a short story by Simon Van Booy
featuring Olga Kurylenko
It was almost midnight when her flight came in. Someone in Milan had made arrangements and the hotel car was to be sent.
Traveling under a false name, her only thought was to escape.
Outside the terminal, taxi drivers stood drinking coffee. They had to stay awake until morning. Being together helped pass the time.
Alexandra remembered the men who drove the school buses when she was a girl. How they clustered in the playground, near the swings, waiting for the last bell that would summon everyone home.
She watched them through the classroom window, laughing and chattering and moving their feet to keep warm. The children we once were, she thought, live inside us like rings on a tree.
On her way from the airport to the Waldorf Astoria, the driver asked if she was thirsty, or would like the radio turned on. It had been raining all day, he said. Then at dusk the rain stopped and there were people on the street again.
Alexandra sometimes sent postcards to her parents, but never went beyond a description of weather, or some trivial detail of place. There were always more feelings than words to describe them. Silence is never just silence.
They would soon arrive at the hotel.
The car was warm and quiet. There was a beige cashmere blanket on the back seat, which she put behind her neck as a pillow.
The city was illuminated entirely by streetlight, and the glow of shop windows made her feel safe.
She imagined people inside their homes, watching television, or sitting in bed, or eating something. Children had already swum out to sleep. Bedroom doors left ajar kept their lives within reach.
Near the park gates, was a row of sidewalk cafés. Most had closed for the night, and waiters were stacking the chairs and carrying them inside. A muddy path that led through dark trees into the park, had been indented by an afternoon of footprints and bicycle tires. There were no people on the path now, and night hid upon the surface of puddles.
The driver wanted to know if she was hungry—if he should call ahead to the hotel kitchen. When she said she wasn’t, he asked if she had come a long way.
Always four times a year, she vanished like this—from her public world as a fashion designer, a true couturier—to a city where she had no fixed identity.
She believed it was a gift to never truly know the self. We are not who we think we are, nor how others see us. Long before death, we die a thousand times at the hands of definition.
After being alone for a few days, she would feel the pull of hope, and discover the joy in simple things. From such a feeling, she would create a new collection of clothes. It could come from anywhere; a bowl of lemons was enough; the blowing trees in the park was enough. The migration of clouds. The color of water. Words from a passing conversation she carried with her like loose stones.
When they arrived at the hotel, someone opened her door.
She dressed well and was admired, but her private life was like a letter in Braille that could not be read with the eyes.
Her luggage was a single trunk with two initials on the outside.
The hotel receptionist wore silver-framed glasses and a light coating of aftershave. His name was Robert. His hair was thin and combed neatly to one side. He was happy to see her. The concierge had been tracking her flight. The mannequins and fabrics had arrived early from Paris, and were in her suite as requested. A log fire had been lit, and there were vases of her favorite white flowers, which reassured her if she woke in the darkness—bright smudges upon a canvas of night.
She signed in as Alexandra, and asked the receptionist if he had long to go. ‘When the streetlights go off,’ he told her, ‘I know it’s almost time.’
Robert said he didn’t mind being up late, and looked forward to eating breakfast with his wife, before she left for her own job.
Each new collection began like this, in a city with no association. She would wander the streets, stroll through a bustling market, ride an empty bus, sip coffee in a dockside café as birds circled the open mouth of dawn. From a single thread of feeling—she would weave something new for the world, while untying the knots in her own heart.
She had been to so many places from Rome to Shanghai. In Berlin, she found a park bench and watched people pass in opposite directions. She felt the sole rhythm of a multitude. Then she found a shop that repaired watches and clocks. She wanted to see the pieces no one had come to collect.
Her winter collection that year was titled Pendulum.
As Alexandra stepped across the marble floor toward a bank of elevators, she noticed a man standing very still. His eyes were closed, and this gave her a chance to look at him. A manuscript was tucked loosely under one arm, and his hands were in his pockets.
As she passed, Alexandra noticed something shiny on the floor beside his foot.
“Excuse me,” she said politely. “I think you’ve lost a button.”
The man opened his eyes and the expression of sleepy concentration changed to confusion. He bent down quickly and picked it up.
“Let me sew it on for you,” Alexandra said.
The man looked at the button in his hand, and felt for the errant thread on his jacket.
“It will only take a few minutes,” she insisted, reaching into her coat pocket for the silver sewing kit she always carried. It had once belonged to her grandmother, and was her most valuable possession.
They went over to a lounge area, where the man set his manuscript on the seat.
As he was taking his jacket off and saying how kind she was—Alexandra noticed a pair of statues in the lobby. She imagined the artist’s fingers upon the cool rock, anticipating the path of a chisel. The pressure to round a cheek, the courage to straighten a nose. The possibility of an expression, but the impossibility of breath.
She was tired, and it took time for her fingers to thread the needle.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” she said. “I saw your eyes were closed.”
“I’m here to finish a screenplay,” he remarked. “And I’ve decided the lobby chandelier is somehow part of the ending.”
Alexandra glanced up from her sewing. “It reminds me of the heavy snows we had when I was a girl.”
“A single lake that will never melt,” he said, pointing. “Look at how you see only the shape of light and not the glass it’s made from—inspiration has assumed the form.”
“You work very late,” Alexandra said when she was almost finished.
“I write here in the lounge at night, then sleep in the day.”
“Why not work in your room?”
He considered her question. “Maybe in order to make people up—I need to see real ones.”
When she was done, Alexandra tugged at the button and gave the man his jacket. “I’m so grateful,” he said.
“Blame my grandmother,” Alexandra told him.
After he went upstairs, she decided to stay in the lounge and have tea by the fire. It had been a long flight with severe turbulence. A few people screamed. A small boy asked his father if they would go upside down.
The teacup was warm and she held it with both hands. Robert was standing dutifully behind the check-in desk. She watched him pick up the phone and nod and type things on the computer.
She thought of him going home at dawn. The sound of his key churning the lock of the front door. His wife in the bed they have shared for so long. The silence of pillows. She wondered if he sometimes sat and watched her sleep.
That’s how you know you’re in love, she thought.
Later on, as she was settling into her suite, there was a gentle knock.
It was the concierge. “I’m sorry to bother you so late,” he said, handing her a manuscript. “But the waiter found this where you were sitting downstairs when he picked up the tray.”
When she was in bed, Alexandra called down to the front desk and explained what had happened. She read the name typed on the front of the manuscript, and Robert said he would find out the gentleman’s room and send up a note.
In the morning Alexandra drank black coffee in bed. It was very early. Her suite was on an upper floor, near the top of the hotel. She peered out over the rooftops beyond her window, and imagined each tall building filling up with people. A thousand days would soon begin—each one different from the other and impossible to predict. The sky above was a single mass of white, broken only by the drift of birds and an occasional wisp of chimney smoke.
Alexandra lay back down between the cool sheets, and wondered how many dreams had been staged from the theater of her pillow.
After another cup of coffee, she began to draw.
With a fountain pen and a bottle of engraver’s ink, she made sketches of the landscape beyond her window, the distant birds, puffs of smoke, even the animated stillness of the lobby chandelier—which had compelled the man from last night to write it into his screenplay—which now sat on her desk after she had stayed up most of the night reading it.
Untitled by Michael Snow was a love story, but one that lacked some vital element—like each of the characters from The Wizard of Oz. It was not an ending he needed—but a pulse that would beat independently of its creator.
After some breakfast, Alexandra found her sunglasses and tied a silk scarf around her neck. Before leaving her room, she called down to the receptionist, who transferred her to the room of Michael Snow. She wondered if he wrote under a pseudonym, but then realized that every name is a pseudonym. Language merely points—the rest must be imagined.
When there was no answer, she apologized for calling so early, explained what had happened—that she had to go out, but to meet her by the pool around 4 p.m.
By mid-afternoon, she was back in her suite. It was a comfort to return, as though a part of her had been waiting in the room. After removing her scarf and sunglasses, she unwrapped an artist’s marionette she had bought from a shop with paper boats in the window.
She set it on the table and stared at the blank expression. It was a face that would never feel disappointment, nor flush with desire. No breath within its cheeks would ever quicken with the anticipation of being touched.
It was in a human shape, but lacked all humanness. Yet she judged it to be a work of art because it made her feel things by virtue of their absence. And that was the problem with Michael Snow’s love story, she thought—that it worked so hard to conjure love, when love was most felt in its absence.
Before going down to the spa, Alexandra sketched in her book, with the hope she might drift in the current of a new idea, and then feel strong enough to swim.
The lifeguard watched her silent path through the water. Then he brought a tray with things to eat, and made sure there were towels waiting.
The falling light through the conservatory glass made her body look porcelain. A young couple shared a newspaper and talked. Their voices hovered over the blue water. The woman had tied up her hair in the style of a ballerina.
Outside the hotel it was very windy. Trees swayed in deep conversation.
When it was almost 4 o’clock, Alexandra realized she had left the screenplay in her suite.
By the time she returned to the spa, its author had already arrived and was in the pool. Alexandra watched his arms open and close, his body tilt from side to side. Lulled by the gentle splashing, she flicked through the pages, scanning the notes she had dared to make the night before with a pencil.
The last thing she did was cross out Untitled on the first page and write: The story of love is also the story of loneliness.
After several laps, the man waved to Alexandra and then disappeared into the changing room. Ten minutes later, he reemerged and joined her under the curved glass of the conservatory roof.
He had shaved and brushed his hair.
“I hope you don’t mind that I read it,” she said, handing him the script.
The sight of her handwriting on the title page filled him with excitement, but he hesitated before responding.
“As I watched you sewing on the button with such care,” he said.
“I felt inspired to take a chance.”
Alexandra only partly understood.
“Writers generally don’t leave their manuscripts lying around,” he said in a tone soft enough to mask any embarrassment.
But Alexandra admired his courage and his instinct. “Then I suppose you want to know what I think?” She said.
She picked up the story and flipped through the pages—though knew exactly what she needed to say.
“Have you ever been in love with someone?” She asked.
“Once,” he said. “When I was at university.”
“Only once?” She questioned gently.
His face darkened. “Later on,” he said. “After college, I had a very serious relationship with someone.”
Alexandra looked at him searchingly.
“It’s a long story,” he said.
“But maybe the story that’s missing from your screenplay,” she suggested. “In order to make it the profound love story of two people whose only wish was to be together.”
Alexandra motioned to the waiter, and they ordered drinks.
He put the screenplay away and instead told her about his childhood in middle-America, when growing up felt like forever.
Then slowly, the mementos of childhood were boxed up and forgotten. He remembered driving with his friends in the car and opening all the windows. The excitement of being out late. The glory of a night sky, under which everything in the history of the world had once happened, and was now happening to him. As a child he could not have imagined that one day he would live his life somewhere else—that his happiness would come from things he had no notion of. He told her about his first script and the long drive to Los Angeles in his old mustard-colored Mercedes.
When he got there, they wouldn’t even let him through the studio gates to deliver it, he said. The guard told him it happened every day, and that he too was working on a screenplay about being a guard.
He found a two-room apartment in West Hollywood and called his family once a week. He sold his car to a collector in Venice and bought a motorcycle. He wrote at the all-night deli on Sunset Boulevard, and one night made friends with an old man in a tweed cap, who sometimes came in to drink coffee. The old man was a writer too. He had worked with James Dean on the early films, and soon became Michael’s mentor.
You don’t write stories, he had once said. They write you.
Alexandra told him about the town where she grew up: the snowfall, and the narrow lanes; the coolness of trees in summer.
She said that she was the opposite, and always knew she would one day leave and live her life elsewhere.
When she told him her real name, Michael admitted he had heard of her—read about her in newspapers—but added that he knew only a woman who resembled her, a woman called Alexandra who had kindly sewn on his button the night before.
She confessed how it felt to see people wearing the dresses she designed—how it made her shy—how she hoped each piece somehow enabled a wildness or courage that the wearer had always secretly felt—but never been able to express.
She did not wish to sell glamor or inspire envy through her creations, but simply to elaborate on the tension that makes us human—the simultaneous elegance and violence of all living things.
Designing for runway was exhausting, she said, and the traveling was endless. She had worked tirelessly over the years, and put together a team who helped her realize her changing vision as an artist and a businesswoman. This gave her the freedom to disappear from time to time.
She told him that as a girl she was quiet.
There was a large table where they used to eat their meals—though not always at the same time. Sometimes she sat watching her mother stir boiling pans of soup. Sometimes she wrote her name in steam upon the window—then peered through each letter into the heart of winter.
On cold afternoons, she went with her father to collect wood. It was stacked under a blue tarp. The pieces she carried were wrapped in an old blanket to prevent splinters.
Once a month her mother spread a towel across her shoulders for a haircut.
She wondered if anyone at school would notice, or if they would make fun of her.
Her grandmother watched from the kitchen table and made sure the sides were even.
Then the knock of a broom under the seat.
Her mother shaking the towel over the sink.
Michael listened as other moments rose to the surface of her eyes.
When he asked what inspired her to design clothes, Alexandra told him how one night when she was a little girl, she woke in the early hours and wandered into the kitchen.
Sitting in the half-dark was her grandmother.
She was repairing something and had not seen or felt the figure of a child from behind. She was seated in a deep chair, beside a table of family photographs. Some were of her late husband, and showed the many ages of their life together. Moonlight washed over the room, and made the faces in the pictures glow.
On her grandmother’s lap was a wool jacket her husband wore when they were young, and took weekend trips in a silver convertible to Gothenburg and Copenhagen.
She was mending a tear in the lining, and with each considered loop, fused the separated pieces of fabric into one piece. In a wicker basket by her foot, were other items that belonged to the family in need of repair—including one of Alexandra’s stuffed animals.
It was the first of many nights. Alexandra would creep out of bed and listen to her grandmother’s quiet hands. Every stitch bonded them.
She died one afternoon in the garden—in her favorite chair that Alexandra’s father used to carry outside when she wished to feel the sun on her cheeks.
They all thought she was sleeping.
Packing up her things in the days that followed, they discovered a small box under the old woman’s bed. It contained her silver needles, thimbles, old spools, and scissors. A note inside the box was addressed to her granddaughter.
Thank you for keeping me company on those long nights.
I want you to have this sewing kit.
By now you will know how to use it.
Alexandra dined late in her suite listening to the faint applause of rain on the window. It was Sunday night in a foreign city.
She cut wide patterns of fabric from the rolls of cloth, and pinned them to her mannequins—folding and layering each piece instinctively along the seam of a shoulder or up the steep, breathless climb to the neck.
Memories do not constitute a life, she said aloud—but are the seeds from which a life is grown.
About midnight she put away the fabric, and went downstairs with her sketchbook.
Michael was writing quietly in the lounge.
He was surprised to see her.
She sat directly across from him, and for hours they worked together in silence, her hand moving of its own accord, making one sketch after another.
When she began to feel tired, her strokes were slower and more deliberate.
When her eyes closed after a few sudden blinks, her head fell slightly to one side, as though tipping the last of her thoughts into the sketchbook on her lap.
After a while, Michael stopped what he was doing and looked at her still hands. He remembered how they had sewn on his button the night before.
He thought too of her grandmother, the silent rhythm of her sewing, the shapelessness of cloth between her fingers, the little girl standing near, and the heavy, rolling flakes of snow that behind the veil of her sleep, were still falling.