promena: Serbian (n.) change.
I went for a walk today with the boy my mother and her best friend hoped I would marry since the day I was born. He's no longer a boy, he's twenty-nine, and my mother and Biljana had been motivated by a locomotive desire to be related. For better or for worse, fate had a different agenda, so Biljana got christened the summer of their thirtieth high school reunion so my mother could become her godmother.
Before we saw each other on the last night of my visit four years ago, Nebojsa and I spent seven years separated by nine hours of time difference. Had my family never emigrated, we would have grown up one block away from each other separated by a thin two minutes of walking distance. For almost two decades, the time I spent awake passed him in his sleep. We watched almost eighty seasons change in opposite shifts. All that different time swallowed us like a black hole. Even that last night was a forest of black velvet curtains. Despite all that, a strange thing happened when we said our goodbyes: I lingered on his pale blue eyes.
The chain reaction of a kiss began. Our molecules felt the ionic tug. The positive charge of a receptive mouth recognized the negative charge of a burdened pair of lips. It began and stalled the moment its outcome was clear. On his way down to meet me that night his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. He was unexpectedly going to be a father, and her hurried husband, and I wondered for years if amidst all those surprises he was also surprised to find himself wanting to kiss me.
I arrived at his mother's apartment for my first visit in four years, and my second in eleven, entangled in three layers of clothes, a toque, and two pairs of gloves. The melancholic Decembers of the Pacific Northwest were too distracted to teach me about the cold. The Serbian winter on the other hand is as blunt as they come. Getting sucked into the apartment by an indoor low pressure system wasn't the entrance I had hoped for either. I became the eye of a windstorm blinded by swirling scarves and the air fronts I'd forced together like two angry drunks. The chaos made me painfully self-conscious. "I'm sorry, I must look a mess. I've never been anywhere this cold before." The flurry around me made everything a blur. Only as I realized I was pulling out of a hug did I see Biljana's face for the first time.
"We're all married here," she joked. Lighter than a perfect sky, her eyes grew until I was certain I could see visible sparks of playful, annoying, static electricity. Her use of the masculine form of "married" was as fresh as the smell of pavement after the rain. I wondered if I was overreacting. A guilty conscience skews things.
I never said hello to him directly. My inability to do so surprised me like an intruder. I felt like a criminal, my face tense, like the terrified skin of a drum, aware of the thundering potential just beneath it. Fortunately, Biljana sat opposite Nebojsa, and I directed my entire conversation at her. He listened to me closely nonetheless, exiled in the invisibility past my peripheral vision. His languid speech, warm like his hand on my cheek, turned my face in his direction to hear the only words he said that night:
"Let's go for a walk tomorrow."
I'm running late. Futoska Market is much farther than the seven minute walk Alana ensured me it would be. I probably shouldn't have listened to Novi Sad's first North American tourist in ten years, but in my excitement to leave the attic, it was either Alana's advice or my memory from four years ago. I regretted asking him to meet me earlier than he wanted to. Time amplifies in the cold, blowing patience away like wind chill does degrees.
Nebojsa stood in a nebula of yelling gypsies like a calm gray star. I was two crossing light years away from him. The traffic lights were down, police officers directed the chaos. It was strange to understand foreign police officers. Their commands floated towards me like written words, landing in my hands as clear as directions I had written myself. I waited for the intersection to clear, but the other pedestrians charged like they didn't know that the drivers had the same intentions. Instead of running late, I was standing late, no longer a moving target for my guilty conscience.
Two blue eyes and a giant Ikeda Innu dog. He only noticed me as I approached.
"You're late," he said.
I apologized but felt stupid. We only walked a few feet before he asked me to take the leash while he slipped into the pijaca. I wondered why, but didn't ask. The cold snuck into my hair. I was freezing. Maybe he was buying me a cheap toque.
I felt guilty about the toque in my purse. Maybe he couldn't stand idle as the majority of my body heat escaped through my uncovered head. I had noticed this popular attention to detail on previous visits. For example, while having lunch with my cousin downtown, he excused himself for only a minute, and returned with a Billie Holiday CD he bought from a street side kiosk I hadn't even noticed. He had heard me singing her songs two nights prior while tidying my room and thought it would make me feel more at home. This wasn't the only instance. Serbs drink coffee like the British drink tea, only in the languid glamour of cigarette haze. Serbian coffee is prepared in a small metal Turkish pot called a djezva, and would for all intents and purposes be Turkish coffee if it was served anywhere other than the Balkans or Greece. Refusing coffee attracts attention. I've gotten used to the sympathy and concerned looks I get for asking for tea. "Caught a cold?" "Do you need an aspirin?" After overhearing my preference for tea at a Dunavska Street cafe, a mere acquaintance stopped by the next day to present me with a box of specialty "English" teas. This acute attentiveness confused my reasonable expectations.
The possibility that he was buying condoms struck me like an iceberg. His innocuous disappearance sat atop a Gibraltar of coincidence. He had insisted on a later meeting time, adamant that his apartment needed cleaning. A lot had changed in Novi Sad since my last visit, but gender roles certainly had not. Married men didn't clean. I had suggested he postpone the chore but he refused. The rigidity of his schedule glared like the wrong kind of light bulb, especially since he had told me our walk was all he had planned for the day. His wife was out of town. So was his son. Neither came up in our conversation this morning, nor the night before. Had he planned to take me back to his apartment? Realistically I should have asked myself: who buys condoms at a farmer's market? But I didn't. That's how you get the wrong idea. You give it to yourself.
He emerged from the narrow entrance with nothing in his hands.
"What were you looking for?" I asked calmly.
"Comics," he replied like it wasn't odd.
He led me to the quay. I love that promenade. It was a daily ritual with my mother. My clearest memory happened at night. I was looking up at the street lamps, curved like giant robotic bean sprouts with glowing heads. Bats swooped epileptically around the light because of the mosquitoes that also congregated there. My father had explained the dusting planes that summer, and what bats eat, as he did any question I ever asked, in its full and honest entirety. So when a rogue bat swooped at the white dandelion seed crown of the woman ahead of us, I wasn't scared, but understood its interpretation of that perfectly backlit snow-white orb.
Nebojsa headed for a lower walkway I'd never noticed before. It was the harder path to take: uneven bricks spilled into the concrete and left alone to settle. I wondered if this meant the path was very old, or that it was a recent urgent necessity. With the war, I couldn't be sure.
Nebojsa looked handsome. The cold made him look strong. It cut against the sharp edges of his features but could not make him wince. The dog was as far ahead of us as loyalty and obedience would allow. He became a miniature version of himself, fading in and out of the Danube's mist. We were alone. Conversation came surprisingly easy, though I felt the Serbian tie my tongue a little. Constantly switching between English and Serbian, I was embarrassed to make mistakes around him. Grammar slipped on and off my lips like the silk strap of a dress.
"Summer is when Novi Sad is at its best", Nebojsa explained. "The Strand is strewn with youth, tanning and swimming."
I thought of the bridges knocked down during the war. Just before I left for Europe, UBC Engineering students strung a Volkswagen Beetle from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It had to be cut loose, and was now submerged in the water below. The surface didn't look any different. In Vancouver, however, it's against the law to drop anything into English Bay. And, when the same prank was later strung off of the Lions Gate Bridge, cranes and ships were brought in to remove the threat to the water. I wondered how Vancouver would have felt if the whole bridge was dumped in. With Novi Sad's Danube that was the case. New currents became new worry lines, not the happy crow's feet of golden years.
"It looks a little dirty for swimming."
"It is," he smiled, "but I've been swimming in it since I was a kid. You have to be careful of the undertow. The river bed is uneven, and full of holes. You don't want to dive too deep."
"Sounds dangerous," I replied, understanding loving something that isn't quite right because it's all that you have.
"Last summer we had to try to save a guy."
His voice was so calm I thought I misheard him. Then the word try stepped forward.
"No one did anything. No one called the police, or ambulance, nothing." His tone hadn't changed. If I detected anything in his voice it was disbelief at the indifference of the people on the shore. I suspected he equated their apathy with Novi Sad.
"Are you okay?" I asked him, realizing this was a very North American thing to say. I fumbled, "You saw a man die."
"I didn't see him die," he said. "I heard him when he went under, but he died out of my sight." The distinction seemed to imply that seeing would have been much worse.
He seemed irritated, or at the very least, surprised by my concern. It wasn't a story that he could stop telling though. "We did dive down to find him, but you couldn't see a thing." The shame in his voice stepped between us. "We tried to swim ahead of him," he started, but saw my confusion. "The Danube is a river," he continued, "it never stops. The man was drifting away as he was drowning."
His detached tone was a devastating news report with the sound off.
"I don't believe it didn't affect you." His words alone had affected me.
"I was off for a day, but then I was fine." He genuinely sounded embarrassed.
We walked on, beyond where I thought the quay ended. It felt strange to pass the horizon of memory. He told me what it was like during the bombings.
"The first bomb fell." He began describing a part of town I'd never been to. I pretended to know where it was, not wanting to interrupt, and sensing his desire for me to be familiar with it. "The building was gone. Just a huge crater! I'd never seen anything like it. My friend and I rode our bikes to see it the next day."
I couldn't imagine doing the same thing, but said nothing.
"It was a hole as deep as this," he pointed absentmindedly to the water beneath the quay. We were almost two stories above it.
"But when they bombed the bridge," he started again calmly, "that was something else. When that bomb fell it scared the shit out of me." The gravity in his voice was a magnetic field. My arms moved towards him involuntarily. I pulled them back as soon as I caught on. Burying my hands in my chest, I hoped I looked cold instead of betraying how intimate my compassion was. We had lived on the same street, our parents were and still are best friends, and when he was ten and I was six we were separated into a world that would literally crumble, and one that would be fine and safe and full of promise. The arbitrariness with which fate struck weighed heavily on me.
"We ran to the windows to see what was hit, and we saw the bridge sinking."
I tried to picture a landmark sinking like a ship. The Cambie Bridge, the Granville, or the Burrard sinking next to Granville Island. I realized why people still talked about it. It's hard to find a postcard without the image of a city bridge, or a photograph taken from one, on its back. Where would the friends and families of travellers and vacationers find their first impressions of foreign cities? The bridges that defined Novi Sad were gone; they only existed in the past tense. What troubled me more than knowing my beautiful old Novi Sad would never be the same was that the new Novi Sad was a mere ten-year-old. Even in the best of situations, Novi Sad could re-grow up a thousand different ways. Nebojsa was not interested in my sympathy. I knew if he sensed it he would stop confiding in me.
His cell rang. A friend had some graphic novels for him. He asked me to remember the address. "Are you going to be cold? Or do you want to head back?" he asked.
"I'm not cold at all," I insisted. I couldn't help laughing, aware of my transparency. "It's cold, but I don't need to turn back."
We walked across a field. He pointed out the university campus. The buildings he attended classes in. Agriculture was his major. He pointed out where the EXIT music festival shows were held. I told him I still had the EXIT booklet he gave me four years ago.
"The red one, like this." I approximated the size with my fingers. "But it's faded now cause I keep it on the window sill by my bed." I instantly regretted the admission, even though I didn't keep it on the sill, but closer, on my bedside table. I never thought about where and why I kept it until then, and I was surprised that I lied.
The construction of a new brick walkway must have started recently. A heap of earth rose in front of us, complete with two frozen footprints where someone had stepped onto it before winter had settled.
"I might need a little help," I said, watching my step. When I looked up expecting a hand to help me across, I saw Nebojsa had continued ahead without looking back.
"You're not going to help your girlfriend?" I heard a voice ask. An older gentleman called after him, almost invisible in the grey cold halfway between Nebojsa and I. He turned to me sympathetically, and I noticed he had darker skin. With the layers of coats the weather necessitated, it was hard to tell anything else about him. Nebojsa must not have noticed him. His pace was so measured it almost made him invisible too. The gentleman was right next to me now. His concern was touching. Had he been watching us for very long? "I'm not his girlfriend," I explained.
"Hey, Diesel is having a huge sale in the Centre."A flicker of excitement crossed his face. "I just remembered that you said you liked Diesel when you were here last," he apologized. I had to strain to remember the conversation we had four years ago. I wore Diesel jeans that night.
"I like it but…" I started.
"But not anymore," he interrupted me, finishing the first sentence I'd seen make him uncomfortable. I could feel the conclusion that settled between the two of us. Life moves on where I'm from, but it hadn't here.
"No, I still like it, but they're really strict about the weight of my suitcase on these small discount flights," I lied.
"Oh, I see," he said believing me, sympathizing with the burden of restrictions after enduring ten years of sanctions.
The apartment complex we arrived at was part of a new development. It was the first new development I'd ever seen in Novi Sad. I tried pressing the apartment number he asked me to remember, but Nebojsa brushed my hand away absentmindedly. "Uh huh, Smilejevic," he said apologetically as he recognized the name beside the number.
When life offered lemons, it seemed that Eastern European interior designers served up a lemon, lime, and grapefruit inspired brand of modernism. The warmth and brightness of the apartment seemed impossible. Jovica's good humour was infectious. The three of us started talking, and it came up that I used to restore art for a living. Jovica showed me two badly burned paper lithographs wondering if there was anything I could do. They were beyond repair, and I was afraid to tell him because they were all he was able to save from the fire that consumed his parents' house.
"No dice!" he laughed.
My apprehension must have been easy to read, because he summarized my thoughts. I was relieved that he found my hesitation funny.
"So you said 'used to', what do you do now?"
"She's a writer," said Nebojsa.
"Where can I find your book?" Jovica beamed like I had exceeded his expectations.
"There's one on your coffee table," I replied.
Jovica glanced at Nebojsa for a clue as to what I'd lost in translation, but laughed when he noticed the book on the table between them. I had given Nebojsa a copy when we first met at the pijaca and he'd placed it there when we arrived.
"Senka Kovacevic," he made caramel of my vowels. "Now tell me something, is anyone in your family from Lika?"
"Yes, my dad is from Lika."
"I thought so. See I'm from Lika, and I know the last name."
"I gotta run. My kid's back in town soon," Nebojsa said unexpectedly. We were out the door a minute later.
He hadn't mentioned whether his wife was coming back too. She had only come up once, in one sentence, four years ago. He hadn't said a word about his wedding, or his marriage. I didn't even know his wife's name. He was clearly avoiding the subject, and to be honest, I wished the subject didn't exist. He started talking about his New Year's plans, and extended an invitation to Alana and me. I wondered if maybe he was going through a divorce.
I asked him if he was excited to see his son. He looked at me like excited wasn't the right word. I rephrased, "Did you miss him?"
"Yes. I missed him," he said, but not right away.
He looked deflated. At least I thought he did. I suspected he needed the distraction my question scared away. We walked to Futoska Street. I thanked him for his company.
"We had a real walk," he said.
We were kitty corner from where I last saw him four years ago. I told him I had to change money, and he moved in to tell me something.
"If they try to give you a lower rate because your Euros are in bad shape, don't do it. It's a scam."
"Okay, thanks. I think the ones I have are new."
He crossed the street and headed home.