Saturday evening he walked past my apartment building and went into the shop across the street, just like he did the Saturday before that. He bought a pack of cigarettes and a pack of gum, walked outside, turned around, making a small circle like a muscular bulldog looking for a place to sit, and leaned against the wall. He unwrapped the gum and rolled the wrapper in his hand into a tight silver ball. Grinning with satisfaction as if performing in front of an audience, he placed the ball on the palm of his left hand and flicked it toward my building. Then he looked up at my window, on the second floor, and smiled. He knew that I was standing behind the curtains. He smoked quietly and stared almost absent-mindedly. When he finished his cigarette he spat on the sidewalk, looked up one last time and left. It was the same thing every time.
After a month of this show of intimidation I’d had enough. It was a cold Saturday evening in February and again he was smoking across the street. The same foot up against the same wall, under the street lamp, his personal stage in front of my building. I watched him suck on the cigarette, then release perfect smoke rings that rose toward the sky like a chain that was meant to imprison me. I retreated back into the gloominess of my room and stood in front of the mirror, my hands shaking. “What does he want?” I said out loud. It did not matter. Perhaps he didn’t even know himself. But it couldn’t go on like this. “I know!” I said, “He wants to break me,” and a thought occurred to me. I ran out of my apartment and went up the stairs to the terrace. Women used it to hang their laundry in the summer, but the lines were now empty and the whole place deserted. The night was bright. The full moon appeared to me like a burning eye, an eye that instilled concentrated fear in me. An eye that did not love me. I got on all fours and crept towards the edge. He was still there, smoking his cigarette. Good. He disgusted me. I shivered. I was wearing a thick sweater, but nothing else underneath. I felt hard and cold just like the brick in my hand. Its weight reassured me that on contact he would be dead. When an object falls towards earth its speed increases because it is being pulled by gravity, and I imagined that in his case, the pull would be even stronger. Gravitational punishment I called it, although I had never tried this sort of thing before.
It all began a year ago with my cat giving birth to a litter of five, but the fifth little guy, a sad furry deformity, was deliberately left behind, under the bed on the cold tile. “You’re horrible,” I told my cat and placed the kitten in the basket where she had moved the rest of the babies. But she would not have him. With a mother’s gentle care, she took him in her mouth and dropped him on the tile. I wrapped the poor shivering kitten in a towel and watched it. This sadness soon transformed into self-pity, so I put on some jeans and a nice shirt and rode my bike to the discotheque in the center of Tirana, right behind the Palace of Culture.
The discotheque was a product of the revolution, set up in the basement of a demolished building. Like a burrowing animal in hibernation, the basement clung to the side of a massive hole that was excavated a few years ago by a man who had conned the government. It was perfect, this hole, because it represented adequately the state of affairs in Albania.
The entrance to the discotheque was through a small concrete room with a narrow flight of stairs that led to the bar.
“Will you keep an eye on the bike?” I asked the parking guard.
He shamelessly checked out my breasts.
“They’re too small,” he said shrugging. “Like peaches.” He laughed.
“Never mind,” I said and ran down the stairs.
Truth was I did not care if I lost my bike that night. I’d been here a few times and was used to the sticky sweet smell of liquor mixed with cigarette smoke. I loved the loud techno; it erased my thoughts and replaced my heartbeat. I paused at the bottom of the stairs, briefly scanning the dance floor, looking at the sea of young men and women dancing, sweating, and kissing. The entire room was painted black, even the floors, and inside that black box I let go of the world above. My friend was sitting at the edge of the bar, sipping on a beer. She waved and I joined her.
“I thought you’d never make it,” she said offering me a cigarette. I took it but did not light it.
A blond guy with blue eyes, perhaps a few years older than me, was serving drinks at the bar.
“Do you know him?” I pointed at the bartender. He was tall and handsome. A small dimple formed on his left cheek when he smiled. He stood out in a sea of dark features, but there was something else about him. I could not tell at the time, but it might have been kindness.
“No,” she said dismissively, “But I do want you to meet someone.” She jumped off the bar stool and, grabbing my hand, pulled me toward the other side of the dance floor.
He was thick and sturdy, like a bull. Sitting with his arms spread and legs propped up on the table. He was perhaps ten or fifteen years older than me. I did not find him the least bit attractive, but he did not repel me either. “He has a car,” she whispered to me. I did not care, but being home alone on a Saturday night was boring. And perhaps a ride down the boulevard would have made this blackness that was welling inside go away.
“You’re pretty. How old are you?” he asked me.
I told him I was nineteen.
He grabbed my hand. “Dance?” he said.
I nodded and walked down the dance floor with him. The music slowed down, and I placed my hands around his neck. Thick, muscular, he gave off a strong smell of pine.
The next Saturday I went out with the older guy. We sat at the same table. My friend also showed up with a new date. Her date was thin, but his cheeks were plump and round like a baby’s. She sat on his lap, played with his ponytail like a prized cat. Her angular beauty amplified his ugliness, but she wanted to go to Greece, and he was going to help. He did not explain how and she did not seem to care to explore the details. But I knew that women that were helped by these types of men tended to pay dearly with their flesh. And my older guy, he seemed to encourage her. I hung out with them because I felt something that I couldn’t quite understand brewing inside. Just like cutting yourself when the pain is too intense. When the music slowed down, I left for the bar. Their chatter was beginning to annoy me.
“A shot of Fernet,” I told the bartender. He smiled. I felt my cheeks flush. My fingers felt electric and my breathing became shallow. I wanted to tell him that I’d been thinking about him in bed, at school, from dawn till dusk; I could barely get any work done. My obsessive side had started to develop a story. In that story, I loved him. I screwed up my lips and waited for the drink.
“I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Do you study foreign languages at the University?”
“Yes, Italian.” And for a moment I forgot entirely that I was with the older guy.
“Me too,” he said and handed me my drink.
I stood there staring at him wide-eyed like an idiot. The moment had passed, and I had failed. Feeling rejected, I turned toward the dance floor.
“Wait a minute.” His hand reached out and touched mine. It was a strange moment. I wanted it to last forever.
“What is your name?”
“Ina,” I replied.
He repeated my name and tilted his head.
“Watch out for that guy,” he finally said.
“My date?” I asked.
“He’s not a good man,” he said.
I wanted to tell him that I knew. I was able to sense these things in people, but I felt lonely. I wanted to be wanted and loved but also to hurt myself.
“It’s just a date,” I replied.
I had sex with my date that night. It was a forceful affair, but he did not seem to notice my lack of enthusiasm or my pain. Afterwards he lit a cigarette and handed me one, too. I took it but did not light it. “I hate the smell of smoke,” I said to him. The truth was I felt burning in between my legs and wanted to go home. “I like you. You should move in with me,” he said and then laughed. It was a strange laugh that I didn’t understand. As I sat there naked on his bed, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the bartender’s name.
When my mother died, I didn’t cry. For years she had been tittering on the edge of life and I had gotten used to living with her shadow. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and tiptoe to her room, afraid that her last breath would not be drawn in my presence. Instead it happened in the hospital in front of a nurse, a stranger. It terrified me, this mandatory solitude we’re all forced into right before we die. I’d like to think that I was a good daughter and took care of her instead of leaving the country like so many had since the regime fell, but in the end I failed her. In my dreams I went to Paris, once to Japan. I dreamed of images from movies and photographs because I was never able to leave Albania. My father left us when she was still alive. Reverted back to his own childhood, moved in with my grandparents. Before she died, my mother lost a lot of weight, so she had to buy clothes that were almost my size. I kept most of her shirts and skirts and wore them. She’d also left me a gold coin that belonged to my grandmother and her life savings, which did not amount to much. It had crossed my mind that finding a husband might not be such a bad idea. The idea actually terrified me, but I had learned that in reality nothing in life was as scary as it seemed.
It turns out the older guy did not own his car, and his apartment wasn’t his but his brother’s. He had nowhere to go and we’d been dating for a month when he asked to move in with me. I allowed it without giving it much thought. Soon the fights began. They weren’t terrible: a few things thrown my way at first, a slap here and a kick there, but for the most part I would cry and fight back. He would show up at my school with a gift and in order to avoid making a scene I would leave with him. We would drink and smoke, and I would listen to him talk about his get-rich-quick schemes.
“I am a month late,” I told him.
“I know a place,” he said.
“It’s an old woman. Don’t worry about it. She knows what she’s doing.”
The old woman lived on the other side of the general hospital, near the cemetery. This was the old part of town with narrow cobbled alleys and pre-World War II mud-brick homes, nothing like the wide open spaces in the center of the city. Dampness permeated the air as if the homes themselves were sweating. At first I felt uneasy. What if someone recognized me? To judge and be judged: that was our way of life. But it didn’t matter anymore. He pushed the wooden gate and we walked into a courtyard paved with stone. There was a large patch of dirt with three bare fig trees in the middle; they looked like petrified men. She was waiting by the trees. Wearing black, like older women did when they were in mourning. A dark scarf covered her gray hair. She made me lie on a long wooden table in a room without windows. She roughly removed my pants and underwear. Her long spindly fingers like spiders crawling on my belly moved in circles trying to locate the right spot. Her palms rough from cracked skin pressed on my lower stomach a few times. Each time I felt a sharp pain and bit my lip. There were dark water stains on the ceiling, like clouds waiting to burst with thunder. Three times she did this and spat on the dirt floor. She handed my clothes back. He sat on a chair in the corner of the room smoking. Impatient. “She’s not pregnant,” she hissed. He paid her, grabbed my hand, and we left. At times I could not keep up, but he would not let go of my hand and eventually I tripped on the sidewalk. He didn’t help me up.
“What a waste of money,” he said and kicked me. And that’s when I decided that enough was enough. I punched him and ran. He called me a bitch, but he didn’t follow me. When I got home I propped a chair under the door handle and sat on the floor. I hugged my knees. From the wall, my mother’s portrait judged me. At midnight I went to bed. He came back to my house when I was in school. I was not surprised to find him there. He told me he missed me, took me into the bedroom, and forced himself on me. When he finished, he punched me and called me a whore. Then he calmly gathered his clothes and without a word opened the blue lacquered Chinese box on my night table and took my money and my mother’s coin. I didn’t see him again until three months later that Saturday, but I had changed the locks by then. I wasn’t the type to dwell on things. I moved on. Aside from the nightmares, I was doing fine.
The bartender’s name was Ardian. But it wasn’t at school or at the bar where we finally connected. It was in front of the Academy of Arts building. He was sitting by the stairs, fully engrossed in his book. I managed to talk to him this time. Our attraction turned out to be mutual. The night we slept together, he read me a poem. He’d written it about me, and I cried. When he kissed my hand, I fell in love. Three months passed and my nightmares were almost gone. Until it all came to an abrupt end. We were sitting on a bench in Park Rinia, as we often did after school, when he said, “I am moving to Italy.” I stared at him in disbelief. I even laughed. But he was quite serious. “I’ll call and write,” he said. He kissed me, and I knew it would be for the last time. In a fit of anger, I got rid of my cat, which was pregnant again. I found myself truly lonely. I spent nights crying. I dropped out of school.
The brick missed him. I heard it crash into the concrete, heard him yell. I ran down the stairs and into the street. He stood in the entryway, infuriated. “You son of a dog!” I shouted. It took him by surprise all that anger and rage.
“I’ll kill you,” he shouted. “You’re mine.”
The palm of his hand hit my mouth so hard that my lip split.
“I am not afraid of you,” I screamed and pushed him aside.
There were people across the street in the shop, but no one came to help. I ran. I ran as fast as I could and lost one of my slippers. Still I ran and did not stop until I reached my grandparent’s apartment. My father opened the door. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Ashes fell on his bare feet from the cigarette in his hand. When he noticed the blood on my face, his eyes widened. Without a word, I ran to the bathroom and washed my face. He was sitting on his bed, in the living room, surrounded by his books. I sat down on a chair next to the television and took off my dirty socks. “Where are your shoes?” he asked. I stared at him defiantly. But instead of looking back at me, he averted his gaze toward his own feet.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You abandoned me too when you left her,” I said.
“You’ll understand one day. Go back to the house. I don’t want to fight,” he said, still not looking at me.
But I could not leave because suddenly I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, and worse, not loved. A primal fear had taken root in me. And the saddest part, something my father could not know or understand, was that I would have taken that bastard boyfriend of mine back if he would have cared to chase me. Perhaps my father was right when he said once that there was something twisted in me. “Father,” I said in a loud voice. He finally looked up and I recognized fear in his eyes. It was then that I saw the bottle of Valium next to his glass of red wine. “I see your habits have not changed,” I said. By the time Grandmother Nur walked into the room in her night robe, I was sobbing. She took my hand and we went into the kitchen. I sat on the table watching her pull out a bowl of oranges from the fridge. “Your father loves you,” she said. She peeled an orange in sections just like she did when I was a small child. My head throbbed and my lip burned, but still I forced myself to eat one slice.