18% GrayZachary Karabashliev
Copyright © 2008 by Zachary Karabashliev
Translation copyright © 2012 by Angela Rodel
First edition, 2013
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Available.
This book is published within the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s program for Support of Contemporary Bulgarian Writers and in collaboration with the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Design by N. J. Furl
Open Letter is the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press:
Lattimore Hall 411, Box 270082, Rochester, NY 14627
For man does not know his time. Like fish which are taken in an evil net, and like birds which are caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
She’s been gone nine mornings.
The blinds in the bedroom are shut tight, but the day still finds a way in, and with a roar—the garbage truck. That means it’s Wednesday. That means it’s 8:15. Is there a noisier noise than the noise of a garbage truck at 8:15?
I crawl out of bed, stagger to the living room, and flop down on the couch. The cool leather doesn’t help me fall back to sleep, the garbage truck rumbles closer. I get up, push aside one of the blinds, a bright ray burns my face. I focus my powers and attempt to dismember the roaring green monster with a gaze. The effort only succeeds in waking me up completely.
I look at the flowers in the vase on the coffee table. Dead freesias in murky water—she left them behind.
I open a kitchen drawer and pull a Toblerone out of the stash of candy. I pick yesterday’s white shirt up off the floor and plug in the iron. I iron with one hand, while breaking off triangles and gobbling them down with the other. I put on the shirt and a blue tie, make instant coffee, slosh some on my sleeve while I fumble for the car keys, throw on a gray suit coat, and slam the door behind me.
Another scorching Southern California day. I gun the Corolla. I make a right onto Jefferson and get on the highway. Five lanes of cars in one direction and five lanes in the other. Exhaust pipes roar, engines rattle, fenders gleam—as if preparing for battle.
At work, I think about her. I can’t stop talking to Stella in my head—it won’t stop simply because one of us is not here. Can I stop? I try.
OK—from this moment on, I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will not. I will do yoga, I will open my chakras, I will repeat OM until I clear my mind, I will eat rice with my hands, I will grow a beard, I will do headstands. O-m-m-m-m. O-o-m-my God, I’m tired of thinking about her. O-o-o-m-m-my God, I’m tired of thinking about her. O-o-o-o-m-m-m-m-my God, I’m so tired of thinking about her.
At the morning meeting, Scott, the manager, announces the latest structural changes in the department and talks about the new clinical trial. There’s a box of doughnuts on the table. There is orange juice and steaming coffee. “. . . to monitor the progress of this clinical investigation . . .” Why is the AC so cold in here? “. . . and this new drug . . .” O-m-m-m. “. . . since it is a Phase One . . .” Why is the coffee sour? “. . . what you should monitor at each site and how much attention should be given to each activity . . .” What is he talking about? “. . . strict adherence to the procedures by the treating physicians . . .” Who are these people? Scott hands out personal agendas for the upcoming quarter to everyone, his eyes filled with that perkiness, that perkiness . . . He shakes our hands energetically—the way only short people do—but hangs on to mine a bit longer. Where am I?
Everyone heads to their cubicles while Scott gestures for me to follow him into his dark gray office down the hall. Office minimalism—a desk, a computer, a personal coffee maker, and a water cooler under a poster of a long boat (kayak? canoe?) powered by a squad of rowers. Below the photograph, a sign reads TEAMWORK.
Scott is speaking to me in a concerned voice. He is looking at me with that look. I don’t hear what he’s saying; I just nod and want to puke. That look. I don’t remember how the rest of the day goes. Horribly, I imagine.
On the way back from work, during rush hour at the traffic light on 11th and Broadway, the stream of cars slows down. Somewhere up ahead, I see fluorescent reflective vests holding stop signs and redirecting traffic. I notice the white corpse of a semi sprawled on its side in the middle of the road. It’s hot. I try to change lanes at the last second and cleverly take Cedar Street, but don’t make it—the schmuck on my right won’t let me in. Fine, I’ll sit in traffic like everyone else then. I look to my right: a guy around fifty, with crow’s feet and a dry California tan, is picking his nose and watching a small plane in the sky trailing a giant red banner. I also look up to see what is written in the sky behind the plane and catch myself picking my nose, too. I look at the plane overhead, I look at the man. His left elbow—resting on the rolled-down window; his right index finger—up his nose; his hair—gray. That’s how I’m going to look in about twenty years.
A honk from behind jolts me and I press the clutch to shift to first. It suddenly sinks. I press harder, I push and pull the stick to shift into gear, but it won’t move. I watch the gray-haired man pull away. The light is still green, but it won’t be this green forever. I start shoving the stick harder (damn—yellow), I hear the honking grow more impatient behind me. An intolerably hot day (it’s red now) and longer than any other (scarlet red). I feel the rage of those accountants, lawyers, software engineers, waiters, and real estate agents focusing on my tiny tan car. Had there been someone to coordinate their thoughts, with a single conspiratorial glance they would have tossed me down by the docks where the bums hang out. Where I belong.
I start scouring the dashboard for the red triangular button; I have no idea where it is. Behind me, more and more of those jerks, safe in their anonymous vehicles, start honking. I see only their expressionless faces in the rearview mirror, but I know that a little bit lower, down where I can’t see, they are laying on their horns. I’m sweating. Can’t they see that I’m stuck, that I’m miserable? The more intelligent ones signal left and go around my immobile vehicle. The rest refuse to accept my misfortune.
Now I really start sweating and it smells like French onion soup. If they keep pissing me off, I’ll get out of my car, fling open my arms like the statue over Rio, and blow them away with the stench. They’ll be jumping out of their cars in a panic, hands clamped over mouths and noses, running frantically like in a Godzilla movie. Finally, at the corner of 11th and Broadway, there’ll be only me and countless abandoned vehicles with open, beeping doors. They’ll go peep-peep-peep-peep like chicks. Peep-peep-peep-peep. And I’ll stride down the street like a conqueror and laugh a loud, ominous laugh.
I finally find the hazard light button. I push it and jump out, half-suffocated by my own smell. The air is hot and dry. I make apologetic gestures to those behind me, my shirt soaked with sweat. I loosen my tie, grin guiltily, and shrug (it could happen to anyone), while in my mind I mercilessly rape and murder every single loved one of those fucking slimeballs who now avoid making eye contact with me.
I use a payphone to call a towing company.
Half an hour later, a tow truck rumbles up and a Vietnamese guy jumps down. He’ll be towing my car to the body shop. He wants eighty bucks. I ask him who to make the check out to.
He shakes his head, “Cass, cass!”
“Cass?” I say. “I don’t have any cass.” I write a check for eighty dollars and hand it to him.
“No!” The Vietnamese guy insists. “Cass, cass!”
br /> “Cass, my ass.” I say.
“Huh?” He frowns, he doesn’t get it. Well, I don’t get why Stella’s gone either.
“I don’t have any cash.” I say. “No credit card either.” The Vietnamese guy sees he’s got no other choice and decides to accept the check, but now he wants more money. I write a new check for ninety dollars. Whom should I make it out to?
“Howah.” He says.
“Oh, Howard? OK, Howard.” Look at them Asians and the noble names they appropriate! I’ve yet to see one named Bill or Bob. I write Howard Stern and hand him the check.
“No! No!” He screams. “No Howard Stern!” and rips up the check. “Howah!”
“Howard what!?” I snap.
He grabs the checkbook and writes the name himself: Hau Ua.
“Oh!” I pat him on the shoulder. “I know lots of Vietnamese guys, Hau. Good people.” Hau stares at me with no expression. “Good people!” I say, “the Vietnamese.”
“I from Laos.” Hau gives me a nasty look and turns his back on me. Now they’ll skin me at the garage. Let them.
I take a cab home. Quiet and shady. I water the plants in the backyard. Nothing is their fault. The neighbors’ orange cat shows up. He wants to play with somebody. “Do you miss Stella?” I ask. He meows, which means of course he does. Stella used to buy him canned food. She insisted that ocean whitefish was his favorite. I find some cans under the sink and open one. I take it out and set it under the easel where her last abandoned painting sits. A sheet spattered with blue paint covers it. I watch the cat eat for a couple minutes. I gave Stella this easel five years ago as a Christmas present. I lift one corner of the sheet and look at the canvas. I don’t get it. This is the only painting of hers in the house—the rest are either in her studio or in storage—and it’s unfinished. Why don’t I throw it in the trash?
I’m hungry. I turn around and accidentally knock over one of the jars with watery paint and brushes sticking out. It rolls over, spilling an ugly trail of muddy, grayish paint. I angrily kick the jar and it shatters.
The only things in the fridge are some rotten vegetables from before she left, and some beer, which I stashed there afterwards. Lately, my life has been divided into before and after she left. The latter is made up of nine days of loneliness. Loneliness that I feel most acutely at dusk. The world sighs with relief after a workday, while I choke up with her absence. Alone like a Sasquatch, I wander through my thoughts, and there’s no shelter, absolutely none.
“You need to be alone. To decide what to do with your life.” I can hear her words in the room now. I didn’t say anything then. I just watched CNN and didn’t say a single thing. What was on the news then?
I find half a baguette in the breadbox. I take out a can with a colorful sombrero and an “El Cowboy” label and pour its contents into a small pan to heat it up, stirring it from time to time. The smell of spicy Mexican beans fills the room. She doesn’t like beans. She doesn’t like Mexican spices, either. I go pick something to listen to. While I sift through CDs and LPs, I hear a “pf-f-f-f”—the beans are boiling over and spilling onto the burner. I get up and start sponging away the mess before it’s dried up. Suddenly, my wrist—where the skin is most tender—sticks to the hot pan. That sizzling sound, the smell of burned flesh, the pain . . . I don’t even scream in pain. Why should I? Shit, my hand, shit, fuck my stupid hand! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Fuck? All of a sudden, the idea of porn doesn’t seem as pathetic as it has for the last week and a half. I will reward myself with a serene hand job after my spicy bean dinner.
I put a tablecloth on the table. I lay out the silverware on a linen napkin. I take out a jar of hot chili peppers and arrange it on the table. I light a candle. I serve up the bowl of beans in the middle and set two beers next to it. I pick a record—La Sonnambula by Bellini, performed by Maria Callas at La Scalla 1955—and play the aria “Ah! non credea mirarti.” I pump up the volume, like I never did when she was here. I drop pieces of dry baguette into the bowl, stir, and slurp up the hot chunks, rolling them around in my mouth. Beans are an experience. You have to devour them hot and spicy, otherwise there’s no point.
The aria lasts five minutes and forty-three seconds. Two minutes in, I see the bottom of the bowl and spend the next three listening with my eyes closed. The telephone rings right at the last note. I don’t pick up. I haven’t picked up the phone since Stella left.
Leave a message!
“Zack, are you there?” It’s the annoying voice of Tony, who’s been calling me three times a day.
“I’ve been calling you three times a day. Where are you, Zack? We need to talk, man. Pick up the phone. Zack?!”
Thirty-three messages blink on the machine. Not one from her. I look around. Every single thing in this house is in its place because she put it there. Every square inch is covered with her fingerprints. I try to get used to the fact that she’s gone.
The porn is lame, pink bodies lurch on the screen for a while, then everything ends in a napkin. I toss it into the trash along with a few old papers, bills, and junk mail. I get ready for bed. I brush my teeth meticulously and wash my face. I turn the lights off everywhere. I lie down on the right side of the bed. The left side—her side—feels like a wound. I’m suffocating on sadness. I stare at the dark ceiling for a long time, then roll over to where she slept until nine nights ago. I curl into a six-foot-long embryo and press my heart with the full weight of my body. The heart is like the neighbors’ cat—it doesn’t get it. It doesn’t understand that she’s gone. The heart is an animal.
1988, Varna, Bulgaria
I saw her for the first time just before I was discharged from the army. I was on day leave and was wandering around the central part of the old Black Sea town where I was stationed. It was a warm afternoon in late May and the scent of blooming linden trees hung in the air. I had read in the newspaper that ancient ruins had been discovered during the construction of a mega-department store. The subsequent excavations unearthed the remains of a Roman arena, and a third of downtown had been turned into an archeological site. It was worth checking out, I thought.
It wasn’t. It was a big hole in the middle of the city filled with bored students brushing stones. I crisscrossed the central promenade several times and started seriously thinking about having a bite to eat. Then I headed half-aimlessly toward the beaches, my ravenous stare making the local girls move to the opposite side of the street. Or was it my hideous buzz-cut?
I remember walking into a café and there she was. First her lips? No. First her eyes, then her lips. Then her breasts—her round breasts stretching her uniform. Then the curl of light brown hair hanging down to the dimple in her cheek. The feeling of destiny. And then the dread that whatever I would do was pointless. She was the most beautiful girl in town. There was no way she didn’t belong to somebody. There was no way some lucky bastard wasn’t counting off the minutes until the end of her work day. Miracles don’t happen, I decided, and walked out.
Something suddenly thrashes in my stomach and my insides knot up into a small, hard ball. I sit up in bed and stare into the silvery threads of darkness. I listen. Is there someone in the house? I hold my breath and try to figure out if there’s someone in the living room. I swear I heard something. THERE IS someone. I can hear the blinds moving. I get up cautiously. I reach for the bedside lamp, unplug the cord, roll it up and grab it by its metal stand. Then I realize I’m naked. I can’t just burst out of the bedroom nude and start chasing off criminals like in a Swedish film. In the dark, I manage to make out the three white lines of my running pants. I put them on carefully, without dropping the lamp stand, and move toward the door. I press my ear to it, struggling to catch a sound.
I hear the ticking of the clock. I hear the hum of the fridge. I hear the blood in my head like a distant freeway. I also hear another, barely perceptible noise.
I take a deep breath, burst through the door, and leap into the living room with a scream.
No one. Then something on the patio clatters, and I fly in that direction. A raccoon, paw stuck in the cat-food can, frantically tries to scramble over the fence outside. I lower my improvised weapon and start laughing.
You felt like eating some cat food, huh, fatso? I almost want to help him push his chubby butt up, but I know that I’ll scare him even more. The can slips off his paw and rolls under a chair. The raccoon gets over the fence. He stops for a second and throws a final glance at me. “Hey,” I yell. “You know you look like a bandit with that funny black mask on your eyes. You scared the shit out of me, Zorro! Now shoo! Go away!”
I doubt I’ll be able to fall back to sleep after this. I stay on the patio for a while. The canyon beneath the house rustles. The palm tree in the backyard sways. The wind has picked up. One of those winds that slides down from the cold mountains in the fall, whooshing through the sizzling hot desert, drying up everything in its path to the Pacific within a matter of days. One of those sick, dry winds named after a saint.
I throw a jacket over my shoulders and go out. I take a left at the traffic light, then a right—I don’t know where I’m going, so I don’t care where I’ll end up.
I come to my senses somewhere near the freeway, walking through one of those newly built neighborhoods with artificial lakes and cute miniature waterfalls, petite jet-powered streams and little bridges decorated with “Made in China” gas lamps. I walk along the winding trail past the houses, trying to peek into other people’s windows when I can. In some, I see bluish light flickering through the blinds, framed family pictures on the walls, posters of movie stars in the kids’ rooms, pianos with the lids down, unlit candles, a vintage calendar of Manhattan, a Thomas Kinkade print.
The normality of this night is insulting.
It’s insulting that sooner or later they will all turn off their TVs, brush their teeth, and fall asleep. Then it will be dawn again and a new day will come as if nothing ever happened. It’s insulting that tomorrow the sky over the neighborhood will be the same as it was when Stella was here. It’s insulting that people will keep working at places like General Electric or AT&T; they will go on being truck drivers, florists, accountants, postal workers, and receptionists. It’s insulting that there are words like “shingle,” “nugget,” “waffle,” “halibut,” “persnickety,” “boodle,” “dungarees” . . . It’s insulting that the craters on the moon will be the same, the salinity of the ocean—the same; the octane number of gasoline—the same; the calories in a Pepsi—the same. Some things just stay the same.