If you haven’t read chapter 1 – a long day by train, start by there
Tonight is the big party. The party right before the start of what is announced as a long and intense semester. Appropriately welcoming students before taking away their freedom. Apologizing in advance for confining them behind the high walls and thick windows of the library.
Enzo shaves and showers while humming the chorus of an old Sicilian song.
He looks forward to the party with optimism, certain that it will be an occasion to encounter interesting people, with a slight hope to meet Isabelle again. The traits of her face are vividly engraved in his memory, despite having seen her only once in the train.
As he gets out of the bathroom, still drying off, he frowns at the noise coming from the common room of the apartment. Lounge music mixed with a storm of loud voices and laughs and an uproar of chairs. He guesses it’s his Algerian flatmate Mehdi who’s throwing another party. After some hesitation, he wears blue jeans with a black shirt with a white motive from his limited wardrobe, and takes his dark impermeable jacket. He puts his wallet in a pocket, and the small notebook and the pen he never parts from in the other pocket. He turns off the lights, steps out his room and locks the door.
The apartment is bustling with people. Again. Mehdi has invited his large group of friends quite regularly since his arrival two weeks ago. Noisy, messy and unrespectful people. The content of the kettles seems to spread over the entire cooking surfaces and table but in their plates. They smoke inside the apartment and drink in excess, constellating the floor with sticky smudges of beer. The aftermath of his parties. Not to mention the empty cans and bottles left everywhere. But what disturbs him the most is the noise and the smoke, preventing him from reading and sleeping on more than an occasion. The dorms may be brand new, but the isolation between the rooms and the remaining of the apartment is nonexistent. Brilliant architects. Geniuses. At least in Palermo they could have privacy in their rooms, despite the decrepit structure of the dorms.
Enzo gives a disapproving glance to Mehdi, putting all his silent resentment into it. Mehdi welcomes it with a smirk, proceeding undisturbed with his loud conversation. He shouts instead of speaking. No, shouting is too moderate a word for that. He aggressively barks. He looks like a rooster in a hen house, but with no hens. Indeed, he is surrounded by a nearly exclusive masculine assembly, each louder than the other, behaving as if they all were landlords. They speak a coarse and quite incomprehensible mixture of French and Arabic. They seem to have already drunk a bit too much, sitting around a forest of empty cans of beers and bottles of wine and vodka, and crashed packages of orange juice. But the party is not even close to come to an end, as there are full cases of beers still awaiting to be drunk at the foot of the table.
Enzo is about to throw open the door separating the apartment from the outside corridor, when he changes his mind in a flash. He impulsively retraces his steps, driven by a cold anger. Enough is enough. He faces his flatmate.
“I’m sorry Mehdi, but it cannot continue like that,” Enzo says in French, firmly but politely. “It’s okay to invite your friends, but there are some rules to respect… You are not supposed to disturb us with the noise. We can hear everything in our rooms. And it should be quiet after 11. And…”
“Chill off man! Semester didn’t start yet! Fine to party a bit, don’t ya think?” Mehdi hoarsely shouts, as if he were speaking to a deaf.
“Yes, but… it’s forbidden to make noise in the residence after 11! If you want to party till 2 or 3, there are many places to do it in the city center…”
“Don’t break my balls! It’s Friday night. When the semester starts, we’ll party less.”
One of Mehdi’s friends steps in with a double-edged smile that could very well be sarcastic. “Come have a shot of vodka with us, and let’s settle the matter! Khalil, serve him a glass.”
“No. Thank you, I’m going out soon,” Enzo replies, slightly embarrassed by the proposition.
“Come on, don’t be shy! Ya Mehdi, he doesn’t drink alcohol?”
Someone hands him a tiny glass full with a transparent liquid, and they wave a plate full of unappetizing nuts under his nose. “Take, take. It’s good!… Good for sex… like viagra.” They all burst out laughing, quite heavily.
Enzo makes several signs of clear refusal, putting down the little glass untouched, but they grow more and more insistent, and he is forced to ward off their hands.
“Dude, if you’re going out, why are you making all this fuss?” Mehdi retorts. “Accept the peace, or get away!”
“Listen Mehdi, it’s useless to be angry. This is no war between us. Let me finish what I have to say, and things will be clear. You need to tell us before organizing a party. And you have to clean up after… You can’t leave us all that mess.” Enzo points to the empty bottles, the puddles of sauce and the scattered garbage. “Ask your friends to help before they leave…
And it’s not allowed to smoke in the apartment.”
“Fuck off man! Looking for shit?” explodes Mehdi, coming to stand closer from Enzo, his fists clenched, swelling with irritation. He lowers his voice, but his tone is full with threats: “Don’t ever dare commanding me! And in front of my friends! Never!” He then raises again his voice to its usual level: “Goddammit! We are free to do what we like! And we don’t give a shit of all your rulings!”
The only girl who’s present at the party now comes closer to Mehdi, puts her hands on his shoulders, trying to calm him down. She whispers soothingly in what Enzo guesses is Arabic, as if she were speaking with an angry and capricious kid.
Mehdi repels her with irritation. “Leila, stay away from me! This motherfucker…”
Enzo feels his heart pounding faster. He has always hated open conflicts and aggressive language. “True. You are free to do what you like. Insulting and disturbing others… But if it continues… you will have to bear the consequences…” He gives the assembly a look of scorn, turnabouts, opens the door of the apartment and slams it closed, just in time to hear a resounding “Go fuck yourself, asshole!”
Enzo feels immediately better as he races down the stairs. He unlocks the belt fastening his bicycle, wipes out the moisture off the seat, and starts pedaling with vigor, quietly slipping into the night. It is dark and windy, after a cloudy and rainy day. The air is filled with a faint scent of autumn, reminding him of the lovely fragrance that accompanies the first heavy rain after the dry and dusty Sicilian summer.
It’s a good opportunity to cool down after his heated discussion with Mehdi. He stayed very quiet in appearance, but such conflictual situations weigh down on him. Especially knowing that he will have to bear Mehdi’s presence everyday for at least one semester. It couldn’t have started worse!
Maybe he was too impatient and should have waited for things to settle down alone with the start of classes. But it had been several times he was deeply pissed off and didn’t say anything. A few days ago, during another of Mehdi’s party, he felt particularly oppressed in his room. He could not focus his attention on getting anything done, and was suffocating with the smoke. He took a book outdoors and read by the silvery light of a full moon sitting on a wooden bench in front of the small church in Ecublens, overlooking the sleeping city and its twinkling lights, coming back home a couple of hours before dawn, exhausted. But it will soon be impossible to do that, as nights keep on getting colder, and the library closes at midnight in the best case. Moreover, it would be inconsiderate to let the guy have his own way, considering his shameless manners.
Fortunately, Charlotte, his third flatmate seems nice and quiet. She comes from Tours in France, and is doing an exchange semester in civil engineering in EPFL. He didn’t have many occasions to interact with her yet. His fourth flatmate is still missing but the name he saw on the mailbox sounds Spanish or South American.
Enzo has gone past EPFL, now riding through the campus of UNIL along dark fields and swinging trees, while braving strong gusts of wind that are whirling across his thin jacket and ruffling his short hair. After a brief ascent, he faces a small wood that appears thick and pervading in the night. For a short moment, the flickering lights coming from the faraway hills behind sparkle like wisps across the foliage of the trees. Or like hundreds of torches of an encamped army, accompanied by the sound of creaking branches. It is startling to notice how a dense and dark night can shroud a quite polished landscape in foggy layers of mystery. From a distance, the lake appears as a dark and flat mass. Some lights pierce through the haze, giving a vague contour to the mountains on the other shore. He engages in a long descent gaining a lot of speed, almost flying and the roar of the wind in his ears, and it is quite exhilarating. He sharply brakes at the end of the descent, his tires squealing and splashing gravels around, enjoying its noise and feeling, and he emerges on a perpendicular path bordered by a hedge of tall and majestic trees. Infrequent lanterns project the running shadows of a rider and his bike along the dark path.
He was quite lucky for getting such a bike from the Point Vélo, the place that repairs and recycles old bikes at EPFL, reselling them at low prices. It is robust and light and comfortable at the same time, giving an impression of speed and safety. He made his choice when noticing how expensive public transportation is, way too pricey for his budget. Plus, a bike offers him with more flexibility, as metros don’t circulate after midnight, and they are quite scarce on Sundays.
He is to receive sixteen thousand Swiss Francs per year of scholarship, but almost half of it is already condemned to pay his room in Atrium. And what an accommodation! A students’ residence where it is almost impossible to sleep at night. With the remaining money, he needs to make a living, and ideally he would like to make some savings to send to the family for Christmas.
His week was relaxing and well-filled for he spent a consistent amount of his time lying down on the cozy grey sand of a little isolated cove by the lake, enjoying the fading warmth of September’s sun, and reading The Viceroys, a historical novel taking place in his Sicily. It’s the last book he brought with him and from now on, he will have to supply himself locally. He also took long swims in the crystalline waters of the lake, which is already starting to get colder. It’s only today that the weather has turned sour and stormy.
The rest of his free time was spent drawing, in pen and ink, his favorite technique, and working on improving his watercolor painting skills. There is plenty of inspiration for that in Lausanne, with the ever changing lake and the mountains, the variegated vegetation and the old mansions. He is still finding some difficulties with this technique; its execution is fast and swift, requiring a lot of spontaneity, for you cannot make later modifications to the layer of painting once it covers the paper. At the contrary, oil paintings are usually made up of several layers, taking several weeks of work and demanding a great deal of patience. That would suit Enzo’s reflexivity much better, but he does not have the time for it. And besides, it’s a good training to try being more spontaneous, not only in painting!
After about forty minutes of riding, climbing very steep slopes and braving the gusty wind against him, Enzo arrives breathless in front of the railway station, deciding to park his bicycle there and continue the last portion of the ascent afoot. The wet pavement is shimmering with colorful lights. With a little practice it will get easier to ride uphill. He’s conscious not to have taken the shortest or easiest route, but it’s not obvious to find your way in a little-known city shrouded in darkness.
Enzo walks-up the abrupt slope toward Saint Francois’ neighborhood, where the party is taking place, now feeling glad to have spoken with Mehdi. It was something that needed to be done, sooner or later. Besides, Enzo knows that he has to go out of his comfort zone and surpass himself if he wants to grow up.
A storm of bells calling and replying to each other announces that it is already eleven o’clock. It breaks the quietness of the town. The streets are deserted at night. People start vacating the city at six, for they have quite early dining habits, and all shops close around that time.
Only last morning, Enzo still felt emotionally detached from Lausanne. He found it too cold and lifeless, too clean and well-polished, lacking history and mystery. He thought sadly that it was not a place for dreamers but rather a place for down-to-earth hard workers.
Fortunately, since the guided tour he participated to, his perspective of Lausanne has changed quite a bit, and his notebook has been enriched with more than a drawing and several stories to explore. He is eagerly waiting to find history books about Lausanne and the State of Vaud in the library and complete the explanations of the guide.
Despite his brilliance at school and university, and despite what his fellows stubbornly thought, Enzo is definitely not a hard worker according to the conventional meaning of the word. No, he has to thank his intelligence and his quickness of understanding for most of the good results he obtained. His tastes span over a wide range, and he worked for his classes driven solely by his whims and his intuitions.
He is surely capable of getting passionate for a specific chapter of physics or geology, history or philosophy, thinking about it for few weeks. But there are other domains in these disciplines that deeply annoy him, and he’s not ready to do even the slightest effort to better understand them.
As a matter of fact, he does not fit at all in the modern academic mold. This mold shapes students like tiny and identical wheels of a train, highly specialized in a particular domain of a single discipline, and highly ignorant of all what is around. By the end of their studies, they are fully prepared to cling to the high-speed train of ‘global economics’, often misleadingly named with the pompous words of civilization and progress. Most of these small wheels never come close at all to the locomotive driving this train. They never try to understand its cold steely logic. They keep on rolling over straight-ahead – their lateral motion limited by the rails, for decades and decades, without bothering themselves with too many interrogations – fully satisfied with their fate if they are often moved under heavier wagons. Their path stops when they are too worn out, ready to be thrown away or stored in a dusty warehouse along the rails, then replaced with younger and more vigorous wheels, even more specialized than they were back in their golden time. They may consider themselves lucky if, once or twice in their life, their wagon goes off the rail rolling freely over the green pastures, the woodlands and the marshes of the countryside, tasting the straw and the manure of farmlands, breaking the monotony of their existence for a while, if the shock does not give them the final knockout.
Enzo likes to think of himself as in the lineage of those humanists and thinkers and scientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who could very well be mathematicians, biologists, writers and painters at the same time. They considered knowledge as an ever learning process, intermingling and brewing very different disciplines to obtain original and unique results.
The most valuable blessing is intellectual freedom… The freedom of focusing your thoughts on what interests you in earnest. However, you need to have an economic safety net to be able to free your mind from shabby material worries. This is unfortunately far from being his case. Not that he cares much about his own comfort. He could be more than satisfied with a roof, a hot meal per day, and the possibility to explore all the different topics that passionate him. Unearthing the maze of mathematics and chess, reading literature and history, drawing and painting for entire days. Jumping from one discipline to another whenever he fancies it, free like a bee flying from one flower to another by a fine day of Spring. Using his time as it pleases him. Progressing in the art of socializing. Finally meeting friendship and love.
However, he is conscious that he is the only one who can help out his family. He wants to enhance the future of his siblings and repair their old stone house which is starting to crumble. Not only did his birth take away their mother, and the revenues she earned as a school teacher, but he was quite a financial burden on them afterwards. From the bits of information he could collect, he had spent several months between life and death, undergoing expensive treatments at the hospital, for he was prematurely born in a quite frail condition.
This is the reason for which he has decided to take a step on the path of engineering, while hoping that it won’t be too bare and constraining, and that Lausanne will offer interesting diversions and help him finding a meaning for his life.
Enzo notices that his feet have carried him past the place, engrossed in his thoughts and slightly anxious before the real start of his Swiss adventure on Monday morning.
After few inevitable detours through tortuous and steep alleys, he eventually manages to get to the Bourg’s street, which is cobbled and pedestrian. The nightclub is well-hidden under the entrance of what seems a residential building. It is the first real party he goes to in Lausanne. Not that he carries much experience from Sicily, as he almost never was invited to parties, and didn’t mix up much with his classmates’ activities during his bachelor years.
He is taken by apprehension before going in. He draws a deep breath, feeling the throb of his heart. It’s a party for new students and it will certainly be easy to meet people and make friends, he tries to reason himself.
Enzo draws another deep breath and leaps in the lion’s den. A wide-shouldered security guard mechanically asks for his student ID, making sure that he is more than eighteen-year-old. He rummages through his pockets and luckily finds it in his wallet. After going in, he leaves his jacket at a small booth – imitating other newcomers – discovering only too late that the four francs he has given were not a deposit, and cursing this ingenuity.
A burgundy carpeted corridor opens before him. After a turn, he goes down some stairs, guided by the loudening of music, finding himself at the entrance of a dimly-lit room with a large bar in the background, and shelves carrying an abundance of variegated bottles.
Despite starting officially at half past ten, the party did not fully take off yet. The music is loud, but not yet too loud. Shadows are dancing over the ceiling. Groups of semi-lit people are scattered across the place, drinking and chatting, standing in circles. Some are sitting on chairs around low tables, and others are on high chairs close to the bar.
He hesitantly takes a few steps in, daunted by the presence of all these students. He slowly goes through the room, carefully scanning it for a known face. He can’t find any and fails to decide himself to encrust in one of the already formed groups. It’s too intimidating. Especially without having a shoulder to rely upon. They call it a wingman on the forums of seduction he reads online. It would have been a much better idea to come with one or two friends. But who?
Enzo tries to keep a countenance by looking with feigned concentration at the list of beverages that the bar proposes. The glass of beer costs eight full franks and he does not have money to spend on it, unless he faces an irresistible and unrepeatable opportunity.
He walks again the place following a curved path of semicircles and ellipses, while trying to establish eye contact with some pretty girl, for he read that it was the way interactions started at parties. Eye contact. Smile. If reciprocal, repeat the operation. Eye contact. Smile. Approach. Start to speak. Have a drink. Dance. Draw closer. Look in her eyes. Draw even nearer. Kiss…
He will soon be twenty-one, and he still never had a girlfriend. He never kissed a girl. He never held the hand of a girl.
It daunts him, it obsesses him, it makes him mad. Not only for the statistics, or to reassure himself, but because he feels a real and deep emptiness inside. He has always been hungry for love and affection. His heart – or whatever is the name and location of the organ that treasures and offers love – is but a hollow pit, with a carpet of seasoned and stunted petals at its bottom. The love of a sister and a grandmother who both live at a thousand kilometers are far from enough for a ravenous young adult.
And he would have so much to give to the fortunate girl in question, for she would be the sole object of his affection. Isn’t that all what girls can dream of?
There are no isolated pretty girls. As a matter of fact, there are no isolated girls at all. Thereby, his endeavor does not yield any result. Everyone seems to be fully engrossed by the ongoing conversations, talking loudly and laughing. They seem to have a lot of energy, much more than he has.
He draws a comparison between himself and an electron in the first shell of a nitrogen atom, who would be looking to jump in the third shell where electrons have a much higher level of energy. It would be physically impossible. Physically impossible.
This last idea throws an echo through his mind, resonating down his spine, sending a shiver through his body.
As he wanders back and forth – trying hard to look detached and confident – someone calls his name. He turns back to find Charlotte, his flatmate, who has just arrived accompanied with some of her friends. They kiss thrice, following the quite tedious Swiss habit, and she introduces him to her group of friends. There are six or seven of them and he hardly catches their names. He exchanges perfunctory handshakes with guys and kisses with girls. Most are from France, but one of the girl who comes from the French part of Belgium, and they all study at EPFL.
It’s such a relief not to be anymore alone and taking an aimless step after another through this crowd of unknown faces. His first feeling is that of the passengers of a vessel that has quite unexpectedly managed shelter from the fury of the waves in a small bay of a rocky island, waiting for the storm to quiet down.
Charlotte’s friends are comparing the cost of living between France and Switzerland, and exclaiming at how expensive Lausanne is. They give similar accounts of how back home in their universities they could have generous lunch for two or three euros, and they regret the cheapness of housing and beer. Enzo discovers that they already drunk several beers before the party to avoid spending money a drink once there.
Not having to speak, he can focus his attention on the different people standing around him. Charlotte is not very pretty. Quite short, with a fair complexion, thick pinkish eyeglasses, her cheeks and her brow covered with acne. None of her friends particularly hooks up his curiosity.
The conversation drags on, for everyone wants to add his grain of salt on that fascinating topic called money. Enzo does not catch all of it, as they speak fast and in slang, their words covered with the loud music. They also laugh at jokes he fails to understand. Exasperated by the dullness of the discussion, he longingly looks across the dim room for greener pastures.
The conversation seems to take a new twist when they start describing the residence they live in and the people they have met until now. Enzo patiently listens for a long while. No one seems interested to hear his own experience. He feels out of place amongst them, waiting to have the courage to take his leave and plunge back in the deep waters of the room, which has been filling meanwhile, imagining plenty of hidden treasures only awaiting to be discovered.
Surprisingly, when Charlotte mentions her colocation, she does not complain about Mehdi. Enzo wonders if she was not home when he threw his noisy and messy parties, or if she simply doesn’t mind!
As two new people join the group, the discussion drifts to the other French people they have met in Lausanne, and the other French students who have come from their same universities. This is too much of France for Enzo, and he pretexts that he is going to greet some friends to turn his back and flees.
Not that he is not curious about France, for he would love to discover more about its culture, its atmosphere, its history… But they hardly mention any of that, dwelling on some uninteresting details about their universities, or Grandes Ecoles, as they call them…. Asking a French person about his studies at the university is considered as insulting if he has been to a Grande Ecole, which are much more prestigious and recognized there. Most of these schools are located in Paris, and the students of each believe that they are the best, and that the world absolutely needs them. It reminds Enzo of his college in Catania, and the feeling of superiority that his classmates conspicuously wore…
It was half a lie, as he soon meets an Italian and a Spanish guy, Lorenzo and Marcos, he spoke with on the welcome day last Tuesday. They greet him with the typical Southern warmth, and they merge with another group, to Enzo’s disappointment. It’s quite discomforting being surrounded by too many people you don’t know when you’re shy and not used speaking with strangers and catching their attention.
There is a majority of Italian and Spanish, but there are also a Portuguese boy and a German girl. Their discussion bursts with animation compared to the one with the French group.
Alfonso, a tall bearded guy, is telling anecdotes about his adventures and his travels in the North of Africa and in South America, his tone overflowing with self-confidence, sending his little audience into roars of laughter.
At first, Enzo takes pleasure in listening to his tales, as he has never lived anything of the sort, not having moved much from his island, and far from being a magnet for weird and funny adventures. The advantage is that he can better integrate himself in the group without having to do the slightest effort.
After a while, Alfonso’s stories get tasteless. Enzo finds out that they are braggart and repetitive – all following similar patterns. His monopolization of the conversation is heavy and annoying. As good a storyteller as you could be, you should know when it is time to shut up, giving others a chance to speak.
When Alfonso has finally emptied all his drawers without leaving a grain of dust inside, Lorenzo takes the initiative of asking each person to tell the worse experience they have ever lived. The stories should be said in a funny way, of course. It seems to work quite well, invigorating the little assembly. Faces light up up with remembrance and embarrassment, pride and laughter. These stories smell of beer and weed, of recklessness and bravery, of crazy taxi rides in the night and of candlelit parties at the beach. It’s no easy task to unbind the false from the truth.
Meanwhile, Enzo worries, racking his brain to find out something to tell them. Mentioning the loss of his mom is out of the question, as it would be too dramatic. Telling of when he broke his arm would be dry and flat. Inventing a story under time pressure is improbable. He could do that with ink and paper, surrounded by quietness. And he would definitely not be the protagonist of that story, nor sell it as a true story.
More than a dozen pairs of eyes turn to stare at him. The atmosphere gets heavier, and his shoulders bend slightly forward under its weight.
It’s his turn, and he’s not ready… He says few words and stammers, stalling in the midst of a sentence.
The worst thing ever is having self-conscious thoughts at the same time you talk, because it disrupts and dries off the flow of words going out, making you pass for a fool, a simpleton or an introvert in the best case.
He has the presence of mind to ask to pass his turn, explaining that the story is too painful to tell. It is met with puzzled looks. Why on earth would someone ask to skip his turn, when everyone is burning to speak and be at the center of the attention for as long as possible. Some of them try encouraging him to speak up, their curiosity piqued by a story too painful to tell. He shakes his head. Someone comes to his rescue by saying: “Leave the poor guy alone.”
Enzo hates making a spectacle of himself. He tries to look around himself with feigned indifference, his arms defensively crossed on his chest, waiting for the summer storm to vanish.
Soon enough, he relaxes, feeling that his misstep has been forgiven, at least momentarily, as they are all engrossed by the other stories, him included.
When everyone is done, the discussion stalls and breaks apart to smaller groups of two or three people, with the complicity of the loudening music. Such a configuration could suit better his social skills, in theory at least.
One of the Spanish girls is particularly attractive. Brown, mysterious dark eyes, long and smooth black hair, well-proportioned shapes.
Enzo is exchanging small talks with two of his neighbours. They go through the usual and sempiternal discussion about their respective origins, their fields of study, the places where they live. Safe ground for international students, certainly interesting when you do it once or twice, and later build on these acquaintances. But it becomes more like collecting stamps or butterflies when it is done on a large scale. On such occasions, people are driven by a frenzy to speak to a maximum of persons in the shortest amount of time, giving half their attention to the exchange, without trying to dig in the least bit to better their knowledge of others.
He gets his occasion with the Spanish girl when half the group goes to the bar to restock with drinks. They exchange a smile, and Enzo takes it as an open invitation to start speaking.
Her name is Nuria, and she is doing an exchange year in sociology at UNIL. She lives at a dorm called Bourdonnette, which is close to UNIL. He asks her for the reasons that decided her to study psychology, catching only bits of her answer, after making her repeating thrice. The music is getting too loud and she has a thick accent in English. Her face openly shows her annoyance at his slowness of understanding.
He fails to direct their talk on a different path, and his eagerness to ask more questions dies like an early fire deprived of brushwood, and she does not help him. When the others return from the bar, Nuria resumes her conversation with her Catalan friends in Catalan, which he finds to be completely incomprehensible, contrarily to Spanish which is quite close from Italian.
Enzo stands there motionless, listening absentmindedly to the ongoing discussions.
He progressively notices that successful guys use a different approach. They seldom speak, probably because of music, but when they do, they try to strike a chord with a joke or a funny reference to a common cultural element. They do so by leaning over very close to the faces and the ears of their feminine audience, making sure of being heard. When they don’t speak, they occasionally shake their bodies in unison, making ample and confident movements with their arms, while exchanging broad smiles. This is how Lorenzo has been progressively gaining the favor of Nuria.
Enzo envies and resents the quick complicity that seems to naturally establish between people, and that utterly eludes him. He fails to understand their jokes and to laugh at the right time. He fails to play his own part in the social orchestra.
He is tempted to lie to himself, saying that it is because of the barrier of language, because he comes from another country, another culture. But he knows it would be wrong, as he is having the same problem even with his compatriots. He is an outsider. Everywhere. He has grown away from the mainstream culture and has an unusual background, which hardly fits in society. Definately not in the nightlife society.
It even materializes in the body languages of people around, as if by a tacit agreement, no one is to turn to him or ask him questions. He barely has the space to stand in the circle. All the strained muscles of his arms and his legs silently scream that he is an intruder, an alien.
Again, he is gazing through the hazy depth of the room, with the idea of trying his luck elsewhere. He sees a Canadian girl he briefly met on the welcome day. She’s waiting in queue for a drink. He casually walks toward her.
“Hey Monica! How are you doing? Enjoying the party?” he shouts to cover the music, looking in her deep eyes, green or honey he still couldn’t determine.
“Hi! It’s amazing! And you?”
“Yea. You’re.. alone?” Try sounding more excited, fool!
“Nope, my friends are there. But the news is that I drink faster!” she giggles. She asks for vodka with raspberries. “You’re not taking a drink?”
“Okay, see you around. Enjoy the party,” she hastily says, with a perfunctory smile.
Enzo lowers his head, quite dispirited at the twist that the night is taking. There is a glass barrier between him and others, and he ignores how to shatter it. He wonders if it is written on his forehead that he is socially-awkward-and-hopelessly-boring. He wonders if alcohol plays a role in that. Everyone seems more merry than the usual. Maybe he should also drink before the party next time. But he winces at that thought. It’s called cheating, and he absolutely despise cheaters.
He is a struggler deep down, and it is not in his nature to give up. He resumes his random walk, trying to raise his spirits with more positive thoughts.
His Italian and Spanish acquaintances have made it to the dancefloor, which is sparkling with a mixture of red, blue and violet lights. They are furiously swinging and twirling on a latino rhythm, and Nuria is a spectacle to look at. He stays at a safety distance from the dancefloor, lost in contemplation. The play of colorful lights with darkness gives a fairy look to the scene. At certain instants, the movement of the dancers seems to be suspended in the air.
Enzo has noticed an ash-blond girl who’s been standing alone for the last ten minutes, also looking at the dancefloor. He prevents himself from thinking too much about it. He knows that if the heavy gears of his mind start to spin, it will take a great deal of time to set them back to rest. He has already wasted an uncountable number of occasions because of excessive thinking. The best way of getting hurt is to hesitate right before jumping over a hedge, he has learnt in sports at school, when he broke his leg.
The girl has sort of a bewildered look that he takes for shyness. This realisation boosts his confidence, and he draws closer, without having to force himself to sound excited this time.
“Hello! I’m Enzo, and you?”
“I’m Alex.” Her tone is cold and distrustful, and her accent in English heavy.
“Nice to meet you! Where are you from?”
“I’m from Sicily, Italy. Where did you live in Russia?”
She raises an eyebrow and drops: “St Petersburg.”
“Oh, that’s cool.” Enzo is surprised at having caught the sort of expressions other students use. “And what do you study?”
“That sounds interesting. So we can speak in French?” Maybe it will make her talk more.
He finds it easier to lead the conversation with a person who has a lower level of energy than him. “I am to start a master in environmental engineering at EPFL. So you’re here for one semester?”
“No, my full master.”
“Ah cool. You must like reading then. What are your favorite books?”
“I like… The Stranger.”
“I didn’t like it that much. Too dry and a bit depressing. But I love Russian literature. I enjoyed a lot War and Peace…”
She shrugs, seeming annoyed by his intromission.
He proposes going for a drink at the bar, trying the whole for the whole with the hope of defrosting her and eventually seeing a smile softening her square jaw. She gives him a disdainful look, turns her back and walks away without further explanation.
What a luck I have! he thinks. Happening on the crazy girl of the evening. His self-defense mechanisms have engaged, avoiding to take another frontal blow on his already banged up self-confidence. Well, I should tell myself that at least I’ve given it a try.
He always lacks confidence in interactions, and this brings him no good at all. Ironically, he feels that this time he has showed too much confidence, which the Russian girl may have taken for presumption, awakening her mistrust.
He now feels very self-conscious about his repeated failures, unsettled at the idea of what people will think of him. He has been spinning like a lonely electron for a couple of hours, without being able to settle in any place. He avoids walking again close to the group of French not to draw Charlotte’s attention. For sure, he’s not in a hurry for her to discover how strange of a flatmate she has.
And so proceeds the night. His self-confidence riddled with bullets. Taking one blow after another. Ashamed of himself but refusing to give up. Nervously spinning across the crowded room. Deafened by the music which painfully resonates in his chest. Obsessively looking for eye contacts with pretty girls. Contemplating the dancefloor with envy and awe. Going through the list of beverages and prices. Again and again. Until finding out that he knows it by heart, despite never having tasted most of the alcohols and fancy cocktails.
He knows that he should be going, to save what remains of his bleeding self-confidence. He is only hurting himself by staying. Someone like him has nothing to hope from such a party, especially in his current state of mind. He has faced too many setbacks for one night. Too many.
His eyes burn. He’s dazed by the play of dazzling lights and thick shadows. He sluggishly considers that he will have to walk to the railways station to take his bicycle, and then pedal for more than half-an-hour to Atrium, downhill this time. He does not dare to imagine in what state of dirt and devastation the apartment shall be after the passage of the Algerian hurricane.
Nonetheless, he does not want to leave with nothing but blunders to remember, and spend his weekend moping. If he starts accepting reverses without fighting back, he is condemned to live again the frustrations of the unhappy times he has spent at the university in Palermo.
No. No. No. For my own sake. For the sake of my mom who’s waiting to see me strong and happy from where she is. Taking a deep breath, he forces himself to stop moving like a crazy ant. He stands very still in a dark corner of the room and discreetly hits the painted wall with his clenched fists. Once. Twice. Thrice. It’s an old method he used to quiet himself after particularly bad days at school, lonely and unable to sleep in his little room at night. The reassuring hardness and firmness of the wall runs through his fists, his arms, his elbows and his shoulders, dissipating the tension in his muscles and untying a knot at the bottom of his throat. He repeatedly smiles at the shadows, a gymnastic to melt the stiffness in his cheeks and his jaw.
He walks back to the middle of the room, standing idly, his hands in his pockets, straightening his back and swelling his chest, in a wait and see attitude, observing the surroundings with coolness, determined not to let himself overrun again by discouragement.
Enzo is rewarded of his perseverance when he feels a light touch on his shoulder, turning around to find no one but Isabelle smiling at him. They kiss thrice, in the Swiss fashion. She looks enchanting in the simplicity of her dark dress, which delightfully contrasts with the fairness of her eyes.
“Gee! It’s my train companion! Enzo, right? I didn’t expect to see you in here,” she exclaims. “Isn’t this party awesome?”
“It is indeed.”
“But you look tired! Everything’s alright?”
“Yea I’m good.”
“Didn’t you come with friends?”
I don’t have any friend yet! “They are there…” He vaguely gestures to the dancing floor.
He also feels compelled to justify his isolation. “I don’t like dancing that much…”
“You’re sooo wrong! DANCING. IS. LOVELY!” she shouts each word separately, as the music is at its highest in the midst of Love is Gone tune, and the whole room is shaking. Her body is slightly swaying uncontrollably, accompanying the music, and her face illuminated with a broad smile. Enzo stiffly follows her sway, trying to loosen his arms, unable to look away from her smile and the tenderness of her delicate lips.
He waits for the music to get quieter: “What about your friends?”
“Oh! They are many of them here. She makes an ample movement toward the whole room. “It’s really easy to make new acquaintances!… But there is a fair knight waiting for me with a sexy drink at the bar. I’m making him wait a bit… But not too much!” she winks. “Life is all about finding the right balance of things!” she adds, disreputing her sententious tone with a mocking grin.
Enzo feels his heart faltering at the news, but his face shows nothing of his disappointment. “So from what I understand, they gave you the role of a princess?”
“Indeed,” she giggles. “How shrewd!”
He slightly bows. “Careful that Lausanne isn’t a faerie city, and your knight may be but a villain trying to deceive you.” He notices that his Italian accents unexpectedly reemerges when he pronounces certain words.
“Oh don’t worry for me, I’m such a hard bone!.. A pragmatic girl… Now duty calls me! Have fun! We may meet again on the dancefloor, or in some other occasion,” she exclaims.
“Let’s exchange phone numbers,” Enzo says, surprised by his sudden bravery.
He bought his first cellphone ever a couple of weeks ago, the most archaic model still existing on the market. He needed to provide the bank with a cellphone number to open his banking account and receive the scholarship.
“Sure.” Isabelle draws out a sophisticated phone from her tiny leather handbag.
Enzo ransacks his pockets, bringing out all their content, but finding no trace of his phone. Shit. “I forgot my cellphone home… I think.” He hands her a small piece of paper scratched from the last page of his notebook, asking her to write down her full name and her number. “I don’t know mine by heart… So I’ll text you later.”
“Okay, see you soon then.” Isabelle elegantly walks toward the bar, stopping several times halfway to greet other people.
This girl has something indefinable about her. No wonder that she is courted from all sides. It makes things quite difficult… But who knows…
Talking with Isabelle has recharged his batteries and rekindled his hopes. Her words about finding the right balance in all things have struck him. Finding the right balance between blissfulness and despair, between his previous carelessness and his current obsession for socializing, between showing too little and too much confidence… Nothing is black or white in nature. He distractedly wanders through the room, his legs lighter, his mind happily busy with finding the fair balance of all things, the right shade of grey, scribbling every now and then his most original reflexions on his notebook with his tiny pen.
Without knowing how it has started, Enzo finds himself drawing the room, the bar, the chairs and tables, and the dancing floor, filling the whole space with people in motion, covering several pages of his small notebook with sketches. He leaves faces empty at first, to be faster in his execution, and it is when all the contours are set that he starts adding traits to the most remarkable ones. It could be a quite interesting challenge to paint the scene later. At first, he looks around himself with embarrassment, wondering what other students would think of such a peculiar occupation at a party – and not whatever a party – the welcome party! But then, he thinks that it is big time he starts assuming his differences in public; the other way around is not working out, and all his endeavors are met with reverses. Even if he wishes so, he cannot fit in the narrow and uncomfortable mold that society has reserved for him. If it makes him happier to be drawing instead of dancing, why not after all?
Continue your reading with chapter 3 – meeting Lucy