She isn’t showing up for class. It’s 9:15AM and she isn’t here and she was supposed to be here 45 minutes ago. I tutor her in SAT Math. Now I’m nervous, walking around this empty classroom with my hands sluggish in my pockets. It’s Saturday morning. There’s snow on the streets. The air snaps cold.
If I had a cell phone I’d flip it open and check the time. Flip it shut. Instead I look at the analog clock.
“At least I’m getting paid,” I say aloud.
My voice bounces off cinder block walls. I stop before a poster of a young girl smiling, thick school book under her chin, and under the thick school book, in Helvetica, the command:
OPEN UP POSSIBILITY
There is a narrow bookshelf in the empty classroom crammed with spines. I scan the titles for something heavy. Enough prep books. Enough text books. Enough learning. Give me a heavy book, pages drenched with human ponder. Seemingly irrelevant.
Next thing I know I’m sitting in a reading chair with Franz Kafka’s diaries in my lap. The dance class next door is practicing their bodies. 1910 – 1923, all here. Over ten years of personal entries from the man who gave us The Castle.
While Franz Kafka escaped, he left behind an opus that will forever be tied to Earth. There would be something sadistic about this had he not requested that Max Brod, his friend, set fire to it all. I think Franz Kafka understood how selfish it would be to build something and then abandon it, almost as if while he did the world-building he also knew he was going to be doing the world-abandoning. This troubled him. But why didn’t he burn it himself then, like Nikolai Gogol?
Franz Kafka isn’t half the man Nikolai Gogol was. Nikolai Gogol, a man of loyalty, a man who takes the stuff he builds with him, or at least some of it, he burned.
Between pages 274-275 of Franz Kafka’s diaries is a Polaroid of a 20-something girl, preserved for me. She is sitting in a reading chair much like the one I’m sitting in. The same book that’s sitting on my lap is sitting on hers. But she’s not wearing a top. Her hair gathers. Her feet are wrapped in long socks with stripes near her knees. She looks up from Franz Kafka’s diaries at the camera, her lips in the mood for love.
On page 275 I read:
6 June. Back from Berlin. Was tied hand and foot like a criminal. Had they sat me down in a corner bound in real chains, placed policemen in front of me, and let me look on simply like that, it would not have been worse. And that was my engagement; everybody made an effort to bring me to life, and when they couldn’t, to put up with me as I was. F. least of all, of course, with complete justification, for she suffered the most. What was merely a passing occurrence to the others, to her was a threat.
Franz Kafka was not a reliable fiancé. Franz Kafka was not emotionally mature. He hurt F. on their engagement. Why even bother to go to Berlin if he was going to act childish? Again, an instance of sadism, like loving his manuscripts and then leaving them alone in the woods, so too did Franz Kafka like hurting people outside of him, only to internalize the way(s) he hurt them in ink later, when alone in his bedroom. This was his justification. This was his way of tolerating his smallness. A concealed confession. Invent names, scenes, situations far away from those in his life yet the same, and call it fiction, call it art, call it literature, when really it’s a pardon for his own smallness.
Which brings me back to the Polaroid. It could be an American Apparel ad:
MEET JILL. 22. READS KAFKA. WORKS IN OUR TORONTO STORE.
They all work in the Toronto store.
I’ve seen them there on Yonge Street folding shirts in nothing but knee-high socks.
Jill with no shirt. Why wear a shirt when reading Franz Kafka? There’s a refrigerator near her. She gets up to fetch milk. Tiny light flickers. In the pantry she finds her cat feasting on some wet food. Jill doesn’t own a cat. She goes back to her reading chair, curlicue bracket of milk above her upper lip.
It’s nothing but an image, nothing but a mirage. At the slightest slap of the drum it’ll go up in fumes. Not the book though. The book with its human ponder is here to stay.
I turn off the lights and leave the empty classroom. The door clanks shut behind me. I check it anyway. Can’t be sure enough.
On North Avenue I head west. An old woman walks toward me on the sidewalk. Her hair is blonde and street worn, like she hasn’t showered since her last birthday. Her bra strap shows. She must be freezing. She holds a broken car antennae. She asks me for money then offers me a blowjob. I say no, sorry, no thanks.
Stanley’s, the produce market on the way home, has broccoli florets on sale. I grab a batch and a loaf of potato bread and thank God.
It starts snowing.