When Nada left me, I wanted to kill myself. In one continuous paragraph, she told me that I was a great person but she could no longer be with me. She was afraid to fall in love and she didn’t want that because then we would both suffer. And she was too torn in different directions. There were too many women around her. In short, she loved me so much that she had to go away.
In the solitude of warm summer evenings, I made a resolution: if I read all the Nobel laureates in my roommate’s library, Nada would return. But after a few days of intensive reading, I reckoned that I stood a better chance with the One Hundred Novels collection. Realising to my surprise that the Kondor collection was my best option, my eyes fixed on the carton shoebox that said Letters. Standing up mechanically, I reached for the box on one of the middle shelves. The content of the somewhat yellowed envelopes, addressed to my roommate, who was doing her Master’s abroad at the time, was rather dull. Letters from her worried parents from when she was an undergrad student, from her hometown friends who missed her and regularly supplied her with all sorts of trivial information, a letter from her fiancée whom she never talked about, postcards from trips and always the same seaside destinations. Right on the bottom, there was a stack of envelopes addressed in a neat, respectful handwriting containing pages of densely written paper. At first, I merely skimmed them over diagonally, but when I read the words prison, all on my own, I wander aimlessly about the prison yard and the absurdity of our lives, my curiosity got the better of me and I started reading the lengthy letters from the beginning. The author was a convict whom my roommate met when she was writing some paper and interviewing people in prison. It seemed that he had been writing her long letters ever since. At the end of each, he also opened up about his past, wanting her to understand why he had ended up in prison and what in his life had driven him to crime. The personal part was always entitled My Life Story. First, he described an experience from his childhood when he bit his grandmother’s leg and she, in her drunkenness, literally threw him over the fence to the pigs. From that point on, he would spend much of his time with pigs, convinced that he even ended up learning their language, only he didn’t have anyone to squeal to these days. In his second letter, he expressed his outrage and disappointment over his trial as they, as he put it, hit him with almost five years.
For his life story, he described an episode with his first girlfriend in the village. She was his uncle’s step-daughter, a frolicsome girl with blue eyes, who always teased him by saying that he had better watch out because all blue-eyed girls were liars in love. He didn’t believe her. But when he caught her with his own uncle on the common, it was the first time that everything in his love life fell apart. And needless to say, many times after that. In vain did the blue-eyed girl come to him, begging him to listen to what she had to say, to marry her and save her from his uncle. One afternoon, he was tending cows and lamenting over his lost love. When the girl suddenly appeared, with tears in her blue eyes, wanting to kiss him, he was so angry he threw her in the creek. From then on, she was said to go swimming in the village creek every day, singing. Being all wet, his uncle didn’t want her anymore.
By day, I was killing myself thinking of Nada, saving the convict’s letters for the night-time. One evening, I discovered something unusual again. To my delight and surprise, there were at least a dozen more letters from the convict on the bottom of the shoebox that my roommate didn’t even bother to open anymore. When I opened the first one, I knew right away that she had stopped writing him back. After reproaching her for ditching him, he wrote about his daily life, how he couldn’t even afford to buy cigarettes, how he had a fight with some Croatian guy in his cell who was an alcoholic and so on. I read that part with no particular interest, waiting only for the chapter from his life story. He was already at his high school years as an apprentice. He wanted to be an auto body mechanic. When the shop manager fired him merely for stealing some plugs, he was so blinded by anger that he took a cruel revenge on him. He crept up to the back of his house that stood next to the shop one night, climbed over the fence to his backyard and threw poisoned meat to the dog that knew him and therefore didn’t bark. The dog that was, incidentally, dear to him, started writhing in pain and the convict jumped over the fence, running away down the dark road back to town. Listening to the dog’s whimpering in tears, he swore to himself that he would never let anyone abuse him again.
It was already noon when I woke up the following day. I cleaned the apartment, made myself lunch and took a shower. I was determined to end my exile and go out into the world alone. I was strolling by the Ljubljanica, leisurely lighting cigarettes, pretending that such an evening walk was something completely normal for me. But really I was just searching for a familiar face I could sit down to, anxiously looking over every woman in case she happened to be near the torn Nada. When it grew dark, I bought myself a drink in one of the bars and sat on a bench near the water, away from other people. I sat thinking about the convict’s blue-eyed girlfriend who might still be swimming in the creek. Suddenly, I heard familiar voices. Three women approached the little bar across from my hidden spot under the tree. When they sat down to the table, I saw that one of them was Nada. My first thought was retreat, but I couldn’t move and there was no way I would let myself be seen hidden under some lonely bench. My eyes were fixed on Nada. As usual, she was the loudest of the group and kept laughing at her own jokes. She poured drinks to her two friends, lit cigarettes for them with ambiguous remarks, while uneasily keeping her eyes on the surroundings. Soon, another two women whom I didn’t know approached their table. Nada greeted them in her loud voice, giving each one a hug and a kiss. My curiosity was eating me up so badly as to which one of them she might be into that I couldn’t even move. Nada was blossoming in women’s company but still didn’t stop looking around nervously, as if her eyes were searching for new objects of interest. When one of them suggested they take their beer with them and sit by the water, I instantly jumped from under the bench and hurried away with my head down. They didn’t see me.
In one of his final letters, the convict threatened to stop writing to my roommate again, saying he had never seen such insolence, but he was quite certain she was still reading his letters. He mentioned that she might come and visit him sometime and bring him something. He didn’t want any money, just a little treat. In his life story, he recalled his brothers and sisters, who were otherwise never mentioned in the chapters from his childhood. Needless to say, they were complete strangers to each other, they never understood him and he was always the scum of the family. They were ashamed of him even before he ended up in prison. But he knew it was only because he knew their dirty little secrets. His oldest sister worked in a hospital as head nurse but liked to take bribes ever since she was a child. When he was seventeen, he took everything from her – that was the first time he went to the casino – but she still didn’t learn that, sooner or later, ill-gotten gains dried out. His youngest brother had always been a gentle child with curly hair who had the whole village eating out his hand. But he was also a twisted, wicked little fellow, which no one wanted to see, a scoundrel who would lay the blame for his sins on everyone else with his innocent, wide-eyed look alone. Naturally, the future convict was the only one to figure it out and he would secretly beat on his gentle little brother, seeing as it was obvious he needed punishment – but the punches only made him more lovable and vicious. His other brother was nothing more than a village drunk. People always said that drunks were good people but could never do anything with their lives, what with being so damn sensitive. Which of course wasn’t right. Just like it wasn’t right that everyone would hold him up by the arm and drag him home from the pub. One night, he was sent to find his drunk brother. He met him halfway home. He put him over his shoulder and dragged him along the dark village road, listening to his incoherent babble and foul cursing, which always ended in a sudden arc of vomit. His drunken brother was like a well, spewing out bad words, obnoxious whining, excessive anger and bits of half-digested food at irregular intervals. One day, he pulled himself from under his brother’s heavy arm to see if he would really fall into a ditch without his help. In fact, he rolled quite deep down a steep slope into the woods and it took them three days to find him. Everyone grieved for him but the future convict thought that at least one of them would learn his lesson for good.
The following evening, I was back on the bench opposite the bar. Either I came there late or the women were early. All of them said goodbye to Nada who stubbornly insisted on staying at the table by herself. But I was happy that, with her friends gone, the two of us were sort of alone, even though she didn’t realise it. I was hoping the reason why she kept looking around her with such impatience was because the missing object was none other than me. Then Nada’s face broke into a smile, which was quickly replaced by a moody pout. One of her friends who had left her so suddenly was coming back to the table. She was the quietest and the most inconspicuous of the group and Nada also spoke to her the least, but she was definitely a good listener.
The previously unassertive Lidija took Nada’s hand, explaining in a pleading tone, as if to an emotionally upset child, not to have any illusions about a serious relationship. That things were so good the way they were and anything more would only lead to trouble because being in love was much too risky. It was like a drug you didn’t stop taking until it sucked you in whole and you had to start withdrawing from the person. And there was no point, it was in fact unfair to have to withdraw from people that meant a lot to you. Finally, Lidija assured her that she really did mean a lot to her, too much to risk falling in love with her. The entire time, she was speaking in simple and abrupt sentences that were impossible to contradict. I had to admit it: Lidija’s rhetorical performance was infinitely better than Nada’s.
A couple of nights later, I put the box with the finished letters away and went back to reading books. I stumbled upon a rather obscure collection of works, less known, but written by distinguished authors. To my bitter joy, I discovered that it was the smallest collection I had ever seen and it wasn’t long before I was holding the last, tenth book in my hands. The author’s writing was something in between lyrical prose and literalised Bildungsroman. But certain passages were written in an appealing, if not superb style. For instance, the chapter about how he had spent a great part of his childhood with pigs and learned how to squeal. He threw his first love, a blue-eyed village girl, in a creek. Out of an absurd desire for revenge, he poisoned his boss’s dog that he really loved. He treated his brothers and sisters even worse, accusing them of wickedness, greediness or drunkenness and again took justice into his own hands to teach them life lessons.
I put the last book of the smallest collection back on the shelf. And the doorbell remained silent.