When Daniel thought of his father, he thought about his father’s peculiar means of making money as a young man. It involved blue jeans, smuggling them over the border from Italy to Yugoslavia. It would be a stretch to call that an occupation, just as it would be to call it a crime, but it made his father money. Daniel’s father did his buying in Trieste, a hotspot for the booming and prohibited blue jeans trade and close to the Yugoslavian — now Slovenian — border. The jeans were not, as Daniel had first thought, store-bought designer brands, but lower-priced counterfeits purchased at a market. The particular market his father had gone to was only a five-minute walk from where Daniel sat now, the Miramare Café, and it still sold jeans among its fruits and vegetables. If Daniel had bought a pair as he walked by the overflowing wooden stalls earlier, he would have fulfilled the main purpose of his visit to Trieste. But then he would have had to tour the rest of the city with an ungainly bag in his hand.
His father would carry up to five bags at one time, but he never took any excursions through town. He came, did his business, and left. This information came from Daniel’s mother. Daniel was aware of early events in his father’s life only through his mother’s stories, told to him numerous times, always in a poignantly longwinded way. He knew only the myth of his father, and was enchanted by it.
The Miramare, presumably named after the whitewashed castle on the Gulf of Trieste, was a small seaside cafe with polished windows, a creaking door, a cream-white cement terrace with only three tables, and a view of the Adriatic. A couple of large gulls glided across it, making gull sounds. Daniel could also see a good stretch of the pale stone esplanade before it curved and disappeared behind red-roofed houses, farther down, the moored boats in the blue marina, farther still, the boats at sea, sails flapping like flags of surrender.
Daniel, brown-haired, broad-shouldered, and nearly twenty-four, sat at the center table, the table behind him empty. At the table facing him sat a girl whose blond hair hung down to her hips. She was reading Ulysses by James Joyce, whose statue Daniel had encountered on his walk (the town was swarming with ghosts). Under the guise of reading the dessert section of the menu — cakes with names like Casanova and Caesar — Daniel stared at the blond, while also shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation she was now having with the waiter. Daniel felt no shame because he could not understand much of what they were saying, but it all sounded brisk and vaguely poetic.
The waiter deposited the latté, and the girl went back to her book, slouching forward, elbows on the table, the book held awkwardly in one hand, licking the ring finger of the other to turn the page. Daniel’s Italian consisted of only a few touristy phrases, not enough to attempt a coherent conversation with this girl. He wanted to talk to her, not only because he thought she was beautiful, or because she read Joyce; no, there was sentimental value in falling in impulsive, reckless love with this girl, which far outweighed any of her personal qualities. His father had met his mother in Trieste.
As the story goes, his father, bags in hand and heading for the bus station, saw his mother, who was vacationing in Italy, sitting in a café and sat down across from her for the sole purpose of gazing at her foreign beauty. After exchanging glances, he went over to her table, but because each thought that the other was actually Italian, and since their combined knowledge of the language amounted to a dozen words, neither attempted a conversation, and their communication by gestures soon floundered. So they sat in silence until his father muttered something in Serbo-Croatian — he had banged his knee against a chair and cursed — and the whole misunderstanding was cleared up.
Then the smoldering romance began, and they ended up spending the entire day together — he missed his bus — promising to meet again as they parted on the train platform. Here his mother liked to go into great detail, positioning herself on the edge of the platform, misty-eyed, clutching a tissue, while his father, one foot aboard the train, shouted something inspired and unforgettable — which she did not hear — as it took him into the convenient sunset. Daniel would begin to object, accusing his mother of confusing her life with a romantic novel. She stood by her story, but he believed that what she had described was a fantastic scene that never was and could never be reenacted in reality, no matter how much his mother desired to play the part.
Daniel took out of his pocket a silver wristwatch with a black leather band that used to belong to his father. He did not like its handcuff feel, but he cherished it as a simple reminder of him. He put it on the table next to his half-eaten Casanova. “Il conto, grazie,” he called out to the young waiter after he calculated that he would have only twenty minutes or so to buy the jeans and get to Trieste Centrale, where his train was waiting. The smile that appeared on the boy’s face when he saw Daniel’s tip seemed genuine and he showed his appreciation with a hearty, accented “Thank you.” Daniel looked at the girl for one last time, leaning back in her chair, the novel sprawled on her lap, and made up his mind to casually praise the book as he passed by her table. He approached slowly, cleared his throat loudly — and she looked up. He opened his mouth, caught her blue eyes, and was struck dumb. Out on the street, he cursed his cowardliness.
He began looking for a store, passing up several he deemed too crowded. Two old men sat on the curved steps of a building, playing chess with gloomy concentration and taking long swigs from a bottle. Young boys grunted and screamed as they passed a ball back and forth in a narrow side street, while the girls, watching from the sidewalk, seemed unable to take the boys’ passion seriously. But they looked intrigued, hands shielding their lips as they gossiped and burst into laughter. In their pink and orange dresses, taken for granted by the young boys and old men, they lived only for the leers of foreigners, or so Daniel liked to imagine. He knew better. They were not interested in him despite their white-toothed smiles and the sly look in their eyes. They were not interested, but they appeared to be. That was their charm.
“Signor,” a familiar voice cried out behind him, and Daniel, though he did not think he was being called, turned around, curious to see if the girl was as pretty as her voice. He turned too suddenly and she bumped into him. Her smile was slight and embarrassed. She opened her hand to reveal a wristwatch in her palm. Instinctively Daniel reached into his pocket and found nothing.
“Grazie,” he said, but wanted to say more. She seemed to know it too, inclining her head to one side and looking up at him. But he only repeated his thanks, then just stared back at her, hoping that his eyes would express all that his lack of Italian kept him from saying.
* * *
Daniel ran up the basement stairs, peeked into the kitchen through the open door, then closed it. He would have locked it, if it had a lock. He was twelve and there was a girl waiting for him downstairs. Jelena lay on the sofa, covered to her neck in a green blanket. Daniel straddled her legs, then lowered his head to kiss the smooth spot between her brows. He straightened up to see what effect this had on her. It had not melted her pale face, but there was something tender in her dark eyes. This made him brave. He kissed her forehead and nose, her soft lean cheeks. His heart thumped as he pressed his lips against her silky, closed mouth, initiating their first kiss.
The kissing went on uninterrupted in the relative safety of the basement. But when he pulled off the blanket and threw it aside, she frowned and the game was over.
He got off her and sat down on the edge of the sofa, angry and not sure at what to direct his anger. They had been doing this every morning since she and her parents had come to his house, two days ago when their building got hit, and she was yet to allow him to take the blanket off without killing the game. Jelena touched his arm with her cool toes, but he did not react. He just stared at his feet, amazed by how, if he kept his eyes down, he could convince himself that nobody else in the world existed. He still liked her though, and knew, even now, at twelve, that he always would. He even liked the embarrassment caused by her making him admit that he did. He liked her instinctively, and he didn’t know when he started liking her, because he did not know a time when he didn’t. She liked him, too, he was certain of that, though he would purposely doubt it so to make the eventual reassurance all the more pleasurable.
Jelena got up and walked to the radio that stood on the bottom stair, the music drowning out the heavy movement of their parents upstairs, the slight gunfire outside. Hip-swaying to a song, she turned up the volume, then began changing the station—hips still swaying—until she found a ballad. She offered him her red-nailed hand, and he took it. They pressed their cheeks together and turned in a circle. She kept stepping on his foot, but he did not say anything. She was too beautiful not to be a little clumsy, and he could not open his mouth anyway. He was overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness and pain, which left him speechless. The love lyrics of the song were unable to mirror his emotions — but the melody said all he felt.
The music stopped. His mother stood against the banister of the stairs, pointing up to the basement door. Jelena, blushing, ran upstairs; Daniel wanted to run too but was frozen by his mother’s stare. Sometimes it seemed to him that she only existed to deny his every satisfaction. A dark figure had appeared in the lighted doorway; coming down the stairs it took the shape of his father. There was a smile on his father’s face that Daniel knew was meant for him only, because when his mother turned, it disappeared.