Presenting the winner of Street's 3rd Annual Fiction Contest
Jonathan left on Friday. He took his rolling suitcases, his clothes and his books, and even his potted plants. He didn’t take any of the cutlery or flatware, which was generous of him, because he and our other roommate Mikhail and I had decided we’d each take a third of that stuff, whenever we parted ways. He also left a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, positioned in the exact center of the top of his dresser.
Mikhail and I wake up late that Friday morning and find the book on the dresser and Jonathan gone. “I hate that book,” Mikhail says.
I read the back cover. “Doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea.”
“Tea is a good idea,” Mikhail says. He goes into our apartment’s kitchenette and starts moving things around in the cabinet. I turn on CNN and look out the window, searching for a natural disaster, a secret mission, an explanation. Mikhail slams the cabinet. “The motherfucker has taken all the tea,” he says.
“Well,” I say. “I guess he’s gone for good.”
Mikhail makes coffee instead. He pours it into mugs that Jonathan must have washed that morning, and we drink it in Jonathan’s room, watching Anderson Cooper on mute, looking serious.
All day, we do things that are normal. At three, Mikhail goes to the lab to research condensed matter and run a review session for his undergrads. He is the most popular TA, he says, because he gives them a few extra minutes to finish their labs, and during office hours he is eager to debate the merits of different brands of beer. I try work on my thesis. Sometimes the artifacts of Brazilian hunter–gatherer societies give me great rushes of joy. Sometimes they do not.
Jonathan took everything in the apartment that was his. I would have considered the plants our shared property, but I suppose overall he was unselfish. I dial his cell phone, but only twice. I’ve always hated people who beg.
That night, Mikhail steams vegetables for Pad Thai while I watch 60 Minutes. Once, when Mikhail first moved in, he mentioned that he liked to cook, and Jonathan said how much he liked goulash, and did Mikhail know how to make it. “I make excellent sushi,” Mikhail said, “and I have picked up some Malaysian recipes.” Jonathan didn’t ask any more questions about Eastern European cuisine, because he didn’t want Mikhail to think he was the kind of person who assumes Eastern Europeans only eat Eastern European food.
Mikhail says, “Lena, I am sorry for your loss.”
“He’s not dead,” I say. “Presumably.”
“Yes, presumably. Where do you think he has gone?”
“To find himself,” I say. “He would, right? He’s that type. The only part that’s surprising is that it’s so obvious. You’d think he’d see that self–discovery shit as, I don’t know. Mainstream.”
“I too imagine that he has embarked on a hejira,” Mikhail says.
“Hejira, huh? With potted plants?”
Mikhail tosses chicken, garlic and lime into a skillet of oil. I imagine him eating goulash, as a child maybe, in a cold apartment, state–run news on the radio, his father reading aloud from Vaclav Havel.
“He wrote a song once,” I say, “Jonathan did, I mean. Mostly he just covered Dylan and stuff, but this one, he said I inspired it or something.”
“Yes. It was beautiful. He sang it at a few of his gigs. I thought about asking him to record it, just on his computer or something, but I didn’t.”
“There is no recording?”
“Some chick probably has it on her camera phone.”
“It is better,” Mikhail says. “Imagine only hearing the New World Symphony once. How precious it would be. Do not misunderstand me — I do not compare Jonathan and his syrupy ballads to Antonin Dvorak — my point is only the sublime ephemerality of music.”
“You have an iPod,” I say. “Also ephemerality isn’t a word.”
“Yes, well, I am greedy. But still, there are some things better not to drag around in a suitcase. Leave it where it is, when it is.”
The chicken simmers. He adds chili powder. “I don’t remember anything but the chorus,” I tell him.
“Good,” he says.
A week later, the Brazilian artifacts are still uninspiring and there is no word from Jonathan. I suggested at some point that we call his mother, who I think lives in Rochester. Mikhail pointed out that we have no contact information and don’t know her last name. Jonathan had once told us that all the women in his family keep their maiden names.
I lie on my bed, watching the news on mute, Bob Dylan sounding tinny from my computer speakers. The apartment door opens and Mikhail comes in, home early; the exam being over, probably no one had questions for office hours, or pressing questions about Pilsner versus Chodovar. He appears in the doorway of my room. “Can I?” he asks.
“Can you what?”
“Can I lie beside you?”
He lowers himself beside, on his back, arms at his sides, like he’s trying to make his body parallel to the edge of the bed.
“Did you love him?” he asks.
“I don’t know. No, probably not. We only even hooked up a few times — and when we did, it was always while you were out, I know the walls are thin.”
“You are very considerate.”
“Did you think we were in love?”
“It is understandable,” Mikhail says. “Girls are always falling for poet–musicians. He plays you a song that he did not even write, and you swoon; he says ‘I feel a psychic connection to Rilke and Bob Dylan’ and you are getting lost in his dreamy blue eyes —”
“His eyes are brown!”
“Yes, of course, brown. See? They are so dreamy that I am lost in them and cannot even tell you what color they are.”
“Did you leave some dreamy girls behind in Prague?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says. “I left many things behind.”
We lie there for a moment. The room is warm. Then he says, “Are Eastern European guys sexy?”
“I’m sure there are a few somewhere who are.”
He laughs and elbows me. I elbow him back. The news ends, replaced by a show about multi–ethnic children who solve mysteries.
Another week goes by. I realize that the fair trade coffee shop where Jonathan worked hasn’t called asking where he is, so I call them. Krishna, the manager, tells me that Jonathan submitted his notice two weeks before he left. He did not tell Krishna where he was going, which is not surprising, Krishna says, because they were not close.
I take out the red plasticky folder where I keep Jonathan’s poems. He showed them to me one night, a while ago, and he asked me if I liked them and said I could have a copy if I wanted. They were so beautiful and so sad and I wanted to tell him that, to say something that showed him I understood, but all I could say was, “Yeah. If there’s ink in the printer.”
I reread them and it’s like looking through a telescope at stars so far away they might be dead by now.
Mikhail gets home from office hours and preheats the oven. He looks at me. “Lena?” he asks. “Are you crying?”
“Only on the inside,” I tell him.
“Ha. I will make vegetable curry.”
I put the folder on the coffee table, which looks bare and exposed without the potted African violets that Jonathan took with him. I join Mikhail in the kitchenette and he gives me carrots to slice. “Did you ever read Jonathan’s poems?” I ask him.
“I wrote some poems once,” he says. “For my girlfriend.”
I realize how little I know about Mikhail’s previous life. “Really?” I say. “So you’re a physicist who writes poems, what a catch you are. Did she like them?”
“She said — it’s better in Czech, but she said, ‘They simmer like stars.’”
“Then she said, ‘I don’t need shimmering stars. I need a boyfriend.’ I didn’t write any more poetry and not long afterward she broke up with me.”
“Yes, well. It was my fault. I loved her, but not the right way.”
“What’s the right way?”
“If I knew that…”
We cut carrots in silence.
The night before Jonathan left was a Thursday. We went out, the three of us, to a concert, some sad indie guy Jonathan wanted to see. He ended up thinking the guy was shit. We went to a bar afterward and Mikhail looked pained at the sight of their beer selection.
After a while, Mikhail wandered off to talk to a tall redhead in a silver skirt. Jonathan and I sat at a high table and he twirled a piece of my hair around his finger. He said, “Lena, you have the most beautiful eyes.”
“Original,” I said. And then, because I didn’t want him to look away, “You have nice calloused hands.”
We watched Mikhail exchange numbers with the redhead. “What a wonderful world we live in,” Jonathan said.
“I want to take it all in. You and me, Lena, we should see this wonderful world.”
“First I have to see to some Brazilian artifacts,” I told him.
“Right,” he said. He looked right at me. “The thing is,” he said, “I want to see this wonderful world with you. I’ll wait. As long as you need.”
The redhead leaned over and kissed Mikhail’s neck. I’d seen Jonathan chatting up girls after a gig he’d played a few days before. The poems he wrote weren’t really for me. They were just words, uttered once, floating unencumbered somewhere in time and space, somewhere far in the past. Ephemerality, I thought. Such ephemerality.
A few more weeks pass. Mikhail and I examine Jonathan’s room, considering using it for storage, or hobbies, or music, or something equally unnecessary, as if Jonathan were our son who has left for college and can bunk up with his little brother when he’s home for Christmas.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is still on top of Jonathan’s dresser. “Why do you hate this book?” I ask Mikhail.
“I hate all Czech writers.”
“I watched the movie version the other night,” I said. “I thought maybe it would give us a clue.”
“I’ve seen the movie. It’s pornographic.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“It is thus an improvement over the book.”
I open the book for the first time. On the title page, there’s a note, in Jonathan’s handwriting, in blue ballpoint ink. A heavy feeling spreads from my wrists to my fingertips. Whenever I’m anxious or grief–stricken I feel it in my hands.
“Lena,” the note says,
“Thought you’d appreciate this. If you don’t want to read it, that’s fine, watch the movie instead, it’s decent. Make sure Mikhail renews his visa next month, okay? Don’t know why I’m telling you that, I know you will.
Take it easy, and always travel light— Jonathan.”
I turn to Mikhail. “He took his plants with him,” I say. “That fucker. All I got was poetry that wasn’t even for me and the chorus of a song I can barely remember.”
“What kind of pretentious ass writes his farewell in a Kundera novel?” Mikhail asks.
I sit down on the bed. “I haven’t the slightest,” I say.
“Have you had a chance to buy more tea?”
“No, but I realized he left the Lipton, that cheap stuff, you know.”
“Okay,” Mikhail says. “I’ll make tea. And miso salmon. I’ll put the kettle on but I need to run to the Asian grocery and buy more seaweed.”
I put the book in the red folder with the poems. Then I turn on CNN, just in case, and watch for a few minutes, and when the kettle boils, I make us tea.