Since I moved away to a bigger city, I seldom come back home. Only for holidays and the anniversaries of a few people’s deaths. Before every encounter I carefully prepare answers to all potential hostile questions. I take deep breaths and count to ten. I’m sure my dad does that, too, however much he tries to hide it.
While I wait for him to come back out of the kitchen and tell me why he had called me unexpectedly, I ask myself how he manages to keep the house so clean. I secretly ran my finger over the oval frame of a needlepoint picture in the living room. Not even on the bas-relief were there any grubby marks of neglect. That cheered me up. Jakob Viler’s Winter was the emblem of my childhood, the trade-mark in the upper corner of every family photograph, proof of normality that father, mother, and child could offer to everyone for inspection. Our house was full of my mother’s needlepoint, but it was precisely this pixelated scene of a house in the snow that returned me to safety whenever I found myself outside of the framework of familiar experiences. I began to develop a needlepoint philosophy on the afternoon I was trying, as hard as I could, because I was frightened and confused, to hide in the little blue house on the hill, with the chimney out of which smoke rose up towards the moon.
It was late spring, and I was in the fifth grade. I rode my bike with Bojan to the old brickyard. The air smelled like rust and earth, intensified by the rain, which had stopped about an hour before. The wet grass was knee-high to me; Bojan was shorter than I was, so the grass came up almost to his shorts. Droplets of water rolled down his thighs, and my skin crawled as if they were my legs. I followed along behind him and I never wanted to stop walking. Nature was licking our skin with its long, fresh tongue. We were walking across the soft soil of a new world. Then I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I turned and ran home.
Those were the innocent days of our family, when we all trusted one another fearlessly. I tore into the house, wet, red-faced, and impatient. I found Dad at the table in the living room, leafing through the newspaper and slurping coffee. I poured out my heart, trying to explain to him what I had just experienced: the brick factory, Bojan, grass, my balls wrinkled like dried figs, heat stretching from my stomach to my cheeks. Dad looked at me as if I had listed off the symptoms of malaria or some other unlikely disease. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You waded through wet grass, and now you need to pee,” he said, avoiding my eyes. A shudder came over me as if I had suddenly been thrown out of a warm room into the snow. That was the first time.
My father came back into the room with the slow stride of an elderly person. He set two little glasses of šljivovica on the table. They were half-full. That was how he always poured them, because he was not a great lover of alcohol. He would drink only so he could clink glasses when company was around, and he expected other people to do the same, although guests were not frequent in our home. I leaned on the table. It creaked beneath the weight of my elbows and my trembling. My father, seated across from me, clasped his hands together in front of him and said: “I have something to tell you.”
The second time wasn’t until middle school. Maybe I would have kept quiet this time, if if it hadn’t been a love that seemed bigger and better than anything in the world, the way we thought everything in those years was the greatest; it was the love that calls to you once in your life and it would be an unforgivable mistake to turn your back on it. It was May Day. The picnic area above the city smelled like grilled meat and doughnuts. Battery-powered boom boxes, strung up on the tree branches, vibrated in place of real accordions, and beneath them lay our whole little town, barefoot, full, and drowsy from drinking spritzers. The young people were either kicking around a soccer ball on a grassy clearing between two patches of shade or nibbling on sunflower seeds while they sat on a low wall. We punk rocker wannabes were slamming back beers behind the parking lot, under the eaves of an abandoned vacation house from the interwar period. We were angry and vulnerable, and thirsty for freedom. After the first joint, my school crew fanned out over the nearby stand of trees, hunting for squirrels and sunbeams. Only Džoni and I remained on the stoop to share a beer and a cigarette. The grass increased my sensitivity, and even the banal act of sharing a bottle gave me a sensation that blew my mind. I enjoyed the safe silence of a secret. With excitement I waited for Džoni to pass me the bottle, fantasizing that in the wave of beer I could clearly taste his tongue. When I look at it from this distance, artificial paradises had a decisive influence on my sexual life at that time; they were fuel for the stimulation of my vicarious experiences, whenever I wasn’t having any real ones. We were sitting on the sunlit concrete, leaning back against the wall. Two lizards in low-top sneakers and the depths of puberty. He put a crooked Filter 57 in the corner of his mouth and checked his pockets for a lighter. I was quicker. I brought the lighter up to his cigarette and with my other hand I shielded its flame from the window. My ring finger touched his beard. And I didn’t remove it even when he inhaled. He didn’t move away, either. To my surprise and joy, he rubbed his beard on the tips of my fingers, until he brought them to his lips. Then he sucked on them for a second, pointing with his eyes at the door of the house that offered little protection. For two minutes we broke into the sticky maelstrom of bodies, fear, and excitement.
I left the holiday house first. No one would suspect us, I was convinced, but my dad did note that something important had happened. “Take a look at that little bugger of mine. He’s walking on air. Have you gone and fallen in love on me?” He greeted me loudly by the grill. “I did, Dad. I fell in love and I’m happy as a clam!” I raised my voice and stuck my hands in the air. “Whoa! So who’s the girl?” He asked casually, flipping over the ćevapčići on the grill. “Nikola’s my girl, Dad. Ni-ko-la!” I cackled like a monkey and plucked a piece of meat off of the glowing grate. Dad brandished the tongs as if he were going to take a swing at me, but he was prevented in that by a peal of hysterical laughter that burst forth from his stomach and heart. While the laughter spread to the other partygoers, along with remarks like “what an idiot,” “he’s bullshitting,” and “just to rattle your cage”—I was already running towards the little wall, where the rest of my crew was hanging out.
After an initial glass of rakija, I got my answer about why the house was in such good shape. My father had recently started dating Mirjana from accounting. She was a widow and the owner of what had been one of the most desirable rear-ends in the factory where they worked. He told me that she was a good woman, that she could prepare ten jars of ajvar in one day, and that she had both a driver’s license and a car. I did believe him when he said that this was all he needed to make a decision like that, and somehow I felt bad for him about it.
The fourth time was after the breakup. Dad had sensed that something serious was out of whack when I suggested coming to visit for several days. He was unusually kind to me. He made me tea, plying me with chocolate cookies and avoiding prying. I spent the weekend with him, but he didn’t even ask why I had come so suddenly. Disappointed and intimidated by previous attempts, I had been telling him a lie for years, that I was living with a roommate, that it was too soon for me to be thinking of a family, that there would be time for all of that later, and now I was just working a lot and couldn’t make plans. Although he didn’t ask me any questions, I told him that Djordje had moved out, and that we were on bad terms. Such bad terms that we were going to cancel the summer trip to Crete that we had already paid for back in February. We sat on the patio and gazed at the tree that had just leafed out. There was no other living thing around.
We didn’t talk. Thoughts, memories, and fears buzzed in my head in several parallel lines. I was not aware of saying out loud: “Djole’s arms…Those are the only arms on earth I would give my child to…” There was no doubt that my father was listening to me very carefully, but still he replied: “It’ll be all right, son. It will be fine. Look, maybe you don’t have to cancel the Crete thing? Maybe you can get in touch with that girl from the office who’s always calling you up? Who knows…” I looked at him, like he was a patient rejecting his diagnosis.
In that instant I knew I was not going to answer: “But I can’t. I’m a faggot.” I still remembered my third try and my mother’s second-to-last heart attack. If up till then I had wanted to play my cards openly, from this occurrence on I assumed a new burden. I turned into a big powerful son, the protector of his helpless parents. More capable and intelligent than they were, the savior of the situation. Staying silent fed my ego and my feeling of superiority. The lie sustained us. From that, I know now, one cannot live, but at least no one had to die.
My mother recovered. That day stayed in our memories: the day of her cardiac arrest. And we forgot my announcement forever, by tacit agreement. After just a week of dad’s compulsory military-style meals, which all three of us choked down sullenly, she got out of bed and went back to making strudel, paprikash, and gibanica, and in between she did needlepoint, putting the pictures into tawny frames and tiling the boring walls with them. She did that for the next five years, and then my father had to learn how to cook.
The fifth, six, seventh, and all the subsequent times weren’t so dramatic. I talked about names, without explaining relationships. It was an advanced, skillful version of avoiding the truth. I knew that my dad knew everything but that he had no intention of accepting the situation. We lived at a distance, in a cool love for one another, and both of us were reconciled to the loss that this kind of love brings with it.
While we were waiting for the water for coffee to boil, he said that Mirjana was coming by the next day with her children so that we could all get to know each other. Then she’d be moving in, on the day after that. Although he never said anything to me about it, I knew that after mom’s death, he sank into a quiet but enduring melancholy. I was glad that he had finally gotten up the courage to make a change; a different woman in my mother’s bed did not cause me any discomfort; it was like this wasn’t changing just the future, but also the past, and not just my father’s but mine as well. I could feel the pulse thumping in my temples.
He said he’d been by himself for too long. He was scared that he was going to have a heart attack in the middle of the night, too, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to help him. He spent half the day preparing lunch, and the second half of the day washing the dishes, and then he’d eat again, alone. This place was dead, said my father, a man who had given up a long time ago, and who now seemed to have grown weary of withdrawal. Resistance uses up a person just like action does.
I envied him. I envied him for being able to deal, out loud, with his fears, and for having simple ways to assuage them. Maybe they weren’t the best ways, but they solved the problem. And I envied his problem, too. And his freedom to confide in me, and his expectation of support, and having me as his listener. For the first time he was talking to me about his feelings. He admitted that he was in a real bind, and he sat there all meek and puny—more powerful than he’d ever been in his life. Above his head hung Winter with its white and blue thread in the oval frame colored with fake gold. Beneath that little house on the hill my father waited impatiently for a hug.
I said I was happy for him, and then I reached for the remote so I could turn up the volume. On the TV, which was always on, a quiz show was just starting. In unison we both let out a loud “Oh yeah!” and turned our heads towards the sound that brought us relief. We were equally good with numbers and words. Then we competed in geography (Dad was better) and history (me!). The first game of association was easy. We were clueless about the next one.
Otkako sam se odselio u veći grad, retko dolazim. Samo za praznike i godišnjice smrti. Pre svakog susreta pažljivo pripremim odgovore na moguća neprijatna pitanja. Dišem duboko i brojim do deset. Siguran sam da i stari to isto radi, ma koliko se trudio da sakrije.
Dok čekam da se vrati iz kuhinje i saopšti mi zbog čega me je iznenada pozvao, pitam se kako uspeva da održava kuću tako čistom. Krišom sam prešao prstom po ovalnom ramu goblena u dnevnoj sobi. Čak ni na bareljefu nije bilo masnih tragova nebrige. Razveselilo me je to. Vilerova Zima bio je amblem mog detinjstva, žig u gornjem uglu svake porodične fotografije, dokaz normalnosti koji otac, majka i dete svima mogu da pruže na uvid. Naša kuća bila je puna maminih goblena, ali mene je baš taj pikselizovani prizor kuće pod snegom vraćao na sigurno kad god bih se našao izvan okvira poznatog iskustva. Goblensku filozofiju počeo sam da razvijam onog popodneva kada sam svim snagama pokušavao da se, uplašen i zbunjen, sakrijem u modru kućicu na bregu iz čijeg se dimnjaka podizao dim ka mesecu.
Bilo je kasno proleće, peti razred. Vozio sam bicikl sa Bojanom do stare ciglane. U vazduhu su mirisale rđa i zemlja, pojačane kišom koja je prestala da pada pre sat vremena. Mokra trava bila mi je do kolena. Bojan je bio niži od mene, njemu je dopirala skoro do šortsa. Kapljice vode klizile su mu niz butine, a ja sam se ježio kao da su te butine moje. Išao sam za njim i poželeo da se nikad ne zaustavim. Priroda nam je lizala kožu dugim mladim jezicima. Hodali smo po mekom tlu novog sveta. Tada je postalo neizdrživo i ja sam pobegao kući.
Bili su to nevini dani naše porodice, dok smo se još poveravali jedni drugima bez straha. Uleteo sam u kuću mokar, crven i nestrpljiv. Tatu sam zatekao kako za stolom u dnevnoj sobi lista novine i srkuće kafu. Svim srcem sam se potrudio da mu objasnim šta sam upravo doživeo: ciglana, Bojan, trava, jaja namreškana kao suve smokve, toplina od stomaka do obraza. Tata me je pogledao kao da sam mu ispričao simptome malarije ili neke druge neverovatne bolesti. „Nije ti to ništa. Gazio si po mokroj travi, pa ti se piški”, rekao je i sklonio pogled sa mog lica. Prošla me je jeza kao da sam iznenada iz tople sobe izbačen na sneg. To je bio prvi put.
Ćale se vratio u sobu sporim staračkim korakom. Na sto je spustio dve čašice sa slikom šljive. Bile su pune do pola. Uvek je tako sipao, jer on sâm nije bio ljubitelj alkohola. Popio bi tek da se kucne, u društvu, a isto je očekivao i od svojih gostiju, koji u našoj kući nikad nisu bili česti. Oslonio sam se na sto. Škripnuo je pod težinom mojih laktova i strepnji. Otac je seo preko puta mene, skupio šake u čvor prstiju i rekao: „Imam nešto da ti kažem.”
Drugi put je bilo tek u srednjoj školi. Možda bih prećutao da to nije bila ljubav od koje misliš da nema veće na ovom svetu, kao što za sve u tim godinama mislimo da je najveće; ona ljubav koja te pozove jednom u životu i bila bi neoprostiva greška okrenuti joj leđa. Bio je Prvi maj. Izletište iznad grada mirisalo je na roštilj i krofne. Kasetofoni na baterije, pokačeni na grane, vibrirali su umesto pravih harmonika, a pod njima je ležalo čitavo naše malo mesto, bosonogo, sito i dremljivo od špricera. Podmladak je šutirao loptu na travnatoj čistini između dva hlada ili grickao semenke na zidiću. Mi, pankeri u pokušaju, cirkali smo pivo iza parkinga, pod strehom napuštene međuratne vikendice. Bili smo ljuti i ranjivi, željni slobode. Posle prvog džointa ekipa iz škole se rasula po obližnjem šumarku, loveći veverice i zrake sunca. Na tremu smo ostali samo Džoni i ja, da podelimo pivo i cigaretu. Trava mi je pojačala senzibilitet, pa mi je čak i taj banalni čin deljenja flaše predstavljao senzaciju koja pomera pamet. Uživao sam u bezbednoj tišini tajne. S uzbuđenjem sam čekao da mi Džoni doda flašu, fantazirajući da u talasu piva mogu jasno da okusim njegov jezik. Kad pogledam sa ove distance, veštački rajevi imali su presudan uticaj na moj seksualni život u to vreme; bili su gorivo za stimulaciju surogat-doživljaja, kada već pravih nije bilo. Sedeli smo na osunčanom betonu, naslonjeni na zid. Dva guštera u plitkim starkama i dubokom pubertetu. Stavio je iskrivljenu pedeset sedmicu u ugao usana i pročeprkao po džepovima u potrazi za upaljačem. Bio sam brži. Prineo sam upaljač njegovoj cigareti i drugom rukom zaštitio plamen od vetra. Domalim prstom dotakao sam mu bradu. I nisam ga sklonio ni kada je povukao dim. Niti se on odmakao. Na moje iznenađenje i radost, protrljao je bradu o jagodice mojih prstiju dok ih nije doveo do svojih usana. Onda ih je u trenu usisao, pokazujući očima na lako savladiva vrata kuće. Za dva minuta provalili smo u lepljivi vrtlog tela, straha i uzbuđenja.
Iz vikendice sam izašao prvi. Niko na nas neće posumnjati, bio sam uveren, ali ćale je ipak primetio da se nešto važno desilo. „Gle ovog mog klipana, hoda po oblacima. Jesi li se ti to meni zaljubio?”, glasno me je dočekao kod roštilja. „Jesam, ćale, zaljubio sam se ko cvrčak!”, digao sam ruke i glas. „Opa! A ko je devojčica?”, pitao je nehajno, prevrćući ćevape na roštilju. „Nikola je moja devojčica, ćale, Ni-ko-la!”, zacerekao sam se kao majmun i ubrao komad mesa sa užarene rešetke. Ćale je zamahnuo hvataljkom kao da će da me zvizne, ali ga je u tome sprečio prasak histeričnog smeha koji je nagrnuo iz njegovog stomaka i srca. Dok se smeh prenosio i na ostale članove naše izletničke zajednice, uz dobacivanja: budala jedna, svašta lupa, samo da te iznervira, ja sam već trčao sam prema zidiću, gde je naša ekipa gubila dan.
Posle inicijalne rakije dobio sam odgovor zašto je kuća u tako dobrom stanju. Stari je odnedavno počeo da se viđa sa Mirjanom iz računovodstva, udovicom i vlasnicom nekad najpoželjnije zadnjice u fabrici u kojoj su radili. O njoj mi je rekao da je dobra žena, da za jedan dan sama sprema dvadeset tegli ajvara i da ima vozačku dozvolu i auto. Verovao sam da mu za odluku nije ni bilo potrebno više. Bilo mi ga je nekako žao zbog toga.
Četvrti put bilo je posle raskida. Ćale je osetio da nešto ozbiljno nije u redu kad sam mu predložio da dođem do njega na nekoliko dana. Bio je neobično nežan prema meni. Kuvao mi je čajeve, nutkao me čokoladnim keksima i izbegavao da kopa preduboko. Proveo sam vikend sa njim, a da nije ni pitao zašto sam došao tako iznenada. Razočaran i zastrašen prethodnim pokušajima, već sam godinama mirno lagao da živim sa cimerom, da mi je rano da razmišljam o porodici, biće vremena za sve, sad baš puno radim, ne mogu da planiram. Iako me ništa nije pitao, rekao sam mu da se Đorđe odselio i da smo sada u lošim odnosima. Toliko lošim da ćemo otkazati rano letovanje na Kritu koje smo uplatili u februaru. Sedeli smo na terasi i buljili u tek ozelenelo drvo. U blizini nije bilo drugog života.
Ćutali smo. Misli, sećanja i strahovi brujali su u mojoj glavi u nekoliko paralelnih linija. Nisam ni bio svestan da sam naglas rekao: „Đoletove ruke… To su jedine ruke na svetu u koje bih spustio svoje dete.” Nije bilo dileme da me je stari vrlo dobro čuo, ali ipak je odgovorio: „Biće sine, biće… Evo, možda da ne otkažeš taj Krit? Možda da pozoveš onu malu iz kancelarije što te stalno zivka? Ko zna…” Pogledao sam ga kao bolesnika koji poriče dijagnozu.
U trenutku sam znao da neću izgovoriti: Ali ne mogu, ja sam peder, jer još se sećam svog trećeg pokušaja i maminog pretposlednjeg infarkta. Ako sam do tada i želeo da igram otvoreno, od tog događaja sam navukao novi teret. Postao sam veliki i snažan sin, zaštitnik nemoćnih roditelja, sposobniji i pametniji od njih, spasilac situacije. Ćutanje je hranilo moj ego i osećaj superiornosti. Laž nas je održala. Od toga, sad znam, ne može da se živi, ali barem niko nije morao da umre.
Majka se oporavila. Taj dan ostao je zapamćen kao dan njenog srčanog udara, a moju izjavu smo, prećutnim dogovorom, zauvek zaboravili. Već posle nedelju dana ćaletovih vojničkih obroka, koje smo sve troje gutali prisilno i mrzovoljno, ustala je iz kreveta i nastavila da sprema štrudle, paprikaše i gibanice, a u pauzama da veze goblene, stavlja ih u zlataste ramove i njima popločava dosadne zidove. Radila je to narednih pet godina, a onda je otac morao da nauči da kuva.
Peti, šesti, sedmi i svaki naredni put nije bilo dramatično. Govorio sam o imenima, ne objašnjavajući odnose. Bila je to unapređena veština izbegavanja istine. Znao sam da ćale sve zna, ali da nema nameru da prihvati okolnosti. Živeli smo na distanci, voleli se hladno, pomireni sa gubitkom koji takva ljubav nosi.
Dok smo čekali da provri voda za kafu, rekao je da Mirjana sutra dolazi sa decom, da se svi upoznamo. Preseliće se prekosutra. Mada mi nikad ništa nije govorio o tome, znao sam da je posle mamine smrti dugo i tiho tonuo u melanholiju. Bilo mi je drago što se napokon usudio da nešto promeni, ali slagao bih ako bih rekao da mi ta promena, druga žena u krevetu moje majke, nije unosila nemir; kao da se time ne menja samo budućnost, nego i prošlost, i to ne samo očeva, već i moja. Osetio sam da mi puls bubnja u slepoočnicama.
Kaže da je predugo sam. Plaši se da će usred noći i on doživeti srčani udar, a da neće biti nikoga da mu pomogne. Pola dana mu prođe u spremanju ručka, druga polovina u pranju sudova, a opet jede sam. Gluvo je ovo mesto, kaže moj otac, čovek koji je jednom davno odustao, ali sad kao da se od toga odustajanja umorio. Opiranje troši čoveka jednako kao i delanje.
Zavideo sam mu. Zavideo sam mu na tome što može naglas da se nosi sa svojim strahovima i što postoje laki načini da ih umiri. Možda to nisu najbolji načini, ali rešavali su problem. I na problemu sam mu zavideo. Na slobodi da mi se poveri, i na očekivanju podrške, i na sebi kao slušaocu. Prvi put mi priča o svojim osećanjima, priznaje da mu je frka, sedi tako mali i mekan, najsnažniji u svom životu. Nad njegovom glavom visi Zima od belog i modrog konca u ovalnom ramu boje lažnog zlata. Pod tom kućicom na bregu otac strpljivo čeka zagrljaj.
Rekao sam da mi je drago zbog njega i posegnuo za daljinskim da pojačam ton. Na TV-u, koji je ovde uvek uključen, upravo je počinjao kviz. U jedan glas smo iz stomaka ispustili eheej i okrenuli glave u pravcu zvuka koji je doneo olakšanje. Bili smo podjednako dobri s brojkama i slovima. Zatim smo se nadmetali u geografiji (tata je bio bolji) i istoriji (ja!). Prva igra asocijacija bila je laka. Drugu nismo imali pojma.
JASNA DIMITRIJEVIĆ is a short story writer from Serbia. She studied literature at the University of Belgrade and is the author of two books. Her work has appeared in many regional journals and she has been awarded writing residencies in Sarajevo, Vienna, Tirana, and Priština. Her stories have been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, and several other languages. She lives and works in Belgrade.
JOHN K. COX is a professor of 20th-century East European history at North Dakota State University in Fargo (USA). He translates modern literature from Serbian (BCMS), Hungarian, and several other languges of Central Europe and the Balkans.
An artist, art writer and guest curator, ELIZABETH JOHNSON began writing reviews for artpractical.com in San Francisco, California, and later covered exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia, and the Lehigh Valley for theartblog.org. She has written for artcritical.com, Artvoices Magazine, Figure/Ground, PaintersonPaintings.com and DeliciousLine.org. She interviews gallery artists for Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. elizabethjohnsonart.com