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Desesperanto

by
 After Joseph Roth

Parce que c'était lui; parce que c'était moi.
Montaigne, De L'amitië The dream's forfeit was a night in jail and now the slant light is crepuscular.
Papers or not, you are a foreigner whose name is always difficult to spell.
You pack your one valise.
You ring the bell.
Might it not be prudent to disappear beneath that mauve-blue sky above the square fronting your cosmopolitan hotel? You know two short-cuts to the train station which could get you there, on foot, in time.
The person who's apprised of your intention and seems to be your traveling companion is merely the detritus of a dream.
You cross the lobby and go out alone.
You crossed the lobby and went out alone through the square, where two red-headed girls played hopscotch on a chalk grid, now in the shade, of a broad-leafed plane tree, now in the sun.
The lively, lovely, widowed afternoon disarmed, uncoupled, shuffled and disarrayed itself; despite itself, dismayed you with your certainties, your visa, gone from your breast-pocket, or perhaps expired.
At the reception desk, no one inquired if you'd be returning.
Now you wonder why.
When the stout conductor comes down the aisle mustached, red-faced, at first jovial, and asks for your passport, what will you say? When they ask for your passport, will you say that town's name they'd find unpronounceable which resonates, when uttered, like a bell in your mind's tower, as it did the day you carried your green schoolbag down the gray fog-cobbled street, past church, bakery, shul past farm women setting up market stalls it was so early.
"I am on my way to school in .
" You were part of the town now, not the furnished rooms you shared with Mutti, since the others disappeared.
Your knees were red with cold; your itchy wool socks had inched down, so you stooped to pull them up, a student and a citizen.
You are a student and a citizen of whatever state is transient.
You are no more or less the resident of a hotel than you were of that town whose borders were disputed and redrawn.
A prince conceded to a president.
Another language became relevant to merchants on that street a child walked down whom you remember, in the corridors of cities you inhabit, polyglot as the distinguished scholar you were not to be.
A slight accent sets you apart, but it would mark you on that peddlers'-cart street now.
Which language, after all, is yours? Which language, after all these streets, is yours, and why are you here, waiting for a train? You could have run a hot bath, read Montaigne.
But would footsteps beyond the bathroom door's bolt have disturbed the nondescript interior's familiarity, shadowed the plain blue draperies? You reflect, you know no one who would, of you, echo your author's "Because it was he; because it was I," as a unique friendship's non sequitur.
No footsteps and no friend: that makes you free.
The train approaches, wreathed in smoke like fur around the shoulders of a dowager with no time for sentimentality.
With no time for sentimentality, mulling a twice-postponed book-review, you take an empty seat.
Opposite you a voluble immigrant family is already unwrapping garlicky sausages—an unshaven man and his two red-eared sons.
You once wrote: it is true, awful, and unimportant, finally that if the opportunity occurs some of the exiles become storm-troopers; and you try, culpably, to project these three into some torch-lit future, filtering out their wrangling (one of your languages) about the next canto in their short odyssey.
The next canto in your short odyssey will open, you know this, in yet another hotel room.
They have become your mother country: benevolent anonymity of rough starched sheets, dim lamp, rickety escritoire, one window.
Your neighbors gather up their crusts and rinds.
Out of a leather satchel, the man takes their frayed identity cards, examines them.
The sons watch, pale and less talkative.
A border, passport control, draw near: rubber stamp or interrogation? You hope the customs officer lunched well; reflect on the recurrent implication of the dream's forfeit.
One night in jail?

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