“It really is a shame,” Nikola mumbled to himself. He sniffed, removed his dusty baseball cap from his freshly shaven head and, with a flurry of blinks and rapid rubbing of his bare head, conveyed how utterly distressed he was.
“My child will grow up not knowing the sheer happiness of looting corn from the neighbor’s yard and the thrill of getting caught and returning home with a bloody nose, only to get another ass-whooping by a grandparent; he’ll miss out on the bitter pleasure of hauling logs and digging wells, and pick-pocketing drunk UNPROFOR buffoons at their motel. He’ll miss out on muck and mud, mushroom gathering and digging up spuds.”
“We had nothing on our feet and very little in our stomachs,” said Dejana, Nikola’s pregnant wife, “but I would never trade my childhood in Herzegovina for the numbing dreariness of suburbia that awaits my little one: programmed and scheduled activities, classes for this and lessons for that, faithful adherence to imposed life scripts, biking with a helmet on and stretching before exercise … I cringe at the thought of raising a faceless and unresentful automaton.”
“I remember those American and French peacekeepers making us race for a can of cola,” I said, “and then pouring it on the ground after the race and crushing the can on the winner’s forehead. I remember them giving us bruises on the basketball court and elbowing us as if we had stomped on their mother’s honor. I remember their sense of humor, going straight after insecurities without an introduction. If an adult was small in stature, they would call him a midget. If an old woman had a wart on her nose, they would laugh about its size and say that God has a strange sense of humor. If they spotted a man with a furrowed forehead, they would call him a prune. If a man wore a torn pair of boots, they would call the man poor. Whenever my chubby friend Miljan walked by them, they would joke about his ‘man tits.’ If a woman ignored their barking and whistling, they would spit at her and throw fits….
“I also recall being ashamed of the stench of my home, the rickety furniture, the holes in my clothes, the thirst and starvation, my mother’s reputation … and grandma’s habit of interrupting other people’s sentences with her incessant hiccupping. I was embarrassed of grandpa’s drinking and terrified of his singing. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had to share a room with five people, and I invented a rich Italian godfather who was going to send me all kinds of gifts and whose fortune I was going to inherit. I remember my uncle drinking coffee with our neighbors and laughing at my mother’s serious case of hypochondria. ‘Nothing ails her when she finds a chum to hold her hand,’ he would say. I cursed my fortune, the feeling of helplessness I could not avoid, and I remember wishing I was older so that I could flee and be rid of all of them … forever.”
As I was speaking, Nikola ran his downcast eyes over a patch of cement in front of him and nervously sloshed and savored the last bit of beer in his mouth. Dejana flashed a look at her husband’s knitted eyebrows from under her long eyelashes. When Nikola turned his head toward her, she immediately dropped her gaze to the ground. She slouched in her chair, clasped her hands and observed her thumbs as they chased one another in circles. Neither of my friends could escape drowning in deep, solemn thought.
Everyone was silent and for a while; the only sound that could be heard was the subdued inquisitiveness of a barred owl on a nearby oak.
“I remember similar experiences,” Dejana said, interrupting the owl. “But back then spontaneity was everywhere, and at least there was some kind of vague hope.”
“At least there was hope,” I murmured to myself.
Image: Milan Djurasovic.