First Language

This city is a tumour, she thought at the traffic lights. Living matter multiplying itself one unit after another, one inside another, one on top of the other. Cells spreading an unnamed disease. She bought a loaf of bread and went back to the flat. Last floor, a brand-new block. Paint splashes on windows, like incomplete maps of distant, better worlds. All around more blocks, a periphery of post-communist Moscow in full real estate swing. The apartment was clean, spacious, but empty, not even a chair. The floorboards reflected the sunlight like a picture-perfect house for sale ad, evoking the same sense of a nicely designed prison. She switched on the light in the kitchen. Holy shit, the floor was flooded with dirty laundry like marine debris washed up on shore. Grey and khaki pants, white and red T-shirts, black underwear, socks of all colours, some thin striped shirts. Gert had just moved out, Frida had told her, but it seemed he hadn’t taken all of his things yet. Or he’d simply abandoned them, a past made in China. Gert was expecting her downstairs, in five minutes.
 

‘Hello, are you Gert? I’m Jay.’

‘Yeah, hallo. You’re in, all right? I brought you these’, said Gert, handing her a large laundry bag with a white towel and a blue sleeping bag. ‘Let me help you with it upstairs.’

‘Please, there’s no light in the elevator.’

They crammed inside, ten floors in the hazy darkness of crude oil. She hadn’t seen him well, but liked his voice. Or rather the German accent, it reminded her of Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s films, hypnotic. At the same time, she was a bit frightened: what if the lift gets stuck? She read in a local newspaper that two lovers had hid in a new block like this to have sex, got stuck in the elevator and died, one having eaten the other.

‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t have time to wash them’, said Gert, seeing the mess in the kitchen. ‘I wanted to take them to a second-hand shop.’

‘I’m ok if you want to wash them now.’

‘Hm, I could…Have you had dinner? There’s a McDonald’s downstairs.’

She hadn’t touched the bread yet, but it was too early to sleep, too late to go out.

‘What do they sell here? Anything a cat would eat?’

‘You’ve got a cat with you?! Where?’ Gert brightened up.

A free spirit, she thought. But people who laugh seem okay too, and then commit suicide.

‘I was joking. You know cats don’t touch McDonald’s, right? Do they have anything Russian?’

‘Ahh, dumplings. Rolls with sweet cheese and raisins.’

‘…buy one, please.’

‘Do you want some beer too? There’s a kiosk across.’

‘Yes, maybe Baltika Dark? I had one on the train, I liked it. Let me give you some money’, and she handed him a thousand-ruble note. She closed the door behind him slowly. A domestic gesture, as if they’d known each other a lifetime. She went to the bathroom, let the water run in the sink and looked in the mirror. White skin, brown eyes, an anxious forehead under an unruly fringe. An invisible face, like so many others, nothing remarkable. She pursed her lips, as if giving herself a kiss. It’s going to be fine, the universe is still expanding.
 

‘There was a queue, it’s always busy at night’, said Gert, putting the bags on the kitchen table.

‘Oh, I didn’t hear you, I was washing my hands.’

‘Is there any soap?’

‘Yes, with algae. Did you have enough money?’

‘Sure, here’s the rest, sorry for all the change.’ He handed her a fistful of coins.

‘Ah, keep it, I fly back to London early tomorrow’, said Jay. Gert stuffed the money back in his pocket. Looking around: ‘We can’t sit in here.’

‘Let’s sit in the room. Picnic on the sleeping bag?’

The sun had already half-sunken. The sky looked like a fresco by Tiepolo, inhabited by forbidding gods – the surrounding blocks. They switched on the light in the room, laid the blue sleeping bag on the floor, and sat down with the food between them. A bad idea actually, she thought, the room will smell of fries all night.

‘So how do you know Frida?’ she asked, biting into the first cheese roll. She examined him carefully. He was thin, an intense spark in the washed-out green eyes, a nervous smile on his full lips. A strand of sandy hair was constantly falling over his forehead, reminding her even more of Kinski. Suddenly she felt attracted to him, would love to pass her fingers through his hair, tame its revolt, his madness.

‘We worked together, first in Vienna, then in St. Petersburg. Translations. She did literature, I did papers of all kinds.’

‘And now, do you still translate?’

‘Seldom, only when I need money. I’m finishing an MA in environmental studies. In a month I’ll be on an expedition in the Arctic Ocean, the New Siberian Islands. With the Floating University, if you’ve heard about it? We’re studying climate breakdown, you know, the Emergency? How about you, what are you doing in Moscow?’

‘I’d like to see how glaciers melt…capture their last flicker. The pigment would not have time to dry, blue as far as the eye can see…’

‘So you paint?’

‘…from one infinity to another. Do you know what ultramarine means? “Beyond the sea.” In the Renaissance the pigment was brought to Europe from mines in Afghanistan, by Italian merchants. It was the most expensive colour, used for the Virgin’s dress. Yes, I paint…’ she answered, dusting off a bit of sugar from the corner of her mouth.

‘What, anything in particular?’

‘More and more abstract lately. Reality is too heavy, a corpse.’ Reaching for the beer: ‘I have a strange feeling…the more we learn about other worlds, like the Moon or Mars, or those beyond our reach, the more accepting we become of our own extinction. Don’t you think? Or the closer we are to the earth, like a soldier crawling through mud, or a farmer planting onions.’

‘Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that. We research, produce studies, seek solutions. There is no planet ‘B’. But you know, artists and writers are invited to document the expeditions sometimes. Or to create something, to inspire others. I think they would take you!’ laughed Gert flirtingly, uncovering crystalline white teeth. ‘How are the rolls?’

‘Yes, women are good at multitasking, aren’t they!’ laughed Jay. ‘Sickly sweet. Try one.’ She offered him the open box, a dusting of sugar falling on the blue bag.

Gert looked at her accomplice: ‘How do the Russians know that Americans have never set foot on the moon?’

‘Hmm…I don’t know, how?’

‘There’s no McDonald’s there!’

‘Excellent!” laughed Jay wholeheartedly. ‘My friends will love it!’

‘So what did you say you were doing in Moscow?’ asked Gert again, sipping his beer.

‘Oh, I’m visiting art museums. Tretyakov, actually, for Malevich. You know, the Black Square…’

‘Yes, I know it! Frida used to organise slam poetry nights in her living room in St. Petersburg. One evening, a poet hung a black velvet square on the wall, then performed something called Victory over the Sun. A delirium of onomatopoeias and nonsense, I loved it! The velvet curtain was Malevich’s Black Square; he made the scenery for an opera based on that poem. Wonderful times! We stayed up all night smoking weed, drinking vodka and making love. Free of reality like Malevich’s painting. Now, every morning, instead of thinking of breakfast, we have to think about death.’ Gert’s voice broke unexpectedly, his eyes transfixed by angst and desire. She stared at him as if looking into an aquarium filled with green light. ‘Yes…life is…a sunrise’, she whispered. ‘But why shouldn’t death be another? Even greater?’ Gert leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, gently leaving his head on her shoulder as a child asleep: ‘Shh, listen.’
 

The night was feeding itself from their breath, now one. Gert glued his body against hers, with unexpected tenderness. His blond hair spilled over her chest like an amorphous galaxy. At their feet, a stream of water sneaked gently towards the belly of the room, blinking ever closer to her raw heart. What the hell? ‘Gert, wake up, we’re flooded!’ she cried, pushing him vigorously, jumping to her feet. She’d left the bathroom tap on! The water was rising faster and faster, surprisingly fast, gurgling by the walls and covering the floor, sweeping away the sleeping bag and the food. In a second it had reached their knees, but Gert, now standing, looked at her calmly, his pupils unusually dilated, like two vitreous, large jade stones. He opened his mouth as if wanting to say something, then sank underwater.

Yes, it’s easier to swim to the bathroom, thought Jay. But Gert stopped in the middle of the room, at the bottom of the water, as if he had a different plan. Puzzled, Jay noticed that his eyes were wide open and his breathing normal, not a single oxygen bubble on the surface. His skin was aglow like a pearl. Paralyzed in astonishment, she froze, swallowed by the rising water. The smell of salt filled her nostrils and next she felt its taste on her lips, in her mouth. The floor seemed as sand, the walls and ceiling the vast blue of the ocean. She was breathing underwater too! She dropped on her belly, trying to reach Gert. He was swimming with fluttering movements, like a fish advancing with the help of its tail fin. Swirling slowly from the centre to the edges of the room, wider and wider, Gert started to build an elaborate geometric form of intertwining circles on the floor using the coins in his pocket. Warm gold next to cold silver next to dark copper, gleaming like a lost treasure on the seabed. Jay swam closer, irresistibly drawn to the centre, as if pulled inward to the core of the earth by its magnetism. She laid down her left cheek inside the nesting circles, eyelashes softly sweeping the floor. A ripple of excitement flowed up her spine as she felt the circles embracing her body one by one, as gentle waves hitting the shore. It was Gert, wrapped around her: ‘Ich habe nie geliebt.

Above them, his unwashed clothes were floating like dead fish in the warm light of sunrise.

Simona Nastac is a curator, critic, and poet living in London. She studied art history and theory in Bucharest and holds an M.A. in creative curating from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has curated exhibitions and live poetry events in London, Seoul, New York, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, Prague, Cluj, and Bucharest. In 2017, she published her first poetry book, The Depressing Colour of Honey (Tracus Arte, Bucharest), which won the Alexandru Mușina Prize “The King of the Morning” for poetry debuts. The volume was also shortlisted for the George Bacovia National Debut Prize in 2018. Her work has appeared in Poesis internațional, harana poetry, The Blue Nib, and EUROPOE (Kingston University Press, 2019). Since 2016, she has been the curator of the experimental poetry night at the Bucharest International Festival of Poetry. She can be found here.

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