The boy smiles as they repeat the ghost serve again and again, in a sort of peaceable, undulating motion that reminds me of aquatic weeds moving in soft currents.
Matias moves off. The boy pitches the ball above his head, and releases a competent serve – momentarily startling his opponent, though he manages to return an awkward lob and nevertheless win the point.
But nobody is watching anymore. All the other boys have returned to their games.
Matias runs to retrieve the ball, which has rolled to the mesh fence just below and opposite the bench where I sit. As he picks it up, his eyes alight on me – for a moment, seem to bore right into me – and I feel myself blush.
Later, Tina wakes me from a nap, placing a plate with a cut up peach on my chest. The light shoots through the bedroom window, carving impenetrable blocks of pure white on the tiled floor. I must have fallen asleep before closing the shutters – must have fallen asleep after showering, without having dressed myself.
I pull the bedsheet up to my waist. I can see that Tina’s keys are hooked on the Funny Face by the bedroom door, and a worm of embarrassment skitters beneath my skin. There’s no telling how long she’s been back, with me lying naked and unconscious in the room.
‘Sasha’s academy is looking for a new teacher to start after summer,’ Tina says, now in the bathroom.
‘How come?’ I reply.
‘One of the teachers is leaving, apparently. Maybe it’s something you could do.’
‘I already applied,’ I say, fingering a crescent-slice of peach, ‘to all the academies in the city. They don’t want me.’
‘Sasha said she’d recommend you,’ Tina says, coming back out of the bathroom, ‘she said it’d be easy.’
‘Nepotism,’ I say, and bite the tip off the slice.
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Yeah’ Tina says.
I had a job when we first came out here. I’d been freelancing as a work-from-home copywriter for a company called Magic Content, writing ‘travel’ articles for a roster of hotel booking websites. The articles were designed to feed basic information in flowery language to prospective holidaymakers and business travellers. A few hours a day, I’d pepper clichéd metaphors and similes with ‘facts’ gleaned from Wikipedia about locations I’d never been to. Swim in the warm, turquoise-blue waters, caught in the peach-pink sunset, of wherever.
My interlocutor at Magic Content was a woman named Joy. I never met her, never spoke to her, but her communication via email had become a reassuring constant in my life. I began to assemble an image of her in my mind based off nothing more than her email tone and the tiny glimpses into her non-working life she’d let slip throughout the normal niceties of online correspondence. Joy became a woman of strength and self-sufficiency, of grace and world-weariness, of tact and determination – and I wanted to please her with good work. She had, I imagined, black hair and a smoker’s cough, though she remained faceless.
Just after we arrived in this city, MC hired me for a new project that was to last several months: writing descriptions of hotel room interiors. Joy sent me a password-protected spreadsheet with hundreds of rows of URLs. Each URL linked through to a 360-degree ‘virtual tour’ of a different hotel room, which I had to click through and then write up. These virtual tours were warped and confusing; they’d been stitched together from amateurish photographs in some kind of image editing software. Writing up the first dozen or so rooms, I had encountered an errant hand, half a torso, and what looked like the top of a bald head, all disembodied and floating freely – artifacts carried into the renderings from where the photographer and his coworkers had, perhaps, attempted to capture these small rooms in panorama, photographing the edges of themselves in the process.
A week into the project – a week after we arrived here – MC pulled the plug. Joy sent an uncharacteristically laconic email to say that, regrettably, they wouldn’t have any more work for me for the next several months ‘at least’.
I didn’t believe her at first. I thought she was lying to me, and that, really, MC wanted to oust me because the quality of my writing was poor. I reread many of the articles I’d recently filed, looking for signs of a slow decay in quality: bad facts, or an overabundance of repeated metaphors and clichés. After all, there are only so many ways to describe a beach, an ocean, a sunset.
But then I began to wonder about the hotel room project itself. What if, hidden somewhere in those hundreds of URLs, the thousands of stitched-together photographs, what if something had been captured that shouldn’t have been captured? What if MC’s client had happened upon something – what if Joy had happened upon something, and she was in trouble? I began to search through the virtual tours, hunting for some trace of this possible crime or transgression, until Tina told me to stop.
She wasn’t interested in any of my theories. She said I was being paranoid. Furthermore, Tina posited that paranoia is an inherently male trait, because men are driven to look for patterns or order within chaos; they can’t just accept it. And probably, Tina said, MC or Joy or whoever would email any day now with more work. As though to keep this possibility alive, the first time we met Marta, Sasha and Matias respectively, Tina introduced me as ‘a writer’.
But I haven’t earned a penny since MC dropped me. I’m gnawing into my overdraft. Bite by bite it’s disappearing, going on fried food, peaches and beer. Tina, whether in an act of monk-like patience or total denial, paid the rent for this Airbnb – and the one before – up front. And she hasn’t mentioned it once, except, that is, as a reminder that I should extend empathy to the hypothetically-evicted former tenants of the apartment below.
‘We’re also going to theirs tonight for dinner,’ Tina says.
Tina takes a peach slice, picks off its skin and eats it.
‘Matias is cheating on her again. She thinks, anyway.’
A line of juice drips from the corner of her mouth.
‘She’s, umm, thinking seriously about leaving.’
‘Where would she go?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know.’
I’ve a sudden clanging feeling in my temples, and I wince from the pain.
‘What’s wrong now?’ Tina says.
‘Nothing,’ I say, and absentmindedly wipe my sticky fingers onto the bed sheet.
‘What are you doing?’ Tina says. ‘Why would you do that?’
I swing out of bed, cupping my crotch with my hands, and crouch in the corner of the room to retrieve and put on my underwear. I go into the kitchen, return with a wet sponge, and clean up the peach juice I wiped on the sheets.
‘I’m not sure I have it in me tonight,’ I say. ‘It’s so hot. Sasha and Matias don’t have air con.’
‘We don’t have air con.’
‘But we don’t have to talk to anyone here. Talking is exhausting.’
‘I need to shower before my language lesson,’ Tina says.
I join her in the cold shower. We rub soap over each other’s faces. I work shampoo into her hair, then she turns me around to squeeze and pick at spots on my back. It’s times like this, wet as animals, covered in bubbles, that are the best. We’re a knot of indeterminable, fleshy shapes and textures . . . the meshed weeds of our armpit and pubic hair a dark constellation against all that slippery white and pink. Water pools in my mouth and I spit it at her, and she laughs. The dim bathroom echoes with the sounds of water on porcelain and Tina’s bright laugh.
I arrange to meet Tina outside Marta’s office when she finishes her language lesson, so that we can go straight to Sasha and Matias’ for dinner. I’ve already sweated through my short-sleeved shirt and shorts, despite the early evening’s waning heat. I decide to take a longer, circuitous route to Marta’s, through the cooler alleyways of the old town. In this baffling, capillary-like network of passages, the sounds of arguments, TVs, sex, pots and pans, screaming children, barking dogs and laughter spill out from open windows and hang in the alley air like dust haze.
Around this corner, I know, there is a group of older women. They wear long black gowns that expose only their faces and hands. They gather outside a small chapel, sitting on ancient-looking stools and chairs pockmarked by woodworm damage. When we rented an apartment near here – our first Airbnb in the city – these women would hiss and spit at Tina as we walked past them. We surmised this was because of what Tina usually wore – a skirt above the knee and a tank top. Each time I’d feel terrified, pacing past the older women and avoiding their eyes. But Tina would walk by without changing her pace. After, she’d say that they were ‘prudes’ or ‘crones’, that they were ‘sexually repressed’ and an example of how the heteropatriarchy is as much maintained by women as by men.
I’d nod in agreement, but all the while I would wonder what had given us the right to stroll through their neighbourhood, aimless, godless, languageless and, to an extent, illiterate to our own sexual repression – or perhaps, hyper-literate to the point of abstraction. What really bothered me was a feeling of having been seen, having been made visible by mere proximity to and association with Tina. And after, when I saw – when I see – Tina readjust a bra strap, for instance, or sit down at a cafe and quickly, tightly, cross her legs, or, on those occasions where I have caught Matias running his icy eyes over Tina’s body with a lack of subtlety so brash the ogling seemed more mechanical than lustful – I wanted to reappraise my irritation, wanted to form some new and unique opinion about this issue of the older women’s disapprobation. But nothing would come. No words would come, either, from my sun-chapped lips, from this quiet hole set in its grotesquely average arrangement of hair, cartilage, bone and meat.
Tina told me, once, that she had raised the subject of the older women with Marta, and that Marta agreed with her about them being crones, et cetera. Marta went as far to call them fascistic, apparently, in their behavior.
At the last moment, I take another route through the alleys, avoiding the chapel and the women altogether.
Eventually, I reach the central square. Tourists are out in droves – mostly European, though there are some groups of Americans. There’s a row stuck fast against an old stone wall, cooling off in shadow. One of the Americans holds the cyclops-eye of a DSLR toward a dome, a palm tree and then, it seems, directly at me, before whirling back to another palm, freezing there in great concentration. They look like a tableau vivant, and I have a panicked image of them becoming trapped here as permanent fixtures of the square. I imagine all their empty seats in airplanes bound back for the States, their homes left empty and locked, the easy domino effect of their lives randomly and finally discontinued.
I’m a quarter of an hour early, but nevertheless I head down a side street for Marta’s office. The office adjoins a seminar room where Marta holds her lessons, on the ground floor of a mid-century block. There’s a fountained courtyard in front, separated from the street by a barred metal gate. I stand at the bars and peer clear through, past the fountain’s arcs of water, through the windows, into the room.
I can see Marta pacing back and forth, gesticulating with her hands. Tina is sitting on the desk, rather than at it, swinging her legs back and forth. She is nodding her head enthusiastically. On the whiteboard behind Marta I can make out a few words scrawled in that chicken-scratch hand of hers – an assortment of nouns and verbs, some that I can translate (beach, apartment, thinking, talking) and many that I can’t.
Then Marta stops, and stands directly in front of Tina. They are looking into each other’s eyes. The looking seems to go on for an excruciatingly long time – and the thought hits me that they might have seen me looking at them, and now they are frozen as deer caught in headlights . . . which would mean that they had been discussing something private, something, possibly, about me.
Marta places her hands on Tina’s shoulders, rests them there for a moment. Tina slides off the desk. They are, I’m sure, about to embrace. Something rotates inside of me, somewhere behind the sternum. I can feel the weight of it shifting, wheeling toward a moment of clarity or profound recognition that disappears at the moment of grasping – and I abruptly turn, and walk back to the town square.
There’s a chemist on the corner, a neon green cross attached to the facade. I look at the window display: combs, medicinal creams, rubber gloves. There are several foam mannequin heads wearing different reading glasses. When Tina finishes her lesson, she’ll see I’m not there, waiting for her, and she’ll look for me in the square. She’ll walk past the chemist and find me here, staring at these objects in the window.
We are sitting around a low coffee table in Sasha and Matias’ apartment, a post-war block on the eastern edge of the city. From their balcony you can just see the rounded white hump of the Museum of European Culture. They moved into this place almost a year ago, but it’s still bare, with unpacked cardboard boxes piled in a spare room. Sasha serves Ritz crackers topped with cream cheese, which, she says, is her parents’ favorite canapé. Then she brings two pizzas out from the kitchen, burned to a crisp. Matias wastes no time pointing this out.
After we eat, Matias lights an enormous spliff and shares it with Sasha. We drink from two-liter glass bottles of local beer. There’s half an hour or so of sunlight left, and thick, honeyish light is spilled in the room, becoming redder and softer.
Matias drags from the spliff, and holds the smoke in his lungs. He says that friends of his – Sasha knows them, because they were traveling with Matias in Ireland when he and Sasha met – these friends of his, these guys, they’re good guys, and they’ve got into this thing, which in the English, he says, is called ‘abandoned porn’.
Matias exhales a huge cloud of smoke.
‘Abandoned porn,’ he says, ‘is when you capture images or videos of abandoned buildings and upload it to Reddit, or someplace like that. You can live stream it as you explore the buildings.’
These friends, these guys, he says, are planning to break in to the abandoned hospital south of the city.
Matias gets out his phone and loads up Reddit, leaning over the coffee table to show me the screen. A video is playing. In it, a couple of men in their mid-twenties are scaling some kind of rusted, disused radio tower with their bare hands. One of them slips for a moment, presumably about to fall to his death – and Matias slaps me on my knee to make sure I am seeing what he is seeing.
Sasha, meanwhile, is saying that the abandoned hospital is rumored to be full of medical equipment and drugs.
‘Packets of pills and vials of, umm, morphine, or whatever. You could sell them on and make a killing. The city hasn’t cleared it out because they can’t be bothered, and no one else has taken this stuff because hardly anyone knows it’s there and besides,’ Sasha says, extracting the spliff with great care and delicacy from Matias fingers, ‘no one wants to risk getting caught trespassing, because it comes with a –’
‘Trespassing on this kind of property comes with a big jail sentence,’ Matias interrupts. ‘The police,’ he says, ‘are real fucks in this city.’
Sasha takes three big drags of the spliff, and Tina, whether from boredom, or, conversely, intense interest, leans toward her and gestures for it.
‘Abandoned porn,’ Tina says, smoking. ‘Why is that?’
‘Why is what?’ Matias replies.
‘Why are you and your friends interested in looking at places that have been abandoned?’
‘I don’t know. They’re creepy. They have a creepy atmosphere.’
‘I think I’d be more interested in the opposite,’ Tina says, and Matias glares back at her.
‘What’s the opposite?’ I ask.
‘Places that are overly lived-in or populous. Or places that are well kept. Overdetermined ’
‘Like, conservation’ I say.
‘No, not like that. Not sterile like that. I mean something that is thriving to the point of excess –’
‘Opulence porn,’ I say.
‘Stop interrupting!’ Tina says, and Matias smirks. I feel a brief jolt of pleasure at having pleased him, having humoured him, but it is quickly overtaken by a familiar stain of self-loathing.
‘Marta talks about that hospital in lessons. She said the rumors are false, that the hospital is empty.’
‘Marta doesn’t know everything about this city,’ says Matias. ‘I would not believe everything she says or does not say.’
Matias appears to be weighing his English words carefully in his mind, and then adds, ‘Marta is difficult.’
‘How so?’ asks Tina.
Matias looks to Sasha, but receives nothing back.
‘You would like this hospital,’ Matias says, addressing me now, ‘it would be of interest to a writer.’
I can feel Tina’s eyes on me. Perhaps on my Adam’s apple, wrenching up and down as I nervously swallow . . . and Matias opposite, enormous and red-eyed in the red light, as heavy and proud as a stone lion . . . I imagine what it would be like, going to the hospital alone with Matias. I see it as though filmed in a video recording, from a third-person point of view. Matias, clambering through the dusty corridors. He leads, and I follow, struggling to keep up. Our footsteps and fragmented conversation echo in the empty rooms of this hospital that was never used, the hospital where nobody ever died and nobody was ever born, where no one has ever suffered or felt pain. But what happens when we stand still, and stop talking? What fills the silence?
‘He wouldn’t be interested in the seeing the hospital,’ Tina says.
‘Why?’ Matias asks, with childish mock surprise.
‘Because he’s not interested in this city,’ Tina says.
‘I’m interested –’ I say.
‘Not in living in it.’ Tina carefully pitches her tone of voice somewhere between that of a playful jibe and genuine chastisement.
‘Where would you go?’ Sasha asks me, skipping several steps in conversational logic, because of the weed, possibly.
‘He wants to go back to his little home town. He’s at a crossroads,’ Tina says.
‘What does this mean?’ Matias asks.
Now Sasha’s eyes are on me. I feel a bright, burning inquisitiveness coming from them, assessing me, in case I produce some conversational sleight of hand to make this sudden assault disappear – some trick that she could learn from. Before I can answer, though, Matias speaks again.
‘I mean, this word: crossroads? I don’t know its meaning here.’
‘It means you are confronted with different choices and you have to decide on one,’ says Sasha.
‘Ah – it’s not when there are two things, two different roads or moments that meet? I mean . . . is it not a point of connection?’
‘You mean,’ I say, ‘that a crossroads is the joining together of things, as opposed to the separation of things. That we should think of a crossroads as a . . . convergence, rather than a divergence. Like tributaries flowing into one big river, or even all rivers flowing into the sea.’
Tina begins giggling. Through hiccups, she says, ‘What would your friends do with a writer like this, Matias, in the abandoned hospital? Would they accept him or reject him? Would they abandon him there too?’
Matias then erupts with laughter, in response, I think, to Tina’s suddenly evident stoned-ness. It’s a charmed laugh, both consuming and adhesive. It swallows Tina, whose giggle turns to outright hysterics, and Sasha, too, and now I laugh, and can’t stop, can’t catch my breath, though I haven’t smoked anything, and all the blood-red honey light from the dusk seems to have pooled in the dregs of my bottle, and as I drink it down I am filled with the sun, while the room, this smoke-clouded room with its probing eyes, is pitched into total darkness.
We have agreed to meet Sasha and Matias at the beach this afternoon. Sasha suggested it last night, as we were leaving.
Tina woke up covered in mosquito bites. We’d left the bed by the window and fallen asleep with it wide open. Over coffee I dab Sudocrem on Tina’s ankles and calves, her wrists and knuckles, her neck. I say that perhaps something has changed the flavor of our blood. Something we ate, or drank, or smoked, or something we touched, could have caused a chemical shift that turned the mosquitos away from me and onto her.
‘Maybe,’ Tina says.
I dot her up with the cream.
‘You’re prodding me. Stop doing it so hard.’
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Don’t pick at the bites’
‘What is it with you and Matias?’ she says.
‘I don’t know. What do you mean?’
‘You know what I mean.’
I get up and walk to the bathroom. I run the tap, and wash the Sudocrem off my fingers.
‘Where do you think the mosquitos go in the daytime?’ I shout, over the noise of the water. Tina doesn’t answer.
The rest of the morning takes place in silence. Tina says that she is hung-over – to which I say, perhaps she’s just a little dehydrated, rather than hung-over. Tina says that maybe she is one or the other, maybe she is both, what’s the difference, what matters is that she feels funny.
We leave the apartment late in the afternoon, taking the stairs, and we pass by the police-taped door on the floor below.
‘Marta told me something yesterday,’ Tina says.
‘Marta said that a friend of hers lives in this block. She says there was a couple living in that apartment. An old couple, apparently. For a long time. And they would always argue, but in this very geriatric way’
‘Marta used the word geriatric?’
‘No – but it was the sense of what she was getting at. What her friend was getting at, I mean.’
We keep moving down the stairs, floor by floor, and Tina continues talking, her voice growing louder and more confident. It is the most animated she has been all day, and I sense that it is the most animated she will be all day, that this is merely a moment of clarity and energy before the fog of the hang-over descends again.
‘They would yell at each other about things, like how he under-boiled the eggs, or how she forgot to buy, like, his pipe tobacco from the supermarket. Those kinds of things.’
‘What’s geriatric about that?’ I say.
‘No – don’t twist my words – they were just old, I mean. They’d been with each other forever and they argued, and the arguments got worse and louder over the years, to the point that the neighbours could hear them word for word. Some of the neighbours would call the police, because of the disturbance.’
‘So they were evicted?’ I say, as we near the ground floor.
‘No,’ Tina says, ecstatic now, ‘No! They were murdered!’
The sudden, explosive use of the word murdered, projected in this frivolous tone, makes my stomach lurch. I feel an intense and blinding moment of hatred toward her.
‘There was a break in, and the old couple put up a fight against the thief, or thieves actually, that’s what she said, and in the ensuing struggle the thieves murdered them!’
‘What? I don’t believe it for a second.’
‘It’s true! It was the talk of the whole building!’
‘So if we knocked on someone’s door, anyone’s door in the building, right now, and asked them, they’d tell us this story?’
‘Yes,’ Tina says.
We reach the lobby and step out into the street. We stop to buy a bag of peaches from the greengrocer, then catch a bus to the beach.
To reach the beach, most tourists will follow a cycle path the full length of the River Garden, out to the Museum of European Culture and beyond to a palm-lined promenade. But a couple of miles south of there the sand becomes grassy, rising to a steep bank before dropping away into a smooth, narrow curve, which runs like a crescent moon for miles and miles. Minor coastal towns clutch the shore, the sun occasionally igniting the crucifix of a steeple or spire. It’s quieter on this beach. Only the locals go here.
We get off the bus, and take a winding path through long grasses down to the white-gold sand. It’s becoming overcast, the clouds dissolving into a greenish soup.
‘Looks like there’ll be a storm,’ I say.
‘Maybe,’ Tina says.
We find Sasha lying on her back on the sand, catching the sun-glare, quiet as a lizard.
‘Matias isn’t coming,’ are the first words out of her mouth. ‘He’s at his mother’s –’ and she puts exaggerated air quotes around the word mother’s.
At this news, a lightness comes over me. I take off my shirt.
‘The water’s a nice temperature today,’ Sasha says, ‘but it’s getting choppy.’
Tina lays out a beach towel and sits on it with her legs crossed. She offers a peach to Sasha, who punctures it with her small sharp teeth.
I wade into the water. I can hear Tina and Sasha laughing and talking.
‘We argued all night,’ Sasha is saying, ‘first he said he wanted a divorce, then later he said he wanted a baby. And then . . . ’
I float on my back, letting the water hold my weight and the current take me out further. Tina’s voice is just audible. She is telling Sasha about the supposed murder of the old couple. ‘It’s true!’ I can hear her say, fanatically.
The water becomes greener, the same colour as the sky. Waves crest toward me. I swivel, dip and swim beneath them – once, three times, five times – re-emerging where it’s calmer.
Back on the shore Tina is standing, now, by the surf, hesitantly dipping in a toe. I wave, but she doesn’t see. She looks south along the beach, as though searching intently, excitedly, for someone in the mid-distance.
‘Hey! Come on, join me!’ I shout. ‘Hey! What are you doing? Who is it?’
Image © Jana Markova