Slavenka Drakulić: Invisible Woman and Other Stories

You ask what disturbed me so much.

How would I describe it ...? One day in my own apartment I met a person I didn’t know. I was heading out but stopped. Before me stood a grey-haired woman with blue eyes. She was looking at me, aghast, unblinking. A strange woman, and yet somehow known, surrounded by greyish haze. It seemed to me that I had seen a ghost.

I didn’t immediately recognise myself. First of all, my hair is not grey – look! I neatly dye it every month with L’Oréal light blond. And there are many other hues too, some sounding crazily appealing – champagne, strawberry, cognac, like something you’d eat or drink – but this one is the most dear to me, I’ve always used it. I dye my hair myself, I’ve gotten used to it over the years since I retired. But it’s not so much about the hair, for this colour is sufficiently light to look grey in half-light. In fact, it was the face that scared me. You see, this was the wrinkled face of an old woman. It was as though I had seen in the mirror my older sister, who’s been dead for at least ten years. We were quite alike. But I couldn’t possibly have seen my dead sister! It took me a moment or two to collect myself and get it through my head that this woman staring at me was not an apparition, but my own reflection in the mirror. And the realisation that I was she shocked me further still.

Why did I figure that an apparition was in front of me?

Well, it was already late, it was dusk, and only the contours of this person were visible. She somehow seemed to be ... fading away? Like when you look at yourself in a very old mirror, dimmed by brown discolouration. The stains spread and entire parts become hazed, the rest of the image hovers, the edges are unclear, evanescent. A bit frightening. It’s easy to say that this is not the real image of a person, and yet, it seems it is. That is how others see you, or don’t see you. As if you were a ghost. And the real person too – I have experienced it personally – becomes somehow paler, increasingly transparent. I thought that this unknown person, this strange woman, had somehow entered the apartment, perhaps because I’d forgotten to lock the door. I know this happens with me, more and more often I forget to lock up. Or I leave the key in the outside lock. And then it dawned on me that it was I, as others see me. My own image.

The mirror has always been there, in the entryway, right by the front door. A big old mirror from my late mother, from the old apartment. With a worm-eaten baroque frame. I had already forgotten that it was there – so many useless things have piled up over the years. I keep planning to clear up thoroughly, throw out the junk, but I haven’t got the strength. I am tired. I might have removed the coat from the hanger or the curtain from the window and thus rediscovered the half-hidden mirror. But I noticed it only when I saw in it this strange person – myself.

After this encounter, all mirrors became a real nightmare. I’m always looking anew at this person standing in front of me. I ask myself how it is possible for a person not to see, not to recognise themselves immediately. Is it possible to see oneself so differently? True, my glance in the direction of this person is usually hurried, quick, nonchalant, superficial, the way you look at a passer-by. But, for the love of God, I almost crashed into myself! I was walking straight towards this woman, who was approaching without showing the slightest intention of moving aside for me. I stopped at a distance of only a few feet and it was only then that in this woman I saw myself. The way others see me. If they see me at all.

This encounter with myself, the way others see me, disturbed me for another reason, too. It reminded me of something else that I hadn’t seen for a long time. Of the gaze of a man. No, not of some particular man! But occasionally something similar happens when I’m walking and see an unknown man coming towards me. The pavement is narrow and you must inevitably squeeze by each other. When two people squeeze past, they usually instinctively look one another in the eye. Unless they really want to avoid it, but why should they? Their glances meet, it’s inescapable, so I believed. Perhaps because I was used to it. He is, let’s say, middle-aged, his temples are already grey, he’s younger than you, but still not young enough to be your son. And then you notice his glance. He’s looking at you, and you can tell he doesn’t see you. He’s looking through you, as if you’re made of glass. You see how his gaze passes through you. Of course, your first thought is that he’s some madman, a somnambulist about to crash into you. He’s moving like you’re not even there, as if his whole body will cross through you, not just his gaze. Still, at the very last moment he detours round you as though an indefinite object has blocked his way on the road, a disturbance, a living obstacle. I didn’t recognise myself, and this is already terrible enough, but now others don’t see me either!

I’ve become an obstacle, nothing more. And that’s only the beginning.

The beginning of what?

Well ... of people looking through me. Or, if their gaze does rest on me, of feeling their sympathy, sometimes I might even say repulsion. I feel more and more invisible, like I’m fading away. Yes, of course I certainly exist, but what does this mean if I’m not receiving acknowledgement of my existence from others? If they act like they don’t even see me?

I live near a big crossroads. Sometimes if the traffic is light and there is daylight, I dare to cross the street without waiting for the green signal. I shouldn’t be doing this because the cars drive fast and they could easily run over someone crossing the street against the red signal. It happened that a driver just didn’t see me, didn’t slow down. This experience frightened me. Naturally, I can’t run anymore, nor do I want to. Sometimes I stand at this crossroads and watch drivers braking when they see a mother with a stroller crossing the street, a woman with a child, young people. I am the same size as a girl who, right before me at the same spot, crossed the street against the light. But all the same, the driver acted as though I weren’t there. He was driving so fast that I had to step back onto the kerb. Of course, it was not the same driver that had slowed down for the girl. But still ...

You ask how I explain this to myself.

I seem to be discovering a new dimension of existence. I simultaneously exist and don’t exist, because I’m ... fading away. Maybe in society there is some sort of custom that prohibits telling older women that they are in fact turning into glass? First the translucent kind, then the completely transparent. Size means nothing, weight and height are irrelevant. Clothes too.

It’s not exactly that you don’t exist, more like you’re living in some other dimension. Everything is the same, and yet – it’s not the same. People behave differently towards you, and it is you, as the invisible woman, who must adapt. It’s just that for me it’s not at all easy to do. On the contrary, it took me quite some time to even comprehend that I’m becoming invisible. In the shop, in the bank, at any counter, on the street ...

It took me long enough to notice how I’m disappearing; I first saw it in the eyes of others. In fact, the hardest part for me is that I still see myself just as clearly as before. I’m conscious of the change, but I’m still visible and real, a living person, although I’ve grown old.

I thought to myself, if I now exist in this invisible form, maybe this transparent thing I’m turning into is – pure ghost?

Yes, I’m asking, even though I know you don’t have the answer.

You may have noticed that up to this point, I have not used the word "ageing". It is a process, at first quite a slow and imperceptible one. At a certain moment it begins to hasten, and you might only notice it then because someone else has noticed, and suddenly you have become – old.

You say I’m harbouring a negative image of myself?

No, no! The problem is that I don’t have such a negative self-image, I simply see myself differently than others do. Certainly not as some unknown woman in a mirror. Or as an apparition. Or a transparent ghost. It’s the others, it’s their perception. When other people stop noticing you, soon you no longer see yourself.

You’re interested in knowing when I started to feel I was changing, growing old?

First it was my body that changed. I originally noticed it when buying new clothes. All of a sudden nothing seemed to fit. Or better put, I felt as though I were trying on someone else’s clothes. And it was only yesterday that tailored dresses and form-fitting tops looked quite good on me. How could it be that there was no longer anything that might suit me? Everything had become too tight and too short, somehow unsuitable. I no longer had the strength to try anything on. It became boring to me, pointless. Spending hours going through piles of clothes to get to something you like. Furthermore, I shuddered at the changing rooms, at the neon light and the tight space in which you have to undress while trying not to look at your tired, dejected body, your surplus kilograms, your sagging skin. No, no, this was not due to my current state of mind. The exact reverse: I’m unnerved due to the fact that nothing fits me. I started to hesitate at the entrances to those shops where, until yesterday, saleswomen would greet me warmly since I spent a lot on myself – and it showed.

Now, if I do resolve to enter, the young saleswoman scans me from head to heels, assessing if I’m just going to take up her time. These very beautiful girls are not kind. They are brusque. They make me painfully aware of my age. At my age I’m supposed to be more self-confident, I say to myself. Don’t let some whippersnapper stop you from shopping. As long as you have money, you’re the boss. But it doesn’t help. I feel terrible. I no longer go shopping.

I used to find pleasure in a beautiful pair of shoes. But when I could no longer walk in high heels, I found out that elegant low-heel pumps are quite a rarity. Previously I had never noticed this – it had seemed to me that there were all sorts of shoes and they were all stylish. When my soles started to hurt – "madam, your arches are falling," as the orthopaedist explained – I started wearing trainers. I remember when a friend of mine showed me her bunions one summer. Back then she was only fifty-six. "Your arches are falling," I told her, and she looked at me in bewilderment. She just waved her hand as if to say it’ll pass. It didn’t pass, and the pain got worse and worse, until she too started wearing comfortable flats.

But you asked when my invisibility, as I call it, began.

Until recently I’d have said that it began with the encounter with the unknown woman in the mirror, with the non-recognition of myself. Thinking about it today, I’d say it was a longer process. I would call this process the Disappearance Chronicles. It is strange how particular parts of a person gradually disappear.

Is the face the first to disappear?

No way, the face is not first! From today’s vantage point, I know that the face is the last to disappear. You don’t stare at it, but you see it, you meet with it daily. And the people around you, they still look only at your face.

The first symptoms of invisibility begin not on the street, but in bed. In the conjugal bed. My husband and my invisibility are closely linked. It began on my sixty-third birthday.

He’d had a few. Later, in the bedroom, while I was undressing, he said I was fat. Just like that, fat! He had never said this before, never used the word.

He himself wasn’t all that skinny. He said it as if he’d just then – after a long time – looked at this body, my ageing body. And it was unknown to him. Then when he did recognise it, it was as though with these words he both acknowledged and simultaneously dismissed it. Dismissed, that’s how I felt at that moment. I still remember the horrific feeling of shame that overwhelmed me as I stood naked before him, who saw me that way. I remember, I was going through the menopause and I’d gotten a little belly that I could easily camouflage with clothes. It happens to all women. I was maybe five kilograms overweight, but I looked a lot better than him, with that beer belly of his.

I know, I should have been on a diet, lost the damn kilograms. Gone to the gym or yoga ... I should have taken better care of myself. But I didn’t have the time back then: I was still working, I had an interesting job and friends. Anyway, was he taking care of himself? No. He found it normal that I should take care of myself and he didn’t have to. It was as though he’d suddenly slapped my face, though that never actually happened.

I felt more and more like a piece of furniture, a useful piece that only occasionally speaks, and more often listens, cooks, saves him from loneliness and depression. My husband was a good man, but books interested him most, not people. He didn’t live completely in this world. I was his only link with reality until he died from dementia.

And so, that night I withdrew to my side of the conjugal bed. He stretched out his arm to draw me in and embrace me, as he always did before sleep. He knew he’d said something bad. "I didn’t mean it," he whispered. He didn’t mean it, but he said it, because that was in fact how he saw me.

I kept to my side of the bed. Don’t despair because of him, it’s not worth it, I told myself.

There comes a time when we are too old and too wise to suffer over such words. At that moment I conducted myself very rationally and calmly. But the pain I felt remained, and today it’s still there, I can practically feel for it, like a small lump in my breast. Yes, on the left side, of course. Here, in the heart area. Like a pebble that chafes.

I no longer wished to be intimate with him. We tried, yes, several times. He occasionally showed a slight interest, though more from habit. And I responded, also out of habit. But instead of the bedroom, I changed in the bathroom now, and I traded lacy silk panties for high-waisted cotton briefs – this sort of intimacy was over for me. Somewhere around the age of sixty-five. And it was no longer pleasant for me, either. At a certain point, intercourse became painful. When my gynaecologist gave me a lubricant ("the mucosa seems very dry"), it was already too late – I no longer needed it.

We lived together out of a love that turned into solidarity, out of a habit that became an obligation and out of a fear of being alone. But it tortures me that we didn’t know better how to help each other. He could no longer protect me from fear, from pain. Can anyone?

No one touches me anymore, except the hands of doctors, hairdressers, dentists, but these are not gentle touches – they’re all only there to fix something.

Recently I waited in hospital for hours for my turn for a standard eye exam, due to my cataracts. I remember, I was sitting completely hopeless among an equally hopeless crowd of people. Our charts were in the doctors’ offices, in the hands of nurses who came out every now and then and loudly called for people. I was already glued to the seat when they called me. The check-up was short and only confirmed what I felt anyway, some sort of creeping blindness. After so much sitting and waiting and the loudly uttered confirmation that a part of my body was failing me, I felt half-dead. I could hardly wait to get home.

I need more and more time to shake off depression and I sometimes cannot do it alone. I need a human being to whom I can confess my fear of blindness, admit that I’m tired and that I can no longer waste time in waiting rooms to have confirmed what I already know, that there is no cure.

I called a friend. She listened to my not-too-long lament, my attempt at describing this feeling of sinking, suffocating, vanishing ... After that I felt even worse. What did I expect? What could anyone tell me to make me feel better? I thought a hot tub full of scented bubble-bath might relieve the cramping I was feeling in every part of my body, but turning on the tap and waiting for the tub to fill seemed simply too strenuous. Instead I lay down on the couch, covered my head and cried. There was no one to even just sit and hold my hand, even though I know there’s no consolation. In any case, the experience of choking in fear isn’t transferrable.

When my husband died, I spent days washing the curtains. Not only washing, but starching and ironing them as well. I had never done that before. Never washed curtains in my life! It was like a cleansing ritual. I was burying the past, my youth. With slow movements of the iron I traversed these curtains of thin cotton linen with lace trimmings. But I never hung them back up on the windows.

It has already been a long time since, instead of going out in the evening with friends – to a café or a concert, or sometimes to the theatre – I started to watch TV. And no, I don’t read like I used to, either. My sight is deteriorating. I don’t go out, especially at night, the darkness bothers me. I’m somehow more interested now in the lives of others – not of real people, but of those in TV shows or films. When I rouse myself out of this dull goggling at the screen, I feel how hollow I am, and that this hollowness in my head is being filled with spider-webbed soporifics which put me to sleep and don’t allow me to think.

I wonder why I’m telling you all this.

This encounter with my own self in the mirror disturbed me. My friend took me to you, for you to calm me down, supposedly. But how could you even help me? Yes, the only way is by listening to me ... Or – could you perhaps write me a prescription?

"Invisible Woman and Other Stories", naslovnica; izvor: Fraktura

Knjigu su na engleski preveli Christina Pribichevich Zorić i Jacob Agee.

Knjiga je objavljena u sklopu projekta Facing Insecurities in Contemporary Europe sufinanciranog sredstvima programa Europske unije Kreativna Europa.