Today’s excerpt follows on from last week’s in which Marek nearly died on the Baltic Sea. Recalling that episode leads him to mull over just how much life he really does have left after all these years.
The second volume of Study for a Self-Portrait is dedicated to my mother, but it’s only in the more intimate sections where he addresses her as directly as this. They had gotten married earlier that year and were together until death did them part in 1985.
Back then, I was how old?
In other words, half a century ago. More even.
Today, fear has come back to me again and I don’t know how to deal with it. Because again after many years – having already passed the age of virility, the age of volatility – a feeling of joy has returned. Joy that I am alive. I am well. I’ve achieved a certain measure of professional success and I have a young loving wife.
You, Maria, know best that what I’m saying here is true. Being together does us very well and if it weren’t for the fear that this will naturally have to end soon – if it weren’t for the fear of old age – I would be totally happy.
Every morning I devote half an hour to hatha yoga exercises and I chase away all the contortions and painful numbness loaded into me during the night. By 11, I’m ready for battle. I eat breakfast and apply myself to painting or, regretfully, to the thousand other occupations which make up life. Phone calls, letters, bills. You, Maria, don’t see this, because with your cheerful, rosy and smooth face you run off to work in the West End and until 4pm you embroider and sew, decorating exceptionally expensive dresses which only Arabic millionaires can allow themselves.
My day begins with a struggle against old age. All morning I have determined lips and a furrowed brow. Subconsciously I keep waiting for your return home, because with you my smile reappears. You breathlessly come running back to the studio to greet me and ask what’s been happening. Then we have our tea together. If the weather’s up to it, then we eat in the garden. Our little garden’s like a green salon with walls full of roses. It’s precisely the size of a large room, or thereabouts. It’s closed off from the street by a high wall and a wooden gate which shields us from strangers’ glances. It’s good to sit with you on our foldable chairs, to look into those eyes which reflect the weather.
But soon enough, fear presses my heart. What will be? How much longer?
Two, three, five, what, ten years, all of which will pass by like a shot, and then the end.
One doesn’t have to think about that, one ought to take pleasure in what is while it lasts. That’s what know-it-alls say. Or something like that anyway. That you don’t have to sour your own happiness.
Your lips are moving. You’re saying some wise banalities, because you are normal, because you are healthy, because you are young and you cannot even imagine old age. I gaze upon your grey eyes and smooth face.
Everything you can tell me, I myself know well, I knew long ago, I don’t need to listen to your words. I’m 40 years older than you – 40 years wiser, 40 years stupider.
I feel scared. Is this what old age is?
And what is it you’re talking about? That underneath the large laurel bush that hides us from the neighbours, you found the small speckled fragments of a bird’s egg. What happened to the chick?
Back when I was 20 years old in the middle of the Baltic, my life depended on which direction I swam in. Death was not inevitable then.
Today, it’s completely inconsequential which direction I choose. If I weren’t so happy, perhaps I could resign myself to this fact more easily.
As the old Arabic saying goes, only the rich man fears the thief.