(Page 2 of 3)
Daniel and Jelena got into the red Fiat, driven by his father, with his mother in the passenger seat, and they followed the blue Fiat occupied by Jelena’s parents out of the bumpy driveway. In the backseat, separated by a yellow rucksack behind which they held hands, Daniel and Jelena looked out of their respective windows while he tickled her palm with his middle finger. They were headed to his grandparents’ beach house in Croatia, driving by blue-green mountains and buildings with shattered windows, down asphalt ruined by mortar fire, past houses without roofs. In Croatia, his father had told him the night before, Daniel would finally learn to swim. But when they reached the border, the blue Fiat got off the road, and his parents were told by the patrolling soldier to do the same. They got out of the car, ordering him and Jelena not to, and joined the conversation Jelena’s parents were having with two armed soldiers. The rucksack tumbled to the floor as Jelena slid closer to look out of his window. Her mother covered her mouth and nose with her hands as if about to sneeze, while his mother paced over gravel and grass, stopping now and then to yell something at the soldiers, her every exclamation forcing a slow wave of his father’s hand, a sign for calm that Daniel knew well. It was Jelena’s father who was talking to the soldiers, who kept explaining while they shook their shaved heads, who kept offering passports and papers for their disinterested inspection. His father only stood beside them, one hand in his pocket, his head turning slowly from speaker to speaker, listening with a tired look on his face.
Jelena asked Daniel to explain what was going on but he did not know and felt fear at not knowing and shame at being afraid. He could only tell her that the houses were prettier here, the colors of the flag different from the ones his father had taught him were the colors of his flag. She reached across him to unlock the door and climbed over his lap to try to get out, but he pushed her back, feeling protective and scared. Their parents were coming back, his father pulling his mother by the arm as she argued, half-turned to the soldiers who ignored her. She sat down behind the wheel now and Jelena’s mother sat down in the passenger seat. His father gave Daniel a hard kiss on the forehead before shutting the door on him. He then reached his head through the window of the front door and gave a kiss on the lips to his wife. He stepped off the road with Jelena’s father, and she and Daniel kneeled on the backseat to look at them. Daniel had long been conscious of a remote threat, but only now, as he stared out of the rear window, was its dark significance revealed to him. Daniel waved at his father, and his father waved back, signaling them to go with his other hand. They drove across the border into Croatia. Daniel watched his father become smaller and smaller, then vanish.
* * *
The cemetery in Mostar was sprawling and endless. As Daniel searched for his father’s grave he was surprised to feel the same fear-fueled rush that had accompanied him on his childhood wanderings through cemeteries, even more surprised to have it disappear as soon as he found his father’s white headstone. Daniel stared at it, suddenly feeling like he had come to this cemetery by mistake, by a wrongly given direction, and was now standing over the grave of some random stranger (how could his father be here?). But he kept staring, expecting some kind of disclosure, only to realize the futility of such an expectation, the futility of this final destination and his entire trip. Impatient and hopeful, he had come here to learn something about his father that his mother’s stories could not teach him. To resolve every mystery of his father’s life. But he could never complete such a task — nor abandon it.
When they had heard of his father’s death, his mother had gone back to Bosnia to bury him, while Daniel stayed in Croatia, waiting for her, and somehow his, return. A few days after coming back, his mother told Daniel with tears in her eyes, and without him asking, that his father had died by stepping on a landmine. What side planted the landmine mattered as little to his mother then as it did to Daniel now, and to know would only further complicate his already complicated sense of resentment. His father, a patriot even at the worst of times, an optimist despite being Bosnian, had taught him to respect Muslims and Christians before Daniel became aware of their differences, and he remembered once overhearing his father say that taking sides in war meant defending the bad against the worse. He remembered those words not because they were right — they weren’t always, not in this war — but because he had taken them seriously when he first heard them, and now they were the only words of his father he remembered.
Daniel stood over the grave for a while longer, then left. Outside the cemetery, a beggar sat, leaning against one of the cemetery walls. Hurrying, Daniel dumped some change into the man’s upturned hat without looking at him. It was beginning to rain. As he was about to cross the street the beggar shouted a question after him that made Daniel stop and turn. He came back to where the man was sitting and looked down at him with a smile. He wore a faded overcoat and had dirt on his cheek, but there was a certain dignity to the way he sat, how he held his head, to his high-cheeked, angular face. Like the dignity of a ruined sculpture.
“Where are you from?” the beggar asked again.
“I live in America,” Daniel answered, debating whether or not to describe Mostar as his home. “But Mostar is where I was born,” he finally said.
“You had the look of a tourist about you, no offense,” the beggar said, laughing.
“None taken,” Daniel responded, speaking his mother tongue and laughing too.
* * *
Jelena stood looking out at the sea, her hands at her side, one leg slightly bent. Daniel was fascinated with the dip of her back, with the beauty of her pose. She wore a red dress, its straps sliding off her shoulders. The waves washed over her feet before retreating, then surged forward and repeated the absentminded embrace of her ankles. She bent over and bathed her hands in the blue water. Daniel did not like her anymore. What he felt for her now was stronger and more mysterious.
He threw a pebble into to the sea to hear the plop; it was a sound akin to a tongue click. He picked up another pebble, but let it fall from his hand to cover a yawn. Jelena yawned too, raising her arms above her head, revealing the peach-colored hollow of her armpit, and reaching skyward with her spread fingers. She resumed her wordless gazing, hands clasped behind her nape, a pretty frown on her face. Daniel wondered what she was thinking but did not dare ask. She would either answer with distracted simplicity, which he no longer found charming, or with complete indifference, which he hated. He didn’t even really care. All he wanted was to be the object of her gaze.
There were only the two of them on the beach, and being with Jelena was sometimes like being alone. Daniel sat down on the jabbing pebbles, looking out at the sea. Suddenly, he was splashed with water. Jelena ran, giggling and looking over her shoulder at the one who should be chasing her but wasn’t. Daniel saw an advantage in restraint and remained sitting. She came back and sat down beside him, spreading out her legs and crossing them at the ankle. A drop of water trickled out from under her dress and down her thigh but could not surmount the knee. She caught him looking and smiled. He smiled back, unembarrassed, but when she leaned in to kiss him, he stared at her chin, unable to risk a look into her eyes. They bumped noses as they kissed. He wanted to tell her something but felt too exhausted, too happy, too vulnerable to say anything.
They walked up the sloping road to the beach-house, its lemon-colored walls visible from a distance. They went into the backyard, in the middle of which, on a wooden table, unguarded, lay a pack of cigarettes. Daniel watched the back door as Jelena tiptoed to the table, snatched a cigarette, and strolled back with an air of nonchalance, before bursting into laughter. She held the cigarette between index and thumb as they walked down to the beach again, where in a secluded spot under a marked tree, further concealed by leaves, a translucent yellow lighter was hidden.
Jelena let out a sudden moan, and Daniel instinctively looked for a bird or butterfly, the usual objects of her cooing adoration. But it was a person, ascending the steep road at a quick pace and nothing but a gleam of white to squinting Daniel, that Jelena was pointing at. She took a few steps forward, inclining her head and straining her eyes to see. By the time she began running, Daniel, too, had recognized the mysterious man as her father. He cautiously approached the embracing couple, their laughter like the murmur of the sea, remote sounding even though it was very near.
* * *
A stupid but persistent thought echoed in Daniel’s head as he walked across the bustling, tree-lined and pigeon-overrun square on which he had driven miniature cars as a child. He thought he was being perceived as a tourist and it made him feel vulnerable. He had felt it before, this vulnerability, in Trieste and other places, but that he should feel it now, here in Mostar, was painful and strange. He could no longer laugh it off. What imperfection, he wondered, revealed him as an outsider? It could not be his wobbly Serbo-Croatian, the clash of accents, because he had not said a word. It wasn’t what he wore either; his clothes and their clothes were identical, and the white bag with the fire-engine red of the Levi’s logo on it did not betray him because one could now buy Levi’s here as well. He possessed no foreign odor and must have naturally inherited whatever distinct Bosnian physical characteristics there were. What then?