Vincent van Mechelen
 56th Early Northeast 

 FALL     DAY 

It must have been in one of the Southwest months, about forty-two or forty-three years ago. I am sure, because Fall had started in our hemisphere. The deciduous trees had turned brown and shed half of their leaves. It was at that time of the year when it may still be reasonably warm during the day, but when the nights are getting longer and chillier. On the old calendar the month was called "October", if am not mistaken.

I was free for three days and had not gone out for quite a while. So i decided to go to an after-hours disco late at night, or rather early in the morning. I was not very well off and used to spend little money on clothes. On that particular night, however, i wore an expensive coat made of suede. The coat was not mine th. I had never bought it. The funny thing was that i had not stolen it either, nor borrowed it. I had not even found it somewhere. Never mind its ownership: i looked really good in it.

When i was young i was quite attractive, and even when i grew older i kept my hair. Yet, i hardly ever had contact with someone at a bar or disco when going out alone. If i got to talk to someone, it would rather be on the way back home.

There were several reasons for my lack of success in bars and discos, if 'lack of success' is the right way of putting it. First of all, i did not smoke --i never did-- and i hated the foul smell of exhaled clouds of tobacco. There were already other people who did not smoke or had quit smoking, but somehow the great majority of the visitors of bars and discos seemed to be incurable smokers. Nowadays no-one believes me anymore when i tell them that when i was young bars, discos, restaurants, trains, all public places, were practically monopolized by poison puffers.

The second reason i almost never made friends at a disco is that i had an ambivalent feeling towards the music they usually played in those days. I liked dancing very much, and despite my old frame now, i would still enjoy it. But most of the music you had to endure in discos was more or less dreadful. Since it did not seem to profit by any rime or rhythm, it was not to my taste whatsoever. As a rule you had to wait an hour before something hit your ear that would take you to the dancefloor. I remember someone asking me halfway the night why i did not dance like everybody else. My answer that i was waiting for the music to start was the end of that conversation.

Why, then, you might wonder, would someone like me go to a disco at all? But, as i said, they did play danceable music once in a while, and i desperately wanted to dance now and then. Moreover, and more importantly, i used to experience the nightlife in my relatively small but cosmopolitan hometown as something of a movie. During those early hours of the morning i was looking at the townscape and the human beings that peopled it from a distance, as if somehow i was not part of it myself. Often i even completely forgot that this way of experiencing the nightlife did not have the safety of watching a movie at home or in the cinema. I tended to forget that i myself was in the movie, that i too, could get into a fight, be robbed, or --the better side of the coin-- find a friend, perhaps, a lover.

On that autumnal night, i left the disco again without having met someone nice or nasty, but with my eyes still smarting from the heavy smoke. As usual i was on foot, because i liked the exercise and, altho quite cold, it was dry outside. You know, the slower one's mode of transport the less one sees, perhaps, of the whole, but the more one sees of the details -- that is still true nowadays. On leaving the disco i first ran into the ever present male and female sex workers, drug traffickers and bike dealers (that is, sellers of bicycles which had been stolen). "Hi honey!" "Some hash?" "Wanna buy a bike?" The simplest and fastest answer was always no answer. Altho I'm waiting for the music to start might have been equally effective.

And the music did start. No sooner had i left the pushers and their lot behind me than i passed a singer, someone who was singing in the street! There were indeed still parts of the world where i had traveled and encountered locals singing in streets and on busses, but in the area where i used to live people had generally developed a taste for consuming music, for turning up the volume of their radios and for going to concerts, while merely a select few had remained to produce it, usually for money. The beautiful song that reached my ear sounded very melodic, slightly melancholy, and was composed with words in a language i did not understand. I could not even roughly pin down to what region of the global map it belonged.

Being pleasantly surprised i smiled at the singer and asked what language was singing in. The singer, in turn pleasantly surprised by my genuine interest, mentioned a language entirely unknown to me, even tho i had seen much of this planet then already. To my question what 'er name was 'e replied: "Cyrus".

When i was born parents did not name their children. It was their boys that were given boys' names, and their girls that were given girls' names. When you told someone your surname you were Mr Such-And-So or Mrs Such-And-So, dependent on the shape of your genitals or your chromosomes -- i forget. When you felt close enough to use a given name, you gave a typically male or a typically female one, even in contexts that had no bearing on sexual matters whatsoever. There was no sex-transcending way of addressing people in those days. (Or, of referring to them with the contemporary singular third-person pronouns 'e, 'im and 'er.) There were a few names that happened to be names of both men and women, but they were still not names of people. So, when Cyrus introduced 'imself as 'Cyrus', and i myself as 'Manfred', there was not any implication of erotic interest on either part, even tho nowadays i would, of course, have used my sex-neutral personal name instead in such a situation.

As we walked on together Cyrus turned out to be a jovial person who had a great deal to tell about the country 'e came from. 'E also told me that 'e planned to settle in what was my country then, that 'e did not have official permission yet, but that 'er prospects were very good. Altho the clothes Cyrus was wearing were quite colorful, they could not hide 'er poverty and indeed, because 'e possessed very little money, 'e was staying with friends and trying to sell some of 'er paintings (of which 'e showed me a few pictures). However poor Cyrus may have been, what 'e had to tell me displayed a wealth of experiences and ideas in 'er mind.

After having spoken about 'er country and 'imself for quite a while, Cyrus, who seemed to highly appreciate my interest, changed the subject to his girlfriend, and now showed some more interest in me too. He asked me about my wife or girlfriend. I told him i had none. I hated the question because somehow it implied that i had to have a wife or girlfriend or woman of some sort. In itself i cared little about the obtrusiveness of the assumption, but it painfully reminded me of my own discontent with myself in this respect.

The last time i had had sex with a woman had been in the summer, on one of those very rare sultry nights in Early Southeast -- "July" or "August" as it was called at the time. Far away from the urban hustle and bustle, a mixed couple had invited me to join them in their love play. The guy did not appeal to me physically, but the girl was attractive and eager enough. She was neither too fat nor too thin, and it had been a delight to fondle her breasts.

You know, i can be turned on by the flat-breasted body of a man and i can be turned on by the full-bosomed body of a woman, while i do not at all feel attracted to men with breasts as big as a woman's or by women with breasts as small as a man's. I hate the sight of a man with a belly as large as that of a pregnant woman, whereas the pregnant woman herself is in my eyes as pretty as a picture. Do you think i am an exclusivist? And, if so, can i blame my past?

It is not always moral for a man to enter someone else's body, and when it is not immoral, it is not always prudent to do so. But semen is thicker than water, and i had but too willingly given the girl what she had been panting for, and what i myself had been badly in need of. Like her i had felt very satisfied afterwards. Unlike her i had been determined to get together with a woman again within a few weeks, that is, a single woman to make it feel even better and to make it last much longer. But i had not found the right woman, i had met a young man instead.

Mario was a visitor with whom it was easy to get along, socially, intellectually and sexually. My physical contact with him had left little to be desired so far as such contact with men is concerned, but just as women miss something that men have, so men miss something that women have. Mario could not help it --he had gorgeous buttocks-- but for weeks or months i had not been with a girl or woman anymore, and that is what displeased me. (I certainly did not fit into the society of those critters who naively or arrogantly assumed that there is some Law of Nature ruling that human beings that like bananas shall not like peaches, and vice versa.)

A wife or girlfriend not being a common subject Cyrus and i continued to talk about countries and cultures until we had to part, because our ways back home led in different directions. We stopped and agreed to meet in a downtown restaurant for lunch at 1.30 p.m.. I had an invitation to attend the opening of my friend Margareth's exhibition at half past three, in a gallery not far from the restaurant. I thought it might be an idea to take Cyrus with me after lunch, because 'e was an artist too. However, i did not tell 'im about my invitation yet.

As it was almost 4 o'clock in the morning by then and i still had to go to bed, meeting for lunch felt psychologically like meeting the next day, even tho from an astronomical or some such perspective it was just the same day. Cyrus arrived at the restaurant half an hour late. 'E had first had to make some copies of papers for the immigration authorities, 'e said. At the beginning our conversation was still as lively as it had been about eleven hours earlier, when we had met. Yet, what was getting more and more on my nerves was Cyrus' lack of interest in the country 'e was visiting and even intended to stay in. Most of the time 'e was only telling me about 'er home country, not afraid of pointing at the superior qualities of that country vis-à-vis other countries and of 'er own ethnic group vis-à-vis other ethnic groups in that country. First i was eager to learn about a part of the world i had never visited, but as Cyrus went on i felt i was learning more about 'er nationalism and ethnocentrism than about 'er country and people. At the same time i started to realize that Cyrus' amateurish paintings were not in any way comparable with Margareth's professional work. Judging by the pictures 'e had shown me 'er technique was poor and 'er subjects, in spite of their local flavor, parochial.

Cyrus finished 'er lunch before me and lighted a cigaret without even asking me whether i minded. It did not assuage my irritation that 'e made me pay for the lunch as if it were something self-evident. (I despised those fellows who never had enough money for the necessities of life but always enough for buying drugs or other needless things.) 'E looked surprised and a little bit sad when i told 'im on the way out of the restaurant that i had to go to an appointment somewhere at 3.30. 'E suggested, almost implored me, to meet later in the day again, but i killed that illusion with some cheap excuses and left 'im with a quasi-amiable smile.

Margareth was a real friend; a lot older than i was, but then in art so much more talented. 'E had been married to a carpenter turned architect. When 'er husband was still alive Margareth had never touched a paintbrush, and had kept 'imself busy, or rather was kept busy, with 'er children and chores. I should say "her children and chores", because they were considered the business not of parents, but of mothers, who in Margareth's early days seldom had a paid job. Nonetheless, after 'er husband's death, and with 'er children grown up, Margareth had taken up painting and become quite good at it and successful as well. 'E had had several exhibitions before, altho never in such a front-rank gallery as on that Fall day.

The gallery was situated in a narrow street along one of the town's picturesque, centuries-old canals. When i got there, the first thing Margareth said was: "Oh, Manfred, did you buy a new coat? How chic you look!" By laughing loud and enthusiastically i escaped the need to answer 'er spontaneous question, and we gave each other two ardent kisses, one on each cheek. 'Er friend Amy was standing behind 'er. Amy was with 'er partner Leo, and i kissed them too.

This may sound entirely uninteresting or obvious to you, but in those days men and women kissed each other thrice, and women kissed each other thrice, whereas men did not even kiss each other once. I hated the sexism in that convention (and to a lesser degree the asymmetry in the three kisses). If you did not want to participate in the ritual you could only do one of two things: kiss the whole bunch or kiss no-one. Kissing everyone, boys and men included, was pretty risky, because many XY types who would not in the least assume that a woman kissing another woman was seducing instead of greeting her would precisely assume that of a man kissing another man. And kissing no-one made you look afraid of intimacy, if not of women (because they only saw a man not kissing the women). At the time i had to live with that. So i kissed Margareth, who was without a man, and i kissed Amy, who was with a man who expected or at least did not mind to be kissed too, and i only shook hands with Margareth's cousin Joanna, since she was with a male specimen that would already have fainted if i had merely blown him a kiss.

There was no painting at the gallery which i had not seen before or which i did not remember from my visits to Margareth's apartment. 'Er paintings were colorful and if they were figurative in any sense, then only in the most abstract of ways. It was remarkable that in spite of the bright colors they were often quite somber. 'Er Autumn Morning, for instance, was wild and fantastic. It did not show anything naturalistic, and yet you saw the brown-red leaves flying around in a heavy storm, and you felt life drawing to its pitch-dark eerie end. Sensitive visitors could descry a painter who lived in the autumn of 'er own life. But only few of them knew that Margareth had reached that autumn after the death of 'er spouse, with whom 'e had shared so many profound experiences, both in 'er family and in art.

Hardly a year later, when i was on a trip abroad, the sad message reached me that Margareth had died of cancer. I felt very depressed and i pitied Margareth intensely, but i didn't cry. On my return Amy and Leo related the tragic circumstances of Margareth's death to me. Margareth was living on the top floor of a block of flats, because that 'flat', as such an apartment was locally called, had an attic where 'e could paint. But when it was discovered that 'e was seriously ill Margareth decided to move to an apartment on the ground floor somewhere in another neighborhood, since the building in which 'e lived had no elevator and 'e would not be able to walk all those stairs anymore. Margareth, who had already become bedridden, then died, during the removal, in 'er new home when it was still empty; only 'er bed was there, the rest of 'er personal belongings and furniture were to follow later that day. While listening to Amy and Leo's story, which had some more poignant details, i began to cry. It was the first time i cried since the death of my father, a chain-smoker, when i was seventeen years old.

Sometimes something happens in real life that you would never read about in a book, in a published manuscript, that is. The serious reader might find it too melodramatic (or the delicate reader too upsetting, even obscene); the established publisher might find it too farfetched (if not controversial); and the author who wants 'er work to be published would already have censored 'imself by making the events more probable (and acceptable). You know, reality has so much more freedom than a writer.

Little by little the art-lovers were leaving Margareth and the gallery. Joanna offered me a ride back home with the two of them, as they had to go in the same direction. I appreciated 'er friendly offer and first did not want to offend 'er and 'er partner by declining it, but i felt much more like having a drink somewhere downtown before going back home. I knew that as soon as i was alone again, i would have to face the aftereffects of my disappointing encounter with Cyrus, and i did not want that yet. So i did decline Joanna's offer in the politest of words, got my coat from the little cloakroom and left after having wished Margareth lots of luck and buyers.

I wandered about for a while and then thought of the singalong bar which Mario used to frequent and which i had never heard of until 'e told me about it. (It happens more often that tourists have been to a place you have never visited yourself.) Meanwhile the sun had disappeared and it was getting cloudy, but the bar was not hard to find.

I had not been in the bar for more than five or ten minutes when i noticed that someone was looking in my direction as if 'e knew me or as if he wanted me. I wondered what fueled 'er interest at this time of the day. I did not know 'im myself, but somehow 'e looked familiar to me. He was athletically built, with nice hair and pleasing features, and i looked back. Neither of us taking any further initiative yet, he got a packet of cigarets out of his back pocket and lighted one. All his potential health and handsomeness immediately evaporated, and i looked away from 'im, towards a boy and girl who were merrily joining in with the music emanating from the loudspeakers. Nevertheless 'e suddenly came up to me and said, tapping on my shoulder: "Excuse me, are you Manfred by any chance?" I was utterly surprised, yet could not but admit that i was. "Then that's my coat!" 'e exclaimed with a mixture of joy and anger. "Your coat!?" i replied, on the fringe of getting mad myself. "Yes, I'm Sylvester, Mario's brother!"

That explained everything. The last time Mario had visited me we had gone to the beach together. 'E had arrived with a suede coat and left it at my home as there was no need to wear it during the day. The two of us were going to return the same evening, but before we got back Mario was called by 'er sib with a request to help 'im with a job that was in urgent need of being done. Mario was to see me the next day again but the work 'e had to finish took much longer and on top of that 'e suddenly had to leave for 'er home country for a couple of months. When i asked 'im on the phone about 'er coat 'e had told me that the coat actually belonged to 'er sib Sylvester (who was a legal immigrant) and that 'e had borrowed it from 'im. Sylvester was going to drop by to fetch it. But weeks had passed and Sylvester had never come, while the coat was just hanging there in my closet. That is when i thought: "Well, i myself don't wear such fancy stuff, and since i've been providing shelter for it for such a long time now, i might as well put it on for one day and look smart."

As i had only a shirt with short sleeves on and as it was getting rather chilly outside i suggested to Sylvester that i would leave 'er coat at the store where 'e worked a few days later. No, Sylvester insisted on having 'er coat back there and then. I kind of reproached Sylvester for not having shown up at my home as Mario had promised. Sylvester riposted, however, that it was i who should have brought 'er coat back weeks ago, and we were getting into a kind of a row. Even my reference to the relatively cold weather for the time of the year did not help. Then i did not want any more of it. After all, Sylvester was the rightful owner of the coat. I gave it to 'im and left the bar immediately.

To make matters worse it had started to rain. I realized i could not possibly make it back home on foot. It would take me three quarters of an hour or so in weather which was getting worse and worse. Having no bike with me either, there was no other choice left than to take a streetcar or 'tram', something that i seldom did, because i disliked the public transport in my town too much. Meanwhile it was raining cats and dogs, and i ran to the closest tram stop as fast as i could. When i got there i just saw the back of a tram going in the direction of the area where i lived. "Crisis!", i said to myself, "Crisis!".

About sixteen minutes later another tram showed up. It had the appearance of a traveling tin of sardines. With much difficulty i finally found a place to stand. By then i was soaking wet and terribly cold in my short-sleeved shirt. A cute young woman about my age stood close beside me, dressed in a long crimson coat with which her purple lips matched exquisitely. Below her neck, where she had left her coat a teasingly little bit open, i could discern the beginning of a cleavage between two firm breasts.

I shivered.

She observed me with a mixture of surprise and pity. "Why aren't you wearing a coat in this foul weather?" she asked.

That is how i met your mother.

Autumn Morning
 Autumn Morning by Sonja van Mechelen 

©MVVM, 54-72 ASWW


short stories