Countdown (excerpt)

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An excerpt from the novel Countdown by Frosina Parmakovska.

I had to make sure multiple times that my husband was actually asleep, and clutching my sandals, on tiptoe, my whole body violently shuddering, I turned the key in the lock, quietly, as quietly as I could I opened the door, and just as quietly shut it, and what I felt, the feeling that rushed over me as soon as I was on the other side was: freedom. And for a moment excitement too, the excitement from my beautiful childhood long past.

The last door I unlocked in this manner was an old and heavy door that creaked even under the lightest touch, I was sixteen and for the first time in my life it occurred to me to trick my mother because she would not let me stay out all night at an outdoor festival with Ema and a couple of other friends. In any other case my mother would have let me go, but a couple of days earlier she had found some pot stashed in a matchbox in my drawer. Even though she believed me when I told her that the pot was not mine (and it really wasn’t), she still could not be completely convinced of the validity of my claim that the pot belonged to a friend, nor of the sincerity of my wish to stay out until dawn with Ema and friends whose names I had never mentioned at home. All of this contributed to mom’s attempt to instill more discipline, a new and unknown strategy for both of us. I tricked her by returning around midnight, got under the covers and listened to the sounds of her falling asleep, and then around one a.m., after mom was already snoring, I sneaked out just as quietly through the front door. When I returned in the morning, around five a.m., dawn was breaking outside, my mother was sitting in the armchair wearing a long white nightgown, smoking, and when she realized the lengths I was willing to go so as to enter undetected, she determined that setting strict rules and imposing curfew was neither the best nor the most productive way to protect me from the dangers that were a part of growing up and contrary to all my expectations, she hugged me, and in that hug I felt all the warmth of a mother who has been waiting for her child to return home, she walked me to my bed so I could rest and after I get a goodnight’s sleep, we would talk like adults…I wish I could believe just for a moment, or imagine that now too, when I return, mom, like some kind of an apparition in her white nightgown, would walk me to the safest place in the world and let me sleep, unafraid and undisturbed.

I descended the stairs, the second risky task, still quiet-quiet and still barefoot, I knelt under the window of the ground floor, where my mother-in-law Danica was most probably watching her reality show with eyes wide open and the volume turned down as it would be incredibly embarrassing if the neighbors heard a recently widowed woman watching entertaining shows in all hours of the night, in a time of mourning at that, with the volume turned up and this was all very convenient, both me and my mother-in-law had to be quiet, so we would neither hear each other, nor will the neighbors hear us, and still we would avoid living according to their expectations. Once again I had to open the little gate in the yard very carefully and that was that-I was finally out of the house where I lived and my heart returned to beating in a less disconcerting rhythm.

The street, which was about two-hundred meters long, with identical homes on both sides, housing people who either personally or through others found out everything about one another, was quiet, though not completely dormant, Mara was not there to scatter food left and right for the cats that probably saw her as a moving kitchen the neighborhood gatherings in the backyards were over, the tables laid with plates and bottles were cleared, the people were in their homes slowing turning off, just like the lights in their rooms. I was wearing plain summer pants and a shirt, so that if I ran into someone who knew me, I would look like a person going out at night to the nearest kiosk because, for example, they have run out of cigarettes.

When I was far enough from the house where I lived, I called a taxi and a brief and not completely unpleasant feeling of fear of the thought that this was it came over me, I was only a couple of minutes away from my destination, where something from which there would be no coming back from would happen, but that is not a bad thing, despite the finality and unambiguousness of it. Previously, I had created various narratives in my mind, all very different, changing according to the mood of my imagination, all of which now flashed in front of my eyes in a matter of minutes, like a train moving so fast that if a person focuses on it intensely, they would not be able to determine its color, but the direction it is moving in is set, just like the direction I was moving in. That excitement, that flutter that begins in the stomach and quickly ascends, is now in my neck, it’s suffocating me although it has a sweet taste, it labors my breathing and all of that is normal because I am on my way to meet a man after I had left my own husband sound asleep.

My husband is now asleep, and he will remain sleeping for the next couple of hours, perhaps he will even sleep eight more hours, and I had no other choice after I had seen the faint light under the pile of ruin that had buried everything that was shining and everything that was moving and dreaming; like a survivor, a person who has been too close to death so when they see the light of life, they have no other choice but to selfishly cling on to it, and no one can blame them for it as this is an instinctive occurrence. And if there’s a sleeping person next to them who cannot be woken when they have to move toward the light or remain dead forever, then, they cannot be easily blamed if they leave them and move forward. That is how I moved forward, repeating to myself that this is, at the end of the day, just a pleasant meeting, a meeting that would bring me the happiness I finally more than deserve, I cannot even remember the last time I felt happiness, that euphoric sort which causes mad laughter, a laughter that cannot be contained regardless of the location and surroundings at the time of its occurrence.

My childhood was lost long ago, long before I soundlessly opened and closed the door of the house where I lived, my childhood lasted only while mom was waiting up for me, it ended when she could no longer wait, gathering unnatural or perhaps supernatural strength to greet me with a smile, my childhood ended long ago. Now one man in sleeping, another one is waiting for me, and I am a woman on a journey.

When I got out of the taxi, Ivan was already waiting for me. As expected, at least for me, I was confused and did not know exactly how to behave, but it was clear that I knew where I was coming and why I was there which was pleasant, pleasant like the easiness that sweetened the scant amount of air between us, completely devoid of the question: what kind of people are we (if we’re doing this), or any other question that could cause either of us discomfort.

None of the nocturnal scenarios I had created in my head again and again, each time playing out a different conversation, micro and macro tales containing a tragic occurrence so that the happy ending would have a greater effect, none of them came to fruition which was as pleasant as the finality of the fact that whatever was about to happen would be real.

He hugged me and told me – even though we never talked like that and never openly expressed our thoughts or wishes which would have made me feel like I was doing something improper – he told me candidly that he could not wait to finally see me. With that same unexpected ease he took my hand while leading me through the little hallway of the foyer and in the elevator he touched my face, first the hair that had fallen over my eyes, then the face, looking me straight in the eye, which made me feel embarrassed and that embarrassment was but a strong sign that I was falling in love and there would be no turning back. When I closed my eyes, resting on his pale palm, everything disappeared, everything was clear, and nothing existed but my face and Ivan’s palm. We go into his apartment, the door opens with incredible ease, we don’t sit but lay down without a single forced motion, effortlessly, as if we had been laying down just like that our whole lives, he is then my husband, I am his alone and that is the only thing that is real and that exists. Words do not exist, nor least of all my husband, the one that is sound asleep, and who I thought would somehow find a way to be here, a reason for the start of a pointless conversation with the aim to ease the tension, but fortunately neither that nor anything else existed in that moment.

The fact that we did not discuss my husband was in fact quite proper as he had previously been constantly present as a sort of an excuse, my husband was the excuse for the start of our increased communication, comfort and an exchange of experiences, for all our phone conversations, sometimes even for the texts we sent when I could talk, so he could ask me how I was doing living in unbearable misery, now was the right time to leave my husband dream in peace, and we could go on falling in love, do it in person (not over the phone). For me it was making love, I could not even imagine physical contact being anything else, as I had never before had an adventure that was based only on it. Furthermore, I had dreamed about this, painting pictures in my head during those nights when I held the phone to my ear, never leaving the door of my sleeping husband’s room out of my sight, and after I would go to sleep, I would dream. It had to be making love because both time and the fear of the risk and everything that ceased to exist during that elevator ride remained nonexistent, except for me and him inside of me, while he was looking at me and I enjoyed peeking up trying to understand if he was enjoying himself and to make sure that this was actually happening. His touch on my face slides over my chest to my stomach, Ivan is now no longer a picture, he is truly inside me, to the hilt, and from beginning to end, genuinely, for the first time, on my face when I finally open my eyes and catch sight of the time that, after all, does exist in the ugly wall clock that stares at me from behind his head, time stares and I have to wash my face in a hurry and leave before the little houses on the street where I live awaken.

When I was ready to leave, he remained laying on the bed, which did not seem to me a gesture of a lack of attention or laziness that should cause me displeasure, on the contrary I felt joy when tired and half-asleep he told me to leave that house as soon as possible, that I was young, too young and no one would blame me if I decided to live, any sane person would do that, I am just playing with fire and am obviously oblivious to the consequences, after all, he could help me, I could stay with him, and that seemed to me a nicer gesture than any possible farewell walk to the door, I could stay with him he said, and I left. Feeling as if I am walking on air, I am thinking how nice it is that I now have something to dream about in the future, something that has actually happened and how nice it is to feel like you are walking on air that I do not even notice that the man driving me back is the same taxi driver who drove me there, he is the one who notices, saying that this is not the first time this has happened to him, that not often, but sometimes his path crosses with the ones of his passengers’, and I do not care to explain that this is not destiny but the probability of an occurrence like this is simply greater because it is his job to drive people around in a city which is not so big that they never meet again, I do not care that things would be really bad if my husband has woken up, maybe it is meant to be, maybe there is no better way to leave someone, there has to be certain cruelty involved, everything else is just simply masking the pain, and pain is always unpleasant. Just as unpleasant was the disappearance of my freedom in the moment when I saw the house I lived in and the door through which I was to enter soundlessly. Before dropping me off a couple of houses down, my taxi driver informed me that his name was old Gele and old Gele bid me farewell with the advice to smile when I lay down to sleep because if I fall asleep smiling, I would wake up smiling as well, which I took to be a sign of closeness. To him I am no longer a regular passenger, but someone he can advise because our paths have crossed, and as he believes, I am someone he can bid goodnight to and all that was good because the whole night was good and it would continue to be good if I enter soundlessly and lay down to sleep smiling.

The ground floor, with the huge black bow on the door was dormant, Danica was sleeping and I had crossed one obstacle, not in the least bit harmless as Danica often as a result of her insomnia sat by the window and stared helplessly at the street, but even if she had seen me, she probably had no right to scold me, she would not embrace me like mom would, no one could ever do so, but she has no right to ask for any explanation, I have sacrificed too much trying to please her every need, and her needs were neither simple, nor naive. I could not expect her to understand me. I climbed up the stairs, entered the door, again, holding my sandals and after hearing my husband’s dormant breaths, I contently slid into a corner where I changed and then nestled down on the living room sofa where I had now gotten into the habit of falling asleep more often with the excuse of watching Fox Life shows because we did not have a TV in the bedroom, I laid down with all the wonderful memories I had carried rendered into a reckless smile at the break of dawn.

Before I started replaying the events of the evening in my head, something which I had done, with certain alterations, since childhood, so as to transport myself into the land of dreams, I realized that everything my husband had falsely accused me of is no longer false and that seemed to me a kind of a poetic justice, a moment made just for me, a feeling I had forgotten. Maybe he had himself to blame, I thought, that cruelty-and all his accusations were cruel, he would blame me for anything that crossed his mind-it had to be punished somehow, at the end of the day it happened instinctively, I had never before given up the intention to help him.

Translated by: Monika Mihajlovska

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