A Day I Loved You
I lay there with my eyes closed, waiting for my husband to vacate his half of the bed. To go to work, of course. He’ll get a sandwich on the corner. He’ll have a coffee during his first meeting. Then he’ll call home. To make sure that I’m still here, and haven’t run away. I’m not going to. I’m going to open that box of old snapshots again. There were no hard drives back in those days. I’ll go through it all photo by photo, and with each one think: That was a day I loved you.
The Power of Words
They say: you can’t blame the tiger for eating the antelope. Eating antelopes is its nature. It’s nice, being a tiger: the endless grasslands, plenty of antelopes waiting for you to get hungry. Night is coming; you’ll fall asleep, sleep, and dream of being a tiger. Now test your power in a different way: explain to another tiger that an antelope is a living, sentient being. Tell him: picture this: you’re not a tiger anymore, you’re an antelope now, running from a tiger, your strength is failing but you run, you run, the tiger is gaining on you, you think you should’ve run in the other direction but it’s too late now, the tiger is coming from that direction. And when your legs buckle and the tiger finally catches up, as is bound to happen, you, the antelope, say to the tiger: “You’re not going to eat me, are you? Meat is murder. Your steak had feelings once, you know.” And the tiger stops. Thinks. The power of words.
Many stories have happened. This is one of them. You have a wife, you have kids, you have a job, you have a car, you have a house in the suburbs. It looks like you’ll die happy, your children will cry at your funeral, and your neighbors will be sorry you’re gone. Then one night as you’re driving home in the last evaporating tendrils of light, going no faster than usual, there’s a thump, you hit something. You haven’t seen anything, there was just this thud against your car. You stop, you get out to see what’s happened. There’s a child lying under your car, seven, eight years old, you’ve got one just like him waiting for you at home, he could’ve been yours. He doesn’t move. A pool of blood is forming under his head.
You cry out, bend down, feel for his pulse, find nothing. You look around, there’s no one there, the street is deserted. You drive along this street every day without knowing anyone, a housing development, gray and disheveled. There’s no one watching, all the lights are out.
What now? What do you do when something like this happens to you? You know: if the child were to moan a little, it would all be simple. You’d load him in your car and rush him to the hospital. Or call for an ambulance. But you can see there’s nothing to save. When you calm down a little you see the streetlights haven’t even come on yet. You see there are no cars in the street. You turn and look around to see if anyone’s coming, if anyone’s lurking behind the dumpsters, watching. But there’s no one anywhere.
You’d like to call someone, but whom? Besides, your phone battery has suddenly run out and you realize that nobody would answer even if it did still work. You look at the child again. He seems to have been lying there for hours, his face has grown colorless, the blood under his head has dried. You look around again and the buildings along the street seem to be crumbling, the asphalt crackling, huge fissures appearing in the night sky, through which the void will begin to seep in at any moment. You’re still holding your car keys, you look at them, you look at your car, and you know it will never move again. You drop the keys, they slowly fall into the dark beneath you and you’re not even surprised when you don’t hear the metal strike the asphalt. There’s no sound left anywhere. No dogs barking, no televisions buzzing, no phones ringing. Again you bend over the child. He’s getting tinier and tinier and more and more dried out, you look at your hands and wait for the cracks to appear on them. You think: I had a wife, I had kids, it seemed I would die happy. Now things will happen differently. Many stories don’t have happy endings. This is one of them.
It’s odd to wake up in a strange apartment. You look at the woman lying next to you. How did you get here? You can’t strike up a conversation with a woman reading Coelho on the train, really. And yet, it happens. Now you’re here. She’s asleep. You listen: she’s still breathing. It would be awful if she wasn’t. Who would you call? How would you explain? As it is, everything can be repaired. On the floor, the remnants of last night, leftover food and drink. You feel like cleaning up, you don’t want to be useless, last night seems to have been nice, you didn’t talk much, it all went ahead without words. But: it’s not easy to clean up when you’re on strange turf. How do you figure out what’s garbage? You used to assess strange apartments by the books and the records. Wherever you went: a quick glance cast along the bookshelves. And you knew. But you can no longer rely on that. Everyone’s books and music are increasingly alike. Waste separation is the thing, now. Where do you put the paper, the glass, the organic waste? You look all around, you peer under the sink, but there are no options, just a single container. No other choice. Quietly, you put on your shoes.
A long time ago, before the war, generals, good friends of my grandfather’s, used to attend my grandmother’s dinners, she remembers. Those days are over; a lot of time has passed. The generals of today couldn’t care less about congenial Sunday dinners; they sit in their offices, clicking on screens, they don’t seem to care about my grandmother and her famous stuffed duck. Understandably, these days, my grandmother can’t just sit around waiting for the next war. Frantically she hoards the ingredients for stuffed duck in her cellar, her deep freezer is full of headless bodies in plastic wrap, she’s bought an oil generator because it’s common knowledge that electricity is one of the first things to go in wartime, and the oil should last for a few Sunday dinners at least. On Sundays, my grandmother calls up her grandchildren, one by one. “Will you come when the war starts?” she asks. “Will you come?” We explain that there could be complications, there could be roadblocks, there could be shooting, someone might even be drafted. “I’m not eating my duck by myself,” grandmother sobs into the receiver on her end, “not all by myself, dinners like that make no sense. I hate war, I hate wars like this, wars used to be comme il faut in the old days, they didn’t interfere with my stuffed duck.” Those days are over, Grandma, we explain patiently, it’s all mixed up now, no one knows what it will be like when it happens. Grandmother’s whimpers slowly subside, we put down the receivers and go over to our closets, concerned, wanting to make sure that everything is in place, the weapons all loaded and the safeties all off, ready, we must be ready now, nobody knows when it will happen, when it happens.
All my lovers give me bookmarks. They seem to think I must read a lot. I put all the marks into the same book, the one I never open. When I can’t sleep at night I think about how I should, how I ought to open it and see what I’ve marked. What would a story made up of only my marked pages be like? I never do, though. Perhaps I don’t—or so I think when the night feels just a little too long—because whatever this story might be like, it would be about its being all over already, and about the impossibility of adding any new marks. About there not having been any sense in reading this story in the first place. Because it’s all happened before. That’s why I just look at the tops of the bookmarks peeking out of the book. Thinking.
From “You Do Understand?” Published in Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksandar Hemon (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010). By arrangement with Dalkey Archive Press. All rights reserved.