People Are Streinz

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Seven months without a single dream. Seven whole months. The twenty-first of May was the last time I had a dream. I remember because it was also the last time it rained around here. And I remember because it was Lena’s name day and I said it was a good sign that it rained and I finally had a dream for the first time in a long time. But I haven’t since then. And it hasn’t rained again, either. No rain and no dreams. Dead silence.

Dreams and rain. Who knows. Maybe they go together these days.

Lena doesn’t care about the rain. She doesn’t care that it’s almost Christmas and it’s still twenty degrees outside. She doesn’t care that everyone’s walking around in short-sleeved shirts and outside the birds are singing like it’s April. She doesn’t care about dreams, either.

I don’t dream, she says. I’m better off without dreams. What good did dreams ever do me? I just have the same one all the time, that I’m falling off a cliff and there’s no one to catch me.

Why sit there worrying about stupid dreams? You’ve got plenty else to worry about. Yesterday they called again from the appliance place and asked about our payments. We’re three months behind and this and that is going to happen if they take us to court. Did you hear? To court. Can you believe it? The guy had this tone of voice like he was talking to I don’t know who. I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole. To have him humiliate me like that, and there was nothing I could say. And if we have to go to court they’ll make us pay the lawyers’ fees, too. Are you listening? Why don’t you worry about that for a change? About stuff like that. Not dreams and rain.

She’s holding a strip of orange peel and slicing it into pieces with a knife. She’s already cut it into a thousand tiny slivers but she won’t stop won’t give up. She slices it into tiny pieces and then smaller ones and even smaller than that. A thousand slivers. And she’s still at it.

Watch it, I say. The last thing we need is for you to lose a finger.

The twenty-first of December. Saturday afternoon. Four days until Christmas. Out the kitchen window I can see colored lights blinking on and off on the balconies and in the windows and yards of nearby apartments and houses. Red green yellow blue. Stars and garlands and Saint Vassilises and sleighs pulled by reindeer. An incredible number of lights. Like you’re in an endless casino and all the houses are slot machines. Cement, poverty, and colored lights—Bangladesh meets Las Vegas. Kids are riding their bikes in the street and women are watering flowerpots full of bushy plants. I see men in shorts grilling meat and drinking beer on the rooftops of apartment buildings. I see a bird circling in the air around a birdcage and the bird inside flaps its wings too but in a surprised kind of way. The sky is completely clear, the air as dry as the mouth of a person who’s very scared. Just a few days until Christmas but nothing looks like Christmas. Except for the lights. It’s as if Christmas came and went and now it’s spring but for some crazy reason everyone forgot to take down their decorations.

A few days until Christmas and something in the air around me is burning like a slow fuse. I wonder. I wonder when the fuse will burn down to the end and when the explosion will come and what will happen after that.

The other day I caught myself standing in front of a shop that sells hunting gear looking at the knives and switchblades in the window. Then I went in and bought a Buck knife, one of those American knives with a blade twenty centimeters long. It’s no joke it’s the real thing it can do some serious damage the heft of it in your hand makes your mind go dark. I carry it in my boot just in case, as they say. I didn’t tell Lena about it. But at night when I can’t sleep my mind wanders to things like that. Fuses and explosions and guns and knives. And I wonder what the hell is happening and where it’s all heading. It scares me.

And then there’s Lena dicing orange peel at the kitchen table. Slicing it silently with a knife in an utterly silent house. A silence like you wouldn’t believe, like what they say about the silence before an earthquake. And I think about how if there’s an earthquake maybe the weather will change, maybe it’ll rain and get cold and maybe even snow. If there’s an earthquake big enough to shake the whole earth maybe something will change. And it scares me to be thinking those kinds of thoughts. What kind of life can you live without anything good, I say to myself.

What kind of life can you live when you’re waiting for something bad to save you from something bad?

There’s half a bottle of wine left from yesterday. I fill a glass with feigned indifference, as if it were water, and Lena looks at me and starts to say something but I beat her to it.

Monday, I say. On Monday when I get my Christmas bonus I’ll pay off the rest of what we owe at Kotsovolos. Okay?

Fine, she says. That’s great. I can stop worrying.

She grabs another piece of orange peel and starts to slice it with the knife. Her fingers are yellow.

Do you maybe, just maybe, have some idea of how much we owe? she asks me. Take a piece of paper and start writing. Two months of building fees is two hundred euros. The car insurance expired on the fifteenth. That’s another two hundred. Rent. Kotsovolos. A hundred and forty to the electric company. The fucking credit cards from the fucking bank of fucking Cyprus. I have two cavities that need filling. By the time I’m forty I’ll have no teeth at all. Who knows how much the dentist will cost? Why aren’t you writing? You should be writing. And if you add it all up you’ll see that to make ends meet we need the Christmas bonus and the Easter bonus and the bonuses for next Christmas and next Easter too. Write it. Write it down.

I grab the knife from her hands and throw it in the sink. She looks at me as if I were a stain on a white shirt and then opens the drawer and takes out another knife and goes back to cutting the peel right where she left off. Her fingers are yellow and trembling.

Lena, I say.

Write, she says.

I look out the window. The sky. There’s a strange color in the sky again this evening. A gray like the underside of a piece of cardboard. Endless gray. No sun no moon no stars. Neither day nor night.

Not the sky but the underside of the sky.

Lena is on her second glass and second orange, peeling it and slicing the peel into tiny slivers which she lines up at the edge of the table. Her nails are yellow. The knife is yellow. Even the table is yellow. I wonder whether I should go and get my new knife and sit across from her and start slicing orange peels, too. To take my mind off things. So I don’t have to see that sky that’s the color of clouds without actually having a single cloud in it at all.

I’ll ask Vassilis for a loan, she says.

Which Vassilis? The saint?

A thousand. For the stuff that won’t wait. Then we’ll see.

A thousand? Are you crazy?

Calm down, he’s your brother. If you can’t ask your brother for help who can you ask? Sonia’s offered a hundred times. Whenever you need, she said. We’re doing just fine, she said. They’re going to Paris for New Year’s, did you know that? To Disneyland. They wanted to go to the Asterix village but it’s closed in winter. It opens in March or April I think. She said they’ll go to Jim Morrison’s grave.

She stops slicing and looks out the window. A piece of white stuff from the orange is stuck to her chin, hanging there like a tiny thread over an abyss.

Jim Morrison, she says. That was so long ago. I use to love him when I was younger. I was completely in love. Crazy, passionate love. People are streinz. People are streinz ouen yioura streinzer faces louk agli ouen yiouralon.

She sings in a sweet husky voice and slices the orange peel and her voice as she sings sounds like a lullaby in the silence of the house and I think how I’d like for us to go to sleep and sleep for whole hours whole days and when we wake up it would be evening and raining and we would drink hot cocoa with cinnamon and eat grape must cookies with sesame seeds and then go out onto the balcony and smell the rain and the wet earth and there wouldn’t be any knives or fuses or rent or debts—all those things will be gone and we’ll have woken up new strange people with no nostalgia for anything. Nostalgia. A mangy dog with gunk in its eyes licking its wounds. It tricks you into reaching out to pet it then bites you as hard as it can.

I lean over and pluck the orange pith from her chin and roll it into a little ball and toss it into the sink.

Monday, I say. I’ll take care of it all on Monday. Myself. No Vassilises and no Sonias. Okay?

She looks at me and then looks away. I never expected this, she says.

What do you mean?

Nothing.

Tell me.

Nothing.

Then she cuts herself. The knife slips and cuts her on the thumb. But she doesn’t say anything doesn’t make a sound. She lets the blood run, looks at it calmly and indifferently the way brave people do on television. I go to grab her hand but she pulls away. She licks the blood, sucks at it then takes a paper napkin and wraps it around her finger. She looks at me with pursed lips and squeezes the napkin around the wound and the napkin turns redder and redder and then black.

Let me see, I say. Lena. It’s me. We’re not enemies. It’s just me.

But she’s looking at me as if I were the knife.

On Christmas Eve it seems like I’m having a dream. I say seems like, because for a long time I’ve been seeing things at night when I’m in bed and even though they seem like dreams I know they aren’t because when I’m seeing them I’m awake. Of course I’m never quite sure anymore when I’m sleeping and when I’m awake. It seems to me that those two things have become one—or nothing at all. I’m sure the weather is to blame. It hasn’t rained in seven months and now it’s December but outside it’s spring and the sun is as hot as two suns put together and every night I remember the winters we used to have and the cold and the rain and the snow. Some nights I get out of bed like a sleepwalker and open the cupboards and stick my head in the closet and smell the winter clothes and a sorrow like you wouldn’t believe comes over me as I look at those winter clothes hanging in the closet and wonder if we’ll ever wear them again or if they’ll just hang there forever getting eaten by the dust and the mites, like ghosts of winters past, ghosts of a past life, our ghosts, the ghosts of us.

She looks at me as if I were a stain on a white shirt.

I see that there’s been a huge cataclysmic storm and the whole world is flooded and Lena and I are swimming in a strange place. We’re swimming in a panic fighting for our lives and all around there’s not a single soul in sight no houses no cars only water—black thick dirty water that sticks to us like something alive and scared. As I swim I hear Lena beside me saying that the water actually is alive and it’s clinging to us because it wants to be saved from itself—that’s what she says, saved from itself. The water wants to be saved from the water—that’s the fine kind of dream I have. Then a huge tree appears before us with bare branches. I don’t know what kind of tree it is but it’s very big and there are lots of birds sitting in its branches—tiny red birds—and we see them flapping their wings in a panic but they can’t fly. We swim very close and Lena says we have to help the birds fly away because the water level keeps rising and they’re going to drown. But as soon as she grabs hold of one it vanishes and all that’s left in her hands is a pile of feathers that aren’t red but black. She grabs a second bird and then a third but the same thing happens—they vanish as soon as she touches them and she’s left with a handful of black feathers. Then I try to grab one and my hands fill with black feathers and the water around us is getting blacker and blacker and rising higher and higher and weighing me down grabbing me and pulling me down down down.

Wake up, says Lena. What were you muttering, she says and shakes me. You scared me. Wake up.

She’s leaning over me and in the dark her face is darker than the dark.

What were you dreaming? Why did you shout? What did you dream?

Nothing. Go to sleep.

What did you dream? Tell me.

Nothing. That it was raining. Go to sleep.

She falls back onto the mattress and sighs. Then there’s no sound, only the tick tock of the clock. The sheet has wrapped itself around my legs and it’s too tight but I don’t have the energy to push it off.

See, Lena says. It’s a good sign. See, you shouldn’t lose hope. See.

Then she leans toward me again and puts her hand on my neck and kisses me on the side of my head.

On Christmas Day the weather changes. Around noon the clouds come out and by three the sky is dark. Sonia calls to wish us a merry Christmas. They’re in Pelion with friends. It’s been raining since morning there, she says. Lots of rain, insane amounts of rain. I’ll fill up a bottle and bring it to you, she says and laughs. They’re all drunk, the whole stupid bunch of them. They’re staying in a hotel whose restaurant has organic meats, organic vegetables, organic forks and knives. Their room has a fireplace and a four-poster bed with a canopy and walls painted all kinds of crazy colors. How nice for you, Lena says, looking at me. Then she asks Sonia when they’re coming home, if they’ll get to see one another before Sonia and Vassilis leave for Paris. I wanted to ask you something, Lena says—her eyes on me the whole time. About what we were saying the other day. You remember. Yes. No. I’m fine. For sure. We’ll talk when you’re back.

When she hangs up, we take our drinks out onto the balcony. It’s going to rain. A tall cloud like a black wall is heading toward us from the direction of Salamina. It’s going to rain. Only the wind doesn’t smell like rain. It’s a strange wind. Blowing from the east, from the opposite direction of where the cloud is, but the cloud is still moving steadily toward us. As if it isn’t a cloud but something else. The power lines in the street hum, metal doors bang, car alarms shriek. Trees and TV antennas bend in the wind, which sweeps up leaves and plastic bags and scraps of paper. A star-shaped ornament pulls loose from a balcony and falls into the street and rolls like some strange wheel. The wind is fierce and blowing steadily toward the west as if the cloud is an enormous magnet put there to suck up everything in the world, to suck all the air out of the world.

Look over there, Lena says, grabbing my arm. What’s that about, she says, pointing to the cloud. What on earth? Look. Have you ever seen anything like it? What is it?

And then we see the rain. Distant black threads hanging from the cloud that seem to tie the earth to the sky.

It’s the end of the world, I say, and Lena laughs as if she can’t breathe and clings to me and licks up a droplet of wine that dripped from her glass onto her hand.

Maybe this really is how the world will end, I say. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the world won’t end, only the people. Maybe people will stop having dreams or sleeping or making love or drinking wine or kissing. Something like that. Maybe that’s how the end will come. Not from meteorites or nuclear weapons or melting ice caps. No explosions or earthquakes or typhoons. Not from outside but from within. That’s how it should be. Because we’re living in the world but not with the world. For centuries now we’ve stopped living with the world. So it wouldn’t be fair if the world had to end with us. It wouldn’t be fair.

The cloud is so big now that we can’t see the sea at all.

A fake fir tree gets blown off a balcony across the street and falls into the emptiness below, silently spinning. It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

Actually, no, I say. The most frightening thing is work. Waiting to get paid on every fifteenth and thirtieth day of the month.

Measuring your life in fifteen-day chunks. Knowing that if your bosses don’t feel like paying you once or twice or ten times in a row, ten fifteen-day chunks, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Your whole life is in their hands. And there you are counting your life out in fifteens. That’s the most frightening thing.

I’m going inside, Lena says. I hate it when you talk like that. I don’t want to watch anymore. Let’s go inside.

But we don’t go anywhere. We stand there holding our drinks and silently watching the rain coming in from the west. We watch as that black curtain of rain slowly and silently closes in slowly and silently swallows up the shapes and colors and noises of the sunset to the west.

 

Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich.

Christos Ikonomou has published three collections of short stories, The Woman on the Rails (2003), Something Will Happen, You'll See (2010), and All Good Things Will Come from the Sea (2014).

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