By David Albahari, from Learning Cyrillic, a collection of short stories forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press in December. Albahari is a Serbian novelist whose books include Words Are Something Else, Snow Man, and Leeches. Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać.
I have always envied travelers who enjoy flying. The world is like a speckled pear for them, around which they wing their way as fast as they can go. Maybe that is the way it should be. In this day and age, which despises slowness, planes are not a luxury but instead a way to assert one’s place in the present and with which, moreover, one can steal a few hours from one’s past or future, and that is a magic that is hard to resist.
I have been resisting it for years. It wouldn’t bother me at all — indeed I would be overjoyed — if I could still travel by carriage. The world no longer has the time, however, for a horse’s trot, or even a gallop, and therefore, no matter how much I have fended off the charm of speed, I boldly step onto airplanes and obediently do the bidding of the stewardess. I buckle up my seat belt, check the life vest and the compartment from which the oxygen mask will drop, if needed, then I look down the fluorescent strip that will guide me, in the case of an emergency landing, to the nearest exit. Then I don my earphones, find the jazz channel, open a book, and try to fall asleep as soon as possible.
That is what I did this time too, at the beginning of the flight to North America. I was on my way back from Europe, returning from a meeting of writers from the former Yugoslavia, who, according to the concept put forth by the foundation that had organized the meeting, were to build a path to a new understanding but instead just brought the old differences to the fore. I don’t know why I had been expecting something different. I was filled with bitterness instead of joy, and as the plane climbed to its cruising altitude, the bitterness turned to a nausea no pill could assuage.
There was nothing for it but to close my eyes during the steep ascent and later, once the plane had reached its altitude, to submerge myself in other worlds. I had brought with me on the trip one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s books, a paperback in English, the novel Enemies, a Love Story. Someone might think, I thought, that my choice was tied in some way to the reason for the trip to Europe, that in this mingling of hatred and love, paradoxical at first, was hidden the key that could explain what the writers had not been able to agree upon. The truth was different. When I fly I cannot read postmodernists: their fragments irritate me and the dislocated narrative exacerbates my fear of flying. Classic prose like Singer’s calms me, draws me into its semblance of reality, and helps me forget where I really am.
Then I fell asleep. I woke just as the woman sitting on the seat next to mine leaned over to pick up the book that had slipped off my lap. A raspy man’s voice was singing somewhere deep in my ears that this night would never end, though daylight was all around us as I could easily see through the little airplane window. The woman turned to me and held up the book. The yellowish liver spots on her face, neck, and upper arms showed that she had long since become accustomed to age. I removed my earphones.
“Singer,” she said as if I didn’t know. “A marvelous writer. Do you know that story of his about how he saw Hitler in the middle of New York?”
“Yes,” I said. My mouth was dry.
“I spent a night with him.”
“No,” she said, “I would never have allowed myself such a thing. I meant Singer.”
I said nothing. What was there for me to say?
“I know what you’re thinking,” said the woman, handing me the book. “But it wasn’t like that. I was teaching at a university in Wisconsin and Singer came to give a talk on Yiddish literature. I went up to him and said I had experienced something unusual, that I was certain I had seen Hitler once in Chicago. That caught his interest and he invited me up to his hotel room after the dinner he would have to attend with the head of the department. I went, and why wouldn’t I? He greeted me still in his suit, he hadn’t even taken off the tie, the only change was that he was wearing soft leather slippers. He said he couldn’t bear the chafing of the shoes. He listened to me attentively, nodded his head, encouraged me to continue. He said that the world is full of illusions, but that we never know what is genuine. Nothing is merely good or evil, wise or stupid, happy or sad, there is always the possibility that one will turn into the other. He told me how he had swung from one extreme to another in his life and that he was never sure when he was awake and when he was dreaming. And what can I say? One word followed another and there we were watching the sun come up. He was still smiling, but his was the smile of a tired man. ‘Now I have to sleep,’ he said, and, fully dressed, he lay down on the bed and immediately fell asleep. I sat for a while longer in an armchair and listened to him breathe deeper and deeper. The sky was all pink, a new day was dawning. I stood and went over to the bed. He was frowning in his sleep as if he didn’t know what to do with the dreams. I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. Then I saw his things laid out on the dresser by the bed: his wallet, fountain pen, notebook, a pocket watch. I reached over and took the watch to have a look at it, and then either Singer turned over in his sleep or a pigeon landed on the windowsill, I can’t remember which, but the next moment there I was, outside the room, in the corridor, on the stairs. It was only when I’d left the hotel and was near the town square that I realized I was still holding it tightly.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out an old-fashioned pocket watch and popped open the lid. I saw an engraved inscription: to dearest isaac from vanda.
“Vanda who?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” answered the woman, “and I don’t care to. A year later, in The New Yorker, or maybe The Atlantic, I saw the story about Hitler. He had changed a few things, moved it to New York, but there could be no doubt, this was the story I had told him that night. Since he had my story, I kept his watch. Fair enough, eh?”
The rattling of dishes drew our attention to the stewardesses who were pushing a cart down the aisle and serving lunch. After lunch, a voice announced over the loudspeakers, we would be watching an action movie and the latest news. The woman snapped shut the watch and put it away in her purse. I was afraid she’d stop talking. I asked her:
“Did you really see Hitler in Chicago?”
The woman looked at me and then turned to lower her tray. A sly smile played on her lips. Many years ago, I realized, that smile might have been enough for Singer to invite her to his hotel room.
“Everyone must see Hitler once in their life,” she said. “No need to go to Chicago for that.”