Strangers’ Gate

for Danel

What is it about airports? Case thought. There was something almost mythical about the level of boredom and stagnation that you experienced, trapped in these mazes of shining glass and plastic laid out over acres of bilious looking carpet. Yet in movies airports were always represented as glamorous and slightly dangerous places, where pursuit scenes erupted violently in the midst of all that coming and going, the protagonist racing along moving walkways waving a gun, elbowing extras aside as he pursued the plot. Someday he would write a script that captured it all. From the dewy awe you first felt, primed by all those movies to see airports as portals to worlds of sophistication and mystery, right to the other end of the spectrum, where the jaded frequent flier knew an airport was no more than a tatty waiting room, with all ways leading from it, journeys to the same end.

Yet despite all the travelling he had done, there were times he still experienced a furtive stab of hope that this trip would lead him somewhere he had never been before. That sly bit of hope was like the cat in a story he had once read that is always getting its master to open this door and then that door in the winter, but refusing to go out of any of them to its master’s baffled irritation. Until one day the master realises that the cat is looking for the door into summer, while he keeps opening doors into winter.

He kept travelling, looking not for the door into summer, but for a gateway to something or somewhere that would stop him feeling like a stranger in his own life.

He imaged a scene setting scene: A cat stalking from door to door, tail in the air as its master opens one door and then another. It would be a nice beginning device for a movie without a linear structure. He grimaced, imagined himself trying to pitch his airport movie with its opening cat scene to the money men–and why were they always money men? Was it that women did not invest in movies? Maybe that was why the movie world was so full of men as boys. Was he a man or a boy, he wondered? Sometimes he felt as if he was some other category altogether.

Certainly he had not been man enough for his ex-wife, Stephenie. He sighed and looked at his watch without taking in the numbers. Then as he habitually did, he thought about that as directions in a script.

Man checks time.

I am losing the plot, he thought.

What plot is that? He enquired drily of himself, smiling.

Man mutters to self and then smiles.

If life were a movie, his would be one of those European movies where everything took too long and even the smallest event was invested with a mysterious meaningfulness that never divulged itself. Most people in the West did not ‘get’ European movies because they saw them as metaphor. They could not imagine a level of alienation from other people so profound that almost no words or interaction were necessary or indeed possible. The first time he travelled to Europe, he had discovered that a lot of the things he regarded as metaphor were no more than simple descriptions of an unfamiliar reality. Like the way people in Russian novels lived, several different generations together in a two-room apartment with bookshelves and thin dividers set up to create an illusion of privacy. He had thought that a metaphor for emotional oppression, only to find that was just how it had been behind the iron curtain during communism, or communism disguised as socialism, or state capitalism disguised as socialism. Privacy and space had been as unreachable as freedom.

His Czech friend Ivana had said languidly that in those times, entire sagas evolved around the attempt to get an apartment. People schemed and planned and paid bribes so they could leave home where their grandfather and mother still lived with their parents and brother and sister and sometimes even their partners. She herself had slept with the brother of a dead woman in order to have him sublet his deceased sister’s squalid bedsit to her. It had been illegal of course; in a place where for a long time, almost everything anyone could want had been illegal. Her occupation of the apartment had lasted a year before the man had evicted her for fear of being reported. And that had been in the aftermath of the fall of communism. After the aftermath.

The thing was that people like Ivana had a reason for being disconnected from the people around them. But he had never been poor, or politically oppressed or even in much physical discomfort. He had never experienced the extremes of fear or anger or sorrow. His childhood had been pleasant, and when his parents died he had felt sad more than grief stricken, before burying them and going on to live a pleasant even rather lucky life. He had no excuse for feeling that his life was not real.

He glanced around the airport, feeling weary and slightly dehydrated. But not suicidal. Not over an apartment or an airport or because of being left by his wife. Not even because he was living a life in which he had undergone hundreds of trips without ever feeling that he had arrived. Once, years ago, he had told a guy at a party that he had never contemplated committing suicide and the guy had looked at him incredulously, remarking that he was obviously shallow. Because how could anyone see the state of the world and not feel like killing themselves? His words had disturbed Case in some way that he could not articulate, but when he had told the story to a mutual friend she had laughed uproariously.

‘Petr is Hungarian! What can you expect? Hungarian is not a language in which to conduct normal conversations. It is a language only for suicide and poetry.’

Case had been fascinated by the idea of a language so tortured it could express only suicide or poetry. He saw it as a poetic notion, until he overheard someone say at a wrap party that the suicide rate among Hungarians was the fifth highest in the world. That was the thing he liked about parties. The way you heard or misheard intriguing scraps. The way certain words got stuck in your head; this piquant phrase or that evocative awkwardness. He loved conversation. Not taking part in it but witnessing it. Parties were perfect for that because everyone wanted to talk and no one listened. He could be a stranger among them, listening and taking mental notes, and no one cared. He saw himself as a natural and instinctive witness of the world, which maybe was why the comment that a person who really saw would be suicidal had troubled him. Because Case felt like he did see, and far more than people who were deeply engaged in life. It was only that he did not feel suicide to be the natural consequence of or conclusion to his observations.

He recalled his ex-wife’s disgust at his passivity, and looked at his watch. He did not want to know the time. It was a pose he often struck in an airport. ‘It’s like I am performing for some unseen audience,’ he thought. He often had the feeling that his life was some sort of performance. It even worked as a metaphor. You came out of the darkness of the womb into the lime-light, and so began the performance that was life, which invariably ended with the curtain falling. Curtains. The only bit that really bothered him was the idea of coming to the end of the performance, without ever knowing what it was for. Maybe that was why he had so much trouble with endings in scripts. They felt contrived because life did not come with full stops. Everything bled into everything else.

His problem with endings was why he had never made it to the big time, despite all the young playwright prizes and grants and the preliminary excitement of studios, and the frustration of his agent. He was known as being a very good scriptwriter who had trouble ending his scripts. Studios that took him on these days knew they would have to wait and wait and maybe get in another writer to finish or rewrite the end; the fact that he did not object to someone putting the tail on his script was why he was still working. The truth was that he did not like endings and was content for someone else to finish his story.

‘So what do you want, Case?’ One of his tutors at The Binger had asked irritably a few months before in a coffee shop in Amsterdam, half way through a three month grant stay where he had been trying yet again to resolve the end of a script. ‘You want to just go on and on and what? Bore the audience to death?’ One woman in a session had said outright that maybe his inability to finish–to close–she said, was tied up with his unresolved sexuality. He grimaced at the obvious circumlocution for Your Repressed Homosexuality. Well, this was irrepressible Amsterdam where window peeping was a tourist industry and you ordered grass off a menu after discussing it with the waiter. There had been a lot of talk about performance as exhibitionism and the corresponding audience voyeurism. He had kept silent because for him, the future audience that would see the movie arising from his script were irrelevant. He did not think about other people when he wrote. For him writing was an articulation of his observations, and an attempt to lay them out in a way that would make some sense of the world. The fact that he had never produced a play that satisfied him, despite the credits to his name, might be the same reason he had never found an ending that felt right.

There was an announcement and he freeze-framed to listen, but he could not tell whether the disembodied announcement was in English or Greek or Esperanto, much less whether the speaker was male or female. Fortunately, he could see the departure boards from where he was sitting, and make out the names and numbers if he squinted. He was searching for the Aegean Air flight when a tall woman stopped in front of him to study the boards, blocking his vision.

She was wearing a perfectly fitted, perfectly pressed parchment coloured sleeveless suit and a Panama hat of the sort that he associated with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, tilted very slightly to one side. Her long, thin, bare arms hung loosely by her side, the slender fingers slightly unfurled. She wore no varnish on short square cut nails, and she was carrying nothing. That struck him as unusual, because you never saw a woman without a bag of some kind; especially with bags being as big a status symbol as cars, and some of them costing about the same. The woman’s suit was so thin and smooth that you could tell she did not have so much as a coin in a pocket. Was it possible she had no more than her boarding pass and passport in her front jacket pocket? She didn’t even have a book. Could anyone travel that light?

He was interested in how, by simply standing so long with her back to him, she was building dramatic tension in him. It was not so much curiosity about her face he felt, but the relaxed fluidity of her waiting that roused his interest. For she would not stand so long merely to read something that was already there. Like him, she must be waiting for her departure lounge to be announced. But people did not normally wait without any sign of impatience. She did not fidget or adjust her clothes or shift her weight from one long slender booted foot to the other, nor did she look away from the board. Case had never seen anyone wait so compellingly. How could anyone surrender with such grace to the necessity of waiting?

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