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You are so mine.

1.

I have been a stranger for a long time. For longer than I thought it possible to be. When I first arrived in this place, I thought that strangeness was a transitory quality: a quality that, like a tongue of mercury moving within a glass thermometer, could be measured by degrees of intensity. By heat, by fever: the body's natural reaction to contact with a foreign agent. I believed that, although I happened to find myself in a situation that caused the silvery liquid to climb up, up, up through the transparent bar, there would always be a countervailing tendency for it to fall back down again, toward some imaginary black line.

Toward a condition called normal.

But now, after having been strange for such a long time, I am no longer certain that this point of equilibrium--this black line--really exists.

I am no longer certain that the mercury must fall.

2.

Years ago, before I came to the place where I am now, Marat used to make love to me at my place. Or rather at the place where I lived then, which wasn't really mine at all, but a tiny living room alcove in the apartment of a married couple who needed a little extra money to help pay the rent. Back then, I was oblivious to my surroundings. I was an invisible drop of water in a sea of invisible drops of water. That is until Marat appeared on the horizon: a tiny red sailing boat, a speck of bright color in the uniform blue. In those days, Marat, with his beautifully twisted nose and his beautifully twisted English, was the one strange and marvelous thing in my existence. And, on the rare occasions when we could find somewhere to be alone, the one strange and marvelous thing in me.

I used to call him from my office when I knew the apartment would be empty.

"Three o'clock," was all I needed to say.

Or: "Half past five."

Or: "Nine fifteen tonight, but only for an hour," and he knew exactly what I meant.

Be there. Then. And he always was.

When Marat made love to me in the wide marital bed of my absent roommates--their long-sleeved flannel pajamas tucked carefully under the pillow where I lay my head--he would lean in against me first thing, press his body down on mine, and whisper my name into my ear. That was always the first thing he did: before he kissed me or touched any part of my body with his long handsome fingers. My own name. In my own ear. Yet somehow his foreign tongue changed the shape of the familiar word and made it his own.

For me, the sound of my name on a lover's lips has always meant the first step toward possession--his of me, mine of him. And it was no different with Marat. Only more so: perhaps because he mispronounced it.

Marat would keep talking during the course of our lovemaking, more and more, louder and louder--he's a talker in bed. He started with my name, then phrases in my language and then, as his pleasure grew more insistent, he seemed to be pulled back toward his own language, toward some inner reservoir of expression. Then strange words poured out of him in a warm liquid rush, odd little incantations:

"Ti si tako moja, ti si tako moja...."

I never asked what they meant. I liked not knowing. But the peculiar rhythm of the funny little staccato words ended up dislodging me, slowly and surely, from the one place I knew in the world. Bereft of meaning, the nonsense syllables acquired a power of their own.

3.

Today I don't have an office. I don't have an apartment. I don't pay rent to cash-strapped roommates. I don't even have a telephone though, with a bit of luck, one may be installed in the coming months. I live in an old stone house on the island in the northern Adriatic where Marat spent his childhood. The island is actually two long slender islands: a miniature archipelago of sorts. On the map, the islands look like two dark worms hanging down from the mainland, consuming each other. A tiny bridge lies between the two islands. The bridge, measuring no more than ten feet or so from end to end, can be opened with a hand crank so that high-masted sailboats can pass between the two islands and out into the open sea. A sturdy young man, who as far as I can tell has no other function on the island, performs this operation twice each day while the occupants of waiting cars, stranded momentarily on one island or another, watch the slender tips of the masts pass through the narrow channel.

Marat is renovating the old house where we live, and he also runs his family's tourist agency. During high season, he goes out on one of those high-masted sailboats nearly every day. He takes tourists on junkets: trips to the mainland, trips to other islands, trips to the famed blue grotto. The comings and goings of the boat must be timed to the opening of the bridge, or he has to sail around the tip of the island to get home. During high season, virtually nothing gets done on the house--no improvements, no telephone installations, nothing--because, not only Marat, but every man, woman, and child on the island is dedicated to the surge of foreigners that overwhelms them for three months each year. Houses are emptied for renters, private cars converted to taxis, fishing boats into pleasure crafts.

On days when I don't go out on the boat with Marat, I take walks, swim in the sea, and rattle in and out of the odd-shaped rooms of the old house. I feel like the only soul on the island that is not part of the binary equation of this place: neither local nor tourist. I belong to some strange in-between race. It can happen on such days that the island and the sea suddenly, and with no warning at all, change places. And then I feel like I'm drowning on a solid piece of land. With no little red boat in sight.

Marat and I married last spring, after I had spent less than a year on the island. I had come for a visit--or so I thought--at the beginning of the summer tourist season, and then just stayed on. And on. And then got married the following spring. We have no plans for children. Not yet anyway. Although I sometimes think that's what I should do. If for nothing else, to pass the time.

4.

Back home on free mornings, I used to walk from my apartment into the city. Past rows of houses and rows of people, bus stops and coffee houses, office buildings and newspaper stands. Sometimes I took note of the individual elements as I went past, really saw them, let them sink into my retina and bounce around my neural passages. But usually I just walked by and everything blurred into backdrop.

Now each morning I walk from the stone house to the nearest village. To buy bread. Or to go the butcher shop or the fish market. Or just to have a baklava and espresso at the cafe in the square. Or on my bad days, my drowning days, a tall beer and a shot of the local slivovitz.

My daily itinerary consists of a narrow serpentine road down to a small harbor and an old falling-down pier that takes me into the village on the other side. On these walks nothing escapes my gaze. Nothing blurs into backdrop. My sense of vision is sharpened to a painful point. The walk is loveliest in the spring. Then the island has a solitary feel to it, with only a handful of tourists and locals about. The landscape feels tender: the air soft and pliant, the plants green and new--not the dull, dusty green of the end of summer--but a fresh lively green verging on yellow. In one sense at least, islands are good for exiles and strangers. They possess a finite number of elements distilled from nature: plants, people, colors. The vocabulary of an island is easily mastered, its dictionary concise.

Walking along the narrow path, I count the island's elements: turquoise sea lying all around, church belfry, chipped red and green masts making a helter-skelter scaffolding above the harbor, dark green rosemary climbing over dry stone walls, and one lone spider web beaded with dewdrops, suspended between the silvery trunks of two olive trees. In the springtime, these spare elements are painted over with a drunken yellow brush as uncontrollable cypress spurge covers the island: bright yellow spears poking up from the stony earth, running riot over the grassy meadows and down to the sea, forcing their way through the cracks in the pavement of the church courtyard, invading even the sacrosanct olive groves. Spurge is a nuisance, the villagers have told me: little better than a weed. But I admire its tough, hybrid nature: pale yellow as a bloom, dark green as conifer.

Today on my way home from the village, a toothless old man approached me on the narrow path. He was guiding a goat whose hindquarters had been marked broadly with a fluorescent pink dye. I've never seen the old man before, though I've noticed his goat grazing on the spurge-covered meadows. It stands out in the crowd: a perennially ridiculous outsider among its snow-white fellows. As we avoided each other on the narrow path, I smiled at the old man, looking into his squinty eyes, seeking out a glint of fellowship.

Words leapt to my mind.

"Oh, so you're the one with the pink goat," I wanted to say.

But the thoughts took shape in my language, not his, and so never made it from my brain to my tongue and into his ear. The old man passed along the narrow pathway.

5.

I am slowly learning Marat's language. I discovered that it has the same word--one word--for foreigner and stranger. It makes no distinction between the two. So if I meet someone I don't know, someone I've never seen before, I can only report to Marat that I've met a stranger. He would have no way of knowing whether the person I'd encountered had been someone as ordinary as a toothless old man walking a fluorescent pink goat on a tether, or a dark-skinned Nefertiti negotiating the island paths while balancing a brilliantly-colored turban high on top of her proud ebony head.

Strangeness is nothing more than a relationship: possessing or not possessing. It's personal and reciprocal. It's something like the ancient Greek concept of xenos, which a long time ago had nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality or foreignness, but simply meant "the same as us but not from here."

But what happens, I wonder, when the reverse is true? What does it mean if you are here, but not the same as us? What does that make you? What does that make me?

6.

Marat didn't come home last night. He took the boat out early in the morning for repairs. Toward evening, his mother stepped into the sunset-lit kitchen of the stone house. She was wearing, as always, a short-sleeved black dress and a threadbare cotton apron over her ample bosom. She told me that Marat had called the post office in the village: that he'd missed the bridge opening and decided to go back to the mainland to stay overnight. The bora was rising, that high powerful wind out of the northeast, and it wouldn't be safe for him to sail around. The islanders say that bora, despite its fearsome power, is an optimistic wind, pushing out stale air and bringing clear weather.

Marat's mother came with a neighbor, another cheerful ample-bosomed woman in a black dress. The two talked and laughed in the kitchen of Marat's house. They poked their fingers into the plants I had potted, peeked into the camp refrigerator, asked me what I had planned to cook Marat for dinner. Would some tasty morsel go to waste with no man at home to eat it? I answered the only way I could: in accented monosyllables, trying on the new language like an apron. Liking the feel of it. Resenting the feel of it.

Marat's mother crowed happily: "You see how she speaks. She's one of ours now! One of ours!"

That is the highest compliment on the island.

I slept alone in the house for the first time.

7.

The islanders will not call me by my given name. They use Marat's family name, Gromach, with the feminine possessive form tagged onto the end like a lure on a hook. So I have become Gromacheva. A feminine possession. At first I didn't mind the moniker. I rather liked it in fact. It recalled the heroines of Russian novels I had read in my youth--Anna Karenina--wife of Karenin, lover of Vronsky. It seemed romantic and exotic, and perhaps merely an innocuous way of categorizing islanders, of keeping relationships straight, dividing people into family clusters, but then I remembered Anna's fate.

Today I asked the butcher to change his custom. Pressing my fingers gently against the glass case in front of the various cuts of meat--sausage for grilled shish kebob, red chunks of veiny beef for goulash--I said: "Won't you please call me by my first name?" I slowly lifted my fingers from the glass, leaving behind a set of transparent prints, and ordered a small portion of meat for goulash.

He wrapped the meat in white paper, wiped his big hands on his blood-smeared apron, handed the package over the counter with an accommodating smile, and said: "Here you are, Mrs. Gromacheva."

I turned around and left the shop without taking the meat.

8.

In the evening, Marat returned. He wasn't alone, but had brought along a friend of his, a tall, skinny, jovial fellow I had already met once or twice named Sasho. He also brought eggs, dry sausage, and truffles from the mainland, and two liters of heavy red wine. So the lack of meat in the house went unnoticed.

Marat was in fine form, happy and manly, expansive. He had missed me. He leaned his lovely twisted nose into my face and kissed me long and hard. I ran a finger down the crooked ridge, and he grabbed me and kissed me longer and harder still. Sasho looked on, laughing. Island life suits Marat--or perhaps it is married life that suits him. He seems bigger than he did in the days when we made love in another man's bed. He has more swagger, more confidence, and takes my breath away even more than he did when he was an empty-handed stranger.

Marat lit a fire in the fireplace, and we sat around eating eggs and truffles and hunks of spicy sausage, drinking the heavy red wine. Sasho is a great teller of jokes. On and on he went through the long night, through the two liters of wine. Jokes about prostitutes and virgins, about presidents and Albanians, about menial workers who had emigrated to America.

"There once was a prostitute from Zadar ..., there once was a virgin on the Split-Brac ferry line ..., an American president, an Albanian president, and a Serbian president are on a private airline ..., a Bosnian named Muja moves to Hollywood ...," and so on and so forth.

Marat laughed uproariously at each punch line.

I laughed too, though perhaps not uproariously enough, because Sasho, even after having drunk plenty of wine, kept a sharp eye on me during his recitation, gauging how much I understood, looking to see if I faked a laugh at the punch line.

There are two kinds of islanders, I have found. The warm, careless ones--like Marat's mother--and the ones who never cease measuring the temperature of outsiders, never cease checking the height of that miniscule bar of mercury.

Is she ours? Or is she not?

I don't really like the second kind. They are more sensitive to my condition, it's true. They know me, recognize me immediately for what I am. But at the same time, they rob me of the single great comfort of strangeness: the ability to not understand, to drift through meaning as if through a low sea fog.

9.

It's summer again. The tourist season is in full swing. Marat has gone on a five-day island-to-island junket with a group of rich German tourists. I have stayed behind.

10.

I have taken to translating little snippets of things. Tourist brochures, fish menus, hotel rate sheets, descriptions of outings to the famed blue grotto, even Sasho's endless strings of jokes. Translating is a bit like navigating upon a sea of language--not with a high-masted sailboat, but with a small leaky dinghy, equipped with one oar and a bucket for bailing the water, and a dictionary, of course. Each day I try anew to smuggle tiny cargoes of meaning from one side of the water to the other. Some words--local fish and fauna for example--have no chance of surviving the crossing. They sink the moment they leave the shore. Other words almost make it, but then for some reason, begin to bobble dangerously just as they are about to strike land. Sasho's jokes are like that. Each of them has a tiny hairline fracture in it--a cultural eccentricity, a bit of island trivia, a word in a peculiar dialect--that makes them founder just as they are about to float majestically into port.

But happily, there is the odd expression, the occasional turn of phrase that arrives intact to the other side. There are even the few that thrive and gain something under my feeble stewardship. Yes, that does happen from time to time, and it feels wonderful when it does--almost as I imagine it must feel to save a life.

11.

I overheard a conversation in the village square today. I sat at a table sipping sweet ink-black espresso, and a conversation from a neighboring table floated up and entered my thoughts unbidden. It was in my language, which is why it leapt so readily to my senses: whole and comprehensible. The young woman at the table was from the mainland and was, I gathered, like me, married to a local man. She was complaining to her mother who had come for a summer holiday to visit. The younger woman remarked that her two daughters, who went to local elementary schools, had begun to talk among themselves in a language that she--their own flesh and blood--had barely mastered.

"By the time they're teenagers," she fretted. "I'll have no idea what they're talking about. I won't be able to understand them at all."

The older woman opened her mouth and let out a loud raucous laugh, like the squawk of a gull. I could see by the glasses on the table that she'd been drinking slivovitz.

"No one understands teenagers," she said emphatically.

The young mother shook her head sadly and spoke as if to herself. "I sometimes feel like I'm a stranger to them."

Her mother closed her eyes. She tilted her head back to better capture the rays of the sun, and murmured. "We're all strangers. We're all strangers some of the time."

I looked away from the women's table and let my gaze travel over the water, at the bobbing masts of fishing boats, searching for a spot of red color in the blue. When I got up to pay the check, I asked the waiter to bring another slivovitz to the older woman. And one for her daughter too.

12.

I have too much time to think.

Too much time to just be.

13.

Marat arrives tonight. Weary of my daily routine of morning walk to the village, translation, afternoon swim, dinner, bed, I left the house in the early evening with no destination in mind. Walking inland, I spotted the old man with the pink goat. He was heading up toward the bridge with the hand crank through a maze of dry stonewalls. The island is covered with these stone structures, a complicated network of walls and piles made with thousands and thousands of stones, but no grout, no cement, nothing at all to hold them together. Yet they withstand the ravages of time and weather. From the sky, the walls look utterly purposeless: a meandering gray mosaic of interlocking patterns, a tribute to the futile organizing energy of man, a snaky, out-of-control stone hedge. The greatest concentration of walls lies just below the bridge, a mile or so away from the house where I live.

I followed along behind the old man who, despite his age and shrunken stature, moved at a good clip, his pink goat picking its way along the dusty path ahead of him. Entering the maze of walls, the old man--or his goat--always seemed to effortlessly find the break in one wall that allowed passage into another seemingly enclosed segment. It was hard to say who led, goat or man, but at one point, the old man stopped and turned his head toward to me.

The goat stopped and looked around as well.

The man called out: "Who's there? Who are you?"

The man was blind. That's why I never detected recognition in the wrinkled face when I passed him. For a long moment, I didn't know how to answer his question.

Finally I said "Beatrice," pronouncing my first name in the foreign way that Marat does. Be-a-tri-ci-a--each vowel separate and distinct, the r dramatically rolled, the soft s sliding by as an afterthought, all of it ending on a firm Latinate a.

"Yes, yes." The old man waved his hand impatiently, mindless of the effort I had put into the strange pronunciation of something so familiar to me. He seemed to be staring at me intently, actually seeing me, though I now knew the visor of his cap shaded two empty eye sockets. "But who are you?" he insisted.

I hesitated, scrambling for a definition, and then relented. "Gromach," I said. "Gromacheva."

"Ah," he said, pulled off his cap with a flourish and flashed me a toothless, eyeless grin. "You're Marat's new wife."

"Yes, Marat's new wife."

"You know what gromach means, don't you?"

"No," I answered.

"These walls are called gromache. You didn't know that?" he pondered my ignorance. Then he shrugged and added: "Nobody knows how to make them like this any more. Nobody. Watch."

First, he lifted one stone from the top of the nearest wall. It came loose with no effort at all. He held it up like a magician, and then put it back where it had been. Then he plucked a stone from the middle of the wall. With no glue to hold it, it also came free with a bit of prying. He held it up to me, and slid it back in where it belonged. And then, in a lunatic gesture, the little old man threw his whole wiry frame against the structure, pushing it with all his might. It held fast. It didn't budge. Didn't waver. Then he did it a second time: threw his little body against the wall, shoving wildly at the stones. And again it didn't budge.

I held my breath.

He methodically wiped the dust from his thin cotton sleeves.

"Stronger than me. Stronger than you. Stronger than that stone house of yours. Stronger than whatever country you left to come here. Nothing can knock it down, not even the great bora," he ended, referring to the island's famous wind as if there were no greater earthly force.

"But what are they for?" I asked.

"They used to keep the olive groves and the vineyards separate. To show who owned what. Who was who. What must be passed on from father to son, mother to daughter. Now they just shelter goats and sheep from the wind. Nobody knows how to build them like this anymore," he repeated. "Nobody. Your ancestors made the best gromache on the island, the strongest. They were masters, your ancestors. Artists."

My ancestors.

And then I asked him a question that had been nagging at me. "Why is your goat pink, if you can't see it?"

The old man's eye sockets widened in surprise. "Pink! He's pink?" he squatted down at the foot of the wall, overcome with laughter. He reached a withered hand in the general direction of the fluorescent goat. "Pink! My daughter-in-law must have dyed him. She doesn't trust me. She doesn't think a blind man can keep track of a goat."

He laughed and laughed, and pulled the animal in to his wiry old body, stroking its head and its bearded chin. The goat's vertical irises narrowed. "All the time you were pink, and I never knew, I never knew! The joke's on me! Ha ha! The joke's on me!"

I looked around. The sun had disappeared behind the horizon, though its light would continue to illuminate the maze of walls and arid earth for a while longer. "I have to go," I said, leaving the old man to his merriment. "It's getting dark, and Marat's due home tonight."

"Darkness is nothing," he said, still laughing, wiping the dry tears from his cheeks, muttering the word pink under his breath.

"Goodbye," I said in my own language. Cautiously, I picked my way down through the dry stonewalls in the fading light. When I had been walking for less than a minute, I heard the old man's voice carried on the evening air:

"Adio, Beatric-ia!" he called out: "'Adio!"

"Adio," I whispered. "Adio."

I had forgotten to ask his name.

14.

The next morning, Marat and I walked together from the stone house to the village. We walked past the fields of yellow cypress spurge lost now to the summer haze, past the grazing goats, and across the old pier that is missing as many wooden slats as the old goatherd misses teeth.

Glimpses of blue sea underfoot.

Just as we were about to get to the other side, I lost my balance and Marat caught me as I fell toward the invisible drops of water below. He held me in his arms between the blueness of the sea and the blueness of the sky.

I looked into his familiar face and whispered a string of syllables to him:

"Ti si tako moj, ti si tako moj."

You are so mine.

You are so mine.
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Author:Debeljak, Erica Johnson
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 22, 2007
Words:4981
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