The Designer
Matthew Jakubowski

The designer could write in German upside-down and backwards. As he did, with just a glance you could see that even the umlauts were perfectly placed beneath his sentences.

He was one of the more intriguing guests at my parties in Berlin that summer, when I was happy to be the center of our social universe for a few months. He’d sit on the big maroon couch in the living room with a notepad, writing down what the people near him said. He hardly blinked as his left hand twitched to create those strange paragraphs and it was fun to watch those who’d never seen his trick before. People would sometimes sit near him for hours, sipping drinks, mesmerized as if watching a séance.

I must’ve seen him write like that three or four times. All the words he left behind were as uniform and clear as a customized font meticulously rendered by a laser printer. It was incredible; that was the word people used most.

The mystery behind the designer’s trick quickly entered the party gossip that summer. It was never clear who’d invited him into our circle, and we called him by his nickname only because someone said he designed sunglasses for a luxury car company that gave them as free gifts in the glove box of every car shipped around the world.

In July, my old friends Gabe and Lila tried to crack the designer’s secret. Gabe invited the designer to one of his parties and Lila seduced him that very night. But when she had him in bed and asked how he wrote like that, he just smiled and told her, “I listen to the party but try to focus on nothing, purely. It’s very relaxing. When I look down later, the pages are full of words.”

When summer ended, the designer stopped appearing. Someone said he’d moved to Lisbon. In September, he came up again in conversation. Lila and Gabe were at my place for dinner. She made old-fashioneds and he told stories about growing up in Texas. As they were about to leave Gabe told me some of his friends had asked about the designer. I said he’d moved to Portugal.

“A shame,” Lila said. Her friends had liked him too, how his writing got people at the parties feeling a little closer to each other. As they went by the couch they liked knowing that the things they said might be captured on the pages, part of their experience would appear anonymously in a strange record of the night’s conversation.

“But I wonder,” Gabe said in a spooky voice, arching his shaggy eyebrows for dramatic effect, “maybe he wasn’t just transcribing people’s words: Maybe he was actually controlling what people said and did?”

Lila rolled her eyes. I smiled.

“Maybe,” Gabe said, “he let some lovers stay together and drew others away from the crowd with his spell?”

Gabe and I couldn’t help looking at Lila. She made a proud face, then laughed. Her soft smile stunned me; it always has. Pressed to remember what she’d said to the designer before they went back to her place, she came up empty.

“See?” Gabe said. “He pulled you in, not vice-versa.”

Lila mumbled that her amnesia was probably champagne-related, not magic. I laughed politely.
Lila set me in her gaze for a moment, then asked if I’d saved any of the designer’s work. I was sure I had, so they took off their coats and we did a little search around the place, rummaging through the desks and—knowing how people get at parties—checked the linen closets and a few kitchen cupboards to see if any of those pages were still around.

Finally, we looked under the couch cushions where the designer had sat, but nothing turned up. Somehow every last one of his pages had been thrown out or perhaps taken by guests as souvenirs. Lila and Gabe put their coats back on and I smiled apologetically as I said good-bye, as if I’d failed to deliver some promised entertainment.

As I cleaned up a few dishes, I wished I’d asked my friends to stay longer. It was still early in the evening. I wondered if they were going out for drinks and hadn’t invited me along for some reason. My American pals. Approaching 40, we’d needed a change and chose Berlin together, using inheritance money, and enjoyed ourselves now, accepting only those projects we really loved. We’d all be moving back soon, to San Francisco most likely, and I assumed that after that Lila would probably settle down with someone. She’d told me Berlin was beginning to wear on her.

Whatever affectionate feelings she’d had for me in the spring seemed to have changed. I hoped she knew I didn’t mind. Perhaps Gabe was falling for her. Imagining a conversation about it felt so awkward. My silly friends. It was nice to imagine, of course, that we’d avoid emptiness and stay close to one another in some way for the rest of our lives, if possible. But togetherness seems to depend so much on luck.

I walked into the living room, where it was dead quiet. Where the hell had all of the designer’s writing disappeared to? I felt irresponsible for not having kept at least one or two of those pages in a safe place. It had been comforting to believe that some of his writing was in my home, a remnant of his talent hidden close by but in a place secret to me.

I turned on some music, looking casually between some old LPs, like I might discover some of his pages if I pretended I didn’t care. Feeling moody, I chose Beethoven’s Fantasy in G Minor, with some Schumann on the other side. I stood there listening. I’d be turning 46 in the winter, months from now, with weeks and weeks to myself after hosting so many people every weekend, with their moods and chatter.

Walking toward the kitchen for more wine, passing the couch where the designer had sat, I couldn’t believe people had taken the pages or thrown them away. I rinsed my glass and flung the pinkish water into the sink. We all had memories from the summer parties, a few pictures on our phones and online, but the designer’s pages had been special—everyone had to have known that.

It would’ve been fun to stand with Gabe or Lila at the end of the hall in front of the big mirror and hold those pages upside-down, looking at our reflections as we read those words, like a secret note from the summer that might tell us our fortunes. Trying to relax I let the record play through, then played the other side and restarted it.

After I’d opened another bottle of wine, I was on the couch with a notebook trying to write like the designer had. But I couldn’t follow the method he’d explained to Lila because there wasn’t anyone around to listen to while I focused on nothing and transcribed their words.

Sitting with my page of useless scribble I hated the fact that I’d have to just keep waiting, hoping for the day when the designer’s pages might pop up in an old jacket pocket or a book someone had used to stash them away. And Lila had slept with him, and now she was out somewhere with Gabe. All I had was a hangover coming and dirty dishes to finish later on.

I cursed whoever had invited the designer to my parties, and kept cursing, letting my voice rise with the piano music, an angry little solo on the couch.

The music ended before I was done yelling and my curses echoed around the house, past the kitchen and down the empty hall behind me. I pictured my angry words flying toward the big mirror at the end of the hall, piercing the glass and being transformed, upside-down and backwards to another country in another time. There my curses were hopeful and divine, words to begin a prayer song among friends holding hands in a field before a wedding or harvest celebration, some sunny afternoon in a landscape painting. Maybe Germany, or America.

So many people had been here over the years. As I thought about this, the designer appeared right beside me on the couch. He looked relaxed as ever, inscrutable. He said he knew I’d lost his pages; I felt a little ashamed. “You will keep losing,” he said. “That’s natural, beyond your control.”

I told him silently that the voice always comes back. It tells me I will keep losing, that love is a trick life plays before people disappear. It repeats those words, you will keep losing.

“It’s true,” the designer said. “There will always be loss. The trick is to glean something.

Tonight, for instance, when Lila asked about the pages—you know she slept with me to get your attention.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “That’s just ego.”

He laughed. “You’ve no right to be cruel. People make sacrifices for you.”

“What sacrifices?”

He put a ghostly hand inside his coat pocket, took out some of his backwards pages and began reading to himself. I tried to lean over and read, too, but he wouldn’t let me.

“Why didn’t you make time to speak to Lila alone this summer?” he said. “You’ve been important to her for years. But tonight Gabe teased her for falling under my spell and you didn’t defend her, just left her mumbling about champagne. Even laughed at her a little, pretending like—”

I looked away from him and he disappeared. I wanted to be home, in America. With a phone call, workers could have everything in the house boxed up in three days, including the designer’s hidden pages if any were still around, and with luck I could be out of the city before anyone knew it.

I looked at the strange page of scrawl resting on my lap. Leaving wasn’t the only thing I needed to do. I tore out the scribbled page, crumpled it and tossed it aside.

On the next page in clear handwriting, no tricks, I wrote a simple note that I’d leave in my empty house for Lila to find after getting the message from me to use her key and come in later in the week:

Follow me please. I know you’d never let anyone take you away. But if you follow me I will never leave again.

I quickly carried the note down the hall toward the mirror where I intended to do something dramatic that I can’t quite recall, perhaps read it backwards, study it there and see if it, and I, could say those words to her. But several steps before I got to the mirror I caught my reflection. I saw a gray, haggardly drunk. Then I saw the designer, looking youthful in sunglasses, smiling at me. I knew then that my conversation with him on the couch had been ego and wine, not truth, not insight. I turned left and tore up the note I’d written for Lila on my way to the toilet.

The next morning, in the hall I gathered up the pieces of the note and went to the kitchen counter to tape the note back together. Carrying it, I went to the bookshelf near the record player and closed my eyes. I almost stopped myself, thinking it was silly, but kept going. Feeling for a book, I grabbed one—a normal spine, nothing too thick or thin—fumbled it open and slid the repaired note tightly inside, as close to the center as possible. Keeping my eyes shut, I felt for the blank spot on the shelf with one hand and when I’d found it, with my other hand I replaced the book that now contained my promise to Lila. Only after turning away from the bookshelf so I wouldn’t know which one I’d chosen did I open my eyes.

I wasn’t sure what I’d done. For some reason my palms began to sweat as I stood there feeling like I’d violated a foreign custom in my own home. I wanted to call Lila but couldn’t force myself to move. It took several minutes before I found the courage to go down the hall again, averting my eyes from the people I might see in the mirror, to the safety of my bedroom, where I found my phone on the nightstand.

Matthew Jakubowski works for an insurance company in Philadelphia. His fiction has been published by 3:AM Magazine and Necessary Fiction. His literary criticism is forthcoming from Music and Literature. He is agog on Twitter at @matt_jakubowski.