The disguise


To my friend Jonah Cohen


The knock on the door startled me. Not because I was focused on the music or on anything else, but because it had been a long while since I last received a visitor in my apartment.

Looking back, it could well have been a sunny day. I recall staring out the window from my living-room, but I can’t remember what I was seeing outside. That view had become like one of the posters I bought at the Met: mere abstract background, slightly necessary to confirm my being in the world.

Now that I think about it, it must have been around midnight when I heard the knock – because I was listening to jazz, and I never play it during the day. Some things are meant for the night. There is, I’m sure, a soon-to-be-discovered cosmic law that forbids musical heresies which add calamity to the already battered world. Playing Coltrane in daylight is one of them – I’m sure it triggers some physical law that accelerates the end of the universe.

Slowly, I opened the front door as though I wasn’t confident anyone had really knocked. As though maybe I just heard it, like when I’m alone and yet I hear my name being called.

But there in the corridor stood a man with looks that could have belonged to anyone or no one. He had this absent stare as if he lost his one and only chance too long ago – and since then, everything had become confusion, an abstraction where he didn’t quite belong.

Before saying anything, I took a good long look at his face after an obligatory pilgrimage through his features. Starting in his prominent nose. Then the thick grayish mustache. His fleshy and loose lips. The reddish and venous cheeks. And finally, his hepatic eyes. Just then I was able to put the pieces together, as if the face wasn’t entirely his as much as it was how the observer assembled the puzzle shapes of his features.

One thing caught my eye: a name embroidered on the left pocket of his cheap suit, but I didn’t bother reading it. Not sure why but, just then, I concluded he was a Mormon or some Evangelist going door-to-door to preach his version of sorrow and suffering and certainty.

He was older than I was. And evidently tired. That is, world weary – he clearly no longer believed in what he was offering or heralding. He was going through the motions.

We stared at each other. As if trying to decide if we were going to fake familiarity. Something in the line of praying to God for a sign of His nonexistence. Or maybe we just realized that it had been too long since either of us had to practice social courtesies. Who knows.

I decided that I would hear whatever the man had to say, and I waved him inside. Maybe he felt some pity for me (or himself) because at first he started to confess his troubles but then suddenly stopped and just said, “Oscar.”

The jazz record had finished, and the turntable needle was making a rain sound. I walked over to the turntable and put the needle at the beginning again. Still can’t remember which record it was. Only know it was jazz.

To get my attention, he pronounced that name again – “Oscar.” As if he dusted off a memory from a chest of drawers. And I too remembered something vague: a feeling I once had. Something warm and elusive. Like a childhood summer, the feeling melted into a generalization that is loosely mine, a piece of the narrative of an entire generation. A convenient and sanitized version of happiness and innocence. But I couldn’t put my finger on the memory, or the name, that name. Oscar, Oscar.

I can’t recall if he went on talking. All I could concentrate on was that sensation growing in me, desperately searching my memories, as though I were a frenzied child looking for his favorite teddy bear. Where had I heard that name? What was that name? Or, better still, what had it awakened or stimulated? Oscar, Oscar. Or, perhaps, it wasn’t the name itself, but the way the man had pronounced it – his voice, his pronunciation? Sounds like smells awaken buried memories.

After I had reset the record, I stood staring out the window. All I could see was my reflection over the tight cold night beyond the crystal. I saw my mouth pronouncing the name. The big initial “O,” the dying part of the rest of the word, as if it was mere filling. As if the essence of the whole name was the first letter. But who could be called just “O”? Ridiculous.

The record finished again. And again, the needle faking rain or drum brushes. But I didn’t bother this time. There was an answer forming somewhere in me. Or, actually, more superficially. I couldn’t take my eyes off my reflected face. So intense the look, that my features started to look like someone else’s. Like those, in fact, of the old man that had just knocked at my door and was sitting in my living room. It was that face – my face had become his old face. That uncomfortable feeling suddenly made me turn, and just as I suspected: There was no old man there. Just the sofa. No marks. No evidence of another’s presence. I turned back to the window. On the left side of my cardigan, one name embroidered. And my face: so much my own, and suddenly, after watching it for too long, so alien, so old.

I put the needle back at the beginning of the record. (Now I remember exactly what I had been playing: Oscar Peterson at the Carnegie Hall. Of course!) I turned off the lamp on the side of the window to blot out my aging reflection. Outside it was snowing. Or maybe not, and I was just disguising the reality. I can’t remember. I can’t even recall if this is a memory at all or something I heard somewhere, sometime, or if it’s something I made up or am about to make up. Or maybe dreamed. Who knows.

I try now to recover my reflection in the window. It’s difficult. Too much light coming in. White. Incandescently cold. I can see lawn with that washed up green that the winter allows as a tonal variation. I grasp a reflection. A figure behind me. A man in a white robe. A name embroidered on his left side, on the chest pocket. I can’t read it from here.

His voice comes to meet my thoughts. What are you thinking, Oscar? I’m wondering whether you’re a disguise. A transfiguration. But I don’t say it. I say very little these days. I’ve always said little. Little and muttered. Ultimately, every conversation is just the excuse to confirm oneself and be confirmed by other’s voices. Echo can do that also, I suppose. So, anyway, people would say that we talk to share, to exchange views, but that’s just one of the deceptions we come up with. We talk to hear ourselves. To obtain approval of our ideas. When people get the opposite, that is when friendships and diplomacy go south.

Oscar, are you here? The robed voice.

Who knows… Perhaps reality is like a garden of stories where everyone decides the meaning, the significance of the harvest. A simulacrum of choice or chance – of becoming no one; that is, everyone. Getting old. So, one day, you might find me here or who knows where. It doesn’t really make a difference. What matters is to be in the same emotional frequency; beyond the masquerade.

Oscar, why don’t you sit down…

Why not.


© Marcelo Wio

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