canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Urban Decomposition

by Misha Firer

1.

Yet again the electric circuits switched with a dull, but loud snap, responding to a whimsical command of some illegal resident downstairs. Then there was a brief pause, during which the electric impulse was decoded. The engine revved up, a drone of cables, and the elevator lurched to obey a human imperative. After a few seconds of the usual racket, the droning ceased, yielding a brief moment of stillness and silence. Then the engine exhaled raucously and the doors slid apart way down on the first floor, admitting passengers who were headed up to the third.

I said to Sveta, "How can you stand this constant elevator noise?"

Her "penthouse" was adjacent to the engine room, the operational center for the elevator. She shifted in her improvised bed Ėa horizontal closet minus its door Ėand replied with a shrug, "One can get used to anything. For example, when I was a sex slave and lived in a brotheló"

Her favorite speech about her illustrious past was drowned by the gargle of the engine. "óand the madam would come andó" A loud snap with the aggressive edge of clothing being torn obliterated the middle of her sentence. "óand beat me up repeatedly" she finished.

I slid my hand over her nakedness as if feeling for the scars, the telltale signs of violence. But I only rediscovered the familiar contours of a slender female body. These were the individual forms I was getting used to possessing, an ersatz set.

She spoke in a melodic Russian accent that softened the hard edges of the English language. "Do you think your wife suspects anything?"

"She has a lot of stuff on her mind," I answered, expecting the elevator to snap back into its irritable rite within its shaft. Though it was past midnight, the elevator's migration only intensified. "I need to go and talk to the tenants, " I said, determined to satisfy my need this time. "This is my building after all and they have no right to be here at this late hour."

"Neither do I," Sveta said and giggled nervously.

I wondered what was the real reason behind my sudden resolution. It must have been the elevator noise, a repetitious, mechanical clamor that shattered my peace of mind as if punishing my illusions of the innocence of my illicit pleasure.

"What if they get pissed off and call your wife?"

I just want them to start using the stairs for a change, I thought, but said nothing. Sveta propped herself up on her elbows and said calmly, "Iíll go with you, Jim."

I met my future wife in college. The campus building where Mandy worked was constructed on a steep slope. It was erected geometrically perpendicular as if to delude the public into believing that the Earth was actually flat. Her corner office was located on the ground floor forming a triangle whose apex cleaved the black earth. Outside her dusty window was a stream with translucent waters flowing by, with the sound of urination.

She worked as an administrative assistant for concurrent enrollment, a special program for re-entry students above the age of thirty. I was taking a few architecture courses, doing it mostly for fun, as my primary employment was to collect rent payments from an office building downtown, formerly owned by my late father. I went to Mandyís office to fill out my application.

I remember peering through the bushes that grew protectively over the entire perimeter of the gray wall and seeing her bending over a computer screen. Here she was spending her self-incarceration, her 9-to-5 until-retirement sentence. Apparently she was enjoying herself because she was smiling at a conversation she was having on her cell phone.

I rapped on the door, and she opened it immediately as if she had been waiting for me to arrive. "Oh hi," she said. "Iím James Gallogan. Can I please have an application? I want to take a class. After all these years, I want to be young again, at least for a short while."

She answered in a professional tone, emphasized by her manly attire: black trousers and a smart jacket. "My name is Mandy, and I am here to assist you. You can ask me for any information related to our program, and I will answer in the most efficient and practical way." She had a decade of experience, thatís what she meant.

I looked around. Her office was a museum of orderliness and cleanliness. Each object occupied its preordained niche, every piece of paper lay where it belonged. She reached for a shelf holding carefully stacked application forms and handed me one.

"Here," she pointed with her pen at the page and then marked certain lines, "do not fill in here, here or here. Trying to save you time." She said, beaming me the tiniest smile. Mandy wouldnít squander any energy on straining her facial muscles for no reason.

She stepped back and sat down on her swivel chair, rolling the rest of the way to her computer. Then she placed her fingers on the keyboard, closed her eyes like a pianist preparing for the evening's program, and began to play a plastic cacophony of touch typing.

As I listened to her concert of letters, I felt an emotional twinge. Something clicked, and snapped in my heart. I held my breath, and exhaled slowly. The admission form forgotten, I approached the keyboard player. I said to Mandy, who would be my wife in two months, "Would you like to go out with me?"

She turned around and said coolly, "This is a bit abrupt."

"Just a cup of coffee at International House if you donít mind." I blabbered meekly.

"I need to check my calendar," she said, all business, "Why donít you fill out your application, while I finish with my email and then I'll check my calendar?"

It turned out that she had a free 20-minute slot, somewhere between three and four 2 days hence. We planned our rendezvous carefully, by checking weather conditions, foot traffic to the International House cafť and the average number of customers during that time period.

We met and instantly generated a synergy between us. Chemistry seemed to be there. We spoke about our work, current politics, TV programs and technological advances. Consequently Mandy was motivated to find more holes in her electronic calendar to fill in with our meetings, our dates. Finally the time had come to apply for scientific and technological resources to devise our compatibility, to draw out the potential for a prolonged union.

As the ancients checked the stars to draw charts of couplesí compatibility, we post-moderns rely heavily on scientific diagnosis to achieve the same effect. To confirm the adequacy of our union we made an appointment with a relationship counselor. After conducting a vast number of psychological tests, he gave us his blessings. After that we went to a financial advisor to plan our conjoined material life. He was nothing but optimistic.

Everything was working out just fine. "Weíre doing everything so efficiently," Mandy said, her smile growing larger and larger by the day. Then a proposal, right after meeting the counselor and financial advisor. Two rings bought on the Internet with free shipping. A posh restaurant with reserved seats in a secluded corner. Whispers in the artificial penumbra. Slight touches of hands. And an affirmative response.

Mandy carved out a week for the honeymoon that we spent in a chain hotel in the subtropics, and I paid the expenses. Returning home in business class, Mandy said quietly, "In seven to ten years we can start thinking about having a baby." I hugged my wife and said words as old as language itself.

2.

When we reached the first landing, I heard a soprano voice above the mechanical din of the elevator. The voice broke up and fell to smithereens, but its owner didnít give up. She began right from where she left off on a false note, and continued "ahhhh."

"What the hell is that?" I said alarmingly.

"Neo-fascists practicing German arias I expect."

I exclaimed, "What? Fascists?"

Sveta shrugged her shoulders with a trace of mirth about her lips, as if taunting my ignorance while vaunting her own sophistication. She took the eccentricities of my tenants for granted, while I, the owner of the building, knew nothing about them.

"What the hell are they doing that for?" I asked dumbfounded, no longer worried about saving face, having come to trust her observations. "

"They are cultivating neo-fascism based on German cultural traditions. They are like a country within a country. They believe that when they come to power, they will overhaul your present political system andó"

"Jesus, are you serious?"

Sveta shrugged her shoulders again, feigning a lack of engagement. She said derogatively, "They are harmless without a strong, charismatic leader. I donít think you risk anything personally or socially by leasing them the space."

Recently my reality had been dissolving as if metaphysical acid had been applied to it by some invisible power. "But they are called the American GlobeVision Company. Well, thatís what the plaque on their door says."

Sveta laughed mockingly, "Plaque, shmack."

"Thatís what they told me too. Database company, or computer corporation, I donít really remember, but definitely notó"

Now menís voices joined the womanís, a masculine choir consisting of about half a dozen individuals, with a low-pitched tonality. When it too broke down from sheer inexperience, it had an edginess and hoarse frustration that resembled the elevatorís. As I thought about the elevator, it came to its mechanical life, and plunged down the shaft towards the ground.

"Do you want to say Ďhií to them? They are nice people you know, despite their lunatic beliefs."

"Are you telling me that you know those people?"

"The only bathroom is located on their floor. So naturally I run into them, and have to explain who I am. We struck a deal that weíd keep our mouths shut about each otherís illegal presence here."

I laughed. What did I careóit was my building after all, and I could do anything I wanted. For instance if I wished to I could throw them all out. All of them. And look for normal tenants.

We were still standing on the landing, between the attic and the third floor, from which the inept opera singing was recommencing. I asked Sveta, careful to sound matter-of-fact, "What about the first floor tenants?" I was leasing the space to a music studio, to a rap music studio.

Sveta laughed with that sneer of hers that was becoming characteristic, "They are paranoid all the time. There are two black kids living there on a permanent basis."

I sighed. They too were supposed to leave the building at the end of workday. I cut off her speech, "Are there any more illegal residents here that I should know about?"

Sveta shook her head, "Thatís it, as far as I know. Those rappers on the first floor used to drive me crazy. They would come up to the roof-- once the neo-fascists told them that I lived up there-- and tell me not to open the door under any circumstances. ĎThere are people who are trying to kill us. So if you hear footsteps outside your room, ignore them, and donít make a sound because those guys are armed and dangerous.í"

"What a bunch of crap."

"Only I do hear footsteps on the roof outside my attic at night. So I follow their advice and just lie still, afraid even to breathe. Itís a good thing there are no windows up there, or they might try to break in."

"Great," I said sarcastically, "Just what I need -- a murder in my building. Answering to the police, going to court, testifying." Then I added. "I guess Iíll have to throw them all out: the neo-fascists, the paranoid rappers, everyone. Of course Iíd have a legal problem with breaking the leases that still have another year to go."

"What about me? Would you throw me out of here too? Or will you let me stay?" Sveta said beseechingly, bowing her head, as if to show her humility, her total dependence on my will, or whim.

"Yes, I'm going to kick you out of here and get you a better place to live," I leered.

~

It had always been a matter of "Job," and not "job" with Mandy. She could easily have quit working if she wished to. Our financial adviser drew up an alternate plan, in which Mandy became a full-time housewife, with one point seven children, and I returned to work at my old architecture firm, concurrently collecting rent money from the downtown offices. And yet Mandy declined any proposal that freed her from work outside the household, and announced a unilateral decision to continue pursuing a career in higher education. "It is my self-realization," she emphasized her dedication, her uncompromising stance in the matter. "Itís not about economics, itís about me leaving a legacy behind. I fulfill myself through my work. Do you understand that, Jim? I mean, can you understand that?"

But it was easier to understand than to accept. Mandyís promise of having 1.7 children seven to ten years after our honeymoon would probably be postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Mandy checked her electronic calendar, and pronounced that there was absolutely no slot for a child there in the years to come. "We just canít do it, Jim. A sane decision would be to wait till our retirement and then have a child. Life expectancy has risen sharply, and medical advances can actually guarantee that at fifty five I will be able to have a child, if not naturally, then through in vitro fertilization."

I wondered where had it all begun with Mandy. Was she already conditioned to be such an efficient and over-productive member of society when she attended high-school? College? Was it her first job in a fast-food restaurant that taught her her place in the material world?

Yes, job had become her Job, and grew to an exaggerated, gargantuan proportion, subordinating her physics and metaphysics to the servitude of the machine God that she worshiped from nine to five plus overtime. She learned to subdue her personality to a standardized work ethic and structured her life identically to all the other workaholics. So even when she came home, she didnít, couldn't untangle herself from the all-pervasive standardization. She fell into line by plugging herself into the TV, where her tastes and likes were engineered, into a unified pattern, to match those of multitudes of others. She succumbed to the Machine even from the sofa in our living room.

And yet there was room for tranquility in our lifestyle. Slowly I realized how easy it was to live peacefully and without quarrels and ugly arguments. We had distinct, unshared pasts, but they didnít have to be reconciled, in fact they were of no significance, because we dedicated ourselves to living in the present for the sake of the future. We sacrificed our identities, etched in our childhood and youth in order to occupy the communal ground of low and high fidelity waves, of uniform, interconnected highway networks, upon which everyone became like everyone else: a customer, a consumer, a watcher, a driver. We relentlessly and endlessly spent our time shopping and discussing the latest products. Even our love dwelled on the periphery of the realm of material things, our thoughts and dialogues revolved around acquisition and possession of new merchandise.

We surrounded ourselves with impeccable cleanliness, both in the office and at home (with time these two locations merged into one, connected by a third -- the driving that became a unifying paradigm). Sterility augmented by the application of countless detergents and chemical sprays was like a clean slate on which we could write the narrative of our lives anew. There were no traditions, no memories, no dignified past to draw from. We anesthetized and amnesia-ized ourselves from both its bliss and its horror.

What remained was only a condition of planned obsolescence, both in material and spiritual spheres, a condition that demanded that we continuously remain brand-new, untainted by prior usage.

The common denominator was established: between Mandy and me, between society at large and the two of us. Whether we nicknamed it Job, or Home Entertainment, the Machine shaped our existence, and defined us as its integral cogs. We stripped ourselves of our unique identities and metamorphosed into two products that too could be purchased on the open market. We became the market and the market became us.

But if Mandy was content to be stripped of her identity, I still dreamily, innocently longed for freedom, untainted by its vulgar, falsified representation pummeling me from all sources of mass-communication.

But I didnít know how to self-realize myself in this society, whose mores I didnít whole-heartedly accept. But if I were to be a rebel, I thought, I would need a cause.

To counter my wifeís ambitions, but mostly to fill in my hours of loneliness, which I refused to spend in front of the TV, I took a position as an architect in a small firm. I saved the coordinates of my commute on the GPS system of my SUV and thus established my brand-new routine.

On the way to my new job I passed through a dilapidated immigrant neighborhood. Their living conditions presented a stark contrast to ours. They lived in deep poverty. And yet . . . Children ran amok, barely dressed, screaming and shouting, all over the place. There were so many of them. In my part of the city I saw more dogs than children. I thought, if these people were to visit us, they would think that we were on the brink of extinction. Here, on the other hand, life was pouring, erupting, flowing without constraint.

3.

Retrospectively I thought that a feeling of dťjŗ vu had guided me to ascend the last flight of stairs on an exploratory tour to view the skyline from the roof of my office building. From the elevator platform on the third floor I turned and pushed open the door to the litter-strewn stairs covered with gray carpet. I climbed up and paused on the top landing. Ahead of me was another door leading to a room containing the elevator motor and its electric control panel. To the left Ėa bolted exit door to the roof, and to the right, an attic, clogged with paint cans, boards, and similar construction debris. But wait a second (and here the dťjŗ vu started taking the shape of a distinct childhood memory), why does the door stand ajar?

Every subsequent movement was a duplicated action, a mirror-copy of one I had carried out many years ago as a boy. I stepped into an infinite regress, a zillion reflections of my image walking towards the attic door, getting ready for a surprise confrontation. I flung the door to the attic wide open, and stepped in -- permutations mimicking me to the minutest detail.

I confronted a young woman whom I had never seen before, squatting on the floor, engrossed in reading. My mind conceptualized her as my cousin Sarah. Sarah, who had had a passion for exploring dangerous architectural enclosures with me following behind like a faithful serf wherever she went, bravely and blindly, most recently directed by a sexual reflex.

My mind lapsed into rewinding the tape of an almost-forgotten memory, when my cousin decided to explore the decrepit Control Tower of a deserted military airport. She pried open the boarded up entrance and the stench of the moldy interior mercilessly bit at our nostrils. The wood floor had rotted and we had to tread carefully to avoid falling through to the basementóif there was a basement. The floor was densely covered with old paper: books, brochures, scrapbooks, letters. I picked up a random piece of paper. It was the front page of an airplane mechanic's test. It was dated 1944.

My cousin headed for the stairs and mounted the first flight, while I was still inspecting the pages I picked up randomly from the messy floor. When I looked up, Sarah had already climbed to the second level. I dashed after her, not wanting to be left behind. At the time she was twelve, and I had just turned thirteen.

The steps were wobbly. The air smelled bad: I still wasn't used to its foulness. Daylight shone dimly through cracks in the barricaded windows. I heard my cousinís steps ahead of me. Doggedly I sprinted after her, although fear was finding its way into my chest, as my imagination augmented and distorted my perception of the abandoned locale as inhabited by all sorts of grotesque and dangerous creatures.

I ran in circles, climbing higher and higher. When I looked down the stairs the bottom one seemed miles away. If I had been alone I would have turned back immediately because I was afraid of heights. But Sarah never backed down during her quests to explore human constructions. Abandoned places reserved a special fascination in her heart. I needed to follow her today more than ever.

Finally I reached the glazed enclosure at the top of the tower. They hadn't boarded up the windows there, allowing a generous panorama of the suburb where we lived. My head spinning, I sat on the floor that too was densely strewn with withered pages, and said, "Come, sit with me."

Sarah was taking in the visual characteristics of her discovery. She inspected the old-fashioned control panels with their dusty levers, flaked receivers and broken switches. She had uncovered yet another human enclosure, a bizarre structural interior. Sarah wasnít interested in the labyrinths of nature: forking paths of a forest, jagged surfaces of mountains, or seas with their churning and stirring fluidity. Mazes of architectural structures, thatís where she preferred to deliberately lose herself, taking her time for re-mapping, codifying into her mindscape the urban and semi-urban topography. I was her mute follower, a mere sidekick in her bold exploratory forays.

Sarah looked at me derisively, "Tired?"

She didnít detect any hormonal undertone in my request, being preoccupied with enjoying the fruits of her completed project. "Yes," I said bowing to her superior strength. I didnít mind giving in to her mirth, for that day I felt exalted. I had a premonition that my cousin would corner herself at the farthest outreach of the enclosures she had conquered. Today would be the day of her first defeat, and her true victory: Sarah would incorporate the ultimate enclosure that she had been seeking throughout the years. Finally, we would swap sides, and I would be the discoverer, and she, the follower.

I shook myself out of memory lane, and stared at the young woman squatting in the attic that had been cleared of garbage.

"Who are you?" I asked her, trying to make my voice sound soft. But when she answered, her words propelled me back to the source of the dťjŗ vu feeling that had originally coerced me to make this unexpected discovery of this new resident.

Sarah approached and looked at me disparagingly. "Get up, Jim."

"Come sit with me." I was the voice of a spider talking to an arrogant fly that thought that she had a monopoly on the airspace.

Sarah stared at me suspiciously. It was my turn to feel arrogant: what would she suspect with her mind focused on her own daring-do. And she squatted right by my side like that strange young woman in the attic would many years later. I spoke nervously, seeing my heart beat vibrating the left side of my shirt. "Do you want to kiss me?"

Sarah blinked and said, "This is a bit abrupt."

Because we had reached the farthest and highest enclosure, I would have justified my request, if I could have articulated its complexity in a few direct words. And now you have to become the dream that you sought Ėand found--, and let me make it a reality.

"Because I love you, Sarah," I said instead. "I donít want any more architectural adventures."

"You are a coward," she found refuge in her favorite accusation. "Thatís why you donít like adventure."

I smiled. The fly didnít sound self-assured anymore, as she had been exposed to the knowledge that she neither was entirely in control of her inner world nor of the world outside. Again, I didnít have enough sophistication to articulate my understanding of her folly. I said, "Kissing is an adventure too you know."

Sarah frowned and said painstakingly, "We canít do it, Jim, because we are cousins. My mom told me that." She propped herself up. Then she added after deliberation, "Look, you donít have to go on adventures with me if you donít want to." I wondered if she knew what she was talking about, but I listened to her, as I had always done.

The strange young woman stirred and asked uneasily, "Are you the owner of this building?"

I nodded and pointed at the unmade bed. "And you must be an illegal resident."

"Iím a runaway sex-slave," the young woman said. And only now did I notice that she spoke with an accent. "I had nowhere to go. I lived with the floor-washers near the Super Center on the other side of town, but they kicked me out. Told me that I was wrecking their bachelor camaraderie. The stupidest thing I ever heard in my life."

I sat on the edge of the bed, "Iím not in a hurry. My wife left for a two-day assignment out of state. I have no children, and practically no friends." I wondered why was I so open with her, this wasnít even a television show. "So you can tell me the story of your life. It already sounds interesting. Where are you from by the way?"

"Moscow," she said grudgingly. "Itís in Russia."

"I know. Iím Jim."

"Sveta."

"Svatah?"

"No," she cried out angrily, stomping the floor with a dull thump, "Sveta."

Sveta ushered me into the local branch of the neo-fascist headquarters a. k. a (to me at least) American GlobeVision, Co. She took me on a tour as if she had been issued a professional license to do so.

There were four offices joined in a single, continuous U-shaped space. When we entered the door with a plaque that read "American GlobeVision," the first thing I saw was rows of books. When I approached close enough to read their bindings, I realized that they were all translations from German. Schiller, Goethe, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx. Across from the shelves that occupied the entire expanse of one wall were maps: of the city, of the country and the world.

Sveta said, following my gaze, "They want to conquer the entire world, but they are going to start small, with the streets of this city."

There was a buzz of voices coming from the adjacent room, not of singing, but of discussion. "They have a meeting to talk about economics every Wednesday. They are figuring out what they will do once the present economic system collapses in the near future." Sveta remarked.

Wondering how quickly they could switch from opera to economics, I followed behind Sveta as she led me to the far side of the room. There was an old computer in the corner, and heaps and heaps of magazines. I took one from the top. It read Neo-Fascist Quarterly. Then it occurred to me to look around to seek the presence of their famous occult symbol, the swastika: but it was nowhere to be found.

"I donít see anything referring to Hitler," I noted, still inspecting every inch of the walls and the floor.

"You wonít. They are reformed fascists. Besides they want to keep a low profile. Nazism is not marketable you know."

A man opened the door, peering out from the economics meeting. He was a dwarf of uncertain age. I placed him between twenty five and forty. He stared at me with fear in his eyes. I thought, I have not been in this office since these guys moved in about a year ago. I had always received the rent check outside of the office. That dwarf, Iíd never seen him in my life. Indeed it was a day of discoveries.

"Itís fine, Chris," Sveta said placidly. "He doesnít mind, does he?" And she nudged me in the back with her sharp elbow. I gave a start. "No," I said. "As long as you pay on time and donít damage my property, I donít mind at all."

"See?" she said with gusto. "Now relax Chris and say Ďhií to your landlord."

"Hi Jim," the dwarf said. I wondered how he knew my name.

He sneaked back into the meeting, closing the door behind him like a video being rewound, stopped and ejected.

"Letís go," I said to Sveta. "Now show me the rappers."

When we were crossing the corridor to the elevator, I heard the opera singing again. The meeting on economics proved to be very brief. Or maybe they just loved to sing opera so much that they took breaks to do it during their meetings.

I asked Sveta, "What else do they do?"

"Oh they are harmless as I told you." Sveta said with her haughty lightness. "They phone people from the white pages and try to brainwash them into attending their meetings. Then they organize demonstrations, which no one attends except them. Mostly they just read Schiller in English, make popcorn, pretend they can sing and dream of a better world."

The elevator arrived. "So basically they are dreamers?" I asked and pressed "1".

Sveta said, "They are rebels who canít reconcile themselves with reality. As rebels they have no cause, because they donít have enough imagination to come up with one. So they hook themselves up to German cultural tradition, from Bach to Hitler, and dream their illusive, incoherent dreams. They are pathetic, if you want my opinion."

The first floor seemed to be deserted. Or so I thought. Again, Sveta led the way. She seemed to know the building better than its owner did.

Sveta rang a bell. An ominous pause ensued, filled in by a fearful question, "Who is it?"

"Itís Sveta, the girl from the roof."

Cautiously, "Are you alone?"

"Jimís with me."

Suspiciously, angrily, "Who the fuck is Jim?"

"Your landlord."

The pause sprung back. I thought he wouldnít open the door but finally he unbolted the gates to his rented castle.

A black teenager stood on the threshold, brandishing a gun.

"Would you please put it down," I pointed at the gun.

He obediently tucked it into his belt. "Gotta protect myself. The motherfuckers try to mess with us almost every night." He offered his version of an apology.

"Whereís your friend Lou?" Sveta asked, leaning against the wall.

"Thatís what Iím saying. Lou went to a meeting with those motherfuckers. Our producer set it up. The bitch figured we could cut a record together. Make more money. Sales been down recently." He had been speaking to Sveta all along, but now he turned to me and explained his illegal presence, "Iím sorry, man, for staying overnight here. Hiding out, waiting for the motherfuckers to come busting in. You know, itís better to meet on neutral ground."

"I wouldnít want to have to talk to the police about any shootings on my private property. Especially now that I know what's going on."

The rapper glared at me. Then he checked his ready-to-explode temperament, and said meekly, "Sure, man. This is the last time. I promise."

When we were climbing to the rooftop, I said to Sveta, "I want to have children, Sveta. Many, many children. Not just one or two. Four, five, six, seven."

Sveta smirked and spoke to me disparagingly, as if I were a child myself. "Youíd have to take care of those children you know. And I donít mean to say that you wonít have enough money, Jim. Children cry, shit, pee and constantly crave attention. Youíd need to dedicate all your time to them, especially if you have a whole lot of them. Are you prepared for that responsibility?"

I responded by asking her another question, "Would you like to have a lot of children?"

We reached the uppermost landing with the three doors: to the elevator control room, to the attic and to the rooftop. I opted for the rooftop. Sveta said, "Iíll be honest with you and tell you about my priorities." My hand froze in the air I reached to unbolt the door.

She said, her face intent, "I want to live in a nice house in the suburbs and have a job, just like you do. And to your question, no, I donít want to have many children. One or two would be plenty, and even that Iím in no hurry. You might not value what you have, Jim, because youíve always had it. But I went through a lot of shit in my life, and being a sex-slave wasnít the worst of it. There were times when I had nothing to eat. When I had nothing to wear. I came to this country because I want my American Dream. And that includes a job, a house, and a car. I want to start living for myself, enjoying myself, Jim. These are my priorities, not having seven children."

My hand was sliding the bolt, but my mind was miles away. And so I didnít hear what Sveta was saying after the part about her life priorities. Her hand lay on mine, putting a stop to its movement. I heard her repeating what she had just said.

"I have this ailment, what you call it, andtrophobia, alophobia, agoraphobia . . . I donít think itís a good idea for me to go out on the roof."

4.

While we were auto-cruising along the GPS-prescribed path to our local shopping mall I feared my wife would detect the new driving pattern saved in the memory of our SUV, a wayward route to Sveta's new apartment.

We passed through a neighborhood of shanties and pulverized asphalt that looked as if the inhabitants had started some road renovations, but suddenly ran out of funds. I locked the doors with my index finger. My mind was engulfed with macabre visions of snarling creatures clawing at the windows, attacking the portable security of our imposing vehicle. The monetarily deficient mutants whose bodies were deformed by the toxic dumps illegally excavated next to their neighborhoods pressed their drooling snouts to our bullet-proof windows, as if they could diffuse into the cab and share our privacy, our customized comfort.

When I shook myself from my nightmare, the reality perceived from interior of our impeccably clean SUV was as boring and monotonous as I had always remembered it.

We went to a much-advertised movie in an air-conditioned vacuum, crunching popcorn and washing it down with a super-size soda. Afterwards we discussed the film with such seriousness, as if it were real and the actors were real people doing real things.

When we scrambled into our SUV, I felt my wifeís mood change drastically. When I turned to Mandy, her emotional turmoil rose to the surface. I instinctively leaned towards the radio and turned up the volume just in case she started screaming. "Wait till we get home."

Her face reddened. She clenched her fists, suppressing an emotional outburst, opting for implosion rather than explosion. "Good girl," I muttered. I turned the ignition key. A quarrel scene in the shopping mall could cost me my job. I thought about my house and two cars and cranked up the sound to about two-thirds capacity -- the socially permitted limit.

Mandy said nonchalantly as if talking about the weather, "I know that you have a mistress."

As I drove back over the reverse GPS path, I wondered how my wife had found out about Sveta. I waited till we got home, to the sanctity of our bedroom unmonitored by security cameras, to ask her that question. It occurred to me that she might think of recording our conversation and use it against me in court. But she wouldnít do that, I reasoned, she is too scared of doing something outright illegal.

I rarely saw my wife cry or scream in all the years of our marriage. Her inner temperature had always been wintry. So I wasnít surprised to hear her speak placidly and coldly again.

"Tomorrow weíre to the financial adviser with our lawyers to figure out the most efficient way to divide our property. Then you're heading for Nevada to get a divorce. I want this to be done efficiently. I have a Job and I donít want our divorce procedures to interfere with It."

"Please meet my neo-fascist friend Albert," Sveta introduced a skinny man I vaguely remembered having seen in my office building. He was tall and wore wire-rimmed glasses. "Albert is a philosopher, and he has been reading to me from Platoís Republic."

Albert read aloud from a library book, with the fervor of a poet, the lunatic pathos of a radical politician, "Here Adeimantus interposed a question: How would you answer, Socrates, said he, if a person were to say that you are making these people miserable, and that they are the cause of their own unhappiness; the city in fact belongs to them, but they are none the better for it; whereas other men acquire lands, and build large and handsome houses, and have everything handsome about them, offering sacrifices to the gods on their own account, and practicing hospitality; moreover, as you were saying just now, they have gold and silver, and all that is usual among the favourites of fortune; but our poor citizens are no better than mercenaries who are quartered in the city and are always mounting guard?"

He commented with dreamy softness, "Plato's describing a perfect city."

"Are you fucking him?" I asked Sveta as casually as I could.

Albert continued reading without paying any attention to my abrupt question. Apparently neither did Sveta. He went on, skipping a paragraph or two, "Yes, I said; and you may add that they are only fed, and not paid in addition to their food, like other men; and therefore they cannot, if they would, take a journey of pleasure; they have no money to spend on a mistress or any other luxurious fancy, which, as the world goes, is thought to be happiness; and many other accusations of the same nature might be added."

"Answer my question, Sveta. Are you fucking him?"

Sveta responded quietly, not wanting to disturb Albert who was still reading from his library book. "Heís just a friend, thatís all. Your wife--"

Albert looked at us, his infantile face radiating a pre-pubescent smile. Apparently he hadnít heard us talking. "Plato speaks about a common denominator for universal happiness, and he actually defines happiness."

I said, "My wife wants a divorce."

"Too bad."

"Jim, do you see what Plato means?"

"Shut up," I screamed at Albert. Then I remembered, "This is my apartment. I pay the rent. I want you to get out of here, you miserable lunatic."

"Donít insult my friend." Sveta spoke sternly. Then she said to Albert, touching him gently on the hand. "Donít pay any attention to him. Heís in a bad mood today. His wife left him. Please, keep on reading."

Albert continued reading, as if he hadnít just been kicked out, choosing another passage at random. He read fervently, "If we proceed along the old path, my belief, I said, is that we shall find the answer. And our answer will be that, even as they are, our guardians may very likely be the happiest of men; but that our aim in founding the State was not the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole."

 

 

Misha Firer was born in 1979 in Ulyanovsk, Russia. He lived in Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, New York and currently resides in Oakland, California. His stories have appeared in Ascent, BIG News, City Writers, In Posse Review, Laundry Pen, Nuvein, Paumanok Review, Pink Chameleon, Rose & Thorn, Scarlet Letters, Skive, Slow Trains, Taint, Tryst, Vestal Review, Word Riot and Ululation.

 

 

 

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TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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