I hadn’t noticed him at first, but, from then on, I was unable to focus my attention on anyone or anything else. I heard him amid the overwhelming clatter of the speeding train; his muffled and vague voice reached me during the momentary intervals between the successive thuds of the ponderous iron wheels, like advertisements separating the parts of a thrilling TV show. It also seemed to be competing with the whistling of the cold morning air washing over the body of our train car and furtively slipping into our compartment through the slightly yawning window, like a vagrant looking for shelter during a hailstorm while hiding on other people’s porches and in their basements.
Then I also saw him; I saw him when I lifted my still unfocused gaze above the edge of the stack of papers and notepads balancing precariously on my laps, like a makeshift structure arching over a bedridden patient’s legs and being a substitute for a desk or a table — if not, above all, for a bit of healthy ordinariness. I lifted my eyes above it, like a soldier craning his neck over the edge of a trench to see what this roaring and wheezing hullabaloo is all about.
He stood there, in the train car’s narrow hallway, right outside my compartment, behind the glass pane adorned with a constellation of smudgy fingerprints, akin to a chaotic mosaic of footprints on the beach — it had been left there by countless past generations of nameless passengers whom no one seemed to remember or care for anymore. I saw him there, standing there, a little blurry on account of that glass pane’s rather questionable cleanness; I saw him there: his rebelliously long hair pulled back and tied behind his head, like the hands of a hopeless hostage; his worn-out denim jacket and no less threadbare denim pants were the clear and unequivocal proofs testifying to his surely not fatigued nonconformity; he was a fighter: but for what? but for whom? — nobody knew or seemed to care. I saw him there, surrounded by the duo of young and impressionable girls, gushing and chirping exultantly whenever he said something, whenever he let out the slightest sound or so much as a grunt, and whenever he stayed silent — so mesmerizingly silent, after he abruptly broke off and stared into the oddly unresponsive space with that pensive expression so pregnant with great wisdom and understanding of every subject, of every single subject, as if there had suddenly sprouted in his head a thought that had had to be carefully turned over in his mind without any delay before a new one came in and took over. I saw them fall all over him and his denim charm that he appeared to be exuding effortlessly and that oozed from every pore of his clearly bohemian body as he kept speaking with the great authority and superciliousness of a natural-born mentor, of a person who has been preaching to other infants while still in the maternity ward, of a person knowing all the answers to the questions you haven’t even thought of asking yet.
The girls were all over him, as if he had cast some kind of unbreakable denim spell on them that refused to start fraying around the edges and firmly held them captive no matter what he said, or how illogical and absurd his words may prove to be. I couldn’t believe that in this noisy day and age, when every bit of information could easily be verified and refuted within milliseconds, it was still possible to talk people into believing the most ridiculous kind of nonsense, nearly as easily as fifty or a hundred years ago.
I did my utmost not to pay any attention to this silly tableau and to stick to writing my notes, but it was insanely difficult to tune the movements of my hand to the unrelenting swaying and jerking of the train that kept sabotaging my efforts with the laudable perseverance of a child giving you a nudge whenever you try to do something that requires from you a lot of caution and precision.
However, I found myself unable to ignore him and his intimate little hallway show. I did all in my power to regard him with suspicion, but I always ended up being intrigued by him and his arsenal of pompous words and would-be poetic language. Whenever I looked up, my eyes and my thoughts kept stubbornly returning to him, like a child who refuses to leave a store filled to the brim with marvelous, colorful toys and other pretty trifles. Despite myself, I kept glancing at him and his prattling and sighing entourage. I was utterly fascinated by finesse and natural ease with which he had managed to capture those poor girls’ attention and tether it to his supposedly inspired person, and to paint himself in their eyes, only by dint of his sagely rustling words, as the most brilliant and insightful human being on earth, at least since the time of ancient orators and philosophers — his rather obvious ancestors.
He talked at length about the great novels he was about to write — for he apparently tried to pass himself off as a writer of some sort — he talked on and on about the complex characters he hoped to breathe words into, about the exciting events that he intended to make come to literary life on the page — which page exactly, I didn’t know and he wouldn’t say it either. He even went so far as to ask each one of them whether they wanted him to base some characters on them; for, as he put it, there was no one worthier of being immortalized for posterity in his works than their duo, like butterflies in amber — I cringed; I found it hard not to.
I suddenly yearned to learn how he had done it; how he had pulled off this sublime feat; how he had manipulated them and turned himself into their veritable private deity and a denim-clad fount of ignorance, almost to the point that, as it seemed, nothing was capable of dissuading them from that fatuous illusion and proving to them that the opposite was true. I was thrilled to see a real trickster at work, hoping to catch him executing some telling gesture or a forbidden move; for it was as if I were watching a cardsharp performing a masterly sleight of hand before a helpless victim of his — I pitied them, but, at the same time, I wanted to see how it would end.
But then he saw me; our eyes met for an instant through that glass barrier, like a child’s tongue and an appetizing cake lounging on the other side of a store window — I was caught unprepared, and, afraid that he might notice in my pupils a glint of my interest in his tricks, or, what might be even worse, misconstrue it, I quickly sneered at him, far more theatrically than it was necessary, and then buried my gaze back in my notes. From then on, I felt, I simply knew, that it wasn’t the end, that I had just put myself on his map of shams and tricks, and that our meeting was inevitable, like that of a thumb and a hammer when the latter is wielded by an absentminded worker.
When the girls hurried off to their own compartment following the urging of the voice seeping from a speaker and announcing the next station, we were left alone — he, behind the glass; I, poring over a heap of notes. I tried not to look at him in order not to provoke him, as if he were a fierce dog baring its teeth at me from behind too feeble a fence. But then I heard the glass door slide open and he stepped into my empty compartment, like a priest into a confessional. He studied me in silence for a moment before commencing to stroke his chin thoughtfully.
“Excuse me,” I heard him say as he approached me; I heard him without deigning to raise my eyes at him. “Excuse me, lady. I think I’ve just seen you sneer.”
“You have?” I answered him, without ceasing to scribble.
“Am I not intruding on your studies or whatever you’re doing?” he asked with feigned politeness.
I looked at him frigidly.
“I think that, as I stood there, in the hallway, I’ve seen you sneer,” he went on, clearly unbothered by my indifference. “May I ask you whether you’ve been sneering at me?”
“I said, you may ask me.”
“I see,” he said, and then I noticed, out of the corner of my busy eye, a change take place in his air and attitude, like in a store clerk discerning a promising, for affluent, customer; I saw him assume that well-studied and well-rehearsed pose of a charming mentor, of a mysterious guru and educator, being both willing and ready to share his wisdom with anyone who was prepared to devote so much as a minute to him and listen to his elaborate teachings — he must have liked the challenge posed by such a reluctant listener as I, like a music teacher in the face of a tone-deaf student.
“Would you like me to tell you about my book?” he said in the deliberately lowered, husky voice of his, his eyes squinted in that manner typical of all deep thinkers staring pensively beyond the horizon of mundane problems and ideas; he said that while sitting down, uninvited, right in front of me. “Would you like me to tell you about the fine, fine book that I’m going to write one of these days?”
I felt the train come to a halt — right on time. I saw the passengers inside it leap to their feet and flock and push toward the doors, and the ones outside it elbow their way through the congested platform to get in — an eternal railway battle, like the one between the more insolent birds and scarecrows. I saw the chubby ticket collector scurry past our compartment and dissolve into that shapeless mass of baggage-wielding human bodies.
“I think I’ve read it,” I said, rising up and reaching for my bulbous suitcase that had till then been reposing above my head, like a detachable kind of halo.
“Oh,” his face betrayed at once his infinite puzzlement, his disgust at my unwarranted impertinence, and his anger at himself caused by his failure to have foreseen this attack coming any sooner than that, like a dog that is bitten by a trespasser before it has had a chance to bare its teeth and bite him first — he was visibly taken aback, but he didn’t want me to notice it and have the satisfaction because of that. “You’ve read it?”
“Yes, I think I’ve read it,” I said, placing the final full stop at the end of the final sentence of the manuscript of my first novel; I shoved the whole stack of papers into the suitcase with a barely discernible trace of triumph, and I moved to the door. “I think I’ve read it; I think I’ve read it a thousand times already. It’s one of the great things that will never be, right?”