Written by: Dragana Rudić
I had been coughing since 4 am. I spent one hour torturing myself horizontally, trying to ignore my body convulsions and stick my head deep in the pillow in vain hope I will mute myself. But, no. The army attacking my lungs tickled away at me until I had no choice but to get up. The grey light of dawn traced shadows behind the neighbouring buildings, it was too early to call it a morning. I wrapped myself in a blanket and pulled a wooden armchair right next to the gas stove. I waited for water to boil.
This wasn’t new – I have been in this state for a while, weak and all caved in. It ranged from terrifying to annoying, depending on the day, but I was all devoted to it. I had no other occupations but my illness. It was my day job, my career prospectus. I looked around the apartment. It was tiny, and strangely angled, one of those leftover spaces that architects somehow wrangled into a living space. It was really quiet. The tiny kitchen was cosy, apart from it, there was one large room that contained a bed, a window, wardrobe and bookshelves. When I think about it, it doesn’t sound better than a prison cell, yet, warm brown wooden furniture and weird angles gave it a lot of charm. At least I thought so. Being alone in this wooden box of an apartment brought me a sense of tranquility. I was almost pleased. I felt like I didn’t have to put up a brave face, or to be positive or communicative for other people. Or anything, really. I simply existed and that was enough. Man is sometimes stronger alone than among his benefactors.
I put a pot of tea on the floor next to me, I had no intention of moving.
Go on, body, I thought, do your worst.
I dozed in this upright position for some time. It was eleven o’clock when I got up from that chair. Comfortable as it was, it still gave me back and leg aches. I stretched my legs thinking about frogs – they sit all day with bent legs, they must feel aching or sprained as I do. I crawled under the shower thinking about this.
At 12.33 the door bell rang. I stifled a cough with my shirt sleeve, forced and unwanted one, I reckoned if I give a little allowance to it, it might leave me alone for some time. I opened. She was just removing a strand of hair from her forehead. In one swift movement she flipped her whole hair to one side. A whiff of her perfume floated my way. It was summery and it suited her well. I didn’t recognize it. I bowed my head in order to avoid it, it already tickled my throat.
– Hi, Lloyd, she said with a tight smile.
– Alice. Nice to see you.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs. Her dress looked formal enough, cotton and light blue, yet it was wrapped quite low around her tanned shoulders. Somebody had been on vacation.
She smiled again, a small, formal smile, like an air hostess.
– How have you been?
– Very good, I retorted. Do you want some tea?
– Yes, please.
It bought me some time to go to kitchen and drink some water or cough there into my sleeve. I felt it coming, rumbling in my chest like an avalanche. I took a deep breath and let tap run loudly. Minutes later I brought two cups.
Alice was still sitting at the same spot, legs and arms crossed, her eyes fixed on the bookshelf.
– Complete works of Shakespeare, huh?, she said not looking in my direction. Her eyes were searching over the titles.
– Not complete. The Tempest is missing, I replied, giving her the cup. I took a sip from mine. It was too hot.
– Why? Did you want it?, I asked.
– No, no!, She hastened to decline. She took a sip of tea herself still looking at the shelf.
-I just didn’t know you had it.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t have energy to prolong the small talk. I stood in silence in front of her, holding my hot cup, thinking that my posture and position will urge her to look at me. She nonchalantly scanned the book shelf, like she is waiting for a friend to finish shopping and pick her up. At the same time I had a clear view of her right profile and body. Wasn’t she beautiful? Wasn’t she smart, worldly and exciting? Wasn’t she terrifying? Distant feeling stirred in my gut, a ghost of a feeling, a memory. There was a certain look to her, an air around her which I never manage to penetrate. Her large brown eyes were clear and curious, she smiled and charmed with them. She could make hourly dialogues just with these beautiful eyes, without uttering a single word. And I always had a feeling there is a glass, bulletproof wall behind those eyes, one where it looks like a mirror to you, but it is actually a window to the person from the other side. When we first met, I thought she was mysterious. She made me nervous in all sort of good ways. I was all wired up around her. I took this effect she had on me as infatuation, passion or fascination. As years passed, many butterfly tremors died yet that main one, was still alive. It was still there, it rattled in my chest, as she pulled her hair behind her ear and casually glanced over book titles. I loved her – or at least I thought so, for a very long time. Even at that moment, when my faulty body battled illness, in my mind I traced with a finger one line, from the nape of her neck, where soft shorts hairs were escaping, to the front, over her tanned clavicle and that little hollow base under it, to her smooth rounded shoulder, where her blue dress pressed lightly against the skin. It felt real. My lungs tickled inside. She turned her head towards me, and looked at me straight, with that curious, phantom look.
-So, did you bring the papers?, I said looking away.
– Oh, right… Yes… She dragged the words like I reminded her of this topic, like it wasn’t a sole purpose of her visit. She put the cup on the floor and pulled an envelope from her bag.
– I think we agreed about everything… she passed through pages carefully trying to hunt down an irregularity. I started to get irritated with this show. She creased her brow in detailed search, like she wasn’t the one who created the document. I took time to sip on a tea in silence. I felt I had better control over my throat and lungs when I didn’t speak. She took out a pen for me.
– I didn’t… put Mylo in the list, she hesitated and glanced again to the book shelf. Then she continued. – It felt cruel to put a living being on the list with furniture and… the rest.
– Ok, I sighed. So you prefer to keep him, correct?
– Yes, I mean, unless you wanted otherwise, I mean, we could…,
I waved my hand tiredly. She stopped talking. That dog was lost for me long time ago. I loved his stupid short legs that carried that heavy, sausage-like body. When I took him for walks, he would always go few steps in front of me, carrying away through rain puddles. Confident that I am behind him. But at home, he was Alice’s dog, through and through. Even if I tried to get him or to have him on some days, I am not sure how much time and energy I could devote to him. And it also meant seeing Alice often. I shuddered. I currently had full time occupation in taking care of myself.
Where do I sign?, I asked. As I didn’t have a table, Alice laid out papers around her on the bed sheets. She put her finger at the three bottom pages. I knelt in front of her. Purple manicured nail pointed at three separate lines. I signed below. She folded papers back into the envelope and smiled like a dental nurse – encouragingly yet with a trace of apology for enduring pain and waiting. She put her bag over her shoulder and raised carefully in order not to kick the cup.
– Leave it, I will wash it later.
She gave me another smile and skipped towards the door. I followed. This time I took a full breath of her perfume. Silly and sentimental, but I wanted to remember it. It almost choked me out. I swallowed a cough. She turned at the door and gave me one more double mirror look. Years in front of it and I never learned what is on the other side. She spend years with me, feeling powerful or absolutely lonely behind it. I have no idea which one. Double mirror was always there, her pretty eyes examined but never confessed. But for the first time, I didn’t confess anything to them either.
– Be well, ok?
– I will, I nodded.
I closed the door. I didn’t feel the need to cough.
Dragana Rudić: Born in 1986. She finished her master’s degree at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade at the Department of Comparative Literature. She lives and works in Shanghai where she is involved in the literary circles. She translates poetry, writes and publishes short stories and visual art.