Blue Shutters

The schizophrenia simulator was shut down by the authorities long before Wes reached the head of the line.

“Govana!” said Rajka, which she’d already told him was Yugoslang for “shit.”

They didn’t have name tags and she, anyway, was too young. “We probably couldn’t have gotten in,” he said. What he didn’t say was they were missing an experience he wasn’t sure he wanted. Even the shrinks couldn’t take it. He watched properly name-tagged mental health professionals run through the medieval streets of Rapperswil, screaming in all their many tongues.

Children on the steps by the harbor ignored the grownup fuss and went on tossing bits of bun from their Big Macs to the ducks. The deer lay in picturesque display on the slope of the Lindenhof that had been too steep for the pharma-tent and so the demonstration had been moved to the promenade flanked by the strange trees—Plane trees—which Wes heard as plain trees. They didn’t look plain to him. Pollards, Rajka told him. Her English vocabulary exceeded his own.

“Watch,” she said. “The drug dealers are waiting.” Rajka was fourteen and thought she knew it all. “They didn’t do this to make the shrinks empathize with their patients,” she said. “They’re freaking them out so they’ll prescribe.”

Big Pharma in Switzerland invented LSD to break all the boundaries of mind, Wes thought. Serena, his girlfriend—if that’s what she still was—would have said today’s drugs were designed to confine thought, lock it up, make it normal. But Serena—who needed meds—was missing and sure enough Wes was soon handed a pamphlet touting a new anti-psychotic.

They had come to Rapperswil looking for her, just as they’d been to Jung’s house in Küsnacht as Wes tried to imagine where she might have gone after she disappeared from the hotel in Lucerne.

“Watch for the flowering chestnut trees,” said Rajka. “Mostly white flowers. Wherever you see them flowering pink, it’s a place where drug deals used to happen.”

“Signal or coincidence?” he asked.

“Collective unconscious,” she said.

“You believe in that?”

“We all share the way our blood flows and our hearts beat. We all see the sky and stars, so we have to share wiring of the brain.” She bumped up against him. “Anyway, all those sites have been cleaned up. I don’t know where people buy their heroin now.”

She’s just showing off, he thought, and said, “I wasn’t asking.”

“I was thinking, maybe, of Serena,” she said.

Serena’s highs had become more difficult to deal with than her lows. One of her new enthusiasms was Jung. Yes, collective unconscious. She continued to revere him even after she rejected psychiatry. She tried Scientology, then rejected that too. I refuse to believe in anything other than the messages of my own body and my own mind. And what messages was she receiving now? Certainly nothing serene. She was born Katrina and changed her name after the hurricane. How can I bear the name of destruction? she’d asked.

“She’s not psychotic,” Wes said. “Just bipolar.”

“Some of the best people are,” Rajka said which he took to mean she pitied him enough to offer consolation.

He’d met Serena in church—atheists both. She was there, she said, because every ritual had meaning—psychosocial if not spiritual—and she wanted to figure out what the meaning was. As for him, Wes was fascinated by faith while he guarded himself against believing. It was his field—20th-century history, a century of atrocity enabled by sincere belief.

They had been together almost a year. She’d been in several different graduate programs, starting, dropping out, before they met. In their first month together, she’d changed her dissertation topic three times—that he knew of. The meds keep you serene, he’d told her. But she wouldn’t take them. I choose the calm after the storm, she’d said. Not just the calm, and even if she was not a serene Serena, surely the name change proved her good intentions. Her humanity, her heart.

And she chose Lucerne. The most romantic city in the world! when he wanted to spend semester break in Cuba. Where he could have stood before the Granma, the very boat that delivered Castro and his revolutionaries to Cuban shores. To touch history, to be touched by it, though the Granma would have been enclosed, untouchable behind glass. Instead, Switzerland, a place, he’d thought, where nothing happened. Lucerne, where children fed not ducks but swans and the rain never stopped and he’d awakened to find Serena on top of him with her hands around his neck, telling him if he didn’t find her a pack of cigarettes, she’d kill him.

Hyperbole, of course. But still. Three AM. He wandered around in the rain. Nothing open. The concierge was not helpful. Then Wes stood under the hotel awning until dawn and past dawn and when he returned to the room with a pack of Parisienne Jaune, Serena was gone.

A day later, after he gave up looking, he took the train to Zurich.

“I’m hungry,” Rajka said. “It’s on me. Let’s spend Ian’s money while I can.” She’d already paid the train fare.

Ian was rich. Not a bad thing, Wes thought, as long as it didn’t—as it did in the US—buy power.

“Of course I’ll pay him back,” he said, thinking maybe he would not.

“Don’t,” she said.

The girl was pale, with pale lashes, but her high Slavic cheekbones gave her ghostly face a thrust of life. The little flowers embroidered in pale pink on her pale pink sweater protruded just where the nipples of her small breasts had to be. She took his arm and pulled him between two buildings angling into a dead end, but no, there was a passageway up the steps between the walls.

Two men came hurrying down. A brief collision.

“Sorry,” said the man.

People always said Sorry when they bumped into him or pushed past. How could they tell he was American? “No,” said Rajka, “That’s German. Not Swiss German. From Germany.” Of course it wasn’t. But then he’d grown up saying Scusi in Elmwood Park. He wasn’t Italian but the neighborhood was. And his relationship with Serena had taught him to humor a woman rather than contradict her.

There were four official languages in Switzerland plus English, used mostly—as far as Wes could see—for graffiti when profanity was desired: Fuck authority! Fuck capitalism! Probably American English, no? Wouldn’t the Brits more likely say Bugger? He really had no idea. Something to ask Ian later. It was hard enough making small talk with his host, the fucking capitalist.

I’ll send Rajka for you, Ian had emailed him back after he found himself penniless—or franc-less—in Zurich. He’d climbed the hills of the Old City in the rain to stand in front of the little attached building where Lenin had once lived, its neat blue shutters closed with metal latches. The view from Lenin’s window would have been the narrow building across the way with its windowboxes—empty now, its neat curtains, little pots of herbs set on the windowsill of a top floor apartment, and potted plants on the fenced roof.

Lightning struck behind the towers of Grossmunster, behind the horse rearing up just a little as if startled beneath its rider, and behind the construction cranes. Whatever austerity had hit the rest of Europe, new construction was going up here everywhere he looked, Lucerne, Zurich.

Wes stood, rainsoaked, in front of #14. Was it all as proper and bourgeois when Lenin lived there, writing, doing his research at the library, planning his secret arrival and revolution in his homeland? These days, who cared?

William, he’d asked in class, what do you know about Che?


Not what. Who. He’s on your tee-shirt.

Oh! The dude with the beret!

He tried to tell them history was important. The Killing Fields . . . Auschwitz, these could not be ignored. With tuition going up again, William would probably drop out and stay ignorant along with the other local kids who couldn’t afford community college now. Wealthy foreign students could.

On the Altstadt street, someone bumped into him, said “Sorry.” A few minutes later, Wes reached into his pocket. His wallet was gone.

You’d think in Switzerland of all places, a bank would be able to execute an emergency international transfer of funds. But no, he had to email Ian on his smartphone for help and Ian sent Rajka to retrieve him.

She told him Ian was in London for the day. Her English was perfect—an immersion study in Iowa and summers with distant cousins in Pittsburgh. Her mother, Slovenian, and Ian’s lover. Her father, she wasn’t sure, except that it wasn’t Ian.

She told him she was a Marxist.

And a day later they sat by a cafe window in Rapperswil sharing a pizza as the rain started up again, watching the bicycles, the tourists, the distraught shrinks, and she said, “The son-of-a-bitch capitalist is going to leave my mother.”

“You’re not like Ian,” said Rajka. They were on the train back to Ian’s house on Lake Zurich. “He’s a master of the universe and you’re not even a real professor.”

“I do have tenure,” he said.

“Have you written books?”

“We’re considered teaching faculty, not research.”

“You could do it anyway,” she said. “Twentieth-century history. History already.” It’s what his father had said years before, grousing about tuition: If you want to know about the twentieth century, all you have to do is ask. Rajka had been born just before the start of the 21st. She added, “It’s Ian I’m putting down, not you. It doesn’t quite make sense that you are friends.”

“Facebook friends.”

“It doesn’t quite make sense that Ian would be on Facebook,” she said.

“Showing off how well he’s done.” They’d met when Wes was in grad school at USC and Ian in LA on vacation. “I came home one night—or rather early in the morning, to find Ian throwing up in the lobby.” All over the floor, much to the disgust of the security guard.

“And the guard got stuck with the cleanup,” she said.

“I suppose.”

“Class warfare,” she said. It was remarkable how naturally and easily Europeans said it.

Yet really what was Ian’s class? Wes wondered if there was more social mobility in Britain these days than in America: Ian, hardly upper crust. In the financial markets, it didn’t pay to be a gentleman. “He’d picked up, or been picked up by, some girls at a dance club. They brought him home, but drunk as he was, they abandoned him downstairs.”

“The guard would have called the police if you hadn’t taken him in.”

“I suppose.” Ian stayed a few days. “Then, what, fourteen, fifteen years go by, and I get the friend request.”

“History catching up with you,” Rajka said.

History, Wes thought: the acceptance of things that cannot be changed.

“As long as we were going to be in Switzerland I figured why not look him up.” Especially when it became clear how expensive the trip would be. With the dollar so weak against the Swiss franc, the prices would have left him broke even if his wallet hadn’t been lifted.

Rajka’s pale eyes were steady. “He’s entirely open about going back to London,” she said. “What we don’t know is whether he’s going back to his wife.”

All Wes could say was “Oh.”

“I don’t think she knows about us. Though I can’t see how she could not know. See if you can find out his plans.”

Fuck the cops! in black paint sprayed on the wall of the underpass. He could ask Rajka about bugger, but she was way ahead of him, already on the other side of the tracks, on her way past the terraced vineyard, head down against the rain.

Pollard. How did she know a word like that? He only knew Jonathan Pollard, 27 years in prison now for passing secrets to Israel. Wes knew history, not botany.

Ian’s house was a modern construction of stone and tile and glass. Rajka had the door open by the time he caught up. There was Milena in the same loose paint-streaked smock she’d worn the night before, quick to let you know she was an artist. She was at least ten years older than Ian, her light brown hair long and streaked with silver but whether from highlights or aging Wes couldn’t tell. Not that it mattered. He wondered what the London wife was like.

Ulyanov lifted his huge canine head and turned in their direction before sprawling down, legs splayed, on the Persian carpet. So much thick black hair fell over his face that, according to Rajka, children often asked whether the dog had eyes. And there was Ian in black turtleneck and leather house slippers. Wes could project him forward in time: a rich, lascivious old man. Ian, so pleased with himself, master of the Black Russian terrier, “though we should say Soviet terrier. They bred ‘em for the army, but look at him, gentle as a lamb.” Smug, amused, oh, the curl of his greedy lips. “No match at all for the running dogs of capitalism.”

A big dog bearing Lenin’s real name. Hateful, thought Wes, for a banker to be ironic.

“Home early,” said Rajka, her eyes narrowed.

“Legal business,” Ian said, and to Wes, “Your girlfriend is here.”

“How did she . . . ?”

Serena stood at the window looking out over the lake. She kept her back to him, scrubbing away at the glass with her scarf. Outside, the blue and red regatta sails were an impressionist blur through the drizzle. Did she really believe she could wipe the scene into better focus?

“Where have you been?” He said it twice before she wheeled around.

“What do you mean?” she said. “We agreed to meet up at Ian’s.”

There was no point in saying We did not.

Somewhere along the way, she’d found cigarettes. Her voice had the rasp, her face the gray ashy color it got when she’d been smoking.

Rajka gave him the what-on-earth-are-you-doing-with-that-woman? look. A question that must have been in good faith as surely Rajka was too young to consider Serena a rival. I suppose she’s thinking of her future, Wes thought, a future of men who make bad choices.

“Come and look,” called Milena. “Sarajevo.”

In the living room, on the flat screen TV, a straight and narrow street was a ribbon of red. Milena translated, 11,541 red chairs, each one empty, one for each of the Bosnian war dead.

History inspiring art, he thought. Art making history manifest.

And what was the point? His discipline served only to keep rancor alive. No one cares about history, he thought, except me and the people who go on hating.

“Twenty years now,” said Milena who was not a Balkan refugee but had come to Zurich to study Jungian symbols at the institute in Küsnacht.

“I guess Marx was wrong,” said Rajka. “That class solidarity would be stronger than nationalism.”

“So far,” said Wes. “But now,” he said without much conviction, “there’s the 99%.”

“So, historian, tell me this,” she said. “Why does dialectical materialism have to be based in conflict? I studied Hegelian dialectics, too, though I suppose it was really Kant, not Hegel, who used the words. Why do contradictions have to be gladiators?”

“Hegel didn’t write about gladiators,” he said. At least he didn’t think so.

“I mean two opponents, two extremes. Does that have to mean a winner and loser? With Hegel they can come together into something wonderful and new, can’t they?”

He wondered if any American student her age had even heard of Hegel, of Kant. Once upon a time, he thought. “Forget it. That’s so 19th-century,” he said.

“You know Tristan Tzara?” said Milena. “Dada poem, 1919. Art is going to sleep for a new world to be born.”

And when you wake and open your eyes, he thought, what do you see? A river of blood.

They sat and drank until the sun went down, the sky turned dark, and Serena could be coaxed from the window to the table. Interesting, thought Wes, that others humor her too. Interesting that Ian nursed a single drink, quite a change from LA, and that Milena cooked and served the meal.

“You found Rapperswil very picturesque, I think,” she said.

“Of course,” he said.

Cut into monastery tower: a cross atop a heart. Pointy roofs. Red roof tiles gone brown. The tame deer came up to the fence to look at him, so much like cows, he expected them to moo.

“And you are historian. Is good for you, no?”

There were stags and does painted on the façades of the medieval buildings and the shrinks crowded onto the wooden bridge, part of the thousand-year-old pilgrimage route to Compostela. It shook beneath their weight until he thought—hoped—he’d see them plunge into the water.

Serena pushed aside her plate. “The doctor has me on a wine diet,” she said, rejecting even bread, but at least she did not condemn everyone else for eating meat. Not just meat in the stew, Wes suspected, but veal.

He couldn’t focus on the conversation, watching Serena drink.

“I think it’s called decompensating,” said Rajka. She was telling about the effects of the schizophrenia simulator.

“What do you think happened in there?” asked Ian.

“A little too much reality,” she said.

“They probably used lasers, holograms, to create the effect of hallucinations,” said Wes.

“It was a quest for revelation,” Serena said. “And what did they get? Voices echoing in the tent, voices whispering inside their heads: You’re full of shit, you’re full of shit, you’re full of shit.”

“Govana,” said Wes.

“No Yugoslang at the table,” said Ian.

“If a person is Yugoslavian, it’s not slang,” said Rajka, “it’s language.”

“And he isn’t,” said Ian.

“I am from former Yugoslavia and if you say Serbs and Croats are ghetto, I remind you I am Slovene,” Milena said. “We won independent nation almost without war. They let us go.”

“And here we are,” said Rajka. She shot a look at Ian: “For now.”

“My daughter,” said her mother, “Rajka speaks German, English—”

“And Italian,” Rajka added.

“And Yugoslang profanity. But the mother tongue? No.”

“What for? No one speaks Slovenian.”

“I do,” said Milena. “Slovene language is precise. More than English.” She tapped Wes’s hand. “In Slovene, there is intimate we for two, there is collective we. We are through and this is very clear—You and I, the two of us, are breaking up or human race is to be extinct.”

“Helpful to make that distinction,” said Ian.

They are fighting and again is clear. Lovers having argument or people at war.”

“Why are your examples so hostile?” said Serena. She stood. “I want to see the cottage of Heidi’s grandfather.”

“Right now?” Ian chuckled. “Surely, yes, let’s leave the meal Milena has worked so hard to prepare and let us drive into the Alps.”

“I don’t want the Alps,” said Serena. “Show me an Alp.”

Here we go, thought Wes. Now we’ll see—flirtation would be too mild a word.

“I want one Alp,” she said, draping herself over the back of Ian’s chair. “Can you do that? For me? One single Alp.”

“Sit down,” Wes said.

She didn’t.

“Very well,” said Milena. “We all go living room and I bring tea and coffee.”

“I’ll put the water up,” said Rajka at once and asked Wes to help her clear away the plates. In the kitchen, she grabbed his arm.

“Remember, you’re going to ask him.”

Milena was opening a box of chocolates. Serena stood at the window again, looking out into the dark, her face pressed so close to the glass Wes was sure she could see nothing, not even the room’s reflected light. The Financial Times waited on the side table with Ian’s reading glasses folded on top while Ian sat in the big leather chair, stroking the big head Ulyanov had laid on his knee.

“So you’re leaving this beautiful place,” said Wes. Ian with his two households, two wives, two lives. “You’ve taken a position in London, I hear.”

“Same position,” Ian said.

“He commutes to the City every day,” said Rajka, by which she meant London, not Zurich. “In his private plane. He only lives here so he won’t pay taxes.”

“That’s disgusting,” said Serena.

Because she believed it, Wes thought, or she was still annoyed about her Alp. “Serena, please.” He had hoped the wine would bring her down, but if she got going on, this would be only the start.

“Do you know what the CEO of Goldman Sachs paid himself?” she said.

“I do, actually,” said Ian. “$16.2 million in US dollars. In euros, that would be—”

“Guilty, guilty, guilty!” Serena pointed at him and then she was ranting about the economic crash and foreclosures and human suffering. “You’re a plutocrat and a cheat.”

“I’m sorry, so terribly sorry,” said Wes, though he agreed, in principle, and though it seemed Ian didn’t take these words as insults.

“You and your fucking Swiss bank accounts,” she said.

Ian stared at her, his gray eyes steady.

She said, “I have to pee.”

She’ll be throwing up in the bathroom or crying, thought Wes, or cleaning the mirror. The same thing with her, again.

“Go to her,” said Milena.

He shook his head.

“It’s not the responsibility of the Swiss to police other nations’ corruption,” said Ian calmly, and “Why should I pay taxes in Britain? Living here, I derive no benefit.”

You land at an English airfield, your limo travels public roads, your office is on the electrical grid, thought Wes, but what was the point when he was eating the capitalist’s food and sleeping in the capitalist’s guest room?

Sometimes he thought there was nothing really wrong with Serena, that she used a diagnosis as an excuse to speak her mind. While he had been asked to speak.

“So why are you going back to England?” he said.

Ian shrugged. “Not worth it here anymore. The woman who cleans my toilet expects to be paid what a police officer is paid in London.”

“Not that he has any idea what a cop is paid,” Rajka muttered.

Wes turned to Milena. “You and Rajka will enjoy life in London.”

For a moment no one spoke.

“They’re not going with me,” Ian said, and then, “I’ve transferred title to the house to Milena.”

Wes tried to read their faces—Milena’s and Rajka’s. Surprise, certainly, but what else? He suspected Milena was satisfied, that Rajka was not though she probably thought, as Wes did, they were better off keeping the house on the lake than keeping Ian. He wondered whether the London wife would be glad or not to have him back. Ian, who bragged about how easy American girls were to bed: the coalition of the willing.

“She is quiet,” Milena said. “You will see.”

She led him into a small room where Serena knelt before an icon edged in gold, the Virgin Mary holding a fawn.

“Is history of Rapperswil,” said Milena, “but should be mother deer.”

“A doe,” he said.

Rajka had told him the origin of the deer park. The Duke was hunting but the Duchess saw a fawn and begged him not to kill its mother. He put down his weapon and the grateful doe came and placed her beautiful head in the Duchess’s lap.

Milena called this legend history. He had believed history was mostly about shame and humiliation or celebrating the power of violence. While here was a Duchess calling for peace and a wordless creature expressing gratitude. But in the end, what? The Duke stopped hunting, but all over the world the hunt went on.

“These are yours?” he asked. “You painted these?” Icons on the walls. Madonnas holding in their arms dogs, cats, wolves, tigers; birds and squirrels on their shoulders; Madonnas held in the embracing coils of snakes. A stag raising a crucifix amid its antlers.

“According to Jung,” said Milena, “the stag—cervus fugitivus—”

The Latin words sounded less like deer and more like fugitive slave. If they catch you, you’ll be trapped and bound, taken back to the place you struggled so hard to leave, Wes thought. Or like the doe, you can be tamed. But what was there to run from?

He wondered if Milena would have to sell the house. If she would have to take the icons from the wall, wrap them, pack them up.

Serena was on her feet again, talking fast. “It flickers through consciousness. Like quicksilver. You can’t name it. You can’t get rid of it. But there it is, suddenly, this disruption.”

Freud would say It goes back to childhood, Wes thought, the It in my small history.

“The hell with Freud!” said Serena. “Freud saw artistic expression as pathology. Jung knew art is always an expression of health! Health!”

Rajka watched with the wise, judgmental eyes of a cat and Serena began to cry. “Bambi’s mother,” she said between sobs. “They killed Bambi’s mother.”

He held her. There was a time he wanted to be like her, energized, impulsive. The woman who’d said No life is small when thoughts are large. And there’d been a time her depressions awakened something in him wonderful and new, when he found himself treating another human being with tenderness, with a gentle concern he’d been brought up to believe unmanly. When he comforted Serena, this restraint caught at his breath, so close to forbidden it sent loops through his heart.

They lay on the bed in the guest room where he’d slept the night before, the room—unless she ran again—they now would share.

“I’m so tired,” she said. She closed her eyes.

When he closed his, he saw the red chairs of Sarajevo. Then the stag appeared. The antlers: both trophy and weapon. The horns in their twist carried a cross and stopped the hunter short. The horned Moses, wearing the crescent moon. The antlers grow, fall, and grow again, and change is just more of the same.

He thought again of Lenin who believed in a future and believed he could midwife at its birth. As though the present were only a seed.

How could a seed weigh so much? This moment in a bed outside Zurich was so small but its heaviness pressed down on him, a guest in a place he didn’t want to be, lying beside a woman he didn’t want.

In scans, he’d read, the depressed brain shows up blue. Blue could be open sky, he thought. Or it could be shutters closing to cut off the light.  

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