A PARTIAL HISTORY
OF MY DELUSIONS
An excerpt from my second novel is below. It is a story about three people increasingly torn between their goals—political, artistic, patriotic—and their desire for human connection.
I am currently seeking a publisher.
How can anyone unable to relate to the person he loves expect to relate to those he does not love? Kafka realized this, and to stand by the side of the woman he loved meant standing by the side of the people, becoming one of them, participating in their order. He also realized what most of us are concealing from ourselves: that drawing close to another being, accepting another being as well as another order means the surrender of freedom. Man longs to get close to the person he loves, and in doing so hurts and betrays that person and himself, and hereby commits a crime.
— Ivan Klima
Love and Garbage
I felt that I was living the wrong life,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.
So I walked on—distracted, lost in thought—and forgot to attend to those who suffered far away, nearby.
Forgive me, faith, for never having any.
— Edward Hirsch
A Partial History of My Stupidity
Doe’s boyfriend snuck in again. A lot of guys do. Kegger’s hulky, cut shoulders show above the sheet. I want to grab him and wrestle. Round cut shoulders, a firm rippled stomach. No fat on his thighs or belly like me. His uniform looks made for him.
Today I did fifty push-ups, more than any of the other women, but my sergeant still yelled at me. I want him to spur me on, to hear his voice in my ears. My arms aren’t what they should be. I’m tall but too curvy, large in the butt and thighs. I shaved my head, even though I didn’t have to. I want a body that’s hard as steel.
I pretend I’m with Angel and try to sleep, pull the rough blanket snug over my head, our heads. Doe squeaks. She’s so wet that she’s squeaking. Slap, slap, slap, the top bunk mattress echoes with the weight of their two bodies. She lets Kegger pound her good.
This week, at long last, we got off base and flew along with our CONCAM team to document local nationals digging up coffins. They were from the conflicts in Bosnia, where the action used to be. The graves had been ransacked years ago, but a few were left with wooden crosses.
Xavier, Chunky, and I set our cameras on the east side of the graveyard. The sun warmed our backs and lit the scene. The local nationals worked slow, no need for us to set up quick. We tried not to get too close and bug them. Scrawny folks, but determined as hell. Dark eyebrows, broad hands, patient with their shovels. We did our job, and the videographer and photographer got great footage of the diggers. The sound of their shovels breaking the ground, the steady rhythm. The way they leered at us as they threw the dirt. Not something I’ll forget.
We went back to our vehicles and found the leftover children, the war kids. Scores of them, scared to be near the graveyard earlier, came out of nowhere and surrounded us. They begged as we ate our lunch, and ran around with their little soiled hands. They pleaded in English, “Candy time!” One girl had broken scabs on her bare feet and stringy hair and shook an empty Pepsi can. It made noises, must have had rocks in it, her toy. We are ordered not to give them one crumb of food, not even a Milky Way.
I’m almost asleep when someone I don’t recognize comes in the tent. She shines a flashlight around to find who is awake. It’s not a rumor, she whispers, CNN has pictures. We have started bombing Belgrade.
The light reached its hands into my 15th-floor apartment and shook the bookcases and floors. My living room roused, as if inside an epic poem. The pilots brought us a special kind of love. It was 1999 and it was Belgrade so we must have been trying to sleep.
Another round of pacing. How close were the hits? A sulfurous and peppery smell lulled me, as if I was prowling through an opium den. To soothe my nerves, I sucked on my knuckles and rocked to the rhythms of my own internal waltz. At last I settled on the couch under my grandmother’s worn blanket, away from any glass. Near dawn a pounding storm, and the howl of the all-clear. I stuck my head through the window for the first time in ages and opened my mouth to swallow the rain whole.
In the coming hint of light, I walked into the bathroom and picked up my wife’s lipstick from where she had left it in the medicine cabinet. It had stood on one end for years, like a rocket in a dollhouse. Dust stuck to my fingertips as I opened the capsule; the scent inside was just like her lips. I puckered my mouth and traced a bloody circle around the outside edge. One long strand of dark hair fell across my face to make the effect more heavy metal than Hollywood star. I threw away the tiny rocket.
When my hunger became resolute, I put on a magician’s tuxedo and emerged from my cave. I knocked and my neighbor answered at once.
“Don’t scare me, Srecko. You look like a ghost. Are you speaking today or just making faces?” She gestured for me to come into her dim apartment. “What a crowd of noise we are having lately!” The professor in me appreciates linguistic variety, and I enjoyed her reclaiming a World War II expression. A crowd of noise is what my grandmother used to call matters out of control.
She offered me a chair and together we became transfixed. A giant oil and chemical complex had been hit in a nearby suburb. NATO had also hit a bridge, and two industrial towers. State TV reported that when our maternity hospital shook from mortars the defiant Serb babies did not cry. “You know, Luck, we will win.” We stared at the latest pictures of wreckage and deserted Kosovo streets. “After their stinking fireworks, we will have our victory.”
“Of course.” I shifted around on the couch, hoping she might offer a bowl of pickled beets or some smoked red peppers. Instead she droned on about my cousin Andrej and his new blaze of patriotism. I ignored her question as I could not talk about him too early in the day or I would vomit.
As I said my farewells, she hinted that she needed a light bulb for her dark bathroom. She also suggested I leave my apartment during the night time raids and join her in the basement. “Bring blankets! And take that lipstick off your face. I’m not impressed.”
“Of course,” I replied, and wiped my mouth on my sleeve. “All gone.” I was sorry she hadn’t found my war paint more entertaining.
The main boulevard smelled like sodden barbecue from the combination of last night’s bombs and that morning’s storms. It had been a long time since I wandered the streets, but if I didn’t get more funds and food soon I wasn’t sure what would happen. A hushed crowd stood around a taxi, listening to a guerrilla radio channel. How our channel still survived, I had no idea. One of my former cohorts reported that America, along with its NATO coalition, would continue to bomb Kosovo and Serbia for months. I hoped my mother was worrying about me.
When I visited her in Paris several years back, I could not believe peoples’ lives bubbled along with holiday shopping and champagne, with red shiny paper and golden bows. I crawled back home to the morbid and familiar, not realizing it had been my last chance to get out.
I bought a stale roll from a street peddler and gnawed through the crust like a dog. I closed my eyes to relish its yeasty flavors and almost at once felt less dizzy. On my bench in the rain, I could still hear the broadcast. A female announcer shouted a plea to gather in the downtown square and show opposition to the war. A man joined her, and I recognized his frothy voice because we had once been nabbed together by the police after distributing leaflets. He made an enormous fuss, and they beat his knuckles with a club.
My old refuge, the Flipper, rose before me as my neighborhood receded. Goat Town had been my favorite river area as a child, full of blind alleys with musicians and costumed festoonery on laughing women. Years ago I had sought its streets as a refuge from my former wife and her list of disappointments, but over the last years its medieval alleys had become packed with mafia-controlled nightclubs.
How close the floating barge, how soon it appeared after I made my way across Victory Bridge! The sound of bass notes pounded as I took a tiny step onto the gangplank. The beat was underscored by a faint brood of electronic brass and a singing patriotic chorus. The Flipper’s neon lime-colored sign winked at me: Off, ON. Off, ON. The gangplank was narrow and the water looked cold. I walked faster. An American-named bar meant to conjure a western playboy’s dream of tropical orange bikinis and pleasing umbrella drinks, but now owned by men in full armor, as Boris would boast.
I stepped off the other side of the gangplank and circled the perimeter. The biggest bar in Goat Town, a floating mirage! Perfect place to conjure cash. I stood under the television satellite dish, swatted the volleyball net with its gaping, head-size holes and grabbed the frayed strings, squatted and dipped my shaking fingers into the pool water. Icy and fetid. The shock to my skin made the scene more real. I wiped my fingers on the net, rolled up the dangling sleeves on my silky magician’s jacket, and proceeded on a search for my neighbor.
The cigar-smoking doorman, wide as a refrigerator, shook my hand and grinned. I shouted my name over the music and told him that I was a friend of Boris. He made me wait and grinned some more, sent someone to check. I chewed on my lip, still tasty from the roll. When he got the okay, the large doorman swatted my back with a friendly welcome. Splat. A splashy entrance onto the bow of the Flipper!
The bar’s young thugs circled the tables; everyone talking at once, voices fighting with the music to demonstrate camaraderie. The sweaty faces, the freshly shaven heads, the hairy-bear muscles. It had been a long time since I had entered an environment where currency circulated and men showed confidence. I dug my fingernails into my sweaty palms, made fists with both hands, extended my wing muscles to make my shoulders bigger.
Boris, working at his command-center table, acknowledged me with a lift of his upper lip, a slight spread of his jowls. He wore his black shirts tight, despite his girth. He consulted with a couple fellows in sunglasses. Meanwhile I stood, smashed flat against a side wall, waiting for his signal. My narrow form maintained little of my former swimmer’s strength, and my hair made me stand out.
Times like this I felt most freakish for keeping my hair long, letting it tickle my cheeks, grace the back of my neck. Yet without it I would simply be small, invisible. I had been maltreated for looking feminine, but what can one do about physical destiny? Even my father had told me from a young age I had the body of a girl. What he meant was that I hadn’t come out of the womb in a commanding form like his, but sleek and lanky, more slim-hipped otter than bear.
Nautical-themed objects protruded everywhere in the Flipper. A flying fish with sharp teeth hung over the bar, and a large, burnt fishing net drooped from the ceiling above my head. Pool toys, such as soaker guns, had been torn from the walls and some liked to point them at the bartender to get attention. When a table opened, I took it. Among the indoor mayhem were few people I knew.
I wished I had a scholarly pipe to daydream and wile away the afternoon, but instead I looked for familiar faces, and pounded the foamy beer Boris at last sent my way. My shaking stopped, and my hunger disappeared like an anchor, falling far away.
I hadn’t been out in ages and wanted to connect with someone from my past, someone from the movement maybe, someone to converse with about the pleasures of ideology and history or even the absurd theater of the cultural opposition, but this wasn’t exactly the place to hunt for in-depth interlocution. I needed to eat, and my focus had to be on approaching my long-ago neighbor Boris. But the reality of the previous night taunted me.
“What can I say?” said Svetlana, when I had called her. “It’s going to be a beautiful spring.”
“It can’t get any better.” I tapped my slippers to the waltzing rhythm of the explosions in the distance. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. Krek, krek, krek. She got me off the phone fast. I rose to get a glass of water, found the water had stopped, and contemplated what it would be like to eat dry rice, what made rodents able to eat dry grains and humans not. Svetlana. Her booming voice brought me back in time, and I wished I had kept her on the phone. I missed her. Missed everybody. We had once risen above. We had resisted the cultural hibernation of the masses. It sounds amusing now, but we believed in change.
Svetlana’s favorite taunt was that I did not look like a gym instructor, with my small frame and long dark hair, more like a diminutive Che Guevara dressed as a clown. I am a clown. She is right. She hated me now. Of course she got me off the phone fast, even at a moment when we should draw close.
With no electricity and in the enforced darkness of the night, I made myself count the length of each explosion. Seven seconds of righteous thunder. Would it be the same tonight? Thirty-five seconds of sharp, loud cracks like a giant axe on my neck: Hello Srecko. Krek, krek, krek. The taste of smoke in my lungs. I would not flee to the dank basement. Like many, I would not be chased underground.
I used a flashlight to read a pamphlet given to me by a street poet:Suicide Among Friends. When that failed to provide cheer, I leafed further through my dusty address book. I entertained myself by adding a few names: Andrei Tarkovsky, Winston Churchill, Priscilla Presley. The names looked lonely. I gave them each my own phone number.
The truth was, no matter how Svetlana judged me for leaving the guerilla radio collective, I was glad at least I hung on to my college position as long as I could, even if closed-mouthed and apathetic. I was glad it was only in the last months my cupboards were empty. It surprised me, however, that I had stayed in a career doing something physical like my father.
On the outside I might look like a floppy clown, but on the inside, the deep inside that is hard to translate, I am a solemn, pipe-smoking intellectual type. I am a man suited to inventing theories and pontificating, seeing the poetry of the dark and portentous world. I was meant to be a wise professor, and what do you know! I became a splashing fool teaching in the college pool.
Boris finished his business and came to say hello. “It’s the dancing mute!” he shouted. “Good beer?”
I nodded and coughed out some leftover smoke from last night. He told me how he liked my long magician’s jacket. He always appreciates my attempts at color and flair.
“Luck, you know who came by yesterday?”
When I didn’t immediately reply, Boris belched. I spoke of my father, hoping that would encourage Boris’s fond memories of the family. I also reminded him I no longer worked for the college. I rocked a little bit in my chair and prepared myself for what he might ask me to do. Hit man. Counterfeiter.
My second glass tasted even better and I had gathered more strength. Although I wished Boris would offer me work without my having to prostrate myself. I dripped with sweat but made myself say it. “I am ready and available for you, Boris. I have no compunctions.”
“Mister mute. Make me a bunny rabbit, a little hop-hop bunny?”
He liked my funny faces. Had he heard me? Had I spoken?
I shook my head. My pride prevented me from showing him my empty pockets, or telling him I’d lost so much weight my pants fell without a cinched belt. All I knew about the mafia was the movies. I would do what he asked, I told myself.
“What projects have you been completing? I mean, is business good?” I asked. Fool. He wouldn’t tell me. I had assumed he would think I had been taken. The fact that I had disappeared from the apartment courtyard for months seemed to have made little impact. He still visited and he would have noticed me no longer playing chess. It didn't surprise me that he made no reference to the attacks or the civil wars, as his lucrative world would not be affected, but I expected him to at least show more interest in greeting me—in the name of my father. Yet Boris was no longer a street sweeper, the shiftless friend of the family, my brandy-drinking uncle of a neighbor. And I was no longer an aspiring, light-footed academic. I flexed my hand and made a fist, then sucked on my index knuckle, a habit when I am upset.
“Fuck the equators, the mountain peaks, the stars.”
“You sound like Andrej.” Never speak of him. What was I doing?
He asked about my cousin, and I told him he had been taken.
“Fuck our whole crammed world.”
“Fuck our rotting cage of a universe.” I sucked my knuckle.
Boris walked away.
Tiny black lines appeared and began to deepen the crevices on the knuckles of my right hand. As real as the other times. When I had explained the strange phenomena to my doctor, he gave me a prescription for Valium and said not to worry, most of his patients were on tranquilizers. I used the pills for sleep until the drugstore ran out.
I knocked my fist on the table, flexed my fingers. A spastic choreography continued, my knuckle bones spreading and the lines becoming round and big as peach pits. They turned gray with indentations and pock marks and waved and darkened.
I sucked on my knuckles to stop them from moving and wondered what my fist might say if it could talk.
“I am a squiggly phantasm flying around the room, a bird-like creature breaking through the screen of State TV.”
“I flap my cherub wings. I am naked as a boy, and open my red beaky mouth. I unveil my heart to the heavens above heavens and sing.”
“Through the doorway and along a wide street, I fly. Down gray streets, peppered with loss. I will fly down the streets until I touch the soft lavender highlands, soar into the long golden horizon.”
Enough. What donkey cheese is that?
I opened my eyes and came back into the gulping jaws of the Flipper. I finished my third beer in one swig and pushed my way onto the dance floor. My need to move always gets the best of me, the lasting imposition of my brawny gymnast father. Small rotating lights flashed blue, red, and white in the corners. Surrounded by black walls and away from the main bar, the dance floor lived as a separate isle, a long distance from the witchy forest of drunkards.
Hands flinging, torso twisting, hopping from one foot to the next. I danced as a madman, whipping my limbs, running in place, hopping from foot to foot, even squatting and kicking. Sweat dripped down my temples and from my upper lip; my chest and the backs of my legs became soaked. A foreign girl with red hair came near me and waved her long torso from side to side. I took her hand and she did a fast turn. Another man stepped in and took her arm. A thunder of bodies packed onto the dance floor—warm, sweating men and women crushed together.
At times I felt stiff and crazy as a robotic horse. I would sink, drop, and fall into a riff of melody, and as I sank I began to spin, as if on a carousel, and every time I spun around to face another direction, one more person danced with me. When the foreign girl jumped nearby, it wasn’t long before I started jumping. People shook and howled and stamped harder. We packed even tighter, pounding in unison against the floor of the floating barge. The reverberations from our stamping feet increased until they traveled further, until the shaking felt like some perverse and unknown force had found us and exploded in our arms.