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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

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Stefan ÇAPALIKU

Stefan ÇAPALIKU

Webdesign J. Groß

Stefan ÇAPALIKU

 

AN AMERICAN DREAM

1.

    "I'm going to sell my car and move to America. There is nothing left for me here. There's no sense in it anymore ... My wife and daughter are living there and I am stuck with my parents back here. It doesn't make any sense. I've done enough for them. I know they are getting old, but they've also got my sister, not just me. Let her take care of them for a change. That's the only solution. After all, you only have one life. What do you think?"
     These are the words I hear almost every morning from my neighbour, right after I leave my apartment building. He knows that I have my morning coffee at the cafe next door and is on the lookout for me every day. I am pretty sure that sooner or later I am going to have to change cafes. I haven't changed up to now because I believed what he said, that he would very soon sell his car, abandon his parents and finally join his wife and daughter in America.
     But every morning, his old car, that Fiat Uno, remains parked out front. In the cafe sits Cufi with his moustache, and over my balcony hangs the washing of his devoted mother.
     I enter the cafe for my morning coffee, never in my life having drunk it at home, and Cufi pulls back a chair for me to sit on. The place is usually full of people I know. Cufi normally gets there at least an hour beforehand and waits for me, all his brilliant conversation being ignored by the people at the surrounding tables. He gives me a hearty welcome, in particular since I'm usually the one who pays for his morning coffee.
     "Yes, Cufi... you're right... sell your car... leave your parents at your sister's place and get away... Your wife and daughter are waiting for you." This, as you can imagine, is my daily spiel before I bid him farewell and set off for work.

2.

    I didn't know Cufi's wife. I had never even seen her... until he showed me her photograph one fine morning during the couple of minutes we spent at the cafe. I was thunderstruck, but I collected myself immediately. I pretended to be indifferent and to be staring at the waiter who was coming over with the bill.
     "How can I get this photo enlarged? Where do they do that?" Cufi asked me right off.
     "No problem," I replied, "I can scan it at my office. What format do you want it in?"
     Cufi replied simply, "Make it as big as you can," and handed me the photo. I took it, seemingly indifferent, and put it in the inside pocket of my jacket.
     "What's your wife's name, Cufi?"
     "Anna," he replied, enunciating the two "a"s differently from one another.
     "Anna? Alright. I'll try to get it done as soon as possible," I replied as I turned to leave.
     God, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on! As soon as I got away from the cafe, I took the photo carefully out of my jacket and stared at it, without paying attention to where I was going. She was stunning. It was a silhouette portrait. She had her blonde hair tied up, and her lush lips were pressed against one another ever so gently. She had high cheekbones and large, green eyes. Cufi's wife was the ideal woman. She was the being ever man longed for in moments of fantasy.
     "I'm going to sell my car and move to America. There is nothing left for me here. It doesn't make any sense ... What do you think?" I recalled Cufi's words. Who is this guy who hangs on here and doesn't try to get back to her as quickly as possible?
     When I got to the office later, holding her photo in my hand, it occurred to me to buy his car, finance a home for his parents and tell him: "Go ahead! What are you waiting for? After all, you only have one life. Get going!" It was with these thoughts that I began work...

3.

    "You always luck out," said my boss as we stood at the top of the staircase. "I just get more and more bills and taxes to pay. You'll have to go to America in my place. Washington. Get the ticket yourself and go, tomorrow if you can. I have to be here to receive a high-level delegation. Damn it!" he continued, before entering his office.
     Washington! I had just seen the word written on the back of the photo of Cufi's wife, Anna. Washington! And I was supposed to travel the very next day. I had no time left, not a minute. All I could do was put the photo back into my jacket and head home.
     I didn't even have time to tell Cufi what had happened. I phoned my wife and began groping around in the upper shelves of the clothes closet for a suitcase. I also had to get my ticket and make the usual arrangements. My wife was not particularly fond of my sudden business trips, but she knew better than anyone else what a travelling husband needed.

4.

    When I got to the little airport, I discovered that I still had Anna's photo with me. It was in the inside pocket of my jacket where I usually keep my plane ticket and passport. They were all travelling together, the photo in my passport, her photo and the ticket, which was the means of shortening the distance between us.
     It was not the first time that I had crossed the Atlantic. I knew what a torture it was, realizing full well that I was not one of those fortunate individuals who could sleep all the way, not even one of those who could immerse himself in a book for the length of the journey. On the contrary, I sat there, drowsy and confused, and entered a reality of my own creation, one which alternately elated and depressed me, but from which I inevitably emerged with a backache.
     My confusion during this flight had almost reached the surreal. It was assisted no doubt by the fine weather, not a cloud in the sky, and by the strangely transparent atmosphere. From the time we left the continent, I stared out of the window at the shimmer of light moving along the surface of the ocean. And to follow that shimmer from an altitude of ten thousand metres means that it was really moving quickly. Then I closed my eyes and... later... in a light slumber, I began to imagine that the shimmer of light on the ocean below me was Cufi's car. Cufi had set off for America in his Fiat and, at the speed he was travelling, was likely to arrive before me. Even though he was in a Fiat, he was dressed like a pirate from the Middle Ages. He had lost one eye in the vanguard of a battle. The empty socket was covered by a black leather patch which was tied around the back of his head by a strap. He had a sash at his waist and was suitably armed: a dagger, a steel hook for boarding vessels, the type of hook which had gouged out his missing eye, and a pair of pincers to cut the throat of any sea captain who got in his way. I was not sure whether or not Cufi still had both arms. He was, at any rate, haughtier than I had ever seen him and had obviously changed his mind at the last minute and decided not to sell his car.
     Later on, there was a moment when he looked up and recognized me. We gave one another an unusually friendly smile and waved, both acutely aware of what we were up to...

5.

    The important meeting which had brought me so urgently to America lasted only two days, but they were so crammed with activity that I hardly had time to come up for breath. I only had one free day and would have to fly back home on the next. As I had nothing particularly important to say at the meeting, I remember spending my time thinking about where I would go on the third day. I got back to the hotel, exhausted after a dinner offered by the organizers. It must have been after midnight, though it was early morning by European time. Although I was desperately tired, I couldn't get to sleep at all. Alone, with my clothes scattered from one end of the room to the other, I remembered the photo. It was there on the dressing table. I took it and had another look. On the back side, there was something written: a name, an address and a telephone number. Everything was at my disposal: a telephone, her number, I myself, she herself, the desire taking hold of me, and the photo. It was simply the time of day, or rather of night, which was out of line. "You have time on your hands tomorrow, don't you?" I asked myself. I did, but she might be at work and... and that would mean it would all be in vain. I did not even really understand my motive for needing to contact Cufi's wife.
     "Hello? Anna...? I'm sorry to bother you. I realize it's late, but... I'm... I just got here from Tirana and am only staying for a short time, actually just till tomorrow. And I thought you might have something you wanted me to take back for Cufi, or ... if there's anything else I could do for you."
     "How kind of you! Thanks very much. It would be a pleasure to meet you. It's been such a long time and I've been getting homesick... for Tirana and everything. Tomorrow? Tell me where you want us to meet and at what time..." I heard her gentle, longing voice at the other end of the line.
     I told her it would be convenient for us to meet at nine o'clock at the entrance to the Philips Collection, which was near my hotel.
     "How will I recognize you?" she inquired.
     "Oh, don't worry. I have a photo of you. I will recognize you right away."

6.

    I left the hotel at ten to nine, having spent almost the whole night wide awake, yet I felt a sense of release. I had nothing to take with me, no briefcase, nothing, and strolled down the road with my hands in my pockets. I was leaning against one of the columns at the entrance and would have felt like a local, had not a tall, thin man passed by and greeted me in Russian with a "zdrastvuye." I smiled and answered him in Albanian. It then occurred to me that I had chosen the worst possible moment for our meeting because everyone was on his way to work. Masses of people were entering the building. This caused me to take the photo of Cufi's wife out of my pocket once more and have another glance at it. I watched the flow of people shuffling along. She was not going to keep the appointment, and I had the impression of being in one of those romances where you wait and wait in vain.
     It was twenty past nine and there were still lots of people passing by, but she was not among them. She had not shown up. I took another look at the photo to assure myself that none of the pedestrians resembled her. It was at nine-thirty that I caught sight of a small, thinnish woman in her forties. She looked weary as she approached and asked: "Hello, are you Albanian?" and then pronounced my name.
     "I am Cufi's wife, Anna." she said.
     Cufi's wife! Anna! She did not look like the woman in the photo at all. She was a completely different person.
     I was dazed. I felt a numbness in my limbs and a dryness in my mouth. I don't know what impression I made on her, but I imagine I must have looked like someone who had just been jolted out of a deep sleep.
     "How are you?" she asked, as she shook my hand.
     "You didn't recognize me at all," she added. "I have been standing here for over half an hour," and smiled.
     "It that right? Me, too."
     She seemed to sense the confusion and numbness within me.
     "I wanted to tell you last night, but I forgot. I wanted to tell you that you could not possibly recognize me from a photo. I have changed a lot..."
     "No, you haven't," I muttered.
     "Yes, I have. It's true... Young girls, girls are like the breeze..." she replied with a rueful look.
     I was still bewildered as we strolled along the pavement. She was the only one to speak. I had forgotten everything I had wanted to say, both the compliments and Cufi's plans to sell his car and get back to his family.
     In the end, she seemed to have had enough of me, lifeless idiot that I was, and did the best thing she could have done at that moment. She turned and shook my hand.
     "All the best. Sorry I took up your time. It would be better not to say anything to Cufi... Have a good flight..."

7.

    I returned home the next day, filled with a sense of anguish and incredulity about what had taken place. I even forgot to buy something for my wife and the children. Nothing. I was completely exhausted.
     The plane arrived early in the morning and I was home by about seven. I greeted everyone, had a glass of milk as usual, and left the house to go to work.
     Cufi was waiting for me at the cafe. He offered me a chair and I joined him.
     "I haven't seen you around," he said.
     "I've been late for work the last couple of days. I wasn't feeling too well... That's why. What about you?"
     "I'm fine. Nothing special. But I've decided to sell my car and move to America. There is nothing left for me here. It doesn't make any sense ... My wife and daughter are living there and I am stuck with my parents back here. There's no sense in it. I've done enough for them. I know they are getting old, but they've also got my sister, not just me. Let her take care of them for a change. That's the only solution. After all, you only have one life. What do you think?"

[Një ëndërr amerikane, 2004, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]

 

THE SINS OF THE BITTEN

1.

    It was in geography class, the first lesson on a Monday morning, when the classroom door opened. I was sitting at the front bench near the entrance. This was the only class where I sat up front. It was a rather chivalrous gesture on my part, as if to tell the teacher and anyone else: "Here I am and I ain't afraid of nuthin'!" Geography was a subject I really liked and I had already learned most of the map of the political world by heart. On that Monday, I was almost looking forward to the teacher calling out my name and summoning me to the blackboard, when the door flew open.
     It was an extremely rare event for the classroom door to open during a lesson, so it made an impression. In came the vice-principal with a man dressed in a white jacket. The former, a tall and portly fellow with a flabby chin and a long, thin moustache, whispered something to the geography teacher and then turned to us:
     "The dentists have come to visit our school. They've brought their instruments with them and are going to check all of you, one after the other!"
     Showing off his false teeth, he added: "Mens sana in corpore sano" which he hastened to translate as: "A healthy mind in a healthy body."
     I was petrified and cowered behind my desk. I don't know what happened to me, but I was completely absent-minded from that moment on. The man dressed in white turned into a phantom.
     The vice-principal took the register and read out the first five names. I was number two on his list. He smiled briefly, twitched his whiskers and continued:
     "Those of you who heard their names read out, go with the doctor right away. The others will go later, one after the other."
     I got up. The others rose, too, and we proceeded into the narrow corridor, passing the phantom.
     Aleks, the boy next door who I always played with during summer holidays and who was the third on the list, gave me a look. I glanced back at him.
     "They brought their instruments with them," whispered Aleks to me. "They're going to kill us."
     While we were shuffling down the long hallway, I took a deep breath and uttered:
     "Let's run away!"
     "OK," said Aleks and we took a sudden turn left, the way you took to go out to the sports field and to the girls' washroom.
     The phantom did not notice, nor did the three girls who blithely surrounded him. All we had to do was wait until the geography class was over and then return to the classroom. Aleks had an apple in his pocket which we took turns biting into. Maybe we had been saved.

2.

    I had been chosen to hold the main speech at the National Debate on Cultural Policies, to accompany delegations of foreign experts, and to organize dinner parties and the minutes of the meetings, in short, to do everything. In the midst of all the stress, as I was gobbling down my combined lunch and supper at home, a disaster occurred. Both of my bridges, which a country dentist had painlessly installed some five years earlier, fractured. I was paralysed. I could not open my mouth and was thus in a rather tragicomical situation. Most of my teeth - front and back, upper and lower - had fallen out.
     I was in despair and had a terrible night, hardly sleeping a wink.
     "Get to the dentist, right away!" ordered my wife the next morning, as the children giggled in the corner of the room.
     I phoned a colleague who had just had his teeth done, telling him of my misfortune. We arranged to meet at a coffee shop near the office and, from there, to go together to his dentist.
     "She is a real master of the trade and she won't hurt at all. She tries her best not to cause any pain," the colleague assured me.
     I kept my mouth closed all the way to the dentist's office, greeting acquaintances with a nod and an odd grimace which tried to be a smile. I looked like a fool while my companion chewed his gum with all his sparkling, white teeth.
     We arrived. The silhouette of a thin woman appeared at the smoked-glass door.
     "That's her," murmured my friend, as we entered without knocking. I stood at the doorway, my limbs numb.
     My companion presented me in lavish, baroque terms which degenerated into rococo. I blushed at what he'd said and thought to myself: "Why do I feel like this? Why couldn't he have taken me to a male dentist, even some brute with loutish hands?" But I had no time to ponder. I shook her hand, giving her a crooked, almost toothless smile.
     "Have a seat," she said in a low voice.
     "I sat down and endeavoured to speak. "I am in a real predicament. I mean, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki!"
     She laughed, washing her hands in the nearby sink.
     "And he's a real chicken!" exclaimed my companion, trying to break the ice.
     "Yes, I can see that," replied the dentist. "Otherwise he would not have come at such a late hour."
     The words "would not have come at such a late hour" rang in my ears, but I had no time to reflect on any ulterior meaning.

3.

    When we got back to the classroom, after the first lesson of the day, the vice-principal, the home-room teacher and the geography teacher were all standing there waiting for us. Three wrathful faces, ready for the attack, as if some natural disaster had occurred.
     "Aleks we know. But we did not expect such behaviour of you. How did you dare disobey the vice-principal's order?" screamed the home-room teacher.
     How we'd dared to disobey the vice-principal's order, neither Aleks nor I could supply an answer.
     "You disappeared during class?" added the geography teacher.
     Aleks and I were in deep trouble and felt the huge hands of the vice-principal tugging at our ear lobes, as he hurled: "I'll get them to rip all your molars out!"
     He dragged both of us by the ears down to the dentist's office, his false teeth glittering in satisfaction. "You deserters! Now see where you've landed! Give 'em hell!"
     The dentist looked at us in disgust as if we had come from a mule pen or from another planet.
     "Sit down," he shouted. "Open your mouth! Cavities in two premolars and in one canine tooth. You are going to need large fillings."
     Oh Lord, take pity! What were premolars and canines, and what did he mean by large fillings? I could make no sense of it. Suddenly I heard the whining of a motor and felt a metallic sphere spinning in my open mouth.
     My brain went numb and I remember nothing else, aside from Aleks' screams as he sat down where I had been sitting, that is, in the dentist's chair, and the wad of cotton stuck up my nose.

4.

    "Let me introduce myself. I am Anna," said the dentist in a soft voice.
     I mumbled my name in reply. She smiled and sat down on the little rotating stool in front of me.
     "Now, open your mouth so that we can see your Hiroshima," she continued, smiling again and sticking her instruments into my mouth.
     I was totally embarrassed and did not know which way to look. My glance was fixed on the my companion whose neck was also craned to study me, as if he were examining some old watch.
     "They did a bad job on you. Really bad, but I will see what I can do... So, what do you mean 'chicken', eh? You're not really frightened, are you?"
     She asked all the questions while I had my mouth open and could not answer.
     The panic did not last as long as I had suspected. I began to calm down, especially when she leaned over me to get something out of the drawer on the other side. I don't know. It was probably by accident, but her breasts slid across my chest and gave me an erotic sensation I had never experienced before. Damn! There I was with my mouth open, terrorized by the calvary awaiting me and, in the midst of it all... lust!
     She smiled once again and told me that I would have to come back the next morning. I was confused. I wanted to reveal to my companion what I had felt, but decided not to. I was afraid that he would repeat his famous remark about biting only being a sin for those with no teeth.

5.

    I told you the story of my childhood experience with dentists simply to clarify that I do not believe what people say about early experiences influencing you for the whole course of your life. Only people who are real conformists adhere to that belief, and I dislike their sort. My experience has taught me the opposite. I began enjoying the visits to my dentist, Anna.
     She continued to give me appointments at odd hours of the day, at times when no one else was present at the clinic. She cleaned all my remaining teeth and massaged my gums. I cowered at the sight of her needle. Once, she used a full three ampoules of anaesthetic for one tooth. The only thing which Anna refused to do was extract the molars.
     "For the extractions, I will refer you to another doctor. He is experienced and has done that sort of thing all his life. Don't worry, he's a real pro." "Alright," I replied. "You're the expert." I had put my entire soul into her hands.
     She continued to touch me more and more during subsequent appointments, but she changed her tactics. Not only did her breasts slide over my chest with increasing frequency, but she would raise one leg while mixing the amalgam, and her thigh, firm but fleshy, brushed against my shoulder. I began to tremble every time she came near me. But nothing came of it. I had to sit there with my mouth open and try the best I could to keep my teeth dry of spit. The torture continued.
     During another appointment, when she had verified that the freezing from the needle had taken effect on my lips, Anna bent down to get something from the other side of the chair and I felt her thighs touch my knees ever so briefly. She smiled, and I grimaced tastelessly from the freezing.

6.

    We went to the elder dentist the next day. The moment I saw the old man with the grey hair, I was convinced that he was the one who had been my first dentist at school. I was sure I recognized him and began trembling at the doorway.
     "Here he is, doctor. This friend of mind needs to have a molar extracted. It's this one," she said, pointing to the x-ray.
     "Hmm," he snarled, and then whispered something to Anna in a low voice. "Have a seat," he said, turning to me.
     I sat down. The same ritual. Me with my mouth wide open, and the dentist wielding various instruments in his hands. He glowered and took out a long needle with a thick point, the thickest I had ever seen.
     "Open wider," he growled. I opened as wide as I could until my jaws began aching. He thrust the needle somewhere into my throat and I felt a mind-boggling pain. I groaned as he removed it and cast the needle into a receptacle.
     "It is going to hurt. The tooth is infected, so it has to come out," he snarled again.
     Anna, who was still with me, came even closer. She was gentle. She took my hand as she would a child's, and gave me a small, white handkerchief. "I am here at your side," she whispered gently. "We are here together..."
     I had trouble comprehending, and could not react. My sight dimmed, even though I was staring at Anna. I looked up for pity and... the moment of truth arrived. He thrust his pincers into my mouth and began yanking at the molar. I thought I would die. He pulled and pushed, but the tooth would not budge. The pain was unbearable. I was quaking. He seemed to be yanking everything out of my being - my head, my heart, my stomach... everything. He stuck his thick arm with all the veins into my throat, my esophagus, down into my guts. I screamed and cried, yet my voice was feeble. Then, a little bit of something spewed out of my mouth.
     "Shit!" he hissed loudly.
     I turned pale. I was growing numb and started shaking, having convulsions. I could no longer control my limbs, in particular the lower ones. They were bobbing around. I was lost.
     "It must come out!" he cried like a savage beast, and repeatedly thrust his pincers into my lacerated maw.
     Incoherently, I drifted in and out of consciousness. I shivered and shook. My legs were twitching electrically like the cut-off tail of a lizard. It was a cataclysm. Then I dimly saw Anna mount me. She positioned her ass somewhere down below my lifeless belly. Spreading herself over me, she seemed to squeeze me and spasmodically contorted in one final act, and then... it was over.

[Mëkatet e të kafshuarit, 2004, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]