Lit-Mag #37 Myself & Others
The Man with the Two Violins
There had been no sun for three months now. The sky sank into the gray walls of the houses, at night the moon was a puddle of asphalt in the small lawn in front of her room. The rain turned her face into autumn. The wings of the birds were clouds that moved too fast for the tired sky. Only the black squeals of the sparrows hung on the branches of the trees, thin and hungry sounds to which Milena could never get accustomed. Andre had left her, but this didn’t come as a surprise. He had done it before.
“I’ll buy bread and mozzarella,” he said and went out. He didn’t even take his umbrella and his shadow melted in the distance like the jingle of the ice-cream van at 4 pm every day. Sunlit lagoons, seagulls and suns were painted on the doors of that van; there was a sea on its doors, too, so deep blue that the puddles in the wake of the ice-cream van were suddenly lagoons. Andre sold second hand musical instruments in a shop at 16, Louis Pierard Avenue. Every time when he said, “I’ll go buy bread,” she feared she wouldn’t see him any more. Then she knew that fear like everything else, had a beginning and an end. She felt the end of fear was in her room, especially in the evening when she was alone after he had gone. Perhaps Andre had met a younger woman or perhaps he had made up his mind to leave Brussels and move to the town of Leuven. There, he said, his friend Davids owned a cheap tavern. Milena didn’t feel like asking about that ramshackle pub. She knew it too well.
Andre said once he couldn’t stand the rain, his eyes hurt with the wet asphalt and he hated the roofs, flat like the sky. “If on June 16 the sun shines, I’ll come back,” he had promised her years ago, and she had waited for the summer ever since. Of course on June 16 there was never sun. The air in their room was gray with the storm. Their window overlooked the same old terrace, heavy with June winds and with the elderly man in an impermeable sweat suit who did sit-ups and push-ups. Milena often saw him jog in Josaphat Park his dog trotting behind him, thin like a snake. This year, on June 16 it rained again. Dawn broke at noon, the sky thickened and jumped above the trees. Andre said he’d go to buy bread. She doubted he’d show up even if the sun had been there, right above the cathedral Notre Dame d’Evere. Andre would never come back, she was sure now. Who would buy second-hand pianos in that cold city where the faces of the passers-by were rainy days and their birthdays were months of waiting for a sunny month of June that never came.
Milena knew where she could find him – Leuven, the sleazy pub called “Domus” with the pipes which brought beer to every battered table directly from the brewery. She had always found Andre there, no bread bought, no mozzarella, at the darkest table, his back to the street, drinking with his friend. This time Andre sat by himself. There were empty beer glasses and two old violins he hadn’t sold yet. She knew those violins. Andre had been trying to sell them for months.
“I hate it when you follow me,” he said. Then his friend came.
“Go away,” the friend told Milena. “He doesn’t want to see you.”
Andre got up and muttered something, the rain spilling his words into the night.
Milena didn’t go away. She stayed with Davids, the guy who owned the place. They drank together and she sprinkled blotches of beer on the walls of his room. She cried and said she hated the rain. Davids didn’t mind that, bad weather and tears were okay with him. His cheap place teemed with customers when it poured with rain.
“You can sing to the crowd,” Davids told her. “They are all drunk. Nobody will notice you sing out of tune. I like you. You know that. I told you that the first time you and Andre came here.”
“Okay,” Milena said. “I lost my job in Brussels.”
She had looked for Andre too often and her boss in “Bibliotheque Jacques Desteet” was fed up with her absences. Milena got accustomed to the sour smell of fermenting barley, which followed Davids like a dog. She got accustomed to Davids’s obsession with dirty words he wrote in dark beer on her back. He drank dozens of words from her skin, his lips smooth and cold like the rain. Davids asked her to bathe in beer, which he drank afterwards at night. He washed her clothes with beer and the smell of dead barley followed her, too.
On Tuesdays, he and Milena got drunk on red beer which he made from carrots and rain water. He said he’d make beer out of clouds and roofs for her but this didn’t help. She couldn’t stand the dark walls of the tavern.
She wanted beer with suns and the month of June in it.
“I have to go,” she said and left Davids to the smell of the drunken men and the black beer that dripped from the tap into a small tub by his bed. He said he’d paint lagoons and suns on the walls for her, he’d put up Andre’s photograph on the ceiling if she wanted to. But Milena knew it would be no good. Andre looked for violins and pianos that were made in sunny cities and had suns in them.
Milena came back to the apartment and found the unpaid bills Andre had left. He had left her the rain and the smell of drunken men. The clouds hit her window and Andre was in them. He was in the words she kept in her mind for him, and he was everywhere she looked. She thought she had to go back and sing for Davids’s drunken crowd, but she hated the pub. The clouds above it were sick. The water they carried didn’t care where it would go. Milena went to the elderly man who did push ups or jogged restlessly around the lakes thick with wings of ducks.
“Can I take care of your dog?” Milena shouted to him as he warmed up in the drizzle on his terrace.
“Where is your boyfriend?” the old man shouted back.
“He dropped me.”
“Oh,” the elderly guy sighed.
“I can jog with you,” she suggested. Milena thought Andre was right to get out of that town. The sweetshops were empty and the ice-cream van with the lagoons and suns painted on its doors had vanished for good. No one wanted ice-cream in this cold. In the afternoon Milena and the old man, Monsieur Rogier, drank coffee in his library. Monsieur Rogier studied crisis management challenges at a scientific institute, he said. His statements were flat asphalt backyards where she didn’t care to stay. Monsieur Rogier said she could walk his dog and he’d pay her. She could clean his apartment twice a week, he added. He’d pay her generously. She took the train to Leuven. Davids, radiant in his foul smelling den, wrote words in black beer on her skin and drank them. He printed Monsieur Rogier’s name and drank it too.
“You make me thirsty,” Davids told her.
“You do. The words I drink from you are delicious. Your pores are in them. Your skin will be in the beer I’ll make.”
Milena told him she didn’t care about words and beer. She explained she came to Leuven to talk to Davids about Andre. Davids was the only man who knew all about Andre and about the month of June. June was in the air all the time for Milena.
“He’ll drop you again. Why should we talk about him?” Davids asked.
“Because of the violins he could never sell,” she answered. “Because it always rains in Brussels and he hates the clouds. You know that.”
On the following day it was pouring with rain. Davids’s pub was overcrowded. Cars swam in the flood, birds creaked and Monsieur Rogier probably talked on the radio about natural disasters. The clouds were dark paths of loneliness touching the windowpanes of the tavern. Leuven had not seen such fog for centuries. Davids was behind the bar, busy with the bottles. Milena sang, her shrill voice awful, out of tune. No one cared about her song.
Then Davids said, “Andre.”
Only Milena heard him. The man who had just entered was dripping wet. He carried two battered violins. Nobody paid attention to him. Beer was good here and that was all that mattered. The rain crashed against the windowpanes. Nobody cared about the downpour. It was warm in the pub, the booze was cheap and that was the best thing one could imagine. The shrill voice of the singer had died, but that hardly mattered to anyone.
“Milena…” the man with the two violins said.
She didn’t say anything. Davids clanged with the bottles.
Suddenly the rain stopped.