Taking Hold

Weiße Nächte/White Nights · 2009 · Inkjetdruck und Öl auf Leinwand/Inkjet printing and oil on canvas 130 x 80 cm

Weiße Nächte/White Nights · 2009 · Markus Lörwald · Inkjetdruck und Öl auf Leinwand/Inkjet printing and oil on canvas · 130 x 80 cm

Traum und Lüge/Dreams and Deceit · 2008 · Öl auf Leinwand/Oil on canvas · 150 x 190 cm

Traum und Lüge/Dreams and Deceit · 2008 · Markus Lörwald · Öl auf Leinwand/Oil on canvas · 150 x 190 cm

Traum und Lüge/Dreams and Deceit · 2008 · Öl auf Leinwand /Oil on canvas · 160 x 210 cm

Traum und Lüge/Dreams and Deceit · 2008 · Markus Lörwald · Öl auf Leinwand/Oil on canvas · 160 x 210 cm

That look. That first moment when two people’s eyes meet. Something happens sometimes. Alina can’t help thinking of the book last Wednesday in Madrid, that morning.
Rocío hadn’t come home and Alina made herself a coffee, took the book off the shelf–the only art book Rocío had–and sat down in an armchair. There were naked women and men, some of them transsexuals, in between them garage doors, shots of food and portraits, some of famous faces. Semi-erect penises, legs spread, hints at oral sex. She hadn’t expected Rocío to own something like this, but it didn’t really surprise her either.
It wasn’t pornography, not as Alina saw it. There were faces and she could read something in them that wasn’t feigned lust. There was a lightness in the pictures, as if sex were a game, just a harmless pleasure. She turned the pages more and more slowly, sinking into the photos. That feeling that never quite left her: there’s something out there so big it can take your breath away and give you life in return.
It could be so easy.
She sat there in the rattan chair, thinking about Rocío and the man from last night, who had reminded her of a gypsy with his dark hair and dark skin. Alina imagined them undressing each other, playing with each other.
In the book was a woman, naked in a flat that wasn’t her own, or so it seemed to Alina. The woman was naked in a strange flat, and she seemed to feel freer than Alina could ever feel even fully dressed, visiting someone for the first or second time.
She pictured how his skin must feel and Rocío’s, how the two of them opened a door behind which there was no room, just space. How they stayed together in that space. The smell his armpits give off, how his mouth tastes of beer, beer and grass, how Rocío’s hand reaches down, how she takes hold of his cock as if it was a creature in its own right, how he looks at her breasts as if they were a picture, how nothing can cross the line from outside, how they find themselves inside one another, seemingly almost by coincidence, something that might happen when the door opens, opens as if opening a book.
Alina imagined the two of them. The throbbing she felt didn’t draw her hand, and suddenly there was the sound of the key. She slammed the book shut but stayed seated as Rocío appeared in the doorway. She tried to spot a reflection of last night in her face.

That look. This man too had dark hair and dark eyes, but his skin was much lighter and his face lined. Jaded, Alina would have said, knowing it wasn’t the right word. Perhaps he’d gambled his face away and that was why he looked that way.
Those looks. There were more and more of them and Alina noticed something was happening. Perhaps she was losing hold of herself. She couldn’t help thinking of the book when she looked at him. But after the fourth or fifth time, she thought of nothing at all. Or of something you can’t really think of. Something behind the pictures, behind their eyes.
Once, when they’d shared a flat as students in Göttingen, Rocío had said: if his eyes interest me I don’t care what he talks about. And if they don’t interest me he can be the greatest charmer, I don’t care either.
Back then, too, she’d gone with them often, more often than everyone else Alina knew, and of course more often than Alina. Sometimes she’d come home in the morning, rosy and flushed. Her voice would always be slightly lighter than usual then, although she’d often smoked more than usual, and she’d talk faster too. And there were days when her eyes looked as if she’d been there. Where there is no inside and no outside any more.
Alina envied her then. Another thing Rocío had said in those days stayed in her mind: not enjoying yourself when you can is the greatest sin in the world.
A line Rocío had picked up from a film, but Alina didn’t know that.
And she did enjoy herself. She tried.
Sometimes it’s just like a hot bath on a winter’s day, said Rocío when they talked about it, about the nights and the men.
But it wasn’t like a bath for Alina; there was no bathrobe to wrap herself up in afterwards, and it was as if droplets got under her skin. Droplets like defects.
That look. Again. He was wearing a grey suit, but not the kind businessmen wear; a casual suit. His hair was ruffled; Alina felt like grabbing hold of it. He stood there leaning against the bar, a glass in his hand, looking at Alina like he might have looked at plenty of women before. But that didn’t matter. His eyes were his eyes. And a sin was a sin.
Alina turned her head away again, nodding at what her friend had just said, and tried to find out what they were talking about.

After college, Rocío had done an internship at a publishing house in Madrid. Her parents came from a village in Andalusia, but Rocío had never spent more than six weeks at a time in Spain before. After the internship she got a job in television and stayed on in Madrid. Alina wondered whether Rocío was happier in Spain than in Germany. Whether she’d been unhappy there. Why she’d been looking for another life. When Alina finally managed to visit her a year and a half later, as they’d kept meaning to do, nothing seemed to have changed. This was the Rocío Alina knew, except she talked slightly louder, that was all. Perhaps she talked slightly faster too, but maybe it just sounded that way to Alina because her Spanish wasn’t very good.
They went out together in Chueca and Lavapiés, stood outside bars in the midsummer night air, talking, laughing, forgetting and drinking, smoking and abandoning their hips to the music. For three nights in a row, they went home together at sunrise. The fourth time, Alina was alone, and the dawn took a long time to come.

He was sitting on the broad stairs leading down to the toilets. He gestured with his head for her to sit next to him. Once he’d offered her a cigarette and lit it for her, he took one himself and nodded, expelling the smoke, as if she’d just said something. He seemed calm, as if he were just playing a part in a film that these things happen in.
Afterwards, Alina couldn’t say what his first line was or what she’d said either. Contact comes about on the boundaries, she’d read somewhere, but what was it called when something happened where the boundaries broke down? Later, Alina ordered a water, clutching the glass and standing so close to him she could breathe in his smell. It could be so easy.
His hands touch her like his smell. Like her sense of smell, there is no inside and no outside. She remembers smells so well because they penetrate the body, because you can’t turn your face away and can’t pull your hand back.
A touch like a scent or like music. His skin on hers, his hand slipping down her stomach, the creature between his legs, his head between her breasts, his tight backside in her hands, her mouth between his dark-haired legs, his fingers in her hair.
As if they were acting in a film these things happen in. But when you stop acting you can’t just go straight back to real life. And take that look with you that Rocío sometimes used to have.
It could be so easy.
You know, Rocío said, having breakfast in a café after that fourth night, on the Wednesday when Alina had looked at the book; you know, sometimes you just do the things you used to do when you were happy.
She dipped her toast in her coffee and lit a cigarette, still chewing.
At least he smelled good, she said.
Alina couldn’t have said anything else the next morning. But there wasn’t even anyone there to listen.


Selim Özdogan

Selim Özdogan was born in 1971 and grew up in Cologne. He has published seven novels and several short story collections. His novel Die Tochter des Schmieds plays a cameo role in Fatih Akin's award-winning film The Edge of Heaven.

Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a translator and lover of German books. She blogs at http://lovegermanbooks.blogspot.com/.

Taking Hold. Copyright (c) Selim Özdogan, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Katy Derbyshire, 2009.