The room felt stiff and forbidding. It denied me the luxury of distance and I was glad to have been left alone, if only for a few minutes. I searched for something to distract me and my gaze inadvertently fell upon his coat. It lay on the edge of the sofa, an abandoned shell with a fallen arm extended as if in supplication towards the ground. Lonesome and drab without its owner wrapped in its folds. He wore his clothes like his moods, with deceptive carelessness.
The edge of a book inched out of the depths of the coat pocket. So this must be his escape. Stooping over aged pages, oblivious to the rest of the world, he would detach himself from all concerns and flee to another world. One of his own choosing. I tried to guess whether it would be a biography or a work of history. Perhaps a novel, although knowing him, that seemed unlikely. Before I had the chance to satisfy my curiosity, I heard the door open behind me. He was back.
I had grown accustomed to his silence over the past few months. At first I found it unsettling. I tried to reach out, make him speak. It mattered little what he would say. No accusation, no reproach could equal this continued absence of sound. I was reduced to searching for pathetic substitutions for our former tête-à-têtes. The only times I heard his voice these days was when I tiptoed to the door of his office to eavesdrop on his conversation with others.
He was punishing me. I knew that he would never make me leave, but he did his best to make it difficult not to. At first I stayed because I hoped he would relent, certain that he couldn’t go on ignoring me indefinitely. I was wrong. He had made an art of it and I was nearing the breaking point.
On reentering the room he had settled into the armchair by the window, his body turned away from me so that I could see very little of his profile. Light sifted through the blinds in jagged lines: the portrait of a shadow-striped reader.
“What is it that you are reading?” I asked, cutting through the silence.
He looked up, his expression… he had the look of a dreamer that had been suddenly awakened from their sleep, but upon whom reality had not quite settled. He paused. He blinked. A hand moved towards his hair and ruffled it slightly as if enquiring, attempting to guess what the question had been. I moved towards the sofa and extracted the book from the pocket of the coat.
“Ah. It is Huxley,” I answered for him.
A novel after all. Aldous Huxley. It was a good name. One could not help but be persuaded by whatever an Aldous might tell them. I turned the book in my hands. It was an old edition and looked as if it had been read many a time. The pages had acquired a rusty hue and the spine was not altogether firm. It had a mild scent of tobacco.
“A favourite of yours?” I asked, turning one page and then another, aware that I was being observed as I did so.
He shrugged noncommittally.
Words swam soundlessly between us. He would not speak. Brave New World. I knew of it, but had never taken the trouble to read it. I wished I had. In my desperate attempt to cross over the chasm, this may have been a bridge. I believed that familiarity with something he cared about would have anchored me back into his life. Just like me… to depend on something so useless and fail even at that.
“What is it about?” I persisted, my eyes fixed on the page before me without being able to take in its contents.
His answer startled me. Its existence as much as its content. I expected to see a challenge in his eyes when I finally dared look at him, but I could not read his expression. I knew what he would read in mine: defeat.
For an instant only a compact formed between us around that one word. It hurt to hear it. It summed up my present state of existence. Somehow, it encompassed all that I had felt, been, for the past few months. He had made me feel that way without even trying. Did he know it? I looked away.
Moments later he was at my side. Not to embrace me. No. I had lost that privilege. I thought he wanted to reclaim his volume and offered to give it back, but that wasn’t it either. He shook his head to indicate that he didn’t want it and reached out for his coat instead.
At times I wondered whether he planned his actions or whether there was a cruel coincidence to the things he did. He fished out of the coat pocket the lighter I had gifted him the day after “the incident”. It was that clichéd gesture that gave me away in the end. Had I been a man, I might have bought him flowers. He knew me well enough to guess what it meant, and once suspicion found a foothold, it did not give way until he had it confirmed.
He lit a cigarette. It suited him. That vice. I watched him draw in the smoke and exhale it. He watched me watch him. Would that be it… a word once in a while and silence forevermore? Inadequacy. Succinct and to the point.
“It’s a dystopia. Or it was intended to be one. The way we’re going it may as well be a blueprint,” he said.
I waited for him to continue.
“The main character is an outcast who cannot or will not conform to the happy world of endless consumption and promiscuity.”
A turn of the head, a swift glance and he had caught me out. I wanted to laugh, but did not have the strength. He may be mocking me. It was too painfully close, too coincidental for it to be true.
“And what is his solution?” I asked.
I couldn’t tell whether he was speaking of me or of himself.