Christopher Linforth has recently published fiction in Fiction International, Notre Dame Review, Day One, Grain, and Descant, among other magazines. He has been awarded fellowships and scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Sophie: When you return, ignore what I have typed above. It was a quote, depending on the source, from Immanuel Kant or Mark Twain or Bertrand Russell, which I lifted from a factoid-conglomeration website and passed off as my own words. But the dictum barely conveys what I was trying to tell you.
So let me try again.
Philosophy can answer only a limited number of life’s questions. Really it is an apparatus for considering how to live, and how to treat others. You taught me this. Next to me now at my computer sits a handsome edition of Nietzsche’s collected works and a German-to-English dictionary. I purchased both shortly after we first spoke online. When you told me you were learning German to read Nietzsche in the original, I was impressed, whether or not you ultimately discovered the purity of his thought. Who can say what “ewige Wiederkunft des Gleichen” actually means?—the words are just black marks on a page.
Perhaps this is the problem. Through IM, we speak to each other every night with similar black marks. They mean more to me than Nietzsche, or any writers of his kind. But still, words are not enough. I need to see you and hear you speak. This is not a case of low self-esteem or high school ennui—it is because of certain events in my life. I graduate from my gimnazija soon, and I am at a loss what to do next. Both of my brothers attended the medical school at Sveučilište u Zagrebu, and my father expects the same of me. I know you think me to be wise and older than my years, but I am not. I doubt myself every day. Becoming a doctor will help others. I only want to help you.
But you need to act.
For I believed you when you said you would visit me from Winter Park, or would plan a trip to Italy with your parents, then sneak away onto the ferry to Dubrovnik. We were going to meet there, stay in a luxurious hotel overlooking a private beach—the sand imported from the Sahara, the waves of the Adriatic lapping, slowly eroding, the shore. Imagine it: Across the sea your mother and father stand on the terracotta-tiled balcony, at a loss to know where you have gone. They speak to the police in their guidebook Italian, attempting to convince the ispettori their seventeen-year-old-girl would not just run off: She’s a good girl, a Christian, a straight-A student and valedictorian. In the fall she’s attending Princeton. She’s going to be a Philosophy major. You must believe us. She reads all the time: Balzac, Camus, Kierkegaard. There’s a poster of Simone de Beauvoir above her bed. She’s never had a boyfriend, or shown any inclination to want one. Please, you must find her. She’s loves books, her friends, her dog and hamster. Not boys or makeup or celebrity culture or Internet pornography.
You were going to be with me. I had it all planned. Our conversations over the last six months have shown me how I can please you. Croatia is not that different from Florida. Sunlight warms the old Communist concrete of Mamutica and the other apartment towers dotted throughout Novi Zagreb. Guns from our wars are lost in lofts and basements or out on the hills, close to long-forgotten landmines and bodies buried in the wet earth. Like your Confederates, Chetnik Serbs still curse at us and say we are the aggressor, the destroyer of the Republic.
Disney World sits a few miles from you, but the visitors here in Zagreb speak French or German and disdain Americans and anything supersized or related to President Bush and his warmongering. And let us not forget Britain and its tourists, who plague my country’s historic attractions and drink too much beer and vomit a dark broth in the street. They still strut around as if they rule an empire. Once you are here we will shout 1776 at them, though the year means something different in this country.
Hand-in-hand, we will walk along the ancient city walls and wend our way down to the harbor. Sailboats bob in the water and gulls squawk overhead. Bare-chested fishermen mend their nets. Every scene is a picture-postcard. There is a café that serves bijela kava and slices of orehnjača. I already see us basking in the sun, using the dialectical method to reason through your religiosity, your adherence to family. You do not miss your church or your parents or your TV. You do not even have to say you will be back after The Simpsons or Arrested Development, or that you will be delayed because of the new boy two houses down. Both of us finally together, sitting in the café, everything is understood between us. When the sugar and caffeine push us on, and we leave, we admit our love. It is the first time you feel something since your sister died. The feeling is greater than your loss, greater than your discovery after the funeral of the pocket-sized book of Nietzsche’s quotes, and your curiosity at her annotations. She barely grasped his version of the eternal recurrence, a repeating of particles, in one form or another, through time. But you are the smarter girl, the one willing to grow, physically and mentally, and I have observed this since our first meeting in the suicide chatroom. From our initial exchanges about your sister’s selfish act and the hypocrisy of Catholicism all around you, our friendship grew over the months; our typed chat became our bond, our invocations of love. And so, here we are outside the café: one Floridian girl and one Croatian gospodin. In the street we listen to the busker strumming his guitar, singing the wrong words to an eighties hit, and after you drop him a few lipa, we move onto a seafood restaurant and drink white wine and listen to the flat sounds of the piano drifting across the dining room. The waiter asks you if want dessert and you giggle. And I laugh, knowing what is on your mind. It will be our private joke—the whole day we’ve had, and the night to come.
Afterward we retire to the hotel, and you close the drapes and say you cannot even remember who your parents are. They are just two people, like us, locked in their own world. What do the words “mother” and “father” even mean? you ask. You think on this question as you inspect the room and forget you were searching for an answer when you find the Bible in the nightstand drawer. Flipping through the pages, you pretend not to be drawn to the packets of Haribo Gummi-Bears and a chilled six-pack of honeyed lager on top of the television cabinet. I open two of the beers and hand you one bottle. You toss the Bible into the wire trash basket and guzzle the cold liquid greedily. We jump into bed and roll in the sheets and kiss and take snapshots with my new digital camera and post them online as a middle-finger to your parents and your “friends” who told you to stop IMing me. It would be funny, and funnier when we joke about a threesome with a Gummi-Bear, and I prop one up in your navel and shake hands with its gelatin paw, then run my fingertip over its swollen abdomen and underneath to the smoothed-out area where no genitals dwell. You laugh, flashing your orthodontic braces, but then press your lips together, self-conscious of your slight underbite. We kiss. We make love—lose our virginities. We hold each other afterward in the warm mist of the shower and pretend no one else exists in the world. It is our shared solipsistic fantasy.
People will not understand our relationship. I know that, and you should too.
We are only three years into a new millennium and I feel like I preferred the last. You were right: I am an old soul, more at home with the bureaucratic mechanisms of socialism than the benefits of neo-liberalism and the rage and grief surrounding the Twin Towers attack. Over here you would be safe. Over here you have me and my home. You will not need your cellphone or Mac or iPod. Over here we will listen to live bands and eat real food. Over here we have better dining options than Chili’s and Bonefish Grill and EVOS and Bahama Breeze. You will be healthy over here. You will not have to take your Xanax or your Adderall or steal your mother’s OxyContin. You will not have to worry about receiving money from her or your father, or being screwed over by your teachers or “friends,” or explaining your guilt over your sister’s suicide to your therapist and your priest. You will not have to go to Mass. You can throw away your nickel prayer beads and the Catholic Bible presented to you on your confirmation. God is dead—we both know this. I will look after you. I will take possession of your philosophy books, and your childhood encyclopedias and almanacs, and your sister’s hairbrush and her journal hidden in an old cigar box. We will transport your dog and hamster. We won’t forget them. I cannot, even now. In the webcam image of you holding your pets, you cup each animal close to your breasts to hide your beauty. But you cannot see your white cotton tank top ride up on the waistband of your baby-blue Lycra shorts, exposing a sliver of pale midriff.
Your pictures cause me to weep.
If you come here, what am I to do? The photograph of the face I sent you is not mine. I searched for handsome Eastern European teenager and found my alter-ego on the second page of the image results. His dark eyes and hair, the small scar on his jawline. He is perfect, even down to the exquisite musculature of his neck, and his black hair, shorn on both sides, the top slicked back. I like to think he is a younger version of myself. To be seventeen and in love—why does it feel so long ago, but so close to my heart?
I can only think the reason is you.
Sophie. Oh, Sophie. My Sofia. I wish I were that teenage boy. I wish I lived in Zagreb, and were just about to graduate. I wish I could be a doctor, or turn down medical school for you. I am for all intents and purposes someone else: a father of two girls, a husband to Marta, a civil servant, an owner of a pastel A-frame house and a decrepit Yugo. There is no point telling you where I actually live, or the day-to-day of my life here. It is a boring existence. All of your favorite philosophers would have hated this version of living, considered the suburban life a death sentence. My hair is the color of pewter and folds of fat rib my neck and belly. Sometimes my breaths are shallow, but I am fine below the waist. Before you denounce me, know that I have devoured The World as Will and Representation and Republic and Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, all for you.
I hope these messages are enough, Sophie. For all we have is language, our sounds and our meanings and our thoughts. We both know the quote—whoever said it first—is unsatisfactory, like all utterances. Blame Wittgenstein and his Tractatus, if you allow me one last joke. Now all I can hope is that the sentiment comes across, and that before you block my account, you will forgive me.