Pauls Bankovskis // Ofšors [Offshore],
-Ofšors [Offshore], Riga: Valters un Rapa (2006)
Up here, in the sky, everything is beautiful. All those clouds beneath you. You can’t even see the ground anymore. And the line of the horizon is at eye-level, though the horizon always seems to be set at eye-level. Up here is the place where the jagged edge of the clouds meets the blue dome of the skies, not the ground or the sea. The clouds are close by, and it seems as if you are sliding over their surface – their bumpy, wavy, porous, mountainous surface, which looks hard, solid as the floor of a dried-up ocean. Sometimes you touch the peaks of the white mountains of foam, the tips of the downy caps. A bit further on, they grow together and spread out like a forest. All around you, white and bluish-gray swirls, which look like weird trees, rise up, and you race between them as if you were rushing down the hallways of a labyrinth. Your eyes are dazzled by the bright sun, because all the clouds are either below you or beside you; but there aren’t any up there, above you. You feel hot, but you know that at these heights the air is freezing, and everything is covered with tiny shards of ice.
When they ask at the airport whether you want a window seat or an aisle seat, you always choose the window. And as soon as the plane is in the air, its nose turned in the direction of your flight, you press up against the glass and stare. And can’t turn away, as if in hope of catching sight of something even the pilot didn’t see. You hear the beverage cart approaching, rattling down the aisle, but try to ignore it. When the flight attendant asks if you’d like tea or coffee, you mumble something or wave your hand, and she pours you a drink. Sometimes tea, sometimes coffee. Or a beer; white or red wine; or maybe a Bloody Mary. Something else each time, because she really doesn’t care. You feel as if you were in a movie. A movie where an adventure awaits you. Something big. And you don’t care that she, your flight attendant (you’ve already named her “yours,” because you like her more than all the others), is flirting with the other flight attendant, the guy pushing the cart down the other aisle, the one who looks like he’s gay.
The captain begins to talk over the PA system. He speaks in sloppy English, made even worse by an indistinguishable, exotic accent, and warns about air pockets. At that moment, the plane jumps. But you like it because you know that the scenery outside the window will change. Soon you’ll see a whole different sky. Maybe the sky will be clear, cloudless. Then, down below, you’ll see burned-out deserts; grayish-green seas; the squares and trapezoids of tilled fields; the snaking lines of rivers; and mountain ranges marked by long shadows. Or maybe there will be a storm. It will grow dark; the plane will rock back and forth and toss like a boat in a swirling sea; and blue, white, and red lighting will light up the sky.
But there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re not one of those who fearfully close their window shades, brace themselves between the armrests of their chairs, and try their best to fall asleep. Or say their prayers. Or repeat to themselves the instructions, heard before take-off, about what to do in case of an emergency. Hands like this; feet like that. Oxygen mask from here; emergency exit over there. Inflate your life-vest outside the plane. Take off your high-heeled shoes; remove your dentures; leave your baggage. That’s the only thing that worries you: leave your baggage. But you don’t have much baggage with you. And you’ve never had high-heeled shoes.
You look around. You like it here, in the sky. And you like what the ground looks like from up here. Small and empty. Abandoned. As if nothing at all had happened yet. Or everything had already ended. A place where everything could start all over again. A place where anything could happen.
You close your eyes. Only for a moment, a few seconds. Then you open them. There is no storm. Only a dazzlingly bright sun. And not a cloud in the sky. Far below you see greenish and brown pastures, abutted by blooming bright-yellow canola fields and the straight angles formed by dark roads. And the curving lines of rivers. The same as back then, when you saw her face in the lines of one of these rivers. First you noticed the curve of the nose; then the forehead, lips, chin, and neck. You recognized her immediately. That’s she, you thought to yourself, happily. My beloved. The one I love. It’s a sign, you said. I love her. With your eyes, you traced her profile on the ground; then the river receded in the distance, curved differently, and all resemblance disappeared. The resemblance to her. That short moment was all you needed. But at the same time, you had the feeling that it was too short.
That’s why you looked now, too. You always look. Though you know very well that she’s no longer down there. Perhaps she’s up here, in the sky.
At least that’s what I try to tell myself, every time I’m on an airplane. This time especially.
At a certain stage in life you notice that you’re bothered to no end by things thrown about here and there, scattered all over the place. They push into your field of vision and pile up in your mind; soon there’s no room for anything else up there. Objects on a table that haven’t been placed parallel to the edge of the surface. Or at a right angle. Books that haven’t been placed in piles according to size. CDs that haven’t been arranged on a shelf in alphabetical order, but are placed haphazardly, some without covers, others with broken or dirty or empty cases. Articles of clothing tossed on the backs of chairs, on the floor, on the bed. A dirty cup with something caked on the inside, lying in the sink, which hasn’t been cleaned for ages either, and has begun to stink. Hair in the bathtub. Crumbs on the table, or under it. It all makes you sick. The chaos that accumulates, imperceptibly, around you. And you try to create order. Place things in neat piles. Clean. Arrange. Put away. So that peace might set in. So that you could sit down, take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine, or make a cup of strong coffee or green tea, put on your favorite music – one of the many favorite disks that are now easy to locate on the shelf of CDs – and think to yourself, How nice. These are my things. And only I, of everyone in the whole world, know their true meaning; no, not even their meaning – the true order in which they have any meaning at all.
But then you notice a spider-web in the corner. Or a clump of dust beneath a cabinet. Or a book placed a little crookedly. And all your joy disappears, without a trace. You can no longer calmly savor your tea or wine or coffee. You get up, though you don’t want to, look for a broom or rag, and try to eliminate this sudden menace. But when you sit down again, your tea has cooled. Or your wine no longer has that flavor that had at first seemed so enjoyable. Actually, the wine doesn’t taste good at all. There’s a strong hint of cork. And the music has stopped.
And then you notice or remember the letters. All those letters that arrived a few months ago. You read them and were all set to write back. If only a few polite lines, a kind word or two. Thanks for remembering; it was so nice to hear of your…I’ll definitely take it into consideration…I’m honored, though I’m afraid I… And so on. But then something more important came up, something urgent, and you forgot all about the letters. Slowly, gradually, and irreversibly, they got shuffled in between old newspapers, or, if the letters were on the writing desk, they got mixed up and lost under other, more important papers. Until finally they disappeared all together. Only to return right now – at the exact moment you thought you had finally achieved ideal order – returned to gnaw at your conscience and totally ruin the evening.
At moments like these you understand what Virginia Wolfe meant when she wrote about “her room.” You need your own. A place where perfect order reigns. A place where there is no room for randomness and carelessness. A place where everything is yours. And, most of all, where you have the feeling that you belong to yourself and yourself alone.
After a while, these desires become so strong that you wish to simply leave everything to fate and run away. Only to return a little later and discover that the prevailing chaos in your home isn’t as bad as it had seemed. Actually, there is greater order than you had remembered. And everything can begin all over again.
Things could continue this way interminably. For many, they probably do. But I decided to move. Without leaving my room behind. I’d pick it up like a bed, like someone stricken with palsy, and start to walk. Carry it with me like a shell. I’d only take the essentials, the things I can’t live without. Things that no reasonable person would check in as baggage on an airplane, but would take along with him. And that no cautious person would want to leave behind in case of a plane crash, no matter what they tell you in those emergency instructions stored in the seat pockets. Things without which any rescue would lose all meaning. Things that you’d want to take with you to a desert island, as they say. That’s what journalists usually ask athletes and movie stars: What would you take with you? What can’t you live without? My stamp collection. My red Lamborghini. My Ray-Ban sunglasses. My lap dog. Sex. Rembrandt toothpaste. My make-up bag (those tiny, round purses you usually see in airports, hanging from the well-manicured hands of a certain type of lady). What book or CD would you take along if you were embarking on a space mission and knew you would never return to Earth? The Bible? Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion? The Good Soldier Švejk? A complete collection of Black Sabbath albums? Plato’s Symposium? Whom have you loved all your life, but never told? Whom have you always wanted to meet? What have you always wanted to be?
Then I understood that I didn’t need anything other than my laptop. Nothing more than a high-capacity hard disk and RAM; a fast processor and internet connection; and a reliable battery. A single folder would contain all my favorite music, lots and lots of music. Another would hold all the books I haven’t read and will probably never read. Still another would contain my photographs – painful pictures and favorite pictures and pretty pictures and bad pictures. And old movies. And over here is my conscience, and over there is my consciousness. Everything that comes to mind and everything that I’ve ever thought of. Everything that I might want to go over or look at more closely. Arranged in my room.
But this idea came to me afterwards. When it was too late.
That’s why I have so few things now. Finally. Only a single small piece of luggage. Which, of course, I haven’t checked in.
You felt it the moment you understood that you like to look at her. At the same time, you didn’t want her to notice that you were looking at her. That you were watching her. You didn’t want her to notice that you like her. That’s why you looked secretly. Thinking that she didn’t see.
Later, you noticed that you like being near her. Not even closely beside her – back then you didn’t even know each other yet. Actually, you did, but not well enough to walk up to one another and start up a conversation. At the same time, you imagined this happening: seeing her, greeting each other, maybe even taking her hand. Talking. You’d always find something to talk about. Maybe you’d just sit in silence, but even then it would seem as if you were having a conversation.
You also noticed that you like everything she does. The way she moves; the way she speaks – you like everything about her: everything she owns; everything she cares for; and everything around her. Clothes, people, friends; the stores or café she frequents. Pretty soon this list of places and things grew so long that it seemed to encompass the entire city, and the whole world now seemed somehow better. And your own worries and cares seemed lighter and more inconsequential.
You looked at her, and let your eyes rest on her face, her forehead, her nose, the line of her eyebrows, the form of her lips, her chin. And you felt good.
That’s what my life used to be like.
Translated by Rihards Kalniņš
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