Everything was so familiar it hurt.
After every rehearsal, the same people would go to the same cafe and say the same words. I would tell the same gross jokes and get pushed playfully by the same grossed out girls. Bahor would employ the same tactics to scrounge the same kind of cigarettes and Samir would talk us under the same table about the same things and the same winter darkness would fall the same way over everything and the same stars would come out in the same artistic composition and bear witness, terribly, that everything was the same.
Two years of siege in Tuzla.
The worst was the realization that I knew which chair I was sitting on. If the chair was a person I would have known its name, where it worked, the size of its nipples. I knew that if I dropped my hand down and grabbed the right hind leg I would be able to recognize the two bumps right underneath the place where the wicker winding made it fatter and fancier, it was unbearable.
A sickness came over me. No, I became aware of a sickness that I had been suffering for two years now, a sickness where nothing ever hurt but where life energy ebbed anyway as if drained by a constant, unyielding fever. That sudden awareness felt like an organic panic of some kind, where pain was not in the flesh but in the mere idea of flesh, in its initial blueprint. My skin was a Ziploc bag, and both material and immaterial chunks of me were astir in the violent marinade of disgusting juices. I got up and fled. The same people might have said something different then. I didn’t hear.
The town was ruptured. The streets were gray lunatics. Black marketers sold cigarettes and cooking oil off collapsible tables. Drunken freedom fighters sang heartbreaking songs about Istanbul’s yellow quinces. Bearded fathers rode derelict bicycles one-handedly, puffing out steam. Dogs meandered looking for food in the slush. Darkness was merciless, just like the familiarity of every thing. Mechanically, I was headed home.
But “Hotel Tuzla” still had electricity. Its tenants were foreign journalists, humanitarians, adventurers, and spies, the only people who still had money here. It shone like a solitary porch light in the night, turned on just to attract the insects away from the real party going on somewhere inside. Mesmerized and dumb, I had to go in.
Bodies stood around purposelessly like singed moths. The punks snarled at the soccer hooligans and the soccer hooligans snarled at the punks. Both groups posed and ogled the slowly circulating girls. Every now and then the hotel’s personnel in cuntish maroon jackets told them to disperse if they had no business there. They would start as if to leave, drag their feet, milk their goodbyes and eventually just stay. I knew almost every person in the place.
I felt like my body was a rental, feeling the leftovers of somebody else’s pain, muscle aches but I haven’t done shit. Somebody else was going to scream through me. I let my eyelids fall like covers over the sameness of the scene and the reception desk imploded into a busy universe of shifting colorful circles. Organic nausea.
“Hey, long time no see.”
Elvis. Elementary school. Last name … Something with a T. He slammed a skinny kid’s head against the radiator in the school locker room once. I stared at his face, fighting off the rising acid.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Better ones then me are getting buried.”
He laughed and pulled me by the sleeve through the crowd. He was talking about something. I didn’t hear. People said hi. I shook a couple of hands. Then we were in the bathrooms. The stench in there would have made a plant puke. The tiles were but urine and dirt. A neon light flickered something awful. He stopped at the edge of wetness, pulled out his dick, and pissed in the general direction of the urinals the whole time, telling me how he got to drink whiskey with his Swedish boss and what an awesome job he had.
“Good for you,” I told him and went to wash my face.
I turned the faucet and nothing but air came out like a wail through the pipes. In the mirror I looked like this guy I know and my skin broke out in goose bumps.
“You still get high?” he smirked.
Wow. Gossip traveled far. Not that I cared. The only thing that mattered was that he got my attention.
“What do you got?”
He showed me three white pills with jagged edges. I felt elation and hated myself for it but at least the nausea started to subside at the promise of a high.
“What is it?” I really had no idea.
“The fuck I know. Olaf and his general buddies where handing it to everyone at the party.”
“What does it do?”
“I don’t know, you tell me.”
His face was severe with probing eyes, something out of this world. I snatched the pills and dry-swallowed all three, eyeing him with livid apathy. For the moment they were on my tongue they tasted sweet.
“Wow. Must be desperate.”
“Fatalism is my defense mechanism,” I said.
We went back to the lobby, away from the stench and the guy in the mirror. Things started to seem different because I had a secret. I was awaiting effects, a gradual slouch if the pills were opiates, a surge of power if they were amphetamines, wavering of outlines if they were hallucinogens. Elvis gibber-jabbered and I heard nothing of it. His eyes were cruel, constantly on me, gleefully expecting to see the outcome of his experiment. I could sense he wanted me to explode, strip naked, rip holes in cavities with my erect, crazy fingers, chomp down on some eyeballs, scrotums, titties; that would have made him happy, to see me lose it. I knew his kind and so kept my cool, out of spite.
“How is it?”
I just looked at him like he was a thing and then looked away.
The police were frustrated with a punk over there under the stairs. He was being flippant yet his eyes were shifty with fright. I knew him. Little Mario, they called him. There are two kinds of dogs, I guess, nippers and barkers. He was the barking type. They zoomed down on him, their uniforms mismatched like amateurs doing a play. Only their guns were no replicas.
“Where did you get those boots?” the bad cop said.
“They’re my boots.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
They went back and forth like that, friction swelling. As for the boots in question, they were Turkish Army standard issues, black with green patches of waterproof material on the sides. The good cop tried to defuse him, but his colleague soon foamed up at the mouth.
“There are soldiers up there in the mountain fighting for your stupid ass in fucking sneakers and dress shoes, freezing their asses off, and you, you little shit, here you are parading new army boots in a hotel.”
“Fuck you, that’s not my fault.”
“No, fuck you! Take ’em off!”
“You can’t do that.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
Mario pleaded with the onlookers to help him because he was being robbed. His eyes were livid hot, his knees bouncy with fury on the verge of spillage. We stood around, useless like hat racks. He called us cunts and unlaced, yelled that his mother was a judge, threw the boots against the ground and walked into the black snow in white socks.
I liked the fact that something had finally happened, but was suspicious of the easiness with which everything returned to routine. An hour probably passed and all I did was stand there and hate Elvis. I was starting to believe those pills were just placebos.
“Anything yet?” he asked and I sensed ridicule in the way he shifted weight to his skinnier leg. I tightened my lips and smiled, raising my chin. That was so I didn’t have to punch him.
“That’s very funny,” I said, and stepped back.
“Take out your contacts.”
From where I was standing I became certain that, behind his mask, Elvis had green eyes. But he wasn’t going to admit that and we both knew that he wasn’t, so I didn’t push the issue. I just backed up a few more steps since I didn’t trust my fists and said:
“I just want you to know that I know.”
With that I backed out of the lobby, pointing to my eyes. Deal with that, fucker, I thought. I figured it was probably close to the curfew hour anyway. I hoped I was going to make it home on time.
Outside the world was suddenly fucked. The curbs were higher; it was like climbing up walls. Everything was far away. The row of white buildings in my neighborhood was shielding itself from me, evading me. At the rate I was approaching them, I was surely due to violate the curfew regulation and end up in jail overnight. So I started running. It had to be 11 already. I remembered Little Mario and pitied him running through this shit in his white socks. Ahead, humanoid shadows crept up buildings. The cops, as if they waited for me. I heard them say so. Their guns protruded from their shoulders. Shit, it had to be 11 already. That was all there was to it. I couldn’t afford going to jail.
I threw myself under the quadriplegic blue truck, sitting there since the beginning of war. Then I crawled the length of a parking lot, from car to car to dumpster to car to car to car to the bushes in front of my building, where I remained for some time because the cops started talking again. They sounded like jungle birds and the jungle birds they sounded like were no night jungle birds. That’s how I knew it was them. I was aware that if I ended up in jail they would have taken me into a round room and told me that they would beat me until I found a corner to hide in. After that they would have taken me to an office where the guy in charge would have put his keys on the table and told me to pick them up just to slam my fingers with a baton every time I reached for them – leftover communist policing methods.
There was no way I was going to jail. My eyeballs started to freeze in their sockets and if I wanted to look left or right I had to move my whole head. My spine was already frozen rigid. I rotated my wrists and ankles to be able to spring into the dark mouth of the building when the time came. But they were standing right there behind a van, sharing a cigarette. One of them had Little Mario’s boots. Fuckers. The ice was beckoning me to capitulate. If I waited any longer it was going to grip me, so I got up and ran, through the frostbitten air, soundlessly, without looking, my upper body like a puppet on a stick.
In there I knew where the staircase was and sure enough there it was. I knew that there were 17 stairs per floor. Were they after me? I couldn’t hear. Just my blood. My thoughts.
1 ok ok ok 2 ok just 3 be calm 4 ok 5 they didn’t 6 see you 7 ok 8 so dark 9 That’s piss 10 ok ok 11 a few more 12 be calm 13 you’re almost 14 there 15 fifteen 16 sixteen 17 OH MY GOD
One of them grabbed me by the wrist and I swear to God shot me with some kind of stun gun, because a surge of electricity ripped through me like death and all the ice melted into sweat over everything and I bucked insanely in all directions, my heart pushing against my throat, bulging out, until I stumbled over some soft tissue in the dark, some warm tissue in the dark, which told me he was just a man, he was just a man, and I bucked again but now I bucked only in his direction, and punched, and kicked, and the grip on my wrist became weaker and weaker as I became stronger and stronger and finally there was nothing grabbing me to take me to jail; nothing was touching me except the hard granite floor against the soles of my Reeboks, against the wetness of my socks, against my flat feet.
* * *
The hamster woke me trying to bite through his cage or trying to shave off the excess front teeth, whatever. Shutters were down and so was my mood, I could tell right off the bat. The little arm was between II and III and the big arm between VI and VII, closer to VII. Donald Ducks sleepwalked all over me in their pj’s. There were pale dots of light on the wall, sneaking through the minute openings in the plastic shutters, which told me it was after noon. I tried to move and grumbled with pain.
I felt like ten thousand tiny, greedy treasure hunters had jack-hammered into my body, burrowed into every nook and cranny of my bones, sifted through all the blood, dug through the delicate gray mass singed at places with paint thinner fumes and alcohol, found nothing worth anything, nothing that could even be salvaged for pennies, grew pissed off and in turn demolished the place, defiled it with their tiny poisonous droppings and urine and left without bothering to lock up. I think I had a fever, too.
Routine of personal hygiene in the dark. It was an effort to squeeze some tasteless toothpaste onto my toothbrush and walk into the kitchen. There was water in an orange plastic barrel with a little makeshift faucet my father duct-taped at the bottom.
My mother sat at the table, cubing potatoes into a red salad bowl. The radio was hooked up to a car battery on a piece of cardboard on the floor. A dashing male voice reported on the aggression in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I zombied to the sink.
“You cheated the dawn,” she said.
“I have a fever,” I said.
“Somebody tried to kill Mrs. Abdic from the first floor last night. They beat God out of her.”
I was going for the faucet when my raw, bloody knuckles came into stark focus. The radio played a jingle. I didn’t have anything to say, so I turned around and went back to bed where I hoped to sleep like a slaughtered child.
“What is this toothbrush doing on the stove?”