Love thy neighbor
Chronicles of Fredrick D. Sauma
March 3, 2006
I was no longer under any obligation to share or compromise my boundaries with any one. My new window looked out onto the busy life in the town's square. I could see the peak of the tall poplar trees on the edge of the road that led out of town. The orb of the Gothic cathedral that seemed to be piercing the sky. The clock tower of the 16th century Rathaus and the massive double domes of the medieval Schloss in the Altstadt. I was out of work and needed the view to remind me that the world outside was alive.
Christine, politely bowed out of the relationship. I think it was a mistake to be living together. I kept telling myself that it was better for both of us to go our own ways. That's how I liked to solace myself whenever something bad happened: it's for the better. Almost like a form of blind faith, hoping things eventually would turn out all right-in harmony with all my heart's desires and like all good stories it will have a happy ending. But I was as grounded as a wandering dervish and as sane as Don Quixote with many cherished illusions.
The first time I met my next door neighbor was two weeks after I had moved in to my new flat. Eric was a German/Canadian who lived with his Eastern European fiancé Kinga. She clung to his elbow so tightly every time they appeared in public that one would think she could lose her balance and fall to the ground if she ever let go. Eric worked in tourism. He was a tall, manly, dark haired man, who oozed out confidence with his rhythmic Canadian accent.
'Why didn't you keep your job at the embassy?' he asked once.
'Did the salary rate drop after the change of government?' he asked another time.
Eric could have never understood the ugly intricacies of religion, culture and politics whenever they intertwine, even if I explained and he carefully listened. But like Eric I wanted to be removed from the world that I was no longer a part of, whose interest was no longer a burden on my shoulders. I believed that was my new diplomatic mission.
I didn't want my life to read like a short story either but rather long and illustrious, like an epic, even if the only readers and appreciators of it were my own parents.
A few evenings a week Eric and I played backgammon and drank beer and talked about traveling, being present in foreign places. Eric seemed to have a discount package for most destinations and on top of that kindly offered a special neighborhood rate. Since he didn't know that I hadn't possessed my traveling document, as yet, he must have wondered why I never took advantage of his generous offers.
The mere thoughts of being somewhere else, made me realize the endless possibilities of my life, waiting for me in not so distance a future. I was no longer on a predictable and contrived path like my father's. Even my strong longing to return home had been replaced by mere desire of a sojourn under more propitious circumstances.
But I had to make regular trips to the social security office to hand in my form. I had learned not to speak German with the social workers. I never acquired the proper German accent any way, and if I did speak it, it would only be temporary, like an actor mimicking a particular accent for the sake of a role. Once or twice I spoke to them in their own tongue, trying to show them that I wasn't stupid, that, I cared enough to learn the language of the hand that fed me, but it seemed to make no difference at all. Only with English had I managed to put a safe distance between them and me. And I wasn't surprised when their behavior began to change toward me. They rarely asked me about my job prospects but instead chatted about football, girls and music. Somewhere, perhaps not so deep in the German subconscious they believed in the superiority of the English-speaking world over others, thanks to the outcome of WWII. I also thanked my parents for investing in my private English classes. They had such high hopes for my future. Learn English, learn French, learn German, learn the piano, learn to sing, flaunt your talents, show people that you're from a superior lineage. The world will be your oyster Fred, (as their favorite cliché went) only if you follow our advice they kept telling me.
Dad a senior public servant, at the Treasury Office, wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Mom, a Nestorian Kurd, a relic from the lost world, told me that Rabban Sauma was our ancestor, the first ambassador of Persia to the West, sent by Arghon, the great Monghol King. Rabban also had the blessings of the Nestorian Church who wanted to tell the Pope and other pontiffs about their Persian fellow Christians- holding the forte against the Moslems. I often went through his travel diary and came to identify with him. And it was really him who inspired me to study politics and later procure a job in the department of foreign affairs, using my dad's contacts in the government, utilizing his resources.
Mom said that my temperament was well suited to that of a diplomat. I can make my cough sound like a sneeze and my sneeze like a cough depending on who sat next to me and what reaction I wanted from them. That I'm honest enough to tell lies in the interest of my country. As a Christian I can extend compassion and forgiveness to my country's repented enemies and as a Moslem, mercilessly crush her implacable foes. She believed I was destined to become a great diplomat, raising the status of my country in the world, showing our neighbors that we are far more civilized and superior to them.
Although all those invites to embassy luncheon, dinners and tea parties stopped coming in, but several of my closer diplomatic acquaintances still kept in touch with me. And we still mingled outside the formality of the diplomatic world. I told them I was much obliged for all their diplomatic niceties. I knew I had a few years left to enjoy the remnants of my relinquished privileges, before the new lot replaced the old ones, as they always did after a few years.
As an unemployed I had the perfect job to keep up with them. My amount of free time fitted comfortably around their leisure activities. Tennis with couple of guys from the Malaysian embassy was periodically on. I never missed any of the regular bookings we made at the racket ball center with Peter, from the South African embassy. Usually, Peter invited me back to his home where we played with his guns and smoked a few joints. Jennifer, his gingered hair sister invariably appeared as soon as the smell of dope whiffed through the house. She stood there in her bohemian clothing as if in a reggae concert, taking quick, consecutive drags with great passion.
A few of my ex-diplomatic friends that used to work at the embassy, were still around, pondering whether they should remain as refugees or return home. Despite our mutual efforts, we never got any closer than sharing the odd beers and cursing the new diplomatic staff, whom we accused of not knowing the basics of diplomatic etiquette or politics. But even poking fun at the cause of our misfortune didn't bring us any closer. There was something missing. We couldn't find a replacement for all our washed away aspirations, as if they were only the figments of our imagination. I think we were looking for a place to hide since we couldn't shine any more. I told them that I had made up my mind to stay in Germany. Who knows maybe one day I ended up getting married here. Or leave to England or U.S.
* * *
There was suddenly a knock on my door at an unexpected hour. Nobody ever knocked on my door except Eric. Everyone else had to use the buzzer from the main entrance before they even entered the building. I was certain this wasn't Eric. It was a feeble knock, unsure of itself, like a beggar's knock.
I looked first through the door's security eye. I wasn't sure but it looked like Kinga, clad in a flimsy nightgown. She seemed distraught. I immediately opened the door.
'Hello Kinga, what's wrong?'
'Eric is away. He left last night. For a few days. I just had this nightmare. I'm so frightened.' Words struggled to come out of her dried up mouth.
I got her a glass of water and asked her to sit down. As she sat, her silky underwear slipped up even further. Eric's eyes flashed before me and I averted my gaze.
'What sort of a nightmare you had?' I left out the rest of the sentence, at ten in the morning.
'I'm so frightened.' She repeated, 'look my heart is panting so fast, still.'
She touched her heart and reached for my hand, grabbed it and placed it on her half naked breast.
'Can you feel it beating?'
While my hand was on her soft breast, I pressed harder and said, Yes, it's beating out of your chest. You're so frightened. I pointed to her glass and asked her to drink it up for it will calm her down. In the kitchen as I was refilling her glass, suddenly the turntable started playing Herb Alpert. I walked out and saw her standing in front of my stereo. She smiled and took the glass off my hand drank it and placed it on top of the entertainment unit.
'I like your music collection.' She said.
'How are you feeling, any better?' I asked her.
'Much better. Alone in that flat. Eric leaves me often. I hate being alone.'
'Could you dance with me?' She asked me, while standing in front of me with her exposed body.
Eric's booming voice echoed in my ear. I walked right up to her and she grabbed my hands and our bodies softly made contact.
'When is Eric coming back?' I asked her.
Was this the last fling she wanted to have before marrying her man? Was she really frightened? Perhaps she was genuine and she only wanted to dance and feel the warmth and strength of a man's body?
As our fingers interlaced ambiguously I remembered my first sexual awaking with Susan, the girl next door. She wore a nightgown like Kinga's. Her fair brown hair and bony figure felt so much part of me and who I was. Susan was four years my senior. Our palpitating hearts feared discovery and punishment, but no guilt.
Kinga's body pushed tighter against mine. I could almost smell her fears. Herb's sultry trumpet faded out. She stood there passively. I turned the music down and walked toward the window.
'Are you feeling better now?'
'You can always come here if you get scared.' I told her out of courtesy.
'Thanks.' She said laconically.
The breeze sucked out the puffs of my cigarette and dissipated it into the air. The town's square looked as wide-awake as a busy flee market. My thoughts were already with the girl I met in the café the day before. When I asked her to pass me the newspapers, she answered back in English with a non-German accent. I wondered if she would be there again today?
'I guess I better go and leave you alone.' Kinga told me.
My eyes witnessed her reluctant departure.
Two days later I was playing backgammon with Eric again. I noticed, that, whenever I won a game he talked or asked me about my current situation or the future. 'Do you like your flat? Doesn't the noise outside bother you in the morning?' Or 'Have you given more thoughts to where you'll be traveling to? Anyhow let me know when you're ready and I'll see what I can come up with. I look after my neighbors.'
And if I threw a bad dice or lost a game, he quizzed me about the past. 'How did you come to work in Germany?' 'When was the last time you visited home?' 'Why did you and Christy break up?'
I did my best to win.
© Farid Parsa