ESMERALDA, DEAR, there’s a rainbow on your rear, I called out, but the miracle lasted only a moment and was probably just an illusion brought on by the senses to begin with, for when I held my pocket-mirror above the girl’s naked behind, and she, lying on her belly, turned her neck at a ninety-degree angle to glance back into the mirror, the rainbow had turned as pale as the whiteness of the half-lobe. The fact that it happened like this and not some other way is in all probability to be explained by Esmeralda’s singular, perhaps exhibitionistic, decadent, perverse, abnormal, and eccentric habits. First off, her name wasn’t Esmeralda at all, but Gertrude, only that to her—quite rightly and objectively, I might add—this name evoked the image of a strapping Germanic woman; and so she asked everyone, myself included, to call her Esmeralda instead. Then one day, when, after all my unflagging efforts, accompanied by setbacks and demanding an equal share of great patience, persistence, tenacity, and unbending will, after my eleventh or twenty-second attempt I could finally play host to her in my two-bed dorm room that smelled of home-made sausage and pickles, other peculiarities revealed themselves as well. For example, she never towel-dried herself after showering, for she thus not only remained fresh but her skin secreted a singular fragrance. She encouraged me, too, to adopt this exceedingly healthy method of cleansing. At which I proposed that we sit out for a few minutes on the dorm room’s tiny balcony, so the sunlight could dry the non-seamy half of our bodies. And so it was. The balcony looked out upon a cemetery, and it so happened that a funeral was going on, a tad louder than usual, as a brass ensemble was leading the procession. Whereupon Esmeralda, in a few comments intended to be deep but that in the final analysis were anything but, expressed her aversion toward old age and passing. Haughtily, or rather, as if she’d suffered an affront, she retreated into the room. My roommate had disappeared in the early afternoon to attend an ever timely presentation held in the university assembly hall and entitled “Psychoanalysis and the Identity Crisis of the Peoples of Central Europe,” by a certain foreign professor named Vincent van Blicken. My little transistor radio, which I’d bought secondhand over the summer, had been streaming forth nonprogressive rock, compliments of the commercial station out of Vienna, but then came the news. It was September 1969, and the news had focused for days now on Czechoslovakia, the country called our home, where the bad communists were now being ausgeschlossen-ed one after another, so that good communists could be put in their places. Esmeralda switched off the radio and lay face down on the bed. The sunlight, rather impetuous for late September, happened to catch her bottom in full, and so I caught another, momentary glimpse of the rainbow, in the very place the two half-lobes separate (or unite—a matter of perspective). Ensuing from the already described pocket-mirror experiment, I snuggled up to her back so as to draw my nose and mouth along the wake left by the rainbow, which had by now forever disappeared.
“Ah,” sighed Esmeralda voluptuously. “Did you know that for the past two weeks I’ve been living solely on vegetarian food?” I was dumbfounded at her announcement. “Yes, yes,” she prattled on, “at least there’s philosophy in vegetarianism.”
As for myself, unfortunately I was swelling with desire just then, so I wasn’t the least bit interested in getting entangled in some sort of philosophical chatter. This was about the time Esmeralda had discovered Nietzsche, so everywhere she went she was quoting him, which was tolerable—until she undressed, that is. Obviously, however, it wasn’t through the works of Nietzsche that she’d wound up at vegetarianism; indeed, I went so far as to assume that this new whim of hers signaled a nascent break with the German philosopher. But so too, I found it hard to believe that Esmeralda, a tad round as she was in all directions, could survive until fall on cabbage and salad. I was getting worried. The clock was ticking away. Professor Vincent van Blicken’s presentation was drawing to a close, and we’d only now begun to discuss the savoriness of vegetable soup.
“Why are you so quiet?” asked Esmeralda.
“I was just thinking.”
“That your bottom’s like a hermeneutic sphere.”
“You’re disgusting,” she exclaimed in protest, but I sensed from her voice that she held my simile to be deep, intellectual, and in accord with the dignity of the part of her body at issue. “Come on,” she said, turning onto her back.
I rolled her back onto her belly.
“No, from behind.”
“Don’t you dare say it’s because there’s philosophy in this, too.”
This hadn’t even occurred to me, I reassured her.
“Only because of the rainbow. I’d like to see it once again.”
“Undoubtedly your relationship with your girlfriend is in crisis. That’s when such visions occur.”
“That’s right,” I said.
I didn’t go around picking out new girlfriends any more often than other guys. Why, with some I stayed up to a year, but, alas, after a while every one worked themselves hopelessly into the role of my wife-to-be, making arrangements and issuing orders concerning my fate with neither my acquiescence nor my consent, and if there’s one thing I can’t take, it’s this. I forgive everything, even unfaithfulness, but not this. I begged them, but it was useless. Every one was a decent girl, wanting to be my wife, to worm her way under my wing, only so she might then turn my skin inside-out until I would no longer recognize myself. Of course, that’s just the way life is. We’ve got to father children for them, then they calm down and, although they do become more demanding, at least the children take up their time, which is when a man, if he’s on the ball, can gradually take back from them that which he has lost—his freedom.
Dear heavens, I’m chattering away about all sorts of rubbish instead of getting to the point, which has nothing to do either with rainbows, rears, or hermeneutic spheres, but has that much more to do with hard reality, of which I didn’t notice a thing, for I was just as much of a Martian on Earth as the good communists, who were now being ausgeschlossen-ed for this very reason. My vegetarian Esmeralda would have had no place in a roomful of respectable girls: our colleagues with a right-wing bias viewed her as the faculty’s resident whore, while to the left-wingers she was the quintessential new woman, one who doesn’t stop midway into the game. Even I knew a few of her old boyfriends by sight. Among them was a guy with a bob, a marsupial pretending to be an Apollo but doing a shoddy job of it, who to top things off stuttered, too. But normal entities had turned up in her company as well. For example, there was a valiant knight who, back then, was appallingly right wing and was majoring in Phys-Ed and English but who later became appallingly left wing; when I saw him again, while we were both conscripts, I could not help but notice that he went drinking only with the political instructors. It was after these fellows had come to know Esmeralda that I took the bait as well. In my self-conceit I figured that after so many mentally and physically deviant lechers, Esmeralda finally wanted a taste of a normal guy, in the same way that every Hungarian is relieved after two months of Chinese food to have a nice hearty meal consisting of beef fricassee bathed in paprika sauce with tiny egg-barley dumplings on the side. On the afternoon in question, Esmeralda received my youthful virility twice and with a fair share of panting, and the third round went by the wayside only because Professor Vincent van Blicken’s presentation had meanwhile come to an end, and so my bashful roommate, who didn’t dare look upon any girl other than his girlfriend, had returned.
Esmeralda and I decided to have supper in the cafeteria, which was in the law school building along the Danube. This meant cutting through the city center after getting off at the last bus stop, on Holy Trinity Square. I wanted to hold hands, but she declined.
“I’m not in love with you,” she said.
“And who are you in love with?”
Her eyes glinted wickedly, and she said:
“Let’s sit down at the Grand. I’ll tell you.”
No sooner did we arrive at the Grand than I commenced to tell Esmeralda the story of how, the previous winter, I’d been sitting there with a friend when, lo and behold, guess what happened! A great big bear trainer made of pure muscle bounded noisily in. How did I know he was a bear trainer and not some sort of professional wrestler? Because he brought his bear into the café, too; indeed, those patrons sitting near the door all scurried to the back. Why, the whole carousing crowd was suddenly astir, for, while all of us had already more or less gotten used to Russian tanks, we hadn’t yet met up with a bear in a Pozsony café.* The trainer unbuttoned his short leather jacket and twice jerked the bear’s chain, whereupon the wild beast reluctantly stood on its hind feet. “I’ve personally brought him here. In person. The Russian bear.” The Russian bear nodded and, in a deep voice befitting a bear, delivered a proclamation. “Do not be afraid, my brothers and sisters, my little turtledoves. I have come to protect you, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles. You’re wee little peoples. Without me the big bad imperialist wolf would eat you up. But I’m here, and I love you. Bad communists have dealt badly with you. I came to drive away the bad communists and set good communists on your necks. I will see to it personally that this is the case.” Using a paw, he next tore open his fur coat from neck to groin, and a well-known newspaper reporter climbed out from inside the bearskin.
By now, of course, no one would allow themselves such a joke. Even Esmeralda acknowledged the somewhat unbelievable tale with but a fleeting smile.
“Let’s talk about your friend instead,” she said.
“We’re not friends. Just roommates.”
Esmeralda looked disappointed.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “But not such a big problem.”
In a certain sense I was wholly ignorant back then: naive, unspoiled, gullible—a real bumpkin. I’ve remained so to this day, I believe, although in the past twenty years I’ve amassed a good deal of the suspicion and wariness indispensable to going about everyday life adeptly. Despite all this distrust of others, however, in all probability I’m just as much of a dupe today as I was back then. One learns a great deal over time, but doesn’t change a bit.
“They’re watching your roommate,” said Esmeralda.
“Who are ‘they’?” I asked, as if it was so hard to figure out. My roommate was one of those student leaders who, six months earlier, had been busy organizing strikes, and even since then he’d been shooting off his mouth left and right.
Esmeralda leaned across the imitation marble tabletop, coming within a hair of sweeping the glasses off the table with her two lovely mammaries, and said under her breath:
“You’re a bad joker,” I said, relieved. “Why, you don’t even know him.”
“I’m in love with him,” she said. “For a year already.” Her expression suddenly became so tormented that I almost pitied her. “I attended every meeting where he spoke. He’s a real man. And a decent man. Isn’t that so?”
“How should I know?!”
“Last week I found out that you two are roommates this year.”
“What the hell!” I shouted. “You sure don’t waste your time! So you want me to be a panderer!”
Esmeralda didn’t reply, but only cowered remorsefully in her seat, and even if her long eyelashes did flutter now and again, afterward she cast me an even more insistent stare. It wasn’t hard to figure out what she wanted. Well then, I decided, I’d play hardball, too; which is to say, I’d be merely sincere, but in this case, sincerity was tantamount to the greatest depravity.
“He already has a fiancée.” This was my trump card. “They’ll be married by Christmas.”
Esmeralda wasn’t at all distraught at the bad news.
“What does that matter?! Leave it up to me.”
What a bunch of filth, I thought, that she was so conceited only because she had big tits and her ass was nice and round, not to mention that she was eppur si muove in bed—as I already knew—and as if that wasn’t enough, she was asking me to be a go-between in breaking an engagement. Well, that was just too much.
Sensing my hesitation, she said:
“All right, then, let’s just forget it.”
“You couldn’t snare him, anyway,” I said. “He’s not the type. He’s not interested in other women, only his fiancée. Couldn’t care less about Nietzsche. Nor about vegetarianism. All that homemade sausage in our room is his.”
Esmeralda’s face, which only a moment before had appeared so taut, so distressed, now softened anew: an iris bursting into bloom. What’s more, this freshly florid countenance cast me a mocking gaze.
“Was it good with me?” she asked.
“What am I supposed to say?”
“The truth. You almost made me giddy with that rainbow of yours.”
Lost in thought, Esmeralda looked toward the door, from where bear trainers hadn’t arrived since the takeover of the good communists.
“It wouldn’t have taken much more,” she said. “Maybe a third simile. Though I already decided, anyway.”
“What’s that mean, that you ‘decided’?”
“Any day now I’m going to flee the country.”
I could never tell when she was serious. When pulling my leg, she did so with just as much feeling as at other times, confounding a guy to the hilt.
“I don’t want to live here,” she continued. “Tell your roommate I was in love with him. But wait till I’m out of the country.”
“Okay,” I said. “And aren’t you afraid I’ll report you?”
“Of course I am.”
“Then why did you let me in on your plan?”
“So my fate would be in your hands. It’s how I want it. I want to be at someone’s mercy. This way I don’t have to decide it all myself. You’ll do what you want. If you report me, well, so be it. Right now it’s almost all the same to me. But I’ll tell you another thing, so you have a full picture of things. The police would like me to keep tabs on your roommate for them, too.”
“This is getting better and better,” I moaned. “Why are you confiding in me, of all people?”
At this she again looked at me so intently that I would challenge anyone to ascertain from her words if she was being serious or just pulling my leg once more.
“Because of the hermeneutic sphere. And the rainbow. A rainbow on the hermeneutic sphere, now that was really sweet of you. No one’s ever said such lovely things about my ass.”
“Is that so.”
“And now I’ll be off, but you just stay here. I’m going to cry, and I don’t want you to see.”
According to my experienced friends, there’s a harlequin in every woman. There were several in Esmeralda, and every one performed most adeptly. According to my more experienced friends, at the outset all women are of a single mold, like three eggs, only that later a chick pops out of one, a turtle from another, and a snake from the third, but by then it’s too late to back out, for it’s not true that we find the woman who’s right for us, but the one we deserve. So it was that I went home to the dormitory with a churning stomach and a sour mood. My roommate was lolling about on his bed in a sweat suit and reading a newspaper. I told him bluntly that Esmeralda had fallen for him and that she wanted to go to bed with him. From the way my roommate pushed his glasses down to the tip of his nose, I figured he was moved, but instead he began cursing.
“She’s a cunt,” he said with the supercilious tone of an upperclassman. “You’d do best, too, not to hang around her.”
That’s it. But since there’s no such thing as finished stories, only finished lives, I must say this much more: I went to bed with Esmeralda two more times, then she really did flee the country. Many years passed, my roommate was thrown out of the university, as he just couldn’t keep his trap shut, while I remained a bachelor, because the woman I deserved was an informer and wasn’t in love with me. Then, in the second half of the eighties, I managed to secure a trip to Paris for an academic symposium. On the final day of my weeklong stay I headed off to the Saint-Germain-de-Prés market, which I’d happened upon during one of my ramblings on a previous day, to get something for the road. One could get all manner of groceries at this market, everything from fruit to fish to cheese. It was just the sort of place a Central European who reveres his belly dreams of. Along the way I was caught by a passing shower, so I took refuge in a café. The rain let up in no time, the sun came out, and as I turned the corner of rue de Seine, I glimpsed a rainbow in the sky. As I stood there gaping, I stepped on the heel of the woman right in front of me. She let out a cry of pain and turned around, baring her teeth, at which the following word gushed out of me, like that:
The woman couldn’t take a joke, however. She told me off, so it was only my weak grasp of French, I suppose, that saved me from even greater embarrassment; for I understood hardly a thing she said. But I held my ground.
“Esmeralda,” I pleaded. Translating the word into English, I pointed to the sky and added: “Rainbow!”
Esmeralda (if indeed it was her) was in no mood for English. Instead she went on expressing her indignation in French and finally left me standing there. To my utter dismay, she picked out a nice fat duck at the butcher. The rainbow vanished from the sky as if it had never been there. Someone from behind me called out:
“You’re in the way, monsieur.”