Rearrangements by Vojislav Pejović

Rearrangements

Vojislav Pejović

– for Svetlana Lukić and Svetlana Vuković

True or not, I credit the two of us, Kate and myself, for developing the whole concept of cryptofucking. It would go like this: on any given propitious occasion—an unseasonably warm evening like this one, for example, after meeting at the station and almost colliding with a young, solemn-looking couple dragging their instruments (she a cello, he a contrabass)—Kate and I would enter a conversation, swift and vertiginous, which would take us home and be followed by food on the table and drinks in our glasses, and then by more talking and some undressing, by desserts and kissing and grating of our nipples against the ripples of bed covers, and then by grabbing and twisting and suckling, by sampling the flesh of fruit, of pillows, of ourselves, by arguing, intensely, on many a topic, and finally by coming, simultaneously, to the conclusion that we’ve fucked each other’s brains out whilst pretending that we were doing something else.

…against all expectations the spring has come, with its measles of brilliant green on every tree and the violet pus trumpets bubbling from the still-grey earth.

True or not, I say, although in this case the truth will likely never be known. What can be said with certainty: it’s early March here by the lake, a mere two weeks after the last serious snow storm, and against all expectations the spring has come, with its measles of brilliant green on every tree and the violet pus trumpets bubbling from the still-grey earth. And yes: bugs are afloat everywhere, the unrelenting clouds of winged dandelion seeds, and a gaze averted skyward in an attempt to evade yet another swarming pillow will bring no relief, unless relief can be found in the sight of heavy bulbs, white and purple, hanging from bare branches, ready for unfolding, February-in-New-Orleans style. The spring indeed, I told myself this morning, and then, in the afternoon, while waiting for the train, almost got drenched by an august and honest July shower. In the evening, even the sun seemed out of season, deep red and swollen, going down with a protracted descent, like an inflamed tonsil. At the station, Kate sees me all weak and disoriented, under the spell of springtime malaise, and moves quickly from underneath the canopy to pull me away from the tracks, lest I fall to my death, pushed there by an innocent, solemn-looking couple of musicians dragging their instruments—she a cello, he a contrabass—in their shiny casings. It also can be said, with utmost confidence, that truth cannot be found in disease-tinted descriptions of the seasons, nor does it lie in the bliss and rescue maneuvers a young marriage brings.

*

My birthplace is elsewhere. I used to call it, with adolescent conviction, Macondo, Buenos Aires. Over there, springs remain forever majestic, complicated, slightly nauseating. All summers are identical, too: replete with unrequited loves on a windy beach, the climaxes of mirthful, crazy sorrows. You can tell the fall has come by the skin flaking off girls’ shoulders, by suntan vanishing in patches from their faces, by yet another half-consumed love affair of mid-level schooling. And each winter is short, so short and incomplete that its only purpose seems to be in being sobering and forgettable. Once high school is over, the military service is due: a year-long excuse from reality filled with books, pitiful attempts at poetry, and extraordinary masturbatory efforts—all manifestations of a boy’s epic struggle with himself. As soon as the boy takes off his uniform, the war, a real one, begins.

A good part of my freshman year is spent in the attic of a turn-of-the-century building, adjacent to the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra Hall. My desiccated professor of vertebrate zoology—her face already resembling its own skull, her skeleton showing in great detail through the gauze of once-fashionable blouses—sits by an open window and strains her tiny voice, sometimes with passion, fighting back the orchestra in the midst of their tuning sessions and rehearsals. Her squeals for attention are either blasted away by the sounds of Brahms and Beethoven or muffled by the aromas of capriciosa, quattro staggioni, calzone, wafting from somewhere nearby straight into our minds, already clouded by the pungent marinade of formalin in which the overused specimens on our tables have been served. One day in early October, after a highly confusing lecture on circulatory systems (our hearts felt far less regulated than the lesson implied), I step for the first time into a narrow passageway between our building and the Orchestra Hall. That pizza place must be somewhere here, says my irritated nose, and sure enough, there’s a door into the unknown, bearing the name of Verdi and a shiny, greasy logo: a musical clef, melting into a steaming piece of dough.

Small-time thugs released on probation, pronounces a voice in my head

The restaurant downstairs is spacious, an impression enhanced by the fact that only two of about two dozen tables are occupied: one, near the entrance, by a young man finishing off his pizza and beer, and the next by four musicians and their instruments—one cello, two violins, a horn—in their tattered cases. Soft, Yugoslav pop from the early eighties oozes from the speakers (Your beast loves you, yes, he loves you, sings a man with a bad cold), and the air is thick with the promise of a hot meal, reasonably priced. As I step in, no one looks in my direction, not even the two bald, thick-necked waiters at the bar, their eyes fixed upon something at their feet, their shiny foreheads almost touching. Small-time thugs released on probation, pronounces a voice in my head, and the thought, stirred up by the anxieties of a freshman from the province and augmented by his formidable hunger, develops by itself: pizzeria Verdi is just a front for organized crime, a clearinghouse for ex-convicts, an establishment that matches patently inhospitable people with the hospitality industry. Not liking the place, but starving and cash-strapped, I hurry to a table that seems the least exposed to everyone’s sight. A small window above my head rises up to a knees’ height above the pavement outside, which allows for monitoring of the passing boots and skirted, female thighs. This makes me forget for a while the hunger and the snake pit I’ve entered.

Whaddaya want? says the smaller and sturdier of the two waiters, in a subdued voice, appearing from behind my back. A calzone and a Heineken, please, I reply in my best pleasant-neutral tone, which is met with a probing silence. I bet he has no idea what a calzone is. I eschew eye contact, lest I provoke the uncorking of my throat with the bottle opener dangling from his apron. It works: he shuffles off to the bar, picks up a telephone, and relates something unintelligible to whoever is listening. After a long, silent look exchanged with his partner, he reaches for the bottle opener and starts scraping clean the undersides of his fingernails.

The war has begun, everyone says so, and everyone, Father included, is pondering everyone else’s exit strategies.

I want to leave, badly, but don’t dare, now that I ordered and got myself involved in a highly precarious situation. So I go back to staring through the window and then shift my focus, slowly, to people in the room. My waiter’s nowhere to be seen. The other one is busy flattening a few crumpled bills with his chunky fingers, which I bet acquired their distorted shape in fist fights and are kept strong and flexible by regular acts of strangulation. The young man seated by the entrance does not seem scared, but rather exhausted beyond any measure: he counts his change slowly, leaves what has to be a very small tip, gets up as if burdened by a backpack filled with stones, and leaves his table limping. The musicians must be relieved that he’s gone, because their conversation picks up in speed and volume almost instantly. Even so, I can hear only useless fragments from where I’m sitting, words like orchestra or Norway or France. They’ve got to be talking about their upcoming tour; less plausibly, they could be playing a game of words containing letters r and a. Having figured that out, I find myself envying them profoundly: they’re about to leave this basement of a country, or at least find out who has a superior vocabulary. The war has begun, everyone says so, and everyone, Father included, is pondering everyone else’s exit strategies. I’m glad you never wanted to become a lawyer, he says, as I’m boarding a train to Belgrade that will pull me out of his life like an annoying extra tooth. It would have been even worse, he shouts, craning his neck, trying to impart yet another bit of parental wisdom to his college-bound son, if you’d chosen to become a… Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever revisit the topic, there’s no damage in those last words being lost to the sounds of the engine, to the essences of sweat emanating off my fellow passengers.

There’s no purpose in bringing out the zoology textbook and pretending to read it: the unholy spirits of formalin could detach from its pages and ruin my disguise. My strategy still based on remaining unnoticed, I stare at an empty plate with head in my hands, alternately faking headache and deep thinking. After a while I give up, go to the musicians’ table, and say: Hi, my name is Miloš. May I please join you? Of course, says the youngest of the four, and moves his chair so I can squeeze in. The others nod in an unconvincing agreement, exchanging looks that at least do not appear hostile. It turns out that my spying efforts were misguided: the words that had caught my ear were neither a game nor fragments of an itinerary. Norway is the country where more and more musicians from Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra seek work, and France is where the town of Vézelay is. As the youngest of the quartet was just explaining—By the way, my name is David, he says en passant—that town has an abbey with apparently superb acoustics. Rostropovich himself chose it to record the cello suites by Bach, after decades of searching. Do you know that music, David asks, looking me in the eyes, and all I can answer is that I’m familiar with both names. Pushed by an itching silence that follows my admission of ignorance, I offer an anecdote of Mother bringing a bag full of LPs from her trip to Bari, Italy (instead of buying more Italian clothes, Father complained), and of her listening to one in particular, featuring Rostropovich, up until the vinyl ridges got barely readable. (Father also complained about the constant brooding uhmm-dada-uhm-dam.) Which piece exactly, do you remember, David asks again, which resurrects a long-forgotten image of Mother smiling, holding an LP sleeve in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, a column of cigarette smoke smearing metallic gray hues over her natural pallor. The sleeve is light blue, with a black-and-white photo of the maestro emerging from the background, embracing his instrument as if about to abduct it into darkness or twist its neck in an act of passion. The cover announces, in large white letters, MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVIČ INTERPRETA, and then in yellow and somewhat smaller font, DVOŘÁK, Concerto per violoncello op. 104. I thank the quartet for finding interest in my mother’s taste (letting the image linger in my mind, avowing silently to revisit it soon), and even share that, for me, the said concerto has a moment so powerful and beautiful that I always thought of it as “mind-blowing,” long before I learned the word and started using it in conjunction with guitar solos of Jimmy Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. Let me guess, says David, picking up the cello from its case. After a few adjustments (the chair, the instrument, his lanky body), not paying attention to his older colleagues and their rolling eyeballs, he indeed plays the part I’m thinking of: the several bars that burst into an ascending scale executed at the speed of a fast and heavy inhale, only to dissolve into an eruption of the imagined orchestra. David plays it well, and the orchestra part actually starts booming in my head, not like a memory, but like a total physical evocation. I must have even tried to form the melody with my clumsy vocal chords, because David stops and everyone is staring at me.

David plays it well, and the orchestra part actually starts booming in my head, not like a memory, but like a total physical evocation.

The rush of blood into my cheeks does not prevent me from sensing that something hot is breathing by my ear. After a moment or two, the source of heat shifts: my waiter extends his pumped-up arm and drops a round, steaming calzone almost in my lap, saying, Here, one for you. Hey, buddy, why don’t you play us some more? says the other waiter, carrying five beer bottles plugged in between his mighty knuckles. Yeah, why don’t you? echoes my waiter and slaps me on the shoulder, as if offering fulfillment of a lifelong wish. Driven by some kind of instinct reserved for policemen and bouncers, the two of them move side to side and lean on our table with their fists, revealing the jagged storyline of their forearms: voluptuous women in polka dot bikinis; knives dripping pale-blue blood; three-headed snakes, their fangs moist with poison; boat anchors and five-pointed stars, illegibly dated. David shoots me a smile, as if my life, not his, depends on pleasing our captors. This, my friends, he says, is by Johann Sebastian Bach: Sarabande from the Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor. As the great Rostropovich put it once, it’s for those who’ve known sadness. Cut the bullshit and play, says my waiter. Yeah, says the other. David draws a long breath and, on exhale, a dry and sweet hum full of longing permeates the room.

The next day, both government and opposition outlets keep silent about two dangerous criminals being dissolved into non-existence in a downtown basement restaurant. Less surprisingly, there are also no accounts of David and me going to his studio nearby, starting and finishing a bottle of cheap red, and making it to a jazz club afterwards, two blocks down the street, where more wine and some vodka is consumed. No surprise either that there’s no mention of me waking up on David’s floor, fully dressed, dragging my face across the carpet and into the bathroom, where an urge to expel something viscous and purple through my facial orifices is relieved before I’m able to reach the toilet bowl. And of course, everyone ignores the fact that I spend a long, long time cleaning up and resisting another gastrointestinal mayhem, upon which I step out of the bathroom, refreshed and somewhat stabilized, with a small towel wrapped around my hips. My pitiful bundle of clothes is jammed into a double garbage bag, and I can’t decide whether its stench really expands beyond its PVC barrier or if it all is just in my nostrils. David is awake on an expandable sofa, stark naked, unable to peel away his bloodshot eyes from the TV. A town riddled with bullets and grenades is crumbling into its pixelated self as the announcer lists heroic achievements of the Yugoslav People’s Army, whose brave and resourceful soldiers finally liberated the beautiful municipality of Vukovar. David pulls his knees up to his chin and starts rocking back and forth, releasing an incomprehensible sequence of murmurs and growls. Not able to get to him, I go through his dresser without asking and change into a pair of washed-out jeans a size too tight for me and a shirt claiming that Dead Can Dance. Getting naked and dressed in the middle of his one-room abode, I realize with relief that his red eyes are now shut tightly. I did nothing wrong, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I keep saying to myself.

A week later I knock on David’s door, his clean clothes in my backpack, a lengthy apology on my lips. He cuts my speech short and waves me inside. The sofa bed is folded and he’s not naked anymore, but with the TV turned way up, with his eyes red and swollen, he looks as if he’s woken up in the morning from a week ago. The air is stale and infused with many a repelling sensation, traces of my vomiting extravaganza included. I open the door to a small balcony, and David recoils from the chill and street noise that barge in. Would you like to go out and have breakfast, I ask, and he nods in agreement that comes from an absence of will to resist. Bags of assorted bread rolls in our pockets, we cross the Kalemegdan Park and lean on the fortress walls that overlook the misty confluence of the Sava and the Danube. The horizon is close, just beyond the banks, with the Pannonian plains evaporating into fog that turns, seamlessly, into a monolayer of clouds.

The long, numbing silence is broken by David, who recounts events so improbable and twisted that for a moment I have no questions to ask.

The long, numbing silence is broken by David, who recounts events so improbable and twisted that for a moment I have no questions to ask. He then proclaims to have flown to that same corner of the fortress for the past few nights, disguised as Pablo Casals in drag. Each time he did that, he’d deposit a coin in a mounted spyglass the shape of a mortar and observe his parents’ bodies floating down the Sava.

By December, I barely manage to keep up with my lecture-and-lab schedule while attending David’s tryouts and concerts. We have lunches together in greasy, nausea-inducing eateries for students and blissfully drink the weeknights away, inhaling the smoky air of jazz clubs, where he’s occasionally invited onstage and invariably cheered on by a small yet enthusiastic cohort of jazz groupies. Here and there I wake up on his fragile sofa and leave silently, while the David-girl combo of the night snores entangled in a mess of bed sheets on the floor.

It’s my first trip back, and Father welcomes me at the railway station. He hasn’t shaved since September and must have cut on bathing, too. The rumor has it, he says, that the state-run company where he works is about to fold, and that they’re all heading the route of early retirement. Although, he says, it all must be a conspiracy to push him out, those goddamn marauders, to do that to him, the most qualified, the only decent one of the lot. As we walk home, I start wondering whether his paranoia and the attempts to conceal his trembling hands are harbingers of an impending delirium tremens; his announcement, in a shaky voice, that he quit drinking once and for all makes me tremble as well. I spend the first night awake, making frequent stops to the room that used to be theirs, listening in on his spasms and nightmares. In the lifting darkness, it dawns on me that the place is losing signs of my existence, just like it did mother’s. My room is now being used as storage for wine bottles, and all that’s left of her are a few paintings, their frames spliced with the graying walls.

Father downs two shots of grappa before breakfast

Father downs two shots of grappa before breakfast, which has an immediate calming effect on his nerves. He even takes a lengthy bath. We get into the car and drive to Virpazar. The day is sunny and calm, warm enough that his buddy the restaurant owner gives us a table on the patio, right by the lake. We make it through a few pounds of smoked fish salad and a few liters of house red with ease. By the time walnut crackers and Turkish coffee arrive, it almost feels like the summer five years ago, with the three of us at this same table, on our way to the seaside. Son, says Father after an extra-long digestive silence, your summons for the army reserve came the other day. They’re not supposed to do it, bastards. You’re a registered college student, I told them. I tore it apart, told them motherfuckers you don’t live here anymore.

V spots us coming from afar and keeps waving until we’re parked in front of the house. The seaside is even warmer, with the sea barely audible and glistening in the winter sun. She hugs us fiercely, asks, Son, what’s with all that beard? Father just shrugs and steps inside the house. I start telling her about my new life, but those two worlds, the college and V’s patio, seem hopelessly distant and immiscible. Your father told me about the summons, she says. Don’t you dare reporting for duty. If must be, she adds with a grin, come back here and camp out on the beach; you know only we could ever find you there. We make it back to the city, in time for the evening news. Fuck all this, Father says at the first shaky footage of blasts, moans, and blood-soaked bandages. Good she’s not alive to see it.

The following week I spend with friends from high school. It turns out that some of them don’t mind the whole bloody shebang. It’s about time the scores are settled, they say. I know nothing of the scores, I respond, half-drunk. Wait until Bosnia blows up, they say. Five hundred years we’ve been under their heel, five hundred years. Then everybody counts down from ten, roars in approval, and starts kissing everybody else. You must come by the church for the Orthodox Christmas Eve, they say; it’s goin’ to be a helluva party.

Put on a furlough, with his retirement imminent indeed, Father spends most of my visit on the couch, deeply immersed in alcoholic vapors. I don’t know where to go, stuck between his drunken diatribes and the city that has simultaneously turned violently mad and hopelessly depressive. Long evening walks my only refuge, I take to the streets regularly, with a formidable goal of discovering routes where I won’t meet anyone I know. On Christmas Eve, however, an enormous crowd sucks me in and drags me to the plateau underneath the church, where the metropolitan and a strange, red-haired man, both in black robes, stand surrounded by armed men in camouflage attire, their guns aloft. As shots in the air die down, and as the metropolitan begins his oration (the red-haired man taking a step back from the microphone), I squeeze out of the mass into a dark, abandoned graveyard. That tricky maneuver renders me completely alone, shielded from the crowd that has begun chanting about the joys of Christmas and fratricide by nothing more than a row of cypresses and the fear of open tombs. A brief spell of dizziness sends me onto a slab of concrete covered with moss and lichen; while recovering my strength, I try to read the eroded name with my fingers. I then hurry home, eager to announce that I’m leaving first thing in the morning. Where the fuck do you think you’re goin’, father asks, lying prostrate, face to face with his shadows.

*

My college schedule soon becomes overwhelming. I still feel a need to be around David, but not when he’s all red-eyed and moody or fucking someone under my nose, which is almost every time we meet up. In addition, almost resigned to the prospect of not being able to find a girlfriend, I deliberately start withdrawing into the black hole of my curriculum. Our encounters are farther and farther apart, and by the time my sophomore year begins, we’re not able to talk with ease anymore. In the meantime, Bosnia did blow up as announced. On TV, war reportage is tastefully mixed with brain-splitting folk music and shows with seers who cure cancer on the spot, even in relatives from war-ravaged regions.

On TV, war reportage is tastefully mixed with brain-splitting folk music and shows with seers who cure cancer on the spot

Then, in the summer of ninety-four, I undergo an unexpected crash course in sexual healing, exhilaration, and heart amputation at the hands of an Asian-American who ventured to our fractured land to practice peace, love, and misunderstanding. In desperation, I grow a beard and start consuming copious amounts of father’s favorites, until one day David spots me staggering around the building where I first heard the sounds of Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, unable to remember which classes to attend. He takes me up in his apartment and, after a week or so of domestic care, our friendship and my self-restraint around bottles are restored. On the final day of my rehab, while examining my hairy self in the mirror, I realize that finally there’s a larger project worth pursuing: (1) shave; (2) finish the studies as soon as possible; (3) find a way to America; (4) locate the girl on the run with my heart in her backpack.

Focused and determined, I refuse to succumb to the war, poverty, and whatever else is out there. I visit father rarely, try to ignore the sprawling disarray of his life. Inspired by David’s side career of a wedding & jazz club & you-name-the-occasion-and-venue musician, I start giving chemistry lessons to medical students and soon declare, to father’s astonishment, my fragile financial independence. I still don’t get to hang out much with David, but this time it’s by design and free from awkward pauses. The best of all: I maintain a stable flow of girlfriends. Here and there, I almost feel in love.

*

The short winter days are grueling, with fog and soot stuffing up the air, with cracked skin on the back of my hands, and danger lurking everywhere. I wake up in a student dormitory, in nearly complete darkness. My shoes are heavy with yesterday’s mud, their thick laces full of melted snow. The city bus is a noisy cube of chill, reeking of a too-successful Saturday night. The lab is empty—of course: it’s Sunday, 8 a.m.—and even colder than the bus. I spend hours working hard with no breakfast, with fingers aching from cold, with a lab coat forced over my best and only jacket. Mocking my precautions, acid burns start popping up on its surface, and the finest goose down emerges, as the label suggested it would. Outside, the noise is rising steadily; more and more people are passing by the building, carrying flags and painted slogans, banging on pots, calling politicians names. It hits me then that Hana must be waiting for me, that I better hurry up. As I reach for the frosty door handle, I realize in horror that the solutions it took me the entire morning to concoct got somehow mixed up, thus rendering my three-week efforts useless—unless I figure out, right now, what’s in each bottle and reapply everything to backup samples. I pick up the phone and call Hana’s home. She’s out already, her mother says, not hiding her disapproval of everything and everyone her daughter is involved in and with. I can’t leave the lab now, it’d take much more time to get to this point if I left, there’s no justification for impeding scientific progress and my own graduation efforts in the name of a promising romance and lofty political goals. I crank up volume on the gramophone, the only item in the lab that makes my life bearable, to the apparent delight of Ms. Grace Jones, who, finally liberated, testifies with gusto that love is a drug and that life can be en rose.

…there’s no justification for impeding scientific progress and my own graduation efforts in the name of a promising romance and lofty political goals.

Thanks to a state of heightened awareness (physical exertion plus mental strain plus hunger equals sharp and unrelenting focus, at least for a while), looking for Hana in a river of people turns into a mini-detective project with a happy ending. I first assume, with great confidence, that she did wait for me, but no longer than fifteen minutes, upon which she decided to join the protesters, as was our intention anyway, and that, given her unshakeable political beliefs and tremendous ease in conversing with strangers, she has not stopped marching and chanting ever since. In other words, in order to make a good guess of her whereabouts at this particular moment, all it takes is to estimate the speed at which the river of people is flowing and cross that information with the route of the march, broadcasted on opposition radio stations all morning. Then a mad dash begins, along shortcuts, through the equation for speed that keeps turning in my head, reminding me to factor in Hana’s movement as well. Finally, I rejoin the crowd at pretty much the exact spot she reaches a few moments later, whistle in her mouth, red carnival hat on her head, exchanging indecisive glances with a guy on her left. I swoop in with kisses, apologies, vague avowals that guarantee nothing but imply together forever.

The day suddenly feels good: we walk and chant, hand in hand, for a few good hours, throw eggs at the Departments of Interior and Exterior, size up police squadrons on sidewalks, scream occasionally at the top of our lungs: Murderers! Thieves! Traitors! The crowd takes us back to the lab building and we step aside, our minds clear, our bodies ready. On our way in, we run into mayor-elect Đinđić and his good-looking wife. It’s no wonder we meet them: he essentially runs the protests and lives nearby. What makes an impression is the absence of any security detail. What a guy, Hana says; imagine him running the country, instead of this gang of killers and marauders.

We tiptoe into the darkness of the lab, lock the door behind us, and open the one leading into my professor’s office. His large walnut desk is covered with papers and family photos. Hana turns everything into neat stashes and puts it carefully away, then unbuttons her blouse. We do it quickly, right there, on the desk, under the streetlamp light sliced up by out-of-synch blinds. As her body relaxes and begins to twitch, and as my own mind begins to cloud with slumber, the radiators unexpectedly begin to hiss, reminding me of the bitter winter we’re in. I pull my molting jacket over our naked bodies, bruised and battered by love under harsh circumstances. The twitches I fall into are so strong that they wake me up, long enough to realize that I’m starving, that we’ll need to get off the desk and leave before dawn.

The winter is long, and people keep taking to the streets.

The winter is long, and people keep taking to the streets. The police squadrons are hitting with passion now, sharing their workload with private armies of thugs who wield long sticks and profess no mercy. There have been rumors that Đinđić’s assassination is a matter of days, but he still shows up in the open. Hana and I are pressing against each other in front of the Film Museum, awaiting Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge. The program says the subtitles are in Czech, which, David says, should be much fun. It’s been a while, he adds, coming out of nowhere, grabbing my shoulder from behind. I turn around and first see a red-haired girl with huge glasses hanging by his arm, looking sleepy and bemused at the same time. This is Nataša, David says, and I check them both out: without those glasses and with less unruly hair, she’d pass for very pretty; David seems to have lost weight since our last encounter (when was that?), so it takes some time to recognize the pair of jeans I once borrowed from his apartment. This is David, my cellist friend, I say. Oh, how interesting, says Hana, stretching out her hand, still warm from our embrace. In the theater, we laugh hard: not because of the sexual transgressions of Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, but because of those Czech subtitles, which turn each phrase into something that sounds like accidentally corrupted Serbo-Croatian. The great Slav brotherhood is one great misunderstanding, says David with a whisper, and both girls giggle softly.

After the show, David suggests that we all go to his apartment. My hunger for Hana is enormous and I start looking for excuses, but they are all trounced by her passion for meeting new people. His place is the same, save for boxes upon boxes of sheet music piled up against the only accessible wall. The fridge is largely vacant, but Nataša and I team up and very soon the plates are on the table, with a reasonably appealing variation on the ham-and-eggs theme on each. Meanwhile, David has taken out his cello, and Hana cannot conceal her enthusiasm for his bowing technique. We’re together for almost six months—how about you, asks Nataša, almost inaudible through the flood of trills and arpeggios that spread from the living-fucking room. About the same, I reply, but with a feeling of just having told a lie. I think David mentioned you a few times; how come we’ve never met? I’m in the lab all the time. Did you know he’s been there once? Where exactly? To Vukovar. Where? To Vukovar, to look for his parents, she repeats with a shout, but the music has already stopped. Let’s leave fun talk for after dinner, David says, beads of sweat on his forehead, and pours us each a glass of some cheap red. It was the Humoresque by Rostropovich that he played, exclaims Hana, pink in the face.

I seize a sudden spell of silence and ask that David tell the story of his trip to Vukovar.

After we’ve drained our second bottle and every other topic—politics, sports, professor-on-student gossip—I seize a sudden spell of silence and ask that David tell the story of his trip to Vukovar. The silence solidifies, and I force my gaze upon the rim of my glass. No more bowing tonight, passes through my mind, after which I mutter a weak sorrynevermind. No, no, says David, his voice shaking with alcohol-fortified defiance. After all, he says, it’s a good one, with a happy ending. My hand looks for Hana’s under the table, but all it finds is her cold and reproachful grip. David opens yet another bottle and straightens up in his chair. I still don’t dare looking up, but judging by the angle of his torso, his eyes are resting on Hana.

It was briefly after Miloš and I met, he begins. When he woke up on my floor one morning and left for the bathroom, I turned on the TV and saw my hometown in ruins, something I knew was underway but had been only imagining till then. I even thought I saw my parents hiding behind a crumbled wall that could have been the one surrounding our yard. But I was horrified and hung over, and Miloš was vomiting his guts out, and I just didn’t know what to do or think. A few mornings later, I made it across the border with a plan to get to the town posing as a paramilitary volunteer. One četnik and his girlfriend intercepted my march through corn fields and asked for an ID. No ID, I replied. The Croats burned down my house, I said, serving them a tale prepared on the way: life in a nearby Serb village, Croatian police storming the house in the middle of the night, family dead, me narrowly escaping after wrestling down the schoolboy who was guarding me. They saw a copy of a četnik weekly in my pocket, recognized my local accent, and decided to believe me. Then they gave me an unmarked uniform and let me spend the night in their tent. In the morning, they said, my training would begin: a couple of captives needed to be taken care of. With some luck, said the girlfriend, as three of us lay on thin mattresses that wafted of beer and urine, those will be the same bastards who slaughtered your folks. They were both snoring within minutes, so sneaking out in the middle of the night was the easy part. As I entered the city limits I hit a wall of stench, which I knew was rising from the decomposing flesh around me. Nose in my collar, relying on a few remaining landmarks and counting street corners in the moonlight, I found my house, half-obliterated, but with no bodies around. At dawn, I made a decision to stay, wait the siege out, and then continue looking for my parents. Soon thereafter, a unit of bearded men found me asleep on a mound of rubble and woke me up with kicks. In uniform and unarmed, lurking beyond enemy lines, I couldn’t pass for one of theirs, so they took me in as an enemy combatant. I can tell a Croat by the face, boasted their superior, grinning with confidence, and added that I should not hope for a prisoner swap. They put me together with a group of people who stuck together like penguins in snow storm. Luckily, I recognized no one. After a while, hours maybe, they separated women from men; being the youngest, I was sure they were going to shoot me first. I started thinking about the couple who let me in their tent last night, whether they’d be the ones to do it. Then two women showed up out of nowhere, elbowing their way through loose gangs of armed, intoxicated men, microphones in their hands. One was interviewing a colonel who seemed all too proud to talk to the press, while the other was snooping around, taking notes. I don’t know how it happened, but my eyes locked with the note taker. She halted, hesitated for an instant, and then walked straight to our guard, pointing in my direction and shouting that I’m with them. She dropped a name—Lazar! Lazar Milić!—and I realized that I should pretend it was mine. Within seconds, both women were all over the colonel, explaining something about the “guide,” “homeless,” “local boy,” gesticulating vigorously in my direction. I guess everyone believes you when you’re acting the right amount of crazy. I got extracted from the group, didn’t dare looking back. The two women burst into fits of sobbing and hugging, wondering out loud how in the world we got separated. Within thirty minutes, we were speeding away in their car, making it to Belgrade by night, a handwritten note from the colonel taking us through checkpoints. The strangest thing: I have some of it on video.

The scene then cuts to a wounded young soldier, neatly shaven and baby-faced, who claims to regret all the innocent victims

David pops a cassette into his VCR, and, after some whirring, a familiar scene unfolds: ruined houses, bodies by a ditch that a solemn voice identifies as “our slaughtered kin.” The scene then cuts to a wounded young soldier, neatly shaven and baby-faced, who claims to regret all the innocent victims but remains determined to defend his country. At the end of the interview, one can see them, three hurried specks, traversing a corner of the screen and getting into a car. How come you never told me about him, about all this, Hana says, her puffy eyes full of indignation.

A few weeks later, Hana and I break up, agreeing that we could—hey, should, why not?—stay friends. It stings that not long afterward she hooks up with David and that I have to endure their joint presence, hand holding and all, in the third-row seats of the obnoxiously enormous Sava Center, which David had secured before our rearrangements took place. As I squirm and fidget and look nowhere in particular, a thunderous applause halts the barbed, stunted words that are about to leave my mouth, and I see the maestro march across the stage with the gait of an overjoyed, oversized child. The announcer welcomes Mstislav Rostropovich and an esteemed Italian chamber orchestra. Before I get a chance to consciously stop throwing furtive glances at David and Hana or tune out two candy-unwrapping machines seated right behind me, the music—a Baroque piece I remember no longer—rises like a tide of a thousand forgotten embraces and lifts me up, all the way to the ceiling of the enormous concert hall. For an entire hour I float there, immersed in music like amniotic fluid, mindful of every vibration that enters my earlobes. Finally, I relinquish control of my facial muscles as my senses turn inward, searching for resonances between the eardrums and what some insist should be called the soul. As an encore, as David had guessed he would, the maestro plays one of Bach’s suites. I hear David whisper something quickly to Hana, but I’m not interested in their sweet talk anymore. My mind cleared, all of a sudden governed by an instinct that resides, pulsating and warm, in my every organ, I don’t wait for the final applause to simmer down or for David and Hana to ask why I got up so abruptly. I rush out of the concert hall and take a two-hour-long walk to my place through a biting winter night, each step reverberating with what some would call meaning, awakening, insight. The next day I print out a handful of application forms, call father, and tell him that I need to borrow our entire savings. Why not, he says. Burn it all. Eight months later, I buy a one-way ticket to this place.

I don’t wait for the final applause to simmer down or for David and Hana to ask why I got up so abruptly.

*

This new place is made of nothing but distances. It takes hours to walk the entire shoreline, months to figure out the neighborhoods, a whole year to recover from last year’s winter. Everyone asks, but no one cares, where I’m from. I meet people from the old country, wonder which language should we speak with each other. David emails from time to time, says that things are getting worse. Father and V send short, handwritten letters in which all bad news have been censored; hers I can read. Luckily, lab rats are abundant and my thesis progresses well. I’m even sent to Germany for a semester, to learn how to dissect rodent brains and stick the tiny soft pieces with electrodes. One sunny afternoon by the Rhine, I borrow a bike to tour the countryside. The night catches me on the way back, as I enter a small forest in which every leaf, mere minutes ago, was ablaze in the setting sun. The darkness is sudden and unyielding. Here and there, the light from my dynamo torch hits the eyes of small nocturnal beasts. I realize that anything could happen, including my complete dissolution into nothingness, without anyone taking notice. The thought is strangely comforting, much like the waves of fresh sweat that keep the evening chill away from my skin. When I return home (my new home), I think often of the Rhineland. The lab rats, however, are endlessly abundant, and no thoughts—of Rhineland, homeland, any land—disturb me anymore. In this new place, girls are abundant, too.

I better talk to her, I say to myself, proud of that little pun on the movie title. She was in front of me in the ticket line and now sits one row above, flanked by a girlfriend on each side. That is definitely not my style, approaching girls like this, rushes through my mind, and I swiftly chase away that thought, all thoughts. I keep checking on her throughout the show, but may have stayed silent and motionless had the story been less painful and uplifting, had there not been scenes of love and despair full of beautiful, tormented bodies, had the two protagonists not exchanged amorous glances in the very final scene. Under the circumstances, however, I can’t help turning toward her as the closing credits start to roll, my eyes moist with daring and emotion, and there she is, returning my gaze. I mouth a silent greeting, wait patiently until she leaves her row, introduce myself. (My name is Kate, she says.) Six weeks later, we’re at the Albion Street beach, fighting a gang of fat flies set on a container full of offerings of love (grapes, dates, chunks of watermelon), plotting our near future, me admiring out loud her confidence and her easy ways, her strong legs and a tight abdomen.

David keeps in touch, writes about things back home getting slightly better

David keeps in touch, writes about things back home getting slightly better, now that Đinđić won and became Prime Minister. He also reunited with his parents. A refugee relief organization located them in a tiny Dalmatian village, almost mad with sorrow. A word had reached them that David got captured in Vukovar and sent to one of those makeshift camps that no one survived. Only when he managed to visit did they truly believe he was alive. After a few days spent together, however, they pleaded that he go immediately and far, far away. It’s not worth it, they said. None of this is worth your life. Back in Belgrade, he learned that Hana met a nice British journalist who had reported from every war zone on Earth. And she’s not the only one leaving the country, he writes. I received a scholarship, I’m coming to New Orleans.

What does she see in me, I sometimes ask myself. Does she really want to get married and have children? I decapitate rats for a living. I’m prone to feelings of worthlessness; my mood depends on barometric fluctuations. Does she truly expect to meet Father? Now that V’s dead (yes, V’s dead) and the beach is ruined, can I ever show her who I was? I don’t like being dragged to parties full of smart people. I like even less being left alone. Is it love or suicide if I feel like dying when we’re not together? Will this gravy of lust and best intentions that keeps us trapped like shortsighted bees congeal with time, and how will it taste then? And what in the world does one do with a degree in Liberal Arts? She introduced me to all her friends. Should I introduce her to David? Will it be mere weeks before he fucks her on the floor while I watch from the couch, faking sleep? And why have I lost desire to chase other women? And what, what about Kumiko? Have I given up on her? Did I not come here to find her? Didn’t she say once that she lived in Chicago? I bet she lied. Does Kate lie? She’s so irritatingly honest. Her pussy smells like honey. Should I tell her I call her honey because of that?

*

I like going distances. I prefer walking to driving, train tracks to air travel. I drove to New Orleans once already, caught fire and brimstone preachers on AM radio and a folk song about being one thousand miles from your home. There are cotton fields on the way, giant unclaimed crucifixes, discount factories selling Bibles. I can’t not visit my best friend now that he’s so close; even Kate says so. I‘m so eager to leave all this cold behind, at least for a while.

Every sensation that reaches eyes and nostrils creates enhanced versions of reality.

I arrive refreshed from an unexpected eight-hour sleep in a motel just south of Memphis. It’s hot down here already, with the cyan skies blaring with all their might. Every sensation that reaches eyes and nostrils creates enhanced versions of reality. (The nearby lumps of horse dung will grow legs and crawl into sewers.) Even with sunglasses left behind, I recognize David crossing Jackson Square. He hasn’t changed much, didn’t even catch any tan. We embrace like old friends, but I do worry what will happen when the silence sets in. He doesn’t mention Hana. I don’t ask. He talks a lot about the city and the new orchestra, about feeling liberated now that his parents are safe; dirt-poor and safe, he adds. He’s supposed to stay about a year, but his real goal is Chicago; there’s a great, great orchestra there. How wonderful, I reply.

He takes me to his place on Prytania, a small sublet room plus bathroom. I recognize his old cello on the stand, but the casing is new, white and immaculate. He already found a few gigs, he says. That very night he’s playing in a joint called Circle Bar, but we should drive around a bit first. And we do. The windows are rolled down and the fragrant air is blasting through the car. Leafless branches of magnolias are heavy with their bubbles of white and purple. My armpits are getting moist with the first sweat in months, then drying immediately in the fresh wind. Neither David nor I feel like talking. We drive down Magazine, St Charles, Elyssian Fields. We park by the art museum and stroll through the sculpture garden, where shiny silver humanmonkeys are playing in the shadow of an enormous spider. For lunch, we stop at a place named after some French painter and order baked snails, a first for both of us. All this time, Kate is braving sleet in Chicago. Should we move down here as soon as David heads north?

His dark attire and raven hair make an intense contrast with his pale skin and the white cello casing.

Lightheaded and wine-buzzed, we get back to his place, right on time to take showers and get ready for his gig. David’s more muscular than before. His dark attire and raven hair make an intense contrast with his pale skin and the white cello casing. Circle Bar is a few blocks away. It’s almost 9 pm, and the patrons, mostly a student crowd, have taken all the good seats. I sit at the bar and watch David as he steps up on a small podium. By the time he’s adjusted the note stand, the instrument, his lanky body, all murmur has died out. Good evening, he says, and a few enthusiasts of manners greet him back. Without an announcement, he starts playing “Round Midnight,” then a few more jazz standards. No one says a word; a few people have even closed their eyes. Without a break, he goes through a few pieces by Rachmaninoff and Schubert, then does the Sarabande from Bach’s Second. According to the great Rostropovich, he says before they’ve had a chance to catch their breaths, this last one was for those who’ve known sadness. A rapturous applause breaks out; I see girls approaching, pushing napkins with phone numbers into his pockets. He thanks them politely, every one of them, then advances to the bar. We each have a beer and go back to his place.

We haven’t made it through the door and his hand is under my T-shirt. By that time, my mind is made up. I press myself against him and thrust my tongue into his. He grabs me by the waist and rolls down my pants. We rush to the bed and make love in the darkness, the best we can, by an open window, with an owl hooting nearby.

The horizon is opening like lover’s mouth, like fresh wounds on the wrists, like a crescendo of fuckedupness.

As soon as David is asleep, I get up, get dressed, and affix a note (I’m sorry, we’ll talk) to his bathroom mirror. I leave without a sound, except for a brief, subdued cough of the waking engine. The air is still pleasant, so I keep the windows down until I reach the interstate. My body is still content and my mind is abuzz with disjointed thoughts. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, I keep repeating, sometimes out loud. I turn on the radio, catch the last verses of a Bob Dylan song, can’t remember which one. I never particularly understood Bob Dylan. I reach the motel in Memphis within a few hours, decide to get a few hours of sleep. It should all be clearer in the morning: whom to call, in which order, what to say. The air around Memphis is not too cold either. Tomorrow, I shouldn’t forget to keep my winter jacket close. The receptionist recognizes me, gives me the room I had before. It’s the one with the view, she says. Only when I get there do I understand what she meant. The dawn is breaking, and the balcony has an unobstructed eastern exposure. I step outside and sit on a plastic chair, hugging knees into my chest. The horizon is opening like lover’s mouth, like fresh wounds on the wrists, like a crescendo of fuckedupness. To tame my mind, I turn on the radio. The local public station announces BBC World News. Today in Belgrade, a man’s voice says, a tragedy took place. Prime Minister Đinđić, who had narrowly escaped an attempt on his life a few weeks ago, was assassinated as he was entering a government building. He was killed by a sniper bullet that passed through his heart. A state of emergency has been declared.

Truth cannot be found by dissecting heartache, nor does it lie in folds of the flesh. I’m never the first one to fall asleep. I decapitate rats for a living. I do.

 

© Vojislav Pejović

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Vojislav PejovicVojislav Pejović (1972) was born in Montenegro, former Yugoslavia. So far, he published two works of fiction: a novel, The Life and Death of Milan Junak (Montenegro, 2008), and American Sfumato, a novel in nine stories (Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia; 2015-2016). Sfumato was a bilingual project; stories from that book appeared in Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, Prism Review, and, now, Rivet. Vojislav also translated Charles Simic’s poetry for a large retrospective of the poet’s work (Serbia, 2010). He lives in Evanston, IL, with his wife and their two sons.