Life Bag

Victor Car

Idress, begin the drive to Orangeville, classical music on the radio, driving west from the dawn toward the dark. I feel my soul exploding like that sniper bullet in the kid. My face is stoned, the window down, whirls of cool air feeling good, but of course, as always, my mind returns to Zagreb.
At the first sound of the siren we must jump. It takes us a couple of air raid alerts to develop the routine--have clothes ready, or better, sleep dressed. At the start we would confusedly pace around the apartment; collecting, searching, panicking. Hysterical, we would run to a basement shelter, hitting walls in the dark, tripping over other people. Later, we developed a routine--I would take Dora, wrap her in her blanket, and walk slowly to the basement. Dora also learned to take the hassle well for a three-year-old. She would doze, sleepy, still excited about the situation. We told her that this was all a game. Now, here in Canada, occasionally she hears the police siren, and gets agitated, expecting us to move, to run.
My wife would take our Life Bag.
Prepared and packed, the Life Bag was waiting for us in the hallway. It contained our condensed lives--photographs, some money, Dora's tiny golden chain with baptismal crucifix, juice, crackers, passports, Bukowski's "Women," Dora's musical tomato (her first toy), pain killers and vitamins. Also, the bag held a pad of paper, my Parker ballpoint pen, and clips of my published writing in one thin folder.
Some air raids caught us in department stores, some in streetcars, some at work. The routine was simple--you run for the first basement and wait there. We grew good at developing routines. I would manage to get caught by a siren while close to basement pubs. There, sipping spritzers in the dark, at the start we'd talk politics, "what will the Americans do next week," "the World is not going to allow this, this is the twentieth century after all." Well, I knew too much about the world to sooth my fears with such illusions. The World was skiing the Austrian Alps, two hours drive from this dusty cellar where I sat, listening to those naive discussions about the World, or anyone's potent opinion and expected action as if some great distant cousin who should remember us. With time the waiters also became less talkative, and much less forgetful about unpaid spritzers.
Luckily, we lived on the second floor. A silent stream of people in the stairwell moved through the darkness. Some older people, walking from the eighth floor, soon gave up on sheltering themselves. Black out, no elevators, no lights. When it all started, Serbian snipers shot a few people as they were running for basements. One girl was killed while being carried on her daddy's back. Daddy was not injured--the bullet exploded in her. It happened by the apartment building only two hundred meters from where we lived.
One doesn't really need company. Remaining silent, absent, behind non-blinking eyes, numb, almost frozen. I'm still learning the skill. Too weak to bear myself, I long for a simple life of simple people. Sitting in my canvas armchair, cold and unpleasant, I don't move. Watch TV. Drink one beer in small sips, no desire, just a repetitive motion, every minute or so. I wish to lobotomize myself, and my Canada is helping me.
Like a newcomer from outer space, motionless I stare at the TV and study--imitate the faceless characters, murmur shallow phrases, the standard exchange of niceties. I am filtrating my mind with swarms of electrons. Soothing ironing of mental wrinkles, cathode-raying infested fluids, airing damp bed sheets. Sinking into simple North American ways where women and money matter, where polo shirts and white teeth are displayed frequently. As if simple people should believe in life-as-it-is a little harder.
We live in Aurora, Ontario, in one of its three apartment buildings. At the moment it is a shortly after 10. A silent summer evening, a bit stuffy. It gets sticky here in the summer. Dora is dozing on my lap. I enjoy feeling her tender, fragile body, dear, safe, calm. At the Vienna airport she asked me "Okay, Dad, now really, where are we going?" and I stared at her big eyes, feeling tears come up, a lump spreading in my throat, thinning my voice, but I tried to sound funny saying "I don't really know," and she didn't laugh.
We live in this rented apartment, $912 a month. I earn $7.20 an hour, and it takes a lot of hours for the privilege of sitting here. This simple calculation helped me regain the sense of simple arithmetic, a step to other simplifications I'm learning. Well, maybe I should tell you, I was a once playwright. I would write playful little pieces, several produced; sometimes my friends, the students at the Academy of Arts would encounter my texts in exams. Some professors liked them. Well, I lost more than a few of those friends, and pretty much the whole language...and more.
Our living room is pleasantly minimalistic. White, clean walls, "Baie Des Anges" by Dufy on the wall, black wooden chairs, pine table, tiny standing lamp. Everything fragile, slender, shy to exist, like us. Curtains are boiling in diamond pastels. Home. Warm, personalized items. We need a sofa. We bought a queen sized bed, which Queen I wonder? My wife usually goes to the bedroom to lie down and stretch, and she is asleep before nine. She is happy to be able to fall asleep. A few months before we left for Canada, her mother died of cancer. The priest had 15 minutes for her, burying our killed in endless funerals. Mourning a 44-year-old woman was almost inappropriate in comparison with 44-year-olds burying their massacred sons. It was a rainy day, Saturday, we almost ran in a procession, an air raid alert came on. Zagreb's central graveyard, Mirogoj, soaked with rain, with tears; sticky yellowish loam on our soles. Silent pain. We sat in the chapel of Christ the Saviour for hours, waiting for the air alert to end. Praying, planning, talking soberly, rationally, what to do, what now.... Then we were silent. I thought how Serbian planes pushed us toward Christ the Saviour.
Gordana was very close to her mother. It took her time to suppress that almost invisible jaw trembling, that dance on the edge of implosion. And she doesn't drink, nor is she an extrovert as I am. For weeks before departing for Toronto, we'd wake up at 4:15 every morning, trembling in anxiety attacks, staring silently at the ceiling. Nobody was there to accommodate us. I was supposed to take a cab, and go to a motel; then, rent an apartment, buy newspapers, check out classifieds, go out and earn some money. The brave playwright conquering Canada, the land of plenty. I went to the Canadian Consulate in Zagreb, seeking information, papers, and achieved nothing. A couple of ignorant clerks, somebody's arrogant daughters, shrugged me off. All I had was air fare. One way. So, my wife is a silent statue of plaster, on Prozac, tears dried, disgusted with this Zoo we came to live in. She would never have given in, but I said that I'd leave anyway, and she swayed, for the sake of our little family. She is left alone with Dora while I do my labor to earn $7.20 per hour. She is shut off. We dare not talk about substance. Like silent ghosts, we pass, she goes to bed, I play with Dora, and late in the night, when the TV goes dead, I stare at the wall, at the Dufy, clenching my jaw, too stubborn to admit, God, what have I done?
An unread book under the TV bothered me, lurking, grinning at my emptiness, disturbing my absentmindedness. Just when I finally got up to take the book and put it where it wouldn't stare at me in disgust, a very loud alarm bell started ringing. Much worse than those sirens back in Zagreb (squealing from the distance), this fire alarm was hitting us, boring right into our temples. So unexpectedly, we were conveyed to those old panicky nightmares. I ran and opened the door. Just across the hallway, smoke was coming out from under locked doors. I stood there in my shorts, staring at the smoke, unable to grasp the so-called reality of the situation. This can't be happening. Smoke hot and thick, smells of burnt plastic or human hair. I went back into our apartment, shut the door, leaned on it. The bell was nestled between my temples. I opened the door again to check, yes, still there, lots of smoke. I felt tired, wishing to change the TV channel. I smiled, simplified TV- reasoning found its way behind my eyelids. By then, Gordana was on the phone trying to reach the superintendent. I heard heavy steps in the hallway, told her to hang up, he's here. She grabbed Dora and without a word walked out. We live by the stairs, second floor again, and in a second she was out, in the grassy yard area, right under our balcony. We keep the door to the balcony open in the summer and I heard her clearly yelling "Victor, just pick up essentials and get out!"
Right on, I thought, that's easy. Get together, pick up bare necessities, get out. Life Bag. Wallet first. Now find the bag or suitcase. Filled with winter clothes, no time to empty. What do I save? I took the remote control, thought for a second, imagined changing channels in front of some shop window in the mall. Put the remote away. I never liked photo albums, soaked with emotion, nostalgia; sharp blades that have bled me enough. Too warm for blankets. Tooth brushes are cheap to buy. Went to Dora's room, it's so messy I just turn around and close the door. Kids clothes are cheap anyway. My music. It flashes before my eyes, have to take Mahler's Fourth, here, Grieg, Sibelius, hmm, where do I put it, then I found a plastic bag in the kitchen, put in Pat Metheny, Larry Corryell. I looked at the CD player, felt foolish saving it (of all things!), stood for a second and then put down the plastic bag with those five CDs. Heard the hissing of fire extinguishers in the hallway. In the kitchen I found my old Parker pen and I put it in my pocket. I walked through thick smoke, breathing through my white T-shirt, heard the Superintendent coughing in the burning apartment across the hall.
Outside, Gordana is sitting on a bench, Dora silent in her lap.
--Where are you so long? Where are things? Why didn't you take anything?
--Calm down, I did.
I show her the wallet and the pen, she stares at me in disbelief, lowers her head, murmurs silently, "God, I married a complete idiot."
--Listen, think about it, we don't really have that much. What could I take, a bed?
--Our university diplomas at least.
--Ah, let them rot in hell, what good has your Architecture ever brought us? I try to sound humorous but she's not responding, she's caressing Dora, silently, and I feel I betrayed them. Again.
Later we get back in. I tidy up Dora's room, put her to bed. Gordana is sorting out important papers, passports, diplomas, placing them neatly in the bag. We put a few more things in. Unlike in Croatia, here I don't have a Book to save. We put the Bag in the entrance hall, right by the door.
The superintendent says that a plastic container filled with baby food had been left on the heater. I talked to that woman once. She is obese, blurting her sentences like statements, using a very limited vocabulary. She must find somebody to marry. She gave birth to a baby girl. She has her massage business. She has a boyfriend, too, an older guy, he drives a Jag. This building is okay. Her Mazda is an excellent car. She will write it off as a business expense and get a refund! She goes to Price Club, buys bulk baby food, writes that off too as a business expense. You have to be that way, she says. Her parents never visit. She doesn't like them. They prefer her younger sister. They have a cottage up north, where she never goes. No, she's never been to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
I found her talk at such a moment ridiculously surreal, like a Dali's sketch. She almost burned us all, forced us back to a Life Bag, but I realize now she is real. Painfully real, like the Canadian emptiness.
Much later that evening I played with my Parker pen. The game of memories. This little thing wrote verses on scrap paper in dirty cafes, sketches of cubes while bored at university lectures, letters from Serbian prison, letters to dead friends. This pen drained away from me never published essays of despair.
Such a humid night, burnt plastic in the air, girls breathing hard, I could hear Dora gasping for air. I go to her room, straighten her pajamas which are bothering her, kneel by her bed, watch her sleeping, kissing her warm forehead a dozen times. All is quiet. Dawn melting the dark. Leaning on the window sill, counterbalancing the perfect, absolute silence of the moment, my memory dissects details from the recent past. Dead friends in my throat again--their writings, their laughter, acting, funny scenes in a cafe, scenes from skiing, drunken scenes.
Before I leave to work I go to Dora's room, kneel by her bed, kiss her forehead. I try to cover her. Like her mother, she puts her left leg over the blanket, as if she were riding it. In our bedroom Gordana is curled on her side in that queen size bed. First rays of dawn on the blinds, on her chestnut hair. I stand there, two feet from her, motionless, observe her beautiful features, elegant line of silky skin spanning her cheekbone and chin -- like browsing through old photographs of a dear person who just died. I felt choked, that old, too well known lump spreading in my throat, strangling me again. I wish to hug her, to get back to her somehow, to look in her eyes and find her there, alive and cheerful as always. Those same eyes that absorbed all the love I ever had. Desperate to comfort her, to sooth her, to bring her back to life. Desperate in my guilt, the tide behind my eyeballs a silty aroma of graveyard, morgue odor in my nostrils. I sensed that known, discrete spray of death, fine as mist, the cool moisture of cadavers. She sleeps, breathing in slow rhythm, distant in faraway dreams. Lost.
I'm driving to Orangeville, classical music on the radio, driving west, from the dawn toward the dark. I feel my soul exploding like that sniper bullet in the kid on her father's back. My face is stone, the window down, whirls of cool air feeling good, drying my salty tears.
At the Esso Pump, like every other morning, I buy gas, The Globe, and coffee.
--And how are you this morning, sir?
--Good, thanks.
--Will that be all, sir?
--Yes, that'll be all.
--Car wash?
--No thanks.
--And your license number?
--RCV 639.
--Have a nice day. Come again.
--I will.
And I do, every other day, for three months now, at exactly the same time. Not once has our little dialogue changed a single word.
The day of the fire, I mentioned the whole episode to Steve Lee, my supervisor and only friend at work. "I might have lost everything in flames, and wouldn't it be funny if I came in here in underwear shorts, asking you for a shirt?" He replied seriously, "come on man, I'd say 'don't call on me, I don't live here anymore!'"
I drank my beer, discussed various insurance deals, agreed that I really should get insurance, but kept thinking about his initial reaction, "don't call on me," was he perhaps just half-serious? "Where I come from," I told him, "we don't buy insurance, we have friends." "Very nice," he replied. "I'm happy for you."
We finished our beers, paid our bills separately, and left.
I love my drives to Orangeville, twice a day, 40 miles each way. Always driving from the sun, going west in the early morning, driving east by dusk. Driving west, toward the dark, staring at darkness, leaving the sun behind, I fall right back into the darkness, where the steady stream of weary people descend into the shelter. People take funny things with them to symbolize those portable traces of their lives. They carry plastic bags, gym bags, radios, blankets. They think of practical things, smart ways to survive, to endure, to last. Yet they walk down in their pajamas, wearing slippers. Their dozing children, strangely obedient and silent, close to their mothers, those little bodies curled up on wire bed mesh, staring into darkness, listening to the sounds of distant radios, listening to the moaning of a sick person, breathing stale air and dust.
I thought I'd left it all for good, and now, twice a day, I'm driving right back into that darkness. Some kids played Nintendo during the long hours in the shelters. Silently and frantically pressing buttons, busy, too busy to notice their surreal cosmic set up, just barely present in that dusty basement filled with uncertainty. Envious of such elegant escapism, I tried to read, but too many senses remained exposed. Occasionally I would listen to Grieg or Sibelius on earphones. Emotional but strong, flowing smoothly, Finlandia felt like hope, like dignity regained. Secretly, I was sipping vodka hidden in cartridges of 35mm films. After a while it all became too complicated...
I'd sneak up to our apartment. Distant echoes and flashes of antiaircraft fire contrasted with SKY channel news, boring, ignorant, insulting.
The whole outer wall of our Zagreb apartment was glass, and although we taped the glass surfaces, any detonation would send glass flying. So, I'd fill the bath tub and hide in that magic protective fluid. Over a glass of very cold Sauvignon, I fantasized about the Bomb, predestined, scheduled to meet me. The nosy shark coming to bite my butt, swimming slowly, very slowly through glass, three feet above the floor, snooping left and right, finding me easily in this bathroom. Here it would loom--red-hot metal nose staring at my nudity with appetite. I'd do my heroic act then, act gratuit of a winning spirit--pour some cold wine over that red hot nose! Evil destroyed, dissolved into cockroaches, bearded cannibals one inch tall. I'd place them all in Escher's eternal loop, sip the remainder of my wine, watch the insects suffer.
Gordana called her modelling agency in Milan the other day. As a student she would occasionaly get an assignment, a photo session, spend a week or two in Italy, earn some money, buy some clothes. So she tried to contact Pietro, ask for a little decorating job, anything to pull us all out of Zagreb. No, he wouldn't take her calls. Afterward she sat in that dusty shelter while I sneaked upstairs, leaving her, letting her down.
Over the bottle of Traminer I would initiate a little stage play inside my rib cage, dialogue between a man and a coward.

MAN (insinuatingly):Oh, come on! Admit it! You have the nature of a coward! Think of Marco's ripped hip. Think of that exposed bone, and how they drained the wound! He screams in pain!

COWARD: Well, worse than death is living in this shadow, with Ghosts, soaked in every pore of this city.

MAN: Yeah, die then, go for some post mortem socializing in the heavy loam.

COWARD: I will do so, damn you.

MAN: Yes. Don't lie to yourself, take your family and go, find some forgotten Alpine hut, hide, let your daughter be the red-cheeked Heidi, immerse your eyes once again in the warm pastels of the dusk.....

So, my inner stage play would go on and on, and since both characters were drinking, I would get doubly drunk. Surreal inversions from my satellite dish--artificially well-built dancers rapping monotone rhythms, empty effects, shallow verses, bad poetry, eradicated emotion. There, in order to retain sanity, we fought Emotion every little instant of our living, swallowing that unbearable sense of sinking.
I would start writing feverishly. Samuel Beckett himself couldn't dream that the whole of Europe would become a stage for this one huge, grotesque and very absurd Play, and...
--Victor! VICTOR!
--How could you!? Have you not heard that the alert is over? I feel so weak, exhausted, you might at least help bring Dora upstairs. This Bag is so heavy.
--Like life. It's a Life Bag, after all, I chuckled foolishly, drunkendly.
She briefly observed the empty bottle, paper, the Parker pen.
--I can't believe this. Have you been writing again?
There were times when she'd ask me in exactly the same tone, "Have you been drinking again?" I mumble something, she is too tired to wait for an answer. Too tired to sleep, tense to the point of trembling...we lie in bed, Dora sleeping between us, cuddled, safe, warm.
Living with a razor blade waltzing in the stomach, the initial horror deflates in direct proportion to the number of horrific events. Large numbers of deaths deflate the tragedy of Death. The extensive surrealism of everyday living gradually destroys any sense of normality.
We talked less and less. Gordana stopped laughing. Paying for Dora's daycare I saw a pile of black bags with zippers in the office. The administrator shrugged, "we just got these, in case, you know... "
I kept going to work, but it was all in just getting there, and luckily getting home. Zagreb was crowded with refugees. Streets roared with military vehicles. Her father helped us pay the rent, buy food. Writing was sidelined as inappropriate. The content of our Life Bag was regularly maintained .
We lived at an interesting spot--one hour west of us, the worlds' richest enjoyed the idyllic Alpine scenery; one hour east, cannibals were massacring people for pleasure. The elegant Italian style cafes of Zagreb were crowded with well groomed people wearing white socks, sipping their cappuccinos and cognacs. Weary soldiers sat, their sanity challenged by combining beer and cheap brandy, their AK 47's by their feet, hand grenades rolling on small round tables like eggs. I met Dr. Tomjanovich, my dear professor of English literature, picking up leftover lettuce at the city marketplace. Too embarrassed to talk, he murmured a word and quickly left. Decent girls became prostitutes. Prostitutes moved into politics.
Two weeks ago I found Gordana sitting on the floor in the kitchen, hugging her knees, trembling.
"Please, don't go to work today. Stay with me."
"I have to work, I must go."
"Please. Do not leave me."
Strangely frozen, I looked at her, so pale, blue bags under her teary eyes. Roaches between breadcrumbs on the kitchen counter. I opened the door, stepped out, felt like running away, controlled myself, walked.
Still driving to Orangeville to work. On weekends Dora and I go to visit Gordana. She doesn't talk. Like that evening, outside the building, silently she caresses Dora, kissing her endlessly. Her jaw is trembling almost invisibly, tears are rolling down her cheeks, along that elegant line spanning her cheekbone and chin. And down on her worn out pajama.
I wear my worker's clothes, my hands are rough. In the evening, before I go to sleep I cover Dora, she sleeps the same way her mother does, with the blanket between her legs.
Sunday evenings are the worst. Dora is growing up, longing for her mother. Like when, at Vienna airport, she asked me sharply "Dad, what really happened to Mom?"
I drink a lot. My hands are shaking in the morning, while I refill my steel flask with rye. Spinning in this endless morning spiral of cool air and classical music, I am numb, inpenitrable as the thick skin of my hands.
Gordana, dissipated, the way this darkness I am driving toward dissipates every morning, filling me with guilt, leaving me stoned to find strength to recite another morning song at that Esso Pump.
Gordana, without Life Bag.
Copyright CrossConnect, Inc. 1996