Ljubica Arsić


Sarajevske Sveske br. 34

translated from Serbian by Novica Petrović

When I thought about it afterwards, at the tram stop, inside the streetcar, my entire body pressed against that of an unknown woman, it seemed to me that it had never happened. The way the past appears to you anyway, when you wake up from it. The only thing that remains is someone’s wanton laughter, contorted like a boiled apricot at the bottom of a freshly opened can, faces slowly melting like ice cubes inside a glass. But the ringing of the telephone late that night is still real enough. Its sound, though, is getting weaker, sometimes I hear it in the middle of an unintelligible dream in which it is the only sound there is, while I walk backward through time, my hand reaching for the phone that would bring days of happiness and unrest to me. And all that just at the moment when spring began, with a ladybird tangled in the yellow lace of ferns, down there in the Gypsy yard that my window looks out on.
There was someone in the yard, dragging crates with empty beer bottles across it, a young Gypsy presumably, who kept cursing a dog at the top of his voice. On sunny days, everyone came out, their trouser legs rolled up or trouserless, to splash about wading through muddy pools, while a Gypsy woman washed a red carpet with a hose, loudly addressing them and pointing at the sun, then at a transistor radio around which everyone would gather all of a sudden. That night, an open door would yawn suddenly, a red curtain rushing out of it, or maybe it was a red light pushing Gypsies towards the dog. It was then that the phone rang.
I let it ring for a while, then I listlessly went to answer it, assuming that it must be Bibi, the former Bibi, to whom I gave so many months of attention and understanding, all in vain. She was obsessed with fashion, she was flabby, she was angelic in a typically feminine way and rather stupid in a number of other ways. And I was rather lonely and terrified because of that, mad with lust that she quickly calmed down dusting on Sunday mornings, arranging T-shirts very neatly in the drawer and telling me sweetly what I should do when I returned late from the theatre where I was employed as a prompter, how to eat without endangering my digestive system, whom I should trust, how to maintain my composure, which occasionally disappeared before performances. Life without Bibi, I admit, became nice again, even though her spirit, endowed with motherly care and neatness, still floated around me, reminding me, like a pair of underpants too tight, when I became too obstreperous. Occasionally she telephoned when I came home after a performance, just to let me know that she worried about me, for life was nasty and I was a real naïve child, hanging about in dark corners, not caring about getting hurt, did I need anything, we would remain friends, of course. I ended those infrequent conversations asking about her mother and if she needed any medicines, gloating, like the ultimate male sadist, over the fact that Bibi had gone blind and deaf all of a sudden, and with the force of otherworldly willpower, I sent her astral body, which spent its time tidying up old jars on my terrace, to flutter over to her place, take her by the hand and lead her to the bathroom.
I finally picked up the receiver, from which I heard an unknown female voice say:
– I knew you weren’t sleeping, that you’re a night owl just like myself.
– Yes – I replied, which could have meant just about anything, that I was a night owl, that I was waiting to hear what she would say next, that I was surprised at the tameness of her voice and that I would say none of the above, letting everything that I thought at that particular moment in time reach her through my breath.
– You must have made a mistake – whereupon she replied that she never made mistakes, adding that there was a full moon in our windows now, which was quite true. In my window, it had acquired a headscarf made of a curtain, so that it looked like a Spanish maid, and she added that at such times she could not sleep. She also saw my lighted window, which made me grab the phone and rush to the window, upsetting the newspaper stand as I did so, trying to find out where she was calling from. So she could see my window from her flat. Some lights lacking individuality, distant holes of pierced sky, glowed through the darkness. In any case, she could have been calling from a darkened room.
– Well, I called just to hear your voice – she said gently and softly, and put down the receiver as I stammered something about her name to the accompaniment of the signal indicating that the connection was terminated.
It happened occasionally to me that, while returning home, I sat on a bench stained with pigeon shit and bent over, leaning my elbows on my knees. Succumbing to an aural hallucination, which I had experienced for the first time in the final year of music school, I would hear the entire world murmuring pleasantly through the window, the noise of far-off cities and waves, telegraph wires vibrating, entering my ears in the manner of fine drills, which would begin to separate and distinguish between all those sounds in earnest. I heard the panting of trains and the screeching of wheels, then the voices of passengers laughing and coughing, the rustling of newspapers in their hands, water pouring into a washbasin, and then all of that gathered and tamed into a big ball, a great big roar rolling over me, disintegrating into the beating of my heart and the ticking of my watch.
And thus, that night, wide awake, I tossed and turned on the crumpled bed, shaken by the buzzing of a disturbed beehive, which affected my nerves. On account of insomnia, I started feeling feverish, the fever perhaps brought about by the Sunday tension, as well as the unknown female voice coming from outside, the way I looked upon the world myself, from the side, feeling nervous because of my inability to get seriously involved in anything.
Towards the dawn, the hellfires that were burning the hairs on my hands and legs were extinguished, so I kept scratching myself, trying to reconcile the pillow and my back, the bedsheet and my feet, dreaming, in the course of a chaotic nap, of a heavenly path that led me to a rainy morning.
The next evening she called again. Her voice trilled:
– How are things, prompter? – which immediately swept me off my feet entirely, so I asked her how she knew that I worked as a prompter in a theatre, whereupon she replied that some things were quite simply understood to be so, abruptly changing the subject to the increased humidity of the air, which made it difficult to breathe in spring. And as for you, how are you, after the rain everything’s warmer and one has the impression that nothing happens, especially in the dark, which is quite unbearable. I suggested to her that we meet at the Scene café, which was open all night, for a drink and a nice long chat.
– For people to exchange small courtesies – she said – it is not necessary to ever see each other.
After our third conversation, I felt that she had the voice of a perfect woman. Neither fat nor thin, curvaceous enough for a man to bless the sense of touch that nature gave him. Based on her contagious laughter, I imagined the way she moved. I recognised her silences and imagined her eyes accordingly. Green, melancholy. I remembered her voice and imagined her tenderness based on it. And when she left me a message on the answering machine saying: Americans make Coca Cola, the Japanese go in for bonsai, what about you, I knew I was in love.
All our subsequent chats, her purring: so how are things tonight? – which made me start chattering away, realising, like Scheherazade before me, that the end of our conversation would mean a silk cord with which to strangle myself, a nightmare thundering upon the roof like a summer shower, or a cat’s piercing scream, all that dragged me away from her real body and face. I approached her voice guided by the instincts of a blind man, feeling about in the dark, or hearing all that which we normally don’t hear: her femininity and her need to make me happy, her fidelity.
On one occasion, after I had started blabbing about a world full of handsome men, she said:
– But you’re the handsomest of them all!
I admit to having felt elated after that, but I also felt afraid, for I realised that not only did she know what I looked like, but perhaps she studied me from a position of safety while I moved about leisurely as if I was all alone in this world.
I decided to find her, but where was I to begin, for God’s sake? Listening to music that relaxed me, I thought about how other people reacted to it. With Mendelssohn, they felt at home. Albinoni made them feel noble, with Brahms they felt artistic, for they imagined that his music could not be understood by just everyone, and then the accessible Strauss and Don Juan, with little melodies they could hum, rolling them inside their mouths like an hors-d’oeuvre. And then the main course, Beethoven’s grand vibrational massage, the first bars of the Fifth would always slap me on the neck like a shovel, that’s how fate smashed through the door in the work of this deaf genius. All of a sudden I thought that maybe that lovely voice belonged to one of the opera singers employed at the opera house where I worked. It just had to be so, inspiration hit me, full of greenish shades of barely perceptible nasal sensuality, interspersed with pink veins, supple like music from top to bottom.
It couldn’t be La Traviata, I decided right away, she was so gangly that we gave her the nickname Banana at the theatre. Perhaps Carmen, with her big eyes, even bigger tits and pouting, sensual lips, painted with a loud red lipstick, always spilling over the edges. She was too direct somehow, for with her a man thought only of getting her into bed. Too cheap, shedding operatic tears that were way too big and flowed too slowly down her cheeks. She went through the corridors of the theatre without touching the floor or noticing anyone, looking at everything from some other era, when everyone knew everything about her talent, a time impossible to determine and far away, but certainly a time before the discovery of the deodorant spray. Or maybe, in view of that message about the Japanese, it was Madam Butterfly, with an alabaster-like complexion and a mysterious smile. She, too, was eliminated soon afterwards, after a rehearsal, when we sat together at the theatre café, where she told a Hungarian tenor, her voice fluttering like that of a sheep, of her greatest adventure in life: how, once when she was in Tivat, she had to have supper twice on account of being too shy to admit she’d already eaten. The others had voices cracked from false applause and the half-empty pit, as well as an orchestra that, instead of playing, shuddered like a hen wet through from rain. They barely managed to gather their voices together, stitching them at the seams before a performance, afraid that they would crack ignominiously, which, apart from exposing them shamefully naked, would also mean the end of their careers.
I was spending one of many similar evenings at the theatre café, where I would have two or three drinks in order to wash the dust from the sets down my throat after a performance, as well as the false smiles and shouts of approval, which they so generously dispensed to the audience from the stage. The same clinking glasses, sweaty actors trying to expiate their misery by shouting, actresses whose front teeth had started coming dangerously apart; their flirting, grandmotherly already, may have worked somehow in the chaos of alcohol and tobacco smoke, but outside, in the sun lighting the street, it wasn’t worth a penny. The waiter, astonishingly businesslike and composed, without an ounce of enthusiasm, wiped the glasses and poured drinks with gestures of a supercilious creature who had no wish to participate in the general madness. He resembled a groom tending to a filly for his master. A lone baritone sat on a chair next to a column, caressing his dyed beard and sideboards, shouting something or other to those entering and going out.
All of a sudden everything grew distant. It was as if someone had poured buttermilk all over the scene. I noticed that the waiter and the actors were eyeing me suspiciously, wondering why I had not moved an inch for about ten minutes. At that moment of being completely glazed, I had a rare but very lucid perception of reality that sharpens itself in a flash of consciousness, when all thing seem clear and revealed behind a heavy velvet curtain.
Everything went quiet at once. My glass stopped in mid-air. My head drooped towards my shoulder. A match was burning in my hand when, amidst this otherworldly silence, I heard a sentence thought up just for me:
– What do you actually like to drink?
That sentence doesn’t matter now, nor will it ever matter amidst the chaos of sentences that women will throw at me, but I have memorised it word for word. It was her voice. It came from behind my back, a little bit to the side, but it went straight into my ear, almost as if by phone. When I turned round, I saw her standing next to the bar stool.
That was precisely how I had imagined her. I asked myself, overcome by blissful confusion, how I had not thought before that that voice belonged to young Salome, a soprano educated abroad, who trod so enchantingly through a pool of stage blood carrying the cut-off head of John the Baptist on a plate.
– My treat – she said to me climbing onto the bar stool – and thank you for coming to my rescue right there. Herodias spoils my concentration, she thinks that this opera was written for her only. In any case – she looked at me with the most beautiful eyes in the world – it all turned out for the best.
That night, she phoned me, pretending that we hadn’t met at the café inside the theatre. Unfinished and unclear sentences wriggled about like pilchards in a net. Salome, girl, you’ll be mine, I kept repeating like a loony, in a little while you’ll be right here beside me, in just a little while. And until then? The slow mechanics of sitting at a table in a café, taking her gingerly by the hand, which barely resisted and initially did not respond to being squeezed, then surrendered, having gone blind, and I let go of it. We both go to cinemas and like the same actors. We read the same books. Because of her, I read Velikić’s The Bremen Case, which was fashionable then, and throughout the evening, tipsy, I babble about the different levels that a writer builds into his characters. I give her small bunches of flowers and kiss her in the mouth for a long time, trying to slip my hand, hidden by the tablecloth, as deep as possible between her slightly parted legs, to the consternation of a lady sitting next to us, whose triple string of pearls trembled nervously on her enormous décolletage.
I never asked her why she chose me of all people. I knew that the quiet Salome, who was getting increasingly closer to me while giving me gentle nudges, liked cellar creatures who, like myself, whispered from some dark corner or other. Salome, Salomette, I murmured going to the toilet in an attempt to reduce the tension by washing my face, but only castration could have freed me from the image of her face, participating, eyes closed and mouth open, in scenes of wanton debauchery, which made my hand go weak very quickly, so that I left the toilet feeling ashamed like a snotty churlish kid.
From that evening when we had our first drink together at the theatre café, her nighttime calls grew less frequent until they petered out altogether.
In the beginning, when I walked her home, inside the dark doorway she allowed me measured kisses and lax embraces. She tried with all her might to hide the feeling of frailty and helplessness that overcame her in the course of being caressed, when she started trembling in my arms before pushing me away gently while telling me softly that she wasn’t ready yet. Once, when her palm rubbed against the front part of my trousers that was stretched very tight, she withdrew her hand abruptly and moved away from me.
– Hope you didn’t hurt yourself – I joked while she maintained a sulky silence, then said good-bye, which was supposed to sound cold, and ran to the elevator. But the evenings that followed turned into a veritable whirlwind of kisses and petting, which she did with such a consummate skill at times, in the manner of a woman who was no stranger to sophisticated pleasures. Gently, taking care not to hurt me with the zipper, she would take it out of my fly, then take it with her hand, hard as it was, as if she were bandaging a little bird fallen out of its nest. She rubbed it with her palms, starting a fire with a piece of flint in the middle of the desolate Indian night. As it pulsed, she murmured or sang softly, squeezing it while it overflowed with pleasure, and in the course of those doorway orgies I occasionally wished I could pierce a hole in her waist and spill its content into it.
I was certain that she would come to my flat when I told her something serious and important for my life, thus securing her trust forever.
A strange kind of drunkenness is what it was. After just a few glasses of brandy, probably full of methyl alcohol, which I drank over the course of a festive occasion, seeing off somebody who was to do his national service, I turned totally blind, overcome by a drunkenness similar to madness. To this day, I don’t remember how I reached my bed, but I do remember that, lying in it, I was entirely aware of the present that reminded me of eternity, my sagging body floating amidst that eternity like a chipped-off board, gently swaying on the grey, murky waters. My thoughts firmly gripped my head like a bandage. Around me, some sort of a rush began, whirlwinds of icy air howling and shaving my cheek, slipping beneath my back and cooling the sheet, trying to pull it off the bed with all their might. Then this air giggled, jangling coins under the bed. That must be what going mad looks like, I thought, horrified, unable to lift a finger. All of a sudden, a man appeared by the head of the bed, extremely handsome, with a smooth pale complexion, penetrating eyes black as blackberries, his long silver hair clipped in a spiral chignon. He took a hairpin out of it and silver strands of hair fluttered like a mane behind his broad, strong back. Don’t be afraid, he said to me, everything’s going to be all right, and now sleep, sleep. Then he lay on the very edge of the bed, for I still couldn’t move an inch. Along the entire length of my body, I felt his supple body that protected me from the cold air, his satin skin that warmed, and coughed with pleasure, feeling safe because of his skin and muscles, whose touch poured fresh strength into my weakened body. I fell asleep quite peacefully.
While I was telling her this, my Salome kept getting closer to me, as if that would help her to understand me better. Little dots shone in her eyes. Her face flushed from listening to me, she asked me who that young man had been, and I said to her: an angel. And then: how about going to my place for a cup of coffee, whereupon she got up from the table first, mutely accepting my proposal.
We kissed for a long time, always embracing anew, half-dressed, for she gently resisted and stopped my hand, which fumbled incessantly with her blouse, eventually throwing it down on the floor between two strips of light. She sniffed my neck with the tip of her nose, presumably wishing to make sure that I didn’t smell like a wild animal, and when I won her trust, she would wrap her lips around the tip of my tongue and suck it like a tit, giggling, while I, moaning with pleasure, was getting ready to pounce. To no avail, for when I finally managed to get her into a position that was anywhere near to being conducive to surrendering to me, I was already overexcited and a sorry wreck on account of that. We lay naked in a loose embrace. With my lips, I sought that hot pit between the neck and the collar-bone. Then she, emboldened by a sudden rush of excitement, started kissing me, rubbing softly against my thighs, which made my hard-on return. I hastened to stick it into her. Trembling, she whispered in that characteristic voice of hers.
– Please, see to it that you take it out in time.
And then, as if she’d changed her mind all of a sudden, after just a few energetic squirms, she slipped from under me and ejected the swollen member, shaking and blue from the inrush of blood, from herself. Trying to get a modest recompense, I took her by the hand, showing her how to clasp her fingers around it, but she said that at that particular moment there was no way she could do that. I had to provide a hurried and chaotic demonstration of the act, in the course of which my concentration was spoiled by the Gypsies rushing about the yard and their drunken shouting, while Salome watched me with bewilderment and sadness.
Later, talking over a few cigarettes about strict parents who watched their only daughter vigilantly, she told me that there would be no real carnal joys until I met her family.
Salome’s parents, Mr and Mrs Kabiljo, lived on the penultimate floor of a building from which my window could be seen. Dr Kabiljo’s cuffs had certainly been cleaner before, but their current lack of cleanliness was made up for by dignified portraits of rabbis in elaborate frames and Sephardic aunts grouped above a chest of drawers. According to Mrs Kabiljo, who wanted to hide her Šumadian origin with these stories, these aunts of hers were real masters of dying effortlessly. All her husband’s aunts died in her arms, letting out a slight pufff, reminiscent of puffing at scented cigarettes. The oldest one even managed to do so in a plane flying over Budapest.
My darling moved within the boundaries of this mysterious Jewish kingdom like an ethereal being made of air and moonlight, her face washed with sweet white wine.
Also present at lunch was her godfather Pavle, a sprightly oldster who held forth at the table, telling endless jokes consisting of reptilian sentences like and I almost told him that, but actually I waited to see what he would tell me, which were real torture to listen to, reminiscent of a painful pimple you just couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard you squeezed, or a rape you couldn’t finish properly on account of some enthusiastic policeman barging in on you.
While we were chatting after lunch, Salome went to the kitchen to make coffee. She returned with a pink coffee-pot whose twisted handle seemed lop-eared. She smiled while pouring coffee for me, signalling to me that everyone liked me, encouraging me to take a closer look at the things to be found in the room. On the chest of drawers, between an elaborately painted porcelain egg and wooden boxes with sleeping beauties, there stood a family photograph, probably taken at the seaside. Salome, already a young girl when that photo was taken, wearing hot pants, her tits pointed, sat on a low wall; next to her was her godfather Pavle, his hand leisurely resting on her bare thigh.
Jealousy gave me a hot, tingling slap on the cheek, my hand trembled, as a result of which I spilt some coffee on my trousers. That old pervert must have rubbed suntan lotion into her shoulders and thighs, wiped her sudden tears, slipped his hand across her pointed tits as if by accident; diving in the sea, he held her waist, gathered her hair with a rubber band, collecting runaway strands from her neck into a chignon.
Salome ran up to me immediately and rubbed the stain with a piece of cloth. From the ante-room very loud barking was heard, and a Great Dane ran into the drawing room carrying an indecently red rubber bone in its slobbering jaws. This giant animal left the thing in the middle of the room, then came up to me, lifted its front paws onto my knees and looked at me with its perspicacious canine eyes.
– Mima likes you, and she’s very strict and choosy.
The silence of the dark drawing room, the old-timey pictures with pink-cheeked, bare girls who went through a thick wood towards a spring carrying a jug, a brass menorah placed in the most conspicuous place in the room, a big black piano, told me that my darling had what could be described in a single word as personality. The panting of the big dog and its tongue sticking out were a sure sign that, from now on, she would be a voluptuous, passionate lover, freed from the shame that only misted over her beauty, depriving our relationship of those wonderful moments of abandonment of which I used to dream about as a naïve kid, a randy young man, aged husband, an old lecher on his deathbed.
The late autumn afternoon danced on a leaf that had fallen on the window sill. Chattering away merrily, my Salome went to the bathroom, and I stayed in bed for a while longer, letting my imagination succumb to desire spurred by incredible joy; then I got up, went over to the window and, as usual, looked at what was happening in the Gypsy yard. There were children there, rubbing a dog with a sponge. A Gypsy lay on a mouldy, disintegrating mattress, drinking beer and squinting at the sun, and then the phone rang.
I picked up the receiver, and the phone said:
– So, how are things, prompter, I haven’t heard from you in a while.
It was that voice. I stammered:
– I haven’t heard from you for quite a while either.
– Ah – she said – problems in the family, I’ve been away often.
At that moment, Salome appeared before me, wearing my much too wide bathrobe which hung down from her low, narrow shoulders. Strands of wet hair framed a rather stupid smile in a plain face that would want to bother me from here to eternity. It was then, I don’t know why, that the image of the flat belonging to the Jewish Kabiljo family flashed in my mind: Salome did not belong there at all, except on account of the surname that she’d received as a gift, for her real father, the one who had got Mrs Kabiljo pregnant with her, was actually her godfather Pavle Popović.
Next week I quit my job at the theatre, thus avoiding scenes involving tears and a cross-examination that was supposed to prove my unreasonableness.
Occasionally, I still notice her raincoat in a crowd. I run away from it as fast as my feet can carry me, and it chases me, catches up with me, and gets me.

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