At the beginning of April, Little River came over with Milena; he twisted at the waist, pulled his head into his shoulders, smiled as condescendingly as ever, and said: ‘This is my good friend Milena… And this is Lidia, and Danilo. I was telling you about them. Now come meet Granny…’

Until then, Čeda of Little River had shown up daily on Svetosavska to sit; one day Jaglika had a cold, another time she had a headache, on a third day it was her stomach, but Čeda came all the time anyway; he drank coffee with Danilo; read newspapers that he was never the one to purchase; kept asking if we’d like to buy a Japanese upright piano for cheap, some goat suet, also on the cheap, car tyres even cheaper, a complete set of the photo magazine Football totally gratis and a hundred other marvels. ‘But, Lidia, you’ll never have another opportunity like this – it’s an awful piano, so it’s important that you don’t know how to play; you will never be able to buy one so cheaply!’

I think Danilo fell in love with Milena the moment he caught sight of her blonde hair, round face and big chest. For me, though, it took a few days (exactly as many days as Milena turned up with Čeda, to drink coffee, talk and do whatever the hell else the two of them and all of us got up to in the apartment on Svetosavska) to discover, to realize, that the corners of Milena’s mouth rose considerably when she smiled (a child’s hand draws a half-moon the same way, horizontally and with pointy ends) and that the same thing that was happening to Danilo was also happening to me.

While I’m gawking in that dentist’s chair, I’m sitting there all tensed up and waiting… and then first of all I feel a soft touch, and then out of the dentist’s mouth it comes…”

From that moment (when Milena entered our Svetosavska home bashfully) onward (and then when it all looked immovable and enduring) Milena just walked in, she didn’t ring the bell, she didn’t knock, and right from the doorway she began talking; the first thing you saw, the first thing anyone in the world would see, were the raised outlines of Milena’s lips, like a hiked-up skirt revealing a glimpse of leg, (hers, of course), the knit fabric of her socks, and a great flash: ‘Lidka, do you know what happened to me… I was at the dentist’s. I had to wait three hours before I did anything else… and when I finally got to my place in that chair, you know, I closed my eyes in fear. You get it – I always close my eyes, clench my fists, I totally, Lidka, totally tense up my entire body, it’s like I clench my face into a metal rod or a fist, and then for sure it must just look lumpy and… and so contorted… Then it has to be Lidka the ugliest face in the world, but no, not in the world, but anywhere ever… and while I’m gawking in that dentist’s chair, I’m sitting there all tensed up and waiting… and then first of all I feel a soft touch and that’s them tying the white cloth around your neck and then they usually catch your hair in those nickel-plated clips, and then out of the dentist’s mouth it comes… and my eyes are shut the whole time, squeezed shut, all I can do is hear, in truth, what comes out of his mouth: ‘Nothing to be afraid of we’ll go nice and easy here.’ And then, Lida, usually at a moment like that I can also hear little metallic sounds, you know them, the little mirror, the pumps and the other blah-blah-blah and then, Lida… It’s unbelievable but instead of all that I hear somebody like, you know, murmuring something near my face, somebody, you understand, whispering something totally unintelligible, moistly, and instead of the drill and pumps, a little later, in my mouth, the dentist’s huge slimy tongue, Lidka, it was awesome… for a moment my mouth was puffed up by the dentist’s tongue and by those cellulose pads and I couldn’t breathe for just a moment…

Dvoje (And Love Has Vanished) by Aleksandar Petrovic. Avala Film, Yugoslavia, 1961. Wikimedia Commons

But it all lasted for only a second, no, no, but even so it had been a good several seconds when the dentist pulled out his tongue. I opened my eyes and with my fingers I fished out the pads and started to giggle, and Lidia if you only could have seen that perfectly confused, 100 per cent confused dentist’s face in that instant, he was holding those you know little tools and in a whisper, he totally like whispered a couple of times that we should get together later that day, it was mandatory that we see each other… and then I, Lidka, just imagine, it’s like, it was hideous, I had to try so hard not to burst, I mean just straight up burst into laughter, and then I just told him sweetly, coquettishly, you know what I mean, you know how it’s supposed to go, otherwise they get pissed off, and Lida he definitely would have been angry. I told him that first he should fix my left #6, my right #3… and then we’ll see about a little rendezvous and then I added once more terribly flirtatiously, that I didn’t have anything against that… So, you know, Lida, in truth I have nothing against it, but on the contrary, it would only be like I’d love to postpone it till after the six and the three and the four and so on, in general… And then, Lida, he got down to business: first of all he washed out of my mouth with that spluttering little pump all the slime and spit since a lot of his spit was in my mouth, I had never seen before, swear to God, seen, and I mean I have never seen, like, I didn’t know that so much spit could be secreted, as if he were a dog, Lida it was so totally loco, I thought that I was going to drown for a second, just for a second… and when he washed everything out of my mouth that way, and with the pads tremendously carefully wiped the remnants of the water off my chin, he picked up the drill and repaired one of my whole teeth, a half hour, I didn’t get up for a half hour, it was unreal, and then Lida, when I started moving to leave, he stood like two meters away from me as if he’d become scared and it was crazy unpleasant for him, and Lidia I seriously thought, first the teeth and then the rendezvous, and he, do you understand Lida, he was beetroot-red and then, a moment or two later, while the nurse was scheduling my follow-up, you understand, when I said goodbye and the rest of it, you know already, he said not a word, nothing at all and so, Lida, it was great fun, the most fun imaginable, if you don’t count the overabundance of spit, but I don’t understand why he changed his mind once things were rolling… Lida…’

When she finished telling me the story about the dentist’s tongue and all the rest of it, Milena was already naked, with skin that glowed in all directions and filled the entire room, and it took my breath away for a moment, just like with all fools in similar situations, or better: like all fools who have anything to do with Milena, with Milena’s skin; and besides that there was the chill of the room; Milena had goose bumps, and so it looked like the tiny needles on her skin very nearly blocked off the entire room. A few moments later, after I lost my head just as the dentist had done, Milena said brusquely, in a commanding tone, that she wanted to sleep and that I should stop delaying, a big job was waiting, but what job (asks the prisoner – me), and my master (Milena) lifted yet again (the corners of her mouth as if this were about her skirt, exactly like that), stretched out beneath my awkward and unnecessary arms, and went to sleep; very quickly I felt the pins and needles start in my arm, but I was unable, yes, I simply could not be so bold as to pull it out, take it away, to save it from this great white load – the whole of untouched Milena, because she would wake up just as easily as she fell asleep. And the anger of the master and the humility of the slave, of course, work just like that; so then it’s better like this: a numbed arm, underneath the master’s back.

from Dogs and Others (Istros Books, £9.99)

 

Biljana Jovanović  (1953–1996) was a Serbian intellectual who published poetry, novels, plays and non-fiction pieces mostly connected to her time in the anti-Milošević opposition of the 1990s. After studying philosophy at the University of Belgrade, she was an early and active member of a number of important human rights groups in Yugoslavia. She was also an organiser and participant in a number of major anti-war campaigns and demonstrations, and helped found an underground workshop/university. She died in Ljubljana at the age of 43. Dogs and Others, translated by John K. Cox, is out now in paperback from Istros Books.
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A death in the neighbourhood: On the work of Biljana Jovanović
by John K. Cox

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