This evening, too, she goes out onto the small balcony and watches the shared yard. One step through the glass door, and already she escapes the apartment that has defined her names and functions all day long. Inside, things are being prepared, children are being kissed, voices are being raised, people are sitting, lying down and getting up. It’s always the same, yet beautiful, she thinks. Outside, as she steps out onto the balcony, the sounds are settling down, pressed by the soft darkness that still hasn’t begun to stink like drunken human elation, like rule of instinct and physical passion. Even now, she can hear a church bell, someone loudly calling a friend or first love, the sound of a lonely horn. She sees lights scattered in irregular patterns on the buildings (she imagines the people inside), and trams, the tin boxes that are always passing by, there behind the buildings, coming and going.
A look to the right, and dozes, perhaps a hundred lights flash in front of her from the nearby hospital, the silhouettes of nurses passing behind the window frames like waves. She sees swift hands washing between the legs of a woman, exhausted by labour, bloody, stretched, sewn. Someone’s laughing (or is it a cry of pain?); men are drinking inside the bar near the hospital, happily confused or drunkenly stupid. Yes, that’s how it is for some, and yet, there, bodies are torn from each other, their liquids spilled on the green tiles of the operating room. There, the tiny and helpless are getting sick and dying, struck down in their first hours of life.
The husband needs twenty minutes to unglue his gaze from the screen. There, meaningless spectacles follow one after another, and he controls them attentively, dedicated to the game, as he feels his nerves calming and the spot between his neck and shoulders relaxing. When he finally glances towards the balcony, he sees her between two blue curtains, her mouth drawing in cigarette smoke. The ember glows distractedly, like a calm flicker of a faraway lighthouse, illuminating part of her face. She’s tired; of course, she’s tired. It’s not easy to be alone with two small kids for most of the day, until he finally arrives after work. Then again, her mom would come and help if she called. Whose fault is it that she doesn’t call more often? This female spite annoys him – their complicated relationships, delusional tension and stupid resentments. Every few months, he snaps during one of their long hysterical monologues, waving his hands in front of their faces as he tries to talk some sense into them. And the emotions! Emotions should always be put aside.
His own emotions take over only when he is unable to suppress them or sweep them under the rug, like that time when he cried in the street because their third child died, only a few hours after he had caressed her tiny hand through the incubator door. They hadn’t planned their daughter’s conception, but her death left a hole in their lives, and every day, they fell into it. Yet, with persistence and soldierly determination, every day, they crawled back out. There’s nothing more to say about it. Wounds like theirs heal only after being licked by time. Although, sometimes, it seems to him that the scar in his wife’s heart is reopening. He’s convinced that she secretly feeds on that sorrow, that she dips her fingers in it just like a child dips their fingers in a marmalade, after which she appears in front of him with her face twisted, disgusted with herself.
She leaves the balcony, and once more she’s inside, tidying away toys and clothes from the couch, arranging them into neat little piles. It is important that everything is clean. It helps, but it seems to her that the mess inside her will never be cleared.
“You wanna watch a movie?” he asked. The wife saw that he spread his lips in a smile, so she returned it readily. He’s a good man, caring and polite, smart, hard-working and loyal – especially loyal. Since they met, which was more than ten years ago now, she‘s been certain that he never even thought of another woman or wished for another life. His brain is an empire of rational equations. He knows all the outcomes of all the possibilities. He never falters because of one-off infatuations, only to sob in regret later.
The dreaded possibility of sex starts to plague her. She shouldn’t force herself into intimacy today; she shouldn’t turn her head and close her eyes again. On the other hand, intimacy is repaid with intimacy. She thinks if only she could bring herself to relax, everything will be fine again. Maybe she will even recapture that feeling of first falling in love, at least for a moment; that craziness about his loins that she felt when they first met, and for several years after. She used to swallow him as if he was her only food. She used to curl and rub against his thighs, never tired. Now she’s always tired. Her weariness is a family sickness that feeds on little children and parental care. As they fold against each other on the couch, he presses the buttons of the remote, and she once again stares through the balcony door, thinking about other people: strangers seducing each other in noisy places, making out in cars, panting and shivering.
The film is oppressive and slow. They certainly won’t watch all of it.
Before they go to bed, the wife checks the messages on her phone. There are three, and all of them end with, “I love you.” She deletes them with the caring duty of a wife and a mother and lays down on the bed. As he enters her, she tries not to think about anything.
Her neck, her shoulders, her breasts… time never touched them, the man thought as he kissed her. The boyish lock on the top of her head; her smooth armpits; the curvy line of her back with exactly seventeen moles; the skin on the inside of her thighs; and the bottom that opens like an apple cut in half, skin soft pink, a jet of pure passion – all leave him breathless. Afterwards, he falls heavily on the right side of the bed and draws her into an embrace.
Their morning routines are wonderful, warm in their haste: coordinated tasks, plans for late lunch, quick kisses and goodbyes; everything in its drawer, fragrant and neatly folded.
Outside, in the street, people are slamming their gazes into each other, thoughts wrinkling like worn out sheets, seeking a place to rest. She is at work, safe and calm, typing her lines for the daily newspaper, still enjoying it. She never worked for money, only to attain little pleasures, new knowledge and interesting acquaintances. That’s how she met that other man – at the book promotion. He was a friend of the author. As he sat next to her, blond and tall, she realized that he’s the painter she’s been recently discussing with her colleague. They got to know each other easily, the conversation flowing without unpleasant stops, and she laughed at all his jokes. He seduced her intelligently, unobtrusively and patiently, for a full few months. Nothing about her bothered him, and she never refused any of his calls and messages. Still, the limit would not be crossed; there’s nothing that could happen, she thought. And then her child died and his love became a shelter where she could hide.
She’s been determined to keep quiet about it for a whole year now. She’d try to save her marriage, she told him. Mostly for the children, she added. I cannot lie about not loving you and I cannot go away, he said.
As she sits in the newsroom, his face comes back to her in vague contours, small getaways born out of breaks in the performance of her tasks. A cancelled possibility of something easy and new; the undone tenderness that finds its way, daily, to the middle of her body. There it nestles and pulls into itself all the flesh, all the skin and all the bones. It seems as though it will devour its very self. And just before she falls apart, it’s time for her to go pick up the kids from the kindergarten and take them home.
As she walks, the clouds gather behind her back. A downpour falls on the city like a heavy curtain to clean the streets and squares, to compress people into an unpleasant closeness. The woman stands beneath the roof of some café. She looks around. At first, it seems to her that it is simply someone who looks like him – like the one who sends her words every day, who does not share space with her, but who exists in the way things you no longer use exist. But you could use them, and that possibility comforts you. In that café, as the rain violently washes away musty leaves, soil and dirt, he hugs a woman around her neck, his fingers in her hair. They sit at the bar, laughing.
He does not answer the first few messages. The woman cries, gets angry, runs around the city and returns to the same place several times. And then he answers her.
When she arrives at home, she puts the things in their places and decides to do nothing.
She unravelled all the events several times. She peeled herself in front of herself, coming quietly undone. Self-abuse unfolded according to the old routine.
Pieces of dreams: in the morning, as he slept, she’d kiss the middle of his back. She’d walk barefoot, and he would hand her the slippers. He would shovel the snow in front of the door as she looked out the window. They would go to the mountains, rivers, lakes, and seaside. They would never go to cities anymore.
Now she is cut off from those possibilities, and the woman thinks: that is her blood dripping from the edges of the words she reads.
The husband comes home later than usual. He watches her as she puts white plates on the table, quiet. It takes him a moment to understand: it’s finally over. Free, he drew a breath as if he had been under the water for too long. A few more piles of pain and everything will be as it was. My sweet little bird, my wounded dove, my love. He embraces her and kisses her neck, thinking silently: you will sing again in your cage.
KORANA SERDAREVIĆ (CROATIA), born in 1982 in Zadar, graduated in Croatian and comparative literature from the Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. She worked as a journalist for culture sections of Večernji list and Forum. Since 2013, she works as a high school teacher and translates from English. In 2013, she won two short story first awards (Ranko Marinković Prize for Kravosas, and Zlatko Tomičić Prize for Ptice), and her work has appeared in many literary journals and at Croatian Radio 3. Nema se što učiniti (Fraktura, 2015) is her first short story collection.
In 2016. Serdarević again won first national award for short story “Pričekajte, molim vas” (Ranko Marinković Prize). Her stories have been translated into several languages, and her first novel is to be published until the end of 2017.
About the Translator:
IVA GJURKIN was born in 1976 in Zagreb. She graduated from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, with a degree in Indology and Hungarology. She translated articles from English into Croatian for the literary magazines Libra Libera and Quorum, and papers from Croatian into English for the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar in Zagreb. She also translated a book by Franco Moretti into Croatian, titled The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. She published papers and short stories in magazines Scopus, Fantom Slobode and Književna smotra.