Although we have known each other for a long time and have spoken often, we have never spoken intimately. I was intrigued by you the first time we met at your party. Since then, I have wanted to see you alone but could never bring myself to ask.
You probably do not recall that, during the party, I headed toward one of the bathrooms, locking your bedroom door behind me. If anyone had tried to enter the room during my inspection of it, I would have explained I had locked that door because I had not been able to lock the one to the bathroom. I opened your closets and checked the proportion of evening dresses to sports clothes, noting their quality and condition. I examined your underwear and the heels and soles of your shoes. Then I flipped through some of the letters I found on your desk, read a few, and glanced over your checkbook, telephone and hotel bills and airline ticket receipts.
In the bathroom, I surveyed your cosmetics and studied the vials of pills in your medicine cabinet.
I wrote down the name of each doctor on the label, the prescription date and indicated dosage, then took a sample from every bottle.
That evening, I talked to a couple in their thirties who said they had known you for years. The woman, a bit drunk, said, “Look at me, Mr. Tarden. Once, a long time ago, I was soft and moist and supple. It was a time, if you can imagine, when staying thin wasn’t a losing battle, when I didn’t suffer from lower back pain, when I wasn’t on my way to a drying-out tank like so many other women. Now my only unique features are my fingerprints, which developed even before I was born. When I was in high school, any idiot could foresee the kind of man I would marry, what our children would be like and the sort of home we would live in. Anyone could have predicted then that my life would become as dried out and bleached by alcohol and boredom as my hair and skin are by the sun and wind.” She raised her Scotch in a mocking salute. Her husband joined her in the toast and they both laughed, displaying their capped teeth, white against their dark tans.
When I returned home from the party, I took out the pills I had stolen from your bathroom and looked through the most recent edition of the Physicians’ Desk Reference, which includes full-sized, color reproductions of all currently marketed medications. I identified the proper chemical name of each of your drugs and read about its composition, use and side effects. For some reason, learning these details increased my desire to know you. The afternoon we met by accident and I drove you home, I wanted to invite you to the apartment I rent as Tarden, the only name you know me by. But I was afraid that, if I did see you alone, you might be upset by what I had to say, by my desire to share my life with you. I did not want to just tell you about my past. I wanted you to relive it.
Instead of taking you to my apartment, I dropped you off at your home and drove toward the theater district. I pulled alongside the curb, where prostitutes lounged against the buildings waiting to be picked up, made my choice and motioned her to come over. I told her what I wanted and we agreed on a price.
Later, at my apartment, while she was taking a shower, I felt terribly dizzy. I sank into a chair, exhausted and sweating.
I had difficulty breathing and suddenly my heartbeat seemed irregular. I heard the girl singing in my bathroom, and wondered what would happen if I should die right then. It wasn’t the thought of dying that disturbed me, but that I might die without leaving a trace.
I saw it all: the girl would come out of the bathroom and find me sprawled on the floor. Having made sure I was dead, she would look through my pockets, take whatever money she found, pick up anything that seemed valuable and start to leave. But to open the door from the inside, she would have to know the three-digit combinations of the locks. She would panic, take a drink to build her courage and struggle unsuccessfully with the locks once more. Then she would give up and put back the money and the stolen articles before calling the police.
I could see the detectives force open the door, discover the body, then ask her sarcastically what she had done to break my heart. They would search the apartment for papers that might identify me and would then try to determine the cause of death. The locked drawers would contain hundreds of negatives and photographs of women taken in the apartment, nothing more. The police would joke about the man whose passion for women had killed him, and leave without finding any identification.
I have stored my important documents in vaults I rent under assumed names in residential hotels, banks and post office boxes, all prepaid on a long-term basis. I can retrieve the most essential papers at any time, and if I need to leave the country suddenly I can do so without having to return to any place that might be identified as my home.
Ever since I left the Service, I have simultaneously maintained similar apartments in major cities, every apartment located on one of the top floors of a large high-rise, each rented from a different landlord under a different assumed name. All the buildings can be entered through separate lobbies on different streets, as well as by underground garages and service entrances.
I keep master keys for all my apartments in each location, in order to be able to enter any apartment without carrying many sets of keys with me all the time; a duplicate set to each apartment is hidden somewhere in every building. I put the keys inside a small, magnetic box, which I then attach to a basement steam pipe, an incinerator shaft or some such inconspicuous place.
To be completely satisfactory, each building must have more than one staircase and elevator. I have always alternated among the apartments and never stay in any of them more than four weeks at a time. I don’t know the other tenants and I doubt if they would recognize me. Each of my apartments consists of a furnished central room with floodlamps set up for portrait and figure photography, a small kitchen, a bathroom and some space that I have converted into a photographic darkroom. I have covered the walls with a layer of cork and hung heavy curtains between the main rooms and foyers to make each apartment soundproof. I have installed locks on every door. Under each darkroom’s large work counter, I have cushioned a space large enough to sit up or stretch out in, and covered the front of it with a false wall. I can remain there for hours, unseen, hearing every sound in the apartment. With an ear-plug listening device that feeds from the main phone wiring, I can monitor incoming and outgoing telephone calls.
From my niche, I can also trigger various explosions all over the apartment. Those in the kitchen and bathroom would stun anyone who happened to be in either room and give me ample time to escape unseen. I have also set a charge in the main room that would create enough diversion to let me dash from the darkroom, through the foyer and out the door. It would also shatter the window, and, should I suffer a sudden seizure when alone and be unable to telephone for help, I could set off an explosion that would bring the police and the emergency rescue squad.
I always pay three years’ rent in advance. I also give the management a substantial cash deposit to pay bills including utilities, telephone and cable television. The landlords welcome the front money and probably assume I am a bachelor or a widower who travels a lot, and is anxious not to let the rental agreement lapse during his stay abroad. No landlord has ever bothered me about my absences.
I recently read about a man who lived alone in a small house in the suburbs. He, too, had no family and went out so seldom that few of his neighbors ever saw him. They had forgotten he even existed, until the postman noticed his mail piling up and notified the police. They found the old man at his kitchen table in front of a portable television set, his shirt unbuttoned, his tie loosened, his body already decomposing. The coroner confirmed what the police assumed from the date of the newspaper under his hand: he had been dead for two months. The set had burned out. I realized that with only a prostitute in attendance at my death I would be no better off than this man.
As soon as the girl finished her shower and left, I called Valerie, whom I had been dating for over a year. She was a resident in orthopedics whose field was joint injuries, especially those incurred by athletes. Among her patients at a suburban medical institute were men who had been perfect physical specimens, whose limbs were now useless conglomerations of torn cartilage and shattered bones.
Because of her heavy schedule, Valerie had to live at the hospital in the suburbs and could spend the night with me in the city only twice a week. I would drive out to the hospital and when she was on call, we would sit in the cafeteria for hours talking and drinking cup after cup of coffee. She told me that, at first, the other residents and the athletes from the outpatient clinic openly ridiculed her for seeing me, a man so much older than herself. Some of them thought I was keeping her. Yet once they found out I was wealthy, they all suggested she give up medicine for the good life I could provide. She knew that, although a lot of my funds were frozen, there was plenty for both of us to live on and I promised to set up an unconditional trust fund for her, in case she ever decided to leave me. I assured her that I did not expect her to love me. She would live with me, but she would be as free as I to see other people.
Valerie said that, by appointing myself her liberator, I was actually prohibiting her from shaping her own existence; I was concerned only with my own future and had created an illusion of what I wanted her to be.
She admitted that she was too detached to love anyone but was intrigued by this system of mutual independence. She wanted to continue with me in order to see if she could become emotionally or physically involved and still retain her independence.
Valerie promised she was not seeing anyone else: my need stimulated her desire to be possessed. She wanted me to memorize every inch of her body, every gram of her flesh and hair and bone and muscle.
One evening, as I sat with her in the hospital cafeteria, I saw a man passing by who glanced at Valerie as if he knew her. She did not look back at him, but I sensed she had noticed him.
A few days later, I told her I had to go to the Coast immediately. Since Valerie had planned to spend the weekend in the city with me, I suggested she come along, but she declined, saying an old girlfriend had just come to town. I gave her the keys to the apartment she knew, and phoned her on Friday that I wouldn’t be back before Monday.
I spent all Friday afternoon preparing for her visit. I wrote her one note listing my San Francisco number and another in which I explained that the sound system controlling the TV, radio and record player was out of order. I put the first note on a table and taped the second to the phonograph, which I disconnected. Next, I loaded a camera, attached an electronic flash to it, screwed in a zoom lens and put the camera in my darkroom hiding place.
At dusk I heard the first key turn. I knew I had a good minute before all three locks were opened, and, after turning off the light switch and drawing the soundproof curtain behind me, I went into the darkroom. Before the last lock turned, I had pulled aside the false wall and climbed into the niche behind it.
The front door opened and I heard Valerie and a man’s voice. As she turned on the lights, she joked about the three locks and the soundproof curtain, and he remarked he didn’t understand why she was intimate with someone as peculiar as Tarden. Valerie found my first note and read it aloud, then turned on the radio. When it remained silent for several minutes, she began checking the controls and discovered the second note.
I listened to Valerie showing her guest around the kitchen and the darkroom. When the man examined the enlarger, he was standing inches away from me.
They discussed going out, but, before they left, they made love on the carpet only two feet from my hideaway. Sitting in the darkness, I felt like a blind man with an acute sense of hearing. Valerie was much more vocal in her love-making with this man than she was with me. Later, as they took a leisurely bath together, I learned that he was married but was getting a divorce and that, once he was free, he planned to marry Valerie.
They dressed and left the apartment. I fixed myself a sandwich, read for a while, then climbed back into my niche and fell asleep. Valerie and the man returned late, chattering drunkenly about the bar where they’d been dancing. I was amused that Valerie, drunk as she was, remembered to secure all three locks and pull the curtain to slow me down if I came back unexpectedly. The man went off to the shower, singing happily, while she opened the convertible couch and pulled blankets and pillows out of the closet. When he came back from the bathroom, he fixed drinks while she took a shower.
After they made love, he kept asking questions about me, especially about the trust fund. Valerie suspected that I had made the proposal only to see how an American would react to such a bizarre concept and that I had never believed she would accept it. The man suggested that since my deepest desire was to liberate her, she should use the money to be free of me.
Later he asked, “What is it about you Tarden likes so much?”
‘maybe it’s the same thing you like about me,” she replied.
“No, seriously. What do you do for him that no other woman can?”
“What do I do for you that no other woman can?”
“I love you,” he said. “I want to marry you and have a child with you. I don’t care what you can or can’t do. But Tarden isn’t in love with you; you said so yourself. He’ll drain you emotionally, sexually, any way he can. He’ll even let other men use you if it amuses him. Tell me: what does he want from you?”
“He says he wants me to be part of everything he does. He’s tired of not being able to share his life, of picking up girls he has no intention of seeing again, girls he uses to excite himself. He tells me how he makes love to them. Then, lying on his back with a hard-on, he raises his legs over his head and sucks himself off.”
“Jesus, he must be limber!” The man laughed. “Then why does he need the girl? As an audience?”
“The girl makes him excited by his own flesh. She is there even while he is tasting himself. He says it is as if the two of them are making love to a third person.”
“And what about you and him?”
“Those other women make him feel inferior: he chooses them and they come willingly. But he’s never sure of me. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time among other men. When he’s with me he feels superior because I’m choosing him over all of you.”
“Over me,” said the man.
“Over you,” she agreed.
A moment passed before he spoke again. “I just can’t imagine you thrashing around with a bony old bird like him. What a picture! That pervert poking his beak into you. No, I bet he watches you, right? While you lick yourself. That’s it. Show me what he makes you do.”
The man must have tried to maneuver her because she started to giggle, then yelled in pain. ‘stop it! You’re hurting me!” she cried, and they both gave up.
“What if he finds out about me?” asked the man.
“He won’t care.”
“But if he sets up the fund and then you marry me ” ?”
She paused. ‘so what?”
The talking stopped abruptly. When I heard the man begin to snore, I left my niche, moving stealthily into the main room. I stood behind the sofa bed, looking at the naked bodies. I could see only the vague shapes of their forms in the dark. I aimed the camera at them and took a test picture. The quick flash did not wake them but I could see Valerie’s lover. He was the man from the hospital cafeteria. I took several photographs in rapid succession, zooming the lens progressively closer. I captured Valerie’s breast resting near her lover’s shoulder, her leg brushing his, his elbow touching her belly.
They slept undisturbed. For a moment, I wanted to wake them and ask Valerie why she had lied about her reasons for staying in the city, a choice that disturbed me, considering the freedom of the agreement I had offered her. But I did not wake them. Instead, I silently returned to my niche and fell asleep. I didn’t come out until the next afternoon when they had gone.
Two days later, I called Valerie to say I was back in town and eager to see her. She told me that staying in my apartment without me had made her miss me. She would get someone to take her place at the hospital and spend the night with me.
She was subdued when she arrived but tender and affectionate. “While you were gone,” she said, “I decided to leave the hospital and live with you.”
I paced the room as I spoke. “I wanted to free you from all obligations. Do you still think that’s possible?”
“I do,” she answered. ‘more than ever.”
I sat down opposite her and placed my hands on her shoulders. “There isn’t anyone else in your life?”
She smiled radiantly. “No one. Why would there be?”
Casually, I said, “One of the building attendants told me that he saw you during the weekend with a young man he thought was my son.”
When she answered, her voice was calm. “Oh, yes. I ran into an old friend from medical school. We hadn’t seen each other for years, so I brought him up for a drink. We talked for a while and then he left. That’s all.”
‘does he resemble me in any way?”
“Not at all,” she laughed. “He’s fat and already bald.”
Laughing with her, I suggested, “He could still be the son of a bony old bird like me.”
She sipped her coffee. ” “Bony old bird.” Where did you get that expression?”
“A lot of people call me a bony old bird because I’m thin and have a nose like a beak.”
“You look more like a camel to me.”
“Are you sure you want to live with a camel?”
“When should I leave the hospital?” she asked.
I got up and walked over to the desk. “The sooner the better.” I sat down and removed several black and white photographs from a large envelope.
She walked over to the desk. “What are those?”
“Just some photos I took a while back. Look.” I handed her the first one, which she held up to the light.
“Not too clear. Someone’s elbow?”
“How many great elbow photos are there? What about this one?”
“Is it a shoulder? Are they all this dark?”
“You’re too critical. Their sole intent is to show people engaged in an act. Here.” I handed her the rest of the photos.
As she looked at one after another, she grew tense and slightly pale, but continued until she had replaced the last photograph on the table with a hand that trembled only slightly.
“Congratulations,” she said, moistening her lips with her tongue. “Pity you had to trust a hidden camera.” She scanned the walls and ceiling, looking for it. ‘do you have tapes, too?”
“No. Just the photos.”
“Too bad. If you’d taped our conversation, you’d know that he was just a one-night stand. I can tell you don’t believe me, but I guess even that doesn’t matter now.”
“What matters is that you didn’t tell me the truth.”
“I would have told you.”
“When?” I took her hands in mine. “Valerie, I was here while you were talking about me.”
She looked at me with disbelief. “You couldn’t have been.”
“But I was, Valerie.”
“Come on, Tarden! It’s bad enough that your camera was spying for you.”
‘remember “bony old bird.” I have a very good idea what you said.”
“You mean that he and you ” ?” Her voice had taken on a new edge. “Oh, really, Tarden. You’re actually trying to make me believe “”
I said, simply, “There are some things all men share.”
She walked to the couch and picked up her bag. As she passed me, she didn’t even try to mask her resentment.
Looking at the pictures of Valerie and her lover now, I realize how badly they record my experiences with Valerie, how much more accurate and explicit my memories are. My past emotions are etched into my mind like a display in a store window ready to be called up at any moment.
I often walk through the city streets, and stop at windows filled with radios, tape recorders, stereos, watches, pens and dozens of other gadgets. As I scan the display, I memorize each object’s position in relation to every other object. Then I enter the store and walk over to the counter. The owner approaches me.
“You must have the largest window display in the city,” I tell him.
“Thanks. Can I show you something?”
I lay a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. “I think I have a pretty good memory,” I tell him, “and I enjoy betting on it from time to time. In fact, I’ll bet you twenty dollars I can remember the price of every item in your window. How about it?”
The owner looks puzzled. I take out a piece of paper. “Why don’t you make a list of the merchandise in the window? When you’re through, I’ll write down the correct price next to the item. Or you write down the prices and I’ll match the items to them. If I make a single mistake, you win twenty dollars. If I get them all right, you lose twenty. I’ll even impose a ten-minute time limit on myself.”
The owner goes over to the window, takes stock of the merchandise and returns to the counter. “You’re on,” he says. He lists about fifty-five items on the back of a sales slip and pushes the paper across the counter. Then he glances at his watch.
I close my eyes and recreate the window display, carefully separating from the group each item on the list, and writing down its price. I am finished long before the ten minutes are up.
The owner takes the list from me, calls over a salesman and tells him to keep an eye on the twenty-dollar bill while he returns to the window. He eagerly begins matching my notations against the merchandise, but slows down as he realizes I am scoring one hundred percent. Finally, he walks back to the counter, shaking his head. “I can’t believe it,” he says, returning my money. He stares glumly at the floor for a moment, then looks up at me and opens the cash register. Reluctantly, he hands over the worn bills.
If I evoke a single memory picture, others will spring up automatically to join it and soon the montage of a past self will emerge. It’s an autonomous process, and the fact that I have no control over it excites me.
As a child, a similar lack of control terrified me. I once cut my foot on a piece of glass and its healing process fascinated but bothered me. After that, several times I intentionally wounded my leg. I observed how the cut bled, how the blood ebbed and eventually stopped flowing and how the wound began to mend. Every day, I would check the scab forming to protect the healing wound. When it was fully developed, I carefully peeled off the scab and opened up the wound again. Then I examined it through a magnifying glass, trying to see what it was that made my body heal independent of my will. Although I often tried to keep a wound open and bleeding, it always sealed itself overnight, challenging my power over myself. I hated the sense of an autonomous force in my body, determining what would happen to me.
Years later, when I was an associate professor at the State Central Academy of Science, a young dental surgeon told me that one of my teeth had to be extracted at once.
He assured me that one shot of a local anesthetic would guarantee painlessness. While he loaded the hypodermic syringe, I sat back in the chair, hypnotized by the powerful light before my eyes. A student nurse from the dental school was standing next to me and I felt I had to conceal my fear from her. I barely felt the needle when the dentist injected my gum, but almost instantly became aware that my heartbeat was accelerating rapidly. I wanted to tell him about it, but my throat was too constricted for me to get out the words. I grew weak and my limbs began to shake uncontrollably. My feet and hands felt as if they were being pricked by internal needles. A great fear of dying flooded my mind and body. To counteract the terror, I forced my mind backward to the moments before I had arrived at the office. I watched myself wandering through the arcades in the bright daylight, looking at my reflection in shop windows. I struggled to warn myself to cancel the appointment. I saw myself reach the university square, wait for a green light on the corner, then enter the huge lobby of the dental clinic and disappear into darkness. I shouted after myself not to go to the office but I would not listen. I witnessed myself shaking hands with the dentist and smiling at the student nurse, saw myself pressed back against the chair in fear, my eyes following the gleaming tip of the needle until it disappeared under my lip. I struggled one last time to urge myself to escape while I still could, but it was too late. I felt a stab of pain as the needle pierced the gum. Suddenly, my chest began to fill up with a fluid so heavy it made my lungs give way. I felt my heart weaken under the burden of the ever-thickening blood it was trying to pump. I was becoming too faint to breathe. My lungs wheezed one last time and surrendered; my heart lay still.
I woke to find a blurred face hovering over me. Slowly it began to come into focus. I pulled off the oxygen and as I was inhaling warm air I became aware that my lungs had resumed their natural rhythm. A disembodied voice explained that I had suffered an uncommon reaction to the anesthetic and that I had survived after my heart stopped only because the incident had happened in a clinic. Thanks to the State’s sophisticated medical equipment, my vital functions had been restored.
I was kept in the clinic for a few days, then dismissed, feeling shaky and humiliated. Like the elusive substance that had once healed my wound, now the State had saved me without my consent.
©1975 by Jerzy Kosinski