Telling Stories

I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them.

In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it — Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners’ attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausibility. There was a storytelling code of solidarity — you did not sabotage someone else’s narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest American commodity.

Once upon a time Mary and I were at a wedding in Milwaukee. Her cousin, who worked for the governor of Wisconsin, was getting married, and we shared a table with eight other people, all couples invested in state politics. As it happens at weddings, they all started talking about their fateful encounters: Josh and Jennifer met at their gym; Jan and Johnny were a college couple, broke up, later found themselves working for the same law firm; Saul and Philip met at a toga party, by a keg of Miller Light. Everybody was happy now, you could tell, the table laden with bliss and future…

So as to contribute to the discourse of momentous attraction, I told them about the Cold War rabbits. It was Rora who had told me this story once upon his return from Berlin. All along the Wall, I/Rora said, there were grass-covered minefields, so there were a lot of free-running rabbits, too light to set off a mine, no other beasts to prey upon them. At mating time, the hormone-crazy rabbits would smell a partner on the other side, and they would go crazy, producing the pining-rabbit sound, trying desperately to find a hole in the Wall. The rabbits would drive the guards out of their minds, but they could not shoot them because they had to save their bullets for the humans trying to defect. Everybody in Berlin knew that the rabbit-mating season was the worst time to attempt to escape across the Wall, because the rabbits made the guards very trigger-happy.

Outrageous though it may have been, I always found the story funny and poignant — the unnaturalness of the Cold War, the love that knew no boundaries, the Wall brought down by horny rodents. It required no effort for me to suspend my disbelief and admire Rora’s narrative embroidery. But my Wisconsin audience stared at me with the basic you’re-okay-but-strange smiles, waiting for a more potent punch line. Whereupon Mary said: “I find that hard to believe.” She was hurt and annoyed, I know for a fact, because I didn’t tell our own falling-in-love story (the sand between the toes, the reflections of Chicago shimmering on the lake, the waves licking the breakers), but it was rather humiliating to be publicly distrusted by your own wife.

Josh asked: “Why didn’t the rabbits find a mate on their own side of the Wall? Why would they only be interested in a rabbit from the other side?” I had no answer, as it had never crossed my mind to ask Rora such a question: the story and its reality disintegrated right before me. What’s worse, I felt that Mary was speaking from across the wall that divided us and that all the verifiable reality was on her side. Never could I tell that story in Mary’s presence after that.

Aleksandar Hemon
The Lazarus Project

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