Friday, November 2, 2018

When We Go by Damien Krsteski

Serco and his girlfriend Dora plan to emigrate, but Serco feels a duty to stay for the sake of his mother and brother; by Damien Krsteski.

When I go, I want to go like a rocket.

Leaving the world at breakneck speed, upright, arms like fins, legs trailing a column of smoke; and the dusk sky, a postcard ripped in two by my passing.

And then, no explosion. But a winking out as space swallows me whole and the earliest star outshines me.

And then -

Wind blowing the smoke away; people scattering, going home to cry at photos that end up packed away into shoe boxes, shoved under beds to gather dust. People moving on.

People forgetting.



5.

"Pepperoni?" she asked Serco, holding up the box.

"Grab two."

Dora rummaged through the refrigerator. "There's just the one." Shrugging, "They got broccoli."

"Broccoli's fine."

She dumped the pizzas into the cart, and Serco steered it sluggishly toward the register, the cart's wheels squealing on the supermarket's freshly-mopped tiles. Closing time.

At home they warmed up both pizzas in the oven but barely finished the one. They watched a film and discussed it afterward. They snuggled and had sex. They fell asleep holding hands, slept with hands tucked under pillows.

In the morning, as she was dressing, she said, "Will you please write to Asian today?" Leaning left and right, fitting swollen feet into tight heels. "The applications could be ready."

Serco said, "Finish your coffee."

She drained the mug in one gulp. "See you tonight," she said, and grabbed her coat, clutch, and keys, and she was gone.

Serco powered up the laptop and consulted briefly with his colleagues in their chatroom, before immersing himself in work. When his stomach told him to take a break it was midday already; he got up and stood stupidly with his elbow on the open fridge door, blinking at the shelves as if his whole future hinged on this decision about what to have for lunch, before resigning himself to a store-brand falafel.

In a new browser window he opened Expats, Expressly, typing his user/pass with one finger. He scrolled through unread discussion threads while eating.

* [STICKY] General forum rules! (Hint: be polite)

* ChucksOnFairs got her visa! Drinks for all @Castro's, tonight, 9pm.

* Anyone know somebody at the Taiwanese Consulate? HELP!

* Groom called it off; are there takers? (NA citizens only)

* Just found out my diploma isn't worth shit. Any certificates handy for migrating? Bonus points if can be taken online.

In the right-hand side list of last week's most active users, he saw Asian_Massage_Parlor near the top, and clicked to open her profile. Her forum avatar was Lucia Joyce; boxed in in a corner of the screen, on one knee, barefoot with back slightly arched, the avatar's saurian torso was twisted sideways in a move lifted from some picture book on oriental dances, and her eyes, those glassy unfocused empties, were saying, there's no one here.

Serco wrote to her, asking for updates.

He looked out the window at a neighborhood enveloped in a white mist, the high-rises a row of dominoes receding into a thick shower that must've begun without him noticing. The vodka-branded parasol on his neighbor's balcony rippled in the rain. A gentleman's best kept secret. Serco closed the blinds and resumed work.

That night him and Dora went to see a play by a local writer, and when they returned home after almost three and a half hours of badly-disguised political references poking through a wafer-thin plot, and they were comfortably settled on the couch in front of the TV, sipping tequila-laced beer, Serco opened the forum on his phone and saw that Asian had responded.

"What's that?"

He flipped it screen-side down on the couch. "Bobby." He finished the last of his beer.

"Oh, Christ," she said, "not again." She got up to grab more beer from the kitchen, and Serco read the message.

Almost done with the paperwork. Day or two, tops, then you're good to apply.

"So," she said when she came back, handing him a cold one, "how much does he want now?"

"Wants nothing." Opening the bottle, feeling slightly guilty for having implicated his brother needlessly, "He just says hi."

Dora drank a bit too eagerly, and Serco became uneasy, expecting after the third for her to turn to him teary-eyed and tell him, as she tended to do, sounding like this was the moment she'd finally mustered courage to speak frankly, how this whole situation with Bobby and his mother bothered her, not because of the money, really, but because of how drained he always was after dealing with them, and how she couldn't stand to see him wear that death-mask of an expression he'd always had following every hospital visit. How that, above all, hurt her. And Serco didn't mind her saying that. In truth he knew she was right for the most part, but he was in a situation out of which he couldn't easily extricate himself: one doesn't just abandon one's family; and in the end what annoyed him about her arguing wasn't what she said but that she said it at all, theatrically, no less, her volatile mood another distraction she'd pile on top of everything, another worry, as if she didn't know he'd had enough on his plate.

But she didn't turn to say anything.

Not after the third, nor the fifth beer.

They basked in the glow of the TV, the alcohol lulling them into a stupor.

When they moved to the bedroom she kissed him sloppily up and down the neck but he wasn't in the mood and said so, causing her to groan and bury her head in her pillow.

Soon he heard her snoring, and he took out his phone to respond to Asian: Need more time. Delay. Something's come up.



4.

When he got to the hospital the following morning, he roamed around the yard for fifteen minutes with his hands in his pockets. He'd bought a pack of smokes from the store across the street, and now he tapped one out and held it in his hand, let it dangle from his lips, loitering at the hospital's front entrance, deliberating, before he threw the unlit cigarette in a trash can and went inside. At the front desk the receptionist scheduled a visit on her computer. He sat in the waiting room, fidgeting in his chair. Chair on the top of a mountain. He thumbed through old messages on his phone. A woman coughed, and the young man sitting across her checked his watch ostentatiously. A man in his mid-forties licked the tip of his forefinger and turned the page of the gardening magazine held open in the palm of his hand. The woman coughed again.

Serco got up.

And he strode through narrowing corridors until he wiggled out of the hospital's grip and was out in the yard. With his teeth he pulled out another cigarette from the crushed pack as he was walking out the main gate, lit it, sucked on it, letting the smoke prickle his lungs.

His feet had carried him to the big boulevard.

Away from the hospital. Away from the room that smelled like disinfectant and antibiotics and wilted hyacinths and his mother's old perfume, from the beeps and clicks and gurgles the machines hooked to her stretched skin made.

Away from all that, and -

- drawn toward people, like when he'd lived alone and been plagued by massive panic attacks, when in that frenzied state he could only think to go out into crowds where ambulances would be summoned in the event of his collapse and his body would be tended to; roaming the streets, dying but not really, each sound of traffic or chirp of birds or people chatting another lifeline. You're still here.

The sky was a dirty-snow white and the treetops a pumpkin orange. He walked, one boot in front of the other, stomping on wet foliage, counting steps. By the time he reached his street, he was far enough from the hospital where his mother lay for this minor burst of anxiety to subside; he let out a long breath, as if he'd been holding the whole world in.

When he used to have them, panic attacks weren't mere interruptions to routine, but fist-shaped rents in reality, and it'd taken him days to compose himself after each episode; this was nothing in comparison, he consoled himself, just an echo, a phantom pain.

Back home, he threw himself on the couch. He took out his phone and started flicking through Asian's messages, imagining a life outside of all this, away from everything, and within moments, he was fast asleep.

Hey, you -

A hand was pulling him out.

Hey -

He straightened up. Rubbed his eyes. He saw Dora standing in the door frame, shoeless but in work clothes, his phone clutched in her hand.

Which she threw at him. And which he ducked to avoid as it whizzed over his head, smashing into the wall. "You asshole," she hissed and disappeared.

"Dora, wait." Following her to the bedroom, "listen -"

She shut the door on him.

She didn't lock it, but Serco knew better than to try and go in. He shook his head, and before he could properly assess the situation and figure out an appropriate approach, words were spilling out of his mouth. "What do you think is going on?" He slapped a hand on the door. "You think I'm trying to sabotage our leaving? Is that what you think? Well, maybe I am. I don't know." He had to shout over his racing heart, "I don't know what I'm doing and neither do you and it's not like we have a plan or anything. We like to think getting those visas and then fucking off to another country will make everything better but I don't think it will. Or I don't know if it will. But I admit it to myself. You don't. You pretend leaving'll make everything better and solve all our problems somehow and we'll no longer have sick mothers or pestering bosses and no longer have nightmares of family funerals and you think - you believe all of that, and we don't speak about the possibility that maybe our shit'll follow us wherever we go and we're not preparing properly for that, and the shock of the truth'll hit us in the face like a brick and it'll make things even worse than they are now. And well, I'd like to be ready, you know? Not to pretend and live in this imagined perfect future just to get through a shitty day at work." His head buzzed. Red spots mushroomed before his eyes, and he blinked them away. "It's not like I don't want to go with you, I'm just scared of tricking myself into a situation where I'll end up worse off than before. I've been living with this anxiety day in, day out, and it drives everything I do." He propped his head on the door. "I'm sick of it. And of having to drink, or smoke, or pop pills to make it go away." He sighed. "Come out of there. Please. And don't hate me. Or hate me, I don't know. Just hate me for the right reasons."

She opened the door and studied him through eyes like chunks of broken glass. "I don't hate you." She blinked, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.

They stood apart for a moment, then he wrapped his arms around her.



3.

The following morning she was gone.

The scattered clothes, the odd bits of makeup on the nightstand, the heavily dogeared novel she was reading, heels in the hallway, all of it, gone. But there was a note, scribbled on the back of a bookmark.

If you're not 100% sure, then I better be. Sorry.

He read and reread the spoiled bookmark, then he placed it in the middle of a book from his shelf and stalked back to bed, because sleep was all he knew how to do right then.

When he got out of bed a second time it was noon, and so he powered up his laptop, but when work failed to sustain his focus, he rang her up. After the tenth droning tone, he put the phone down. And he immediately felt like shit and wanted to take the call back. As if to balance things out, he deleted her number from his phone's memory - it's not like he didn't know it by heart, but just having it wiped from the little chip inside the device he carried in his pocket felt like an unloading, a start of his convalescence.

He had nobody else to call: friends all married and too busy for other people's lives - best he could wring out of them was some fake sympathy, which wasn't worth his bother; Bobby would want money, and he wasn't that starved for company just yet; his ex-girlfriends, not that many in number to begin with, out of town or country.

So he popped pills. In the morning, midday, afternoon, and sometimes before bed. And moments trickled like molasses, and days passed a minute at a time. On two packs of smokes a day he subsisted, half the time pathetically moping, the other half too benzoed-out to care, logging in for work at odd hours of the day, doing the bare minimum to not lose the freelance gig. He wrote page-long emails to Dora, which he'd erase before hitting Send. He read all posts on Expats, Expressly, frequenting the forum daily, thinking he could've been one of those posters, sending his regards from the other side, a beach-side shot of crossed legs and clinked cocktail glasses with sugary rims.

One drab morning his mother called from the hospital to complain about the nurses or the food or some such he could not care less about. He paced his condo, a wisp of cigarette smoke in the air tracing his frenetic movement, and listened to her drone on. Maybe it was the pills that hadn't kicked in, or the fact that he'd slept poorly, or his stomach, grumbling for anything remotely nutritious, or a combination of every single fucking thing that was irritating him, but he snapped, interrupting his mother's diatribe with a string of insults, incoherent shouting, before telling her everything: how he'd been ready to leave, how he'd almost left them to rot except once more they'd held him back, costing him his girlfriend to boot, and how he was sick to death of them, and how he wanted to be left alone, and how he was going to make sure to be alone and away from them from now on and forever starting this very moment. And he hung up and flung the phone across the room.

He cried for half an hour with his teeth in his fist before the pills took effect. Then he stared out the window and swallowed two more. A gentleman's best kept secret.



2.

Later, when he took out the bags of garbage that had begun piling up to the dumpster, he noticed it was a cold, cloudy, almost wintry October night. Something about the cold kept him from going back inside. He liked the way the wind pinched his face; punishing him for his lifelong tendency to hesitate, he decided, and then, as if to spite himself, to dare himself to go against his instincts, he followed the wind out onto the street. The cigarettes burned bright and quickly. From a liquor store he bought a fifth of vodka and another pack.

He dragged himself to a park bench. He wanted to wrap his arms around himself in the wind, but stubbornly refused to do so, letting the cold reach his bones. He drank and smoked and thought about his body on this very bench, and the wind that could almost tip him over, and how he'd always pictured his fragile mental state like so, like a man sitting on a chair atop a mountain, barely holding on to the chair while arctic gales blew hard and hail pelted him from the side, and his face, as if made out of dough, was being pulled and disfigured by the wind, and how he had to just cling a while longer to his chair and endure, except the wind never relented; and that was all he ever did, all he'd ever do, cling and hope and endure, and he just had to accept that. And he drank and smoked on that mountaintop on which every gust of wind was a bout of fear, a creeping of some preposterous obsession, a night spent pacing the room to shake off the nightmares or turning in bed pleading for sleep to come in the first place; a mountaintop on which every ounce of strength spent in gripping that chair ever tighter was every drug and sleep aid and drink taken as unguent for the mind, and he drank and smoked and thought about his body on this very bench or mountaintop until he could no longer feel his hands from the cold, no longer feel his lips and legs and back, no longer feel anything at all.



1.

Sunshine woke him up. He was lying scrunched up in his jacket on the park bench, throat parched, teeth chattering like in the cartoons. Beads of blood had broken out on his dry hands, little pinprick stigmata. He sat up. The bottle fell and rolled off down the street, spurting the remainder of the vodka.

Serco forced himself up, his bones creaking in protest to every movement, and shivering in the still, bright morning, he took his body home.

"Asshole," Bobby's voice on the telephone, much later, like a drill into his ear. "Where've you been? Ignoring my calls and texts."

Serco mumbled into the phone.

"Don't care. Meet me for lunch in an hour, you know where."

"Not today, Bobby."

"You don't come, you're dead to me," his brother said before hanging up.

So Serco went to Dunker's Bar to meet his brother on his lunch break, where he found him at the counter, halfway through a beer, grinning. Serco grabbed a barstool and ordered himself a drink.

"What's the matter with you?" He poked Serco in the chest. "Flying off the handle at Mom like that. You want to kill her, or what?"

"Bad timing," Serco said, "is what that was."

The barkeep put a napkin on the counter and atop it a glass of draft beer.

"I'm sure of it." Bobby eyed his brother, beer at his lips. "So you considered emigrating, huh?"

"Well, yes." Serco scratched his head. Thinking of Dora, packing up her belongings on tiptoe, careful not to wake him up. He looked at his brother. "Yes, I suppose I did."

"Well, then," his brother said, smiling, "here's to that," and drained the glass. "About time you got out of this cesspit." He cracked a peanut shell with his teeth.

"But you and Mom -"

"What about me and Mom?"

"The two of you need me," he said. "Why would you want me to move abroad?"

"Serco," his brother said and sighed. "You are a bundle of nerves."

"All I do is help you and -"

"Quit using us as an excuse to do fuck all." Wagging a finger, "That's exactly what drove Dora away." He wiped his hand off his uniform. "And what caused you to snap at Mom, and what makes you avoid us and hate us. Don't think I can't see what's going on. Sure, we're annoying and needy, but you're no better. You need us as much as we need you. If not more. To justify all your bullshit."

He blinked at his brother, as if seeing him for the first time. "And the money?"

Bobby swatted air. "We'll manage. I'll take double shifts, put in more hours." He drank from the full glass of beer the barkeep had just put before him, and let out a long, loud burp. "Take your savings, and buy yourself a ticket out. You've earned it." And he broke out into a gruff, raucous laugh, which Serco, weak at the knees but feeling strangely buoyed, echoed.

When Bobby had dangerously extended his lunch break and really, absolutely, had to run back to work, he picked up the bar tab and gave his brother a tight hug. "I hope to God next time I see you it'll be at the airport."

Serco finished his drink, grinning sheepishly at the counter, and on his way back, he typed out a message to Asian. When he got to his apartment, he filled out the forms he'd been avoiding the past few months, then scanned and sent those to her, too, along with more detailed instructions. Get us out of here, wherever, he wrote, giddy at the thought, and he wired her the money.

Two pills nestled in his palm. His head still ached from his night out, but he paid it no mind. He clenched his fist, unclenched. The wind had tipped him over, finally, and he'd come out alright. He swallowed just one. Beer swished in his stomach.

From the book on the shelf he plucked out the bookmark on which Dora had written her goodbye note. He wanted to tell her the good news. He rang her up, and, listening to the drone, waiting for her to pick up, he took a pen and scribbled out what she'd written on that bookmark, everything except for that last word.



0.

So now I go.

And I leave not the world but this country.

Which is almost the same.

She's already flipping through the in-flight magazine with one hand, squeezing the armrest with the other; take off is when she's most frightened.

I look out the window. No people there, just a big treeless expanse.

Sunshine drips down, and I think of everybody on the ground, their tears making rainbows as they watch us hurtle toward that blue sky, as they whisper their private goodbyes before heaving one last sigh of relief, before going into their cars and back to their lives.

I realize now I'm the one squinting when there's nothing below but a carpet of clouds.

I put my hand on hers; she lets go of the armrest.

We reach cruising altitude.

1 comment:

  1. The stories we tell ourselves in order to hide and procrastinate - an interesting exploration of self doubt and self delusion. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete