The Perfect Housewarming Gift is White-Hot Envy

"The Vase" by Rumena Bužarovska, recommended by Electric Literature

broke blue plate

Introduction by Halimah Marcus

“The Vase” by Rumena Bužarovska is a delicious comedy of manners, rife with aspirational friendships and apartment envy. Bužarovska, a best-selling author in the former Yugoslavia, has been hailed as “the author behind North Macedonia’s #MeToo movement” by The Calvert Journal for her involvement in starting the Macedonian version of the hashtag. In 2020, Dalkey Archive Press released a translation of Bužarovska’s My Husband, a collection of eleven stories about the personal and intimate effects of patriarchy in North Macedonia. Her sales from her Serbian publisher are equaled only by translations of Ferrante and Houellebecq—which is to say that if you haven’t read Bužarovska, you are missing out. 

Translated by Steven Edgar Bradbury in collaboration with the author, “The Vase” treats us to the kind of drama that erupts in competitive social circles. The narrator, Svetlana, and her boyfriend Nino live in a rundown apartment where they bide their time, waiting for Nino’s mother to die so that they can move somewhere nicer with the inheritance. They are broke but not poor—a significant distinction—and Svetlana covets expensive pillows and home decor the way a starving person might crave salt and fat. 

A looming housewarming party at an apartment that is sure to be much tonier than theirs sends Svetlana into a spiral of gift-giving anxiety. What does a person buy for the couple who has everything?—Tanya, “the great feminist, taking her husband’s name,” and Kire, who “puts up with her sentimental shit” because she has an “amazing body.” Leaving the store, after purchasing a gift she can’t afford and that her friends won’t even like, she drops her change on the ground, coin by coin, cosplaying as a rich woman who could care less. 

Svetlana’s flare for the dramatic pays off for the reader, as her entitlement reaches a boiling point at the housewarming. (Suffice to say if one of your friends behaved the way Svetlana does at this party, it would light up the group chat for weeks.) But even as Bužarovska lovingly pokes fun at her narrator, it never feels cruel or unfair. Svetlana is judgmental and hot-headed, occasionally mean, and yet she is too well-characterized to be the butt of a joke. Maybe you’ll see in her the worst parts of yourself reflected, the hungry ghost inside you howling to be understood.

– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-chief, Recommended Reading

The Perfect Housewarming Gift is White-Hot Envy

“The Vase” by Rumena Bužarovska

They want to give us the grand tour of the apartment, that’s how Tanya and Kire put it. “We just moved in last week and we’re almost done with everything,” Tanya is speaking so loudly into the receiver I have to hold the phone away from my ear. I can hear Kire yapping in the background. Here’s something I really hate: I’m on the phone and someone can’t stop yammering and doesn’t give a shit that I’m trying to have a conversation. “Have them come early, before it gets dark!” Kire barks, which is swiftly followed by Tanya’s loud repetition, “Yes, come early, come at seven, before it gets dark!”

Nino is sitting next to me, puzzling through a crossword puzzle. I nudge him and roll my eyes. He shrugs and then finally sniffs. “Alright then, we’ll see you soon!” I say, happy to hang up.

“God,” I groan. “She must’ve ruptured my eardrum. You could hear her, right?”

Nino nods.

“I hate housewarmings. Nino, are you listening? We need to get them something. It’s tomorrow.”

“Well, you know, we’re not exactly swimming in money,” he says without taking his eyes off the puzzle. The reading glasses he bought at a stall at the farmer’s market a month ago were poised at the tip of his nose. He only wears them at home because he didn’t want people to know he was growing old.

“I know,” I say, thinking of the thousand-denar bill I kept hidden in the side pocket of my purse in case I need to go for a drink or have the urge to buy something. And, of course, there are those three hundred euros I’ve set aside in a separate account. You never know what can come up. Nino doesn’t think about these things. Sometimes I wonder if he does know I’ve set aside a little something and is at ease because he believes this money is for the two of us, for hard times, God forbid. “This means we’re going to have to tighten our belts,” I add.

I wince at the thought of all the potato-stew, beans, and lentil soup we’ll be forced to eat for days on end. And there’ll be no more going out for drinks or coffee, even on the weekend, which is just around the corner. And we can’t invite anyone over for drinks, unless they brought their own liquor, which we could never ask them to do, because it would be so embarrassing. Not that any of our friends are much better off. Sometimes I feel they only want to come over to get a free drink.

We sit there in silence until I blurt, “But we’ve got to get them something.”

“Do we have to?” Nino asks. I’ve always found his disregard for social conventions annoying.

“Yes, we have to. We could drop by JYSK tomorrow on the way to their place,” I say, knowing the store is on the pricey side. But the fact is, I just want to go there. I dream the day when I will be able to purchase those fluffy pillows, those colorful doormats, those elegant bathroom soap dispensers and toothbrush holders, which I don’t really have any place to put because our sink is so wobbly.

“So what do they need?” he asks, filling in the crossword puzzle with his big, messy letters sprawling out of the boxes. He presses the pen so hard, he sometimes rips the page with its tip, making a pop that gives me goosebumps.

“How would I know? I just don’t get it. You go to somebody’s home for the first time and you’re supposed to bring a housewarming gift, but you have no idea what to get them because you’ve never been there before and you don’t know what they’re missing, and of course you can’t ask them what they need, because they’ll just lie and say, we don’t need anything! Stupid phony Macedonian humility, that’s all that is,” I grumble.

“M-hm,” Nino peers at me over the rim of his glasses, which is his way of saying he agrees. Then he takes them off and becomes lost in thought. “Yes,” he finally says, and falls silent again. It always takes him ages to say what he’s thinking. At the beginning of our relationship, his pauses impressed me, especially considering the words simply tumble out of my mouth as fast as I can think them up. But after a few years together, the silences are really starting getting on my nerves. “Yes,” he repeats. “You remember when we moved in here, and Tom and Lydia gave us that vase?”

We both look at it, which is easy in a living room as small as ours. The one big wall is barricaded by a block of square white cabinets with round brown handles. Some of the handles have fallen off, and the holes they’ve left look just like a pig’s snout. Several cabinet doors are loose, exposing threads of cheap plywood. Whoever designed this place had two shelves cut into the wall, which is where we keep our books. These are mostly books from our childhood, sets of Serbian translations we took from our homes. We don’t have a lot of new books. Because you know, we’re always saying Macedonian translations are so crappy, and the Serbian versions are so expensive, that there’s nothing to read anyway. The shelves used to have glass doors but for some reason the landlord took them off. In the middle of the wall there is a deep hole meant for a TV set. Ours is pretty small, albeit large enough for a room like this, so we put Tom and Lydia’s vase beside it. This vase, the nicest thing we own.

It’s a classic Greek-style amphora. Not those that are long and narrow, but with a fat belly, smaller than the ones you typically see in museums. It’s not brown and doesn’t have any Greek motifs. Rather, it’s a deep vibrant green. In fact, if you look up close, it’s got a mixture of different shades of green that all blend into each other and a fine web of thin cracks that give it a kind of rough texture, as if it were made of stone. Looking at this vase calms me. They gave it too us about a year ago, and come to think of it, we haven’t gotten together with them since. Even when we’re watching TV, I’ll glance at it. Then I’ll think of Tom and Lydia and a warm feeling comes over me.

I probably get this feeling because of their perfumes. It’s not that they wear a lot, but every time Lydia would swish her scarf or Tom came up close, the fragrance would hit me: his sharp, yet fresh, hers more flowery, more like the smell of some expensive hand cream. Lydia always smells like all the women with painted nails and jangling bracelets who used to come over to our house when I was a child and stroke my hair and pinch my cheeks. Tom is the kind of guy you could easily fall for, with his olive skin and hazel eyes, sitting elegantly in his chair with his legs crossed, one athletic arm dangling from the armrest, the other holding a perpetual cigarette in its hand.

“Jade-colored,” that’s what Lydia said as she removed the vase from the box to present it to us. Jade. I didn’t really know what color jade was, but I liked the sound of it            

“It’s our housewarming gift,” said Tom in his husky voice.

“But dis is not our apartment,” Nino explained in the hard Slavic accent he was not the least ashamed of.

“Well, think of it as a step in the right direction,” said Lydia as she gently held it out to us. The textured gold rings on her strong and slender pianist fingers stood out against the vase’s deep greens. I thanked them in my somewhat broken English, trying to echo Tom and Lydia’s perfect British accent, knowing full well I overextend my vowels and sometimes confuse the “th” sound with “d” and “t.” I explained that what Nino meant was this was not our permanent home. We were only living here until we got back on our feet, until we settled some inheritance issues. They didn’t say a word, seeing I’d delved into waters they were not prepared to swim in, at least not while they were sober. It annoyed me that I was making more excuses than Nino. But nonetheless I kept digging myself deeper into a hole, saying the apartment was much too small for us, it was very old. But the location was great—

“Yes, it’s a fantastic location!” Tom chimed in, happy to change the subject.

“And new location of dis beautiful vase is?” Nino asked, returning attention to the gift, for which I was grateful. But my gratitude was short-lived. Because all this did was make Tom and Lydia look around the apartment and realize we were barricaded by cabinets, that the sofa and armchairs we were sitting in were old and mismatched and camouflaged by decorative covers, and that the stained and beat-up coffee table crammed between them barely left room for our legs.

“We’ll find a good place for it,” I said, just before Lydia suggested, “Maybe you could put it in the bedroom?” not knowing that we didn’t have one, that we slept on the two-seater sofa bed we could barely open even after wedging the coffee table into the corner of the room, so I just pretended I hadn’t heard what she’d said and asked, “Is it from Greece?”

Indeed, it was. They had bought it from a “perfectly charming” little shop in one of those picture postcard villages with the whitewashed houses and blue-shuttered windows, the balconies draped with bougainvillea, and narrow, cobbled lanes that meandered to hidden squares lined with cafes where one can have a cool glass of water and savor a spoonful of homemade preserves.

The vase was made by a local but internationally acclaimed artist. “The certificate is inside the box. You can read more about her later,” Tom cut in, eager to tell us about their Aegean island cruise, about the fresh octopus they had grilled, the dolphins leaping around the prow of their boat. The crystal-clear blue of the deep see where you can bathe nude. Where the water is so salty it seems to lick your skin. (“It makes love to you!” Lydia exclaimed and her head nearly lolled back in ecstasy.) And then once again about the dreamy little villages. The hospitality of the locals. The homemade specialties they had tasted. “The moussaka!” Lydia sighed.

“Svetlana makes very good moussaka,” Nino said, clambering to his feet. We hadn’t yet offered them anything to drink. “But for food we have only meze with cold homemade rakija or white wine.” Nino stooped as he was offering these “homemade specialties,” as Tom and Lydia later dubbed the tomatoes, peppers, cheese, and liquor Nino had lugged back from his uncle’s village.

“I wouldn’t drink whiskey or eat seafood while I’m in Macedonia,” Lydia said as she savored a pepper. Even the homely pepper looked distinguished between her elegant fingers.

We’d heard Lydia play once. She had stopped performing a while back, but agreed to give a recital. Tom was an art historian visiting on a university research scholarship and, without a job of her own, Lydia had little to do. Despite Nino, who works at the National Opera and Ballet, I know next to nothing about classical music, and really, it’s not something he enjoys either. Regardless, I was enchanted by the way she moved her body as she played: her elbows flaring, her back arching with the rhythm and the music, her torso swaying in circles, her head turned so that her silvery hair hung across her eyes. She had striking fingers: strong, angular, nimble as a spider. I became so enthralled I clapped when I wasn’t supposed to. The elderly lady I sat next to shushed me angrily. We were in the first row and Lydia must have noticed, Tom too.

I was just as embarrassed as we sat in our tiny living room, crowded with cabinets. It seemed like Nino didn’t give a damn. He kept topping up his glass of rakija and sweating since it had gotten so stuffy. We opened the balcony door leading to the miniature kitchenette, but we still couldn’t get a breeze. It was hot and the four of us were smoking, I more than ever, nervous that I had invited Tom and Lydia to this dump. I shifted my foot to cover what looked like a crusty ketchup stain on the carpet which I hadn’t noticed before. My embarrassment grew with the increasing realization of how stupid it was to invite them over. But we had no money and we wanted so much to hang out with them. We were flattered that they wanted to drink with us and tell stories about their dazzling past. We were flattered they chose us as their audience, flattered by how they looked, long and lean, in loose white flannel that outlined their sinewy figures and highlighted their sun-bronzed skin.

We’re not too bad ourselves. Maybe our apartment is awful, maybe we don’t have the money to move into a better one, but we look impeccable, especially me. That evening, even as I covered up the carpet stain, I could not help but admire how beautiful my heels were, how my sandals complemented my slender feet, how my red toe-nails glittered like wild strawberries. I was sure that we also smelled good and that if anyone came into the room, they’d notice the crisp mix of the fragrances we wore and the aroma of the cigarettes we smoked. But Nino had started to sweat. Beads had formed on his forehead and there were big wet patches under his armpits. He was clearly drunk and wouldn’t shut up.

Maybe our apartment is awful, maybe we don’t have the money to move into a better one, but we look impeccable, especially me.

“We’re working towards saving up to get a bigger apartment. We’d like to have children. We’re trying,” he said, his eyes a little crossed from all that rakija.

“We don’t have any children either,” Tom said, his head cocked back as he took a dramatic puff of his cigarette. “We don’t know why. It was nature’s way. We never bothered to get it checked out.”

“Some people are so inconsiderate,” Lydia added, “they’ll ask you right up front: what’s wrong with you? I remember this particularly brazen couple who asked me that and I said: what, do you mean physically or mentally?”

We tsk-tsked and then fell silent. I could tell Nino was getting emotional, like he always does when he’s drunk. He slapped both palms on his knees, as if finally mustering up the courage to do something grand: “Can I play someting?” he asked. Tom and Lydia shifted excitedly.

“Of course! Why in the world didn’t we think of that sooner… what a pleasure that would be,” their voices overlapped. Nino took out the violin from the case he kept behind the door.

“Someting traditional,” he announced, leaving room for Tom and Lydia’s sighs of satisfaction. He then improvised a jazzed-up version of Kaži, kaži, libe Stano, tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. To my taste, this song was too slow and sad, and it had too many grace notes. Honestly, I thought it was trite, but at the end of his little recital, Tom and Lydia gave him an encouraging applause.

“It’s about couple which can’t have keeds,” he began to explain. “D’ men says to d’ women: do you need anyting? Mannie or cloths? She says, no, I have everyting, but I don’t have child. D’ men says to d’ women: I’m gonna go to Greece and getchoo golden child. She says, golden child can’t call me dear mami. Very sad.”

“Oh it’s heartbreaking,” Lydia said, raising the rakija glass to her lips and accidentally hitting a tooth. Meanwhile, Tom unintentionally slammed his glass on the table and covered his face with his large hands. “Oh, oh,” he moaned. “Oh.” We all knew what was next. He always cried when he got hammered. Once he cried for an hour over the tsunami in Indonesia, but that was nothing compared to the way he blubbered over the war in Bosnia. It was like he wasn’t sure what was wrong with the human race. He insisted the world was falling apart, that the apocalypse was nigh.

“Things fall apart! The centre cannot hold!” he declared. I later found out he had been quoting a famous Irish poet whose name I can’t remember. “To make a child a man, a man a child!” he said with a solemnity that made me suspect this was a meaningful and well-known line. Lydia looked at him compassionately, while Nino and I didn’t know what to say. Tom and Lydia knew so many things and had traveled everywhere. They were incredibly open-minded and educated. We didn’t know anyone like them. True, they drank an awful lot and always got plastered, but it’s not like Nino and I are exactly lightweights, either. Lydia stroked Tom’s neck as he sank his face in his hands in a sweet, inspired state of despair. Watching this display of emotion somehow pleased me, but what was even more appealing was how Tom snuggled up to Lydia and gently laid his cheek upon her breast. His hand reached around her waist while his other hand cupped her breast, as Lydia toyed with his thick strands of ash-blonde hair. Cuddling his face against her chest, he rose up and kissed her throat, softly moaning. Lydia whispered in return, “My darling, my darling, it’s all right.” I saw her gently nip his earlobe.

Seeing people intimate in public usually makes me uncomfortable. But watching Tom and Lydia like this, in our apartment, got me excited. There was a warmth stirring inside me, rising from my groin. I couldn’t say a word for fear of falling softly apart. Lydia looked around and said that perhaps it was time for them to go. Tom shook himself out of his reverie and began to say, still choked up, that we were terrific hosts, that they had had such a wonderful time with us.

“Come back,” Nino replied, his eyes droopy as if he were about to fall asleep. For some reason he did not get up from his chair. Tom and Lydia bent down to give him a goodbye kiss. I took the four steps to the door to see them off, where they embraced me, their perfume lingering on my skin. Tom left a wet streak of tears on my cheek. As I closed the door, I didn’t want to wipe it off.

Nino was still sprawled in the armchair. I had to virtually step over him to get back to my seat in the cramped space, and as I did, he grabbed me. He pulled me down on his lap, and I felt he was hard. He kissed me on the throat, he wrenched my shirt off, he licked and squeezed my breasts, then pushed me over on the two-seater and in one brisk move he stripped off my panties and shoved his penis inside me. I was so aroused at first that I forgot about everything, which is hardly ever the case. I melted into a pool of flesh. But after a bit Nino began to falter and went a little limp. My ears suddenly switched on again and I could hear the rhythmic squeaking of the sofa, like a creaky old swing about to break. I opened my eyes and saw all the little pig snout holes in the cabinets peering down at us from the wall and then Nino just stopped.

“My knee’s numb. I keep hitting it against a loose spring,” he complained. Pity and shame swept over me. It was like we were in high school, fucking in my little brother’s bed.

“Fuck me on the table,” I said, not knowing where these words were coming from. I’d never spoken like that before. I wanted him to lift me as I was and carry me to the little dining room table adjoining the hall that pretended to be a kitchen, but that would never occur to him, so we strolled half-naked to our destination. I got up on the table and we continued unsteadily. This time I decided to keep my eyes closed. I imagined Nino was Tom, and that Lydia was sitting on the two-seater where Nino and I had just been fucking, watching Tom’s copper buns wriggling between my legs. “Shoot your wad!” I said, again saying something I had never said before, and I felt sugar running through my thighs and Nino letting go inside me. After this I felt nauseous all night long.

The next morning I realized it’d been one of my fertile days. If it’s a boy, I thought, I’ll call him Tomislav. If it’s a girl, I’ll name her Lydia. I told Nino. He looked puzzled. “Why?” he asked. It dawned on me we hadn’t experienced the same thing. “They’re just pretty names,” I lied, but Nino isn’t stupid.

But no, I didn’t get pregnant. Not that time, nor any other time Nino and I had sex. The doctors kept assuring us that, anatomically, we were fine and shouldn’t have a problem conceiving. Which is why I got more and more annoyed when I chanced to see a cradle in a furniture store window, and those dangly things you hang above them, those tiny wardrobes painted pink or blue. Not only were those kiddy things a painful reminder that sex was becoming more and more exasperating because we just couldn’t make a baby, but it also drove home the fact that we were stuck in a one-room apartment so jammed with cabinets there wasn’t room for a cradle anyway. There was no room for anything.

This might be why, when I get to JYSK, I feel like going into the children’s section with all the stacked up cradles and the fluffy kiddie pillows piled on the floor and just mess them up. It is all I can do not to go there. So, like usual, I go to see the shelves with the colorful cushions. But one cushion (hey, a single cushion!) costs six hundred denars, and I only have a thousand. I also don’t want to get them anything I deeply desire for myself. I’m not so crazy about furniture. What I really want are accessories.

So, then I stroll to the bedding section. Not that I can afford to buy Kire and Tanya matching sheets, and I don’t even know how big their bed was. No, I go there because our sheets are ugly. Nino has this inexplicable fondness for stripes. In fact, he once came home with matching Auschwitz pajamas and bedsheets.

I finally stumble on a selection of clocks on sale, some of which have unusually odd shapes. But then I think maybe giving a married couple a clock isn’t such a great idea. If someone gave me a clock, I’d think they were telling me I was growing old and my clock was ticking. Maybe they would think that I was saying: “Your time is up!” But then maybe the opposite: “May you live forever!” Right. This is what I’ll say when I give them this stylish clock that probably won’t fit with their furniture.

I have just twelve denars left. It is such a pitiful amount, I decide to spend it. I walk into the nearest shop and buy matches for eight denars. Out of sheer contrariness, I drop the remaining coins one by one as I walk out. “Madam, madam! You dropped something!” two responsible citizens call after me. I turned and looked them straight in the eye, then cast a disdainful glance towards the metal on the ground, as if to say here, it’s yours. As I wait for Nino by the curb outside, I take out the matches and light them one after the other, letting them fall at my feet when they were half burned down. When Nino arrives, it looks like I’m standing in the middle of a small pyre.

I hate our car. Whenever we go to Ohrid for vacation, I can barely endure the two-and-a-half-hour drive that feels like I’m riding a busted exhaust pipe. Not only is it outrageously loud and draughty as hell, but it rattles and shakes, and has that cheap plastic smell. Our car is like a toy, like something not meant for adults.

Nino has just come from a rehearsal at the Opera. On our way to Kire and Tanya’s for the housewarming, he looks lost in thought.

“You don’t care what I got them?” I shout over the clanking of our wreck, which rattles like a can whenever we hit a pothole on the streets of Skopje.

“Huh?” he says. It is like I’ve shaken him out of a dream. “Sorry. What did you get them?”

He has apologized, but too late. I feel the need to punish him. He didn’t even notice my symbolic little pyre. He should understand.

“It’s supposed to be from both of us. It will be embarrassing if you don’t know what’s in the box. ”

“Yes, you’re right,” he says. I can tell he’s trying to shut me up.

“Ok, it’s one thing not to go shopping with me, but you don’t even care what I got.” I know I’m pushing it, but I want to see how far I can go.

“Right. Please tell me what you got them. I really want to know, really,” he adds in a soothing tone, as he stares straight ahead. I look at his silhouette. He’s got this extremely large, beak-like nose. When we first met, I found it sexy. Now it just makes him look more “whatever you say, dear,” which gets on my nerves.

“A clock. A cool clock. If it doesn’t match their furniture, they can regift it, because I didn’t know what else to get them.”

“That’s ok. A clock is fine. It’s the gesture that matters anyway, not the actual gift. The act of paying attention. You know how excited they are to have finally found a place. You know how long they looked,” Nino says calmly, as if it isn’t the two of us who are stuck in a rut. “Here we are. I think that’s the right door,” he says, parking in front of an apartment block straight out of the 70s.

It’s definitely not a new building. That’s good, I think. Because now there are these nice new ones, with cute little porches, flashy doorways and intercoms, marble staircases with elaborate banisters. The walls at these places smell fresh. On the other hand, new buildings are really flimsy. If there’s an earthquake, they’re more liable to collapse and kill everyone inside. Which is why it’s better to live in an old building like ours, especially one of these sturdy ones that don’t just fall apart. Still, I gloat as we climb the stairs, because it smells of piss. As we huff and puff our way up, I relished the thought of Tanya and Kire having to lug all their groceries and the stroller and the baby up all these stairs, panting under the weight of all the bottled water you have to keep buying because the tap water in Skopje tastes like rust. The higher the floor, the cheaper the place. But that’s not going to happen to us. All we need is for Nino’s mother to die. Just let her die.

“This is it,” says Nino and rings the bell next to a shiny new white door with the plate Trpeski inscribed in gold. Look at my friend Tanya, the great feminist, taking her husband’s name, I think to myself. I could understand it if she had some peasant-sounding last name. But no. She just had to go for the hillbilly Trpeski.

They both meet us at the door, their mouths stretched wide in gleaming grins that reveal all their teeth. The scent of baby hits my face. The foyer smelled of baby, they both smell of baby. “Where’s the little one?” I ask. I haven’t seen her since shortly after she was born.

“She’s asleep,” Kire half-whispers. “We’d better go into the living room. We don’t want to wake her up. But first I’m going to have to ask you to take your shoes off. Babies like to crawl, you know.” So we take them off, which Nino isn’t too happy about. He’s always getting holes on his socks, and his feet tend to stink. Fortunately, Tanya and Kire have slippers. They don’t gloat over the grandeur of their entryway, probably because they want us to leave as quickly as possible. As for us, we don’t even have an entryway. Just a place where we pile our shoes, in front of the little bathroom where Nino had to shove the washing machine under the rusty old water heater that breaks down every six months and rumbles like an empty stomach whenever we turn it on.

Here there is ample room for four people. We can comfortably take off our shoes and marvel at the circular patterns on the floor tiling, just like the one in Tito’s mausoleum in Belgrade. There is room for coat hangers. There’s a shoe cabinet with a row of drawers and a stone bowl for depositing loose change, like the change I threw out earlier that day. Atop the coins, their car fob gleams. I can see my figure in the hallway mirror. It’s one of those mirrors that makes you look thinner.

Tanya doesn’t need a mirror like that to feel good about herself. She looks incredible for someone who gave birth less than a year ago. She doesn’t even have those puffy eyebags you see in new mothers. I examine her from head to foot as she guides us into the living room. Her hips are as slender as ever. It’s if she’d never even had a baby.

They usher us into the living room. I can’t disguise my admiration. Neither can Nino. Nino, who had the nerve to buy Auschwitz pajamas and bedding, could actually see the place was really nice. Matching armchairs and two-seater sofas complement the turquoise wooden coffee table that occupy the middle of the spacious room. A single peach scented candle adorns the table. An enormous abstract painting in pastel hues fills one whole wall. “This is one of our favorite things,” Tanya says, “a painting by Nevena Maksimovska,” a name that meant nothing to me. I nod, as if I know who she’s talking about, while Nino just stands there. “We asked her to make the painting just to cover that wall, and it turned out to be a masterpiece!”

“Yes, it matches your furniture,” I say, knowing Tanya won’t appreciate the remark. “Maybe what we got you won’t fit in so well in this room, but I’m sure you can find a place for it,” I say, handing her the gift-wrapped clock.

“Oh, you really shouldn’t have,” Tanya says. She and Kire give each other a look and smile courteously. Come on, unwrap this clock that has nothing to do with your living room, that looks like we picked it up at a flea market, I think to myself. “A clock!” Tanya exclaims. “Thank you, it really is beautiful. I’m sure we’ll find a place for it,” she adds.

I’ve forgotten my lines about time and eternity, so I just stand there with a stupid grin on my face. Nino steps in at the right moment, complimenting the floor to ceiling bookcase next to the painting. “Oh yes, we also had that made,” says Tanya, setting the clock down on the coffee table. She walks to the bookcase, stroked one of the shelves, and says, “Baltic birch,” as if we were supposed to know what that is.

“You get a lot of sunlight in here, don’t you?” says Nino, just for the sake of saying something.

“That’s the best thing about this apartment,” Tanya replies, slowly turning in a circle with her arms extended, as if she’s showcasing the place for sale. Coming to a stop, she gestures at the bay window across from the bookcase. We follow her out onto the balcony with green tiles just like the ones in the foyer. “And this is Kire’s project,” she says, showing us the lush potted flowers in bloom lining little shelves and hanging from handrails.

“Dude, I would’ve gotten you some flowers if I knew you were so into them.” Nino turns to Kire and slaps him on the back. Kire’s back is rather huge. In fact, he’s a big guy all around and doesn’t come across as a guy who likes flowers.

“What a great place to put your dining room table,” I say as we step back inside, admiring the space made by the bay window.

“The light bathes us in the morning when we sit down to breakfast with the sun.” Tanya waves a hand towards the windows like a flight attendant indicating the nearest emergency exit.

I make a note of this remark so I will remember to make fun of it to Nino later. When Tanya first got together with Kire, she would write him love poems. I don’t know how he could stand it. But then Tanya has an amazing body, so Kire puts up with her sentimental shit. From the sun-lit dining area, she takes us into the kitchen. “It’s got a pantry and natural ventilation,” Tanya says.

“You sound like a real estate agent,” Kire adds. We all laughed.

“The kitchen didn’t cost us that much,” Tanya continues. “It’s small, but efficient. We weren’t going for anything flashy.”

Yes, the room is nothing out of the ordinary. Јust a plain white kitchen, like any other, only that everything is brand new. The sink and faucet have a silvery gleam. Our faucet has long since turned green with bacteria and buildup, but I have no intention of cleaning or replacing it. Our landlord never invests in anything. He just waits for us to fix something when it breaks down. And he has a way of you screwing us over. He’s cross-eyed so he pretends he’s slow. We never know what he’s looking at, and whenever we ask him something, he seems disoriented. “I can’t argue with him. He’s not right in the head,” Nino says every time he spends our own money to fix the water heater or what not.

“We’ve got two more rooms,” Tanya says. “It’s just that Anfisa is asleep, so we’ll have to be quick. And quiet. Is that ok?”

Anfisa Trpeski. What a name. A grand display of petty bourgeois sentiment. “We don’t have to go in there if you’re afraid we might wake her up,” I say. I’ve had enough. It’s all I can do to refrain from looking down to see what kind of tiles they have in the kitchen floor. If there’s something I admire, it is nice tiles. And king-sized beds. If they have one and it has а pretty coverlet, I can’t be sure I won’t burst into tears.

We all tiptoe into a long hallway, to the left of which is a built-in closet with mirrored sliding doors. Train-like, we move one behind the other: Tanya up front, dressed in an unassuming yet costly white cardigan, her spine erect, obviously proud as a peacock to show us what she has created. Close behind her, Kire, like her bodyguard. Then Nino, thin as a rail in comparison to Kire, and finally me, bringing up the rear.

“This room is empty. We haven’t furnished it yet. It’s for Anfisa, when she gets a little older,” Tanya says. She opens the first door in the hallway, slides her hand in and gently flicks on a light. We catch a glimpse of pinkish walls.

“And now, the bedroom. Shhh,” Tanya whispers and opens the next door.

The scent of baby—of diaper cream, sweet and sticky—grows stronger as we moved further along the hallway. And when Tanya opens this last door, it hits us like a wave. The room is pretty big. Anfisa’s elaborate crib is decked with those dangly toys floating around her head. A lamp atop a corner bedside table gives the room an orange glow.

Nino backs out. “There’s too many of us,” he whispers after stretching his neck like a turkey to get a peak at the child.

Not that he’s really into kids. Even the cutest baby will rarely change the composure of his face. “Isn’t it adorable?” I’ll occasionally say when we see a baby. He’ll just nod and force a smile. That’s it.

In fact, sometimes I’ll ask him, “Are you sure you want kids?” And he’ll respond, “I do,” in a flat voice. Never, “Oh, you have no idea how much I do. It would be so nice to have a baby snuggle up between us.”

I’m so stupid—we don’t even have the room for a baby on that godawful two-seater. And here’s Tanya and Kire’s bed, which could easily fit three people. It’s humongous. I’m sure Anfisa will sleep in the middle once she gets a little older.

Kire follow Nino out of the room, leaving Tanya and me alone with the baby. “Let me have a peek at her,” I whisper, trying to ignore the bedsheets and covers and the rows of fluffy pillows. Right then, I just want to watch Anfisa sleep. I want to hold my head over that cloud of baby scent and close my eyes in the near darkness. I don’t want Tanya to see this. But she is right next to me, invading my space by shoving her head into it. Аll I can smell now is her heavy perfume. Тhe sight of her shiny long earring distracts me. Move away. Move away, bitch, I imagine telling her. Right then she places her hot palm on the small of my back, as if in sympathy, which makes me sick to my stomach.

“She’s beautiful,” I say in an unsteady voice. Then I take in a last breath of that scent rising from the crib before I straighten up and follow Tanya out of the room.

“And here’s our bathroom,” Tanya whispers after soundlessly closing the bedroom door behind her. I know I will have to use the bathroom before we leave, so I really don’t want to witness the latest feats of toilet designmanship, now, with her watching. I pray it is just an average bathroom. But it’s surprisingly large, with a brand new washing machine and a great big tub that houses a smaller, red tub for Anfisa. With its turquoise tiles, it’s oceany and smells of baby-soap.

“Really nice,” I mutter, eyeing the matching soap dispenser and toothbrush holder. “Where did you get these?” I ask.

“IKEA,” she answers quietly. “It’s gotten so expensive lately. What am I saying! It’s not that IKEA has gotten expensive, it’s our standard of living that keeps falling. We can’t afford things the way we used to. Even for me this cost too much. But they are beautiful, aren’t they?” she gently runs the long polished nail of her index finger along the neck of the soap dispenser.

In the living room Nino and Kire are deep in conversation, drinking whiskey. There is a bottle on the table and a bowl full of ice.

“Your apartment is wonderful,” I say.

“Yes, your apartment is wonderful,” Nino parrots after me. He’s going to just keep on repeating what I say because he’s clueless as far as apartments go. If they lived in a shack, he wouldn’t know the difference.

“You’ve really done a great job with the interior design. Great taste. Functional and cozy,” I continue, more emphatically.

“That’s all the wifey’s doing,” Kire chimes in. Tanya’s face lights up. But just like any other well-mannered lady, she attempts to diminish the value of her accomplishments.

“Oh, come on. Anyone can do this. I just had some more time on my hands to spend on the apartment. The agency found it right off the bat. The moment I saw it, I just knew. This is it. This is where I want to live,” she says, clasping Kire’s hand. They looked like a commercial for housing loans.

“It must be rough, though, carrying the stroller up all those stairs,” I delight in saying.

“Oh my, yes. I’m not saying this apartment doesn’t have its faults,” Tanya admits, which bothers me.

“Faults? Come on. Why do you think she has such a great butt? She’s lived on the top floor her entire life,” Nino say, pointing to me.

“Yes, it definitely does help with one’s figure,” Kire intervenes, stupid as ever.

“It’s a pity you don’t live on the top floor. But you know how hot it was at Mimi’s place because they were right under the roof? You get so hot, you don’t want to eat and so you get the best figure ever,” I say. “And eating nothing but beans and lentils four times a week? And climbing those stairs? Beat that, Kate Moss,” I say, knocking back the glass of whiskey Kire poured me. The tension I’ve created magically revives me. It’s as if my head has cleared. I motion to Kire to pour me another glass. Whiskey is such a rarity for Nino and me that I have every intention of getting wasted. I’m not going to be the one to drive our junk heap home. I’d rather be the drunk one, I think, downing my second glass. Nino is quietly chewing ice, trying not to look at me. He’s not stupid and knows exactly what I’m up to.

“Look,” Tanya says, “living up here definitely helps if you want to get rid of those post-pregnancy love handles.”

“Post-pregnancy love handles!” Kire says. “Don’t give me that. I’m the one with the love handles!” he laughs.

“You’re such a teddy bear,” Nino adds and the three of them laugh and laugh. What an amazing sense of humor, I think.

“And you know when she starts walking she’ll run you ragged!” I say with a sarcasm that goes right over their heads.

“True, she hasn’t started walking yet,” Tanya says. “But she can stand up! Though most of the time she crawls all over the place.”

 “Is that so?” I say, pouring myself another whiskey. Nino looks at me, still chewing on his ice. He doesn’t want to argue in public. In fact, he never wants to argue, which drives me nuts.

“Yes, and she’s so fast!” Kire says. “And of course she’ll put anything in her mouth within reach.”

“She’s very cute,” Nino says.

“How do you know that?” I snap. “You’ve never really seen her.”

“I’ve seen a picture of her.”

“Liar,” I say. “You’re just showing off your manners.”

“I’m not lying,” he shoots back. “There’s a picture of her over there by the TV set. As for manners, we all know who lacks them,” he says and gulps down the rest of his whiskey. But there was no way he is catching up with me. I am already on my third. With every drink I am getting more and more pissed at him, and at his mother for not dying. The idea that she is sitting there all sick and hideous in her living room like a neglected houseplant, watching stupid soap operas all day, enrages me. If I ever turn out like her that, kill me, just kill me.

“Well, thank you, Nino. I know you think we’re partial because she’s our daughter, but she really is cute,” Tanya says.

“We hope that things finally work out for you guys, too,” Kire blurts out indelicately. I would be livid if Tanya said this, but Kire clearly means well. He’s just one of those dumb males who unintentionally says things that hurt people.

I wonder if I should hold my tongue. But why should I? Because if I do, they’ll never learn that they can’t talk shit in front of people who can’t have kids, people who don’t have a space to raise a kid, people who barely have the space to fuck in.

“I doubt it. Your friend Nino here shoots blanks.”

Nino finally loses his composure.

“What did you say?” Nino turns toward me, his expression dark.

 There is a terrific silence and tension you could cut with a knife, as they say.

“Just like that. Boom, boom. Nada, zilch, zero,” I say, bursting into laughter.

“Hey, this is a little too intimate,” Kire says. Tanya would never say something like that, unless she could benefit from it. She’s savvy, unlike her husband. But he brings home good money, and they are annoyingly functional as a family. They take holidays together, then show us pictures of the azure beaches where they got great value for their money.

“Oh, come on, that’s not intimate,” I say. “I was just inside your bedroom. I saw your baby sleeping. Now that’s what I call intimate.”

“You’re mean and you’re a bitch, and you always have been,” Nino spits. “The doctors said I was just fine,” he says to Tanya and Kire, articulating every word. His face is transformed, which scares me a little. I like that. So, I knock back my whiskey and decide to egg him on.

“Yes, your male doctors in their male world of medicine. Your balls could be rotten and full of rice pudding and they’d still say it’s our fault.”

“Here we go again with that feminist shit of yours,” he says.

“Feminist shit? Thanks for reminding me I need to use the john,” I say, staggering to my feet. And then I see it on the TV table, the very same vase Tom and Lydia gave us. I am sure. I know that vase so well from seeing it so often. They gave both of us the identical vase.

“Wow, what a nice vase!” I say. “Where’d you get it?”

Tanya’s reply was cautious. “It’s by a Greek artist from the island of Paros. Tom and Lydia gave it to us after they came back from cruising the Aegean last year. Tom and Lydia—you remember them?”

“Why, of course we do,” I say, giving Nino a sideways glance. He can’t take his eyes off the vase, which I am now holding in my hands. The air is so heavy with anticipation I’m afraid to breathe. “It’s a beautiful vase,” I say, beginning to turn it over as if to inspect it. “What the name of the artist?”

“Anfisa Papadopoulou? Was it Papadopoulou?” Tanya turns towards Kire, who shrugs.


“Yes, we loved that name. They said it means child of the flower.”

“Wonderful!” I say, as if I was exhilarated. “Are you still in touch with Tom and Lydia?”

“Of course,” Kire says. “They’re here, in Skopje. They’re back for another semester. I think two months ago. You haven’t seen each other yet?”

I shake my head, glad I’m not going to have a child called Lydia.

“Nino, look. Our vase is just a bit different than theirs. Because it’s handmade.”

“You’ve got one too?”

I don’t respond. I let them sit in silent dread, wondering what I’m going to do next.

“Hey Nino, catch!” I call and pretend to throw the vase. Nino jolts and makes as if to catch it, then drops his hands. That’s when I toss it at him.

The vase hits the parquet floor and shatters into little jade shards. As it breaks, it’s as if it releases the dusty stench of all the flattering hopes that Tom and Lydia, in their refined exoticism, raised in us.

Stone-faced, Kire and Tanya stare at the shards, as if they are imagining Anfisa crawling among the remains of her Greek namesake.

“We’re leaving,” Nino snaps. “Get your stuff.” He springs up and moves gingerly across the floor. There is no running away from this.

“She’s crying,” Tanya says, jumping to her feet. It’s only then that we hear Anfisa’s piercing little voice in the other room, Tanya’s excuse for leaving this mess. Deer-like, she leaps across the room and vanishes, depriving me of the pleasure of seeing her burst into tears, of telling me to go to hell, of screaming at the top of her voice, of just losing control. As she disappears, I catch her throwing Nino a look of compassion. Nino moves toward me, his slippers crunching the little bits of vase. He grabs me by the elbow and shoves me towards the entryway. “Come on. Let’s go.”

I turn towards Kire. “I would like to extend my deepest apologies,” I say, “for my unsensitive clumsiness. I mean, insensitive clumsiness. As you know, we have the same vase and Nino will drop it off tomorrow. Which provides you with the perfect opportunity to give us back the clock, which I am sure you don’t want anyway.” Nino snatches my jacket from the coat hanger, shoves it in my hand and tries to push me out the door.

“Dude, I’m sorry about this,” I hear him whisper.

“Hey, and I’m sorry about all the cleaning you’ll have to do,” I say over his shoulder, my voice echoing down the staircase. “And I’m really really sorry if I woke up Amanfisa,” I add.

Kire shuts the door and Nino races down the stairs without waiting for me.

“Hey, wait a minute! You don’t want me to trip and fall, do you?” I say, trying to keep up with him. But he obviously isn’t listening. By the time I get to the street, he’s smoking a cigarette at some distance. When he hears the glass door closing, he turns to face me but does not approach.

“What, you’re running away from me? So where are you going to go?” I say.

“Wherever I want!” he yells.

“Wherever you want? Maybe your mom’s, huh?”

“At least I have some place to go. Where are you going to go?”

“Go to hell if you want. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here. You think I want to get into that junk car of yours? Go ahead!” I scream, and he really does go. I hear the engine coughing to life and the rumble of our car fading in the distance.

I sit on the edge of a concrete flower bed and stare at the pedestrian crossing. I’m just going to sit here doing nothing, I reason. Not a thing. I’m not going to get up, I’m not going to budge. I’m going to wait for something to happen, anything. But I’m not leaving this place. I imagine Nino driving home, his hawkish profile silhouetted against the car window, and feel a stabbing sorrow. I remember him playing Kaži, kaži libe Stano for Tom and Lydia. I remembered how gently and how well he played, not the least bit embarrassed for performing in front of a musician like Lydia, and how his beautiful, unrepentant playing made no difference because he was just going to go lie down on our two-seater bed and wait for his mother to die so we could be happy.

I lie on the concrete wall even though I’m wearing a short skirt. I might get some kind of feminine inflammation from the cold, I worry. And someone could rape me. No difference. Nothing was going to grow inside me. Nothing will come of nothing, Lydia and Tom had repeated that night, as if we were supposed to know what that meant. I roll the words in my mouth, expecting to see our junk car approaching with its cool darkness inside, and the outline of Nino’s nose and scruffy hair, and then me, snuggling up against him, laying my cheek on his violin hickey, feeling his graying stubble brushing my eyelids.

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