Beatrice had a divorce, a scar from her Caesarean, an attractive English accent, an elegant camisole that she wore when for me in bed and in which she fell asleep together with me; she had a busy agenda and a desire to meet new people, she had enough charm to make everyone want to spend some time with her, she had excellent knowledge of the social and political issues and tough skin that protected her from the absurdities of the quotidian.
She worked for the French embassy as its cultural attaché and was temporarily inhabiting the ground floor of a two-storey house in Crniche. We spent most of our time together there. I came to hers, we made dinner and then I slept over. For the weekends, we usually visited the attractions in and around Skopje, those that there worth their name or worth visiting, and I learnt that she knew much more about their history than I ever knew or ever wanted to know.
When Beatrice had to travel to another town for her work, I usually stayed in Skopje. Later, as our relationship grew and developed, despite the fact that none of us had any intention to depart from the convenience of casual sex at first, Beatrice gave me the key to her house to stay there and wait for her to come back.
And so, gradually, I moved in and lived with her. One day, I invited Kosta for a beer and explained to him that I wasn’t going to share the small flat with him any longer. I offered to pay my share of the rent for the following month if necessary, but he refused. He had no objections to my moving out and it seemed that I was more surprised about it than he was. Eventually, instead of finding another flat-mate, he moved back in with his parents who lived in one of Skopje’s suburbs.
I did some temporary work here and there. I taught one ambassador’s children for a while. I met the ambassador through Beatrice, who recommended me to him. Several times a week I went to his house to teach his children basic Macedonian. It didn’t last long, but it was worth it.
When we went out with Beatrice, we usually took her embassy car or a taxi, for which she always paid. She wasn’t much into walking, unlike me, the few short walks in the park being the only exception, concluded with a rest on one of the benches on the embankment. If I weren’t with her, she would sit down on a bench on her own and practice her Macedonian with the grandpas and grannies sitting next to her. She believed that this was the best way to learn. During one of these bench breaks, I discovered that the French had two words for river. I gradually learnt an occasional word or phrase in French from her. We might have even ended up knowing approximately the same number of words in our mother tongues.
She took me to various cultural events, meetings and gatherings, that always included some French visitors to our country in one way or another. Sometimes we met young people who had arrived here via various non-governmental organizations. When she introduced me, she progressed from calling me her friend or her associate to calling me her partner. And I got used to saying an entire sentence or two in French, which usually provoked smiles and encouragement.
She gave me several French school books as a present and arranged for some private classes for me with a friend of hers for a good price. I tried, I learned, but I was never persistent enough.
I could hear her whimper occasionally behind the locked bathroom door.
She never told me why, and I never asked. She didn’t even know I had overheard her secret and clandestine crying over something. It remained a secret for me. And after those secret moments, she just sat or lay down next to me and talked about the coast of Brittany, her homeland, where she stood by the sea and stared in the direction of Great Britain, imagining the channel as it was many thousand years ago, during the Ice Age, when the dividing body of water was much shallower. There was no deep sea to divide the people on both sides, it was more like broad river that could be crossed easily. Or she just talked about the dialect spoken by her ancestors that she never managed to learn as a little girl. And while saying this, she would sometimes mention her daughter, whom I knew she had sent to a boarding school in Paris, I didn’t know much else because she avoided talking about her and I wasn’t inquisitive. But, in the rare moments when the conversation touched upon the subject of her daughter, I could sense her wish to change the topic as soon as possible. She pretended that she had lost the thread of the conversation and just reverted back to talking about the vanishing Breton dialect that was now taught as the first or the second language in the schools in her home area.
Whenever she talked about her dialect, I started thinking about my own, not used by me for a very long time. But unlike her, I did know it and had used it in my home town as a child. I never said anything about it to her.
It was clear that she wasn’t going to stay in Skopje after the completion of her mission as an attaché. We were both aware of this.
She asked me once whether I had any thoughts on the subject. I replied that I didn’t, but that at the same nothing was keeping me in Skopje. She didn’t continue with the conversation in this direction. She just nodded with her head, and then proceeded to talk about some trivialities.
But we had similar conversations many times after that, especially when I moved in with her in Crniche.
She always talked about the things she missed before falling asleep: her walks on the seacoast and on the tall reefs, the cold water of the blue sea, the sunsets on the beaches of her childhood, the unpredictable weather and the humidity of the Breton air.
She referred to all this on several occasions with a certain amount of nostalgia.
She was convinced that the northern coast was much more exceptional than the more famous southern cost of France. She said that I would have the chance to corroborate this myself because she was intending to share the experience with me.
Then she just continued reminiscing about Brittany, about the lawns and the flowers she picked as a little girl, about her riding horses on the cliffs, kayaking with her parents, preparing cider and chouchen, the second of the two, as she explained, being a beverage similar to mead, made with fermented honey, that she was sure I would like.
She asked me whether I can see myself living there. I said that I saw no reason why I couldn’t do that. She said that I would like the place and the people. The Bretons were relaxed and prone to drinking, most of them were smokers like me and loved dancing, and they were honest. Mainly bon vivants, I remember her using this exact word.
She said that we would have to visit the Pink Granite Coast and watch the powerful waves hit the rock of the Pointe du Raz promontory. We were to walk on the islands, or rent a caravan, just as her parents used to do, and dance the Celtic dances at the traditional ball.
It was clear that we were not staying here. It was almost a done deal. We both agreed that we didn’t want children, that was important. But the idea to get married cropped up only when we decided to live together in Brittany. It was going to make it much easier for me to get a permanent stay and a work permit. And so, without much pomp and with no special intentions, we got engaged.
And yet, in the days that followed, the sounds of her clandestine crying still reached my ears.
Of all things that Beatrice told me I remembered the story about her solitary experience on the beach in Le Pouldu the best.
There was no one around. She stood on the very edge of the coast. It was almost sunset.
She entered the sea slowly. The water reached her ankles. She buried her feet in the sand. There was no wind and the water surface was smooth.
She dropped her eyes, having watched the sky, and looked down at the bottom of the sea. All of a sudden, she was appalled to see starfish arms, octopi’s tentacles, some baggy bits that might have been jellyfish once, green lettuce leaves and fish intestines, all floating under the surface of the water.
She felt sick immediately. She wanted to escape as soon as possible. She thought she got stuck in the sand for a second and that she would not be able to extract herself. She couldn’t make a single move and she even thought that the sun went down on her and with the sudden onset of the night, the fish tails and the baggy bits began glowing in the sea water as if fluorescent. Then, she closed her eyes and shook her head. This might have helped. She walked out of the water, not turning back.
She said that these were most likely just ordinary remains that accidentally fell out of some turned over fishing boat making a delivery to the nearest inn.
But now, whenever she remembered this incident, she wasn’t sure any longer whether it had happened for real or it was just a dream.
A week before Christmas, we were invited to a party somewhere in the Old Town. Among the guests, whose faces I knew by heart by now, I saw the sideburns of the sycophant who worked as a simultaneous interpreter from French. Beatrice was in a particularly good mood, but I was convinced that she just wanted to leave the impression of having fun. She danced with the interpreter all the time while I stood in the back, drinking red wine. I looked around disinterestedly, even though she kept coming to me to ask me to dance. I kept refusing.
Then, the sycophant with sideburns relaxed somewhat and I was convinced that he was hitting on her. He was holding her a bit more brazenly than he had dared before. It occurred to me, and I was almost convinced, that they had already slept together and that they were going to do it again if I left earlier that evening.
I don’t know why this occurred to me.
When coming back from the toilet, Beatrice told me that she would like to spend Christmas with the family, with her daughter, and that she hoped that I would understand why she wanted leave for France alone. I didn’t even ask her who she had in mind when she mentioned the holiday with her family, but I guessed that her daughter would surely attend. I said that it was fine by me. She kissed me and went on dancing.
Then she returned. She told me that I was going to meet her one day. Whom, I asked. She said that she meant her daughter. I replied that this would surely happen. She waited for a short while, we stayed silent, and in the end, she blurted out that nothing interested me. I asked her how she had come to that conclusion. She told me not to ask her anything. Then I said that there was nothing to ask about. That she was free to go and celebrate Christmas wither family, and that she should definitely do so.
Then, it seemed to me that she got angry a little. She said that I was supposed to become part of her family soon. I sipped some more wine and nodded, saying that it was true that I was going to become part of her family. She waited for me to add something to this. But, because I stayed silent, she left and continued dancing with the interpreter with sideburns, who was all sweaty by now and his shirt stuck to his weakly body.
On the way back home, Beatrice silently shook her head in the taxi and sighed somewhat reproachfully. I noticed this, but went on staring out of the windscreen. Then she turned towards me. She told me that we had been together for a long time and that I had to admit that our relationship was now more serious than before. I confirmed. She asked me why I hadn’t introduced her to my parents. She demanded that I took her to meet them because it was high time I did so.
I replied that they were both dead.
She stayed silent for a while, almost mown down by the information and then stroked my knee with a certain amount of pity. She apologized profusely and excused herself for her ignorance, citing that I had never mentioned anything about my parents before. I didn’t react. She couldn’t accept my silence and asked me for the reason why I hadn’t confided in her about this. I didn’t say anything again, I only shrugged my shoulders. Beatrice apologized again and asked me whether I wanted to talk about it. I replied that I preferred not to. She said that she understood and by that time, we had already arrived home.
We had sex, but she seemed a bit absent-minded. She left the bed to take a shower and when she lay down next to me again, she said that, if I wanted to, I could come with her as early as this Christmas, to meet her family. I said that there was no real need to hurry this up and that we would eventually have plenty of time for such meetings. She deserved her time on her own with her family, she had been abroad and away from them for a long time.
Then she stayed silent for a while and said that it was awful when one left someone else behind. That the world died for that one. Or that, at least, some kind of world died in any case.
I still can’t understand what she wanted to say.
She fell asleep before me, as it used to happen most of the time.
I couldn’t fall asleep, troubled by many thoughts. I got up and looked for something to drink. I found the flask left beside the language school books on the desk. I picked it up and took a sip.
I hadn’t drunk rakija for a long time.
It immediately reminded me of the miners from childhood, my father’s friends. And the ‘Shopska Salad’ that my mother made when they came to visit.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have lied to Beatrice, but what difference did it make? They didn’t exist for her and they might as well had been dead. It changed nothing.
Everyone gets stuck in the sand in the shallows once, unable to escape from the water, overtaken by starfish arms, octopi’s tentacles, jellyfish and snails, as unavoidable as they are repelling.
It snowed the following morning. I made her breakfast. She was getting ready for the journey.
Soon enough, in the foreseeable future there would come the day when we were supposed to leave together, me leaving my old country behind forever.
Life was a glass, a Champaign glass floating in a bathtub filled with water, a semi-empty Champaign flute floating in the white bubbles in the tub, free from anybody’s grip, liberated, drowning a little, and then bobbing up again in constant search for equilibrium.
There was nothing unbearable in the simplest things we did. It was easy to take what was on offer. I can honestly say that at that point in time, while I was living together with Beatrice, I didn’t miss anything in particular. My every day seemed simple and ordered, I felt fully accomplished and, there, I’ll say it, even happy.
It must have seemed so when seen from the outside, because it felt so inside my soul.
And yet, the essence of things gained weight in time, like a sponge slowly absorbing water, and in need of being squeezed, so that it could become light again. Something inside me kept rebelling against that kind of cosiness. It weighed like a wet sponge. My body couldn’t bear it, like unsuccessful bitter medicine.
When I felt like that, I thought of the two continents that Beatrice told me about and about the channel that separated one coast from the other. The Ice Age image emerged in my head, the shallow water that could be crossed easily in order to establish a junction between two distant lands. I saw myself surrounded by large icebergs and they were swiftly filling the entire space around me. I could hear them crack noisily. I had to curl threatened by the dizzying power of water that melted off them, everything filled with boundless quantities of water. The time passed shockingly fast and the water kept rising, above the ankles, up to the knees, up to the waist, to the shoulder blades, up to the neck. And I felt like a baby, astounded to open its eyes after it had slipped and sunk in its bathtub. And I watched fish bowels being slit open, just like during dissection, I was surrounded by cut off octopi’s tentacles, algae grew large around me and fins and intestines floated through them. I stayed between the two divided land masses. Sunken but alive.
At night, while she was asleep, I woke up panting from such and similar nightmares, feverishly trying to take a deep breath and going to the window and opening it. I was trying to compose myself slowly. I often lit a cigarette to calm myself down.
Something that used to happen to me with Beatrice often continued happening afterwards as well, with other women with whom I slept.
After making love, while we were lying in bed relaxed and elated, she used to touch me with her palm, gently stroking my somewhat clenched fist. I could feel her fingertips passing over my skin. This put me off tremendously, it irritated me and annoyed me hugely, to such a degree that I couldn’t stand her touch, although it was nothing more but cajoling and tenderness.
The ordinary caresses were suddenly tickling me unpleasantly and scratching me annoyingly, as if my entire body was itching unbearably, as if something was eating me from inside, as if some heavy layers piled up all over my body in some sort of process of sedimentation. I coarsened at the ordinary and innocent touch of the fingertips of the woman with whom I slept.
All of a sudden, it seemed that nothing could be starker and more tactile than the coarseness of those fingertips.
At moments like those, I simply had to get out of bed, lift her hand, move it away from myself and escape. This was how it felt with her, and this was how it felt with other women afterwards, in the days and nights yet to come.
There was another memorable sensation that left me wordless at the time. It happened rarely, but I did experience it a few times.
It happened during those nights when I awakened from my nightmares delirious.
It was hard to discern what was going on around me and to clarify to myself with whom I was spending the night. I couldn’t tell where exactly I was. I looked around and saw her beside me. It wasn’t clear to me at first who that person was, lying next to me in the bed. Suddenly, I couldn’t recognize her face.
I stared at her for a while and it took me a long time to recognize her.
The face could be anyone’s – my mother’s, my sister’s, my cousin’s, my neighbour’s, or belonging to someone I had forgotten completely or never seen before.
I had to go through the faces of all the women I could remember and strained for a long time, with all my powers, to decipher the unknown features.
At that moment, together with her identity, all her characteristics were gone, everything I knew about her. All that I could do was to try and remember and convince myself that I did have something certain, familiar and existing, though missing at that moment. I was afraid I was remembering something that I had never had. And the desire to search for the traces of those once known things, the things I believed I knew, grew the strongest then.
Although it was very short, this phenomenon seemed to me to be unbearably drawn out. Afterwards, when I succeeded in meeting myself and recognizing the outlines of my surroundings, when the unnatural shadow disappeared from her face, I realized that it was Beatrice in our shared bedroom. And everything fell back into place. Both of us existed again.
The women with whom I was unfaithful to Beatrice always had a trait or a shade in their character or appearance that was similar to some of hers. They always had to have something that I knew she had too. This bewildered me somewhat. As if I were trying to rediscover her. As if in them I looked for the same thing I looked for in her during the moments when her face was unknown and unfamiliar to me, during the moments when I couldn’t recognize her, having woken up delirious.
I got myself a monthly swimming club membership and I renewed it every next month.
Almost every other evening I went swimming. I really enjoy swimming but this was going a step further, it was no ordinary fun anymore. I didn’t go swimming to tire myself out, but to exhaust myself. I didn’t go swimming to distract myself, but to stop thinking altogether. Or, if I had to think about something, it had to be just my strokes in the water while my head was submerged, or the walls that I could see when my face emerged out of the water to breathe.
At first, I could swim across the length of the Olympic size pool in one go, and then the distances just increased, and soon I could swim half a kilometre in one go. I improved the fitness of my body and all distances became easier. After every long haul, I just stopped for a short while to rest against the edge of the pool and then continued swimming a shorter distance.
And so on and so forth, for several hours an evening.
But I never got as tired as I wished to be.