A text by the 2019 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Joanna Elmy
In the empty apartment, he took a shower and looked for a piece of paper and a pen. He found an orange BIC, yellowed graph paper and sat down to write. He hadn't written for years.
Clinical Picture of Nostalgia:
Onset period: Since the beginning of eternity.
Vulnerable groups: Homo Sapiens, of various ages and gender.
Present focus: recently prefers Eastern Europe.
Complaints begin after what the patient describes as "the final" existential disappointment, after which nothing has any meaning anymore; the disease slips into the crack where the soul has broken. Characterized by a dull, intolerable, inescapable ache. Shooting pains are felt along the whole of the body, especially strong in the region of the heart. Co-morbid with other symptoms: some patients succumb to depression, others become aggressive; the case histories of those suffering from nostalgia is exceptionally varied, thus making it difficult to determine which symptoms are associated with it and which are not. It is an indisputable fact that manifestations of nostalgia have been observed in popular political doctrines, in brutal dictatorial ideologies, and have even incited whole nations to hide shameful pages in their histories. On the other hand, others infected by nostalgia present side effects such as the authorship of powerful literary works, musical compositions or works of visual art. On the social level, the disease presentation is also multivalent: nostalgia functions independent of then patient's housing conditions, material environment or intimate life, although certain indicators suggest a correlation between socio-economic conditions and the morbidity rate of nostalgia. Employment status and work conditions, diet and unhealthy habits have not been shown to correlate with an organism's vulnerability to nostalgia, according to leading experts. The patients do not show any common characteristics, nor do they display problems with the motor system. In summary, the dynamics of the illness are so varied that it cannot be grasped by scientists.
Nostalgia is an epidemic whose destructive effects can be observed today in the countries of Eastern Europe, and especially among their citizens who are scattered across the world. The latter have no idea what they are looking for, yet they are convinced that they will find it precisely there, where they are not (just ask their poets). In any case, even if they do find it, they remain convinced that someone somewhere has it better; that they are being tricked; or that evil is still around the corner, sharpening its claws, because nothing good ever happens just like that. The instincts listed above are a highly specific and brilliant response of Eastern European evolution, which has adapted its subjects to all manner of tragic conditions of existence.
Before he went to the market (he was sure the woman would be there), he met up with a few friends. The guys from the neighborhood, an old schoolmate, some co-workers – they hadn't been in touch for years. The only common link between them had been missing for years: him.
They talked about newborn and grown-up kids, about weddings and divorces, about their parents' funerals, the financial crisis, business trips and vacations, idiotic co-workers, leaking roofs. The petty annoyances of everyday life are the universal language of the human race. His nostalgia writhed uneasily. There was very, very little left of his old friends – a few old stories, a familiar gesture, faded with the years. Nobody and nothing was waiting for him. No one missed him. And he didn't know these people. They met as memories. And parted as total strangers.
He was right. The same smiling Gypsy woman, with more wrinkles and fewer teeth than before. The indecently large, shiny pink oxheart tomatoes hadn't changed a bit. The only difference was that now you could buy them in March, too.
"They inject 'em with horse piss!" His grandfather used to say. You're just jealous yours don't grow that big, his father would snap back at him. Then they would sit down at the table and his grandfather would pour so much salt on the tomatoes that they tasted bitter. Revenge is best served salty.
He bought enough for all the years he had spent without buffalo hearts. He chose them carefully, gently feeling their skin, firm yet soft, fleshly perfection. He ran his finger over the scarred wounds where they had been picked. He caught the scent of grass, moss, a tang of sweetness. The alkaloids in tomatoes are the same as those in nicotine, he'd read that somewhere. That way the plant hoped to ward off enemies. What a fatal evolutionary mistake! He gave the Gypsy woman 20 leva and didn't ask for change. In return, she sent him off with a blessing.
His hands were shaking with anticipation as he unlocked the door. He went inside straight to the kitchen, still wearing his shoes. He left the tomatoes on the counter and opened up the highest cupboard. He immediately spotted the box with his mother and father's wedding china, Polish porcelain, used only once – for his high school graduation party. He remembered how his mother had wanted to send them for his wedding, he also remembered how he had snapped at her on the phone: do you have any idea how many million dish sets they have here in America, what would they want with old dishes, use them yourself! He quickly chased the thought from his mind, wiped off one of the biggest plates, involuntarily relishing the complex woven design of blue heart-shaped stamens, their vines, the perfectly identical dots around the curved edge. He set the plate down next to the bag, opened it and began carefully washing the eleven tomatoes one by one. He touched them with exceptional tenderness, as he had not touched anything or anyone in years. When the last tomato had been dried after its cold bath, he cut them into perfect pyramids, carefully performing surgery on the dried wounds on the crowns of their heads, cutting out the cores and tossing them into the trash. With a fork in his hand he finally sat down at the kitchen table, from the window he could watch the retirees toddling down the sidewalk in their black funerary clothes. In these parts after a certain age a person began mourning his unlived life with all the necessary rituals. Without color, without undue joy. A mausoleum of unhappiness, a requiem for timelessness.
Something wasn't right. The sweetness of the first bite seemed to be the same that he had remembered from his childhood, but it didn't have that crucial spark of life so needed to quench the nostalgia. At first, he chewed slowly, then he began gobbling down whole pieces in the hope that perhaps the quantity consumed would bring with it that much-needed taste. He expected to feel full of memory and memories, or even to feel on the verge of throwing up. But it was as if he was swallowing air. His grandfather did not appear, nor did his father. That world outside remained just as foreign and familiarly unfamiliar, unchanged and eternally in motion. The hole in his chest was still gaping open, his body was an hourglass, the grains of the years gone by falling freely, one by one, into the cavity of his sick heart.
Joanna Elmy was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. At present, she is pursuing a dual degree in the field of humanitarian and social sciences at the New Sorbonne University in Paris, France. She is the creator of and is currently expanding the first student online magazine dedicated to Anglophone culture and literature. As one of the winners of the first national scholarship Per Aspera Ad Astra, she is working on her writing under the guidance of Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov. Joanna is a freelance author for Deutsche Welle and she is part of the editorial of the Bulgarian independent media Toest, where she is also a staff writer; she has also written for citizen journalism website Terminal 3. In her spare time she volunteers at the American Library in Paris, where she helps mainly during evening events – panels and discussions on journalism, culture, and literature. She is fluent in French and English.