Reconstruction

Translated from Serbian by Randall A. Major and Ema Pandrc

 

In front of the souvenir shop, on the long steps, they stood dead silent. The terrace of the Albertina offered them a view of the Opera House and the Sacher Hotel, between which clattered a carriage full of Japanese tourists. In the low-hanging clouds above the city, it was if blood and milk had been mixed together. That morning, possible sleet had been announced. November, this deep in the continent, was even more awful than in Belgrade. Branka was wearing almost all the clothes she had brought, she had left just her pyjamas and a few cosmetics at Danijel’s place. Behind them, on the glass entrance doors, the misshapen head of George Dyer, the lover of the famous painter Francis Bacon, was looking at them with its impossible eyes. On the poster it stated “RETROSPECTIVE” and Branka and Danijel had spent hours wandering the hallways of the museum, returning into the past.

She had come to his place two days earlier, visiting Vienna for the first time; she hadn’t left her homeland for more than a decade, but that she would see Francis Bacon’s art in person – she couldn’t have seen it coming. Belgrade’s museums were mostly closed, where a different word was always in use: reconstruction. That word meant that the present is faulty, while retrospective meant that the present is fine, because there is the luxury of reminiscing, the settling of accounts, the completion of a puzzle. Her life, just like those museums, had been under reconstruction for years now. The oldest reconstruction she could remember came about the day Danijel departed. The very thought that she had been abandoned had to be somehow underpinned, something had to be made of it that she could live with. And she managed to do so. Along the way, there were several other reconstructions – jobs, parents, friends, opinions, income and expenses – but not a single one of them, she admitted to herself, was as intense as that first one. If she survived that, she’d survive the rest as well.

Danijel sniffled in the cold wind and raised the collar of his overcoat. That was probably a gesture by which he was hinting to her that he wanted to go back to the apartment where she was a stranger, a guest, but she refused to respond to his signals. Once again she examined the exhibition poster. When she was planning her trip, at his invitation, she did not know that something like that was taking place in the city. She found out only when she arrived, he wanted it to be a surprise for her. “An art historian in a country without museums,” he smiled and handed her the ticket. “A little English pederasty in the heart of the Habsburg monarchy.” She had accepted the ticket but now, while she watched from above the Viennese horses crapping into the baskets hung beneath their tails, the torn ticket was poking at her in her pants pocket. She should not have come. She should not have fallen for his feigned smile. Had he thought that she would be grateful to him? Did he really believe that he could buy her off so easily? Francis Bacon? The father of the painter-to-be used to raise and train horses and, when he found out that his dear Francis was screwing the grooms, he ordered that his son be whipped. She knew that. Of course she knew. She hadn’t had the chance to tell anyone that because her jobs till then had nothing to do with her profession, but she still remembered. She could recount Bacon’s life at three in the morning if necessary. If someone would ask her to do so, and perhaps even pay for it. But that someone could not be Danijel. No way, not him.

“Let’s get out of here,” he mumbled into his coat collar, losing his patience. “I thought you would like it.” In retrospect, there were at least two other occasions when he had spoken a similar sentence, if not that self-same one. The first time was at the very beginning, in bed, when he turned her on her side and entered her from behind, but not where she was expecting it. It hurt like the sting of hundreds of needles, she jumped out of bed and screamed, horrified. His attempt at an apology was Reconstruction awkward, he kept mumbling and averting his eyes from her: now she wondered whether that had been genuine humility, or just an act intended to redeem him. The second time was on the third anniversary of their relationship, when he had organised a surprise party. But she had also prepared a surprise: it was springtime and she arrived at his place in a light raincoat under which she was wearing only her panties. Friends, mostly his, jumped from behind the furniture, showering her with confetti and champagne. Thus covered in celebratory tar and feathers, she spent the whole evening buttoned up to her chin.

Twenty years earlier, when he told her that he couldn’t stand it anymore, he didn’t invite her to come along. “I need a new beginning,” he offered as an explanation, and then moved out of his apartment, city, and country. “I can’t live in this pigsty any longer,” he said, and for years she wondered what exactly he’d meant by that. In Vienna, true enough, there were no pigs. There were horses, the Japanese, and Francis Bacon. And sausages grew on trees.

“Did you know that he hid the suicide of his boyfriend for two days so that he could calmly open his big Paris exhibition?” she started to ask, but it went on too long; she stopped mid-sentence out of breath, convinced that Danijel didn’t understand her. However, he indicated the poster with his hand, George Dyer, who ended up dead on a hotel toilet in the middle of the City of Lights.

“What does it matter?”

“It does,” she snapped, and her voice sounded like a bark to her. “He kept secret the death of his friend, the death of his lover. For the sake of his own comfort. For two days, the corpse lay in the hotel bathroom before it was reported to the police. That’s a felony. A crime. The selfish queer stood at the opening at the Grand Palais, chatting with the mayor as if nothing had happened. Among the exhibited pictures, there was a painting of a toilet bowl and, unaware of the tragedy, the mayor was praising that very one, while the great artist blinked and squirmed like a tramp on the corner.”

Danijel headed downstairs, then stopped and turned to her. He raised his eyebrows and Branka noticed all the wrinkles on his forehead, the rings of the life they had spent separated. In Vienna, he never married, and her husband, a former acquaintance of theirs, had died a month before of an aneurism. Which is why Danijel had invited her to visit. To forget about the misfortune, as he said. What could he have to offer? Decadence in the Austrian court?

“Why did you write me?” she asked, even though she hadn’t intended to. After twenty years: a letter. Old-fashioned, on fine parchment, bought in a fancy bookshop. Manners acquired in the civilised world, far from the pigsty. She hadn’t intended to ask him anything; she accepted his invitation to Vienna, intending to say nothing. To punish him or to show her pride. She should have kept to that plan, because this way she was only giving him a cue to respond.

“Well, why are you here?”

She remembered the story about masochism.

“Did you know that he asked his previous boyfriend to beat him?” she said after a while. “He would show up with bruises and a swollen face in public places; he even took pleasure in it when the man shoved him through the glass door of the house, in an inexplicable outburst of sordid passion. He was so torn up, that they had to sew his eye back into his head, but that excited him. He looked at the wounds all over his body and it made him come…”

He turned his back to her and ran down the rest of the stairs. She saw his ears twitch, like a cat’s, and she knew that he was listening to her after all.

“You brought me here!” she cried needlessly. Several tourists with cell phones aimed at the Opera House were startled. No one complained at all: nice people. Tolerant. “From the pigsty to the imperial court? Or is it perhaps to the imperial stables that stink of sweat and shit?”

Now he was finally facing her directly. A new question flickered across his face and she realised that he didn’t remember his words from back then, he’d forgotten what he’d told her when they parted. Empty words couldn’t mean much after all, and it was silly of her that she remembered them for so long.

“Is this the culture you cheated on me with?”

Another carriage went by and the noise disturbed the horses; Branka stomped the heel of her winter boot and shouted: “Giddyup, giddyup!”, making them trot even faster. Several Japanese people ran after the carriage, cameras at the ready.

“Look around you,” she continued, suddenly flushed, burning, torn apart right here, in the middle of the street, like a roasted chestnut. “Gothic façades and cake for tourists? Statues of Mozart and Prater souvenirs? Can’t you see it’s all just a dream?”

He came up to her and grabbed her by the forearm as if keeping her from falling. Why was he doing that when she hadn’t lost her balance? She was composed, but if they were going to talk, it could only be about one thing.

“There’s nothing for us here, Danijel. Everything around you was built for someone else. The bakeries in the underground and the grills at the bus stations – that’s who we are. Hangers-on. Wasps creating a nest of mud under the eaves of a church. Don’t tell me you feel at home here, even after twenty years. Don’t tell me that, because I’ll know you’re lying.”

He was holding her tightly and it was beginning to hurt; he forced her to look him in the eyes.

“What?” she responded in spite. “What do you want from me?”

He pulled her close and she could feel his breath on her cheeks. As always, he smelled of burning wood, like a fireplace.

“You’ll always be a foreigner here,” she went on, but her voice had grown quieter: she was no longer attracting attention, visitors to the city had gathered around the advertisement for a cinema, where The Third Man was being shown twenty-four hours a day. Next to that poster was the one with the misshapen face of George Dyer, and Branka remembered something else about Bacon, but before that…

Danijel leaned in and kissed her. The smell of wood spread around her as if filling an empty room.

After Dyer’s death, Francis Bacon began a relationship with John Edwards, a guy who wasn’t into bruises. He was a quiet chap, “liked to cuddle”, she’d read somewhere, and Bacon started going downhill from that moment. The final proof of his deviance was not a relationship charged with violence, but the exact opposite – one where there was, oddly enough, no violence at all. His paintings became mediocre, his art diluted. The fuel had run out and the great artist fell into a crisis.

She yanked her arms away from Danijel and slapped him so hard that they both fell to the sidewalk. A man approached them and asked something in German, to which Danijel just shook his head. Nice people. Concerned about others. “Have you ever known what you really want?” she asked and without waiting for a reply, she headed toward the stop for the tram that would take them to his district. Danijel caught up with her at the head of Kärntner Strasse and smiled, blushing like a child.

“A fulfilled life,” he said, stretching out his arms and showing her all the people, streets, automobiles, carriages, horses, the Opera House, the museum, the church, the hotel…

“Why couldn’t I have been a part of it?”

They had stopped at a red light.

“When you’re young, you don’t dream for two.”

“And where has that gotten you?”

He embraced the world yet again. “To Francis Bacon at the Albertina.”

Overwhelmed with thoughts of violence, rape, darkness, and twistedness, she was about to tell him something else about Bacon, but he cut in.

“How did you like the paintings?” he inquired and, when the light changed, she realised she was too weak to step forward. Her jaw trembled and she pushed against it with her hands to calm it, but the tremor was overpowering. She squatted, in defeat, while the considerate passers-by asked Danijel if they could help somehow.

Wonderful… Magnificent… Nothing else compared to them; their passion, their scream, their elegance and horror, their richness, their brilliance, their suffering, their anxiety, and their freedom. He was wonderful, sensitive, ingenious, talented, sharp, extraordinarily weak and maniacally strong, daring, rude, eccentric, angelic, twisted, damaged and perfect, tiny like a mouse, larger than life. He was insane. He was divine. He was divinely complicated, like everything else in this world. How could she hide it? How could she admit it? Had she ever known what she really wanted? Had she been tolerating the pigsty all those years just to spite him? To spite herself? Had she been lying to herself more than he had lied to her? Did she have the right to lie? Did they still have the right to each other? Had they ever? Were they made for each, or destined for it?

He helped her to her feet and hailed a taxi. In the car, through her tears she saw that he was handing her something, which she first thought was a tissue, but when she wiped her tears on the sleeve of her coat, she realised that it was new tickets. She took one and held it up to the window.

“Schiele’s permanent exhibition is at the Leopold Museum,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.”

The next day, they went to see it.