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Oct/Nov 2015 Fiction

Skopje 2011

by Elena Tuparevska

Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona

Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona


I once knew a Macedonian girl who had a long-distance relationship with a man working in Taiwan on the construction of a space craft that would save a chosen few from the end of the world. And standing here today I finally realize how she got herself in that mess. For you see from the perspective of a 1.65m-tall woman standing beneath a 25m statue, messes are very easy to get into. Effortlessly, thoughtlessly, and in 10cm stiletto heels, I got myself into this particular jam. Standing on my feet all day for a spectacle the like I have only seen in old black and white recordings from the times this country was part of a federation, witnessing a parade of what seems to be one of the world's smallest infantries and air forces followed by allegorical and not so allegorical performances of every artist and institution in the country who received an order to prepare something for the occasion, getting disorientated by tackily lit monuments, listening to speeches of soporific nature, wondering who are these people cheering enthusiastically.

If I were given a choice, I would be at home now. Yet I am in all the photos. Captured for history, for posterity. And in the company of such unfashionable people. I gaze around the sea of ill-fitting suits, polyester dresses, bad hairdos, wishing there was someone with whom I could share a laugh. Finding no such one, my eyes settle on the Minister. Look at him.

His counterfeit modesty. As he buys the most expensive apartment in town, as he refuses to stay in anything but the most luxurious hotels on his trips abroad. His I-am-just-a-man-of-the-people pose. As two of his bodyguards run after him carrying his children's bicycles, while in his own words he tries hard to just be a normal dad, or as he rides in backs of black fancy cars, his ear forever attached to BlackBerries and iPhones taken to meetings of imaginary urgency and importance. The meekness in his eyes. As he calls his employees into his office to question them what the rest of his staff is saying about him. All his prejudices. Those cocksucking Greeks, he yells as he drives to Thessaloniki for a weekend by the sea, those motherfucking Bulgarians, as he enquires into obtaining a Bulgarian passport, those dirty Albanians, as he finishes a statement about diversity and cohabitation, those stupid Americans, after he has his picture taken next to medical equipment donated by the US government.

I wince.

I resent him at receptions when Western diplomats smile at me with glacial politeness and remark how capable he must be to hold not one but two ministerial posts and at such young age, or when he gets this very proud and genuinely impressed look on his face while listening to his prime minister talking. I am ashamed of him in front of friends when he quotes Alexander the Great, or when he resembles a tom turkey doing a mating dance hearing people call him minister. I hate him during interviews when he speaks with admiration of the Skopje 2014 project, or when he masterminds anti-abortion campaigns. I swallow all of it with a smiling face, and more. But the jokes, his stupid jokes are my undoing.

He is not stupid himself. I wish he were; it would have made this easier. And he is not bad-looking. In fact he is very handsome, and very tall. Ah. I used to think we made such a beautiful couple. People still tell me we do as if they intentionally want to wound me.

Of course I am his wife.

As the song comes to an end, the Minister looks at me. No doubt checking if I am smiling and applauding. Although I am doing both, he frowns, probably disapproving of my green dress. I should have worn black.

We need to talk, he says suddenly over the applause.

My heart stills for a second and then begins crushing against my rib cage, my hands grow cold and damp, and I realize he knows... He knows. The sarcasm, my secret tiny smirk dissipate in an instant. Yes, I am afraid. Years ago when I dreamt and yearned about him finding out, I imagined standing in front of him full of defiance. Now I look at him out of the corner of my eye with a fearful heart and barely manage to mutter, what about?

Later, he says coldly, and the last hope I have of being wrong is gone.

I close my eyes. My temples tense in a forewarning of a headache, which makes it difficult to think of the ways how he could have found out and how long he could have known, and the horrible music just won't stop. But I have to think. When did he find out? He didn't seem to know last night. He didn't complain about making him go to the theater. He loved what I wore. He let me choose the station on the car radio and didn't turn it off when I picked Classic FM. Beethoven's ninth symphony was playing in the background as we drove. He looked almost happy.

He couldn't have known last week when he came home all triumphant, could he? He said the statue and the rehearsal looked incredible. And you look incredible, he added drawing closer. He grabbed me off the floor and tossed me on the bed. Very uncharacteristic of him. And very torrid, I must admit. But then in a manner characteristic of me, I closed my eyes as he unzipped my dress and imagined another tall and handsome and a bit fairer-haired man in his place. And that made it better.

Tremulous I stand in the night. Ever since a date for that damn report was announced, I find myself restlessly anticipating something bad to happen. It has to be about the progress report. It seems to be the only thing the media writes about. And somebody was bound to read the name of the commissioner working on it and remember they had heard me mention it before. From the time when he was appointed to this post, I have been carefully erasing every trace of us having known each other, but I've always had a bad feeling about this that only worsens with every impending report.

He didn't tell me about his new job. I learned of it from the news. I heard his name and felt in my liver the old illness. For some heartbreaks stay in you forever like a dormant hypnozoite.

I knew him before getting married, before even meeting the Minister. Our love was... like a dropped can of coke suddenly opened, like a light bulb switched on too fast, that is how I remember the beginning of our love. I do not wish to remember the end. That was protracted and messy.

He said he didn't want a long-distance relationship. Then he called and said that he missed me, he still had feelings for me, he wanted to come to Skopje to see me. Honestly, he wrote a week later, I am not sure if it is a good idea to come down after all, I don't want to lead you on. Please don't be mad at me, he begged four months later, I hope you can give me a second chance. After a second chance reunion in Paris, he emailed that he should be honest with me, that he wanted to meet me because he thought there might be something there. But he didn't feel anything, he didn't develop any feelings for me and didn't think he would, sorry for being blunt, he said, and then took it all back six months later. He called it a terribly botched attempt of an email, he wished he had never sent it and he blamed it on work pressure. He begged to see me again, and when I got tired of waiting for him to suggest a date, he said he didn't know what I expected him to say—that he'd meet me for a weekend somewhere, that we'd have a great time, that we'd move in together, get married and live happily ever after? After I didn't answer, he claimed that he would totally devote himself to me and my needs and that I could totally do with him as I pleased. He would also love to have me stay with him in Stockholm for a week, he said. But then two days before I arrived, he wrote that he had to say things as they were: he was not going to take days off work, and I couldn't really stay at his place after all. He knew he said he wouldn't change his mind when I asked, but he did in the end. Basically what he should have said right away was that he didn't think it was a good thing that I was coming, it would only encourage me to think there was something there, which there was not, at least not on his part. I was free to pour scorn on him, but he didn't think he was going to reply to my emails anymore.

I met the Minister, and I never wanted to see him again. A year later I opened my inbox and didn't even recognize the name immediately.

Jana,

I am writing this now because I really can't stop thinking about you.

I liked the sound of that sentence, and because things with the Minister were no longer that great, I wrote back.

And so it began again. Registering for conferences and seminars around the world just to meet him, seeking volunteering opportunities in countries where he was sent on diplomatic missions, making up excuses, sneaking around. It got even more intense when he landed the new job and started coming to Macedonia every couple of months. There was nothing we couldn't pull off. We were too crafty for our own good. Nobody suspected anything, and this was probably when we started becoming too reckless. I am now even showing up in his office uninvited.

What the hell are you doing? He seems very angry when he finds me waiting there.

I step in front of the big oak desk with the blue flag hanging above it on the wall. I say I've come to check how the report is coming along.

I told you that will depend on you, he says.

We had been fighting a lot in the last few weeks, and I can feel him slipping between my fingers. I ask for patience. I beg him to tell me how I can make this right.

He repeats that he wants me under his terms or he doesn't want me at all, and he asks what I am willing to do for him.

I lift myself onto the desk, and I see his eyes watching me. He tells me to stop, but he walks towards me. I place the palm of my hand on his anatomically correct but strange heart. He says no, but he closes his eyes.

Oh, do it for peace, for your peace of mind and heart, I whisper, and he asks if this is all he gets.

For now, I answer, and he tells me I better be fucking amazing if this is all I am ready to give him and if I don't want that report to be negative.

He takes my ankles in his hands and pushes them gently apart. I lower my back onto the table, lift my eyes and start seeing stars.

And things are right back where they were.

Another conference in Rome. I smile at the tall, handsome, and a bit fairer-haired man next to me. I link my arm with his, and we walk down the street chatting about the exhibition we just saw, trying to figure out what to have for lunch, in a faultless simulation of love and life. Talking about pizza toppings, I walk beside him with my envy. I am envious of the couples who pass us hand in hand, of the girl in the orange skirt waving at someone she knows, of the polite maître d' who shows us to our table. Envious even of the birds.

We almost never talk about the future. We never acknowledge this could never have a happy ending. He never mentions my children. And he rarely brings up the fact I am married.

Jasikovska, he calls me by my maiden name.

That is not my name, and you know that, I repeat for the hundredth time.

That will always be your name, he smirks sarcastically.

On the occasions when he does mention my husband, it is always in some insulting way to belittle him or find out something he could use against him. So what did that fool say, he asks after he hears the government is building a monument to Alexander the Great, and he looks at me keenly, hungrily, waiting me to slip, to give something away.

I don't know, he doesn't confide in me anymore, I say, and I hate I am for once telling the truth.

He doesn't give up. Because this is me, the Minister's live-in traitor. And over the years I feed him scraps he can use to ridicule my husband. His uncouth parents, his grammatical errors, his ambitions, his snobbery, his cousin he employed as a secretary at my faculty and who sleeps around with everyone.

I am careful not to reveal anything that could jeopardize the Minister's political career. And that's why the questions do not stop. What was his opinion about the new law? Did he know about the changes? Was he involved in the scandal? He asks innocently, and I know there is nothing innocent about this man. There was nothing innocent about him when we were very young and met for the first time, and there sure was nothing innocent when he only wanted me free from student loans and possibly with an apartment in the center of Stockholm. Today he wants to see my husband destroyed, his career in tatters, me and my children back in the ghetto of the Balkans where for most of my youth I couldn't leave without filling out dozen forms, showing bank statements and my parents' salaries, queuing for hours outside embassies.

When I think of all that, I get very mean. I tell him never to contact me again. I nag him to tell me about his dating life, and when he says he can't talk about that with me, I say he can tell me with the same mouth he tells me he wants to come in my mouth. I tell him that all our problems stem from the fact that half the time he thinks I am crazy about him and half the time he thinks I feel nothing for him and I laugh that he is right half the time.

He slams the phone down in a rage, but strangely he always comes back.

Why is this man still contacting you, my mother who is unfamiliar with respecting her children's privacy lifts my cellphone in front of my face as I return from the bathroom. What does he want, she looks at me suspiciously. But in an instant I am in her arms with her tears in my hair. Do you love the two of them?

Oh, mother, if it were so simple, so almost redeemable.

He wants to know the same, why am I still answering his calls, why don't I leave him alone, do I love him, do I love the Minister, do I love him? Be honest with me, he says.

If I were to be honest, truthful, ah, darling... you wouldn't be able to get out of bed for a month, I think, and I remember how he never offered to pay for anything, not once. Not a single drink, not one dinner. Not even when I treated him to a meal. We would always split the bill. I remember that it disgusted me then the way it does today when he says yours is 17 euros. And how he refused to wear a condom, and how we had sex only once a week, how he always said fyrom instead of Macedonia, how many of his sentences addressed to me started with you Eastern Europeans, and how his idea of a joke was saying that people call Macedonians primitive.

Oh, how I hate this man. This horrible, arrogant man. His games, his condescension, his discriminations, his selfishness, his touch. The way he rolls his eyes when I am talking. And the knowledge that he wants to fuck the Minister's wife. He wants to do to her things the Minister would never dare ask her. That is what he wants, that is his ultimate, metabolic revenge.

I let him. And then I do what I always do when I am in bed, on tables, kitchen counters, public toilet doors, and every other surface with him. I close my eyes and think about the Minister.

But strangely I come back for more.

Sometimes even he can't believe I still haven't left.

Why are you here, he asks when he arrives in Skopje and I sneak into his hotel room.

I am here... because he betrayed me once.

And he stills, waiting for the rest. This is the first time I have given him something more than my usual I miss you, I never should have let you leave me, or life would be too boring without you. For the first time I think he is starting to get it.

But I say nothing else. He sighs, he probably prefers his version.

Then he touches me. And I wonder what it is like as he traces his fingers down my clavicle, to know that this body, this skin, these bones were ones his and that he decided to fill the rooms and the beds in his apartments with other bodies, other skins and bones. Is that easy, is that insignificant to know?

I love you, he says, and he moves his fingers down.

I love you, I say. And it's not a lie. I'm just repeating old truths.

Leave him, he whispers later as he lies short of breath next to me.

You know I can't, not now. In the words of the great Albanian poet Fatos Arapi, do not hate me, I say and gently stroke his face.

I don't, he shakes his head, and I sadly think look who's foolish now.

To think I would ever do anything to hurt my children. As terrible as the Minister is as a man, he is the twins' father, and no one could take his place. No one could love them more than him. And I could never trust any man with little girls that are not his. I would never let anything happen to them. Because they are my everything. Because yes, mother, I have two loves in my life and only two loves, I think this afternoon as I put the twins in bed for their afternoon nap before starting to get ready for the Independence Day celebration. I put on my green dress. In the mirror I see the Minister walking slowly towards me with a jewelry box in his hand. He moves my hair over my left shoulder. I think he's been watching too many movies. He fastens the chain with the small diamond cross onto my unreligious chest. I wonder how I could have possibly fallen for this man.

How happy I had been when I met him and finally forgot about my ex. That first season passed in the rhythm of smiles, heartbeats, trodden autumn leaves, and occasionally very good sex. It was just so simple, the way I always imagined it would be. I love this man, I surprised myself thinking while stuffing cabbage leaves with minced meat. Six months later we were engaged. With kneeling, ring, and everything.

And then it all went to hell.

Tonight I flutter in the windless heat as I allow myself to ask the most important question: how powerful is he?

As many others have been sacked, replaced, or disgraced, the Minister has withstood several cabinet reshuffles, two failed multi-million euro projects, and perpetual budget constraints. Scandal-free and carefully uncharismatic so as not to eclipse his prime minister, he has managed to never fall out of favor. Whether opening hospitals, churches or baroque buildings, he is always right behind with his patented meek and affable expression.

But I have heard the stories. How he owns every judge and policeman in the country, how he calls tv stations and threatens to fire journalists or shut down entire stations for reporting news that displeases him, how half of all project funds end up in his secret bank accounts, how he fires anyone unwilling to become a member of the ruling party, how he pressures his employees every election, how his brothers practically run their town, and how people don't even dare look them in the eye.

I have seen the ass-kissing dean at my faculty squirm as she asks when are you going to finally complete that PhD so we can make you a professor, in an attempt to find out how far I am from the possibility of the Minister replacing her with me. I have found his list of ideas ranging from assigning six bodyguards to guard the prime minister for life, erecting a monument to every ancient king and queen, painting parking spaces on the sidewalks and charging for them, busting elevators in apartment buildings to prevent people from voting for the opposition, to fining people for hanging their undergarments on their balconies. I have even witnessed him in action after receiving the news my sister had been fired. What happened, he asked and picked up the phone. Impressively, two calls later, my sister got her job back. Now could this same man who once had so readily protected my family turn against them? Could he leave me and my sister without a job, my mother without a pension? Oh, I know he can do this. The question I guess is would he do it to the mother of his children? The thought of my children suddenly snares my heart. In the still night air, I am wind-swept. Could he take them away from me? Is he that powerful?

Shit. How could I be so stupid to let this happen? And with all my debts, maxed out credit cards, no savings, a closet full of clothes, no backup plans. Stuck like a doorstop.

The plan to gather evidence against him for a rainy day has so far amounted to few useless shreds. He has become very cautious. Bringing home no documents from the office, leaving no incriminating texts on his phone. He no longer trusts me. And this is a man who had once claimed I was his soul mate. I had never gone as far as to say that, but I had been so happy with him. I used to love how ambitious he was. And how kind he was, and of course handsome. We used to have so much in common: listening to the same music, watching the same movies, both into cycling and skiing, sharing the same liberal views, not wanting to get married in church, resenting corrupt Macedonian politicians.

That is why this hurts so much more now.

Although I know all loves will eventually have to be betrayed, even the ones that stay together for the rest of their lives, I was hoping his betrayal would be of the kind that involves a mother-in-law and a husband who always takes her side, or a husband who hates my cooking. Instead, the Minister walked in the door one day with an expression like he had single-handedly solved all of Macedonia's economic problems and announced he had just helped arrange a €500m loan from the IMF. And that is why this provokes so much more sadness. I clutch my chest and think of my poor children and grandchildren.

The Minister reaches for my hand and I hold onto it tightly as if it's hope. Maybe I am wrong. He knows nothing and his angry expression is actually supposed to pass as dignified. I feel that if I believed in anything, this would be the moment I would turn to it and implore. Then he could go back to not knowing and we could start over. I have this fantasy, even after all this time. It usually torments me on beautiful, sunny weekend mornings, when watching sad movies, and on every Sunday of Forgiveness. He lays his head in my lap. He closes his eyes. Forgive me, he whispers, I don't mean any of it, none of it, it is all just an act.

Although he never says it, I will stay with the Minister. If he will have me after tonight. Please let him have me after tonight. I will renounce the other man in a second. I will never see him again, I will erase his phone number, I will block his email, I will unfriend him on facebook. No more conferences around the world, or pretending to use the John just to send him an sms. I will be a better wife.

I will ask about my husband's day, I will buy the kind of bread he prefers, I will make sure we don't run out of his favorite coffee, I will start making the dishes he likes more often, I will care once again what's bothering him. I will do anything the Minister wants. The time taken up currently by the other will be dedicated solely to my children and the Minister. From this perspective and desperation, even loving him again seems possible, seems easy. Like a man drowning himself in a bucket of water. Well, perhaps I will also spend a bit of time ensuring nobody ever again makes me feel cornered like this. A PhD, a new nationality, and a joint savings account for a star. I make the list and almost miss the announcement of the last song for the evening.

The word "last" gets people restless, and the Minister leans over my ear.

I wanted to talk to you about your upcoming conference in the UK, he says. My mother won't be able to look after the twins, and I'll be stuck in meetings all week.

That is what he wanted to talk to me about. I am so relieved, I could kiss that ridiculous woman with teased hair who goes twice a month all the way to Stip to have her hairdresser increase three times the circumference of her head, and who probably can't look after her grandchildren while I am away because of a hair appointment.

I should have run the first time I saw her hair. Who are these people, my mother asked as she laid eyes on the famous bouffant. You deserve so much better than this, my father said. Don't forget you come from a family of doctors, engineers, businessmen, musicians. You are the fourth generation born in the capital, not some small provincial town. And one day we will come into our own again, they repeated lest I forgot, and referred to the Minister's family as a bunch of field hands and illiterate partisans. They never thought much of my previous boyfriend either, or "the little Scandinavian civil servant" as they used to call him.

Yet in the end they agreed I should marry the man I love.

And tonight as the music finally stops and I know he doesn't know, I smile at the man I used to love. He pulls me towards the person who has given him not one but two terms in office and says his servile goodbye. I look at him and feel the friability of my hope. But the fear is gone, replaced by a more recognizable feeling. Somewhere in the vicinity of my pancreas, I still feel the same rage I felt the first day I received an email that began with, "I think I should be honest with you." Undiminished, the sentiment remains in that exact spot, reassuring me everything I do is justified and well deserved. But on a day like today I have an unnerving suspicion I will wake up tomorrow to find our photo in the paper and think, hey, there is the horrible minister and his horrible wife. That is not a very comforting thought. But I had been good once, quite good. Enough now.

I feel my cellphone vibrate in the clutch under my arm. I sneak a peek and see the long, familiar yet unmemorized number on the lit screen. And I know regretlessly what I want and what I will do.

I will take the call later.

I will retell all the colorful tidbits of today's event, and then I will tell him to meet me in London next month. Because you see, I want all his resources: his energy, his time, his youth. Only when I deplete them all will I leave him alone.

 

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