My memory’s fading. You tell me what’s real. My story began long before my remembrance. My remembrance was as long, as winding as a dirty country road.
I told you my story, but was it really the objective one?
I remember the day when someone brought quinces and put them on the table. Against a dark mahogany table, they looked like they were made of brass. They looked rather unreal like painted in the 3D technique.
I told you that I was happy on that occasion, their smell made me feel loved for some reason.
Yes, I told you – I was happy, but I wasn’t. The quinces’ smell brought lots of sadness to my day. It was the day when they tried to conceal Lila’s death from me. They tried to mask it with a smell. Yes, we mask things with smells.
While the brass quinces were still perfuming the house, it proved to be a rotten day, concealed by all that sweetness and by my mother’s forced laughter.
My father said ‘no real man cries’, and the relief he obtained by saying it was expected to be my relief.
They brought in the quinces and I said I was happy, again, there was an expectation of gladness from my side, for they thought that I loved quinces. I said the same to you, on that day when I started to recount my story.
My story was made up.
Stories are made of feelings, not of events.
I told you the events but through the prism of false feelings.
I can recount it to you now, but shadowed by different shades of feelings and you’ll see what difference it makes.
On the day when my father was taken to the hospital, I was happy. They told me that I was going to get a bike, instead. Instead of truth, that’s what I meant when saying ‘instead’. Yes, I was happy, I was going to ride a bike.
It was grey. I didn’t like the colour, but I said I did.
I came to the hospital a month later riding my bike. The hospital wasn’t far from our home. Mother was walking and I had already learned how to ride. On our way to the hospital she cried, but she blamed the wind, blamed the little fly, blamed the onion-sticky fingers. She plainly cried. I was riding my grey bike.
Dad never came back.
They told us that we couldn’t see him – yet. Maybe tomorrow.
I rode back whistling. Mum cried. She blamed the wind and the little fly. And I wasn’t really aware of the proportions of reality and feelings.
They said Dean had left for Amsterdam. What the hell!!! Amsterdam! Why out of all the destinations this world offered he had chosen Amsterdam? Bobby was killed in Amsterdam: some car ran over him. As if he was a rabbit.
I blamed the car, the lousy driver, the wrong weather and the laws in Amsterdam. But, I never blamed Bobby. He smoked. I never knew it. Mother said not to blame anyone as he had freely chosen such a script. Bobby never liked ‘happy endings’. I did, and believed if we said so, we’d believe so… if we believed so it was real then.
When they said that Dean went to Amsterdam, I wasn’t ready yet to show my real feelings. I kept on pretending to read the label on some jar. The jar was red, even though it was made of clear glass, it was red. The content was red. I was reading the label keen to figure out what was in it. Strawberries. Sweet strawberries. They sweetened his departure. I buried my head into the dish and ate two jars of strawberries with extra sugar on the top.
Mother cried. She blamed the menopause.
I couldn’t blame anyone. I just ate and ate as if this was going to be my last meal. After that, after his departure, I hadn’t eaten for more than two weeks. My mother cried. Begged me, telling me that I was ‘everything that was left to her’ as if I was some, quite dear, piece of furniture. She loved her antiques. It was a firm confirmation that we belonged to the ‘right family’. It looked as if I was the last piece of antiquity in that household.
I said – I wasn’t keen to see the Rembrandts, that I was ‘more than happy’ to stay with her among the antique furniture.
But I wasn’t.
I concealed my feelings with the red strawberries.
Bobby used to conceal his feelings with grass.
Dean – with his travels.
I said I was predominantly happy throughout my youth. Mother took good care of me. Besides, she had money and antique furniture. She had everything. She had even me. We were both conscious that – having everything makes one feel absolutely happy.
I started recounting my storytelling you how happy I was. Blissfully happy: we always had ‘everything’.
Dean never came back. He went in search for Bobby. Bobby was already ‘elsewhere’, but by that time Dean believed that he would find him. I was happy for him, even jealous (only a bit), for I thought ‘how on earth could he sustain such faith?’ But Jesus resurrected!
Bobby didn’t. No one did. Father didn’t. Even though they said they were ‘expecting a miracle’ because father was a strong, healthy man and had a brilliant, focused mind. They said he had a ‘perfect family’ worthy of fighting for. He wasn’t as lucky as Jesus was. Or the family wasn’t as perfect as it needed to be to summon a mighty wish to fight.
We were blessed. In a way.
He lived a month longer than doctors really expected. I learned to ride my bike just to tell him that I did, perhaps to make him proud of me, or… maybe, somewhere in my childish mind, I believed that this fact would somehow enhance his recovery.
That year I was utterly sad. Beneath it was all dark, perplexingly deep, but I concealed my utter sadness with reading books. I assume that I had learned a lot, who wouldn’t learn a lot from Dostoyevsky? He wrote about death and sadness. He worked it out all for me, so I was just a passive reader. Death and sadness thus happened to someone else, in some other stories, Dostoyevsky’s.
I lied to my mother about my choice of literature. I told her that I was reading something else. I found a writer whose name I had forgotten long ago and told her that I was reading his simple, uncomplicated and entertaining stories. The ones that all other kids read at that time. Back then everyone watched Pippi Langstrumpf, later some kids went on reading it. I didn’t. I kept Dostoyevsky’s book under my bed, wrapped in a scarf as if he was a dead seer, hidden, not discovered yet. It was Lila’s scarf I wrapped him in. I suppose that, too, was a way how I mourned her death. I never knew where she was buried. Mother said that it wouldn’t be appropriate to bury Lila in our garden. The garden was always perfect, and death wasn’t. It was scary, I denied death as if it wasn’t real. How brave, arrogant and naive that attempt was: to deny the only certainty!?
I told you that I had six girlfriends but I never loved any of them (that’s why I left each of them… except the last one).
But this wasn’t true, either.
Mother liked none of them.
I met a girl named Apollonia.
Those were the times of “The Godfather.” I met her on the street. Unusual place to meet Apollonia – the daughter of an Italian immigrant. They didn’t walk the streets just like that. There was not any scene from a romantic movie on that day, on that street when I met Apollonia.
A figure of infinite beauty.
I saw her eyes and my heart raced. My feet raced and I foolishly followed her. She turned her head twice and hurried. I hurried and she started to run. I ran, caught up with her and breathless said:
“Don’t be afraid, I am breathless not because of running but because of your beauty.”
I squatted down, picked up a daffodil from someone’s garden and extended it to her. Her eyes were pretty, big with wonder. They shone. She didn’t say anything, she just took the daffodil. It was yellow, like the quinces on our antique table. I walked next to her speechless. When I summoned enough courage to talk, I said:
“I am not speechless because I am dumb… but, because of your beauty.”
I took her bag and carried it to the park. When we reached the park, she said:
“May I have my bag now, please?”
“When am I going to see you again, beautiful, nameless girl?”
“I walk this road every day… Apollonia.”
But I really believed in that moment that it was the name of the road. I walked that road many times before, but when I met her, I had forgotten all the names. Including mine. She asked what my name was and I said:
“Call me Michelle, Apollonia.”
She just smiled gently with tight lips, shaking her head barely visible as if she knew that I fell madly in love and that she triumphed again.
Bobby told me not to ‘mess with Italian girls’.
Bobby was jealous. He always was. He was a redhead and short. He had a bad temper. He was quick as quicksilver. Once he got in trouble with Stefano. Yes, he was Apollonia’s brother.
Mum said not to ‘mess around with Italians’. When I said to my mother that I ‘loved Apollonia’, she just waved her hand. Unwilling even to consider the possibility of loving an Italian-immigrant-daughter. Waving her hand meant ‘we don’t mess or mingle with Italians’.
I said that to Apollonia and she said that her brother didn’t like us, either. Apollonia’s father owned The Gelateria. I used to buy an ice-cream there occasionally. One day, upon my entering the place, he came quickly and said:
“Leave her alone.”
He didn’t have a gun or anything that a seventeen-year-old scared boy might have imagined after watching “The Godfather” over and over. ‘That particular look’ in his eyes was just enough to convince me that there might be some unpleasant consequences if I didn’t obey.
I loved Apollonia and that gave me courage. So, ‘that particular look’ was not enough to convince and ward me off, even though I was scared. I didn’t say a word to Apollonia but daily I kept on carrying her bag to the park where the bag exchanged hands and we exchanged our kisses.
Shaken by the certainty that God was never present when he was needed, I lost my occasional and weak trust in him: on my way home I was beaten – badly. I couldn’t walk for days. Mother said that she told me not to ‘mess with Italians’.
Apollonia changed schools. A year later she went to Rome to study. I had never been to Rome, never wanted to go – why would I care about the Sistine Chapel or Caravaggio’s work?
From that day on, the day I was badly beaten, I never met Stefano again. Bobby said if he ever met him, he was going to ‘kill that Italian bastard’. I was happy that Bobby never met him again. What a terrible, terrible temper Bobby had. Paradoxically, he had a mellow heart, and as sweet as dark-yellow quinces.
I never talked about Apollonia again.
Then the four girls followed that I really didn’t love, but I did care for them in my own way. I remember their names because I had written their names in some sort of diary. I had a thick book where I would write some sketches of my daily life. Not on a regular basis, not in structured sentences. More like – jotting down:
“Failed exam… Bobby’s a bastard – he stole from Dean… Al Pacino said, ‘Cavalleria Rusticana!? I think I got tickets to the wrong opera. I’ve been in New York too long…’ got to memorize this line… Beatrix gets on my nerves, can’t stand her high-pitched voice… Four library books due on Monday… Cathy called… shall I or shall I not??? Shall not? Not pretty enough?… Tuesday cinema with Dean…”
That’s how I could still remember their names.
I ended up going out with Cathy only because she wanted me so badly. I liked pretty girls. One can’t date an angel like Apollonia and not care about a girl’s appearance after that. But Cathy! Was she an artist in the art of opulent persuasion? Oh, yes. All I learned from her was plainly sexual. Fine!
Then I met Emma and after her Simona.
I hoped Simona would awaken in me the same sweetness Apollonia did, but Simona was ‘just another pretty girl’, there was plenty of an intellectual vacuum around her.
I don’t want to talk about it any longer because I never want to leave the impression that my speech might be absolutely derogatory when it comes to ex-lovers.
Emma and I, we lasted the most. This time mother didn’t mind the girl’s background but she had found other faults as time went by. Mothers are skillful in finding faults with the girls, their potential rivals and threats.
Bobby liked Emma. For hours, for days they could laugh together. They had the same sense of humour. They behaved like they were brother and sister. But then he left without any warning or need for an explanation. He just said he wanted to live ‘elsewhere’. Yet another battle he had won without glory. I said that I didn’t miss him at all because he was always a troublemaker. But I missed him terribly. I feared for his future knowing him too well, knowing his temper, I wanted to say.
In 1990, I met a woman I fell in love with deeply. From my side it wasn’t an ordinary love, it was pure madness. I never told anyone how much I loved her, anyone – including herself. I wasn’t even prepared to admit it to myself.
I read her poem.
It blew me away.
I read her poem before I met her and thought that it was written by an older, experienced woman and even though the poem was fresh and mellow, it had that depth which can come only through a number of different life experiences.
I learned it off by heart.
I walked in its rhythm, whistled it often as if it could have been sung. While whistling and reciting it in my head, I would imagine the woman who wrote the poem. I gave her the face of Meryl Streep: she was beautiful, mellow and mature enough to come up with such a perfect order of words and emotions. I even called it ‘Meryl’s Poem’ although it had a different title.
Dean used to write little poems. When I think better of his poems, I might correct myself and rephrase it: Dean used to write soulful, meaningful verses which could easily bring memories of my father, which could at the same time easily sadden and mellow my heart. I used to love some of his poems but I never admitted it, for I believed that it might show some of my hidden weaknesses.
It was quite a cold evening. Dean was coughing the whole day. He asked me to accompany him to the poetry evening. It was held in a small dark café downtown. I was hesitant because he was almost ill and this place was full of smoke that one could cut with scissors. Dean has those big brown eyes and he knew how to look in one’s eyes if he wanted to make one do what he wished. He looked in my eyes with the right dose of sadness, precisely enough to make me change my clothes without a word and get the car key.
I was driving, he was coughing.
“Do you really…”
“I really do!” he cut my sentence and I started to hum ‘Meryl’s Poem’.
As soon as we walked in, Dean lit his cigarette an ordered a beer. I just swung my head helplessly, my eyes were already hurting.
Dean read his poem and I was close to tears. He had his way with words, awakening feelings of sadness, awakening pictures of father’s departure, of mum’s absent-mindedness written on her face like on the blackboard with a blunt dirty-white chalk. It looked to me that evening as if he had known a long time that he was predestined to write this poem, to awaken those exact feelings in my heart.
I pleaded, he was coughing, smoking and drinking cold beer, but I pleaded to no avail. When Dean starts to drink his beer, you’d better not plead.
Sulky I sat in the dark corner while he talked to one of his friends. He introduced me to a young woman. Yes, she was pretty and I was sulky and unfriendly, I couldn’t care less, all I cared for was Dean’s cough and his reluctance to go home. Father used to cough a lot a year before his departure. Dean had father’s nature. Independent, stubborn but subtle in a way. The pretty woman was a quiet one. She didn’t talk a lot. Without saying a word, she stood up after a while. She took the mike and started to read. I didn’t care, all I wanted was to take Dean home.
But I recognized the poem.
It was ‘Meryl’s Poem’.
She just renamed it. She had stolen it! I stood up quickly and came closer, to hear it better, or to see her better.
Shamelessly she read ‘Meryl’s Poem’.
I almost protested, but as I came closer and looked into her eyes I stopped as if I was trapped by her melodic voice and her purple eyes. In the dark her eyes looked purple.
I came when she ended her reading and said:
“You read it so expressively.”
Her name was Pia.
She said in the poem that ‘she was dethroned from love’.
Half-drunk on our way back home Dean told me that Pia didn’t just read the poem, that she wrote the poem. She was a Poetess.
Pia was a Poetess.
It wasn’t Meryl Streep’s.
It was a young woman’s poem.
A beautiful young woman of few words. Probably she spared her speech, she spared her words for her poems.
I changed the title. I wasn’t calling it ‘Meryl’s Poem’ because it was now, rightfully – ‘Pia’s Poem’.
Since that day when I met Apollonia on Forest Hill Road, I changed the road’s name. From that day on for me it was – Apollonia Road.
I met Pia on Apollonia Road on 22 September 1990. She never noticed me and I simply said:
She lifted her glasses up looking puzzled.
She looked absent-minded, she didn’t remember Dean. She didn’t know who he was. I said ‘sorry’ and walked away. Pia yelled:
“Wait up!” She said she just remembered, but she never called him Dean. I never knew that his nickname in those circles was Jacques. So, my Dean was Jacques. Like Jacques Prevert, perhaps.
There, on Apollonia Road, I fell in love with Pia but still wasn’t aware of it. It took me a few years to admit that. I considered it to be a stroke of good luck that among a number of fruitless encounters the only woman who will embody the beauty and brains will be Pia the Poetess.
I said that I was happy the day when I fell in love with Pia. That day was shadowed by yet another death.
We got the news – Bobby was run over. I cried in the shed as one would cry for a real brother.
The first time when I kissed Pia, she said:
“Don’t expect me to love you. I don’t fall in love, and I don’t see myself sharing my future with anyone. I am free and independent, I have never stayed long with anyone because of the fear that someone might get to know me. The art of loving is not my art, I can write poetry and that’s the only field where I feel knowledgeable, confident and surrendered. Otherwise, I don’t surrender.”
“I never wanted you to surrender. All I want is to be friends… may I say, I want a lasting friendship… even when you go…”
She looked at me long before she repeated my last words:
“A lasting friendship… even when I go?”
She shrugged her shoulders and headed towards the park down Apollonia Road. Although I used to carry Apollonia’s bag to the edge of the park, I had forgotten carrying it, her brother had beaten out of my brains most of the memories containing slides or pictures of Apolonia… except for the Road I named after her.
I said I was happy with such a relationship.
But I wasn’t.
Everyone believed that we both wanted the kind of relationship we had. I never wanted it to be that way. I wanted to tell her how much I loved her… I wanted to tell her all those sweet verses lovers say to each other. But I never did. Pia reserved all those words for her poems, I always felt like a stranger on her pages. They were not my home. The verses were written for someone she was yet going to meet, that someone she yearned for. It wasn’t me.
But I loved her and had learned to develop the art of not showing my love, almost denying it. What a tiresome art it was, what a weird artist I had become. Did that harden my soul and silence my honest speech?
She would disappear and I didn’t know for many, many days anything about Pia. She would come back with a poem and a kiss. Something was burning within me, I could hear little explosions inside, but the major part of my art consisted in keeping the surface motionless. After some time that surface became – a stranger. I would look at the surface in a mirror and the mirror was absolutely indifferent, almost hostile… Still, sometimes in that mirror, I could grasp some fragments of me or of my late dad’s, there were some hints of Dean’s words or gestures, some of Bobby’s anger and lots of Pia’s unspoken emotions hidden underneath, which aroused an unknown melody in my soul.
Did Pia love me without wording it? Is love a person? Is it an attitude? Could it be an orientation of character to the world as a whole, not just toward one person? Whom did Pia love?
Does ‘love’ mean the absolute absence of a conflict?
I said that I never feared anything.
But I did.
I feared confrontations with Pia. Feared her leavings.
I said that it was the way we both liked it.
But it wasn’t.
Underneath my outsized pride, I knew Pia was never ‘mine’. I found myself to be completely under her spell but kept silent, ‘disinterested and distant’, believing that only ‘disinterested and distant’ I could keep her with me.
She kept on writing and winning and I resigned myself to the idea that we would always divide ourselves between poetry and silence, and between the little cracks among those two – a little bit of love.
Pia was hardly ever happy. Happiness is a state of mind, nothing else. But she was predominantly in the state of mind which asked for an absolute surrender to it.
The day dawned full of clouds. Pia called almost in a hurry wanting to see me. While we were walking down Apollonia Road, Pia said:
“Today at 11 o’clock I’m departing.”
I said nothing.
Nothing to her.
To Dean I said that I didn’t mind.
But I did.
I cried inside.
Mother faintly smiled. She heard that the Poetess was going away. Far away, indeed. She heard it from Bobby’s friend who still used to come and visit as if he hoped that Bobby might have magically appeared from the thin air. That friend of Bobby’s, whose name I don’t remember anymore, never liked women of few words, the moody ones. I remember him, not particularly but only because he said that he never liked Pia’s poetry, in his words she was ‘worse than Sylvia Plath’. He said that she was ‘suicidal material’, and that he hated such whimps. I hated him, hence I have forgotten his name. I assume when you deliberately forget someone’s name you show utter disrespect or hidden hatred.
Mum said that it was about time that I got a new car.
There, on Apollonia Road, Pia said that she wanted to go to the airport alone. She never liked a ‘public display of affection’. I said to her that I was not an affectionate guy, anyway. She kissed me and went away. I felt so alone on that day looking at Pia’s back getting smaller down Apollonia Road.
I got a new car. I told you I was happy because of it, but I wasn’t. It was just a car, after all.
When she left, for days I read Plath’s poetry.
I never read Pia’s poetry again.
There was only one poem of Pia’s which I truly liked and loved. It was ‘Meryl’s Poem’.
The rest were just self-torturing expressions of the wounded soul.
I never asked her if she planned to come back or was she going for good. No difference.
Dean left. Why did he leave?
I said to myself that I would never go to Amsterdam, neither to Australia.
There I was: all alone with mother and our antique furniture. I had a new car. How happy was I supposed to be? I had everything.
My new car was a fancy one. Its bonnet was adorned by a little black horse propped up on its hind legs.
It is needless to say that she never called and never wrote a letter.
She didn’t and I said I had forgotten her.
Anyway, she had a neurotic nature and her thoughts were like some dark river threatening to flood my sanity. I was drowning in love and despair, losing ground, losing self-respect and identity. I breathed Pia, recited Pia, imitated Pia, waited for her, bled for her, I almost exhausted my desire to go on living while she was absent writing her poetry.
It was August 30, the day was warmish and I was driving along a river-bank. Suddenly, someone waved their hand and hoarsely called my name. I slowed down.
It was Marcus.
He said that he came back home for holidays.
“Where do you live?”
He said, “Sydney.” I never knew he lived over there.
He said he saw Pia several times.
He said she lost lots of weight.
I put my dark sunglasses back on.
“It was a long time ago. I barely remember her.”
It was a lie.
I did remember her every day.
“Lucky you,” pointing his hand towards a little black horse propped up on its hind legs “… you’ve always had everything. Even as a child you had everything…”
“Yeah, I was pretty lucky.”
“Even with the girls. You always snatched the best-looking ones. I remember that Italian girl. Good Lord, she had a piece of arse!!!”
Her brother beat the crap out of me!
Physical pain! You can touch it, locate it and eventually heal it.
I came back home and, as always, mother kissed me.
There was a pleasant smell of quinces on the table. I closed my eyes to invite memories with the smell of yellow quinces.
I opened my eyes and looked at the quinces again. A letter was there – resting against a vase full of flowers. It was addressed to me.
It was Pia’s letter.
“I want you to know that I used to love you. But you couldn’t save me from myself. That unbearable emptiness of Australia inspires only a death wish. I hate it here, that’s why I’ve come to this nothingness – only to torture myself.
It is done:
– The woman is perfected.
Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment.- “
What was the name of that friend of my dear Bobby who said that she was like Sylvia Plath? Suicidal. I hate that man, I always did!
I couldn’t even cry, I remember her asking me:
“A lasting friendship… even when I go?”
Great story again. Branka, you are a stunning storyteller, a brilliant stylist and you are a mirror reflecting the spirit of your generation. Brava!
You keep your reader glued to the chair, or to the letters. You kept me glued till the end… puzzled too. What else you can deliver? Well done, well done my friend.
Intelligent and engaging – a story worthy of celebration! Thanks!
Branka, well done again!
Brilliant ! We often hide our true feelings, especially emotional pain. You kept me in suspense right to the end, and what an end – it filled me with dread of what could happen next. Great story, Branka.