AT THE BUS STATION, MIRJANA
translated from Macedonian by Ljubica Arsovska
Her name was Mirjana – the girl I was seeing off that night at the old bus station by the temporary ticket office opposite the municipality building, a great rectangle like a matchbox with lots of windows – Mirjana Nikolich, that beautiful young girl I wondered if she was 16, but didn’t ask her and never found out, an unimportant fact on that night when I was seeing Mirjana off and it was our first and last meeting, that kind of meeting, under the big acacias by the old bus station, a few steps from the bridge.“Today is my last day here” she’d told me that afternoon by the changing booths, and also “If you want to say goodbye come to the bus station tonight, the bus leaves at 4 a.m., my sister and I will check out of the hotel so as to save on a night, we’ll pack and wait for the bus there with our luggage.”
Boys and girls had taken over the beach, there wasn’t a single space on the fine sand, except under the Canadian poplars that cast a deep shade, some were playing cards, others were sleeping, there were so many of them, girls in particular who were reading books, lying on big towels, and there were all kinds, but we local boys, we were only interested in the girls who had come from other towns, they were the object of our desire, and my desire was the little girl from Belgrade, Mirjana, with her long straight dark hair, full red lips, and her body, still that of a growing girl, was somehow plump, rounded, no, not fat, but I felt that if I touched her I’d feel that roundness, those curves, it seemed to me I could feel her softness in my imagination. She had white skin and beautiful, almost fully formed untanned little white breasts, I saw them when I stole a furtive embarrassed glance when she was changing the top of her wet bikini, she hung it over the side of the booth but it was low and when she made that movement with her arm she revealed her breasts to me, and at that moment it was like looking at two pretty little white kittens, and I thought how beautiful it would be if I could play with them a little. She found it interesting to sit with me on the benches by the changing booths. She didn’t like the pushy boys, she thought the trite phrases they used to make advances to the girls were stupid, and indeed they were endlessly foolish, but not all the girls thought so, there were some who fell for their provincial line. That little Mirjana, she just wanted to sit like that with me, asking me from time to time, after long intervals of silence, to tell her about the people there, and what kind of music I liked, and if I’d ever tried a joint, if I was a Janis Joplin fan, because she was, who my favourite actor was, what book I’d read that summer, if I had a girlfriend, what subjects I hated at school, how well I’d done at the end of the year, what my friends were called, if I’d ever been to Belgrade, and had I been abroad, she had a million questions for me, that little Mirjana, and trembling with excitement I answered all those questions she asked so persistently, I was bathed in rivers of sweat, not from the fierce sun that was beating down on us mercilessly, but from the impossible task of answering her impossible questions. I’d go to the nearby café to buy cold Cocktas for her and me, checking if I had enough money, and we’d sip the cold drink that tasted of rose-hips and burnt sugar, and then fall silent for a while before the new barrage came pitilessly, and I was often in two minds, whether to stay or leave, but the magnetism spreading from little Mirjana wouldn’t let me move an inch from the spot. Who do you like more… she’d set out on a new string of questions, a game for summer days that she was obviously no stranger to, she’d played it before, I thought, with many other boys, this wasn’t the first time, who knows how many boys she’d tortured like this…. tell me, the Beatles or the Stones, that old and unresolved question that even now, at their advanced age, people of that generation haven’t resolved, Beatles or Stones, an insoluble dilemma with no logical explanation, because nobody knew why the one and not the other. And whatever I said, she was for the other, so if I liked Jean Seberg she liked Anouk Aimée, or vice versa at other times. All afternoon we played the game and followed her rules, until the sun was setting and the western flush spilled over the lake, when the beaches were emptying, half-naked people were leaving, darkened by the sun, some with their skin pink, or even burnt, stupid mindless tourists, the people of this town thought as they watched and pitied them.
And she did the same thing to me on leaving,, I was to go to the bus station that evening if I wanted, she and her sister were leaving, their holiday was over, the bus left at 4 a.m., they’d check out of the hotel and take their luggage to the waiting room and wait in the park in front of the bus station.
How is it possible, I thought on the verge of tears, that she’s leaving tonight, and what have I been doing all this time, all these days, I’ve only sat with her, sat next to her, not a touch, nothing, nothing, she, she, I kept repeating and felt the tears fill my eyes. I rushed up the stairs, going in like a whirlwind, I didn’t want anyone to see me, and I didn’t want to see anyone – and who could I have seen, my mother who probably wasn’t there, she was most likely out shopping, or my sister who was ten and who, if she was there at all, was probably playing and most certainly didn’t give a toss for her brother’s suffering. And you were not there, you, you, you who should have been with me at this very time and place, you, you, to say something to me, a word or two that would ease my infernal suffering. I know, I know you would’ve laughed, but you wouldn’t have done it in front of me so as not to offend me, not to mock my feelings, but you’d still have laughed at my stupid suffering, but if you’d been there you would’ve spoken those words that would comfort me for a moment, you would’ve bestowed on me the magic formula all fathers know and pass on to their suffering and hopelessly lovelorn sons. But you weren’t there, you hadn’t been there for six years and you won’t be there to the end of time, but it doesn’t matter now, what does matter and why I’m angry is that you’re not here now, at this moment, when I’m overcome by unparalleled suffering, a state I have never known before. How can this be, I thought lying on the bed in my room, my empty stare fixed on the white ceiling, repeating senselessly for the umpteenth time, how can this be, we’ve only been talking, all these past days, she was only ready for talk, I did steal some furtive glances at her on a few occasions, when she was changing in the booth, no, no, I didn’t do it deliberately, it was only when she bent down and straightened up in a single movement to hang up the wet swimming suit, then I’d see her two pretty soft white kittens ready for a mischievous game and in my mind’s eye I could see lower than the two kittens, her small smooth body, her belly, and below, those incomprehensible areas of the female body, at that moment so distant and out of reach of the young boy standing by that booth and holding his breath, feeling awkward and lost in the magic summer day that was slowly fading while the shadows of the tall Canadian poplars grew longer. The happy babble of people slowly dies away, everything that throbbed with activity a moment ago now subsides, the beach is left empty, miserably empty and somehow exhausted, unnecessary without its people, if you’ve ever seen those paintings by de Chirico you’ll know what I’m talking about. But that feeling while you watch the beach only lasts a short while, until the next day when everything will be the same as yesterday and the same as all the past summer days and years and everything will return to its ordinary state.
And mind you, I’m telling this to you only, I haven’t told it to anyone before, I’m only telling it now to you, the absent one, I went that evening, there, to the bus station, and she was there and waiting for me, she was alone, her sister had gone somewhere with somebody, I learned later she’d gone to see Filip, a boy she was going out with that summer, there was plenty of time before their bus arrived. She wasted no time in talking, as she’d done all those past days, no, she was like a whirlwind, in a wild trance, this small fury, the minute she saw me coming, she grabbed my hand and pulled me into the darkness of the park by the big acacia tree, and we leaned there, me against the trunk she against me, but nothing more happened than what many years later an author, Pajich, was to use as a title for a story of his, an ironic reference to Basara’s novel Peking by Night – the well-known malicious title: Petting by Night, that’s what was going on that night while we waited for Mirjana’s bus that was to take her away from my town and from my life, forever.
But I won’t go on about it, I’ll just say a word or two more. When I went home at dawn, after their bus had left, I climbed stealthily to my room, looked at myself in the mirror, all red in the face, and I looked at my neck too, she’d bitten me so savagely that next morning when I sat at the table for breakfast I couldn’t explain to my mum “Why, for heaven’s sake, had I put on a polo neck in this heat”, and I had to lie and say I had a sore throat and felt a bit cold, probably had a fever.
This micro-situation from long ago was my unwritten response to Irena’s e-mail, when I told her I had dreamed about her, she asked me to tell her the dream, a strange kind of request, somehow uncompromising in bold and underlined, and the dream was related to this incident from my childhood, forever remembered, a small trauma, a little scar that hasn’t disappeared to this day, you can see it yourself. But I’m telling this to you only, because it was your fault, indeed I blamed you for everything that was happening to me, but to be absolutely accurate and precise, it was not you but your definitive absence that drove me to despair, your non-being, your sudden disappearance, you won’t believe it but I was even embarrassed, as a ten–year-old at the time, when I was with my friends, I don’t know why I had that damnable sense of shame, but there, forty years on I still haven’t forgotten it.
I wrote this to Irena, not telling her the dream, of course, on the pretext that there were too many obscenities in it, that it was indecent and I am, by nature, a shy person. Just listen to what I wrote to her:
“Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2006 09:45:26 +0100
Subject: As we...
As we agreed, I sat down to write an e-mail to you and tell you my dream, although I was reluctant, there are certain obscenities and I am a shy person, but because it involved a certain Mirjana from a distant year, and because it’s futile to explain dreams by some rational code, instead of being a recounted dream it’s taken a different direction and all that, to explain a second or two of a dream, resulted in a solid two or three hours spent in front of the computer and a few pages of text that need a continuation, what they call a prequel and a sequel, a before and after, a part of one imagined whole.
Today Stavre, Irena and I talked over coffee, we started this conversation on various subjects, essentially that it isn’t an easy or a trouble-free ride for anybody, I said I feel miserable, I can feel a pressure here, in my chest, it’s something that exists in me, so many things have accumulated and piled up and all I do from one day to the next is the same, getting ready to get rid of them. So paint then, says Stavre. I don’t feel like painting, that would be the easiest way but it won’t help. It’s about words, thoughts, feelings, emotions that have inundated me and are suffocating me, that’s why I feel this terrible pressure in my chest, something accumulated that I need, just like in the dream I had, to cough up and spit out.
A dead father, unborn children, renunciation of closeness, avoidance of intimacy, no anchorage – a million unspoken words, buried and suppressed words – with all that in him how can anyone live normally, or at least fairly normally?
But where have you come from, to hear this?
Does it seem stupid to you? Pathetic maybe and too banal or even repulsive?
You see? I mentioned you too – you are the dead father.