ON A TRAM
I’m ashamed to admit I had acted under the pressure of circumstance, and the whole thing happened purely by chance. I’d much prefer to think it had all been predestined a long time ago, because inevitability is a great excuse for actions even more cruel than those I’m about to describe. Then again, the more I think about it, the greater my uncertainty. Was what happened in fact cruel? Wasn’t it a real, genuine, once-in-a-lifetime union, which could be called an act of love? I can’t tell. At any rate, I must stop treating the whole thing as a subject of analysis; I must let go of the countless possible interpretations; I must forget, and hope that my memory will become a refuge, that one day, at a yet unknown but already predetermined moment, everything will bubble up to the surface, and in that moment of clairvoyance, I will touch the edges of the unknowable.
But who knows, maybe pressure is the only thing to blame, for it was truly formidable. It carried me, it literally carried me up the steps and dropped me into the space between the front and the middle doors of the tram. The impetus was so strong that I neither managed to toss a crown into the small box on the driver’s right, which serves the role of a piggybank, nor did I manage to take a ticket, which I regretted deeply, because I don’t like to betray other people’s trust. Even if their trust is only born out of necessity. Due to my innate honesty, I desperately tried to send the crown forward via a relay of other hands, but my own right hand which was clutching the coin could not be freed from the tight grip of the crowd. It was pressed up against a man’s thigh, while my left was gripping the handrail above my head, warm and moist from the many sweaty palms which had gripped it before me. I felt ill and grimaced in disgust. I don’t like things marked by others’ touch; it’s as if I had to defend myself against the familiarity of strangers.
No tram had come for almost thirty minutes, and it was rush hour, people were getting off work. Worse yet, it was sweltering, and it was just a matter of time before a storm would hit. When all of the tram’s accordion doors huffed to a close (a few people who had been hanging on the steps had to be rudely shoved off, so that we could move at all), the air became unbreathable. It felt like we were in a submarine which had used up all of its oxygen supplies, and I could hardly wait for the next stop, when at least a few mouthfuls of fresh air could make their way in through the open doors. It was like a brief surfacing. My clothes were soaked in an instant. Sweat streamed from the roots of my hair down my forehead and face, it tickled me around my ears, it flowed down my neck and over my whole body, gluing my shirt and my pants to my skin. The toes of my right foot were the only part of me touching the vibrating floor, which left me defenseless against the tram’s powerful jolts whenever we slowed down, sped up, stopped, or started moving; the only reason I didn’t fall down was that there was nowhere to fall. The mass of people leaned back, forward, right, and left as a single body, and no one knew which foot was whose. No one could be certain if he was standing on his own feet, or on someone else’s.
At first I found myself opposite an older, foul-smelling man, who was probably returning from some type of work involving a lot of dust, to judge by the small black wrinkles which rivulets of sweat had drawn across the parchment-like skin of his thin, brown face. I kept trying to turn my head to get my nose away from his mouth, because the smell of the wine he had consumed was making me nauseous. Once in a while he burped. I also figured out that he was a smoker. He was so saturated with nicotine that neither the wine he had drunk, nor the smell of rotten flesh (lunch, or something from the day before?) emanating from a large cavity (his lower left molar) could mask it. Clearly, he was no fan of dental care. On top of two more cavities, his teeth were yellow, and the backs of them were totally black. A crooked tooth sticking out of his mouth put the finishing touch to his colorful character, but he wasn’t to blame for that; his parents were. They should have gotten him braces when he was a child.
At the next stop the crowd carried me a few feet over, but no matter how hard I tried to get away from the man, I did not succeed, which isn’t to say he was sticking to me on purpose. It wasn’t his fault. It was outside our control.
Finally, at the fourth stop, I was relieved to learn that my counterpart was gone. I didn’t know if he had gotten off, or if he had been carried in a different direction; the important thing was that he wasn’t in front of me. I was standing in the middle of the aisle, the handrails were out of my reach, and I was surrounded by sweaty, anonymous bodies – I couldn’t see anyone’s face. My arms hung by my sides. In front of me was the back of some girl (or was it a woman?), who had short, slightly wavy chestnut hair, from which emanated the pleasant scent of a nice perfume. I couldn’t identify the brand. No surprise there, since I don’t know any. In any case, it was a welcome respite from the overwhelming stench, and I kept leaning over her hair which was tickling my face. She was wearing a short-sleeved blouse with a round neckline, which revealed her round shoulders and part of her back with sharply protruding vertebrae. Her skin had a brownish tan, and not even beads of sweat could hide its smoothness, suppleness, and youth.
I was pushed up to her body, and I could feel her round, firm buttocks against my stomach and pelvis. I realized with dismay that I was getting aroused. My flaccid penis had woken up, and I could feel it grow; it started to stretch the fabric of my pants. I was horrified, embarrassed, and perspiring more than ever. I knew she must have felt it, and not knowing what else to do I mumbled: “I’m sorry,” but this stupid utterance just doubled my embarrassment. I tried to move, to turn my hip toward her, since I couldn’t vanish, but all my efforts were in vain. Then I noticed the girl’s body was shaking with suppressed laughter. That was the last straw, because if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s being ridiculed, and this was outright, cruel, caustic ridicule. I started to hate her. She must have sensed it, but she couldn’t contain herself anymore, and she burst out laughing. She laughed so hard her whole body quivered, and it struck me what a pleasant voice she had. I realized how comical the situation really was, I got swept up in her infectious laughter, and a moment later both of us were laughing. Amidst the jumble of bodies, the stench, the noise, the cacophony of voices, our laughter freed us, and nothing else existed in that moment but the two of us, our young, quivering bodies. No one paid us any attention.
We stopped laughing exactly at the same time, as if on cue, and even though everything around us was abuzz, I felt a silence hanging in the air, an oppressive silence, a silence before the storm.
In the meantime, my arousal hadn’t diminished at all, quite the opposite. By then, however, we were both taking it for granted; our laughter had connected and freed us. It was completely natural, everything was just as it had to be, we had to have met right then and there, just like that, unable to see each other’s faces. My hands, which, as I had mentioned earlier, hung by my sides, touched her buttocks, which were tightly hugged by a short skirt. I could feel the fabric between my fingers, but I couldn’t see its color. I started to caress her gently. The palm of my left hand met hers, yes, I must emphasize this – I knew immediately the hand was hers; I was sure of it even though it could have been anyone’s hand in that jumble of bodies – it was one of those instances when truth could only be intuited.
Our hands were completely dry.
In that steam bath, where everyone was soaked to the skin, our completely dry hands touched. My mouth had also dried up from excitement, and I was sure hers had too.
She pressed my hand against her thigh, and slowly, steadily, our hands slid lower and lower, until I could feel her soft, supple, youthful skin. Then I felt her hand on my thigh – higher, higher – I whispered to her until she caressed my penis through my pants, tender in its hardness. Her whole body became supple.
Then it happened. There, on that overcrowded tram, embraced by a multitude of other sweaty bodies, in the boiling, humid, unbreathable air, I entered the body of an unknown woman, whose back was turned to me. (Yes, she was already a woman.) She opened up, took me in, her hand squeezed my thigh, her fingers dug into my flesh; I felt the spasmodic quivering of her body followed by a lull, a plateau, and finally, relaxation. Her palm was sweaty once again, and I noticed a single, translucent bead of perspiration slowly trickle down from the roots of her hair like a large teardrop.
I managed to zip up my pants; no one had noticed a thing. I rested my head on her hair, and she leaned her head toward me, gently and submissively; she rubbed her ear against mine as my lips kissed her neck. She tried to turn around, to face me, but we weren’t able to look into each other’s eyes, which added to the excitement and the tension; I couldn’t wait for us to get off the tram and finally take a good look at each other. I had the feeling that even though the outcome could be surprising, neither of us would be disappointed. I paid no attention to my surroundings; I was pleasantly tired, calm, and self-confident. Perhaps this waning of attention is to blame for everything that followed.
When the tram stopped with a jerk and people started to push toward the exits, when they tore us apart and carried each of us to a different door, I caught a glimpse of her profile. She tried desperately to resist the mass which was pushing her out; she tried to turn her head and remember me, as if she had suspected the imminent banal ending. She disappeared from my view, but I remained calm, after all, we’d surely meet outside. When I was about to get off, when I was on the last step, new passengers began pouring in; they pushed me back inside, and even though I yelled, I screamed at the top of my lungs: “I’m getting off, for God’s sake, let me get off,” no one paid any attention. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t made it out. The tram started to move, and the woman, whose face I never saw, remained at the tram stop. I caught a glimpse of her profile, but that wasn’t enough to be able to recognize her later amidst the multitude of other women with similar hair, and a similarly tan, supple, youthful skin. She had no distinctive features.
DUŠAN MITANA (b. 1946) studied television and film writing at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, but he left the university when his thesis advisor was removed in the wake of the political changes after 1968. Mitana then worked for two of the most prominent literary journals in Slovakia, Mladá tvorba and Romboid, and since 1975 he has been a freelance writer. In 1989 he became one of the founding members of the Slovak chapter of PEN. His works, which include more than a dozen books of prose, two collections of poetry, and several scripts, span a period of more than forty years and have been translated and published in more than twenty countries.
About the Translator:
MAGDALENA MULLEK translates from her native Slovak. Her translations have appeared in The Dirty Goat, Alchemy, Ozone Park, TWO LINES, Words Without Borders, Slovak Literary Review, and B O D Y. She was one of the translators of the Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature. Her latest project is the anthology of contemporary Slovak prose, Into the Spotlight, published by Three String Books. Magdalena lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and their daughter.