Fiction

The Dilemma

By Gaither Stewart

                                           1.

At thirty-six years I’m on record as the youngest Operations Director in the history of the international cultural organization where I’ve worked for the last nine years. Now as my best friends know, I’m not overjoyed about my promotion to this position. And moreover, I’ve never even aspired to the job because of the weighty concomitant character demands on the holder. But, predictably, my wife insists the big salary increase outweighs those negative aspects that however have brought about the downfall of experienced bureaucrats before me. In any case, I find my nomination  as anomalous as a North Korean declaration of war on the US of A, the result of a combination of circumstances that should never have happened. So it was pure chance that I, Montgomery Morgan, the anti-bureaucrat personified, came to occupy such a rigid administrative job.

It happened like this: my predecessor and former boss fell into a weird sort of sleepy immobility, content to just sit at his beloved mahogany desk and sign papers. While I, his top assistant, unknowingly had the instinct to strike out in the unexplored directions management desired. Yet, though my life now seems a Camelot to others, my career flight cannot resolve my painful existential problem: my daughter of two and a half years died eighteen months ago, an incurable organic allergy, the doctors claimed. But I still doubt they really know; and whether they know or not, the thought that medical science might disprove them is a perpetual torment like that of the dying man convinced of a future definitive cure of brain cancer, but too late to save him. Since then, I’ve experienced the dips and dives of other possible threats … and impossible choices to be made. Since then, the months, weeks, days, hours of pain, horror and disbelief have somehow passed, during which only action for action’s sake counted. Passing time that is marked also by a contradictory inertia in my interior life. Time of empty but unfillable spaces and of unidentified voids while my wife and I were becoming strangers one to the other. In our separate sufferings, our former love withered away like remnants of Marx’s bourgeois state. And only I know that my seemingly tireless energy, my adopted lifestyle, and my hidden terrors come from my frantic attempts to fill the hole of her absence.

So, on the one hand, I feel I owe my now truncated family the material benefits my new position brings … to make up for what is missing. On the other hand, my asymmetrical public self parodies the nouveau rich I so despise, a behavior which, I believe, is only a shadow of myself, a mimesis caused by my weakness of character. Yet, it is in me. And not even my wife is aware of the extent of my unceasing PAIN. That thing is in me, that monster, that it taunts me that she will never come back.

While those uncontainable fears nest in my interior life, overnight, it seems, I, who never felt compelled to be anyone in particular, became that other public person, living a sham life, speaking a sham language, which I perceive as a black mark on my personal life. While time, ineludibly, has crept past, I’ve begun to wonder if what I now think of as my unfreedom of today actually did begin in the still obscure past that my psychiatrist harps on. In any case, I see my king’s clothes, my privileges, the prestige and power that my new position brings as symbols of my slavery to a way of life that is not mine.

Looking back, I can pinpoint as precisely as if under the electronic sights of a Russian R-38 ICBM the day, the hour, the very minute I became aware of the change in my public life. For it was on the same day that the rain began. A hard constant rain, selfsame, as unceasing as the rain during Noah’s forty days and forty nights. Day and night, week after week, the rain fell on the city that thank the heavens had the miraculous capacity of absorbing rather than accumulating on the surface what seemed all of the atmosphere’s water.

That first day of the great rain, at 15:15 hours, the personnel director, a trendy Parisian, pushed me through the door of a renowned Czech tailor, so classy that his studio facing onto a small park tucked away in the Old City was identified only with a small brass plaque with his name engraved in gray letters: Cyril.

All that old Bohemian had to do was gander my sloppy dress. I must have looked unbearably bohemian to the Czech Bohemian. The moment that cunning tailor-artist had me touch those Irish woolens I was as if transformed from hippy to bourgeois in one quick swipe. But, it was to be a provisional digression. I believed. A temporary abandonment of the real me. Czech-made suits with vests of Irish woolens and cashmere topcoats and Italian sports cars, signs of the times, the symbols of my new life; the adoring women the result.

And all the while, deep in my guts, I perceived the fear of the price I would have to pay.

Though you may change, I told myself, your core self remains. Something always remains. You are still you. Therefore the necessity of pinpointing the precise moments when the key events occur. Like at 15 hours and 15 minutes! But I hope for the chance to relive certain moments and to try again and do better, rather than manipulating and concealing them. No wonder nostalgia exists. The longing you feel to grasp that specific moment when you became what you are … when you could have become someone better. Sometimes I search again for that moment in order to feel the first panic, to overcome it, and to perceive regret, and wish I’d taken other paths. Oh, for a third chance!

Instead, just after my nomination, the earth seemed to fall from under me. The change of offices became the emblem  of the change taking place inside me: the giant move from the adjoining sub-office to the vastness of the thickly carpeted room with the great windows and antique furniture and the huge mahogany desk behind which I swore never to sit. I piled books and papers and my precious maps across it. Bottled water stands near my faithful boom box. Dust and must accumulate on that desk among jackets and coats and caps, helter-skelter, sheaves of dusty notes of ideas waiting to be developed, old photographs, unread memos, and secret papers the executive secretary should file away in cabinets where they can fade and never be seen again. Oh, how I detest that title, Executive Secretary. Is she really a secretary? Or management’s spy? How can I be free here if my secretary is their spy?

One strange day I walked around the immense but still foreign room and stared out the window at the rain wondering where it would all end. I spun around in the leather swivel chair, sat at the shiny conference table the cleaning women polish each morning, ran my fingers in circles over the surface as perfect as a homemade marron glacé and hated this office where I feel as otherworldly as a Kafka in Meran. Were I to occupy this office for a lifetime, I will always be a stranger in it. As I stared at the hypnotic falling rain, my old sense of loneliness came over me. The rain’s descent seemed unusually slow like that of a glass-encased elevator sliding up and down its fixed path inside a shopping mall. I tried to isolate one individual raindrop and follow its fall to the surrounding roofs so much like the grey zinc sheet roofs of Paris that I felt I was truly elsewhere. I felt vertigo.

Did my predecessor who became so piously pompous when he entered this same office never have the anarchic impulses that overcome me? No, he did not. He loved this office. He’d liked to ensconce himself behind the mahogany desk that he kept immaculate and barren; he would extend both arms over the smooth desk surface, his palms flat on the polished wood, his sleeves rolled up in two folds as precise as the black of an SS officer’s uniform. The ritual seemed to reinforce his conviction that everything was under control. Then he would summon me or the executive secretary to ask about an obscure memo, or he would telephone the building superintendent to ask some banality about the proper office temperature.

That man was never free, not for one moment of his life was he ever free. Oh, how I despise the murderous enslaving bureaucracy.

                                           2.

But meanwhile the orgy began. Anything, I thought, to kill the pain. It never ceases. It intensifies. I, Monty, trembling in terror. Suffering. Work by day, play by night. Women of the city. My wife was estranged: the loss of a child changes everything. And I’m a sad failure of a father. So what should I do? I had to prove myself as never before.

Actually I was living a reconstructed life. A new kind of life that I tried to relate to my renewed reality. Oh yes, how I too believed I held everything in my hands. My life was under control. But somehow it had all slipped away. Or perhaps I’d let it slip away. I don’t know why. Out of cowardice? Or a lack of prudence? The reality is I don’t even know what I’m most afraid of. I was never afraid of anything. Not before. That’s why I’m recounting this here. But then at some point I became wary about taking new steps. About speaking new words. I think Dostoevsky wrote something like that.

One night, months after it all began, I was walking along the riverfront street toward my car parked downriver from the apartment of a lady friend. It was past midnight. Traffic was light. The street lamps flickered in Noah’s prodigious rain. Strangely, I felt at one with the indistinctness of the moment, my thoughts jagged and unhinged, darting wildly here and there, from time to time recalling her as I’d left her in the big room facing the rushing river. The magical river locked in a symbiotic relationship with the endless rain. Were they not the same thing? Same origin, same destination? For like the never-ending rain, there’s something mystical about this narrow river rushing so arrogantly down from the mountains and gushing in a fury through the center of the big city. As if water were a divinity. A divinity shorn of signs of a heaven or a hell. Of a yes or a no. A water god. Yet, strange things, inexplicable things, could happen along this river in the night under the unceasing charge from the heavens even piercing the homes of people who profess principles and morals, tenderness and truth but still feel terror of the hereafter. It’s the water, I know, that causes such thoughts.

Gradually I became conscious of a blinking light farther down the darkened river, it seemed on the opposite side. At first, a mere spark, then round and flickering.

I accelerated my step, faster and faster. Ah hah, so that’s it, I thought when the siren began, dah- dah, dah-dah, dah-dah. Faster, ever faster. But I got no closer to the now fiery sphere, nor to the siren.

We seemed to form a fixed triangle. I, the fire, the siren, the three points. I leaning forward and pressing ahead in the rain, the fire and the dah-dah still the same distance from me and from each other.

Kids roasting sausages on the riverside, under Noah’s rain? Hooligans setting fire to Roma shacks? I walked past my parked car and continued on down the river.

And all of a sudden the fire was real … and near. Brash voices sounded from the opposite riverbank: ‘Burn, burn, burn! Hey, you there! Throw that monster kid in the water. Yeah, there. Out into the deep part … out there … near the rocks.’

 Screams. Cries. In Roma language. Big men wearing ski masks burning the Roma shacks. Nocturnal killers killing the Roma. Killing their people. Killing me. I and the Roma of the same origin and with the same destination. Like the rain and the river. Our bodies the selfsame sixty per cent water, each of us terrified of the threatening one hundred per cent. They, unreachable across the raging river; I, to them invisible on the opposite side; both of us in search of salvation from water.

Auden said that we are here on Earth to help others. But what could I do? I could do nothing. I wasn’t afraid. I was a prisoner on the opposite bank from the Roma and all the burning. Separated by the surging river and the falling rain, my thoughts as breakable as the Maginot Line uselessly defending Paris in ‘40.

Then, all at once, the sirens fell silent. They’d given up. I was alone with the killers and the dying in the night. Annoyed at first, then fearfully, guiltily, I ran back to my car and drove off in the opposite direction; just not to see the masked killers (they had to be masked) and the burning shacks, nor hear the Roma screaming and the rushing river gurgling under the rain. The fire extinguished  but its embers must have continued to glow like airport runway beacons in the night; the screams grew weaker, and fell silent. The rain continued to fall. But I knew the fire on the opposite  riverbank and the screams in the night would return. And I felt a mounting  responsibility.

I drove around the city in the nocturnal downpour asking myself why I didn’t try to help as Auden said we should. Am I a coward? I don’t know. I’ve never been tested. Never even a physical test until tonight. But was this test valid? Did it count? Well, why should it not count? After all, what happened really happened. If I saw what I thought I was seeing, I was being tested. But who was testing me? I just happened to be there after a rendez-vous with a lady friend.

A love? you ask. Would love change anything? It does? It changes everything? You mean that if I love her, my unascertained cowardice would not count? Oh, I agree, love counts for sure. But would my love in that moment count more than my cowardice on the riverbank?

I keep using that word: cowardice. But there are many degrees of cowardice. Synonyms such as cravenness and dastardliness seem far-fetched; spinelessness, banal. Timidity and wariness are only vaguely cowardly! Besides, I’m not timid. I will likely never know if it was cowardice that blocked me there on the other riverside. Or if I’d lost my chance.

Disclaimers came to mind: the fiery red was a fata morgana, not even there. Or if it was real, it was just kids having fun around a bonfire. And that dah-dah-dah-dah was just part of the usual urban noise. Or, it was all a figment to begin with, something about a triangle. My wild imagination. My affliction.

                                                   3.

I drove aimlessly around the city. Where should the coward go? Home, to wife and children? Or off into the night to the one who would welcome me in a special way? Anyway, my hours no longer seemed unusual. Not to friends and lovers at least. Street lights flashed past. Windshield wipers swished and banged, back and forth, back and forth, tac tac tac, faster and faster, and I still wondered where all the water comes from. I crossed bridges over the Styxian river, sped through yellowish urban tunnels, stared at the unbearable fixed red light atop the television tower and listened for the siren speaking its repetitive language.

Abruptly I found myself parked in front of her house in the northern part of the city. The rain drummed on the car roof. Could I go to her, smelling of fear?

Nastya was not surprised. She’s used to my hours. She says my life is surreal. Her arms went around me.

‘I was waiting. I’m always waiting. Do you love me?’

‘Of course. I’m here to love you,’ I said, but thinking: coward, coward, coward. Did I really reek of the coward’s fear?

Love in another place. Were we just another couple making love? Nastya was ecstatic. I was disgusted with me. Not because of the other woman. But because of the river fires and the Roma dying in the water. Coward! I screamed to myself.

‘Nastya, am I a coward?’ I asked later.

‘Why? What have you done that was so cowardly?’

I told her about the river fires, the shacks burning, the Roma screaming, the siren singing. I had to tell somebody.

‘I wasn’t really afraid. Not much. Besides there was that raging water between us, looking like the River Styx. It’s what I did not do. I didn’t even cross the river. I didn’t even try to save one single child, Nastya. I just came to you. Driving around in that mad rain I had the thought that cowardice and ignorance are linked.  Sometimes you’re just too ignorant to realize that you’re a fearful coward … so you live your life maybe thinking you’re heroic.’

‘Out there in the rain and the blinding lights your imagination distorts reality, Montgomery.”

“It seemed real.”

“Our there you see things in a different way. You see events that never happen. Anyway, kids love to build bonfires. Especially on riverbanks … even in the rain. Didn’t you know that?’

I leaned forward and looked her over. She looked heroic. I relive in Nastya. I live in the present tense my time with her. She looks taller in a long old-fashioned nightgown, her hair blonder than usual in the dimness of candle-light. Beautiful and sensual, but also homey. Reassuring me that everything will be all right.

‘What? Kids around bonfires in the rain. No, I didn’t know that. Just imagine, on the riverside in the rain.’

 I think about kids for a while. I think about bonfires. I think about Arks and reservoirs of water without end. But I don’t see kids and bonfires in my mind. I’m unsure what I’m seeing.

‘Nastya, I would stay for the night if you don’t mind.’ Why does she love me, the coward?

‘You know I want you here.  But don’t you have to go home? At some hour?’

‘Go back home? At some point you can’t go back … maybe never ever again. There’s a point of no return. No. I can’t go back. Above all, not tonight. Not after the fire on the riverbank … and all that water. Not after their screams and that dah-dah stronger and stronger … then fading in the night … so that I don’t even know if it was real.’

‘Oh, Schatz, just ordinary city noises.’

‘And to think, I was once so free. All the freedom in the world. Then my unfreedom began. But then I don’t think you can ever go back to the same old freedoms, can you?’

‘I don’t know. But recently I read a great writer who noted that we have to open our eyes and accept that real human life lies beyond hopelessness. And Montgomery, you know well that life’s not always heroic. There’s also tragedy … like yours.’

                                                   4.

And so a new kind of life began. Right here. In this apartment. On this square. Under the deluge, I was falling in love. How could I’ve not loved her?

Six months of a new form of hopelessness passed. Hopeful hopelessness. One morning, I was sitting at the long conference table in my uninspiring office and wondering what would happen that day. In disgust I looked over the mayhem on the alien mahogany desk. I turned on the boom box, the radio set on the classical station. Too late! Rosenkavalier was just ending. A concerto for cello was announced, a composer I’d never heard of. A certain Monn. A cello. My favorite instrument. So I listened, curiously. When the cello’s deepest tones sounded the thought occurred that it is true: the cello’s sounds are the sounds of death.

If I knew music I think I would not be as surprised as I am by its resemblance to literature, especially by the recurrent themes and motifs in both; with this difference: in good literature those themes and motifs easily morph into ideals. but I don’t yet feel that happening in music. Except … well, there is the cello and death. Reminds me of water, I think and look out the window to make sure the rain is still there. The motifs, the objects and settings, the situations and structures lurking behind the theme symbolize an idea which could become an ideal, toward which goal the creator with his narrative theme strives. So, such motifs are after all the landmarks in music and in literature … as well as in life. Sometimes in music it seems so simple: I listen to Rachmaninoff and wait until the motif-nostalgia returns, and I sing under my breath “full moon and empty arms” and smile to myself, content. Then, immediately after arrives the regret.

I pick up a picture of her and hold it at eye level: my eldest—‘my first daughter’. Only twenty-nine months. Gone. A mistake to look at it. The panic, pure, unadulterated panic sweeps over me. Like a sledge hammer it hits my stomach. Up my legs creeps the familiar weakness. The invaders are back. Over-breathing. Desperation. What can I do, alone? Only an internal explosion can end it. The only way it will ever stop. The emergency exit. Cello death. Nastya, oh, Anastasia. All-of-a-piece Nastya can talk it away. She never fails. She talks, quietly, quietly. Or with the simplicity of her eloquent silence, the silence of luxuriant forests, the silence I suspect she nourishes in secret; with her talk she turns off the deadly timer of my uncommunicative diffidence. Pulls me out of whatever obscure pit I fall into when under attack. In silence I listen to her imaginary talk. And then, slowly, gradually, it ebbs away.

Once it struck me at a sidewalk café in front of the Church of the Madeleine: ‘Back, Nastya, back to the hotel,’ I mumbled, ‘gotta get back to the hotel back onto the bed have to find a position have to search have to do it have to try have to lie down have to walk have to breathe softly slowly have to stop this fast breathing. Call a doctor, Nastya, call a doctor.  Have to have to have to. Again on the bed. Find a position. Yes, on my side, legs curled, fetal position.’

Nastya talked at the café. Just opposite the Madeleine.

‘No, no, gotta get up. Gotta get out of here. Back outside. Nastya, cancel the doctor! Have to walk. Gotta get out of here. Back to the café table. Observe the Madeleine Church. Watch the traffic.’

And Nastya talked. Held my hands in both hers, asked questions and talked.

‘It was cruelty,’ I insisted. ‘Or much more. Providence’s punishment. Yes, yes, her death is forever. No, no, nothing I can do to bring her back. She is no more … only in me.’

The talking helped. The monster thing in me moved and shifted positions, uncertainly.’ Again, I felt it. It retreated  slowly, ever so gradually, back down my legs and away. But I felt its presence, hovering over me like buzzards over a dead animal in the Mohave. It stayed there, lurking nearby. But outside me.

Later she told me she was terrified, there at the Madeleine,: I was chalk-faced. And so she talked. She always succeeded. Then when I walked around the table, beginning to feel whole again, Nastya ordered: “Talk!”

And I talked, there in front of the Madeleine. I told her about the psychiatrist who suggested that the pain came from my Protestant heritage, that in reality I didn’t consider her death an act of Fate but that of a vengeful God applying the rod to a disobedient child.

‘Was he right, Nastya? Was he right?  Still, everything seems linked. You know what I mean?’  I was not supposed to forget, the shrink admitted. But I had to come to terms with my pain. That pain had transformed into this thing, this dissolute and unpredictable barometer-monster; creeping up and down along the dark corridors of my legs and psyche straight to my stomach and heart.

‘I was alone, that fake Freudian said. Alone! Nastya. I had to fight alone my fragility, my terrors, my anxiety and panic attacks, my claustrophobia, my timidity, my insecurity and the awareness that I am who I am, he said, and that I have to live with me. Still, today, Nastya, I live with me. Anastasia, I love you. I need you.’

But the eternal question remains, I thought: Will the hole in me never close? Is mourning never complete? Or is mine not real mourning for her, but only self-pity. Or do my manias, my pain  my inability to accept that she is gone forever, does it all result from a refusal to accept the finality of death?

And so, talking, making love, I fell in love with Nastya over and over. I, who walking across the campus at a great university, girls giggled at, me in my Irish woolens and tan topcoat, and they said that I was a real playboy. I nearly died of chagrin. The girl was right. I looked at myself in a hotel room mirror and vowed to get rid of all the new woolens. It was 1990. They still needed warm clothes in Russia. In the end Nastya sent it all to Leningrad.

                                                   5.

Still, rumors continued to circulate. Playboy Monty! Sports cars, flashy lifestyle, women. Even the President’s secretary, one said. Right on the old man’s office couch. Executive secretary again. Executing. Now, my life was measured by before Nastya time and since Nastya time. Days were work, the late afternoon drive for the children, a film with one or the other, weekends skiing, museums, the puppet theater, birthdays. And nights, Nastya.

Still, I was marked. For others my life was bizarre. The mark of Cain was upon me … to protect me from my own weaknesses, I hoped. But when the President invited me to a private lunch, I knew it was all over, like General Paulus knew Germany had lost the war when the Soviet Union surrounded and  defeated his Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

After drinks and compliments on my achievements, he got to the point, oh, so off-handedly, so mildly, that at first I hardly perceived where he was leading me. A short-lived deception.

‘Now Montgomery, you know how we appreciate you here. Despite your great personal loss back then which saddened us all, your advancement has been meteoric. Back in my early days things moved according to a much slower rhythm, more methodical, more hierarchical. ’

The axe was about the fall.

‘But not everyone understands you. Now voices have reached me, er, Montgomery, critical voices which we cannot ignore, considering the sensitive nature of our cultural and, I must underline, moral tasks. You can appreciate our point of view. The Board agrees that the situation must be, er, remedied in some way. The opinion is that for your own well-being you should normalize your personal affairs. We all, Board, managers and general staff, think highly of your beautiful family and truly wish for your sakes a restoration of the serenity of your former family relations. Otherwise, Montgomery, it is, umm, impossible for me to forecast future Board actions.’

The die was cast. The President and his mythical Board had laid down the law: get your shit together or you are the ex-youngest ever Operations Director. So I should patch a family life back together, return home and abandon Nastya … or I was out. Out of a job, out of a lifestyle, out, out, out. On the outside again in real life. Still on the opposite riverbank. What to do? As Camus wrote, it’s not easy to become what we are. And hard to find again our most profound measure. There where the truth counts. Always the truth.  Is that a limit? I wonder, eyeing the Old Man with profound distaste.

The next day we were departing for the South. A work vacation. Actually, it was the time of decision. To choose between Nastya and love and a failed family. Or choose not to choose and let the chips fall where they may.

We saw the majestic Dolomites, we admired The Last Supper, we commented on the Davide and we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, we took the ferry for a lunch on Ischia knowing all the time the end was near.

We drove back home at night. In the early morning hours Nastya curled on the seat with her head in my lap. The last eighty kilometers, as the first light rose from the East, Nastya took me in her mouth and while I stroked her golden hair she held me until we reached home.

It was our good-bye. During our drive she had spoken with compassionate doubt of my belief that I could live a decent life without my children: I had lost one child. I could not bear to lose the others. She would return to her home country; I back to my old life.

But my duplicity remained in me. As did my desperation at the reality of losing the great love of my life mixed with gratitude for her generosity. However, I still didn’t reveal to her the real for reason for my return ‘home’: the President’s threat.

Nor did I reveal that factor to my wife either when we agreed to try again for the sake of our children. Double deception. Was it cowardice or prudence?

And now the bleak reality for me remains the same—the President and the mystical Board, my job and the detestable mahogany desk, the dark river and the unrelenting rain notwithstanding. Who is going to talk away the monster of her gone and never-to-return now?

Absurd my presumption that I could have it all: both Nastya and my family. Now I have to live for the rest of my life with the consequences of my cowardice … or my prudence . And I hang onto the hope that I will never get used to that mahogany desk.

The End.

 

 

Categories: Fiction

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