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(E) Croatian Stories - Spleen
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  06/11/2002 | Culture And Arts | Unrated
(E) Croatian Stories - Spleen

JosipNovakovich
77 Cooper St., Apt 2a
NYC10034
212-569-2472
josipn@yahoo.com

6600words
fiction

Spleen 

WhenI found out that a Bosnian family had moved into our neighborhood, just acrossfrom my place, I was thrilled. I had been gone from Bosnia for seven years, andI hardly ever saw anybody from there, at first deliberately, for thecircumstances under which I left were not pleasant.

         To me now it didn't matter whether the neighbors were Muslims, Croats, orSerbs from Bosnia; the main thing was that they were Bosnian, that they spokethe language I loved and hadn't heard in a while, but when I learnt that theywere a Croatian family from Bugojno, I was all the more delighted.

         Maybe it was the timing. Nostalgia is a powerful thing; the more timepasses, the stronger it gets. Perhaps I could already go home, but I didn'ttrust it, since my home town was in Republika Srpska. I know, under the NATOsupervision, it's possible to go back, and probably nothing bad would happen,but I still couldnít see sleeping there at night, without streetlights around;I would imagine masked thugs coming in . . . and I begin to replay in my mind .. . but I won't get into that, not now. Well, I canít get it out of my mindnow, so I will. Some people had already fled from my hometown because they hadheard the Serb army was coming. I did not believe they would bother me. True, myhusband was already gone to serve in the Bosnian army, which wasnít a realarmy yet; they had more people than guns. If they were targeting peopleethnically, I thought I was safe, since I was half Serb, half Croat. At night,somebody knocked on the door, and shouted, Open up! Police. We must tell yousomething about your husband.

         I looked through the door and saw two men with masks over their heads.

         That is not what youíd expect police to look like.

         So I went to the kitchen, took a sharp mid-sized knife, put it in mysleeve and waited, while they tore the door down. I hid in a clothesí cabinet.The two thugs went through the house, overturning the tables, smashing thechina, and they shouted for me to come out. One walked into the basement, andthe other opened the toilet. At that moment I sneaked out of the closet, walkingsoftly, barefoot. But the thug saw me, and ran after me and knocked me down. Theknife slid out of my sleeve and fell on the floor but he must not have heard itbecause heíd knocked down a pile of plates on the way, and they crashed on thefloor, and some of them, rolled and jangled. He tore my clothes off. In themeanwhile, the man--or should I say, beast--downstairs kept smashing the jars ofjam, pickled peppers, and suddenly he quieted because heíd probably found thewine bottles.

         The thug pinned me to the floor and as I tried to throw him off my body,he whacked my head against the boards. I am pretty strong, and I think I couldhave thrown him off if he hadnít each time I moved whacked my head. It hurtterribly. I thought migraines were the worst headache you could have, but thiswas worse, it hurt deeper inside, and I was dizzy, as though my brain had turnedaround in my skull and was now loose and wobbling.

         He slid a little lower and sat on my thighs. You must help me to get ithard, he said.

         I donít want to.

         You must. Here, take it into your hand.

         I did with one hand.

         Itís awkward like that, can I sit up, I asked.

         Sure, no problem.

         I sat up sideways, felt on the floor for the knife, grabbed its handle,and without hesitation stuck the knife into him. I wanted to get him in themiddle of his abdomen but I missed and stuck it to the side, the left side. Idid not think it went deep.

         He shrieked and did not react as I leaped to the side and ran straightout of doors. And so, I ran into the hills, naked, in the cold November night. Inearly froze, turned all blue, and did not know where to hide, except in theBenedictine monastery on top of the hill. I broke into the chapel in the middleof matins, five in the morning now, still dark. The poor men crossed themselves,hid their faces, prayed in Latin, and I heard one word, which I liked,misericordia. But one of them, said, Brothers, donít be silly. Help her! Hetook of his brown garment and put it over me, and now he stood there, in hisstriped shirt and long johns.

The monks gave me hot water and coffee, and when Istopped shivering, I wanted to run away. I told them what had happened andadvised them to run away as well. The one who had intervened for me drove mewest, to Mostar. As he drove he wanted to hold hands with me. No harm, Ithought. And indeed, what harm was it? This fifty year old man, holding hands.He did not ask for anything more. I think he just loved some female creaturecomfort. I did not wait for further developments. I stole a bicycle in Mostar,and rode it all the way into Croatia, to Metkovic. That was not hard since theroad mostly goes downhill. And in Croatia, I appealed to Caritas, who gave methe papers, and let me go abroad, to the States. Now that was more adventurethan I had hoped to get.

         I've always wanted to be a homebody. I never got the joy of travel,wanderlust, and nearly the only aspect of travel I enjoyed as a kid was thehomecoming. I'd rush to the side of the train, as it crested a hill before myhometown, and seeing the first glimpse of the town, with the church steeples anda minaret and an old castle, made me happy. So it's all the more miraculous tome that I have become a world-traveler, an American.

I work at a local bank where there are many Croats andPoles but not Bosnians. It can be interesting with our people. One day a manpaid for his entire new house in cash, literally. He opened a brown travelingcase, and it was nearly full of ten dollar bills. Nothing but ten dollar bills.

         Why donít you write a check?

         Canít trust no checks, he said.

         And why only 10 dollar bills?

         Canít trust no hundred dollar bills, he said.

         Why not?

         The mafia Xeroxes those. Ten dollar is the best.

He was an old Croatian car dealer. Outside his lot stooda sign, Only Honest Cash for Honest Cars. You wouldnít believe that someonecompletely stuck in the cash economy could become rich, but that man apparentlydid, bringing half a million dollars just like that. I wonder how he dared walkin the streets, alone, with all the cash. 

         And the workplace is nice. In the back of the hall, thereís arestaurant, Dubrovnik. I donít need to go into it, but just knowing itísthere comforts me; itís a bit of homeland. And itís a cloud, a tobaccocloud. I watch people in it now and then, and have the impression that itís abunch of angels walking around in the cloudówell, only if that were the case.I like to imagine that, smoked angels.

         My coworker, a Polish woman, said, You know, thereís a family next doorto yours, from Bosnia. They are renting. They are having a grill next Saturday,you should meet them.

         So there we were, having a party in the backyard of my new neighbors. Iwas simply overjoyed, laughing like a child.

That is one aspect of American culture we from theBalkans quickly adapt to, grilling cutlets and sausages, although we add ourvariant to it, chevapi, spicy mixed meat in small chunks. The boom-box placed onthe outer window sill played folk music, the kind that used to bore and botherme, but now made me feel at home.

         The bald host wore a green outfit as though he were in a hospital, andwhen I asked him, he said, Yes, I work at a hospital. I am an x-ray technician.

         Thatís a good job, isnít it? How many hours a week counts as fulltime?

         Twenty-four.

         So you have lots of free time. Nice.

         It could be nicer. I studied to be a doctor in Sarajevo, did very well,but wasnít very wise: I participated in a protest against Tito, had to go toprison, and could not go back to the university afterward. So I had no choicebut to emigrate.

         Have you met my nephew yet? He asked, and pointed out a man whose backwas turned to us. The man turned around, balding like his uncle, with a widebony face, and teeth unusually white for someone from our partsóthey were alsospread, and maybe thatís what saved them.

         He looked familiar, but the more I looked at him, the more I was surethat I was wrong. That is just itómany people from my native region can giveme that feeling of familiarity even without my ever having seen them. In my hometown, they would all be strangers to me, but the familiar kind of stranger, andthat is what I imagined I was responding to.

         He came over to me and asked where I was from and what I did, the kind ofquestions you would not expect from someone from our native region, but from anAmerican.

         When  I told him I worked fora bank, he grew wildly enthusiastic. I need to buy a house. Can you get me amortgage deal?

         That depends on your credit rating.

         Credit rating, phew. How would I have any? But I have a refugee status,and a Lutheran church backing me. And I just got a job, as an electrician.

         You must be smart then. A dumb electrician would be dangerous.

         You are right about that. But maybe I am a dumb and brave electrician.

         Have you ever got a good shock?

         Of course, of course, who hasnít. I bet even you have an electricalshock memoir you could relate.

         True, I said.

         He kept standing closer and closer to me, and I moved a little bit awayfrom him, and so we kept moving around the yard. I was keenly aware of it, andhe apparently wasnít, or did not mind. Perhaps I had adopted the Americansubconscious concept of personal space, which is about an armís length,perhaps conveniently, so nobody could touch you or hit you without your gettinga chance to duck, and itís also convenient because at that distanceanybodyís bad breath would dissolve in the air and you would not have tosuffer it and likewise, you would not have to worry that if you had morningbreath, youíd make people uncomfortable breathing in your free-floatingbacteria. I like this Anglo-Saxon personal space, but naturally, a fresh arrivalfrom Bosnia would be totally oblivious to it, perhaps would not understand it,and would find it cold and standoffish. Of course, it is standoffish. Stand offish. You could break it like that.

         But after a while it occurred to me that he was not so much after a houseand mortgage as after me. So, quite out of context, I told him I was married.Technically it was true, but my husband disappeared in the first months of thewar, and no word on him ever. I imagine he was buried in some mass grave. Itíspossible, of course, that he managed to run away, and went to New Zealand, tolive merrily, without any need to remember his native land, and family. I likeimagining the Zealandian option because then he would not be worth grievingover. That itself could warrant grief, that someone you loved suddenly turns outunworthy of grief.

Anyway, I got together with this man, Dragan--for noserious reason, other than that I loved speaking Bosnian. I guess that is aserious enough reason. We talked in our neighborhood beer hall.

You know, he said, my uncle is a funny cat. In thenightshift, he sometimes dresses like a doctor and pretends to be one, andvisits patients in the clinic, even offering them new diagnoses and advisingthem to undergo surgery; he loves to advise heart patients to get transplants.He was caught parading like a doctor, and thrown out of the job, but then, whenhe promised he would not pretend to be a doctor any more, he could come back. Hesuffers on the job because he imagines he knows much more than his superiors. Heis so absorbed in his status struggle, that he neglects other aspects of hislife. So for example, he lent his life savings to a friend of his from Bosnia,40,000 dollars, without a security note, just on the honorable word. The frienddisappeared, and that was that for life savings. Anyhow, thatís my uncle foryou.

         How can you speak so badly of him? He takes care of you.

         I am not speaking badly of him. Everybody knows what heís done. Itísfunny.

         Mostly sad. So he pretends to be whatís heís not. Does that run inthe family?

         What do you mean? I donít pretend anything.

         I did not say you did. I simply wonder whether whatís heís doing is afamily trait.

         Is that how you talk for fun?

         Yes, I continue a theme, a thread. So heís your uncle.

         And so? Are you getting aggressive with me?

         My God, I thought you had a sense of humor.

         Yes, I had it.

         OK, mellow out. Have a beer.

         Good idea. Two Guinnesses please, he asked the waitress, and turned hishead. The waitress wore a short skirt and black stockings that went only a fewinches above her knees, so there was a stretch of thighs between the hem of theskirt and the stocking.

         Good body, I said.

         Guinness has lots of body.

         She has a good body.

         You noticed?

         I didnít. I noticed you noticing.

         Oh, here we go again. You are catching me or something?

         No.

         I noticed her style. I donít know whether she has a good body, but thestyleís--

         Sassy?

         I forgot how difficult our women can be. Now I feel right at home.

         Same goes for me and our men. I do feel at home. Thatís the point, Iwanted to feel like I was home.

         And thatís how you agreed to come out with me?

         Yes.

         And it doesnít matter what I am like, the main thing is I am from overthere?

         It matters what people are like.

         The beer was foamy and cool, and left a creamy and milky edge on hislips, which he never wiped off right away, but talked like that, with the foamon his upper lip.

         The second round of ale got to my head. The American bars are dark. Thatmay seem like a non sequetor, and it is, but what follows is notówe kissed inthat darkness under the spell of dark ale, or under the excuse of it. He tastedof unfiltered cigarettes, and I liked that, it reminded me of home. Yes, I hadkissed a few Americans, and nonsmoking immigrants, who before the kiss,regularly chewed mints, so their mouths were cool, slightly antiseptic. Well,the three-four times I had kissed they went to the bathroom to floss theirteeth, no doubt, and to brush them, so youíd get a re-furbished mouth,revirgoned, ready for fresh reuse. But this was a European kiss, old style, witha nicotine bite to it, and an undertone of hot peppersóhe must have hadfeferonki  somewhere. The kiss washotly reminiscent of the old continent, so I closed my eyes, and floated intothe smoky spaces with Turkish coffee poured from dzezva, coppery vessels, andheavy dregs on the bottom, from which old peasant women read fortune. Upondrinking a cup, youíd have a few coffee grains left in your mouth, to chew on,to chase around your mouth with your tongue, and that is what the kiss now felt,like a grainy chase. A gritty and biting kiss. I stretched my neck and he kissedit, his five oíclock whiskers scratching me like a rasping paper, raw, but Iliked that sensation of hurt.

         We went to my home, and continued the erotic pursuits so impatiently thatwe had not fully undressed. I still had my skirt on, and he had his shirt andtie, though everything else was off. I pulled him to me by his red shirt, andthe tightening grip of the shirt, plus the labor of lust, made his face all red,and blue veins popped on his forehead and kept changing their courses, likeoverflowing tributaries of a river, seeking the most urgent way to the sea.

         And as I realized that, I wondered why this man trusted me and let mepull the tie. I felt a sudden impulse to strangle him, inexplicable, buttempting. Instead, I let go of the tie, and loosened it. He panted with hismouth open, baring his teeth, and again he kissed my neck, and bit it, perhapsplayfully. Still, his toothy grip shot a wave of fright through my blood. I bithis ear. We kept biting each other, as though we were two wolves, steadying eachother in the playful grip of teeth. Our lust affected our bones, and came fromour bones, and flesh was in the way. The bones of our love made us both sharp,not dreamy and sleepy as I used to be in lovemaking, not floating in thedelicacy of sensations, but aggressively alert, as though we wanted to destroyeach otheróand that did result in a sensation, such as you have when your lifeis in question, jumping off a cliff into a deep azure bay, skiing downhill andhitting a bump which suspends you in the air.

         There was an extraordinary undercurrent of hatred in our sex, and itshocked me. I did not think I hated this man, but how else to explain it? Whywould I hate him? I was shuddering, at first I thought in the premonition of anorgasm, but no, from the cold fright, and in this festival of inimical senses, Iwas not lagging behind. He let go of my neck, and his tie tickled my stomach andbreasts as he rocked back and forth. I was nearly strangling him again, holdingon to his tie, like a friar to the church bell, while he was smashing his pubicbone into mine in the rhythm of a church bell, and I did indeed hear the ringingin my ears. If the bones were to break, I wasnít sure it would be mine thatwould give first. Many waves of violence came instead of Eros, or Eros amidstviolence, and let me explain myself, though I donít need to apologize: loveand lust arenít synonyms, as everybody knows, and hate and lust, consequentlyarenít antonyms. Well, there are situations when hatred enhances lust. Thepanic aspect of lovemaking, which is such a big part of the abandon during anorgasm, that sensation of falling, weightlessness, loss of ground, that is sheerpanic, delicious panic, self-destructive, dangerous. Love is usually safe,someone there who can help you, who can spread his arms to keep you fromfalling, and in that sense, itís antithetical to that sensation of totalcollapse and abandon that the most intense orgasms are made of.  Hatred, however, helps along that sensation of destruction,and self-destruction. That is what I realized as I was coming in this sea, notof joy, but terror.

         I would not have thought like that if we had not been making love andhate in our sex, and if hate had not prevailed.

I slid my hands under his shirt, and touched his stomach.His stomach twitched like a horseís flank when bitten by a horsefly. His skinwas smooth and soft. That surprised me because his neckís hairs stuck outabove the collar of his shirt. When my hands roamed further, he gripped them andput them back. That tickles, he said.

         So, tickling is good. You can tickle me, if you like.

         I touched him again, and he twitched, and lost his erection. That wasjust as well, we had survived several hours of passion, and both of us sighedperhaps with relief, perhaps with the contemplation of the unsettling nature ofour collision.

Even after he was gone, I sat in amazement at what hadtranspired and the animosity which hung in the air mustily, as a war ofdifferent body vapors, his sweat and my sweat, his garlicky, mine olivey, hissugary, mine salty.

After he was gone, I wondered why he had kept his shirton, and that is how I went to sleep. I woke up, certain I had had anenlightening dream, like that biochemist who had a vision of a snake eating itsown tail, which was the solution for the circular structure of benzene or sugaror whatever it was and is for ever, of course. Now, in my dream, Dragan appearedin a black tee shirt. I asked him, why donít you take it off?

I canít.

I will make love to you only if you take it off.

Iíd rather not.

So I undressed and teased him, and when he took off histee-shirt, I saw a brown scar on his left side, under the ribs, in the spleenarea. The scar paled, then blushed, and became angry red. Drops of blood slidout of it and went down his flank. Give me back my shirt, he said, right away! Ihad thrown it behind the bed. I donít know where it is, I said.

Find it! He said. Blood now gushed.

By the time I took mercy on him, though I thought I hadno reason to do it, and wanted to hand him his shirt, he fell on the floor, inan oily red puddle. Blood kept coming out of him, and furniture floated, and mybed turned into a sinking boat. I shrieked, and woke up with the echo of it,from the attic and the basement, the whole house was empty with the aftermath ofmy shriek.

I went to the bathroom. The floor was dry. I brushed myteeth. My gums werenít bleeding. I looked into my eyes. They were notbloodshot.

I had believed in my dreams, but I also doubted themóIhad had all sorts of dreams, in some I had lost all my teeth and when I woke upthey were still fast in my jaws.

We were supposed to meet again the following eveningafter my work. I dreaded it. I would not answer the door. I would turn all thelights off and pretend I was not there.

No, I would refuse to be scared. Should I fear the mannext door? I had too many questions, and to spend the rest of my days inCleveland coping with them, without an answer, seemed to me like an unbearablepredicament. I would not be free again, but would obsess until I grew insane.No, I would not be scared of him, and I would find out everything about him. Ineeded the truth. The man held that truth hidden under his starched shirt, partof that truth, and I would get it, I decided, so I waited for him that evening.

When eight oíclock approached, I had a sudden anxietyattack, that the man would not come, that he would know I had figured him out.Strangely, I needed him, needed his scar.

         He came back. This time he was not so formal, but had a black tee-shirt,just like in my dream. He brought in red carnations and a bottle of Eagle PeakMerlot. I turned on the music, Mahlerís Fifth. Some of the funeral cords inMahlerís music give me chills, so this was masochistic of me, in all theredness and blackness to have these jarring notes in minor keys.

         You like that music? He asked.

         Love it.

         Why not play some accordion kolo?

         Later. This is good for a slow start.

         We have been anything but slow and we are way past a start, Iíd say.

         He smiled, looked humble, sitting in a slouchy posture, as though helacked self-confidence. He did not look dangerous, but almost amiable, low-key,not like an alpha dog, but a beta, sitting at a fireplace with his tail curled.

         Out of nervousness, I drank a fair amount, half the bottle, which for meis a lot, and soon we were kissing on my queen-size bed. I grew excited, partlybecause this had a forbidden quality to it: I had forbidden it to myself, andnow I was transgressing. I had of course planned to get to bed, to check out hisscar, the only way, but I had not wanted to be aroused, and here, I was.

         Under the pillow I had a kitchen knife, just in case. I know, that soundslike some preying mantis kind of thing, and if so, maybe the man should have hislast wish, without knowing it was his last, to make love. I did not mind theidea; in a way, I almost wanted him to become aggressive and dangerous so Icould do it. Not that I wanted to do it, but the temptation flashed in my mind.

         As we made out, I slid my hand under his tee-shirt, to his navel.

         He pushed my hand away, and said, I am ticklish.

         Yes, I know you said that, but you donít mind being touched elsewhere.

         Only my feet and my stomach are ticklish.

         So I touched his neck and slid my hands downward, but the tee shirt wastoo tight, from my angle to go further.

         What are you trying to do? He asked. You like collar bones?

         Always did. Collar bones are my weakness. Why wonít you take off yourshirt?

         Out of vanity. I donít want you to see how my stomach sags, how mychest hairs are getting gray, and how deep my innie is.

         Now that you have told me all that, whatís there to hide? I know whatto expect, it can get only better. Letís fully undress. Isnít it funny, wehavenít been naked yet. We have screwed each otherís daylights, andhavenít seen each other naked.

         All right, but turn off the light then.

         I thought about that. I wanted the light to examine him. But I couldexamine him anyway, I would let my fingers to it. I turned off the overheadlight.

         Good, that will be romantic, I said. Iíll light the candles then.

         I took out half a dozen candles and lit them.

         He pulled off the tee-shirt, his Fruit of the Loom underwear, and hissoccer style socks, which went almost to his knees. For his age, he was in goodshape; his stomach didnít sag. He had lied. I had candle-light coming from allthe corners of the room, and bathroom light came through a crack and spreadwider and wider on the floor onto the wall, but that was not enough to see hisscar. So as he lay down, I put my hand on his flank. He shrank, and his stomachtwitched.

Be still, I said. Just let go.

All right, I guess you know a technique.

Yes, I do.

I felt all around, touched the ribs, below them, and I could not believe my fingers. There was no scar.What? Could my dreams have been wrong? It was horrible to think that I had foundthat man and that he was under my fingertips, but suddenly it was more horribleto think that this was not the man, and the other one was at large, who knewwhere, if he was not dead. How would I find him? Why should I want to find him?Why didnít I feel relief? I could have, I could have been overjoyed to be witha man who made love so vigorouslyóI could have a boyfriend, maybe even a newfamily, that would not have been outlandish at my age, mid-thirties.

         I was in such a state of shock that right away I quit the foreplay. Icanít do it, I said.

         Why not?

         Dark thoughts have crossed my mind and they wonít go away.

         What are your dark thoughts?

         And I told him, in detail, the attempted rape, and how I fled, except Idid not tell him about the knife and the wound. I said I knocked down the guywith a candelabra.

         That is admirable, that you had so much courage to do that, he said. Butwhy would you think of that right now?

         Why admirable? What choice did I have? I had to survive.

         Do you know what happened to the guy?

         No, and I donít think I want to know. Do you?

         Why would I. What a question!

         I have no idea. I thought maybe Iíd luck out and find out.

         Did you think that even before?

         I did not answer. I decided not to worry about anything. We drank moreEagle Peak; heíd brought two bottles, it turned out, and kept one in hislaptop briefcase.

         The wine made me tranquil, and a sense of well being permeated me warmedmy skin. His profile looked Romanesque, lonely, as though he were cast in stone,and he was pale, increasing the stony impression. Why would I increase hisloneliness, I wondered.

         Letís show

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