A Literary Cities piece by Sofija Stefanovic.
I was going on a six-week holiday to Europe. A few weeks before leaving Australia, I’d had my wisdom teeth out. Infection is rare but I guess I’m just special, because boy, did I get infected.
My face had doubled in size on the last leg of the flight to Serbia. The passenger next to me woke on the descent to Belgrade to behold, not the mousey twenty-something woman who had been there at the start of the flight, but to a heaving pustule with facial features swollen to bursting.
That evening at my aunt’s apartment, my fat face was too disturbing to ignore. My jaw was throbbing, as if the pus were an animal, continuously knocking at the threshold, demanding to be let out.
So as not to spend my measly holiday funds at an expensive clinic, my aunt took me to her neighbour, a willowy giant called Dragoljub, who said he could make a hole in my gums and release the pus, for cash. (I assumed he was a dentist – otherwise why would he make this offer? And why else would he have dental tools and a chair in his basement?)
Whatever the dentist/war-criminal did, it worked, because soon enough, my face was drained, and I just had painful holes in my gums where pus had once been. He gave me some (expired) antibiotics (free of charge), to try and kick those oral pustules once and for all.
I should point out that, apart from my mouth, I had another broken body part. My heart. And no amount of dodgy meds could help that sucker.
I was constantly listening for the sound of a frog’s ribbit: the sassy default sound made by my phone when I got a message. So when my on-again-off-again boyfriend texted, I heard the sound a male frog makes when he wants to attract a female. I wished that, like a frog, my off-again was trying to lure me to his pad so he could spray sperm on me from his amphibious cloaca. But he was not. That was the whole problem. He did not want to settle down. So not only did pus seep from my person, but also tears, and emotional-text messages trying to nail down someone who didn’t want me.
It was in this state that I landed in Hamburg, sipping broth gently, like a pelican might, trying to funnel the bits of parsley in a river down my throat, not into the abscesses where they could wreck havoc. Due to hunger, I looked like a sack of miserable bones.
In Hamburg it was not yet the worst of winter. Everything was still and crisp and the cold air felt nice on my face, which was starting to gently throb again.
I stood at the port with my friend, who had just arrived from Berlin to spend the weekend with me. He had recently been dumped by his girlfriend. We were both terrible company. Melancholy, we walked on the craggy rocks by the water. “I got with a new girl the other day.” He said, trying to sound upbeat. “She let me jerk on her tits! My ex never let me do that.” And in that last sentence, he stumbled over the word “ex”, the sound of it hurting his throat, exposing his previous statement for what it was – hollow. I was bemused by Hamburg, the way I imagine my friend had experienced his recent orgasm. This was all very nice and novel, I admitted, but it wasn’t home.
(We all know: home is where love is waiting. Where we wish love was waiting.)
We walked on the rocks, him talking about his ex, me following quietly, my face swelling steadily. I wondered: does my face grow from sadness? I remembered the start of that poem I always remember when I’m depressed;
"My strength is failing fast,"
Said the sea-king to his men;--
"I shall never sail the seas
Like a conqueror again."
And it was sparkling cold, and massive ships stood in front of us, full of cargo from across the world, ready to carry shipments to far off places, where it was warm, where their foghorns would sound in faraway ports full of different people. But I didn’t think about those people, and their potentially interesting lives. I just thought about myself, a rejected, infected Sea King.
Meanwhile, German pensioners ran along the path, holding those ski poles they carry when they run. They were wiry and sinewed, in their matching tops and bottoms, all headbands and wrinkly skin. They were tanned, these runners, probably the same people who hang around topless at beach resorts, the women with their wrinkled boobs, the men in their small underpants, framing aged genitals. Adults drank coffee on the pier, while small puffs of children ran around in their winter clothes. And I payed no attention to any of it.
I didn’t even think: this port was here long before you were born and it will be here when there are no teeth in your head. I didn’t think: the stupid things that are bothering you now will pass. To this port, glistening in the December sun, you’re just another joe. It will hold the weight of people heftier than you, and smarter than you and hungrier than you. People more in love and people more sick. If you are a writer, why not take out your notebook and write something? Look around and take it in, you idiot. But I did not, as I was an idiot, wondering how many days before I was back in Melbourne, lost in my small thoughts on a clear Hamburg day.
Sofija Stefanovic is a Serbian-Australian writer living in New York. She hosts the monthly literary salon Women of Letters at Joe's Pub. She wrote the Penguin Special You're Just Too Good To Be True, a love story about lonely hearts and internet scams. For her immersive work, she's joined a cult, participated in exorcisms and competed in the Miss ex-Yugoslavia beauty pageant. @sstefanovic