Written by: Milka Knežević Ivašković
Translated by: Ivana Rangelov
I wake up early on Saturdays, before the alarm clock sounds at the time when I usually get up to go to work on weekdays. I’m tired, even though I went to sleep early last night, without finishing the movie I had been looking forward to the whole week. I woke up at five minutes to one after midnight, with a vague feeling of pressure in my chest. I remember thinking that this feeling of pressure, akin to a large bite which gets stuck in the esophagus and makes you feel like you’re going to choke, was likely a sign of the coming of my judgment day. But I was not scared. I thought: one fatal heart attack would be a relief. Well, let it happen, I have no regrets. It’s all the same to me. With that thought, I fell asleep again and woke up at five minutes to two, and then again, an hour later… and everything was the same – the pressure, the ambiguous discomfort, and the sudden plunge into dreamless sleep –it was as I was experiencing a ground hog day which was entirely predetermined and would remain unchanged, regardless of how hard I tried to change the course of its events. At six, I finally mustered the strength to get up, exhausted by the fragmented night and without the willpower to face the routine of the autumn Saturday which was coming around.
These last couple of months, Saturday has been tiring. In fact, Saturday began on Friday night. It is at that time that I would get overcome by dark thoughts which I fruitlessly try to dispel. The harder I try, the faster they swarm around me – like a swarm of bats circling a bell tower. They are dense, intrusive, loud, threatening, foreboding: the bank will block my account due to unpaid loan installments and we won’t have enough money even for the bare necessities… there’s never enough money anyway, my daughter will fail her exam and she will sink into desperation and I will have to use all of my nonexistent optimism and fake hopefulness in order to explain to her that the future offers many opportunities, my husband doesn’t love me like he used to… and I don’t even love myself anymore, and worst of all, the fear that I would live to be eighty, still hounded by the same bat-like thoughts – or even darker ones. I am small, worthless, powerless before life’s biggest question: what is the purpose of my continued existence? Life has become abusive towards me. I have journeyed to the verge of old age, the beauty has disappeared, the spirit has gone stale, and I am nothing.
They say that people change with time, but that a part of us remains a child forever. I, however, do not remember when the little girl within me died. Have I always been stupid, had I been cultivating illusions about being more than an average person, or have I come to realize the essence of life as if it were a role imposed upon me? I don’t know, I don’t understand how I have ended up instate. But I’ve stopped caring about that, too.
I get up at six, I go to the bathroom to pee and to wash the bitter taste out of my mouth. The stream of urine is discontinuous, weak, as if my bladder were half dead, despite the pressure. I empty the can of cat food into the cat’s bowl. The fifteen-year-old grandpa is still quite lively and has a good appetite. It’s easy for you, I tell him, you’ve got nine lives and you can throw them away until you nail the right one. He buzzes around my legs, purring loudly. His tail is raised and high and proud like a flagpole. Sometimes, I’m under the impression that this cat is the only one who understands me.How else would I interpret his persistent tendency to nestle on my chest as I’m lying down, as if he were listening for how much pain wells within? He observes me with inquisitive yellow eyes behind which, allegedly, there is nothing but a desire for food and mating… and yet, I see in those lunar eyes the sympathy that he feels for my soul. Do you love me, I ask him, or do you simply need me?
I make coffee, I drink it quickly, without any enjoyment, although I don’t know why I am in such a hurry and where I’m hurrying to. I’d rather lie down or spend the whole day staring at one point on the ceiling, but that is when I’m at my most vulnerable and the bat-like thoughts would use every moment of silence and passivity to surround me. Work, work…, I tell myself, an idle mind is the devil’s playground. But what should I do? I washed the windows last Saturday, I sorted the closet the week before, and I’ve prepared the lunch for today and tomorrow last night. There has to be something else that I could do, I just don’t remember what it was… I go out onto the balcony; our apartment is on the eighth floor, and from there, I can see the lawn, the parking lot, the balconies and windows of the neighboring buildings. Life had only just begun to stir within them; I hear a baby crying somewhere, dogs are barking farther away in the distance. I notice that the grass had adopted a yellowish-gray color and that the stacked piles of fallen leaves and branches resemble graves, which brings back the thoughts of universal inexorable decay. Branches are swaying in the wind and the sound resembles that of rattling bones. I feel the cold emptiness of the cloudy sky infecting me and I start trembling in spite of wearing a thick flannel nightgown.
I used to be afraid of heights and I avoided going out onto the balcony. It seemed to me that, the more time I spent looking into the abyss, there was a greater chance that some hypnotic force would pull me down. There was no appeal to the idea, only the fear that I would fall over the fence or, somehow, through the balcony, smash against the concrete, turn into shattered shards, with no dignity, ugly, like an ordinary pot. Now, it doesn’t look scary. On the contrary, looking down from up high feels like sitting on top of a slide, and I imagine what it would be like – the dizzying fall from eight stories high down into the tempting grassy vortex and its soft blades that would embrace me in death. Is there any symbolism more beautiful than that of touching the ground in one’s final moments of consciousness, is it not more natural than dying in a hospital bed?
I hear my husband’s footsteps, the sound of flushing and the water rushing from the tap in the bathroom. I know what will happen next: he will wish me good morning, he will ask if I’d slept well and, without waiting for an answer, he will place a lukewarm kiss on my cheek. As far away from the mouth as possible… as if we’d made a tacit agreement about avoiding the lips. Because the oral cavity has long since lost its freshness and reeks of the rot of poorly digested dinner, tobacco, and some cavities. We kiss each other on the cheek by default. During the week, our paths rarely cross, and on the weekends, we have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, or we watch something on the TV. When we go to bed, each of us turns to their own side, leaving enough space in between for a phantom third person to lie down. That third phantom keeps us at an indifferent distance with a force of repulsion. Unless it’s too cold in the room… then we huddle close to each other and warm each other’s icy feet. Even then, despite my nipples becoming hard from the cold or my attempts to revive that which had died, his penis looks like a tiny snail retracted into its shell. I don’t care for tenderness and cuddling, I no longer feel the need to belong; the purpose of the attempted experiments is to prove that everything was over, with no hope of the passion resurrecting. Even the abruptly awakened physical desire – what we more innocently called being in love in our younger days – was gone. It’s almost as if I can only feel my body as pain whose epicenter I cannot find, except for the cases when the smoldering lump in my chest wakes me up at night, making me believe for a moment that I had finally caught it.
My husband asks me if I have any plans. I’d tell him that I plan to leave, forever, and turn into nothing, but then I’d make unnecessary commotion. I am disgusted by the narcissism of self-destruction, and I am aware of the irrefutable selfishness of such an act. I don’t want to tell him that I feel like a burden, I don’t want profound talks about the magnificence of life, I don’t want advice about turning to an expert who would decipher the hieroglyphics of my soul. I just want to disappear.
I say that I’m going to iron the clothes. I have lots of clothes to iron. Kitchen towels, tablecloths, bedding. He nods, although he doesn’t really care about what I’m going to do. He gets dressed and goes out to buy bread, milk and newspapers. I shake the invisible lint off the stacked laundry and run the iron across the clothes that I could very well have ironed last weekend. But that’s irrelevant as long as the hands are busy, and the brain protected for a while from the invasion of bat-like thoughts in within a vortex of frenzied and useless mental activity.
At ten, my daughter wakes up, and asks me to mend a torn-up seam on her skirt. She has a date with her boyfriend tonight. She notices, with bleary eyes and a face swollen from sleeping, how terrible I look. Exhausted. Sloppy. Neglected. Like I’d aged overnight. I ought to use anti-aging cream, go to the hairdresser’s, wear something decent around the house. That’s what she told me last Saturday, too. I reckon: if I’m aging so fast, I may soon become a ghost. I force myself to smile at her, to keep the child from worrying, and I assure her that I have only the usual minor climacteric pain. I stop ironing and I open the sewing machine.
Then, we have breakfast. I’m not hungry and I’m barely eating. My husband is loudly commenting on the headlines. He emphasizes importance by scoffing: a single “tsk” means everyday politics, two – crime, and three are reserved for celebrity scandals. Still wearing my nightgown, I wash the dishes meticulously for a while. At eleven, the phone rings: friends announce that they’ll be coming over in the evening. I can’t say no, it’s also an opportunity to find something more to do. Making cookies, chopping and arranging food on plates for snacks. Re-ironing a large table cloth. Dusting. Scrubbing the bathroom. Until I’m tired enough to suppress the feeling of being over saturated by my own inner void.
For some, time flies, and to me it seems that Saturday never ends and that after Saturday, another Saturday would come. On Monday, I will go to work, treat people’s coughs and stuffed noses, and direct those who are more seriously sick to the second floor. I’ll have a couple of cups of coffee with the nurses, laugh when it’s expected of me, glance at myself in the mirror before going home and,not particularly pleased, conclude that I got through another day in a gloomy week of a gloomy year of my gloomy existence. On the bus, people will step on me, it will reek of sweat and garlic, and the nausea will make me get off a couple of stations earlier and walk along the street through which I pass each day, looking at the windows of the same shops that I look at every day. I struggle to find at least a hint of beauty around me, to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, however, even the very sentence – “one must keep on fighting” reminds me of a verb denoting a tragically incomplete action.
At six o’clock, the guests arrive. The sun is setting outside, though to me, it feels like it’s been setting since this morning. If I could materialize the moments that took place, my day would consist of empty frames. I’m alone, thinking while sitting between one of my friends and my husband. Alone, not by my own choice. They talk, occasionally saying something to me, I nod or shake my head, I say “yes”, “of course”, or “no”. I am so good at acting normal that I feel disgusted by my own hypocrisy. I begin a game of silent exchange of thought with my husband:
Smile, say something, they’ll think we fought over something.
I don’t care.
But you’re making everyone tense.
I don’t care.
I don’t know what’s going on with you lately.
So, you’ve noticed that I’m different.
Of course I have. I’m worried.
Our unspoken dialogue ends at the barricades of his concern. I know that it will pass as soon as the guests leave, after the question “what will they think?” disappears before the much more important one – is there anything interesting on his favorite TV channel. That’s how it always goes: unsaid, unfinished, and then discarded. We are silent even when we talk, fearing the mines that line the city of our shared memories. Our silence is louder than the loud fight that we’ve never allowed ourselves to have, and so much more terrible. It feels like hitting my head against the walls of a padded cell in a psychiatric hospital, with no hope that the person on the other side of the invisible door would hear me and understand me.
After the gibanica and before the cake, I go out onto the balcony to breathe in some fresh air. The sky, akin to a giant shroud, falls on my shoulders and brings anxiety down with itself. In the parking lot, illuminated by the low light of a candelabra, there is a girl in an orange jacket. Her long hair flutters in the wind. She looks like she couldn’t be older than a ten. What is she doing in the dark, in that uninteresting, empty place? – I wonder. I feel anxious, as if it were my child. I notice–she’s looking straight at the balcony, at me. Her neck is long – fantastically, unrealistically long, like a giraffe’s, and her round face is so close that, it seems to me, I could touch it from the eighth floor. I know that it’s impossible and that I’m probably hallucinating, but this surreal encounter is, so to speak, first-class entertainment in a sea of worthless days. The girl’s hair smells of baby shampoo, and she is holding clackers in her hand. She looks a bit frighteningly serious with those glistening, dark eyes. “I didn’t imagine you like this,” she whispers. “Have you really thought about me?” – I ask, even though I hadn’t planned on asking anything. The situation is so absurd that there is no room for any sort of logic. I must’ve finally lost my mind, but, if that is the case, at least it is interesting. “As if I wouldn’t,” she says, rolling her eyes dramatically. “I thought you’d become a Superwoman.” The voice radiates with disappointment.
“There is no such thing.”
“You promised”, she says,frowning, wrinkles showing on her snub nose. “In your diary, you never wrote that you would be a doctor. It’s so ordinary and boriiiiiing…”
“Do we know each other?”, I ask, although I know the answer: she is the big bang I came from.
I am her future, she is my past. She has my jacket with a bear embroidered on the collar, my clackers with a plastic blue ring, my face, my hair, my eyes. On her right hand, she’s wearing a bracelet –a silver one, full of rattling jingles, and engraved upon it, the name of the divine feminine principle, Shakti, which was stolen by her elder brother in the mid-seventies from the Indian goods store on Carnaby Street.
She’s giggling. The clacker sin her hand begin to swing left and right.
“Surely, you haven’t forgotten me?”, she giggles. “I’m you, of course.”
“Take a closer look at me,” she says, and comes close to my face, bringing the breath of spring, the smell of strawberry-flavored chewing gum, discreetly mixed with a sweetish perfume. I remember: mother’s “Babe”, hidden under stacked sheets in a cabinet, secretly sprayed on the thin wrists of my hands.
It’s strange when you meet someone you hadn’t seen for decades and you realize that a middle-aged person has squirmed out of a child’s cocoon, but it’s even stranger to meet the child that you once were. I’m not surprised at the sight of myself from three and a half decades ago. I see her in a light more positive than the light in which she probably sees me.
“Remind me: Who did I want to be?”, I ask.
“Good thing you remembered to ask ‘who’ and not ‘what’. Is that really important – a baker, a doctor, a pharmacist? What’s important is for you to be happy with yourself again.”
“It’s better to be someone rather than something.”
“You will end up falling because of lost faith”, she says with a pensive, somewhat sad expression. “Falling into yourself.”
“Do you remember”, she continues, suddenly cheerful, just like someone who had just recalled a great memory, “when you fantasized that you would be able to be EVERYTHING? You dreamt of a great love that would take you to the edge of the world, writing songs, wanting to become an anthropologist and study Amazonian tribes and has at least three children… What happened in the meantime, why didn’t you fulfill any of those dreams? “
I shrug: “I don’t know, you tell me…”
“Ah, if I had your experience, maybe I would know the answers…” she mumbles.
I wonder what the term ‘experience’ actually means. Experience, that glittering truth, always illuminating the road that one shouldn’t have went down. It teaches us to see the foolish acts we have already committed and feel the lack of things that we have failed to do.
A quiet, viscous panic gradually begins rising within me. Can’t I even help myself anymore, is this encounter futile, leading to nothing? What do I have left I have managed to lose my very myself?
“You need to cry more”, she whispers softly. “Tears are quite okay. Remember what mom used to say, that crying washes the heart clean of lint.”
I cannot cry in vain and waste my tears on nothing. Finally, my heart is not burdened by lint, but by stone. I am bored of feeling sorry for myself, to empathize with the woman I have become and console myself with lines about a better tomorrow that never moves past Saturday.
“It’s not too late”, says the girl, reading my thoughts. “If you can still see me, understand, and love me, then there is still hope.” She takes off her bracelet and puts it on my wrist. “And maybe… maybe you’re not as insignificant as you think. That is,as I think. I would very much like for you to fulfill some of my dreams. Give it your best, do it for my love. “
The bell-lined shackle is tight, I’m barely pushing my clenched fingers and my hand through it, and I doubt that I will ever be able to take it off. The cold wind kisses my cheeks and tears come rushing forth from the tenderness that I feel towards the child that I once was: endearing, with a lust for life, wise in her inexperience.
She is now gone; she has disappeared, the long-necked girl at the foot of the gray building. Where did she go, I wonder, what grave did she hide in, will I meet her again tomorrow or in a few years? Does she continue to grow as I continue to age? Even if I don’t feel her presence anymore, I have the piece of jewelry that she left me for safekeeping.
Shakti… Shakti… jingles the bracelet. I hear it like long, wavy lines, like the drooping branches of a willow that sway in the wind at night. Someone had been trying to kill me all these years, but they have failed. I am still alive. Something is blooming within me. Not flower buds of wonder, as nothing seems wondrous to me anymore. It seems to be life again – my life, fully aware of the structure of the cloths on my skin, the smell of the air, the color of the night, the music of the wind, and the jingles in that wind.
I take a look down from the balcony for the last time that evening. It’s unpleasant, it makes me feel dizzy. I go back to the room where they are still talking about things that I cannot follow. Standing in the doorway, I say: “Excuse me, I have an urgent matter to attend to, I must finally become Me.” They look at me in confusion, and – I know – it’s not because of what I said but because, as I was standing in the doorway, I burst into dance. They don’t understand that middle-aged women sometimes burst into dance because of a sudden need to hold on to the feelings that accompany memories, but also to get a firm footing and ground themselves.
I go to the bedroom, I get the old typewriter from the top of the wardrobe, I put it on the small, low desk where I usually keep clothes that need ironing. I put a sheet of paper into the typewriter while kneeling down. It’s highly uncomfortable. I’m in a rush. I start typing the first sentence:
“I wake up early on Saturdays, before the alarm clock sounds at the time when I usually get up to go to work on weekdays.”
Milka Knežević Ivašković, Born in Belgrade in 1961. Graduated from the Department of General Literature of the Faculty of Philology. Author of ten books, most of which are novels. Recipient of several short story awards. Animal rights activist. She likes to write while listening to music (blues and trance). Big fan of Stephen King. Life motto: Writing is like breathing. Member of the Association of Serbian Writers.
Translator, Ivana Rangelov, born in 1992 in Kraljevo. Graduated from the Faculty of Philology and Arts in Kragujevac, major English language and literature. I teach English, translate, which is my first love, occasionally do some writing, and I am collecting books for my personal library. I have translated various texts, from the literary ones to vocational ones.