An Excerpt from “Night Swim”

Vojislav Pejović

—for Ruth Blatt

We’ve barely made it up the mountain, and Father’s litany already begins: the snow, the slippery road, our Yugo’s balding tires. Snow in April, passes through my mind; just like thirty-something years ago. That summer, for the first time, they took me to the house: my misshapen head in my mother’s cleavage, my baby folds taunting the mosquitoes. I imagine Father, taking forever to assume the position and finally snap the photo; there’s V, too, waiting impatiently and then lunging forward, determined to lift a thick apostrophe of hair off my mother’s face (her hand retreating in a spectral blur). The mosaic shade of zelenika trees stirs up the milk of our skin, creating a contrast almost audible: like a subdued call of the cicadas, or maybe tires running over gravel. And the driver in front of us veers off the road: Father’s knuckles turn pale at the steering wheel, his mouth fills up with spit-speckled curses—one for the driver, one for the snow, one for the fucking life that won’t leave you alone.

Tell me again about Dolly the sheep, he insists, and I try once more to explain the principles of reproductive cloning. Why didn’t you become a lawyer, he then asks; that way, you wouldn’t have left. I say nothing in response. We turn downhill, and the view of the lead-colored sea gives way to a barren landscape of mountains, overgrown with patches of shrub. I remember legends V used to tell: about the air raids, the caves, the plans to press him to her chest, jump into a ravine, and kill them both. There she is, in front of us, in her faux-mahogany confinement, braving the precipices one last time. Chances are, her last driver will make it to the city: the snow is abating, we can tell he’s handling the curves much better.

The next day, an icy wind rattling our resolve, we spend six hours in a doorless chapel and one more huddled around the gravesite. Every now and then Father disappears, returning calmer and redder in the face. The broken voice of V’s oldest relative cracks together with the only functioning loudspeaker; soon thereafter, everything is over. It is unseasonably cold, passes through my mind, as earth starts bobbing on the coffin, and as Father grabs me by the shoulder, scared that he might fall in.

I decide to stay another week, maybe even two. Father needs me, and the cold spell was, after all, just an aberration: the green shoots of spring are everywhere, together with the grains of pollen and the miniskirts. Our place—funny I should call it that—reeks of neglect and nausea. With me around, Father retreats to the role of the diseased (the disease being a hybrid of self-loathing and addiction), which means that I call all the shots and buy all the groceries. I keep the windows permanently open, the door to the balcony constantly ajar. Father zooms in and out of the apartment, irritated by the chill, confused by all the fresh air. He screams at me for hiring the painters; I scream at him that some of Mother’s paintings are missing. Let’s go to the house for a few days, I say, aiming at reconciliation. He just shakes his head wildly, asks that I reveal where his supplies are, then adds: only if you’re crazy. It’s not the same place anymore, I told you a million times.

Some of my old friends take me out, and I end up hooking up with T. She’s new in town, in the sense that she arrived after I had left. A refugee, I ask, but then backtrack, apologize, overcompensate by offering whole-body massage. Aren’t you, too, she replies, which only makes things worse: the only danger I was escaping was myself. We go out a couple of nights, sometimes hand in hand. I notice that the city has changed, pretty much the way I saw it on the Internet and heard over the phone: it is a shinier, louder, almost happier place. T has learned to love it, wishes I could stay longer. The paint job is done; Father barricades himself in his room (the one that used to be theirs), closes the windows, rolls down the shades. Except for that fortress of misery, the apartment appears almost new: at least ten years of solitude have been erased, the rectangular ghosts of Mother’s works included (three oil canvases, one aquarelle). Through the locked door, Father yells that he preferred it the way it used to be.

I stop by the cemetery. The heaps of flowers over V’s grave are in full, spectacular decay. The slab of concrete at Mother’s is devoid of any vegetation, except for a few shy patterns of lichen at the corners. I stay with Mother for a while, a meter or so above the spot where, I imagine, the remains of her left shoulder must be. Later that evening, I ask for the keys to the house, disregard Father’s protestations, and send an e-mail to the lab, informing them that my family affair will require at least a few more weeks. The following morning T and I are in her car: up the mountains, down to the seaside.

T finds the view of the bay breathtaking, no matter how many times she sees it; truth be told, so do I. We stop in Kotor to visit my aunt, only to find out that Father was right, that dementia has been gnawing at her mind. She doesn’t recall that she had a sister, or that the sister had me. Luckily, she still knows her own daughter, maybe even picks up on her caregiver resentment. I used to divide my summers between the house and my aunt’s, I explain, then feel guilty again: I obviously have a surplus of stay-in quarters, whereas T had to leave hers at gunpoint. My cousin makes us a delicious calamari salad; we even manage to laugh at the table, reminiscing over our childhood years. She objects at first, but ultimately accepts the money I brought. I insist that she come to Chicago some day, then remember that Alzheimer’s can take up to ten years to completely suffocate one’s brain. We exchange hugs and good-byes. I know you, the aunt suddenly exclaims: you’re the boyfriend of that Asian girl.

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