In our latest issue of creative non-fiction you are invited into the worlds of incorrigible plant clippers, worlds-removed and not-so-distant neighbours, called to witness what it was like living in the echo of NATO bombs falling on Serbia, and to understand the shifting plurality of identity in the digital age. Each of these stories is as true as any word on a page may be. Enjoy.
by Loukia M. Janavaras
The neighbor lady from across the way stopped by a few nights ago. She came to the funeral she said and I said I remember. She asked me why I never rang her doorbell the evening I came home from work and found you on our bedroom floor, why I never screamed out. She never heard anything. I never thought of that actually. I didn’t have an answer for her other than to say that’s just the kind of person I am, closed. She said she’s the same way.
I told her that I always thought she was a good person, even though we had never formally met. I could tell that she was and she thought it was because she has a dog and two cats and I also have a cat. And I said no, that’s not it. I can just tell these things from a distance and I told her that you thought the same thing. She told me that it’s driving her mad that she doesn’t see us out back any more.
She brought up the day of the pigeon massacre out back. I told her I remember and how at first I didn’t realize what had happened until I stepped outside and saw them, fallen, some still alive and struggling. She mentioned how you spoke to her husband about it and how he thought so well of you. I said I was standing next to you at the time. She doesn’t know what I really thought of those pesky pigeons or that despite that, I was sorry to see them die in that way. Death is messy, you told me. She told me who did it. I so wish I could tell you. You would say I was right about that guy all along.
The way our kitchens face each other and the times I have stood on the back balcony and looked across, I’ve observed them and always thought that’s the kind of couple we would be when we get old. She kind of reminds me of Marianne Faithful but softer. They seem to be set to their own drum, unlike the rest of the neighbors in the building. They like to stay up late and wake up late and pretty much keep to themselves. Today when I got home I found a bag of food slung on the doorknob. Katia left it for me with a note attached saying that she cares very much. Did I mention that’s her name?
Originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Loukia M. Janavaras currently resides in Athens, Greece where she has lived for the past nine years. She enjoys writing though she does not consider it a choice. Her poem White was published in J.D. Vine publications The Creative Writer in 2008 and in 2010 she received an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 79th Annual Writing Competition for The Neighbor in the Memoirs/Personal Essay category.
WITH OR WITHOUT IDENTITY
by Carina Toste
A commercial about NordicTrack exercise equipment takes on new meaning in my living room. Pennies and toys surround me. My life size doll, now a foot shorter than me, holds my hand. I tell her that I’ve had a rough day at work and I loosen my tie. I sing a slogan and slide over the pennies with my socked feet. No, it wasn’t good enough. My business contributions weren’t good enough, I thought, No one is buying NordicTrack, and I shake my head. They’re looking for something different, someone different, and then I become a prince. I’m Prince Charming and my doll is falling. Her hair snags my fingers when I try to comb it. I close my eyes and slowly descend toward her head. Her plastic face tastes hard when I kiss her lips. When I emerge, I see my brother staring at me.
When I was a kid it was common for me to play different characters in my head, male and female. As I grew up my sense of multiplicity remained. In high school I was “Kurdt,” or “Edward,” sometimes “Eddie.” On the phone my friend and I told stories about ourselves to one another and guessed whether they were lies or truth. Sometimes they were a mixture and we’d analyze where truth and make-believe merged. It was easier for me to pretend rather than be truthful. I was also interested in older men. I found that instead of being drawn to boys or girls my age, my teachers were the ones I wanted to get to know. I had a middle-aged high school instructor who encouraged me when I flirted with him. This was new for me; to flirt, feel safe, and also get a positive response all at the same time. When I graduated high school, I had tried to find someone like him.
Online dating seemed sensible. I could enter or leave a conversation whenever I wanted. Close an Instant Messaging window, delete an email, block an address, never reply. With the ease of disconnecting, I felt safer disclosing information that I wouldn’t have face-to-face. My usual nervousness settled quietly in the back of my mind, and I could see new versions of myself unfold.
I spent an entire month corresponding with a complete stranger. When we met in person, the reality of our relationship as strangers was impossible to ignore. A couple of photos submerged in a sea of writing-hunched-over emails is no way of predicting how two people will interact in person, especially if we’re expressing ourselves in ways we wouldn’t in real life. My first persona sounded very naïve. I had the pornographic virginal girl in the back of my mind, and played that role, to a certain extent. After meeting the stranger in person and getting the sense that I was there as an object, I dropped this persona.
I had posted anonymously on Craigslist, looking for coffee dates, unknowingly inviting replies of concern and warning that put me both on alert and stubbornly fixed on my goal. The initial post was a dead end, so in another post I hid my age from view. I wrote in a more mature voice than before, adding that I was an artist of sorts, and because I had omitted my age and written the post relatively well, many of the responses were from men who thought I was at least in my forties. I responded to a few emails. Then I was caught off guard. I hadn’t considered the fact that I was using my real name in my outgoing emails. Someone had googled me and found an article published a few years earlier that both stated my age and named me as a contributor to The Bored of Education, a newspaper some friends had started in high school. It was described as being influenced by The Onion.
Understandably, he assumed that I was sixteen years old and pulling his leg for the sake of writing an article. I learned then that I was googlable, and that apparently I was a journalist too. He’d told me to use ZabaSearch as a way to verify people’s identities, to search Myspace, plug in names, email addresses, anything that might give me a better sense of these strangers in the machine.
The next message I replied to was quite simple. A few sentences, a phone number, and a link that took me to a webpage. I responded with even less information. Expecting a series of questions, there were none. So I gave him an address and time. We spoke briefly on the phone before meeting. “Is there a place in your area we could get some wine if we want?” he asked. I played along and said yes. When we met he seemed surprised that I wasn’t older and emphasized how mature and deliberate my post was, but my mature persona vanished into nervousness and uncertainty as I talked to him.
My next post was a combination of the previous two. I showed my age, but made sure to add my awareness that what I was looking for was quite bizarre. I wrote it in an assured and playful tone. I eventually found the person I was looking for, and we continued to send emails to one another, while also meeting face-to-face. We communicated primarily through email. It was a hybrid situation, on the border of my comfort zone. I was eighteen years old, and at this point still didn’t know who I was. The only aspect of my experience I think atypical is that I tended to forget myself and adapt to other people.
I was attending a poetry class that had brought in a guest speaker to talk about Fernando Pessoa, a poet most known for the way he regarded and used his heteronyms—not false, but alternate personas. With this in mind and my history of personal multiplicity, I played around with this idea in class. I explored a few personas through poetry.
The man I was seeing happened to have studied Pessoa, so I mentioned what I was doing in class. I didn’t feel a great gap between my online and in-person self while emailing and meeting him, but as time passed I started to feel more and more like I was being forced into a role. The split between our online correspondence and in-person experience grew. Online communication was no longer a sufficient way to express myself. Suddenly it seemed as if we’d been strangers all along and I was no longer safe with him.
Several months after a traumatic ending, one of my personas from class, Marcelo Borge, became something more than just a character on paper. A weak sense of self meant I could easily be convinced into playing roles other people wanted for me. I needed to take bigger risks in order to figure myself out. I needed to try to commit to one identity for the first time. Through correspondences I learned what FTM meant, and after some time of processing, I decided that I needed to know what it felt like to be seen as male. As complex as this might seem (my being a young woman), throughout my life I had many times inadvertently been mistaken for a boy. Wondering if this was my true identity was reasonable to me. Beside changing my superficial appearance and experimenting with mannerisms, I also extended this change to my new Facebook profile and outgoing email settings. I focused on trying to be in person what I thought people identified as male. I also played around with Facebook information settings which allowed an app called SGO (Sex, Gender, Orientation) to add more options to profiles, like gender identity. My online identity reinforced my in-person identity at the time, but ultimately the most important factor in figuring out if this was really “me” was through in-person interaction. In the same way I had felt that I was being forced into a role, I was able to notice the contrast between how people perceived me and how I felt inside.
Online interaction wasn’t enough to substantiate my in-person identity, but it allowed me to express myself more easily, and play with how I represented myself. I found that my identity was more complex than traditional male or female concepts and that it was normal not to consistently fit into any prescribed category.
Perhaps identity is something you lose and rediscover again and again throughout your life, a continuous reformation based on experience. At the point it breaks, bends, or otherwise pulls itself together you have to examine again why it fell apart in the first place. When I was six my friends and I stood around the schoolyard talking. I drifted off into daydream. I stood there, between the two of them, hands at my side, legs firmly on the ground, eyes open, facing the windows on the building directly in front of me, and my eyes unfocused. The clouds above me entered my eyes, skimming the lashes as they blanketed my vision. I could see inward. The tip of my soul hung there like a coat on the rack of my consciousness, and I realized something profound, so profound that I forgot what it was. I heard her yelling my name, and she yelled it a second time, and life returned to my body like it does when you wake from sleep, except that I was already standing, and my eyes had never closed. My friend tells me that she’s been calling me for the past minute, an exaggeration I don’t believe, but I couldn’t deny those moments of time absent from my memory.
Carina Toste studies at UC Berkeley. She majors in Luso-Brazilian Language and Literature, and minors in Creative Writing.
PARIS UNDER BOMBS
by Marija Stajic
“Stefan?” Ana answered the phone.
“German media is broadcasting, the planes just took off from Aviano, I’m, I’m so sorry, I’ve never believed they would actually, I thought they were just scaring you …”
His English with a thick German accent was trailing off.
Planes? Bombs? War?
That’s ridiculous, Ana was thinking. It’s 1999 after all. There is a little thing in the world now called international law. The UN didn’t agree with it. NATO can’t just say “screw the UN,” and start dropping bombs on our heads…can it?
Then something screeching and cut the air in half, and sliced through Ana’s stomach, a noise she had heard only once before. The day Tito died. In May of 1980. She was 3. She remembers her mother opening their bedroom window. Old, chipped wood, painted gray. She opened the left wing first, then right. She wore a white cardigan over a long, gray skirt. Her blonde hair was tied in a ponytail. Her eyes were wide-blue. Ana leaned over the window, but couldn’t reach over it, so her Mom prompted her up, Ana’s belly on the seal. Something smelled sweetly, fresh.
There they were, random people on a tree-lined street, stuck in the concrete like stones, not moving, some talking, some crying. Ana’s mother spoke to a middle-aged man, in a white shirt and dark-gray pants, from above.
“Tito died. It’s the end of the world.”
She sighed, then picked her up again, and put her down on the floor, her small feet silently landing.
“We’ll be fine,” she said.
But now she wasn’t there to tell Ana the same thing.
Despite the fact that most Serbs didn’t believe that Clinton would actually bomb them, but that his threats were just aimed at scaring Milosevic into letting poor Albanians in Kosovo alone, most Serbs did go shopping for tonnes of food. Just in case. Better safe than hungry. Ana’s parents were doing just that when the sirens wailed for the first time, that mid-March evening of 1999. Ana’s sister and boyfriend dragged her into the basement like a log, but all in tears. She was scared to death. In vain, their attempts to console her. Two of them were just as scared, and didn’t know, didn’t understand what was happening either. All three of them, big-eyed, shared lots of silence in that old, rundown, webby basement.
Slobodan Milosevic was filling the TV screens with dramatic speeches about a poor little innocent country at war with big scary NATO. How the stoic, free, never-hurt-anyone Serbian people, all eight million of them, will prevail, because they always have, and because the truth is on their side.
What he was thinking, Ana knew, is how do I get my own ass out of this freaking mess. And counting viable Serbian fighter planes on his fingers.
Damn you people for electing an intelligence-lacking socialist who’s in love with a crazy Communist woman, to lead us, Ana thought.
She didn’t vote for Milosevic. Neither did her family.
Why is it my head they’re dropping bombs on, she thought.
“Should we go to a shelter?” the family of four contemplated.
The first couple of nights, they were hiding in the basement. But the sirens would stay on, for hours, so they would crawl back into the house, like cats, hoping and praying that the planes wouldn’t actually drop bombs, just kind of fly above to scare them into hating Milosevic, which they already did, and somehow get him out of his big, fat, leather armchair.
Half of the city’s female student body and Ana left their fertility on the streets, by walking for hours in the dead of winter, and shouting “He’s finished” or “Gotov je.”
We tried everything. It takes time. And help. But not in the form of bombs, Ana thought.
Some buildings had shelters. There was one across from Ana’s house. None of the four family members was for it.
“Being in a cold, crowded basement, with a bunch of strangers? No, thank you. I’d rather stay in our basement, and pray, Ana’s sister said.
Besides, they didn’t believe that the bombardment would last more than a couple of days. That should have been long enough to teach Milosevic that Clinton means business. And NATO did say that they would bomb only military targets. To piss off Milosevic, Ana thought. He didn’t care about anything except his immediate family. Even his parents committed suicide. Probably when they realized what kind of plague they brought on this world.
“Whatever happens, the important thing is that we are together,” Ana’s mother said.
Ana was stunned. Her mother couldn’t even pronounce the word death. What Ana expected of her is to shoot at planes herself with a sling. Anything to protect her family. But not the resignation. She took it as a sign that her Mom is not really worried.
The four of them would run back and forth between the house and the basement for several days, every time the sirens would unleash. But there’s not much to do in an old, spider-webbed basement, with nothing but heating pipes, jars of fruit preserves, pickled vegetables, and old stuff, not good enough for the house, but not ready for the dumpster either because “one never knows when one would need a cheap, fifty-year-old chair. It’s broken now, but it can be fixed!”
But then they gave up. They stayed in the house, away from the windows, hoping that nothing will fall on their heads. The curfew was almost around the clock. The night and day were melting into each other.
Then one night, the ground shook and loud familiar sounds filled the air. It felt like the bomb fell just across the street. And they kept falling and falling…
Ana was loudly weeping as the bombs were out screaming her. All four of them hunkered down on an old, dark velvet arm chair in the living room. The fear completely enveloped the room and everyone in it. There was nothing to say. And nothing to do, but wait.
“Paris! I can’t die! I still haven’t seen Paris,” Ana was whispering.
Her family made a human tent above her. And just waited for what seemed an eternity.
When the bombs stopped, and they could hear the whistling sounds of the planes hovering away, they turned the radio on. These planes actually bombed the industrial part of Nis, about five kilometers away from Ana’s home–the tobacco factory, the oil refinery, the military compound and the adjacent World War II concentration camp.
“As if our nation didn’t have enough misery in its history already,” Ana’s father said.
They began to realize that Milosevic was more stupid than they thought, which was hard to imagine, and that he definitely didn’t care about anything but his own ass and power, which was not so hard, they knew that the bombardment might last longer than they initially hoped.
After a couple of weeks, their friends and neighbors started venturing out during the curfew. A bit farther and farther from homes or shelters. They even named the sirens—Šizela or the Crazy one, and Smirela or the Calm one. Some people even had to work.
The tobacco factory in Nis– Duvanska Industrija Nis– actually made its employees work, even though they were being bombed almost every day.
Some of them had to clean bomb ruins while the NATO planes were hovering. It was a part of Milosevic’s policy of “I’m not afraid of you, even though you can squish me like a bug any second, but at least I’ll die knowing that I was right, in pride and glory. And you’ll be reprimanded by the UN. Huh! Who’s laughing now, you ugly, rich, stealth plane…I can’t see!”
Then one normal, sunny day in Nis, NATO dropped cluster bombs on the city hospital, downtown bridge and the adjacent open green market, killing more than eighty civilians, most of them probably anti-Milosevic anyway. They were probably going to get some food, or taking a walk, far away from any military or industrial target.
That’s when people got really scared, again. And angry. Again. At Milosevic, at Clinton, at their relatives and friends who never wanted to reveal who they voted for…
“You’re not going anywhere anymore!” Ana’s now terrified mother yelled out, watching the bloody streets of the city, with corpses still on them, like an old scene from Beirut or an old war movie, but in actuality just a fifteen-minute-walk away.
Ana suddenly felt frozen. She had somehow relaxed into this life with bombs. She was actually planning on going to a dermatologist, that same day, to the hospital, through the park, Cair, showered with cluster bombs.
She overslept. When she woke up that early afternoon, she thought she was still having a nightmare. A nightmare in which she was born in a country that is being bombed. She shivered for a bit, but then shook it off. She didn’t know if she overslept by accident or by higher power. She was never sure if God existed or if he’s a figment of human imagination, desired to justify pain and suffering in this life, and cope with the fear of death. He seemed fictitious, but people around her, people she knew well, loved and respected, were so sure of his existence. She did feel, time and time again, that she was being watched over. By what or whom, she didn’t know. There was often this distinct feeling that she was special, and that every time she was close to death or serious harm, something or someone would pull her away from it, and keep her safe. Sleeping through the cluster bombing reinforced that feeling in her.
How did we get here? Ana asked herself.
What part of out national character attracts conflict? Over and over. And misfortune…
In 1991, Ana’s family moved to the 13th floor apartment of an 18-storey building in her hometown of Nis, a city of 300,000 that served as the industrial, transportation, and trading hub of southern Serbia. Their small, two-bedroom apartment overlooked the city’s new, unfinished boulevard with a view of building construction sites and new, mostly small buildings. Her family’s move there meant leaving the house where Ana was brought into as a baby. That was a beautiful, century-old, downtown, one-level house located on the same tree-lined street as the police headquarters and shared a fence with a big kindergarten. Ana loved that house; it is the one place where she remembers being perfectly happy, running around barefoot in the back yard, with kittens and puppies they always had, even a hen once; riding a small four-wheel bike on the kindergarten’s grounds, climbing the children-play-constructions, and swinging until nauseated on wooden swing sets with cold, braided iron handrails.
The 13th floor apartment is where she really grew up. She could still feel the texture and the hardness of the thin, woven brown carpet she sat on for hours talking to her friends on a shiny, red, dial-up phone. It was the place she associated with all of her high school fights and her first love. She was old enough, and the times were too turbulent for her parents to continue to shield her from Serbia’s difficult political and economic realities. She remembers them pacing the long hallway of their railroad apartment discussing the 1992 elections. Ana was not too young to remember, but was certainly too young to process, the raw emotions stirred by the death of Tito, so the concern betrayed in her parents’ voices, eyes, and body language when they raised the upcoming Serbian presidential election between Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Panić, a Serbian-American multimillionaire, was in its own way unfamiliar and unsettling. In fact, this episode of her life, she remembers like it was yesterday.
Ana’s parents were opposed to Milosevic and everything he represented from the very beginning. They saw him as dangerous, but still had no idea how much. Ana doubted even the most virulent opponents of Milosevic were able to imagine how serious of a danger Milosevic really represented in 1992. Perhaps not even Milosevic himself, or his eerie wife, with pale skin and a fresh flower in her dark hair, most-ironically named Peace (Mira.)
“Capitalism is evil!,” Ana’s grandfather insisted to his older son and daughter in the living room of his small, one-bedroom apartment in Nis as Ana’s grandmother fled to the kitchen.
“So that’s why everyone else is living better than we are, Dad!” Ana’s aunt retorted, angrily.
“Do you know how many homeless people there are in America, do you?” Ana’s grandfather asked.
“How do you know what it’s like in America?” Bane, Ana’s father asked.
“Don’t you tell me I don’t know, I know, I’ve traveled, I’ve been to Budapest,” Ana’s grandfather angrily answered.
“If Panić doesn’t win, God help us,” Ana’s aunt exclaimed later, as she sat in an old popular Serbia car, Stojadinka.
She was stunningly beautiful in her mid-thirties, in a typically Serbian-Turkish way– dark long hair, dark eyes, and darker skin, long, perfectly shaped legs and arms. When Ana had some vague ambitions to try herself out as a small-time fashion model, Ana’s mother said: “You’re just like your aunt. She had hopeless dreams of being a model too. Look where it got her!”
Ana’s aunt became dentist’s technician instead. Much more practical occupation, according to Serbian standards. She also abided by standards of those times in marrying too young and soon finding herself in an unhappy marriage. Finding a husband was something she was supposed to do in her 20s. “You made me do it,” she scolded her parents, frowny-faced, often in front of the rest of her family. They would just shrug it off, silently.
Then she would show Ana a picture of herself, when she was 22, black and white, sitting in a chair, legs crossed, in a dark, tight dress. “You looked gorgeous, teto.”
“Yeah? I did, didn’t I. And they told me then: hurry, you’re getting old; you won’t be able to get married…”
Ana also heard a different story. Her aunt was allegedly wild in her youth, which was defined then by having relationships, plural, with a married man and a Muslim doctor. First, she eloped with the married guy, who was actually separated, and while in a “sinful and unlawful” union with him, when they stopped eating the honey, she started seeing another man, the Muslim doctor. The married guy, or her now live-in boyfriend, found out about her extracurricular activities, packed his bags one day, and left. The doctor turned out to be only interested in having fun. So, in order to rein her in, her parents insisted that she marry the next guy who came along and didn’t have two heads. Zoran was single, never married and Orthodox Christian, i.e. perfect!
Ana’s aunt was still seeing the Muslim doctor, even on the same day her new official boyfriend came to her parents’ house, to ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was a huge “scandal,” as Ana’s mother would say.
Ruza, Nada’s mother, asked me to go get her.
“Miro, go to the building next to the grocery store, the third floor, apartment number 10, ring it, and when the guy comes out, tell Nadica I said she should come home IMMEDIATELY, or I will kill her, strangle her with my own hands, and don’t tell a living soul about this, understood?”
Ana remembers one of her aunt’s wedding pictures: long, simple, white dress, barely resembling a wedding one and a fake jeweled tiara in her hair. In this picture, she’s standing on a table, in a kafana, with sadness set on her face, looking down on her husband, who was holding her hand, looking at her and singing. She was pregnant, which was a frequent motivation for a Serbian wedding at that time.
Divorce was still frowned upon even on the brink of the Nineties, unless it was really necessary. Being unhappy wasn’t reason enough. Your husband drinking too much wasn’t reason enough, unless he was also abusive. Very. And tried to kill you. Twice.
And if there’s cheating involved? Infidelity was never a good reason for Serbs in the Nineties to leave the spouse. The shame of being divorced would somehow be upon the victim.
There’s a word Ana was threatened with many, many times while growing up in Serbia– “raspustenica.” It’s a feminine noun, derived from the verb “raspustiti,” which means to release or let go of. It has a negative, condescending meaning to it. It’s a verbal scarlet letter for a woman. And it was almost always used to describe a woman, who is separated from her husband. She was automatically the one who was let go, as she was fired from the marriage for not performing her duties properly. There’s no question mark, or even a qualification, to clarify if this woman left her husband because she fell in love with someone else, or because she couldn’t survive another day with her abusive husband, who in many cases, was uncontrollable. His family would come up with excuses for his behavior, and always, always have his back. The woman’s family would usually say to her to “suck it up,” because she has children, and no man is perfect.
“Your husband is cheating on you? Well, he’s a man, all of them do it, some are just more discreet than others,” middle-aged Serbian women would often say.
Even today, cheating is a competitive sport in some parts of Serbia, and, for the most part, socially acceptable. If he’s cheating, it’s fine as long as he’s not drinking. If he’s cheating and drinking, it’s fine as long as he doesn’t abuse his wife and kids. If he’s cheating, drinking and he is abusive, it’s bearable, as long as he doesn’t gamble everything he has away. As long as a woman doesn’t have to bear a “divorcee” cross, and risk losing all of her assets in court. And start again, at the age of 50, with nothing…
It’s one of the biggest Serbian fears—being middle aged and alone.
And if the woman has daughters, the pressure would be ever greater to stay with her husband. Otherwise, she would be subjecting her daughters to serious risk of sexual predation of any new boyfriend or husband she brings into their home. This seemed to be one of Ana’s mother’s biggest fears. Her view of men was that most of them are perverts or will eventually have those urges, if they are not related to their wives’ daughters. Ana’s mother supported her hypothesis that all men are dogs with a story of her middle-aged female colleague from the tobacco factory of Nis, who was divorced, and had a teenage daughter who was slightly mentally challenged. She met a younger guy whom everyone thought was wonderful.
“He held her hand in public! And she was no beauty,” women gossiped.
Soon, he moved in with her. And one day, she received a phone call at work.
“She turned white, on the phone, holding the handle, then screamed, dropped the handle and ran out of the office without a word. Later we found out that her daughter was on the phone, crying, telling her that her mother’s boyfriend crawled into her bed, naked.”
The “wonderful boyfriend” was kicked out of the apartment, momentarily. And Ana’s Mom got to say to Ana one thing she enjoyed the most: “I told you so…”
Milan Panić did end up losing those elections to Milosevic in 1992. Milosevic claimed 57 percent of the vote, Panić was allotted 35 percent, and he in vain called for new elections in light of widespread electoral fraud, which would quickly become Milosevic’s stock-in-trade. Ana’s aunt Nada, whose name means Hope, didn’t have much of it left, finding herself in an isolated country and bad marriage, with a son dropping out of high school and parents too afraid and powerless to help. She used what minuscule amount of her time, strength and will she had left, to join Ana in 1996. Nis protests against Milosevic, to at least try to change her life, and not just complain about it. And the protests were a story of itself, and so picturesque.
The students of the University of Nis were gathered on Liberation Square to listen to the Democratic Party’s rising star-Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of Nis, and hopefully to show the world, even more than Milosevic, that Serbia is not a Socialist country, that they are fed up with him and his wife treating Serbia as their own farm where they can piss on any stone they feel like, or kill any cattle that belongs to them, whenever they want, how they want to, without consequences. To show that their votes are exactly that—their votes; that at the end of the 20th century you can’t just send a bully to steal a voting box from a voting station, in the middle of the election day, just because you didn’t like how many Democrats came out to vote in that particular voting station. But Milosevic could, and he did.
It was the freezing Serbian winter of 1996. Ana and her aunt could still feel their wooden feet—icicles– and their hands rubbing against each other, and they could still see their breath, while stomping in the middle of the Liberation Square in the heart of Nis. Ana’s fellow students were there, angry, young, brave and ambitious, wanting to see the world, wanting to be a part of Europe. They felt so unjustly isolated, and felt like fighting, but not hurting, not dying. They were a little worried of what Milosevic might do.
Will he send his police dogs once again, as he did in Belgrade?
The students listened, applauded, in the middle of the packed city square with their professors, parents. Then they walked the streets, and chanted anti-Milosevic tunes, stopping the traffic: He’s finished, he’s finished!
GOTOV JE! GOTOV JE!
The cars would honk, in support. Someone would swear at them, from a window above. They would swear back. You’re braver in the crowd, immersed in the rivers of people. Some of them would break off close to home. The others continued the walk in the cold. People joked that Serbia would be infected with the “white plague” because young women, most of them underdressed, would expose their reproductive health to harm, their ovaries to cold pavements and hours of standing and walking on them. They walked for months and chanted for years. They banged at pots and pans, as loudly as possible, close to the open windows, in the backyards or on the streets at 7:30 p.m. every night, during Milosevic’s Radio Television of Serbia’s prime time news, so Socialists would listen to the rebels as well as to the dictator. And know that they are coming!
It still took Democrats four more years to wring Socialist necks.
After Milosevic was ousted in a revolution, in 2000, Ana’s aunt got a divorce. She walked into Ana’s home one day and said:
“I’m a free woman! I have a chance at a new life, a good life! Here, I brought some cake and wine, let’s celebrate!”
A week later, her son was arrested for robbing a kiosk.
Marija Stajic is a writer, journalist, linguist published by The New Yorker and many other online and print publications, and who has published three books of poetry. She has a B.A. in Linguistics and Literature from Faculty of Philosophy, University of Nis (Serbia) and an M.A. in International Journalism from American University.
Based on her writing, she has been accepted to George Washington University’s spring semester’s fiction workshop. She has taken many writing courses, classes and workshops, including playwriting in HB Studios in New York City, and short story in The Writer’s Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She has written a collection of interwoven historical short stories placed in Yugoslavia from beginning of the 20th century until today. She’s also a blogger:belgrade-dc. blogspot.com Her fiction and poetry has been published by The Writing Disorder, Orion Headless and the Burning Word literary magazines.
LAST TANGO IN HAMPDEN
by Earl Crown
I stuck my hand into the Piranha’s tank. I was drunk, stoned, and stupidly bold. The fish danced around the tank, vigorous and violent, splashing smelly water onto my hardwood floors. Behind me, my dining room was full of people and they were counting off the seconds.
The Piranha was flailing wildly. The shiny beast was about the same size as the hand he was menacing. My heart was pounding. There was a puddle at my feet. The room was smoke-choked and smelled of Dutch Masters and hydroponic weed.
The Piranha crashed into the back of my hand and wiggled away quickly. His scales felt slimy against my skin. I was determined to fight the primal fear I felt, to fight the urge to yank my hand out of the tank.
The Piranha was circling the tank, faster with each pass toward my hand. The ferocious little fucker was moving so quickly that he appeared as a silver blur in the water. He was highly agitated.
I had won my $50 bet. I withdrew my hand from the fish-tank, and as I did the Piranha JUMPED OUT OF THE TANK AND LANDED AT MY FEET.
The room went wild with panic. Some of my guests quickly retreated into my kitchen. I grabbed a green net, picked my flailing, helpless Piranha up off of the floor, and plopped him back into the tank. I shut and secured the tank’s lid, feeling remorseful for traumatizing my pet.
I turned and faced the frightened faces of my guests. Those that had retreated into the kitchen moved tentatively back into the dining room. Everybody was buzzing with shock and disbelief at what they had seen. At that moment, I did not feel pride. I felt foolish and ashamed.
My friend Fats was sitting, smiling, nodding, at one end of my glass dining room table. Fats looked like a plump brown Buddha with dreadlocks. He was serene and disarmingly charming. We called him Fats because he weighed about 250 pounds. He handed me a fifty-dollar bill, followed by a smoldering blunt.
“You’ve got big balls Crown,” Fats said, acknowledging my reckless bravery.
“Yep,” I replied, inhaling as much smoke as my lungs would hold, “I win.”
The party settled back into its usual rhythms of Monopoly and marijuana. “Liquid Swords” was spinning on the Technics, and the usual dice game had broken out in the living room. These Monopoly parties at my Beech Avenue row home had become a regularly rowdy and well-attended event, but this particular party stands out in my mind because of the Piranha incident.
Between Monopoly sessions, I took two goldfish from the feeder tank. I placed one in my orange Oscar’s tank. He was hungry, and swallowed it whole within seconds. I put the other goldfish into the Piranha’s tank. The Piranha was finicky. He did not like to eat while anybody was watching. The goldfish hid in among the coral out of instinctive fear of the big silver killing machine at the other end of the tank.
The other detail I remember about that night is that we ate pork chops wrapped in bacon. Fats had ripped-off the chain restaurant in Charles Village where he worked as a cook. He had arranged for two-dozen pork chops to “fall off the truck.” He took them to his house in Waverly and prepared them, wrapping them in bacon, and brought them to my house. My friend Fats was a highly skilled chef and a considerate party guest. He always brought goodies to the table.
As the party was breaking-up around 3am, I noticed that the Piranha had bitten off the goldfish’s tail. Unlike the Oscar, who always swallowed its food whole, the Piranha tended to nibble off the tail of its prey, coming back later to finish the job.
Around 3:30 I was standing on my stone front porch, watching Fats and his girlfriend get into his Lincoln and drive away. I smoked a cigarette, and then I went back into my house to clear the empty forties from the dining room. Peering into his tank, I saw that the Piranha had finished off the goldfish.
A couple of weeks later, around eleven on a Saturday morning, I woke up the way I woke up most weekends, to the yelping and barking of spotted bastards. My house was an interior row home, and one of my neighbors had two loud, spoiled Dalmatians. They barked at all hours of the day and night. They did not need a reason or excuse to bark. They barked at fucking leaves blowing in the wind. The spotted bastards were especially obnoxious on weekend mornings. And when they started barking every other shitty pure-bred dog on the block would join the chorus. I was the only person on the block without a dog.
I was the only person on the block who never shopped at Whole Foods. I was the only home owner on Beech Avenue that never engaged in any kind of DIY activities. I did not drive a Volvo or a Suburu with an “I Heart City Life” bumper sticker. I was the ONLY resident on that lilly-white block who had Black friends. I was conspicuously un-mutual.
My immediate neighbors, the people who owned the adjacent row-home, the people who owned the obnoxious Dalmatians, made no effort to hide their disdain for me. The wife was a chunky, bloated, mouthy snob from Westchester, PA. I referred to her as “The Canned Ham”, because she looked just like a canned ham wearing a sweater. She was so fat and nasty that I did not even notice when she became pregnant, even when she was six months along. Another neighbor informed me that the Canned Ham was with child. The husband was a tall, rail-thin and rather effeminate man. My nickname for him was “Mary”. I never once heard him speak, not a word. He let his wife, the Canned Ham, do all the talking. To this day, I find it hard to believe that these two yuppie douchebags actually engaged in any sort of sexual intercourse. They seemed like people incapable of orgasms. I am convinced that their child MUST have been created through some sort of artificial insemination. It seems impossible to me that any man would be able to maintain an erection in the presence of the Canned Ham, let alone ejaculate inside of her Canned Ham-gina.
Within the first few days after I bought my house, they had already called the Baltimore City Police to complain about me. They claimed that I was “too noisy” and that I was attracting an “undesirable element” to the neighborhood. Their complaints were ridiculous. NOBODY on that block of Beech Avenue made more noise than those goddam Dalmatians.
One day I saw the Canned Ham on her front porch, and I mentioned to her that her dogs were consistently waking me up at all hours of the night with their incessant barking. The Canned Ham grew a shade darker than her usual canned-ham-red. She shook with rage, despite my efforts to make my complaint in a gentle, diplomatic way. She hopped over the stone separation between our adjoined porches, and charged me like a wild boar. Getting within an inch from my face, she told me to “go fuck myself” and to “go BACK to the part of Hampden (I) came from!”
When I informed her that I was not even from Hampden, originally, and that I preferred native Hampdenites to gentry invaders like herself, she accused me of lying. The Canned Ham called me a “lying piece of White trash,” adding that she doubted that I was “entirely White.”
I told the Canned Ham that she was a fat, racist, elitist cunt, and that I doubted her husband was entirely heterosexual.
From that moment forward, I considered myself at war with the Canned Ham and her husband Mary.
So there I was on a Saturday morning, groggy and cranky, waking up to the same yelping “alarm clock” that typically intruded on my sleep. The Dalmatians next door were going BANANAS for no reason other than to hear themselves bark. The whole neighborhood was vibrating with the sounds of barking dogs and power saws and lawn mowers. My head was pounding.
Clad in boxer shorts and a t-shirt with Bruce Lee’s face on it, I threw open my bedroom window and climbed out onto the roof over my front porch. The warmth of the bright sun assaulted my face and eyes, causing me to squint. I looked around, scratched my balls, and bellowed at the highest volume I could muster:
“SHUT UP YOU BASTARDS! SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!”
The barking and the power saws and the electric lawn mowers paused. There was a moment of silence. Terrified gentry stopped and looked around for the screaming lunatic that had ordered them to be quiet. The Canned Ham and Mary were busy with their yard work. They did not have the courage to look up at me. After about five seconds all of the noise resumed.
The phone rang, and I crawled back in through my bedroom window to answer it.
Fats was on the phone. He wanted me to “stash two broads” at my house for the day. I figured they were just some girls he was seeing that he wanted to hide from his girlfriend. In addition, I knew he would pay me a generous fee. Naturally I agreed to entertain the two young ladies for the day. I had nothing better to do with my Saturday.
Ten minutes later, Fats’ Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of my row-home. The uptight, lilly-white neighbors on my block paused from their yard work to stare at the site of a 250-pound Black dude getting out of his long, plum-colored car. Two young White girls, both dressed like street-walkers, emerged from the car and followed Fats up to my front porch. My bitch neighbor, the Canned Ham, dropped her rake and literally RAN into her house. Her bastard Dalmatians were having a panic attack in her living room, barking like they’d just seen the Devil himself.
Fats and the two women he wanted me to babysit joined me on my stone front porch. He introduced me to them. Both “ladies” stared at me with zombie eyes. Neither one of them responded to my greetings with any actual words, just grunts of recognition. As the four of us walked through my front door and into my house, Canned Ham and Mary walked out of their house, slamming and locking their front door. Canned Ham and Mary scurried down the sidewalk to their Volvo. As I closed and locked my front door, I could hear the Dalmatians still barking themselves hoarse.
I cannot remember the names of the two girls. I will refer to them as “Frick” and “Frack”.
I directed Frick and Frack down to my knotty-pine finished basement, down to the “Smoke Room”. Fats and I stood in my dining room while Frick and Frack sat in the basement.
“Fats,” I said, “these two broads look like whores. You didn’t tell me I was babysitting whores for you.”
Fats laughed and assured me, “Yah Crown, those two are definitely whores. I’ve got them working for me. But I can’t keep them at my crib. My girl won’t tolerate that shit. She doesn’t know about these girls, and I want to keep it that way.”
Fats handed me a wad of twenties and a stout bag of weed.
“Crown, here’s two hundred bucks and a quarter of the Hydro,” he said, smiling and putting his hand on my shoulder, “All I need you to do is sit on these two until tonight. I’ve gotta go set up the place where they’re gonna live.”
The $200 and the weed helped to alleviate my concerns. Fats and I joined Frick and Frack in the basement. Fats produced a thick blunt, and the four of us smoked it. He explained to me that the girls were from West Virginia, both from the same little town, and that they were new to Baltimore, and that he was “helping” them get set up.
While we spoke and smoked, I could hear the two Dalmatians STILL barking like mad, only now they had moved into the basement of casi di Canned Ham. I could hear them on the other side of my basement wall, going completely apeshit with anger. The Dalmatians knew instinctively that the two whores were dangerous.
As soon as Fats left my house, Frick and Frack started to complain about the cold. In the summer, I like to keep my house around 65 degrees. If you are dressed in a nylon micro-miniskirt and a tube top, you will probably feel uncomfortably cold when I have the AC cranked. I fetched two pairs of sweatpants and two sweaters for the whores. One of the two sweaters, the one I gave to Frack, was a charcoal-gray cashmere V-neck. It was my favorite sweater.
I made ham sandwiches for Frick and Frack, and served them to the girls along with a bag of Doritos. I dumped about two grams of weed onto the coffee table in the basement. I placed a glass pipe next to the weed along with two cans of Coca-Cola.
Because they were such classy broads, Frick and Frack each offered me a blow-job. They were also ugly, spotty prostitutes, so I declined their offers of fellatio.
I retired to the office on the top floor of my house, leaving the whores to their own devices. I had provided them with warm clothes, as well as food, drink, weed, and access to digital cable TV. As far as I was concerned, I had discharged my responsibilities. Even the Dalmatians next door had finally stopped barking. I settled into writing a treatment for a movie. (That movie never got made. Its working title was “Nine-Twelve”. But when that asshole Glen Beck started using the name “Nine-Twelve” for his website, I abandoned that title and eventually I abandoned the entire project. It turns out that I am FAR too lazy to make an independent film. But I digress…)
As I said, I was on the top floor of my house, in the middle bedroom that I used as an office. Other than the hum of ambient city noise outside, and the click of my fingers typing, there was peace and quiet.
The quiet was SHATTERED by the sounds of whores screaming, followed immediately by barking dogs.
I darted down the steps to my living room, ran to my dining room, and then down the steps to my basement. There I found the whores, Frick and Frack, in the midst of a hair-pulling, face-scratching fist-fight. Frack’s face was a bloody mess, but that did not deter her from fighting. Frack had hold of Frick’s hair, and was punching Frick in the face.
I hesitated to break them up for a few seconds. Honestly, I was amused by their fighting.
As I stood watching and laughing, Frick grabbed hold of MY cashmere sweater (which Frack was wearing) and RIPPED it from Frack’s body. The sweater was destroyed, and so was Frack’s tube-top. Tits flopping freely, Frack continued to punch and scratch at Frick.
When I saw my favorite sweater, my expensive cashmere sweater ripped to shreds, my reaction was swift and angry. I tackled the whores with furious force. They were struggling with great violence. We all tumbled onto one of my couches. Frick’s ass was about six inches from my face when she farted. I winced and finally pulled them apart. Frack came away with some of Frick’s hair in her hand.
My blood was boiling as I loudly asked, “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WHORES FIGHTING ABOUT?”
I immediately regretted the question. Neither of these two classy broads offered a real explanation. They just screeched and yelled and accused each other of thievery. What they were REALLY fighting about was Fats, and which one of them was his “bottom bitch,” his favorite.
Frack slipped out of my grasp and charged up the steps, screaming at Frick, “I’m gonna CUT you BITCH!”
I knew what was next. Frack was going to go into the kitchen and get one of my big German knives. Still holding Frick by the wrist, I dragged her, kicking and screaming, up the steps to the dining room.
As I emerged from the basement steps with Frick in tow, there was Frack already wielding a long knife. Topless and bleeding, Frack charged us like some kind of crazed zombie stripper. Even her eyes looked crazy. I had seen that look before. I knew she was serious.
With my left hand still holding Frick, I punched Frack in the nose with my right. She fell down. I let go of Frick, and grabbed the knife. I threw the knife into the living room. Frick went to run back down into the basement.
I commanded her, “STOP!”
Frick stopped in place and stared at me. I grabbed Frack by the forearm and the neck.
“Watch this,” I said.
I pulled Frack toward the Piranha tank. She was begging me to stop.
The Piranha was flailing wildly in his tank. He knew trouble was afoot.
I lifted the lid on his tank with my foot.
I jammed Frack’s hand into the Piranha tank. She was screaming and crying and struggling. At that moment, I secretly wished it was my neighbor, The Canned Ham, whose hand was in the tank. I was not watching Frick, but I knew she was watching the Piranha tank action.
I informed Frack that the Piranha was going to eat her hand, bones and all, down to a “fucking NUB!”
I looked over my shoulder at Frick. Her mouth was open. She looked at me in disbelief.
“Bitch, YOU’RE NEXT!” I told her.
The Piranha was doing exactly what he had done before, when it was my hand in the tank. He was swiftly swimming back and forth, occasionally colliding with Frack’s hand, but not attacking. He was more frightened than Frack, but Frack didn’t know that.
I pulled her hand from out of the tank and pushed her on the ground. Frack was crying and shivering. Her nipples were hard.
“You’re lucky I pulled your hand out in time,” I said, still playing the part.
Frick was frozen in place.
As I closed the lid on my Piranha’s tank, I instructed the whores that I wanted my house cleaned, top to bottom. I also instructed them that there would be no more trouble, or else they would each face the Piranha.
I fetched a t-shirt for Frack. I confiscated my other sweater from Frick. They cleaned every room of my house in absolute silence.
As the sun went down, it began to rain. The thunder was booming, the lightening bright, and the wind blew. The rain became a down-pour. I gave Frick and Frack two nasty old blankets to wrap around themselves as we all waited in my living room for Fats.
I had called Fats while the whores were cleaning my house, and told him about their fight, and my reaction. Fats and I had a good laugh about the whole incident. The whores were not laughing.
Fats pulled up in front of my house and beeped his horn.
The girls looked like disaster evacuees, wrapped in blankets, running in the rain from my porch to Fats’ Lincoln. I inhaled deeply from the blunt I was smoking, listening to the rain impact the porch roof as I watched the Lincoln drive away.
Standing there alone, blunt smoking, I felt like I could still smell Frick’s fart in my face. My thoughts wandered to something my grandmother had often said. Grammy had been ill these past months, suffering heart episodes and open-heart surgery and various infections. She was physically weaker than I had ever seen her before. Yet she still retained a feisty, mischievous vigor. During my previous visit to see Grammy at the hospital, she cautioned me with a familiar creed and question.
“Earl, in this world there are smart fellas and there are fart smellas. Which one are you?!”
That would be the last time Grammy and I laughed together.
Earl Crown is a published author and bail bondsman from Baltimore. While you wage-slave for Wall Street, Earl Crown occupies your wife.
By George M. Flynn
Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this, but my mother-in-law is a floral kleptomaniac. That’s right—a plant klepto! When she’s at a greenhouse or garden center, she can’t help herself—she’s always snipping pieces of plants, dropping them in her deep pocketbook, and then later propagating them.
“Never bought a plant in my life,” Lubi boasts as she leads me on another tour of her plant-filled porch. There are wandering jews, Christmas cacti, zonal and scented geraniums, wax begonias, and maybe 50 African violets.
“Carole won’t go plant shopping with me anymore,” Lubi laments. “She claims I’m going to get arrested for shoplifting when everyone knows all I’m doing is just borrowing. Anyway, will you drive me to Connolly’s Greenhouses on the other side of town? I’m looking for an October Moon African violet.”
October Moon, she explained during the car ride, was a pure white, double-flowering violet with dark green, quilted leaves. Lubi had read about it in a gardening magazine and knew she had to have a specimen for her collection.
When we arrived, the greenhouse was practically empty—ideal for Lubi to “borrow” a plant piece or two. She perused the violets, and there it was—an October Moon with shimmering white blooms. Lubi cautiously looked around, and when no one was in sight, she snipped a leaf from the plant and dropped it in her deep pocketbook.
Now I understand why Carole refused to go plant “shopping” with her mother. She was a klepto!
Once home, Lubi placed the leaf’s stem in a damp peat and perlite mix and then placed it where it would get good light and root. Two months later little plantlets appeared on the soil’s surface—three, to be exact.
Lubi separated the three plantlets, putting each one in a 4-inch pot. With plenty of bright light, special liquid fertilizer given bi-weekly, and TLC, the plants grew quickly, producing many leaves and eventually blooms.
Some time after that she called me on the phone.
“Hello, George. You have to come over to my house as soon as possible. I have something for you! Also, would you please drive me to Connolly’s Greenhouses again?”
“Oh, great,” I thought. “What plant will she be ‘borrowing’ this time? I can see the headlines already: 91-YEAR-OLD GRANDMOTHER BUSTED FOR PLANTLIFTING. SON-IN-LAW DROVE GETAWAY CAR! How much jail time do you get for plantlifting?” I wondered.
When I arrived at Lubi’s house, she greeted me at the door with a white-blooming African violet in hand.
“This is for you, for taking me to the greenhouse,” she said, handing me one of the blooming October Moon violets that she had propagated. Then she put on her red coat, grabbed that infamous pocketbook, and we were off.
When we arrived at the greenhouse, we strolled to the violet section. Lubi glanced left, then right, to see if anyone was looking. When she realized the coast was clear, she opened her pocketbook and this time removed one of the October Moon plants that she had propagated and placed it on the shelf.
“You see, George, I don’t really steal plants; I just borrow pieces, propagate them, then always return a mature specimen. I’ve had a blast doing this for years,” she chuckled.
I was relieved and thankful that we wouldn’t be dragged off to jail.
Suddenly, Lubi spotted a gorgeous red-and-white Christmas cactus. “George,” she whispered, “you don’t see anyone nearby, do you?” Then she snipped two small pieces and dropped them in her deep pocketbook.
“Just borrowing,” Lubi reminded with a mischievous grin on her face. “Just borrowing.”
George M. Flynn is a retired middle-school English teacher. His gardening-related stories and award-winning poems have appeared in many books and magazines, including Organic Gardening, GreenPrints, Birds & Blooms, Vermont Ink and four different Chicken Soup for the Soul books, the latest being The Wisdom of Dads. George is also the author of two story collections: Maggie’s Heart and Twilight Journey. He and his wife, Carole, live way out in the country, near Newton, NJ.