By Fleur Jaeggy, from I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories that will be published next month by New Directions. Jaeggy is the author of several novels. Translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff.
In a restaurant with Oliver, not far from his house. First a visit to his freezing house. He loathes the heat. Or perhaps, for mental or clinical reasons I cannot know, the heat simply stifles him. It made an impression on me, the degree to which he detests the heat. Maybe because although I like the Nordic sky, ice, snow, I am sensitive to the cold. I cover up in the daytime, I cover up before going to bed, I type wearing gloves with cutoff fingers. Oliver came here one winter. He opened the windows. He went out on the terrace. I stayed in the house wearing a coat, scarf, gloves. My hands get cold. My neck. I am cold in a way I’m tempted to call internal, a terrible word, but never mind. An internal cold. Whereas Oliver is always hot. I don’t think it’s merely a physical matter. Although he weighs more than I do. Until a few months ago I weighed less than ninety pounds. But I have known thin people who hated the heat. So it’s not just a question of how a body is constructed. Nor a question of blood. Nor do I think it’s a question of feelings. Mine can be quite cold, even when I ardently wish for heat. But not too much. Naturally it depends on what type of heat it is. One summer, in Thessaloniki, Greece, there were headlines in the papers, people were dying from the heat. I realized something was odd, and I was hot, too. But I wasn’t worn out. It was the day we went looking for Philip’s tomb. It was shut. But they let us in. When it’s that hot outside, I cover myself up. Another summer in Greece, in the Peloponnese, a nun mistook me for a nun. I was wearing something long, white, and a cut of linen on my head that fell down my back.
And so, at the restaurant with Oliver. There are fish in an aquarium. Oliver and Roberto talk. Oliver orders an immense steak. Next to us, a long table. A man at the head of the table. All around him, only women. Dressed in lace, jewelry, lacquered nails, really fantastic nails. Long dresses, tight corsets embroidered in rayon, silk, sparkling, pink, mauve, yellow, white. They all look like brides. Narrow wrists. Sparkling eyes. He’s the boss. Black. Elegant. Almost distant from his women. I look at them. And I look at the aquarium. I look at one fish, I don’t know which, but he is already a friend. Quite large eyes, always the same route, half the aquarium. He seems to respond to my gaze. I have the very precise impression that he understands I am talking to him. In silence. With affection. He knows he must die. He knows he’ll have nothing more from life. And he observes the clients at the restaurant. For a moment I think that his fate is not different from mine. We are both observing. I may have an advantage, some future, a little bit of time ahead of me. Before being killed. The fish is so intelligent. His eyes express love, I am not exaggerating. The clients go toward the aquarium, with a finger they point to the fish they want to eat. The fish that will be served at the table. They come to look at him up close. He is fresh. Because he is alive. Anyone can look. And they, the fish, ogle. I feel a certain kinship between the fish and me, especially with the one I remember very well. I remember his shape. His gaze. I can’t save him. I leave the restaurant after taking my leave of him. I speak a few words of affection. I move my lips. As he does. And goodbye.