Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s not as easy as it looks, standing all day in the murky light of the museum. My feet ache and swell with blood, my back hunches in protest. People shuffle by, but they don’t see us. That’s why the museum hires immigrants: we are invisible.
It’s a pointless job, really. How many art museums have you heard about being robbed in the light of day? I’ve worked here for seven years, and the worst crime I’ve witnessed was a teenage lesbian pressing her ruby lips to the thigh of a marble Rodin. You can be sure we converged on her like a SWAT team. Anything to break the boredom.
We all have our techniques. Jordan, my friend from Cameroon, wears no underwear and touches himself all day. He’s most content in the Southeast Asian exhibition, where if you know where to look you’ll find erotic art. Fatih from Pakistan carries one of those hand exercisers with the plastic handles and the big coiled spring. His forearms are the size of large eggplants. Tarane is from Turkey. She used to be a pharmacist. Her eyes are as small and black as raisins, and she swears she can sleep standing up. She’s one of a lucky few.
I stay awake by counting. For example, yesterday I counted the number of people wearing Nike sneakers: 2,864. That’s a lot considering we get only eight thousand visitors on your average Thursday. Sometimes I’ll count bald men, or married women, or cold sores. It’s incredible how many people walk with some kind of a limp, but you’d never know it unless you stood in a museum eight hours a day, five days a week, for as long as I have.
I know some unusual facts about the exhibits that your average curator does not. For example: the Samoan display has exactly 343 artifacts; the West African totems feature 19 semi-erect penises, excluding the one that was broken during a French assault on the Ivory Coast; and the museum contains exactly 811 bared female breasts, 720 with nipples intact.
I had other plans for my life, as most of us do. The fact that I count body parts is not something I tell my children. I have three of them: Vanja, Marko, and Elinkja, my little black flower. My wife, Mirjana, is gone. She had always wanted to come to New York; her favorite film was West Side Story. As smart as Mirjana was, she believed too much in America. It’s a fairy tale if you’re rich, but not so easy if you can’t afford the rent. This city has an insatiable appetite for people like us; there are more sheets to be changed and toilets to be cleaned here than anywhere else in the world.
I’m not complaining. I have a green card, a job, schools for my children, an apartment in Brooklyn. Soon we’ll be citizens. I wouldn’t return to Yugoslavia if you threatened me with death. In New York I don’t tell anyone that I’m Serbian, lest they take me for a war criminal. Since the war, we are all rapists and murderers, cousins to Milosevic. When strangers ask where I’m from, I shrug my shoulders and pretend that I don’t speak English.
At eleven, Vanja is a mirror image of his mother: sandy hair and sad gray eyes, a softness in his voice. The hardest thing I do every day is look him in the eyes to let him know I love him. He’s too young to take care of Marko and Elinkja, but he does anyway, because sometimes I work at night and we can’t afford a sitter. Marko and Elinkja are twins, going on eight, just babies when Mirjana died. Marko is quiet, like Vanja, but Elinkja is burning inside. When I drop her at school in the morning, she grabs my leg and bites at my hands when I try to pry her off. She’s been sent home three times for fighting, which threatens my job because I have to fetch her. When I tell her this, she stares at me with boiling eyes. She sneers at my accent and asks why I can’t speak proper English. It’s one thing to hear this from some jerk on the subway, but quite another when it’s your daughter, whose eyes are so soft and brown it breaks your heart.
The museum rotates us to a new station every two hours to keep us on our toes. Today I’ve been in China and Egypt, and presently I’m in the Arms and Armor exhibition. Just in case you want to know, there are 630 weapons here: swords and knives, guns and guillotines. Don’t ask me how a guillotine qualifies as art. I’ve also been counting people with missing fingers but have seen only four. One day I counted more than thirty, but that was on account of a bus load of farmers and their wives from Iowa.
In Vukovar, Croatia, where we lived before the war, there was a Serb commander known as Arkan, who gained a reputation for cutting off his prisoners’ fingers, one at a time, for no particular reason. The prisoners didn’t have any useful information; they weren’t even soldiers. One of my Muslim friends, Emir, a surgeon, had three fingers lopped off, but that was nothing compared to what they did to him later.
One of the newer museum guards is a Bosnian named Josaf. I didn’t tell him that I’m Serbian, but he knows, just as I know that he’s a Muslim without anyone telling me. It’s strange how that works, but true. I knew he was Muslim even before I knew his name.
Not that I care. I mean, I don’t hate Muslims. Mirjana was half Muslim, which means my children are one-quarter Muslim. Before the war it didn’t seem to matter, at least not in our circle of friends. Milosevic changed all that. You could smell fear in the air, and hatred, which is the same. The war turned neighbors into starving dogs, fighting for some scraps.
Josaf and I avoid each other, not because we know each other’s pasts, but because we don’t want to know. When we pass each other in the museum hallways, we avert our eyes. He smells like cigarettes and coffee.
I have no training in fine art. Before I started working here, I didn’t know the difference between a Picasso and a Rembrandt. The museum doesn’t care; if we were experts, they’d have to pay us more. In Yugoslavia I was a doctor, but I try to forget that now. To remember too much is to mourn, which will not feed my children.
Perhaps that is why I am drawn to the museum’s atrium, where Tiffany’s stained-glass mosaics cast the light of dreams. There is nothing in the world quite like leaving the dim, musty halls of the Middle Ages for the openness of the atrium, where the light flows into me like the air I breathe. Japanese maples flourish among the statues, a fountain gurgles, and against one wall Tiffany’s mountains glow blue beneath his autumn trees. In the atrium I do not count things; here, Elinkja calms in the light.
It’s a benefit of my job, free admission for my children. Some weekends I bring them here, though the museum is the last place I want to spend my free time. First we walk through Central Park, Elinkja and Marko pestering each other, Vanja two steps behind with the seriousness of a nanny. I wonder how people see us. We are clean and handsome enough, but our clothes are faded and worn, passed down or purchased at thrift stores. After all these years, we still look like immigrants, and I’ve given up trying not to. A few people stare, but the beauty of Manhattan is that nobody stands out. We are four of millions.
We eat hot dogs or ice cream and watch people roller-skate or run or bike in endless circles around the park. We feed the ducks, pet the dogs — all the things everybody does in Central Park. Marko likes to hold my hand, but Elinkja rarely does. She trots along a meter away, pretending to be by herself.
We don’t usually stay long in the museum, because the children get tired and so do I. We always end up in the atrium, where Elinkja stares wistfully at Tiffany’s mountains and rivers, as if looking at a place she has known before and loved. Her little fists uncurl. She sighs. Sometimes she leans against me, and I hold her as her mother used to.
On Wednesday the museum is slow, although “slow” is still five thousand visitors. I begin the day in a new exhibit of modern art, which has thirty-one paintings resembling exactly nothing. Rather than using a brush, the artist spread paint onto the canvas using various birth-control devices and tampons, which to me would be something like performing surgery with a chisel.
Mirjana was a nurse. We met in the hospital when I was a medical student in Belgrade. Nobody would admit it, but many of our patients were malnourished, and some were even starving. These were the years soon after Tito died, when we all pretended that his plan would still succeed. Meanwhile, children came in with broken bones that wouldn’t heal, and there were two-hour queues for bread.
“This wouldn’t happen in America,” Mirjana said.
And she was right. After counting them for seven years, I can say with some degree of certainty that Americans are fat. I’ve counted fat people, skinny people, black people, yellow people. Despite the museum’s boasts of multiculturalism, most of its patrons are white. Many are fat. And they come to see art made by dead white men, many of whom were also fat. The African exhibit is deserted, despite the penises.
On Thursday I begin by counting bone buttons from Scandinavia. Here’s the thing: how many bone buttons do people need to see before they get the gist? In half an hour I count 270 buttons, and I’m not even halfway through the collection. By the time I rotate to Twentieth Century Art I’m no closer to understanding buttons.
While standing by Pablo Picasso’s Gertrude Stein, I count four Germans and one blind man being led around by a German shepherd, which growls at me. Some days this job gets to me, and this is one of those days. By lunchtime my head is throbbing and my lower back aches. I sit in the cafeteria eating my half-price French onion soup, gazing around at the masses (113 people) stuffing their jiggly necks beneath the postmodern, plastic chandeliers (24). Mozart’s sonatas drift across the void, and I wonder how I have come to such a place. I leave my body and rise into the sky. I see myself slumped over a glass table, a slice of wet bread sagging in my hand. I don’t look good. I float higher, rising out of the cafeteria and out into the sky. I see my children in school, Elinkja alone at her desk, her eyes too empty even for sadness. Soon I can see the whole of North America and Europe, and Croatia sloping smoothly into the Adriatic Sea.
We can go back, I think, knowing it isn’t true. As I drop toward Vukovar, the taste of diesel heavy on my tongue, I see black smoke rising from the shattered red roofs of the old town, bricks strewn like broken bones. As I look closer I see the hospital, the place where the shell went in, and firemen running toward the fire. I hear a cello and the voices of children singing. Too quickly I fall back into myself. My soup is cold, the cheese congealed.
After work I see Josaf on the subway. My heart races, and I wonder why he’s going to Brooklyn. He is muttering to himself, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. Mirjana slips into my head, the clean white line of her nursing cap, one leg tucked beneath her as she sits by a wounded child’s side. The subway’s brakes are the whistling of mortar shells. I count feet with painted toenails (12) to drive it all from my head, then slip from the subway when it lurches to a stop.
One Sunday when I take the children to the museum, Josaf is on duty in the atrium. It is strange how much we look alike, with our crooked noses, blue eyes, and coarse black hair — except he is heavy and I am skinnier than I should be. When I see him, I want to leave, but I know Elinkja will be upset if we don’t stay awhile. Josaf and I have never spoken, but there is a strange familiarity between us that transcends the glances we have exchanged at work. Perhaps it is the dark shame of our mother country, or the guilt of having left it. I don’t know Josaf’s story, but his presence is a reminder of what I have lost.
Josaf catches me staring at him, and I look away. I sit nervously on a bench in front of Tiffany’s Autumn Landscape while Vanja and Marko play hide-and-seek among the statues. Elinkja sits next to me and stares ahead into the glass forest glittering in the late-afternoon light. The river seems to flow beneath the burning trees. Bruised clouds linger in the sky. A storm is gathering, or lifting, I can’t tell which. Elinkja leans into me, asleep. I hold her in my arms, feeling the hotness of her brow and the twitching of her limbs. It is only in sleep that she yields to my embrace.
After a few minutes I notice Josaf strolling closer. He doesn’t look quite right. His blue uniform is stained and wrinkled, which is against the rules, and his hair is matted on one side. Pinprick pupils float untethered in his pale blue eyes, so unfocused that for a moment I imagine he is blind. He stops an arm’s length away, his shoulders hunched and his hands wringing. I can smell him, and it is not good.
“You has children,” he says, his voice higher than I expected. His pupils dart about like bats at twilight.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I do.”
“I, too,” he says. He is younger than I am, though not by much. “Good, fine children, not so different from these.” He points to Elinkja.
“Good,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. I look at the ground, Tiffany’s Dogwood — anywhere but Josaf’s eyes.
“Emir and Sonja,” he says.
Elinkja twitches in my arms. I look around for the boys.
“They has names,” Josaf says. “Just like yours.” I want him to stop but he goes on. “The Serbs, they come. They come and —”
“I’m sorry,” I interrupt. “It wasn’t me.”
“Emir, Sonja,” Josaf says again, his face twisting into a mask of anguish or rage or something in between.
I get up to leave, carrying Elinkja.
“They is dead,” Josaf says, his voice barely more than a whisper, and he reaches his hand toward Elinkja’s cheek.
“No!” I say, jerking away and almost dropping Elinkja. Her eyes flash open, sleepy and confused. She looks from Josaf to me, then back to Josaf. Her face is soft and still and unafraid. I pull her closer and hurry toward the exit. I hear footsteps behind me, but when I turn it is the boys, running to catch up. Elinkja thrashes and squirms from my arms.
For seven years I have hidden in this museum, cloistered as a monk, protected from my past. Josaf has changed all that. Though I rarely see him, I fear the darker spaces and crave the atrium with a desire bordering on panic. I dread the subway. I barely sleep, and when I do the nightmares won’t relent. The children singing, the shells, and now there is Josaf in the shadows. Counting does not work in dreams.
Tuesday, standing by Monet, I count birthmarks. There are more than you might imagine, 274 by lunchtime, 23 in recognizable shapes. One lady bears the outline of Montenegro across her throat; when she swallows, her Adam’s apple swells like a volcano.
I dislike Monet. He reminds me of cheap perfume and mealy fruit. Thank God the world doesn’t look like that. I long for the atrium, but my shift today doesn’t include it. I count Rolex watches, straining my eyes to make out the little crown. I count 492 Japanese (122 women, 370 men), 68 warts, and 1,092 pairs of bluejeans. I set a new record for nose rings (30), and find 48 tattoos. I count scabs and scars and ponytails. You’d be surprised how many scars there are, but rarely on the Japanese.
You get to know people in this job. The aloof French, the stodgy Brits, the vivacious Senegalese. Texans are loud, Russians proud. I can tell that people have their secrets. I see them smugly walking, and I know. The pretty ones want you to believe otherwise, but they live in a world of masks. I see mothers and fathers hissing at their children and glancing around like shoplifters.
There are more heart attacks on Tuesday than on any other day of the week. Don’t ask me why. Last year there were twelve, three of which were fatal. The victims were younger than you might imagine: men my age with too much money and not enough time. They crumple without a sound. I say, blame it on Monet.
Tuesday ends badly. My counting consumes me outside the museum, and as I walk to the subway, I count pigeons with crimson tumors on their beaks and legs and eyes. You have to wonder what is happening to them.
Then I see Josaf on the subway again. Stooped near the end of the crammed car, he stares into the darkness of the tunnel. I know he knows that I am there. I watch the ground and begin counting shoes, and there is no denying that Doc Marten has a foothold in New York. I count 63 pairs, but it is hard to tell with all the people coming and going at every stop. I spot a pair of cheap black work shoes, identical to my own, and when I look up I see that they belong to Josaf, standing over me. His eyes are moist and bloodshot. I look away.
“I lose my children,” Josaf says. “And you has three.”
Everyone is watching, but I pretend that I don’t hear.
The subway screeches to a stop at Atlantic. “You has three,” Josaf says again as I push by him and out into the crowd. Aboveground in Brooklyn, he is behind me. I turn onto Fulton, and he turns with me; it is all I can do to keep from running. Two blocks from home I detour, like a bird leading a predator away from its nest. I don’t know what I’m going to do, only that Josaf is focused on my children. The fear I felt for them in Vukovar has followed me to Brooklyn. I hide behind a dumpster and when Josaf appears I hesitate for one long second before tackling his legs. He is a heavy man, and for a few seconds he stands firm, making me feel like a puppy chewing on his pants.
“What do you want?” I scream.
I lift his foot, and he goes over. A small crowd gathers as we roll around on the sidewalk, hot and sweaty and stale. My shirt pulls up, and I can feel Josaf’s slippery skin against mine. I throw a few punches, but my hands are absorbed into him like a wooden spoon into bread dough. I haven’t hit anyone since grammar school. Josaf’s lips, soft and wet, press against my ear. We drop into the gutter and his weight knocks my wind away. He lies on top of me, panting. Nearby a woman laughs.
“I want my children,” Josaf says.
“I’m going to die,” I gasp.
He rolls away and we lie in the gutter, sweating and panting and bleeding.
“Why are you following me?” I ask.
“I live here,” Josaf says. “I live here every day.”
The children’s faces go white when I stagger through the door with Josaf, my shirt stained from his bloody nose.
“Help us,” I say, and Vanja pulls out a chair for Josaf. Marko stares, open-mouthed. Elinkja runs to the kitchen. I sit across from Josaf, whose eyes are cloudy and gray. His face appears worse than it is, the blood from his nose smeared everywhere.
“What happened?” Vanja asks, but I give him a look that means, Not now.
Elinkja returns with a bowl of soapy water and a cloth and sets them next to Josaf. At first he doesn’t seem to notice, just stares ahead, lips quivering, to the place where he’s learned to hide. But after a minute his eyes focus on Elinkja, her brow furrowed exactly the way Mirjana’s used to when she was struggling to understand something. Suddenly Josaf raises his hand and I move to protect Elinkja, but in the next moment he strokes her forehead the way I haven’t in years, tenderly brushing a strand of black hair from her eyes.
“Moj dijete,” he says. My child.
Elinkja doesn’t smile, but neither does she pull away. I see her as if for the first time, a new light glowing through the armor she has worn for years. Josaf starts to weep. I begin to count his tears before I realize that I have gone too far.