"I was ashamed of myself when I realized life was a costume party; and I attended with my real face." - Franz Kafka
My life has always felt like a horizontal free fall. When I look back, all I can collect are the few momentary fragments, distilled from the greater stream they once ran through. I lay out the puzzle pieces in different arrangements, but none of the sequences make it clear. I pull out a photograph from when I was just 18 years old: we're smiling under the warm Mediterranean sun. The photo was taken right after completing the hike through the Sea of Galilee. The girl beside, the blonde, broke my heart. We all met each other for the first time when we arrived at the airport, bonding over a distant sense of Judaism, but rather than connect to our origins, what was truly on our minds was the desire to experience something new, outside of the mundane. I went with the desire to reinvent myself. To be more assertive, or something like that. I told Beth, almost immediately, that I liked her. To my surprise, she liked me too. Because of the intense lust I felt, I forgot everything around us. That week in Israel is smothered with images of her sweet sun-kissed face, and that dreadful moment in the bunker.
There were reports of bombs landing in different parts of the country. We were escorted into an underground room filled with dry and canned foods. Everyone previously was kind and friendly, filled with a naive sense of indestructibility, yet as the sirens blared repetitively, echoing through the vast desert landscape, something had changed in their faces, Beth's especially: she was not the same girl as in the photograph, which was taken a day prior; she interacted with me as if I was a stranger and began hanging out with another guy from the group, whom she quickly became intimate with.
I didn't eat anything for the remainder of the trip, losing weight drastically to the point that my ribs showed through my shirt. I was sick with with dissonance. The group shifted, strangely, and excluded me entirely. The only time I encountered Beth again was when she asked me to take a photograph of her and her boyfriend. That's how she said it: "Can you take a photo of me and my boyfriend?" To this day, I do not know what happened. What spell of amnesia washed over everyone?
I pull out another photograph: I'm standing somewhere in Paris, only several blocks from the apartment I was living in. This is 10 years after the trip to Israel and it shows on my face. When I visited Paris for the first time, the atmosphere struck me as a place for authenticity. I would wake up eager to see how the day would unfold. I was no longer being guided by a mechanical cart. The world was filled with serendipity. And serendipity is exactly what led me to meet Marguerite, a recently divorced woman that was older than my mother. I recall most distinctly how she dressed. Every article of clothing carefully selected, the texture would be consistent throughout her body. There was something timeless about her. She came every night into the restaurant and asked for me specifically, and one night after drinking several glasses of wine, asked me to escort her back home, under the guise that it wasn't safe for an older woman to travel alone.
Her apartment looked like it belonged in an exhibition. The ceilings were double the height of my own, and the doorways arched, etched with engravings of angels. I turned around to find Marguerite nude on her bed, beckoning me to come. I took off my work clothes and did exactly what she wanted.
Marguerite would call me in a fit, begging that I come over, often covering my shift with a wad of cash that she would leave on her side table. The visits became more frequent and I was now making love to her several times a day, as if it were my job. In my mind, I reconciled with our difference in age; I felt that I loved her, truly. One night after she called in hysteria, I rushed over to keep her company. With the silk drapes parted and the moon light grazing over her skin, I told her the truth of how I felt. "Shit." she said in French. She got up and grabbed a glass of wine and sat on the edge of the bed, wrapped in a white robe, to tell me that “this”, our romance, was just for fun, that she never took it seriously and is sorry that I developed feelings for her. Frankly, she still loved her husband.
I left Paris shortly after.
Many of the photos were unrecognizable. I pulled one and felt that the person in it wasn’t myself, as if the moments that define us are those few spread decades apart. They’re always there, immutable, coming into recollection by the vaguest associations.
The last photo was taken only 1 year ago. After I left Paris, I got a job as a high school english teacher back in my hometown. I spent 30 years teaching there and when I retired a little party was thrown at the Principals home. It was incredibly strange interacting with my colleagues outside of the school's context. They were transparent. I spent most of the party sitting on the couch as teachers sat down to have a quick chat. Many asked if I regretted it, if I didn’t have other dreams when I was younger. And of course I regretted it; but somehow the thought never crossed my mind until that day. When I realized it, I began to cry. The party was cut short due to the guests feeling uncomfortable but I couldn’t control it. It was true, my life wasn’t how I imagined it at all. The principal asked me to leave his home. “I feel as if I have wasted my life, Tom.” “I’m sorry but you have to go.” That was the last time I saw any of them.
I lay out the photos in succession on my desk. I move them around, thinking what if things went different. Yet in every combination, they remain broken.