As he woke up that morning, he realised that his room disliked him. It was not full-on hate - because he knew what that was. Grey ceiling pressed tight against your forehead, telephone making that awful crackling sound like it was about to ring, walls moving in on your bed. This was not it. Rather, it was mild disdain. The room blanked him. The way your good friend would blank you for no reason at all, other than what you may or may not have done the night before. And he knew he did not do anything wrong. He did not drink and he did not cheat on his wife because he woke up alone and because at the age of thirty-five he was no longer married.
What was it, then? Inevitably, he took a newspaper from the bedside table and read a few lines. Then he remembered. At first he tried to push it back, that memory, but it was relentless and soon the feeling of sudden panic gripped him by the ankles. It was the feeling of last night, and it was tragic as it was absurd. The realisation could be articulated in a few hard-hitting words, and they went like this: he would never be famous.
He picked up the newspaper again to trace the memory back to its origin. In order to do so, he began to read some random article and replace every name he saw with his own name. And, just as he feared, it did not work. None of it did. The words looked messed up and the sentences began to lose their ring. They sounded awful, badly thrown together, wrong.
His living room looked overwhelming. Something you could see in a movie and wonder to yourself, in amused half-laughter: Jesus, who will take care of that? The floor was covered with newspapers and magazines and even a few brochures he could not initially recognise. His pen was also there, and he could actually see the black marks it had left on certain words from the articles. He knew the words were the proper names he had been trying to replace all night. Presently, it was all coming back to him in a million disjointed chunks, Vine videos, Polaroid snapshots: him crawling on the floor and madly writing himself into random articles on Spanish politics and American football. He stooped over that mess completely naked, thinking this could indeed be part of an episode in some French arthouse film.
He looked closer, hit by the sickening sensation that presently none of it seemed even remotely ridiculous. If anything, he was going to do it all over again. He knelt down...
Slumped over a chaise longue striped red and white, he was sitting with his eyes practically shut. What was left of the daylight was a hazy dash of reality, that thin line of eyelashes paling the view, and he used it to observe the pond stretched in front of him. The rubbish, the water lilies, but mostly the ducks. One duck in particular was trying to catch his attention with its clumsy technique. Every time it swerved, or got down to pluck at the seaweed, it looked like it was trying to drown itself but had a change of heart at the very last moment. Then, to the right of him, someone crumpled a page, and he saw an old man reading a book. Submission by Michel Houellebecq, first book since Kafka's Metamorphosis that gave him nightmares back when he read it on the train a few months ago. Automatically, he put his name on the cover of that book, and straight away saw how out of place it was, how terribly inconsistent, how crude, and wondered what it would be like if he replaced the names of the characters... The old man felt the intensity and turned towards him, and he brusquely (almost too brusquely) returned to the ducks which were now looking one and the same.
Over on the other side of the pond he saw a girl wearing a remarkably short dress. The girl looked like Rachel, and for a second he marvelled at how easy it was to remember the name he had not pronounced, not even to himself, for more than ten years. Rachel had a similar dress of the lightest blue whose shortness she never grasped, or even noticed - the way she never quite grasped the insane power of seduction that her name exuded. Apart from the blue dress, the girl on the other side of the pond had the same black hair, wavy but only just, and the same way of crossing her legs that was open and yet gave away so little. New was the mobile phone in this girl's hand, and the forgetful way she was staring at it. For a minute or two, and with his eyes deep in the hazy whisper, he wondered at the Facebook accounts it displayed, Google searches it threw up. He wondered, too, about his own name and how it would fit into all that...
Little by little, the park was coming alive, and presently he was able to place what had been annoying him for quite some time now. Two young men were playing their guitars in that mopey style he used to like in the 90s, and all of a sudden, the mournful melody moved (the way a melody does in a huge park like that) all the way to the chaise longue next to the girl in the short dress. Seconds later, one of the young men stopped playing and struck a conversation that could betray passionate lovers or else complete strangers. The girl looked bored, and then amused, and then she spoke back. This was new, and different (he got caught up, and forgot), and soon he became restless, stood up and walked to the other side.
'Excuse me', he said to the girl, interrupting the young man who was looking excessively pleased with himself. 'Isn't your name Rachel?'
'It is', she said, amused.
Though now he could see that it was not.
At which point he took his mobile phone out of the pocket to call his ex-wife. She was surprised and she did of course mention that it was awfully inconvenient and what was he thinking calling her in the middle of her working day, but at the very least she agreed. And so forty minutes later he was greeting her with a newspaper spread on the table, and she wondered if he had remembered to order the Caesar salad for her. Also, why the newspaper?
He tried to explain, but the words were coming out in sticky, incoherent blobs which deflected against the blank expression on her face.
"What? New Yorker turned you down again?"
"You don't understand," he said and pushed the newspaper closer to her side. "Try it".
"This is comedy", she said. "Besides, you can always change your name".
In another world, in another reality perhaps, this could be the sort of wild suggestion that did it. The way a similar truth hit the boy writing his first short story in that novel about Afghanistan he had read a while ago. The boy wrote a fable about a man who could turn his own tears into gold, and at some point he had to kill his whole family to procure the precious liquid, only for his best friend to suggest that, well, he could always look at the onion. The boy could not swat it away, in another world...
"It's not about the name", he said. "In fact, the name is okay".
"It is", she agreed.
"But it doesn't work".
"So change it. Try, I don't know, James Joyce".
She was the kind of ex-wife who never lost her cool.
Outside, he walked through the streets trying to avoid the playbills and the newspaper stands. He reminded himself of Buster Keaton from a black and white movie and he could almost hear this endless Fats Waller tune playing in the background. He knew he was obsessed, or else he could be going down with brain cancer, but equally there was a feeling he was on to something, and his legs, almost against his will, took him to a secondhand bookstore where he spent an hour studying the spines of every book that met his eye.
The shopkeeper, a spider-like creature ever so busy carrying his books from one shelf to another, observed him with benevolent suspicion. At one point he stood still, and offered to help, because the gentleman was looking for something specific and maybe he knew where it was. But there was no reply. In truth, the customer was not being impolite - rather, he was too absorbed, too intent on trying to get to the bottom of something while never really forgetting how dangerous it was, to go a step deeper, open one of those books and see his name - improvised or even typed by the hand of some long-forgotten poet from late 19th century.
"Excuse me, can I offer you Saul Bellow's Herzog?" the shopkeeper suggested.
The spines gave away so little. They bullied him, they mocked without teasing. His name was not featured on any one of those books and every time he made that possible, through the sheer power of his imagination, the book in question sounded wrong or simply fell apart in his hands.
Which is how, late in the night, he found himself in a bar drinking whisky and waiting for Rachel. She had only just appeared earlier today, on the other side of the pond, briefly and for the first time in a million years, and he was already waiting for her. And all the while he was looking at this middle-aged American wearing a cowboy hat. Minutes ago he had walked into this place and gone straight to the bar counter. "Gin?" the barman asked. "No, just tonic", the American replied, much to the invisible discomfort of the barman who hated to see his profession reduced to such basics. He was looking at this American now, waiting for Rachel but already feeling that his chances of seeing her tonight were growing slim by the second. Just like they shrunk to nothing during those cold winter nights when he got to this bar to meet her.
When they began talking, it was the most natural thing in the world. The American was drinking tonic with no gin, he was wearing a cowboy hat and he was willing to listen. He was the perfect match, and so he told him about the day he had, about his name and how it would never fit, and even about Rachel. It was easy to describe it all to a complete stranger who only asked about the details the narrator could provide.
"Well, I bought this local newspaper", the American said, and pulled a stack of crumpled sheets from the pocket of his jacket. "Let's try here maybe".
And so they did, and at one point they both realised something important, something neither of them could initially comprehend: it worked. Suddenly, his name looked ordinary, if not, in fact, natural, in some brief article in the arts section of the newspaper. At which point the American sitting next to him took off his hat, and revealed the face of Rachel. She had come to pick him up when it was already midnight, the way she sometimes did when he got caught up in one of his new short stories. Drunk, he was still trying to explain to her the new piece, the one he would probably send to The New Yorker, and she, his wife, listened with an earnest expression that did not betray a game they may or may not have been playing all along.
"What kind of day did you have?" Rachel asked him when she began to undress in the pitch darkness of their bedroom, and he knew that her voice had nothing to do with the voice of his ex-wife, the way he heard it at lunch, when he was thirty-five, and divorced.