jerzy kosinski’s steps: a sartrean turn in step number five

"I felt the longing for pleasure and abandonment inside me, but I also sensed that I had been accepted too readily, that everything had suddenly become very predictable. All we could do was to exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self."

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I went to the zoo to see an octopus I had read about. It was housed in an aquarium and fed on live crabs, fish, mussels — and on itself. It nibbled at its own tentacles, consuming them one after another.

Obviously the octopus was slowly killing itself. One attendant explained that in the part of the world where it had been caught, an octopus was believed to be a god of war, prophesying defeat when it looked landward and victory when it loooked seaward; this particular specimen, the natives had claimed, had only looked landward when captured. A man jokingly remarked that by eating itself it was presumably acknowledging its own defeat.

Each time the octopus bit into itself, some of the spectators shuddered as if they felt it eating their own flesh. Others were impassive. Just as I was about to leave, I noticed a young woman staring at the octopus without any apparent reaction, her lips relaxed. There was a serenity about her that went beyond unconcern.

I approached and engaged her in conversation. She turned out to be the wife of a well-known public official whose family lived in the city. Before the afternoon was over she invited me to a dinner party she was giving at her home.

It was an imposing household, and the dinner party flawless. The hostess behaved very naturally, attending equally to her family and guests, and yet somehow she seemed quite remote. I thought she had glanced at me with a suggestion of intimate interest, and I wanted proof of this. I planned to leave the city the next day. This would be my only opportunity.

She had just turned away from a departing couple, and stood, drink in hand, near one of the library bookcases. With an assumed casualness I told her I wished to see her alone, for I couldn’t freemyself from the images she excited in me.

I proposed a meeting. I suggested the capital of the neighboring country to which I was going the next day. She was just about to answer when several guests approached us. She turned toward them but first handed me her glass as though it had been mine, quietly stating the name of the hotel where she would join me.

During the next few days I thought of her constantly, recalling every moment I had spent near her. I speculated about the other men at the party, about which of them might have been her lovers, and about various situations in which she had made love. The more I meditated about her, the more concerned I became about our first encounter.

. . . . We were both naked. There was nothing I wanted so much as to be at ease with her. But the very thought of what she might expect from me made me less aroused. It was almost as though my thinking had to subside before my body could perform.

Yet I could not conceal my inadequacy, for in her mind, it seemed, my desire was reflected only in one part of me, a part suddenly grown very small. She blamed herself for what she insisted was her lack of finesse in gratifying me. She became increasingly frustrated and upset. I dressed and left her, walking the streets and trying to understand what had happened. I tried to decide how, in the future, I would explain my predicament to her; I was afraid she might reject any discussion as merely an excuse for a second futile attempt at physical intimacy.

On the street I approached a woman: her face was thickly painted and the shape of her figure lost in an ill-fitting dress. After some talk, she agreed to accompany me.

In the room she helped me to undress and then, still clothed herself, she began to caress me. There was a familiarity to her touch, as though her hands were guided over my skin by the current she felt pulsing underneath it; had I desired to use my own hands on my body, I would have guided them along the same path.

I looked again at her dress and suddenly realized my partner was a man. My mood altered abruptly. I felt the longing for pleasure and abandonment inside me, but I also sensed that I had been accepted too readily, that everything had suddenly become very predictable. All we could do was to exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self.

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