Ognjen Spahic

Cut Copy Paste

 

Got to hurry on back to mу hotel room,

Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece.

She promised that she 'd be right there with me

When I paint mу masterpiece.

 

(Bob Dylan, 1971.)

 

 

     He appeared at the door and said: I came for the pictures. In fact he said: They sent me for the pictures. And when Andrej asked: What pictures? he stuck his hand through the crack in the door and said: Those over there, the red ones. He said red though that color actually only appeared in one of them.  Strong male hands in the foreground and two fingers pressing on veins that had just been cut. Dots of oil paint, some fine and indifferent; some larger, shiny and foreboding.  The right hand bare, smeared up to the elbow.  Blood being squeezed from the canvas. The sleeve of the white shirt neatly turned up to the middle of the forearm. Andrej waited for several seconds, glanced back at the wall once more, and then opened the door wide and gave a sour grin to the man who had come that morning for his pictures. The man said his name was Tod and at that same instant a white envelope appeared, going through the door of the apartment led by someone's right hand. On a small piece of awkwardly folded paper, it said in thick letters: I need the pictures. Exhibition. In the lower left-hand corner, next to the signature, the pen had punched a hole in the paper, and this led Andrej to think that his ex-wife had composed the ultimatum on her knees. He sniffed the envelope and the piece of paper but he did not find a trace of anything except the stench of the cellulose and paper industry. It occurred to him that the tone of the text was also in accord with that smell and for one instant he had the desire to smell the being waiting on the other side of the threshold just so he could complete the picture. Your wife sent me, you know... It's probably all explained in the letter. I didn't read it... believe me. I just want to pick them up and go. A picture is just a picture, he said and took an uncertain step, placing his heavy black shoe on the doorstep. Andrej stepped back from his body and caught a whiff of the metallic smell of sweat mixed with that of cotton and shaving lotion. So, tell me what does my wife look like? he asked as if he were demanding a confirmation of her identity, though he really said it just to have fun. He had never heard a description of his wife in the words of another man. He hoped that this guy would start to analyze her body, he hoped that he would be vulgar. If you don't believe me you can call her, was all he said as he took a telephone from his pocket. He was trying to leave the impression of being a professional.  He took another step forward and was standing with both feet on the dirty tiles, nervously looking at the pictures through the French doors of the living room. Andrej stepped aside and gestured that the guy could go in and take the pictures. Those were the last things she had left behind. In the first months after their break up she came by once a week with her younger sister and, without comment, emptied the closets, the shelves in the bathroom and the kitchen cupboard. She took everything, even the half-empty body milk, the coffee cup with Dali's moustache, the tweezers, the nail clippers and the incense.  She gathered up things as if she were hiding the evidence of a tragedy, the traces of a catastrophe that had annihilated a town that, now, it would be better to wipe from the face of the earth, to destroy the artifacts so that the whim of oblivion could open the door wide. Her smell disappeared from the apartment two weeks after her departure. The room where she painted and which she did not want to call a studio, that was the one she emptied last. She showed up one morning with two tipsy workers who took cardboard boxes and filled them with her painting utensils, together with the garbage, furnishings and the clumps of paint stuck to the parquet flooring. When they had removed the boxes, they reappeared with two buckets of freshly mixed paint and did the walls. While this was going on, Andrej sat in the living room trying to concentrate on gulps of whisky and Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D Minor. He watched them coming and going through the filthy glass where he could still see her fingerprints.  Through the glass where the man left his fingerprints as he took away the last traces of her, thought Andrej.  The fingertips are the most intimate parts of the body. The bundles of nerve endings that define the tangible world, that define foreign objects.  Once the pictures were gone, he would soak a rag in alcohol and polish the glass.  He believed that that would bring him some sort of tranquility. He sat in the armchair and watched the man who looked at the pictures carefully for a few minutes, as if he were deciding which he would remove from the wall first.  Whoever it was that painted these things... he said, looking at Andrej, he shook his head and grabbed the first one in the series. He worked quickly and skillfully.  He worked with the dexterity of an executioner who is about to hang four victims. Taking pictures off walls, that is what he has actually devoted his life to, Andrej thought watching him as he carefully laid the frames on the wooden floor. When he took down the third one in the row, his strong masculine hands went to his face as he tried to see the cut on the canvass that was pushing the blood out.  There's no hope for this guy, he said, looking at Andrej and smiling. Wounds like these don't heal, he said in serious tones, acting as if he had said something smart and significant. I'm leaving now, he gathered up the frames and headed toward the door. Andrej looked at him and wanted to say something, but then he started to feel that atomized confusion of thought that would, either in a few minutes, hours or days, form into a monster made up of sadness, loss, depression and death.  He realized that he would not manage to cope with that and that, as the last of her pictures departed, so did the last bits of sense that gave life meaning. He no longer loved that woman and he had reached closure about that a few months ago. Occasionally he imagined her naked and attempted to masturbate but his erections were forced and short-lived. He was surprised by the speed with which all the memories became two-dimensional flashes, colorless, odorless and tasteless.  He felt a different kind of effluence, and at one moment he even compared himself with that painting, with the open veins from which his will, strength and love were draining, cold-bloodedly, without sound, movement or haste; everything that he normally thought of when he said "life" was disappearing.

 

            After he had seen off the man with the paintings, he double-locked the door. He looked at his feet and concluded that his nails had grown too long. He imagined what toes would look like in one of her paintings. He rinsed the dust from the bottom of a glass and filled it halfway with whisky.  A large gulp slowly descended into his stomach. The smell of the smoky fluid filled his nostrils and made his lungs tingle. He delayed his return to the living room. He was afraid of the absence and of the empty wall that he did not wish to face. She had given him the picture with the sliced veins for his thirtieth birthday. At the time, he had taken that as the final act which gave evidence of the certainty of their relationship and indicated love. He waited for her in the courtyard of a hotel, drinking espresso in the sun, and she appeared, carrying something that looked from afar like a large white envelope.  For you. Happy Birthday, she said. He accepted her kiss and tore the wrapping paper. For a few seconds he tried to find a trace of gentleness and emotion in the scene of sliced veins and bloody hands. He thanked her and said that he liked the painting. He said he would hang it on the wall as soon as he got home. He said that the picture would hang in the living room in front of the armchair where he liked to spend his time. She ordered two scoops of vanilla ice cream, and he took another espresso.  He set the picture on a nearby chair. A gust of warm wind rustled the white paper, and then it carried it a few yards away, sliding it along the marble floor tiles of the hotel terrace.  They hung the picture on the wall together. Then they made love in that big armchair. She straddled him and, the whole time he was kissing her perfumed neck, he could see the bloody reflection of the hand through the locks of her hair. Paintings that were untitled irritated him. Andrej considered the forfeiture of words to be pretentious and sinister.

 

            He quickly drained the glass and poured another like it. He shut the window, closed the blinds and drew the curtains. He took a bite of an apple that had been sitting on the refrigerator for days, and then spit it out on the floor. The stench of sour-rot filled his palate. That stench mingled with the smell of whiskey in his breath and made him clear his throat. He lit a cigarette and took a long hard drag. He imagined the smoke descending into his alveoli, going down into the invisible hollows and filling them with particles of artificial meaning. As he walked over to the armchair, he looked at his feet. The nail on his left big toe was a bit shorter. The blue outlines of his veins looked like a tree without leaves. He put out his cigarette in an ashtray that had the ocean and several cypress trees portrayed on its bottom. Only then did he slowly look up and observe the wall. The place were the hands had hung was framed by a rectangle the color of ash and dust. He felt his stomach turn; the blossoming of some dark substance, he thought, that slowly spread throughout his body, announcing finality.  He looked at the absence on the wall and tried to assign a meaning to it. He heard the north wind rushing through the pines and felt a steely cold in his very bones. Tiny drops of sweat gathered on Andrej's brow. With his right hand he wiped his forehead, and then he quite precisely turned the sleeves of his white shirt up, raising them above his elbows. He squeezed his fist and observed the flexing of the muscles beneath the tightened skin. He had powerful hands and a lot of blood had flowed through them. With a cigarette between his lips, Andrej filled another glass of whisky and turned on the heater. The rising heat made the iron expand and pop. He returned to the armchair and closed his eyes.

 

            The speed with which it all took place surprised him.  First he felt a pleasant warmth on his right palm. The pain came only a few seconds later: when he opened his eyes, when he raised his right hand, when he dropped the shining blade from his left. He didn't believe that he could cut so deeply. The cut was now lost under the rhythmical spurts of blood that flowed out and left dark spots everywhere. He got up and walked slowly toward the wall. With two fingers he pressed the wound and pressed his smeared forearms into the outline of the frame, trying not to betray the original. The similarity defined metaphors that he had not managed to express in words. Then red lines slowly ran down the white surface of the wall, and the only thing Andrej thought at that moment was: that the picture was coming out of the frame, that it was finally being liberated, revealing its true nature, defining some kind of meaning. He suddenly felt a heavy drowsiness. Small green sparks glittered before his eyes. Each blink of his eyelids changed their color, and among those colors Andrej believed he saw the black limbo of some ancient warmth that would suck up his body at any moment. When he took his arms from wall, the outlines of his hands remained within the outline of the frame: steady and eternal, he thought as he tried to control his steps. He staggered over to the armchair from where he could look at the wall in peace, along with the new meaning on it. He wished, in addition to all of that, that he could hear a gentle whispering: a calm voice explaining phenomena and things. He tried to keep his eyes open but when he tried to rub his eyes he realized that his hands were lying with their palms facing upward. He looked at them as if they were objects someone had taken from the wall and accidentally placed in his lap. Like just-painted shapes that were slowly drying. After that thought, Andrej inhaled and exhaled seventeen more times.

 

 

(Translated by Randall Major)