Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
We gave a party on Thursday. There were seven married couples invited, several divorced women and men, and four of my wife’s students. My wife teaches physics and chemistry to recent immigrants, those who want further training or a change of vocation in order to fit into the system of the country they have chosen as their new home. We told everyone to come at around 8pm, and by 8.30 there was such a ruckus in the house that our cat didn’t dare poke its nose out of the closet it had crawled into when the first guests knocked at the door. The last to come, a Japanese couple, arrived at nine. They bowed for ages at the door and apologised for coming late, but in the end I did manage to steer them into the house. I also managed to figure out what they’d like to drink—she wanted tomato juice and he asked for a beer—and after I had introduced them around to the people standing near us, I went off to find clean glasses. I opened the kitchen door, and there, in the middle of the room, stood my wife and a dark-skinned man, and they were holding hands.
‘Ah,’ said my wife, ‘you got here just at the right time. This is Ahmed.’
They kept holding hands and, as far as I could see, they had no intention of letting go.
‘Ahmed is my student,’ said my wife.
Ahmed said nothing.
‘Haruki and Hiroko have arrived,’ I said, ‘but there are no clean glasses left in the living room.’
‘In the dining room cupboard there are clean glasses,’ my wife said. She turned and looked at Ahmed through half-closed eyes.
She had never, as long as I could remember, looked at me like that. Her eyes were always either wide open or completely shut, and her eyelids never fluttered just for me.
‘What are you waiting for?’ my wife asked. ‘Didn’t you hear me say that there are glasses in the cupboard?’
‘Maybe I should bring Ahmed something to drink,’ I said, ‘if he says what it is he’d like to drink.’
‘Ahmed doesn’t drink,’ my wife said.
There was no longer any reason to linger. I headed toward the dining room. Along the way I plucked two grapes from a bowl sitting on the dishwasher. Before I left, I turned to look back. My wife and Ahmed were still holding hands. I could picture them in a flowery meadow, with the huge orange orb of the sun sinking beyond the horizon. An evening breeze fluttered my wife’s floral skirt and billowed Ahmed’s green shirt. There were probably some birds there somewhere too. I imagined the bench I was sitting on while watching all this. Then I closed the kitchen door.
‘Where is my beer?’ asked Haruki with a grin, and added that Hiroko had changed her mind, and she would have a little red wine. ‘Red wine is nice,’ said Haruki. ‘Like bitter chocolate,’ added Hiroko. There was a mirror at the back of the shelf, and when I reached for the glasses I thought I might touch my face. It was the glasses, instead, that I touched: a tall straight one for Haruki, and one for wine, perched stork-like on one leg, for Hiroko. Both of them bowed at the same time, and turned to the table with the drinks. I closed the cupboard door and leaned toward the kitchen door. There was no sound.
Haruki and Hiroko came last to the party, and I assume this was why they stayed longer than everyone else did. The act of bidding farewell by our front door took nearly half an hour. First we bowed to one another a few times, then Hiroko gave several compliments on the wine she had sipped, then Haruki gave a five-minute congratulatory oration on the rolls my wife had prepared for the guests, then my wife twice recited the recipe for the fruit tart Hiroko had enjoyed, and Hiroko slowly repeated it back to her, claiming she would remember it and that she had a photogenic memory. Photographic, said Haruki, and bowed to her. Yes, said Hiroko, I have a photographic photogenic memory, and once I’ve heard something, no matter what it is, I never forget it. How many eggs, I asked, go into the cake? None, said Hiroko, and bowed to me. Maybe it is better if we shake hands, said my wife. She yawned and her teeth flashed in the light of the lamp over the door. Haruki took her proffered hand and bowed. If we keep this up, I said, we’ll still be bowing at dawn. Good night, I said, and kissed Hiroko on the cheek.
We waited for their car to pull away, and then we went into the house. Everywhere, on every available surface, there were glasses, small plates, crumpled napkins, trays and bowls. Bits of rolls crunched under foot. The bottles on the table were empty; there was only some of the vermouth left. I began to collect the glasses and plates and put them in the dishwasher. My wife went to the bathroom, and a few minutes later I heard her brushing her teeth. Afterwards there was nothing to hear until she flushed the toilet.
‘Someone smoked weed in the bathroom,’ she said when she came back into the kitchen, ‘and forgot their joint on the edge of the bathtub.’
‘That’s not fair,’ I said. ‘It is only decent to ask the host if he minds, and offer him the first hit.’
‘Maybe that is how it was back in your day,’ my wife said, ‘when there were other ways of doing things.’
‘Such as,’ I hurried to say, ‘that a wife holds hands with another man in front of her husband.’
‘I knew it,’ said my wife. ‘I can guess how that must have gnawed at you all evening. Come on, Ahmed is my student!’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’ I asked, ‘I didn’t see you holding hands with your other students.’
‘There wasn’t time,’ she said.
‘Of course there wasn’t,’ I replied, ‘when you didn’t let go of his hand even once.’
‘That’s not true,’ my wife protested. ‘Svetlana, my student from Russia, held his hand for a while.’
‘Only one of them,’ I said, ‘his left, because you wouldn’t relinquish his right.’
‘Do you mean to say,’ my wife said, ‘that you spent the whole evening fixated on my hands? No wonder the guests felt you were neglecting them.’
‘If there was someone being neglected this evening,’ I said, ‘it was me.’
‘Next time I’ll tell Ahmed to hold your hand,’ my wife answered, ‘maybe then you’ll feel better.’
She left the kitchen and went to the bedroom. I heard her click on the lamp on the bedside table, turn down the bedspread and get ready to lie down in bed. I waited for her to turn off the light, walked once more through the rooms where the guests had been. Behind the potted cactuses I found two glasses and took them to the kitchen. I shook some food into a bowl for the cat, poured fresh water into another. I called, ‘Kitty,’ softly, ‘kitty, kitty.’ She didn’t come. She had probably already crawled under the blanket, snuggled up to my wife and was sniffing her hands. I sat on a chair and lowered my head to the table. I leaned first my forehead on the table, then touched my left cheek to the smooth surface, then my right cheeck, and then I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes, I saw my wife. She was sitting across from me, her hair all tousled, and there was steam rising from the cup that was in front of her. I looked at the window and saw that it was already daytime.
‘You spent the whole night here,’ my wife said, ‘as if you are homeless.’
I shrugged, and winced at the ache in my stiff neck.
‘I cannot believe,’ my wife said, ‘that you got so worked up about what was just a friendly little gesture.’
‘A friendly little gesture,’ I said, ‘that lasted for hours.’
I meant my voice to sound sarcastic, but it cracked and squeaked, as if my tongue couldn’t manouvere in my parched mouth.
‘There is something you should know about Ahmed to help you understand,’ my wife said.
She clasped the cup with both hands, the way she did in wintertime, longing for warmth, or the way, of course, she had clasped Ahmed’s hand the night before.
‘Ahmed is from Iraq,’ my wife said, ‘and a few days ago he learned that his sister and her children were killed in the bombing.’
She looked me straight in the eyes.
I didn’t know whether I could believe her. I asked, ‘How many children did she have?’
‘Three,’ my wife said, and blinked. ‘That is why we decided,’ she continued, ‘that all of us would care for him, to help him deal with the loss more easily.’ She smiled and raised the cup to her lips.
‘What are you drinking?’ I asked.
‘Tea,’ said my wife. She licked her lips and set the cup on the table.
I reached out and and covered her hand, warm from the warmed cup, with mine. My wife sighed, softly, and then the two of us stared at our hands, pale in contrast to the dark surface of the table. I could feel the blood pulsing through one of them, but I wasn’t sure which.
A little while later my wife slowly slipped her hand out and, without a word, brushed away the curls of hair that had slipped onto her face, got up and left the kitchen. I heard her open the wardrobe in the bedroom, probably looking for the clothes she would wear that day at school. I imagined her standing in front of the blackboard and writing out chemical formulae. Sitting at the desks behind her, the students are diligently copying everything from the blackboard into their notebooks. Only Ahmed is not writing. Instead he is staring at his open palm, as if reading his fate from the pale lines sketched across the darker skin.
I lifted my hand, picked up my wife’s cup and had a sip of the tea. The tea was tepid and bitter from having steeped for too long. It could use a few spoonfuls of sugar, I thought. I shifted my weight, drew my feet from under the chair, but I didn’t get up. I saw the sugar bowl on the shelf over the stove, and the spoon was lying right by it. A step, maybe two, was all I’d need to reach them. I closed my eyes and slowly dropped my head to the table again. Somewhere inside me, somewhere very far away, I saw an airplane winging off, bombs dropping from under its wings, flaming tongues rising high into the air. I heard our front door open and shut. Then silence ruled in the house. A while later the cat miaowed, but no matter how much I called to it and peered into all its hiding places, I couldn’t find it.