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David Albahari | from:Serbian

The Pajamas

Translated by : Ellen Elias Bursać

Image via weheartit

Introduction by Dina Katan Ben-Zion

The story “The Pajamas” appears in a collection of short stories titled “Shadows” (Senke), published in 2006 by the Serbian-Jewish author David Albahari (born 1948). Albahari, world-renowned writer, has received many important literary awards and his books have been translated into several languages. The pajamas, an intimate and almost banal clothing item, serves in this story as both a simple and sophisticated metaphor of the human condition, of awareness of the body’s mortality, which increases and exacerbates at the sight of blooming youth and in the presence of the unattainable object of desire, stirring under embarrassing circumstances and exposing the tragic gap between the possible and the unachievable.

The plot of this minute yet weighty story takes place before us in the home bathroom, another intimate and almost banal space, and reveals with brutal innocence and without prejudice the truth of the aging body confronted with the young body in its prime. In the hands of the skilled writer such “large” subjects, which stand at the heart of the drama in the everyman’s life, become the object of ironic observation, whose symbols in this story are heart-rending: Walt Disney figures printed on old, worn-out pajamas, which were given to the protagonist by his wife who had left him many years earlier, and who is growing more and more distant still. In the reader’s mind the pajamas turn into a visual representation of the rift between the partners and a symbol of longing for the unattainable and of the painful acceptance of the silent reclusion of a body doomed to age desolate. This state—primarily in its mental aspect—aggravates in the forced presence of the young generation, who, in their natural affability and in the exuberant passion pulsing through their bodies, render the protagonist naked and exposed, both physically and emotionally, subjected to the memory of the warmth that the printed Disney characters once granted him in the distant past. With eyes wide open, with faint humor and with wisdom that seeks no condolences, the story’s protagonist stares directly at the existential condition of a man whose wife had abandoned him, whose older son lives in his apartment and holds his occasional trysts with young women there. The encounters with them during sleepless nights further expose the gaping void in the father’s life, a void which can no longer be mended. The story courageously casts a direct gaze at one of the most painful and threatening processes in our lives, delicately illustrating the advance of passion in its prime—short-lived and impotent. He does so with grace, irony and restraint that enhance the experience of the reader, who is exposed to the laws of transience that govern our lives and apply at all times, everywhere and in every human condition.

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The years have taken their toll: I wake up at night more often, and then, bereft of sleep, I go to the bathroom, perch on the bathtub, and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I used to roam the house, I’d go from room to room, turn on the television, turn it off, open the fridge and eat, but since my son’s friends have started staying over, I have condemned myself to staying in the bathroom. Balding, with a potbelly and legs streaked with veins, I couldn’t bear encounters with those young, muscular bodies, tanned faces framed in a full head of hair, and gleaming teeth that shone in the semi-dark of the hall as we passed each other. The boys were always polite: when they saw the light on in the bathroom they’d use the other toilet, by the kitchen, and leave me to my insomnia and attempts at fishing for a remedy in the medicine cabinet.

But last night, just as I was standing, legs planted apart, over the toilet bowl, emptying my bladder, the bathroom door opened and a young woman I had never seen before appeared in the doorway. Her hair was tousled, her make-up slightly smudged, and she was wearing a large white T-shirt which reached to her knees and under which, I sensed, she had nothing on. Her eyes were half-closed as she stepped into the bathroom, as if still half-asleep, or, which I more readily believed, under the sway of a just-smoked joint, so that only after her second step did she realize someone else was there. She stopped, her eyes widened, and her right hand flew up to smooth her hair. Meanwhile, powerless to change anything, I kept right on urinating noisily, feeling a blush rising over my face. The young woman finally woke up, as was clearly visible on her face, and her gaze dropped to my member. I looked at it, too, then shook it carefully and tucked it back into my pajama bottoms. The pajamas were old, with holes in the crotch and armpits, but I hoped those would go unnoticed.

“Hey,” said the girl, “nice equipment.”

I wasn’t sure what she was referring to. “What equipment,” I asked, “where?”

“That,” said the girl and waved at my belly, which was protected by Goofy and Mickey Mouse.

My pajamas had Disney characters all over them. I had been given them several years before by my wife: she went to the States as a Fulbright fellow, came back with the pajamas, then went there again. She said she was going for professional advancement, but never said what had to be advanced. She’d get in touch at odd intervals to ask after Dejan, our son, and whether her goldfish was still alive. She never asked after me, and she never exactly answered my question of when she’d be coming back. It’s not time yet, she’d say, or she’d just chuckle and quietly hang up.

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Meanwhile the young woman came right over and I had to step back. “Hey,” she said, “I don’t bite, no worries, all I want to do is what you were doing. I assume you don’t stand guard all night by the toilet bowl?”

I moved aside to let her pass, but the bathroom suddenly shrank, became crowded, and her elbow brushed my belly. The girl hiked up her T-shirt and sat down on the toilet. I was right: she wasn’t wearing anything underneath.

“I am Vedrana,” said the girl while the stream of her urine splashed the water.

“I am Dejan’s father,” I answered.

“So I take it,” said the girl, “that Dejan is the guy sleeping in the next room?”

“Yes,” I said, “Dejan is my son.”

“Good-looking guy,” replied the young woman. “He said right away he only lived with his father.” She tore off two sheets of toilet paper and wiped between her legs. “So what happened to his mother? Did she die?” She dropped the paper into the toilet bowl and stood up. She scratched her belly button before she dropped her T-shirt, and in that brief moment I could see that her pubic hair was shaved.

“She didn’t die,” I said, “she just lives far away from here.

“In Australia?” asked the young woman. “Or New Zealand?”

“America,” I answered.

“America is not far away,” said the girl, “especially New York.”

“I don’t know where she is,” I answered. I could hear my voice quaver.

The young woman heard it, too. She came a little closer, reached over to touch a Goofy right over my heart. “She gave you these pajamas, didn’t she?” She moved her finger to the right and stopped at my left nipple, where there was a Mickey Mouse. She ran her finger around it gently and I felt my member slowly swelling. “Don’t you think,” the young woman went on, “that you are a little big for Goofy and Mickey?”

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I grabbed her by the wrist and pushed her hand away. “There are those,” I said, “who never grow up.”

Then the door to the bathroom opened and there was Dejan. He, too, was wearing a large white T-shirt, his hair was tousled, his eyes bloodshot and his lips chapped. “What’s going on here,” he asked, “can’t a person get any sleep in this house?” He looked at me, then at the young woman, and then he looked down at my erect member which made Goofy and Mickey Mouse look like images in a warped mirror. “What is the world coming to,” he said, “a father steals a girl from his son. Does that make any sense? And you,” he looked at the young woman, “what is your name again?”

“Vedrana,” said the girl.

“It’s not her fault,” I barged in. “I was in the bathroom when she came in, and we spent a few minutes in conversation. Nothing happened,” I finished, evading Dejan’s gaze.

“Nothing is ever going to happen to a person who wears pajamas like those,” said Dejan. He inspected me from head to toe. “You’re missing Donald Duck,” he concluded. “Did you notice,” he turned to the young woman, “there’s no Donald Duck?”

“If there is someone missing,” said the young woman, “it’s Duckie.”

I looked at her and she winked back.

“You two are thick as thieves,” said Dejan, “should I go?”

“You stay,” said the young woman, “I am going.” She patted my face. “Look after the equipment,” she said, “Duckie will be back one of these days.”

“My room is the one on the right,” said Dejan after her, “don’t be going the wrong way. Excuse me,” he turned to me, “I’ve got to pee.”

“Sure,” I said, “that’s what everyone does here.”

While he was moving past me he brushed my stomach with his elbow in the same place the girl had. Unlike her, he didn’t want me to watch him urinate, so he stood sideways to the toilet bowl. He urinated long and loud, and as far as I could tell he, too, had nothing on under the white T-shirt. When he’d finished, he looked in the mirror, bared his teeth, licked his lips. “Hell,” he said when our eyes met, “if this were any other girl you could have her, but she’s one snarky snake woman and I’m not finished with her yet. What did she say her name was?”

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“Vedrana,” I said.

“Vedrana,” he repeated. “Nice name.”

I said nothing.

Dejan shot me a thoughtful glance. “Is it that you dislike her,” he asked, “or are you angry at me about something?”

“Why would I be angry at you?”

He shrugged. “Dunno,” he said, “aren’t fathers and sons supposed to be bickering all the time?”

“We never fight,” I answered.

“Maybe that’s what we’re doing wrong,” Dejan went on, “maybe we should be harder on each other.” He came closer and inspected me from head to toe again. “She’s right,” he said, “no Donald Duck.”

“So what now,” I asked, “should I throw these pajamas out?”

“You’ve been wearing them for six years,” he said, “maybe the time really has come for them to go into the trash.”

The two of us fell silent. I don’t know what Dejan was thinking, but I was imagining my pajamas in the trash can, and then I saw the garbage men picking them up and shaking them out, and how one of them slipped his middle finger out through the hole in the crotch. I could clearly see the finger wiggling forward and back, like a worm, while the other garbage men snickered.

“Well, then,” said Dejan, “off I go.”

“I’ll stay here a while longer,” I said.

Dejan raised his right hand in parting, smiled, and left. He came right back. “I forgot to tell you,” he said, “Mom called last night.”

“What did she say?”

“Nothing.”

“She can’t have said nothing.”

Dejan thought for a minute. “No,” he said, “she didn’t say anything.”

Nothing is nothing, there was no point in insisting on this any further. Dejan left, I perched on my old spot on the bathtub and stared at my face in the mirror. Then I got up, stripped off the pajamas and dropped them into the waste basket. I didn’t know whether I felt any better, all I knew was that I was colder. Loud laughter could be heard from Dejan’s room, and later, when I was back in my own room, I heard how his bed was creaking in the regular rhythm of intercourse. I ought to put something on, I thought, but I couldn’t think of a single item of clothing. I closed my eyes, clenched my fists, and gave myself over to the cold that climbed up my legs, I stood there waiting for silence to reign in the house.

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