By Jelena Zlatar
Translated by Dobrila Vignjević
After his father’s death Bruno finally moved in with me. He was bringing in his things slowly and cautiously for days on end, placing them in the corner of the room that he had spontaneously made his own. Soon the corner became his little universe although there was only a desk with a computer on it, crammed with papers, pens, notebooks, lighters, and rolling tobacco. Around the computer, like on an altar, he arranged the little gifts I had given him: magnets with funny messages, a book about mountains, a photo of us making silly faces, and a small jar of sand from Tunisia.
Whenever he sat at the computer, it seemed to me that he felt relieved. It was as if a curtain had dropped between the two of us and he could, at last, sail into the starry night on his desk. I watched him, trying to guess what he would do in the night air, and what he would wish to return to.
“When I go somewhere, I can hardly wait to come back to you. Everybody else is boring,” he said.
I looked away in disbelief.
“Honestly,” he continued. “I have never talked to anybody like I talk to you. I have never felt as close to anybody before.”
Still dismayed, I looked at him. It might be true, I thought. But is it important?
“It’s hard for you to open up. The moment you reach out to me, you recoil, as if scorched by fire. Why?”
But I am trying hard, I wanted to say, I am doing my best.
“You are sabotaging our relationship,” was his verdict.
I will try to be a more open person, I thought to myself. I do not want to spoil this.
My own desk was empty and white. As soon as something was left on it for longer than a couple of hours—a cup, a plate, or a book—I would remove the object and carefully clean the dust. Once, a friend of his was visiting. Looking at our desks he simply said: “I like Bruno’s desk better. It’s more lifelike.”
It really was. Dirty coffee cups, bits of tobacco, crumpled papers. I did not mess with Bruno’s desk. If I had to dust it, I was careful not to make any changes. Still, he noticed everything.
“You have cleaned my desk!” he said sternly and I knew I had committed an offense.
Bruno started a graphic design course and spent more time at his desk. I would buy him pencils and notebooks, sometimes highlighters. He put everything on the desk. He studied by marking the most important paragraphs in texts. Mimeographed lecture notes and folders, everything was within his reach. The lamp spilled red light. Only rarely did Bruno leave the desk to make some tea or coffee.
“Hey, you want some coffee?” he would shout energetically from the kitchen. Then he returned to the room and continued with his work.
Autumn was passing.
The snow was a sparkling white, thick cover on the ground. The nights were getting colder so Bruno brought home a feather comforter. We were always warm under it, arms and legs entwined. Sometimes Bruno turned to me, more often he turned to the wall. Then I hugged him from behind and rested my head against his back. Before I drifted off to sleep, he would turn over and gently disentangle himself from my embrace.
Late at night I asked him to come to bed.
“I have to finish something,” he called back and put on big headphones.
I got up and tiptoed to him. I wanted to kiss him on the head but the headphones protected him, so I went back to bed. He tied the belt of his robe more tightly around his waist and remained at the desk. Much later, he got into bed, held me briefly and then turned his back to me.
When my father died Bruno began thinking about leaving. He was going through his things and I wondered whether he was figuring out what to take with him and what to leave behind. I myself decided to spend a few days in my father’s flat. Bruno gave me a goodbye kiss on the mouth and smiled at me. Maybe it is not over yet, I thought.
That night, in my father’s empty flat, I was trying to imagine what I would find when I came back: him or a great void.
The snowy evening was passing quietly. Father’s flat was very big and difficult to heat in winter. I was piling up the blankets while I was sitting in his old armchair and watching television. Father’s things were scattered everywhere around the flat: old newspapers, food, teacups. What was I going to do with them? With the piano, the music sheets lying on the floor? Was there a place that could take it all? I had to ask somebody. Maybe people just got rid of them in large black garbage bags? It seemed to me that I could feel the warmth emanating from father’s things, as if he were still there. He had recently cleaned the table, there was a dish sponge on it, but he had not had the time to wipe away all the crumbs. Was I supposed to finish something that somebody who was gone had begun?
There was a pomegranate in the fruit bowl. I did not have enough strength to deseed it. A tangerine was different. The peel came off easily, compliant, as if waiting to be removed. I split it into segments which I arranged in a horizontal line on the table but I did not taste it.
The living room was full of shelves overflowing with books he had obsessively collected without reading them. I knew that among them he felt safe. In my younger days, I would also carry a book wherever I went, for comfort, for oblivion.
The computer desk was untidy, left in a hurry. Magazines, headphones, photographs. One of him on a boat, in a winter jacket, laughing happily and holding a big fish high in the air. Him and me, a little girl, standing beside our old car that had broken down. Another photo on a sandy beach, from one of his many journeys, when he was a lot younger.
The mobile phone’s beep startled me. A text message. My heart began pounding. For a brief moment I closed my eyes. Reaching for the phone I hit my hand on the edge of the desk. Bruno’s message read: “I have taken the feather blanket. It is the only one long enough to cover my feet.”
I swept everything off the desk and onto the floor. The lamp broke, the headphones rolled over on the carpet, the photographs turned over.
The bookshelves were next.