The Following is an excerpt from Vražji prolaz/Devil's Passage (Studio TiM, 2014, Croatia). In Devil's Passage, Franka, after her divorce, starts her new life with next to nothing. When she pulls some strings to get a job as a night receptionist at a classy hotel, she expects a quiet time. Instead, she is immersed in an urban legend, a horror story that takes her on an intense psycological journey through her own fragmented psyche.
“Soon, through the trunks of the trees covered with brilliant and elastic moss, through the branches twisted into fantastic arabesques, appeared the grey walls of a chapel overhanging the abyss.”
Julien Gracq, The Castle of Argol, “The Chapel of the Abyss”
Call me Zaza, Cerise, Nina, Canelle, Lola, Clochette, Felice, Ficelle, Anice, Mimosa, Fleur, Lisi.
In fact, don’t call me any of that. They’re just names of silly cats from a T-shirt he bought me. That T-shirt was the last thing he got me. He’d spent an incredible 10.90 euros (with a fifty-percent discount included) on it because I reminded him of those dumb, small, round, fluffy, adorable kittens. Kitties. Pussycats. Any of those stupid pet names.
Call me Franka. Neither Zaza nor Cerise nor Nina, least of all Clochette. What a bunch of shit! I mean the marriage, not the T-shirt. The T-shirt is actually cute, and I can’t get rid of it. It’s one of the few things I can’t get rid of. It seems to smell of him.
Whatever they tell you the worst thing about divorce is, nothing sat that awfully with me until his leaving. And that’s not when he left home, saying we would divorce. No, no, that was still a soft landing. I mean his leaving after the divorce when he came home to get his things. My home, his things. Because the apartment is mine, even if I am going to sell it. I’m simply disgusted with that apartment: I’m disgusted with the doorknobs, the dishwasher, the wardrobes, and the bed in which I’ve not slept in a while. I’m disgusted with all of it. Which is why I’m selling the place. Besides, I need the money. Work isn’t going well, and my income is too small. In this global crisis, who needs translations from French or Italian? How many translations a month does it take to pay for the food, the bills, the pantyhose, the cosmetics? Many, very many. And no one is commissioning any because we’re in a recession. So, I’m selling the apartment I inherited from my parents so I’d have a little something for a new beginning. I can even joke about it now: What a stupid expression, new beginning!
Okay, I can talk about it now. I don’t feel nauseous. I’m not wailing or crying. I’ve no need for another man. I’ve no need for sex at all. The marriage killed the need anyhow, and now it’s completely gone. I’ve barely even reacquired the need for food. I don’t need to love anyone. Even less do I want someone to love me. I know it’s a defense mechanism; there’s always a chance of someone letting me down again. That’s the stuff of teenage soaps, but not far from the truth.
I know it wasn’t about another woman. No other woman was involved, even I know that. Women, whatever they’re like, know when their man is with another. We know it one and all—the dumb, the smart, the beautiful, the educated, country girls, city girls, all of us. We can feel it. We know. I know about several vapid mommies who were making eyes at him. I know about the bimbos he’d occasionally worked with, too. But he’d fallen for a trap of a different kind—that of apathy and his own business. (Literally his own, because the firm was his.) I even think it would be comforting if he’d left for another woman. I’d hate him, and I’d hate her even more. This way I hate only him. I hate work. I hate earning. I hate—well, I don’t hate anything, really. It’s more that I have these moments. I’m confused, but not so much anymore that I can’t talk about it. I feel abandoned. That’s the easiest way to put it.
“Can’t you see I’m burning out?” was his catchphrase. And as he burned out, there was less and less of him at home. Even when he was at home, he wasn’t there. Always in e-mails, always in texts, always in talks, always in negotiations, always stressed. He took Xanax. Lots of Xanax. He was having a hard time, but he couldn’t see me. He didn’t care. He had numbness in his arm if he didn’t take Xanax. I know Xanax fries the brain, but I thought even that was better than his being stressed. Stupid. As it turned out, Xanax couldn’t solve his problem, which was that he was always burning out. I got used to it in time and thought I didn’t care either. I did my job. We pretended at having spare time. We even loved each other sometimes. Made love. Sometimes. Still, the work was always there. He was burdened. He was threatened. Everyone had abandoned him.
Except for me. I never abandoned him. Which is why he abandoned me.
We didn’t have children. Incredible but true—he was the one who couldn’t have children. I don’t know if it troubled him, but he didn’t do anything to address the issue. He saw no connection between Xanax, burning out, and not having children. Or he pretended not to see it. It was as if he’d given up on everything.
I know I’m being tedious about how he left me. Full of bitterness, an abandoned woman. There’s nothing I find worse than identifying with something so sad, pitiful, and disgusting as the notion of abandoned woman. They even have support groups for harpies who console each other in these situations. I don’t feel like being around their type. There’s nothing I want to share with them. No moments, either good or bad. I don’t want to talk to anyone about my marriage. My ex-husband isn’t even the subject of this story. He’s merely the beginning.
He said he was leaving and wouldn’t be coming back. He went to his mom’s. As always, his mom waited for him with a made bed. She’d kept his bed made for years, waiting for him to return, because the stars had said so. After all these years of marriage, she had her moment at last. She believed in horoscopes, and in the end it happened. He went back to her.
We didn’t even bother rescuing our marriage. We knew it wasn’t working. I gave up. We didn’t see each other for a month, then we had this casual meeting in a patio café downtown and had coffee together while I had cake. I didn’t feel at all, like, anxious, butterflies-in-the-stomach, sweet, in love, whatever you want to call it. I merely waited for it to be over. I’d had enough. I didn’t even like him. I’d never found him that ugly, but I had the thought then he was very ugly. I could smell his bad breath.
He said we’d see. In the end we saw nothing. After six months, he came with a proposal that we divorce formally. Two months later, he came to get his things. His shirts, trousers, ties, jackets, underwear, silver coins (okay, so he was fair and didn’t take those few silvers dollars and some Austrian and Yugoslav coins that belonged to me; those were left to me by my grandma who said I never knew when I might need them), his stupid little knickknacks I couldn’t stand to look at anymore. That broke me. That’s why I can’t talk about that moment even now. It was the worst moment, as I’ve already said. Everything else, I can talk about for hours. I can expound on it, blog about it, put it on Facebook, cackle and giggle at his silly habits, make fun of the little things that used to be my life. About the moment he left, I can’t. Absolutely can’t. Interesting, while we’re there: He didn’t take his books. Not one of them. He never even mentioned them afterwards. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve even seen him more than twice after he left, although Rijeka isn’t that big a city. Still, it’s large enough that I never see him. Not ever. Which is why I took his silence on the matter of the books as a sign. Although I don’t throw away books, I dumped his stupid books in a recycling bin. It took me months to gather the strength. It took me months to get over that moment.
The day I chucked his books, I watched a movie I didn’t understand on some godforsaken TV channel. It made me cry buckets. Later, whenever the theme song came on, it reminded me of how fragile everything was. “Mad World.” Mad world, indeed. Marriage, health, life, work, even those things that used to seem permanent, like this apartment I inherited—not even it is forever. After all these years, I’m selling the apartment. I’m starting anew. That’s what I’ve decided. No moaning, no crying. No unnecessary drama. God, now I even remind myself of the way he philosophized. He always made speeches, always sought refuge in theory. Well, never mind that. Enough. I’ve been through the stage of grief, the stage of self-pity, the stage of personality breakdown, the stage of being agitated, the stage of being depressed, and the stage in which I was incoherent and confused, as my therapist said, who prescribed some meds I took for a short period of time, then didn’t. It’s been almost a year now. I’m thirty-four. It’s enough. I’m young. If I were a mom, I’d be a MILF, as my nephew puts it. The little clod. A mommy in her prime. This way, nothing doing.
All things considered, I had to be happy about being hired. After so many months of agony, disintegration, extremity, dregs, misery, and total solitude, here was my new beginning. Such as it was, but still new. It was no occasion for grand celebrations, but it deserved to be noted over dinner and a glass of wine, and as I had no one else to do that with, I invited Henrik. I organized a small dinner party in my apartment—the one I was selling without any success—just for him and me. I didn’t invite my sister. In fact, I didn’t even tell her about the dramatic new turn of events. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think anyone needed to know the news. I was going to be a receptionist, albeit at night, and not just anywhere, but in one of the fanciest hotels in town. Four stars. Bottom line was, I was happy. Not ecstatic, but happy enough. I felt a kind of prickling excitement in anticipation of a new experience. Work was starting in ten days.
Now, when I line up the events of my life, it’s clear to me I was always prone to loneliness. I’d lost my parents when I was twenty. Dad went first, then Mom. They were gone in a wink of an eye. My sister and I were on different planets, though we’re physically alike. She’s older than me, and her world had been formed by the time our parents died. I was practically still a child. Still, I dealt with the loss on my own. Without anyone close by. Okay, not entirely: There were aunts and cousins and relatives close by, and I could rely on them. After all, my sister was there, too. But I did live on my own. Until, before long, he entered my sparsely populated world. He moved in with me fresh from graduation, first as a colleague from another town (same university, different study group), then a friend, lover, boyfriend, husband. The place he took in the inventory of my life seemed to have always been his. He repaired installations in the apartment and changed fuses. Soon, we changed furniture and redecorated the place, creating a proper little love nest. In the evenings, we watched television and yammered. He tickled my feet. Sometimes we made love; sometimes, though it wasn’t any kind of peak experience for me. All that, we called our lair. Our hidey-hole. The time to mourn my parents had somehow slipped past. They’d departed quickly and left me the apartment, and with it came limitless freedom to make decisions. The decision I made was to turn it into a nest. At first I had an indescribably lovely time there, then indescribably rotten.
That day, for the first time after the divorce, I didn’t hate my apartment. It was also the first time I didn’t feel… shitty, I suppose.
Henrik had told me the management had great expectations for me. I’d surprised them, though I wasn’t sure with what. The way I looked? The fact I spoke four languages? Big deal. He also told me my salary wouldn’t be more than 3,800 kunas with all the extras included, which was a pittance. Perhaps I’d surprised them by not asking any unnecessary questions. I didn’t care at all.
I was making a game stew with dumplings. It was still early in the spring, and the rich, heavy dish seemed appropriate. Henrik would love it, I expected. Everyone loved it. In point of fact, not everyone did, but he did, so I imagined Henrik would, too.
Around half-past seven, someone—Henrik, I thought—rang the doorbell. I opened the door, and there he was, accompanied by a girl. She was tall, blonde, classy, youthfully dressed, and younger than me by good seven or eight years. Six, as it turned out.
“I’m Dora, pleased to meet you,” she said, extending her hand.
“Hey, I’ve brought company. Dora is your future coworker. We all wanted to come, but it’s a bit complicated. Dora and I were in the morning shift, and everyone else is working. Anyway, they….”
“They couldn’t come,” I finished for him. “Please, come in. Welcome!”
I’d expected only Henrik, but didn’t mind the additional guest. I thought it would be merrier in company.
“We’re not putting you to any trouble, are we?” Henrik said.
“Oh, come on, get inside.”
“Here, these are for you.” He gave me a bouquet of mottled roses.
I wasn’t particularly fond of flowers, but now they made me happier than I could say. On one special occasion, a celebration of some kind, my ex-husband had brought me some very expensive flowers. Our standard of living wasn’t that high, but sometimes he’d have a bout of gallantry and a bouquet of orchids would show up, like that time. They’d shocked-angered-moved me so much I didn’t know what came over me. I threw them on the floor and began crying. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but what was wrong was hysteria. People of old were right to ascribe it to women—the female madness. Once I was able to explain, he hugged me, and we had tea and continued as before. Still, there’s no doubt he thought me unhinged. He never bought me flowers again. He bought me perfumes, necklaces, bracelets. Flowers, no.
“Gosh, thanks.” I put on a bit of an act.
“This is your welcome present,” Dora said, handing me a heart-shaped chocolate box—the good kind by Milka with the lilac cow on the lid.
“And thank you!” I acted some more, although I was honestly moved by all the attention.
The entire introduction reminded me of the lame reality show I sometimes watched. Every episode featured five random foodies who ostensibly met for a gourmet meal, while what they really did was try to outperform one another for the camera.
“Let’s sit down, shall we?” I motioned at the table.
Though I’d expected to dine with Henrik alone, I wasn’t hoping for anything romantic. I’d just imagined he would tell me about his fifteen-odd years since high school—which would make for a brief, amusing tale—then we’d move on to a meatier subject, and I’d learn all of the hotel’s little secrets. Who was with whom, who gossiped about whom—dirty tidbits of that kind. It seemed to me those meant a lot if you wanted to know your immediate surroundings. I’d lived in my cocoon for a long time and had a significant lack of experience with complex human relationships people formed at work. The relationship I’d had with my clients had been different. More precisely, nonexistent. What we’d had was a virtual experience. Everything I knew about work relationships, I’d learned from books and other people’s tales, which meant I knew nothing. But since Dora and Henrik weren’t romantically involved with each other, they were happy to feed my curiosity above all expectations. Together they could talk to infinity and beyond.
It turned out Henrik didn’t eat meat. I hastily pulled out some ravioli from the fridge and prepared them for him. Dora ate for two. Though she was hardly a petite girl, I was surprised with the amount of food she could put away. She didn’t restrict herself in regard to the wine, either. Of the five bottles we’d had by that point (it was a California red in small bottles, which my husband had brought from a trip, claiming it had changed his perspective on wine—God, what a pompous jerk!), she’d had at least three. By herself. She was tipsy, but not drunk. Henrik’s eyes were glassy. I hated that wine, but I drank it with glee, precisely to spite my jerk of a husband who might one day ask for it back.
The dinner unfolded with pleasant predictability. Henrik gossiped about some hotel character or another—all the different names meant nothing to me—and Dora cackled. She seemed keen on him, though it was apparently something that she has never said. Henrik was getting married to a Renata, and as I didn’t know her, the story meant absolutely nothing to me. Dora, for her part, was involved with a guy who didn’t quite understand her; that is, they were in an intense relationship, but something was lacking. None of it meant more to me than empty chatter. Unnecessary information. After all, I didn’t even know Dora before that night. And Henrik getting married? Well, I was already divorced. I had taken the next step. I couldn’t care less if someone was getting married. It certainly wasn’t something I’d consider any time soon.
They didn’t seem particularly interested in my marriage, either. No veiled references. Not a single malicious word. Dora merely noticed the bracelet I was wearing, made from a silver tea-spoon. I wasn’t even sure why I was wearing it. He got it for me abroad. I liked it, though it very much reminded me of him. Perhaps I wanted to prove to myself some trace of our years together still survived. Or maybe there was no need for psychoanalysis. I just liked the thing.
“My Robi never gets me anything like that,” Dora complained.
I laughed. “Be glad he doesn’t. Here, you can have it.”
“Wow, oh wow. Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I’m sick of it.” I was intoxicated with that California wine, which was really quite good. “I know it’s gorgeous, but it’s from my ex-husband. I don’t need to feel sentimental about that. Here, take it.”
“Thanks!” Dora was genuinely, drunkenly astonished with the gift.
“Look what I’ve got!” She triumphantly showed off the bracelet to Henrik.
Women feel the absurd male-female chemistry so much more acutely than do men. Dora was flaunting her little trophy for the benefit of her star-crossed target who was—there’s no way of putting it kindly—completely indifferent. He was the old Henrik I knew, the man without qualities.
Dora, however, was lovely. Very lovely, even when drunk. And yet, she was just a child. I felt like I was looking at myself all those many years ago. Lovely, slightly drunk, slightly foolish with youth. Inexperienced was the word. It was almost incredible how much effort she put into charming Henrik, while he didn’t show any interest in her. That didn’t matter, though. Screw them both. After all, I hadn’t seen him in fifteen years, and I had only met her today.
We sat around the table. Henrik looked as if it was time to go home. In fact, it was. I’d already missed all my TV shows and wouldn’t even be able to read in bed.
Dora suddenly put her hand on my shoulder and said, “There’s something no one told you about.” She laughed as if it were the dirtiest secret of all, known to everyone, but never discussed.
“Ha, and what is that?” I held, rather drunkenly now, a pretty crystal glass half-filled with the California wine. “Don’t tell me Henrik is screwing someone?”
That was nasty of me. Terribly, terribly nasty. A display of complete arrogance. Luckily, no one took it that way. Dora cackled. Henrik did, too. We were a drunken party.
“Oh no,” Henrik said. “It’s nothing dumb like that.”
“Then what is it?” I was curious now. Frankly, I still thought it was something dumb.
“It’s silliness, really,” Henrik said. “A legend.”
“Get this,” Dora said. “So far, not a single night receptionist has managed to stay with us for more than two months. Actually, several didn’t even last that long.”
“Yes, well, we hired some tricky characters. I mean, three out of five were caught with their hands in the cash register. Nothing mysterious about that,” Henrik said.
“I know a few were laid off for stealing. But everyone talked about it, whether they stole or not,” Dora said.
“What are you talking about?” My curiosity was piqued.
“A ghost,” Dora said.
“Excuse me?” I almost laughed.
“A ghost,” Henrik repeated.
“The hotel is haunted,” Dora continued.
This caused a salvo of laughter. An excellent climax of an excellent evening. One of the best since the divorce.
“So now we tell ghost stories,” I intoned.
I opened the sixth and last bottle of the California wine and topped their glasses. Henrik wavered a bit, but accepted the wine. Dora was thoroughly juiced anyhow. I had a feeling she had no upper limit.
“Holy fuck,” I blurted out. “You’re drinking us under the table.”
Dora just cackled. Henrik cackled with her.
“Ghosts! You guys are completely wasted. Cheers.”
“Listen, the story goes like this. A woman came to the hotel late one night. This was before the latest revamp,” Dora said. “You weren’t there yet, either, were you, Henrik?”
Henrik shook his head in confirmation. “It was more than thirty years ago,” he said.
“The woman took the room that’s now room 616. I don’t know what the number was back then. I think it was different, only two digits.” Dora continued, “A guy came right after her and asked the receptionist—was it old Sale?” She turned to Henrik again.
Henrik nodded again.
“Sale died a few years ago,” Dora said. “I never knew him. In any case, he gave this type another key because the guy asked for his wife’s room number and said he wanted to join her. Nothing odd about that. Seemed legit. Only, the guy checked out in the morning, and the woman never did. The guy gave the morning receptionist some excuse, like, his wife left earlier. He picked up both of their IDs, settled the bill, and that was it. Gone.”
Now Henrik picked up. “No one would even remember it if sometime later Sale hadn’t started spreading stories. Of course, the thing with Sale was that he drank. He was caught hammered on the job more than once. At first he didn’t say anything, but after a while he began insisting there was banging coming from the room, sometimes even screams.”
“Interesting,” I said. “Couldn’t the woman have left by the back door? Or by the elevator, or sneaking past the front desk, or whatever?”
“Well, that’s the thing. She almost certainly did,” Henrik said.
“Tell her what happened when they redecorated the hotel,” pushed Dora.
They had a proper campfire routine going—“the tale of true horror that feels true whether or not it happened.”
“It was nothing, a ridiculous business,” Henrik said.
“Go on, then. Tell her,” Dora insisted.
“Okay, so when construction workers removed the furniture and began tearing up the room, they found a piece of paper under the carpeting. It said—” Henrik paused here, then made a very spooky face and cried, “Help me! A maniac is cutting me to pieces!”
Dora and I screamed. The atmosphere. The drinking. Too much drinking. The California wine. The whole thing felt like an absurd undergraduate initiation. Or a bit of everyday undergraduate fun. I knew the story would be sketchy, but the last bit was like a bad theatrical performance.
“It didn’t say that. It just said ‘help.’” Dora restored some seriousness to the story.
“Of course, no one ever saw this piece of paper. The woman was supposed to have tried to slip it under the door,” Henrik concluded.
I began clapping my hands. “Bravo! A great urban legend. Reminds me of the one about the woman in the Učka Tunnel. Or the one about the hitchhiker girl in Portugal. Have I passed my trial?”
Soon, the entertainment ended. I don’t know how the two of them made it home. I asked them if they wanted a cab. She took a cab. Henrik said he would drive. Supposedly he hadn’t had that much to drink.
“Are you sure? You can leave the car here and get it in the morning.”
“No, no, I’m fine. I’ll need it in the morning.”
We said goodbye. I thought about the evening for a while. I was happy. Even with that ridiculous ghost story. After so many days, months—hell, after so many years—I felt weariness slip away. I turned on the water and drew myself a bath.