World at Our Feet
Through the thin veil of clouds sun drains the moist heat from the asphalt street and half withered park, raising it slowly and unceasingly towards itself to the desperation of those who have to drag themselves home from work on foot. The small town being so mercilessly cooked by the summer is a peculiar combo of concrete and green spaces, orderly deployed by the sea. Some half a century ago, while it was still just a plastic model displayed in some project bureau of now deceased country, it must have seemed as a great idea. They built it according to the strict plan, had put it together logically and economically, the way kids used to build those lego-cubes cities, and then – no doubt about it – they paused to observe with pride the inspiring spectacle: the idea of the young and playful mind become real.
It was like a measure stick for parents to evaluate the development of their little prodigy. And they were probably quite content for some time, perhaps too much time for them to realize how wrong they were. For town never really caught on life of its own. Reality cares little for smart children and their games, and now, when country that had it built was gone, it was slowly but surely dying.
Nevertheless, some among its residents, perhaps even the majority of them, somewhere deep down still loved it.
One of those souls incarnated into thirty-something women just crossed the bridge over the narrow river, pouring into the sea in the middle of the town. She possessed a car but there was no use starting it at such a short distance – the city is small and there’s no more than fifteen minutes from work to home for her. Besides, in contrast to the majority of her fellow citizens, she loved to stroll down the main street which made full circle throughout the town, even in this heat.
When the sea reflects the murky sun and the stench of the sewers rises slowly on the tail of heat towards the sky, stifling the reflection on the windows of concrete buildings, man has to admit that the sense of beauty is quite a tolerant character feature. Therefore, as she is pleased to consider herself a person of tolerant character features, she continues her determined stroll down the sidewalk, keeping a distance from the lungo mare entangled in heat and low stench, not bothering herself with scorching sun and not repeating in her mind what she often says aloud but never really means: “Who the Hell dropped me into this shithole?!”
Terraces of cafes, aligned along the solitaires, are almost deserted. The music from various sources mingles – a mix of instant Dalmatian pseudo-folk clashes with electronic tunes of some new pop monstrosity she, old fashioned as she is, really cannot name. So inappropriate for this lazy little city; a little, minuscule New Orleans. Such Small Easy should be adorned by different soundtrack at this humidly hot afternoon … something like …
… these songs of freedom …
The familiar tune of the song she loved discretely penetrated the cacophony and nudged her lips into faint smile. She turned towards the vacant terrace while the heat began acquiring quite a different quality. Marley’s song poured through heavy atmosphere with ease …
… that’s all I ever had … redemption songs …
It pulled her aside and she offered no resistance, so tired from work and pressed by the angst of endless problems, it invited her to sit on the vacant terrace, lay her handbag and visit to supermarket aside. It was a tune she grew up with and her small son was bound to follow in her musical footsteps. While she made her way towards one of the vacant tables, in her mind she lovingly spun the image of the three year old child trying to follow the simple tune with whatever sounds he could muster in his juvenile self.
… redemption songs … that’s all I ever had … redemption songs
The patroness, sweaty, burly, casual and merry as always approaches her to pick up her order. After few benign remarks and lamentation on the heat, she concludes,
‘Go home. You’ve got some cooking to do.’
‘Like hell I am.’
‘What’s your man gonna say about that?’
They both laughed. Everybody knew that no one can tell her what to do, if not tell her anything at all. Besides, for the last few months she shares the apartment with her son only. She broke up with her husband terminally and now she’s alone, in an intermezzo that won’t last long. She changed men with such hungry desperation and speed that to everybody except herself it was plainly obvious that she can’t stand being alone. Yet, rarely could any of those passers-by she summarily let in and threw out from her life could tell her anything in the imperative form.
Patroness returned inside the little café to prepare her a cappuccino. Our no-nonsense heroine turned around and noticed the slim, dry man at the bar. She gave him a wink; he responded with faint half smile and continued to gaze towards the sea. Suddenly, yet quite lazily, it crossed her mind that he used to sit like this every day for years on, somehow uncomfortably stiff and upright, reading a pulp novel for hours. No one ever bothered to take a peek at the title, but her friends conjectured that it was always the same novel. Every junkie does his own thing, but old timers like this guy, mentally stuck in some other age that came belatedly to our parts, endured long and with the style. Who would nowadays spend his afternoons reading the pulp novel at the bar stool? Such reefs of humanity are not caressed by the sea anymore, even in these little towns where time has nowhere in particular to rush.
… emancipate yourself from mental slavery …
Patroness brought her cappuccino. She accepted it with the smile, pushed the chair on which she laid her things, set back and gazed at the sea.
The gentle rhythm of the waves seemed to mimic the unassuming tune. She felt the mistral on her face. She caught a deep breath and attempted to let some of that lazy tranquility inside her. She knew she won’t make that one happen. The pills she was popping couldn’t blunt her edge – she was too wild to be overpowered. They provided her with the momentum of control, but not with the tranquility of inner peace. That bird has flown and it won’t come back.
She sank into the chair, closed her eyes and then slowly opened them, letting them be filled by the spectacle of the sea, harbor and the hills. All three of them, patroness, old timer and her, gazed into same direction, each one in one’s own thoughts, each one on one’s own position, each one down the precipice of one’s own despair.
If some stranger would pass by and throw the casual glance at the scene, he would doubtless feel the sting of envy towards those people who can afford such afternoon nirvana. But everybody in this town knew, although no one ever spoke about it, that this is all a façade.
They puzzled the visitors with their restless merriness, so strikingly peculiar if one bears in mind the bankrupt little town stuck between naked hills and the sea.
But what could accidental visitor know about unspoken understanding and mutual sympathy over the disaster that struck them?
And what was this disaster?
No one knew or no one ever talked about it, which more or less amounted to same. People were simply, as they often liked to put it, “fucked up” as well as their town was “fucked up”. From what, by what and for what never became the subject of their thoughts, let alone conversations.
Our heroine was no exception. She never spoke about the causes that drove her to work out her days. Not because she was scared, or because she lacked wits to figure them out. Simply no one ever happened to bring up the subject.
… these songs of freedom ….
She noticed how mistral gained strength and how the sea became a tad restless, as is the case every afternoon at that time of the year. The scene was drenched in lazy tranquility. Slowly she opened the sugar bag, poured the sugar into the cup and started mixing the cappuccino. She took a sip from the cup, laid it on the table and took out the cig. As she raised the lighter to light it, her hand was slightly, barely visibly, shaking.
… that’s all I ever had …
She drew the smoke in and then let it out slowly, letting her head sink into the chair. She used to hang out here as a kid. Then when there was neither fear nor pause, when she was hungry for life and its open roads. She smiled as she let her gaze slowly observe the length of the terrace, seeking faces that existed only in her memories now. She let it stray towards the road, until it sank slowly to the asphalt sidewalk that carried her here from work. And, lo and behold, she noticed something interesting. Never before had it crossed her mind that sidewalk is such an interesting spectacle. It was not a discovery of some strange detail. No strange aesthetical revelation. Nothing like, “Wow, how beautiful this world is, and I never noticed it before …”, no such thing. It’s just that a peripheral insight slowly crept into the focus and revealed itself, unassumingly and mercilessly.
Namely, she realized that for some time now she is imagining how would this black and gray loom look like as your head falls rushing towards it. Really … does it not look like an infinite, strange land? The place at our feet no one notices, yet infinite and in its way full of comfort. Something like a new home no one will drive you out from; a vacant place. What a relief it must be to give away all you have, say all your farewells, neglect for the first and the last time all those who’ll need to clean up after you – to renounce all care for those you’ll left behind, infected with you incurable insight? How easy it is to step through that door that’s always open and go to the world at your feet; to count white pebbles forever.
In a nervous gesture she shook the ashes from the cig and with silent sigh sank deeper into the chair. She took the sip of cappuccino. The cup slid slightly as she laid it back on the table and a little bit of cappuccino spilled out. She didn’t notice. She knew that crisis will pass. She knew also that it will inevitably come throughout this year of relative peace, although she never admitted this to herself. Those are not things you admit, anyways. The fact that you’re damaged and that you feel, that you know, that there’s no meaning in these days strolling lazily in procession, ever downwards. This sun filled world by the sea, this easy living, is just a peeling façade. It does not draw the image of the ease of living but the ease of dying. Everybody knows that, so why don’t they talk about it? Well, people talk about happy things, like it used to be, like we are still like we used to be, the same way they talked about deceased as he’s still alive or how was he when he was alive.
It’s all like we’re pretending that we don’t know how the royal arch that bore the weight of our lives was always just a drawing on the worn down façade.
… none of them can stop the time …
Well said, Marley! But what you had in mind exactly? Perhaps, that time is a steam roller? Nooo … that’s not it. You meant something different. But it doesn’t matter.
The sea caught the rhythm of the tune. Waves rolled on with the faint foam at their crests. If mistral gains strength she’ll feel the drops of water on her face. She closed her eyes and breathed in the afternoon atmosphere. It was that same aura that lingered when they used to sit here after school, all of them now scattered around, seldom meeting even if some of them still live in the little town. What a bunch of sprinters waiting for the starting gun they were. Each one bound after his own reward. Yet, in the midst of all the shooting, chaos and realignments of the world, new horizons, awakening of the peoples and other such crap, they apparently missed the shot. That is, if there ever was one. There’s no more place for them, for all those merry nonsense that filled their heads, the silly things no one can comprehend any more.
She caressed the terrace with her gaze and put everyone in his proper chair. Something stung her in the chest. She drinks too much coffee. They all did. But years are catching up with her, slowly but surely, and she has to watch out. Taking into account that damned bipolar disorder, all those pills she’s been popping, it would be best for her to watch out. What a pity, she never liked to pause and watch out.
With the long sip, she finished her cappuccino.
Hedgerow, dividing and partly obscuring the terrace from the street started to rustle, as the mistral gained on strength.
There was a glider at sea, sailing back to the shore line, gliding down the favorable wind. How idyllic – the white sail on gently restless square of the sea. Children should watch such spectacles since the earliest age. We should prohibit TV and other nonsense devised by someone unknown to parents, whose intentions could hardly have been benevolent. Kids should learn peace when they’re little – they should learn of white sails and gently restless sea. That should give them the sense of stability – and what would she give if only she could have that – the thing providing inner peace one carries further through life …
… what a load of bullshit.
It’s time to go. The song is over.
But here, it was always so easy to sit down and so hard to get up. Now she didn’t need Marley’s tune as an excuse. Everyone who had spent a few months in town clearly felt its enormous inertia. It revealed itself at first precisely in the guise of hardly perceivable yet persistent weight preventing one from getting up once he had sat down. It was shushed in the moist heat and benign human laziness, hidden in the midst of it all like a serpent in the bush. That’s how it began, its muffled call, and then it metastasized into grotesque forms as, for instance, in the case of one old timer who on every Saturday in the past thirty years declared that he’s moving to India next weekend. Should one point out aloud that he never went anywhere, let alone India? He had money, he was there once, he knew the way, he had no obligations. Yet he couldn’t leave the barstool, the inertia kept him captive forever. With, perhaps, just a grain of love. For home is home, and in the times of worldwide uprooting this little failure of urbanism gained on value because it never had any roots to speak of. It is truly a rare privilege to habituate a place that was in its origin just an idea. Who knows, perhaps that’s what softens the edges of reality and allows this hovering between sea and the memory entangled together by the three minute song.
Mistral gained on strength still more. She really had no intention to get up. She hasn’t ordered another drink, just kept sitting and observing the scene. Together with two people in the background she was a part of the image, a frozen frame of life; as fragile as only something frozen can be. Or should we say, melting? It is hot, so it would be logical that ice melts.
She cared not for the consistency of metaphor through which she observed the moment. Its source is clear. And it is deep – if only it remained covered with the derelicts of illusions. Was there ever, she had to ask herself, a time when illusions got washed away so quickly? Who could tell? But she just couldn’t get it out of her head, the fact that with her own life she is witnessing something new that never before came to pass; something utterly new and hideous. Some fact of which neither common sense nor the experience of generations knew nothing about; all those fortresses of peace the young people despise, because they take them for granted almost as much as the youth itself. And what was exactly this fact, so elusive and merciless? Was it one of those breakdowns our ancestors lived through, and never left any document about, or was it something they never came to encounter; something that, by its very nature, denies all ancestors and everything that was?
This could be … it … yes … so alien … as this world, this strange new feeling of life … opening a sinkhole in a man … spinning the vortex in the void …
She anchored her gaze to the white sail, gliding outside of the focus. She didn’t want to move her head to follow it, wouldn’t help her none, anyway. But, for a moment, she managed to sideline her own thoughts. She had to. The thoughts can’t kill, but they can bring you before death. They can take you by the hand, like a group of children when they want to lead the grown up to show him some scene they find interesting. Therefore, one has to be cautious with them, just like with the smart children.
The white sail disappeared somewhere behind the screen of the hedgerow. She knew the owner of the glider, they were friends. While she was still married they used to hang out together, because he was the childhood friend and kindred spirit of her ex husband. Now he was obliged to maintain a delicate balance in relations with two people at war with each other. She smiled inside. Only in this strange shithole, in the midst of impoverishment and dissolution of anything one could call community or system, you can have a fifty something eternal student of the University of Sarajevo and elementary school teacher who can afford a glider. What an easy living; casual and with no strain, just like his generation was used to. Yet she didn’t envy him on this. First of all, she was not envious by nature. Second, as all the others, he just exchanged the day for night, the easy living for easy dying, and he even knew nothing about it. Who with any sense would envy someone like that?
She felt the sting in her chest.
(was it the coffee or was it sorrow?)
Everything fell apart. No more than fifteen years of illusions and then the demolition; the demolition of marriage, friendships, this and that. And if only she could say, it’s unjust. But it wasn’t unjust. She couldn’t tell why, but she clearly felt it was not unjust. The guilt imbibed the spreading wasteland. So where they went wrong or, to be more concrete, where she went wrong? She was not the one to lie either to herself or to others. She was too wild, too impulsive for that. People always say about women like her that they don’t hide some rotten, dark places in themselves. No embryos of dying before death. Yet, it happened. Something snapped in her, as well as something snapped in her leisurely older friend, only she knew about it and he didn’t. She didn’t think about it, but she knew it.
The wind caught the sugar bag and blew it on the ground. She followed its jerky roll down the terrace until it stuck between the road and the sidewalk. It lingered there as wind was not strong enough to carry it away. It welded her gaze upon itself.
‘Are you my soul guide, oh Sugar Bag?! Does some god speak through you to poor mortal old me? Don’t you know that your message is from some other, alien age? That I was not brought up for the world where the cruelty is the measure of destiny? They never taught me that there is no hope and that death calls at its discretion. They never taught me … I never expected … we didn’t know the things will change … we thought the things are set right … that we’ll have our own time, to live it according to our own allotted measure. Where are you calling me to go ye’ paper psycho pomp? The world at our feet … I thought it was to be something else … is it really it … was it really where we were going to from the outset … the world at our feet. I won’t beg for mercy Sugar Bag. I need no signs from the great Unknown. I’m not following you. Fuck you and your signs!’
She grinned through streams of tears. Some old, forgotten impressions, mental and emotional photographs of this little piece of world, strolled before her eyes. How everything is unique once it reaches its end. But the end was always there and it will remain so for a long time. She’s young, she’ll live. What else can she do? She has a child.
She couldn’t bother to turn around to see whether anyone is looking, now that she noticed that she’s crying. Before her the street was empty and people behind her could not discern what’s going on. Yet, as it dawned on her suddenly, they don’t have to. They felt the same. And if they could see it, they would probably remain motionless in the niches of their lives, on worn out barstools. They wouldn’t provide words of comfort, because they had none; their compassion was silent and unsentimental, as is the case with all convicts. Therefore, her state would cause no embarrassment to anyone.
‘Hey, patroness … ‘
‘What’s up old girl?’
‘Play that Marley song again, will you.’
‘I … wanted … to … ‘ear … that … one … again …’, added the old timer in his incredibly slow, rattling voice. He had enough teeth in his mouth and he spoke as if he was completely toothless. This was characteristic for all his friends. According to legend, one of them, a proto old timer, had lost all of his front teeth. And as he was the model to all of them, they all unconsciously imitated his way of talking.
She started laughing silently as she grabbed her bag to get the handkerchief, while inside of her rose the realization how much she loves this shithole.
‘Ohhh … that means going behind the bar … I just managed to relax … you do it …’, said the patroness to old timer.
‘No … way … you … are … unprofessional …’
‘Never mind, I’ll play it in my head.’, the crying girl resolved the issue, while she rubbed her tears now flowing rather from laughter, than from despair. No one moved and she hasn’t turned around.
‘That’s for the best’, concluded the patroness. The old timer just fulfilled his daily conversation quota and added nothing.
Ah, redemption, redemption, redemption songs … the crying-laughing girl sank into the chair with the smile that was a mixture of desperate irony and sincere merriness. Strange how no one ever noticed, when things went downhill for her, how that characteristic uncontrolled merriness in fact indicates to manic depression. Everyone was astonished, “how come she went down”, “she was always ok”, “she’s so full of life” … they never got it … she is empty of life, that’s why she was so easy going. No one saw the depths, perhaps even her, until one moment, the day when the child came and the abyss finally opened for all to see. Strange how all those things came at the same time. Her breakdown and the breakdown of the world she thought she knew. Was it because she also only thought she knew herself? Was that warm, familiar world just the reflection of her own face that crumbled the moment life made her stop and look into herself? Maybe that’s it. Perhaps it was.
It was all so interesting – a good thing for killing time, that fact that world follows her revelations. Only that damned silence, that complicity without conversation … it really suffocated the will to move on. Why don’t people just stop and soberly declare: “we are falling apart”. That shouldn’t be so hard. But no one does that probably because, deep down, they all now that sooner or later someone would pose the wrong question: “what are we to do?” The answer just might be too hard. So better keep silent. Postpone the inevitable, because it will come. No doubt about that.
Mistral shattered the humid heat somewhat, but it was still there, now sharp and dry. She stretched herself in the chair and bowed her head a little so, to those behind her, she could seem as she nodded off. Her eyes, now a bit reddish from tears, were misty. She sucked in the afternoon atmosphere, she let it inside as if there was nothing between her soul and the hot day, like a sponge gently pressed. She always felt how that old tale about merriness and easiness of Mediterranean was hollow. Because, this exposure to the sunny sky, even if it did mold her smile and easy going manners since the childhood, never shed no light into depths. And depths, jealous as they are, avenged themselves in hideous ways. Or was it merely the awkwardness of contradiction; that baffling conflict of what appears to be and what really is? No one ever spoke about it. No one. Well, wouldn’t then be better that no one ever spoke about anything at all? Because things got counterfeited, much like her life was a counterfeit. And this drew a sentence, the sentence proscribed for everyone, even to those who opposed the lie. Whatever one may think, the truth does triumph in the end. But it exercises no mercy and listens to no excuse. Saying, “we just accepted this stage play as a game, we never really believed in it”, would help you none. It helps you none, because it is a lie. People get used to good things quickly, and easy living seems good to everyone, especially when you manage to convince them they deserve it. If there is a truth that can comprise a single question, then it would be this:
“No one here deserves anything.”
She finally turned her head towards the inside of the café. The sun wasn’t penetrating it because of the heavy shadow of the solitaire. Only a single sun beam cut the space sinking everything else into apparent darkness, creating the illusion, focusing the ever light seeking gaze of human eyes onto itself. The grains of dust danced their haphazard dance all down the luminous line cutting partly through two faces on the opposite sides of the bar.
‘What’s up old girl?’, spoke the face obscured by golden nuggets that suddenly shattered in all directions at the vibration of the voice, only to give way to others and keep the illusion going.
‘She’s … thinkin’ …’, added the old timer with the half smile that wrinkled his already wrinkled face of the man who rarely smiles. Truly, this must be a unique moment, because no reliable witness ever heard him talk this much in one afternoon. He knew her thoughts. He broke his wow of detachment to inform her about it and he smiled for her. She smiled too, staring, half-blinded by the afternoon sun filling her eyes, into his face, half hidden in the illusion of darkness. She knew that both people at the bar can now see her reddish eyes. She knew she’s naked in the afternoon sun that blinded her. But that wasn’t a problem. They understood each other all too god. And they never asked her what’s that she’s thinking about.
‘Go home.’, said the patroness with the gentle note in her voice.
‘Well … I could do that.’, she replied while reaching for her wallet.
‘It’s on the house.’
‘Come on …’
‘On the house!’
‘Ok … adieu. I’m going cooking.’
She stood up and walked across the terrace, as patroness went to clean her table.
‘Pat … ro … ness’, echoed the slow voice from the Pythian depths of the bar.
‘Your … ass … is … like … sack-o-potatoes.’
She didn’t bother to catch the feisty reply because she started choking in the avalanche of laughter coming upward somewhere from her stomach and shaking her whole body. She bowed her head as she stepped on the sidewalk, trying to conceal the eruption of laughter. She continued to stroll towards her apartment.
The thin crust of clouds has vanished, shattered by the sun. It is scorching, dry and clear. The town, ugly in its logical, planned inappropriateness to its own surrounding, is empty all down the main street. The light is trapped into eternal circle of sea and the windows of solitaires, out of whom nothing can escape. One soul strolls energetically down the path of its everyday migration under this merciless spotlight of Mediterranean that hides the most when it reveals the most. She’s vanishing from the sight as she goes down the main street towards her apartment, keeping her gaze fixed on the hot asphalt.
The world so triumphantly cast at her feet.
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