On a once sulfurred plain sat an Eastern European city, dusty with the ghosts of thousands of Turks and Slavs who had breathed their last in battle hundreds of years before. It was there we spent a year among the Albanians, Turks, Serbs, and Gypsies. My wife and I taught English at the university, the fakultet, as it was called. Daily we walked down the hill to the fakultet from our cement-slab apartment building on the edge of the city. Each time we noted the urine stains running down the sides of the fakultet building, an inadvertent mapping of Eastern bloc construction practices: poor materials, shoddy building; a litany of what was wrong with the country: disinterest in the common weal. But life went on there pretty much as it would Krushevo
in other places. People said hello, got drunk, sang songs and smoked cigarettes, and fantasized about how it would be to be somebody else living somewhere else. Among such people and in such a place, I lived my life for a time some years ago.
In the middle of a bitter winter’s day in that dreary city, I set out for a friend’s apartment with my wife and daughter, a child of three. We walked along the narrow path, shoveled clear for the time being of ice and snow, avoiding slush puddles and scattered piles of garbage. In our hands were suitcases. We were going on a trip, a New Year’s expedition, to a small town at the top of a mountain in Macedonia. The friend whose apartment we were heading for was expert in Eastern European history and languages. He had arranged for ten of us, eight Americans and two Brits, to make the trip to Krushevo for New Year’s. All ten of us were on academic exchange. There were two children, our daughter, Kate, and the Warren’s six year old, Aaron. We’d all experienced the shock of arriving in a provincial city in a depressed area of the country. We’d all made our temporary peace with the place. We’d all make it through to the end of the academic year. We had decided on a maudlin Christmas Day to celebrate the New Year together at Krushevo.
A cup of tea at Tom’s apartment, then off by cab to Macedonia to meet the Warrens and the Isaacs. Welch Tom, a miner’s son, had studied Slavic languages and cultivated a Marxist world view at university in Britain. His politics fit well with his choice of teaching assignment. He did a lot of translating for newspapers and government periodicals to supplement the rather meager British Council stipend that he and his wife, Meg, received each month. Tom talked labor politics while drinking liter after liter of the local beer, and occasionally strumming an early Dylan tune on his guitar. I listened to his politics, drank his beer, and joined in the music as well as I could.
Five of us in a small taxi passing through the edge of town by our apartment slab, through groups of Gypsy families waiting with bundles for the bus to Macedonia. The driver accelerated after the last speed bump, then abruptly stopped short as a mustachioed old Albanian, wearing the eggshell hat and cowboy britches of the peasant farmer, pulled his donkey cart onto the two-lane blacktop. It was something that happened again and again. And though quite a few people died on the narrow road to Macedonia, no one changed his practice. The farmers and their donkey carts did as they did. Every so often, one saw a tractor-trailer barreling behind or eating up the road in front. This was true danger, and even the dare-devil cab drivers treated these trucks with respect. Most local people assumed their drivers were all Turks on benzadrine, hell-bent for Istanbul with their European loads.
But it was a cold, cold day and smoke from the chimneys of red-tile roofed houses played through the clean winter air like dervishes entranced. On one side of the road there was a solid mountain, on the other a river valley. Nothing much changed in this landscape, except for three tunnels hewn out of the mountain between our city and the next large one in Macedonia. We sat bunched, huddled in the taxi. Tom engaged the driver in small talk. That lasted for a few kilometers. Then we all settled into a half-doze, approximating the feeling of winter laziness that the day gave off. Our child was good. She always was.
Two hours into the cab ride we stopped at a roadside cafe. The driver needed to rest. We got out of the cab and looked down to the river valley. In the distance one could see a settlement with perhaps ten houses. In front of the settlement there seemed to be pastureland. It was hard to tell if there were sheep or goats grazing. We all peed and got back in for the rest of the ride to Macedonia.
In time, we came to the outskirts of the city. An enormous cement factory, the General Kojic Cement Factory Number One, sprawled along the roadside. It seemed to suck in the mountain and river valley, to swallow them up in its giant ugliness. I hoped the driver would accelerate past the military guards who, for want of real work, acted as a rather grudging pair of Macedonian greeters. We’d arrived.
Passed the old clock and fragment of railway station wall that marked the horrible earthquake of some years ago. Into the center of town and out again to the residential area. The Isaacs weren’t quite ready for us. They and the Warrens had bought VWs when they’d first got to the city, so we had our own transportation to Krushevo. Peter Isaac was a Slavic linguist. His wife, Rachel, was the only non-teacher among the adults. Peter and Rachel spent a good deal of time buying and smoking reefer. It was dangerous for them, doubly so, since the local police would not hesitate to throw them in jail and the Embassy would send them packing if the locals didn’t lock them up. But Peter and Rachel felt playful enough about life to see it all: their assignment, their circumstances, the local authorities, the Embassy, as slightly silly and not at all to be taken seriously. So they flourished in Macedonia and were greatly loved by the Macedonian family in whose home they boarded. Not so the Warrens. Aaron was at a difficult age and had not adjusted well to his Macedonian elementary school. Art was mainly oblivious to his son’s unhappiness. He was puffed up by the recognition given him as a senior exchange scholar and expert on the writings of Henry Miller. His wife, Ruth, was nursing an inchoate case for divorce.
Peter shut the door and windows to the room. Linda, my wife, had taken Zoe to look at toys in the children’s shop around the corner from the Isaac’s house. Meg and Tom had gone off to get a newspaper and cigarettes. Peter lit a joint and passed it to me. Rachel was still in the shower. “Grandad had a slight stroke last night. There was quite a scene here. The whole family accompanied him to the hospital. They just came back an hour ago. He’s going to be all right, Thank God. I really like the old bugger.”
“How old is he?”
“He says he’s seventy-eight, but I have a hard time understanding his Macedonian. It sounds more like Bulgarian.”
“Aren’t they really the same language?”
“Yeah, the separation is more political than anything else.”
“Yeah, I know.” I paused. “Don’t bring any dope to Krushevo, okay?”
“No problem. It stays here.”
With that Peter crumbled the lit end of the joint and snuffed it out. He put the roach in his pocket.
Before noon we got to the Warren’s place. It was a fairly large and open
house on a tree-lined street, something not altogether common in that city. Ruth had prepared a huge lunch for the ten of us. Aaron was running wild around the kitchen, and Art was into his first bottle of rakija for the day.
“Hello, everyone,” Ruth called out from the living room. “I’m just setting the table. You won’t believe what I found in the supermarket this morning. Bananas and prosciutto!”
“Fantastic!” Meg offered. “You’d not be able to find goodies like that even in Belgrade.”
“Not to mention that this place has got the best rakija in the country,” said Art. “I can’t wait to get to Krushevo. I’ve heard a lot about it, Tom.”
“Independent from the Turks for thirteen days in the early part of the century. Seems they were snowed in and no one could get up the mountain, so they lowered the Turkish flag and raised one of their own. Declared themselves an independent country. And then…”
“And then the snow melted,” Art finished.
“And then the snow melted, indeed,” Tom repeated. He cast a critical glance at Art as if to gauge how long he could rely on him to produce sober conversation. “Then the Turks charged up the bloody mountain, ripped down the sodding flag, and threw the lot of them in jail. And that, as they say, was that.”
“Amen,’ said Art, and he lifted his glass. “Here’s to the patriots of Krushevo who stood up to Johnny Turk.”
We finished lunch and set off on the road to Krushevo. Tom, who was an avid collector of maps and usually knew the best way to get between any two points in the Eastern bloc, rode as navigator in the first VW with Art at the wheel.
And so we drove on through the wintered countryside, between mountain ranges and on the edge of escarpments leading down to rolling valleys with rivers and streams always within sight. At one point we were sandwiched between two cannonballing semis and a maniac in a red Golf. The semis were on our backs. They decided to pass us and pulled out into the oncoming lane just before a blind bend in the road. The Golf in front wouldn’t tolerate this and so decided to seal them off from passing. Just as we rounded the bend, we saw a farmer plodding along on his donkey cart in the oncoming lane. There was no shoulder to the road. The lead semi nuzzled the Golf in the rear at sixty miles an hour. The driver got the message and let both trucks through just before they reached the farmer, who, in prudence, had ditched his cart and donkey and was kneeling in open-mouthed awe at the side of the road. I could see Art extend his right hand to seat level and put a bottle to his lips right after that. In our car, with Peter behind the wheel, we all wished we’d had the foresight to have brought along at least a small pint of sljivovica.
We made the foothills of Krushevo around three o’clock. The little mountain went fairly straight up. You could see why the Turks didn’t bother to push up through the snow when they had been bearded by the townsfolk those many years ago. We stopped at a cafe for coffee, black, sweet, and scalding hot.
The kids each had a Jupie, a watered-down orange soda that all children drank when there was no Coke, and all Muslims in the country drank when it was too hot for coffee or tea. Tom looked up at the mountain. “There’s been snow this morning, I’d wager, and the road looks to be rather bad.”
“What road in this country doesn’t look to be ‘rather bad’?” Peter asked. he loved to try on different accents, and Tom’s Welch-lilted RP seemed to present a special challenge to him. But even as he mocked Tom, he smiled to let him know it was all in fun.
“Right then, Peter, you lead the way up.”
“No thanks. You guys are doing just fine.”
“Feel a bit nervous then, Pete?” asked Meg. She’d been sitting in the back seat of Art’s car, and if anyone had reason to feel nervous, it was she.
“Yeah, if you want to know the truth. That mountain looks like it goes straight up, and I don’t know if my Bug has the guts to push five people to the top. Plus all the luggage we have.”
“Maybe you can get Rachel to jettison her shoe bag,” Art said as he smiled at Rachel.
“The hell with that, Art. Why don’t you deep six your bottles of rakija in that little stream out back, over there?”
“Well, I’ve finished my coffee and my toes are starting to freeze off. Let’s do it.” I was brave when it came to a question of staying warm in the Slavic winter.
“‘Let’s do it,'” the man says.” Tom loved to imitate me. “Right on!”
“Right up yours, Tom.”
“Why thank you, Junior, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know how, not having gone to a public school you see.” I was John St. Cyr, Jr., and Tom thought it terribly funny that I actually signed my name that way. I had gotten into the habit of doing so because I grew up in a Middletown, America where everyone had to keep my father and me straight.
“Touche, Tom. Can we all go now?”
And up the mountain we went. It took us nearly thirty minutes to make the ten kilometers to Krushevo. It was slow going. Ice and snow. A narrowing road. No shoulders, of course. Straining buses in front and in back of us. We prayed that each driver was alert and defensive and that each vehicle had just had its brakes adjusted.
At the top of the mountain we stopped the two VWs and got out. To the south we saw valley after valley full of snow and mist. The mist was actually swirling snow, blown into whipped cream patterns by the wind. Every here and there we could see a figure, back bent against the cold, making across a field to a barn or to a house. Sometimes the figure led a donkey or a cow. Mostly the figure trudged on alone.
“Lovely!” exclaimed Meg. “Quite lovely!” Her cheeks were apple red in the afternoon chill. The tip of her nose was red. Her ears were red. She was smiling with her whole face, enjoying the happiness of the moment. It was what I liked about her. She knew how to enjoy life as it came to her.
Aaron, who’d been pretty good on the trip, finally had to let it out. He dashed to the end of the parking area and skidded short. “Yow!” he yelled.
“Awoo!” He was bent over, cawing and crowing, yowling and wolfing at the children playing at the bottom of the ravine, at whose edge he’d just arrived.
In his kid’s way, he knew the children wouldn’t pay any attention to his English, so he just made the loudest noises he could to provoke a reaction. One little child, in a snow-encrusted parka, looked up and shouted something back to Aaron. I couldn’t recognize what he said, so I called Tom over to have a listen.
“It’s Vlak,” he said.
“Vlak, a language perhaps related to some of the older languages once spoken in Romania. I’d guess that child is bilingual in Vlak and Macedonian, and does not speak any Serbian.”
“You mean he’s bilingual in two nearly obscure tongues,” laughed Art. “Unbelievable!”
“Not really. Consider the language policy of the country. Each minority has a right to its own cultural and linguistic identity, and…”
“Yeah, sure, Tom. We all know the line. Why don’t you tell that to the Albanians you teach. They’d love to hear it. It’s what keeps them angry enough to blow up every few years and ransack the damned university. The only right they have is the right to be shit upon by the Serbs.” This was Art, ascerbic and on the money. Tom and I had discussed more than a few times the difficulties that our Albanian students had in a Serbian-dominated society. Tom was not unaware. He was just more tolerant of the government than any of us Americans. Meanwhile the child had climbed up the ravine and Aaron had found a way down to meet him. Halfway up and halfway down, the two children faced off, inspecting each other. Aaron offered a piece of a candy bar. The child accepted it gravely and walked off down the ravine. From the top we could see that he was sharing it with his playmates.
“That was very kind of you, Aaron,” said his mother, Ruth.
“Mom, he didn’t speak Macedonian. He sounded weird.”
Ruth turned to Tom. “Spoken Vlak is not my strong point,” he said arching his eyebrows.
“Can we get going folks? I think it’s a bit too cold for the kids out here.” Language fascinated me, but the cold commanded me.
Silently agreeing, everyone got back inside the cars for the rest of the drive to the Majestic, a skier’s hotel wedged into the side of the mountain.
Each family registered separately when we arrived, though most of us needed help from Tom and Peter to negotiate the process. My Serbian was poor, my Macedonian non-existent. Linda, Art, Ruth and Rachel did not speak much either. But Peter and Tom were quite good. Peter usually got a smile from the locals because of his Macedonian. Tom just used his Serbian, which was good enough to get by anywhere in the country. “Drinks in twenty minutes,” announced Art as he turned the room key in the lock. Except for Peter and Rachel, we had adjoining rooms, three in a row. Peter had charmed the management into giving him and Rachel a corner room on the hotel’s top floor; speaking Macedonian had its rewards.
Unpacking, I noticed that Linda had brought along the gaily-colored Spanish cap that a neighbor had given Zoe when she was born in an East Kent hospital over three years before. I saw my battered Wellingtons mashed into the bottom of our pigskin duffle bag, a practical souvenir of two years at an East Asian university. “My things, my life,” I thought, “Nothing to show but the odd novelty after years of teaching. All the miles traveled. All the things I’ve seen. All the struggles I’ve had trying to communicate with people who hadn’t the slightest idea what I was about. Ah, shit. Stop being so damned sentimental and Slavic. These people invented the existential blues. No need to sing their song.” And it was true in a funny sort of way. American blues was born of the disappointment natural to those black folks who saw the good life around them, but were not allowed to live it. Here in the land of the Slavs, the root of existence was tinged with the blues. The sky was eternally gray, the odd blue sky just made the existential blues bluer for it reminded Slavs of their lot: an eternally gray sky, a bleak November day, a biting wind, an unforgiving cold.
“Molim vas, Daite mi jednu Drinu i jednu kafu.”
“Good show, John. Your grammar is improving. I remember the Allens who were at the fakultet before you came. Bob Allen just strung the words together right out of his dictionary. And in a Texas accent. I nearly pissed my trousers each time he ordered in a cafe.”
“Thanks for the confidence builder, Tom. What the hell can you expect from someone who was just thrown into a situation where the whole goddamn town speaks three languages, and none of them remotely familiar, let alone similar to your own? Konobaru, hajde, brzo, molim vas.”
“No use trying to goose the waiter,” continued Tom, “he doesn’t work on commission.”
Art and Peter walked into the hotel restaurant. The women and children were outside the hotel, watching the local kids spin down the adjacent snowy hillside on all sorts of homemade sleds: from squares of cardboard to large aluminum cauldron covers.
“Jesus, would you look at the size of those pot covers!” laughed Art. “Who the hell has a pot that big that he uses every day?”
“More likely the kids have lifted them from the hotels in the area,” said Tom.
“Whatever the case, I’m happier to sit here with cigarettes and coffee looking out at the damned snow than being out there freezing my butt off.”
“Always thinking of your personal comfort, eh, John? How like you Yanks!”
“Cut the shit, Tom. How many times have I seen you blowing on your hands in the staff room before class when they turned the heat off in the fakultet?
And then how many times have I come out of my class on time only to find that yours had already ended, and you were down in the mensa drinking Turkish coffee with the students?”
“Can we talk about something else besides the damned cold?” asked Art.
“Okay, Art. Let’s talk about the merits of Macedonian rakja as opposed to Greek ouzo.” Peter squinted a smile at Art through his amber glasses.
“Take a few hits before you came down, Pete? Your eyes look awfully stoned.”
“That’s just his myopia,” Tom leaped in to defend Peter. He often had that stoned look in his eyes as well because of his vision problems. Both he and Peter wore strong lenses and were continually having problems with the gritty winds that blew in fall and winter.
“Myassia, Tom, old bean. What’s new in the left wing dictator puff piece department these days? Write any hot paragraphs on how the old field marshal bravely christened the newest pre-rusted, pre-obsolete Fiat-under-another-name factory built miles from the nearest transportation link in order to appease another angry ethnic minority?” Art was ready to start the verbal thrust and parry that passed for conversation when the four of us sat down together.
“And you, Art? Another splendid lecture on Nexis, or is it Plexis or Dislexis or maybe the influence of Henry Miller on Arthur Miller’s conception of Roger Miller’s vocal interpretation of the old poet’s blank verse in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, done of couse for the first year students of English at the Titov Veles Extension Branch of the Worker’s University, none of whom,” Tom paused for dramatic effect, “read, write, speak or understand English?”
We all laughed, even Art. The constant insults were our reality checks. We were participants in supposedly prestigious exchange programs, Tom and Meg with the British Council, The Isaacs, the Warrens, and we with Fulbright. But we all knew that whatever the glamour of such exchanges might be and whatever their propaganda and goodwill value might be to bilateral relations, our lives were tiny struggles to validate our professional existence. The absurdity of the competitive, high-powered winnowing process that landed us here compared to the reality that engaged us daily as we made long trips to barren winter markets, searched for flea powder in downtown apothecaries, tried to bribe the butchers to save us decent cuts of meat, coped with classrooms overpacked with eager students whose major preoccupation was to gain enough English to get out of the country and make some money in Western Europe, and sat through interminable staff meetings conducted in languages of which we could only understand the odd proper name and common noun – these filled us all with wryness, and a deep attachment to Schadenfreud as a philosophy for living. The whole country was a collection of mismatched odds and ends; cultures, races, religions, languages that had little to do with each other and wanted less, but were forced into contact by the imperatives of a twisted and gnarled history, pushed on by the odious demands of princes and generals. Perhaps the feelings we had were best summed up by the appearance of the old Byzantine churches that dotted the landscape. Their walls were covered with lovingly, painstakingly done religious frescos, and each and every fresco was pockmarked by Turkish Muslim hammers. At once, we saw beauty and we saw ugliness. We saw man’s deepest longing for the good and his belief in a universal, transcendent love, and we saw man’s capacity for evil, and his strong attachment to his own race, his own religion, his small piece of earth, his desire to destroy otherness.
“Let’s take a walk up the mountain towards the ski lift,” proposed Art.
“Vrlo dobro, very good idea, Art,” I said. So we met the rest outside and headed on foot through the crunching snow and ice for the ski slope.
On the way up the mountain’s gentle side, it must have been the learner’s slope, I noticed a crow huddled on a lone bare branch of oak. I couldn’t figure out what it has doing there until I noticed movement under a pine tree about meters away from the oak in which the crow roosted. There, bleeding and nearly done, was a smallish hare, its white fur streaked with the red of its own blood. Its left hind leg was caught in a snap trap. It was a matter of time before the trap’s owner came to collect his prey, but the animal could well be dead before the person came to collect his prize, and in that case I knew that the crow would move in to feed. I wanted to do something, but what? If I freed the hare, it would surely die soon or get picked off by a winter predator, perhaps even the crow would get impatient and try to kill it. If I left it for the hunter, I would only increase its death agonies while it waited for the blow on the head or the snap of its spinal column.
As I was thinking, the children came charging up the hill toward me, obviously interested to see what was keeping me rooted to the spot. I turned around toward them and jogged down the slope to meet them before they could see the hare. I made my decision: to spare others the sight of agony and pain. It was the best I could do.
“What was it?” asked Aaron.
“Oh, nothing. I was just standing there thinking.”
“Did you see a ghost, Daddy?”
“No, Zoe. No ghost. Come on. Last one up to the top of this hill is a rotten egg. I’ll give you both a ten-count start. One, two, three, four…hey, but go to the right, that way,” I pointed away from the crow and the hare. “Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Here I come.” And up the hill we ran” Aaron in the lead, Zoe moving her little legs as fast as she could, but no match for a six year old, and I, keeping one eye out to make sure that they didn’t veer back to what I’d been looking at.
At the top of the hill we saw Tom and Meg, Peter and Rachel, and Art and Ruth. They were standing together in sober little marital pairs. “What’s up?” I asked. “Where’s Linda?”
“That’s who we’re looking for. We saw you and the kids down there, but we’ve lost sight of Linda. She was between you and us, but now she’s nowhere to be seen.
On a near barren ski slope in the middle of a winter’s afternoon, at the highest point of ground in the area, save for the mountain that went straight up directly in front of us, there was little to worry about, but still the chill of loss was redoubled with each gust of wind sweeping the hillside. And it was starting to go dark. I felt a small weakness in my groin, a tingle of fear that something might be wrong with Linda, and at that moment I sprung off toward the west side of the ski slope, in the direction of the suffering hare.
I broke into a jog when I noticed a dark figure near the pine tree where the hunter’s trap had been. There was no crow on the nearby oak. There was no trap either. But there squatted my wife, working busily with her hands in the snow. Her face was flush and there were tears in her eyes. She looked lovely in her sadness. I guessed that she’d found the hare, and I guessed rightly.
At dinner that evening, the evening before New Year’s Eve, we pushed together three tables and made ourselves a little island of foreigners in a sea of Eastern European faces. All around us Slavoljubs and Dragicas, Sadiks and Zekijas. Long, sad faces in depressing suits and oddly matched outfits. At least that is the way that we saw them. But with a glass or two and a reason to tell a joke, these same people were the most interesting conversationalists I’d ever come across, short of Arabs. We’d spent many an evening talking the night away with teachers and students from the fakultet. On the other hand, we ourselves looked smart and fashionably dressed. It’s the sadness we held inside that seemed to mirror the dress of the people around us. At the table that night, conversation turned to the events of the afternoon.
“What did the rabbit do, Mommy?”
“Hare, darling. It was a hare, not a rabbit,” I put in.
“All the same, John. The hare,” Linda said exaggerating her pronunciation of the word, “was very sick because its foot had got caught in a hunter’s trap.”
“Because the trap cut its foot.”
“Because that’s what a trap does. It catches animals just like that.”
“And what does a hunter do?”
“A hunter tries to catch animals.”
“He doesn”t like them, Mommy?”
“No. I mean yes, he likes them, but he needs them for food and for their fur.”
Art was watching his Aaron, who was watching Kate and Linda. “Aaron’s eaten rabbit before. Remember Aaron?”
“Yeah, on our trip across America. Zoe, you wanna taste some rabbit meat?”
“It’s just like chicken,” offered Art.
“But what about the ears?” asked Zoe, and her eyes were big with wonder at the thought of a pair of rabbit ears on her dinner plate.
“You don’t eat those, stupid,” said Aaron.
“Can we order now?” said Rachel. “I’m goddamn starving.”
“What’ll it be, my love?” asked Peter. “Perhaps some grilled meat? Or would you like some meat done on a grill? Or maybe some meat that’s been grilled?”
We all laughed. For months whenever any of us met for a meal at a restaurant we were usually given only two choices and both choices were some form of grilled meat. In the Muslim part of the country where we lived, there was usually lamb, also grilled, but at least a change from beef and pork. If you were lucky enough to live on the Dalmation Coast or anywhere near the sea, of course you had fish. But none of us lived near the sea, and so we were stuck with the perennial fare of grilled meat, cabbage salad, potatoes, and ajvar, a red pepper paste. What saved meals for all of us were the fresh-baked bread, great beer, better wine, and rich Turkish coffee to be found at even the tiniest eating places.
“Konobaru, molim vas jelovnik.”
“Izvolite,” said the waiter who then walked away.
“Tom, why are you asking the waiter for a menu? Didn’t you get Peter’s joke?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I’ve heard that this place has got a good menu, and that what’s in the kitchen matches what’s written down here,” he said as he scanned the entrees.
When the waiter came back, it was established quickly that the chicken was gone, the veal was out of season, and the fish, unfortunately, had not yet gotten up the mountain due to the weather. What was left was grilled meat and Viennerschnitzel. So we all ordered the schnitzel, and began the long wait that is prelude to any dinner eaten out of the home in that part of the world.
“Sta zelite da pijete?” The waiter wanted to know what we wanted to drink.
“How about two bottles of red wine?” suggested Peter.
“Not for me, thank you. I’ll stick to pivo.” Tom was true to his beer. The only time he had touched anything else was when a glass of brandy was forced on him at the official thank you party for foreign lectors given by the local Party boss. Since the headman himself pressed the slivovica into Tom’s hand, he could hardly do but drink it.
“Dva flashe crna vina i jednu flashu piva.”
“Naravno,” the waiter replied.
“Of course, I’m sure,” mocked Rachel under her breath. To Peter she said,
“I’ll bet you a bottle of retsina in Athens that we don’t see food or drink for at least a half hour.”
“You’re on,” Peter replied.”
In time, the meal came and we ate and drank, regalling one another with stories of our daily trials.
“I remember the first time I went to our little store near our flat,” I began.
“Flat?” laughed Peter, “Tom and Meg have begun to change your choice of words. I bet you even say ‘loo’ for ‘john’ now, don’t you, John?”
“There’s an obvious advantage in finding another word for toilet that isn’t one’s own name,” I replied. “Anyway, I went into the shop…store…and tried to make myself understood. They tried Serbian first. Then Albanian. One rather nasty woman even tried Turkish. But nothing. I didn’t understand a word. They then concluded I was a Gypsy and treated me like dirt. They didn’t say a word to me the whole time I was in the shop, and when I asked for help, they ignored me.
Finally, I got exasperated and muttered, “Ah, shit!” loud enough for anyone within range to hear me. At that, one of the shop assistants pricks up his ears, and replies, “Mohammed Ali, box, number one!” I look at him. He has a big smile on his face. Of course, he’s a Muslim and an Albanian, and Ali is a folk hero to his fellow religionists. He looks at me again and says, “American good.” From that time on I had a friend in the shop. Too bad they never had more than beer and biscuits, uh, cookies. I would’ve been a more frequent customer. It’s nice to have earned a little respect because of my nationality. I’ve been used to being called “CIA,” “Yankee,” and “whoremonger” in other places.
God, but the poor Gypsies! I can see why they’re at the bottom of the barrel here. One morning I come out to dump the trash. It was a cold, cold morning, I can tell you, and I made the dash down from the third floor to the Dempsey dumpster that sits on the side of the block of flats. I get ready to heave the garbage, and I pause in mid-action. A noise. What the hell could it be? By God, it’s a Gypsy inside the dumpster eating away. He looks up at me. Turns out it’s a kid of around ten or twelve. A boy. He gives me one sad, loving, scornful look and then bounds out of the damned dumpster as graceful as a gazelle. Since then I’ve always looked twice and listened at least once before dumping the garbage.”
“The Gypsies have the gold and the horses, and if you don’t watch it, they’ll kidnap your child. So say the local people. Slav, Albanian, and Turk, who hate one another in the bests of times, and who are at each other’s throats when possible, are united in their universal loathing of all Gypsies. Meg and I once lived in a flat with a Gypsy concierge. He dressed himself in trousers and skirt, which not only made him suspect sexually, but made him stand out from everyone else in town, who, as you might guess, dressed in their browns and grays without exception. As it happened, this Gypsy was the kindest and gentlest of souls, though he’d been through enough pain and misery to surfeit the souls in limbo. Each morning, Gregor, for that was his name, would greet us as if we were
His Nibs and the Queen Mum, no matter what the day, no matter how he felt. He always had a good word to say about someone in our block of flats, and always had a funny story. One day, the local security police picked him up on a morals charge. It seems Gregor was having a little affair with the son of one of the Party bosses, a Montenegrin, as it happens. Knowing Gregor, I’m sure for his part the relationship was as natural and guilt-free as the sun rising in the morning. Knowing how the police feel about Gypsies, I am quite certain that he still sits rotting inside some filthy hell of a prison.”
Tom’s Gregor story quieted most of us, and prompted Art to drain his wine glass. “How about one more bottle of red?” he asked no one in particular.
“I think I’d like coffee now,” Linda answered. She spoke the thoughts of the rest of us, so we ordered Turkish coffee. Art managed to squeeze in an order for some rakja, and got me to join him.
“The other day Jelena and Sladjena came calling on Zoe. They took her by the hand without a word and led her downstairs. I followed. The three of them in their boots, caps, and coats began playing in the snow in front of the apartment. Then Jelena ran off. She came back two minutes later with a little rickety sled. She and Sladjena put Zoe on the sled between them, sort of a little American girl sandwich. And they rode over the icy bumps and the little hill that leads to the parking area for our building. They hardly said two words for the whole time they were together. And when they were done, the two girls led Zoe, who looked very serious about the whole business, back to our apartment, where I was waiting for them, just having gone up before them. They looked at me and said something. I gathered it might be about coming to get Zoe again. Then they left. It was the strangest, yet most beautiful little period of play between children I think I’ve ever seen. A wordless acceptance of childhood solidarity. It really touched me. Because of those two little girls, I have two women friends who are not teachers at the fakultet: Jelena’s mother and Sladjena’s mother. I don’t even know their names, but each time they see me they say hello and ask after Katie.
Neither speaks English. But they are both very friendly. The other day Jelena’s mom rang the bell and put a head of lettuce in my hands. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to ask her where she got it and how she got it, but I couldn’t. All I could say was “Thank you, thank you.””
“I dont know,” Ruth began, “but I don’t seem to have good experiences like you do, Linda. We just meeet person after person who wants to use us for his own ends. The other day this colleague of Art’s came over for dinner. She is a youngish professor of modern American literature. She brought over some chocolates that were absolutely delicious. We had a great dinner. We took her out to that restaurant on top of the mountain that overlooks the city.”
“The one with the view? The Panorama, isn’t it?” said Meg.
“Yes, and then we went back to our place for a nightcap. Then she tells Art that she needs someone who will act as her guarantor while she studies in the States. It seems that she got some sort of scholarship to study literature at one of the schools in the California State system somewhere. I don’t remember. It might have been Fresno. Anyway, she says that she needs to have one person be responsible to the university here. Not in the U.S. The administration will pay her salary for a year and hold her position only if she promises to return and produces someone of reputation to vouch for her. Since no one is willing to do that, she asked Art.”
“Why won’t anyone vouch for her?” asked Rachel.
“Simple,” Art replied, “Everyone knows that she wants to get out to the States, and that this is her big chance. In fact, even the university administration knows it, and they are always the last to know anything. Everyone, as it turns out, wants her to leave. The only hitch is that if someone sticks his neck out for her as a guarantor, the administration has no choice but to chop it off when she doesn’t come back. Just to keep up appearances. So the logical choice is to ask someone who has no stake in the game. And that would appear to be me. But fuck it! I won’t be a party to such shit and nonsense. Especially because she’d been turning on her charm for me just to butter me up for the favor she wanted.”
“And so,” Ruth continued, “Art just told her no. The next day at school she ignored him, and Art has since learned that she’s started a rumor that Art is alcoholic and has been given notice by his university in the States that he has one year to dry out or face administrative proceedings designed to oust him from his tenured position.”
“…that so, Art?” Tom couldn’t resist a cheap shot.
“Listen, my Limey friend. If I consumed booze the way you drink beer, I’d be long dead. So piss off, as you Limeys say.”
“Art, the children,” Ruth said.
“Art, it was only in jest. I hope you know,” said Tom.
“Sorry. I should have known. I do like a drink, but I’m not a sot. Have you ever known me pass out on you? Have I ever put my hand through a window, started a fight, or made an ass out of myself? I can hold my liquor.” Art was starting to work himself into a righteous funk.
“So, what are you going to do about the rumor?” Peter asked. “You know that word will eventually get back to Chow at the Cultural Center.”
“Chow’s smart enough to let garbage like that float by on its way to the sewer,” I said. “He knows the Fulbright selection process would have picked up on something like that. He also knows that this society runs on rumors. For God’s sake, what else could fuel it? Everyone would be terminally depressed if they relied on past performance to predict the future. Rumor is a much more acceptable basis for living than history is.”
“Ah, the philosopher king returns,” smirked Peter.
“Thank you,” I replied. “I take it as a compliment.”
“Ruth, you do have the company of other women besides Rachel. For Linda and me, it’s either each other or struggle through with ladies our own age who don’t speak English. Our students are wonderful, but I couldn’t say that our hopes and concerns are quite the same. One needs peers to talk to. On the other hand, the women our age are mostly settled in and want to talk about things that are of no matter to us: which local school is best, how to get on the short list for a large flat in the new block that ‘s going up near the university. Oh, why should I complain? Between the St. Cyrs and the students, Tom and I have a full social schedule. Besides there’s always travel. We’re planning a long weekend in Thesoloniki come the February freeze.”
“Feta salad, fresh vegetables, retsina wine, the Greek joi de vivre. I can’t wait,” I said. And with that Aaron got up and stretched once, then let out a big yawn.
“I guess we’d better call it a night,” I said. “Zoe is sleepy as well.” And so we did call it a night, the three of us snuggling together in one bed against the winter cold. We’d left Tom and Meg still in conversation with Art and the Isaacs. Ruth had taken Aaron to their room.
Just before I went into my room, Peter who’d followed me up the stairs, pulled me aside.
“John, I’ve got to talk to you right away.”
“What is it? Can’t it wait til morning? I’m beat.”
“No, now. I won’t be able to deal with it in the morning.”
“Remember Ruth’s conversation about the meal at the restaurant and the favor asked of Art?”
“You mean by his colleague,” I gave this last word my most ironic reading.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“You don’t know the whole story.”
“So can’t it wait til tomorrow for Christ’s sake?”
“No, I’ve gotta talk about it now.”
“Ah, shit. Okay, but not here. Let’s go down to the lobby.”
Peter sunk into a large cloth armchair. I sat in a similar one opposite his.
“Okay, Peter what is it?”
“I promised I’d keep his secret, but I’ve just got to let someone else know about it.”
“What’s the secret?”
“Remember that conference on Slavic linguistics that I attended in Titograd, the one where I gave the paper on Old Church Slavonic?”
“Yeah, I remember you telling me about it. I couldn’t go because we had exams at the time. Besides it really isn’t my field.”
“Yeah, and it isn’t Art’s either. But he went. And he didn’t go alone. He went with Sasha.”
“The female colleague who asked him for the favor, the one who’s got a scholarship to the States. You know how Art is. He thinks that he has a corner on the market for women, especially young ones. He thinks most women find him irresistible as a man of letters, deep feeling, passion, all of that nonsense. Well, he thought this Sasha had fallen ass over tea kettle for him, and he was eager to get her into bed. She seemed just as eager to him at the time. So he told Ruth he was going to the conference to give a special seminar, I think he even made up a name for it, “Linguists Teaching Literature” or the like. He wasn’t going to tell me that he had planned with Sasha to make a weekend of it, but I put two and two together and after the first night of the conference, he came up to me, admitted the whole thing, and swore me to secrecy. What could I do? I know that Ruth has suspected him of fooling around for years. I even think she caught him once. But with the stress of being in a strange place, Aarons’ problems in school, and her general feeling of being a fifth wheel here, I didn’t feel I would help things by telling her, so I agreed to shut up.”
“So? I still don’t see why things have come to a head tonight and why you had to tell me now.”
“From one thing and another, including my conversations alone with Art over the past few days, I now realize that Ruth knows. I could see that when she was telling the story. There was something about her that told me she knew and that she was ready to blow up. Then Art told me that she has started to discuss returning to the States early, and to talk about how they’ve grown apart. He thinks she may want a divorce. She even put it to him a few weeks ago when they we’re looking over their finances. You know, “What if we split up? What would you want to keep?” Sort of testing the waters. Then, and this is the cincher, Art says Ruth has had a couple of conversations with Sasha after their night out as a threesome. He thinks Sasha flat out told Ruth. Of course, Art now sees himself as the old fool he is. She was after him for the year’s guarantee not for his poetic soul. When he declined to help her, she struck back with a vengeance.”
“So, I still don’t see why you need to tell me this now.”
“I just know that something is going to happen tomorrow. It’s New Year’s Eve and everyone’s emotions will be heightened. Ruth told Rachel when we went for that walk on the ski slope that she wanted to get drunk tomorrow. She said she’d been holding things in for too long and everything needed to come out. She talked about how it was time to make a new beginning. It can’t be any plainer than that. I just don’t want a big ugly scene tomorrow. I also don’t want to get in the middle of it. I like both Art and Ruth. I wish they’d find a way to patch things up. But I’ve known of situations like this where both parties took out all their anger on a third person, and I’m it because I’ve known what’s going on.”
Peter was upset. When he got upset, he became serious and professorial. And now he looked as though he were back in the classroom, though we were two foreigners sitting in a tourist hotel lobby in Krushevo, a town that perhaps not one of Peter’s students at Georgetown had ever heard about. The last day of the year had begun to move through its short life. I was very, very tired.
“Peter,” I said softly, “What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I don’t know, but I feel better for having gotten it off my chest. Perhaps we need to talk to Ruth and Art tomorrow, but not together. I feel that I can talk to Art. He listens to me. Would you speak to Ruth?”
“I don’t know that I’m the best person, but okay, I’ll try, if only to preserve the harmony of this holiday until it’s over.” And with that and not another word between us, we silently padded off to our rooms and to bed.
New Year’s Eve morning all ten of us walked the four kilometers from the hotel into the town. On the way there, we broke into little groups of two and three, chatted for a while, then moved on to another group, forming, reforming, a kaleidoscope of people on its way somewhere. The two children, Aaron and Zoe, scudded along like little clouds, keeping to the edge of the road, just close enough to the steep side of the mountain to generate anxiety among the adults. We arrived at our destination, an old church surrounded by a stone wall, wall and church tucked into the northern corner of the town. We made our tour of the grounds and the building, dutifully pausing before each fresco, peering at nothing in each musty, dank corner, and breathing in the wet chill of the caught church air. On our way back, we stopped into a cafe for Turkish coffee. Ruth ordered a brandy to go with hers and Art joined her. They sat off by themselves, deep in conversation, brows furrowed, eyes cast mostly downward. We left them in the cafe and set off back to the hotel. On the single road that led to it, Tom and Peter stopped to talk to anyone they could.
“Bloke here says most people speak Vlack in the home, Macedonian at school, and then when they move off the mountain, they learn Serbian. He claims that most of the villagers don’t like the Macedonians, and like the Serbs even less. Most of all they hate the Turks. The memory of nearly seventy years ago is still alive in the village, and every school boy knows the story of Krushevo’s brief period of independence. They think of themselves as the original patriots. True blue.” Given the chance, one knew Tom would steer any conversation toward political history.
“The woman I just talked to says that most young people are leaving the town,” put in Peter. “She says there’s no work. Just what you can get at the hotel. She says that she has a daughter working in Thesoloniki, and a son in Trieste. Every summer the son comes back with stacks of jeans. The daughter works at a tourist hotel and is engaged to a Greek fisherman. I guess the glory days of this town are long past. Even under socialism, some people and some areas are more equal than others.”
“Perhaps,” said Tom, “but there are no hungry children here. They all receive an education. Their welfare is assured, at least minimally. True they have to struggle to find a decent job. But then is that so different from us in Europe or you Yanks? The American century is fading fast, isn’t it, Peter? How different are our lives really from those of the people in this town? If there are differences, it seems to me that they are largely cosmetic. The surface decorations of popular culture, of lives based on consumption.”
“Are we really so bad, Tom?” asked Linda.
“Don’t pay him any mind, Linda,” Meg put in. “You know that he goes on and on. American pop culture is so bad he’s got a standing order with his brother back in Canterbury to rush him the next Dylan tape. It’s so bad he wears jeans and nothing but jeans. It’s so bad he spends hours pouring through comic books.”
“Alright, then. I give up,” Tom said with a look of amusement and exasperation. “I take Linda’s point. Of course, you Yanks aren’t really so bloody bad…” As he said this he gave one of his theatrical pauses, and then laughed at me and Peter, “except for the odd university lector or two.”
“Where’re Art and Ruth?” Rachel suddenly asked. She had been tagging along behind the children, doing us the favor of watching them as we talked on ahead. When she asked the question we all realized that we’d left them nearly a half hour ago back at the cafe, and that we were fast approaching the hotel.
“I’ll go see what’s up,” I said and turned to jog off back to town. “You all go on ahead and we’ll meet you in the hotel restaurant for lunch.” I started at a fast pace back to the cafe, and the others continued on their way back to the hotel.
About halfway back I came across Art. He said hello, asked where the others were, and said he’d left Ruth at a shop in town where she wanted to buy some postcards. I told him we’d agreed to meet for lunch in the hotel restaurant, and that I’d delegated myself to go back and find out what was taking he and Ruth so long to catch up with us. He muttered something about not realizing the time, and then continued on his way. He hunched over himself, walking against a small headwind that had suddenly come up just as the sun ducked behind a gray cloud. His carriage reflected my intuition about his talk with Ruth. Things must have gone badly.
I continued back toward the town. Just at the lip of the downtown area of shops I found Ruth. In her left hand she was clutching a few postcards, in her right hand she held the end of her long white scarf, which she was using to dry her eyes. “The darn wind makes my eyes tear,” she said in greeting.
“Ruth, what is it? It certainly isn’t the wind.” I wanted to get past the small talk so we could be frank with one another. I only had so much courage in these things, and it tended to wane quickly.
“I’m going to leave Art, John. Maybe not right this minute, but in time, I know I will. It’s the only way for me to survive.” She looked up at me through her tears, her eyes imploring me for support, yet defying me to tell her that what she was saying wasn’t really her true feelings. I knew they were. I had had a feeling the first time I met Ruth and Art that if two people were ever ill-matched, they were. She took her comfort and pleasure in the simple things of her life. Art couldn’t have cared less about whether the bread came out right, the seeds sprouted in the window box, or the silent auction raised money for new library books at Aaron’s elementary school. His vision was always of heroic proportions. Things were to be painted in broad brush strokes or not at all. Yet his life was not like that. At least not the life he led each day. It was filled with department meetings, counseling students, writing grant proposals, teaching freshman literature, reworking old articles so that he could keep up his publication record. There was dissonance between what he dreamt and what he lived. His marriage to Ruth had only rubbed deeper on the soft bruises of his life. Bruises, for he had not lived strongly enough to have wounds. And this was his greatest regret.
“Ruth, we are living in very different circumstances from our lives in the States. Don’t you think things will be different once we’re all back to our normal routines. You and California, and we in…” But of course I couldn’t finish the statement and Ruth knew it. I had been wandering from teaching post to teaching post for the last decade, and what once seemed romantic and spontaneous now was beginning to seem more a disease of the spirit. Stories told at Christmastime back home were only worth so much in the currency of life in America. I was becoming someone whom my family had to explain, an embarrassment, an example of life’s little quirks, someone so smart who couldn’t find anything to do in his own country, let alone his own hometown.
“John, how can you talk about routine? You’ve spent your life trying to avoid it. What is it with you men, people like you and Art? What is so awful about living a quiet life of friendly habits, of things well worn but loved just the same? What is this need to be an action junkie? My God, you’re not war photographers!
You’re sedentary academics. You read. You write. You talk. Why can’t you be happy with that?”
I knew that in her heart she was complaining about things that could never change, about the basic fabric of her husband’s being. Even as I knew this I felt that I wanted to say, “Nothing, no reason not to be happy. We’re just a couple damned Quixotes with childhood daydreams still waiting to come true. We can’t tell the difference between what is real and precious and what isn’t.” But I didn’t say this. I only looked away and caught my breath, trying to think of what would be the best way to negotiate at least an appearance of bonhomie for the rest of our time here. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“Take my arm, John,” said Ruth, “Walk me back to the hotel. Don’t say anything. I know you think you have to smooth things over for the holiday. Don’t worry. I’m a big girl. I can control myself. Just give me your arm and that part of yourself that cares about me. Let me have a little warmth for myself. I do appreciate this, John. You didn’t have to care at all.” And so we walked back to the hotel. I learned another lesson about a woman’s strength.
Lunch went by quickly. It turned out that Meg was feeling badly, so she kept to her room. Tom took the opportunity to wander off back down to town. Rachel had spoken to him on his way out. He’d said he wanted to buy some maps of the area if he could. Art sat silently through lunch with Peter, Rachel and me. Ruth had taken Linda and the kids to a little restaurant that we’d passed on the way back to the hotel. Aaron had seen the word pizza on a hand-lettered sign in the restaurant window, and asked his mother if he could eat lunch there instead of the hotel. So that left four of us sitting around a desultory lunch of grilled meat, the trout that was stalled on its way up yesterday evening having all been served by the time we got back to the hotel. Art picked at his food. Peter spent the whole meal looking into his water glass. Rachel and I had a quick conversation about clothing shops in Belgrade. Then we moved on to reminiscences about our first meeting back in September in the capital city. She and Peter had picked us out of a dinner crowd. We were the only ones in the restaurant who kept craning their heads around and coughing to attract service.
Everyone else suffered in silence, waiting for the two waitresses and a bartender to finish their conversation. She reminded me that I had come into the formal welcome dinner in the Hotel Park dining room singing the Sesame Street theme song, skipping and holding Zoe’s hand. This had taken the old Partisan and the stiff-backed Marine who were the titular binational leaders of our exchange program completely off their conversational stride. As it turned out, that was the first and last time any of us had anything to do with either man, until the old Partisan’s funeral in May, when all the lecturers were invited up to the capital city to pay their respects.
Rachel and Peter left before the coffee. They wanted to call home to see how Grandpa was doing. Art and I sat silently contemplating the tablecloth. Then I decided to take a chance. “Art, I’ve talked to Ruth. From the way you’ve been acting the past couple of hours, I gather Peter’s talked to you. What are you thinking?”
“Thinking? I’m not really thinking at all. I’m just allowing a flood of feelings to swim over me. I feel like I might drown in them. I can’t get the word fool out of my head. It keeps repeating over and over again like a mantra.”
“I’m really sorry for you two.”
“Thanks, but we need more than your sorrow to change the way we feel. I should have known I couldn’t keep on like this. Sooner or later Ruth had to explode. And the funny thing is she hasn’t really exploded at all. She has laid it out in front of me – all my peccadilloes, all my little deceits, all my pretensions about my literary magnetism – and she has simply said that she cannot love me enough to forgive what I’ve done to her. She said she feels herself changing into a weak-willed flunky. She has been a housemaid, a nursemaid, a second-best sleep-in companion. And now, she says she wants to stop it all. And you know, I understand. I’ve put her through a lot of pain.”
“So what’s next?”
“Next? Well, we decided not to decide here and now. We’ll finish out the holiday. Go on with each other for the time being. We both need time and distance from this place in order to see where our lives are going next. All through this, I’ve come to see how strong a woman Ruth is. What I don’t want is to break down her strength by continuing to hurt her.”
There was nothing for me to say. The conversation moved on to tonight’s New Year’s Eve party at the hotel. There was to be a band, The Ivan Mihailovic Trio. I’d seen a sign for them in the hotel lobby. Plus the hotel had gone all out and was going to supply party hats and confetti along with one free bottle of champagne per table. Art and I were both in need of a night of celebration, a release from care, and we said as much to each other. I sat back with a cigarette and watched Art walk up the stairs to his room, his back rounded in apology for the weight of guilt it carried.
I wandered off to the hotel balcony, and stood looking over the valley for some time. The clouds had completely covered the land and houses below the hotel and it seemed to me that we were in a place removed from the daily life of the rest of the planet. We were in a place made for engaging ourselves and others, a place, which in its plain nakedness to heaven allowed its light to pass through and illuminate our characters. And what did the light show me? I thought I saw the shallowness that I lived in, my inability to create a center that was me, that defined who I was, where I lived and what I stood for. All of these thoughts came rushing in with a single ray of sunlight that found my eyes as I was gazing off into the valley below. It was enough to blind me momentarily.
The evening started off poorly. Art was in the bag. He’d already emptied a bottle of rakija with the help of the kitchen staff. He was very good at finding drinking buddies, even if they couldn’t speak English. But we didn’t know about him when we first met in the hotel lobby before going into New Year’s Eve dinner.
Our first activity was presenting ourselves to each other. Ruth had dressed up Aaron in blue corduroys, white shirt, and red sweater; an advertisement for America, with his fresh, open face and cowlick blond hair. Our Zoe was bundled in basic Slav brown, which was the breadth of the fashion palate for children in our city shops. The women had taken a little extra time with themselves for New Year’s Eve. Rachel’s red hair cascaded down in thick satin waves down her back. She was dressed in a black silk suit with no blouse. Linda and Ruth both had on strapless evening gowns: the one blue, the other yellow. They looked like two women intent on a good time, and it made me a little concerned. I guessed that they’d been talking over the course of the afternoon, and were trying to put forward a united front to hide the pain underneath. Linda was an empath. It was her nature to feel exactly what others were feeling by putting herself in their shoes. And so I know she was very upset now because Ruth was. Meg, who’d been sick all afternoon, came out dressed in a black miniskirt and red silk blouse with buttons left half undone. It never failed to amaze me that ordinary middle class Englishwomen took pleasure in dressing like tarts for big occasions, but then after a few visits to England, I understood at once the need to break free of drab colors and patterns; English homes were full of the most abominable designs in fabric and curtains, and English clothing shops seemed either to cater to herringboned country squires or hobnail booted National Front yobos. So there was Meg all tarted up, as she herself liked to say. We men were our usual predictable selves. Peter looked as though he were ready to begin a new semester at Georgetown. He had on his light gray lamb’s wool jacket, a thin gray sweater, tan shirt, navy knit tie, and charcoal gray slacks. His black boots were spit-shined. No matter what the activity or time of day, Peter never had a hair out of place. Unlike Tom, whose idea of dressing up was to put on a new pair of jeans, which indeed is what he was wearing along with a pale blue chambray work shirt, and jean jacket. As for me, I had on my favorite black corduroy trousers and a forest green Fair Isle pullover. I dressed for warmth and comfort always. There we were a motley of fashion, and just as different in the ways which we felt inside. We’d all met in the hotel lobby to exchange compliments about how good we looked, to try to bring on a good feeling for the evening. But then Rachel noticed that Art wasn’t around. We decided to go into the hotel restaurant without him and wait. As soon as we walked through the door, we spotted him sitting at the table nearest the kitchen, hoisting a glass of rakija with one of the waiters, and after he joined us, it became apparent that he’d been doing so for some time.
“Hopintheass!” Art joked in greeting.
“Happy New Year to you, too, darling,” Ruth answered him. She smiled straight into his eyes, but it was more to check his sobriety than to give him her love. “The children are hungry, so I think it best to order now.”
“Right. We’ll order straight away, then,” echoed Meg.
“Would you look at this?” I said. “The place has really been dolled up for New Year’s. Streamers! A Christmas tree in that corner near the bandstand, party hats and noisemakers at every place setting! I didn’t know they went for all this.”
“It’s just the internationalization of bourgeois culture,” Tom said. “You can have an inauthentic celebration of the new year in practically any place in the world now.”
“Aw, cut the shit.” Art, when drunk, was nothing if not blunt.
“I think he’s right, Art. In the Far East, our New Year’s has practically replaced the celebration of the lunar new year for the middle class. To be modern is not only to dress and act Western, it’s to celebrate as Westerners do. It’s all too bad.” I was thinking of our time in Asia. We had remarked how often traditional holidays were made subordinate to imported ones like New Year’s Eve.
“If someone wants to celebrate New Year’s Eve, what difference does it make who he is and where he does it? I say let’s celebrate as much as we can. Life is too goddamned short.” And with that Art looked around the table as if to close the subject for conversation and get on to the real business of the night. “Peter, what say we get that konobar over here and order some of his best grilled meat?”
“Sure thing, Art. Whatever you say.” Peter was starting to feel that something might go wrong at any second. He stuck his hand in the air to gain the nearest waiter’s attention. The man came over and told him that dinner would not be available for another thirty minutes because of the special menu and the large number of guests. So we wound up ordering a round of drinks.
“How was the pizza, Ruth?” Meg asked trying to wrest the conversation out of Art’s hands.
“Not too bad, really,” Ruth answered. “Aaron and Zoe liked it, and that was good enough for me. It was nice just to get away from the hotel restaurant for a meal, though I really wasn’t even hungry. And surprise! The guy who ran this little pizza place had spent two years in New York City working illegally in some Jamaican’s pizza parlor, so he knew English.”
“Yes, he said that he’d come back to Krushevo to stay, and though he’d been all over the U.S., he hadn’t found a place as nice as his hometown,” added Linda.
“I’d take Krushevo over New York City any day,” Tom chipped in.
“How would you know, Tom? You’ve never been to New York,” I answered. I didn’t feel like catching a handful of flack about how awful America was.
“That was because he wasn’t allowed to go,” said Meg.
“Wasn’t allowed? What do you mean?” asked Art. He was an unusual drunk, as lucid and aware as when he was sober.
“He wanted to go after university, but since he’d joined the Party in his first year at university, he was considered an undesirable by the American Consulate in London. They told him as much. And it didn’t matter that he’d not been an active member for years at the time he applied for a visa to the U.S.” There was a little anger in Meg’s voice as she told us this.
“Those bureaucrats are a bunch of ass wipes,” Art cursed. “What do they know about anything? They haven’t the slightest interest in ideas. All they want to do is follow the goddamn rules. The stupid-ass rules. Like everything else in our mean little lives, a bunch of sniveling rule-followers stand around with their big cultural hammers and pound down any deviants, any big thinkers, any cockeyed dreamers. What is it you told me the Japanese say, John? “It’s the nail that sticks up that gets hammered down?””
“That’s it, Art,” I said.
“Why can’t everybody just do what he wants to do? Look, as long as I don’t hurt you, what does it mean to you that I am a communist, an atheist, a freelover, a homo, a pederast, flat-earther…”
“Come on, Art. Really? A pederast? You’d be in favor of someone practicing pederasty?” Linda asked him this as she drew Zoe hear her, and Ruth raised her eyes to heaven as she hugged her Aaron.
“Well, why not if it doesn’t hurt anyone?”
“Doesn’t hurt anyone! How can a child possibly decide its sexual preferences? I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” added Rachel.
Art retreated a little. “Look, all I mean is why not let people alone? Let them do as they will. Let them be true to their inner selves.”
“Like you Art? Are you true to your inner self?” Ruth asked.
Art moved his face quickly to the side as if it had been slapped by her words. He grabbed for his glass and drained it slowly. Then he fell into silence.
We spent the rest of the time drumming our fingers on the table, passing wine bottles to each other, and remarking on how long it was taking the kitchen to prepare dinner, for each time we called a waiter over the answer was the same. “The kitchen is not ready yet. It will be a while longer.” Finally, at eight-thirty, with Aaron and Katie squirming in their chairs, and Ruth and Linda panicking because they realized that the children had reached the end of their patience, the waiter came to take our orders.
We ate our way through a meal of grilled meat, boiled vegetables, cabbage salad and ajvar, with ice cream for dessert. The meal was ample, but monotonous; nevertheless, in its utter predictability we found reason to celebrate. We even fell into friendly banter with our waiter, a fiercely mustached man who shared his life story with us over coffee. He’d come up the mountain to marry one of the local women, and had spent his time here trying to fit into local society, without much luck. I guess that he felt a certain kinship with us, we who were the ultimate outsiders: beyond the mountain, beyond the city, beyond his country altogether.
With our table cleared, the serious drinking began. Art switched to rakija and Tom was starting to collect beer bottles in front of him. I decided to join Tom since the sweetness of the anise liquor usually made me feel sick after the second drink. Peter nursed a cup of tea. He was one of those people who physically could not drink. In this he was joined by his wife, Rachel. Neither cared for the taste of alcohol or beer. Ruth and Meg were sipping glasses of rakija, Linda beer. The children, Aaron and Zoe, were running around the restaurant playing hide and seek with kids of the other guests. Not much speaking was going on, though I thought I’d heard the odd word of Macedonian from Aaron and Serbian from Zoe.
The band had set up and was launched into the sort of Slavic minor key lament to momma that always seemed so contradictory to me: the tempo was quick and people were expected to dance the kola to the music, but the lyrics expressed loss and melancholy. You wouldn’t have known what the tempo was by looking at the band. The accordionist, who had only one or two of his front teeth left, was the leader, Ivan Mihailovic. He was totally deadpan and barely moved his body to the rhythm of the music. He stared straight out over the heads of his audience as if he were looking at someone proceeding up a distant mountain path. Yet his music moved at a furious tempo and was full of dark Slavic passion. His soloist, a buxom violinist, was a woman in her mid-twenties with the straw dry, peroxided red-blond hair fashionable among Serbian women in the area. She’d plucked her eyebrows and created new ones above them, arched at an impossible angle to her eyes. She wore a red gown with a plunging neckline. Her large breasts squeezed together when she bowed the violin, and I saw beads of sweat trickle down her neck into her cleavage, increasing with the rapidity of the tempo. The third musician, a stolid drummer, looked as though he’d come straight from a boot camp. If Plato was right about ideal types, he was the perfect drill sergeant come down to earth. He kept time on his small trap kit, never showing the least bit of emotional involvement in the music, but keeping the tempo rock steady.
The evening moved into dance. It was common at formal parties for the guest of honor or oldest person to lead the dance, waving a white handkerchief at the front of that curious conga line dance that was practiced in Eastern Europe and Greece. The dance was not as physically demanding as Russian folk dance, nor as squared off and paired off as Northern European folk dance. It was more a rolling expression of general goodwill, a silly time free-for-all.
Our table had been marked as foreign, and so we were pulled onto the dance floor by a greasy-haired Macedonian pappa who was leading the dance. This brought cheers from those at neighboring tables. Once up we were up, we were up for good. One dance led into the next and we were not allowed to sit, all except Tom who explained in Serbian that he never danced and was not about to start now. The rest of us gave an embarrassed chuckle and let ourselves be swept up in the dance. We kicked. We rocked. We spun ’round. We waved one handkerchiefed hand in the air. We grabbed for the waist of the person in front of us and were pulled along like driftwood on an outgoing tide. We laughed. We giggled. We lost ourselves in the moment. We tried to move as one with the other dancers. Jackets flew open. Blouse buttons popped. Hair sprung free to cover faces. Zippers unspliced. Shoes hurtled ’round the room, kicked off from every angle. Most of all there was laughter: direct, simple, full-throated laughter. It carried us over and above ourselves into a union of feeling created then and there by people dancing to music.
When we finally sat down, we were shriven souls. The dance had cleansed us of the day’s pettiness and concerns. We sat in silence and rearranged our clothes, each with a conspiratorial smile on his face.
Things got bad again when Art invited the violinist to our table for a drink. Up close, she was a big country girl, all cow-eyed innocence and incomprehension. For her, Art and the rest of us could have been of another species. Her fascination with the lot of us impressed Art only as interest in him. He had approached her on the band’s break and invited her over. He did not speak any of the local languages and Art figured she did not speak English. Their transaction had been entirely in sign. Art guided her to a seat between him and Tom, who, by this time, was floating around in a bath of beer, a loopy smile on his near-sighted face.
“She hasn’t a fuckin’ clue, Art,” said Tom. “Why the hell did you bring her over here?” Tom began to speak to the girl in Serbian, but she remained silent. “She hasn’t got the sense to say hello,” he muttered and returned to his beer.
“Art, A-a-a-h-r-t. My name is Art. What’s yours?” Art was desperate to get the girl to talk. “How about a sljivovica? Pijate sljivo, hunh?” And with that he began to pour her a glass of brandy.
Finally, the girl made a rapid succession of signs to indicate she didn’t drink. She rose quickly and then rushed away from the table.
“My God, Art!” exclaimed Peter, who’d been watching the whole scene with great amusement. “You thought she was dumbstruck because she was among foreigners, but she’s dumb period! Deaf and dumb! God, what a piece of work you are, Art! And you, Tom. You’re so snockered you wouldn’t have noticed if she’d’ve started speaking in Welch!”
“How can she play in a band if she’s deaf?” Meg asked. It seemed she was trying to steer the conversation to a technical question so that we’d all forget what had just happened: Art had tried to chat up another woman right in front of his wife, not even caring enough to do it elsewhere.
“Probably isn’t completely deaf and can feel vibrations very well,” I answered. “I grew up with a deaf kid who could do just about anything I could and he did it by sensing the rhythm of whatever we did, whether it was baseball or telling jokes.”
At the far end of the table Ruth was biting her lip and staring straight off into space. At that moment, Aaron came roaring ’round her chair chasing another little boy. He knocked over a water glass with his arm as he sought a purchase to propel himself after the other child. Aaron!” Ruth screamed. “What are you doing? Get over here this minute!”
Aaron heard her but did not obey. He lost himself in a crowd of people near the bandstand. Ruth got up as if to get her son, but then sat down with a whoosh, violently slamming her palm on the white-clothed table. “God damn it!” she screamed at the top of her voice. “I will not take it anymore. What kind of person are you? How can you go after another woman right in front of my face? Don’t you think I have any feelings?”
“Ruth, please the children,” Linda tried to interrupt.
“No. The children are fine. It’s this beast of a husband that’s causing all the misery here,” Ruth continued.
Art’s face, framed by his gray, gold beard and curly hair, was glowing with a Dyonisian intelligence. “Wake up, Ruth! This is your life! Seize it! Make it dance for you! What’s the matter? What have you got inside that keeps you so small and stiff? Think! Dream! Big thoughts! Celebrate! Grab life by the throat! Don’t blame me. Celebrate with me!”
“You pig, you absolute pig.”
“Pig, drunk, sybarite, gypsy, thief, murderer, robber, mother raper. Come on, what am I? I am everything. Do I contradict myself? Well, too bad. I’m a father and a lover, a husband and a child. I’m a…”
“Art. Ruth. Stop for God’s sake. Let’s pop the champagne and welcome in the New Year. It’s nearly time to bring it in,” I was desparate to stop their fight. And as I spoke, there were cries of Happy New Year! in several languages all around the room. The band struck up Auld Lang Syne to lend me support and we all stood frozen around the table, champagne glasses in hand, waiting for the song to end. When it did, I looked at each person and loudly pronounced, “A toast. To us and to the New Year! May it be full and fruitful!”
“Here! Here!” Tom burped, beer glass in one hand, champagne in the other.
Rachel and Peter kissed. I grabbed Linda and scooped up Zoe into a family embrace. Meg tousled Tom’s hair and hung herself in a chain around his shoulders. Art stood looking at Ruth across the table. Aaron had come back and was standing at his mother’s side.
“To you, Ruth. To you always,” Art toasted. His face crumpled into a sotted sadness.
Ruth held up her glass and just as she was about to drink, she fell in a heap back into her chair. Aaron screamed, “Mommy! Mommy!”
Art rushed over and frantically began to try to revive her. After a moment, Ruth opened her eyes. She looked directly at Art and said, “I’m sorry, dear, but it’s over. Right now and right here.”
Then she got herself up, mustering as much dignity as she could, wished us all a Happy New Year, grabbed Aaron’s hand and went to her room. Within twenty minutes, she was packed and in the hotel lobby. A cab came and brought her to a small hotel in the town. The next day she went home, and within the week she and Aaron were back in California.
As for the rest of us, Ruth’s leaving brought a sobering chill to our little party. Art went back to the kitchen and his waiter drinking buddy. I gathered up my family and said some quick good nights. Meg dragged Tom up to their room while he was still able to move his body parts. She hadn’t dressed up for nothing, she told us, as she pushed her load through the doorway. Rachel and Peter danced, and for all I knew, they might have danced til morning.