It was a Saturday morning and Mischa was sleeping in as he usually did to recover from the working week’s fatigue. Maria was also doing what she usually did on a Saturday morning: perched on a stool, with a slice of buttered bread in one hand, she was scrolling through the browser history on Mischa’s computer. The layer of butter has been going thinner and thinner every week; Mischa’s working hours more and more stretched out; Maria’s sense of stability, which she thanked God for when they moved in together, less and less perceivable; the time they still had for each other more and more difficult to endure.
It was the second crisis in the country since the turn of the century. First, several important decision makers in far-away places decided to cut all trade with them after the authorities reached out for lands to the south that were never theirs. This time round, it was war with the people of those lands and their allies that emptied markets of food, caused people to work back-breaking hours in factories, and made the poorest ones eagerly die of starvation. Maria knew the political context from Mischa, who explained television news to her each weekend as they sat next to each other facing the little screen. Of the dying people, she heard from her colleagues at work who lived in even poorer districts.
If you asked Maria, she was happy that they still had the television set, the computers and telephones with access to the Internet. She didn’t enjoy using any of those things, no. You couldn’t trust the news anymore, speak out on the Internet, or talk too openly over the phone but the Saturday morning look-ins made her relive the sense of stability she once felt her life to be founded upon. Scrolling through Mischa’s browser history, she was deceiving herself that in this way, she would know when he’s going to leave her. Flee the country, do some stupid thing that would land him in jail, maybe even join the enemy forces? Maria knew all those stories from her colleagues at work where a woman in town was left to her own devices when her boyfriend, or husband – and earning more money than a woman could wish for made men the providers – did one of those things.
Gossip like this, and more of worse kinds, was breaking the ties between the people in town. A trembling spirit took over them, just as it did to people in all other towns in the country. As Maria was walking to work in the morning, or scurrying homewards in the late evening, hunched and glancing about, she saw the same fear and suspicion in every face she passed. So to anticipate the moment when Mischa goes away, she looked for clues in the search entries he sometimes made on his computer after coming back from work. There was really nothing she could find there. If Mischa planned anything illegal, he wouldn’t be so stupid as to leave traces, or the police would know everything there was to know before Maria did. On some level, she knew her trespasses were pointless but she couldn’t let go of them.
She could see that Mischa sometimes read news in an attempt to make sense of the various conflicting pieces of information he got about the situation at the front. By the shortness of these attempts, she could guess that they were only frustrating. Apart from that, Mischa exchanged e-mails with his brother, and looked up ways to make some game or other perform better on his old laptop. All these things happened with declining frequency, just as Mischa’s impulses to ask Maria how her day was. In the evenings, he would often come back home, eat, stare at the TV screen for a while, his face clear of any emotion, and go to sleep without saying a word. It made Maria’s fear easier to handle. There was nothing to act upon; their life suspended in exhaustion and silence; and it was comforting to be able to stay in this controlled state of fear.
Saturday mornings were a bit different between them. Maria would stop her scrolling when she heard Mischa turn in the sheets. When he woke, she would have shut the laptop down, and stand up near the bed. When he opened his eyes, she would say: “I was just watching you sleep.” It sounded wrong to her but she was always too nervous to think of anything better. It sounded wrong to him as well but he couldn’t care less. So he just smiled at her – once in a whole week, he smiled. Later, they made love to each other: he, to kill the numbing fatigue and depression; she, to forget about her paranoid fear. War didn’t take either the awkwardness, or the relief of it.