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Zugzwang (n): A situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage.
I woke up one Tuesday morning and looked at my girlfriend lying asleep next to me. And I realised that she was ugly. I do not know why I realised it that particular morning. But I did, and I was right, so that is the way that it is.
I wanted to leave the house early, before she woke, so I dressed slowly. By the time I was ready to leave, she was awake.
This meant that I had to wait for her to dress so that we could eat breakfast together, which I knew would lead to us spending the day together. On no other day would this have bothered me. I would have enjoyed the idea.
While waiting for her to dress I sat myself at the kitchen table and read Friday’s newspaper. I was still reading it when she arrived in the kitchen. I did not look up.
I listened to her cook. She was frying eggs. She asked me what was new and what I was so interested in. I realised I hadn’t turned the page for some time. I scanned the page and read to her from a column. It was an article about the upcoming election in Spain. She laughed emptily and said she had never known me to be interested in politics or Spain. I shrugged but she wasn’t looking at me and she told me again, thinking that I hadn’t heard, that she had never known me to be interested in politics or Spain.
She took the paper from me and folded it. She told me that she loved me and set a plate down for me, and one for herself. She had made us each a sandwich. She sat opposite me and I watched her eat. A small trickle of yolk ran slowly down her chin. She let it. I wondered if she had not noticed. When she had finished her sandwich she wiped the yolk from her chin with her finger and sucked it, then dried it on her dress.
She asked me if I was not hungry. I told her that I was, then ate my sandwich quickly. She was not a very good cook and she compensated for her inadequacy, whether knowingly or not, by making only simple food that was difficult to get wrong. In the year that we’d lived together she had never tried to cook anything that was not simple. I had bought her a recipe book for her birthday, though I had written on it that it was from one of her friends whom she rarely saw. She had flicked through it once that day and then discarded it, putting it on a shelf in the kitchen like it was an ornament.
While she cleaned our plates at the sink she told me that one day she would like for me to take her to the museum in the city. I asked her which one, as there are four, and she looked at me incredulously. ‘The museum.’
‘Ok, then let’s go to the museum one day.’
‘What about today?’
She asked me to check the newspaper I had been reading for the day’s weather forecast. She would not have noticed that it was four days old and despite knowing this I felt a sense of contention from her request. As if she was trying to call my bluff. I wondered if I would have felt like that before this morning, but I realised that I would not have been pretending to read the newspaper before this morning. I found the page for the weather quickly and there was a forecast for the coming week. I told her it was going to be fine. Then I put the newspaper down and looked at her.
I wanted to see if she really was ugly. I asked her to look at me and she swooned. She expected me to stand and kiss her. Instead I remained in my seat and studied her. She felt that I was looking at her the way one would look at a beautiful landscape, but I was not. She became embarrassed. She blushed and, smiling, turned away.
I stood up. She thought that I had stood up so that we could set off and she asked me if we might walk into the city. I told her that I would rather take a taxi. She went into the living room to call one from the phone in there. I took a glass from a cupboard and filled it from the tap. I thought about drinking it and then decided not to and poured the water into the sink.
We were sitting in the back of the taxi as it drove us into the city. I spent half of the journey wondering whether the driver thought that my girlfriend was ugly. I came to the conclusion that yes, he did. I kept catching his eye in the rear view mirror. Then hers. She wrapped her hand around mine.
At the museum we spent a long time looking at insects. Each species was separated into its own small habitat. We leaned close to each glass window and watched for a time. Her face was reflected, transparent in each one. I watched the insects crawl in her reflection. Then I watched them in mine. Engrossed. Then a tug at my arm. Next window. Three tarantulas but I could only see one. It did not move the entire time I watched it. Tug at my arm. Next window. A colony of ants. Too many to count how many. Tug at my arm. Twenty-odd locusts. They were all mating and I felt embarrassed. Tug at my arm. Window. Tug at my arm. Window. Each one had a petri dish, fruit cut up into cubes placed inside.
The windows all lined one wall of the large room. By looking into each one, we were led unconsciously to the glass door that was the exit. I wanted to look back through the glass to see what was on the other wall, as it was only now that it occurred to me to look. But she was complaining of being hungry. I could still taste the breakfast egg on my breath. We decided that we would have a small lunch in the museum’s cafe. I would rather not have eaten, or at the very least gone home to eat. I was feeling an increasing dread at being seen with her.
The cafe was on the fifth floor of the museum. The other floors housed old weaponry, paintings and a library respectively. None of which interested either of us. As we rode the elevator to the fifth floor she kissed me. I could taste the egg on her breath as well.
I have only felt vertigo once, long ago in a different city, before I had met my girlfriend. I was on a bridge above the river and the wind was blowing. I was afraid that I would be blown over the rail and into the water. I would have had to walk home in wet clothes, avoiding the gazes of every smirking person that I trudged past, feeling their judgments and hearing their snickers and murmurs.
We sat at a table near to a window and looked down at the river. There was a bridge over this river as well. I watched the people crossing and wondered if they felt the same way that I had. The windows were large, glass walls. Despite this it felt very claustrophobic. I picked up a menu and glanced down its list. Then peered over the top of it. My girlfriend was holding her chin with one hand. In her head she was saying three or four of the choices to herself. One after the other, as if she was holding them up and examining them, or weighing them.
A young waiter made his way towards us. I could not look at him. He would see my girlfriend and then he would see me and he would judge me by her and I could not watch him do that. He asked my girlfriend if she was ready to order. I was staring out of the window at the river. I ordered something for myself and said that she would have the same. I dared glancing at him. In his eyes I saw his thoughts lingering. His mouth was curved slightly upwards at the corners. He was laughing at me. He was laughing so directly that no one else could have known. This was between the two of us. When he turned and walked to the kitchen I looked around. I expected to see everyone else in the cafe staring at me and my girlfriend. Instead, everything was as it should have been.
My dread disappeared for a time. Even the young waiter returning did not cause it to surface. We ate and talked. We spoke about what we had seen in the museum – the insects and their lives. I do not remember exactly what was said, nor what we ate.
That night we went to bed early, around eight o’clock. After we had had sex I laid for a while with her head on my chest. My arm was under her and began to ache. I wanted nothing more than to leave the house. I waited until she fell asleep, which wasn’t long, and then dressed and left quietly. It was raining, only slightly, but enough that I wore my coat.
I did not know where I was walking to. I did not need to know. I was not walking to get somewhere. I was walking so that I could hide. Alone I felt invisible. I went into the city centre, stopped at the museum. I looked up to the fifth floor. The window was a black sheet. In the air above me I could see the fine rain.
I checked my coat for my wallet. It was there. I opened it, I had enough money for a few drinks. Every time I passed a bar, I did not want to stop. A man can walk alone, in the rain where he is not noticed. But a man in a bar, with wet hair, cannot sit alone and be invisible. He is talked about by the groups, used as a tool in their conversations until eventually he leaves or is discarded. But when he is discarded, he is picked up by another group. Maybe this time it is a group of young women, whose interest in him he mistakes for sincerity and he introduces himself to them, offers to buy them a drink and then, while he is at the bar, they leave, feeling relief that they are escaping this wet lonely drunk who approaches them with a half empty pint of beer that his hair is dripping rainwater into. And he turns around from the bar with the colourful drinks they wanted held precariously in his fingers and looks around, knowing already but not yet able to accept that they have left. He might even see the last of them as she hurries out into the rain, where she’d rather be. And he’d have to take the drinks outside, where no one else is, and drink them alone, embarrassed.
I did not realise at the time, but now I remember looking behind myself a lot as I walked.
I went to the river. It was as black as the museum window, but unstable and loud. I leaned on the railing. I wondered if anyone would run up behind me and throw me over. I could think of no reason why someone wouldn’t. I wondered if I would do the same to another person leaning on the railings, were I in the position to. I decided that I wouldn’t, but I could think of no reason why I wouldn’t.
The wind picked up. So did the rain. Both blew into my face. It made my forehead hurt and the inside of my ears ache. I decided to go home.