STRENGTH IN GIVING UP
An increase in the number of
Societies: so what. How the intensity of my forebodings grew at the beginning of spring.
Although it was I that, ha, foresaw the effect of our Balkanese plot to promote coffee not
tea, I did not even dream that the Western alliance will retaliate with an aerial
campaign – that bombardment, presumably, that Tomas was expecting with some dim joy
during our drive from the seaside to Beograd. He, and others from the firm, exposed
themselves every day to possible missile attacks by walking to the city center, where in
the main pedestrian-only square were held protest concerts which to me looked mostly like
a ritual of glorification of war and destruction of the nicest buildings, rituals at which
instead of cattle people contribute themselves for sacrifice.
I had a similar impression about the gatherings at Brankov Most, the Sava bridge most directly in continuation of the city center. A bombardment of Brankov Most was also planned by Western alliance. That is where my colleagues pinned paper targets to their lapels and, perhaps to make it utterly clear to the attackers from the English-speaking countries just what is expected from them, they added the largely printed word TARGET on those same pieces of paper. What’s more, even those of my colleagues who lived in the immediate vicinity of the military targets did not go down into the atomic shelters. Osvald and Maks reported themselves for volunteer military service and awaited a land invasion, when they will participate with slave-like obedience in chest to chest combat which will give them an easy opportunity to get killed and thus shrug all obligations off themselves.
What amazed me most, in those days, was that not only the known suicidal types, but also quite ordinary people, exposed themselves to danger; and faces such as the pop and folk musicians and singers; yes, and even those really influential. (I kept in my mind that text about the President: in my seaside days I was too filled with remorse to take it seriously.) And to crown everything, they all went serenely: holding plastic cups with instant coffee and sipping it leisurely - which was their only privilege in those days - for those Yugoslav television companies that were not yet bombed out, also for foreign media, politicians made statements hugely provoking the powerful ones from the air and those who give orders for attacks. What does that mean? Perhaps all of them too are slyly contriving to demonstrate false courage and false faith. Besides…
There is no problem if the other side, the guys who blast the military and non-military targets – and hit more than thousand civilians too, with or without a “target” leaflet on the forehead – do not know that their aerial action helps some people to do what they really believe in doing: to make unpunishable attempts at heroic suicide, as only one of the forms of civilian suffering (the bombarded population went through some other forms also, such as hunger, and had some other chances to act heroically). If that is the case, then there is only one side which is right and justified, in this conflict (and that is how things are supposed to be).
But I noticed some indications that things might stand differently. The pilots were also offering themselves for sacrifice, no doubt, because, to my boundless amazement, they were prepared to neglect their personal problems in order to mollify the disturbances between nations so remote to them as Serbs and Albanians. And if they saw themselves, after real serious thinking, as doctors for the Serbian and Schiptari soul, that would be proof enough that they are also blinded by The Cross.
Not to mention that pilots did get killed too; the population on the bridges diligently celebrated the shooting down of quite a number of helicopters and planes, including the until-then unshootable F-117 A. The crowds probably thought that this would be enough to win the war. But if both sides are right in a war like this, then there are no rules any more. Yes? If they are all suicidal types, then I feel much more isolated today then when I was a perfectly serious candidate for suicide. Practically half of globe is against me!
Although I never turned on the radio and TV any more, I could not tune myself out of these things even at home. For instance, I noticed that civil-defense men on duty loved to make similar the two sounds of air-raid sirens – the sound for the beginning and the sound for the end of air peril. The first was supposed to announce, by its wavy, snaking up-and-down tones, that a period begins in which the peace-time rules will be violated; this means chaos, hell; but the other sound, in a flatter, monotonous tone, but of precisely the same “color” of sound failed to return peace to our souls, which was its proclaimed intent. So, the siren, even when it says that the airplanes have gone away, still blares to the people warningly of chaos, and they are, naturally, supposed to find some way out of chaos. But how? By attaching targets on our chest. Oh really? All of this made me uneasy, and I easily could have gone really insane.
Fortunately, I was otherwise preoccupied. Like crisscrossing my windows with adhesive-tape X-es, each X twice, double layer, so that the glass would not fly at me during detonation; stockpiling tea, green apples, and oranges such that their meat makes a burning sensation on the lips. As the inter-city telephone lines were overloaded, it took me some twenty minutes to establish connection with my mother and to obtain the information that no bombs had yet fallen on the little town in which she remained. That was not all I did: I transferred the text from my notes-booklet into the computer, but in a disorderly manner. The airy blue rectangle of the monitor screen, gleaming as if wet, did not seem to be infinite; rather, it seemed to be crammed full, right down to its fictive bottom, with all the deceptions I was noticing. So I stuffed the cubical space in front of me, until the laptop, maltreated by frequent power-failures (blackouts) in our electrical grid, finally died. What have I been typing in? – Aphorisms that had an ambition to grow into some serious prose, but without a clear context; heaps of cataractous-eyed sentences not encircled by a clear conclusion. Such as:
“Always have I vacillated between wishes and possibilities, female principle and male principle, the material and the spiritual, the urban and the rural, the accumulated sexual and the empty post-coital. If, in addition to that, I measure up the pleasure I feel before getting into bed with a girl, against the panicky efforts to maintain an erection during the sex itself, I will see to what extent the kitsch-contrasts have always clashed in me.”
“As one of the crucial criteria we should respect the irrationality, the quality which people often attack because they mix it up with non-pragmatism, which they cannot tolerate. Radio-esthesia is man’s ability to receive from his environment the information which is not available to his regular senses, but which can be measured by the motions of the radio-esthetic equipment. There is some cognition in that too. I do not believe in accidents. What I want to believe in, apparently is not able to help me. What the people around me believe, is full of various redundancies. Fear of god as somebody’s only Christian trait is a recidive of paganism” - there, I wrote that too. And this:
“From vast oceanic surfaces water keeps evaporating under the influence of solar heat. Steam so created is then carried by winds over the landmasses, where it is dumped on the ground. A part of it evaporates again, but another part flows in brooks and rivers over the surface or accumulates temporarily in lakes; and yet another part sinks into the earth, all the way to the water-impermeable strata, and there amasses as subterranean water or creates subterranean waterflows which may break out onto the surface again as freshwater springs. To make this circulation even more senseless, all water eventually returns to the sea."
I should have written something opposite to theory, I was expected to sail into the practicing of prose. And all that I wrote was known to me already, anyway.
I stopped going to work, or into the now overcrowded air-raid shelter; as I lived in one
of the more passive parts of town, I concluded that my building is in a relatively safe
When the sound of distant explosions bounced off my always-shut windows, it resembled, to my mind, thumps on some titanic bass drum with an echo like a tide, which rolls in close and then suddenly stops. What upset me (almost) more than these big, were the little sounds, which passed through the thin walls of the garsonyera: I mean the howling of the vacuum cleaners, crackling of floors, and tinkling of other people’s phones, which seemed to emanate from my kitchen.
Around midnight, almost every night, somebody phoned me. But only a hissing and rustling sound was heard from the other side, waterfall-like, as if it were an international call or the sound of a long final trajectory of the needle at the end of an LP record. I thought that it was some nonsense. For one thing, nobody uses vinyl LPs any more: CD won the battle, a long time ago. But when I pressed in proper order several of the plastic buttons on the phone, the busy signal always revealed that someone in my firm is talking exactly then. A little later I would call my firm again, the phone would ring and ring there but he or she, whoever it was, did not pick up the receiver. This done, I would go to sleep.
I did not wish to feel a wavelet of air, so I bent the blanket tightly under my knees, neck and feet. So tucked in, I placed one soft pillow on the back of my head and suffered from that direction the blunt, feathery pulsing in the rhythm of a heart. At dawn I would find myself in a true Calvary of sounds. Except for the muffled, varied, interesting events in my again-irritated lungs, I also heard the whooshing of aircraft overhead, rapid bup-bup-buppings of the anti-aircraft defenses, and faint detonations from afar; and some vague water-gurglings, and a strengthening thump of shoes on the staircase.
I stopped answering the phone. And opening the door too. But one day, when Robert, escorted by half-asleep Adam, lay down on my doorbell and remained so, I knew that it would be pointless to continue simulating my own absence. They walked in, and I asked them why they did that.
- Tomorrow evening – said Robert, taking up the volume of space in one corner of my two-seater piece of furniture – Tomas is making a celebration. He converted the cellar of his house into a super shelter from bombardment. You were absent a long time, so he thought that the opening of the shelter is a good occasion for you to show up…
- I’ll see – was my tense promise, and he, practically the next moment, showered me with provocative glorifications of his association of spiritual gutter-cases.
- Easy-to-drink metaphysics: the metaphysics that will be dissipated by a single cup of coffee. Well yes: you love coffee – that was my nasty, sweaty reply.
He responded with a sour little laughter, while Adam laughed heartily. Robert waved a hand sideways, maybe to indicate that he did not want any coffee. So the better. Silence followed. I could hardly wait to be left alone, and Bert probably wanted to stay for some ten minutes more, and only then leave, just so that it wouldn’t seem that he is leaving because he is angry with me.
- What’s with Manya? – said I, tearing a gash in the silence.
- Tormented by the last look.
- What last look? – said I.
- Ahh, some nonsense – said he, gesticulating. – I wonder why she did not talk to you about it, considering the fact that you two are intimate.
- So intimate that she did not yet tell me how Tomas manages to turn any money these days.
- Same way as before: by his doings with the government. Everyone must, who wants to make any serious money, in this country. Why else would I, a philosopher, work in a merchant firm? No need for a secretary to tell me; everybody knows it, except political idiots – answered Robert, and joyfully poked Adam - who was now slumped - in the ribs.
- Philosopher? Well yes: as far as I can judge, you are all mal-using theoretical knowledge – said I calmly, and felt the air become tense.
Robert snorted, and suppressed his impulse to get up and go. He quickly said:
- Manya is being chased by Osvald, or at least she thinks so. Last time I saw her, she complained that he was at her the whole day, miffed that she had slept with everyone in the firm except with him. Well, with almost everyone – he added, sighed, and then, controlling himself fully, he continued: - After that, she phoned me and said that, as soon as she had left your place, she quickly went home, so as not to spoil the so-called “last look”. That ‘s what I’m telling you about, that is the name of some ritual foolishness. Manya will look at some person, now, concretely, at you, and ascribe sacral values to her looking. When she has seen you for the last time in one day, she will be careful not to look, until midnight, at anything that might spoil, in her head, your image as obtained by that last look. But as she was going home after being with you, one tall man – that’s what she told me on the phone – one tall man followed her all the time.
- Osvald? – I ventured.
- Her thought too. She did not dare to turn and see if it was really Osvald, because in doing so she would have dirtied the last look. But at some crossroads another man walked towards her, one who resembled Osvald even more than the guy behind her. Fearing the two fictive Osvalds, who were getting closer to each other, Manya stepped off the pavement, walked right through the Beograd-Podgoritza freeway traffic, and, paying no attention, crossed to the other side – he concluded, obviously hoping that his narration about Manya was lengthy enough for him to walk out of my apartment painlessly now.
Indeed he left, but Adam did not budge. I knew he is momentarily silent because he has in fact spent himself in outpourings of intelligence or in some other outpourings. I did not like to spend time with someone who is excessively succeptible to inspiration, but right now this guy, moldy from the twilight of my room (his eyes red with a network of swollen little blood-vessels), was sitting on my little three-legged chair and floating in the air. His eyes suddenly bulging out, he established for a fact that I would be really interested in knowing the details of his forty eight hours of non-stop smoking marihuana and listening to music.
- What sort of music you listen, Adam? – I wanted to know.
- Futile business. Try listening to post-punk or Les Negresses Vertes, but, if you insist on the bad sixties, try hearing the numbers “In a Gadda Da Vida” and “In Fear of Fear” of The Iron Butterfly – I proposed.
- Why? Good music? – he asked me, took out a little box of medicines from his black shirt, and wrote these musical remedies down on it.
- Kills. Guaranteed.
Although I distanced myself, I did not, even in the war conditions, forget Fani; nor did I
forget Manya, who had an understanding attitude to my capriciousness, perhaps because she
herself did not have too much time. On the other hand, Fani’s frequent visits to me (and
her swinging and flopping which went on and on until air in the room boiled) told me that
she wants a more permanent relationship. The two of us even celebrated the New Year
together, and, on her initiative, the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, on 13th
January. She ornamented the saint badnyak oak blanches and leaves by little pieces
of paper in which she wrote her rather ordinary wishes.
When my home gowns lost all smell, and when the body began to feel her and Manya’s absence, circumstances conspired to make it impossible for me to be with them: Manya had an abdominal problem, because of which she was (from some time before the war) going to bed alone, ashamed of herself; and Fani, a catastrophe took Fani. Without any illusions that my girls wish to become intimate with me again, I decided to devote some attention to them, hoping that it will be returned in some small way at least – by both, or by one of them. The thing to do was to go see Fani and then go to the party in Tomas’s hideout.
Loosely dressed, forgetting that it would be decent to appear at least shaven-faced in the hospital, in fact on the party too, I carefully packed my laptop into the wide inner pocket of my leather jacket, and pushed my both gowns into a plastic rubbish bag. Dumped them in the nearest rubbish container in the street, and as for the computer, took it to repairs in the next building. A technician installed the new chip and, for that service, took practically the last shards of my savings. Yet I felt relieved. Facing a springtime afternoon, which was haughtily spreading the smell of a freshly baked pogatchitza, I decided to take a bus to hospital.
Because of the war conditions, the number of vehicles was reduced: at the station in front of an all-purpose shop a bus would come, but only one in each forty minutes, and full. Waiting in line for this transportation was made more difficult by the presence of another line, a thick one, for cigarettes, cutting across the mass of waiting potential passengers. In war, people make a bigger effort for a brief luxury than in peace for lasting gains that could make their existence easier. This I was not able to comprehend, nor did I try to.
In the busses, young people seemed to enjoy the compression, they watched laughingly as the skin of their arms pressed and deformed against the glass. By pure luck I got into one private bus. On the slippery step just inside the bus door, a middle-aged woman stood holding a child and looking from time to time at the one free square foot of the metal floor; I hopped in behind her, next to a metal rod, the driver engaged the gears, and the woman, happy that she is no longer the last passenger, moved a little and grasped more firmly the butt and the thighs of the pale, merry child.
The child – a little girl – then laid her cheek on the mother’s shoulder, and started to sing, in a very low little voice, lines from a hit song about fast cars. This produced a glad smile on the mother’s face. I was pressed with my back against the unyielding door, which was partly glass, and I felt the moisture spreading there, hardening the cloth, as if a wet blackboard was fastened to my shoulders. The closer we got to the hospital, the more strongly was the woman’s sizable butt pressing into my stomach, and the little girl just smiled, showing her spaced-apart teeth; her large, hazel-color eyes looked at me self-confidently, those were the eyes of a keeper of some secret; the secret, I suppose, of my suffering. The two of them got off the bus together with most of the other humble passengers, at the station near the City Hospital on the large Zvezdara hill.
The soles of my shoes parted squeakingly from the green rubber floor of the staircase, and then corridor, in the hospital. Each sole would complain audibly while uniting with the floor and then equally audibly while separating from it. Me, I gazed at the nicely formed knees of the hurried fem nurses. They were practically running, because in the corridors there were the new wounded, and from moment to moment some of them were wheeled into the operation rooms.
One of the screams, though, was distinct; I heard a certain erotic patina in it. I went into the room wherefrom it emerged. A heavy smell of a sick person resided in there; a smell difficult to remove by airing.
It took me some effort to recognize Fani; her skin looked as if it had been painted black, thoroughly, and then washed off by rain. Forehead scraped and skinned badly, penetrated by some white lichen, and both sides of the nose broadened by ghastly black outgrowths or splotches – from several meters away, it was not easy to see which. Only after my second attempt to talk to her, she noticed that I was there, gave me a brief look-over, and murmured something that might have been a hello.
A catastrophe, I say, happened to Fani. As I discerned from the conversations of her parents and a doctor, the fatal element was probably her love for a darkish complexion. After a summer extravaganza of sunbathing in Perast, she attended the solariums in Beograd. Now her black hair hang loose, and her worry was a skin cancer, something she never thought of while enjoying, at the seaside, the Sun – at the time when she wrote (with her own skin, then attractive) homages to that star.
She was turning over in her hands the corners of a beige jute gown, similar to the one I recently threw away. Then she crumpled parts of it, and dropped it on the floor. Then she flung a nail-cutter at her parents; and a green apple, one of the several fruits they had brought her as present. She was trying to hit them with it.
- I don’’ wanna diiiie! – shouted Fani like a spoiled child. She was covered from feet to throat with a stained hospital bedsheet. She was one of the few Beograd inhabitants not at all interested in aerial bombardment.
- Maybe you won’t –her father consoled her partly.
- You almost surely will not – consoled her the smiling, baldish doctor. – We are going to remove this from the face of our Fanika by a surgical excision.
- So at best I will look like a horror case – she said snivelingly, but with an (auto)ironic smile. This was supposed to be her reproach to her parents for not having warned her in good time about the dangers of overexposing herself to light. But, if they had tried, this unfortunate devotee of the solar cult would have shouted them down, almost certainly; she would have chased them off the beach; she was a girl impossible to please.
The doctor took the parents aside and quietly told them:
Then he spoke several phrases in Latin.
– Something else has me worried – he continued. – Fanika said recently that she is
tired and has headache, as was the case in Perast. Tell me, how long before the moving to
Beograd did she sleep in one and the same place in the flat?
- When she slept at home, she always slept in the same place, for the last five, six years – answered Fani’s father. The doctor turned his head left-right.
- If it is what I think, then…………………………… - he murmured.
I can record that part of their conversation because at that time they were not aware of my presence. I already totally regretted Fani’s susceptibility, as well as the futility of my compassion.
I walked out of the room without saying goodbye to any of them. I descended to the inter-city road Beograd-Podgoritza (and vice versa). I waved my palm and a dark Opel Vectra taxi appeared and stopped. The taxi driver passed through a pedestrians-only zone; the far headlights spilled over the beginning of a nearby park. He checked his tires, then he headed for the Glassmakers’ quarter, where the shelter was. I was already fed up with ordinary taxi drivers who keep slyly quiet when they ought to explain why they are shortchanging me; equally fed up with those who like to burden you with their own problems when they should be silent. Such drivers seem to charge for the ride and for the lecture.
This driver was my kind. The ride would have passed, in all probability, without any sound, if the radio had not been turned on, but it was, and it spewed commercials for pendulums, the rashlye, L antennas and biotensors. I looked more closely at that driver: darkish skin complexion, prominent jaw, jinxy look – it was probably the same one who drove me, from Perast to the motel.
I asked him something, and he replied in poor Serbian. For consolation I said to myself that maybe, maybe it is not the same man, and I remembered a text from some State-controlled newspaper which said that all Albanians are alike (something like: unfortunately, it is difficult to differentiate those Albanians who are loyal to Serbia from those who are mal-using the Western support and the unjustified Albanian numerical predominance in Kosovo for the purpose of seceding from Serbia). A racist remark which, so I hoped, referred only to physical similarity. When we got near the firm where I worked, and a little farther, to Tomas’s house, the driver got out of his car and walked inside with me; my skin crawled. Together we descended into the cellar.
Into the roomy concrete-lined air-raid shelter, fitted with modern equipment. It even had a wooden bar inside. Near the bar were installed a TV, a music “tower” (line) and the loudspeaker boxes that practically hopped up and down in their places, so loud was their music.
I allowed the taxi driver to walk off in the direction of the television set. He passed through a group of rather young participants who danced in harmony with each other. Especially noticeable among them was the editor of Seaside Weekly/Daily, who smiled politely at me. He was the first man in that shelter who noticed me. Other dancers did not; maybe they were concentrating too strongly on their attempts to promote some of their own strong points. Adam swung his head decorated by a big bush of hairdo; Robert raised his arms to draw attention to his flaky black gloves whose finger ends he had cut off by scissors; two fem journalists of the Seaside Weekly, wearing shirts tied in knots under the chest, were “mixing”, turning and swaying with their naked bellies. Finally, the editor himself gesticulated with his forearms, not often, but sharply, up, down, because he hoped that somebody might notice his ropy muscles there.
I regretted not having completed the text.
I noticed Maks next to Tomas and with a slight unease thought that this crowd seemed to be gathered at the stratum of their presence in my meditations. I looked around at the shelter, trying, unsuccessfully, to estimate how safe it really is. I felt even heavier around the heart when I realized that everyone inside is acting joyously as though we were not in a war.
The only gloomy figure was Osvald, dressed in black; he swam through the sweaty crowd and materialized next to me. I felt a little easier when it became clear that he intends to stay with me.
- This taxi driver, is he Albanian? – said I.
- I think he is. His name is Agron. Maks hired him – he told me, hopping a little.
- And he is not afraid to work in Serbia, today, and for a boss who is a Serbian military volunteer?
- Well you heard, I suppose, that Schiptari are used to living in the hardest conditions – said he. – But: what say you about this shelter? Really in, ha? Perfect topic for newspapers!
- Not a good thought – said I, reaching for a krempita, and thinking some things over.
- People who do not have enough love, eat sweets – remarked Osvald.
Determined to understand, but outside of the interpretation forced on me, what is really happening, I felt my unease suddenly turn inside out.
- Where’s Manya? – I said through clenched teeth.
In fear, I reached inside my leather jacket, felt the swollen pocket; yes, the laptop was
in place. I surrendered myself to a fit of coughing, and stomped one sole of my shoe,
once, on the floor.
- Quartzing herself – he answered calmly, pouring a dose of water from a little beaker into his glass with whisky. Perhaps his hand caught on somebody else, the six-sided glass fell on its side and a tea-colored liquid splashed over the wooden surface of the bar.
Manya finally entered the restaurant. She elbowed her way through the sweaty mass, passed me by, took a juice-vodka and stood at Robert’s side.
In the instantly changed atmosphere people stopped having fun.
Manya and Robert vanished into the crowd and about fifteen minutes later they returned from the WC in which, on the toilet seat, rested my acquaintance from the Spiritual Paupers’ Society.
At a table sat Tomas, answered calls from a mobile phone, wrote out new financial constructions and sipped new coffees.
During a string of Iron Butterfly songs Adam approached the slightly jumping sound-box, under which stood Osvald, Maks held a continuing oration for the greater glory of war, and Agron watched him with unconcealed approval, around them crowded members of Ptolemy the First and Spiritual Paupers’ Society; the air-raid danger-alert siren began and, to the sound of this, on the TV screen a piece of red ribbon sprouted, meaning air danger also; with an unhurried house-owner’s steady hand Tomas opened a window and began to call up to the pilots, requesting a series of bombs to be hurled into this shelter, and then continued to blab into his mobile phone, while some young men stuck paper targets onto their foreheads. Robert separated from Manya, leaned his elbows onto the bar and frowningly gazed at Oskar Zvitzer, Manya interposed herself between them and started pinching the young body-builder’s belly, the two of them started a conversation, such that Robert’s big blue veins in the neck swelled even bigger; Maks started to foam at the mouth; Tomas rolled his bulged-out eyes round and round; Adam cried; Manya shivered, and Osvald hopped in place, impatient.
Music stopped. Screen blacked out. The murmur died down and became silence, water stopped flowing behind the bar. Glasses were tinklingly put down on the tables. Hands stilled. And only then happened that which I’ve been expecting from the very beginning of this story:
about a hundred eyes, calm and cold, looked at me.
Copyright 1999, Igor Marojevic
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