translated from Slovenian by Erica Johnson Debeljak
She lifted her head from the computer when she heard, among all the men's voices under her window, the sound of high heels climbing the stairs of the house toward the main entrance. A van was parked in the inner courtyard and young men were carrying enormous boxes, cartons, and chairs into the building. She spotted among the men a light-haired woman wearing a tight white dress with black polka dots, and high-heeled white summer pumps. She recognized the sound. The previous afternoon, their slow even rhythm had echoed from the neighbouring apartment where from morning to afternoon there had been only the drone of various machines in recent weeks, the unbearable racket radiating through the old pipes and into all of the apartments in the three-storied building. Until now the new neighbour had been little involved in the moving process and, other than a stand for flowers that she had toted up the stairs after the men, had carried nothing at all. When she herself had moved into the building two and a half years ago, she had worked like a mule, lugging heavy boxes and huge black plastic bags into her mezzanine apartment; and she hadn’t been wearing high heels – she never did – lacking all the subservient helpers that the blond Elena Jacobsson employed. Elena Jacobsson: that was the name written on the recently affixed label on the mailbox. All day Saturday the sounds of machines for assembling furniture came from the neighbouring apartment; the rattling of glass, the murmur of paper. She might have closed the window and shut out the noise but it was one of those exceptionally hot summers that hovered above the city concrete from May until mid-September, barely moving, like some dry ethereal mass. A summer squall the night before had softened the most recent unbearable humid spell. On Sunday morning, the sounds from the neighbouring apartment stopped. The thought that the woman was probably still sleeping from exhaustion passed cynically through her mind as she remembered a different noise two months ago. It started on Sunday, exactly eight weeks ago. The whining and yapping of Apollo, the Dalmatian, in front of the door of the neighbouring apartment, persisted even when his owner scolded him harshly. This sound was accompanied by a man’s voice and a woman’s voice, followed by loud knocking on the door. All of this went on until she heard a car under her window parking in the inner courtyard. Louder knocking and banging was followed by the sounds of someone breaking into the neighbouring apartment. When the people on the other side of the door finally succeeded in entering, a strange silence descended. Maybe for a second, maybe for a half a minute, time stood still, and then there was a sudden burst of more sound and noise. Lying on the bed, covered with a sheet, she knew that they had found what they had broken into the apartment to find. She jumped from the bed, threw on a linen dress, ran from her room into the hallway in front of the neighbouring apartment and almost retched, covering her mouth and nose with her hand. It was the terrible stench that had spread into the hallway over the last two days, through the badly insulated windows, under the cracks of the doors, the very pores of the building. The sharp ammoniac stink that she didn’t want to recognize. The stink of death that impresses itself in your memory and which you can never forget. In the bedroom, Apollo’s owner, from the first floor, stood in front of the bed, holding Apollo by the collar. The dog was trembling with excitement, and also with the fear that animals feel before a corpse. In addition to the dog and his owner, five or six other apartment dwellers and two policemen gathered around the bed. One of the policemen was talking on the telephone. The neighbour lay on the bed. Seventy-eight year old Jakob Blomstein in blue and white striped pyjamas. He lay on his back and his little dog Mina was on his chest, her snout pressing into his face. Jakob Blomstein had planned his death down to the last detail. On a stand by the bed hung a carefully pressed black suit, a fresh white shirt, and a black hat. Jakob had lived a solitary old man’s life with his almost equally old dog Mina. He was supposedly terribly ill, said the concierge with a handkerchief over her face, and had been growing increasingly forgetful lately. One evening he left the water on in the bathtub and toward morning it flooded Izmet’s basement apartment and they had to call the plumber. And at least twice, she added, he forgot to turn off the stove when he took Mina for a walk, and smoke crept out from under the door of his apartment all the way to the main entrance. Soon afterward, the coroner arrived and began to study the little bottles of sleeping tablets on the nightstand. The court investigator tackled a pile of carefully folded letters. All were addressed to a son, commented the concierge, who had quickly scanned them herself and only returned them to the table when the policeman requested that she do so. Yes, apparently he had a son, added Apollo’s owner, who occasionally met the old pensioner for a short walk, but there was some sort of resentment between them. Bad resentment. The son did not answer his letters, did not even accept them. A single letter was set next to the pile of letters on the table. Nothing was in it, only an empty sheet of paper, said the concierge. This comment evoked a stern look from the investigator, followed by another at the police officer for failing to properly secure the death scene. Although the window and doorway were open, the apartment was permeated with the unbearable stink of human decay, and the apartment dwellers gradually withdrew toward the main entrance from which they observed at a distance the investigator opening the unsealed envelope on which Jakob had written his son’s first and last name. He pulled a piece of paper out of the envelope. A white unblemished sheet. There was nothing else in the envelope. No sentence. Not even a word. After all those letters that the postman had returned in the mailbox, Jakob Blomstein had penned his son one last letter of farewell in which he had written nothing. A letter without a single mark on it. The aged and sick Jakob, it was rumoured later, had decided to end his own and Mina’s life. Mina was entirely dependent on Jakob and would have needed to become dependent on someone else’s care. For the aged Jakob, and also for the others in the building, his solitary life had become increasingly dangerous. Jakob did not want to go to an old people’s home because none of them would take Mina. And without the dog, he would not be able or willing to live. Therefore, on Friday night – this is what the coroner and the investigator concluded – he prepared dinner for Mina and himself, mixing in a very large dose of sleeping pills. Jakob bathed after dinner, dressed in his freshly laundered blue and white striped pyjamas and lay on the bed. He held, perhaps as he had done countless times before, Mina close to him. He laid a hand on her body and she pressed her snout against his face. And Mina, who perhaps already sensed Jakob’s purpose, that this was their last night together, smoothed her little paw over his face and they slowly fell asleep.
“How is that you noticed nothing for nearly three days?” The investigator turned to the concierge, when she, like an eager fifth-grader, explained that the nearest neighbour to Jakob was the young lady in the robe who lived in the other mezzanine apartment.
“What should I have noticed?” The insulted concierge retorted to the investigator. Among those present, she was the only one the investigator addressed and to whom he attributed some responsibility.
But the investigator soon dropped this line of questioning. The case was open and shut. In addition to the empty letter in the envelope, Jakob had left the telephone number and address of his lawyer, who would take care of everything, including payment for the funeral. These decisions were apparently made on Friday, the day of the suicide, as Jakob described it, and sent to his lawyer. When she went back to her apartment, her roommate was sitting at the kitchen table. Her roommate was not interested in the story of Jakob Blomstein and his empty letter.
“He was old anyway…” She spoke casually from her position in her wicker chair, leaning back with a cup of coffee in her hand, and unable to conceal her satisfied smile.
“He left her, didn’t he?”
“Finally. Last night was her last night. He’s going to come and live here, with us, if that’s alright with you.”
“I have nothing against it,” she answered, remembering how she had comforted and cheered up her roommate in recent weeks, when she doubted her boyfriend’s promises that he would end the relationship with his partner of many years, how she stood by her side because she knew her. Because they lived their shared student life in this rented two-room apartment. She thought that she would also have stood on the side of the jilted girlfriend if she knew her. If they were friends, which she wasn’t with her roommate. Because, in truth, she didn’t have any real friends. The day after Elena Jacobsson moved into the neighbouring apartment, while drinking coffee, she dialled the number of a mobile phone.
“I don’t know how old she is,” she explained to her boyfriend who was also her classmate. “She’s not exactly young; she’s getting up there in years. She has blond hair, but not that sort of chicken colour, more the colour of ice, almost curly, almost straight, but again not completely, reaching past her shoulders.” She spoke quickly, not letting her boyfriend interrupt, but eventually he did get a word in:
“Tonight – shall we see each other?”
“Not tonight,” she responded. “I have exams in two weeks and I’m starting to get worried.”
“We both have exams in two weeks. That’s no reason not to see each other…”
“I don’t have time,” she said. “I’m studying. We’ll talk tomorrow.” She hung up the phone, and started to read one of the books that were piled on her desk in front of her. At seven thirty in the evening, she looked through the window and noticed her new neighbour.
Elena Jacobsson was wrapped in a turquoise scarf. She slowly unclasped her dress, as if she were slipping out of her body, and then she disappeared for an instant and reappeared dressed in a white bathrobe with a telephone in one hand and a brush in the other; she stepped out on to the balcony and, while speaking on the telephone, began to brush her hair. In the falling light, creeping red over the warmed plaster, she noticed how the colour of Elena’s hair exploded like a sheet of hot metal. Two days later, while returning from the library, she noticed Elena about a hundred metres in front of the house. She slowed her stride, followed her, and observed the swaying of her hips. Where did she learn to walk like that? Is it possible to even learn such a thing? That sort of walk is in the blood, she thought, as she tried unsuccessfully in her low, laced shoes to imitate it. In comparison to the woman in front of her who did not even notice she was being observed – or did she perhaps sense the gaze gliding down her back, sliding over her bottom, her legs? – she felt like a poorly raised child. Her body, as she moved, did not, as Elena’s did, spiral around some unseen axis, but rather waddled horizontally, left and right, and her narrow, poorly hung shoulders were hunched. Her voice, she knew this, sounded like she was desperately gasping for air, almost suffocating, and she was never able to say what she wanted. Less than fifty meters before the main entrance to the apartment building, she quickened her pace; she deliberately hurried and soon was pushing her key into the door of her apartment. When Elena approached her own door, she looked casually at her neighbour and smiled; perhaps out of politeness or perhaps simply because she had been taught to smile in such situations. Elena might even have walked over and introduced herself, also out of neighbourly politeness, something that she had been fantasizing would happen since the first time she had spied Elena out her window. She blushed hotly under Elena’s gaze and slipped through the door into her apartment and sat down behind her writing desk. She watched through the window how Elena stepped in, put down her bag, and went out to the balcony with a drink in her hand. It was dark in her apartment so Elena could not see her from the balcony. Or could she? Elena was no doubt accustomed to attention and was probably able to conceal it when she noticed a gaze upon her.
One week later, at about nine thirty, the doorbell rang and, with her eyes still half closed, she walked out to the mailboxes. As she signed for a certified letter that had come from the university, the postman asked her if she knew Elena Jacobsson from apartment number three. In the absence of the addressee, he added, certified mails are usually delivered to the concierge but the concierge wasn’t home. “Of course I can take it,” she said, immediately recognizing the possibility of coming into contact with Elena, and signing for the certified package. There was a stamp on it from Milan. She carried the package, surprisingly light given its size, into her room, looking at it as she turned it around, shook it a few times, and laid it on the bed. She wrote Elena a message with her name and telephone number on it, and stuck it to Elena’s door. Leafing through her books and taking notes, she couldn’t help glancing through the window until she finally heard the sound of tapping heels in the inner courtyard. She ran into the bathroom and looked into the mirror. She quickly ran a comb through her hair, straightening it with damp fingers, and put a touch of her roommate’s lipstick on her mouth. Then she sat down to wait. A half hour later the telephone rang.
“Yes, I left you a note,” she said. “If you like, I can bring the package to you right away.” Shortly afterwards, she was standing in front of the open door of Elena’s apartment. Elena, dressed in her white bathrobe, invited her in. The apartment was unrecognizable. There was no trace of Jakob, no scent of death. The walls were painted a light apricot and the place smelled of the grapes piled up in the large yellow ceramic bowl in the middle of the kitchen table. Her hostess offered her freshly squeezed fruit juice, asked her about one thing and another, about her studies, opened the package, pulled swatches of various coloured fabrics from it, and, out of a box, a vanilla coloured scarf wrapped in cellophane. “Do you like it?” she asked. Of course, she liked it, because she had started to like everything that had anything to do with Elena. Elena held the scarf up to her face, looked at it for some time, pouted her lips a bit, and nodded to the place where the turquoise scarf was hung. “That one’s prettier. It goes with your eyes.” As Elena neatly wrapped the turquoise scarf around her neck, she smelled the sweet scent of cinnamon and mint. When she opened her eyes, Elena was nodding approvingly. “It looks good on you.”
She felt overwhelmed by excitement and unease. She awkwardly held her open hands in her lap and felt she must say something. She must somehow end this unbearable moment or it felt like her body would explode.
“Do you know the story about Jakob’s letter?”
Elena shook her head no and adjusted the scarf.
“The man who lived in this apartment before you left a letter for his son, with whom he hadn’t spoken for years, that had nothing in it.”
“It’s not a letter if it doesn’t contain a message.” Elena lifted her gaze.
“Jakob left it in an envelope addressed to his son. The envelope contained nothing besides a folded, empty, white sheet of paper.”
“So it’s not true that there was nothing in it.”
“I don’t understand…”
“With an empty sheet of paper, the father communicated more to his son than he could with words. The son could read on the empty paper everything for which he knew his father reproached him. He saw the sentences that he had already exchanged with his father and the sentences that he knew he would have read in his father’s letters. But if you throw away a letter without even opening it, let alone reading it, its internal voice, that becomes louder even when a person is entirely alone, can never be silenced. It is completely impossible.”
Watching Elena’s lips, above which certain words and syllables caused tiny wrinkles to form, she wondered: is it also possible to tell someone about love in that way? A way to articulate what you desire but are afraid to utter out loud?
“But who knows what happened between them? Maybe the son’s resentment was so strong that the father’s death seemed necessary and even justified.” Then Elena roused herself and looked up at her: “I am planning a few business trips in the near future. Would you be willing to water my plants every three or four days and to collect the mail from the mailbox, and sign for any registered mail like you did today? I will arrange it with the postman.”
“Of course,” she answered. And then she added: “With pleasure.” She thanked Elena for the scarf, took the keys to her apartment and mailbox, and left. That evening, she proudly told her boyfriend, who had brought over some study notes, what she and Elena had talked about, and she showed him the scarf.
“It doesn’t suit you at all,” he said to her, kneeling on the bed.
“What do you mean? If anybody would know, then it is Elena, who is a designer…”
“No doubt,” he responded, kissing her gently and holding her hand: “But you’re not the type for such things.”
“And she is?” She pulled her hand sharply away.
“How different? What does she have that I don’t have?”
“What do I know?” he said, and then slightly offended himself, decided to sting her. “She’s… she’s a woman… who a man would want to lay immediately.”
“You bastard. Don’t talk about her like that!”
“Come on, you know I’m joking.” He softened, caressing her, holding her close, trying now to make love to her.
“Leave me alone,” she pushed him away. “I’m not in the mood today.”
“You’re never in the mood,” he retorted. “I don’t even know why we’re together. Just so we can exchange books and notes, just so we can study together. Whenever we talk, you show more interest in other things. Whenever I want to talk about us, you interrupt me, or you’re in a hurry, or you put the phone down. And you push me away when I try to get close to you. You don’t like warmth; you don’t want me to touch you. Really, you don’t want me at all!”
Insulted, he grabbed his bag and left. She didn’t look after him. Their increasingly frequent arguments didn’t really touch her. She got up from the bed, sat in the armchair, and stared into Elena’s window. She stared into the apartment until the curtained bedroom of the apartment was illuminated. She watched Elena smiling in the warm light and speaking in an unusual animated manner, and then a male figure appeared behind her back, and suddenly, decisively, turned her around and kissed her. Elena stroked his hair, slid her fingers over his face, and he pushed her down onto the table so her head leaned slightly back and, still in his grip, she started to move back and forth in a repetitive rhythm. Agitated, she stood up from her writing desk, let down the shutters, lay down on her bed, and spread Elena’s scarf over her face, submerging herself in the faint sweet smell of cinnamon and mint, wondering how she would live, how she would pass the years of her life. Would she have a family, children? With someone else? Would she be alone?
In the coming weeks, Elena’s apartment became a haven for her, where she could withdraw from her roommate and her boyfriend, from her studies and the life that she knew and lived. Elena brought her gifts from her travels: an item of clothing, a bracelet, a box of chocolates, a decorative object. Everything that came from Elena was beautiful. And her own world had become more beautiful since she knew Elena. After each of Elena’s returns, she waited with the curiosity and excitement of a child for the telephone to ring, for Elena to invite her over again. Elena thanked her for tending the plants, casually commenting on the mail while she unwrapped the gift Elena had brought her. When she was alone in Elena’s apartment, she had been tempted several times to go through the drawers; to discover the little details about Elena’s life, the things she didn’t talk about. But she would never betray Elena’s trust. She didn’t want to disappoint her. And except for occasionally opening the sliding door to her wardrobe and carefully sifting through the clothes, some of which she held up, still on the hanger, in front of herself and looked at in the mirror, she never invaded her privacy. Besides, Elena’s clothing made her look like a stranger. Like someone she could never be. For the first time, she sincerely wished that she looked different than she did: not with this short brown horsy hair, but rather that her hair, when she stood in front of the mirror, would shine and flow like a bright stream of light. Elena’s apartment was a world to which she did not belong and to which she could never belong. And yet she was grateful that Elena allowed her to be a little while in this space, even though, as would be revealed later, she never really was a part of Elena’s world.
One day, as usual, when Elena was travelling, she unlocked the door and stepped into the apartment. She went to the kitchen table and laid down the post. She was tapping the soil in the flowerpot – still damp from when she watered it a few days before – when she heard the sound of breathing in the bedroom. She cautiously approached the door and opened it a crack. A young man was stirring on the bed; he was probably about ten years younger than Elena, which meant he was a few years older than she and her boyfriend.
“I came in here so you could straighten up in peace,” he said and casually stood up from the bed, not bothering to cover himself. She saw his naked behind.
“I didn’t come to straighten up!” She felt a momentary sense of hatred toward him. Did she look – in the woollen sweater that Elena had brought her from Paris and her comfortable long skirt – like a woman who comes to clean the apartment on Thursdays? She was even more angered by his indifference; he couldn’t care less what she might feel at the sight of a man’s naked body, and that was because he had not the slightest interest in her.
“Who are you then? You just walked through the door, which means you have a key.” He was not the least bit pleasant to her.
“She didn’t tell you?”
“About you? Nothing.” he answered casually without even looking at her.
At that moment, she turned on her heel and returned to her own apartment. She was angry with Elena for the first time. Elena would, as she told her prior to her departure, return in several days. Elena could at least have hinted, sent a text message, so that she wouldn’t have been taken by surprise. But above all she was angry because Elena had allowed such an arrogant man to enter her life. Her bed. Her apartment.
“She didn’t even mention it to him,” she later tried to explain to her boyfriend.
“Why would she tell him about you?”
“Because I take care of her apartment when she’s away.”
He looked away from her, avoiding her gaze.
So the sounds that she had begun to hear during the night when she slept, the squeaking of furniture that she hated so, the moving, the banging against the walls, were not dreams. Maybe she knew that Elena returned in the night, not alone, and then in the morning when she heard Elena leave the apartment, she wanted to go and check if there were traces left in the bathroom. If the bedroom was permeated with the unmistakable mixture of bodily scents that she had first detected at Elena’s one Saturday morning and later when she ran into her in the hallway. An organic fast-evaporating fusion that was utterly contrary to Jakob’s scent when he was alive. Elena smells of life, she realized anxiously, catching the sound of a man’s voice through the open door. This was the first time that Elena had not called after she returned. She waited, observing through the window the young man moving through the apartment, and Elena who willingly responded to each of his words, each of his touches.
On the third day after Elena’s return, her boyfriend appeared at her doorway in the late afternoon unannounced.
“We have to talk.” He seemed determined.
“Not today. We have an exam the day after tomorrow…” She stared into the screen so as to avoid looking at him. He sat at the table, casually leaned back against the wall, his head tilted toward the window.
“You follow everything in there, don’t you? She’s always under your eyes. You stalk her every movement… Oh, look, look… is that her lover? Quite a bit younger than she is. You’re right. Elena has good taste: an excellent choice for a middle-aged woman; I see the guy has a very well-tended body. What can you do? If I were a woman, I’d fuck him in a second; I’d leave this apartment right now and kick down the door, push it open, push her away, grab him by the neck, and fuck him. Maybe she’d go after him at the same time; grab his dick, pull him into the bedroom, and fuck him too.”
“Shut up! You’re disgusting when you talk like that!”
“Really? I bet she wouldn’t have any trouble with it. She takes what she wants. Rejects what she doesn’t. You haven’t noticed that? Just like you probably haven’t noticed how good that guy looks. Because you’re not interested in guys. Because you don’t like guys at all.”
She glared at him: “What are you trying to say?”
“You even sleep with that stupid scarf…”
“That’s my thing.”
“Yeah, your thing, and from now on not ours anymore; for a long time not mine. I met somebody a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been with her about a month…”
“What do you mean with her?”
“I mean with her. I sleep with her.”
“What? How could you?” She turned angrily toward him. “You’re cheating on me.”
“I didn’t cheat on you. You’ve been cheating on yourself. Our relationship hasn’t been on for a long time. We’ve only slept together once in the last few months and it was totally obvious that you weren’t into it. That a man’s touch disgusts you. I’m returning your books and your notes. What can I say? Maybe we’ll talk sometime… if you want to…” He turned away from her and walked out.
“Wait,” she cried out, but did not follow him. Through the open door, she heard his footsteps growing distant in the hallway. At the same time, the sounds of lovemaking came from the neighbouring apartment, and she stared into the courtyard and into the light that came from the window opposite. She saw her boyfriend walking down the stairs. She felt she would burst into tears. She’d been waiting for Elena’s call for three days, and it never came, because of that man who was with her right now. She was seized with a bottomless anger. She grabbed the phone and dialled Elena’s number; it rang and rang and rang. She covered her ears but she could not drown out the sounds from the neighbouring apartment. Worse still, it seemed that the sounds got even louder. She quickly wrapped her sweater around her and ran to Elena’s door and rang the bell.
It took a long time for Elena to come to the door in her bathrobe with her tousled hair.
“What are you doing here at this hour?” She was clearly displeased but polite nevertheless.
“It’s only nine. And I heard that you returned some days ago.”
“Oh, of course,” said Elena coldly. “Thanks for the mail. In fact, it’s good you came over. I won’t be needing you anymore.”
“What?” She looked at Elena strangely, as if she didn’t understand.
“To water the plants and that sort of thing.”
And that sort of thing, she thought. Elena was treating her like an employee.
“Anymore?” she persisted, as if she hadn’t quite understood. That dark-haired interloper had taken her place and pushed her out of Elena’s life. Elena remained cold. Her voice was icy. Maybe she had never been kind to her at all. Maybe Elena had never really been interested in her. Maybe she had only ever been polite. Because she needed something. Because her plants needed to be watered, because she needed someone to sign for her certified mail. Elena really only needed a dog to guard her apartment, but she was much less than Mina who had been the most precious thing in the life of Jakob Blomstein. She was less even than Apollo. Elena had cared for her, fed and dressed her, but one when someone else came along, she got sick of her little pet and left her outside the door.
“It would be best if you returned the keys to my apartment and to the mailbox,” said Elena. “I need them now.”
She went back to her apartment and returned with the key chain. Through the half-open door, she saw the man leaning on the drawing desk. His gaze moved across her fleetingly, without greeting. Elena thanked her and said good night, without inviting her in, not even out of politeness.
In her own room, she fell on her bed, covered herself with the sheet, and cried. Sounds kept coming to her from the neighbouring bedroom, and even though she covered her ears with her hands, she couldn’t shut out the voices. In the days that followed, she stared into her computer with swollen eyes, looking occasionally toward the window of the neighbouring apartment, and felt an ache each time she spotted Elena. She wished that the man would simply disappear just as suddenly as he had appeared that first morning. But he didn’t show any sign of it. She watched them arrive together. Through the window, she observed them exchanging gentle touches, how she kissed him, and he embraced her. Elena should not have rejected her so heartlessly, she thought, and she felt as if someone was ripping the raw flesh from the hollow of her stomach.
About a week later, the doorbell rang just before ten in the morning.
“Will you accept registered mail for Elena Jacobsson?” the postman asked her. She almost responded that from now on she would have nothing to do with it anymore, but she reached out her hand when she saw the stamp of the gynaecological clinic on it. Of course, she responded and signed, not her own name, but Elena Jacobsson’s. She took the letter back into her room and looked at it. Was Elena pregnant, she wondered. Did she want to conceive and was going through some sort of therapy? If it wasn’t that, then it had to be something else, and that could be nothing good. She went into the kitchen, put the water on for coffee, and held the letter over the steam, waiting for it to become unsealed. With a full cup, she sat at the kitchen table and pulled the folded piece of paper out of the envelope: Dear Madam, it was written, Please make an appointment as soon as possible with your gynaecologist.
When, some ten years ago, her mother had received a similar invitation, actually an urgent request, it had also been bad news. She was only a high school student at the time, and as her mother spoke to her one autumn afternoon in the kitchen, it seemed her mother’s voice resonated with anger toward the whole family. Now you will see, you will get what you deserve, she understood from her mother’s composed attitude. In the end, her mother responded calmly to the challenge. Years of treatment, operations, chemotherapy and radiation followed, until her mother’s body finally relented and collapsed. For this reason, she had every intention of returning the notice to the envelope and re-gluing it, but at that moment her roommate walked into the kitchen.
“You got mail?” she asked without any real interest.
She flinched and a drop of coffee fell on the letter. “Oh, it’s nothing, nothing special.” She barely managed to hide her embarrassment. With trembling hands, she picked up the letter and the envelope and went into her room. She regarded the soiled paper. She could not hand over such a letter personally. She would not be able to remove the stain. Elena would be angry that she had opened her mail at all, especially now since it was no longer her job to pick it up. Worse still, Elena would probably assume that she had been reading her mail all along. The clinic had probably taken Elena’s telephone number and would call if she didn’t respond to the summons. They had perhaps even asked for her e-mail address, she thought, as she tucked the letter into her drawer.
Each time she met Elena, who was now coolly polite, or watched her through the window, it struck her that Elena did not know what she knew. That Elena never imagined that under her elegant clothing, under the surface of her beautiful body, a sickness was growing. If the man knew, he would probably leave her. Just as Elena had abandoned her. A man, especially a young man, could not stand the sight of a sick woman’s body, the smell of which changed and not only because of therapy. No aroma of cinnamon or mint could take away the stink of physical decay. When she didn’t see her on some days, an image of the dying Elena would appear before her eyes. It struck her that she should go to her apartment, hand her the letter and apologize, even if Elena never spoke to her again. But the next moment, she thought that Elena was artificial, without feeling, an ungrateful slut, who deserved her illness for consorting with all those men. Elena wasn’t even a beauty. From afar maybe, when she watched her through the window, or spied her on the street, but as early as the first visit she had noticed the dark pigment stains on her light skin, on her hardly symmetrical face, the deep wrinkles around her mouth, in the space between her nose and her chin. When she wasn’t carefully made up, Elena looked just average. Especially since she had gained weight and her clothes clung to her around her hips and belly. Apparently, Elena had fallen head over heels for her young man. Her gestures and her walk had softened and grown subservient, her charming independence had disappeared. When she learned, and sooner or later she would, that the clinic had called, and she told him, he would leave her. Then Elena would have only her and she would forgive Elena. They would be close again. They would be close for the first time really. She would care for Elena, go with her to her doctor’s appointments, visit the clinic together. She would be with her, if necessary, until the very end. Elena would never be alone as Jakob Blomstein had been alone with Mina. Elena would have someone to take care of her.
After two months, she began to notice changes in Elena’s face. At first she wasn’t sure and simply thought that Elena’s elegant pale skin had become sandy. The day when she handed in her theses her roommate’s boyfriend mentioned that an ambulance had come to the apartment building at noon.
He had watched through window as Elena had walked out supported by her man, a suitcase in his other hand. She froze when she heard this. She knew it would happen sooner or later. From the moment she had placed the stained letter in her drawer, she knew the haste with which such a disease could begin to destroy the body. Elena had been driven to the clinic and they had probably asked her why she had not responded to the summons, since she had received it, and even signed for it. Elena would then know who took the letter and would wonder why she hadn’t given it to her.
In the following days, she gazed toward the apartment when only he returned in the late evening. Maybe it wasn’t all that serious, the thought forced its way in, maybe the clinic had simply sent another certified letter, maybe he hadn’t been supporting her on her way to the clinic but simply holding her hand. But then in the next instant, she thought that if it hadn’t been serious an ambulance wouldn’t have been sent at all, because nobody would have called for it. She reflected and felt a trembling certainty grow ever more strong in the cavity of her belly that for the last month had been filled with emptiness. One morning, she pulled the summons out of the drawer, stared at the telephone number for some time, and then called it. She asked if an Elena Jacobsson had been admitted into the clinic. The woman on the line confirmed but then added: “But the lady is no longer with us. She went home for treatment.”
“Home? Where home?” she asked. “But how was she? Was it bad?”
But when the nurse inquired who was calling, she put down the phone and burst into tears.
Two weeks after Elena had been taken away in an ambulance, she saw the man with some workers carrying things out of the apartment and putting them into a moving van. It was cold outside and snowing lightly. When the man in the van took the metal stand that she had seen Elena carrying into the apartment a year ago, he stopped and turned toward her window. The man stood in the courtyard and stared up at her. She withdrew from the window. Maybe he saw her, maybe he didn’t.
He looked toward the window for some time, then got into his car, and drove away.
At the end of March, winter was still stubbornly persisting, only a few sunbeams skimming over the freshly fallen snow. In the late afternoon, she entered the hallway and picked up some advertising brochures and one letter from her mailbox. She went into the apartment, took off her coat, and put her down her briefcase with papers from work. She sat at the computer, turned it on, and began to scroll through her e-mail. On a large manila envelope, she recognized the writing of her former roommate who had stayed on with her boyfriend at their previous apartment. There was another smaller white envelope in the first one, addressed to her, and sent to her former address. She slowly opened the white envelope and closed her eyes. She pulled from it a folded sheet of paper and wished with all her power – as she did each time she opened the occasional mail that was forwarded to her by her former roommate – that she would discover the letter that she had been waiting for.
After a few minutes, she opened her eyes. Words danced in front of them. Then she looked up and stared through the window in disappointment. For more than three years, she had been waiting for some news that Elena had survived. That she lived, however weak, with someone. That she had been cured. She was waiting for a postcard, a note, even better a long letter in which she would recognize Elena’s writing even if it were permeated with hurt, reproach, disappointment, and anger. It could be just a few words. Just one word. Not even that. It could even be a white empty sheet without a single word on it. She would know what it meant. First Elena’s reproachful question and then her answer, the infinitely repeating words: that she was sorry, very sorry, that she didn’t give her the summons, even stained with coffee; that she regretted having accepted it and opened it at all; that she wonders everyday if Elena is alive, and actually doesn’t even know what kind of illness it was; maybe it wasn’t even that serious; and because of that, because she hadn’t given her the stained letter, certainly…. probably… perhaps… she isn’t and can’t be guilty… that she misses Elena as she has never missed anyone….That she is grateful to Elena for just knowing her even though she so heartlessly rejected her later… That she wanted to see her at least once more, even if Elena didn’t notice her, as she had never really noticed her… And while she nervously crumpled the invitation to some performance she had received, the tears began to flow. She opened the drawer, pulled out the turquoise scarf, lifted it to her face, and looking through it at the snowy trees and rooftops occupied by pigeons, tried to capture a faded remnant of Elena’s scent. Then she wiped her eyes with the scarf, folded it and put it into the drawer. She slowly lowered her gaze and let it be absorbed by the computer screen.