I am driving quickly. I am trying to outrun the thoughts and feelings racing through my body, in my car with air conditioning and two carburetors, but I'm feeling them organically in my stomach, in my head, in my arms. It can't last for long, it says to me, this elevated feeling that life really does have some kind of meaning, that I have a purpose (What sort of purpose? The question immediately strikes me after this revelation, causing a shooting pain under my breastbone). It can't last, and neither can joy nor sorrow, nor that connection with the world.
At the cemetery, I had walked from one grave to another, reading the names of people who had long since passed away, and I felt bad for all of them. Why did you leave so fast? I asked aloud in desperation, in front of a small grave bearing the names of three small girls who shared the same last name, three little faces pictured on the marble, the inscribed dates only a few days apart. I walked barefoot over the fine gravel around the gravestones, as it dug into the tender soles of my feet. Above a nearby grave there was a giant statue of Jesus, rusty nails piercing through his hands and feet. Did he know something? Do you know something? I looked up and listened carefully, as if waiting for an answer.
It cannot last, I think while the sounds of the Scottish singer Donovan on the radio and the car's quiet murmur bring me back to an illusory peace. There are heavy gray clouds ahead of me; I'm driving straight into a storm. I had forgotten to get gas though I had passed two gas stations, which weren't enough to remind me, and now the yellow light is warning me that I might run out. I ease up on the gas. Soon there will be a station, I'm sure. I know the road inside and out.
It was hard for me to go and leave my son with my mother. I had left him with her before, but today it was particularly hard. He can understand so much already, my smart little boy, and even Piki, our poodle, kept jumping on me and wouldn't let me leave. I had driven away after countless kisses and promises: we would call each other, he would be able to write me letters, I would come back as soon as I could. But I had had to come back already because I'd forgotten to take the car seat out of the car. He had been standing in the driveway as if he had known that I was going to come back. "Mommy, come tomorrow after work, please !" This time his pleas, usually imploring and mischievous, selfish child's pleas, were truly sad and beseeching. Or I am just imagining that the world is becoming more sincere, that people are good and that what I do really changes something from stale and bad into something good, bright, and fresh? And infinitely painful? Can love really change anything if it destroys everything? Everyone understands and supports me, but on the other hand, they carefully monitor what I am going to do. Will I go? Will I stay? I'm the only one who does anything. Others are like spectators looking up at a building while a desperate person perches on the edge, contemplating suicide. They watch and wait, some of them holding a sheet of canvas. Will she jump? Will she not? Want to bet on it? For how much?
I was afraid to leave. I had a lump in my stomach and was haunted by a premonition; everything seemed so intense; I ate and slept so little that I was like an antenna, picking up every nuance, every spark in the eyes of those around me, every unuttered thought.
This cannot last, I try to convince myself, hoping that it will. Let it tear, let it hurt, I will finally get my life in order, do something for myself, and in doing so, also do something for others, sincere, after all the deception and circus-like duplicity, after all lies and destruction, after all the moral hangovers that face me in the mirror. I like myself now, though I don't know how I will feel in two minutes.
I see the two of them out of the corner of my eye. They are sitting on a duffel bag in the shoulder of the road where the local road merges with the highway. When one of them sees me, he stands and sticks out his thumb. I zoom by in a flash, right blinker on, and then I brake. I am afraid to slam on the brakes, to finally test the ABS. I go in reverse, backing up in their direction as they run toward my car, smiling.
"Where are you going, ma'am?" says the man, panting, the girl a few steps behind.
"Us, too! Can we go with you?"
"Of course. Buckle yourselves in."
I glance in the rearview mirror and see the woman settling herself in the backseat, having shoved the duffel bag behind my seat. Something begins to bother me. These two are not going to Ljubljana , it tells me.
I drive off and turn down the music. I smile to my right and say with a calm voice: "You aren't going to rob me, steal the car, and kill me, are you?"
They both laugh, just a bit too loudly, it seems to me.
"No, we are honest, you know. I make an honest living, with honest work, there's too much dishonesty in the world, but you know, we really are honest. We were with family in Maribor -were you in Maribor as well?"
I try to count his every word with honest at its root. I peek in the rearview mirror: the girl is sitting and looking out the window. I am out of my mind, I think, but something is not right. Something bothers me. Something makes me queasy, as the man starts to speak.
"Why do you ask such things? Don't we look honest to you? Did something happen to you?"
"No, nothing, what could have possibly happened to me? I just ask to see where we stand," I reply, with a calming smile. They chuckle as well, nodding. "It's just that I'm taking a risk, taking you into the car. But that's what I decided. You do what you must. I am brave." For some time we are quiet.
"You have a nice car, really nice, comfortable," he nods in approval.
"Yeah, it's really comfortable. A great piece of machinery."
We are quiet for a moment. I am looking at the yellow light. "I have to stop for gas," I say, more to myself. The three of us won't really be talking, I think. Why did I actually take them into the car? I need peace, not random people, really, why on earth would I need them? I study the hunched figure discreetly, she's hugging the duffel bag, holding her legs close together, her face dark, the guy is also very dark, I notice, I overlooked that before. Well, let's talk, I think.
"What do you two do for a living? And what are you going to do in Ljubljana?"
It is as if the boy wanted to catch the girl's eye, that's how his eyes shifted, but she is in the back: he doesn't turn around, he looks at me.
"This and that. Honest work, you know. We're going to Ljubljana. A little bit of tourism. That's why the duffel bag, for tourism." He laughs a little, and I laugh, too although I don't see a reason to laugh. It strikes me as nervous laughter.
"Gas station! I'm stopping, I don't have any more gas," I think out loud.
I park in front of the green pump. The wrong one, I realize, when I climb out of the car. I'll have to pull the hose over the car again. How is it that I never remember which side the tank is on? I think almost angrily. He's still smiling a bit and offers me help. Everyone's wanting to help me with something these past few days. "No, thanks, I'll handle it." And I take the rucksack out with me. I pull the keys out of the ignition, although I pop the tank electronically with the button inside the car. Dirty asphalt stains my feet, high ponytail and Indian dress, I feel hippie-like, unreal, and people look at me strangely, I notice. I fill the tank halfway. I am peeking inside, I know that from this angle the man can't see me, but I can see him. He's turned backwards and they are feverishly talking. He reaches for his seatbelt, almost unbuckling it, but he removes his hand. I feel my hands starting to shake. Something isn't right. I go around the car and open his door. "Is everything OK?" I ask.
He grins: "Yeah, everything is fine. There's nothing wrong. Don't worry ma'am, we're honest, you know!" The girl smiles slightly, with her hands clasped in her lap.
I not thinking, and all of a sudden, I hear myself say: "You go pay. And bring me the receipt."
"Sure, no problem." In a flash he unbuckles himself and gets out of the car. He leaves with the money. I follow him with my eyes and open the rear door. It can only open from the outside, for safety reasons, so that the child can't fall out while the car is moving. Does she know that?
A pair of coal-black eyes stares at me. "Is everything OK?" I repeat the question, smiling. "Everything is OK," she says in Serbian, with a calming smile.
"Then why does my stomach hurt, and why are my hands shaking? What is that? Can you explain anything about these things?"
"It might be your period," she says in Serbian and shrugs humbly. And she looks at me somewhat strangely, almost with fear.
"Something's not right," I repeat and watch her.
"Maybe you caught a cold. But it's a nice dress, nice." Her gaze falls down to my bare feet.
"No, it's not that," I switch to the language she clearly understands better. "Since the moment you sat in my car, I've had pain here," I say, pointing to my stomach. I am still wearing an alienating smile. Do I really know anything, or is it all in my imagination? What's going on with me? These questions are running through my mind. Then I notice the panic on her face, which is actually relatively pretty and otherwise blissfully focused. She looks over my shoulder, and I see that the man is coming back. His jeans are terribly dirty, I notice, and his lips are completely dry. He smiles with a grimace as he holds the receipt in my direction. The girl is already getting up.
"Honey, take the bag, this lady isn't well." The bag is out in a flash, and they nearly run toward the trucks. They keep glancing back at me, faces completely changed, a mixture of panic and menace, when the dark-haired girl stops and hisses something at me loudly. At first I don't understand, I look at them and don't know what to do. And then suddenly I figure which word has been repeated so many times. "Witch!" she yells. "Crazy witch!" I see that the guy is pulling her forward by the arm, but she keeps turning around and screaming insults. She spits on the dirty asphalt.
I get behind the wheel, put Donovan on, turn the ignition, and swerve wide around them. I step on the gas, and for a while I don't think about anything at all.
I drive slowly. The landscape flies past me. I can't see all the churches on the top of the hills, the greenery runs past me, and I only pass slow drivers. I'm in no hurry. What I'd like to do most is stop, smoke under a tree, and just be. I am returning to pick up my child after the week I was supposed to change the world. My world. The little world which, seven days ago, I thought could change from a swamp into a pretty, sunny savannah.
No euphoria anymore, I don't pick up a single hitchhiker, I don't have any more pain, my thoughts are as slow as the ride, while my sneaker-clad foot steps on the gas slightly.
One single thought is constantly recurring and pushing forward, forward. Honesty doesn't pay off. You throw down the masks and leave yourself to life, blending in with everything around you and imagining things. And when you're so naked and exposed, when you're running around barefoot like some kind of new-age Jesus, you are so damn vulnerable. And then you are hurt by precisely those you used to feel pain for, who you always put first. What do I know? I keep driving, slowly leaving the miles behind me.
Honesty doesn't pay off. What should I do with it? Everyone knows everything now, and all of them are terribly clever. Only I don't know anything anymore. No more premonitions. I turn off the radio. Donovan gets on my nerves. His wonderful tremolo, his splendid voice, everything bothers me.
My son is waiting for me in the driveway. Naturally, as soon as he greets me, he tells me that he's thirsty. "Mommy, juice!" I pull myself out of the car and go upstairs to get him some juice.
"My duffel bag is already packed," he tells me. "Me and Grandma caught snails. Millions of snails!"
"That's nice, buddy. Did you salt them?"
He is just shaking with excitement:
"We spiced those pests and now we have snail soup!"
"That's great, honey. Are they dead now?"
"They're all dead! They make the water yellow, do you want to see?"
Of course I do. We go behind the house, hand in hand, the snail soup is in a plastic bag, "millions" of smooshed, dead snails. I am about to vomit, but I manage to hold back.
I say farewell to my mother, I thank her for all the help, like a robot. She looks at me, it's only been a week since we talked, now everything is the same. She doesn't ask anything, and I'm grateful for that.
I drive slowly. I have to look after myself, there are so many people that need me: my child, mother, brother, father, grandmother, nothing can happen to me. My husband, he also says that he needs me. That he can't live without me. That he loves me. Everyone likes me so much and tries their best to keep me in my safe, stuffy, little swamp. But I am driving back to my life and I would like to make another stop or two.
I see her on the shoulder of the road, where the local road merges with the highway. "Little buddy, should we pick up a hitchhiker?"
"Yeah, Mommy, there's still room in front, next to you." Of course, there's plenty of room, an empty seat, which wants to cause pain, to which I want to say something, but there's nothing to say.
"Hello, ma'am," says the tousled little head. "Are you going to Ljubljana?"
"Of course, hop in. Buckle up."
Then we chat about what she studies, where she lives, what she's been doing in the Styria region. She jokes with my son, they are fooling around, he tells her what it was like at Grandma's, how they caught snails (They are slow, you know, they can't escape you! Ha, ha!)
I drive. Nice and slow and safe. I take the fast lane through the toll station, Electronic Toll Collection Users Only, home is drawing nearer. Nothing has changed. Nothing at all.
Translated by Matevž Kersnik and Kristina Zdravic Reardon