What’s Left of the Night

"That 'years later' is now."

He recalled the figure of a youth from years ago. Had it been in Constantinople? Yeniköy? A beardless youth working as an ironmonger’s apprentice, and as the boy bent half naked over the anvil, sparks flying onto his glistening chest, he saw his face lit heroically, imagined him crowned with vines and bay leaves. They hadn’t spoken, and he never saw him again. Who would write about him? Who would heave him up out of the oblivion of History?

Years later, someone hunched in the light of a lamp would be able to see a red sun setting over mythical cities, would see burning grass through rusted iron, where once a marble fountain spurted water and the last droplets ran dry in the evening light. He would see the crimson rays shining on the young body of the apprentice in Yeniköy, fleetingly illuminating a possibility, yes, a possibility that assumed substance, an almost material substance, as that same youth now weaved between the columns of an ancient agora among the crowds of Antioch or Seleucia, and many were they who praised his beauty.

That “years later” is now, he thought. He alone could see. Only he wasn’t yet ready. His impatience chafed at him, and contrived miserable, graceless poems, which he tore up in self-reproach. And then there was that clunky pastiche … A heap of adjectives and too-fine turns of phrase, the churning runoff of a lyricism he hated but didn’t know how to leave behind. How can I shake free of that sentimental burden? he wondered. Often during the day he felt useless, irresolute, a failure. The problem was Alexandria, the city stifled him. His provincial life, his circle of silly people with their unshakable self-confidence, the feluccas and fellahin, the landscape like a cobwebbed stencil whose heavy humidity sank into your bones—it all weakened his nerves. And often he determined, without really believing it, that he needed to erase the Alexandria within him if he really wanted to write.

But now he was in a foreign city that charmed and repelled him in equal measure, a cosmopolitan capital that glittered with refinement, whose smallest corner seemed large and important. He needed to resist his bad mood and find a way to enjoy these final few days of the trip. No more wavering, he thought, I’ll make a daily schedule and stick to it. He reflexively straightened his tie and descended the three steps into the hotel lobby.

“Monsieur Cavafy!” he heard someone call.

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