Sven Popović (Croatia, 1989) is a writer and both a literary and music critic. His debut, a collection of short stories, was published in 2015, followed by a novel in 2018. His writing has been included in many literary magazines and anthologies and has been translated into English, German, Polish and Romanian. Popović is a one of the founders of the He is a co-founder of the literary group Tko čita? (Who Reads?), which gives younger authors the opportunity to read and promote their work. One of his stories was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2017.
Thirteen years have passed since the boy from the class stabbed your palm with a pencil. A piece of graphite broke and continued to wander the tissue. A graphite submarine was lurking beneath the surface, straining your skin. A tiny gray submarine, a reminder of clothes and fingers smeared with chalk. He didn’t walk you home that day, his steps didn’t creak harmoniously through the snow together with yours. The next day he apologized to you, the next week he wasn’t on the school desk in front of yours. He moved out a few blocks further, went to another school. When you were little girl, that sort of distance was huge, there were several concrete oceans between you. She was left alone in the womb of a rectangular whale. She was left alone, you and your little crack.
So, more than thirteen years passed and you were sitting on the floor in your friend’s apartment. There’re few people from the faculty with you. The walls of the apartment were decorated with maps of cities where the friend hadn’t yet been. Once she traveled to one of them, she would tear that map off the wall. In one hand you have a sticky glass full of thick, brown liqueur, it looks like a fig liqueur, and in the other a crumpled, wrongly rolled cigarette. You talk about last week’s lectures, everyone thinks how beautiful and smart they are, and of course, your thoughts wander on the maps. Of all those hanged cities, Porto attracts you the most, you have always been somehow attracted to the ports, not so much because they offered an escape possibility, but as much as the feeling of transit that was more vivid than what was in the sterile grayness of the airport. All the more you recently sent an application for one semester to attend there.
A friend unknown to you approaches your friend, asks her if her boyfriend can come, to which your friend answers he can. Then she asks her if her boyfriend is single, on what both of them burst in laugh.
The party went on, it started to heat up, and you were freer with each glass. You was startled and realized you’ve been waiting in front of the toilet for a few minutes. There was no bubbling or violent snuffling sound from inside. You came in and for a few moments on the rough wall you were looking for the light switch. Soon you gave up and surely stepped into the darkness. Somehow you touched the path to the toilet bowl and sat down. You tried to get your eyes used to the darkness, but it didn’t work. It was as if there was an abyss around you, a complete absence of light. The ice was all cracked, the Morse code of urine and water, a meaningless message, a cat tapping on the keyboard.
The light splashed on you, you gathered your legs and screamed it’s busy. It seemed to you for a few seconds the silhouette stood on the door before retreating and sucking all the light inside itself. Shortly afterwards, you got up, wiped yourself, turned on the water, washed your hands, and left. The silhouette, a boy in his early twenties, was still waiting his turn.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and your eyesight was still adjusting to the light, the violet geometric figures dancing in front your eyes because of the recent, sudden flash.
“It’s OK”, you stopped for some reason as if you had something to talk about. You nodded and went back to your friends. “See ya.”
“Hey, are you Martina?”
You turned around. “Yes, I am”; you narrowed your eyes, then opened them widely, your look crystallized, your reality was in HD again.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” he had already headed to the door. “Igor, we studied together in elementary school.”
“Ah, yes, God, man, I didn’t see you for such a long time, so how are you?”
“Here, I live somehow, weekend, here and there.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Hey, let’s hear each other, let’s go for a beer someday.”
You exchanged numbers probably with a false promise to really be heard. You knew it wouldn’t happen, in fact, school desks and pieces in your palm were probably the only connections, and you didn’t have the habit of seeing your classmates on the playground. The days of hide and seek were behind you, you’re sure that you have nothing in common, I “got off” for you.
With each passing hour you were less and less, before he and his girlfriend left, and he repeated once again how you’ll “make it”. The next day he received a message.
“The last time I saw you, the sky was peeling for days,” he told you and wave to the waiter.
“It was snowing,” the waiter approached. “Gin tonic,” he said and looked at you.
“Well, extended into a big cup,” you replied.
“But come on, you couldn’t drink coffee if I ordered a gin tonic.” He shrugged. “Why not.”
“Look, the day is beautiful,” he showed theatrically around himself.
“Come on, maybe a gin tonic.”
“That’s it,” he leaned back in his chair.
Two hours later he told me you’d have another drink. An hour later his girlfriend called him and he said he is having a drink with his faculty friends and would come later. An hour and a half later he told you you’re incredibly insecure.
“Why do you say that?”
“I bet you’re one of those people who reads the instruction manual of soup in its bag, even though that shit could just be poured into boiling water and stirred several times.
“Okay, but what made you say that?”
“I am intuitive.”
“You mean: intuited?”
He waved with his hand, “It comes to you after ten gin tonics.”
You clumsily dressed yourself, he subsequently lied naked, the sweat almost shone on his black hairs. He breathed deeply and slowly. Consequence of the lazy marathon on the skin.
“You don’t have to leave immediately,” he told the ceiling.
“I’ll be late for faculty,” you tied your shoelaces. “And I’m not sure how much your girlfriend would appreciate this.”
“Girlfriend is a very strong word.”
“But, it is what?”
I don’t know, the English have the word “lover”, the translation of ours and isn’t something very applicable.
“And does she know she’s your mistress?” Sorry, lover.
“Come on, I’m sure we could figure out something more interesting than leaving for a lecture.”
You stopped tying your sneakers. He moved himself in your direction. You in his.
After the eleventh time you’ve seen each other, you decided you fell in love. In meanwhile, he left the girl and dropped out of the faculty. He got a job. First in a warehouse, and then in a call center where he spent days listening to hysterical British crying over this or that. She silently moved at him in a very nicely arranged garret, he didn’t even notice your gradual invasion until it was too late. There was your toothbrush. The toothbrush paint as is on the tracksuits from Eastern European Olympians. The brush, your flag that pierces the Moon’s crust.
He dreamed of tattooing you with a compass. You drew gorgeous, odd gyruses and arabesques on your skin, he talked it’s somehow a map of the city you’re traveling to. You were lying naked, first on your chest, then on your back, the black hair on the white sheet, the disheveled calligraphy without order and meaning. Blood began to drip from the black wounds, tiny, scarlet drops slid through the skin and wetted the sheet.
You woke up leaden and clumsy from the afternoon nap, the light cut the bed diagonally into two parts. There was a pungent smell of garlic fried in olive oil from the kitchen. He stood half-naked on the stove and easily shook the pan. He was holding a cigarette in his left hand and drew a little smoke from it. The ashes were falling into the pan, and he didn’t seem to mind. Even though he was weak, you could clearly see the beginnings of the muscles. Kebab-baby, he would say.
He cooked well. At least those six or seven recipes he knew how to prepare. Each of them in olive oil. You started to connect the olive oil with your awakening. Your private Mediterranean.
“Don’t forget the earrings,” he shouted, not looking at you. “The other day you left the necklace, before that, the bra. “I’m starting to collect you as stickers.”
“Animal kingdom”, you started yawning.
“No, Cro Army.”
She approached him from behind and hugged him around his waist. He reached out and rested his cigarette on his lips. You inhaled smoke, the ashes fell on his skin. He didn’t move away.
“I was thinking about something,” he stretched out and let out a faint squeak.
“I don’t know, I only heard snoring. Not any thinking. ”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Okay, well what were you thinking?”
“Do you know how your parents dress you as a child?”
“Aha,” he added finely chopped parsley to the oil.
“Here comes a day, and we don’t know it, here comes that day, our declaration of independence, so it comes, here comes that day when we start to choose our own clothes.”
“What do you mean by ‘yeah, and’?”
“Well, I don’t know, why would that matter?”
“I don’t know, I somehow think only after that we begin to become personalities. At the same time, as if everything after that somehow goes down. “Everything around us ceases to be a dream and we come out of the warm womb of this childhood into all this horror.”
“You’re wagging out, we’re starting to be personalities long before that. “In fact, do you seriously think that clothes speak that much about us?”
“I mean it seriously, you should be the first to realize that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, sir, I need half an hour to straighten my hair to look like I’ve just waken up.”
“I have no time between sleeping and dreaming, you know that?” He shook the can of tomato sauce and began to mix with the wooden spoon.
“But come on, I’m going to vomit.”
“But well, what about the fashion declaration of independence?” “Come on, tell me.”
“Well nothing, it seems to me that all those events exist in our lives, extremely important events that are not important to us, and on the other hand the complete stupiditiesare important for us.”
“Birthdays. “Oh, congratulations, someone squeezed you out of the womb.”
“Okay, what else matters?”
“Ugh, let’s say the first time we don’t look the homeless man in his face. We’re born shameless and when that shame is directed at us, easily, but somewhere, along the way, that thing happens and they become unpredictable to us, as if there is an entire city inside ours we consciously refuse to see.”
“Wouldn’t you say it’s a defense mechanism?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, my heart breaks every time I notice them, when I let them become part of “our city”, as you’d say. If I notice every homeless person, I would break down.”
“There is no empathy without suffering, that’s true, but somehow I think, as we grow, we somehow lose, we’re forgetting the important parts of ourselves, do you understand what I mean?”
“I see, yes, come on, try if this is salty enough.”
You tried the tomato sauce. “Exactly, maybe you can add another crumb of pepper.”
“I promise you I’ll not ignore anything anymore.”
“I could imagine”; you answered and took wine from the fridge. You leaned on the couch and took a sip from the bottle.
“Wow, sexy,” she told you.
“Come on, don’t fuck and fetch me a glass.”
“I don’t want to wash glasses, can I use a cup?”
You shrugged. “Why not. “Did you launder the bed sheets?”
“Yeah, why?” She poured wine into a cup.
“I can’t sleep in this dirty bedding any longer.”
“It’s not dirty.”
“We’ve been sleeping in it for a week, it’s far from fresh.”
You heard him pull on the new bedding and already feel the chemical freshness embracing you. Your cell phone vibrates. Received an e-mail. Congratulations, you got that Erasmus.
“It seems to me there’d be a storm,” he shouted at you from there. “I see some clouds there. “Low clouds are pressing on the city, squeezing all the air out of its dilapidated lungs.”
“Yeah,” you absently replied him.
“The storm. What do you think, does she kill mosquitoes or drives them to apartments?”
“Yeah,” you said.
He approached you from behind, and you continued to stare at the received email. “I fuck your sister,” he whispered you.
“Yeah,” you responded. He started pulling your ears. “What are you doing?”
“Hearing you ignoring me.”
“Yeah,” you murmured again.
“Well, what are you reading?” He asked.
“The e-mail,” you replied.
You give him the cell phone. “Here you see.”
He was silent for a few seconds. “Wow. Bravo. You’ll go?”
You shrugged. “I don’t know, what do you think?”
He sat opposite you and took a sip of wine from the bottle. “I think we should celebrate.”
“What exactly should we celebrate?”
“The opportunity. All occasions.”
“And the missed ones?”
“Until they are missed for love,” he replied and left the room. He placed the laptop between you and plug the little one into the room. He played “The Space guy” “from his balcony”.
“Oh God, you’ll probably not annoy us with those boring ones. “They sound like Oliver Mandich with excess chromosomes.”
“Well, then you choose, after all, it’s your celebration. „
“Rowland S. Howard.”
Roll your eyes. “Great. Along the way, I go for a dope.”
The night bathed on the balcony, sticky and thick, you had dinner and drank wine, wine, as sticky as the night that gradually covered you. No one mentioned Porto, and Rowland S. Howard didn’t sing fado. Anyway, as if he wasn’t there, on the balcony, with you in the summer heat, his answers were somehow slow and distorted. You knew what was tormenting him, you didn’t want to offend his intelligence with the question bothering him.
“It’s only six months,” she touch his knee.
“Yeah,” he bit his finger foots.
“So what, you’ll visit me two or three times.”
“Aha,” he crossed on his thumb nail, plucked it up and pulled itout, you saw a dark red liquid overflowing from the corner of his finger.
“It’s not that expensive.”
“Oh, no, it’s not, the bosses will allow me go to Portugal. Not twice, no, even better, three times. Fuck, we ‘re not all students to read and argue all day long.
You felt a crack in your chest, it spread through the lungs to the stomach, it spread capillary throughout the body. Your mouth formed a perfect “O”, a perfectly black “O” from the magician’s hat. At that moment he took you by the arm that was dragging out from his knee.
“Hey, hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t think that way, fuck, it’s not my fault I’m such an idiot and a scoundrel. I mean, I am, but … ”
You laughed, you didn’t want that, but anyway, it happened, a dove from the magician’shat blackness. “You aren’t an idiot, nor a scoundrel, you’re a horse thief and a robber.”
You were finishing the second bottle when his friend called him, you agreed to hang out with friends.
The evening was like many others, the conversations were flowing, in fact, no, they weren’t flowing, it was about a cross, inaccurate and intermittent shooting, and the alcohol was somehow predictably flowing through your almost dislocated jaw. He, sometimes after the third or fourth round, when you were both heavily drunk, decided to say you are going to Portugal.
“I’m not going, I think, I don’t know, I’m not going, I’m not sure yet, I really don’t know …”, you murmured.
You were splashed by semi-meaningful greetings to which you responded with a murmur and a contorted smile. You turned your gaze to him, his lips pursed like those of Franjo Tudjman, a sharp “Nike” symbol who was condemning you and telling you that you only think you were better than him, but that not all diplomas in the world could change the fact he simply Knew the things he knew them with a big “K” while you’re diving into books and manuals. You wanted to kick him, but you were sitting on a high chair and you were afraid of losing the atmosphere and strategically not crashing down. You didn’t realize how he managed, how he managed to humiliate you with something you should be proud of? You jumped abruptly to your feet, and he received you under the mucus of beer and ashes, but you managed to stand on your feet with the grace of a retired ballerina (it’s possible you stretched your tendon a little, maybe it isn’t the tendon, maybe you just scratched your ankle ) ran to the door, shooter who became one with the arrow, pure fucking zen.
The dim lights flickered around you, the streets passed, and you, always with a few steps in front of yourself. You staggered and leaned against the cold wall. You leaned on him and tried to push away, continuing your injured Odyssey at the end of the night. You managed to take off to the asphalt and to fall apart into a renaissance position. You tried to straighten your head, to sharpen your gaze, but your head was going left and right, up and down as if you were a puppet dog standing on the front windshield of the car. You heard steps, someone’s shadow splashed on you. You somehow looked up, you couldn’t recognize whose silhouette it was exactly, all you could see was the halo in the street light.
You aren’t an angel,” you said.
“No, I’m an idiot.” I ordered for us at Uber, come on, get up,” the silhouette extended a hand to you. You stumbled together through the warm womb of the night.
The leg’s toes stuck in the sand, fleshy ridges scratch, leaving irregular ditches on the beach.
“You are preparing for war,” she told him.
“Excuse me?” He replied, scraping the Hawaiian suit salt stains. He pointed his finger at the dimples in the sand. “The trenches.”
“Yes, nothing can be done against you except a trenching,” he watched his feet and continued to dig trenches.
“In fact completely the opposite.”
“Yes? Why do you say that?” you looked up.
“You’re the one who quickly loses interest, you want to drag into the trench battles. “Those are slow, well-thought-out moves, a chess game without long romantic diagonals and the horse’s bravura.”
“You’re right, yes, and how against you?”
“At least it’s obvious: a blitzkrieg, crazy, often irrational moves that would make me think too much, to tangle up so that I couldn’t move,” he drew with his fingers in the air the convolutions without ends.
“How to defeat yourself?”
He turned his head towards the sea, it looked like dark, liquid steel in that bloody orange-like sun. Sun umbrellas were fading on the beach, people were shaking the sand from the sunbeds and the towels.
“Come on, start that battle,” he said.
“The decisive one.” Dig your trenches, I will arrange my cavalry.”
You laughed. “You have time to overcome me until it gets dark,” he got up. “It’s ok.”
You ran to the sea and grabbed the sand, returned to your position and set out to form amorphous towers with a sinister shape. You were digging zigzag trenches with your nails in the sand, they were writing a clear message: no army will pass through here. You stuck twigs in front of them, an additional warning for anyone who decides to rush.
He dug his trenches, found a shovel, a turquoise, plastic shovel that seemed to have been lost by a child. He pushes a hill of sand against your formations, puts the shovel on it, it’ll be a catapult, his Fat Berta with which he’ll try to destroy your fortifications for the cavalry to do its job. You saw him running to the mole, picking at its rough surface and through the shallows. He put shells next to the catapult, it was quite a cute pile. He placed the live shrimp on the sides, they supposed to be a scout.
Look, he’s going in the wrong direction, he’s retreating before the first shot,” you laughed.
“It’s a sabotage, don’t you worry at all,” he put the shell in the shovel, moved it, looking for the ideal angle. He hit with his fist on the opposite end and the shell flit besides your ear.
“Hey, watch out.”
“Sorry, further calibration is needed.”
He fired shell after shell, managed to score only a few times, he knocked down only one tower. His shrimp fled, the pile reduced to just three shells, the capitulation was inevitable. The sea changed from the color of liquid steel to black obsidian, it became colder in your feet and nose. You laughed and fired the last shell, it flew far above your head. He let out a dramatic scream and stretched out on the sand, clapping his hands and feet along the way.
“Are you surrendering?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not if you plan to survive the night.”
“The Hawaiian shirt is my white flag,” he took off his shirt and waved it still in lying position.
You got up, crossed your trenches, stepped into no man’s land, stood with your feet apart above him and sat on his stomach. – „And? What does the winner wins?
He drew you to himself and kissed you, that salty kiss sung a hundred times. “Let’s go to take a shower, let me go first, and then get to the pedal boats.”
“With the pedal boats?”
You packed your things and headed back to the apartment. Let him go first in the shower. You were sitting at the table on the terrace and smoking.
“Ok, see you then,” he shouted.
You went to the shower and turned on the water, lukewarm water, the scumbag left you almost nothing of the warm. The spurt was weak and you rubbed your skin to remove salt stains. You put on something warmer and went out. A little later you saw them, the stranded baby whales with flashy colors, not far from them you saw a baby whale that didn’t strand and was swimming on the shiny black surface. The turquoise, half-peeled pedal boat was covered with sheets, music and dim light was coming from inside.
“I thought you didn’t want grandiose gestures,” you shouted.
His head was peeking from the canvases. “But no, I love pedal boats.”
“Wait, wait,” you opened your eyes widely. “Are those our sheets?”
“Technically speaking, they aren’t ours, they belong to Uncle Jure.”
“Oh God, tell me they aren’t candles.”
He looked inside, you felt as if he had shrugged his shoulders. “Fuck, yes, they’re candles.”
“Great, we’ll be the first people who burnt on a pedal boat.”
“Imagine a newspaper headline.”
“And we’re not even Czechs.”
“Come on, I’m coming to pick you up.”
And so we floated to the buoys, we were finishing the second bottle of wine, the light was turning into a growing stain on the baby whale’s skin. The night was getting thicker, the light was running out of oxygen, the wine was striking our heads, and you were starting to fall asleep. You asked if this was safe, he replied that the worst thing that could happen to you is for a drunken tycoon to crush you with his yacht.
“And the best?” you asked him. He lay down, and you laid your head on his chest.
“Mexico,” he said and closed his eyes.
You dreamed of the snow creaking, when you woke up the first thing you saw were his eyes, two grains of pepper dipped in honey. He was smiling.
“What is it?” She asked.
“You know, when you’re too young and you’re in love and you imagine so that you have to experience so much before you settle down.”
“Yeah,” he murmured, striving to direct the morning unpleasant odor into his lungs.
“Well, that wouldn’t happen to me.”
What a shit, you thought, but for some reason you still decided to trust him. You kissed him in the unpleasant smell because of spite and approached the edge of the pedal boat. The shore was a blur line, he was redirecting the pedal boat. While washing, you noticed the submarine in the palm of your hand sank.
Translated fromby Sasho Ognenovski