Her murmur is a growl that rises slowly from her stomach to her throat. I listen to the whispers, the guttural elixir of her voice close to my breast, damp and warm from her open mouth; first breathing with increasing heaviness, occasional snoring, then as the night wears on, my eyes open to words I do not understand. Croatian strikes me as a language from another planet, syllables broken down into a jumble of consonants. I remain silent, watch her, touch her wavy brown hair and twirl the locks between my fingers as she speaks in sentence fragments, hoping her voice does not rise to a crescendo and gasp unyieldingly to a scream. When she does, she cries and leaves for the bathroom. Afterward, she apologizes. I always tell her it is all right, and we kiss. At its worst, she does not fall asleep. She stays awake, reading.
Other than zdravo and do videjna, the volim te and jebem te, I know no Croatian. What is an imperative is that I try to love her, and I know with certitude that I do while I grasp her tightly in an effort to keep her from returning to age twenty-five, anchoring her to our bed, holding her at forty-eight. Love requires acceptance, and with her there is at times more to accept than she dared to ask when we met. As she falls silent, I kiss her forehead and stare through the half-open brown curtains into the breezeless Manhattan night with the gibbous moon shining above through the clouds.
Malva: looked up the meaning on the Internet the morning after we met. Means “smooth and meek,” but she’s a tiger in bed, her body writhing against mine. I learned soon about how she had to tough out the multiple and confounding Yugoslavian civil wars. When she talks about that time, she is reticent with detail, leaving much behind with her weekly therapy sessions. Malva, as the high school American Literature teacher she trained to be in Split before all came undone, describes the situation as akin to the Spanish Civil War without romance, without a Hemingway, with a world collectively turning its back until one side finally crossed into total madness in Bosnia. Madrid had its Howitzer Alley. Zagreb, the city where she fled while Split was under siege by the Serbs, received only two days of missiles at the climax of that particular conflict. She told me of the photo of a woman she knew slightly, another refugee—from Sarajevo—immaculately dressed in brown suede pumps and snow-white dress, taking shrapnel in the neck, dropping flat with a smack on the cobblestone pavement while Malva watched helplessly from her seat on the tram, not remembering the emotion, frozen but curious as she watched a thick crimson pool form around around the body, the woman’s blond hair remaining in place with bobby pins, her ponytail firm in the air as she lay nearly face down on the ground. Dead, mouth open, staring, grocery sack at her side, as a New York Times stringer crouched near the corpse, snapping away with his camera.
Malva hesitates getting on the M 14 bus, looking about her before stepping on at our stop at Fourteenth Street and Avenue C. She tells me this is why she avoids wearing white. Understandable, although with her cream skin I can see her well in a wedding veil. We do talk about marriage; we’ve been together long enough to feel comfortable discussing it. This comes from our shared traditions, hidden beneath our East Village exterior, clinging to youth at our early middle age by wearing motorcycle jackets. Malva and I are Catholics, usually lapsed, yet we find the need to attend an occasional Mass together, mainly for the peace and connection with home it gives her. Yes, Malva in white—maybe. While we might be too old for a church ceremony, I want to see her in white.
The day my daughter moved out, Malva and I rented a car to western New York, to help my girl unpack and meet the new roommates and school representatives. Malva blushed whenever they assumed she was her mother. On the drive back, we discussed Malva moving in with me.
When we returned to the apartment, she began looking at the empty space between the café table and my daughter’s work desk. Malva focused on the desk, stared intently at the chair for a minute before grasping the back with both hands, slowly leaning forward. Watching her posture, I got the sense of her stomach tightening. I thought she was in pain.
Malva let go of the chair and turned toward me.
Her accent is Midwestern, from growing up listening to Voice of America and Radio Liberty. When she speaks, one assumes she is from Omaha. “Robert,” she said softly, but with a jarring, mechanical tone and crisp grammar. “The chair. Why do you have it here? It does not match the desk. It belongs in your daughter’s room, because the design is the same as the wall candle holders above her bed.”
Her mouth half-open, her blinking brown eyes were the giveaway. I saw there was nothing behind them. I did not know what triggered the PTSD, if it was the lattice design of the chair or perhaps a book my daughter had left behind. I grappled with the why before shifting from searching for an answer, deciding to stick to truth.
I responded, reassuringly, “Honey, she felt comfortable with that chair there. It’s green, and that is her favorite color. The chair does fit with the tan desk. However, she is not here, so I will move it if you want me to.”
I fell into silence, watching her intently for a spark of recognition. I could tell she wasn’t listening. Malva stared past me for perhaps a minute before snapping out of it, asking if I wanted coffee. I was relieved; sometimes Malva breaks into an uncontrolled rage over things like this.
Her eyes begin moving crazily, as if she’s being jolted with an exposed electrical wire. She grasps my hand tightly and I feel the sweat of her palms against mine. We’re sitting on an aluminum bench in Hudson River Park, looking over the river and New Jersey beyond. I am guessing Weehawken, but I never get the cities right. Might as well be Hoboken, for all I know. Malva is almost doubled over across my lap, her profile a foot above my crotch, hair hanging past her cheeks, quivering.
I think Split is triggering her this time, likely the promenade. The only photo from Yugoslavia she allowed me to hang is of her in Split in the mid-1980s. She is wearing a red sweater and pink Gloria Vanderbilt jeans—drainpipes—undergraduate arrogance expressed in her stance, left foot planted firmly on the pavement, leaning bent at the hip, holding her textbooks, looking toward her right, red lips pouting, hair falling over the side, the ends rising from the breeze coming off the Adriatic Sea, wearing white faux Ray-Bans too big for her narrow features. Malva was so soft, sweet, then. I want to know the Malva from then. Split used to be a popular destination for scooter punks and neo-Mods from all over Europe and Japan. I wish I had been one of the few Americans that went, but those were days of different interests. Loved to have danced with her to Northern Soul and British neo-psychedelic bands at the all-nighters in the beachside dance halls, stayed up all night in her tiny apartment in the old city spinning The Jam and The Prisoners, walked the promenade late at night, ridden with her arms around me on a Lambretta scooter like the one in the poster opposite the bed in our room. I regret not kissing the pure, unmarked Malva, her face lineless and memories not so stark and brutal.
I wrap my arms about her, wishing for that girl in pink standing on the Split promenade in 1986, holding onto the woman that she is now as I grapple for the courage to reconcile the two in my mind again.
Two months after returning to work, Malva seizes up like a run-down doll while getting ready to go grocery shopping. It’s sudden. It always is. One moment she was going through her purse for the apartment keys, the next she sat silently, staring ahead. I sit with her for a while, take the keys from her hand, put them back into her purse and place it on the coffee table. I slide my arm over shoulders, stroking her hair like I do when the nightmares occur. Malva leans limp against me. Sometimes she cries as I hold her. Tonight, she doesn’t.
Malva has therapy on Mondays at five, and the Atavin helps take the edge off, so these events are occasional. However, I never get used to them, because I should never be inured to this. I may accept it, but I am not complacent. I learned from my experience as a fatherless man never to ignore or to abandon. I keep the image of that girl in Split. But it is tough.
Soon, she speaks, telling me she needs to lie down. I lead her to the bedroom, kiss her good night.
I get on the bus, headphones on. The music I listen to is from a folder on my iPod I call “Pretty in Pink.” Not original, yet that’s who Malva is to me in that old photograph. Consists of music she remembers from those years, mostly dance pop and post-New-Wave—Heaven 17, Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnyman, Simple Minds, Level 42, The Jam, Modern English—music I believed I was too cool for at that age, except for The Jam. This music conjures the girl on the promenade, making her real to me as I head off to the Trader Joe’s by Union Square.
It takes me nearly an hour to get through the line, running back and forth from the shopping cart, grabbing what’s on the list she wrote out in the cursive only I seem able to read. She kids me that it was this ability that caused her to fall in love with me. On the ride home, I remember the night we met last year, at a bar on Avenue A, talking about Faulkner. She read him in both English and Croatian. Her favorite novel is Light in August. I like The Reivers.
I return home, two heavy paper bags in each hand. After putting everything away, I check on her. Malva is sleeping. I close the door and turn on the hall light. Malva asks that I always leave that light on when her PTSD is triggered. I go into the living room and lie on the couch. I start crying. I need to. It has been a while.
Sometimes I think of the dead woman in the white dress. I remember sitting in a café in Greenwich Village in May of 1995, reading The New York Times, and that photo on the cover. Her mouth open in an expression of surprise, the eyes widened, staring out from and into nothing.
Mike Lee is a writer and photographer based in New York City, and Managing Editor of Public Employee Press, the voice of District Council 37, AFSCME. Previous publications include Paraphilia, Sensitive Skin, Glossolalia and The Potomac Journal. His street photography is featured in online galleries at Photo Vogue and Black and White Street Photography. Website is www.mleephotoart.com. Never bored easily, and suffers fools lightly.
Photo by the author.