There’s no “us” anymore, Charlie says. It is one of those head-breaking thoughts. There is just me.

It’s hard to describe what he means. He is not talking about his place about the other parts, but the place of the whole of me in the world.

It is as though all his life, he has thought in terms of a collective. He has gotten his sense of identity and value from his role in it, and he has made all his decisions based on the needs of it.

And I suppose the original collective was simply the two of them: me and Natalya.

It’s hard to say how this has played out in the rest of my life, but it is a way of viewing everything—oneself, others, relationships, goals—rather than a membership in any real group.

Without it, he feels something like naked—cold, unsheltered. It is a lonely feeling, but it is mainly just profoundly unnatural for him. It brings with it a sense of existential meaninglessness. Without the collective, what exactly is the point of anything?

It makes many things fall into place about how other people think, because what he is feeling now is what nearly everyone in the Western world feels, only they do not find it cold or unnatural. It is like breathing to them, just as thinking in terms of the collective is like breathing for him.

In Country X, people think like he thinks. They think in terms of the needs of the group. It is not a matter of suppressing one’s own needs and feelings in favour of someone else’s. It is just a kind of balancing act you are constantly doing in your head so that everyone in the group is taken care of reasonably well. He could go on thinking the way he does here, but he is not really inside any particular collective. He is on the fringes of it.

He also knows that any time he is interacting with someone from the West, he is interacting with someone who thinks in a way he finds hard to fathom, and he needs to be able to think like them when he does that. He will do a balancing act in his head, but they will not, and sometimes he will get left behind if he persists in it. Sometimes he has been.

So he needs to be able to think in this way at least sometimes. He needs to accommodate.