VAZOVA ON LOVE
I am not supposed to be here, but I’m afraid he’ll die if I leave. Outside, the wind is snowless and histrionic over the hills, across the harbour. Time disgusts me. 49,993/50,000ths of sunlight could be darkness, but the idiot eye’s too slow to see it. If I don’t move from this spot, feet on tile, gut churning with espresso, time should stop. The gas stove clicks but doesn’t light. No, it’s the other way around, one moves faster to slow time. Even if we run, black blades across the northern shore of nightfall, we’d still be convicts. I linger here, and in the other room he coughs and I don’t know what would be worse: if he was killed here now with me, or if I left and came back to find him killed. The latter, the latter is much worse. I require him, now, for my project. I am burning away the lead and iron. I will not move unless he comes with me. He will not lock the door. I require him. The clock changes its numbers every time I look back.
He was the Russian desk, so when he retired at thirty-two to take the defense contractor’s money he was assigned to a concrete apartment block watching a camera for eight months of twelve hour shifts. You imagine spies come here to kill people. There could be arsons, executions in the port, but the only things he verifies—the camera to report, the man to verify—are the names and numbers on the container ships that whale through the weakling harbour ice. A Master’s degree. Six years in the infantry. A dog left behind with a brother, who is divorcing his own wife. The government pays the contractor to pay him a hundred twenty thousand a year. He reads a lot of Bulgakov, Gogol, and that paranoiac Krzhizhanovsky. Two missile boats lie half-submerged at the entrance to the harbour. False dawn doesn’t plink the sky until noon.
iii. Uncertainty v Certainty
His door is never locked. I do not ask who came before me. I keep imagining summer here. The next woman could walk in at any moment, but for once there are no other women. I look down from the front window to see no queue formed in the slush-marsh street. Women in muskrats and heavy wool, thin women with dark hair and glassy eyes. By men, for men. Do not compare yourself to them, angels, I know we’re all more familiar with angry women. Just because a woman’s been sent doesn’t mean she’s been sent to kill. There is no comparison, not in this language. I’m here to verify. Summer here would breathe. Light all day. The doors propped open, following the sun in a circle around the apartment: front room, left room, back room. Leaves green and matted with a sudden warm rain. Leaves. The sounds of him carry through the air, from front room to left room to back. In my sleep, he tells me, I yelped his name.
At first I watched him at his desk watching his camera. He hunched two floors above me in this concrete pile. My fisheye camera angled up at him from within a scowling electrical outlet. He was so handsome our twelve hours would pass too quickly. The lines of his kindness sloped from his eyes when he smiled. The only time he smiled was when he’d walk into the library where I wore glasses. He touched my shoulder as he asked a low question in Norwegian. His ears looked roundly boxed. His ears have crystallized my notion of perfection in ears. At my desk in my apartment I ate salt fish on salt crackers. I can seem shy and kind. My shifts watching him stretched to sixteen, twenty hours. I knew when he was shitting and when he was sleeping. I imagine the container ships are full of beach sand, hardcovers, national flags shrink-wrapped in plastic. Heroin. More angry women. That’s a joke. I’d tie back my hair, smooth my collar, put on my glasses, and smile at him from behind the library desk. The library: dirty white linoleum, chairs with sharp metal feet. He disdained Tolstoy. He chose to speak Norwegian so he’d sound like the usual kind of foreigner. I couldn’t speak English to him for obvious reasons. I read that both his Serbian and French are flawless, yet here he is. He watches his camera. When he masturbates so do I. The boats don’t drift. I imagine he’s imagining me behind my desk or under it or bent over it. By men, for men. Anger is insanity when a woman performs it. His body is taut. He winks at me when I see him in the salt-mine stairwell of our apartment block. He runs up and down the flights for an hour after every twelve-hour shift. Every few days I allow myself to encounter him there: soaked, dripping hatred. Yet he winks at me; we collude. Our hatreds are our own. At minus fifty, the harbour is a salt flat with a war-cloud of snow flying across its plain, but the ice is never as real as it looks.
I acquired an explosive gas and carbon monoxide detector and planted it behind his couch. But how will he know what the alarm means when it sounds? Don’t die in your sleep, when I’m speaking to you. Don’t die in a hellfire. Instead of watching him watch his camera through my camera, now I just watch him. When I am finished with this project will I see a vision of God’s face, or a beatified border guard’s? I’ve entered here with a bottle of champagne, with a brick of coffee, with three pairs of fake passports, with three beers, with a bottle of vodka, with two pastries, with a bag of gummies, with a box of gingerbread cookies, with four bananas, with my favourite two hundred pages of Anna Karenina, with a hundred thousand paper Rubles. He purchased a larger coffee press. If we do this right we’ll live forever in each other. He leaves a key in my coat pocket. I take this to mean I should go and lock the door on my way out, and then return when he is not present, but I have ceased to enter, and also the door is never locked. When he looks at me my neon blood pistons up and down my arms and legs. At night his eyes glint while we stare across the dark to each other. The key is useless to me. What if he dies?
vi. Happy New Year
He says in Russian, quietly, and his accent is fine so I don’t know why he’s spent all these weeks pretending to be Norwegian, “Would you have a drink with me?” I have to go shopping. I wait in my apartment, wash my holes. I watch him change from hoodie to shirt and lock his own door, then I lock away my equipment. I put it behind the garbage can and cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. I imagine leaving it out so he’d know immediately without my lying. Lipstick. We share a bottle in my living room, which belonged to an old woman with a black mouth before I took it. The chairs are wooden, the blankets pink. I bring him salt fish, and caviar. I can seem attentive and loving. The women up here have a reputation for shrieking when they wake up gutted. It makes sense. We’ve all poured ourselves empty into someone. Which wish was granted? He kisses me beside the sink where I’m pouring more liquor. I’m drunk. I’m not drunk. In that moment I stopped being angry and never started again. Pain ceased.
Doubt is dead, yet evil is out bedevilling the bars of this country, bearded and growing fat with paranoia. I slept beside it for all those years, woke and made the sweat-wet bed each morning. My project is atonement. Come inside me while I bleed and let our humours runnel my legs and let that be like raising a daughter together. I anoint myself twice a day. You angels, please beg for me in your hall. The fires of purification melt iron that beads from my pores. I have lied to every one of you, in small ways and large. I have used every detail for my own purposes. Yes, I have walked into unlocked rooms and executed the men who waited for me there. I have soothed evil in its night terrors. I abase myself. I beg you. Lead pours from my mouth. My project is reconciliation.
viii. Ships Sink
“You’re not from here.”
“Yes,” I say. “Not me though. Either.”
“You’ve come for work?” we ask, simultaneously.
“Shipping,” we both say, simultaneously.
“I volunteer at the library otherwise I’d die of loneliness,” I add, remembering.
“That pig barn should get a book,” he says.
Our lies clunk together like skulls. He hasn’t been a good liar in years, I bet. I’ve always been, but I don’t have the heart for this.
“Would you rather speak English?” I say, in English.
His lungs stop lifting. I raise my head from his chest to look at him. My glasses are on the floor beside the mattress. The mattress has its starched floral sheet and its wool blanket. Both reek with all the soap I used, washing them. Now the sheet’s creased, wet. I’ve been meaning to buy a second sheet to slide between the blanket and the skin. For once I am warm enough to lie uncovered. Six years in the infantry. Since I’ve uncovered him, should he murder me? Perhaps that’s why there’s no line of women. Perhaps the container ships are full of their corpses. Again, a joke. No one kills a woman for the same reason we’d kill a man.
“Is my accent that bad?” he says.
“It’s excellent,” I say.
“So is yours,” he says.
No, he’s here to make sure the camera’s red light glows. The rotten ice in the harbour disintegrates invisibly. He checks the time. Our shinbones grate as he takes himself away. He goes back to his apartment. This is the first and only time I’ll allow that. I pull my equipment from under the sink and reactivate my view of him. He picks up the phone. My phone rings.
“Come up for dinner,” he says. This is when I requisition the bottle of champagne.
My phone rings again, “All good?” says my line agent.
“Yes,” I say. I’m not even sure what the question that needs answering is. If I hadn’t acquired this apartment myself, direct from that black-mouthed old Tatiana, I would wonder if they’d wired it. What is in the shipping containers? All the world’s questions in a seething oort cloud, purely theoretical planetesimals, grumbling intestinally, waiting to be asked. It occurs to me they don’t need a physical wire just to listen to my phone. Then it occurs to me he could just die. At any time, he could die.
ix. Ex Zona
In the night I am dead asleep but I dig a talon into his navel. He wakes and pushes me away. I don’t remember what I wanted. Would I pour in my own molten black? Would I crawl into his cavity and make a shrine of us? I see there is no end. I see where I ripped a piece of his shirt, or him, and didn’t comment or apologize. I lost the Krzhizhanovsky he gave me before I learned why the eye is so stupid 49,993/50,000ths of the time. I’m hungry. I cannot work on my project and write this, simultaneously. It results in reversals. I see the cracks flicker. The sun’s beams are stretched so taut they snap. Angels, what you saw as sunlight was just suffering. What did you come here to wish for? If anyone were to execute him it’s likeliest to be me. Two floors down my phone is ringing. We’ll blind and kill these cameras. We’ll leave now. No one needs to come for us. Everyone knows what the end looks like until the end never comes.