By Mihnea Tanasescu
“Are you homeless?” this barely audible, shaking voice asked me. I turned to my right and saw a little woman of no more than 60, with big blood-shot eyes and a contemptible posture. She was very short, but it was not clear whether she had always been short. She was hunched over and her whole posture indicated that she was holding on to her belly, as if in a lot of pain; in actual fact her hands were not laying upon it, but rather only approaching it in a vibrating dance that intimates pain but doesn’t fully acknowledge it. It seemed she was hunched over because of this invisible pull of her invisible pain that made her bend onto herself without ever completing the move, as to not fully identify with her body. Indeed, there was a denial of her body in her demeanor, a necessary denial that had nothing to do with ideology or philosophy, an organic denial that was at this point her instinct for survival.
“No,” I answered, “I am not homeless.” Her eyes lit up with a hopeless hope, as if I had just opened up a secret that she had been waiting for but that she couldn’t trust. “Can I come live with you?” she asked, looking into my eyes as a child looks at a mother getting ready to leave for work, not exactly sure of whether she will come back. A mixture of abandonment and hope came to gaze at me, so powerfully so that I could not take my sunglasses off, of fear not to disintegrate under this weight. So I kept my pathetic mask, knowing too well that from her perspective she was looking at herself, at her reflection in my fashionable masking accessory, such that she was truly asking herself whether she was homeless and answering hopefully that she was not. She could not help but ask herself to be taken with, to be given the chance to live as a person should. But what could she give herself? What could her reflection answer, if not a dry, insecure, regretful “No” that had the opposite effect of the initial “No” which she savored as a gift? The gift quickly turned into the same old story of theft, and in a moment her reflection robbed herself of the possibility of living.
“Why not?” she inquired. “If you say your aren’t homeless, why can’t I come with you? I won’t take up too much space, I won’t get in your way, I won’t do anything, I won’t…” She coughed a dry cough that resembled the sound of some broken piece of machinery that nevertheless keeps going, just doing enough of its job to still be entitled to exist. “I don’t want to perish like this…” Her last words, uttered between her mechanic coughs, threatened to shatter my lenses. But the modern composites we use to hide ourselves are too well planned, too strong to be affected by such pathetic phrases, by such insignificant appearances of semblances of people on the verge of not being. What was it to my lenses that this woman was asking herself not to perish, not to perish like this, as if it is up to us to decide how we should die? To die what you would consider your death, idealized as that is, is a luxury, or even more than a mere luxury, a training. You have to train yourself every single day in the art of dying, such that your life becomes a slow, perpetual, imperceptible yet all-powerful death. Hadn’t she been preparing for it? Weren’t her contorted back and her screaming belly, her red eyes and her cough, a testimony towards her own disintegration? And now she wanted to live with herself in order not to die like this. Or maybe there was still too much unbearable sensation in her half-body for her to contemplate death from a distance. She was dying, not preparing for death. She was disintegrating while not wanting to, while holding on to a reflection in which her eyes were not red and she was tall and beautiful, in which her belly didn’t pull her into herself but rather let her expand towards others by supporting her body up high, like an arrow aimed at the heavens.
My own belly was starting to imitate hers, and my hands wanted to start dancing around it, as if to sooth it by some random movement that would distract. My own belly, which held me towards heaven, was truly becoming hers and the feeling of being dragged towards my grave, of being weighed down by my own empty body, became overwhelming. My glasses no longer made a difference, my entire being was now a reflection of her and I felt strangely happy in my role of facilitator of an intimate conversation. Yet I became equally afraid that I would not be able to pull myself out of my facilitating position, unwillingly dying in a manner I didn’t want to die. But it wasn’t up to me, I wasn’t talking, I was a mere mirror. It was up to other forces to determine my fate, and conversing with my reflection about it seemed nothing more than a useless attempt that bore the clear mark of hopeful desperation.
“I am sorry,” her reflection answered, “I already live with people. Even if I lived alone there would already be too many. I can’t help you, I can only listen. Go on with your monologue, it does no harm, nor good. Sing your song and let it fly into the empty crowded spaces of the city, let it bounce off the walls and come back to you, and you will see that we are already too crowded to live together. I cannot take you with me, my dying friend, you can only follow your path, and die your unwillingly chosen death.” Her eyes sank toward the cold ground and away from herself, in expected utter disbelief. She seemed not to understand, not to be able to grasp the issue at hand. She wished it were simple, and her wish made her simplify to the point where the whole world became a simple answer to a simple question. “Can I live with you?” You don’t have to be a philosopher to answer such trivial questions, you only need a little conviction and goodwill. “What is all this about us already being too many? I didn’t ask about your others, only about whether I can be one of them.” Her simple question received a simple answer, but so terrible in its simplicity, so utterly brutal, that she could no longer stand looking at herself. She tried again, arching her whole being towards the goal of raising her eyes anew. But the time for a beginning had long passed, and she barely managed to catch a glimpse of herself, just enough to see how terrible she was, how utterly helpless and mean. Her reflection grew colder and found the strength to deliver a last blow masked in good intentions: “Do you want some money? A cigarette?” Money and a cigarette? How cruel we can be towards ourselves! She could not even gesture a refusal or an acceptance. She had already taken her reflection back into herself, closed herself off again to prepare for dying. Money and a cigarette…what folly!
I had suddenly regained myself, just as she pulled herself back home. She was her home, and decided she might in fact be better off dying in that home that in one filled with money, cigarettes and moral arrogance. I still didn’t have the strength to remove my mask, telling myself that I had to be the mirror in case she decided to look into it again. How comical I am! Me, the mirror of another, willingly and altruistically giving myself to the person in need, giving them the opportunity to have a last conversation with themselves! Ha! It is almost too comical to bear! I knew that in actual fact I was afraid. Afraid of not being behind a glass, afraid of the ethical imperative that would dawn on me if I were not masked. She made no further efforts to look in my direction. I was uneasy, caught between my glasses and the world, between wanting to leave and not knowing how. I uttered perhaps the most ironic words I had ever uttered, and considered them a good enough excuse for my departure. Words that would make my departure noble, spiritual even. Words that would convert my flight into something more benevolent, something of a deeper understanding and of some goodness of heart. “God bless you,” I said, and turned around on my heels to leave. I didn’t even look in her direction while I said those pathetic words, but I could imagine her contorted body oozing dry tears out of every pore. “How can you bless me, you heartless wall? I didn’t have the nerve to bless myself, yet you do! Go, you and your God, go and never return. I shall collapse onto myself and die, in no need of your blessing! I shall die the death I do not desire, but at least it isn’t bathed in your ridiculous blessing!”
I arrived home and looked around the apartment for a long time. I could see her there, smiling a little, with her body slightly more straight, with her cough slightly gentler. I sat down at my desk and opened my computer to write. I wanted to write about her and her monologue. But she was still there, quiet, staring me in the eye. My glasses were gone and her gaze was too strong. Without a word she urged me to step away from the word, not to monopolize and falsify her life. She asked me not to interpret, but to just absorb, not to write but to think. She urged me all these things while I, reaching for my glasses, uttered a “God bless” and continued writing.
Mihnea is a second year MA student in Philosophy. His academic interests lie in the field of philosophy, while his overarching passion lies in transgressing that field with every occasion. He believes that philosophy is not done justice when it remains within its confined discourse. Rather, philosophizing itself is the drive to call established dogma into question in such a way as to allow thinking to develop in new forms. In this light, stories become important as a truly philosophical inquiry that can incorporate and make recourse to our shared aesthetic feeling.