A small stain of yellow light appears sporadically on the window of our train compartment, then is swiped away by the bare branches of the tall ash trees that grow in the swamp by the tracks. The train moves slowly, the moonstain on the thick grimy glass trembles and flickers like a match in the wind. Three beer cans on the plastic table in front of us – I will douse the journey in alcohol, set fire to the moment, then pick through the ashes for a story.
My friends are as crazy as I am, but only because the beer is on me. And the tickets. We took the last train. We’ll get there after midnight and we’re not even sure where she lives or whether we’ll be able to find her. It will be different in her hometown – so small there are no trams or buses, the place so walkable and safe as if made out of Lego blocks – yet we don’t know it and we’ll get lost among its footpaths, in those perfectly round Lego holes, pure-coloured, perfect fit.
At the other end of the train tracks, in the city, she sleeps the days away and studies at night. Before she goes to sleep she walks the deserted streets barefooted, morning dew cooling the asphalt down to the temperature of her soles. The big city doesn’t scare her in the fuzzy daybreak, it belongs to her; grey has become her favourite colour. She goes back to the quiet dorm and the orchestra of her shower sends sounds through the pipes, ten rooms down the hallway, flooding my dreams.
Before she goes to sleep she puts eyedrops in her eyes, nosedrops in her nose, moisturiser on her skin which is so soft it is liquid, and rubs anti-bacterial cream into her face, cleaning herself into a temple, a maternity ward. She slips under the covers, her body loose in her pyjamas. Then she shuts off her roommate’s alarm clock and disappears.
Janja, her roommate, is my best friend who sometimes reads her diary. That’s how I know about the barefooted strolls, her bonding with the city, and that’s how I know her new favourite colour. About other rituals I hear from Janja, always late for morning classes. Sometimes I secretly smell them on her pillow, when she’s not there and Janja’s in the bathroom. Because of her sleeping patterns and the fact she goes home for weekends, I rarely see her and sometimes don’t even recognize her when I bump into her at an evening lecture or in the dining hall. If we’re in the same company we exchange a few glances – I tend to start jabbering and she to walk away. She doesn’t like my stories, or when I slap her on the back, ruffle her hair. Fuck off, she says.
Once she came over to borrow a book and I played her one of my songs. (In her diary she wrote it had been as embarrassing as watching a talk show with people displaying emotions like tasteless, cheap knick-knacks in a shop window). Then she kissed me, out of pity I suppose, on the corner of my mouth.
Another time we were supposed to go to the movies together but the movie wasn’t on. We stayed in her room, sat on her bed and talked. And then, spontaneous as if on Candid Camera, I leaned over and kissed her. She kissed me back, the tip of my tongue already tasting regret. The next day she went home. It wasn’t a weekend. “What a love story,” says Janja, licking the beer foam off her hand.
The humming of the train engine is lulling me into a fantasy, moontripping. Kiti had cried throughout the movie but she was already drunk when we got in there.
“What a fucked-up love story,” echoes Kiti, cradling her beer can, her lips dancing around the opening, following the rhythm of the rocking train.
“Romeo and Juliet they never felt this way I bet… ” I sing, slowly sewing a smile onto my face.
“It’s just that our little Juliet doesn’t seem to know it yet.” Janja takes another long sip and sinks back into her seat.
We’re about halfway there when our compartment door slides open and a man asks if he can sit with us. As if the train was full and there were no seats anywhere else. Kiti, the least shy and the most drunk, starts talking to him. He has a crumpled face and dry wrinkled skin like an elephant’s. He stretches his naked arms forward and makes us guess what the round little things that look like bugs crawling under his skin are. I ask if they’re some kind of mite, ticks maybe. He laughs. Then he strokes Kiti’s hair and glides his hand down her shoulder. She pushes his hand away playfully.
“Nothing before the wedding night,” she says in a serious voice and looks at the man with her eyes wide open. Blink-blink, like in a cartoon.
“And I, as her older sister, will reserve the right to that first night,” says Janja.
“Hell, I’ll marry you both,” says the tick-master.
“Lucky yous,” I mumble, just loud enough to be heard.
“Don’t worry,” he looks at me. “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last woman on Earth… Are you a woman anyway?
“No,” I say. “But with the right guy, certainly…”
He asks if we watch TV and we say we don’t have one. He says he was on this TV show, the Croatian Believe It Or Not, because he was married thirty-four times or something. He spends all his money on alimonies and dialysis. Kiti and Janja are fascinated.
“Which one did you love the most?” Kiti asks.
“But where are we gonna live?” says Janja.
He says he doesn’t understand women; they change as soon as the ring slips onto their finger. They sure as hell do.
The train conductor comes in to check our tickets. Says he gets off where we do and can give us a ride to wherever we’re going. The bugs in the guy’s arms crawl back into his armpits.
It’s pitch black outside when we get off the train. The moon has disappeared somewhere even though I can’t see any clouds. Or it is all cloud?
“So what are you girls doing here so late at night?” the conductor-turned-driver asks, as the car tires fondle the curves in the road, Janja and I swinging in the backseat.
“We’ve come to party,” says Kiti. “We heard you have an awesome discotheque here.”
“Well, if the music disappoints you, our boys sure won’t. They’re much nicer than those in the city.”
“I’m sure,” says Kiti.
In the apartment building where she lives some of the doors have no names on them, and she’s behind one of them. Kiti and I sit on the stairs and send Janja to put out feelers and follow the scent of her roommate. The beer has drained all the inhibition out of her and she’s going around merrily, knocking on every nameless door, singing softly to herself, pop songs. My guts are snarled and squeezed; Kiti’s leaning over the banister, swaying like a child at the playground. Familiar voices leak down from upstairs. Janja has found her. When we go up, her glance plummets from my face to the carpet like a severed limb.
“We saw the movie,” I blurt out helplessly. She says nothing. Then invites us in.
She lives with her grandmother but her grandmother is away. The apartment is not how she would have fixed it herself, but her grandmother will die eventually. She may even keep the needlepoints on the walls – they appeal to her sense of the grotesque. She will throw out all the furniture, and the carpets, and she will finger-paint the rooms – when her grandmother dies.
She does not look at me and when I lay my hand on her shoulder she says: “Let’s go out, the disco’s still open.” So we go out. On the way we buy some beer at an all-night gas station. The beer is pretty bad but we drink more. We walk down the street towards the disco, two by two – she and Janja leading the way. She – an apparition in her blazing white nightgown which she’s wearing over her shirt and trousers. This is the corner where she had her first kiss, this is the wall she jumped off and broke her arm trying to show her boyfriend, the love of her life, the tattoo between her shoulder blades, that she could fly with an umbrella, a la Mary Poppins.
We walk in silence and when I put my hand on her shoulder this time, she doesn’t move.
“It’s all shit,” I say, not really knowing what I mean.
She knows. A faint taste of beer on her lips.
The disco is a hole; she talks to everybody there. I sit in a corner while Janja and Kiti dance. The music is loud but we’re all drunk and numb – or want to be. She comes over and kisses me, hard and violently, as if it isn’t me she’s kissing, as if I was the tattoo on her back, a nightgown over her clothing, a hammer to shatter the small-town shop-windows. I kiss her back as the music becomes unbearable.
Walking back to her place, the sky paling into dawn, we kiss our way home with Kiti and Janja lagging behind, their lips chaffed with the worst beer and even worse boys. They fall asleep in front of the TV and we go to her room. The shutters are drawn all the way down and in here it’s night again.
“I’m drunk,” she says, and lets me kiss her.
I want to suggest we elope, run away from this small town – but she already has. I want to tell her we could wear out car tires together, get lost somewhere, mapless, disoriented, but the thing is: I can’t drive and neither can she. I want to tell how I cried at the movie even though I didn’t, but I wanted to, and I can’t say anything because my lips are on hers and we’re on her bed. There are only blurred contours of her in the smothered light of the room. I undress her – and when I touch her, her body, without warning, falls apart in my hands, breaks to pieces like quicksilver. Her eyes, locked, her lips, her nose, her breasts soft and warm, the smoothness of her stomach, the damp curls of her thighs’ intersection – fragments no touch can glue together again. But I keep touching – because I can’t let go, because I know everything there is to know about spells and small towns.
She slowly slides away from under my hands and gets up from the bed. Then looks at me gently, too softly, and ruffles my hair. Then she’s gone.
Her mother, who lives in the apartment upstairs, drives us to the train station in the morning. The distance is perfectly walkable, but we’re too tired. When we got up I’d asked her if everything was alright – with us, I mean. She spat out a “yes” with her toothpaste. Then she flossed.
At the train station I buy a newspaper, because Kiti and Janja will sleep on the train. I look back at her and there she is, standing under the station’s sign, her mother’s hand on her shoulder. She makes a small wave in our direction, an impromptu goodbye.
As we walk to the train the sky suddenly opens and, as if out of a heavenly bucket, rain pours down on us. Kiti and Janja run – and I walk slowly, sheets of newspaper covering my head. On the train, I take a window seat, just in time to see her back disappear behind the swinging station door.
Kiti and Janja are leaning against each other, already dozing, as I spread the paper out in front of me – the black print dissolving into a perfect grey.